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SUMMER THEATER SPECIAL Theater in the great outdoors
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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When warm weather arrives we remind readers about theater in the Great Outdoors, and list a few of the many possibilities in the city, suburbs and beyond. We don't know if warm weather actually will arrive this year, but tradition says it must if we're just patient a little longer. On that assumption we offer our guide to Theater Under the Sun and Stars!

We focus on Shakespeare—this year being the 400th anniversary of his death and given that most of his plays first were performed in open-air theaters—although not exclusively. In alphabetical order, here are some tried-and-true venues.

—American Players Theatre, Spring Green, Wisconsin—A premier destination theater festival 50 miles west of Madison, American Players Theatre ( APT ) is cheek-by-jowl with Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin and the Wisconsin River ( canoeing, fishing, nude beach ). APT has offered a rotating repertory of classic plays for 37 years, attracting a wide audience from the Upper Midwest and beyond.

Spring Green has country charms, good restaurants and a very good bookstore, while APT is summer home to name Chicago directors such as William Brown and James Bohnen. The company has spectacular wooded grounds on a hillside above the river with plenty of parking, picnic tables and gas-fired grills ( so you can bbq ).

There's a handsome 1,100-seat outdoor amphitheater and a 200-seat air-conditioned indoor space. The Shakespeare offerings for 2016 are The Comedy of Errors and King Lear, plus non-Shakespeare works by Tom Stoppard, Sarah Ruhl ( her wonderful take on the Eurydice legend ), Oscar Wilde, Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett among others in a nine-play rotating repertory, June 3-Oct. 30;; $47-$85.

—Door Shakespeare, Bjorklunden Estate, Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin—Wisconsin's popular Door County is home to Door Shakespeare, offering outdoor classics since 1995 on the beautifully-wooded grounds of a former private estate of over 400 acres, on the so-called "quiet side" of the Door peninsula facing the body of Lake Michigan ( vs. Green Bay ). Bjorklunden offers forest and garden walks, gorgeous views over the lake and picnic grounds. This season's shows are Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night's Dream, running in repertory June 29-Aug. 20;; $29. FYI: Door Shakespeare is a more intimate and informal venue than, say, American Players Theatre or Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

—First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, Oak Brook, Illinois—For its 20th outdoor season, First Folio offers a play perfectly suited to an open-air garden setting, Shakespeare's romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, July 6-Aug. 14. First Folio sits on the rolling and lovely grounds of a once-private estate, and you really will think you're in the country as love in an enchanted forest plays out in the suburbs of Chicago. Plenty of free parking; picnics encouraged. First Folio operates year-round as well, within the restored Peabody Mansion;; $29-$39.

—Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Bloomington, Illinois—On the handsome, landscaped lawn of Tudoresque Ewing Manor stands a modern amphitheater where Illinois Shakespeare Festival ( ISF ) will stage Twelfth Night, Hamlet and the non-Shakespeare Peter and the Starcatcher ( a prequel to Peter Pan and a family-friendly show ) in repertory, July 5-Aug. 13. Stay two days and see all three plays at this destination festival and enjoy the Victorian architecture of Bloomington, the freshly sourced restaurants, country antiquing and Victorian B&Bs.

The ISF has been going strong since 1978, supplementing the plays with picnicking on the garden grounds and strolling minstrels for your pre-show pleasure;; $16-$47. FYI: The ISF also is presenting Rodeo, by Chicago-based gay playwright Philip Dawkins. It's a family-friendly comedy about a cowgirl planning to win the big rodeo, presented free on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, July 9-Aug. 13.

—Lakeside Shakespeare Company, Frankfort, Michigan—Well-known Chicago actor and director Elizabeth Laidlaw founded this company in 2003, offering free summertime Shakespeare to citizens of Benzie County and much of northern Michigan beyond. For its 14th season under Laidlaw's leadership, Lakeside Shakes presents The Winter's Tale and Richard Sheridan's The Rivals in an extremely ambitious rotating rep of only two weeks, July 26-Aug. 5.

Regular theatergoers will recognize names/faces from Chicago. All performances are at Tank Hill ( 188 Park Ave. ) in Frankfort ( on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, south of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore ). Street parking is available and picnics are encouraged; bring your own blanket and low-rise chairs;; free.

—Oak Park Festival Theatre, Austin Gardens, Oak Park—Enjoy the rabbits and fireflies playing in the background as you picnic and watch the sun go down, surrounded by the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District. For its 42nd season, Oak Park Festival offers Shaw's Pygmalion, June 18-July 16 and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, July 23-Aug. 27. Street parking is easy to find nearby, and the CTA Green Line goes there as well;; $29.

Oak Park Festival is partnering ( again ) with The Viola Project, a unique program utilizing Shakespeare's works to unite and empower girls so they may become independent women. The Viola Project will offer two five-day summer theater camps with the Oak Park Festival. Details on the Festival website.

—Shakespeare in the Parks, numerous dates and locations—Several theater companies are offering free performances of Shakespeare in various Chicago public parks over the summer. Check the websites of the individual troupes for details, or go to the Chicago Park District website. Chicago Shakespeare Theater brings a Bard mash-up of scenes from four of his most popular plays to 18 city parks in July and August, traveling around in a big, easily-identified truck ( ). Also, Midsommer Flight returns for the fifth year to Lincoln Park, Touhy Park, Schreiber Park and Gross Park with As You Like It, on Saturdays and Sundays, July 11-Aug. 30 ( ).

As ever with outdoor theater, bring an extra layer for a chilly night and insect repellant and/or sunblock ( for daytime shows ).

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