Theater moves outdoors

Summer is the season for Shakespeare in the Park, and a last chance to visit the Music Circus tent

Our summer couple takes the stage at William Land Park, home of Shakespeare in the Park.

Our summer couple takes the stage at William Land Park, home of Shakespeare in the Park.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Summer is the season that theater moves out of doors—and in some cases, into a tent.

This will be something of a benchmark year for Sacramento’s venerable Music Circus series. It will be the final season in a conventional tent, pitched in an amphitheater behind the Sacramento Theater Company’s buildings on H Street.

Local audiences have long since become accustomed to the marginally effective swamp coolers that are used to make the tent a little more bearable during Music Circus performances, as well as the canvas chairs that provide seating. People come dressed in shorts and T-shirts, sipping on water bottles and sometimes toting spray bottles and hand-held fans as well.

Truth be told, on most evenings it is pleasantly warm in the tent, and a few people even don a sweater when they step outside after the show. Then there are the days when the mercury tops 105, and the temperature inside the tent is still hovering in the low 90s when the show begins at 8 p.m. (Imagine how the performers feel, wearing costumes and dancing, under the lights.)

It’s all become part of the 50-odd years of Music Circus folklore—and this year is really the final season to enjoy the tent-as-we-have-known-it. This season is long on familiar, classic American musicals, starting with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (July 8-14), Man of La Mancha (July 15-21), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (July 22-28), The Sound of Music (July 29-August 4), Camelot (August 5-11), Smokey Joe’s Café (featuring songs by Leiber and Stoller, including “Stand By Me,” “Hound Dog” and “On Broadway,” August 12-18), and Paint Your Wagon (August 19-25). Information at or (916) 557-1999. Individual tickets $27-$45.

Big changes for the Music Circus series will begin in September, when work crews start erecting a permanent tent-like structure, incorporating a fabric roof similar to that at the Denver Airport. Having a permanent roof opens the way for more comfortable permanent seats and even air conditioning, which will make it possible to hold occasional matinees—something that wasn’t possible in the conventional tent because of high temperatures in the early afternoon. Since crews won’t need to spend a week setting up the tent and taking the tent down, the Music Circus series will add two additional weeks of programming in coming years, and a concert series is also contemplated.

Summer is also the season of outdoor Shakespeare festivals, and there are quite a few of them to choose from.

Closest to home is the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival, which will present Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V in the amphitheater at William Land Park (opposite the entrance to the Sacramento Zoo). Sacramento Shakespeare is a friendly, informal, community-based affair that is organized through the theater department at nearby Sacramento City College. The productions feature local actors of all ages. The festival begins on June 28 and continues on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (except June 30) through August 4. Two Thursday performances have been added this year, on July 25 and August 1.

This year’s production of Much Ado will be done with a 19th-century “paisley/pastel” theme, while Henry V will be set in a sequence of eras, the first act utilizing Shakespeare’s original setting, the second act set in 1780s’ France, the third act set in the 1830s, the fourth act set in early 20th-century India under the colonial rule of the British Raj, and the final act set in modern times.

Tickets are $10-$12, and the gates open at 6:30 p.m.—be sure to arrive early (many do) if you’re planning a picnic blanket supper on the prime turf in front of the stage. Showtime is 8:30 p.m., which gives the concrete stage a bit of time to cool off. The amphitheater is flanked by duck ponds, so a little bit of insect repellent comes in handy, and a sweater is often useful after 10 p.m. The festival doesn’t have a Web site or reserved seating, but you can get information by calling (916) 558-2228.

Other Shakespeare festivals in Northern California and beyond make excellent summer destinations for those seeking a respite from the Sacramento Valley heat. These include (in chronological order):

An outdoor showing of <i>Macbeth</i> from a summer gone by.

• Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland, Oregon. The oldest and largest of the summer festivals, now running March-November. Julius Caesar, The Winter’s Tale, Titus Andronicus, and others.

• California Shakespeare Festival, in the East Bay hills near Orinda. Runs May 29-October 8, starting with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Chekhov’s The Seagull, and The Winter’s Tale. Each play runs about a month. Dress warmly, since the Bruns Amphitheater turns chilly when the fog comes in.

• Shakespeare Under The Stars. This small festival is held at the Stevenot Winery in the foothills east of Stockton on Highway 4. Richard III and Merry Wives of Windsor run in repertory June 21-August 3, followed by Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana in late August.

• Marin Shakespeare Festival. Held in an amphitheater on the Dominican University campus in San Rafael. Sacramento actress Stephanie Gularte will play Scheherezade in 1001 Arabian Nights, which runs in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing from July 12-August 25, followed by Macbeth in September.

• Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Many regard this as the edgiest and smartest of the Northern California festivals. Two shows are mounted in a redwood glen, one indoors. Coriolanus, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Chekhov’s The Seagull run in repertory July 13-September 1. Afternoon sun can be intense, but evenings are subject to coastal fog. Reservations are critical, many weekend performances sell out weeks in advance.

• Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. Two comedies (done in accessible style) are mounted annually in a sandy amphitheater at Sand Harbor State Park on the lake’s Nevada shore. Many of the actors come from Nevada City’s Foothill Theater Company. Starlight over the lake and the sound of lapping waves provide the backdrop for Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew, which will share the stage from July 23 to August 25. Keep a poncho in the trunk, since occasional mountain thundershowers can drift overhead in the early evening.

” Sierra Shakespeare Festival. The two productions from the Lake Tahoe festival move to a pine-shaded amphitheater at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley from August 30-September 22.

As you can see, several different festivals are mounting their own productions of the same scripts, which offers the tantalizing opportunity to compare the interpretations of different actors and directors.

Many of Sacramento’s regular theater companies shut down during July and August, but a few will have shows on the boards (admittedly indoors), including:

• The B Street Theatre will stage The Last Train to Nibroc by Arlene Hutton, a romantic story about a couple who meet on a train, running from mid-June to late-July, with another as-yet-unannounced production to open in August. The B Street has also commissioned a new show from comedian Jack Gallagher to open the B Street’s long-planned (and several times deferred) second performance space, “B-2,” which director Buck Busfield says could open in July … we’ll see. (916) 443-5300.

• River Stage will present Acts Unbecoming a Golem, an original play by Mark Stein (whose plays Ghost Dance and The Scottsboro Boys were also mounted by River Stage). July 10-28, (916) 691-7364.

• The Delta King Theater (which is on the vintage riverboat in Old Sacramento) opens Vanities for a summer run on June 15. (916) 995-5464, theatre.

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