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Fairies of Forest Park

The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival conjures up A Midsummer Night's Dream


Sidle up to Louis IX and his horse at the top of Art Hill. Face the way they face. Then turn your head as you'd turn your sled, down the hill and to the right.

Ask not wherefore art thou. This is the site of the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis' natural amphitheater, a shelf of grass next to a clutch of spooky trees, where the local nonprofit board for the Bard presents A Midsummer Night's Dream under the stars.

Free of charge, and free from boundaries, the open-air plot affords the ensemble cast a chance to get down to earth with Shakespeare. Even if you know A Midsummer Night's Dream better than your kitchen's clock face, you might see it through a new lens as it's presented by the Shakespeare Festival.

"It's not often that you get to see it done outside, where it really fits," says Lana Pepper, managing director of the festival. "It is the play to do outside, because it takes place in a forest. Presenting it outside, you can use the space. You can have the fairies moving around more than just in the middle of a stage. We have big trees all around, and it just seems like they're all part of the set.

"And it's good for a large crowd, like we have, because it's a play that everybody can lean back and relax and enjoy. You don't have to strain your brain for this one."

Staging a well-known work by the earth's most famous playwright poses pressure for any company. But the cast of local and transported players, under the direction of Eleanor Holdridge and producing director Robert Townsend, bring a long background in Shakespeare to the task.

"A production such as this comes with baggage, because the audience has expectations," Pepper says. "They often think it should be done the way they saw it the last time, and if it's different, they think maybe it's not right. It's true that Shakespeare can be presented in different ways, but you have to be true to the language."

For those saved by Cliff Notes in school, who'd be lost in Romeo and Juliet if they didn't know West Side Story, the Shakespeare Festival has prepared a kind of cheat sheet. Show up early to catch one of the miniplays, two twenty-minute bits of irreverence, which will walk you through the plot of the full-length play.

"It's called 'A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Wink of an Eye,'" says Pepper. "It's like a condensed version and a kind of slapstick explaining the plot and character of the main play. It's very popular with children. And we also have a lecture for adults: We try to get someone from each university in the area to come on a different night to talk about the play -- its history, how it was written, its context -- to offer an explanation of what we'll be seeing."

To bring a blanket, or to bring a lawn chair. That is the question.

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