SAND HARBOR, Nev. The hail and lightening have stopped and the trail of smoke is slowing from a small wildfire burning on the mountainside just above Lake Tahoe.
Kristie Connolly and Todd Kincaid are sitting on a sand dune with their legs propped up on a boulder in late July, sipping wine and nibbling on chunks of turkey while they wait for the 31st annual Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival to begin.
''It's our first time,'' said Connolly, who made the 45-minute drive from Reno up the Mount Rose Highway in a heavy thunderstorm to the natural amphitheater on the banks of Tahoe's azure waters.
''It's really awesome up here,'' Kincaid said as he gazed across the Sierra lake at an elevation of 6,229 feet.
With Tahoe's northeast shore averaging only 8 inches of rain a year, compared with 18 feet of snow, organizers boast that the annual summer performances have never been rained out. (The first formal rain-out came a few days later.)
But Darolyn Skelton, the festival's executive director, seems a bit nervous on this night when numerous travel writers have been invited from out of town. She insists she's not worried about the audience bailing out.
''Rain crowds are die-hards,'' she said.
''But we're having a power issue right now,'' she confides 20 minutes before the 7:30 p.m. showtime for ''The Merry Wives of Windsor.''
By 7:42 p.m., with no electricity in sight, festival board director Vicki McGowen announces that Act 1 will begin without lights or the sound system. ''We have no power. However, in the 16th century, they had no power,'' she shouts.
A few folks in the back grumble they can't hear.
''I hope the actors have better projection than I do,'' she said, then invites those concerned to take up some of the empty $65 seats down front in the outdoor theater that has a capacity of 1,000.
Two college students from Meriden, Conn., who read about the festival on the Internet are among those who said they never considered abandoning the show despite having to wait for tickets in the rain.
''This is our only chance on the trip so we're staying no matter what,'' said Khristy Ott, a prelaw student at Quinnipiac University. Her sister, Rebekka Ott, is an English major at the same school and a big Shakespeare fan but found herself stealing peeks at the lake during the show.
''It's so very, very blue. Usually the lakes around our area are not this blue,'' she said.
Even the locals soak up the view as the setting sun bathes the mountains in a golden glow, and a light breeze rocks the 80-foot pine trees flanking the $2 million stage in the sand bowl.
At 7:45 p.m., a champagne cork pops in the audience as the cast from the Foothill Theater Company of Nevada City, Calif., takes the stage in Civil War dress for this year's rendition of the ''Merry Wives,'' set in postwar Windsor, N.C.
The crowd is dressed in polo shirts, khaki slacks, T-shirts, sweaters, shorts and baseball caps. Several who came early to save seats are in yellow rain ponchos and some of the kids are still in swimsuits. The air is perfumed with the scent of sage, the aroma released by the earlier rain.
By 8:15 p.m., the lights are back on and the microphones are again broadcasting the unusual concoction of Old English with a Southern drawl.
Darrow Brown didn't have any trouble understanding it. A school teacher who lives in nearby Incline Village, she has become a regular since she moved to the area two years ago from Raleigh, N.C.
''The Shakespeare is more like a bonus. I don't think that's the focus. You bring a few bottles of wine and share the night with some friends overlooking the lake,'' she said.
Andy Brimm will attest to that. He runs the Austin's food stand at the show, where a classic Caesar salad with grilled chicken goes for $11.95 and a 12-ounce beer for $4.
''We get a lot of guys wandering out getting a beer while their wife is watching the show,'' Brimm said.
Food and drink are part of the tradition at Sand Harbor. A half-dozen vendors set up in the Nevada state park offer everything from gourmet crepes and sushi to burgers and ribs, wines and vodkas.
A California roll with shrimp, tuna, red snapper and salmon sells for $11, a steak sandwich for $11.50, a grilled sausage on a roll for $7.
One kid's menu offers a cheese crepe for $6. But most families and groups bring their own cooler and picnic basket to help cut costs as tickets range from $20 weeknight general admission, to $35 early seating on the weekends and $65 reserved beach chairs.
Last year's attendance totaled 27,000 for 32 performances, an average of 850 per show. This year there are 34 performances alternating the ''Merry Wives'' with ''A Midsummer Night's Dream'' running Tuesday-Sunday through Aug. 24.
John Kimberlin, who works for the Washoe County Sheriff's office, started coming for the picnics four or five years ago and now has taken a liking to the Bard.
''I'm not a very intellectual person. I was in the Marines,'' he said with a laugh. ''The first year, I didn't understand what they were talking about with all the 'thou shalts' and the 'haths.' But after a few years, I started to get it.
''The atmosphere is always fun and they put a different twist on the play. We have a picnic with friends. And what better scene is there than Lake Tahoe?''
On the Net:
Tahoe Shakespeare Festival: www.laketahoeshakespeare.com
Nevada Commission on Tourism: http://www.travelnevada.com/
Incline Village-Crystal Bay Chamber of Commerce: www.laketahoechamber.com
South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce: www.tahoeinfo.com
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