Free, by any other name, still costs as sweet: Riverside Theatre staging free Shakespeare in the park

Riverside Theatre is making much ado about Shakespeare by charging nothing to see one of the Bard’s beloved comedies.

Iowa City’s professional troupe is freely flinging open the doors to the 470-seat Riverside Festival Stage in Lower City Park from Friday (6/15) to Sunday (6/17) and June 21 to 24 for “Much Ado About Nothing.”

No tickets are required, but donations will be accepted to defray costs for Riverside’s largest show of its season. With a cast of 13, it stars an A-list of Corridor actors, including Patrick Du Laney, Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers, Tim Budd from the Iowa City scene, and Jessica Link and Jim Kern from the Cedar Rapids theater scene.

Corporate sponsorships, city support, donations and grants are defraying production costs, but staging a free show still is a gamble — one that artistic director Sean Christopher Lewis is willing to take. He simply wants to recreate the magic that reeled him into theater as a kid in New York City.

“It’s definitely a risk to do it free — I won’t pretend it’s not,” he said. “I grew up with free Shakespeare around me, and I performed in free Shakespeare back East. I tend to think a lot about what accessibility issues do we have? Race or gender — those are the ones that get brought up the most, and obviously are incredibly important — and we work toward those. But then there’s also class: How does the ticket price deter people from seeing things?

“The truth is, the only theater I saw as a kid was free Shakespeare, because the access point was nothing. So I started thinking like, OK, if I was a 13-year-old kid in Iowa City and it’s free, do I give it a chance that I might not (otherwise), or that my parents are able to bring me to? Also, (free admission) makes it more family friendly.”

As the parent of a toddler, Lewis well aware of how expensive it can be to hire a baby-sitter, but when the show is free, parents can bring the kids, and if they get too wiggly, tired or hungry to stay past intermission, the parents aren’t out $100 to duck out early.


“This is a way to be more inviting to the whole community,” Lewis said. “If it works, the possibilities for what the Shakespeare festival could become, would grow exponentially. The big thing you’re always trying to think about with a nonprofit is, what is our ceiling and when have we hit it?

“With the Shakespeare festival, it’s a huge theater in a public space, and it’s pretty accessible from the highway for people coming from all over the state. It’s amazing to have something that inviting, that people would come from all over the state — down from Waterloo or Davenport — that our own community really felt a sense of ownership of.”

While Park Road is under construction and closed from the usual entry point off Dubuque Street, patrons can hook up with Park Road from Riverside Drive that runs behind Hancher, or make a left turn from Highway 6 onto Rocky Shore Drive, which becomes Park Road.

The play begins at 7:30 p.m., and as in years past, audiences are invited to come an hour earlier toting picnics and partake in the Green Show antics beforehand. New to the lineup are food trucks to expand your dining options. Beverages also will be available at the venue’s box office.

“Most of my thinking has been how to make this a community party, not just a performance,” Lewis said.

Of course, the play’s the thing, and as the summer sun sets, the action will heat up on the stage patterned after London’s Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s troupe entertained the masses, beginning in 1599. That’s about the time Shakespeare was writing “Much Ado About Nothing.”

The language is 16th century, but the themes are timeless, Lewis said.

“It’s about the ways in which we find love and also how we accept love. You have two primary sets of couples. Hero (Jessica Link) and Claduio (Zach Twardowski) who are very much like our fairy-tale version of love. They meet, they see each other from across the room, and they’re immediately like, ‘Who’s that person?’ It’s all about love and not lust,” he said, citing Romeo and Juliet, who are “boiling” with lust. “This is actually sweeter. They see each other and immediately want to get married.”

Benedick (Patrick Du Laney) and Beatrice (Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers), on the other hand, seem “more like a contemporary couple,” even though the show was written so long ago, Lewis said.

“They have a hard time being happy. (Both) clearly are in love with each other, but because of pride and because of baggage and because of a fear of growing up, neither of them is able to admit to the other one that they love them, even though it’s so clear they’d be happier if they did.

“Hero and Claudio is the love I hope my son falls into,” he said. “ I think Benedick and Beatrice is what we see more often in our day to day life.”

Those relatable themes and Shakespeare’s typically vague settings make it so tempting to place his shows in other eras, while still maintaining the rich language of the Bard’s pen, Lewis said. So he has moved the action to Hollywood’s back lots in the days immediately following the end of World War II, when spirits were high.

“Part of it is, I’m always trying to look at what makes the play accessible and immediate for me right now,” Lewis said. And the most fun.

Since the play begins with the men all coming back from war and the women throwing a big party, he was searching for “our most recent cultural memory of celebration after war — a happiness that it’s over, and a happiness that we’re back and stronger than ever.”

He landed on World War II, recalling all the famous photos of people coming home — then made the leap to Hollywood.

“With the title, ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ there’s lot of melodrama and lot of diva-ish-ness within the play. I started thinking about actors and directors. For me, concepts shouldn’t detract from the play, but if they open up more opportunities, then it feels like it’s right. There’s a lot of music in ‘Much Ado,’ more so than in other Shakespeare plays.

“Once I started thinking about movie studios, there’s all these great dance numbers in the great MGM musicals. That allowed me to start going in and (asking) what if we had some dance numbers, and what is the hierarchy of the back lot, and how would that play into the character development and costuming? It just started to open up a lot of very fun possibilities that were just adding to the characters, so we just ran with it.”


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And if more than 500 people show up for a performance, that will be “the greatest problem we’ve ever had,” Lewis said. “We don’t have folding chairs, but can we come up with a solution as fast as humanly possible? Yes!”


WHAT: Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

WHERE: Riverside Festival Stage, Lower City Park, 200 Park Rd., Iowa City

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday (6/15) to Sunday (6/17) and June 21 to 24

ADMISSION: Free, no tickets required; donations accepted

EXTRAS: Green Show ensemble performs at 6:30 p.m.; food trucks on-site, beverages available or bring your own picnic to the park


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