Into the Woods: A Week At American Players Theatre in Wisconsin
For audience members going to the American Players Theatre, a not-so-little gem in rural Wisconsin, the theatrical journey begins when they leave their car (or bus) in the parking lot and set out for a 5-to-10-minute walk (or opt to take a seat in small vehicle that the theater provides instead) and up a hill and into the woods to get to the amphitheater for an outdoor production.
I am a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and earlier this month we held our annual convention in Spring Green, Wisc. -- about 40 miles west of Madison -- and far from the Tony Award-winning theaters in New York, Chicago, Connecticut or other urban centers across the country that regularly have national spotlights on them.
For me, journey up a hill to see theater in this bucolic setting was part of the experience, part of the ritual, if you will, of this sui genesis place. It sounds odd but, in a way, it was a kind of theatrical pilgrimage.
In the woods, it's all about the joy of seeing classic works, many of these plays not often produced, despite some theater mission statements of other not-for-profit regional theaters across the country. (When did you last see a play by Farquar, or even Ionesco is your favorite Tony Award-winning theater?)
So to be under the summer stars with around 1,000 others, some of whom had driven many miles and even many hours -- but others in the crowd were made up of farmers and other folks who live in these rural parts who embrace theater in a way that some of us take for granted. The audiences in which I was a part of during the week were some of the most attentive, engaged and savvy I've seen. I felt I was in the very best of company.
I caught Shakespeare's "As You Like It," Farquar's "The Recruiting Officer" outdoors, followed by a terrific production of Athol Fugard's "Blood Knot" in the indoor venue. But it was Saturday's twin bill that knocked my socks off. That afternoon I was in its 200-seat indoor theater for the rarely performed "Exit the King" and that night, in the outdoor theater for what many consider to be an old chestnut, "Born Yesterday." Both had the bracing au courant energy of what great theater is all about.
The sets were designed to be able to easily taken down and put up again -- because this is a true repertory company with plays presented on a rotating schedule. that's why I was so I was able to see five works on two stages in four days. Costumes, lighting elements were top notch too, as was the sound. Without amplification in the outdoor space, I heard every word spoken clearly and well by the company members. At APT, the emphasis is on the text and as the company's name implies, the players, too.
Some background: The theater was founded in 1978 by actor Randall Duk Kim, and Anne Occhiogrosso and Charles Bright. It's first performance was in 1980. It has been run for the past four years by its dynamic artistic leader, Brenda DeVita -- who was associated a.d. for 14 years and company member for 23 years-- and if her number isn't on speed dial of search firms looking for new artistic directors around the country, I'd be shocked. (And I'd get a new search firm, too.)
For the past three years, its managing director has been Carrie Van Hallgren, a grad from the Yale School of Drama. More than 110,000 people see APT's shows every year, from June through early October in the outdoor theater and through November in the indoor theater.
One of the joys of the week -- besides revelling in first-class classic theater -- was discovering so many new and terrific actors from this resident company of professional actors — mostly from the Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison area — who perform a wide range of material, in parts large and small.
Too many to mention, I know.
Oh, what the hell: I was knocked out by the comic verve and dare of Marcus Truschinski as Touchstone in “As You Like It” and Brazen on “The Recruiting Officer;” Andrea San Miguel was also transformative as Celia in “As You Like It” and as Melinda in “The Recruiting Officer;” I didn’t see Melisa Pereyra’s Isabella in “Measure for Measure” but her Rosalind was everything you hope for in that role: intelligence, warmth, assurance and tons of charm; Though “Heartbreak House” wasn’t in rotation that week (so I missed his Hector), Jim DeVita gave a stunning performance in “Blood Knot,” as did Gavin Lawrence (who also played Escalus in “Measure for Measure”); James Ridge gave a tour de force performance as the title role in “Exit the King” and returned for a different take of political corruption as the senator in “Born Yesterday;” In that latter Garson Kanin play, David Daniel gave a fresh and believable performance as Harry Brock (he also played Pompey in “Measure for Measure.’) Colleen Madden was a knockout as Billie Dawn, too.
A performance that took my breath away though was Tracy Michelle Arnold as the calculating queen in “Exit the King.” (She also made for a great gender-switching Jacques in “As You Like It”)
The Saturday double bill of “Exit the King” and “Born Yesterday” showed the power of how these classic works can still speak to audiences today. The former is about a mad, delusional, self-obsessed political leader. Enough said. In “Born Yesterday” the speeches about democracy and the need to take action against businessmen, lobbyists and 1 percenters who use government for their own self-serving ends received several outbursts of applause from this Wisconsin crowd. The two shows were planned a long time ago but it turned out to be the most timely twin-bill for 2018 that one could imagine. And both were presented -- as all the shows were -- with intelligence, passion and precision.
There’s a lot of great theater across this country that goes way beyond New York and our own well-recognized regional venues and the discovery of a wondrous theatrical world farther than the familiar is exhilarating.
And well worth the trip.
Bonus: Make it a destination trip beyond theater. It's literally down the road to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, 40 miles from Madison, 2 1/2 hour drive to Milwaukee and 3 1/2 drive to Chicago, 4 hour drive to Des Moines.
Info: www.springgreen.com and www.americanplayers.org.