American Players Theatre, set for its 40th year, cues the Bard, Tennessee and August Wilson
Preview: “Twelfth Night” opens 2019 series in Spring Green, Wis. Wilson’s “Fences” and Tennessee Williams rarity among nine plays.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Anyone looking at the variegated lineup of plays for American Players Theatre’s 40th summer season might conclude, “I know who they are and what kind of theater this is.” So says artistic director Brenda DeVita of a 2019 repertoire that makes a stylistic reach from the company’s bedrock in Shakespeare (“Twelfth Night” and “Macbeth”) to a first-time foray into August Wilson (“Fences”) and a return to Ibsen (“A Doll’s House”).
In her sixth year at the APT helm, DeVita points to the troupe’s creative continuum, its evolution, as the best indicator of its purpose. “Our job is not to preserve but to create,” she says. “We’re always changing – younger actors countering older actors in a process of teaching and learning and evolving. But it’s always about language and story-telling, pursued by people who love words.
“What is acting? What is that skill set? It’s about heart and mind alike, feeling before we even think, getting inside characters. I’m so proud of this company of actors, people so brilliant at making authentic choices in bringing the plays of Shakespeare and Oliver Goldsmith and August Wilson to life.”
American Players, nestled in woodland hills near Spring Green, some 30 miles west of Madison (about a three and a half hour drive from Chicago), presents its mainstage plays in an 1,100-seat hilltop open-air venue and its more intimate fare in the enclosed 200-seat Touchstone Theatre. Productions generally run from mid-June to early October.
Here’s APT’s 2019 summer season in brief:
- “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare (June 15-Oct. 6): Shakespeare revisits his favorite themes – twins, mistaken identity and just a little cross-dressing. Mourning the loss of her brother, the lovely Olivia has vowed not to accept any suitors, much to the dismay of Duke Orsino, who is intent on wooing her. So intent that he enlists a castaway named Cesario to help him out. Cesario is, in fact, a young woman named Viola who has recently lost her twin brother in an accident at sea. Disguised as a young boy, she agrees to help Orsino win Olivia despite the fact that she herself has fallen for him. And despite her vow to remain alone, Olivia quickly develops some strong feelings of her own – for Cesario. “This is a late comedy and much more complicated that Shakespeare’s earlier works,” says DeVita. “It’s satisfying on many levels – loss, hope, finding yourself.”
“The Man of Destiny” by George Bernard Shaw (June 15-Sept. 21): Just after his victory at the Battle of Lodi, Napoleon Bonaparte is preparing to enjoy his lunch when a lieutenant arrives, telling him the important dispatches he’d been carrying were stolen. Enraged, Napoleon orders him to find the dispatches or be court martialed, when a woman appears with information about the theft. Napoleon is suspicious of her story, and the two embark on a battle of wits as Napoleon attempts to save face, and the mysterious lady’s motives rise to the surface. “Shaw’s comedy shows us the young Napoleon, who doesn’t know he’s Napoleon yet,” says DeVita. “He’s taken on by a woman who’s as smart as him in a play that’s filled with wit and insight. We sell Shaw like it’s Neil Simon. We’re all in love with this show.”
- “She Stoops to Conquer” by Oliver Goldsmith (June 22-Sept.20): Wealthy countryman Mr. Hardcastle is hoping to marry off his lovely daughter Kate to a rich suitor. They both set their sights on Charles Marlow, the son of a rich Londoner. When they receive further intelligence on Charles, they discover that he finds women of high society intimidating, and prefers the company of the serving class. So Kate hatches a plan to pose as a maid in hopes of putting Charles at ease and, eventually, marrying him. Of course, in restoration comedy, no scheme goes off as planned, and Kate’s results in uproarious comedy. “It’s like the first sitcom,” says DeVita. “Goldsmith called it a laughing comedy, and it really is very funny – brilliant with moments of absurdity, but it’s not a farce.”
- “A Lovely Day for Creve Coeur” by Tennessee Williams (June 21-Sept. 26): Dorothea shares a St. Louis efficiency with her friend Bodey. Though Bodey has a good heart, Dorothea looks down at her a bit and wants to move out of the small apartment and into a more upscale place with Helena, a colleague with a bit of a haughty air. Dorothea thinks she needs a bigger place to entertain her beau, the principal at the school where she is a teacher and with whom she’s recently struck up an affair. A frank and funny story about identity, friendship and aging. “This is Tennessee late in life, writing about four women of a certain age dealing their loneliness and fear of being left behind,” says DeVita. “But it’s also a play about incredible hope, and amid the pathos we find four real human beings.”
- “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare (June 29-Oct. 4): A favorite Shakespearean super-villain couple make their first visit to American Players in 15 years. Fresh off a great military victory, brave Macbeth returns home with a new title, bestowed upon him by good King Duncan. But a trio of witches convince Macbeth that his ascent is just beginning. With relentless encouragement from his wife, Macbeth decides to make a grab for the throne of Scotland. When Duncan pays a visit, blood begins to spill and it doesn’t stop until the searing conclusion. “Everybody wants to be in Macbeth,” says DeVita with a laugh. “It’s about destiny versus free will, dread of the unknown. It’s an existential play.”
- “Fences” by August Wilson (Aug. 10-Sept. 26): Troy Maxson is a man with a loving family and soul full of bittersweet hope. He spends his days working as a garbage collector, Friday afternoons drinking with his friend Bono and his nights in the arms of Rose, his loving wife of many years. An ex-baseball player, Troy believes he could have made it to the big leagues if not for the color of his skin. As Troy ruminates on his past and his present, regrets begin to outweigh happiness. It’s a heart-wrenching look at a complex and flawed man, filled with exquisitely drawn characters and August Wilson’s lyrical language. “August Wilson is one of the greatest American playwrights, and this is the first time we’ve brought his work to our stage,” says DeVita. “The issues of the husband-wife relationship in ‘Fences’ are so true – terror, desperation, fulfillment. I always feel like I’m completely inside that play.”
- “The Book of Will” by Lauren Gunderson (Aug. 17-Oct. 5): William Shakespeare wrote his plays in pieces, never putting all the parts together until the actors were on stage, lest someone steal his work. But who’s to stop people from claiming it after he dies? This is the conundrum faced by the Bard’s buddies. When a sub-par Hamlet rip-off hits a stage near the Globe Theatre, members of Shakespeare’s acting troupe, the King’s Men, are incensed. To try to put an end to the plagiarism and save Will’s works for the ages, they hatch a plan to put it all down on paper, setting them off on a mad chase to find all the bits and pieces to create the First Folio. A funny, charming play about the battle to preserve a priceless legacy. “These are friends of the recently deceased Shakespeare who realize that, oh my God, these plays are going to die with him,” says DeVita. “So they set about to save them. It is so full of life and truth that we all feel like Lauren Gunderson sat in our woods and wrote this play.”
“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen (Aug. 17-Oct. 6): The first Ibsen production at APT in 20 years, “A Doll’s House” provides a look inside the nuclear family life of Nora and Torvold Helmer. They are well-to-do and, by appearances, happy, preparing to celebrate Christmas as the play begins. It doesn’t take long for cracks to appear in that façade as blackmail, lies and love triangles begin to weaken the foundation of the Helmer household. “Some would say ‘A Doll’s House’ marks the beginning of feminism,” says DeVita. “It certainly changed theater. Nora has no idea who she is or why she’s on this earth.”
- “A Doll’s House, Part 2” by Lucas Hnath (Oct. 26-Nov.17): With a knock at the door, Nora is launched back into a household she helped to shatter 15 years before. But even after all this time, family ties cinch tighter than expected, and she discovers that confronting people she hurt in the past takes courage. A provocative and surprisingly funny debate about the roles people choose to play, and those they feel forced into. “In Lucas Hnath’s sequel, Nora comes back, just knocks on the door one day 15 years later, a changed woman, full of self-awareness,” says DeVita. “Basically, she walks in and announces, ‘This is what I learned.’”
- American Players Theatre performance and ticket info: Details at AmericanPlayers.org