The Bard of Ovan hath returned not to the park but UM’s Oval for Montana Shakespeare in the Park’s last two plays of its 49th season. Crowds gathered on campus with lawn chairs, blankets and full glasses of wine to watch Shakespearan tragedy, romance and a man wearing a makeshift donkey mask ponder what it is to be “an ass.” 

MSIP performed“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on Tuesday, Sept. 8 and “Cymbeline” on Wednesday, Sep. 9. For those who didn’t take high school literature classes, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a comedy about love, imagination, patriarchy and magical fairies. “Cymbeline” is a little less cut and dry, but it’s traditionally classified as a tragedy about forgiveness.

Kevin Asselin, MSIP’s executive artistic director, said the plays were chosen for the program because of their differences in popularity and theme.  

“Plays like ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’ certainly have much more popular titles,” Asselin said. “So to pair it with a play that’s lesser-known is a good way to introduce our audiences to more of Shakespeare’s work.” 

Shakespeare’s analogy of love never running “smooth” could still be the ongoing theme through both plays. There are plenty of betrayals, gender swaps, facades and suicidal lovers to remind you that “Cymbeline” is just  as Shakespearan as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” 

But crowds didn’t gather for the drama or comedy alone. After a full year of hiatus due to COVID-19, both the actors and audience were eager to return to their summer tradition of Shakespeare in the park.  

“I’ve been coming to Shakespeare in the Park since I was nine years old,” said Abigail Carey, an audience member. “It’s nice to see them again, especially after a year off.” 

Pre-pandemic, MSIP spent every summer travelling to perform at over 65 rural communities for free across Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. This year MSIP continued the tradition, packing up its stage in a 24-foot trailer to hit the road from mid-June to early September. With a total cast of eight, MSIP actors hold multiple jobs on top of playing multiple roles — including deconstructing and reconstructing a stage. 

Riley O’Toole, an actor on his seventh tour and fourth summer with MSIP, said the transition is particularly difficult at the start, but that the cast adapts quickly to moving constantly.    

“We all joke that we’re construction workers,” said O’Toole. “At the beginning, it takes about three hours to set up the stage. By the end of the season we can do it in one and a half.” 

Despite the strain, O’Toole said the work is rewarding because it brings Shakespeare to rural communities across Montana and other neighboring states. He also said small crowds enable actors to form more intimate connections with the audience members. They wouldn’t get the same experience in an urban theatre. 

MSIP also reaches out to Montana communities through its Shakespeare in the Schools Program. Now working with over 50 high schools across three states, Asselin said the curriculum is geared toward issues related to gender studies, cross-curricular fashion and women’s-equality, rather than just stage acting. Asselin said that the plays MSIP chooses to reach also dictate the topic of study. 

“The issue of women’s rights and a more powerful feminist approach is quite apparent in the plays,” Asselin said. “And so the curriculum is really being drafted around those topics. We’re always trying to draw a parallel.” 

Now at the end of their Summer 2021 tour, MSIP actors said they’re relieved the season is over, but that they’ll miss performing. Rachel Cendrick, an MSIP actor on her first season, said she will particularly miss playing the comic relief, Cadwal, in “Cymbeline.” 

“It’s the most exhausting and most rewarding thing I’ve done,” Cendrick said. “I love it.”