American Players Theatre (APT)

2014

At Spring Green, Wisconsin

By Dan Zeff

Spring Green, Wisconsin – The most delightful theater-going experience of the summer has to be attendance at an American Players Theatre production in the outdoor Up-the-Hill Theater on a mild afternoon or balmy evening. The open stage is surrounded by trees and lush foliage, like a permanent setting for “As You Like It” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Even the bats that occasionally flit over the stage at night enhance the rustic touch.

         This season the APT is presenting five plays in the 1,148-seat outdoor theater and four in the intimate 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre. During one very full weekend I caught three plays that provided an appropriate sampler for the pleasures the company offers to visitors. I saw a Shakespeare comedy (brilliant), a Shakespeare tragedy (very good), and a classic English comedy (good, with reservations). Now celebrating its 35th season, the APT understands how to best utilize its inimitable setting. A visitor may have seen the plays before, but never in such an idyllic locale.

         Chicagoland theatergoers will recognize the names of numerous participants in the APT company, both on stage and behind the scenes. The acting company includes Marcus Truschinski, Matt Schwader, and Tracy Michelle Arnold. William Brown is a major director, both here and in the Chicago area. The design staff is filled with familiar names. And judging from the number of Illinois license plates in the theater parking lot, visitors from the northeast part of the state form a significant percentage of the ticket buyers.

         I saw “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The Up-the-Hill lineup expands in August with the addition of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and George Bernard Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma,” all running in repertory. At the Touchstone Theatre, the company is or will be presenting David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” Joan Didion’s one-woman play “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties,” and “Euripides’s “Alcestis.”

                

         If you have time for only one show at the APT, make it “Much Ado About Nothing.” Granted this is one of Shakespeare’s funniest and most irresistible comedies. But director David Frank and his marvelous ensemble have added touches and insights that will delight and surprise viewers, no matter how familiar they are with the comedy.

         “Much Ado” is primarily a verbal sparring match between the highborn Beatrice and he dashing military officer Benedick. The crackling wit rolls off the tongues of Colleen Madden and David Daniel in a cascade of snappy insults and put-downs until their characters finally recognize that they love each other, brought to this startling realization through the machinations of their friends. In successive scenes, their friends lure the concealed Beatrice and Benedict into overhearing how much each is secretly pining for the other. Even in an ordinary production, the scenes are virtually foolproof comedy, but Frank stages them with a visual flair so creative that the term “laugh riot” comes to mind.

         The production superbly resolves a couple of problems built into the play. One is the presentation of the inane constable Dogberry, too often performed as a vaudeville buffoon who panders to the audience for laughs. James Pickering gives Dogberry a kind of faux dignity that preserves the comic element while establishing Dogberry as a human, if extravagant, comic character. I’ve never seen the role acted better.

         The production smoothly shifts gears from the wit and laughter of the first half to the darker second half, after Hero is betrayed and presumed dead. With subtlety and insight Frank has guided the transition so the audience isn’t distracted by the play’s 180-degree mood swing from comic to serious.

         Even the supporting characters come alive in fresh ways. Brian Mani, a company stalwart for years, adds surprising substance to the rendering of Leonato.  Cristina Panfilio manages to make a saucy charmer out of Margaret, normally just a plot tool. Panfilio has acted in Chicago but I don’t recall seeing her, which is my loss. Roles should be found for Panfilio among the major Chicago companies to properly showcase her merits, especially as a stylish comedian. She is the real deal.

         “Romeo and Juliet” gets a radiant reading and if it’s maybe half a step behind “Much Ado,” it’s only because the comedy is a more mature work. The APT production profits from a wonderful performance by Melisa Pereyra as Juliet. For once we get an actress who really looks and acts like a passionate love-struck girl in her early teens (a striking achievement for the actress who is married and has a long list of acting credits). Pereyra dominates the play but gets plenty of help from Christopher Sheard’s Romeo. There is real chemistry between the two and the spectator easily buys into their love-at-first-sight romance. Director James DeVita has injected plenty of physical passion between the young lovers. They are, after all, hot-blooded teenagers.

                 

         The revelation in the production arrives near the end when Juliet’s nurse and her parents discover the girl apparently dead on the morning of her marriage to Paris. The intensity of their grief was so overwhelming that the audience sat stunned and silent. The scene is usually just a bridge to the final moments when the young lovers die in each other’s arms in the Capulet funeral vault. But the heightened emotions of the discovery scene almost made what followed an anti-climax.

         As in “Much Ado,” the supporting performances are essential adornments to the production’s success. John Pribyl gives a superb in-depth performance as Friar Laurence, moving that character into the heart of the action. Tracy Michelle Arnold and James Ridge are outstanding as Juliet’s parents and Colleen Madden, the Most Valuable Player of the festival for me, again is triumphant, this time as the feisty nurse.

         I had the highest hopes for the revival of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” This may be the funniest play in the English language, and its director is William Brown, a master of language driven high comedy. Much of the humor does come through, but I had issues. For example, for some reason, Miss Prism is played as a youngish German governess with a thick accent, instead of the traditional elderly and dowdy country lady. In a Germanic guise, the character just isn’t funny. As a frumpy old lady, she is.

      

         There is an over abundance of mugging in the acting, especially from Marcus Truscinski’s affected and pompous Algernon. The actors sometimes joshed directly with the audience, breaking the rhythm of the play in exchange for a few easy laughs (Wilde’s genius doesn’t need this kind of nudge nudge wink wink comic assistance). Sandra Day generally is an effective Lady Bracknell. The character is an intimidating no nonsense figure who is constantly saying funny things without outwardly being aware they are funny. She certainly is unflappable and Day occasionally raised her voice in emotion, which I found jarring.

         On the plus side are excellent comic performances by Kelsey Brennan as Cecily and Cristina Panfilio rising to fine comic heights as Gwendolyn, the uber sophisticated city girl. Matt Schwader is very good as the tightly wound John Worthing but in general the two young actresses upstage the men from the second act on. Apparently most of the viewers in the large audience were coming to “Earnest” for the first time and they reacted with delight and belly laughs to Wilde’s cynicism, wit, and wordplay. Clearly, the majority of attendees would not have agreed with my criticisms.

         As always, the festival goes out of its way to be user friendly. The parking is free, as are the shuttle buses that take patrons up to the theater and back to the parking lot. The ticket prices remain remarkably low ($44 to $70) considering the quality of the theater. Spring Green doesn’t have much to offer visitors in terms of sightseeing but there is Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright estate, a short distance away as well as the astonishing House on the Rock. Both attractions are musts for first time, or even repeat, visitors to the festival. And there is a beautiful golf course at the House on the Rock Resort, the elite hotel in the area and just a couple of minutes from the theater.

         For information about the 2014 festival, call 608 588 2361 or visit www.americanplayers.org.

“Much Ado About Nothing” runs through October 5.            It gets a rating of 4 stars.

“Romeo and Juliet” runs through October 4.

     It gets a rating of 3 ½ stars.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” runs through September 27.

            It gets a rating of 3 stars.

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.             July 2014

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Feature

 on the American Players Theatre

By Dan Zeff

 

SPRING GREEN, Wisconsin—It would be accurate to call the American Players Theatre a summer theater, but that calls up images of revivals of “Hello, Dolly!” starring an aging television star between series. The APT can more properly be identified as one of the best classics theaters in North America. It just happens to perform from late spring through early autumn.

          The APT opened its first show in 1980 in Spring Green, a rural community in the beautiful rolling landscape of southern Wisconsin about 30 miles west of Madison. The company rapidly earned a reputation for serious theater for serious playgoers who enjoy the ambience of pastoral surroundings and a relaxed life style.

          The APT presents five productions a season, two or three of them plays by William Shakespeare, with the works of George Bernard Shaw running second in popularity. The theater insists it is language driven, hence the reliance on Shakespeare and Shaw, though an occasional later 20th century piece is scheduled.

          This season the company is presenting two Shakespeare productions, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and a condensation of the two parts of “Henry IV” into “Henry IV: The Making of a King.” The 2008 lineup is filled out with Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!,” Shaw’s “Widower’s Houses,” and a rarely staged eighteenth century comedy called “The Belle’s Stratagem.”

                   

          The APT performs in a single theater, an open-air amphitheater that seats about 1,100 customers and on a pleasant night provides an idyllic woodland backdrop. The acoustics are splendid, allowing audiences to catch every word from the stage without the curse of electronic amplification. The sight lines are flawless and the ticket prices exceptionally reasonable, as little as $36 for a weeknight performance.

          The APT offers seven performances a week, with Saturday and Sunday matinees during the peak season. The company has begun construction of an indoor theater, to be ready next year that will seat 200 people, just right for intimate productions as well as being weatherproof. Not that the weather is as dicey as one might expect from an outdoor theater. The APT typically loses only three performances a season to rain and has liberal exchange and refund policies in case the elements intrude. Theater amenities include free parking, a startling perk for Chicagoland visitors who face extortionate parking fees to see a downtown show.

          For 2008, the two Shakespeares and the O’Neill are playing now, with the Shaw and “The Belle’s Stratagem” joining the repertory in mid August. The theater has a strong Chicago presence artistically, both in the acting company and backstage. This season two of the directors are James Bohnen and William Brown, both with distinguished directorial records in Chicagoland theater.

          In spite of the Chicago artistic input, the APT currently draws less than 10% of its audience from the Chicagoland area, an untapped resource the institution is attempting to address. Presently the majority of customers come from the Madison area, but the theater figures that audience is about maxed out, while the Chicago area could be a cash cow if the APT could get the word out south of the state line.

          Spring Green is only a 3 to 3½ hour drive, depending on the departure point from Chicagoland. That’s a third of the time it takes to drive to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. People may hesitate because of gasoline prices, but gas costs about 50 cents a gallon less in Spring Green than in CookCounty.

          I saw two of this season’s productions, “Ah, Wilderness!” and “Henry IV,” and I was impressed. Many members of the core company have been with the APT virtually from its inception. The ensemble is particularly rich in mature male performers, though two of the best performances I enjoyed were by young men.

          Ah, Wilderness!” is O’Neill’s only comedy, a nostalgia piece that portrays with warmth the childhood he never had. Like “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” the play takes place in a New England household shortly after the turn of the last century. But instead of the heighten tensions of that great American tragedy, “Ah, Wilderness!” gives us a family that is loving, human, and endearing.

          “Ah, Wilderness!” is basically a coming of age play about teenager Richard Miller, who learns a lot about life during an extended Fourth of July holiday. This is a mellow, audience friendly play but it’s not sure fire. The show could turn corny and excessively sentimental, or play for easy laughs. There is a danger of patronizing the innocence of the characters rather than enjoying their company.

          Under the unerring direction of John Langs, the production hits all the right emotional notes. Even a stock scene like a father haltingly trying to explain the facts of life to his son come across with humanity and affection.

          The casting is perfection, headed by Chicago actor Steve Haggard, who delivers an indelible performance as young Richard, the lad’s feelings and hormones in turmoil. Haggard could easily have turned Richard into a sitcom caricature but he renders the young man with sympathy and understanding. Talk about a breakout performance!

          The supporting company features Ken Albers in an exquisite low-keyed comic performance as the alcoholic Sid Davis, but the entire cast evokes every character with unaffected realism. This may no be the most challenging of plays, but it’s tremendously rewarding for audiences lucky enough to witness acting and directing at this level.

          “Henry IV” is a solid attempt to encompass both parts of “Henry IV,” concentrating on the political intrigues surrounding the court of the British king. Much of Part II is pared away, which means no Justice Silence, very little Justice Shallow, and not much lowlife tavern comedy.

          The success of any “Henry IV” rides on the actor playing Sir John Falstaff, and the APT has a winner in Brian Mani, who creates a Falstaff with all the old reprobate’s wry humor, street wisdom, chicanery, and self delusion. Director James Bohnen ends the play with Falstaff not a man broken by Prince Hal’s renunciation, but a survivor still standing and expecting a call to the good graces of his royal protégé, a brilliant final touch.

          The weakness of the production comes from the miscasting of Matt Schwader as Prince Hal. Schwader has done fine work in Chicago theater but vocally and in dramatic weight he isn’t quite up to the prince. That makes him an inadequate match in his dealings with Falstaff and the Hotspur of David Daniel, maybe the best Hotspur I have ever seen. The supporting cast is generally very good, making good on the theater’s credo to present dramatic language in a cleanly spoken style.

          The pleasures of the APT experience extend beyond playgoing. The Spring Green area has plenty of visitor attractions to soak up the daytime hours before an evening performance. The most essential is a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin East complex, where guided tours take you through the grounds and major buildings of the Wright studio. If you are fortunately enough to draw a guide named Bryan, you will learn an enormous amount about Wright and his architecture in a comprehensive and entertaining fashion.

 

          The other famous attraction in the area is the House on the Rock, which will fascinate many visitors and drive many others crazy. The House on the Rock is like walking into an enormous attic of collectables gathered over a lifetime by one’s eccentric and wealthy grandparents.

          The house is a string of connected rooms jammed with posters and mechanical orchestras and models and manmade objects of every description, all jammed into displays without explanation and only minimal attempts at thematic order. Many of the exhibits are extremely valuable, some are nostalgia trips, and some look like junk.

          The problem for visitors is the sheer volume of stuff on view. There is a danger of sensory overload and indeed several members of my party had more than enough 30 minutes into the self guided tour. I thought the place was fascinating but it requires judicious sampling to avoid mental and visual indigestion.

          The Spring Green area also has winery tours and the usual selection of antique stores and curio shops. The handsomely appointed House on the Rock resort offers a beautifully maintained 27-hold golf course. The town even has a first class restaurant called the Bank that, on the evidence of my dinner there, can stand comparison with the elite of Chicago dining establishment.

For more information about the American Players Theatre, visit www.playinthewoods.org

 Contact Dan: Zeffdaniel@yahoo.com .