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He said that all the world's a stage, didn't he?

So we have to believe Shakespeare would be delighted with the current production of "Romeo and Juliet," which is to be staged within the eerily dramatic brick walls that are all that remains of the southernmost of Santa Rosa's historic cannery buildings.

This ambitious project, a cooperative effort of David Lear's Vacant Lot Productions and the Arlene Francis Center will be performed under the stars in the ruins beside Santa Rosa Creek.

That's the plan at this writing. The city, which originally fretted about the use permit, has been convinced. The conditional use permit has been issued. The building permit and the special events permit should be in hand by Monday.

Lear is one of the founders of Main Stage West who has directed Sebastopol's Shakespeare in the Park in recent summers. The architect who will create the dramatic setting is Paul Gilger, set designer for 6th Street Playhouse. (You can see a 2-minute teaser of the space within the walls at indiegogo.com/projects/shakespeare-in-the-cannery.)

Lear's group has put together a theatrical package that promises to be an important milestone in the history of community theater — or, perhaps, more appropriately, theater in the community — in Sonoma County.

There is a "summer stock" aspect to all this that is appealing and also reminiscent of another theatrical venture that left its mark on Sonoma County's history. We are reminded of the Stumptown Players.

In 1952 and '53, a group of 16 theater students from UCLA came to the Russian River area and turned an old WPA recreation hall at Armstrong Grove into a theater.

It was all done in the best Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland let's-find-a-barn-and-have-a-show tradition. The 499seats were folding chairs borrowed from Fewel's Mortuary; the lighting was makeshift, with tin-can electrodes and a switchboard made out of pickle jars.

They papered the county with fliers and filled the seats for two summers. One of the actors was a young UCLA student named Carol Burnett, who played many roles (including a redwood tree in one original skit).

She is remembered as being fun and having talent, but some of the older students thought that her comedy was a little bit over the top and suggested she should turn it down a notch. Think on that.

There was another short-lived group called the Ric-y-Tik Players that performed in an old walnut dryer in Rincon Valley. One of them was Pat Paulsen.

The Santa Rosa Community Theater, dedicated amateurs with day jobs who had no hopes of breaking into showbiz, put on several plays on the tiny stage in Room 10, Pioneer Hall on the SRJC campus in the late '50s.

That was about it for life upon the wicked stage in Sonoma County in the first years after the Big War. Serious audiences had to drive to San Francisco to see live bodies on a stage.

Then came the energy infusion of the late '60s and the population spurt of the '70s, both unprecedented before or since.

All that was lacking was a catalyst, and it came from a surprising source — a hospital benefit. The Hi Fever Follies was the brainchild of the Rose Ladies, the auxiliary at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. The ladies wanted to fund a new pediatrics unit and someone in the group had heard of a company called Cargill that could whip up a musical comedy revue in a few weeks, for a fee. The Rose Ladies signed on. And for the next 20 years, every other spring, the Hi Fever Follies, starring public officials, doctors, judges, teachers and every wannabe tap dancer and chanteuse in the county, played to packed houses.

The first was in 1962, and Santa Rosa was instantly stage-struck. The performers couldn't wait for the next one. The first Cargill director, a former actor and dancer named Ted Hook, came back almost immediately to create musical dinner theater at the Flamingo Hotel.

There was "Guys & Dolls," "The Fantasticks," and "Bye, Bye Birdie. " And many of the same performers did repeats for the hospital Follies every other year, always talking of the need for an all-the-time theater company. From this group — Bonnie Mullahy, Sandy Sadler, Harry deLope, Judy Sotak, June Lyons, Sara Stanz, Phil Patterson and more — came the Santa Rosa Players.

They first performed at the fairgrounds in October of 1970. The play was "Sweet Charity" and it was a historic event. Community theater had come to town to stay.

Within a short time, the company was in a permanent home at the old Lincoln School.

It was more than a dozen successful years later that those who wanted to do newer, more experimental, even riskier drama came together and Actors Theater was born.

Its first play, a psychological drama titled "Nuts," opened in the Brickyard on Mendocino Avenue in April 1984. Piner English teacher Kathy Juarez, who had come on the scene as a Players' stage mom — ferrying her young son, Tom, to rehearsals, running the lights, painting scenery — was chosen to direct. The already-veteran actor Mollie Boice was the lead.

It was wildly successful and Actors Theater became the resident company at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, now Wells Fargo, where they created a workable small theater in a former classroom. When the Lincoln Art Center became Kid Street, the Players moved alongside, to the LBC's small theater.

Then, in 2004, Argo

Thompson, artistic director of the Actors Theater for seven years, brought the two companies together as the 6th Street Playhouse, performing in two theaters, also in a former cannery building, but one that is far from a ruin. The first play, if you're keeping track was "Wonder of the World," in the studio theater.

Meanwhile Jim DePriest and Steven David Martin's Sonoma County Repertory Company, founded in Sebastopol in 1993 — with a five-year extension to downtown Santa Rosa from '95 to 2000 — morphed into Main Stage West, the snug and successful venue on Sebastopol's busiest corner run by the nonprofit Performing Arts Coalition for Theater (PACT). The coalition was put together by veteran director Beth Craven, David Lear and a contingent of actors and patrons.

This isn't the whole story of Sonoma County drama, of course. Not even close. The Marquee Theater, owned by Larry and Lennie Nau, starring the likes of veterans Dwayne Stincelli and Michael Fontaine, performed in a Third Street building behind the Western Hotel. It rocked all of Railroad Square with laughter, hisses and boos from 1979 to '87.

And SRJC's Summer Repertory Theater has brightened our summers with productions staged by drama and stagecraft students from all over the West for 42 years.

Petaluma's hilltop theater in a converted schoolhouse, the amazing Cinnabar Theater, celebrates its 41st anniversary this year, daring to intersperse an ambitious playbill with very good opera.

For those of us old enough to have grumbled a bit about intellectual wastelands, it is heartening and, even a little astonishing to see what time hath wrought.

The "theatah" is all around us. Brent Lindsay's delightfully offbeat company, The Imaginists, plays on Sebastopol Avenue in the South A Street art district.

Then there's Odyssey in Sonoma, Transcendence in Glen Ellen, the Raven Players in Healdsburg and Windsor, a small theater group at Camp Rose, Pegasus in Guerneville and the Cloverdale Performing Art Center plus heaven knows who I've missed.

All this is intended to suggest that Shakespeare in the Cannery sounds like another in a long line of good ideas that have produced good theater in the last 60 years.

Performances will be every Friday and Saturday night from July 18 to Aug. 23. If you like it, you can come back often enough to memorize it. Although you should be forewarned. It will end badly every time. So many of Will's tragedies do.

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