In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Angela Iannone, James Pickering (center) and Tom Reed play principal roles in Optimist Theatre's "The Tempest."

Free outdoor Shakespeare comes to Milwaukee

Wisconsin is the badger state, but I also consider it the Shakespeare state. Name me any other place in the country that consistently offers the Bard in so many different sizes, shapes and forms.

Shakespeare is at the core of Spring Green's American Players Theatre, which may very well be the best classical stage company in the country. Door Shakespeare opens its 12th fresh air season in Baileys Harbor next month.

The Milwaukee Rep has a history of pouring its deep acting and production resources into a Shakespeare production every few years, and the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has done Shakespeare, too.

Milwaukee Shakespeare developed into a first class company until its funding and life suddenly ended, and its successor group, goats & monkeys, continues to do highly staged readings of the Bard. First Stage Children's Theatre has produced Shakespeare. Off the Wall Theatre and the Boulevard Ensemble Theatre mount Shakespeare in storefront venues Downtown and in Bay View.

Even the edgy Bialystock & Bloom staged Shakespeare before that company shut down. But until now, we have been lacking a style of production that is the only way many people in other parts of the country see "Hamlet," "Macbeth" or "Romeo and Juliet" -- free Shakespeare in the park.

Optimist Theatre is about to change that. The park is actually a three sided courtyard on the Alverno College campus. The play is Shakespeare's early 17th century comic romance, "The Tempest." The production, which will open June 18 and run through June 27, features two of the city's best known actors, James Pickering and Angela Iannone.

It's a gutsy plan from a stage company new to Milwaukee. Optimist Theatre traces its roots to the 17-year-old Midwest Children's Theatre, a Kenosha-based touring troupe that produced original kids plays.

The company was founded by Ron Scot Fry, a Carthage College theater grad who has taught at his alma mater. He also holds a master's degree in drama from the University of Virginia.

While running Midwest Children's and acting in its shows, Scot Fry served as the artistic director of the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha County from 1990 to 2008. It was there he met his wife, Susan Scot Fry, a California businesswoman who scratched a creative itch by performing snippets of Shakespeare on weekends at a Los Angeles-area Renaissance fair owned by the same firm that operates the Bristol facility. When Susan took a job in Chicago, she investigated reprising her Shakespeare work at Bristol.

She ultimately did more than that, marrying the artistic director and becoming the fair's director of marketing and public relations.

The couple decided two years ago they were ready for a major life change and leap of faith. They moved to Milwaukee and began looking for a niche for themselves in the theater community. Midwest Children's Theatre was morphing into Optimist Theatre.

"We felt we were at the perfect age for a big change in our life," Susan said while sitting in their Brewers Hill home. "We're in our late 40s, we have a lot of experience, and we are young enough to have a lot of energy."

The unexpected closing of Milwaukee Shakespeare provided an opening for the Scot Frys. "I was madly in love with that company," Susan said.

Free summer Shakespeare in a park quickly popped into their heads. "We thought it fit what we are good at, outdoor festivals," she continued. "We could take our festival producing experience and Ron's directing experience and do this."

Ron Scot Fry explained that being artistic director of the Bristol Renaissance Faire was similar to running a theater company. "Most Renaissance fairs have an entertainment director whose job it is to find and contract talent. In Bristol we wrote and produced our own material," he said.

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quidam | June 23, 2010 at 12:15 p.m. (report)

Optimist Theatre is a brave and vital new company. Alverno is the perfect hostess and despite the regular alfresco theatre issues like bugs, heat, and volume, this new young theatre has attracted major Milwaukee talent. They deserve to live. THE TEMPEST was most satisfying to watch and I eagerly anticipate their next project.

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