Arts & Culture

Seattle parks deliver summer art, music, theater

A house that doubles as a sculpture? A giant glockenspiel with billiard balls for hammers? Shakespearean comedy under the trees? You can tell it’s summer when Seattle parks fill up with art, music and theater.

And this year, there’s even more, with new installations at the Olympic Sculpture Park, an expanded footprint for Wooden O Shakespeare (including Tacoma) and a new artist-designed play space at the Seattle Center. Here’s how to have the maximum fun if you make the trip:

OLYMPIC SCULPTURE PARK

Two new temporary installations inhabit the park this summer. In the pavilion, Sam Vernon’s “How Ghosts Sleep” drapes the ceiling with black textured fabric, the walls with imprints of cells and patterns, all in hazy black and white. It’s pretty to look at, but unless you’ve read the wall label (the work is inspired by the concurrent “Disguise” exhibit of African masks down at Seattle Art Museum, and plays on Vernon’s fascination with Gothic literature), it tends to fade into a design element rather than art in it’s own right.

Wander down the upper path and you’ll soon come across the second work, Dan Webb’s “Under Construction/Break it Down.” If you think this looks like a small house someone just built, you’d be right: Webb, a Seattle artist, is reusing one of the park’s Douglas firs to create a studio shack as visitors watch — then, beginning Thursday, tear it down again. It all seems a bit arbitrary, and it’s hard to take this sculpture seriously — after all, people build houses all the time. But they don’t pull them down again immediately afterward, which gives a rather Dadaist spin on the whole thing.

Tip: It’s not worth a trip up Interstate 5 just to see these two installations. But if you’re bringing visitors to the rest of the park, with its Louise Bourgeois and Richard Serra works, or if you time your visit for a Thursday evening or Saturday for free performances and art activities, you’ll add another layer to the whole experience.

SEATTLE CENTER: ARTISTS AT PLAY PARK

For years, the area just north of the monorail and west of the EMP Museum was one of those Seattle Center blight areas you tried to avoid: cheap fair rides, junk food vendors and an overall seedy feel.

Now, thanks to a development team that included local artists Judith Caldwell amd Trimpin, things are very different. The first thing you’ll notice is the 35-foot-high climbing structure that looks like the love-child of Tim Burton and a rope adventure course. Yes, parents, it’s high — so high and strong that you can climb it, too, winding your way along the netting walkway at the top and sliding down the crazy-crooked silver slide.

The fantasy-film vibe is hard to resist, but look around and you’ll find many more artsy things to play with.

There’s a giant vertical glockenspiel that ranges over an octave and a half, each “key” a metal column twice your height and played by punching a billiard ball suspended waist-high. Most folks seem to walk around playing a scale, but come with some musical friends and a plan, and you could make sweet harmonies. Then there’s a circle of giant wind chimes in the shapes of red musical letters, played by winding a handle; and a cute pebble pit for the littles is nearby, with its resonant metal logs inside grates that ring sweetly when pebbles are dropped over them in handfuls — a task any self-respecting toddler is expert at. There’s a set of enormous yellow headphones 20 feet apart that allow a whispered conversation, and one of the very few wheelchair-accessible merry-go-rounds in the region (which also plays wind chimes). Add in a tilting bird sculpture and a big walk-around labyrinth, and you have a park that engages every part of you.

Tip: It gets hot without much shade by 4 p.m., except for the picnic benches. Get there early.

BARD IN THE PARK: WOODEN O’S SHAKESPEARE SEASON

Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed in an outdoor theater. When you watch those same plays 400 years later outdoors, you get a little of the same thrill. There’s spontaneity, as passing airplanes inspire improvised lines; peace, as trees and grass offer a tranquil backdrop; and relaxed interaction, as you can get up, wander, eat, drink, visit your friends or call out comments when encouraged by the cast.

This year, Seattle Shakespeare Company presents “As You Like It” and “Henry IV Part 1” for its annual free Wooden O performances in parks around greater Seattle. This year the footprint expands to include a first-ever Tacoma show (July 31 in Wright Park), but if South Sounders miss that date, it’s definitely worth a trip north to catch another one. Performing outside, the acting has to be snappy, powerful and swift to catch the audience, and the creativity of the sets is always impressive.

“As You Like It” is a tale of disguised identity, love tangles and fun as Rosalind and Celia hide out in the forest with Rosalind posing as a man. In “Henry IV Part 1,” the English king confronts threats to the kingdom while his party-loving son Prince Hal eventually faces up to his responsibilities.

Tip: Arrive at least 30 minutes early to get a good spot. Bring a blanket; if you bring chairs, you’ll have to sit at the back. Bring a picnic, sunscreen, bug spray, a raincoat or umbrella (the show keeps going in the rain) and a warm jacket. All plays are family-friendly, though young kids might end up wandering off to the playground.

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