Amphitheater transforms for magical performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream

Moments before the proverbial curtain was to rise on this year’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” something seemed amiss. There were no props in sight, no backdrop, no dimming of the lights. Audience members stared down the sloping hill of the Tisbury Amphitheater at the empty, grass-stamped clearing that was to serve as a stage.

A call went out to turn off cell phones. The performance would be going ahead as scheduled — but how? An answer came in the form of dancing fairies first on the scene: The show would rely on the talent of its performers and a host of ingenuity in order to turn nature alone into an abundant set.

From out of actual woodland wings, pairs of would-be brides and grooms spent the 90-minute performance in chase. Fairies flounced and the “rude mechanicals” (laborers turned actors in “Pyramus and Thisbe,” a play-within-a-play) bellowed and bounded down steep paths, doing justice to William Shakespeare’s tale of two couples whose romantic entanglements become further confused when they enter the forest known as Fairyland. There, the impish fairy Puck, played with agility by Laurel Johnson, spreads spells and mayhem, turning lovers and friends into foes and back again.

For the seasoned Amphitheater attendee, the outdoor experience is likely a familiar one. Each year the Playhouse produces a Shakespeare work on the all-but-hidden stage at Tashmoo Overlook. But this year’s selection of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — performed at 5 pm every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday through August 15 — is particularly suited to its location, says Vineyard Playhouse Artistic Director MJ Bruder Munafo.

“The Tisbury Amphitheater is the absolute perfect setting for this play,” she says. “The rustic woodlands, it is the natural world of the fairies! None of Shakespeare’s plays fits more perfectly than ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.”

Under Ms. Munafo’s guidance, the stage has been transformed into a real-life jungle gym for the wily Puck, who traipses from tree to tree; a lush background for Chrysal Parrot’s excellent, colorful costumes; and a serene foil to the antics of the mechanicals, led by the hilarious Jon Ryan, whose Nick Bottom brays as well as he boasts.

“It is a great show for all ages,” says Ms. Munafo, who stresses that it is not exclusively a children’s production.

Indeed, the annual Shakespeare productions have been known to draw crowds of families and couples on dates, Islanders and visitors alike. Many arrive with bug spray, picnic dinners, and folding chairs or blankets to improve upon the built-in bench seating. “It looks like such a romantic evening,” says actress Eliza McKelway (Peaseblossom), of the couples she has seen enjoying the outdoor show with a bottle of wine.

“The sooner people come, the better,” says Playhouse veteran Christopher Kann (Peter Quince), who notes that toward the end of past year’s runs, the theater has reached capacity and people have been turned away.

The Amphitheater poses a unique set of challenges, making difficult work for the actors. Passing cars and planes can dampen the loudest of voices. Rain can shut down a show. There’s no backstage: to cue entrances a stage manager, standing at the top of the hill overlooking the stadium-style seating, waves a giant skull and crossbones flag. As for the hazards of hanging out in trees — well, the scrapes and bug bites on Puck’s legs attest to that.

It’s a testament to the actors’ and director’s labor of love that the particulars of transforming Tashmoo into Fairyland go largely unnoticed by the audience, who on a recent night seemed enamored by the high-quality, natural-theater experience. They laughed loudly as Island natives Mr. Ryan and Duncan MacMullan (Snout) ended the show with their performance of a play within the play. The sun still shining, the bugs at bay, and the day’s heat subsided, the duo proved that a few hours spent enjoying Fairyland ‘s entertainment was a fine way to while away a midsummer night.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Thurs.–Sat., 5 pm, Tisbury Amphitheater, Vineyard Haven. Through Aug. 15. $15; $10 children. vineyardplayhouse.org.

Vanessa Czarnecki, a 2006 graduate of Boston University, is a freelance writer living in Chilmark. She was the managing editor of the Boston Phoenix for the past four years.