From al fresco staging of Williams’ ‘Streetcar,’ American Players promise summer of surprises
Preview: Besides “A Streetcar Named Desire,” highlights of American Players Theatre’s 36th summer include two Shakespeare plays, a Noel Coward comedy and Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
By Lawrence B. Johnson
In her second summer as artistic director of American Players Theatre, Brenda Devita can claim her fingerprints alone on the scheme of eight widely ranging plays that will run in repertory well into the autumn. And DeVita embraces that authorship with pride, starting with the company’s first go at Tennessee Williams’ monumental tragedy “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“We’re taking it outdoors,” she says, referring to the starry-domed 1,148-seat Up-the-Hill Theatre that long served as the 36-year-old company’s solitary venue. Director William Brown, a veteran of both the Chicago theater scene and American Players, will shepherd this airy debut.
“Bill and I have been talking about doing ‘Streetcar’ for 10 years,” says DeVita. “This is the play that convinced me that ordinary people could speak poetry. And Bill always directs with an incredible sense of place. He actually went down to New Orleans to get a feel for the way they live outdoors in their courtyards. He has brought that to our production, which beautifully exploits the natural space. ”
Founded in 1979, American Players Theatre is located on 110 acres of hilly woods and meadows above the Wisconsin River in Spring Green, Wis., about 30 miles west of Madison and about a four-hour drive from Chicago.
The company built its reputation on classical theater, especially Shakespeare, and this summer it will present two plays by the Bard, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Othello.”
But indicative of the diversity DeVita wants to bring to APT is its first production with an all-black cast, “The Island,” a stark tale of South African racial oppression written jointly by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Set for the 200-seat (indoor) Touchstone Theatre, “The Island” will be directed by Derrick Sanders, founding artistic director of Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre.
The American Players Theatre 2015 summer season in brief:
- “An Iliad” by By Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare│Adapted from Homer’s The Iliad translated by Robert Fagle (June 13 – Oct. 18) at the Touchstone Theatre): Homer’s epic tale distilled to one war-sated poet, played by Jim DeVita, “An Iliad” unfolds as a wrenching tour of the Trojan War. It’s an exploration of the contradictory conditions of glory and violence, and the seemingly endless fascination of the human race with war. “As a classical theater company, our job is to stretch across the centuries to try to understand what it means to be a human being. Tragically, one of the strongest bonds that ties us across time is war. We seem to have this unshakable need to destroy each other. It always begins with the same hubris, and always brings us to the same regret and despair.”
- The Merry Wives of Windsor” by William Shakespeare (June 13-Oct. 4 at the Up-the-Hill Theatre): When Sir John Falstaff – fat, vain, boozy and gluttonous — arrives in Windsor, he immediately decides his path to riches lies in finding a wealthy woman to woo. So he sets about writing identical love letters to two married ladies about town – Mistresses Ford and Page. Though the letters fail to have the intended effect, the ladies find them an excellent pathway to deflate Falstaff, resulting in a funny and energetic exploration of marriage, miscommunication and forgiveness. “‘Merry Wives’ gets maligned a lot,” says DeVita, “but when you come to this play as an actor you see that – like every other Shakespeare play – it’s so full of great characters and great language. Actually, it reminds me of Spring Green and the cast of characters we have wandering around this town. It’s Mayberry, Andy Griffith, a dog and a fishing pole. But the focus is on Falstaff, his blinding self-love and the sheer folly of his ego.”
- “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams (June 20-Sept. 5 at the Up-the-Hill Theatre): After losing her job and family home, fading Southern beauty Blanche DuBois heads to New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella. But posturing, vaporous Blanche quickly runs afoul of Stella’s hard-edged husband Stanley. This woman of a certain age with an uncertain past brings only pain and conflict into her sister’s home, and pulls a shattering end down upon herself. “Every actor you ever knew has wanted to be in this play,” says DeVita, adding that she once portrayed Stella. “But you need just the right Blanche DuBois, and we have the wonderful Tracy Arnold.”
- “The Island” by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona (June 23-Sept. 26 at the Touchstone Theatre): John and Winston are black political prisoners in South Africa, spending their days at hard labor and their evenings rehearsing Sophocles’ “Antigone.” Though the two men are deeply bonded to one another, their friendship is tested when John discovers that his most recent appeal was successful, while Winston is still looking at years of brutal incarceration. It is a profile of the quality of human resilience. “This is our first foray with an all-black cast and the first time we’ve had an African-American director, and I’m very excited,” says DeVita. “Fugard wasn’t just writing about a certain time and place. His work is poetic and classic. This is a story of the oppressed, which we as Americans can understand all too readily.”
- “Pride and Prejudice” Adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan from the novel by Jane Austen (June 27-Sept. 26) at the Up-the-Hill Theatre): The Bennet sisters look for love under the watchful eye of their mother, for whom love takes a backseat to practicality. Her daughters (and Elizabeth in particular) have their own ideas about what kind of man would make a desirable husband. For independent-minded Elizabeth, or Lizzy, the last man on earth for her would be the aloof, taciturn Mr. Darcy – until some stunning truths come to light. “Lizzy is a Joan of Arc, a young woman of such bravery and depth, curiosity and life-force,” says DeVita. “It’s more than just a romance. It’s an ambitious coming-of-age story. And by setting it out of doors, we think it will be quite cinematic.”
- “Private Lives” by Noel Coward (Aug. 8-Oct. 2 at the Up-the-Hill Theatre): Determined to forget their first volatile marriage, Elyot and Amanda have moved on to more reasonable partners. But when Amanda and Elyot see each other again – each on honeymoon with their second spouses – it’s obvious the old spark hasn’t been extinguished by their new pairings. This cosmopolitan comedy shifts into high gear as the reunited kiss-and-scratch couple must work out a course of action that will not involve killing each other. “Elyot and Amanda are smart people you’d love to have a cocktail with, but would not want to marry,” says DeVita. “That they would even let you into their company would be a boost to your ego. They suffer no fools. Getting them right requires the acting skill required for Shakespeare. They are larger than life, and they’re a lot to take close up.”
- “Othello” by William Shakespeare (Aug. 15-Oct. 3 at the Up-the-Hill Theatre): The Moorish military general Othello, hero of Venice, has wedded the lovely Desdemona. But his friend and former chief officer Iago – whom Othello has passed over for promotion — starts whispering that Desdemona has been unfaithful. The ruthless officer, still esteemed by Othello as “good, honest Iago,” drives the maddened Moor to tragic action. “Otello is a warrior who wants to step away from war,” says DeVita. “He’s moving to the next part of his life, his marriage to Desdemona. Whether consciously or unconsciously, he wants to make this break with his fellow warrior Iago. So he goes with Cassio.” And the flinty soldier Iago strikes back.
- “Seascape” by Edward Albee (Aug. 15-Oct. 18 at the Touchstone Theatre): On the cusp of retirement, Nancy and Charlie take a trip to the seaside. Contemplating the changing expectations that come with long-term love and ever-dwindling days, the two of them must decide how to take on this final life-stage, and whether they can continue into it together – a decision they make with the help of some unlikely visitors. “Seascape” brought Albee his second Pulitzer Prize for drama, in 1975, after “A Delicate Balance” (1967). He won a third Pulitzer, in 1994, for “Three Tall Women.” “The main reason I like ‘Seascape’ is that it looks like one thing but it’s absolutely something else,” says DeVita. “How many plays are there about retirement? It’s also about marriage, how the PR advertises one thing and then you get reality. It’s funny, realistic and absurd.”
- Complete performance and ticket info for APT’s 2015 summer season: Get it at AmericanPlayers.org
- James Ridge, Iago in this summer’s ‘Othello’ at APT, loved inhabiting the venomous Richard III: Read the interview at ChicagoOntheAisle