J. A. Di Bello’s Review of Shakespeare on the Farm

August 4, 2019

Willow Wisp Organic Farm

Farm Arts Collective

Damascus, PA

Groundlings Flourish

   There lies a picturesque and fertile valley along the banks of the Upper Delaware. It is there a mighty river separates New York State from its neighbor, Pennsylvania. The valley is further blessed with wealth, as cultural diversity flourishes in the appropriately named township of Damascus. Interestingly, Damascus, PA reportedly borrows its name from the capital of Syria, a city when under Roman domination was described as “God’s paradise on earth,” a land rich in orchards, fruits, the creative arts and plentiful water. As a name sake, similarities thrive and do not fade with the pages of an art-history book.

This treasure filled area is productively situated on the West Bank, the Pennsylvania side. Damascus is the flourishing home of Willow Wisp Organic Farm, “a solar-powered 30-acre organic vegetable farm…” Among the appealing spices thriving on Willow Wisp’s bountiful acreage is the not-for-profit Farm Arts Collective, an “…agri-cultural organization founded in 2018 by artistic director and organic farmer Tannis Kowalchuk, Sue Currier, and a community board.”

Currently, the Farm Arts collective is presenting Shakespeare on the Farm, an appealing collection of Shakespearean characters brought to an enthusiastic audience by a talented ensemble of multi-talented performers. Theatre at the farm is non-traditional, original and site-specific. That finishing adjective more frequently is a reference to interactive theatre, where theatre’s traditional 4th wall is non-existent; in this production, an ambulatory audience moves about a designated area, for the majority of the time without seats, a circumstance reflecting the situation of “groundlings” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, in 17th century London.

Tannis Kowalchuk in collaboration with William Shakespeare is responsible for writing this frequently faithful adaptation of The Bard’s most well-known characters. Further, she with co-director Mimi McGurl took the helm of this amusing, multi-stage, fun-filled, yet serious variation of Shakespearean classics. Facts be told, this dynamic duo could not be a more perfect match of collaborative perfection when the creation of interactive theatre is the objective.

Ms Kowalchuk is an award-winning actor/director, co-founder and artistic director of North American Cultural Laboratory (NACL), receiving training in ensemble physical theatre practices at Odin Teatret, a noted and well-respected theatre group, based in Holstegro, Denmark. As they complement each other, Mimi McGurl is a director, teacher and drama editor who addresses perception in performance. She received a B.A. from Middlebury College, an MFA from UC Irvine, and a PhD from Stanford University.

“On the Farm’s” entertainment begins as members of the audience are milling about in an open area, adjacent to a plastic quonset-hut-shaped green house. While socializing, taking selfies, and sipping various cold beverages, entertainment is provided by a strolling and well-prepared duet: Ruta Cole on the violin ad Doug Rogers on the accordion. Suddenly there is a startling and unexpected clatter. A disheveled pickup truck appears, horn blaring, a bed bursting with booming, noisy actors, carrying on as though they’d just won the homecoming game. Players et al now gathered now in the hut, mentioned above, even the unsuspecting are now aware: “All the world’s a stage.” And nowhere is this Shakespearean proclamation more valid than on the West Bank of the Delaware River!

The action and movement from one scene to the next take place in relative proximity. Through the remainder of the evening, a collected group of groundlings is guided by a very credible Tannis Kowalchuk, from one stage, i.e., from one location on the farm to the next. Each stage represents a special place for Shakespeare’s more interesting characters. The portrayal of Tannis as, Titania Queen of the Fairies is critical to the adhesiveness of the play. Tannis is not only comfortable in this role, but immensely credible, as she guides an appropriately anxious, i.e., a well-prepared audience, from stage to stage. Tannis Kowalchuk has delivered an appealing, down-on-the-farm, Shakespearean Pilgrimage.

To print here a list of cast and say bravo, brava could easily and accurately reflect the quality of this production. However, in all fairness a number of characters deserve notice. For example: John Roth as King Lear and his surprise entrance is more than sufficient to earn this actor coveted laurels. Romeo, in search of an early harvest, is fittingly brought to the fields by Bobby Skotch as he exchanges that first, flaming kiss with his Juliet, an effective Raina Bowers. Appearing in multiple scenes is a flamboyant Jess Beveridge as the emotionally challenged, love sick Ophelia. Jess effectively brings to the stage the wanting adolescent desires of a love-sick teenager, precariously attracted to an even more troubled Hamlet, commendably represented by Jon Jon Thomas. Also, and of special note are The Farm Arts Collective Ensemble of stilt walkers, drummers, musicians. Awesome they are! Accolades could continue, but it’s late. And as with Shakespeare’s plays they are better experienced than read.

Farm Arts Collective will continue it run of Shakespeare on the Farm at the Willow Wisp Organic Farm, 38 Hickory Lane, Damascus, PA. through Sunday, August 11, with performances on 9th, 10th and 11th. Tickets are sold out for the 10th and 11th with the 9th listed as an additional performance. For tickets and additional information call 570-798-9530 or https://farmartscollective.org/

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