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Entertainment Arts

Outdoor theater: Shakespeare under the stars

Fireflies crisscross a meadow as an audience on lawn chairs and blankets takes in the fast-paced complications of "As You Like It" on the grounds of the Evergreen Museum and Library — a particularly apt setting for the Maryland Shakespeare Festival production.

"We wondered if we should bring scenery, since this is perfect for the Forest of Arden, where the action takes place," said company artistic director John Bellomo. "Looking up at the stars and hearing this great poetry, it's like we're all in the woods together."

Experiencing Shakespeare in the open air can come with logistical and weather issues, but it's a time-honored practice in many parts of the world. Two hardy organizations are keeping that tradition alive in our region with engaging productions running this month.

The Frederick-based Maryland Shakespeare Festival, launched in 1999, tours the state each summer, giving outdoor performances from Upper Marlboro to Cumberland. The inaugural Evergreen visit, which runs through July 10, fills a void left when the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival folded in April after 17 years.

Meanwhile, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company marks its ninth season of productions at another atmospheric outdoors spot, this one in Ellicott City — the hilltop, stonewall ruins of Patapsco Female Institute.

"The park was barely being used before we came along," said Ian Gallanar, artistic director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. "But this space doesn't do anything a theater does. We're not allowed to attach anything to the building; the sets have to be free-standing. It's more work, but it pays off. That's the culture of our company; we enjoy challenges."

The Chesapeake troupe, with an annual budget of about $500,000 and an ensemble of professional actors, offers two productions in repertory this summer, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the popular parody "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." The organization seems to thrive on figuring out how to maneuver shows effectively in and around the imposing ruins.

The Maryland Shakespeare Festival, with a budget of nearly $300,000 and a paid cast that includes two Equity actors in "As You Like It," faces its share of challenges, too. Carting actors, crew, costumes, scenery and lighting to a dozen or so communities across the state requires a certain flair for logistics and patience.

In each company's case, the motivation keeping everything on track is the same. They do it for the Bard.

"I think there's a desire — because of the hook-up, turn-on world we live in — for communal events," Gallanar said. "Some people find that in church or other ways. Some people find it in Shakespeare, the great artist who brings people together."

Bringing them together outdoors is part of the attraction. Although both companies present productions indoors during other times of the year, the summer season is a major focus. The open-air environment also provides a way of "getting back to Shakespeare's roots," Bellomo said.

"It's a tradition," added veteran actor Steven Lorne Williams, who colorfully portrays two roles in "As You Like It." "Performing outdoors was certainly done in Shakespeare's day. The Globe Theatre had an open top."

Ian Sullivan, who plays Orlando, has been performing Shakespeare outdoors for six summers.

"People love Shakespeare because he speaks to the human condition," Sullivan said. "This man, whoever he was, tapped into something we can all relate to."

If some finer points of Shakespeare and stagecraft are more easily conveyed in a theater with four walls and a roof overhead, there are rewards to stepping outside.

"In outdoor performances, there's more of a party atmosphere," Gallanar said. "There is less distance between the audience and the actors. There can be a lot more interaction."

And not just during performances. Other than some tents serving as dressing rooms, the ruins provide scant shelter, since little roofing is left.

"You can't really get privacy here, so we decided to get rid of it altogether," Gallanar said. "People can peer down at us when we're getting ready, like we're fish in an aquarium, and that's fine. We might even say 'Hi.' Actors are also encouraged to go out in costume to greet the audience, to get rid of the mystery of the process. In a space like this, it's hard to hide the process, so we do the opposite."

Audiences at the Evergreen site will likewise find few barriers. Before showtime, the actors can be seen doing their warming-up chants and physical exercises around a couple of tents set up behind the small stage area. The performers also break the outdoor equivalent of the fourth wall by offering pre-show and intermission entertainment.

Christopher Dwyer, who plays Amiens in "As You Like It," sings pop songs, accompanying himself on the guitar, joined in some numbers of John Kelso (Jaques and Charles in the play) on toy piano. Playgoers may be asked to chime in on "You Are My Sunshine" or jump up to do the "Alligator Shuffle" with cast members.

"We try not to hide from the audience," Bellomo said. "We're all here together, so let's acknowledge one another."

At the ruins, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" is filled with audience participation, and the dynamic three-man cast — Scott Graham, John Thomas Miller (imagine Martin Short on speed), Frank B. Moorman — is adept at getting people to volunteer for crazy stuff.

Directed by Scott Alan Small, the production chomps into the manic, Monty Python-esque play, which treats a truncated "Titus Andronicus" as a disastrous cooking show with bloody body parts; an "Othello" as an un-PC rap; and "Macbeth" as a blur of elongated Scottish burr. Shakespeare emerges from the antics unharmed.

For undiluted Shakespeare, the company has created a fanciful staging of "Midsummer Night's Dream," given a carnival setting by Gallanar. That concept has been carried beyond the production itself. On performance days, a midway is set up on the knoll leading up to the stage area, a playful prelude to the fantasy of the play.

"As soon as you walk onto the grounds, you're experiencing it," said Lesley Malin, managing director of Chesapeake Shakespeare. "For families with kids, it's great. The kids can run around."

Added Gallanar: "Kids don't know that they're not supposed to like Shakespeare. We have a view that Shakespeare is for everyone."

Accessibility to the playwright is a goal at Maryland Shakespeare Festival, too. That includes providing extra stretch time for the audience.

"We do two interludes, instead of an intermission," Bellomo said. "And we do abridge the plays. We try for a two-hour running time; it's more like two hours and 15 minutes for 'As You Like It.' We don't want to be leaving here at 11:30 at night, and neither does the audience."

Presented with a simple set, complete with a few painted tree branches to complement the ones growing on the grounds, the production of "As You Like It" features a lively, mostly young cast that seems to relish both fight scenes and lyrical lines.

Given the weather pattern lately, audiences may be able to enjoy "Midsummer Night," "Complete Works" and "As You Like It" under persistently balmy conditions. But if, to quote Shakespeare, "the skies look grimly and threaten present blusters," both companies are prepared.

At the ruins, staffers keep constant watch on weather radar via smartphones.

"The summer we experienced the most rain was 2008," Malin said. "Naturally, that was when we did 'The Tempest.'"

Performances are canceled periodically, including one last year by the Maryland Shakespeare Festival because of severe heat, not rain. But in the grand tradition, the show goes on much more often than not.

"One year, the rain hit just before the wedding scene in 'Taming of the Shrew,'" Malin said. "The audience was offered tickets to any remaining show, but they decided to stick it out with the cast until the rain stopped. The actors passed snacks around to everybody while we waited to finish the play."

Bellomo has seen the same kind of determination.

"It was raining one time so hard, we thought of stopping," he said, "but we saw that the audience just opened umbrellas. So our attitude is, if the audience sticks around, we'll stick around."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" through July 24 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park. 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City. Tickets are $15 to $36; children under 18 free. Call 410-313-8661 or go to chesapeakeshakespeare.com.

Maryland Shakespeare Festival presents "As You Like It" Wednesday though July 10 at Evergreen Museum and Library, 4545 N. Charles St. Tickets are $10 to $20. Call 301- 668-4090 or go to mdshkes.org/summer-tour.

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