American Players set to dedicate a new stage after $8 million renovation of outdoor venue
Preview: If there were a curtain, it would be rising June 17 on the Wisconsin company’s 38th season, book-ended by Shakespeare.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
At the outset of its 38th season, American Players Theatre has the look of a company starting afresh. Its 2017 summer at Spring Green, Wis., about 30 miles west of Madison, opens on a brand-new stage, the centerpiece of an $8 million renovation of both production and public facilities.
“Our theater was literally falling down,” says APT artistic director Brenda DeVita. “All of us love this place, but we didn’t love how dangerous it had become to work on that (stage) structure. This renewal has given us, and our audience, a theater that is better is so many ways.”
The renovation project focused on APT’s open-air hilltop arena formerly known as the Up the Hill Theatre. Henceforth, the 1,140-seat venue will be called simply the Hill Theatre. APT mounts its more intimate productions in the 200-seat Touchstone Theatre at the foot of that imposing hill.
DeVita stressed that the aesthetic of “a theater emerging from the woods” has been maintained. Like the former stage structure, the new one is also made from barn wood, but in a darker hue. Acoustics have been enhanced by the addition of a wall around the seating area with tipped-in extensions to help focus the sound.
The 2017 lineup is a familiar APT bundling of classic plays and Shakespeare, beginning and ending with the latter.
“We’re excited about dedicating our new space with ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” says DeVita. “That’s the very first show we did in our first season, in 1980.” Here’s an overview of American Players’ 38th summer:
- “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare, directed by John Langs (June 17-Oct. 8, Hill Theatre): The Bard’s romantic comedy tumbles together magic and mistaken identities, fairies and fools in a delectable mash-up made for the outdoors. “This is the perfect show to bless our new space,” says DeVita. “Shakespeare’s fairyland has to have its own life, its own world. Our production is really beautiful and exciting. We will even have a fairy drum corps!”
- “The Unexpected Man” by Yasmina Reza, directed by Laura Gordon (June 17-Sept. 30, Touchstone Theatre): Two strangers on a train – an author and a devoted fan – have a secret power struggle as they silently size each other up while reflecting on the decisions and events that led them to their shared train car. A story told through fascinating and funny internal monologues, as two brilliant, lonely people search for a moment of connection. Reza is the author of “Art” and “God of Carnage.” Says DeVita: “This is a real tour de force for two great actors. It’s just two people sitting next to each other on a train, and it’s wickedly funny to hear what these people are actually thinking. Reza is a great writer. Also, it’s about middle-aged people, and there are so few plays written about them.”
- “A Flea in Her Ear” by Georges Feydeau, directed by David Frank (June 24-Oct. 7, Hill Theatre): Wondering why her husband has stopped visiting her bedroom, a beautiful lady assumes he must be having an affair. So she asks a friend to write him a love letter meant to lure him to a rendezvous where she can catch him in the act. That’s when things go topsy-turvy in this classic French farce. “We never could have done this on our old stage,” says DeVita, “but the new one is entirely trapped, giving us the flexibility to make the show work. It’s such a romp, a really low brow French sex farce. For the next two hours, you don’t have to take anything seriously.”
- “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Edmond Rostand, directed by James DeVita (July 1-Oct. 6, Hill Theatre): Fearless soldier, dedicated braggadocio and acutely self-conscious about his very prominent nose, Cyrano is also a sublime poet and in love with Roxane — who’s in love with the young soldier Christian. When Cyrano suddenly finds himself Christian’s advocate, then his protector, Rostand’s iconic love story takes on a bittersweet pathos. “This wonderful play is about the sheer brazen idealism of a time when personal integrity and self-respect ruled,” says DeVita. “It was the ‘Hamilton’ of its time (1897), and James DeVita’s adaptation preserves the original rhyming couplets. James Ridge is our marvelous Cyrano. His first reading was so good, we could have sold tickets to that.”
- “The Maids” by Jean Genet, directed by Gigi Buffington (July 1-Oct. 5, Touchstone): Claire and Solange are sisters and servants. Trapped in a life they didn’t ask for and can’t leave, they pass the time by impersonating their Madame, with Claire dressing up in her fine clothes and makeup and relishing her role as the cruel, bullying mistress; using her character to spar with Solange. As the sisters dig deeper into their make-believe, their games become more sinister as they struggle against and within their identities and class roles. A provocative, absurdist fantasy about sex and pain, power and playacting. “It’s terrifying in every way – to act in, to direct,” says DeVita. “It is so fierce. ‘The Maids’ requires full-on commitment. It’s a very dark look at what happens to the psyche when the poor are with arm’s reach of luxury in a situation that evokes both the oppressor and the oppressed.”
- “Three Sisters” by Anton Chekhov, directed by William Brown (Aug. 12-Sept. 23, Hill Theatre): Three sisters – Olga, an unwed schoolteacher; Masha, a pianist in an unhappy marriage, and Irina, an idealist with plans for a vibrant future – live together with their brother Andrei. In the past, the family lived comfortably in Moscow, but they have moved to a provincial town with their father, who had been a military general before his death the year prior. Now the girls dream of moving back to the city. Surrounded by soldiers from a nearby artillery post with whom the family has grown close, they watch their lives play out in ways they’d never imagined. “Chekhov understands the power of putting two feelings next to each other that don’t seem to make sense together, and exposing them,” says DeVita. “‘Three Sisters’ is perfect for our outdoor stage. Nature plays a key role in the story-telling.”
- “A View from the Bridge” by Arthur Miller, directed by Tim Ocel (Aug. 19-Oct. 22, Touchstone): In Eddie and Beatrice’s humble and hardworking Brooklyn neighborhood, family ties are a sharp point of pride. Bea’s orphaned niece Catherine has lived with them since she was a child and is now ready to make her way in the world, though Eddie seems reluctant to let her grow up. When the couple agrees to take in two of Bea’s cousins who have traveled from Italy to find work illegally, one of the guys starts spending time with Catherine, driving Eddied to an emotional boiling point. It is Greek tragedy in 1950s Brooklyn. “I’ve always thought the play was inside Eddie’s head, in that tiny apartment,” says DeVita. “It comes down to what happens when they’re all on top of each other in that tiny space. The tension will only be amplified by the intimacy of the Touchstone.”
- “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” by William Shakespeare, directed by Eric Tucker (Aug. 19-Sept. 29, Hill Theatre): While omitted from the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works (1623), this colorful tale of high romantic adventure has a modern history of inclusion in the Bard’s canon — even though scholars now generally agree that only the play’s latter half is actually from Shakespeare’s hand. The tale follows Pericles as he sails from island to island in a search for love and a place to call home. The first stop is Antioch, where Pericles seeks the hand of Antiochus’ daughter. But there the young prince discovers a secret that could cost him his life – and so a grand saga hits its stride. “The play unfolds in seven locations across decades,” says DeVita, “and we will have 10 actors in multiple roles who will build the sets as the drama moves forward. (Director) Eric Tucker is a real story-teller interested in language and poetry. This will be a production invested with life.”
- APT’s 2017 performance schedule and ticket info: Get the details at AmericanPlayers.org
Tags: "A Midsummer Night's Dream", A Flea in Her Ear, American Players Theatre, Brenda DeVita, Brian Mani, Chekhov, Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, Eric Tucker, Georges Feydeau, Gigi Buffington, James DeVita, James Ridge, Jean Genet, John Langs, Laura Gordon, Pericles, Sandra Day, The Maids, The Unexpected Man, Three Sisters, William Brown, William Shakespeare, Yasmina Reza