"Hey, man. You're the donkey! You da bomb," a gangly pre-teen shouted as he rushed up to actor Bill Gillett following a recent outdoor performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Surprised at coming face-to-face with the performer, the enthusiastic boy gave Gillett an impromptu hug before dashing off.

The donkey (just his head, actually) is an important part of Shakespeare's magical comedy, being presented by the National Players of Olney Theatre Center. The company's 16th annual "Summer Shakespeare" tour includes free performances at Prince George's County parks. There is a performance at 7:30 tonight at Watkins Regional Park in Upper Marlboro.

For Gillett, experiencing the youngster's excitement is part of the joy of taking a play on the road and performing it alfresco. The barrier between theatergoers and actors seems to melt away under the stars, he said.This year's play is a physically demanding, high-energy production that the 14 cast members perform in much the way Shakespeare's troupes did when they toured rural England 500 years ago. The players pull into open-air spaces in the afternoon, spend several hours setting up scenery and lights under the hot sun, and then wait for the audience so that they can begin performing just before twilight and continue into the night.

The 2005 tour began at the new outdoor stage of the Olney Theatre Center campus in Montgomery County two weeks ago, and after stops in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and in Arlington, it will head to Ohio, Massachusetts and Vermont. Along the way, if past productions are any indication, the charmingly retro event will hold audiences spellbound.

"When we begin the show, it's still light out," said Gillett, who doubles as manager of the National Players. "But what's very cool is that as the sun goes down and our lights gradually take over, something really interesting happens with the crowd. It's like people get drawn into the show as darkness envelops the area and we begin to wash the stage with our lights, and the heightened sense of enchantment becomes really magical." At least, they hope they're washing the stage in light: Gillett admits that during daylight, the stagehand interns just point the lights in what they think is the right direction.

In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare sends several sets of lovers into a fairy-filled woods, where magic spells cast in the moonlight cause havoc before all is set right at dawn. A play-within-the-play performed by a group of bumbling actors adds an element of broad comedy. At a recent performance, about 300 people, many in family groups, alternated between rapt silence and howls of laughter, the screeches of the youngest kids piercing the night air during acrobatic slapstick sequences. The kids especially loved it when Gillett's character, hapless ham actor Nick Bottom, was turned into a donkey by the mischievous sprite Puck, played by Tim Spears with bare-chested aplomb in defiance of the mosquitoes and with lithe athletic energy.

After the show, Gillett nursed a red welt on his head, created during an extended, guffaw-inducing "death" scene during which he hurled himself about the set (a collection of metal and wood scaffolding and towers draped in artistically shredded, brownish orange landscaping cloth). It's a hazard of performing after dark, but it's not the only challenge of outdoorwork.

"I remember being onstage during 'Much Ado About Nothing,' and the girl playing Hero, the young ingenue, turned to me and smiled, but all I could see was a bug stuck right in her teeth," he said, chuckling at the memory. "She had no idea. But everybody swallows a bug at some time. That's not as bad as rushing through scenes and cutting speeches, trying to finish before approaching thunderstorms arrive, though."

At intermission, as people downed soft drinks and munched on picnic-style food, relaxing on their blankets or folding chairs, 8-year-old Evan Theriault of Kensington was busy explaining Shakespeare's play to his mother, Annette. "See, the fairies aren't bad, they're just fooling everybody, and probably when everybody wakes up, they'll all like each other again," he told her.

Backstage, meanwhile, cast members sprawled in lawn chairs facing the darkness. Out beyond several flickering pots of burning citronella, nature was putting on a rare show they did not want to miss. Countless thousands of fireflies sparkled in tall grass and nearby trees in an unusually concentrated display of ethereal beauty, quite fitting for a night in an enchanted forest.

National Players of Olney Theatre Center's "Summer Shakespeare" tour continues with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" tonight at 7 at Watkins Regional Park, 301 Watkins Park Drive, Upper Marlboro; tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. on the Montpelier Mansion grounds, Route 197 and Muirkirk Road, Laurel; Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Cosca Regional Park, 11000 Thrift Rd, Clinton; and Sunday at 3 p.m. inside the University of Maryland's Kay Theatre in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Route 193 and Stadium Drive, College Park. All shows are free; no reservations are taken.

Additional performances will be held Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Lubber Run Amphitheatre, North Columbus and North Second streets, Arlington; and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Courthouse Square Park in Rockville.

For information, call 301-454-1450 or 301-924-4485, or visit www.nationalplayers.org.

Lovers Hermia and Lysander (Michelle Mulitz and Edward Tournier), visit a magical Shakespearean forest.