Looking for a little outdoor romance this summer? Look no further than Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, where a fresh take on Jane Austen’s tale of 19th-century love, “Pride and Prejudice,” will be on view June 23 courtesy of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) and playwright Kate Hamill.
The Arboretum’s lush landscape has been the backdrop for a range of music and theater productions in recent years, with its hills, gardens, fields, and groves doubling as living playhouses and concert halls. Staging dramatic works on park grounds fits with the ASP’s mission of offering performances in found spaces, said organizers, and with the Arboretum’s goal of fostering community engagement and connecting people with art and the natural world.
“This is a part of Harvard University that has so much to offer in terms of enriching the lives of the people of Boston and beyond,” said Arboretum Director William “Ned” Friedman, the Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. “This is a really critical part of what we do beyond the academics. We invite the public to explore the arts, botany, science, and the environment right here on these great 281 acres.”
Last year’s ASP production of “Macbeth” at the Arboretum played to a capacity crowd. More than 1,000 spectators filled the base of the hill next to the park’s Hunnewell Visitor Center, which doubled as the stage for an abridged version of the work about an all-consuming ambition fueled by a trio of mysterious witches. Artist Fujiko Nakaya’s ghostlike fog installation added to the atmosphere, conjuring the mist-swept highlands where Shakespeare’s Scottish play unfolds. “You really felt like you were in the forest with these performers and these magical scenes,” said Friedman.
The success of “Macbeth” inspired organizers to stage another play this summer in the Arboretum, the crowning jewel of the Emerald Necklace, a seven-mile network of parks in Boston and Brookline designed by the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. But Austen’s witty romantic satire required a different touch. To evoke the majestic gardens of Pemberley, the expansive estate owned by Austen’s wealthy protagonist, Mr. Darcy, ASP Artistic Director Chris Edwards and his team chose the Arboretum’s Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden, which includes linear planting beds, terrace walls made of New England fieldstone, and walking paths that wind through a range of trees, shrubs, and vines, as their stage.