Milwaukee doubles down on Shakespeare this weekend

Both Optimist Theatre and the Alchemist Theatre open works by the Bard this Friday, the first performing "As You Like It" and the second "King Lear."

By - Jul 11th, 2013 04:00 am
Rosalind (L) and Lear are the two (very different) protagonists taking shape on Milwaukee stages this month. (Left painting by Robert Walker Macbeth; right painting by William Dyce.)

Rosalind (L) and Lear are the two (very different) protagonists taking shape on Milwaukee stages this month. (Left painting by Robert Walker Macbeth; right painting by William Dyce.)

Been looking for a little Shakespeare in your life? The Bard’s works haven’t been plentiful in Milwaukee in recent months, but they’re making up for it this weekend with not one, but two Shakespearean premieres: mistaken-identity comedy As You Like It, produced for Optimist Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park, and the bloody tragedy King Lear, staged by the Alchemist Theatre to close its season.

This marks the first time artistic director Aaron Kopec and the Alchemist Theatre has taken on Shakespeare, but director Leda Hoffman says the play naturally fits the company’s recent set of shows, tagged as the Year of Fear. The tragedy tells the story of a king who divides his kingdom among his daughters, only to see his kingdom, family and life decay and collapse into chaos.

King Lear has the most gore of Shakespeare’s plays,” said Hoffman. “It’s a tragedy about human beings who are just brutal to each other.”

Hoffman has embraced the Alchemist’s intimate setting, but packed it full with cast and crew. She’s welcomed 17 actors and a 10-person production team to realize her vision.

AlchemistLear“No one plays more than one character—usually Shakespeare requires that they do,” said Hoffman. “It was a challenge to create King Lear so that everyone’s story gets told, but I think the 60-seat house helps with that. We really had to focus in on the story, in a relatable and creative manner.”

Kopec has relinquished his directorial seat, opting instead to design the set, which Hoffman says is not meant to suggest any particular time – rather, it is in a “specific world.” “Things that are man-made and those that are natural really encounter one another,” Hoffman said. “Aaron has created a beautiful, abstract set to tell the story. Fluid scene changes and sound design are really important.”

On the opposite end of the spatial spectrum, Optimist Theatre brings back its free Shakespeare in the Park series this weekend, performing in the COA’s expansive new outdoor amphitheater in Alice Bertschy Kadish Park. With a matching $20,000 donation from BMO Harris Bank, along with grants and private donations, Optimist Theatre will transform the Riverwest park into the Forest of Arden, setting for As You Like It.

AsYouLikeItAs You Like It, like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, blends romance, societal expectations, mistaken identity and bawdy humor. In this case, the primary characters are Rosalind, the daughter of an exiled duke who herself goes into hiding with her close friend Celia, and Orlando, the youngest, persecuted son of another wealthy family, who cross paths while wandering through the woods and find themselves drawn together.

Optimist’s associate artistic director, Tom Reed, is particularly excited to take on As You Like It this year due to its large number of significant female roles – Rosalind, in particular, is the largest female role Shakespeare ever wrote. That’s not always a given in Shakespeare’s plays, or other Elizabethan dramas of the time.

As You Like It also features a large cast of young actors – a strategic move Reed says lines up with Optimist’s very motivations as a theater company. “Part of our mission statement is to educate the next generation of actors,” said Reed. “If we do that, they’re likely to stay around Milwaukee to perform, and we can really grow our artistic community.”

So what of that lovely new venue?

“In the past, Shakespeare in the Park was performed south of Milwaukee at Alverno College. Kadish Park not only provides the best view of Milwaukee, but it’s centrally located. It’s surrounded by Milwaukee’s most diverse neighborhoods. It’s important to us that this reaches everybody.”

Hoffman agrees that growing awareness of theater in Milwaukee is critical.

“I’ve just been astounded by all the collaboration and new ideas coming from the theater community,” said Hoffman. “Everyone involved is so committed to growing Shakespeare in Milwaukee—it’s a beautiful thing I’ve discovered. They all really care.”

The Alchemist Theatre’s King Lear premieres at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 12. Performances run Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through July 27. Tickets are $20 online or $23 at the door. *NOTE: Friday’s premiere is currently SOLD OUT.

Optimist Theatre’s As You Like It premieres at 8 p.m. Friday, July 12, with performances through July 14 and again the following weekend, July 18-21. Access to the amphitheater’s free, open-air seating begins at 7 p.m., and bringing your own food and drink, picnic-style, is encouraged.

Categories: Theater

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