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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,"

says Reiss.

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,"

says Fischetti.

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

"King Lear."

"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

Spring Benefit, Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival,

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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