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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Summer breeze: Enjoying theater outdoors
Extended for the Online Edition
by Scott C. Morgan
2008-05-28

This article shared 3922 times since Wed May 28, 2008
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Why perform theater outdoors? Many theater administrators loftily cite how they're carrying on ancient Greek and Shakespearean traditions by performing in the open air. But in Chicago, you can also factor in the desire to bring theater out to people who want to enjoy summer weather after many winter months being cooped up inside.

Pictured: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Photo by Frank Farrell. The Latino Theatre Festival makes a splash this summer. Photo courtesy of Marta Carrasco

As expected, there is Shakespeare on tap from Oak Brook-based First Folio Shakespeare Festival and the Oak Park Festival Theatre. Unfortunately they're slightly overlapping with dueling productions of Much Ado About Nothing.

But a few other companies are trying something different when it comes to combining theater and the outdoors.

GroundUp Theatre also has Much Ado About Nothing on its summer bill, which is presented free in multiple Chicago parks. But pay attention to which characters wear the pants, since GroundUp continues its tradition of changing the genders of a few Shakespearean characters.

For GroundUp's Much Ado ( which has been designed to have a Victorian-industrial look known as 'steam punk' ) the heroine Hero becomes male and her fiancee Claudio becomes Claudia. The villain Don John also has his gender switched, though the scheming underlings will still be male.

'We're a feminist theater company,' explained technical director Don Johnson. 'We do gender-bending to give women artists better roles and to explore how women and men interact in a different light.'

Along with its different approach to Shakespeare, Johnson points out how GroundUp's outdoor shows are great for families. Not only is there the cheap price, but the casual park setting allows kids to come and go if their interest wanes.

Theatre-Hikes also likes trumpet its family-friendly Shakespeare, through for different reasons. Since audiences have to hike to different locales during the play throughout Lisle's Morton Arboretum or Chicago's North Park Village Nature Center, it's like a series of mini-recesses for kids to let their energy out.

'Kids are twitchy,' says Morton Arboretum special events Marilyn Baysek. 'They're quite able to sit through a 15-to-20-minute scene when they know they can walk and dash around in a moment.'

The Taming of the Shrew is this year's Theatre-Hikes Shakespeare offering, but far more remarkable is what could be the world's first theater 'Bike-Hike.'

Theatre-Hikes Artistic Director Frank Farrell found the perfect show to utilize Morton Arboretum's many bike trails with the 1980s off-Broadway romantic comedy Key Exchange. The mature-audiences-only play is set in New York's Central Park and deals with a couple whose relationship has moved to the stage where they're ready to exchange each other's apartment keys. Instead of walking, audience cycle between scenes.

'Morton Arboretum has taken full advantage of the whole biking concept,' Farrell said. 'They're even throwing a 'Central Park Picnic' party after each show with cocktails and more.'

If Theatre-Hikes adds a new component to its tradition of combining nature's beauty, live performance and physical wellness, Walkabout Theatre Company does its part by emphasizing ties between current and historical environmental green trends.

With the world-premiere comedy War Garden, director and performer Seth Bockley takes his inspiration from history and the growth of urban community gardens. During World War I, there was an incident where a Chicago ladies auxiliary group struggled to convince Civil War veteran ( and land squatter ) Capt. George Streeter to let them grow a war garden ( later called victory gardens during World War II ) in his Streeterville neighborhood.

Bockley exaggerates the argument into a full-fledged farcical war with plenty of patriotic American songs ( with new lyrics about gardening ) and jokes about Streeterville condominiums. What's even more significant is that War Garden is to be performed at actual Chicago community gardens.

'I was so surprised at how much the impact that war gardens and victory gardens had,' Bockley said. 'When you look at the agricultural impact and the current local gardening movement, it's a wake-up call to show that these green ideas are not so new.'

Some of Bockley's inspiration also grows from his work with Redmoon Theatre, which is known for its outdoor park spectaculars which have drawn audiences of thousands through the years. Walkabout's War Garden has a few zany contraptions and set pieces reminiscent of Redmoon's work, while the democratic outdoor performance aspect also has a connection to Redmoon.

'I'm very interested in taking theater out of its typical contained environment,' Bockley said. 'All too often theater can seem aloof or inaccessible to many people. When we're outdoors, people can run into it and participate.'

Conspicuously missing from this summer season is a giant Redmoon Theatre outdoor park spectacular. According to Redmoon artistic director Jim Lasko, Redmoon has a few smaller-scale guerilla-type outdoor appearances in the works, but a full-fledged show is in the works for September 2009.

In the meantime, Lasko is all for other companies braving the elements to take theater to the people.

'The more we can do to bring theater back into the center of public life, the less marginalized it will be,' Lasko said. 'I really believe in outdoor theater since it activates public spaces and it's a vital enterprise in bringing a centrality to our culture.'

—Walkabout Theater Company's War Garden plays 12 performances at six Chicago community gardens June 13-July 27. $10 suggested donation. Call 773-527-0341 for more information.

—Theatre-Hikes' 2008 season from June to October includes: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Taming of the Shrew, Dracula and the special Bike Hike performance of Key Exchange for mature audiences. Most performances are at The Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle, but a few are at North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski, Chicago. Pricing varies depending upon the show and location. Visit theatre-hikes.org or call 773-293-1358 for more information.

—GroundUp Theatre's Much Ado About Nothing plays 14 performances at seven Chicago parks between June 21 and Aug. 10. Free, but donations appreciated. Call 773-764-9916 or visit grounduptheatre.com for more information.

—The Oak Park Festival Theatre also performs Much Ado About Nothing June 11-July 19 and Dancing at Lughnasa July 23-Aug. 23 at Austin Gardens, at the intersection of Ontario and Forest avenues in Oak Park. $17-$22. Call 708-445-4440 or visit oakparfestival.com .

—First Folio Shakespeare Festival also performs Much Ado About Nothing from July 11 to Aug. 17 at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st, Oak Brook. $21-$26. 630-986-8067

—Redmoon Theatre's next outdoor park spectacular is tentatively planned for September 2009. In the meantime, The Temporarium party allows you to see some of Redmoon's spectacular contraptions used in previous shows from 9 p.m. to midnight June 6-7 at Redmoon Central, 1463 W. Hubbard, Chicago. $30. Visit redmoon.org or call 312-850-8440 ext. 111.


This article shared 3922 times since Wed May 28, 2008
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