‘Guerrilla street theater’

For its 18th season, Shakespeare in the Park moves to the bustle of downtown

NEW BENEDICT?<br>Beatrice (Jodi Rives) and Benedict (Quentin St. George) play hard to get at the City Plaza steps.

Beatrice (Jodi Rives) and Benedict (Quentin St. George) play hard to get at the City Plaza steps.

Photo By Andrew Boost

It was a Chico tradition—hop on a bike and ride to Cedar Grove for the annual Shakespeare in the Park, where the swampy, oppressive heat of summer would abate as the actors took audience members on a fairy-tale journey beneath the stars and sleepy oak trees. But this summer, the twittering birds will be replaced by murmuring traffic, while street lamps will eclipse the stars.

In past years, Shakespeare in the Park has produced shows as lofty as Othello, as well as peppy musicals like The Adventures of Betty Rocket: Space Lawyer. Audience members watched the shows in Bidwell Park in outdoor amphitheaters built especially for the occasion.

Even though there was always bug spray and tiki torches in Cedar Grove, it took nothing short of garlic necklaces and crucifixes to keep those little blood-sucking mosquitoes away.

For its 18th season, Shakespeare in the Park has found a new home in the City Plaza—and, thus, has a new name, Shakespeare in the Park Plaza. One of the main reasons for the move to the warm concrete of the downtown plaza was concerns for West Nile virus, which had decreased attendance, especially among senior citizens. Jerry Miller, head of the Ensemble Theatre of Chico, said he frequently received phone calls from people concerned about West Nile.

Miller said another reason for the move was the difficulty of building the set every year in Cedar Grove.

“It was getting harder and harder to find people willing to go out there in 110-degree heat to build that thing and tear it down,” Miller said.

In the City Plaza, of course, there is already a permanent stage, so all the actors have to do is set up props and add a little mood lighting. The change in location has an additional bonus: expansive seating. The troupe will no longer charge admission and will operate on donations only.

Sure, City Plaza won’t have the same ambiance, but it will give way to a different kind of theater.

“It’s sort of more of a guerrilla street theater,” said Dawn McConnell, director of the first show, Much Ado About Nothing, explaining that the production will be at the mercy of street traffic and pedestrians.

The directors expect that a third of their audience will be in transit, and so each is devising different ways to hold a crowd’s attention. The plays this year include flashy musicals, loud action and lots of slap stick comedy. McConnell said the idea is to make people stop and say, “Hey, what’s going on in the plaza?”

Here is what’s going on:

Much Ado About Nothing
The first Shakespearian romantic comedy of the season has everything: comedy, drama, mistaken identities, slapstick and fight scenes.

Sworn bachelor Benedick vows that he will never fall in love, and shrewish Beatrice does the same. Their friends conspire to hook them up. Much Ado About Nothing is about love triangles and the follies of miscommunication—and will have more drama than a teen flick.

The Blackbird Sings
This parody of The Maltese Falcon was written by Jerry Miller, who also co-directed the play with Marcel Daguerre. Hard-boiled detective Sam Spade goes in search of the mythical Maltese Falcon and will sing and dance along the way.

Shakespeare in the Park has produced an original musical every year for the past five years and this new one is a goofy throwback to the classic noir genre.

Molière’s Commedia dell’arte piece is directed by Joe Hilsee and is set in the ‘60s. Hilsee said he wanted to do something flashy to hold people’s attention with movement instead of with words: “Sort of like, Fellini does Molière.”

In Scapino!, two wealthy fathers leave town with instructions for their sons to marry well. While their fathers are gone, the two young men marry for love instead, with the help of their wily servant, Scapino.