The Montford Park Players are just one of those features. They started out at Montford Park (one of Asheville’s community parks, and the source of their name) in 1973, and they’ve been staging Shakespeare-in-the-park during summer evenings ever since. The plays now take place in Hazel Robinson Amphitheater (named for the group’s founder), which is a small outdoor venue set into a grassy hillside in the community of Montford. The terraced seating area means all seats are good ones, and the stage itself is a two-story affair with multiple entrances and exits available for quick changes of scenes and characters.
I went to see As You Like It recently, which is one of my favorite Shakespearian plays and the first show ever mounted by MPP more than 35 years ago. It’s a romantic comedy in which half the characters are banished into Forest of Arden and the other half end up in search of them, disguised as someone or something other than who they are. Dukes and fools and servants and shepherds and star-crossed lovers, all floundering around in the woods, trying to make sense of things. That’s Shakespeare at his best!
This performance was a good one; I knew at least one of the cast members, and as he had several different roles, it was interesting to see who he turned out to be in each scene. The staging was simple: a dark stone and nighttime sky on the top level backed up most of the scenes that weren’t in the Forest of Arden (plus a Dali-esque clock melting down the backdrop), while the lower level was hung with layers of greenery and flowers to suggest a woodland environment.
Everything worked out for a happy ending, of course, which is another reason I like this play. More singing and dancing and dallying; less weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Here are my suggestions for enjoying an evening with the Montford Park Players:
1) Bring a picnic. Everyone does it, and it adds to the festivities. I’ve seen everything from fast food bags to Tupperware tubs of homemade fare to elaborate wicker baskets full of linens and glasses and roast pheasant (or some such fancy fixings). And don’t forget your beverage of choice, be it a freshly-filled Nalgene water bottle or that Cabernet you’ve been saving for a special occasion–just remember to bring the corkscrew!
2) Bring a chair. It’s perfectly acceptable to sit on the ground or on the edge of each terraced level, but if you’re past a certain age and you know your feet fall asleep with little encouragement, make sure you toss a camp chair–preferably the kind with built-in mesh cupholders in the armrests–or two in the trunk along with your picnic. (You’ll enjoy the show more if you’re feet aren’t singing “Ave Maria” from lack of circulation.)
3) Bring some bucks. The shows are always free, but donations make a difference and help the production stay free for those who truly can’t afford it. The actors and stagehands will pass the hat during intermission, and you can toss in what you like.
4) It’s an outdoor show in a hillside amphitheater. Wear comfortable shoes (you have to walk in from the parking area) and be aware of mosquitoes (it’s an outdoor show in the summer). If you’re going to Off! yourself, maybe do it before digging into your fried chicken and potato salad. Be courteous to your neighbors, as well. Nobody wants DEET with their dinner.
5) Tell a friend. Don’t keep the good news to yourself; let your friends and co-workers know about the Montford Park Players and the tradition of Shakespeare on summer evenings in Asheville!
The Montford Park Players website (www.montfordparkplayers.org) can can give you all the specific info you need to choose a performance, find the amphitheater, and brush up on the history of this fascinating non-profit organization. Here’s a YouTube clip, as well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvKI0KFEXJk.
Sidebar: About seven years ago, a friend was involved with MPP’s production of “the Scottish play”*–another of my favorites. I painted standards (a deer and a wolf, I think?) for the castle battlements; turned ordinary plastic tumblers into fake gold fit for a king; glued jewels on crowns; and futzed around with fake blood. Good times!
*On a superstitious note, it’s considered bad luck to mention the name Mac**th when you’re performing it, so it’s always referred to as “the Scottish play.”
In honor of William Shakespeare, here are a few photos of his hometown of Stratford that I took in 2004: