Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Jul 31, 2014
12:09 PMStage Write
Stage Right/Stage Wrong: APT's Nate Burger Sees Red
PHOTO BY CARISSA DIXON
Burger, left, as Mercutio in American Players Theatre's 'Romeo and Juliet,' can look back fondly on his mishap in Forward Theatre's 'Red': "It was like something out of the Three Stooges."
As anyone in the theater universe can tell you, there are times when everything on stage goes just perfectly: The audience is thrilled and a unique and memorable magic is created.
And then there are the times when the line gets dropped, the prop falls over or the actor suffers a Jennifer Lawrence-at-the-Oscars-level stumble.
Most actors, directors and designers have the grace and style to appreciate and/or survive both types of moments, but it’s the really confident ones who are willing to relive and share them with us. Like Nate Burger, the guy who’s busily swiping the show as an unexpectedly sly and breezy Mercutio in American Players Theater’s production of Romeo and Juliet. His stories remind us that there’s more than one kind of audience for Shakespeare, and that the benefits of extra preparation can be production-saving.
STAGE RIGHT: Right before Burger trekked to Spring Green for this year’s APT docket, he performed in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Short Shakespeare! A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an abridged version of the Bard’s classic comedy-romance that also happened to star Burger’s fellow APT cast member Cristina Panfilio. Following the main production run, the cast toured the show to groups of children at community centers across the city.
When the cast performed in front of one group in an economically challenged part of the city’s south side, Burger was surprised at the kids’ shocked and animated reactions to the scene in which his Lysander wakes up from Puck’s magical meddling, enchanted and ready to ditch Cristina Panfilio’s Helena in favor of her shorter and sharp-tongued pal Hermia.
“The kids were like, ‘OH, NO!,’” recalls Burger. “They didn’t know the story. In that moment, they dashed all my cynicism. I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s why it’s fun to tell these stories. They become new for different audiences.”
STAGE WRONG: And before Burger trekked to Chicago, he starred alongside Jim DeVIta in Forward Theatre’s production of Red, a play about a difficult choice in the life of the abstract-expressionist artist Mark Rothko. Burger’s story occurs on, as he puts it, “a day when literally everything went wrong.”
In Forward’s production, there was a scene in which Burger, playing Rothko’s assistant, had to help him prime a canvas onstage by quickly painting it—what else?—red.
For starters, Burger got a splash of the paint, which had fortunately been watered down, right in his eyes.
“My contact turned red,” he says. “I was completely blind for like thirty seconds. I had to blink it out.”
While he was trying to regain his visual bearings, he took a step backwards—and right into the bucket of red paint, spilling it across the stage: “It was like something out of the Three Stooges,” he says.
Luckily, his costar had planned ahead.
“Jimmy is super-paranoid about these things happening on stage,” says Burger. “In rehearsals, he said, ‘I think we should have a mop behind the canvas.’”
Without blinking—Burger was doing enough of that for both actors, after all—DeVita grabbed the mop and cleaned up the mess. After the show, in one of Forward’s traditional talkback sessions, an audience member asked Burger, ‘Was that supposed to happen?”
All he could do was chuckle: “It’s a good thing the play is messy anyway.”
Burger's still got a ton on his summer docket. In addition to playing (and dying) as Mercutio, he's also striding the boards as the starry-eyed Claudio in APT's Much Ado About Nothing, and he's set to star as the Irish author James Joyce in what could be APT's most intriguing play of the season—Tom Stoppard's Travesties.