Which raises another question: What's so great about Forest Park? The festival's mission statement requires that Shakespeare be performed "outdoors in a city park," but it doesn't specify where. The festival's location on the east side of Art Hill offers limited sight lines and limited parking. For those sitting on the ground, the rutty hill is hardly comfortable. Might not any of a dozen other city parks offer a comparable setting? (Hydeware Theater will be staging A Midsummer Night's Dream in Tower Grove Park next week.)
Because Forest Park is the city's cynosure, it may be that our festival is modeled after the free summer Shakespeare in New York City's Central Park. But there is a profound difference between the two setups: Central Park contains a bona fide theater. Those who attend free Shakespeare at the Delacorte first must go to the effort of obtaining a ticket. A ticket, even to a free play, separates the serious theatergoer from the dilettante who's simply there because it's the thing to do.
Perhaps the mission statement's reference to "community outreach" also was modeled after the New York City operation; if not, perhaps it should have been. For it's worth remembering that when producer Joseph Papp introduced free Shakespeare to the Big Apple in 1956, he didn't wait for audiences to come to him. Concurrent with Papp's move into the Delacorte, he also dispatched spare, mobile productions of Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Macbeth to city parks in all of New York's boroughs.
It's one thing to go to Forest Park and be diverted by the pre-show panoply of jugglers, belly dancers and sword swallowers. But that so-called "festival" aura also can be a distraction. As the Bard knew best, "the play's the thing" the evening must be judged by. At some point the festival might want to consider the possibility of becoming less festive and more mobile. Rather than playing to 2,000 people a night in Forest Park, why not try to reach out to the mission statement's "diverse audience" in some of the city parks that have never known Shakespeare?
This more egalitarian approach probably is not going to occur in the immediate future. Already it has been announced that next year Julius Caesar will be staged in Forest Park for four weeks in late May and early June. That play, all by itself, is going to provide challenge enough for the festival: There aren't a lot of clowns in Julius Caesar.