I Know It's Summer When 

Summer, to me, is a balancing act. Literally, an act of balancing a picnic dinner on my knees while seated in a short lawn chair and holding a glass of wine in my hand. It's all part of the charm of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

Since I was a kid, outdoor theater has been an integral part of my summer experience. It all started right here in Boise, when my parents would take our family to the Shakespeare Festival. It never much mattered what production we were going to see. What mattered was lounging on the lawn of the amphitheater (then in the location on Parkcenter Boulevard) and watching as the story came to life in front of me.

Those few hours each summer created a lifelong theater patron, as well as a special affinity for the local company.

That's why I was so thrilled last summer when, after a 12-year hiatus from Boise, I plopped myself down on the terraced lawn of the festival's amphitheater, some theater-geek friends at my side.

This summer's season, kicking off June 1, holds just as much promise, with a lineup consisting of Hay Fever, The Tempest, Arsenic and Old Lace, Measure for Measure and the musical, Little Shop of Horrors.

And before anyone lets out some mournful groan about how they hate Shakespeare, let me point out that only two of the five plays running this season are by the Bard.

Hay Fever, by Noel Coward, is a modern comedy in which a bohemian family treats a group of unsuspecting guests to a weekend at their country home and their own unique style of hospitality. The play runs June 1-July 27.

Arsenic and Old Lace, by Joseph Kesselring, is an old Broadway comedy, featuring two elderly sisters who feel the need to put lonely old men out of their misery, an uncle who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt, an escaped criminal, and a nephew who just wants to introduce his new fiancee to his family. The play runs July 6-Sept. 2.

The non-Shakespearean offerings are rounded out by Little Shop of Horrors, the popular Broadway musical. It's the tale of a down-on-his-luck boy whose world is turned upside down when he finds a mysterious, carnivorous plant. The show runs Sept. 7-29.

On a personal note, those who claim not to like Shakespeare really need to give it a try. There's a reason why the guy's work has managed not only to survive, but be celebrated, for hundreds of years: It's really, really good. Of course, those of you who already appreciate the virtues of the Bard will enjoy the final two festival offerings.

The Tempest, one of Shakespeare's most revered plays, tells the tale of Prospero, the unseated Duke of Milan who has been exiled on an island for 12 years with his daughter Miranda. Now a master magician, Prospero has the chance for revenge when a ship carrying those responsible for his banishment, wrecks on the shores of the island. The show runs June 15-Aug. 17.

Finally, Measure for Measure looks at what can happen when a quest for morality in society goes too far, after those in charge of cleaning up the city of Vienna get a little zealous in their duties. This show runs Aug. 3-Sept. 1.

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival is about more than its productions --albeit, every play I've seen at the festival has been wonderfully acted, beautifully set and superbly directed--it's about the whole experience.

From arrival at the amphitheater, just east of Boise near Lucky Peak Reservoir, to the final curtain call, there's an energy that's addictive.

The 760-seat amphitheater is in the middle of a wildlife and habitat reserve, giving the festival not only some amazing natural scenery to work with, but also creating an island within an urban center, and giving the players a place to suspend reality.

Seating at the amphitheater comes in four varieties, the first of which is reserved lawn seats. Maybe "seats" isn't the best word, but "rather reserved chunks of grass." The front of the house is a series of terraced, grassy steps, which can be reserved by row and number (just wide enough for a small lawn chair.) Theater-goers are invited to bring low lawn chairs or blankets to sit on across this area. Reserved lawn seats cost between $28 and $38, depending on the night, with some special prices for preview and family nights.

Here's a tip: If you don't have a low lawn chair, some are available for rent each night at the amphitheater for a small fee.

Just back from the terraced lawn are a row of boxes, each containing a table and seating for up to six. These reserved boxes cost $330 per show.

Behind the boxes are two final options, chairs and hillside lawn. The chairs are just that, rows of chairs gradually making their way uphill. Chair seats cost either $28 or $38, depending on the night, with some special pricing available.

Hillside lawn seats are general admission, and anyone who sits in this section is best off bringing a small lawn chair or blanket to sit on. While the seats are farthest back from the stage, they offer a great vantage point over everything that's going on. Lawn seats cost $20 or $28, depending on the night.

Regardless of where you sit, arrive early and bring a picnic dinner. Patrons are welcome to bring their own food and drink, and having the most desirable meal emerging from your picnic basket has become a bit of a competition among regulars. Gourmet meals and fine wine aren't uncommon, but neither are simple sandwiches.

Don't forget to bring dessert to enjoy during the 15-minute intermission.

For those who don't feel like cooking, the on-site Cafe Shakespeare offers deli items, full picnic dinners and desserts. These can be ordered in advance and picked up on the evening of the show. This handy little cafe is also a great place to grab a glass of wine or beer, or a good solution for a sudden, dire need of a decadent dessert. You can contact Cafe Shakespeare at 208-947-2067.

If the chance for a picnic dinner isn't enough to get you to the theater early, there's always the greenshow. Half an hour before curtain on Tuesdays through Saturdays, the Fool Squad takes to the lawn to have a little fun with the audience.

The amphitheater opens at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday nights for picnicking, with the greenshow at 7:30 p.m. and curtain at 8 p.m. on Sunday nights, the theater opens at 5:30 p.m. with curtain at 7 p.m. The schedule will change slightly Tuesday through Saturday nights, Sept. 7-29, when the theater opens at 5:30 p.m. and curtain moves up to 7:30 p.m., with no greenshow. Anyone arriving after the performance has begun will be seated at the discretion of the house manager.

Don't forget that the temperature can cool quickly, even during summer evenings along the river. Remember to dress appropriately and bring some extra layers.

Also, no children under 6 are allowed in the theater during performances with the exception of designated family nights, which boast an early curtain time and reduced prices. For these shows, children under 6 are admitted for free, and children ages 6-17 can get a junior ticket for $10.

This year is the first time individual and box tickets can be purchased online at www.idahoshakespeare.org. Tickets can also be purchased by calling the box office at 208-336-9221. All ticket sales are final (unless you exchange your ticket in advance of the show for a $2 fee), and shows will not be canceled prior to curtain due to weather. If a show is canceled at intermission, ticket-holders will be given a rain check for another performance.

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