American Players settles in for second season on new stage: This summer, it feels like home
Preview: The bill is paid for $8 million reconstruction of its hill-top open-air venue, and APT kicks off 39th summer with Shakespeare.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
If the novelty has worn off the new stage at American Players Theatre, which with its trap-laden floor opened last summer amid general euphoria, the charm can now begin to work its magic.
Or, as APT artistic director Brenda DeVita put it: “Last year, everybody wanted to use the traps, and this year nobody’s using them. Everyone is now settling into the new place as home.”
Open house 2018 begins June 16 when the company opens its 39th season with Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” on a stage whose reconstruction was the capstone of an $8 million renovation of the hill-top venue at Spring Green, Wis., about 30 miles west of Madison. As epilogue to that formidable project, APT announced that the entire sum has been raised: Its handsomely refurbished home is paid for.
“The flexibility it gives us – the creativity it inspires – can only continue to make the experience richer for our patrons and our artists,” said DeVita. “The plan for 2018 is to take what we’ve learned and hand it over to a group of directors who, for the most part, didn’t direct on the hill last season.”
Along with Shakespeare’s comedy, APT’s early flourish of plays at the 1,140-seat open-air Hill Theatre includes “Born Yesterday” by Garson Kanin and “The Recruiting Officer” by George Farquhar. Meanwhile, two productions will get underway in the intimate 200-seat Touchstone Theatre: “Blood Knot” by Athol Fugard and “Exit the King” by Eugene Ionesco.
August openings will bring three more plays: “Heartbreak House” by G.B. Shaw, directed by Aaron Posner (Aug. 11-Oct. 5), and “Measure for Measure” by Shakespeare,” directed by Risa Brainin (Aug. 18-Oct. 6), both at the Hill Theatre, and “Our Country’s Good” by Timberlake Wertenbaker, directed by Ameenah Kaplan (Aug. 18-Oct. 6), at the Touchstone.
Here’s a closer look at APT’s first flight of productions for 2018:
- “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare, directed by James Bohnen (June 16-Oct. 7). Two of Shakespeare’s favorite devices – cross-dressing and running away to the woods – converge here. Rosalind and Celia are best friends and cousins. But when Celia’s father, the Duke, begins to see Rosalind as a threat to his daughter’s future prosperity, the two women don disguises (with Rosalind pretending to be a boy named Ganymede) and head to the Forest of Arden before Rosalind can be banished. Meanwhile, Orlando, a young gentleman who had previously fallen in love with Rosalind, is similarly threatened by his own brother and also flees to the Forest. There, he meets “Ganymede,” who promises to teach him how to woo Rosalind. All that plus a band of merry rustics make for a great Shakespearean comedy. “I have deep affinity for this play,” said DeVita. “It’s one of Shakespeare’s most perfect pieces – an identity journey for Rosalind, this person who is incredibly wise beyond her years. It’s what we love about Shakespeare: conversation, the transformative nature of words.”
- “Blood Knot” by Athol Fugard, directed by Ron OJ Parson (June 16-Sept. 27). Two brothers live a quiet, strained existence in a tiny house in apartheid South Africa. Morris, who has very fair skin, and has in the past passed as white, has recently returned to Port Elizabeth and is living with his brother Zachariah, who works long, painful hours as a sentry at the gate of a whites-only park. Despite Morris’ constant presence, Zach is lonely for the company of a woman, so Morris suggests he find a pen pal. When it turns out Zach’s pen pal is a white woman, the brothers’ desperation exposes the complex angles of their relationship. “This play is remarkably timely,” said DeVita. “It sticks to you, an allegory about brothers black and white. How do they learn to live together? In the opening scene, the white man washes the black man’s feet. I’m thrilled to have artists in a room digging so deep.”
- “Born Yesterday” by Garson Kanin, directed by Brenda DeVita (June 23-Sept. 22). Shady businessman Harry Brock heads to Washington with his ex-showgirl girlfriend Billie Dawn in an attempt to shift the law to his side. When Brock decides that Billie is too unrefined to mix with the D.C. political set, he hires journalist Paul Verrall to make her appear more intelligent. But a little education can go a long way, and Billie may be smarter than her pals give her credit for. A hilarious and timely send up of politics and perceptions. “This is my Hill Theatre directing debut, and I’m thrilled,” said DeVita. “I’m interested in the emancipation of this woman from this man with an unchecked ego who’s looking for legitimacy in D.C. She wants to get away from corruption. But the real oppression is her ignorance. She discovers that learning brings personal freedom. The door to a better world is opened through the intellect. On that core point, this play is so unapologetic and sincere.”
- “The Recruiting Officer” by George Farquhar, directed by William Brown (June 30-Sept. 29). Scoundrels are put on notice and women (literally) wear the pants in this uproarious restoration comedy. Recruiting officers travel from port to port wooing men into service at sea, and women into their beds. Two such men, Worthy and Plume, land in Shrewsbury, each in love with a woman who lives there. Worthy has asked Melinda to be his mistress – an offer that she declines. Meanwhile, Plume is in love with Melinda’s cousin Silvia. But Silvia, grieving her brother’s recent death, disguises herself as a man to get away for a while, throwing everyone’s plans into comedic chaos. “(Director) Bill Brown is undaunted by centuries,” said DeVita about the challenge of reviving a play written in 1706. “It’s really close to Shakespeare, but Bill finds himself in every period. He’s one of the best style directors I know. And we get to showcase two young actors who know how to bring off the language and the comedy.”
- “Exit the King” by Eugene Ionesco, directed by Tim Ocel (June 30-Sept. 27). A fading ruler at the helm of a world in decline, King Berenger is having some trouble accepting his fate. His first wife, Marguerite, is intent on forcing him to face his mortality, while his second wife, Marie, wants to shield him from the bad news. All the while an eccentric mix of servants weigh in from the sidelines, with varying degrees of helpfulness. A very funny and deeply moving look at the end of it all. “‘Exit the King’ comes from a French existential world of plays that require deep belief in theatricality, that we can communicate things we don’t understand,” said DeVita. “This play is all about dying, but it’s funny. Our usual job is doing plays to piece together the puzzle of our lives. This absurdist play is a lesson in learning how to die.”
- Complete details for APT’s 2018 summer season: Go to AmericanPlayers.org