Why, this is very midsummer madness.
—Olivia, "Twelfth Night," Act 3, Scene 4
There are a slew of Shakespeare shows happening outdoors in Connecticut in July and August.
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Shall we compare them to a summer's day? Sure, why not? The plays happen on summer nights. They're all by William Shakespeare, that well-known Bard of Avon. Other than that, they can be as different as midsummer's night and day.
Connecticut Free Shakespeare
Connecticut has a great tradition of Shakespeare in the summertime, notably at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford. That star-studded venue opened in 1951, became one of the state's top tourist attractions for decades, and closed in 1989, with continual attempts to revive it ever since. Now the lawn outside the theater is the site of Festival! Stratford. The community festival, held this year from July 30 through Aug. 3, is celebrating its tenth anniversary. In addition to jazz concerts and yoga lessons, there are five 8 p.m. performances of "As You Like It" presented by Connecticut Free Shakespeare.
Formerly known as Bridgeport Free Shakespeare and founded in 2000 by Bert Garskof and Ellen Lieberman (whose Dandelion Productions has been a prominent small theater company in the state for decades), Connecticut Free Shakespeare is also bringing "As You Like It" — which they've dressed up in a 1960s flower-power concept — to Bridgeport's McLevy Green 8 p.m. Aug. 6 to 10.
"As You Like It", July 30 through Aug. 3, Stratford; Aug. 6 to 10 , McLevy Green, Bridgeport; ctfreeshakespeare.org
The oldest still-running outdoor Shakespeare summer series in the state is Capital Classics. It began in Bushnell Park in 1991 but later found a home on the St. Joseph's College campus in West Hartford, where the comedy "All's Well That Ends Well" will be performed July 24 through Aug. 10. The St. Joseph's location gives Capital Classics a major advantage over other outdoor Shakespeare presentations in the state; if it rains, the show simply moves indoors to the college's Clare Rose Playhouse.
Geoffrey Sheehan, who founded Capital Classics with his wife Laura, recalls that "when we started, all the major theaters were shut down for the summer," making these open-air productions a big lure for classics-crazy crowds. Capital Classics productions tend towards the traditional, with Elizabethan costumes and live music. "We believe in the intelligence of our audiences, and that they'll get the connections between Shakespeare's time and our own," Sheehan says. In 24 seasons Capital Classics has run through a large chunk of the Shakespeare canon, with only occasional repeats ("Twelfth Night," "Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Tempest" have each been done twice). "The Winter's Tale" was an unorthodox yet very successful choice last year — Sheehan's not the only summer Shakespeare producer to note that sometimes the bard's lesser-known works can be more entertaining than the well-known titles that "people think they know." Sheehan hopes to get to some of the history plays (including those about Henry IV and Henry V) eventually, not to mention a couple of palpable hits the company hasn't done yet: "Othello" and "King Lear." Projects are picked based on "who in our company has a driving passion to do it. Then we see what works for the company." Sheehan sees Capital Classics' rendition of "All's Well That Ends Well" as acknowledging "the importance of women" in the play, one of the only Shakespeare scripts in which a woman gets the opening line.
"All's Well That Ends Well," July 24 through Aug. 10, St. Joseph's College, West Hartford; capitalclassics.org
Capital Classics draws a couple of hundred people to each performance. In the New Haven area, the 19-year-old Elm Shakespeare Company has drawn 10 times that amount: an estimated 2500 people at a single performance of "Julius Caesar" last summer, and some 30,000 audience members over the show's three-week run. Such a large and loyal fanbase means that Elm Shakespeare can take some risks with programming. This summer, Aug. 14 to 31 in Edgerton Park on the New Haven/Hamden border, the company's tackling the little-seen drama "Pericles." "It's extremely unknown, but it was Shakespeare's most popular play when he was alive," claims ESC managing director Daniel Fitzmaurice. To match the epic scope of this wild seafaring adventure, and to highlight the natural beauty of Edgerton Park, set designer Vladmir Shpitalnik is creating a 95-foot-wide stage, with three "islands" connected by bridges. Director James Andreassi (who's also Elm Shakespeare's founder and artistic director) has switched the script's locale from the Middle East to the West Indies and its time period from an indeterminate ancient era to the late 18th century, sensing a connection between the play's hero and Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture. Despite these historical underpinnings, Andreassi describes "Pericles" as "a mix between 1001 Arabian Nights and The Odyssey." He's cast two actors of Trinidadian heritage, Gracie Brown-Keirstead and Yale School of Drama grad Paul Pryce, in central roles. "I can't tell you how much fun I'm having."
"Pericles," Aug. 14-31, Edgerton Park, New Haven/Hamden; elmshakespeare.org
The barnstorming rural non-profit Artfarm in Middletown has been doing its Shakespeare in the Grove productions since 2006. "King Lear" is the current attraction, running through July 27 on the Middlesex Community College campus and featuring 45 minutes of live music by a local folk artist prior to each performance. (The acts range from singer-songwriter Nancy Tucker to word/jazz fusionist Mixashawn and dobro virtuoso Stacy Phillips) John Basinger, renowned for his memorization and performance of the complete text of Milton's "Paradise Lost" and for a recent one-man Lear he devised for himself, plays the embittered monarch.
"King Lear," through July 27, The Grove, Middlesex Community College, Middletown; art-farm.org
New London's Flock Theatre brings a collective spirit and a deep interest in puppetry to their annual Shakespeare productions in the arboretum at Connecticut College. Through July 27, Flock presents "Cymbeline," a Shakespeare romance with twinges of tragedy that fell out of fashion for centuries but has recently been getting a lot of attention, including Fiasco Theater's acclaimed adaptation for a six-person cast in New York in 2011.