One bonus of outdoor theater? When Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar” cries, “Let slip the dogs of war,” there might be actual dogs. And bees. And anachronistic jets to drown out Antony’s every word.
Outdoor theater season picks up speed in Minnesota this week, with two William Shakespeare comedies — “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “The Comedy of Errors” — opening in separate parkland settings. For the next 12 weeks or so, there are more options than you’d expect for open-air drama.
Another bonus: A hat may be passed but, with few exceptions, most shows are free. Here are six outdoor theater events coming soon to Minnesota.
1. Shakespeare on the Point
Part of Stillwater’s Zephyr Theatre, Shakespeare on the Point occupies a very specific niche: water-adjacent Shakespearean comedies.
The setting is Bayport Marina, where actors perform on a peninsula that juts into the St. Croix River. The setting nicely complemented last season’s “Twelfth Night,” featuring characters who have been shipwrecked. Hopefully it will go just as swimmingly this year with “Comedy of Errors,” in which the principals have just arrived by boat.
One note for the actors: Be ready for waterfowl.
“Geese on the river can get super-loud. Some duck/geese fight interrupted a scene last year,” recalled artistic director Calyssa Hall, who added that props sometimes blow away mid-scene on the windy point.
Next year, she hopes to stage Shakespeare’s blowiest play — “The Tempest,” in which a storm strands characters on a remote island — on an isle in the St. Croix.
Tickets: $18-$45, stillwaterzephyrtheatre.org.
Where to find it: June 20-30, Bayport Marina, Bayport.
Who’s it for? “It’s one of Shakespeare’s shortest shows, which makes it pretty kid-friendly, and there’s lots of slapstick,” Hall said.
Seating? There are risers, but patrons can keep it cozy by bringing blankets.
Picnics welcome? Yes. Nearby Mallards Restaurant & Lounge also serves wine.
2. Open Eye Figure Theatre Driveway Tour
For 17 years, Open Eye has hauled its puppet theater to the people — in parks, backyards and, yes, private driveways (always by invitation of a host).
This season, the company carts a trio of free family-friendly theatrical works to locations throughout the Twin Cities area. “The Adventures of Katie Tomatie” stars a girl who encounters the unexpected while planting a garden. Performed in Spanish and English, the animal-themed “The Adventures of Juan Bobo” is inspired by folk tales from Puerto Rico. A cat and her friend stage a show in the sand for “Ms. Marvel’s Sandbox Circus.” Tour coordinator Declan Lowthian said of the new “Ms. Marvel”: “It’s almost totally nonverbal. You get to see some unique puppetry tricks that even I have never come across before.”
Where to find it: Various locations through August; check openeyetheatre.org for details.
Who’s it for? All ages.
Seating? “A lot of hosts will set out blankets, especially for the kids, who we like to put as close as possible to up front,” Lowthian said.
Picnics welcome? Many hosts provide snacks, but you can also bring your own.
3. Stevie Ray’s Improv in the Park
Sometimes improv is not just funny; it’s also refreshing. Perhaps a little too refreshing.
Several years ago, the Stevie Ray troupe got doused while working at the Rose Garden near Minneapolis’ Lake Harriet.
“There was some kind of computer glitch in the thing that controls the irrigation systems so, right in the middle of the show, we had probably 300 people sitting on the grass on blankets and, next thing you know, all the sprayers went off at once. It was Armageddon, with people grabbing their stuff to run and hide,” said Ray, whose troupe’s home base is Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.
The al fresco improv idea originated with a marketer, addressing the challenge of getting fans to show up in the summer. As Ray recalled: “The marketer said, ‘Go where the audience is. You’re trying to get them to go where you don’t even want to go: inside.’ One troupe member said, ‘Well, there’s Shakespeare in the park. Why not do improv?’ ”
They’ve been doing just that for 21 seasons.
Where to find it: 7 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 25, City Center Park Plaza, Chanhassen.
Who’s it for? Other improv shows get racy, but, Ray said, “because this is for our outdoor season, it’s appropriate for all ages.”
Seating? The courtyard has tiers, to improve sightlines, but it may be comfier to bring a lawn chair.
Picnics welcome? Yes.
4. Classical Actors Ensemble
Director Joseph Papke views it as a plus that “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is “very few people’s favorite” Shakespeare play.
His farcical take on “Merry Wives” is updated to the 1960s and focused on women avenging themselves against a duplicitous man. “We said, ‘Let’s keep what works, what is objectively funny.’ This isn’t ‘Hamlet.’ We can cut it and people aren’t going to freak out,” Papke said.
In six years of offering free outdoor Shakespeare, Classical Actors Ensemble has played through rainstorms and been upstaged by a guy catching a huge carp from Lake of the Isles.
But bees are the most painful problem.
“The guy who played Don Armado for us in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ had to crawl on the ground and somehow, in the process of crawling, a bee stung him right next to his right eye. So, for the latter half of the show, it looked like he was in ‘Rocky III,’ ” Papke said.
Where to find it: Various locations June 21-July 21; check classicalactorsensemble.org for details and to reserve (free) tickets.
Who’s it for? “There’s an age where kids start to react to physical comedy and playfulness, both of which there’s plenty of in our shows,” Papke said. Otherwise, the company leaves the decision to parents.
Seating? Varies by location, but chairs and blankets are always welcome.
Picnics welcome? Encouraged, even.
5. Detroit Lakes Shakespeare in the Park
The venue preceded the event for Detroit Lakes Shakespeare in the Park, created by Nikki Caulfield in 2009. She kept passing the town’s “awesome” band shell and thought to herself, why not?
The company has free performances of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” this year, but Caulfield said they’ve done well with tragedies, too. There was an especially memorable performance of the violent “Titus Andronicus” a couple of years back.
“As Titus was about to slit the throats of two boys who are tied up, on their knees, with blood packs in their collars, a big boxer ran up to the boys and started licking their faces,” Caulfield recalled. “So they got the giggles.”
The artistic director went on to marvel at her lead actor’s ability to stay in the Bard’s signature iambic pentameter rhythm while improvising a speech about dogs.
Another time, a guy riding a scooter drove right up onstage during the “Romeo and Juliet” balcony scene, making the tragic lovers’ “sweet sorrow” parting even more difficult.
Where to find it: June 27-July 7, Detroit Lakes City Park.
Who’s it for? The band shell is easy to drop in and out of, so you can escape quickly if it turns out someone’s having a short-attention-span day.
Seating? “Bring blankets or your own chairs because there are benches available, but they’re pretty uncomfortable,” Caulfield advised.
Picnics welcome? “The only thing I ask is: No crinkly bags,” she said.
6. Mixed Precipitation’s Picnic Operetta
Tennis hadn’t been invented when Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” premiered in 1791 — it’s about murder, jealousy and revenge among Rome’s nobility.
That didn’t stop Mixed Precipitation from transposing these court shenanigans to the tennis court, mixing Mozart’s soaring music with New Wave hits from the 1980s. (This sort of mash-up is the company’s specialty.)
“The Clemency of Tito’s Tennis Club” sets the backstabbing during a tournament in the shadows of ominous Mount Vesuvius. The show tours to gardens around the Twin Cities area and well beyond (as far north as New York Mills and as far south as Wykoff), usually incorporating local greenery into the show.
The company has added several sites this year but also returns to favorites such as St. Louis Park’s Bronx Garden, where the roar of a passing train often compels the actors and musicians to pause for a hula hoop dance party.
Tickets: $10-$20 suggested donation.
When? Various locations Aug. 11-Sept. 29; check mixedprecipitation.org for details.
Who’s it for? Everyone who doesn’t hate fun.
Seating? Mostly on the ground at the park, so it’s never a bad idea to pack an army blanket or folding chairs.
Picnics welcome? Yes, but Picnic Operetta also celebrates the harvest season with delicious rounds of food. At half a dozen key points in the play, themed appetizers are passed throughout the audience.