Love's Labors Lost?

As the visionary who brought free Shakespeare to Boston Common in 1996 and directed every show since, Steven Maler has had some Bardlike ups and downs. His work is now a celebrated tradition, yet over the past three years his salary has been slashed and the production cut to just seven stagings. This year’s run of As You Like It, which debuts 7/18, has been restored to a full 18 showings, and next month, in a first, will include three performances in Springfield. But the turnaround may not benefit Maler himself: Boston’s arts community is abuzz with talk that his paymasters are forcing him out.

“Every year we’re asked this question, and every year we say we’re going to wait until the end of the run and see,” says Citi Performing Arts Center honcho Josiah Spaulding Jr., whose company took over the Common shows five years ago. In 2006, he laid Maler off; the director has worked on one-year freelance contracts ever since. Spaulding has even asked other theaters to take over the production, but with no success.

“It’s left me scratching my head,” says a close observer. “I don’t know if [Spaulding] thinks he could get it cheaper, or that he had somehow lost faith in Steve.” Spaulding insists he likes Maler, but money is tight—meaning the production’s future (and Maler’s) could depend on reaching audiences beyond the Common. “We’ll find out the real test when we pick up and move to Springfield,” Spaulding says. As if that’s comfort.