Shakespeare on the Common: Boston Summer Guide

2016 marks the 20th year of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s (CSC) annual Shakespeare on the Common event, a two-week run of a Shakespeare play that’s free, open to the public, and performed outdoors on the Boston Common. If you’re still staring at your screen instead of running to the Common right now, consider this comparison…

A checklist of things needed for a regular theatrical performance:

  • $150 tickets (in the Nosebleeds Plus section)
  • Semiformal evening wear (because anything less, as Shakespeare might say, makes you “unfit for any place but hell”)
  • A lower back of steel (to survive the century-old spine crunchers sometimes referred to as “seats”)

A checklist of things needed for a ‘Shakespeare on the Common’ performance:

  • No tickets necessary (e.g., “it’s free”)
  • A t-shirt and shorts (or, if you’re feeling fancy – jeans)
  • A blanket or a lawn chair (unless you prefer the feel of cool summer grass beneath your cultured behind)

Do you see my point? It’s Shakespeare performed by professional actors, in the beautiful Boston Common, on breezy summer evenings. And it’s free, if I haven’t mentioned that yet.

The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, or CSC, started what would become Shakespeare on the Common in 1996, with a midsummer performance of – you guessed it – A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  That performance took place in Copley Square, but the next year’s Romeo and Juliet migrated to the Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common, where the program would thrive for the next two decades.  This summer, for its 21st season, the CSC has mounted a hilarious production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. 


The show is one of Shakespeare’s first comedies.  In the play, four men – the King of Navarre and his pals Dumain, Longaville, and Berowne – have forsworn all earthly pleasures, including the company of women, so they can devote the next three years to strict study.  The arrival of the Princess of France and her three ladies-in-waiting derail that plan almost immediately. As they do in all comedies, then and today, hijinks ensue.

ABOUT OUR VISIT: This year, my friend Madeleine and I attended the Saturday, July 30th performance. We got to the Parkman Bandstand early to find good seating, because it does get crowded.  Thankfully, though, the CSC takes all the nuances of outdoor theater into account, offering $5 chair rentals and sectioning off the crowd to ensure visibility.  For disabled audience members, there’s accessibility seating up front (and certain performances are ASL interpreted).  In the sections further back, people with chairs above a certain height are relegated to a tall-chairs-only section, to preserve the view of short chair and blanket-bringers. I got to the Parkman Bandstand at 6 PM, two hours before the 8 PM curtain, and could see the stage clearly from my spot on my low blanket.


OUR FOOD OPTIONS: Waiting two hours for the show to begin is no burden at Shakespeare on the Common. Madeleine and I combined the play with a picnic dinner, and we had plenty of options for food.  Besides the wealth of restaurants in downtown Boston, an Earl of Sandwich kiosk next to the stage offers basic sandwiches and salads, and food trucks roll in for weekend performances.  On Saturday, the sky-blue Bon Me truck occupied a spot behind the bandstand, selling a variety of Vietnamese foods and drinks.

FOR ICE-CREAM LOVERS: After dinner, we got ice cream at the nearby Ben & Jerry’s truck, which provides punny, Shakespeare-themed sundaes at every performance. Last year, for King Lear, they offered a special flavor called “Swirl of Gloucester.”  This year’s flavor was “Fudge Flavor’s Frost.”  The two hours before curtain left us full, happy, and ready to enjoy the show.

The sun began to set as the show started, and night crept in slowly until Love’s Labour’s Lost’s bright green set replaced the daytime green of the Common.  As if Shakespeare needs any more praise, the show is really funny.  A couple centuries have dulled the jokes about the intricacies of Latin, but the main plot had us captivated…


ABOUT THE PERFORMANCE: Shakespeare’s work can seem dense and inaccessible, but Love’s Labour’s Lost never felt that way.  Partly because of the fun simplicity of the show itself, but mostly because of the actors, who utilized every nuance of their voices and physicality to make the meaning of the jokes clear while maximizing their power.  A few actors and scenes stood out. Remo Airaldi used the hammiest accent he could muster as Don Armado the Spaniard, rolling his R’s so hard he could have caused an earthquake.  Obehi Janice as Rosaline teases and tricks her way through her flirtation with Berowne, deploying sass that makes 400-year-old words seem fresh and modern.

The scene where the King and his companions discover that each has broken his no-women vow by falling in love was especially memorable. Berowne (played by Jason Bowen), after his own lovesick soliloquy, climbs a tree to eavesdrop on the King’s lovesick soliloquy, followed by Dumain and Longaville’s lovesick soliloquies.  Afterwards, they pounce on each other one by one, calling each other out for their oath-breaking in an attempt to cover their own tracks, until Berowne interrupts the King’s chastising with an “A-HA!” that echoed through the Common and made the audience collapse in laughter.

The show ends on an unexpectedly somber note, which was jarring, but that’s the Bard’s fault, not the actors’.  Regardless, the performance deserved the standing ovation it got.  You still have one more chance to see Love’s Labour’s Lost – if you miss it, you’ll not only miss an excellent show, but you’ll have to wait until next summer to enjoy Shakespeare on the Common.  And, say it with me, one more time: it’s free!


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