Play Readings: Excellent, Casual Theater Experiences

Door Shakespeare Series Continues to Please 

If you’ve never been to a play reading, don’t confuse it with the image you might have of people slouching around, snapping their fingers to  bongo-accompanied Beat poetry circa 1955. It’s not like that.

Play readings are very casual affairs during which the actors speak from scripts arrayed on music stands. As professionals, the actors are well prepared – this is certainly no wingin’ it, seat-of-the-pants affair – but there are no props, costumes, fancy lighting effects, sets or movements: just actors, their considerable talents in creating believable characters, some helpful background narration and stage directions, the playwright’s words set forth in the script, and the crucial, secret-sauce component that arrives in the form of the theatergoer’s imagination (which is perhaps underutilized these days) to fill in for the standard theatrical elements that are missing. 

And it works – beautifully. When I attend a play reading, I don’t miss all the theatrical stuff because I’m so engrossed in the story and the power of the storytelling – stripped down to their most essential – and I’m transported to the time and place of the play’s setting.

Such was the case Oct. 14 during the Door Shakespeare Reading Series production of How Shakespeare Won the West, a “somewhat historically accurate but highly fictionalized comedy” – with some musical accompaniment, even – held at Woodwalk Gallery in Egg Harbor. Twelve actors fanned out across the stage area to present a reading of a work by Tony and Olivier Award winner Richard Nelson that was by turns laugh-out-loud funny and heart-breaking. 

It was the tale of an acting troupe cobbled together in New York City with the dream of achieving fame and fortune in California during the Gold Rush. Unable to imagine how grueling the journey would be, the members of the ragtag group slowly plodded west across the American frontier to perform Shakespeare’s works for what they believed would be enthusiastic ’49ers. Though their adventures contained many moments of awe, beauty, bonding, romance and even moving a Native American chief to tears with their rendition of King Lear, they also experienced terror, illness, violence, danger, tragic loss and death. 

Some of the play’s many colorful characters – P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill and Abraham Lincoln – were not works of fiction. Less well known among the real historical characters were popular child actors of the day who presented Shakespearean scenes wearing miniature costumes, and McKean “Buck” Buchanan, an actor who did win over Wild West audiences with his portrayal of Macbeth wearing a cape, riding boots, yellow gauntlets and slouch hat. 

Door Shakespeare’s actors – several of whom played multiple characters and all of whom put a lot of heart and talent into each one – were Neil Brookshire, Scott McKenna Campbell, Amy Ensign (Door Shakespeare’s managing director), Anne Herring, Rayne Kleinofen, Steve Koehler, Alan Kopischke, Jarrod Langwinski, Mark Moede, Katherine Norman, J.J. Smith and Ryan Zierk.

Michael Stebbins, Door Shakespeare’s producing artistic director, directed this funny, quirky, moving second performance in the theater company’s new series of postseason play readings. The event was free, but donations were very much appreciated – and the audience appreciated the chance to enjoy hot beverages and cookies along with the performance. 

The first in Door Shakespeare’s play-reading series was Red Velvet on Sept. 16, and the next one will take place at Björklunden in Baileys Harbor on Dec. 16: a don’t-miss-it evening when Stebbins will present selections from David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice, followed by a holiday reception and a look at the troupe’s 2020 season. 

December will be a big, busy month for Door Shakespeare because its first youth production, Something’s Rotten in the State of Denmark – written by The Bard and Joseph Wallace and directed by Amy Ensign – will precede Holidays on Ice on Dec. 13, 14 and 15, also at Björklunden.

The next time you have a chance to attend a play reading – which is often free and held during the darker, colder months, so it gives you something warm and fascinating to look forward to (I certainly do!) – by all means, go. Theater companies get to try out plays that are perhaps less well known or even premieres, and you, as an audience member, get to experience some excellent theater in a casual setting seated among devoted fans. (Such a bargain, right?) For that reason, arrive early to choose your chair. Seating is (obviously) limited, and as Peninsula Players happily experienced last winter during its play-reading series, crowds can fill the room and then some.

Speaking of Peninsula Players Theatre, check this newspaper in a few months for details about its free, winter play-reading series, The Play’s the Thing, which will take place at Björklunden on Feb. 3, March 2 and April 6. The offerings were excellent last year, and I thoroughly enjoyed Third Avenue Playhouse’s wonderful Winter Play Reading Festival in Sturgeon Bay as well. If you’ve missed the actors who entertained you this summer or during summers past, pine no more: Chances are good that you’ll see some of them again as they return for fall, winter and spring play readings.

If you’re now so excited that you can’t wait to try out a play-reading experience, you don’t have to: Isadoora Theatre Company will present its first Playwrights’ Collective Festival this weekend. The free showcase readings of new plays by five area playwrights will feature 14 local actors at the Margaret Lockwood Gallery’s Inside/Out Space, 7 S. 2nd Ave. at Michigan Street in Sturgeon Bay. 

On Oct. 18, 7 pm, the reading will be Bela Sandor’s Moby’s Tempest; on Oct. 19, 7 pm, it will be Tonie Bear’s A Shade of Blue; and on Oct. 20, 2 pm, partake of readings of Tonie Bear’s short plays Numb and The Adventures of Artemis & Apollo; Tim Toepel’s Sweet Child of Mine; scenes from Margaret Magle’s I Remember Blue; and (Contr)Act 1 from Selling A House by Phyllis Zatlin.

Don’t miss out on play readings by Door County’s excellent theater companies. They’re delightful ways to engage your imagination and find yourself transported to other places and times.


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