American Players Theatre: gas up your old car and go

Spring Green Wisconsin, just west of Madison

Colleen Madden, John Pribyl and Ensemble in . A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Liz Lauren.

If you are looking for a theatre adventure this summer–or next—you won’t find a better location or value than at Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre. Located in Spring Green just west of Madison, APT has been impressing theatre goers with excellent craft and mastery of classic and modern theatre for over 35 years. In fact, a few years back the Wall Street Journal called APT the finest classical theatre in America. After a full life of involvement in the theatre arts including travel near and far, I would agree.

The ensemble company, some of which have been acting together for 20 years and more, mounts several productions that run in repertory throughout the summer and into autumn. APT started with one 1000-plus seat outdoor amphitheater. The company now had two stages, the newly rebuilt outdoor theater called The Hill and Touchstone Theatre, an intimate indoor space.

On a recent weekend in Spring Green my husband and I saw four plays in three days: Cyrano de Bergerac, An Unexpected Man, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Flea in Her Ear. They were excellent with the exception of Cyrano which had a great first act but faltered after intermission. More on that later.

It’s easy to be a little jaded about Midsummer Night’s Dream after seeing 20-plus versions of Shakespeare’s most popular comedy but this was quite simply the Midsummer I might have dreamed of, staged in a way I never imagined: fresh, clear and so damned much fun.

There is space to name only one of the play’s fine performances: Cristina Panfilio as Puck had the moves and pluck to be both naughty and nice as she danced, swiveled and even rapped her way through her role. She was given the star’s part in the curtain call for good reason.

Mention must also be made of the costumes designed by Murell Horton. Everyone from Theseus in the opening act to Starveling, the well-suited tailor in the final scene had costumes and props that fit their character and the overall vision of the play’s director, John Langs.

There is a great respect at APT for Shakespeare’s work. They don’t rush through their lines out of fear that people won’t understand. Everything is clean and clear. This respect gives life back to the classics and it respects the native intelligence of the modern audience. This regard carries into the more current plays that they do.

The Unexpected Man, written by Yasmina Reza in 1995, is an unexpectedly disarming drama about two strangers who share a train compartment travelling from Paris to Frankfurt. The play charts the distance between two people who may think they are too old, bitter or hesitant to begin a new relationship. Constructed of a series of soliloquys, we listen in on their thoughts. The subtext of The Unexpected Man concerns the writer’s craft. (The man is an accomplished novelist) and how people respond to fiction. (The woman is reading his latest novel.) The indoor 200-seat Touchstone Theatre is a good place for this affecting drama. Brian Mani as the The Man is as good as ever in his brooding role. Sarah Day as The Woman plays the sophisticated Parisian mourning an old friend.

On Sunday evening the whole 18-member cast seemed to be thoroughly enjoying itself in A Flea in Her Ear, by Georges Feydeau. This 1907 boulevard comedy uses some standard farce developments: intercepted letters, mistaken identities, split second door slamming, but the playwright adds some very funny new twists. The show starts slowly and builds to frantic activity in the second and third act. Tracy Michelle Arnold as Olympe is perhaps the seediest concierge ever as she lifts her skirts to stamp out an imaginary bug racing across her “Mound of Venus” hotel lobby.

Not quite so successful is the production of Cyrano de Bergerac by Feydeau’s contemporary, Edmond Rostand. Rostand looks back to the 1660’s as a response to his fin du siècle time of cynicism and political disquiet. His swashbuckling Cyrano, disfigured by an ugly nose, fears he will never be loved by a beautiful Roxane. Cyrano agrees, as a point honor, to write love letters to the woman he pines for young soldier Christian who also loves her. James Ridge deftly commands the stage in his role as Cyrano. However, Roxane (Laura Rook) remains aloof throughout. The play depends on a leading lady who can carry the love of three men while maintaining her innocent demeanor. Rook’s cool characterization causes the show to buckle-under after intermission. It doesn’t help that in this production, Christian (Danny Martinez) the tongue-tied soldier, is also physically ill at ease. Director James Devita gives him nothing to do in the famous balcony scene. Christian, the brave appears to be Christian, the doofus. Not a failure of a show but flawed, like Cyrano’s appearance: it could be better.

After more than a few trips to American Players Theatre I am as smitten with APT as the lovers in Midsummer are with one another. It may seem slightly disloyal to tout an out of town theatre but I believe that good theatre develops good audiences and we can never have too many of those.

The rest of the American Players Theatre 2017 season includes: Jean Genet’s The Maids, Chekov’s Three Sisters, Shakespeare’s Pericles, and Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. In November, APT will mount Strindberg’s The Creditors in the indoor Touchstone Theatre.




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