Brilliant rays of afternoon sun cast an undulating pattern on the soft, wooded ground of the Heathdale exhibit in Nichols Arboretum. Among the dense bushes, rhododendron buds burst with florid tones. In this magical woodland, a fairy could appear behind a blossom at any moment.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Every Thursday through Sunday in June at 6:30 p.m.
Nichols Arboretum, Washington Heights entrance
$18; tickets on sale at 5:30 p.m. the day of the performance
Such is the feeling that gripped Shakespeare in the Arb Creative Director Kate Mendeloff 10 years ago when she began her first day of rehearsal on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” For the 10th anniversary of Shakespeare in the Arb, an annual production through the Residential College and Nichols Arboretum, Mendeloff returns to the Heathdale to enchant her audience with Shakespeare’s finest while celebrating the Arb.
The first two-week “Midsummer Night’s Dream” production in 2001 was meant to be a free one-time event after the Arb received an arts grant from Ford Motor Co. Mendeloff, also a RC drama instructor, directed a theatrical production with a portion of the grant. She chose to produce Shakespeare rather than a more modern playwright such as Chekhov because Shakespeare is more grandiose and less subtle — ideal for an outdoor location with a large audience. Shakespeare’s work also calls for various settings, highlighting the Arb’s variety.
The play was so popular that Mendeloff brought it back the following year and charged for tickets to fund the expenses. The show took off, popularizing the Arb to Ann Arbor residents, who had been more aware of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens before the two parks merged in 2004. From 2002 on, Mendeloff produced a different Shakespeare play each year, including “The Tempest” and “Twelfth Night.”
This year’s production of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” which Mendeloff staged almost exactly like her original, utilizes eight locations in the Arb. The audience of up to 150 people walks the Arb between each scene. Although the play begins and ends in the peony garden, Mendeloff tried to pick venues that are unusual and magical — not hard to do at the Arb.
“ ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is the perfect play for the Arb because it’s about how people are transformed by the power of nature,” Mendeloff said. “That’s how you feel when you go to the Arb — you change.”
Mendeloff and Production Manager Carol Gray, who has either acted in or produced nine of the 10 Shakespeare in the Arb productions, emphasized that nature helps direct the play.
“What we spend our early rehearsals doing is going to these places in the Arb and just exploring, playing, running up and down hills, climbing trees, finding interesting ways to work with the material in the setting,” Mendeloff said.
Both Mendeloff and Gray believe it’s vital to create an environment for the play, rather than just a stage. Action occurs all around, with fairies peeking out of surrounding trees and moving among the playgoers.
“The audience is really transported to this magical world in a way that in a theater it’s almost impossible to do,” said Gray, an LSA alumnus who played Helena in the original production and plays Titania this year. “You feel the grass underneath your feet, and you really feel like you could shut your eyes and be there.”
But as much as “Midsummer Night’s Dream” celebrates the Arb, this year’s production is more a celebration of the program’s 10-year run. The double-cast show will run four weekends rather than the normal three, and the play is, to a great extent, a re-creation of the first production.
Gray is joined by a variety of University alumni, now graduate students, who acted in previous Shakespeare in the Arb productions, including the first “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Mendeloff and Gray use many of the earthy and Elizabethan costumes designed by Roberta VanderMey 10 years ago. And Mendeloff kept her approach of using three actors per cast to play Puck, which involves more students and lends the show a spellbinding quality.
“I’m not trying to do a museum piece,” Mendeloff said. “But I think the people who saw it 10 years ago will come back and feel very comfortable. I didn’t see the point in trying to innovate for the sake of innovation when what we had was so wonderful.”
Indeed, Shakespeare in the Arb has become an Ann Arbor tradition largely because of the first two summers of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It primarily casts University students, but year-round Ann Arborites are the core audience. This year, the production put up tiny posters in Ann Arbor’s fabled fairy doors sprinkled across downtown.
“It (has) exceeded my expectations,” Gray said of Shakespeare in the Arb’s reputation in the community. “I think it (has) really grown to be something that’s this — Ann Arbor institution.”
The University also considers it to be an institution. The Office of the Provost funds Mendeloff to bring back the summer’s production for orientation weekend each September. Mendeloff considers every chance to produce in the Arb a treat.
“It’s such a privilege to be able to have access to this beautiful, beautiful place and to make a contribution to my community,” she said. “As a director, you’re creating tableaus, images, and I’m able to do it on this fantastic scale, which I could never do anywhere else.”