Shakespeare in the Park isn’t the only free outdoor theater in town – West Side Rag

By Talia Winiarsky

Every Thursday through Sunday, the Hudson Classical Theater Company performs a Jane Austen adaptation at Riverside Park through July 24th Emma free — and there is no long line for several hours.

On those nights, the group gathers at 6:30 p.m. on the patio at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at 89th Street and Riverside Drive. Viewers will need a mask and proof of vaccination to see playwright and Executive Artistic Director Susane Lee’s adaptation of the classic novel. The actors perform directly in front of the audience seated on the steps leading to the inner courtyard. Some actors, in moments of passion, move up the stairs as if the audience didn’t exist.

While the book is set in 18th-century England, the play is set in 1950’s Newport, Rhode Island. Although the settings are centuries apart, both have an emphasis on wealth and social hierarchy.

The play’s eponymous character, played by Deborah Bjornsti, loves to play matchmaker. She is determined to find a husband for a schoolgirl named Harriet (Harley Seger), whose origins are unknown. But when Emma interferes in Harriet’s relationships, the consequences affect everyone in her social circle, including Emma herself. It’s a comedic play, with many lines having the audience laughing.

The actors wear traditional 1950s clothing, including red polka dot dresses for women and suspenders and fedoras for men. The track includes pop culture references from the era, such as Buicks, Truman Capote, and high society enjoying Jell-O salad. It also makes a few jokes that hit close to home — Mrs. Elton (Marie Dinolan) hopes, for Jane’s (Cecelia Auerswald) sake, that her job as a nanny isn’t on the unwanted Upper West Side.

Lee’s anachronistic choice of setting gave her artistic liberties, she said. “It’s pretty much completely rewritten,” she said.

The company didn’t have to be strict with the language, which allowed it to have a more relaxed tone. Lee also added plot points and scenes that did not exist in the book. “I want to see more characters interact, relationships deepen,” Lee wrote in the program booklet.

The play’s plot is timeless, said Bjornsti, who played Emma. The characters are “very real people,” she said. “It’s about a woman’s relationship with her father, with her best friend, with the people of her town.”

Bjornsti, who has been performing with the company since 2015, said she enjoys performing at Riverside Park despite the challenge of city noise. “People come and say, ‘Oh my God, they’re making a Shakespeare,'” she said. “We are here, right here, right now, in the middle of Riverside Park.”

Louis Felix, a tourist from LA, found out about the production while walking through the park and saw a play in a park for the first time. “It seemed like a real New York experience,” he said.

Since the play contains many picnic scenes, the outdoor setting added to the experience, said viewer Sasha Tailor. It was also fun to see the play live because the film adaptation, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, came just before lockdown, she said.

The environment makes production accessible, which aligns with the company’s mission, Lee said. According to the website, they strive to “enjoy our diverse audience with intimate and accessible interpretations of classic literature.”

The company furthers that mission by offering free tickets without reservations, Lee said. “A lot of people said they’ve never been to the theater before, but they come to us,” she said.

Art allows Lee to unite people in her audience, including those who typically have no experience of theater, she said. “Being who I am, who has always been an outsider in every aspect of my life, to create something where we can all come together and spend an hour and a half and enjoy something is magical.”

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