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Wherefore art thou, Shakespeare? In Land Park

An image from the stage of the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival.

This summer, the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival presents its 30th season of outdoor performance in William Land Park’s Carroll Amphitheatre. Produced by City Theatre at Sacramento City College, the venue is close by the Land Park, South Land Park, Curtis Park and Greenhaven neighborhoods that are home to many Capital professionals.

The Festival is produced by the theatre department at Sacramento City College (SCC) and, as such, represents one way that Los Rios Community College District enhances cultural opportunities for the Sacramento area.

  The all-male cast at times is a double-edged sword. Before the intermission, for instance, the women seem flippant caricatures reminiscent of Robin Williams in the film, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

“Our audience is all ages, all genders, and all ethnicities,” says SCC Theatre Professor Adrienne Sher, daughter of former state Senator Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto). “It’s a family tradition for many, who come back year after year. And many who start as young audience members grow up to be performers here,” making the Festival an event as much about community as it is about the arts.

This season’s festival features two unique productions – “Romeo and Juliet” and the comedy “As You Like It.” Both plays feature one-gender casts – an all-male “Romeo and Juliet” and an all-female “As You Like It” – marking the first time that the Festival has used one-gender casts in its three-decade history.

For five weeks this summer, the normally flat and barren stage by the Land Park duck pond has been transformed into a three-dimensional Veronese Plaza with twin balconies, two ground-level doorways, and a center ramp and staircase. With the backdrop of the evening sky, the park’s expansive greenery, and flocks of flying geese, the magic of Shakespeare takes place.

At the play’s conclusion, the wailing of Juliet’s mother lingered as the lights dimmed and was chilling in its sorrow.

Directed by SCC Theatre Professor Christine Nicholson, “Romeo and Juliet” takes a traditionally historic approach, transporting the audience back to the Renaissance where the all-male cast is costumed in Elizabethan garb and let loose in the piazzas of Verona. Notable features include a traditional Renaissance ballroom dance number, set to a live music performance of a lute, flute, and drums—and, of course, many intense swordfights.

In this version, eight men portray women, including one role, Peter, originally written as a man but converted for this play to a woman, Petra (Griffith Munn).

According to Festival Coordinator and SCC Theatre Professor Luther Hanson, “It was just the way it was [in Shakespeare’s time], but to our modern audiences it’s different. It takes a while to adjust to men playing women, but then you forget about it…but you also can’t completely forget.”

The all-male cast at times is a double-edged sword. Before the intermission, for instance, the women seem flippant caricatures reminiscent of Robin Williams in the film, “Mrs. Doubtfire.” This is fitting for Juliet’s opportunist mother (Julian Ortega) and the humorously ribald Nurse (Bill Gilbert), effectively evoking often-overlooked comedic elements of the famous tragedy. At the same time, Juliet’s (Zachary Scovel) romantic passion and anguish are reduced to drag humor, bringing hoots and laughter from the audience.

After the intermission, however, the caricatures recede and are exchanged for moving performances that sharply enhance the play’s tragic end. Juliet’s soliloquy of “Romeo, I drink to thee!” was particularly impassioned, complemented by the outdoor venue’s solemn hum of crickets and the evening breeze. At the play’s conclusion, the wailing of Juliet’s mother lingered as the lights dimmed and was chilling in its sorrow.

While “Romeo and Juliet” showcases Elizabethan tradition, “As You Like It” plunges its all-female cast into the 1920’s Prohibition Era of Atlantic City. Directed by SCC Theatre Professor Lori Ann DeLappe-Grondin, the comedy relates the adventures of Rosalind (Tiffanie Mack) and Orlando (Nina Dramer), two young lovers kept apart by the political exploits of the nefarious Duke Frederick (Denise Ivy). A tale of clowns, chases in the woods, and cross-dressing, the play culminates in a group wedding of four motley couples.

“We look at ways of including more females in Shakespeare every year, because there are so many female actresses and so few female roles,” says DeLappe-Grondin. “The response has been wonderful … [the actresses] have been allowed to do some things they’d never been able to do,” opening up a historically male-dominated tradition by taking on roles normally cut off to women due to gender.

The production elements in “As You Like It” are as vibrant as are the plot and cast. Actors are costumed in brightly colored suits, tasseled flapper dresses, high heels and mink scarves. The play also features live music, in which old Renaissance ballads are transformed into lively jazz numbers which could light up a Roaring Twenties speakeasy.

While the productions starkly contrast, both plays demonstrate that Shakespeare has the power to endure and compel in a contemporary age. “Romeo and Juliet’s” return to original Elizabethan practice shows that, like a priceless artifact in a museum, the old traditions never lose their power to captivate. Yet at the same time, “As You Like It” illustrates how Shakespeare can move with the times, its time-honored themes persistent through a multiplicity of cultures and historical periods.

City Theatre’s Sacramento Shakespeare Festival is produced by the Theatre Department at Sacramento City College. As a result, the Festival not only receives some funding from the college but also makes use of the college’s rehearsal rooms and costume collection. The rest of the budget comes from ticket revenue (about half), and from grants and donations—in total, about $100,000 annually. While the Festival’s staff is SCC Theatre Department faculty, the actors are unpaid.

“We are building audiences, inspiring performers, and keeping a tradition alive,” says Adrienne Sher, who will direct SCC’s City Theatre production of Anton Chekov’s “Three Sisters” this fall.

Shows will run until August 2. Dates, times, and tickets can be found at the Festival website, www.sacramentoshakespeare.net.

Ed’s Note: Janine Sobers is an intern from the Public Affairs Journalism Program at UC Center Sacramento.


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