Prepare yourself for a summer of passion. This month, the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival presents two comedies about love, sex and obsession: Freyda Thomas’ “The Gamester” and William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
“Passion is the uniting thread,” said Zoe Saba, the festival’s artistic director. “Everyone in these plays really lives their passion to the hilt. They follow it to their pleasure or peril.”
The county’s only outdoor theater festival, the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival will enjoy its second summer at the River Oaks Amphitheater in Paso Robles. The festival runs July 9 through Aug. 14 with alternating performances of both plays.
“There’s something for everyone,” said actress Janet Stipicevch, a festival regular
since 1991. “If they want love and romance or flat-out comedy, they’ve got it.”
Created in 1991, the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival spent stints at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School near Avila Beach. The festival lost its Avila Beach performance space in 2008 and moved last year to its current home on the grounds of River Oaks Hot Springs.
The 600-seat theater features a natural amphitheater and an oval-shaped concert stage on the banks of a large pond. Golden hills dotted with willow trees lie in the background, bordered by the green slopes of the River Oaks Golf Course.
“It truly was a blessing in disguise losing that space and moving to a new one,” Saba said of the change in venue. “North County is a wonderful place in the summertime in the evening.”
In fact, she said, 2009 was “the best season we’ve had to date,” thanks in part to a 20 percent increase in patronage.
This summer, the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival opens with “The Gamester,” a modern-day adaptation of Moliere contemporary Jean-Francois Regnard’s 1696 farce.
“It’s wildly fresh and funny,” said director Cindy Totten, a theater professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Set in Paris at the turn of the 17th century, “The Gamester” centers on Valere (Lopez), a handsome, charming young man torn between two powerful passions: his love for his virtuous fiancée, Angelique (San Luis Obispo Little Theatre teacher Heather McLeod), and his obsession with gambling.
Angelique, in turn, is enamored of the rigorous trappings of a morally righteous life. Her companions are equally obsessed— with interests ranging from sex to food to fashion.
“People become blind to what good they have in their life,” Stipicevich explained. “When you first fall in love it’s the big extreme and you can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Stipicevich plays Madame Securite, a wealthy widow who lends young men money in exchange for sexual favors. She doubles as the play’s emcee, providing plot exposition and sharing insights about each character’s idiosyncrasies.
“She’s just a hoot to play,” Stipicevich said of the merry widow. “She’s over-the-top, very naughty. … (And) she doesn’t have a bad bone in her body. She’s just someone who wants to have fun.”
According to Totten, “The Gamester” features larger-than-life characters, lush costumes and a clever script rich with rhyming couplets and allusions to Shakespeare plays such as “Hamlet,” “King Lear” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
The dialogue is so well-written, Totten said, “You almost forget that they’re speaking in verse. … It feels very contemporary.”
Beginning in the festival’s second weekend is “Twelfth Night,” one of Shakespeare’s most successful comedies. The topsy-turvy plot encompasses gender-bending disguises, mistaken identities, crazed relatives and twisted romantic trysts.
“It’s a play that can be enjoyed by everyone,” said Saba, who is directing “Twelfth Night.”
Shipwrecked on the shores of Ilaria and separated from her twin brother, Sebastian, Viola enters the service of Duke Orsino masquerading as a young page named Cesario.
Orsino is in love with Lady Olivia, who is still grieving the death of her father and brother, and decides to use his new page as an intermediary.
Olivia begins to have feelings for the handsome, eloquent messenger. Meanwhile, Viola falls in love with the Duke, who considers her his closest confidant.
CSU Bakersfield student Jess Boles plays Viola, while PCPA Theaterfest grad Tyler Lopez plays the Duke and Stipicevich plays Olivia. James Burkeen, who plays viola and violin, will provide live music during the performance.
With both plays, Totten said the challenge is to make centuries-old material accessible to modern-day audiences while plumbing the depths of physical and verbal comedy.
“That’s what we’re exploring this summer: How much fun can we have with this? What comic mileage can we discover?” Totten said.