Nichols Arboretum is always teeming with visitors during the summer — among them are picnickers camped out near the Huron River, tanners stretched out on sun-bleached towels and kayakers trying, and failing, to avoid the boulder everyone seems to get stuck on. On weekend evenings in June, though, the Arb will take on a decidedly more romantic tone as the sunlight dims and Shakespearean lovers scatter throughout the shadowy woods.
This month marks the 16th year of Shakespeare in the Arb, the beloved festival that takes place through the end of June. Directed by Kate Mendeloff of the Residential College, this year’s play, “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” takes audience members on a journey through the Arb itself, providing an immersive theatergoing experience that draws more lovers — of Shakespeare, that is — every year.
“There’s this sense that you enter this world of the King’s Park,” Mendeloff said of the summer’s production, which highlights one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. “I try to create a 360-degree experience for the audience.”
The play, which centers around the King of Navarre and his cronies, is set in a forest, making the Arb the ideal setting. As the play moves around the woods and valleys, the audience follows the earnest hijinks of the king and his friends as they take a vow of celibacy, only to be happily thwarted by their romantic interests. While no one could have predicted 2016 would be a landmark year for women, from feminist Beyoncé to Hillary Clinton, this play goes along perfectly with our “Year of Women.”
“It has a lot of great roles for women,” Mendeloff said, drawing attention to some of its humorous feminist winks. “The women are so much [more clever] than the men.”
A new, fresh concept when it first appeared in 2000, the festival has displayed remarkable staying power and a sense of history. Unseasoned performers join every year, providing new blood and contemporary perspectives, but other collaborators, like Mendeloff, have participated in the program since its inception.
One woman in particular left her indelible mark upon Shakespeare in the Arb — Roberta Vandermey served as the show’s costume director for nearly a decade, crafting many of the show’s delicate, exquisite garments, before passing away several years ago. She chose to be buried right next door to her beloved Arb in Forest Hill Cemetery, the lush, peaceful graveyard that shares its border with the park. Every year, Mendeloff and her collaborators leave flowers on Vandermey’s grave before opening night.
“It’s this ritual that we really love,” she said.
Dotted with flowering trees and visited by occasional deer, the cemetery is perhaps the quietest spot in the city, the hush interrupted every once in awhile by traffic from the streets nearby and the muffled sound of feet on damp grass. By summer nightfall, even these sounds have fallen away and Forest Hill is silent. But next time you walk home on Geddes Road at dusk, down the hill and past the wrought iron fence lining the graveyard, listen closely. Carried on the wind is the soft rustle of gossamer and chiffon, and maybe someone, flowers in hand, is straining her ears to the east for the closing lines of a sonnet.