When director Wesley Broulik got the call from Saratoga Shakespeare Company’s board about bringing theater back to Congress Park this summer, he jumped at the chance.
He’s performed in and directed shows with the company in years past but bringing the free performances back to Congress Park after two dark summers felt especially important.
“A lot of my mission as an artist is about access . . . to have cost not be a barrier to arts,” Broulik said. “It shouldn’t cost you $125 [or] $65 to go see a show. That’s the difference between parents bringing their kids to a show and exposing someone to live professional theater, or not going at all.”
Beyond that aspect, the production — “Much Ado About Nothing” — seemed apropos and feasible for the company to manage with a small cast. The story revolves around two romantic pairings; Hero and Claudio; Benedick and Beatrice. Ten actors make up the cast, with some, like Michael Pemberton and Aly Tu, doubling roles.
Pemberton plays both the villain, Don John, and the clown, Dogberry. Tu plays Hero, a docile woman who is wronged by the plotting of Don John. Tu also plays Verges, who is the assistant to Dogberry.
It’s the first time that either Pemberton or Tu have been in a Saratoga Shakespeare production. Tu is a recent graduate of Albright College and was on the lookout for interesting roles when she came across the production. Pemberton, who has acted in movies like “Bridge of Spies” and “The Family Stone,” moved to Saratoga from New York City in 2019. Earlier this year, he was in theREP’s “The True” and was looking for other ways to get involved with the local arts community.
Part of what interested him in the Saratoga Shakespeare show was the challenge of playing both the villain and the comic relief.
“I trained at a place called the Hilberry Rep in Detroit years ago, and we did seven shows in a nine-month season and so I’ve certainly played a villain in one show and a comic relief in another show. But I think this is the first time I’ve done it in the same show, which is great. It was part of the draw for me,” Pemberton said. “I tend to throw myself towards the things I fear.”
The same goes for Tu.
“Hero is the one that’s being wronged throughout most of the play and not being able to lend her own voice and things and everyone’s making the decisions for her. So then we made Verges this mastermind behind Dogberry’s thoughts and ideas, which is such a fun contrast to Hero,” Tu said.
The show, which also features Tim Dugan as Benedick and Laura Menzie as Beatrice, will be done in the round, with minimal set pieces and costume changes. Most of the character transitions will be done through the actors’ physicality and vocal changes.
It’s a different approach for the company.
“Directing and staging [this] is a bit like specific choreographic Jenga but part of it is this idea of [getting] back to basics, a very stripped down bare-bones approach, and focus on the storytelling,” Broulik said.
It’s helped to have a cast of dedicated actors, who Broulik says are some of the hardest-working in the area.
“I’m humbled when I work here as an actor. I’m even more humbled when I work here as a director,” Broulik said.
Rehearsals began July 5 on Skidmore College’s campus and they staged the production within a week.
“When we were talking about me coming on board, [Wesley] told me, it is like being shot out of a cannon. And he wasn’t exaggerating. On a contract like this, you only get 30 hours of rehearsal per week. So we’ll be in the rehearsal room for only 60 hours, whereas typically you’d be in a rehearsal room for close to 200 hours,” Pemberton said.
He and Tu credit Broulik and production stage manager David Girard for keeping rehearsals efficient and fun.
“David and Wesley are guiding these rehearsals in a very smart and effective way. They lay the groundwork for us at the top of rehearsal, and then the rest of it, we’re just playing and discovering and finding our feet,” Tu said.
There’s also an added sense of anticipation since the actors are putting the production on after the company hasn’t presented a show in Congress Park since 2019.
“There’s a different energy, there’s a hunger for all of us to want to perform, to bring the community some theater again in the park for free,” Tu said.
“It’s a way for our community to come out, take a big deep breath and [be in] a nice, safe environment together, and once again, enjoy something that we haven’t been able to enjoy for a while. And make sure that Saratoga Shakespeare gets back up and running in the future,” Pemberton said.
This season, Saratoga Shakespeare is led by Steve Greenblatt, the president of the board of trustees, and the company is without an executive director.
“I’m happy that Saratoga Shakespeare isn’t gone. That it’s finding a way forward to produce coming out of the pandemic,” Broulik said.
He added that keeping the shows in Congress Park reflects the connection between the community and the company.
“The fact that this is in downtown Saratoga means it belongs to the town, to the shopkeepers, to the community,” Broulik said. “It’s accessible. It’s free and you can happen upon it. I think there’s some value in that.”
“Much Ado About Nothing” presented by Saratoga Shakespeare Company
WHEN: 6 p.m. Wed. July 20 – Sat. July 23
WHERE: Congress Park, Saratoga
MORE INFO: saratogashakespeare.org