Back to Berkeley: A Guide to Bay Area Outdoor Theater Festivals

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday September 01, 2006

Though summer’s waning, one of its staples of performance spills over into the fall—outdoor theater. Traditionally, September and October feature the best weather of the year for coast and Bayside communities, the summer fog replaced by mellow warmth.  

In Berkeley, local favorite Shotgun Players’ annual plein air outing features an enjoyable original, Ragnarok—The Doom of the Gods, by Conrad Bishop & Elizabeth Fuller, which plays at 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 10 at John Hinkel Park, site of the old Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, in the hills of Berkeley. 

There you can sit in the terraced hillside amphitheater in a leafy glade, picnic and watch the bawdy, bloody Norse gods and their Mephistophelian trickster sidekick Loki prepare their “national security state” against the coming Last Day onslaught of The (red-nosed) Funny Ones, their primordial Frost Giant foes. Part pageant, part contemporized legend, and part burlesque. Admission’s free, with reserved seating for Shotgun members. There are food concessions.  


• CalShakes, as the California Shakespeare Theater’s popularly known, has an amphitheater tucked into the hills near Orinda, with a shuttle from BART, just the other side of the tunnel (or over Fish Ranch Road) from Berkeley. Through Sept. 3 they’re featuring Daniel Fish’s resetting of The Merchant of Venice into a modern, money-hungry, youthfully fashionable (and somewhat incestuous) international milieu, complete with Shylock bathing himself with play cash in a dumpster, techno-tunes and (at night-time performances) a liberal use of the video screens facing the four directions above the stage like townhall clockfaces. 

The closing show of the year, As You Like It, directed by Jonathan Moscone with music by Gina Leishman, featuring such troupers as Peter Callendar, James Carpenter, Hector Correa and Delia MacDougall. Concessions. Prices vary.  


• Woodminster Amphitheater, in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park, specializing in musicals, is presenting the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast until Sept. 10 (prices vary).  


• Continuing through Sept. 24 (7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday and Labor Day) at the Presidio Parade Ground in San Francisco, San Francisco Shakespeare presents a delightful staging of The Bard’s last great play, The Tempest, with longtime favorite Julian Lopez-Morillas as exiled duke and magician Prospero, who conjures up a storm to wreck his enemies on his desert isle, where they’re enchanted by such spirits Ariel (the sprightly Julia Motyka, also ingenue Miranda), meet the strange half-human monster Caliban (Daveed Diggs, also playing romantic lead Ferdinand), and carouse (the excellent clowning of Brian Herndon and Michael Ray Wisely, who double as the heavies). 

A truly charming collaboration by director Kenneth Kelleher, his cast and designers, making full use of excellent set, costumes, choreography—and music for The Bard’s exquisite songs that waft on the open air. Free admission; concessions. 


• The San Francisco Mime Troupe’s been putting on politically loaded agit-prop comedies in local parks since the ’60s. Their latest vehicle’s an excellent showcase of their various talents: Godfellas, the turgid tale of a passel of shy civics teachers, spurred into action by a referendum backed by an evil Syndicate for prayer in the schools, making their own movement of secular outrage (“Kiss my black heinie!” the battle cry of lead player Velina Brown), which threatens becoming an authoritarian antireligion, addicted to the bright lights of the doting media. 

A swinging band opens and accompanies the show, with many satirical songs, dances and hilarious celebrity impressions. At at various other Northern California venues through Oct 1. Free.  


• A San Francisco tradition takes place at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 10 in Sharon Meadow, Golden Gate Park, as San Francisco Opera presents Opera In The Park, the popular annual free plein air picnic of song, with arias and ensembles sung by local and visiting performers (and opera is truly theatrical performance) with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles. 


• In the North Bay, Marin Shakespeare Company, which for the past 17 seasons under the direction of Robert and Lesley Currier has revived the old Marin Shakespeare Festival of the ’60s and ’70s, follows an estimable King Lear and Alice in Wonderland with The Bard’s Comedy of Errors, Sept. 1-24, helmed by Marin director emeritus James Dunn (who also directs the annual Mountain Play), in the delightful setting of the Forest Meadows Amphitheater of Dominican University, right off Highway 101 (and near the Richmond Bridge), close to central San Rafael. Prices vary (there is a “pay what you will” performance). Concessions.  


• Nearby the Bay Area, critically acclaimed Santa Cruz Shakespeare plays As You Like it, King Lear and Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in repertory through Sept. 3. And in Monterey/Carmel, Pacific Rep performs the rarely-seen Shakespearean tragedy Timon of Athens, Beauty & The Beast and The Bard’s Measure for Measure in repertory, with closing dates ranging from Labor Day weekend till mid-October (with some shows at the lovely Forest Theatre in Carmel). Prices vary for both Central Coast companies. 


• Outside the Bay Area, two West Coast spots of pilgrimage for outdoor theater lovers, and drama aficionados generally, are Ashland, on Highway 5 in the mountains of southern Oregon, right over the California border north of Mt. Shasta, where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival presents Shakespeare’s Two Gentleman of Verona and The Winter’s Tale on the Elizabethan Stage, as well as a variety of older, modern and contemporary shows on theaters indoor and out, from Oscar Wilde and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Cyrano and Bus Stop, closing at different dates in October. The Old Globe in San Diego plays Midsummer NIght’s Dream, Othello and Titus Andronicus in repertory, with closing dates in September and October. Various prices for both companies.