By Mary Boyle
Most of the area theatre companies take a break over the summer months, when everyone would rather be outdoors and soaking up the sun, but there are a few whose season only coincides with Wisconsin's warmest months, and they bring their performances outdoors, with an almost exclusive focus on the most famous of playwrights: William Shakespeare.
Now entering their fourth season, the Summit Players are a group of mainly Marquette Alumni who are determined to make Shakespeare accessible to families by performing for free at State Parks throughout Wisconsin. This year, the production is the hilarious Twelfth Night and they are certain to have the audiences in stitches. Their plays use the original language, but they are edited for time, and to be as family-friendly as possible, while still retaining the brilliance that the Bard intended. They even offer a pre-show workshop that is perfect for school-aged kids. The Players will be just north of Oz at Kohler-Andrae State Park on Saturday, August 11th. The workshop is at 5:30 p.m., and the show is at 7; note that you will need a vehicle admission sticker to get into the park. You can also join them for their launch party at the Marquette campus, behind Raynor Library at 1355 W. Wisconsin Ave. in Miwaukee, on Friday, June 22nd at 6 p.m. To see the Summit Players full schedule and learn more, go to: www.summitplayerstheatre.com/
Optimist Theatre in Milwaukee has been doing Shakespeare in the Park in Milwaukee since 2010, and they return this season with King Lear, starring the amazing Jim Pickering, and including a cast of some of Milwaukee's finest, such as Jonathan Wainwright, Malkia Stampley, Robert Spencer, and Kat Wodtke. Last year, the group moved from its old home at Kadish Park to the Marcus Center's outdoor stage, the Peck Pavilion, as part of the Center's Live at the Peck Pavilion Series, which was a brilliant decision. With seating, a roof overhead, and the ability to purchase food and drink on site, the new location brought many more theatre-goers into the fold, and is sure to attract even more this summer. The production opens the evening of Thursday, July 5th, and runs through Saturday, July 21st. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday performances begin at 8 p.m., with Sunday performances at 7:30 p.m. There is one noon matinee on Tuesday, July 17th. Performances are free, and it is recommended to arrive no later than a half hour before the performance to claim your seats. To see the full schedule and learn more about Optimist Theatre, please visit: http://www.optimisttheatre.org
Door Shakespeare has been doing Shakespearean productions, as well as works by Moliere and Oscar Wilde, in the Garden of Björklunden’s 405-acre estate on Lake Michigan in Baileys Harbor for over 20 years. This season they will perform the Bard's Much Ado About Nothing and The Comedy of Errors from June 28th through August 18th and, as it happens, two of the cast members hail from Oz: brothers John and Luke Brotherhood of Mequon.
John, who recently completed his Freshman year of college at Fordham University, made his start at Door Shakespeare at the age of 10 in their summer camp, now called Camp Will, and his Door debut at the age of 16 as Balthasar in Romeo and Juliet. This summer, John will play the Jailer in Comedy and be a Musician and member of the Watch in Much Ado. Describing Door County as his favorite place in the world, John said it is the unique environment at Door that has kept him coming back: "The opportunity to tell stories in such an organic, beautiful, and fresh environment connects us as actors with nature in a very effective way, which allows for a deeper level of intimacy and honesty between the actors and the audience, and allows Shakespeare's beautiful text to resonate in a way that it may not be able to in other spaces."
John's involvement in Door inspired his younger brother, Luke, who will be a Junior at University School in Milwaukee this fall, to get involved. Luke made his Door debut at the age of 14 in Julius Ceasar and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and is now returning for his third summer with Door. He echos his brother's sentiments regarding his involvement with the company: "The thing I love most about Door Shakespeare is the impact it has on both audiences and actors, alike. As cheesy as it sounds, being in the woods all day without cell connection makes people connect with each other more, and I think it is part of the reason lasting friendships are built within the company. With all of the natural beauty surrounding the theater, actors often go to the waterfront or walk a trail while practicing their lines. While many actors argue that their job is enjoyable regardless of location, I think being able to work in such a gorgeous location makes the job even more enjoyable."
Both brothers shared some worthy tips for those thinking of making the trip: bring blankets and wear multiple layers, because it is often cold; come early to give yourself time to walk the trails and enjoy the lake view; and finally, the 5 p.m. Saturday performances are best for patrons with children. To learn more about Door Shakespeare, their play schedule, and their other programs, visit http://www.doorshakespeare.com.
For those willing to travel just a bit further, one of the best outdoor theatre experiences in Wisconsin is just outside of Spring Green at the American Players Theatre. APT has multiple productions, both modern and classic, throughout the summer on two different outdoor stages, but they never fail to perform at least one of Shakespeare's plays. This year, APT has selected two by the Bard: As You Like It and Measure for Measure. The APT season opens Friday, June 15th, and runs through Sunday, October 7th. To learn more about APT's complete season, including free concerts, go to: https://americanplayers.org/
While there's only one show, it's a bit closer to home: the West Bend Theatre Company will be performing Much Ado About Nothing on Thursday, August 23rd, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at Jansen Family Park in West Bend. Set in the 1980's and featuring some well-known 80's pop tunes, this should be an interesting evening of Shakespeare. Find out more at: https://www.wbtheatreco.com/
There is a reason that Shakespeare in the Park can be found in outdoor spaces throughout the country: in William Shakespeare's time, his plays were mainly performed in open-air theaters, so it feels right to recreate those conditions for today's audiences. The outdoor theatre experience, much like an outdoor concert, has an energy all its own that must be experienced to be understood. While every live theatre performance is unique, the weather and nature are crucial and unpredictable parts of the outdoor theatre production that give an entirely different, and highly individual, dimension to a play, and make for an unforgettable performance. Add to the itinery of your camping trip, or go just for the show, but make sure you add one of these performances to your summer calendar!