Bard to Bidwell
Shakespeare in the park is not dead yet
Since longtime director of the Chico Summer Theatre Festival (formerly Shakespeare in the Park) Jerry Miller announced his retirement last summer, no one has stepped up to take his place. And though the summer-stock production as we’ve come to know it in recent years is still in limbo, Chicoans who love Shakespeare as part of their summer still have reason to rejoice. Thanks to local theater vets Matt Hammons and Davis Carlson—and their newly formed Bidwell Theatre Company—the 23-year tradition of summertime Shakespeare will continue.
The appropriately named troupe will be staging a relatively brief run—two performances (Aug. 2 and 3)—of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens at the spot where Shakespeare in the Park made its debut, the Campfire Council Ring in Lower Bidwell Park. The return to the campfire ring closes a circle that has followed the summer Shakespeare festival from its 17-year run at two Bidwell Park venues—including Cedar Grove—to stops at the Chico City Plaza, El Rey Theatre, and finally, the Chico Women’s Club for the past four summers.
Director Hammons, a Chico theater mainstay who has appeared in several of the summer festival’s productions in recent years, including Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh, is pleased to be using the original venue—a small, semi-circular amphitheater with permanent benches just a few steps from Big Chico Creek.
“The stage is in the circle and the audience [is] all around them,” Hammons said. “It’s very minimal, no backdrops. Bidwell Park itself is the backdrop.”
Hammons, now 34, soaked up quite a bit of the festival during its years in the park and recognizes the significance of perpetuating the tradition.
“As a high-school student I hadn’t cut my teeth yet, but I was a big fan of those great productions that we got to see,” he said.
Carlson, who has been living in Brooklyn pursuing acting, music and comedy since earning a post-graduate credential from the Birmingham School of Acting in England, returned to Chico temporarily to produce this show.
“I heard how Shakespeare in the Park might not happen and I didn’t think Chico should go without summer theater,” he said.
The duo chose one of Shakespeare’s most obscure titles in Timon of Athens, which deals with the timeless theme of humans getting into trouble by living beyond their means.
“This show has some nice parallels to the recent financial crisis,” Hammons said.
Local actor John Duncan, a gentle giant with the thespian pedigree and skills to handle the task, assumes the starring role of Timon, an altruistic aristocrat who is a little loose with his riches. “He’s great; I hoped he would do it,” said Hammons of Duncan, who has shined in a wide variety of local productions, including playing Banquo in Rogue Theatre’s 2010 production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“Timon is an overgenerous nouveau-riche lord who tries to buy his friends with mock credit. … John is such a nice guy and has such a big voice; he can play both sides of the character.”
Hammons has whittled down the 400-year-old script into a 90-minute, two-act play featuring eight characters who will be played by some of the area’s most respected actors, including, among others: Sean Green as Flavius, the bookkeeper and right-hand man who sticks by Timon’s side; Joe Hilsee as surly philosopher Apemantus; and Shawn Galloway playing the Senator of Athens.
Hammons had plenty of kind words for Miller, who has been synonymous with Chico’s summer Shakespeare productions for the last 16 years.
“He kind of had to walk away from it,” said Hammons, noting Miller’s full schedule as artistic director for Theatre on the Ridge in Paradise and theater instructor at Butte College.
Hammons said he sought out Miller beforehand, not necessarily for an endorsement, but to show respect for the brand, to make sure that no one else was doing it, and to pick Miller’s brain for what he described as “invaluable pointers.”
Hammons and Carlson don’t yet know if they’ll return to Shakespeare in summer of 2014. For his part, Hammons is not looking past Timon of Athens.
“Let’s just put on a show,” he said.