But there's more to summer fun than sun and sand. Why not catch a bit of history -- no, not the upcoming Allman Brothers' concert -- Elizabethan-theater style?
The eighth annual Heart of America Shakespeare Festival (HASF) is in full swing at Southmoreland Park, continuing its tradition of bringing Shakespeare's poetics to life. This season's offerings include As You Like It (comedy) and King Lear (drama), performed in repertory. The two fit nicely together, sharing themes of banishment, sibling rivalry, and female heroines.
"Shakespeare has taken the form of the pastoral romance," says Mark Robbins, director of As You Like It, "and slyly twisted it so that it leads us -- quite unexpectedly -- into an examination of sexuality, independence, interdependence, gender-based power issues, gender confusion, etc. ... sweetened with heaps of humor and eroticism to make it go down easier."
If all that mayhem and merriment seems too frivolous, then worry you not: There's plenty of death and destruction to be had in King Lear, which showcases power struggles, greed, and lust in two families. King Lear's director, Bruce Levitt, who also serves as the festival's artistic director, calls it a "gripping and terrifying play because it centers on family, and every family can see some part of itself in it." He adds that the play "addresses a couple of Shakespeare's major themes: that unbridled human passion -- whether religious, sexual, or political -- leads to the destruction of the human race and that redemption is found through the feminine side of our natures -- generosity and caring for others."
Gender roles aside, preshow festivities begin at 6:15 nightly, featuring sword fighters, greeter beggars, a mime, and a herald trumpeter, just to name a few. At 7 p.m., Philip blue owl Hooser and Felicia Hardison Londre will give entertaining and informative lectures on both plays, in keeping with HASF's educational mission.
The education program, along with nightly commentaries, boasts a two-week camp for students ages 5 to 18, appropriately called Camp Shakespeare, in which the students get to perform a mini version of a play. Sonnet and poster contests also encourage students to explore and develop their artistic and writing skills. In addition to offering the children's outreach programs, the HASF sees itself as a cultural resource for the general public.
Fortunately, the generosity of the festival's benefactors has allowed it to remain a free event. Levitt says this opens up the Shakespeare experience to those who might otherwise be put off either by ticket prices or a more formal venue. It is especially important to keep the festival accessible to everyone, he says, in light of recent research in the field of brain science that has proven that involvement and exposure to the arts contribute to higher I.Q. scores, as well as verbal and math skills.
Besides these practical benefits, Levitt says, it simply is a magical experience to see Shakespeare performed outdoors on a beautiful summer night. "There must be something about it," Levitt says, "because people come." So after basking in front of the air conditioner and taking a dip in the pool, get thee to Southmoreland Park before July 16.
As You Like It and King Lear play on alternating evenings through July 16. Southmoreland Park is located at 47th and Oak, just off the Plaza. Performances are at 8 nightly with preshow activities beginning at 6:15. For more information, call 816-889-7827, ext. 5011, or visit www.kcshakes.org.