Desperate lovers, a fairy king and queen, a woman with a donkey’s head and a scamp with Cupid’s arrow in flower form are taking over Yosemite National Park on Earth Day weekend.
Highlighting UC Merced’s special partnership with Yosemite, Shakespeare in Yosemite enters its second year with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” adapted and directed by UC Merced Professor Katherine Steele Brokaw and Professor Paul Prescott from the University of Warwick in Coventry, U.K.
“We have both performed in outdoor Shakespeare productions and know not only how enjoyable they can be, but how Shakespeare festivals can have transformative effects on communities and the lives of individuals,” Prescott said of the inspiration for what is becoming an annual tradition at UC Merced. “If the National Parks system can be described as ‘America's Best Idea,’ then maybe free Shakespeare in the park might be ‘America's Second Best Idea.’ In putting free Shakespeare in Yosemite, we're drawing on these powerful, progressive traditions.”
This year’s free performances are headlined by Lisa Wolpe, founder and artistic director of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, along with Connie Stetson, known to park visitors for her performances as Sarah Hawkins in the Yosemite Conservancy’s Yosemite Theatre. Yosemite Ranger and UC Merced alumna Jessica Rivas, Ranger Shelton Johnson, UC Merced and Merced College students, community actors and Devon Glover, AKA the Sonnet Man — an internationally known hip-hop Shakespeare artist — round out the cast.
The play will be offered twice daily in the park from April 20-22, coinciding with the park’s annual Earth Day festival. Visitors can make a day of it by attending Yosemite’s festival events, such as tree plantings, nature walks and trail cleanups, and relax for 90 minutes with the hilarity, music and whimsy of Shakespeare’s most fantastical play.
The Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) will offer free bus rides to the park that weekend, and UC Merced is offering a special bus trip to the park: Students, faculty, staff and guests can enjoy a day in the park, including the play and a drive through Yosemite Valley for $10 per person. The trip takes place from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, April 22. RSVPs must be received by Friday, April 13. Questions? Call 209-228-RSVP or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There will also be a performance at the UC Merced campus for those who can’t make it to the park.
Performances are set on the following schedule:
• Wednesday, April 18, 6 p.m.: Wallace-Dutra Amphitheater on the UC Merced campus
• Friday, April 20 and Saturday, April 21 at 2 p.m. in the Lower River Amphitheater and at 5:30 p.m. in the Half Dome Village Amphitheater in Yosemite National Park
• Sunday, April 22 at 2 p.m. in the Lower River Amphitheater
Brokaw, with the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, said she and Prescott, both Shakespeare scholars, found inspiration for the production in 2016 when they stumbled across the Lower River Amphitheatre while walking through Yosemite Valley.
“We had the same thought at the same time,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be magical to do Shakespeare here?”
“Shakespeare infused his plays with imagery of and concern for the natural world in gorgeous language that still resonates with people 400 years later. It’s a beautiful coincidence that Shakespeare’s probable birthday and Earth Day are a day apart, and one worth honoring.”
The Bard and Earth Day (April 22) go together both because it’s said his birthday is the day after the global day of environmental observance, and because he recognized the importance of nature and conservation. Sustainability is a cornerstone of UC Merced’s philosophy and practices, as well.
“Shakespeare grew up in rural England at a time when people were starting to exploit the planet’s natural resources. Deforestation, for example, was a big problem. At the same time, what scientists now call ‘the Little Ice Age’ was changing the climate,” Brokaw said. “Shakespeare infused his plays with imagery of and concern for the natural world in gorgeous language that still resonates with people 400 years later. It’s a beautiful coincidence that Shakespeare’s probable birthday and Earth Day are a day apart, and one worth honoring.”
The trees surrounding the amphitheater contribute to the venue’s acoustics, and it’s hard to beat the spectacular backdrop of Half Dome Village’s theater. The park itself provides the scenery, but a professional costume designer, Kristine Doeil, is creating costumes out of recycled materials and trash because the impact of humans and trash on the natural world is one of the themes of the show.
Audiences from last year’s performances of a blend of Shakespeare and John Muir’s writings said the productions enhanced their experiences in the park and prompted them to think more deeply about the natural world. Brokaw said she and the rest of the production hope that is true again this year.
She said it wasn’t difficult for her and Prescott to set “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Yosemite National Park and to talk about issues facing humans and their environments in 2018.
“We keep as much Shakespearean language as possible, but have no problem changing the occasional word when it’s so archaic that modern audiences don’t have a prayer of understanding it,” she said. “It’s far more important for everyone to understand the story and feel connected to it.”