Starting Friday evening, Four County Players will be sweeping audience members from the Piedmont region of Virginia to the Piedmont of Italy through a one-time return to the picturesque Barboursville Ruins.
Surrounded by the vines and vistas of Barboursville Vineyards, audiences can soak in an Italian staycation vibe during a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that’ll revive the outdoor Shakespeare at the Ruins series for one summer. Director Lydia Underwood Horan has set the production of William Shakespeare’s magical work in 19th-century Italy.
There will be Italian arias in the air during picnic time before the performances, and a band will perform Italian folk music throughout the show, Horan said. The choice of the Italian Piedmont is an affectionate nod to Barboursville Vineyards winemaker Luca Paschina, who stepped forward to offer the Ruins as a backdrop for Four County’s summer production after construction began on the community theater’s long-awaited backstage space.
“It’s a shout-out to the winery,” Horan said.
Shakespeare at the Ruins presented outdoor productions of the Bard’s mainstays from 1990 to 2006. It ended its run to be mindful of its historic setting — the ruins of Gov. James Barbour’s mansion, a Thomas Jefferson design that was destroyed by a Christmas Day fire in 1884. Wear and tear on the property had begun to take its toll, as thousands of people were turning out to see the plays.
Picnicking on the property was a popular aspect of the Shakespeare at the Ruins experience, and this year, audiences members will have three choices.
Packing picnics to bring from home the traditional way is fine, but if you don’t feel like cooking, two new choices await. Fans can call Palladio Restaurant at Barboursville Vineyards in advance and reserve picnic baskets to pick up the night of the show. And if serendipity fuels a last-minute gathering with friends to catch the show, local food trucks will be on hand each night for convenient noshing.
Local fans first saw “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Ruins in the series’ first season in 1990, and again in 1998 and 2005. The penultimate Ruins production was followed with an appropriate swan song in 2006: “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
The winery invited the community theater over to perform this year because construction is underway on a backstage construction project that will give creative teams indoor space for building sets and actors dressing rooms and ample wings for waiting in between entrances. “The Savannah Sipping Society” will open Oct. 11 in Four County’s Cellar space; Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” which will run from Nov. 22 to Dec. 15, will be the first show in the Mainstage space after construction concludes in time for the holiday production.
If it seems as if Horan leads the cast with a confident hand, it’s because she has spent precious time in the enchanted forest. In addition to directing the play for Shakespeare at the Ruins before, she directs a production each year with fifth-graders at Tandem Friends School.
“This production will be my 20th production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’’’ she said. “It is my favorite play for many reasons. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays.”
Some viewers enjoy the backfiring spells that get out of hand, the humorous bickering and the coexistence of the mundane and the magical. Horan sees a unifying factor that keeps casts around the world immersing themselves in the play year after year.
“The main thing I think this play is about is the power of theater and how it can transform you,” Horan said. The rustic characters who decide to put on a play within the play — a production of “Pyramus and Thisbe” that never fails to stir laughter — manage to unite an entire community of nobles, everyday folk and the fairy realm.
“They come together in community,” Horan said. “That play just says so much about humanity.”
Joining Horan will be assistant director Linda C. Zuby; producers Kim Dukes, Rachel Vere Nicoll and Wendy Novicoff; and event coordinator Kristen Franklin Heiderstadt. All of them were involved with the original Shakespeare at the Ruins run.
Also at work are production stage manager Kayla Chonoles, assistant stage managers Gabby Lossia and Emily Frobom Armstrong, costume designer Tricia Emlet, scenic designer and master carpenter Malinda Smith, Eli Jessee as assistant scenic designer, Amanda Watson as lighting designer, and Carl Schwaner as sound designer and technical engineer.
Gary Warwick White as production manager, Nick Hagy as technical director, Linda Hogan as properties designer, Anna Grey Hogan as assistant properties designer and pre-show director, and Meg Hoover as assistant properties designer all are keeping the show running smoothly.
Beverly Seng and John Wheeler are the choreographers, and Jeff Jaeger and Carey Morton are providing dramaturgy.
The cast includes Amy Truesdell as Philostrate, Tim Read as Theseus, Cassie Davis as Hippolyta, Bill Hines as Egeus, Kiri Gardner as Hermia, Stan Marshall as Lysander, Andy Davis as Demetrius, Julie Stavitski as Helena, Rachel Martinez as Puck, Claire Chandler as Titania, Johnny Butcher as Oberon, Katie Hutchins as Vinifera, John Holden as Bottom, David Becker as Quince, Kevin Hagood as Snout/Wall, Robert Eversberg as Snug/Lion, Ethan Genz as Flute, Joe Harder as Starveling, Cate Wells as Peaseblossom, Zach Ashby as Cobweb, Ben Nordbrock as Mustardseed, Nate Hutchins as Moth and Maeve Chandler as Buttercup.
Some longtime fans of Shakespeare at the Ruins will sense a “Brigadoon”-like environment of a magical moment in time revisited. For Horan, it’s an opportunity to blend happy memories from productions past with what is good about the present and the anticipation of future fun in the troupe’s improved space.
“My children were little fairies the last time I did this,” Horan said. “They are now 31 and 28, and they’re actors in New York. It takes me back to a sweet time when my kids were young, and there’s something magical about being outside.
“It has been a magical summer for me out here again.”
Tickets are $20; members of groups of 10 or more get in for $15. Individual shows are starting to sell out, so reach out to your squad soon and get tickets online at fourcp.org or by phone at (540) 832-5355.