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Shakespeare in the Park Moves to the Marcus Center

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ opens LIVE @ Peck Pavilion

Jun. 27, 2017
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In a dream move, Optimist Theatre will present the eighth season of its free outdoor Shakespeare in the Park at the Marcus Center’s Peck Pavilion, the state-of-the-art outdoor stage in Downtown Milwaukee. The show is the comedy Much Ado About Nothing. The first-rate cast includes Kelley Faulkner and Todd Denning as the would-be lovers Beatrice and Benedick, Michael Stebbins as Prince Don Pedro, Jonathan Wainwright as his conniving bastard brother Don John, and Jim Pickering as the dimwitted local sheriff, Dogberry. Di’Monte Henning plays the rash Claudio, Candace Thomas the slandered Hero and David Flores her quick-tempered father.

Associate Artistic Director Tom Reed codirects with his wife—company dramaturg and script editor, ML Cogar. With Susan Scott Fry and her husband Ron, respectively executive director and artistic director, they’re the cofounders and volunteer producers of this highly regarded, popular yet bootstrap theater company.

Like Shakespeare’s plays, the tale of Optimist Theatre is rich in plot and characters. What began in 1993 as Midwest Children’s Theatre morphed in 2008 when the Scott Frys left their gigs at Kenosha’s Bristol Renaissance Faire to move to Milwaukee in search of a new direction. They noticed there was no summer Shakespeare in town.

“So, I got a focus group together,” Susan Scott Fry says. “I started networking. I noticed that Milwaukee Public Theatre had a similar mission of community-wide entertainment and education. I met MPT Artistic Director Barbara Leigh, who introduced us to Mask and Puppet Theatre Artistic Director Max Samson, who introduced us to Tom and ML in 2009 when we all worked on Max and Barbara’s All City People’s Parade.” 

Tom Reed was a member of then-expiring Milwaukee Shakespeare Theatre and, with Todd Denning and actor Brian Miracle, was working to keep Shakespeare performance alive here. As Scott Fry put it, “I was wondering how to start Shakespeare in the Park, and Tom was wondering how to keep Shakespeare going.” Reed gathered the cofounders in a small acoustically workable courtyard at Alverno College, where he teaches theater. They chose the name Optimist Theatre. “We crossed our fingers that we could trust each other,” Reed explains, “and in 2010, we did The Tempest in that courtyard. I remember opening night visibly, thinking, ‘It’s free and we’re paying actors and, yeah, we just made this happen!’”

Soon the courtyard proved too small. By Macbeth, the third summer, they were turning audiences away. At the invitation of County Parks Director Sue Black, they explored potential county park sites. When Black was unexpectedly fired mid-search, Alderman Nik Kovac suggested the small amphitheater under construction in Kadish Park along Commerce Street above the Milwaukee River. A county park, Kadish is managed by the COA Youth and Family Center located on its grounds. Susan Scott Fry remembers that COA Director Tom Schneider laughed when she asked if the amphitheater might house Shakespeare in the Park. It was exactly what he’d hoped to have there.

Four summers later, they’d outgrown the amphitheater. When they approached Marcus Center Director of Programming John Hassig, his response was like Schneider’s. His “LIVE @ Peck Pavilion” summer series shares the mission of free performances for the whole community. He’d seen young Summit Players Theatre stage Shakespeare successfully at the Peck in last summer’s Milwaukee Fringe Festival. He opened his arms to the Optimists. The 12 July performances of Much Ado will open “LIVE @ Peck” this summer. 

“It’s Shakespeare for the people,” Reed says, raising his fist. “The way we work is collaborative, and we use all local performers, which keeps the storytelling close to the audience because we all live here.” Scott Fry adds, “Our shows are grounded in the text, but we don’t have preconceived notions based on the way they’ve traditionally been performed. We take a fresh look with the actors.”

Reed viewed last summer’s production of Julius Caesar as a warning of national trouble ahead. “But it’s such a heavy time right now,” he says, “that I wanted to do something that was fun. I think Much Ado is fun. But it’s also relevant in that it shows how people rush to fit things to their own motives without really checking the facts. Like during our election season, people went into these big rallies and heard the one thing that could set them off emotionally, and they were set off. But there’s no fact behind it.”

Indeed, truth and trust are big concerns. “Speak low, if you speak love,” Don Pedro advises Hero. Shakespeare’s main subject in the comedy would seem to be the importance of defining love as mutual understanding and respect. The wrestling of Beatrice and Benedick to arrive at such a relationship dominates the play, if not the plot.

As Reed says, “Who can make you madder than anybody else? The person you really, really love.”

July 6-22 at the Marcus Center’s Peck Pavilion, 929 N. Water St. These performances are free and open to the public. For performance times and more more information, visit optimisttheatre.org.

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