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The Bard at Bong: Shakespeare in the State Parks tour starts here
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Shakespeare in the State Parks tour

The Bard at Bong: Shakespeare in the State Parks tour starts here

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A cold wind will be blowing through Bong State Recreation area Saturday.

You may not have to bundle up, however; this chill comes courtesy of English playwright William Shakespeare and his play “The Winter’s Tale.”

The Summit Players Theatre troupe is performing the show in Bong to kick off its 2021 Shakespeare in the State Parks tour.

The traveling theater company, now in its seventh season, will bring the comedy/drama to state parks across Wisconsin from June 12 through Aug. 22. In all, the actors will set up shop in 24 parks.

Before the 7 p.m. show at Bong, the acting company leads a 45-minute workshop on Shakespeare, designed to help modern audience members get over their fear of the Bard’s works.

Cole Conrad — a Burlington native performing with the troupe this summer — says watching a performance of Shakespeare differs greatly from reading the sometimes dense text.

“The plays are meant to be seen, not to be read,” he said. “Shakespeare wrote his plays to impart feelings; you’re meant to see the emotions on the actors’ faces. Even if you don’t know exactly what they’re saying, you’ll understand what’s happening through their actions.”

Conrad, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in 2019 and now lives in Kenosha, added that attending a play outside has added benefits.

“This is something really special, a real treat,” he said. “Seeing it live outside in nature? That’s got to beat watching TV inside. And if you’re a history buff, what a cool way to step back in time.”

The Summit Players shows are performed in a “fun, family-friendly way” — according to their publicity materials — so expect the more tragic aspects of “Winter’s Tale” to be toned down.

The plot gets complicated, but at its heart it focuses on Leontes, king of Sicilia, who plays host to his friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia. After a bout of unfounded jealousy, however, Leontes sets in motion a tragedy of death and an abandoned baby. The story resumes 16 years later, with Florizell, the son of Polixenes, falling in love with a young woman ... could she be the long-lost princess?

The shows are cut for length, though the dialogue isn’t altered. It’s all the Bard’s words; just less of them.

Started at Bong

The Summit Players Theatre was founded by Hannah Klapperich-Mueller, who was inspired after a family camping trip.

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“I was walking past a wooden amphitheater in a state park, and I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to go there and do a show?’” she said.

At that time, Klapperich-Mueller was an undergraduate student at Marquette University, and she enlisted some of her classmates into doing a tour through Wisconsin’s state parks.

The troupe’s first show was at Bong, and the troupe continues to start the tour at Bong “because that’s where we started, and they were so receptive to us.” Audiences, she said, continue to embrace the outdoor shows.

A cool experience

Conrad, who plays Prince Florizell (and also covers a few other minor roles), said joining the troupe “is a cool experience. You get to travel all over the state and see beautiful parks, plus Summit Players is one of the best Shakespeare companies. They do really good work.”

At UW-Parkside, Conrad earned his Shakespeare acting chops in “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He also acted in “The Comedy of Errors” with a professional Milwaukee company in 2019 and has had roles in “Henry V” and “The Merchant of Venice.”

He says Shakespeare’s plays have lasted through several centuries because “the language is so poetic. It’s like when you read a really good novel; it’s just so beautifully written.”

He also compares Shakespeare to standup comedy. “When you’re laughing at something in standup comedy, they point out something in everyday life. Jerry Seinfeld does that very well, and so does Shakespeare, in the way he describes human experiences.”

Actors just want to have fun

The free 45-minute pre-show workshop on Saturday is interactive, with theater games and a discussion about Shakespeare, plus a preview of the show.

“We go through the plot with the kids beforehand,” Conrad said. “This show is like a fairytale, with kings, princes, princesses and betrayals.”

Being outside, he added, “makes it feel like you’re playing even when the show is serious. These shows are called plays for a reason.”

At one point in the show, two characters ride in on horses “and we’re using brooms, because it’s just fun,” Conrad said.

“We hope to inspire kids to go home and play, to grab a broom and have a horse of their own.”

The shows are performed rain or shine — moving inside if the weather is bad.

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