Shakespeare fest’s midsummer tradition

For its 20th year, annual festival pairs an old favorite with a newcomer.

06/16/2012 10:50 PM

05/16/2014 6:44 PM

Ah, outdoor theater. Think of the bugs, the distracting ambient noise, the heat.

But despite those and other potential impediments to appreciating the playwright’s art, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has for 20 years brought professional productions of William Shakespeare’s work to a receptive audience in Southmoreland Park. And the park, without question, is a pleasant place to spend an evening when the temperature and humidity cooperate.

This year the festival will for the first time in a decade stage two shows in repertory. One the festival audiences have never seen before: “Antony and Cleopatra,” the Bard’s account of a doomed love affair before a backdrop of international politics.

The other, though, is an old favorite: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which of all Shakespeare’s plays might be the best-suited for performance in a tree-filled park. Most of the play, after all, takes place in an enchanted forest.

For Sidonie Garrett, the festival’s artistic director, it’s all about striking a balance.

“Antony and Cleopatra,” a sweeping historical drama, is rarely performed. The comic “Midsummer,” by contrast, is one of Shakespeare’s most popular titles.

“We do surveys every night, and we ask people what show they would like to see,” Garrett said. “ ‘Midsummer’ is always on there, and it’s always high in the rankings. We haven’t done it for 10 years, and that’s a whole new generation for us. And it’s a great play to introduce little kids to Shakespeare.”

Founder Marilyn Strauss said she was glad to see “Midsummer” brought back because it is, among other things, a crowd-pleaser.

“It is because the story is relatively recognizable and easy to understand,” Strauss said. “It has the comedy in it — Bottom and the mechanicals and that whole thing that is delightful. For the park it affords great opportunities for wonderful decor that delights people. The children love it because it has the little fairies. And to me it has some of the most beautiful speeches in Shakespeare.”

Garrett also had a pragmatic reason for choosing “Midsummer.” It gives her actors a break. After meeting the challenge of mounting the complicated “Antony and Cleopatra,” she wanted her performers to be able to slip into the relative comfort of a show most of them have performed before.

“It’s shorter,” she said. “There’s many gem roles throughout the play, but not a huge amount of lines. It’s a great show for the park, and it will look completely different from ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’ And I’ve never directed it.”

There’s a famous maxim, usually spoken tongue-in-cheek, that actors are advised to follow: Never work with children and never work with animals.

Garrett is breaking both rules. “Midsummer” will have nine kids and, in one scene, a dog. His name is Buster, and he belongs to actress Jan Rogge.

“We’ve never had an animal onstage for a long time, so I hope he works out,” Garrett said.

“Midsummer,” written in the mid-1590s, is composed of several interrelated plots centered on the marriage of the Duke of Athens to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Two young couples — Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius — strive to be together despite numerous obstacles.

And carpenter Peter Quince and his acting troupe of tradesmen — the “mechanicals” — meet to stage a comic version of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” a tragedy played as farce that often proves to be the most entertaining section of any “Midsummer” performance.

Meanwhile, in the parallel universe of magic spells and potions, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, are estranged. But as they try to come to terms their actions directly affect the human characters, usually through the work of the mischief-making Puck.

There’s little question that the comic scenes are among the funniest Shakespeare ever wrote. And while no statistics exist to settle the question, we can reasonably assume that “Midsummer” has long ranked among the Bard’s most-produced plays.

Many regard the play as a comic masterpiece, although it has attracted a few detractors. In 1662, diarist Samuel Pepys described seeing a performance of “Midsummer,” “which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure.”

It’s possible that Mr. Pepys’s dinner didn’t agree with him that afternoon, because his certainly seems to be a minority opinion. But making magic in the park isn’t easy. It is accomplished with lumber and paint and scaffolding and electrical wiring and long, long hours.

For lighting designer Ward Everhart the challenge is always the same: How do you light a show that begins at 8 p.m. (in daylight, in other words) as night gradually falls?

“ ‘Midsummer’ starts in a dark forest,” Everhart said. “Well, that isn’t going to happen.”

Everhart says there’s only one reasonable approach: Blast the stage with as much light as possible at the outset and then incrementally lower the intensity levels as darkness settles onto the park.

The goal, Everhart said, is to signal the audience that a show is happening. If he lit the set the way he would at an indoor theater, the lighting initially would be imperceptible.

“Everything is thrown at it,” he said. “Everything is on. There won’t be any color selections. Just so the story looks like there’s life to it. I just throw light on it to make sure it looks like the show is really starting. That’s all you can do.”

Eventually, of course, the only light on the stage comes from Everhart’s lighting instruments.

“When the ambient light gets a little less, you increase the saturation a little and back off on the intensity,” he said. “Usually by 9 o’clock the ambient light isn’t an issue.”

Part of Everhart’s job is to create a shadowy, mystical environment for “Midsummer.” But the next night he has to come back and light up the ancient world of Rome and Alexandria, Egypt.

“The bad news is we only have one light plot,” he said. “The same light plot has to work for both shows.”

Among Everhart’s challenge is the absence of overhead lighting. Almost all the light on the stage comes from towers positioned on either side of the proscenium. There’s also lighting behind the stage, which, depending on the colors he chooses, can with the application of a fog machine suggest a magical forest or, as he put it, “the fires of hell.”

The lighting behind the stage also serves another purpose: It illuminates the trees in the park, which he said are “a huge design element. That’s why the light towers are set up the way they are — to make the set as organic as possible. The trees are a big part of the environment.”

Scenic designer Gene Friedman faces similar challenges. This year, because the festival is staging two shows on alternating nights, the set had to be built in a way to suit each production. “Antony and Cleopatra” has to satisfy the audience’s expectations about how ancient Rome should look, but “Midsummer” is pure fantasy.

“ ‘Midsummer’ is much more open-ended,” Friedman said. “You can go a lot of different places more than you can with ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’ Many people are seeing Shakespeare for the first time, and if we’re telling them ‘This is Rome and this is Egypt,’ you have to show them something that looks like that. But in ‘Midsummer’ you can go anywhere.”

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