If there were any doubts about whether summer outdoor Shakespeare would work in sweltering Turlock, they were put to rest last year.
Nearly 3,000 people turned out to see "The Taming of the Shrew" at the California State University, Stanislaus, amphitheater over its three-weekend run last July — despite a record-breaking heat wave.
"The feedback was extraordinary," director Jere O'Donnell said. "People wrote letters saying they hoped Turlock would have something like that. People sent in donations."
O'Donnell expects a similar turnout to the university's second annual Shakespeare Festival, featuring the romantic comedy "As You Like It."
The show, which coincidentally also is being staged by Murphys Creek Theatre, stands out from Shakespeare's other works because of its strong ecological conservation point of view, O'Donnell said. Known as a "green play," it covers the conflict between urban life and nature and the benefits of vegetarianism.
"People in the Elizabethan times, their major goal in life was to get the heck out of the city and get into the country," O'Donnell said.
He added that the view has resonance in the modern era, particularly in the valley, where development is rapidly overtaking farmland.
One of the Bard's earlier works, the play centers on a young aristocratic woman exiled from her comfortable home and forced to live in the forest.
"I find her very intelligent, but she has a good sense of fun and playfulness," said Emily Gomes, who stars as Rosalind.
Disguised as a boy, Rosalind interacts with an array of engaging characters, including the attractive young man Orlando, a jester and a band of noblemen camping out in the woods like Robin Hood and his merry men.
The sets are a lavish affair, with trees, shrubbery, a waterfall and a pool, O'Donnell said. The costumes are in traditional Renaissance style with a few alterations to make them easier for the actors to wear.
Susan Brummet, who plays the shepherdess Audrey, said she is excited to be appearing in her second summer Shakespeare production at the university.
"It's a really great chance to take theater out of the norm," she said. "In this community where we haven't had anything like this, it's fun to see who shows up."
Last year's production attracted more families and children than seen at most university plays, she said. Many people brought picnic dinners and packed wine and cheese spreads.
Those who arrive early this year again will be treated to pre-show entertainment. It may include fire jugglers and fire eaters, O'Donnell said.
As for the heat, it's not as uncomfortable as one might expect because temperatures cool at sundown, O'Donnell said. Plus, the amphitheater is a lovely spot.
"That's a better place to be than anywhere else," he said. "You've got the trees and the breeze."
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2313.