With COVID-19 scrapping the original plans for this year's St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, organizers got seriously creative. - NICHOLAS COULTER

The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival celebrated the opening night of its twentieth season on Wednesday with an open-air presentation of art, music and poetry interpreting A Midsummer Night’s Dream and taking the journey of its characters into a magical fairy woods. 

The self-guided tour is billed as A Late Summer Night’s Stroll through Forest Park. Along the path are fourteen amazing twelve-foot high arches created by selected Painted Black STL artists, depicting different parts of the play and serving as venues for live performances. Quotes from the play can be found inside the arches along the path, adding to the interactive experience of the tour. A map clearly marks the way between arch venues and an audio track is aligned with the performances at each numbered arch to assist with continuity of the plot. Both can be accessed at stlshakes.org

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Naturally, the novel presentation was born of necessity. The festival’s main stage performance was originally scheduled to be Much Ado About Nothing, but as with most things this year, it was postponed due to the pandemic. 

Colorful arches designed by local artists serve as venues for performances throughout a self-guided tour through the park. - NICHOLAS COULTER

Tom Ridgely, producing artistic director of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, worked with the St. Louis Health Department to develop COVID-19 safety guidelines that include social distancing and mask requirements, along with online pre-registration for small tour groups of less than ten. Pre-set groups can’t be changed or be added to, and family groups are suggested. 

The first arch was designed and painted by Jessie Donovan. The stage is set for a royal wedding. Subplots begin to emerge of lovers, their desires and the complications that ensue. Actors from Shakespeare Squadron, a student branch of the Shakespeare Festival, handled this all-important introductory venue. 

Then, as the lovers elope into an enchanted wood, we pass the second arch — created by Eugenia Alexander — and we experience the amazing Opera Theatre of St. Louis singers Leann Schuering and Gina Malone. The third arch was designed and painted by Nicholaus Lawery. Here, two actors — Katy Keating and Alicen Moser from Poor Monsters, an experimental theater company that creates new works inspired by Shakespeare — define the secretive bond of friends. 

The pathway to each scene is clearly marked throughout. - NICHOLAS COULTER

We then venture along the well-marked path deep into the woods to see the fairy wood dancers, and become privy to the misguided plan of the fairy king to match the lovers. The Big Muddy Dance Company handles this scene beautifully. This venue is marked by the fourth arch design, created by Tielere Cheatem. As we continue our tour we see the balance of power between players and fairies change. Christina Yancy and Brian McKinley of the Black Rep portray the scene with finesse beneath arch five, created by Kyla Hawkins. 

As we move through the next four arches the plot advances quickly — in keeping, these arches are placed in close proximity to one another. A series of magical missteps provide comic relief throughout and bring us to a point where a mischievous fairy tries to resolve all the romantic pairings so that things can return to normal. Consuming Kinetics Dance Company performs at both arch six (created by Sherelle Speed) and arch seven (designed by BriLynn Asia). Circus Flora and Ten Directions provide comic relief at arch eight, designed by Tyler Harris, as a canoe scene advances us along the path. 

The production even makes use of Forest Park's waterways. - NICHOLAS COULTER

The fairy mischief continues as Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble — featuring Rachel Tibbets, Ellie Schwetye, Eleanor Humphrey, Taleesha Caturah and Rae Davis — portray an amorous awakening at arch nine, designed by Ryean Clark. We arrive to the sounds of Jazz St. Louis — featuring Benjamin Paille, Kendrick Smith, Bernard Taylor and Micah Walker — under arch ten, created by N’Dea Collins-Whitfield, followed by character actor Laura Coppinger at arch eleven, designed by Taylor Deed. 

As all the couples are reunited, we arrive at arch twelve, designed and painted by LaShawnda Smith, and a performance by Mo Burns of the Improv Shop. This all takes us to arch thirteen, designed and painted by Brock Seals to represent the uniting of the couples in marriage. “I looked at the parties as two different colors/shades,” Seals explains. “One side has blue shades and the red shades represent the other party.”  The colors meet in the center under the arch that reads “most happy hour.” 

Artist Brock Seals explains the symbolism of the arch he designed. - NICHOLAS COULTER

It is the setting for a triple wedding, set to the music of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” played on violin by Ruth Christopher of the Preparatory Program of the Community Music School at Webster University. As the self-guided tour heads to the final arch, created by Dee Drenning, the play’s finale is delivered by the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and features Britteny Henry, Mary Heyl, Carl Overly Jr. and Michael Tran. 

As the sun sets over the Grand Basin we are left to ponder the experience of a truly innovative, artful and enriching experience — one spotlighting numerous local arts organizations and allowing their talents to thrive safely, even during these days of limited group activities and a global pandemic. 

The festival is free to all and runs through September 6. For online reservations visit stlshakes.org and select a waiting list date for your group. Click through to the next page for more photos from the performance.