Shakespeare in the Park isn’t the only free outdoor theater in town – West Side Rag

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By Talia Winiarsky

Every Thursday through Sunday at Riverside Park until July 24, the Hudson Classical Theater Company presents an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma for free – and there are no long queues.

On these evenings, at 6:30 p.m., the company meets on the terrace of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at 89th Street and Riverside Drive. Viewers need a mask and proof of vaccination to see playwright and executive art director Susane Lee’s adaptation of the classic novel. The actors play in front of the public, seated on the steps facing the patio. Some actors climb the stairs in moments of passion, as if the audience did not exist.

While the book is set in 18th century England, the play is set in 1950s Newport, Rhode Island. Although the settings exist centuries apart, they both emphasize wealth and social hierarchy.

The play’s eponymous character, played by Deborah Bjornsti, loves playing matchmaker. She is determined to find a husband for a schoolgirl named Harriet (Harley Seger), who is of unknown origins. But when Emma meddles in Harriet’s relationships, the consequences extend to their entire social circle, including Emma herself. It is a comedic piece that makes the audience laugh many times.

The actors wear traditional 1950s outfits, including red polka-dot dresses for the women, and suspenders and fedoras for the men. The piece includes pop culture references of the time, such as Buicks, Truman Capote, and high society enjoying Jell-O salad. It also makes for a few jokes that hit close to home – Mrs. Elton (Marie Dinolan) hopes for Jane’s (Cecelia Auerswald) sake that her nanny placement isn’t on the undesirable Upper West Side.

Lee’s anachronistic choice of frame gave her artistic freedoms, she said. “It’s pretty much totally rewritten,” she said.

The company didn’t have to be strict with language, which allowed it to have a more relaxed tone. Lee also added plot points and scenes that did not exist in the book. “I want to see more characters interact, relationships deepen,” Lee wrote in the poster.

The plot of the play is timeless, said Bjornsti, who played Emma. The characters are “very real people,” she said. “It’s about a woman’s relationship with her father, with her best friend, with the people in her town.”

Bjornsti, who has been performing with the company since 2015, said she enjoys performing at Riverside Park despite the challenge of city noise. “People come in and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, they’re doing a Shakespeare,'” she said. “We are here, here, right now in the middle of Riverside Park.”

Louis Felix, a tourist from Los Angeles, discovered the production while walking in the park, and it was the first time he had seen a play in a park. “It felt like a real New York experience,” he said.

Since the play features many picnic scenes, the outdoor setting added to the experience, said audience member Sasha Tailor. The play was also fun to watch live as the film adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy came just before the lockdown, she said.

The framework makes production accessible, which aligns with the company’s mission, Lee said. According to the website, they strive to “delight our diverse audiences with intimate and accessible interpretations of classic literature.”

The company continues that mission by offering free tickets with no reservations needed, Lee said. “A lot of people said they’ve never even been to the theater before, but they come to us,” she said.

The arts allow Lee to unite people in her audience, including those who are not typically familiar with theater, she said. “To be who I am, who has always been a stranger in all aspects of my life, to create something where we can all come together and share an hour and a half and enjoy something, it’s magic.”

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