American Players Theatre’s New Season Looks Bright

Producing artistic director David Frank and artistic director designate Brenda DeVita give us a behind-the-scenes look at the 2013 lineup

Troilus and Cressida, 2012.

Troilus and Cressida, 2012.

Photo by Carissa Dixon

Cast your eyes across American Players Theatre’s 2013 season and you’ll see plenty of the elements that have made the Spring Green troupe a successful fixture on the regional theater scene these last few decades: drama, comedy, pathos, a little of the contemporary and a healthy shot of the company’s bedrock calling card—the Bard himself. The company’s range expands again this year with the debut of one famous playwright outdoors and the debut of another famous playwright in the indoor space. Familiar faces return and newer faces get a new chance to impress.   

What you won’t see—at least not at first blush—is the rationale and thought process that went into booking the playbills for APT’s outdoor theater and its indoor Touchstone Theatre, ready to celebrate its fifth birthday this year.

APT’s had the good fortune of having two creative minds picking the plays the last few seasons—producing artistic director David Frank, now in his twenty-third season with the troupe, and artistic director designate Brenda DeVita, who’ll assume full artistic duties for APT when Frank officially retires at the end of next season.

For DeVita, each season starts with the company’s foundation—Shakespeare—and proceeds to pairing the best projects with the best people. There’s an emphasis on expanding horizons. “One of the questions we wrestle with is how do we not make it about, ‘It’s time to do Shrew again,’” she quips.

As ever, APT stakes its claim on a respect and technical command of words. But a near quarter-century of experience mapping the boards in Spring Green has taught Frank that taking your audience for granted is dangerous. “You can never tell, if you can get the language just right, who that’s going to hook,” he says. “It’s grossly presumptuous to say you know who this is going to work for.”

With that in mind, we asked Frank to play a little word association as he and DeVita ran though his company’s 2013 lineup. Luckily for us, he gamely obliged.

UP-THE-HILL THEATRE

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (opening Saturday, June 15): “Adolescence”

Two Gents is often dismissed or overlooked as a Shakespearean trifle, a first-draft early comedy that doesn’t quite measure up to later bigs like Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well. Director Tim Ocel vehemently disagrees. In fact, he’s been begging APT to direct the story of a pair of young friends who end up competing—and risking their friendship—over the hand of a duke’s daughter for several years now.  

“For all of its silliness—and the famous dog—there’s a real story about adolescence,” says Frank. “A different sort of moral crisis. Tim told us, I can demonstrate how good that play is.” 

The show also represents something of a stretch for Marcus Truschinski, who’s known up the hill for playing good guys. “Marcus is a good guy,” says DeVita. She pauses for dramatic effect. “Proteus is not.” 

The set, meanwhile, apparently looks like a jungle gym. When’s the last time you saw APT try that?

Too Many Husbands aka Home and Beauty (opening Saturday, June 22): “Satire”

APT’s dramatic backbone has always been the late Elizabethan/early Jacobean era, the province of one William Shakespeare and his later contemporaries. But Frank has also always had a thing for late-nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century drama, the era of George Bernard Shaw and Anton Chekhov.

And W. Somerset Maugham, the wry author of this romp about a serial widow named Victoria, whose penchant for remarrying gets knocked sideways by the reappearance of her first, presumed dead, husband. (Did we mention she’s married his best pal?) With longtime favorite Deborah Staples making her return to APT to play Victoria and James Ridge in the role of her first love, familiarity’s sure to breed hilarity. DeVita’s assessment is even more succinct: “You’d have to be such a cynic not enjoy this play.”

Frank, who’s directing the show, feels like a collector who just discovered a rare first-edition book among the ten-cent paperbacks.

“One of the byproducts of scanning this era for possible plays is that you come across pieces like this, obscure jewels we might not have noticed,” says Frank. “The company has become expert as period pieces like this.”

Hamlet (opening Saturday, June 29): “Moral Crisis”

To be or not to be—isn’t that always the question with Denmark’s indecisive prince?
Actually, the bigger question when it comes to staging one of Shakespeare’s most powerful tragedies is this: Who’s playing the lead? The answer here is Matt Schwader, now in his seventh APT season. Regular audience members know he’s building toward playing this signature Shakespearean role for years, honing his chops on the Bard’s other notable prince, Henry IV. And his time for Hamlet is now.

“He has the best speaking chops,” says DeVita of Schwader. “He has a silver tongue. If you can put the play in the hands of someone like that, you’re golden.”

It probably doesn’t hurt that the rotten court of Denmark is also populated with Deborah Staples and Jim DeVita as troubled royals Gertrude and Claudius, with company stalwart David Daniel playing the blustery role of Polonius. Director John Langs is new to APT, but he’s working from an award-winning indoor version of the play that rocked audiences in Seattle. 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (opening August 10): “Crisis turned around”

Staging Tom Stoppard’s erudite and head-bending tour-de-force is not just a first for APT. Staging it alongside Hamlet, the play it riffs on, is also a happy nod to the segment of their audience who comes to Spring Green, books a couple nights in a B&B and sticks around to see two to three plays in a single weekend.

Whether they begin with Hamlet or not, they’ll want to catch this one, which spins a funhouse/backstage view of the Prince of Denmark’s tragedy through the eyes of two of Hamlet’s most minor characters—the ill-fated college pals who start as spies and end up as a throwaway line in Hamlet’s final scene.

“We have many of the characteristics of a festival theater,” notes Frank. “The resonance is more obvious seeing both of these plays on the same day.” Audiences can make it happen on Saturday, August 24, the only day that’ll happen this the season.

Ryan Imhoff and Steve Haggard play the title roles (they also play them in Hamlet), and the word is their verbal racquets are polished and ready for some word tennis. James Bohnen’s your director, and given that he’s something of a Stoppard fanatic—the guy built a bookstore and named it Arcadia, after another of Stoppard’s plays—it’s safe to say this one’s in good hands. 

“Wit, irony and wordplay is all our audience wants,” says DeVita. “This play has it in spades.”

All My Sons  (opening August 17): “Inherited crisis”

Everyone’s familiar with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, perhaps the most famous American drama in history. Fewer are acquainted with All My Sons, the play that actually helped get Miller dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Commission for its withering take on the cost of the American Dream in the post-World War II era. Miller’s tale of a family torn apart by a terrible secret nobody’s willing to face has the same dramatic kick as anything Shakespeare penned—it’s just set in small-town America, with a smaller-than-usual cast size. The show features only four actors.

That said, All My Sons is your best chance to see APT faves Jonathan Smoots, playing haunted family patriarch Joe Keller, and Sarah Day, playing his loyal wife Kate. David Frank calls the pairing of Miller’s play and longtime APT director Bill Brown “obvious.”
“Family, change, promise, hope—the themes here are so accessible,” says DeVita. “To do plays that have this kind of open ache, to put them outdoors, it’s not normally what we’ve done. But we have the ability to do exceptional work like this, and I want to bring the audience along.”  

TOUCHSTONE THEATRE

Antony and Cleopatra (opening August 17): “Pillow talk”

Get ready for your jaw to drop: This is the fifth season of APT’s indoor Touchstone Theatre, and Antony and Cleopatra will mark the first time an official Shakespeare play has debuted on its stage. Part of the reason has to do with the challenges of mounting a full-scale Bard epic on a smaller, five-hundred-seat indoor space—as Frank puts it, “You can’t put thirty actors in the Touchstone. But then again, you don’t need to.” 

Instead, this production, a lean and muscular team-up between two of APT’s most powerful creative minds—Jim DeVita and longtime director Kate Buckley, hones the play down to its searing essence: the steamy and ultimately destructive relationship between the great Roman general and the Egyptian princess who literally sacrifice the world for love.

“Rather than say, ‘How do I cut this?’ they’ve said, “What themes can I draw out of this?’” says Frank.

The casting’s an eye-popping clash of APT titans: Audience heartthrob Jim DeVita straps on the sandals of Antony, making sparks fly with Tracy Michelle Arnold’s Cleopatra. Toss in James Ridge as Enobarbus, and it’s going to feel like the acting power of thirty players.

“It’s been said that this story is about a whisper across a pillow that changes the world,”  says Brenda DeVita. “Our audience members like to be stretched. We feel like we’ve built a connection and trust that lets them know they’re going to be taken care of in that indoor space.”

Molly Sweeney (opening June 15): “Irish poet”

Frank calls Brian Friel’s tightly woven piece about a blind woman who’s given the opportunity to see, only to find it’s a decidedly mixed blessing, “classic Touchstone material.” It’s also the place where Colleen Madden fans will get their annual fix—she anchors the three-actor cast as the newly wed Molly. David Daniel plays Molly’s husband Frank, and Jonathan Smoots the surgeon who can bless or curse her.

Even with three powerhouses on stage, longtime APT director Kenneth Albers may be the key to this show. He is, as DeVita notes, “good with the broken people,” the type of characters who inhabit Friel’s play.

“He loves the human struggle of it,” she says. “He loves exploring people who are trying to do the best they can, but ultimately, it isn’t very good.” For Daniel’s and Smoots’s characters, that strikes close to home.

Dickens in America (opening June 29): “Storyteller”

It began as an up-the-hill fundraiser, an additional treat for APT audience members willing to spend a little extra for a special experience. Three years later, Jim DeVita’s one-man show has been tightened and refined into an acting vehicle for APT veteran Jim Ridge, who, over the course of an evening, inhabits the psyche of Britain’s greatest author on his final night in our great country. Ridge, who’s spent the last several years bringing one of Charles Dickens’s most memorable characters to life with Children’s Theater of Madison, is a perfect match for the role.

“We have a big successful tradition of finding one-person shows for our actors,” says Frank. “This is just the latest example.”

Tickets to American Players Theatre shows are available online at americanplayers.org or by calling the theater box office at (608) 588-2361.

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