Under new director, American Players Theatre shows changed outlook with Mamet opener
Preview: “American Buffalo” shares billing with plays by Wilde, Chekhov and Shakespeare as summer festival, under first-year artistic director Brenda DeVita, takes modern American turn.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
As if running up a banner announcing its annexation of the New World – where, of course, it is located – the classically oriented American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis., opens its 2014 summer with a new commitment to Americana, leading off with no less bracing a representative than David Mamet.
This is not to say that APT, created in 1980 for the express purpose of doing justice to Shakespeare, is veering away from the Bard or other iconic playwrights of European provenance. While opening day, June 14, brings Mamet’s hard-edged “American Buffalo” to the 200-seat Touchstone Theatre, it also promises the urbane delight of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the 1,148-set, open-air Up-the-Hill Theatre.
As for Shakespeare, APT’s first flush of plays this summer includes “Romeo and Juliet” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” both in the outdoor venue whose elemental aspect pays homage to the performing arenas of the Bard’s own time.
Still, the news out of Spring Green is a two-fold change – of face and pace: Iowa native Brenda DeVita succeeds native Brit David Frank as artistic director, and with her comes APT’s widening agenda for American theater. While the company has staged American works before, notably Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” DeVita plans to spice the stew with more frequent doses of American masterworks.
“This is my heritage,” she declares in an interview with Chicago On the Aisle. “The idea is simply to explore other kinds of great plays. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s also true that if you’re good at Shakespeare, you’re good at anything. It is all about language – the specificity of the word. That is our focus and we will never change that.”
A 20-year veteran of APT, much of that time as Frank’s artistic assistant and in recent years his full-fledged collaborator, DeVita insists it really doesn’t matter whether the play at hand comes from Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw or O’Neill, the challenge remains the same.
“Ever since this place opened in the middle of nowhere, actors have come here to work for (almost) nothing and deal with the bugs in an endless quest to achieve perfection, knowing they will never get it completely right – to fail continually and yet keep on trying. And every summer, 100,000 people come to share in what we have managed to accomplish.
“It’s all about respecting what language can do to people when they receive it in a way that’s dramatic. This is the legacy of our founding to stage the plays of Shakespeare, and it remains our passion to this day.”
Here in brief is a look at APT’s complete lineup for 2014:
- “American Buffalo” by David Mamet (June 14-Nov. 8) – Three low-lifes see an opportunity to score big on a theft. It’ll just take vision and planning; never mind the factor of delusion. “This brilliant play changed the course of American theater,” says DeVita. “It’s a Greek classic in modern terms, men struggling to have mattered, to have existed, reaching for something that would require a miracle, with massive overtones of failure in the face of the gods and fate.” DeVita also said she plans to post warnings about the raw language that peppers the play — a concern this classically attuned audience has rarely encountered at APT.
- “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde (June 14-Sept. 27) — Responsible, mild-mannered Jack Worthing is harboring a couple of secrets. First, he is in love with his friend Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen. And second, they both think his name is Ernest. In fact, Ernest is Jack’s imaginary alter-ego – a troubled younger brother he created so that he could do whatever he liked in London and no one would ever think to judge him. But when Algernon catches on to the scheme, he decides to be Ernest himself in order to woo Jack’s lovely young ward, Cecily. Says DeVita: “It’s everything and nothing you’d expect.”
- “Much Ado About Nothing” by Shakespeare (June 21-Oct. 5) – In this wry comedy of matched wits and ambivalent affections, Beatrice and Benedick spend their days sparring until tricked into admitting they’re in love. “As much as everybody wants them to be together, you need to believe they’re never going to make it,” says DeVita about the challenge of this finely drawn play.
- “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion (June 28-Oct. 4) — Based on the playwright’s book, this one-woman show (performed by APT company member Sarah Day) recounts the 12 months following the unexpected death of her husband, and concurrent hospitalization of her only daughter. “It’s a searing and immaculate meditation – painful and clean and so taut about grief and loss,” says DeVita, who will direct.
- “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare (June 28-Oct. 4) – The feud between the Montague and Capulet families comes to a head when young Romeo, a Montague, meets the beautiful Juliet of the Capulets. Their love is instant, but star-crossed, stained by bloodshed and ending in tragedy. “No play in my experience changes the way this one does as you change,” says DeVita. “Every time you see it, you’re at a different place in your life, and how it speaks to you is radically different.”
- “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov (Aug. 9-Sept. 20) – In this Russian tragi-comedy, the aspiring young writer Konstantin labors in the shadow of his famous actress mother Arkadina and her lover, the esteemed author Trigorin. On a wheel of fortune that touches many vivid characters, lives are tossed about and hearts are shattered. “We’re doing this outside, where you really want to see this play done – their rickety stage built on our rickety stage, their boards on our boards,” says DeVita. “Our company is ripe with exactly the kinds of relationships Chekhov has created: People who’ve come to know each other so well over many years. You can’t buy that.”
- “Travesties” by Tom Stoppard (Aug. 16-Oct. 3) – In this wry comedy, Henry Carr weaves a tale of the famous people he knew in his youth – from Dadaist Tristan Tzara to writer James Joyce and Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. But as the years have passed, Carr’s memories of his former cohorts have become muddled with his long-ago portrayal of Algernon in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” making a mash-up of recollection and reality.
- “The Doctor’s Dilemma” by G.B. Shaw (Aug. 16-Oct. 3) — Dr. Ridgeon has developed a cure for tuberculosis. He’s at the very top of his game – and his patient load – when the charming Jennifer Dubedat comes to him pleading for the life of her husband, the gifted but poor artist, Louis. But Louis may have some character traits that could be viewed as liabilities when one life is weighed against another, and against Dr. Ridgeon’s feelings for the dying man’s wife.
- “Alcestis” by Euripides (Oct. 12-Nov. 9) – In this ancient drama hovering between tragedy and comedy, Apollo has persuaded the Fates to give King Admetus a life extension. But a sacrifice is demanded, and there’s just one volunteer: Admetus’ beloved Queen Alcestis. By chance, Admetus’ old friend Heracles shows up — on a wave of grand ego and drunken ribaldry. Yet he may have the pluck to confront the one thing feared by gods and humans alike: the dread figure of Death itself.
- American Players Theatre 2014 season in detail: Read about it at AmericanPlayers. org
- Brenda DeVita’s improbable path to APT’s artistic directorship: Read about her here