On Sunday, August 28, we went to American Players Theatre near Spring Green for a “double-header” of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and “Arcadia,” by Tom Stoppard.

APT’s new production of “King Lear” featured Jonathan Smoots in the title role, and was done modern dress, with some current-era props and effects. Lear’s division of his kingdom is done as an outdoor press-conference, complete with podium and visual aids. Lear’s elder daughters, Goneril (Laura Rook) and Regan (Kelsey Brennan) show up in sleek and stylish outfits modeled on some worn by current real-world princesses. Cordelia (Melisa Pereya), on the other hand, is more girlish and nerdy, a presentation that suits her earnest character.

In this scene, we also meet the Duke of Gloucester (James Ridge), the Duchess of Kent (Greta Oglesby), and Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund (Marcus Truschinski), all of whom will have a sizable role to play in the drama to come.

I did not think the modern setting worked for Lear as well as for some other Shakespeare plays, and in some ways clunked, notably the fight scenes. In an era where assault rifles are common, hand-to-hand combat often takes a back seat for logical reasons. It’s not very credible when unarmed Edgar (Eric Parks), who’s been living rough as “Poor Tom” and who has been portrayed as a playboy rather than a fighter, takes down Goneril’s messenger Oswald (Christopher Sheard), who’s already covering him with a pistol. When Edgar challenges Edmund, their “duel” is a bare-handed wrestling match, unlikely even if portrayed in the mythic Britain of Shakespeare. Giving soldiers modern assault gear and weapons somehow made them more menacing than if they had been outfitted with mail and swords.

On the other hand, some of the role gender-shifting made more feasible by the modern setting worked well. When Kent (Oglesby) is banished by Lear, she renders herself unrecognizable by assuming the clothes, manners, and accent of a working-class black woman. Cristina Panfilio gives the role of Lear’s Fool a female stand-up comedian vibe, and does her songs in an indie-folk style that works well.

While a fine, solid, and affecting performance, I wasn’t totally satisfied with Smoots’ Lear. Lear starts the play as an aged, but vigorous man, and, through the course of events, becomes more aged both physically and mentally, such that, by the end, he dies through a combination of exhaustion and lack of a will to live. We really didn’t see that in this performance, as Lear blusters on nearly unstoppably until the final scene.

The character who really goes through the wringer in this production is Ridge’s Gloucester, who goes from a strong and confident character to a broken man after his blinding. Truschinski, playing a relatively rare villain role, was believable as a man capable of fooling his father and seducing both Goneril and Regan.  Kudos, too, to Ms. Rook and Ms. Brennan who succeeded in giving Goneril and Regan distinctive characters, instead of making them just the two “ugly sisters.” Brennan’s Regan is a wheedler, free with fake smiles and hugs. She makes a good consort for her thuggish husband, Cornwall (Bobby Bowman), whereas Ms. Rook as Goneril freely lets her claws show, compensating for what she sees as the conscience-ridden weakness of her husband, Albany (Cedric Mays).

I didn’t mind the modern costuming—after a while I pretty much ignored it, although there were a couple of inexplicable choices: Although all the other soldiers are in modern dress, including the Duke of Albany, Edmund, as leader of Cornwall’s forces, wears a 19th Century general’s uniform, apparently only so he can have a sword that is used later. Regan, in her last appearance, is given an outfit that is more suited for clubbing at a particularly louche nightspot, rather than visiting a battlefield. Odd.


We were glad to see that APT was doing Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” which is a favorite of ours. It is a dauntingly intricate play, not only to stage, with its intersecting character sets from 1809 and the “present day,” but intellectually and linguistically as well.  The director’s notes remark that the play includes: “Lord Byron, Sir Issac Newton, love, the Second law of Thermodynamics, grouse, Chaos Theory, the history of landscape gardening, Time’s Arrow, fractals and iterated algorithms, and the Classical and Romantic temperaments. It is a detective story and a story of the ecstatic hunger of wanting to know, well, everything.”

The play in 1809 focuses on Thomasina Coverly (Rebecca Hurd), a mathematically gifted young girl, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Nate Burger). Thomasina is on the verge of mathematical breakthroughs that won’t be rediscovered for 150 years or more. Hodge, on the other hand, is on the verge of being embroiled in a duel over the easy virtue of the wife of his friend, Ezra Chater (Casey Hoekstra).

In the modern day, the Coverly’s stately home has become a sort of informal research center: Valentine Coverly (Steve Haggard), computer scientist, is attempting to codify the estate’s game books in order to derive an algorithm for the breeding cycles of grouse; Hannah Jarvis (Colleen Madden), a writer, is researching the transformation of the estate’s Classical 18th Century landscaping into a 19th Century Romantic design; and egotistical academic Bernard Nightingale (Jim DeVita) descends upon the property in hot pursuit of some possible unknown history of Lord Byron.

The braided stories intertwine fascinatingly. In the 19th Century, we gradually see what actually happened play out, while in the 20th, we see how even the most well-meaning research can take itself down wrong paths.

All of the cast members were absolutely fine, and handled the difficult text with perfect clarity and exquisite timing. Not only is it intellectually challenging, it’s laugh-out-loud funny (and even funnier if you get all the references).

On Saturday, June 25th, we drove over to Spring Green to see the opening night of the production of Oscar Wilde’s play, “An Ideal Husband.” We cannot recommend this performance too highly.

Wilde’s play, about a poor young man who built a brilliant political career on a fortune made by a single act of misfeasance, is very timely today. Sir Robert Chiltern (David Daniel) has a reputation for strict morality and honesty, and a loving wife (Colleen Madden) who keeps him on her pedestal of idealism. Indeed, all he has done in public life so far has adhered to those standards. Therefore, when he is threatened with the exposure of his past, the fall before him is terrible.

This drama is embedded in the type of comedy of manners that Wilde does so well, with an ongoing dialog about the “triviality” of life, society, parties, marriage, and fidelity, which continues oblivious of the desperate choice facing Sir Robert.

His best friend, Lord Goring (Marcus Truschinski), is the person who connects the worlds of the trivial and the serious. While constantly working on his “trivial” image, Goring turns out to be a steadfast friend and the voice of reason. As Wilde’s voice in the play, Goring has some of the most acerbic and witty commentary on society’s foibles, but also shows great heart and compassion.

There was really marvelous acting by all the principals. Daniel as shows us the agony of his situation. Ms. Madden displays the shock and horror Mrs. Chiltern feels when she finds out about her husband’s indiscretion like getting a punch in the stomach. Tracy Michele Arnold as Mrs. Cheveley has an edgy delivery that reminds one of a younger Dowager Duchess of Grantham. Jade Payton (as Mabel Chiltern), Greta Oglesby (Lady Markby), Cristina Panfilio (Lady Basildon), and Jennifer Latimore (Mrs. Marchmont), as the women of society were devastatingly funny discoursing on their amusements and their discontents.

The costumes were frankly amazing. The women’s party and day outfits were particularly spectacular, but Lord Goring’s orchidaceous suits were close behind. (Tall, slim, and elegant, Mr. Truschinski cuts a figure that Wilde would have envied--.) And, there were nice subtleties, such as the relatively conservative colors and cuts worn by the puritanical Mrs. Chiltern.
The minimal set backdrop was handsome and worked well, augmented by the period furniture and elegant flower arrangements.
On Saturday, September 12th at Spring Green, we saw an excellent and memorable production of William Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

One of the noteworthy additions to this production was the wordless prologue, depicting the wedding of Othello and Desdemona as a beautiful tribal ceremony performed by Othello’s people. (Digression: it had never occurred to me to wonder whom the pair were married BY. I’d always assumed vaguely that Othello as a “Moor” was from a Muslim background, but his remarks to Desdemona in the last act, “I would not kill thy unprepared soul” do indicate that he is a Christian by that time.)

The play proper begins with Iago’s “I hate the Moor” speech, in which James Ridge shows us his take on the character. By contrast with James DeVita’s Iago, blunt and resentful, this Iago is edgy, eaten up with his jealousy of Othello. Yes, the play is about jealousy, but it is Iago’s jealousy that is the main driver, not the jealousy Othello is coached into by him. Iago is jealous of Othello’s rank and reputation, believes he may have committed adultery with Emilia, and is jealous of Othello’s preferment of Cassio.

Chike Johnson is a fine Othello, a man of powerful passions. He loves passionately, hates passionately, is passionately possessive and jealous when lead to it. His straightforwardness makes him easy for Iago to baffle, since he suspects no wrong motives on his own.
Laura Rook as Desdemona gives us a young woman who is sprightly and willful. We get the impression that she has heretofore twisted her father (Brabantio, Brian Mani) around her finger, and is puzzled and hurt when he rejects her marriage. That she assumes her charm will win over Othello on the subject of Cassio’s rehabilitation plays directly into Iago’s hands.
Colleen Madden plays a properly feisty and bawdy Emilia, in the last act denouncing Othello’s crime and Iago’s treachery with a fine rage. If the theatre had had rafters, they would have shaken.

The other major roles were well filled with Marcus Truschinski as the foolish Roderigo, and Nate Burger as trusting Cassio, both of whom also fall victim to Iago’s masterly manipulations.
Costumes by Matthew LeFebvre were handsome and evocative, and the minimal set, distinguished by its water feature which was cleverly used, worked well for the staging.
Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” is one of my favorite plays, and this year’s production took full advantage of the many opportunities for over-the-top foolery.

The production was updated to Edwardian times, which worked well, and gave the designers some interesting options with costume and set, although I do not think the inhabitants of Windsor (then or now) would be flattered at being compared to American television’s “Mayberry”, as in the director’s notes. An interesting dimension was added by musical numbers which sounded like period music-hall songs.

Brian Mani plays Sir John Falstaff as a decorated veteran of colonial campaigns, wearing a Boer-War era khaki uniform, and accompanied by his raggle-taggle bad men Bardolph (Wigasi Brant), Nym (Chike Johnson), and Pistol (Jeb Burris). (The men’s broad-brimmed hats, Colt pistols, and Bowie knives give kind of an American West vibe, like Rough Riders gone to the bad--.) Mani’s beard and makeup resemble the late Orson Welles in his age, had he played Falstaff as an old man, and Mani’s characterization, sometimes pompous, sometimes threatening, and sometimes pathetic, was always spot on.

Falstaff, ever self-deluding about his charms, casts eyes both lecherous and covetous on two wives of wealthy commoners, Alice Ford (Deborah Staples) and Margaret Page (Colleen Madden) whose wiles are more than up to the task of making a fool of Falstaff, while initially hiding the goings-on from their respective husbands.

James Ridge, as the easy-going Page, has little to do but be amiable, except when plotting against his wife to marry their daughter to the man of his choice (Robert R. Doyle, the diffident Slender). On the other hand, David Daniel, as Ford, has a major bit of scene-chewing to do as the husband “possessed of a fine devil of jealously,” and takes full advantage of the opportunity.

Although Falstaff is the star, Daniel’s Ford dominates the scenes he is in, whether laughing, crying, and grimacing in his solo rants as “Master Brook,” or in destroying his own house hunting for Falstaff. I have often heard the somewhat vulgar phrase “going apeshit,” but never seen it done on stage until now. When Ford, having emptied the buck-basket fruitlessly searching for Falstaff, sits in it, rocks, and literally screams with rage and frustration, it was truly primal. The audience roared its appreciation.

The supporting cast was also excellent. I give full marks to Tim Gittings for his Welsh accent and delivery as Sir Hugh, the parson, even though American audiences don’t find Welshmen as easily funny as comic Frenchmen like Dr. Caius (Jonathan Smoots). Sarah Day was a lively and youthful Mistress Quickly, and gave a very good rendition of a song as well. Eric Parks, playing the aptly named Peter Simple, gave a charming dimension to the character by hugging everyone he meets, no matter whom. I was so very glad that the Theatre took a stab at actually presenting Hugh and Caius’ revenge prank on the Host of the Garter (Chris Klopatek), which is often cut, although the duel scene that sets it up is always left in--.

The climax in Windsor Forest was very nicely done, with period-appropriate disguises, effective lights, and a major musical number when the ‘fairies’ discover Falstaff.

This was a thoroughly delightful evening at the theatre, and has our highest recommendation.
Saturday, August 1st, we went to American Players Theatre for a “double-header.”
We were very interested to see American Players take on the Joseph Hanreddy-J.R. Sullivan adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, which we had also seen done by the Milwaukee Rep. APT made the play their own, and did a marvelous job with it.

The set was very spare, with only some chairs and one desk/piano serving to delineate all the locations, with some of the action spreading off into the gardens at the sides of the stage. Costuming was referential rather than strictly accurate, but generally attractive and supported the story more than detracting. (I do, however, seriously envy Darcy’s long blue riding coat--.)

Kelsey Brennan, as Elizabeth Bennet, alternatively crashed against and withdrew from Mr. Darcy (Marcus Truschinski) like the surf battering a promontory. Tall, handsome, and as rigid in his carriage as in his principles, Truschinski was the perfect Darcy, his face a frowning cliff that was a marvelous setting against which Elizabeth’s emotional rises and falls play out. (I had to wonder if Mr. Truschinski needs to have his face massaged after the play, since he has to frown through two hours and fifty-nine minutes of a three-hour show--.)

Of course, Sarah Day was the only choice for Mrs. Bennett, and played the shallow and foolish matron with such unaffected energy that she remains loveable, and it is understood why her daughters and husband stick by her. James Ridge as the long-suffering Mr. Bennett showed us his sardonic humor with more of an edge than some we have seen, which contrasts nicely with Day’s Mrs.

Standout performances among the supporting cast included Chris Klopatek (reviewed herein as Bertie Wooster at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre) as unctuous Mr. Collins, Melisia Pereya as a wonderfully bratty Lydia Bennett, and Tracy Michelle Arnold, who gave her Lady Catherine de Bourgh a nice physical edginess. The other Bennett girls were well represented, with Laura Rook quite fine as the saintly Jane, Aidaa Peerzada pouting well as Kitty, and Elyse Edelman getting off a number of good humorous interjections as the bookish Mary.
It really was a delightful show, and made even the fact that we ended up in the one section that had full sun all afternoon bearable.
On Saturday, November 9th, we drove over to Spring Green to see APT’s production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” adapted for the stage by award-winner Christopher Hampton from the scandalous 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The novel was outrageous in its time, not only for its sexual content, but for its savage indictment of the lifestyles of France’s idle rich. Some critics credited it for adding fuel to the gathering fires that would break out into revolution.

We are both fans of the film, “Dangerous Liaisons,” adapted from Hampton’s play, and wanted to see what APT would do with it. (Georgie has plowed through the translation of the dense novel. I have not.) We were not disappointed.

The characterizations rendered by Tracy Michelle Arnold, as the Marquis de Merteuil, and James DeVita, as the Vicomte de Valmont, are quite different than the film characters as portrayed by Glenn Close and John Malkovich, but no less compelling. As the Marquise, Arnold makes good use of her expressive face, silently commenting on the action and letting us know that she is not only in on the jokes, but (she thinks) is in full command of the situation. DeVita’s Valmont is warmer and more naturally charming, but also more vulnerable. The combination is emotionally searing when they strike sparks from one another.

They are well supported by Melisa Pereya as Cécile Volange, the innocent Mertuil sics Valmont onto, and Luara Rook as Madame de Tourvel, the object of Valmont’s obscure desire. It is a measure of the depravity of high society at the time of the play that, when describing his plans toward her, the acts of an utter cad, Valmont says of seducing a woman “famous for her strict morals, religious fervor and the happiness of her marriage”—“What could be more prestigious?”

Sarah Day, who would have made a formidable Marquise when younger, plays Valmont’s loving but clear-eyed aunt with feeling that makes her well-meant but pessimistic advice to de Tourvel all the more bitter; “Do you still think men love the way we do? No... men enjoy the happiness they feel. We can only enjoy the happiness we give. They are not capable of devoting themselves exclusively to one person. So to hope to be made happy by love is a certain cause of grief.”

The play was beautifully but simply set, with a glistening marble-patterned floor that threw back the colors of the lights, a few pieces of period furniture, rearranged for different scenes, and handsome costumes by Rachel Anne Healy. Mertuil and Valmont are clothe in shades of gray, hers an ominous steely shade, his lighter. The Marquise’s bodice has a textured pattern that suggests an armor breastplate. Cécile wears a light petal pink, and Madame de Tourvel, although she is a married woman, is in virginal white.

The play’s ending is rather different than that of the film, but equally powerful in different ways. We were extremely glad to have seen this outstanding production, and would recommend it highly. The play continues through November 24th at APT’s Touchstone Theatre (the indoor facility—very nice and intimate--), with tickets available for upcoming shows.
On Saturday, August 24th, we made the trip to Spring Green to see APT’s new production of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” followed by Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

We had been very excited when we heard that APT was doing both these plays this year, and even more so when it appeared they would do a thing that I had wanted to see ever since discovering Stoppard’s play: to perform the shows together, one after the other, with the same actors in the same roles. This combination appeared exactly once in this summer’s schedule, so we were glad to be able to catch the conjunction.

In Shakespeare’s play, Matt Schwader as Hamlet gives us a very active and vigorous prince, not so much a “melancholy Dane” as a manic-depressive one. The switchover from passive-aggressive to just plain aggressive gave a very interesting emphasis to the play that we had not seen before. For one thing, it become plain that Hamlet is being insufferably cruel to Ophelia (Cristina Panfilio) in the “Get thee to a nunnery,” scene and the interaction that comes after, before the “play,” which markedly contributes to her breakdown after Polonius’ death. Hamlet taunts Claudius (Jim DeVita) to his face, which, given Hamlet’s subsequent murder of Polonius and lack of remorse therefore, makes his uncle seem justified in deeming him dangerous and wanting to be rid of him. Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother after killing Polonius and demand that she have no further carnal contact with Claudius, even while he’s preparing to carry away the dead man, shows that Hamlet really DOES have an unhealthy obsession with his mother’s sex life--. This is what we are calling the “Hamlet is a jerk” interpretation, which we thought worked really well and gave the performance great energy.

Another good departure was to make Polonius (David Daniel) a likeable fellow. Certainly, he’s pompous and talks too much, but he’s not an ass or a stuffed shirt. Most importantly, the scenes involving Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes (Eric Parks), demonstrate that they are a close and caring family, with children and parent loving one another, which makes Ophelia’s grief and Laertes’ rage at his double bereavement seeming very genuine.

Yet another clever touch was to have veteran actor James Pickering enact the roles of the Ghost, the Player who plays the murdered Gonzago before Claudius, and the First Gravedigger. The fact that the Player and Gravedigger resemble the murdered King is noticed by Claudius, whose visible starts when meeting them underscore that he, too, is haunted in his way.

DeVita as Claudius is a man running as fast as he can to stay in one place, desperately trying to hold on to by charm what his brother held by merit. Deborah Staples plays Gertrude as a woman who is still young and vital, who has fled from a long and lonely widowhood into marriage with her brother-in-law without really appreciating what she was getting into, or what effect the hasty marriage would have on others. By the time Hamlet returns from his aborted sea voyage, Gertrude seems to have forgotten any misgivings he might have had, since it is high spirits that lead her to drink from the poisoned cup.

That this was a very carefully and intricately worked out production was evident in attention to every detail and nuance. Definitely one of the best Hamlets we’ve seen.

Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is the same play, but seen (and only seen) from the viewpoints of the two minor characters, friends of Prince Hamlet from college, who get caught up in Claudius’ plots and come to a bad end thereby. Ryan Imhoff is billed as Rosencrantz and Steve Haggard as Guildenstern, although, since in Hamlet they are interchangeable, they spend most of the play being uncertain what their own names are.

The play opens with the pair waiting “offstage” as they frequently are. That all is not quite right is made apparent both by their coin-flipping game in which “heads” has come up an unprecedented 90+ times in a row, and the fact that neither of them can remember anything later than the morning, and the morning only vaguely. As the play goes on, we see their brief interactions with the “main” characters, between which times the two try to figure out what’s going on, both in the machinations of the Danish court in general, and with their state of suspension in particular.

Steve Haggard is one of APT’s most able comic actors, and his character is the sharper of the two, raising questions about existence which his partner is frustratingly unwilling or unable to appreciate. Imhoff’s character is genially goofy (in fact, it occurs to me that at points when he is “moseying” around the stage, he is literally walking like Disney’s “Goofy”), with a short attention span and short re-tention span as well. He has too little grasp of the situation to be worried about it until things get too bad to ignore.

The one group of characters that do interact with them on a personal level are the Players, lead by John Pribyl in a wonderfully juicy portrayal. However, the Players, with their “all the world’s a stage” solipsistic viewpoint are of no help to the perplexed pair. After all, as the Player King says, “We’re the opposite of people.”

For people who love theater and acting, the play is particularly funny, not only for the Players’ cynical take on acting and audiences, but because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are acting out the life of bit players: waiting offstage in costume, engaging in desultory conversation or mild amusements, something enough to keep one alert but not so distracted that one misses a cue.

Even without that, the play is wonderfully funny, with both leads handling Stoppard’s witty dialog ably and augmenting it with judicious amounts of physical comedy. It really is a tour de force for Haggard and Imhoff, since they are on stage for 99% of the play. (I suspect this why there are two intermissions, whereas the longer “Hamlet” has only one—because the principals need breaks--.)

The set is exactly the same as the “Hamlet” set, not surprising. I was initially a bit surprised that the costumes (with the exception of Hamlet’s somber black) were not the same, but gradually realized that they are brighter, more fantastic, more artificial, perhaps a bit tawdry—in a word, theatrical. The other characters also pitch their parts up a notch, as well. It occurred to me that perhaps not only was this a reminder to the audience that we are seeing a play about a play, but that it may also reflect Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s view of the world—more dramatic and highly colored, since they see themselves as the protagonists of their own story.

Both productions played to full houses and drew standing ovations. I expect that this will prove a once in a lifetime theatrical event, and we will not forget it.
It's rare for us to see a "new" Shakespeare play, so we looked forward to APT's new production of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" with interest. (APT has done it before, 2002 or thereabouts, but for some reason we didn't get there then--.)

"Two Gentlemen" is one of Shakespeare's earlier comedies, and is performed less often than others. Why, was obvious, since the play is short on plot and action and long on the kind of wordplay that is the young playwright showing how clever he can be. There are large parts for the two clown servants, Speed (Will Mobley) and Launce (Steve Haggard)trying to out-wit one another; plus, the show pretty much requires a live dog, Crab (Tim), which "Shakespeare in Love" notwithstanding, you don't usually see in a Shakespeare play.

The plot deals with the aptly-named Proteus (Marcus Truchinski), one of the "gentlemen", who is sent from home to attend the Duke of Milan (James Pickering), just after declaring undying love for Julia (Susan Shunk). However, immediately upon arriving in Milan, he is smitten with the Duke's daughter, Sylvia (Abbey Seigworth), who is in love with Proteus' friend Valentine (Travis A. Knight). Proteus immediately begins to scheme to replace Valentine in Sylvia's affections, crassly abandoning his pledge to Julia.

How this crossing of lovers works out is the gist of the plot, heavily leavened with the aforementioned clowning, plus an attack by bandits outside Milan which provides an exciting fight scene.

The cast gave an engaged and lively presentation that we enjoyed very much, and made good use of a seemingly awkward set. One flaw was the costuming: I'm not sure if it was the result of an intention to appear "timeless" or just got its wardrobe from whatever would fit and wasn't in use elsewhere, but garments ranging from the 16th to the 19th centuries all appeared, sometimes all at the same time. But this is a quibble for theatrical pedants, like me.
On Sunday, September 23rd, we went back to Spring Green to catch a performance of "The Admirable Crichton," by J.M. Barrie. Although a prolific author and playwrite, Barrie is by far best known as the creator of "Peter Pan," and most of his works have faded into obscurity. I looked up some of his other works prior to going to this play, and found plays such as "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals," heavily based in post-WW I sentimentality, to be quite dated.

"The Admirable Chrichton" is set more in a Gilbert and Sullivan-like topsy-turvy world, whose time, due to the interest in "Downton Abbey", seems to have come round again.

Crichton (pronounced "Cryton", like "Jurassic Park" author Michael,) is butler to Lord Loam. In his sphere, he is stone-faced, absolutely correct, and a 100% believer in the "natural order" of things, in which, in England, he is proud to be a servant, and to have other servants under him. All this, however, is upset when Crichton, Load Loam, the Lord's three daughters, two male friends, and one maidservant, are shipwrecked on an uninhabited South Seas island, and the social structures supportint the order in which Crichton was wont to function are replaced by a very different, but no less "natural" order.

James Ridge plays the butler as a ramrod-straight elegant figure which makes him seem the natural master of any situation, much more so than either the typicaly out of his depth Lord Loam (Mark Goetzinger) or "The Honorable Ernest Wooley," (Steve Haggard) who is a "Bertie Wooster" ancestor, whose imagination far exceeds his competence.

All of the cast do a fine job of ringing the changes on their characters in the four scenes: The London of self-satisfaction and surety; the shipwreck, with its upset and shadows of things to come; the island home, with the settled new 'natural' order; and the return to England, wherein it is found that the old order is not as comfortable as once it was.

The play is quite witty, and makes fond fun of the British class system, which becomes inverted on "the island". In fact much is made of the argument that old rules do not apply on "an island," slyly gliding over the fact that Britain itself, as a quote from Shakepeare reminds, is an island.

Having read the script beforehand, I was genuinely uncertain that the Players could make this show work in this day and age; I am pleased to report that they did. This is in large part due to the fine actors and directors that make up the Players, but also to the troupe's tradition of attntion to detail and internalisation of the narrative to the point that all the action, however farcical, seems quite natural.

We enjoyed the performance very much, and it drew a large and enthusiastic crowd, particularly for a rather chilly Sunday evening.
As we often do, we made our trip to American Players Theatre a "double-header," and also took in the evening performance of Shakespeare's "Richard III," on Sunday evening the 9th.

We found it very interesting that, although this production was directed by James DeVita, it was about as different from APT's last production of "Richard III" (in which DeVita played Richard) as could reasonably be. Whereas the DeVita Richard was a low-keyed, confiding, and occasionally actually sympathetic Richard, in this production James Ridge is a ranting, laughing, all-out villain and seems to have a good time chewing the scenery, something we the audience enjoyed as well. The broadness of the characterization and Richard's glee in his plots almost make the first half of the show a black comedy. The second half, after Richard has come to the throne, is decidedly darker, and builds up to a big climax when Richard's murdered victims, having already troubled his dreams, appear as spectres to his fevered vision on Bosworth Field.

Georgie noted that this Richard in particular is a "crisis politician,"—manufacturing crises, and then stepping in to take charge, ruling through fear as when he stampedes the people of London into demanding he take the crown—an approach to governance still too much in use today.

Ridge was very well supported by his co-conspirator David Daniel as Buckingham, and by the formidable cast of women: Sarah Day as Cecily, the Dowager Duchess of York; Tracy Michelle Arnold as Margaret of Anjou, widow of Henry VI; Melissa Graves as Anne Neville, Richard's tortured Queen; and Colleen Madden as Elizabeth Woodville, the soon-to-be widowed wife of Richard's brother, King Edward IV. (It seemed to me that the women's roles were somehow larger in this production than the past, for some reason--.) Adding to the sinister aspects of the play was Eric Parks as Ratcliff, Richard's murdering henchman, coolly noting down his assignments as an uncredited DeVita does the actual dirty work.

The production's handsome Edwardian-era costumes are shown off well by the barren, rocky stage, which is transformed by props and pieces into a throne room, a prison, or a battlefield.

This was an interesting and engaging addition to our collection of Richards, and we were very glad to have seen it.
On Sunday, September 9th, we made the pilgrimage to Spring Green to see APT's production of Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida." We were interested and curious to see this rarely performed play, even though reviews were ambiguous. (In fairness, the reviews questioned the goodness of the script, not the presentation, a judgment we are inclined to agree with. However, we have as an informal goal in life to see as many of Shakespeare's plays as we reasonably can, and when else will we see this one?)

The play is generally considered problematic, in part because it is partly a tragedy, and partly a history. This isn't necessarily a problem for Shakespeare, since "The Merchant of Venice" is a tragedy with a secondary comedy plot, and "Henry IV" is a history with a substantial comic element centering on Falstaff. However, 'Troilus and Cressida" has other issues, notably that the plot concerning the nominal main characters peters out about 3/4th of the way through.

The play begins in the seventh year of the Trojan War. Achilles is sulking in his tent with Patroclus, and the other Greeks berate themselves at their lack of success as the stalemated siege drags on. In Troy, Troilus (Nate Burger), youngest son of King Priam, courts Cressida (Laura Rook), daughter of the turncoat Calchas, who has gone over to the Greeks. Troilus suit is not prospering, largely because, rather than speaking for himself, he uses her garrulous uncle, Pandarus (James DeVita), as a go-between. (At least in Shakespeare's version, poor old Pandarus is somewhat maligned by historic use, since he's much more of a "yenta", trying to arrange a match for his niece, than a procurer as the term "panderer" has come to mean.) When Troilus speaks up for himself, Cressida welcomes him.

Of course this happens the night before King Priam agrees to exchange Cressida to the Greeks for a Trojan prisoner. Both are heartbroken as the Greek Diomedes (Travis A. Knight) leads Cressida to her father in the Greeks' camp. Despite being treated shamefully by the Greeks, who are rough and barbarous by contrast with the Trojans, Cressida seems to come down with "Stockholm Syndrome" in record time and accepts Diomedes as a substitute for Troilus, although not without some regret. Cressida's lack of motivation here is one of the weak points of the play, and makes one wonder if something is missing from the already long text. When Troilus witnesses her betrayal of him, that portion of the plot is ended, and the remainder of the play deals with well-known incidents from the Iliad: the duel between Hector (Marcus Truchinski) and Ajax (Michael Huftile); the subsequent battle in which Hector kills Patroclus (Samuel Ashdown) believing him to be Achilles (Eric Parks); and, in a departure from the classic events, the death of Hector, who is surprised unarmed and murdered by the Greeks in a gang, although Achilles takes the credit for his killing. Troilus seeks Diomedes on the battlefield, but their fighting is inconclusive, and both they and Cressida are alive at play's end. Both sides end the show shouting their battle cries, the Greeks still intent on winning back Helen, and the Trojans motivated to avenge Hector.

The history of this play is somewhat muddled, making it debatable if the play was ever actually performed in Shakespeare's time, which would make the flaws somewhat more understandable if the Bard never finished polishing it for production. APT gives it their best shot, with a nicely mounted production. The very sparse set is divided by heavy red beams, implying a construction site, or perhaps walls shored up to withstand a siege. Costumes for the men are basic tunics, russet for the Greeks, aqua for the Trojans, with leather armor pieces. All the women in the play are Trojans, and they had attractive gowns in a style suggesting classical Asia Minor.

Acting was up to APT's usual high standard, and there was excellent ensemble so that it's hard to point to any one outstanding performance, although notable were La Shawn Banks as the spiteful servant, Thersites, and Greta Wohlrabe in a small but poignant part as the tortured Cassandra. (Kudos to Shakespeare for his treatment of her: of course the Trojans would think she was mad, since she is frantically trying to warn them of doom and, due to Apollo's curse, none of them can believe her--).
One flaw in the directing struck me: As in other Shakespeare plays, the dialog for most of the "noble" characters is in verse, but those of a more "common" sort, in this case Pandarus, are in prose. DeVita delivers his lines in a very naturalistic and confiding fashion which stands out quite distinctly from the more formal and declamatory delivery of the others to the extent that it sounds like hearing overlapping parts of two different plays. Had I been directing, I would either have had DeVita add a bit more structure, or, more likely, have the rest of the cast smooth out the versifying to be more natural, something APT usually excels at.

Verdict: Ultimately unsatisfying, but the fault is in the play, and not the players. Thanks to APT for staging it so that we could have a chance to see it at its best.
On Sunday, September 4th, we drove to Spring Green for a rare combination of plays--two comedies, neither by Shakespeare.

The matinee performance was Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," his delightlfully wicked comedy about a man (James DiVita) who is haunted by the ghost of his dead first wife (Deborah Staples), which bids to tear apart his current, second marriage. Very strong and very funny performances by DiVita, Staples, and Colleen Madden as the put-upon second wife. They were very well supported by the rest of the cast, in particular Susan Sweeney, whose practical outdoorswoman version of Madam Arcati was informed by the role as rendered by Margaret Rutherford in the 1945 film.

The cast added to Coward's crackling dialog with some excellent and original stage business. Staples, as the etherial Elvira, drifted about the stage with seemingly unconscious grace, until she is grounded hard when her plans go awry. If there was one flaw in DiVita's performance, it was that, in the first scene, he tends to overuse a fluting upper register voice when expressing humor or being nonplussed. However, that ceased to be an issue in later scenes. We, and all the audience thouroughly enjoyed the show.

The evening performance was "The Critic," by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Sheridan (1751-1816)was a notable theatrical figure of his day, playwrite, impresario, and theatre owner. This gave him a deep knowlege of the world of theatre, which he lovingly lampoons. The "Critic" of the title is Mr. Dangle (Darragh Kennan), a wealthy dilletante who is actually very UN-critical, and puts up with a lot he doesn't pretend to understand in order to feel in touch with the glamorous life of the theatre. Real critic Mr. Sneer (Jonathan Smoots) tries to guide him, but he persist in maintaining friendship with talentless creatures like "Sir Fretful Plagiary" even though indicating he is aware of their shortcomings.

The play's subtitle "A Tragedy Rehearsed" refers to the new production of a play called "The Spanish Armada" which is the brain-child of Mr. Puff (Jim DiVita). Puff is a man who has essentially invented the modern art of advertising, and, after "puffing" many plays for others, has decided that he knows the theatre well enough to write his own. (Puff's speech on the forms of advertising, including "the puff direct," "the puff indirect," etc., is a brillant take-off on Touchstone's speech on causes of argument and replies from Shakepeare's "As You Like It.")

In the second act, we see a supposed dress-rehersal of "The Spanish Armada," and find that it is a dreadful farrago of theatrical cliches strung on a bathetic excuse for a plot (and "underplot'); that Puff has no idea how to produce or direct--the fact that he let the actors themselves cut lines they felt unnecessary mercifully shortens the play for us viewers; and constant changes have left the production under-rehearsed and prone to disaster. The reactions of Dangle, Sneer, and Puff to these evolutions are almost funnier than the action on stage, which is very funny indeed.

Good as it is, we could see why it is rarely produced. It requires a huge cast (most of the company involved and some doubling roles--), a substantial investment in costumes, and a knowlege of the theatre to appreciate. Fortunately, the APT audience is the kind of audience this show was made for, and greeted the production with a resounding and well deserved ovation.
On July 2nd, we went to American Players Theatre, and enjoyed the most remarkable production of "The Taming of the Shrew" that we have ever seen.

This version was done without the "Christoper Sly" framing story, which was appropriate and not missed due to the naturalistic presentation. The company chose to forgo putting the play on as the knockabout comedy it frequently is done as, and instead make it what Georgie deemed a domestic drama, altough still with much humor.

The keys to the new interpretation are the principals' performeances, Tracy Michelle Arnold as Katherina,"the shrew", and James Ridge as Petruchio, who has "come to tame her."

Arnold plays Katharina as a vulnerable woman, deeply hurt by her father's spiritual abandonment, and angry at her powerlessness which gives her "acting out" as a sole outlet for her frustration. The scene of the first meeting between "Kate" and Petruchio was different than any I have seen. Instead of being presented as a hard shelled person who volleys wisecracks, we see that she is confused by Petruchio's protestations, both wanting and not wanting to believe in him. Ridge takes Petruchio at a slower, gentler, tempo also, insistent but not at first demanding.

This balancing of the two characters continues throughout the play. When the newly married couple arrives at Petruchio's house, we see very real misery on Kate's part, but also, in Petruchio's Act IV solilloquy "Thus have I politicly begun my reign," we see that he is tired as well but determined to continue his program. In the scene traveling back to Padua it is partly understanding Petruchio's weariness with her contrariness that causes Kate to make peace.

The one part about this interpretation that troubled me a bit was that Kate's last act speech,"Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow," was done with perfect sincerity, with nothing ironic or suggestive of collusion with Petruchio, although somewhat lightened by, when delivering the line, "put your hands beneath your husband's foot," making the hands-joined gesture of "giving a leg up." However, Georgie and her avowedly feminist friend who joined us for the show both found Kate's speech quite good and not too submissive, so perhaps I was reading too much (or too little) into it.

The interpretations by the supporting cast were more tradional and added a lot of the humor to the play.

Production values were up to APT's usual standards, with a clever modular set including a tromp l'oeil door that I would have sworn I saw used. Costuming set the play somewhere in the middle 1800's, with lots of yummy top hats, frock coats and fancy vests on the Paduan men. Petruchio and his men were soldiers with double-breasted shirts, and hats that made them look like early American Indian Wars veterans. The women's dresses were hoop-skirt period, with the striking exception of Kate's distinctly Edwardian last-act gown (which may have been intended to show how she had progressed?). The performance was interrupted in the first half when the audienced noticed a plume of smoke rising from a lamp housing above the stage. It was evident that something inside was on fire. The show was stopped while the chief electician climbed the light tower, extinguished the flames, and disconnected and removed the lamp. It was rumored that a partially constructed bird's nest was the fuel. There was a bit of grumbling from some audience members, but the play picked up without a hitch.

This was absolutely the best and most thought-provoking presentation of this play in my experience, and highly recommended for anyone interested. "The Taming of Shrew" continues in repetory through October 2nd, with tickets available for most performances.
On Saturday the 6th, we made the trek to Spring Green for APT’s production of “The Belle’s Stratagem.” We were very interested in this piece because it is a rarity, a play written by Hannah Cowley, who was a very successful British playwright in the late 1700’s. “The Belle’s Stratagem” was her most famous work, and we (and the rest of the audience) liked it quite a bit better than the lukewarm local paper reviewers.

The plot revolves (sometimes rapidly) around the love lives of two couples who are part of London society: Doricourt, a handsome young gentleman (Marcus Truschinski) and Letitia, a young lady (Colleen Madden) who are scheduled to enter into a marriage arranged by their elders even though they have not met since they were children; and Sir George Touchwood (Jonathan Smoots) and his new, country-bred wife (Carey Cannon), whose innocence of city ways he is intent on preserving. Letitia is disappointed by the indifferent impression she made at the reunion with Doricort, and embarks on an ambitious plan to kindle his regard. Both this plan and Sir George’s domestic bliss are complicated by the intervention of characters from the local ton, including the busybody Mrs. Racket (Sarah Day) and Darragh Kennan as Mr. Flutter, a character that will remain the dictionary image of a “macaroni” in my mind. While some of the major plot elements are a bit dated, many more are still quite current, including the ways in which the envious and the foolish prey upon persons of prominence. The villain of the piece, Courtall, maintains a Don Juan-like list of the ladies he has despoiled; the journalist Crowquill is quite willing to publish scandalous lies as long as he has someone else to blame them on; and Flutter is a compulsive gossip who can’t keep his stories straight and doesn’t care.

Very nice and energetic performances by the whole cast, and they make the plot devices fun and enjoyable if not entirely believable. The audience rewarded the cast with a standing ovation.

The costumes by Robert Morgan are exceptionally well done, with the period clothing for both men and women very lovely. The masquerade scene was most impressive, although I thought some of the neon colors were a bit over the top. The set was merely a collection of empty picture frames, which the cast made good use of to invoke the scenes.
Saturday, July 5th, turned out to be a near-ideal day for outdoor theater. We had, as we often do, selected a double-header of plays, APT's "Henry IV: The Making of a King," which condenses Shakespeare's Henry IV parts 1 and 2 into one play, and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The original APT group would not have cut the "Henry" play, committed as they were to integrity of the text, but I do have to agree with the director who was quoted as saying that there is about 1.5 good plays in the two installments. What we got was mostly Henry IV, Part 1, with its story of intrigue against the unpopular Henry IV, the coming of age of ne'er-do-well Prince Hal, and its culminating battle against rebel "Hotspur" Percy and his allies. What we got of part 2 were the essentials: the death of King Henry IV with the famous misunderstanding about Hal's trying on the crown; Hal coming into his kingship, and the new king's banishment of Falstaff and the old cronies of his misspent youth.

Up-and-coming Matt Schwader did a very fine job as Prince Hal, growing from a bored frivolity to seriousness as needed, and making a credible action hero in his duel with the dangerous Hotspur. Brian Mani was a very workmanlike Falstaff, handling his scenes of bluster very well, but was not up to the memorable performances given by Randall Duk Kim years ago in "Merry Wives," or more recently, Richard Ziman in the Milwaukee Shakepeare company's production of "Henry IV, Part 1."
(reviewed by me here: http://milwaukeesfs.livejournal.com/2007/05/14/)

James Ridge played the King of the title, and gave an excellent characterization of a man who seems to be continually unlikeable, even when he is trying to make peace. Standouts among the supporting cast were David Daniel, believably handsome and charismatic as Hotspur, Carrie A. Coon as his spirited wife, and Henry Woronicz, who managed a creditable Welsh accent in the role of Owen Glendower.

"Midsummer Night's Dream" was one of the first plays I ever saw at APT and which hooked me. The outdoor setting, with moonlight on the trees behind the stage, and the real-life bats, moths, fireflies, and whippoorwills seemed the perfect setting. That production was one of APT's early purist approach shows, and was beautiful for it. This year's production takes quite another tack, and, although preserving the text took great liberties with setting and business, resulting in one of the all-around funniest versions of the play we have ever seen.

As the play opens, the stage is covered with dropcloths, and upstage was a port-a-potty which close inspection revealed to be labled in Greek. This is the hall for the celebration of the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta being redecorated for the big event, and the workmen are the "rude mechanicals" who eventually "honor" the happy couple with their performance of "Pyramus and Thisbe." One of the best features of this production was giving distinct personalities and styles to Hermia (Tiffany Scott), Lysander (Matt Schwader), Demetrius (Steve Haggard) and Helena (Carrie A. Coon), playing against the more common joke that they are more or less interchangable. Hermia is a fashion-forward Alpha Girl, and it's easy to see why her father Egeus (James Ridge) thinks that preppie nerd Demetrius would be a better match for her than "Joisey" disco boy Lysander (Schwader channeling John Travolta). Counter-culture girl Helena makes up the foursome with her hippie attire and guitar-case decorated with "Che" stickers.

Of course, once into the woods, they fall foul of the fairies, Puck (Marcus Truschinski), Oberon (Micheal Huftile), and Titania (Carey Cannon). Huftile and Cannon double the roles of Theseus and Hippolyta, a fact I would not have known without looking at the program, so much are they transformed from one role to the other. The fairies also play havoc with the townsmen, working the famous "transfiguration" on Bottom, played with relish by Johnathan Smoots.

Once all the romances are sorted out, the climax of the play is the "Pyramus and Thisbe," given here the most over-the-top, all out played for laughs presentation ever. Suffice to say "The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report."

The play ended with what Georgie called "My Big Fat Greek Wedding Dance," to a spontaneous and general standing ovation.

Acting was fine throughout, given the broad slapstick tenor, and the spiral ramped stage worked well, illuminated by some attractive effects. If the play had a flaw, it was in the fairies' costumes, which had no unifying vision. Titania's attendants resembled "classical" fairies with short floaty dresses, white tights and ballet slippers, floral chaplets and ribbons. By jarring contrast, the named fairies, Peaseblossom, Moth, Mustardseed, and Cobweb, had grotesque full-body costumes that literally represented their names. Titania herself wore a water-colored Edwardian "mermaid" gown that displayed an impressive corsage, whereas Oberon was more of a "woodgod" figure, in gladiator buskins, earth-toned harem pants, and cape with a collar of roots or twigs over bare chest. Puck was more of a 70's punk-rock figure, with tight pants and fur-collared vest with no shirt. It is frustrating that the company's costume designers do so well when dealing with the period pieces but don't seem to be able to come up with an integrated vision when outside the historical.
Saturday the 15th we made the pilgrimage to Spring Green to wind up our APT season with a double header of “Timon of Athens: and George Bernard Shaw’s “Misalliance.”

“Timon” is Shakespeare’s much debated tragedy: early or late, finished or not, collaboration or not. None of those questions made any difference to the very fine production APT brought to the stage.

The tragic Timon (Brian Robert Mani) is spiritual ancestor to Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows. Like Toad, he is a profligate spender, excessively hospitable, and, when things go wrong, dives to the pits of depression and wallows there.

“Extravagance” is the keyword of Timon’s character. He gives and buys extravagantly, and, when his presumed friends fail to rally round to bail him out of his financial crisis, he curses them and Athens extravagantly, and then, even casting aside his clothing, goes to live in “the woods” and survive by grubbing for roots like a beast, rejecting all the hands that actually are offered to assist him. Timon refuses to recognize the irony of his own position: when he was wealthy he refused repayment of loans, and gave away his fortunes asking nothing in return: nevertheless, he is surprised when that’s what he gets in his hour of need and never admits that his campaign to buy friendship was built on a false foundation. When he stumbles upon a buried treasure, instead of using it to repair his fortunes, he continues his hermit lifestyle and gives some of it to the rebel general Alciabiades (David Daniel) on the condition that he use it to destroy Athens. Spurning the help of his loyal steward, Flavius (James Ridge) and the fearful Athenians’ call to return and save them from the wrath of Alciabiades, Timon dies alone in his miserable retreat.

In this case, the decision to update costumes to modern day worked well. When Timon and the men of Athens he calls friends gather to feast, their white dinner jackets provided an ambiance that Georgie called “half Las Vegas casino owner, half Godfather.” Timon’s wilderness refuge is a squalid piece of junk-littered waste land, where he sleeps in an abandoned oil tank, which perhaps intentionally refers to the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who lived in a tub. Timon follows a number of Diogenes’ other reputed behaviors including behaving like a dog (who Diogenes considered wiser than men) and his diet of roots.

“Timon” is pretty much a one man show, whether the protagonist is effusing or ranting, and Mani handled it brilliantly. It is a rather over-the-top character, but he had just enough restraint. He was ably supported by Jonathan Smoots as the Cynic philosopher Apemanthus, Ridge, and Daniel, as well as the APT company playing faithless friends, loyal servants, and clamoring debt collectors. The audience responded with a spontaneous standing ovation at the end.

After a picnic dinner, we bundle up against the chill and went back up the hill for “Misalliance.” This is a more than usually didactic Shaw piece, with the soft center of a domestic comedy enrobed in layers of editorial comment. Unlike some others of Shaw’s work, such as “The Devil’s Disciple,” or “Arms and the Man,” there is no central debate. Instead, each of the characters takes a turn (or two) expounding their own particular take on life and the social issues of the day. Discussion subjects include parents vs. children, brains vs. brawn, labor vs. capital, feminism vs. middle class mores, business vs. art, and others. In fact, the characters spend so much time talking about their own ideas, that they hardly interact: they are self-centered, self-justifying, and self-satisfying. In fact, if the play has a hero or a villain, it’s hard to see who it might be since the most and least admirable characters (in my opinion) Lena Szczepanowska (Tracy Michelle Arnold) and Johnny Tarleton (Marcus Truchinski) are peripheral to the plot. That being said, the full-house audience gave every evidence of thoroughly enjoying the play, as did we. A lot of laughs were elicited by the witty (and constant) dialog, wonderful comic timing, and a plot that left us guessing how it would all turn out. Excellent performances by Smoots as John Tarleton, the rather befuddled paterfamilias, Sarah Day as his more with-it wife, Carrie A. Coon as his bored daughter, Chris Klopatek as her apparent suitor of last resort, and the others that completed out the cast.
On Saturday, June 30, we opened our season of American Players Theatre, attending their new production of "The Merchant of Venice", which is a particular favorite of mine. I once wrote an essay choosing "Merchant" as the one Shakepeare play I would keep if I could only keep one, since it combines both Shakepeare's comedy, in the plot I call "The Marriage of Portia," and tragedy, in "The Tragedy of Shylock the Jew."

The APT production from years ago starring Randall Duk Kim as Shylock is still my favorite, but this year's show is very fine indeed with numerous new nuances brought out. The current cast features Jim DeVita as Antonio (the "Merchant" of the title); Matt Schwader as Bassanio, Portia's suitor; Colleen Madden as Portia; and James Ridge as Shylock.

Although Shylock is often referred to as "old Shylock," Ridge plays him as not yet elderly, still vigorous, upright, and kept motivated by his resentments. And the play shows us he has good reason for them as Antonio, Bassanio, and other Gentiles do not soft-pedal their anti-Semitism in the least. DeVita's Antonio is somber, almost depressive, borne down not only by his financial worries but seemingly by a loneliness he momentarily eases among his coterie of young friends. Schwader's Bassanio is well-done but not outstanding: young, cheerful, energetic, loyal, all the role need be. Colleen Madden's Portia is a revelation: as the sought-after bride, she is warm and passionate as opposed to the cool and aloof Portia we frequently see. It is not just that Bassanio is the most acceptable of her many suitors, she actually desires Bassanio and passionately wants him to win her. In Bassanio's choosing scene, it is quite clear that Portia knows very well which is the right box and is willing him to choose correctly. In the courtroom scene, Portia as the young lawyer is not as smooth as often played, showing she is sometimes momentarily taken aback by Shylock's intransigence.

Supporting roles were also well done: Darragh Kennan's Gratiano is his own character and his own man, not just a second-string Bassanio. Jonathan Smoots had a hat trick playing two of Portia's suitors, the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Aragon, as well as the Duke of Venice, which involved a very quick change of not only costume but makeup between the two Princes' roles. The suitors were rather broad caricatures (I thought Aragon was rather influenced by Monty Python's "Spanish Inquisition") but very funny and drew Smoots an ovation. I was intrigued by the portrayal of Jessica, Shylock's runaway daughter. Leah Dutchin played her as a serious, sensitive girl, the better to bring out nuance in the later scenes at Belmont, when Portia, as played by Madden, shows herself a bit uneasy at taking Jessica into her home; and in the late scenes with Lancelot Gobbo and Lorenzo. I did find this a bit difficult to reconcile with the kind of young woman who would so blithely steal from her father, and carelessly barter away the equivalent of his engagement ring to buy an unclean animal. This, however, I think was a directorial decision rather than on the part of the actress, and did support one of the play's major themes.

Jessica's elopment and apostasy are the last straws that drive Shylock to his deadly decision to pursue his bond, and, in the scene where he laments his losses, at least to the Gentiles, he repeatedly refers to Jessica as his "flesh and blood." This was an emphasis we hadn't noticed in the past but which makes a strong connection between Shylock's bereavement and his intention to exact revenge on Antonio.

The courtroom scene, as appropriate to the dramatic climax of the play, was done with great feeling and excellent timing, with peaks of intensity when Antonio's friends rave at Shylock, to a long moment of silence when Bassanio and Antonio embrace for what they think will be the final time. Shylock turns his eyes away from this scene, showing that he is not devoid of human feeling even then, which we all thought was a particularly good bit of acting.

This performance was the second official performance, following two "previews" and an opening night, and there were a few small, barely noticable moments of unsteadiness, but I expect these to be ironed out for future shows.

APT is a jewel. Anything they do is worth seeing if you care for the subject material. Other plays this year are "Timon of Athens" and Shaw's "Misalliance", which we will be seeing, and "Much Ado About Nothing", and Williams' "Night of the Iguana", which we will not. We've seen/done a good "Much Ado" recently and didn't need it, and I find Williams loathsome and don't want it. Nevertheless, I'm sure APT will do fine jobs with all and therefore reccommend them to the interested.
On September 9th, we made the pilgrimage to American Players Theatre for a Shakespeare double-header, “Julius Caesar” in the afternoon, and “Romeo and Juliet” in the evening. “Julius Caesar” gave the veteran members of the company room to stretch, with Brian Robert Mani in the title role and Jonathan Smoots as Brutus. With the exception of Michael Gotch as Cassius and David Daniel as Marc Anthony, most of the other company members (including the women) were kept on the run playing conspirators, soldiers of several factions, and the Roman mob. We found this production extraordinarily effective, especially in the use of sound. Martial drumming accented the action, and cast members spotted in the audience, together with recorded voices, made the audience literally part of the mass of people gathered for Brutus’ and Anthony’s funeral orations. Mani was an effective Caesar, showing both the courage that made the people adore him, and the insensitivity that made the conspirators fear him. When Caesar says:

“I could be well moved, if I were as you;
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me:
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber'd sparks,
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there's but one in all doth hold his place:
So in the world; 'tis furnish'd well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion: and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this,—
That I was constant Cimber should be banish'd,
And constant do remain to keep him so.”

--we could not help but think of certain of our current leaders and how proud they are of their fixedness of purpose in the face of the fact of their blundering.

Smoots as Brutus showed how difficult it was for him to come to the fatal decision to murder Caesar, which difficulty caused him to make the mistake of insisting on mercy for Marc Anthony. Gotch showed us Cassius’ impatience with the political situation early one, and frustration when things fall apart later. Marc Anthony as played by Daniels was a very naturalistic speaker in the critical funeral oration, which makes the display of his cynical calculation once established as part of the Triumvirate all the more shocking.

There was one thing about the production that I found unsatisfying: the assassination of Caesar, which calls for the conspirators to literally wash their hands in Caesar’s blood, used a sufficiency of stage blood that it had to be mopped up from the floor between scenes. The death of the hapless poet Cinna at the hands of the angry mob featured prosthetic body parts that were “torn” off and brandished about. By contrast, the suicides of Cassius and Brutus were painfully fake looking: inserting a sword’s point half an inch between armor plates causes near instantaneous death? I know these deaths were supposed to be more tragic and dignified than the murders that had gone before, but I think more effort could have gone into adding a bit more realism. But that’s my only quibble. This was an excellent performance, the best I have seen of this tragedy.

“Romeo and Juliet” was rather another thing. Compared with the spare verse of “Caesar”, the rhyming couplets sprinkled through R&J make it out to be a less mature work in a number of ways. The younger members of the cast were given the burden of the work, and I must honestly say I have rarely seen the characters played so well for their appropriate ages. In particular, Shawn Fagan as Romeo played an unrealistic spoiled brat so well that, in the scene where Friar Lawrence brings him the news of his banishment, had I been Friar Lawrence, I would have wanted to have kicked him while he groveled on the ground self-absorbedly sobbing and sniveling. Leah Curney as Juliet delivered her lines as Juliet with a believably teenaged word-pressure gushing out. With the youth of the characters thus pointed up, the enormity of their betrayal by their elders comes to the fore. Juliet’s parents are callous brutes to her at the critical moment; her nurse, who has abetted her secret marriage to Romeo turns out to be no help at all when she is presented with the appalling prospect of a blasphemous second wedding to Paris. And Jonathan Smoots plays Friar Lawrence a much sharper man than the bumbler we frequently see, which points out his moral cowardice: it’s never stated but implied that he would have married Juliet to Paris without daring to reveal that he had already performed the same ceremony with Romeo; and his abandonment of Romeo in Juliet’s tomb at the climax allows the final tragedy to occur.

Darragh Kennan as Mercutio did not display quite the verbal agility one frequently sees in this role, but played the character with a certain fey quality that I quite enjoyed. David Daniel played Tybalt with a menace that let you know he was a dangerous bully. Tracy Michelle Arnold’s Nurse was not the old bawd we sometimes see, but rather a too-worldly woman who nevertheless lets herself get caught up in her charge’s dreams of romance.

Again, not the most affecting performance I have seen: I was able to watch the denoument dry-eyed, but reflecting on the foolishness of it all. Nevertheless, there was much fresh and good in this production.
On July 1st we made the pilgrimage to Spring Green to see American Players Theatre's production of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure." After a long day of decent weather, the climate became unsettled just as the play was starting, and we had a "hold" during the second scene while stormy weather passed nearby. During the break, I retrieved our plastic ponchos from the car which allowed us to ignore the desultory rain that fell on and off during the first half. This made the play a bit more fun for us, in a perverse fashion.

"Measure for Measure" is a comedy in the classical sense, since it has a happy ending, but is not in truth very humorous in plot, and has a distinct moral ambiguity that this production neither shied away from nor emphasised.

The Duke of Vienna, Vincentio (Brian Robert Mani), decides to take a sabbatical. He is concerned that, through lack of will power, he has been lax in enforcing the laws. He has decided to leave running the state in the hands of his deputy, Angelo, who is known for his moral rigidity. (This despite the fact, as we later find, the Duke well knows that Angelo callously abandoned his fiance, Mariana, when her dowry was lost at sea, and slandered her in the so doing.) Vincento then sneaks back into the city disguised as a monk, in order to observe how his social experiment is going.

Meanwhile, Angelo (Jim DeVita) has declared the strict enforcement of all the old laws, including the one against "seduction" (classically "when a male person induced an unmarried female of previously chaste character to engage in an act of sexual intercourse on a promise of marriage.") and pronounces a sentence of death on Claudio, a young nobleman who has impregnated his lover. Claudio gets a message to his chaste sister, Isabella, who is on the verge of taking holy orders, asking her to plead for him in hopes Angelo will be swayed by her purity whereas the pleas of the Duke's more moderate servants ("Escalus," Paul Bentzen; "the Provost", Jonathan Smoots) have had no effect.

Angelo is swayed by Isabella (Colleen Madden), but not in a good way. After a great struggle with his lusts, Angelo declares that he will spare Claudio only if Isabella yields her virginity to him.

Dismayed, Isabella repairs to the prison to tell her brother what has happened, and is even more shocked and appalled when she discovers that he would be willing to let her do it on his behalf.

Enter Vincentio as the monk, acting as Claudio's confessor, who guides them to a plan whereby under cover of darkness Antonio's thwarted fiancee (who loves him despite all) will take Isabella's place.

The ruse goes off, but the promised reprieve does not come: Angelo has determined to let Claudio die, fearing that he might revenge his sister's dishonor at some future time. Vincentio grasps at desperate straws to avert Cludio's death without blowing his cover, finally convincing the kind-hearted Provost to substitute the body of a prisoner who had died of a fever the night before.

This is where it might be argued that the play (or at least the Duke) descends into gratuitous cruelty: Vincentio does not reveal his new plan, but allows Isabella to believe her brother is dead, and coaches her to accuse Angelo when "the Duke" returns, knowing that she will in turn be falsely accused by Angelo of slander, sedition, and mental instability. Vincentio as the Duke then allows his psychodrama to work out until his own part is revealed, at which point he threatens Angelo with the death he would have dealt Claudio, only appearing to relent when both Mariana and Isabella plead for his life. The Duke reveals Claudio and restores him to his sister, asking for Isabella's hand as he does so.

The play has some very modern features: Angelo's "little bit nutty, little bit slutty" smear attack on Isabella is right out of our recent history, as is Angelo's over-tightly wound hypocrite character. And it was ended on a modrn note: Shakespeare does not give Isabella an anwering line to the Duke's proposal, so, instead of being carried off by him, Madden's Isabella coldly walked away, leaving the Duke standing alone on stage as the play ends, which I thought suited the play and her character well.

The standout performances were Madden's, especially in the prison scenes, and De Vita as the self-loathing Angelo. Mani was very much a neutral presence as the Duke, commenting on and manipulating the action, but not seeming very involved in it. The supporting cast were up to usual high standards for APT, with a good comic turn by Kevin Christopher Fox as Lucio, Claudio's rascally friend.

Unusually for APT, I thought the production design to be a bit disjointed. The majority of the cast were costumed like Brechtian Wiemar Berlin characters; the Duke and Escalus like officials of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire; the underworld character Pompey got up in an outfit of lederhosen and derby hat that made the red-bearded actor look like a dissolute leprechaun, and Lucio had an outfit that could only be described as "Halloween disco pimp."
Fortunately, most of this was ignorable, (except when Lucio was on: his acid yellow-green "fur" coat was a visual pain at all times--). The musical background varied from current day "scratching" to snatches of "Mack the Knife."

Note: One may wonder why Shakespeare seems to have it in for constables--although, being an actor and a playwrite, perhjaps 'tis not so wonderous. The character of "Elbow" is a clear brother to the more famous Dogberry, complete with malpropisms and unwonted self-regard.

Very well worth seeing. Ignore the costumes.
On Sunday, August 28, we drove over to Spring Green for a "double header" of plays at American Players Theatre. The matinee was "The Play's the Thing," by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar. Molnár (1878-1952), probably the greatest playwright to come out of Hungary, was celebrated all over the world at the height of his fame in the 1920s and 30s, but is now best remembered in the West for the play - "Liliom" - on which Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel" is based, and for adaptations of his farce "Play at the Castle" adapted as "The Play's the Thing" by P.G. Wodehouse and later again by Tom Stoppard (the latter as "Rough Crossing"). Theatre buffs will also remember Judi Dench, Leo McKern and Edward Woodward in a West End production of "The Wolf"; a National Theatre production of "The Guardsman" with Diana Rigg for Molnár's centenary and a new musical at the Donmar Warehouse last year based on "The Guardsman". In his native Hungary, Molnár has been a neglected figure for years, thanks to the banning of his plays by the communist regime, but a strong revival has sprung from Budapest, his home city. "The Guardsman", starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine in its 1925 American premiere, and "The Swan", was made into a 1956 film with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness. Representative of the style of the Belle-Époque, the “beautiful era” before World War I, his comedies show an attachment to what he termed “a world where nothing is quite as important as knowing what brand of champagne to order".

The plot of "The Play's The Thing" is typically Wodehousian. Two famous playwrights have arrived at a friend's seaside castle to celebrate the completion of their new operetta, with its brilliant score by their new young protege. They intend to surprise his light of love, their leading prima donna, but are themselves surprised and dismayed to overhear her in in the middle of an apparently torrid love scene with an old flame. Since they hear neither the beginning nor the end of the conversation, they do not realize that she intends to remain loyal to her new fiance and is letting her old friend down easily.

The composer swears to tear up the music he has written for her and threatens suicide. The more level-headed of the two playwrights calms him to wait, faced not only with the prospect of a scandal but also of losing the valuable score. While others go to bed, he hatches his plan--to incorporate the unctious dialog they heard into the script of a play, and then coerce the two former lovers into performing it to demonstrate that what was overheard by accident was only a "rehersal."

The idea of Molnar’s 1925 farce came about after he overheard his wife, actress Lilli Darvas, talking of another love interest. The relief which followed his discovery that she was merely rehearsing a new part inspired this delightful comedy. The APT cast performed this very enjoyable show with impeccable comic timing and wonderful farcical expression and mannerisms. Kudos in particular wer due to company veteran Brian Robert Mani, who played the put-upon former lover with fine injured amour-propre as he heroically chews through the deliberatly bathetic and humiliating role he is given in the play within the play. The dialog by Wodehouse is wonderfully witty and well up to the Master's mid-season form.

This "Macbeth" was the second we have seen in recent memory, and showed how much depth and variety of nuance can be derived from Shakespeare's works. The prior production was a robust and musclely show, very much in the classic tradition, with Johnathan Smoots as a fierce and barbaric Macbeth. This version was much more pyschological than some, with much of the supernatural action taking place only visible to the gradually unravelling Macbeth, played by Jim DeVita. (In the scene of the witch's prophecy in the second half, Macbeth DRINKS the hideous potion--enough to cause anyone to see visions.) This "Macbeth" was chilling, although not as thrilling as the prior production in my mind. Subtlety is fine, but some shows call for a bit of over-the-top, and I think "Macbeth" is one of them.



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