Summer 2016 at American Players Theatre: It’s high drama, comedy where ardor meets Arden
Preview: Third-year artistic director Brenda DeVita stresses the company’s classical commitment even as it explores modern plays.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
It’s like seeing Shakespeare in the Forest of Arden, this bucolic Wisconsin festival that bears the name of American Players Theatre.
Set in the rolling hills of Spring Green, just west of Madison, American Players has been producing stellar – literally star-covered – theater every summer since 1980. An easy three and a half hours by car from Chicago, the festival is close to both the famous Frank Lloyd Wright center Taliesin and the (hardly less famous) Baraboo Circus Museum.
The 2016 prospect at American Players Theatre is typical in several respects – the range of its repertoire, the factor of prominent Chicago actors and directors, the irresistible charm of its two performance venues: the 1,100-seat outdoor Up-the-Hill Theatre, so called for the best of reasons, and the cozy indoor, 200-seat Touchstone Theatre.
Surveying her third summer as APT’s artistic director Brenda DeVita says the company’s mission in 2016 is unchanged from the founders’ basic aspiration: “We want to present classic theater in a way that has essential meaning today – first of all to do Shakespeare well, which is a huge responsibility with a huge challenge to maintain the relevance of those great plays.”
There is something deliciously timely – defiant and declarative — in APT’s early juxtaposition this summer of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and Carlyle Brown’s “The African Company Presents Richard III.”
A tale of two long-separated brothers and their wacky servants, “The Comedy of Errors,” says DeVita, “couples farce with seriously beautiful language. It’s about love, longing and being an outsider trying to find your place. It’s ridiculous and profound at the same time.” Directing will be David Frank, the company’s founding artistic director.
“The African Company Presents Richard III” is set 40 years before the Civil War, when a troupe of black actors in New York decide to stage Shakespeare’s play. But their venture is threatened when a major (white) New York company lands a big-name star for its own production of “Richard III” and attempts to block the black enterprise.
“Who is Shakespeare for – who ‘owns’ his work, and who does it speak to?” says DeVita. “Here (in Brown’s play) is a group of black actors in love with the language of Shakespeare and who demand a chance to present ‘Richard III.’”
“The Comedy of Errors” unfolds now through Oct. 2 at the Up-the-Hill Theatre (with shuttle service available if you’d rather skip the steep walk), The “African Richard III” continues through Sept. 14 in the Touchstone Theatre.
Here’s the rest of APT’s 2016 season in brief:
- “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller (Up-the-Hill, now through Sept. 16): The tragic story of everyman Willy Loman, whose life is shaped by grand hopes and heartbreaking missteps. Willy is on a quest to realize the American dream, and for his family to share it with him. But their perception of him – who he really is behind his façade – doesn’t quite match up with his self-portrait. “This beautiful, shattering play is universal,” says DeVita. “Who doesn’t have a profound understanding of what Willy is going through? He may not be all that lovable, but he’s incredibly human. Some people’s lives just don’t add up. And everyone, as a human being, deserves our respect.”
- “An Ideal Husband” by Oscar Wilde (Up-the-Hill, June 17-Sept. 24): Deception and blackmail are just the beginning of the witty classic. Over the course of 24 hours, Mrs. Chiltern goes to ridiculous lengths to save her husband’s political career in the face of scandal. She will surmount any hurdle to preserve her man’s reputation – in the public eye and in her own mind. “I’m a fan of Oscar Wilde and want to do as many of his plays as we can,” says DeVita. “The challenge here, in our time, is to dig into these people and make them fully dimensional. The idea that anyone is ideal, perfect, is absurd – but the ideal image of someone that we try to create for ourselves is common. What goes on here is scandalous and really funny and heartfelt.”
- “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard (Up-the-Hill, July 29-Oct. 1): In early 19th-century England, teenager Thomasina is mesmerized by the link between physics and nature, making brilliant deductions that astound her devoted tutor Septimus. In the present (occasionally glimpsed at the same time), competing scholars try to make sense of Thomasina’s story – as well as another intriguing mystery — through clues left behind. “Stoppard’s voice completely coincides with what we’re about,” says DeVita. “This play is about people who are tragically searching for truth and meaning when they all know we’re all going to die. The are passionate about fully living and fully understanding. ‘Arcadia’ doesn’t land anywhere – it lives everywhere.”
- “King Lear” by William Shakespeare (Up-the-Hill, Aug. 5-Sept. 30): An aged king is undone by his own vanity when he asks his three daughters to expand upon their love for him as a show of worthiness for their share his kingdom, which he is about to cede to them. When the one truly devoted daughter replies with measured speech, angry Lear disowns her and thus sets in motion general chaos and his own ruin. William Brown directs. “This will be our first ‘Lear’ in 18 years,” says DeVita. “You just don’t step into it unless you can give it your best, and we know that’s what we’re getting with Bill Brown and Jonathan Smoots (as Lear). This is not just about Lear’s journey. It’s about politics and family and end of life.”
- “Eurydice” by Sarah Ruhl (Touchstone, June 21-Oct. 8): After an accident claims her life, Eurydice joins her father in the underworld. But her husband Orpheus isn’t ready to let her go and vows to rescue her from Hades. Ruhl presents a poignant and funny retelling of the Greek myth from the perspective of Eurydice, who must choose between her husband and her father and between life and death. “Sarah Ruhl’s play is poetry, pure and simple,” says DeVita. “We did a first reading that left us all devastated. It’s also the piece in the season that I’m most terrified by because of its nonlinearity. It isn’t the structure but the language that holds the piece up. The skeleton is the poetry.”
- “Endgame” by Samuel Beckett (Touchstone, Aug. 6-Oct. 16): Hamm, who is blind, and his servant Clov rely on each other for many things, including their own survival. But no matter how you play the game, the end for all of us remains the same. “I am very much of a mind that we have to challenge both ourselves and our audiences. ‘Endgame’ is an absurdist look at what it means to be human at the end of the world. It’s about our mortality, our endgame with the people we love.”
- Complete performance and ticket info for APT’s 2016 summer season: Get it at AmericanPlayers.org
- Past reviews of APT productions: Read them at Chicago On the Aisle