Thursday, September 15, 2022

American Players Theatre 2022, Spring Green WI

If Middle Earth had a theater, it would look like American Players Theatre. Situated on over 100 acres in the woods of Wisconsin about an hour west of Madison, the sprawling grounds include several picnic areas on rolling hills with artwork and lights hanging from the trees (very Hobbiton), where people set up elaborate picnics complete with baskets, tablecloths, and stemware, and then you walk through tall forests where the Elves might have lived sometime in the past to the "Up-The-Hill" theater, with performances out in the open in a natural amphitheater. The permanent outdoor theater was built in 1980 and renovated a few years ago, and includes about 1000 cushy comfy waterproof seats around a thrust stage, with not a bad seat in the house. The stage is set against the woods, which are lit up at night in rainbow colors. The light of the sun, stars, and moon is amplified by huge sets of stadium lights, specifically directed where they are needed (stage, aisles, audience). The setting couldn't be more magical, but more importantly, the theater that has been produced in that space for over 40 years is fantastic. I don't know how it took this Midwest theater lover so long to discover this national gem of a theater. Their eight-show summer season continues through the first week of October, with a 9th show being presented in their indoor theater from late October through November, so you still have time to make the gorgeous four-hour drive from the Twin Cities to Spring Green (if you can get tickets). Otherwise, start making plans for their 2023 season, opening in June. If you're a theater fan living in the Midwest, APT is an absolute must-see.

My friends and fellow theater bloggers at Minnesota Theater Love have been going to APT for several years, with a group of their friends who have been going for 10-20 years, and I finally agreed to join them this fall. We had tickets for six of the eight currently running shows, the most we could fit in during our four-day stay, three in the outdoor Hill Theatre, and three in the smaller (about 200 seats) indoor Touchstone Theatre, built in 2009. Unfortunately the rains came in on the weekend, and our Saturday evening show Raisin in the Sun was cancelled, as well as both shows Sunday, but fortunately we had planned to be indoors that day. We ended up seeing five shows, each one better than the last, all very different in tone and style, but all so beautifully, thoughtfully, exquisitely executed. Read on for a mini-review of each show, plus some concluding thoughts. (Full information and credits can be found in the online playbill; all photos courtesy of American Players Theatre unless otherwise noted.)

Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare, directed by APT's Artistic Director Brenda DeVita (outdoor Hill Theatre)
This was the perfect choice for my first show at APT, and a perfect choice for the magical theater "Up-The-Hill." The story takes place outside, and we are actually outside, with characters entering and exiting up the aisles through the audience, or into the woods behind the stage. The rom-com times four (or five) is full of Shakespearean disguises and misdelivered letters, as our school boys intent on living three years of study and fasting, no women allowed, fall instantly and hopelessly in love with the first women they come across. What follows is a whole lot of revelry, silly antics, and a few charming songs (a capella or accompanied by recorded music). The mid-Century era costumes are absolutely divine, with both the men and women having four or five changes of outfits - travel wear, formal attire, hunting costumes, bathing suits, disguises, and more. The couples are cleverly color-coded, even if just signified by a tie or a shoe or a scarf. And speaking of - shoes, hats, gloves, sunglasses, etc. are perfectly matched or accenting the outfits. The Roman arch on the stage is festooned in a rainbow of flowers, with green turf underneath, and a classical statue of a woman on one side, creating the perfect backdrop (along with the natural backdrop) for this delightful tale. A huge and hugely talented cast brings the story to life with such joy and playfulness that the audience can't help but feel the same.

The Moors by Jen Silverman, directed by Keira Fromm (indoor Touchstone Theatre)
I've never seen a play like The Moors before, and with the number of plays I've seen, that's an accomplishment. Written by Playwrights' Center affiliated writer Jen Silverman (whose work was most recently seen at Prime Productions this summer, the dark comedy The RoommateThe Moors is a dark comedy / period piece / magical realism / horror story / romance, set in the 19th Century moors of England. That's a lot for a play that runs a little under two hours with no intermission to break the growing tension and wonderment, but everything is juggled well, and I'll be thinking about how all of the pieces fit together for a while. The play centers around two unhappy sisters, one resignedly so (Agatha, played by Tracy Michelle Arnold), one desperately trying to find happiness, or at least something to do (Huldy, played by Kelsey Brennan). On the day our story begins, Governess Emilie (Kayla Carter) arrives to take care of a mystery child, sent for by the women's brother who may or may not be dead. There's also a maid or two (Aurora Real de Asua) and a miserable large dog having an existential crisis until he meets and falls tragically in love with a moor hen (Jim DeVita and Colleen Madden, respectively, who both brilliantly embody these animals with dialogue that turns into barks or trills). Unexpected things happen as this story takes turn after turn, including one wild rock and roll moment, and eventually, blood (think the Brontë sisters, only darker, weirder, and funnier). Once again the design is stunning, everything from the floor to the furniture to the sisters' dresses are the mottle greys of the moors, Emilie arriving in pink bringing light and life, and the animals gorgeously rendered in human clothing with an animalistic bent. Huzzah for new, original, inventive, weird, wild theater!

The River Bride by Marisela Treviño Orta, directed by Robert Ramirez (indoor Touchstone Theatre)
In this lovely and bittersweet love story based on a Brazilian folk tale, a fishing family on the Amazon greets a visitor they fished out of the river, only to have their entire lives changed in the course of three days. Similar to the selkie myths of Scotland (with a tragic origin), it is believed that the river dolphins transform into a man, and if they can convince a woman to fall in love and marry them within three days, they can stay human. Two sisters, Helena and Belmira, fall prey to this handsome and charming man in a white suit with a bandage on his head. Belmira is about to marry Helena's childhood friend Duarte, but that doesn't stop her from being charmed by the man who introduces himself as Moises. But when he turns his charms to the unspoken-for Helena, she too falls under his spell. Unfortunately there's no happy ending for either sister, just a whole lot of longing, loneliness, missed opportunities, and broken hearts. It's achingly beautiful, well performed by the cast, particularly Gabriela Castillo as the spunky Belmira, Melisa Pereyra as the heartsick Helena, and Ronald Román-Meléndez as the dashing dolphin-man. The set is completely transformed from the English moors (just a few hours before) to a bare floor and back wall, with a circling multi-level dock, the frame of a boat, and imagined water beneath. There are a few moments of gorgeous movement that transport you under the water, and sound and lighting effects that complete the immersion into the Amazonian world. We feel for all of these characters and want them to be happy and get what they want, but sadly that is not in the cards in this haunting mythical story.

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, directed by Aaron Posner (outdoor Hill Theatre)
This play, with a character from which we got the word and concept Malapropism, is just pure, timeless comedy. The director calls it "a brilliant, 250-year-old prototype of a sitcom," and it is. It could have been written yesterday, or 50 years ago, or 50 years from now. People in love being silly in their pursuit, mistaken identities, and clever wordplay is always funny. And this genius company, for whom by the fourth show I'd already developed great admiration and respect, brings out every humorous moment in the script, and then some. The titular rivals are for the affection of one Lydia Languish (Kelsey Brennan), although it's a bit hard to keep track of who exactly those rivals are. She fell in love with her true love Captain Jack Absolute (Marcus Truschinski) whilst he was disguised as a humble man named Beverly, partly because she knew that her aunt Mrs. Malaprop (Tracy Michelle Arnold), who continually uses the incorrect but similar sounding word, to hilarious affect, would not approve. So when Beverly/Jack's father (the hilariously outraged David Daniel) arranges with Mrs. M for their marriage, she recoils in horror. There are a few other men in contention, whether they know it or not, which leads to a duel. We also have the love story of Lydia's cousin Julia (Phoebe Gonzalez), who's in love with Jack's friend Mr. Faukland (Ronald Román-Meléndez), who continually and annoyingly doubts himself and therefore her love for him. Upon this silly and convoluted plot is hung some delightful banter, physical humor, and just general hilarity. It's a true delight to watch this company play, wringing every possible ounce of laughter out of the script (and the crowd), while of course dressed in scrumptious costumes. But the biggest laughs came from a wayward martini shaker that fell a couple of times, seemingly of its own accord, causing the cast to hold and do a bit of improv. The show is most charmingly introduced by a song from the entire cast, setting the scene of the play and asking for our attention, and concluded the same way. It was clear from the start that this show is pure entertainment, no social commentary, greater themes, or thinking. And that's exactly what we need sometimes.  

The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by Gavin Lawrence (indoor Touchstone Theatre)
This feels like the show with the greatest connection to #TCTheater. APT company member Gavin Lawrence and #TCTheater veteran directs this production (and stars in Raisin in the Sun) and previously played the character of Elegba in Pillsbury House Theatre's production of this play, as well as the first play in Tarell Alvin McCraney's Brother/Sister trilogy, In the Red and Brown Water. For the role of Elegba in this production, he cast homegrown #TCTheater talent Nathan Barlow, who played the title role in the final play of the trilogy, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet (fun fact: Marcus is Elegba's son). And finally, one of my favorite #TCTheater costume designers Trevor Bowen designed the costumes for the show, a sort of worker chic. The three-person cast (plus "The Griot" / DJ / musician Jamaque Newberry, creating a soundscape that enhances the story) also includes Rasell Holt and Derrick Moore as the titular brothers, and all three give intense, believable, and devastating performances. This is a love story between brothers, who would do anything for each other, even if it means they have to be apart. The play also deals with racial injustice in our policing, justice, and incarceration systems, with two of the characters recently released from prison and trying not to go back in (well except for Elegba, who maybe wants to go back to prison so that he can be with and fully control the younger Size). With the use of traditional music, chanting, and dance, and interesting staging around the multi-level set (which, again, shares nothing with the other two shows in this theater), it's a hauntingly beautiful production of one part of this brilliantly written trilogy about Black American life, with characters inspired by the Yoruba religion of Nigeria.

The beauty of repertory theater is seeing the same actors in multiple different roles in different stories, perhaps with different relationships with the same actors. The sisters in The Moors also play aunt and niece in The Rivals, the dolphin man in The River Bride is a flustered lover in both The Rivals and Love's Labour's Lost, the frat boy King in Love's Labour's Lost is Hamlet (a show you can stream now through October 9). The acting company is comprised of a few familiar faces from #TCTheater, actors based in Chicago or other cities around the country, and longtime company members who have made rural Wisconsin their home (I'm not an actor, but if I were, I might think this was secretly the best job in American theater). The current company, creative team, and slate of plays is beautifully diverse, which I heard is something they're recently been working on, to great success (at least from the audience viewpoint).

What a wild idea it was, to buy a farm in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin and build a theater (which is exactly what visionary founders Charles Bright, Randall Duk Kim, and Anne Occhiogrosso did). "If you build it, they will come" is not just for baseball. Because people came, and continue to do so, turning this bare-bones theater with port-a-potties and no dressing rooms into the Midwest theater destination that it is today, with over 100,000 visitors every year, and a high level of artistry, professionalism, and organization throughout. My first visit to American Players Theatre will definitely not be my last.

the walk Up-The-Hill
(photo credit: @cherryandspoon Instagram)

inside the Hill Theatre for Love's Labour's Lost
(photo credit: @cherryandspoon Instagram)

approaching the indoor Touchstone Theatre
(photo credit:@cherryandspoon Instagram)