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A ‘Midsummer’ treat from Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks

Chicago Shakespeare Parks | PHOTO BY JULIE STANTON

Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks | PHOTO BY JULIE STANTON

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Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

— Gateway Park at Navy Pier on July 18 and 19 at 6:30 p.m.

— Parks scheduled to be visited, rain or shine, include:

— Garfield Park Conservatory (July 20); Tuley Park (July 22); Dvorak Park (July 23 and 24); Loyola Park (July 25 and 26); Washington Park (July 27); Riis Park (July 29); Piotrowski Park (July 30); Gage Park (July 31); Hamilton Park (Aug. 1); Frank J. Wilson Park (Aug. 2 and 3); Humboldt Park (Aug. 7); Welles Park (Aug. 8 and 9); Columbus Park (Aug. 10); Marquette Park (Aug. 12); Ridge Park (Aug. 13); South Shore Cultural Center (Aug. 14 and 15); Eckhart Park (Aug. 16 and 17)

Performances on Tues.-Sat. begin at 6:30 p.m.; Sunday performances begin at 4 p.m. (The Garfield Park Conservatory performance on July 20 will begin at 3 p.m.)

— Admission is free at all sites

— Visit www.chicagoshakes.com/parks

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Get ready for Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks, take three: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Launched in the summer of 2012, and greatly expanded in the summer of 2013, this project of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (CST) — created to bring admission-free, family-friendly productions of Shakespeare’s plays to parks throughout the city — was devised to coincide with both the letter and the spirit of the city’s then newly issued Cultural Plan. And within just a few seasons — with support from the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District, as well as a founding corporate sponsor (The Boeing Company), and a production sponsor (BMO Harris Bank) — it has taken on a life of its own.

To be sure, Shakespeare al fresco is not a new idea. The open-air productions at New York’s Delacorte Theatre in Central Park have been summertime staples for decades, as have the Oak Park Festival’s productions staged in Austin Gardens. And the list goes on and on. But Chicago Shakespeare’s movable stage is special: It takes Shakespeare far beyond the confines of a home base as it literally rolls into each neighborhood park in the form of a specially equipped truck that unfolds into a stage.

In its first summer, a production of “The Taming of the Shrew” visited 10 parks and attracted about 10,000 people. And last summer it nearly doubled its efforts, with a production of “The Comedy of Errors” drawing about 20,000 people to 18 different park sites.

This time around, it is David H. Bell’s high-energy, deftly condensed, 75-minute edition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (initially mounted as a Short Shakespeare show on CST’s mainstage), that will visit 18 parks, with 26 performances running July 18-Aug. 17. And it’s a good bet this ever popular romantic comedy — which moves from city to forest, and involves royalty, mismatched lovers, workmen moonlighting as actors, and a group of mischievous, potion-dispensing fairies — will prove an ideal fit for audiences who also can kick back and picnic on the grass.

“I was an artistic rolling stone for nearly all my life, until I finally settledbegan in Chicago and teaching at Northwestern University not long ago,” said Bell, who heads the school’s Music Theatre program. “And I have to say it wasn’t until last summer, when I looked out at the audience in one of the parks where we were performing, and realized the show had become part of the geography, that I felt like a true part of the community. It was a humbling experience, and one that made me feel really proud.”

“Over the years I’ve seen many show at the Delacorte in New York, in Regents’ Park in London, and at Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires. And what I always loved was the sense of collusion between the park and the story being told. ‘Midsummer’ makes that connection perfectly, with all of the comedy and the magic taking place when the characters head into the forest. That’s also why I’ve made the overall look of this production vaguely Edwardian. I wanted it to be clear that people were leaving the strictures of society and the court behind, and that their usual propriety was being dismantled ‘in the wild’.”

Asked if he thought Shakespeare’s comedies were the only surefire hits for the parks, Bell said: “Not at all. I think ‘Macbeth’ would be really interesting in this environment, and ‘Henry V,’ with its battles and its sense of civic responsibility, could be brilliant in the parks, too. I’ll be doing ‘Pericles’ on the mainstage next season, and though it’s a lesser known work, I’ve learned it was one of the most popular in Shakespeare’s time. It’s a sort of dark action-adventure story, so that might work, too.”

As for musicals, Bell (who is about to stage “On the Town,” the great Leonard Bernstein/Comden & Green show at the Marriott Theatre), is all for it. But Chicago Shakespeare’s executive director, Criss Henderson, wants to remain closer to the mission, at least for now.

“Of course we’re thinking ahead to 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death,” he said. “So we’ll be looking at a lot of different things.”



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