If Memorial Day Weekend is as good as it gets, then it never will be warm enough to enjoy an open-air show in 2013. But one lives in hope, for theater al frescoShakespeare in sunshine or summer stock under the starsis as much a Midwest tradition as betting against the Cubs. And so it should be, with so many beautiful outdoor theaters in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Some do the classics and some do contemporary works, but none is more than a few hours' drive away. Here's a rundown by state, with Chicago options reserved for last.
Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Bloomington-Normal, July 5-Aug. 10Surrounded by rich farmland, Bloomington-Normal is a bastion of Victorian B&B's and country stores as well as the home of Beer Nuts. For 36 years it's hosted the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, housed on the charming, gardened grounds of Ewing Manor, a once-private estate where plays are performed in an intimate, purpose-built amphitheater. The repertory season this year includes The Comedy of Errors and Macbeth plus Failure: A Love Story, a play by Philip Dawkins set in Chicago, which had its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater last November. Info: www.thefestival.org
Lakeside Shakespeare Theatre, Frankfort, July 23-Aug. 2It's 10 years since well-known Chicago actor Elizabeth Laidlaw founded this little company on the shores of Lake Michigan, and it's truly been a labor of love offering Shakespeare to Michigan's far north top end. Grouping together fellow Chicago artists and local folk, Lakeside Shakes will offer Romeo and Juliet and The Comedy of Errors in a two-week rotating repertory in the woods of Tank Hill. The sets and costumes may not rival those of larger and older Shakespeare troupes, but all performances are free. Lakeside Shakes is a very short drive from Traverse City and is the southern gateway to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Info: www.lakesideshakespeare.org
American Folklore Theatre, Fish Creek, June 12-Aug. 24For its 23rd season, American Folklore Theatre (AFT) offers three original, American-themed, family-friendly musicals in an outdoor amphitheater within Peninsula State Park in Door County. Returning from previous season are Muskie Love (two Wisconsin fishing guides fall in love) and Loose Lips Sink Ships (female workers the Sturgeon Bay shipyards during World War II), playing in repertory with the world premiere of Windjammer, a tale of sailing on Lake Michigan in the 1870's. Info: www.folkloretheatre.com
American Players Theatre, Spring Green, June 8-Oct. 20Set on 110 beautiful, wooded acres above the Wisconsin River, American Players Theatre (APT) has an 1148-seat outdoor classical stage and an intimate indoor space. The troupe's 44th season offers Hamlet and Two Gentlemen of Verona in repertory with works by Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller, Brian Friel and Somerset Maugham. APT is just a hop/skip from Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin and the bucolic pleasures of fishing, swimming, tubing and canoeing on the Wisconsin River. www.americanplayers.org
Door Shakespeare Festival, Bailey's Harbor, July 5-Aug. 18Love's Labours Lost and Macbeth are the repertory plays for the 15th continuous season of this company, located on the "quiet" Eastern short of the Door Peninsula not far from lovely Whitefish Dunes State Park. Door Shakes itself is set within the beautiful acreage of Bjorklunden, once a private estate, with gardens and hiking trails and frontage on Lake Michigan. Info: www.doorshakespeare.com
Peninsula Players, Fish Creek, June 11-Oct. 20The justly-famous Peninsula Players is one of the premiere summer stock theaters in the nation, and the oldest (78th season). Come back in a couple of weeks and see the popular resident players (many of them familiar Chicago performers) in a different show. This year's five-show season includes Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, plus a knock-about farce, a murder mystery, a family comedy and a Western with an 1871 setting. The wooded grounds offer lovely sunset views over Green Bay before the show and a warming bonfire after each performance, at which an actor is offered as a burnt sacrifice. FYI: while the sides are open to the breezes, audiences are comfortably seated in a roofed pavilion. Info: www. peninsulaplayers.com
Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks, multiple venues, July 26-Aug. 25The Comedy of Errors almost certainly is coming to a park near you, and it's free thanks to Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Chicago Park District, Boeing and BMO Harris Bank. This is only the second year for this program but it's growing like crazy and will span 26 performances in 18 parks this summer. Like traveling players of yore, the troupe rolls inliterallyon a truck with sound, lights and a fold-down stage. All performances (except one) are at 4 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. to make the time family-friendly. Info: www.chicagoshakes.com
First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Forest Preserve, Oakbrook, June 19-July 21Once upon a time the estate of a coal magnate, the Mayslake Peabody Estate Forest Preserve has been home for 13 years to First Folio Theatre. The company now offers a Fall-Spring indoor season, but the highlight for many remains its original idea: Shakespeare outdoors in the garden setting of the old estate. This year the offering is the rarely-produced late romance, Cymbeline, revisited as Cymbeline, A Folk Tale with Music, and given a setting in Civil War-era Appalachia with original blue grass songs. Info: www.firstfolio.org
Oak Park Festival Theatre, Austin Gardens, Oak Park Historic District, June 13-Aug. 24This is the 39th season of this charming venue, where fireflies sparkle in the woods and rabbits hop about and Hamlet gets stabbed right between the two big trees. This year offers Amadeus (June 13-July 13) and Twelfth Night (July 18-Aug. 24). Oak Park Festival continues to draw top acting and directing talent as well as dedicated audiences. You don't even have to drive (although parking is easy to find), as the CTA Green Line drops you a very short walk away. Info: www.oakparkfestival.com
Cirque Shanghai Dragon's Thunder, Pepsi Skyline Stage, Navy Pier, through Sept. 2After a shaky start in 2006, Cirque Shanghai has become one of Navy Pier's chief summertime commercial attractions with its offerings of Cirque de Soleil-type acrobatics, feats of strength and flying acts. This year's edition, Dragon's Thunder adds daredevil motorcyclists and a coterie of both male and female drummers, some dressed in elaborate costumes directly out of classical Peking Opera. The 75-minute show is offered up to three times a day in the roofed-over but open-to-the-breeze Skyline Stage. Info: www.navypier.com/cirqueshanghai/
Theater on the Lake, Fullerton Avenue at the lakefront, June 12-Aug. 11The little pavilion at the foot of Fullerton originally was a tuberculosis sanitarium andto tell the truthit isn't the greatest theater in town, but the setting is charming, the ticket price is modest, you're protected from the rain (although not from the breezes, hot or cold as they may be), the CTA is close or you can ride your bike, and it's the only place in town to see one-week revivals of some of the best off-Loop hit shows from the regular season, eight shows in eight weeks. This year's reprises range from a drag comedy to family-friendly frolics from troupes such as The New Colony, MPAACT, Theatre Oobleck, The Den and Barrel of Monkeys. Info: www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/events/theater-on-the-lake
As you would with any summertime outdoor activities, bring insect repellent, sunblock and something warm at night (no, we don't mean your girl/boyfriend). Check details online of seating arrangements, accessibility and food/drink offerings as well as if picnics are encouraged (mostly yes). The websites for out-of-town theaters also will have information on local housing options, other non-theater activities and special events (many free) in addition to the regular performances. Enjoy, but stay warm!!