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American Players Theatre offers Shakespeare, Friel, Stoppard in a festival mix in the woods

Submitted by on Jun 14, 2013 – 11:40 pm

Preview: Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney,” the Bard’s “Hamlet” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona” among openings as APT raises curtain on summer season in Spring Green, Wis.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

What’s in a name? American Players Theatre, which has been filling summers with drama since 1980 in the woods of Spring Green, Wis., doesn’t trade on the Shakespeare brand. But in every aspect of making theater, from staging to vocal delivery to its choice of plays, this ambitious enterprise hews to the Bard as its reference point.

APT’s 2013 summer season of eight plays includes a typical infusion of Shakespeare, a stylistic sweep from the ridiculous  — “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which bows opening night June 15– to the sublimity of “Hamlet,” opening June 29. A third, “Antony and Cleopatra,” comes along Aug. 17.

Like the many festivals that do fly the Shakespeare banner, APT also ventures far from the Bard in its repertoire. The first flourish of plays this summer, all opening before the end of June, includes Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney,” W. Somerset Maugham’s “Too Many Husbands” and James DeVita’s “Dickens in America.”

The guiding spirit behind all of these productions, says APT’s longtime artistic director David Frank, is fundamentally the same: to focus on the beauty of power of language, the thing that has made them last.

“But that is only the starting point,” says the British-born and trained Frank, in a conversation with Chicago On the Aisle. “This company was founded on a puritanical commitment to doing uncut Shakespeare in productions based as close to what Shakespeare would have wanted as understanding allowed. The predominant approach, with radical cuttings and conceptual interpretations, was unacceptable.

“We have tried to focus on making those complex words, that poetry, accessible and powerful for a contemporary audience. To get there, we place great emphasis on technical skills such as voice production and phrasing. Without these things, it’s impossible for the audience to understand structure. It’s essential to be truly spontaneous, or else the word games that Shakespeare is constantly playing – and the ideas bound up in them – cannot be made clear.”

Whether the playwright at hand is Shakespeare or anyone else, says Frank, it all comes down to understanding the author’s relationship to language.

“Friel is no easier than Shakespeare,” he says. “It’s about idea and argument. You can’t find the character until you’ve unlocked the idea. Whether it’s Restoration comedy, Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams, the demands are similar.”

Of the two Shakespeare plays that come up first, almost in tandem, Frank admits he struggled long to find merit in the early comedy “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” which some scholars contend was his first play, even preceding the “Henry VI” trilogy.

“I dismissed those early comedies in my youth, but I’ve come to like them,” he says. “If Shakespeare had written only ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ ‘The Comedy of Errors’ and ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ he would still be an important playwright. The problem is they’re often done as forced comedies. When you don’t trust the language, which is already quite imaginative and rich, you end up with high, superficial antics.”

Productions are mounted at two venues, the open-air 1,148-seat Up-the-Hill Theatre – a lovely reward at the end of a steep, winding walk – and the intimate indoor Touchstone Theatre.

Here’s a quick look at APT’s lineup for 2013:

  • “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” by William Shakespeare. June 15-Oct. 6. Pals Valentine and Proteus, away from home on an adventure, both fall in love with the same girl, though one of them has a sweetheart back home. Complications begin to pile up. “‘Two Gents’ is about the things we do as adolescents, the things we know we shouldn’t do,” says Frank. “But adolescents are also lovable and understandable, even in that difficult period of life.”
  • “Molly Sweeney” by Brian Friel. June 15-Sept.21. Molly is happy, content and blind. Now she has a chance to see. As everyone in her life celebrates what’s about to be gained, no one thinks of what may be lost. Like Friel’s “Faith Healer,” seen this season at The Den Theatre in Chicago, “Molly Sweeney” plays out through a series of interlaced monologues.
  • “Too Many Husbands” by W. Somerset Maugham. June 22-Sept.  14. English chivalry takes it on the chin in this comedy set just after World War I. Believing her husband dead, Kate remarries – only to discover that her former spouse is still alive.
  • “Dickens in America” by James DeVita. June 29-Oct. 19. In this one-man show, APT ensemble member James Ridge, who played the title role in last summer’s production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” portrays Charles Dickens in the author’s farewell to America as he re-creates his beloved characters and pauses to offer his personal reflections.
  • “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare. June 29-Oct. 4. Hamlet, prince of Denmark is confronted by the ugly truth that his father has been murdered by his  uncle, who in turn has married Hamlet’s mother. Needing to act, Hamlet only dithers and mulls. “It’s a masterpiece of oxymoron and irony,” says Frank. “At the center of it is something inherent in all of us: a huge desire to understand what ethical or moral truth is.”
  • “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard. Aug. 10-Oct. 5. Two minor characters from “Hamlet” move to center stage as they contemplate the meaning of existence, friendship and free will. All the players from APT’s “Hamlet” reprise their roles.
  • “Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare. Aug. 17-Oct. 20. It’s the Bard’s love story of the wily Egyptian queen and the ambitious Roman general adapted for seven characters by playwright James DeVita and director Kate Buckley.
  • “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller. Aug. 17-Sept. 28. In the aftermath of World War II, the shadows of a scandal that rocked the Keller family and their tight-knit community still linger in their collective conscience.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Colleen Madden in the title role of Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney.” Descending: Travis A. Knight, left, and Marcus Truschinski in Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” David Frank, artistic director of American Players Theatre. (Courtesy American Players Theatre) Marcus Truschinski and Susan Shunk in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” David Daniel in “Molly Sweeney.” (Production photos by Zane Williams) Below: The climb starts here to the Up-the-Hill Theatre. (Courtesy American Players Theatre) 

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