Shakespeare Under the Stars is back, in person, on San Juan Island.
Island Stage Left theatre company re-opens to live audiences July 8-Aug. 8, with Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” The show runs Thursdays-Sundays at 8 p.m. on the outdoor stage at 1062 Wold Road.
COVID restrictions have made live theatre nearly impossible for the past year, even outdoors. But regulatory changes announced last week allow the show to go on. “We were still in a state of some uncertainty just a week ago,” said ISL stage director Helen Machin-Smith. “When I realized it, a huge wave of relief welled up – immediately followed by the usual terror of being responsible for making the show a success, with the added pressure of making it worthy of a celebratory return to gatherings with friends and audiences.”
Safety remains top priority: all cast and crew are fully vaccinated, and a seating area will be provided for audience members who want to maintain distance from those who are maskless.
The show is Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s wittiest comedy. “I love it after Covid because it’s got a happy ending,” said Machin-Smith. “It feels like a joyous play, after all – people learn from their mistakes and go on, the romantic cycle continues. It feels like a summer play.”
The story unfolds in a world emerging from wartime, eager for sunshine and laughter. Benedick, a returning military officer, engages in bouts of mocking repartee with Beatrice. They claim to hate each other. Meanwhile Claudio, a heroic junior officer, falls head over heels for Hero, a sweet, beautiful young heiress.
Beatrice and Benedick are among Shakespeare’s most popular comic lovers. Her scathing wit frightens away every man who approaches her, while he scorns women and mocks marriage. Any fool can see they’re right for each other. These are people you might meet in real life. Aside from the fact that they sometimes talk in verse, they’re perfectly contemporary.
“There’s a lovely balance in this play between seriousness, and comedy, and romantic love,” said Machin-Smith. “All Shakespeare comedies have all three elements, I just think they’re particularly well balanced in this one.”
A series of sly tricks – some well-intentioned, some thoroughly vicious – throw the characters into doubt and confusion. ISL co-founder Daniel Mayes plays Hero’s father, a man shaken to the core by false accusations against his daughter. Shakespeare piles deception on deception, the comedy increasingly darkened by how readily people will believe almost anything about each other.
That’s exactly what Machin-Smith, as a director, likes: “This play shows the characters’ faults, which we recognize as our own. Most people have been hurt in love, at one point or another; many people have been jealous; often we react to things without really knowing the truth.”
She has set the story in the English countryside, during the summer of 1919, at the end of World War I – and the Spanish flu pandemic. The costumes, music and manners of that era (think Downton Abbey) add atmosphere to the show.
The cast of 14 includes professional actors from all over the country. “The biggest challenge is always finding a cast,” Machin-Smith said. Being isolated on a small island for over two months isn’t for everyone. The pay is not high, and transportation here is difficult for those without cars. But when Machin-Smith offered actors their parts a few months ago, on the hope that Covid restrictions would loosen, most said yes promptly.
“They were just so thrilled and excited and ready to trot. We are extremely lucky this year, we have a wonderful group of people. They’re very supportive of each other.”
The financial gamble of preparing the show was immense: if the tiny theater company had embarked on a Shakespeare production, paying actors and crew, buying costumes and building the set, only to be canceled because of Covid, the consequence was obvious: “Stage Left goes belly up,” Machin-Smith said.
But as spring progressed, a show looked increasingly possible. “People were starting to get vaccinated. I looked at the rules and they made no sense if everyone was vaccinated. And I just thought, ‘Someone is going to see this and think this is crazy and change it.’ ”
The gamble paid off. Opening night is July 8. Asked for her favorite line from the play, Machin-Smith’s answer seems tailored to the birth of this production: “But then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.”
Much Ado About Nothing runs Thursdays through Sundays, July 8-August 8, at Island Stage Left, 1062 Wold Road, San Juan Island. 8pm. Bring blankets and/or warm clothes (even parkas) for when the sun goes down. Admission is free, donations gratefully accepted. CURTAIN TIME 8pm. www.islandstageleft.org (360) 378-5649
All ISL cast and crew are fully vaccinated. For updated COVID-related restrictions, call (360)378-1928 after July 1.