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.