The Shakespeare Summer Festival will present "A Comedy of Errors" at five local parks this summer, and the title is particularly apt considering that, three weeks before opening night, the National Park Service still had not decided who would put on the show.
The confusion was not much of a joke to Ellie Chamberlain who was the motivating force behind the first Shakespeare Summer Festival 18 years ago and has been producing them annually ever since.
This year, however, the National Capital Parks of the National Park Service, sponsors of the festival, decided to give other theater groups a crack at playing Shakespeare outdoors, and asked for competitive bids. Difficulties with the new bidding process delayed a final decision until June 16, with the first performance scheduled for July 5.
The new procedure was not a result of dissatisfaction with Ellie Chamberlain and her organization, the Shakespeare Summer Festival, according to Sandra Alley, a spokeswoman for National Capital Parks.
"This year we decided to go out for bids to see if there were other groups out there who were interested and what ideas they've got," Alley explained. "We were trying to see who had innovative, new appproaches to Shakespeare."
The announcement came as a shock to Chamberlain.
"(The Shakespeare Summer Festival) is not like one thing that I do in a total picture of many other things. It's 17 years worth of work that would almost have been wiped out, in a way," said Chamberlain about the possiblity of losing the contract.
So long before the contract was signed, Chamberlain went ahead with some planning and scheduling, and made initial contacts with a director, costumer and actors.
"To be perfectly honest, I don't think anyone else in this town has the experience and knowledge to put this together. It's very complicated," she said, referring to the logistics of moving the show from one park to another. "There's the fact that the performances are outdoors, and there are no other outdoor theater companies here."
In February, National Capital Parks officials received bids from four companies including the Shakespeare Summer Festival.For a while, the Folger Theater Group had top ranking.
Various review procedures, including a Labor Department study of the wage scales included in the contract, postponed the final filing date until June 6. By that time, only Chamberlain's company said it still could put together a show in time for the July 5 opening.
Chamberlain began daily rehearsals on June 19 and said that two weeks of rehearsals will get the show in shape. However, lack of time has forced her to make other adjustments. Instead of building a new stage set, the company is recycling the one designed for the last year's performance of "Romeo and Juliet," Costumes from previous shows are being reworked and refurbished.
There was no time to print any posters or flyers.
Despite these constraints, said Chamberlain, there is only one thing that can delay the opening now: the weather. A few nights of rain could wash out the outdoor technical rehearsals, in which the actors get used to working on the set. "Pray that it rains only in the morning," she said, "so the sun can dry things out."
The Shakespeare Festival was presented only in the Sylvan Theater on the Monument grounds until 1974, the first year that it began touring metropolitan area parks. During Bicentennial observances, the Sylvan Theater was occupied by "Music '76," but the Shakespeare performances were presented in several parks that year.
"A Comedy of Errors" will be presented at Glen Echo Park July 4-6; at Harper's Ferry Park July 7-9; at Antietam National Battlefield July 11-13; at Great Falls Park in Virginia July 14-16, and at the Sylvan Theater on the Washington Monument grounds July 20-23 and 25-30. Performances will begin at 8:30 p.m. To confirm dates and times, call National Capital Parks information, 426-6700.