Taking on Controversy, Expelling Rumors

“Is this right?” My sister and I thought we were lost, driving 15 mph down a windy, seemingly unending country road canopied by tall, green-leafed trees. We followed the directions in our pamphlet, the arrow on a brown highway sign that read ‘Door Shakespeare,’ but after a few minutes of forest, I wondered if we were headed into the backcountry of Door County.

Until, a man wearing a green tunic and billowy white shirt appeared out of nowhere, like one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, and pointed us to a parking lot. “Okay, I think we made it.”

This was our first theatre experience in Door County, to see the tragic tale of Cyrano de Bergerac. Hair styled, bodies sprayed with insect repellent, we filed behind couples and families with sweaters slung over their arms and tickets in-hand.

As the sunlight faded, the tragedy of Cyrano unfolded, only to be interrupted for an intermission with coffee and cookies, amongst the pleasing and appropriate setting of trees, grass, and soft lights in the Garden at Bjorklunden near Baileys Harbor.

Every summer since 1999, the Door Shakespeare theatre company has celebrated the timelessness of William Shakespeare’s work, from As You Like It to Romeo and Juliet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, along with classic plays from other playwrights including Oscar Wilde and Oliver Goldsmith. So, when rumor spread that Door Shakespeare would suspend a season, Artistic Director Jerry Gomis and Executive Director Suzanne Graff (also husband and wife) felt an encouraging concern (and perhaps panic) from the public.

“For a week we considered suspending our season because last season there was a reorganization at the company I worked for and my job got eliminated,” Gomis explains. “When we discussed forgoing this season, people were like ‘you gotta do something!’” Therefore, the couple decided to use the situation to their advantage, concentrating their efforts and challenging themselves to produce a controversial play with a smaller cast and shortened season.

“When I was living in New York, I was a part of a production of The Merchant of Venice in which there were only five actors,” Gomis recalls. “This production has 11, so not as small, but there are some doubling elements. It’s a good opportunity to show the versatility of the actors. For example, the romantic lead (Sean Dooley) is also playing his romantic rivals, and one of the actors (Khris Lewin) who plays the clown character is also playing a very strong supporting character.”

Gomis admits to conducting very few auditions for this season’s cast. “Many of our cast members are veterans of Door Shakespeare, though many have not worked together,” he explains. “It makes for an interesting combination.” The cast members come from various parts of the US, including Minneapolis, New York, and the Door County area.

Gomis and Graff’s own relationship with the Door County peninsula began 20 years ago, when they celebrated their honeymoon here. “We definitely have a connection to the area,” says Gomis. Their ambition to take on Door Shakespeare began ten years ago, when Door Shakespeare was a part of the American Folklore Theatre. “They were experiencing growth and put Shakespeare aside for awhile. Suzanne and I, who were on the AFT board at the time, were interested in taking it on independently. So, they said if we can do a successful season, they would release the name.”

In 1999, Door Shakespeare received its independence after the success of As You Like It. In 2002, the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream lead Door Shakespeare to produce two shows a summer. “We are building our board and there is more involvement and interest in the company,” Gomis explains. “We hope to do this for a long time.”

After the The Merchant of Venice opens, Gomis will return to Minneapolis to work at his new job during the weekdays, returning to the peninsula on the weekends to check in on the play, which begins performances after only two weeks of rehearsal time. “It’s pretty intense,” Gomis says. “I begin by paper blocking the script. The first two days are devoted to where the actors will move in each scene. Once they have their moves down, we do scene work – and run it, run it, run it, run it.”

As far as the controversy of The Merchant of Venice, Gomis believes that “the play speaks for tolerance. When Shakespeare wrote the play, Jews were caricatures. They were banned from England during his time, so they were known only in stories. Shakespeare uses this caricature, Shylock, as a vehicle for a romantic comedy.”

“I hope that the audience will come away with a feeling that we need to be more tolerant,” Gomis continues. “Every day we can use more tolerance.”

Meanwhile, the 2010 season is being planned. “It will be a full season next year, with rotating nights,” says Gomis. The season will feature Much Ado About Nothing and The Rivals, a play written during the Restoration.

This season’s Door Shakespeare production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice will show from July 27 to August 16 in the Garden at Bjorklunden in Baileys Harbor. Tickets cost $23 for adults, $16 for students, and $6 for children. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 920.839.1500, visit, or email [email protected].