This year marks the quadricentennial of William Shakespeare’s death. And for the last 70 of those years, Frederic De Feis has been producing, directing and/or performing in the Bard’s tragedies and comedies with Arena Players, the company he founded in his graduate student days at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
How many Shakespeare productions has he done? “As many as my years,” says De Feis, 90. “ ‘Twelfth Night’ was my first,” he recalls. He’s also played most of the major tragic roles, including Hamlet and Macbeth.
In this 20th anniversary season of his Summer Shakespeare Festival in the cobblestone courtyard of the Vanderbilt Museum mansion, De Feis is producing one of each — a tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet,” and a comedy, “The Taming of the Shrew.” But he’s turning over the directing reins to Evan Donnellan, a longtime Arena actor and producer/director of the Minstrel Players in Northport. In “Romeo and Juliet,” Donnellan directs himself in the role of Mercutio. (“I can’t pass for 16 so the title role was out of the question,” Donnellan noted with a laugh, adding that in the comedy, opening in August, he plays Petruchio, who spanks Kate, the shrew he vows to tame.
Donnellan says it’s an honor to be directing De Feis’ Shakespeare festival. “Fred has been more than just a mentor,” he says. “He’s kind of meant the world to me.”
De Feis moved Arena Players from Pittsburgh to Queens in the ’60s — at first to a space in the air traffic control tower at what was then known as Idlewild Airport, later John F. Kennedy International Airport following the assassination of President Kennedy.
De Feis then migrated to Long Island, performing in parks during the summer and in libraries. He bought an East Farmingdale strip mall space in 1993 where he remained, mounting both main stage and second stage productions until 2011. Donnellan directed the final performance there, Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be in Pictures.” Since then, De Feis has called the Carriage House at the Vanderbilt Museum his theater home, along with the outdoor mansion courtyard for his Shakespeare festival.
“It’s a wonderful space,” says Donnellan, “with the stairs leading up to the clock tower — perfect to the sword-fight scenes — and, of course, the balcony, which we take full advantage of in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ ” For ‘Shrew,’ he says, “The setting will make the audience feel like they’re in Verona, Italy.”
Donnellan played in the first Shakespeare festival at the Vanderbilt, portraying Banquo’s son at age 10.
If you go to one or both the Shakespeares at the Vanderbilt, consider arriving early with a picnic basket. The view of Northport Bay from the lawn is spectacular.
WHEN | WHERE “Romeo and Juliet”: 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Sundays through July 31. “The Taming of the Shrew”: Aug. 3-31, Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Rd., Centerport
TICKETS $15; 516-293-0674, arenaplayers.org