Stratford-on-the-lake? This is suddenly a Shakespeare town

Ever since the first Chicago production of "Hamlet" in 1839, there's been a place here for William Shakespeare.

You could see "Othello" at the McVicker's Theatre on West Madison Street as early as 1858. The St. Nicholas Players did "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Oak Park in the mid-1970s, starring William H. Macy as Puck and David Mamet as both Theseus and Oberon. And it was a legendary Aidan Quinn "Hamlet" at Wisdom Bridge Theatre a decade or so later that cemented the directing career of one Robert Falls.

Still, I'd venture we have more of the Bard here now than ever before. The Court Theatre just closed its wildly ambitious (if less than fully successful) take on "Titus Andronicus." Just this weekend, you could head over to Navy Pier and see the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's major new production of "Othello" (through April 6; $44-$70, 312-595-5600), directed by the Canadian director Marti Maraden. And you could head north to Glencoe and see William Brown's delightful take on "As You Like It" (through April 13 by Writers' Theatre; $40-$58, 847-242-6000) as performed by a veritable who's-who of Chicago actors, including Larry Yando and Ross Lehman. On Saturday morning, you might take a young person to see the new Short Shakespeare version of "Romeo and Juliet" (through April 5 at Chicago Shakespeare; $16-$20). And on Sunday night, you could attend the opening of Nic Dimond's contemporary take on "Richard III" (through March 29; $20, 773-528-9696) at Strawdog, one of this city's longest-lived fringe companies.

Why the sudden profusion? It's mostly due to the phenomenal growth of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater into one of this city's major institutions -- with as tony and influential an opening-night crowd as you'll find anywhere. That, in turn, has led to an ever-growing ensemble of actors with ability and interest in performing Shakespeare. Because they know they'll be able to cast these roles, that, in turn, has emboldened other Chicago theaters. And, in a happy corollary, we're also seeing more and more of the leading Canadian Shakespeareans in town.

About the only big Chicago theater not doing Shakespeare is Steppenwolf. There are limits. I wouldn't expect to see Amy Morton and Tracy Letts taking on Beatrice and Benedick. But, you know, there's a thought.

I greatly preferred Brown's "As You Like It" to "Othello" on the pier -- the former show has a stronger emotional pull and a closer relationship with life as it is lived. But I will say this. Each begets the other.

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cjones5@tribune.com

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