Last Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, a set of actors made up of University faculty and students performed in Nichols Arboretum during the annual Shakespeare in the Arb.
The program’s director, Kate Mendeloff, a Residential College faculty member, spearheaded the tradition in 2001 by first directing an outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as part of a grant.
“I chose ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ because I thought it was so perfect for the arboretum. And it was a real hit, despite the weather. I mean, by our third performance, over 400 people showed up,” Mendeloff said.
The success of the first production led to a revival the following summer, which Mendeloff said received record crowds.
To commemorate the play that launched the annual performances, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is performed once every five years. Shakespeare in the Arb traditionally hosts comedies or romances such as “Twelfth Night”, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
According to Mendeloff, Shakespeare’s comedic plays are more suitable to the family-oriented crowds that are usually drawn to the productions. Furthermore, she said, they allow for more cross-sectional casting options — a benefit for Mendeloff’s more experimental renditions.
“I want to be able to offer a lot of roles to women and find plays where I can do cross-casting easily. (My goal is) to provide as many opportunities because there generally are more student actresses and they don’t get as many opportunities to perform,” said Mendeloff.
Mendeloff, as an all-inclusive director, was unconventional with casting choices. In Sunday’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” three performers played the role of Puck, the play’s mischievous elf. As they performed the role simultaneously, the actors divided up the lines onstage.
“I started that because the first time I did this I had three people who wanted to be Puck and I said, ‘Figure it out,’ ” Mendeloff said. “I liked the idea of multiple Pucks so much that I’ve had that every time. I can’t imagine one actor playing Puck.”
Other originalities in Mendeloff’s productions besides the increase of characters onstage includes strong feminist tones.
Elizabeth Wagner played the Queen of the Amazons in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“The play starts off with a physical fight between Hippolyta and Theseus,” she said. “This is probably the most stage combat I’ve done in a production.”
Mendeloff said the venue lent itself to this creativity in production because it is more versatile for comedic performances.
“The environment is really a player in every scene. If we’re in a scene and there’s a hill, someone is going to roll down it,” Mendeloff said.
However, she said, because of the unpredictability of outdoor performances, casting has increased throughout the years.
“All roles are double cast. That means that we have two of everything,” Mendeloff said. “Sometimes, we’re even triple-cast. Because things happen in the woods, you know. Ankles get twisted.”
The surrounding nature also allows for a less traditional production. Instead of maintaining a fixed stage, the company moves around the Arb to take advantage of the environmental perks.
“There’s a giant tree in the last scene and the Pucks sort of drape themselves over the branches. I’ve always sort of envisioned lanterns hanging over the leaves so we’re trying to do that this year,” said Associate Director Carol Gray, a School of Public Health faculty member.
Gray has been with Shakespeare in the Arb since its inception, and noted the changes in the production over the years.
She said while the core movement of the play is the same, every year the casts and their unique dynamic change.
“I think some of the beauty of Kate’s directing style is that she allows new moments to be found in a 400-year-old play in a 15-year-old production,” she said.