A bowl full of midsummer magic

by John Pixley

Vichyssoise. It’s cold potato and leek soup. But doesn’t vichyssoise sound so much more refined and elegant? Doesn’t vichyssoise sound fancy and exotic and all the more appropriate for a special occasion on a warm summer evening?

 That’s what I thought when I was growing up and my father made vichyssoise one year for my August 1 birthday dinner. After all, the French cold soup was his “specialty.” Actually, it was about the only dish he made at that time, so it really was exotic. The dinner also included my mother’s fresh peach pie with shortbread crust and peach glaze—my favorite.

 But the dinner was even more special. It was a picnic dinner with another family, a shared birthday celebration, as I recall. Not only that, but this elegant, al fresco dinner with my dad’s special vichyssoise was at the Greek Theater on the Pomona College campus.

 Talk about special. Talk about exotic. The Greek Theater was downright mysterious. This was long before the Seaver Theater, which is next to the Greek Theater, was built at the eastern end of Bonita Avenue. And that was some years before the Greek Theater was formally renovated and named the Frederic Sontag Greek Theater.

I’m not sure if, at the time, the Greek Theater was the Greek Theater. It may have been just called the greek theater, just a natural amphitheater that was part of “the wash” behind the Pomona College campus. Yes, there had been Fourth of July celebrations there in Claremont’s early years, but it was now abandoned. I remember there being a chain-link fence around it with a locked gate. I think our friend, who was a professor at Pomona, got the key. Or we broke in.

 Many years after this exotic evening, which may have ended with a nighttime swim at the Harvey Mudd College pool (my dad, who was a professor there, got that key) but still long before the theater was dedicated to the memory of Professor Sontag—who taught philosophy for years and was known to love theater—I went back to see a student production of Jesus Christ Superstar. A friend was playing keyboard in the band.

 The show was a bit rough and rudimentary, being done in the bright sunny afternoon, and it was hard to hear the singing over the band, especially from the guy who played Jesus. However, I was struck by how the dusty, natural bowl provided an appropriate backdrop for the biblical rock opera—and all the more so with it being done in the bright sun. Seeing Judas entering from and then exiting to the oak trees behind the stage was especially effective.

 I remember thinking that this was a great use of a terrific natural venue. Those students were definitely onto something. In the following years, especially after the renovation, I would go over to the Greek Theater and imagine the possibilities. I would sometimes take friends, and they would agree the the amphlitheater was beautiful and that it was too bad that it was not being used.

 Sure, I knew that the theater was used for student parties and probably other college and frat-like events, but why weren’t more plays being done there?  After all, it is a theater—now named for a lover of theater. What about concerts? And why couldn’t the community use it during the summer when it was not being used (at all) by the college and when it would be lovely to see plays and concerts at this outdoor theater on warm evenings?

  So I was thrilled to see Ophelia’s Jump, a two-year-old Claremont-based theater company that has been using various venues in the area until it finds a home of its own, putting on a Shakespeare festival featuring two plays this summer at the Greek Theater.  The Midsummer Shakespeare Festival, with the theme of “Summer of Love and War” and featuring The Merry Wives of Windsor and Macbeth in repertory, was another venture by Ophelia’s Jump utilizing the facilities at Pomona College. It followed an exciting, innovative production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice in Seaver Theater in late May.

 I was away during the first weekend of the July 17-27 festival and was very happy to be able to see both plays during the second weekend. Although this was a first-time venture and not very elaborate, it was a treat to see how professionally done it was and that it wasn’t unlike many established Shakespeare Festivals I have attended. It was nice to see people there early to enjoy the displays about the plays and the tables featuring face-painting and couplet-writing. And, of course, there was a pre-show, provided by a Shakespearean improv group from Fullerton called The Mechanicals (referencing A Midsummer Night’s Dream) on the evenings I was there.

But, as the Bard would say, the plays were the thing, and they very much were worthy of the spotlights (yes, it was terrific to see this theater decked out with a nice set of lights for an evening event). Yes, the plays couldn’t be more different—one being a fluffy comic romp, the other a grisly killing-spree drama—but that made it all the more fascinating that both productions shared the 1960s theme if not setting. While Merry Wives, directed by Beatrice Casagran, who amazingly enough also played Lady Macbeth, had fun with colorful period costumes and props, Macbeth, directed by Kevin Slay, went to town with the theme of civil unrest and political corruption, as when protesters carried signs in support of Banquo. Also fascinating was the use of 1960s rock music, with Merry Wives featuring fun, light-hearted tunes by such groups as the Byrds and Macbeth featuring darker music by the Doors, Led Zeppelin and the like.

 Also, as with any group of plays done in repertory,  it was interesting and fun to see actors playing vastly different roles in different plays. There were plenty of examples of this in these productions. I will just mention Jedd Johnson, returning from Eurydice, who was a hoot as Master Ford in Merry Wives and chilling as Lord Macbeth.

 The cement seating in the  amphlitheater may not have been inviting, especially for nearly three hours,  but I noticed that a number of people brought cushions and folding seats, and a few brought chairs to sit in on the lawn above. The verdant venue was also used in exciting ways, such as when the troops in Macbeth appeared, like Judas, from the trees at the back of the stage. I can imagine Puck and the other night-time fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream appearing from those trees.

 It looks like we’ll have the chance to see this.  Ophelia’s Jump plans to make this venture at the Greek Theater an annual event. I’m wondering if a summer music festival, perhaps featuring the Claremont Symphony Orchestra, could be a possibility. This may be the stuff of dreams, but no more than my dad’s vichyssoise and Ophelia’s Jump.

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