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Shakespeare on the Rail

Shakespeare on the Rail
Alexandra Ceja and Stephanie Grilo in foreground, with Nick Salyer and Graham Gentz at rear
For the second consecutive summer, the University of New Mexico Department of Theatre and Dance has partnered with the New Mexico Rail Runner Express to present "Free Shakespeare" on select trains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. For the first half of summer, and for the price of a regular fare, patrons riding in the first car behind the commuter rail's locomotive can watch four actors present a selection of "Love Scenes" directed by Sarah Suzanne White and drawn from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. (Beginning mid-July and continuing each Saturday through the end of August, riders can see "Comedy Scenes" directed by Lauren Dusek Albonico and drawn from Love's Labour's Lost, The Comedy of Errors, and The Merry Wives of Windsor). Each collection of scenes presents the original Shakespearean dialogue in modern dress, using the common areas of the train to create a unique site-specific theatre experience for audience and performers alike.

The Rail Runner's travel time between downtown Albuquerque and the Santa Fe depot is approximately ninety minutes, with several stops within and along the edges of each city. Each Saturday afternoon, the company boards the train at a stop at the southern edge of Albuquerque, taking over the a small section of the first car to use as a dressing room and warm-up space. As the train passes through Albuquerque and the town of Bernalillo, the production stage manager leads the ensemble as they maneuver the entire length of the Rail Runner and announce in each car that the show is about to begin in the first car. When the train begins its longest stretch of uninterrupted travel northward to Santa Fe, the stage manager makes a brief introductory announcement and the performance begins, concluding just as the train again begins to stop for passengers at the Santa Fe stations. (After a very brief respite at the Santa Fe depot, the company repeats this routine in reverse as the Rail Runner makes its return trip to Albuquerque.)

The stage manager's introduction provides the only signal moment cueing the riders seated in the first car behind the locomotive that they are now to become an audience. Some may be riders (like myself) who boarded with the primary purpose of seeing the show. Others may have joined the car after learning of the performance from the ensemble as they made their earlier announcement. Still others, even after the stage manager's brief announcement listing the plays excerpted in that afternoon's presentation, may not entirely understand what is about to happen. But as soon as stage manager Alexandra McCrary stops speaking, the Shakespeare begins.

The first "Love Scene" presented comes from Much Ado about Nothing with Nick Salyer as Benedick and Stephanie Grilo as Beatrice, Alexandra Ceja as Hero and Graham Gentz as Claudio. The scene involves much goading and prodding, as Salyer's Benedick pronounces his misanthropic views upon love and courtship. A returning member from the 2010 Shakespeare on the Rail ensemble and the only actor to appear in both 2011's "Love Scenes" and "Comedy Scenes," Salyer ably exploits Benedick's asides and exhortations to both engage and cue the Rail Runner audience in what they might expect in the thirty minutes ahead. Salyer's Benedick is brash and broad, and thus a worthy adversary to Grilo's elegant and forthright Beatrice. Gentz's Claudio and Ceja's Hero offer an appealing comedic contrast within the scene.

In the following scene, drawn from Romeo and Juliet, Grilo plays an agitated Lady Capulet, sipping an energy drink as she paces and plots the marriage of her daughter Juliet (Ceja), while the Nurse (Gentz) and a Servant (Salyer) look on. In this scene, wherein both the Nurse and Lady Capulet comment with acerbic ambivalence on the politics of marriage and childbirth to an increasingly disinclined Juliet, the demands of the site-specific staging somewhat overwhelm the nuances of the scene. Gentz's Nurse, hilariously bedecked in several brightly frilled sundresses, approaches the Nurse's comedic commentary aggressively, yanking Juliet this way and that. It is a choice that gathers attention (and not a few laughs) but which also loses touch with the anxious tenderness that guides the character and the scene.

Director Sarah Suzanne White exploits such loudness and aggression to greater effect in the excerpt from A Midsummer Night's Dream offered as the third of the "Love Scenes." Perhaps ironically, this scene of four lovers pursuing one another through an enchanted wood proves to be the selection most well adapted to the limits of a train racing through the desert. As Demetrius (Gentz) and Lysander (Salyer) alternately pursue or are pursued by Hermia (Ceja) and Helena (Grilo), the performers maneuver the narrow playing space of the train's aisle in ways that clarify the scene. Likewise, Ceja's thick accent as Hermia aptly creates additional layers of humor and humanity, while the comic chemistry between Gentz and Salyer is deployed to great effect. The Midsummer sequence is perhaps the loudest and longest of the scenes, garnering some of the bigger laughs. This underscores the contrasting accomplishment of Salyer and Grilo in the subtler, final scene (a return to Much Ado) in which Benedick and Beatrice begin to surrender to their adversarial love. In this briefest concluding episode, made all the more effective given the chaotic nature of the preceding scene and their surroundings, Salyer and Grilo capture the audience's attention with clarity, tenderness and even stillness.

To be sure, Shakespeare on the Rail's brisk changes of mood, narrative and character might pose something of an audience challenge, even for those familiar with the Shakespeare plays this performance excerpts. For audiences who have not recently brushed up their Shakespeare, however, the quick changes might simply confuse. Fortunately, as with any site-specific performance, much interest derives from seeing how the players maneuver the playing space. This aspect of the performance especially captivated my seat partners Margo and Max, two fifth graders from Tulsa visiting Santa Fe with their families. Both Margo and Max took great delight in tracking each performer's appearance, carefully noting each point of entrance (especially when it did not match the previous exit).

Throughout the performance, the Shakespeare on the Rail company must adapt to sudden changes in the train's speed of travel, as well as occasionally strong curves in addition to conductor announcements broadcast over the P.A. system. Distractions from the audience abound as well. One young boy, arriving from another car, faced something of a dilemma as he waited with increasing urgency for his opportunity to dash down the aisle to the lavatory at the opposite end of the car. As the Shakespeare scenes unfold, phones get answered; magazines get noisily shuffled; and conversations continue. (One band of travelers seated immediately behind me enjoyed scandalizing each other with an off-color, sotto-voiced running commentary on the performance, a form of audience interaction perhaps more common in Shakespeare's day than at a contemporary theatre.) But the ensemble weathers any and all such "disruptions" (as they might be termed in a conventional theatre setting) with unflappable verve and professionalism, inviting all assembled to join in the unpredictable adventure of Shakespeare on the Rail.

Shakespeare on the Rail's "Love Scenes" (directed by Sarah Suzanne White) features Graham Gentz, Stephanie Grilo, Alexandra Ceja and Nick Salyer performing excerpts from Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream with stage management by Alexandra McCrary. "Love Scenes" continue performances each Saturday through July 9. Beginning July 16 and continuing each Saturday through the end of August, Lauren Dusek Albonico directs Shakespeare on the Rail's "Comedy Scenes" which feature Nick Salyer, Christie Carter, Van Hollenbeck and Quinn Rol performing excerpts from Love's Labour's Lost, The Comedy of Errors, and The Merry Wives of Windsor with stage management by Katherine Ygbuhay.

Shakespeare on the Rail is presented by the University of New Mexico Department of Theatre and Dance in collaboration with the New Mexico Rail Runner. Performances are free with train fare on Saturday afternoons through August and are presented to riders seated on the lower level of the first car directly behind the locomotive of Northbound Train #506 (departs downtown Albuquerque at 2:38 pm) and Southbound Train #509 (departs Santa Fe Depot at 4:32pm). For more information and fare schedules, visit nmrailrunner.com/shakespeare.asp.


Photo: Abby Boling

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Albuquerque area

-- Brian Herrera



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