Evanston’s summer tradition of Shakespeare in the parks continues to grow in both number of performances and popularity, with four performances this year. The performances also continue to expand in depth and professionalism, this year taking on such challenging works as “Macbeth” and “Hamlet,” reinterpreting “Romeo and Juliet” with actors actually close in age to the “star crossed lovers” themselves, and staging a “kid friendly” version of little seen “Cymbeline.”

Evanston’s good fortune grows along with the Shakespearian offerings. Each show, and each of the three theater companies performing those shows, puts on stellar performances in beautiful outdoor settings (and the library for Hamlet, coming soon).

Starting with the one show still in performance, “Hamlet” presents an enormous challenge for any theater company. The sheer size of the epic tragedy, the number of lines to learn and practice, staggers actors, readers, and audiences alike. Hamlet the character is an extremely loquacious individual.

“Individual” being a key term, however, in that an actor taking on such a storied role has layers and layers to interpret, with wit, charm, anger, and no small amount of borderline insanity to convey. Muse of Fire Theater Company member Alex Fthenakis is more than up to the task. His Hamlet is playful, brooding, annoying, insensitive – in short, oh so very human – every step of the way.

The ensemble cast measures up to the high standard set by Fthenakis. Of particular note is newcomer Sasha Kostyrko as Opheila, who’s reactions to Hamlet’s wildly insensitive verbal daggers reveal a character caught in a suddenly unrecognizable world.

Hamlet continues outdoors at Ingraham Park behind the Civic Center on August 15, 16, 29 and 30 at 3:00 pm. It is a rather long play, so bring comfortable seating. Performances in the library in the evening come complete with chair backed seating August 21, 22, 28 and 29.

Meanwhile, over at Ridgeville, the ARC Theater Group returned for a sixth season, this year with Macbeth. Each year, ARC trims a Shakespeare play to about 90 minutes. In prior years, the company has focused on looking at a Shakespeare comedy in a different way, with the possible exception of 2012’s “Romeo and Juliet.” This year, the focus was entirely different, as there almost nothing to laugh about in “Macbeth.”

“Macbeth” is unrelenting violent nastiness almost from the very start, a play about tremendous ambition fueled by the urgings of a belittling wife and the misinterpreted predictions made by a group of exaggeratedly macabre witched.

In Arc regulars Joe Flynn and Natalee Sallee, ARC found its gory power couple. Ms. Sallee has always done nasty very well – here she’s always in control of the stage when she’s on it. Mr. Flynn shows the lead’s flaws from the start, but the audience believes that he believes the ridiculous ethereal predictions. Clearly, too, he is pushed, badgered and controlled by a manipulative wife.

The rest of the cast is up to ARC’s usual high standards, particularly Lana Smithner as Lady MacDuff, appearing betrayed more by her own husband than the murderous Macbeth with surprising emotional impact. Sadly, “Macbeth” concluded its run in early August. Here’s hoping for extended runs in coming years.

Also on the Ridge, Mudlark Theater drew record crowds for its performances of a kids only performance of “Romeo and Juliet.” Of course, when Shakespeare wrote the play he envisioned lead actors of about 14 years old. Here, Mudlark gives us those leads – but everyone else in the play, including their parents, fit within the same age bracket.

Mudlark has established a rather veteran ensemble cast, with many roles filled by actors who have appeared in at least two other performances . It is no surprise that two of the strongest performances come from such veterans. It is also no surprise that the best roles – the Nurse and Mercutio – went to the two most talented actors in the play. Romeo and Juliet are both excellent, but as is often the case with this play the Nurse and Mercutio still managed to steal the show.  A pox on both their houses, indeed.

Mudlark isn’t afraid to change Shakespeare’s scripts a bit to fit within a much shorter time limit and keep within a certain age friendly range. Here, the changes felt minimal and the story remained true to Shakespeare’s original. Everyone in the huge cast performed wonderfully, and Mudlark continues to train aspiring young actors as well or better than anyone around.  

Rounding out the Evanston Shakespeare season was an odd little performance of a fairly bad Shakespeare play, “Cymbeline.” Billed as an hour-long family-friendly show, it offers a chance to cut down a tangled mess of a plot and remix it such that it highlights some of the truly good in the play. In part, it works. Imogen, played by Ann Walaszek, is wonderful.

But the play itself remains a mess. Also, kid-friendly might be a stretch, when the script calls for a character to be decapitated on stage with the severed head carried off in a burlap sack, not to mention the peeping tom sneaking into a woman’s bedroom and commenting on the mole on her breast. This is the stuff of R ratings, not PG.  

Muse of Fire is to be admired for trying something different, but this was an odd choice.