The American Player Theatre, a place of extraordinary talent, is nestled in the Wisconsin hills. As always, this year's season contains some wonderful plays. The APT has an indoor and outdoor theatre, both of which provide intimate venues for performances.
The outdoor theatre is particularly unique. The versatile stage moulds easily to each production. It sprouts curved planks, rising towards the sky like wooden waves or sails for The Tempest. Then bronze doors and benches transform it into an Italian town for Taming of the Shrew and crab grass and barn rafters appear for Of Mice and Men.
One of the APT’s many strengths is its tradition of using a talented core of actors in multiple shows each season. It truly highlights the performers abilities when you can see them in such different roles in the same weekend. One great example of this was Susan Shunk's role as the timid Laura in The Glass Menagerie and then her turn as the strong-willed Miranda in The Tempest. Tracy Michelle Arnold also pulled double duty as the difficult Katherine in Taming of the Shrew and the devoted Spirit in The Tempest.
By definition, a tempest is a violent disturbance caused by wind and this particular show takes audiences by storm. Shipwrecks, fairies, a sweet romance, a magician, Italian nobility, sibling rivalries, wild natives, this show has it all. A magician, Prospero, and his daughter Miranda are stranded on an island for years. Another shipwreck brings them back in contact with the people from their past.
The Tempest contains some of Shakespeare most fascinating characters. From the animalistic Caliban to the wild spirits that do Prospero’s biding, the island is filled with wonders. The main spirit, Ariel, flits about the stage with wren-like movements, never pausing for more than a minute. Miranda, who has lived a sheltered life knowing only two men, has her eyes opened to a whole new world during the course of the play.
Though it's technically a comedy, this particular work by the Bard takes a serious look at learning how to forgive. In the end it is really about Prospero’s journey to choose between forgiveness and revenge. But along the way Shakespeare provides some hilarious shenanigans, creating one of the most beautiful and balanced of all of his plays.
Taming of the Shrew
This production is set in the 19th century. The story is well-known, two sisters; the elder a defiant shrew, while the younger is charming and demure. The father won't allow the young sister, Bianca, to marry until someone weds the elder, Katherine. Bianca is all flowery sweetness, while Katherine scowls at everyone she meets.
Add to this a few suitors desperate for Bianca's hand, including Lucentio, who forces his servant, Tranio, to pretend to be him so he can get closer to his love. Tranio's performance is excellent. He has the audience in stitches with a single expressions.
Petruchio takes on the task of "taming the shrew" and in him Katherine meets her match. Their verbal sparring is electric. He can with stand up to her tart rebukes and offers loving smiles when she presents her sour puss. He literary tries to kill her with kindness, or at least break her stubborn streak with it. They quickly learn that though men and women try to find balance in their relationships, they can’t truly attain it until there is mutual respect.
The Glass Menagerie
Laura, a fragile, mousy introvert whose social life is stunted, lives at home with her over-bearing mother. Her brother, Tom provides for them by working in a warehouse, though he dreams of a more artistic life. He’s desperately unhappy, but isn’t sure how to escape.
Sarah Day’s fierce portrayal of their mother, Amanda, is enthralling. She maintains a delicate balance of nostalgic southern charm and vindictive disappointment. She ignores anything unpleasant in their lives and deludes herself into believing that things are perfect. When that veneer cracks, the audience has a chance to see the real Amanda; a frayed bundle of nerves soaked in bitterness who exhausts everyone around her. The absence of their father, who left years before, hangs heavy over the family.
When Tom’s friend Jim stops by for dinner, everything is brought to a head. Emotions that broiled just below the surface bubble over. Jim’s jovial attitude shines a glaring spotlight on the Wakefield’s stale existence.
The jarring music and dramatic lighting embrace Tennessee William’s original vision for the play. His prose are poetic and he can capture the most complicated moods with a simple line. He created two very different women, both of whom are trapped by their memories and past hopes. They’re unable to move forward and their stasis traps Tom along with them.
Of Mice and Men
Steinbeck's story is both powerful and heartbreaking and this production captures that same spirit. Even though you may know what's coming, you can't help but be swept away in the drama. Two migrant workers live life on the road, traveling from farm to farm looking for work in the 1930s. George is a small, shrewd man, always looking out for them. The other, Lennie, is a gentle giant. He has the strength of a bull and the mind of a child.
James DeVita is excellent, as always. He captures George’s frustration, while never letting go of this humanity and hope. Brian Mani embraces Lennie’s childlike enthusiasm and innocence. The repetitive nature of their conversations made any unexpected moments in the play even more unsettling.
The show captures the universal theme of loneliness. No matter who you are, you need someone to talk to and you need something to hope for. George and Lennie’s unique brotherly bond gives them something to hold onto, but they seem doomed to failure from the start.
----------------------------------------------APT has such an incredibly talented crew of people that work together so well. Everyone from the actors, directors, set and costume designers, lighting and sound people, etc. make sure each element is handled with the utmost care. They strive for excellence with every show and their efforts are reflected in each new season of plays. This gem of a theatre provides more than just a performance, it gives audiences an experience that shouldn’t be missed. If you've never visited this Midwestern treasure, plan a trip there soon!
The American Players Theatre is located in Spring Green, WI only 6.5 hours from Indianapolis and makes a perfect weekend getaway.
The theater's outdoor seats are comfortable, but definitely bring a jacket, rain parka or blanket depending on the weather. The show will go on even if it's chilly or drizzling. There are easily accessible restrooms and concessions at both the Up-the-Hill Theatre and the Touchstone Theatre.
There are plenty of camping/B&B/cabin/hotel options nearby, depending on your preference. You can find additional information about where to lodge, restaurants and other attractions on APT's website.
For more information about APT and Spring Green, WI visit its website.
Photos Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.