Rarely when watching a late-night airing of Smokey and the Bandit does one's mind wander to Shakespeare. Okay, it probably never happens, but fans of classic theater have Burt Reynolds to thank for bringing the Bard to Palm Beach County -- at least in part.
Reynolds was getting his Jupiter Theater off the ground in the late Eighties when his camp got a call from film producer and screenwriter Kermit Christman, who like Reynolds has a second home near Jupiter. Both believe that great plays by the masters should be made accessible to audiences.
"He [Reynolds] wanted to see a drama component that would do the classic plays while he was developing the commercial and musical performances," recalls Christman. "We had a couple of conversations and met. We developed it from there."
Enter Shakespeare by the Sea, the outdoor Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival held annually at Carlin Park Amphitheater in Jupiter. Now in its eighth season, the festival this year presents The Winter's Tale, a romantic tragedy with a fairy-tale ending.
In the play a jealous, quick-to-judge King Leontes wrongly accuses his wife, Queen Hermione, of infidelity with his best friend Polixenes. He puts her on trial and throws her in prison, where it's revealed that she's pregnant. After giving birth to the child, Hermione reportedly dies of shame and grief. Believing that the baby girl, Perdita, is illegitimate, the king has her taken to a desolate seashore, where she's left to fend for herself. She is found and raised, however, by a kind old shepherd.
By mid-play sixteen years have passed, and Perdita is a beautiful young shepherdess. Through an odd sequence of events, she is reunited with her father, proven legitimate and proposed to by the son of Polixenes. Hermione, by the way, also shows up and forgives Leontes.
"The only thing missing is an evil stepmother," claims actor-director Kevin Crawford, who plays Leontes. "We're just two steps away from jumping into a Brothers Grimm tale. There is resolution, forgiveness. Time goes on, new generations come in -- hopefully wiser than the previous one. It's really just a great story."
It is if you're Leontes, who gets to pass judgment first, ask questions later, and promptly be forgiven for the entire mess. In today's world the truly fairy-tale part of the story is that Hermione even takes him back. Obviously the barristers of the Bard's day hadn't properly cultivated the lawsuit mentality. She could have taken the king for everything.
Everything is exactly what Reynolds and Christman wanted to provide audiences: a Shakespeare festival and, in the Jupiter Theater, a venue for modern plays and musicals. But, alas, it wasn't to be. Reynolds was honorary chairman of the board of directors during the festival's first season in 1990, which was dedicated to Watson B. Duncan III, Reynolds' mentor and friend and a long-time Palm Beach Community College drama professor. But the Jupiter has since folded.
The festival, on the other hand, continues to grow -- in size and stature. Cardenio, a play considered by some a "lost" Shakespeare piece (many critics don't believe the Bard penned the recently unearthed manuscript) was performed in Jupiter two years ago. Because of its exposure at the festival, the production was taken to New York City. "People saw it here and said it was interesting, and invested to take it off-Broadway," recounts Christman. It received favorable reviews from critics across the board.
"Coincidentally, about that time, the new amphitheater and park was opened by Palm Beach County," Christman says. Before the $1 million renovation at Carlin Park, rolling grass fields riddled with anthills were hosed down with pesticide and platform stages were erected in order to put on the plays.
"I look back on working with Burt and getting the festival started as a very fond but poignant memory, because the Jupiter Theater is no longer in existence," Christman laments. "But Shakespeare is alive and well. We've been very, very fortunate in our growth, because so many South Florida (theater) groups go under."
-- John Ferri