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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American Players Theatre (APT)

2012

At Spring Green, Wisconsin

By Dan Zeff

Spring Green, Wisconsin – There are few regional theater pleasures more delectable than attending the outdoor American Players Theatre on a balmy afternoon or evening. The theater sits in a natural amphitheater surrounded by lush bucolic foliage and a soothing background soundtrack of chirping insects.

        The downside of the outdoor playgoing experience is a nasty turn in the weather, notably rain. I experienced the highs and lows of the APT over 36 hours. Thursday night and Friday night were beautiful, a little warm but with a light breeze—perfect to enjoy a pair of modern British classics. Then came the deluge, a downpour before the Saturday afternoon performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” that forced me away from the theater and back to Illinois.


The APT cancels very few performances because of rain. The show either continues through the raindrops, or if the precipitation is really excessive, the play is suspended until the skies clear. But almost always the play goes on. However, judging from the rainfall I experienced on the way out of Wisconsin, Richard III needed more than a horse, his kingdom for a horse, to sustain him. He needed pontoons.


All of which means that there is a certain chancy quality to visiting the APT, but it’s a chance eminently worth taking. This was my fourth visit to Spring Green and the first time I lost a performance through a rainstorm, though I did sit through a light shower at the end of “The Taming of the Shrew.” The upside is that the audience, weather cooperating, is almost certain to experience a beautifully acted and well staged and designed play. The productions will be ungimmicked and well spoken. This is a theater that selects language-dominated works that are a pleasure to hear and discuss afterward.

This season the APT is offering nine productions, five in the 1,148 seat outdoor “Up the Hill” theater and four in the intimate 200-seat (and weatherproof) indoor Touchstone Theater. The outdoor theater is presenting three Shakespeare works—“Twelfth Night,” “Richard III,” and “Troilus and Cressida.” The schedule is filled out by the 1902 English comedy “The Admirable Crichton” by J. M. Barrie and the American 1928 comedy “The Royal Family” by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. The Touchstone Theatre is presenting “Skyline” by David Hare and “Heroes” in a Tom Stoppard translation from the French original (both plays were staged in recent seasons in Chicago). In addition, there are two one-person shows on view, both dealing with Shakespeare, “Shakespeare’s Will” and “In Acting Shakespeare.”

I saw “The Royal Family” and “The Admirable Crichton” on those consecutive idyllic evenings. The Barrie play was in previews and thus not available to be review. But the Kaufman-Ferber play had already officially opened and was thus reviewable, and a very positive review it deserves.

“The Royal Family” is a satire on the Barrymore family, a dominant force in American theater during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Members of the Cavendish family are thinly disguised portraits of Maurice Barrymore (long deceased at the start of the play), his wife Georgiana Drew Barrymore, their children Lionel, John, and Ethel, plus Drew Barrymore, a later member of the family who appears in the play as the teenage daughter of Julie (the Ethel character).

The Barrymores were not only the first family of the American stage in the 1920’s, they were a fascinating brood of temperamental personalities that would have been prime fodder for People Magazine a few generations later. The chief eccentric among the Barrymores was John (Tony Cavendish in the play), in real life a terrific actor and an equally terrific womanizer and spendthrift with a supersized ego.

“The Royal Family” doesn’t have a coherent plot. It’s a collection of incidents that display the members of the family on all their larger than life flamboyance. It’s also a loving valentine to the theater and the passion it stirred in the Barrymores. For Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch of the family, the theater isn’t the best life, it’s the only life, and threats during the play by her children to leave the stage for a normal existence fill her with outrage and incomprehension.

The play is very much a period piece and refers continually to actors, plays, playwrights, and producers whose names will mean little or nothing to a modern audience. It’s a tribute to the playwrights that “The Royal Family” holds the stage so well. The outsized characters are a collection of dream roles for actors and the dialogue is loaded with the sharp wit that made Kaufman the greatest satirist in the history of the American theater.

Chicagoland playgoers will recognize Tracy Michelle Arnold and Marcus Truschinski in the pivotal roles of Julie and Tony Cavendish. Truschinski has a ball with the self-dramatizing Tony but Arnold is the heart of the play as the conflicted Julie, torn between the greasepaint in her veins and her desire to lead a life anchored by normalcy. Julie has earned fame and fortune from the stage but at what personal sacrifice?

 

Kaufman and Ferber filled their play with juicy supporting characters, especially the family’s long suffering manager Oscar Wolfe (richly played by David Daniel) and Jonathan Smoots as Fanny’s brother Herbert Dean, who along with his bitchy wife Kitty (a spot-on performance by Colleen Madden) make up a pair of ham actors who refuse to recognize that the modern theater has passed their old time style by. Sarah Day is good as Fanny, though she seems a little young for the magisterial lady, listed in the play as in her early 70’s.

Laura Gordon’s directing keeps the controlled frenzy of the Cavendish world humorous and sometimes moving. The production hews to its late 1920’s roots in the costumes by Fabio Toblini and Nathan Stuber’s New York penthouse interior set.

The APT makes the playgoing experience as user friendly as possible. There are ample facilities for picnickers before the performance. Complimentary insect spray is available. A shuttle bus is available for visitors who would find the walk up to the amphitheater difficult. And the staff is good natured and knowledgeable from top to bottom.

I was much taken by an announcement before the start of “The Royal Family” regretting the delay in starting because the shuttle bus was still transporting spectators to the theater. So the show started six minutes late. I can’t remember the last Chicago production I attended that started less than 10 minutes late and there was never an apology or explanation.

Spring Green is a little over three hours by auto from the Chicago area, depending upon the point of departure. The season runs through October 21. For information about schedules, tickets, and accommodations, visit www.americanplayers.org.

“The Royal Family” gets a rating of 31/2 stars.

 Contact Dan at zeffdaniel@yahoo.com. August 2012

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The American Players Theater

2011

By Dan Zeff

Spring Green, Wisconsin - The  large number of Illinois license plates in the American Players Theatre parking lot validates the recognition that this annual summer theater festival makes the  A list of destinations for many Chicagoland playgoers. And why not? The APT is only one-third the driving distance as the Stratford Festival in Ontario, the other major theater festival in the region, and the prices are hugely cheaper for comparably quality work.

        The APT resides in the tiny town of Spring Green in rural and rustic southern Wisconsin. The productions are held in an outdoor amphitheater that holds 1,138 patrons and a 200-seat indoor theater now in its third season  that presents more intimate productions.

The outdoor ambience of the theater sets the user friendly tone for the festival. There is something about milling around informally in the open air that makes play going a more pleasurable experience.

     The festival does its best to make attendance agreeable. Both theaters are located on a hill filled with picnic tables and gas grills. Patrons carry their hampers and coolers to the picnic sites or they can purchase box lunches for the day or night of performance from the APT. Parking is free and there are complimentary shuttles to and from the lot to the stages for those unable or unwilling to make the trek up the hill. Management even provides free insect repellent at the gate, though the three performances I attended had no flying insect issues.

        The plays are the chief reason to visit Spring Green from late spring through early autumn but there are special attractions at hand to fill the time between shows. Most notable are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin building complex and the fantastical House on the Rock, the largest collection of collectibles imaginable, both near the theater.

Headquarters for Illinois visitors should be the House on the Rock Resort, a first class hotel with handsome suites overlooking a beautiful 27-hole golf course. The resort is just a brief drive  from the APT, Taliesin, and the House on the Rock.

The outdoor atmosphere has its rewards but also its perils. There is always the chance of rain and the APT tries to perform through the raindrops unless conditions get too severe. Then there is the matter of heat, which can make play going a steamy affair, especially during afternoon matinees. But one hopes for the best, and the theater has lost a very small percentage of performances because of inclement weather.

The APT company has a strong Chicago theater presence. Chicagoland playgoers will recognize names like directors William Brown and James Bohnen and actors Tracy Michelle Arnold, La Shawn Banks, Steve Haggard, John Lister, Matt Schwader, and Susan Shunk. The APT is presenting “Crime and Punishment” at the Touchstone Theatre in the version we saw at the Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe a few seasons ago.

Over a 36-hour period I saw three comedies at the Up the Hill Theatre, two winners and one show that should have been better. The winners are Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” The let-down is the revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Critic.”

It’s always interesting to see a modern attempt at “The Taming of the Shrew” to see how the director deals with the political incorrectness of the husband-abusing-wife main plot. Too often a revival bends the play out of shape to avoid offending modern sensibilities. Tim Ocel meets the problem head-on, but with intelligence and superb dramatic and comic insight.

The main story portrays the confrontation between the headstrong Katherine (the shrew of the title) and Petruchio, who is bribed to marry her and sets about to break her spirit to convert her into a docile spouse.  At least that’s the conventional view of the narrative.

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The production dresses the characters in nineteenth century costumes, with Katharine looking like Emily Dickinson. For reasons that eluded me, Petruchio and his men are dressed in outfits that make them look like Australian bushrangers. But the audience quickly adjusts to the peculiar clothing styles as the unlikely love affair unfolds.

James Ridge is a balding, middle aged Petruchio, not a particularly romantic figure but not the farcical brute we normally see in this show. Ridge’s Petruchio is a realistic man who believes the only way to bring Katherine around is through heavy doses of psychological stress. He isn’t a sadist and he isn’t a buffoon. In his meditative moments alone on the stage the audience hears how Petruchio’s outwardly savage treatment of Katherine costs him considerable anguish. This Petruchio is actually a sensitive and caring man. He’s even sympathetic, a word rarely used to describe this wooer.

Tracy Michelle Arnold’s Katherine establishes the woman at the outset as strong willed and independent, bridling against her father’s parental indifference in favor of her simpering younger sister Bianca. Katherine’s grievances are legitimate and she defends herself articulately. But she does eventually come around to Petruchio’s way, and the moment on the road to her father’s house when she finally gets what her husband is trying to accomplish in their relationship is a superb moment for audiences paying close attention to this winning performance. Her final “I am ashamed that women are so simple” speech is presented with such honesty and feeling that my eyes were moistening by her finish. And this is a monologue that usually turns the knife in the heart of anyone with feminist leanings.

The production does what it can with the Bianca subplot yet it remains a bore, with all those Gremios and Tranios and Grumios and Hortensios. But when this inane subplot leaves the stage to Ridge and Arnold as the conflicted lovers, magic happens.

“Blithe Spirit” is Noel Coward’s best play, with no apologies to such gems as “Private Lives,” “Design for Living,” and “Hay Fever.” It’s a beautifully constructed fantasy with the author at his witty best, and the APT staging scintillates under David Frank’s direction.


The story centers on Charles Condomine, an English author married (presumably happily) to his second wife, Ruth. A séance at the Condomine residence conducted by Madame Arcati goes haywire and conjures up the ghost of Condomine’s deceased first wife, Elvira. All comic hell then breaks loose as the spectral Elvira battles the corporal Ruth for Charles.

Coward pulls off the supernatural hi-jinks with delicious high comedy. The APT is favored with two superbly stylish ac-tresses in Colleen Madden (Ruth) and Deborah Staples (Elvira), who bring their characters to comic life with the drollest hilarity.

But the performance of the night comes from Susan Sweeney as Madame Arcati. The character is commonly played as a dotty old biddy, a figure of fun good for some easy laughs. But Sweeney spares us the nudge-nudge wink-wink excesses that lurk in the character. Her Madame Arcati is a no-nonsense medium, hard headed and shrewd, more to be taken seriously than the flighty Condomines, dead and alive. Sweeney, madden, and Staples provide the spine for a production that is the epitome of high comedy and not just a bit of fluff built on a silly and risible situation.

After these two must-see productions, there is a sense of disappointment in the revival of “The Critic,” even though it’s guided by William Brown, normally the most sure-handed of directors. Sheridan wrote the play in the late 1700’s as a lampoon on the theater conventions and personalities of the day. The script is peppered with topical references that mean nothing to modern non-scholarly audiences but the show should still be uproarious as it ridicules the vanities and egos embedded in Sheridan’s theater world.

The title of the play is a bit of a misnomer. Sheridan didn’t write a screed against theater critics, instead targeting many of the affectations of late eighteen century theater. The APT revival does have its share of giggles. The play is mounted handsomely and the large cast is presentable or better. But there is far too much shtick and mugging and mincing about. Sheridan’s minor classic doesn’t need all this help.

The bottom falls out in the third act, which should be the climax of the evening. That act is devoted to a rehearsal of a heroic historical play drenched in absurdities. But it runs a vastly overlong 80 minutes. The action is inflated by all manner of physical low comedy that tends to smother the real wit that comes from the sharpshooting critiques of the nonsense embedded in the ludicrous historical drama.


The ensemble features fine comic performances by Jonathan Smoots as an acid-tongued commentator and La Shawn Banks as a thin-skinned playwright. But the production is too busy and the capstone final act is interminable (and it wasn’t helped by a distracting light rain that fell during the final half hour of my performance).

For the record, the other outdoor productions are Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” The indoor Touchstone lineup consists of “Crime and Punishment,” Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” and Seamus Heaney’s adaptation of the Greek tragedy “Philoctetes,” retitled “The Cure at Troy.”

 “The Taming of the Shrew” and Blithe Spirit” both get ratings of four stars. “The Critic” gets a rating of 21/2 stars.

For information about the APT season visit www.americanplayers.org or call 608 588 2361.

Contact Dan at zeffdaniel@yahoo.com    July 2011

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American Players Theatre-2009

By Dan Zeff

 

SPRING GREEN, Wisconsin—Scattered thunderstorms were predicted during my two-day visit to the American Players Theatre but the weather held up nicely, and a very good thing, too. It would have been a grievous shame to miss the exceptional APT productions of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and “The Winter’s Tale.”

     The APT performs in the 1,100-seat open air Up the Hill Theatre in a pastoral setting that suggests every show should be a version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” This season offers three Shakespeare plays (“Henry V” is the other one) as well as George Bernard Shaw’s “The Philanderer” and Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever.”      


     The APT is expanding this year with the opening of the 200-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre that will present Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” and “Eugene O’Neill’s ”Long Day’s Journey into Night along with a one-man show about Shakespeare called “In Acting Shakespeare.”

     Spring Green is only about a 3½ drive from the Chicago area and draws upon prominent members of the Chicagoland acting, directing, and designer community. Chicago’s William Brown is directing “A Comedy of Errors” and “Hay Fever” and James Bohnen are guiding “The Philanderer.” Chicagoland theatergoers will also recognize a dozen young performers in residency in Spring Green.

     The APT makes playgoing as user friendly as possible. Parking is free and shuttle buses are available for the ascent up the hill to the theaters. The theater even provides free insect repellent and picnic tables and gas grills to encourage patrons to bring their own suppers.

     “The Comedy of Errors” is probably Shakespeare’s most abused play. Because it’s an early work and an unapologetic farce, directors too often treat it as a convenient jumping off point for excessive directorial bright ideas, primarily for teeth-grinding displays of pratfall silliness.

     William Brown respects the play. Instead of indulging in a relentless low comedy joke fest, Brown gives us what “The Comedy of Errors” really is, a sturdy comedy that is deftly plotted, funny, and populated with characters who are human and not stick figures spending the evening belting each other around.

     The play turns on a simple and ingenious conceit. Two sets of twin brothers are separated at birth in a sea wreck. One set of twins, both named Dromio, are the servants of the other twins, both named Antipholus. Twenty-five years after their separation the twins from distant Syracuse visit the city of Ephesus, which just happens to be the home of the second pair of twins. And by a coincidence that can occur only in the world of farce, each set of twins is dressed identically, so that Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse are constantly mistaken for the Ephesus twins.


     The orgy of mistaken identities is clever and comical, especially as they impact on the household of Antipholus of Ephesus—his wife Adriana and her unmarried sister Luciana and the household’s fat and man hungry cook.

     Brown does not stint on the play’s fun, and except for an overly excessive bout of manic physical comedy midway through the play, all the visual humor is kept deftly under control.  We get realistic and sympathetic portraits of Adriana and Luciana as they struggle to understand why the Antipholus and Dromio they know are acting so weirdly. Late in the play Antipholus of Ephesus is overcome with panic and terror as he descends deeper and deeper into the confusion of mistaken identities he cannot comprehend. For a few moments, the play turns from comedy into “Twilight Zone” fear.

        The leading performers all have done notable work on Chicagoland stages—Marcus Truscinski (Antipholus of Syracuse), Steve Haggard (Dromio of Syracuse), Carey Cannon (Adriana), Susan Shunk (Luciana), and Matt Schwader (Angelo, the goldsmith). They contribute to the best “Comedy of Errors” I have ever seen.

     “The Winter’s Tale” is late Shakespeare, a difficult play with dramatic impediments that can be explored in the classroom but often prove problematical on the stage. The story is set in motion in the opening scene when Leontes, king of Sicilia, for no apparent reason accuses his virtuous wife Hermione of infidelity with his boyhood friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia. Leontes orders Hermione, in a late stage of pregnancy, imprisoned and demands that his counselor Camillo poison the visiting Polixenes.

     It is hard to swallow Leontes’ irrational passion, Hermione and Polixenes being clearly innocent. But in a few lines of dialogue David Daniel convinces the audience that Leontes has been insecure about his marriage and psychologically and emotionally teetering on the brink of jealous paranoia. A harmless friendly exchange between Hermione and Polixenes pushes Leontes over the edge and he turns into an implacable and raging avenger of imaginary wrongs. But the sudden death of his young son from grief over his mother’s imprisonment, followed by the announced death of Hermione, bring Leontes to his senses.

    Daniel’s remarkable performance is chilling and finally heartbreaking. It’s an astonishingly nuanced and intelligent piece of acting in a role that has perplexed performers for generations. The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre needs to bring Daniel across the state line for guest appearances. This guy is the real deal.

     Under David Franks’ incisive directing Daniel has plenty of help in this superior production, though the play does fall off in intensity in the second half when Leontes largely disappears until the final scenes. The second half belongs to Perdita and Florizel, the son of Polixenes. Perdita is the daughter of Leontes and Hermione, abandoned 20 years earlier by the king’s orders on the barren coast of Bohemia. There the baby is discovered and adopted by an old shepherd, setting up the recognition scene at the end of the play. That’s when Perdita is reunited with her penitent father and with Hermione, who didn’t die after all but lived in seclusion on the palace grounds without her husband’s knowledge.

     The recognition scene, in which Hermione appears as a statue of herself, is one of the most improbable in Shakespeare. But at Spring Green the scene is handled with such sensitivity and warmth that people were weeping in the audience.

     Daniel dominates the production, but there are outstanding performances by Colleen Madden as Hermione, Sarah Day as Hermione’s lady in waiting, Jonathan Smoots as the shepherd, and Matt Schwader as Polixenes. It’s a busy season for Schwader, who also takes the title role in “Henry V.”

     Brian Mani, who was so outstanding as Falstaff in last season’s “Henry IV,” is an especially realistic and low-keyed Autolycus, one of Shakespeare’s most appealing rogues.            

     The APT does not perform weekday matinees during the summer, but there is plenty to do for visitors who don’t play golf in one of the town’s beautiful courses.  One outstanding daytime attraction is Taliesin, the home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. Taliesin offers 1, 2, and 4 hour tours of the buildings and grounds that will fascinate even those unfamiliar with Wright and his architecture.

     The House on the Rock is the other major attraction in the immediate area. The House is a receptacle for a gigantic collection of antiques and collectibles. There are two schools of thought about the House on the Rock. One school protests that the visitor achieves sensory overload after only a few minutes in the building and starts feverishly looking for an exit sign to escape from the overwhelming abundance of exhibitions.

     The opposite school finds the House an astonishing reservoir of nostalgia and odd treasures, from Burma Shave signs to a gigantic operating carousel. I fall into the latter school. The House on the Rock collection must run into hundreds of thousands of objects. Don’t expect to absorb it all in one or two visits. Just soak up what you can at your own pace (there are no identifying labels on 99% of the objects). Love it or not, the House on the Rock is a once in a lifetime experience.

     The APT season runs through October 4. For tickets and information, call 608 588 2361 or visit www.playinthewoods.org.

Contact Dan at zeffdaniel@yahoo.com.         June 2009

 

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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 .