Ask Carol Lehan, and she'll tell you that she loves two things: Shakespeare and the outdoors.
These passions have given birth to Howard County's first Shakespeare Festival, featuring free outdoor performances of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" tonight through Sunday at Glenelg Country School's Commencement Gardens.
The performances, by a troupe sponsored by the Olney Theater Center in Montgomery County, are expected to draw a crowd of 500.
"The carefully manicured garden made up of boxwood trees, geometrically arranged to create a sense of balance, and the 4-feet-high stone wall which creates the stage ... this locale screamed at me - `Shakespeare!'" said Lehan, the school's drama director.
The festival was made possible by the financial help of Glenelg's families, said the school's Headmaster Ryland O. Chapman, who also teaches a class on "Hamlet" to Glenelg seniors.
"With this festival, we hope to inspire young people and the Howard County community with the beauty of Shakespeare and its significance to the human condition," said Chapman.
A popular playwright
Glenelg is the latest stop for the troupe, which also is making stops in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and in Henlopen, Del., this summer.
Last week's run at the Olney Theater Center drew about 200 fans to the center's west lawn with blankets, picnic baskets, wine goblets and barbecued vegetables and meats.
"I'm not surprised by the turnout," said Chuck Benjamin, the center's director . "There is a resurgence of interest in Shakespeare. Look at the contemporary version of `Romeo and Juliet,' with Leonardo DiCaprio, and `Shakespeare in Love.' Making it contemporary and drawing mass appeal is what ... our production is aiming to do."
"Two Gentlemen of Verona" features familiar Shakespearean themes of conflict, human frailties and life's extremes, focusing on a quartet of lovers who face betrayal, masked identities and personal redemption.
"This interest in Shakespeare is an ongoing phenomenon," said Cecil Thompson, theater specialist with the Arts and Cultural Heritage Division of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "The cold fact is, Shakespeare is the most widely performed playwright."
Access and exposure
But appeal alone is not what gets many people interested in Shakespeare, said Glenelg's Lehan.
"We have to make it accessible by exposing our young people to these works and giving access, free, on the lawn, and outdoors. Our festival will also provide playwriting workshops to anyone between 12 and 18 years old on three of the days prior to the performances," she said.
The production marks the third year of a collaboration between the Olney Theater Center and the parks commission, said Jim Petosa, Olney's artistic director.
That partnership builds on the "Shakespeare on Wheels" project, co-sponsored by the parks commission and the University of Maryland during the 1980s and 1990s.
"For three years, Olney's Shakespeare production has forged an artistic bridge between Prince George's and Montgomery counties," Petosa said.
"In times when political boundaries too often separate our region, the partnership between us represents a success in forging an artistic good neighbor policy," he added.
Nancy Szlasa, Glenelg's director of communications, says the Shakespeare festival brings a living classroom to the Glenelg community.
"The setting is reminiscent to the English theater setting in London," she said. "It's all natural and not contrived...definitely a tradition we want to continue here at Glenelg."
Glenelg Country School's Commencement Gardens is at 12793 Folly Quarter Road. Elizabethan songs and music begin at 6 p.m. The play begins at 8 p.m. In case of rain, the play will be performed in the Mulitz Theater, in the Middle School. Information: Deb Devoe at 410-531-2229, Ext. 2120 or Nancy Szlasa at 410-531-7340.