“April ... hath put a spirit of youth in everything,” Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 98. He might as well have been writing about this year’s Shakespeare in Yosemite production.
With Friday’s premiere — attended by high school students from Mariposa and several children of park employees and El Portal residents and performed by a troupe of players ranging from those experienced and trained in Shakespeare to brand-new actors — the 420-year-old “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” seemed new again.
This is the second year Shakespeare in Yosemite has showcased UC Merced’s special relationship with the park and highlighted Earth Day and Shakespeare’s birthday with plays adapted for Yosemite and directed by UC Merced Professor Katherine Steele Brokaw and Professor Paul Prescott from the University of Warwick in Coventry, U.K., both Shakespeare scholars.
Shakespeare purists might object to the language that differed from The Bard’s, but they would protest too much — the incorporation of Merced, Yosemite, Firefall, lacewing, wilderness ranger and other familiar regional terms helped make this production special to Yosemite.
Besides including local references, Brokaw and Prescott emphasized a conservationist theme, making parts of costumes out of park refuse, and having Puck show disdain for single-use water bottles throughout the play.
When explaining how they see Shakespeare linked to conservation, Brokaw and Prescott have pointed out that Shakespeare grew up in rural England at a time when people were starting to exploit the planet’s natural resources at the same time “the Little Ice Age” was changing the climate.
“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,” Brokaw said. To make sure people had the opportunity to learn about and enjoy Shakespeare, a performance was held at the Wallace-Dutra Amphitheatre on campus earlier in the week, and some of the cast, including Glover, offered short scenes in assemblies at four Merced middle schools, too. The Yosemite weekend performances coincided with Yosemite's Earth Day festival, and together they drew crowds.
The 90-minute performance included a variety of modern songs adapted specifically for the show, and was introduced by Devon Glover, AKA the Sonnet Man — an internationally known hip-hop Shakespeare artist who got the audience going as he recited verbatim and then translated for modern ears Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18, all to a hip-hop beat. Glover taught the audience the song, and it didn’t take much coaxing to get them to clap and sing along.
“They really stretched the limits of creativity,” said Karen Amstutz, a National Park Service employee. “I thought it was hilarious and really well done.”
She didn’t know if her sons, 6 and 8, fully understood the play, but “they sure were paying attention,” she said. “It’s so nice to have this in the park, and it is so appropriate for Earth Day.”
The production was casual, with few props and costumes, but the audience had as much fun as the players clearly did. Anala Ver, 8, who knew the play from having read a children’s version, tried to help Puck during the show by pointing out where other characters were and picking up a dropped flower to hand back to the sprite. A puckish toddler wandered into scenes to act out his own version of the action and became a “forest sprite” two characters remarked on as they moved around him.
“I appreciated all the local references and the incorporation of modern songs,” Anala Ver’s mom, Nicole, said.
Anala had her own ideas about her favorite parts.
“Puck! Puck! Puck!” she said, when asked what she liked best.
The mischievous sprite was played by Lisa Wolpe, founder and artistic director of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company. Wolpe broke the theatrical fourth wall by drawing audience members into the action as she danced and flirted with them.
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 and Playhouse Merced and Merced Shakespeare Fest actors rounded out the cast and crew.
“This was wonderful. It’s such a treat to see Shakespeare in Yosemite,” said Adonia Ripple, a Yosemite Conservancy staff member who attended with her friend Lothlorien Stewart. “They did an amazing job of blending the sense of place and current issues.”