This summer, the hottest seat in town is, well, outdoors. Across the country, some of the most exciting theatrical productions of the season will be performed in open-air theaters — everywhere from New York’s Central Park to San Diego’s Balboa Park to the desert on the outskirts of Santa Fe.
While many of these theaters were historically dedicated to the works of Shakespeare, this lineup now includes all kinds of productions, including contemporary operas, cutting-edge musicals and thought-provoking original plays. And don’t worry: There’s still plenty of Shakespeare in the mix! Pack your bug spray and sunscreen, and get ready for a night out on the town.
Richard III at Shakespeare in the Park, New York City
The details: Delacorte Theater, Central Park (June 21 to July 17)
The premise: For the first show of their 60th season, the Public Theater is revisiting this Shakespearean history play about the much-maligned English monarch, who — if the Bard is to be believed — murdered his way to the throne. The play has been produced on this stage four times before, most recently in 1990 with Denzel Washington in the title role. Taking on the villainous king in this boldly reimagined production is Danai Gurira, who is best known for her roles as Michonne on The Walking Dead and the Wakandan warrior Okoye in Black Panther, and who also earned a Tony nomination for writing the play Eclipsed.
Why you should see it: Leading the production is director Robert O’Hara, a Tony nominee for Slave Play, and the ensemble cast includes such New York City stage favorites as Tony winner Ali Stroker (Oklahoma!).
Get tickets: Free, publictheater.org
The Taming of the Shrew at the Old Globe, San Diego
The details: Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park (June 5 to July 10)
The premise: Shakespeare’s controversial battle of the sexes comedy is rightfully seen as quite misogynistic; as the title implies, the plotline is all about forcing the strong-willed heroine Katherine into subservience. When she first premiered this production at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, director Shana Cooper earned praise for finally making the play work for modern audiences — without smoothing out any of its rougher edges. “In the #MeToo moment, how can The Taming of the Shrew be staged without setting off alarm bells of political incorrectness?” wrote Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout. “The best way, it strikes me, is to play it the way Shakespeare wrote it, as a slapstick comedy in which a proto-feminist hellion gets her comeuppance at the hands of an arrogant man, and let the audience draw its own conclusions about what it’s seeing.” His assessment: Cooper’s was “the best Shrew I’ve ever reviewed.”
Why you should see it: You might recognize actress Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Katherine, from her role as Jessica Hamby on the HBO vampire drama True Blood.
Get tickets: From $30, theoldglobe.org
Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboys Creation at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Oregon
The details: Allen Elizabethan Theatre (June 2 to Oct. 14)
The premise: Purists can breathe easy, knowing that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will be producing The Tempest this season. But the outdoor Elizabethan theater will also be home to a decidedly more modern work by New York–based theater company Vampire Cowboys, who fill their plays with geeky references, social commentary and tons of rock music. For his latest show, playwright Qui Nguyen (who recently cowrote Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon) has turned his attention to the real-life Julie d’Aubigny, a queer sword-fighting, opera-singing woman who fought back against societal expectations in 17th-century France.
Why you should see it: If you love theater, the show is bursting at the seams with references to everything from Hamilton to Cabaret to Avenue Q.
Get tickets: From $35, osfashland.org
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M. Butterfly at the Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico
The details: Crosby Theater (July 30 to Aug. 24)
The premise: David Henry Hwang, now 64, won the 1988 Tony Award for best play for this twisty drama about a French embassy employee, René Gallimard, who falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera singer who is hiding some major secrets — we won’t spoil them for you! Now, 34 years after the play’s premiere, Hwang has collaborated with Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo on a new English-language opera version, which is making its world premiere in this stunning open-air theater that’s 7 miles north of Santa Fe.
Why you should see it: Many of the topics discussed in the play-turned-opera are even more relevant today than they were when the original production premiered.
Get tickets: From $54, santafeopera.org
Where We Belong at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Garrison, New York
The details: Theater Tent (Aug. 13 to 22)
The premise: This summer, the festival will produce a trio of shows in its open-air tent overlooking the Hudson River, including an age-blind production of Romeo & Juliet and the wildly inventive Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, which takes its inspiration from The Simpsons. The third work in the series is an intimate solo performance by Mohegan writer-director-actor Madeline Sayet, who traveled to England in 2015 to study Shakespeare and instead embarked on an investigation into race, ancestry, cultural appropriation and the ways in which the Bard’s works and colonialism will forever be linked. “I realize the power that comes with showing people a different way of seeing the world,” Sayet says.
Why you should see it: It’s a rare opportunity to be able to hear from Native American voices in theater, and Sayet offers a profoundly unique perspective on a body of literature that you might think you already know everything about.
Get tickets: From $10, hvshakespeare.org
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Cedar City, Utah
The details: Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, Southern Utah University (June 21 to Sept. 9)
The premise: In addition to a comedy (All’s Well That Ends Well) and a tragedy (King Lear), the festival’s Elizabethan-inspired open-air theater will host a production of this gory, darkly funny musical that skirts the line between both genres. If you haven’t seen the Stephen Sondheim musical or the Tim Burton film adaptation, here’s the bloody gist: Sweeney Todd returns to London, seeking revenge against an evil judge, and he soon begins racking up a body count when his straight-razor shaves turn deadly. Cleaning up the mess is Mrs. Lovett, a pie shop owner who sees the silver lining in his killing spree: Where else can you find such a cheap source of fresh meat?!
Why you should see it: Visitors to the USF can enjoy the Greenshow, a free outdoor pre-show put on by performers from the festival's productions, each night at 7:30 on the Ashton Family Greenshow Commons.
Get tickets: From $20, bard.org
A Walk in the Woods at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Massachusetts
The details: Roman Garden Theatre (July 15 to Sept. 4)
The premise: This Berkshires-based theater company performs across five indoor and outdoor spaces, including the intimate 280-seat Roman Garden Theatre, where you can catch this revival of Lee Blessing’s Tony-nominated 1988 play. In this quietly powerful drama, two arms negotiators, the Russian Andrey Botvinnik (Jonathan Epstein) and the American John Honeyman (Allyn Burrows), stroll in the forest outside of Geneva, Switzerland, and develop a friendship, despite the differences in their politics and their personalities.
Why you should see it: At this point in world history, who can’t glean a little hope and optimism out of a show about crossing political divides and finding commonalities?
Get tickets: From $22, shakespeare.org
The Lost Colony at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Manteo, North Carolina
The details: Waterside Theatre (May 27 to Aug. 20)
The premise: In 1937, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paul Green debuted his “symphonic drama” about the first English settlers to arrive on Roanoke Island in 1587 — and their subsequent disappearance without a trace. The Tony Award–winning production has been going strong on the coast of North Carolina ever since, and it’s put on every year by more than 120 actors, designers, crew members and volunteers. (Famous alums include Andy Griffith and Terrence Mann.) Over the course of its first 85 years, the epic production, which includes singing, dancing and drama, has been seen by more than 3 million viewers.
Why you should see it: Book a ticket to a Friday or Saturday evening show for the chance to see a special Native American cultural presentation, performed by Indigenous members of the cast and crew.
Get tickets: From $25, thelostcolony.org
The Color Purple at the Muny, St. Louis
The details: The Muny, Forest Park (Aug. 3 to 9)
The premise: As part of their 104th season, North America’s largest outdoor musical theater is presenting a slate of seven shows, including Chicago, Camelot and Legally Blonde. One of the shows being produced on this stage for the first time is The Color Purple, the Tony-winning musical based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel that made a star out of lead actress Cynthia Erivo. You can’t help but be moved by the sweeping score, which includes elements of jazz, ragtime, gospel, blues and African music.
Why you should see it: In a move to democratize theater, the Muny offers free seating in the last nine rows of the theater on a first-come, first-served basis — so come early!
Get tickets: From $18, muny.org
Anastasia at the Starlight Theatre, Kansas City, Missouri
The details: Starlight Theatre, Swope Park (Aug. 9 to 14)
The premise: A sweeping Broadway musical can be made even more epic on the right stage, and you could certainly do worse than this 7,958-seat outdoor venue that also hosts concerts from major musical acts. Based on the 1997 animated film and created by the team behind Broadway's Ragtime, Anastasia tells the tale of an amnesiac orphan named Anya who may or may not be the daughter of the assassinated last Russian czar. The sumptuous romance follows her from postrevolutionary Russia to 1920s Paris, as Anya is pursued by a ruthless Soviet officer who hopes to keep her quiet.
Why you should see it: Starring in the title role is newcomer Kyla Stone, who is making her national tour debut.
Get tickets: From $15, kcstarlight.com
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.