As William Shakespeare noted in As You Like It, "All the world's a stage," and no other time of year fulfills that statement as well as summer. Although productions of the Bard's plays happen here year-round, summer and Shakespeare seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps it's the communion of the literary with the great outdoors that makes Shakespeare al fresco irresistible. Or perhaps it's just another opportunity to nosh on hot dogs and slug beer. Whatever the motivation, gentle readers, get thee to a Shakespeare fest.
Stingy theatergoers can get some thespian entertainment at the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's free shows in four Bay Area parks -- bring your own picnic and chairs. The Merry Wives of Windsor plays all around the bay starting June 29, including a stint at Golden Gate Park from Sept. 1-30. More costly but also more comfortable are SFSF's indoor shows, including Tony Award-winning actor John Cullum (popularly known as bartender Holling Vincoeur on the television series Northern Exposure) playing the lead in King Lear. Catch him Sept. 15-Oct. 7 at the Gershwin Theater, 2350 Turk (at Masonic), S.F. Tickets are $20; call 392-4400 or visit www.sfshakes.org.
The youngest of the theater companies, Shakespeare at Stinson (formerly Shakespeare at the Beach) presents innovative takes on the Bard. This time around, the Montagues and the Capulets are recast as Sopranos-style mob families in a '50s version of Romeo and Juliet, set against a bebop soundtrack of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. All performances take place in SAS's 155-seat outdoor auditorium equipped with heat lamps. The Merry Wives of Windsor earns another turn here, while A Midsummer Night's Dream plays in a version set in '30s India, pitting the British empire against the Raj. Artistic Director Jeffrey Trottier heads this Marin-based company, which stages accessible plays by first-rate directors, including Richard Rossi, Kenneth Kelleher, and James Dunn. Romeo and Juliet runs July 14-Aug. 25; The Merry Wives of Windsor Sept. 1-Oct. 7; and Dream now through July 7 at Highway 1 at Calle Del Mar, Stinson Beach. Admission is $14-48; call 868-1115 or visit www. shakespeareatstinson.org.
The Marin Shakespeare Company offers audiences the chance to compare W.S.'s talents against those of another master of the stage. Two Shakespeare classics -- As You Like It and Hamlet -- go up against the commedia dell'arte masterpiece The Servant of Two Masters by Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. As You Like It runs July 6-Aug. 19; Hamlet Aug. 31- Sept. 29; and Servant July 13-Aug. 19 at Forest Meadows Amphitheater, Dominican College, 50 Acacia (at Grand), San Rafael. Admission is $12-20; call 499-4488 or visit www.marinshakespeare.org.
The most established of the companies is also the only one with no play this month. The California Shakespeare Festival serves up polished productions in the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, which boasts the same floor plan as London's Old Globe Shakespeare Theater. The 525-seat Bruns is a perfect place to experience Romeo and Juliet (Aug. 8-Sept. 2) or Twelfth Night (Sept. 12-Oct. 17) -- no seat is farther than 75 feet from the stage. Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 Gateway (off Highway 24), Berkeley. Tickets are $10-41; call (510) 548-9666 or visit www. calshakes.org. -- Lisa Hom