Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is the highlight of every Rocky summer.
Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (MSIP) made its annual stop in Salmon, Idaho, last week with an outdoor production of The Tempest, complete with its small but ornate Elizabethan stage set. The weather was fair: one of our golden summer evenings with a whispering breeze through the cottonwoods and views of distant snow-streaked granite peaks. Such a pleasant contrast to the play’s opening storminess. (“Down with the topmast! Yare! lower, lower! Bring her to try with maincourse…A plague upon this howling!”) The Tempest was likely Shakespeare’s last play. It’s a bizarre story of exile with characters both human and fantastical interacting on an island, and was based on a shipwreck in Bermuda that the playwright heard about. Scholars also speculate that it’s Shakespeare’s great retrospective play, in which he craftily leaves hints in the text about his own life and work. And it contains such great lines as “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Now in its 37th summer touring season, MSIP continues to provide the region with world class theater. Based in Bozeman, Montana, it works out of Montana State University’s (MSU) College of Arts and Architecture, and may be America’s most hardworking theater troupe by virtue of the sheer geographical scope of its travels. This year in 74 performances between June 17 and September 6, it will log thousands of miles and play before 30,000 people in 59 different venues, mostly public parks in all the major cities and small towns of Montana (average population, 7,000), and adjacent corners of Wyoming and Idaho — even one date in the tiny farming-burg of Beach, North Dakota (“You sunburnt sicklemen, of August weary; Come hither from the furrow and be merry”). On the occasional rainy evening a performance might be held in a local high school gym or other appropriate indoor venue.
Every summer tour features two plays, performed on alternate nights with a few exceptions. This year they are the aforementioned The Tempest and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Last year it was Macbeth and All’s Well That Ends Well. I saw the lightly comic latter and was disappointed to miss the majestically bloody former. Some year’s the Shakespeare play alternates with another from the classic theater canon (Molière, Sheridan, Shaw, et al.). Over the last few years I’ve seen performed in Salmon and Cody, Wyoming, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Winter’s Tale, George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Molière’s Tartuffe and last year’s All’s Well That Ends Well. I don’t consider myself a theater snob, but that list is pretty good for a guy who lives 150 miles from the nearest Interstate highway, and who hasn’t walked down Broadway in 20 years. All thanks to MSIP.
This year the MSIP troupe consists of ten young actors mostly in their 20s (three are female), who during the rest of the year are associated with big city repertory companies such as the Seattle Shakespeare Company and Steppenwolf in Chicago. But for that grueling touring schedule their summer spent on the road with MSIP could be seen as a lark played in the spectacular milieu of the Northern Rockies. (“With your sedged crowns and ever-harmless looks, Leave your crisp channels and on this green land answer your summons.”) That backdrop does indeed make all the world a stage.
As in Shakespeare’s day, the actors play multiple roles with frequent costume changes, and do the stage setup and breakdown themselves. When the still-clapping crowd was dispersing after The Tempest, some schmoozed with audience members while others were already busy dismantling the stage and impromptu dressing room partitions, and loading it into a nearby truck and trailer.
Mark Kuntz, actor (he played Caliban) and Company Manager, thanked the approximately 200 people who attended the play, and then made what was obviously his nightly pitch for financial support for MSIP. “Our revels now are ended!” he happily exclaimed. And went on: “Damn the economy; full speed ahead!” and “At least gas prices are lower than last summer!” He gave out website information, and reminded us of the handy self-addressed donation envelope found in our programs. There was also a wooden donation box next to the stage and people sauntered by it on the way to the parking lot. I dropped $5 into the slot.
Thank you, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks. Please come back next summer, because when you do, “The air breathes upon us here most sweetly.”