The Miracle of American Players Theatre

Actors, critics and audiences gather in Spring Green for classical theater.

By - Jul 18th, 2018 04:52 pm
A Midsummer Night's Dream at the On the Hill theater, 2017. Photo by Torey Byrne.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the On the Hill theater, 2017. Photo by Torey Byrne.

This year’s gathering of the American Theatre Critics Association was at the American Players Theatre near Spring Green this month and several panelists emphasized what the critics’ own eyes realized in watching the APT’s productions – that they were witnessing miracles in the hot rural Wisconsin summer.

The first miracle is the nightly audience of 1,100 braving mosquitoes and rain at the APT’s outdoor On the Hill theater to relive ancient stories or meet new ones with classical appeal – a hardy brand of Midwesterners who climb hills or ride trams, some feeble with canes, some gymnastic tattooed youth, some bearded woodsmen and college grads, some pot-bellied golfers. They also fill the smaller air-conditioned Touchstone Theater – another hardy walk or tram ride with its own slate of similar repertory roles, another reason against all odds that APT draws 100,000 visitors a year.

So this audience is the first miracle. The second miracle is assembling an enormous company of skilled artisans and actors familiar to urban audiences and committed to the repertory concept (diverse roles in multiple productions, all demanding un-amplified voices and full-body physicality) spread over half a year of performance and production.

The mere existence of APT is remarkable. While unspoken among the American Theatre Critics Association, whose founding I witnessed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, its annual gathering is key to picking the regional theater Tony Award. So the association attempts to expose these journalists to companies across the nation – a much harder task in this age of shriveled media budgets and withered attention to the arts. From this visit expect a number of stories to crop up across the country about APT.

Most will be favorable, but herewith a caution. All theater is an explorative journey and journalists vary in how they approach the reporting task.

I’ve seen many of these APT actors in Milwaukee and admired and criticized them. The powerful vocal skills and broad strokes that so successfully reveal Shakespeare and Shaw in the wind and the rain require an adjusted touch on smaller stages or miked environments, not to mention TV and movies. Good actors try to meet those circumstance but only theater allows a story to unfold and build unmanipulated before your eyes. Those needs sometimes challenge the talents or uncover flaws. This is even true of scenic and costume designers working in different mediums, though here APT is particularly blessed.

The dilemmas and rewards can be demonstrated in two productions built on cross-dressing – no, not transgender or color-blind or cisgender casting, but historic plays where Shakespeare and others wrote female roles played then by men and now by women offering three-dimensional insights. APT, now headed by artistic director Brenda De Vita, relishes what women bring to those roles, most written by men about women dressed as men. Somehow they weaved real human observations within cultural, romantic and sexual straitjackets.

Juan Rivera Lebron, Nate Burger, Josh Krause & Lauren Taylor Knutson, The Recruiting Officer, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Juan Rivera Lebron, Nate Burger, Josh Krause & Lauren Taylor Knutson, The Recruiting Officer, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren.

A seldom done but important 18th century comedy, George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, is hard to explain in terms of plot, but built around the cunning of a sergeant and an officer in pressing the men of Shrewsbury to join the military. Bribes, outright lies and even pretenses of gypsy fortune-telling are the background and often the foreground inviting modernistic touches, while the centerpiece are two typically libertine men of the era, Captain Plume and Mr. Worthy, along with Silvia, the cross-dressing heroine hiding herself in the clothing of a rakish young swordsman, and Melinda, a more typical example of haughty heiress.

Their stories are the real motor, but director William Brown provides a mature coloration in bringing the townspeople to life —  the pregnant wives about to lose their men to war, the father whose patriotic stubbornness blinds him for awhile to his daughter’s abilities.

It was an important directorial insight to treat the town as more than exploitable rustics. But the cast is not uniformly up to Brown’s efforts to humanize them – some preferring his descent into clever comedic anachronisms in the fortune-teller humor, some walking through characters rather than inhabiting them. But at the end when the men are led off to service, the reminder of the true horrors of war provides a necessary balance to the comedy of domestic bliss.

The central male duo here do well – including Juan Rivera Lebron (a Milwaukee bred actor) underplaying Mr. Worthy with authority. But I was particularly taken with how Nate Burger as Plume combined the swaggering Casanova, howling clown and occasionally sensitive man the part requires.

Andrea San Miguel was too obvious for my tastes as the simpering Melinda, and Kelsey Brennan is only halfway into making a whole of Sylvie, better in the manly half but not quite sure how to match up the feminine half. She has much more to explore in a comedy of particular value whose elements return later this summer (August) in the play Our Country’s Good indoors at the Touchstone. But then, one of the advantages of long repertory is that the actors’ work evolves.

Andrea San Miguel & Melisa Pereyra, As You Like It, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Andrea San Miguel & Melisa Pereyra, As You Like It, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Another cross-dressing wonder is Shakespeare’s most romantic As You Like It where the good duke is banned to the forest and his daughter Rosalind dons male garb to pursue her own banished love, Orlando. He has taken to hanging love letters to her on the trees, to the amusement of her childhood companion Celia and their court clown Touchstone.

Aside from choosing 19th century dress and placing extended singing scenes around a campfire (often led by the strong musical voice of Cher Desiree Alvarez), director James Bohnen has offered twists within the familiar plot, including converting Jaques, the melancholy “Seven Ages of Man” muse, into Madame Jaques, to take advantage of Tracy Michelle Arnold’s long-acknowledged skill with language.

Except for that, this gender change adds nothing and may actually take away since, as Rosalind, Melisa Pereyra strives to explore the full range of sexual conflict, and now there’s a female Jaques who has scenes with males that ignore that conflict in any substantial way. Hard to make a Shakespearean sex comedy and ignore the meaning of sex.

Pereyra plays big, but with full excitable humanity, Rosalind’s conflicts between ardor and intellect, between her lies and her desires, with cringing physicality and vocal nuance exploring every moment of her journey.  The artistry underneath justifies the size of her performance, a goal for all the actors On the Hill that some reach more smoothly than others.

As Celia, San Miguel’s double-takes are more fitting here than in Recruiting Officer though not as much needed as she seems to believe. Burger returns as well as mean brother Oliver, but doesn’t solve the character’s instant conversion to good guy. More willing to grapple with the mood swings of  Orlando, and given more room in the script, is Chris Klopatek.

Marcus Truschinksi is much known to directors hereabouts for his gifts of seemingly spontaneous comic inventiveness – down to quirky spit takes.  He plays both Touchstone here and the manic lover Captain Brazen in Recruiting Officer, bringing the same laugh-inducing energy to both, much of it interpolated beyond raw text.

Sticking more closely to original intent in both plays was APT core veteran Brian Mani as quite different fathers.  Each requires instant stage authority, which he possesses in abundance. Kelsey Brennan also appears here as the man-hungry Phoebe, with an extreme broadness disappointing in comparison to Cristina Panfilio, the delightful comical bawd in Recruiting Officer.

Several of the performances that struck me as inflamed generally worked well in audience response, which I think pinpoints both the charm and the deceptive nature of this sort of theater, so admirable in its commitment to repertory and the lasting appeal of classic theater. The nature of storytelling is intrinsically involved in these productions’ appeal and each director decides where the audience must be led by the actors and where in context the patrons will on their own figure it out. Some of Shakespeare’s comedic conceits and language need help to come across; other moments should boldly invite the audience to lean in.

Every production rises and falls on this balance – and even more in the APT environment. Where is the audience trusted and when does the audience need detailed guidance – and when does the concept cross up traditional expectations? These are fascinating journeys that are worth taking, including by many who have not yet learned how much such theater is both for and about them.

Two other APT shows will be discussed in a later article.

The Recruiting Officer Gallery

As You Like It Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here and here.

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