Even at summer's most punishing, when the air is thick and sticky and unmoving, there's something irresistible about outdoor theater. There's something about Starlight and Theatre in the Park. And there's something about the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, now celebrating its 20th season in Southmoreland Park.
Southmoreland makes an ideal setting for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a funny, fantastical romp in the forest (in rotation with Antony and Cleopatra). It's lighthearted enough that you need not devote to it the considerable concentration often required of Shakespeare.
The well-known play is approachable and easy to follow, but it's also involving enough that you can (as the actors surely must) tune out sirens and other urban distractions. It's about love and jealousy, romantic mix-ups and mistaken identity, and wire-pulling fairies. In the park's environment of communing — with one another and with the surroundings — the show lends itself easily to the pleasure of sitting outside with food and wine on a summer night.
The cast plays the show big, the better to reach the far corners of the grassy enclave and, perhaps, to keep a diverse audience engaged. We're helped as well by good sound (by Rusty Wandall) and excellent acting, which combine to make every word ring clear. Even if your attention wanders, you'll hear every syllable of dialogue.
The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival doesn't leave these comedies and dramas to amateurs. Half of the performers in both Midsummer and Antony and Cleopatra (the two are performed on alternating nights) are Equity actors — John Rensenhouse, Jan Rogge, Robert Gibby Brand, Cinnamon Schultz, David Fritts, Kim Martin-Cotten, Bruce Roach, to name some — and the others (except for the kids) aren't strangers to Kansas City stages. Jacques Roy almost steals Midsummer with his rendering of the fairy servant Puck. His agile, acrobatic antics — a performance worthy of an Olympic gymnastics-team tryout — are pure delight.
Director Sidonie Garrett commands both shows, and the production crew, too, brings talent and expertise. The movable and basic set, designed by Gene Emerson Friedman, is bright and colorful and lights up for Midsummer. It sometimes changes color (lighting by Ward Everhart), and it complements the multicolored costumes (by Mary Traylor), making this already enjoyable show a pleasure to look at, too.
Not every costume appears heavy, which must help on these hot nights. (Puck is unburdened with a shirt altogether.) The gauzy dresses of Hermia (Emily Peterson) and Helena (Andrea Guertsen) flow with the women's performances. Bottom (Matthew Rapport) must don a donkey's appearance for a time, but it's as temporary as the misadventure in the woods.
Antony's excursions in Egypt generate heat in Antony and Cleopatra, with far more permanent consequences. The star-crossed title characters exude a palpable lust from the first scenes. There's no mistaking Antony's longing for Cleopatra or her hold on him; if the park weren't already gripped by summer, you'd feel waves of heat coming off the stage. (The night I saw the show, a hawk squawked and birds chirped, as though answering the actors.)
At nearly three hours, this is a longer play than Midsummer, with a harder-to-follow plot. (There's a reason that the program has a detailed one-page summary.) The costumes are beautiful and brightly colored, but the backdrop is drab, reflecting the seriousness. Not everyone is going to keep up. That night last week, I saw more than a few people bolt after 30 minutes, well before intermission (when some others made their exits). Compared with Midsummer, there was more getting up and down.
It's not meant to be a comfort, this play. No good comes from the preoccupation Antony (Rensenhouse) develops with the queen of Egypt (Martin-Cotten). And unlike the doomed Romeo and Juliet, these two aren't sympathetic when they self-destruct. It takes many battles and betrayals (army against army, man against woman) and breakups and makeups for them to reach their endgame. You almost want to shout at Antony, "How can you be so stupid?" as he's taken in by her wiles and schemes. You know what they say about love and sight. But it's hard not to want them to get on with their drawn-out death scenes already, not that the performances aren't wonderful. In contrast, my eyes had watered at the demise of Antony follower Enobarbus, sensitively portrayed by Roach.
Though it's different from watching a show in the confines of a theater, where the intimacy between performers and observers is more intense and immediate, the majority of the audience was tuned in and responsive both nights I attended. And the Heart of America's productions don't fail to hold interest (or reward it). As in Midsummer, Antony and Cleopatra's set and action blend with the surroundings, and I could look at the moon or take in the park's expanse and still listen while sipping a drink and enjoying a breeze.
Antony and Cleopatra might not be a Midsummer walk in the park, but both plays remain a summer ritual well worth revisiting.