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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the May 29, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Shakespeare for Princeton
Although the drama of monthly municipal board meetings
hardly seem worthy of the Bard, it was he who once said "Lord,
what fools these mortals be!" Now the 12-month cliffhanger is
over and the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival is headed back to
the amphitheater at Pettoranello Gardens for this summer season.
Contracts were approved on May 1 for a summer of free performances
that will feature a return of "As You Like It," set in the
Wild West, and the company’s first production of a Shakespeare tragedy,
"King Lear." Alicia Goranson, known for her work in film and
Broadway, and for her long-time television role as Becky in "Roseanne,"
will star in "Lear’s" double role of daughter Cordelia and
the king’s Fool.
At the same time it rolls up its sleeves for these back-to-back productions,
presented from July 11 through September 1, Princeton Rep celebrates
with a spring social featuring Bill Pullman, another star of stage
and screen — and another star committed to free theater. Princeton
Rep board member Lisa Fischetti and her husband Ralph Lerner will
host the gala benefit evening at their Princeton home on Monday, June
The evening’s festivities begin with a reception in the courtyard
of "The Barn," Fischetti and Lerner’s home on Parkside Drive
recently profiled in the New York Times. Built at the turn of the
century as the dairy farm for the Pyne estate, Drumthwacket, the barn
has been restored to become a unique living environment. Following
the opening reception, Bill Pullman will give a talk entitled "Shakespeare
and Other Reflections" in which he shares his thoughts about the
"Man of the Millennium," William Shakespeare.
Pullman, who is currently on Broadway starring in Edward Albee’s award-winning
drama "The Goat or Who is Sylvia?," has appeared in such major
films as "Independence Day," "While You Were Sleeping,"
"A League of Their Own," and "Sleepless in Seattle."
His performance in "The Goat" as a fabulously successful architect
who risks everything for a forbidden love has been nominated for a
Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award.
In 2000, Princeton Rep’s fifth free Shakespeare season featured some
30 performances of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and "The
Taming of the Shrew" that drew an audience of more than 12,000
to the North Community Park amphitheater. But in 2001, the Princeton
Recreation Department, the park’s landlord, citing problems of parking,
electrical supply, and liability, did not allow use of the park, and
the company reverted to its previous format with two free performances
of "As You Like It" on the Green at Palmer Square. Now the
company is striving to regain the momentum of that inaugural season.
"Lisa Fischetti was key in the success in these negotiations,
and she is responsible for the return of free Shakespeare to the Pettoranello
Gardens," said a busy and exultant Anne Reiss in a phone interview
last week. "Without her I don’t know if we would have been able
to return." Artistic director Victoria Liberatori added that "Lisa
established a good working relationship with board. She has the knowledge
and she also is a problem solver." The contract includes a new
park policy to limit audience size per performance to 350 in the amphitheater,
the reason the company has added Thursday evening performances.
Nine years ago Fischetti and Lerner, both architects,
designed the renovations for Princeton Ballet School’s studios and
offices at Princeton Shopping Center without charge for their services.
Now Fischetti is celebrating keeping free Shakespeare in town.
Fischetti is sanguine about the late arriving agreement between the
park’s landlord and its would-be users. "The good news is that
we’re all on the same page, which is something I was not so sure of
when I started our negotiations."
"My argument from the beginning has been that the township’s number
of open public greenspaces is very limited," says Fischetti, noting
that existing public spaces are under pressure for both children’s
and adult community sports. "When you do have a resource as wonderful
and beautiful as Pettoranello Gardens, with an existing amphitheater,
it’s in everybody’s best interest to be flexible with what we have
— and to make it work for an arts organization like the Princeton
Rep. It’s a great place for them to be, and the recreation department
has been working hard to make it work for everybody."
"The electrical power was the one issue we felt was most important
to resolve for the next season," she says. "We are trying
to upgrade the electrical power so that they can run both lights and
sound off it. Unfortunately, although Princeton Rec has been working
on it, we have not been able to get the power out there yet, as the
department is trying to group the work with some other projects."
Already in progress, however, is the order for four tower trusses
to house stage lights, and for movable lighting supports for the stage.
"This will give us flexibility for lighting design and is also
a big step toward the permanent improvement of the amphitheater,"
Fischetti has also submitted plans for a temporary sound and light
booth, to protect technical equipment from the elements. "This
will be a temporary structure that will belong to the Princeton Rec
Department and which can be easily assembled and taken apart,"
In a $10,000 feasibility study for the recreation department by the
Taylor Design Group of Medford, planners suggested improvements that
ranged from short term solutions totaling $76,500, to proposals for
a long-term investment of upward of $800,000. Both figures, in fact,
exceeded the $50,000 remaining in the department’s budget after purchase
of the study.
For this reason, Princeton Rep pared down its "wish list"
to the absolute essentials that could be executed within the budgeted
parameters. And all parties feel that this summer’s free Shakespeare
season will be safer and more technically satisfying than the 2000
Another public safety issue being addressed is pathway lighting. Fischetti
explains that Pettoranello had been a dawn to dusk park. Now the department
is upgrading existing overhead lighting for the pathway from the parking
lot to the amphitheater.
The season begins Thursday, July 11, with "As You Like It,"
directed by James Alexander Bond, and featuring much of the cast seen
here last year, promising more original music, songs, and rope tricks.
From August 8 to September 1 performances of "King Lear" are
featured. Performances will be presented Thursdays through Sundays
at 7 p.m., with additional matinee performances on Palmer Square for
"We have done the Shakespeare comedies we wanted to produce, and
it was time to tackle a tragedy of this size," explains Liberatori.
"We’ve always had a commitment to making the female presence in
a play central, and `Lear’ has the most moving scenes between father
and daughter ever written."
"I love the silences in King Lear because they’re so filled with
complexity and significance and speak so powerfully to our present
condition," says Liberatori, who calls "Lear" Shakespeare’s
"most eternal" play.
"In order to keep a free Shakespeare festival going — which
is very, very costly — you have to keep costs down," says
Reiss, who has expressed concern since January that without a contract,
the company could not begin raising money to support the project.
"In 2000 we were overwhelmed by audience demand. Many people —
including some who had lived here 20 years — had no idea where
the park was. Now we have invested and will continue to invest a substantial
amount of money and volunteer hours to gain recognition for the amphitheater
as a professional theatrical space. I guess our greatest fear is to
be told in 2003 that we can only be in the space for three weeks."
Liberatori believes residents’ demand and appreciation of the product
will keep free Shakespeare alive. "At those first performances,
we would stand at the top of the berm and it literally brought tears
to our eyes. We were overwhelmed by the crowds from day one. It was
obvious that the public wants access to the ideas — and it’s also
obvious that in many ways they are shut out of the theater because
of prevailing prices."
— Nicole Plett
the Barn, 176 Parkside Drive, 609-921-3682. Film and stage actor Bill
Pullman presents "Shakespeare and Other Reflections." Cocktails,
desserts, gifts, and a $50 Bard Card for the summer season. $175.
Monday, June 3, 7 p.m.
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