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American Players Theatre: Midwest Summer Theater Destination

From Shakespeare to Athol Fugard, American Players Theatre offers nine major plays over the course of this summer in two venues, one outdoor, one indoor.

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American Players Theatre’s Hill stage with 2017 set for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Photo credit: Torey Byrne)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Three hours north of Chicago and 40 miles west of Madison, Wisconsin, the American Players Theatre has been the Midwest’s summer theater destination for almost four decades. Founded in 1980 by actor Randall Duk Kim, director Anne Occhiogrosso and Charles Bright, APT was begun on a 110 acres plot of land in the rolling hills of Wisconsin near Spring Green as a classical summer theater presenting uncut Shakespeare. Since 1990, APT has eschewed uncut productions for something more user friendly.

Having added the 200-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre in 2009 to the outdoor Hill Theater with a capacity of 1,089, the season which began on June 14 now runs until November 18. It currently serves 110,000 patrons annually, one of the largest audiences for classical outdoor theater in the United States. Another perk of visiting the neighborhood is to tour Taliesin East, Frank Lloyd Wright’s fascinating private home as well as his school for architects, both of which are only one mile away from the theater.

Since the advent of the second theater, APT produces nine plays a year. In recent years the programming has included pairs of plays that are linked in some way. This year there are two intriguing sets: George Farquhar’s 1706 The Recruiting Officer paired with Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 Our Country’s Good about the historic staging of this play by the inmates of the penal colony of New South Wales, the first theatrical presentation to be staged in Australia; and Bernard Shaw’s 1920 Heartbreak House paired with John Morogiello’s 2006 Engaging Shaw depicting Shaw’s own wooing of Charlotte Payne-Townsend who eventually became his wife. Previous ingenious pairings have included Hamlet with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an alternate version of Shakespeare’s play told from the point of view of two of the minor characters, and The Importance of Being Earnest with Stoppard’s Travesties which incorporates scenes from Oscar Wilde’s play.

Colleen Madden as Billie Dawn and David Daniel as Harry Brock in a scene from APT’s 2018 revival of Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday” (Photo credit: Liz Lauren)

Through much of the APT’s season, it is possible to see as many as five different plays in a four day period as did the members of the American Theatre Critics Association at their recent annual conference. Although APT bills itself as a classical theater, the challenging offerings range from an Elizabethan play such as a Shakespeare comedy or tragedy to contemporary modern classics. Of the five plays that ATCA attended the most successful was one of the most recent: Garson Kanin’s 1946 smash hit comedy, Born Yesterday, which ran 1,642 performances in its original production but was a quick failure in both its 1989 and 2011 Broadway revivals with big name stars.

Ironically, in the current political climate this play about corruption in Washington, bribery of congressmen, lobbyists with a personal agenda and general lying and dishonesty in government is suddenly as relevant as if it were written yesterday. With lines like “This country will soon have to decide if the people are going to run the Government or the Government is going to run the people,” “Sometimes selfishness even gets to be a cause, an organized force, even a government. Then it’s called Fascism,” and “You can run the men who run (this country). It takes power. You’ve got some. It takes money. You’ve got plenty.”

Set immediately after World War II, Born Yesterday concerns Harry Brock, a vulgar, self-centered junkman who comes to Washington to see that a bill that will allow him to collect scrap steel in Europe without government oversight is pushed through Congress by the Texas senator he has in his pocket with an $80,000 bribe. With him is his girlfriend of eight years, the uneducated and frivolous but beautiful ex-chorus girl Billie Dawn. Needing someone to show Billie the ropes in sophisticated Washington, Harry hires Paul Verrall, an investigative reporter for The New Republic, who comes to interview him. However, Paul does his job too well and Billie not only gains an education, but begins to question for the first time the legality of Harry’s operation and the life she has been living as his mistress.

Reese Madigan as Paul Verrall and Colleen Madden as Billie Dawn in a scene from APT’s 2018 revival of Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday” (Photo credit: Liz Lauren)

Smartly directed by APT’s artistic director Brenda DeVita, the casting is impeccable. At the play’s center is the magnificently ditzy performance of Colleen Madden, a classical actress known for such Shakespearean roles as Beatrice, Kate, Viola, Emilia, Ariel and Isabella. Demonstrating tremendous range, here she behaves as though she has always played the proverbial dumb blonde getting laughs on almost all of her lines. In the underwritten role of the reporter, Reese Madigan holds his own and puts his own stamp on the character. The chemistry between Madden’s Billie and Madigan’s Paul is palpable.

As the thuggish Harry Brock, David Daniel is a suitably menacing and sinister character, someone not to cross in an argument. John Taylor Phillips makes a suave drunk out of Harry’s lawyer Ed Devery, once Assistant Attorney General now fallen on hard times, while Josh Krause as Harry’s dim-witted brother also gives a telling performance. Nathan Stuber, part of one of eight different production teams, has designed an elegant grey, black and gold luxury hotel suite for the outdoor stage of the Hill Theatre, while Fabio Toblini’s costumes define the changes in Billie’s intellectual development as well as remaining true to the forties time period for the other outfits. The success of the production shows that the more vapid and vulgar Harry and Billie are at the outset the better the play works.

Chris Klopatek as Orlando, Andrea San Miguel as Celia and Melisa Pereyra as Rosalind in a scene from APT’s 2018 production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” (Photo credit: Liz Lauren)

The oldest play being performed this summer is James Bohnen’s charmingly inventive and modern production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, usually credited to 1603. Reset in the late Victorian period, all of the female characters are remarkably gutsy in a play that often has them as rather passive and weak traditional women. Also breaking with tradition Jaques, the melancholy philosopher, is played by a woman, Tracy Michelle Arnold, making her role resemble the fast-talking heroines made famous by Rosalind Russell, Eve Arden and Claire Trevor.

When heroines Rosalind and her cousin Celia flee the court of the evil Duke Frederick, Celia’s father who usurped the kingdom of Rosalind’s father, his brother Duke Senior, for the Forest of Arden, set designer Michael Ganio has ingeniously placed a real forest on stage with five (potted) trees. Orlando’s love letters to Rosalind are actually posted on the real trees. At a certain point in the play, the back gates of the stage are opened, and lit in moonlight blue we see the actual woods of Spring Green, Wisconsin, behind the theater. As lit by Michael A Peterson it is a magical stage effect, rarely achieved in As You Like It.

As the cross-dressing Rosalind who dons men’s attire for the remove to the forest, Melisa Pereyra gives a vigorous, virile performance which belies her feminine charms in the earlier scenes back at court. So too Celia, often played as no more than her sidekick, in the hands of Andrea San Miguel is a feisty smart woman. Local shepherdesses living in the forest Phoebe and Audrey, played by Kelsey Brennan and Emily Day, respectively, give very different and staunch performances of these seemingly unsophisticated country girls.

Tracy Michelle Arnold as Jaques (center), David Daniel as Duke Senior (right) and company in a scene from APT’s 2018 production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” (Photo credit: Liz Larsen)

As Orlando, in love with Rosalind and silently beloved by her, Chris Klopatek holds his own in this company of strong women and gives a charming account of this lovelorn swain. As his cruel brother Oliver, Nate Burger makes us understand why Orlando hates him. Equally true, Brian Mani as the usurping Duke Frederick is more than usually authoritarian, while David Daniel (seen as Harry Brock in Born Yesterday) as Duke Senior is contrastingly understanding and compassionate. Casey Hoekstra puts a new spin on wrestler Charles making him more of a courtier than usual.

Other plays from the world repertory that were also running simultaneously during the month of July were Farquhar’s 1706 restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer, Athol Fugard’s 1961 South African apartheid drama Blood Knot and Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist tragicomedy, the 1962 Exit the King. While all are difficult challenging works, the rarity of the revivals in the United States make these productions particularly interesting to the committed theatergoer and were received with rapt attention by APT’s regular audience at the performances under review.

Nate Burger as Captain Plume, Andrea San Miguel as Melinda and Marcus Truschinski as Captain Brazen in a scene from APT’s 2018 production of Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer” (Photo credit: Liz Lauren)

While William Brown’s production of The Recruiting Officer is always easy to follow despite its complicated plot, Nate Burger in the title role as Captain Plume is too bland and colorless for the hero. However, in the smaller role of Captain Brazen, Marcus Truschinski offers the swashbuckling characteristics that Plume lacks. Ron OJ Parsons’ revival of Blood Knot is unable to avoid Fugard’s long, almost pointillist exposition, but actors Jim DeVita (as the light-skinned brother) and Gavin Lawrence as the dark-skinned brother amply make up for the play’s structural weaknesses with their superior and involving acting.

A classic full-length play of the Theater of the Absurd movement, Exit the King, translated by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush and performed with no intermission, in Tim Ocel’s production does seem long and repetitious in the meditation on death and dying. James Ridge as the 400 year old King Berenger seems suitably confused in his journey from anger to acceptance. As his two queens, Tracy Michelle Arnold (Jacques in As You Like It) as the pragmatic castoff Queen Marguerite and Cassia Thompson as the emotional Queen Marie make a dramatic contrast. Michael Granio’s minimalist production with almost no scenery for the throne room focuses the attention on the language and on the themes.

Cassia Thompson as Queen Marie , James Ridge as King Berenger and John Pribyl as The Doctor in a scene from APT’s 2018 production of Ionesco’s “Exit the King”   Photo credit: Liz Lauren)

Entering the repertory in the outdoor Hill Theatre starting this month are Shaw’s comedy on the eve of World War I, Heartbreak House, on August 3 and Shakespeare’s problem comedy Measure for Measure (previewing on August 10). Joining Exit the King and Blood Knot in the indoor Touchstone Theatre are Timberlake Werthenbaker’s Australian epic, Our Country’s Good  (August 15) and finally John Morogiello’s biographical comedy of manners, Engaging Shaw on October 25 and closing out the season on November 18. Part of the fun of the American Players season is seeing actors in more than one play as most appear in three contrasting roles.

In 1999 APT started the Core Acting Company comprised of 13 performers who have been hired for three years and can opt to stay on if there are roles for them and if they wish. As a result, many actors have chosen to permanently make their home in Spring Green and are greeted as old friends by theater regulars. A trip to the American Players Theatre is an immersive theatrical experience, with the theater thinking of all of their patrons’ needs: trams up to the two theaters from the parking lot for those who have trouble walking, picnic dinners, barbecue grills and  outdoor tables available before each show, three gift shops at different venues, and refreshment stands at both theaters. The theater even supplies bug spray for those pesky mosquitoes.

American Players Theatre, 590 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin

For tickets or more information, call 608-588-2361 or visit http://www.AmericanPlayers.org

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (534 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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