Summer in the Bay Area can mean any number of things, from the recent heat wave to the downright chilly weather that prompted the popular phrase erroneously attributed to Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” One thing it always means, however, is a whole lot of outdoor theater.
The overwhelming majority of theater in the great outdoors are the works of William Shakespeare and other offerings from the various Shakespeare festivals that do their shows in the summer. This year is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, so you’d think there might be more of his work going on than usual, but in fact it’s pretty much the standard selection of fare. A handful of The Bard’s comedies always get the most play, and that’s true this year as well, with four productions apiece of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It (some of them indoors), three of Much Ado About Nothing, and two of The Taming of the Shrew. The ever-popular Twelfth Night is having a slow summer, meanwhile, with just an indoor production at Shotgun Players.
In the scenic hills of Orinda, California Shakespeare Theater kicks off its season with Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun (5/21-6/15) before getting to the Shakespeare with The Comedy of Errors (6/25-7/20) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (9/3-28). In between the doses of Shakespeare is a refreshing dose of George Bernard Shaw in the form of Pygmalion (7/30-8/24), best known to some as the basis of the musical My Fair Lady. In the farther East Bay, Livermore Shakespeare Festival presents a “festival of feisty lovers” with Much Ado (6/19-7/6) and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (7/10-7/20).
The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival continues its annual Free Shakespeare in the Park tradition with The Taming of the Shrew, which it will take to parks in Pleasanton (6/28-7/13), Cupertino (7/19-8/3), Redwood City (8/9-24) and San Francisco (8/30-9/21). Interestingly enough, the 5-year-old Vallejo Shakespeare in the Park is also taking its free show on the road this year, whisking its Midsummer Night’s Dream through parks in Vallejo (July 26-27), Martinez (8/2-3) and Fruitvale (8/9-10).
The South Bay’s Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company is also in the Taming business, doing a surfing-themed version at San Jose’s Willow Street Frank Bramhall Park (6/13-6/29). Shady Shakes finishes up its season in Saratoga’s Sanborn-Skyline County Park with its first production of Shakespeare’s Othello (7/25-8/29) in repertory with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (8/1-31). And there’s plenty more Shakespeare going on down south. Half Moon Bay Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t open until September, but Festival Theatre Ensemble’s summer season is in full swing with three plays in repertory in Sunnyvale (5/31-6/28) and Los Gatos (7/18-8/9): Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Much Ado About Nothing, as well as founding-artistic director Bruce W. De Les Dernier’s own adaptation of George Farquhar’s 1707 comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem, called The Pirates of Port Royal.
The really exciting news comes from even further south, where UC Santa Cruz abruptly pulled the plug on the venerable Shakespeare Santa Cruz, its 32-year-old professional theater company in residence, last summer. After a successful fundraising campaign, the company was reborn this year as an independent entity called, with only a slight modification to its name, Santa Cruz Shakespeare. Back in its predecessor’s longtime home in the woodsy Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen on the UCSC campus, the new SSC doubles down on Shakespearean comedy with As You Like It and The Merry Wives of Windsor (7/1-8/10). A Shakespearean-themed Fringe Show, Amy Freed’s madcap comedy The Beard of Avon, has only two performances -- July 29 and August 5.
In the North Bay, Marin Shakespeare Company will be celebrating its 25th anniversary and Shakespeare’s 450th with a revival of the very first play it staged, As You Like It (7/12-8/10), with all performances “pay as you like it” thanks to a gift from a generous donor. Then Marin Shakes gets tragic with Romeo and Juliet (7/26-9/28) and comedic again with Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (8/23-9/27), all in its amphitheater at Dominican University in San Rafael, surrounded by trees and tennis courts. Farther north, Shakespeare Napa Valley is also doing As You Like It (9/5-21), although curiously enough they’re opting to stage the sylvan comedy indoors. SNV’s open-air offering will be How Shakespeare Won the West, Richard Nelson’s vaudevillian comedy about a Gold Rush-era theatrical troupe, at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Napa (8/14-17). A new company called Bacchus Theatre is reportedly staging Midsummer at the Oakmont Golf Club in Santa Rosa (7/18-27), but it’s too new to have a website yet.
Like I said, that’s a lot of Shakespeare, and those are just the festivals. In San Francisco, site-specific theater specialists We Players revive their production of Macbeth at Fort Point (6/5-29), which was interrupted last year by the government shutdown and closure of the national parks. Marching the audience all around a Civil War-era fort directly underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, this show is technically indoors in that it’s surrounded by walls, but it’s still open to the air above, and it gets chilly out there on the warmest of nights.
Most of the above are evening shows, but Curtain Theatre performs its shows for free in the early afternoon at Mill Valley’s Old Mill Park. This year Curtain takes on The Tempest (8/23-9/14), which is interesting primarily because the musical the company performed last year, Return to the Forbidden Planet, was loosely based on that play and featured several of the same actors.
If you were to ask me what the second most performed writer would be in the parks this summer, I never would have guessed Jane Austen, but oddly enough, there are three productions of Pride and Prejudice on various outdoor stages this summer, all using completely different adaptations of Austen’s novel. Shady Shakes’ version is by Joseph Hanreddy, Livermore’s is by Christina Calvit, and Actors Ensemble of Berkeley is performing one by Constance Cox at John Hinkel Park (7/5-20). The humble amphitheater at Hinkel in northernmost Berkeley has a venerable history as the longtime home of the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, which became Cal Shakes upon its move to Orinda. Later Hinkel became the home of the now-defunct all-female Shakespeare company Woman’s Will and of Shotgun Players’ now-discontinued summer park shows. Berkeley’s community theater Actors Ensemble sets up shop there this summer with both Austen’s romantic comedy and Heinrich Von Kleist’s mythic drama Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons (8/23-9/7), adapted by Giulio Perrone.
Broadway musicals aren’t the most intuitive choice for outdoor theater, but don’t tell that to the Mountain Play, which has been staging shows high atop Mount Tamalpais for 101 years, with the last few decades being only musicals. The spacious stage has long allowed the company to add little surprises to its productions: tanks, cows, stagecoaches, vintage automobiles or low-flying planes. This year’s offering is South Pacific (5/18-6/15), which the company last produced in 1997. Woodminster Summer Musicals is now in its 48th year of producing musicals in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park and is offering a diverse mix this year from Les Misérables (7/11-7/20) to the new movie-based musical Catch Me If You Can (8/8-17) to David Henry Hwang’s revamped version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (9/5-14).
Among the Bay Area’s longest-running al fresco theatrical traditions is the 55-year-old San Francisco Mime Troupe’s free shows in the park, which are always sharp political satires and musical comedies. This year is no different with Ripple Effect,(7/4-9/1) written by Michael Gene Sullivan, Eugenie Chan and Tanya Shaffer, whicy takes on the class war in ever-gentrifying San Francisco. The piece opens, in Mime Troupe tradition, on the Fourth of July at Mission Dolores Park and before moving on to parks all over the Bay Area.
There’s a long local tradition of circus in the park as well, from the Pickle Family Circus in the 1970s to Make*A*Circus in the ’80s and ’90s, but that seems like a long time ago. Fortunately the small 6-year-old company Circus Bella has stepped in to fill that gap, flying through parks in San Francisco, Oakland and San Rafael with the greatest of ease (6/26-7/27). Both Circus Bella and the Mime Troupe are part of a large variety of musical, dance and theatrical acts performing in the season-long Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in downtown San Francisco along with Red Panda Acrobats, Pi Clowns, Crosspulse, Caterpillar Puppets, the Unique Derique and many more.
And new theatrical traditions are being born every day. Fresh out of the San Francisco Fringe Festival, the traveling show Best Beloved hits the road this year (8/3-9/14) in its makeshift FluxWagon to perform its gleefully theatrical adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. That’s not to mention the various Renaissance Faires and other immersive quasi-theatrical events that take place all over the region. One of the marvelous things about living in the Bay Area is that you never know where a theatrical experience might pop up. One might even say just walking down the street in San Francisco is an experience in live theater.