Shakespeare on outdoor stages in Midwest

I am not a Shakespeare scholar, but I do have great respect for how his lyrical and eloquent writing has withstood and enriched the passage of time.

When I think about pleasant summer rituals, The Bard also comes to mind, particularly since an exquisite place to watch his plays is almost in my back yard.

Dozens of outdoor theater companies in the United States make Shakespeare their specialty in sultry weather, many adding unique interpretations and nuances. Although I hestitate to recommend it, because of the annoying number of pop-up ads that appear, http://shakespeare.about.com/cs/festivalsus/ is a great site for learning more.

I favor it over www.shakespearefest.org/links.htm, which – amazingly – does not include American Players Theatre, 40 miles west of Madison and near Spring Green. It is an outdoor theater, in its 24th season, which seats about 1,100.

I have had pre-theater potluck picnics with groups here, and simply bought a meal for two at the APT grounds. I have watched plays here on steamy afternoons, and been here to see daylight become starlight.

This can be a romantic setting, and it is a communal setting for nature lovers. En route, from Madison, are rolling hills, markets abundant with produce, farm stands that sell fresh corn by the dozen.

In nearby Black Earth is The Shoe Box, known for its huge shoe selection and hefty discounts that caused sports teams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to be penalized by the NCAA in 2000.

Slightly beyond the quaint shops and galleries of Spring Green are well-known tourist stops: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin home/studios, the House on the Rock, Cave of the Mounds, plus state parks.

But I digress. The point is that you easily can make a day, or a weekend, out of this road trip.

This year’s APT productions include “Hamlet,” “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “The Tempest.” There are non-Shakespearean offerings, too: “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw, “The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov and “Barrymore” by William Luce. Special events include a wine tasting, a chili feast, behind-the-scenes tours and discussions.

Tickets are not cheap, but these are Actors’ Equity performances. The cost is $26 to $45, depending upon the time, day and seat location.

The last APT performance is Oct. 5; Monday is the only non-show day. For more, go to www.americanplayers.org or call (608) 588-2361.


Among the other outdoor theatrical events that I have been to is the Utah Shakespearean Festival, in Cedar City and founded in 1961. It is a good stop when traveling between Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks (the latter is just one hour from the stage).
Given the extraordinary natural scenery that is near it, I had high expectations for the Utah experience. Although it certainly delivered with regard to acting caliber (this is the winner of a Tony in 2000 for outstanding regional theater), the site is not as picturesque (the stage is crowded onto the Southern Utah University campus).

For more, go to www.bard.org or call (800) PLAYTIX.


In Wisconsin, APT by no means is the only place to get a Shakespeare fix this summer.

Door Shakespeare presents “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Romeo and Juliet” at the garden at Bjorklunden, a retreat owned by Lawrence University. It is in Baileys Harbor.

Play producers are graduates of the National Shakespeare Conservatory; actors range from professional to non-union and students. Tickets are $16; the season is early July to mid August. For more, call (920) 839-1500 or go to www.doorshakespeare.com.

Actors who are 7-18 years old make up the Young Shakespeare Players, whose free performances are in Madison. The youths learn to perform Shakespeare works in their original, uncut form. There are no auditions; the goal is to make this playwright’s works (and that of others) accessible, fun and meaningful to all ages. “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet” begin in July. For more, call (608) 258-0015 or go to www.ysp.org.

The Milwaukee Shakespeare Festival, although self-described as a year-round enterprise, actually doesn’t begin its 2003-04 season until this fall at UW-Milwaukee’s Mainstage Theatre. Productions will be “As You Like It,” starting Oct. 24; “The Tempest,” Feb. 7; and “Titus Andronicus,” April 23. For more, call (414) 298-9929 or go to www.spookynetdesign.com/milshakes/contact.html.


Last, here is a sampling of outdoor Shakespeare options in cities that are near Wisconsin.
Shakespeare in the Park is a nonprofit endeavor of professional actors and directors in Minneapolis area. This summer’s play is “Twelfth Night,” which will be presented at several parks from July 4 to Aug. 9. Admission is free. For more, call (952) 979-1126 or go to www.shakespeareinthepark.org.

Nine theater companies will call Theater on the Lake, Chicago, home this summer. It is a former open-air sanitarium for babies with tuberculosis. Offerings include “500 Clown Macbeth,” a comic spoof that’s on until June 29, and “Julius Caesar,” by Strawdog Theater, July 16-20. At Fullerton Avenue and Lake Michigan, tickets are $15. Call (312) 742-7994 or go to www.chicagoparkdistrict.com for more.

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Bloomington, describes itself online as one of the best in the country. Offerings include “As You Like It” and “King Lear.” The outdoor theater is at Ewing Manor; production ends in early August. For more, call (309) 438-8974 or go to www.thefestival.org.

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier, provides year-round attention to the playwright. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opens – indoors – in mid July. For more, call (312) 595-5600 or go to www.chicagoshakes.com.