GOOD OL' Will Shakespeare never got to see his plays performed under the gorgeous Southern California sun. If he were to, he might be taken aback by the number of outdoor festivals held in his honor. This summer, nearly 20 companies from Santa Barbara to San Diego will take o'er yonder hills and dales in an outpouring of Bard-related love.
These days, it takes a determined theater troupe to lure people away from malls and multiplexes for an evening of iambic pentameter poetry. Some do it by offering free admission -- what do you have to lose? -- while others jazz up the stage with all sorts of revisionist interpretations of Shakespeare's sacred texts. (Think "As You Like It," set in the 1970s to the music of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, at the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival in Thousand Oaks.) There's something for everyone, whether you're a neophyte or a hard-core Elizabethan.
But with so many choices -- and this being Shakespeare -- you might feel a bit overwhelmed.
"The whole idea is to be as accessible as possible," says David Melville, an actor and managing director of the Independent Shakespeare Co., when asked about the mission behind his company. "There should be no obstacles whatsoever."
Celebrating its fifth anniversary in Hollywood, the Independent Shakespeare Co. mounts traditional productions each summer in Barnsdall Park, where the festival has quickly established itself as a popular and critically acclaimed ritual. (Ralph Fiennes and noted British director Jonathan Kent are on the company's board of advisors.) This season, more than 10,000 people are expected to attend its three productions. That's up from just 1,000 attendees in 2003.
But like a few other local troupes, the Independent Shakespeare Co. has experienced rough waters this season. The company came close to losing its space on the park's south lawn when inspectors demanded in November that the company obtain a special permit. (Apparently, the stage didn't meet fire safety codes.) The application process involved a host of city agencies, and the process dragged on for several months.
To avoid being shut down, the troupe ultimately chose to rent a specially constructed, 40-foot-wide platform at a cost of nearly $8,000. An emergency e-mail campaign helped raise about half of that amount. The company hopes to cover the rest through donations raised during the summer.
"We're so grateful to put on this season. That's our party," says Melissa Chalsma, the company's artistic director.
Other companies are having a tougher time. Shakespeare in the Cemetery, which performed in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, is on indefinite hiatus due to a lack of funds. Starting Friday, Shakespeare by the Sea in San Pedro will begin charging $25 for "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)," its third production this year, to help cover costs for its free productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Antony & Cleopatra."
The underdog nature of many Shakespeare festivals can be a burden. But it can also be a major asset. Lively theater depends on unpredictability and risk-taking.
Shakespeare Festival / LA in downtown Los Angeles and Palos Verdes is producing a version of "The Taming of the Shrew" based on a transportation theme, with actors riding around stage on wheels, intended to mimic our addiction to cars and freeways. Meanwhile, the Actors' Gang in Culver City is continuing its series of experimental, family-friendly Shakespeare with its one-hour condensation of "King Lear" (redubbed "King O'Leary"), which will turn the tragedy into a comedy of sorts.
And let's not forget the beautiful venues. In Topanga, the Theatricum Botanicum offers a backdrop of magnificent hills to go with your Bard. Farther away but well worth the trip, Shakespeare in the Vines sets its productions in two of Temecula's most scenic vineyards and wineries. But the most impressive location is probably San Diego's Old Globe, where Shakespeare is performed each summer at the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. The festival's artistic director, Darko Tresnjak, is helming the Globe's first production this summer, "All's Well that Ends Well."
So pack your picnic baskets and sharpen your brains. Shakespeare requires a little extra effort on everyone's part, but at least the experience will make you feel smarter. And how many summer activities can guarantee that?