Joseph Papp started it all in 1954: the first big-city, outdoor Shakespeare performances of note. The New York Shakespeare Festival grew into an essential component of a Manhattan summer and an entertainment empire in its own right, throwing off everything from CBS-TV productions of Shakespeare in the early 70's to hit Broadway musicals like "A Chorus Line" and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."
Central Park Shakespeare is the granddaddy of outdoor summer Shakespeare performances in the eastern United States, and it's a granddaddy with many descendants. In the last 50 or 60 years, many other summer Shakespeare performances have sprung up in American cities large and small. (For some reason, outdoor summer theater is almost always synonymous with Shakespeare. Well, since most of us would call him the greatest playwright of all, perhaps that's appropriate.)
Rochester's outdoor Shakespeare history begins in 1997 with a Highland Park presentation of "Much Ado About Nothing" directed by Marcy Gamzon. Free summer Shakespeare productions in Highland Park Bowl immediately became a tradition. Shakespeare among the greenery and fireflies of Highland Park Bowl — and accompanied by the occasional motorcycle backfiring or plane flying overhead — quickly became a popular part of Rochester summers.
In its nearly two decades, the Shakespeare Players (teamed up with the Monroe County Parks Department) have worked through a good chunk of the Bard's output, concentrating on the more popular plays. Last year's was "Twelfth Night"; this summer it is another of Shakespeare's most popular comedies: "A Midsummer Night's Dream", to be performed the first two weeks of July in this appropriately vernal setting.
This production should be a unique one. The production is being directed by Luanne Davis Haggerty, a staff member in the theater department of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and is double cast, with a voicing actor and a signing (American Sign Language) actor assigned to every role, including the fairies, who sign among themselves with their lines voiced by other actors. This is standard performing procedure for deaf theater like NTID, of course, but it seems to be first for a production by a "regular" Shakespeare company, according to Shakespeare Players director Peter Scribner.
Upstate New York also is home to other summer Shakespeare performances. The Syracuse Shakespeare Festival offers "Measure for Measure" in June and "Twelfth Night" in August (Syrsf.org). Buffalo's Shakespeare in Delaware Park presents "Henry V" from June 19 through July 13 and "The Comedy of Errors" from July 24 through August 17 (Shakespeareindelawarepark.org). At the Endicott Performing Arts Center near Binghamton, you can enjoy a smorgasbord of Shakespearean love scenes playing from August 15 to August 18. They're all outdoors and they're all free (Endicottarts.com).
If you'd like a change from Shakespeare, but hanker for something equally grand, you can also find it in Buffalo, where you can take in Against the Grain Festival's ambitious outdoor production of Goethe's vast drama "Faust", adapted by Neil Wechsler. The great German writer's story of the rise and fall of Western civilization, playing from July 22 to August 3, will be set among the abandoned grain elevators of Buffalo's Silo City and will use performers from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Toronto (Atgfestival.org)
Blackfriars Theatre, July 11-20: "Nunsense." Blackfriars Theatre, 795 E. Main St. 454-1260, Bftix.org.
Black Sheep Theatre Coalition, July 8-26: "Coming Out at Caffé Cino." Black Sheep Theatre, Suite D313, Village Gate Square, 274 N. Goodman St. 861-4816, Blacksheeptheatre.org.
Bristol Valley Theater, June 12-22: "Oh, Coward!"; June 26-July 6: "Next Fall"; July 10-20: "Deathtrap"; July 24-August 3: "Les Misérables"; August 7-17: "What the Butler Saw"; July 29-August 15: "The Princess and the Pauper." 151 S. Main St. in Naples, NY. 374-6318, Bvtnaples.org.
Downstairs Cabaret, June 6-18: "The Moon is Made of Gold: Songs about Everything under the Moon," with D.C. Anderson; June 12-15: "The Accidental Hero"; June 21-22: "Jim Van Slyke — The Sedaka Show"; July 4-20: "He Wrote Good Songs"; beginning July 10: "Rent." 20 Windsor St. 325-4370, Downstairscabaret.org.
Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, May 25-September 9: "Menopause: The Musical"; June 4-July 2: "Mary Poppins"; June 19-August 30: "The Pitch: 10 New Musicals in 10 Weeks"; July 9-30: "Damn Yankees"; August 6-27: "On the Town"; September 3-24: "The Will Rogers Follies"; October 1 -18: "Church Basement Ladies: The Last Potluck Supper." 17 William St, Auburn, NY. 315-255-1305, Fingerlakesmtf.com.
Geva Theatre Center, July 9-27: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Geva Theatre, 75 Woodbury Blvd. 232-1366, Gevatheatre.org.
Glimmerglass Festival, July 11-August 23: Puccini's "Madama Butterfly"; July 12-August 22: Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel"; July 19-August 22: Richard Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos"; July 20-August 24: Tobias Picker's "An American Tragedy." 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, NY. 607-547-2255, Glimmerglass.org.
JCC CenterStage, July 19-27: "Hairspray." Jewish Community Center, 1200 Edgewood Avenue, 461-2000, Jccrochester.org.
MuCCC (Multi-Use Community Cultural Center), June 5-14: "Hedda Gabler"; June 27: "'Moses' and 'The King'"; June 28: Mary Wojciechowski Sings Fred Astaire; July 5: "Independently Funny" with Polite Ink.; July 11-12: "Overcoming Andromeda"; July 18-19: "Cordaro World: A Call to Adventure"; August 1-9: "The Kingdom Next to Fid"; August 14-23: "The True and Tragic Life and Death of Good King Richard III"; August 23: Polite Ink. Anniversary Show; September 4-7: "The Philanderer"; September 11-13: "The Pillowman." 142 Atlantic Avenue, Muccc.org.
Pittsford Musicals, June 20, 21, 27, 28:"A Little Night Music". Panara Theater, Rochester institute of Technology, 52 Lomb Memorial Drive. 586-1500, Pittsfordmusicals.org.
Rochester Association of Performing Arts, June 5, 6, 7: "Clue: The Musical" June 12-22: "Expedition to Death"; July 18-26: "A Chorus Line." RAPA Playhouse, 727 E. Main Street, 325-3366, Rapatheatre.org.
RAPA Kodak Summer Series, Finger Lakes Music Theatre Festival productions performed at Kodak Performing Arts Center. July 8-18: "Mary Poppins"; August 5-10: "Damn Yankees"; September 2-7: "On the Town"; September 30-October 5: "The Will Rogers Follies." Kodak Performing Arts Center, W. Ridge Road. 325-3366, Rapatheatre.org.
Rochester Shakespeare Players, July 5-19: Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Highland Park Bowl, 1200 South Avenue. Rochestercommunityplayers.org.