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American Players Theatre, world-class theater in Wisconsin
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2018-08-01

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Spring Green, Wisconsin—American Players Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary next year. It's among North America's best destination theaters, set in the truly bucolic rolling hills of southeast Wisconsin, and it's an easy three-and-a-half-hour drive away. Even so, American Players Theatre remains undiscovered by many astute Chicago theatergoers who boast about visiting Canada's Stratford and Shaw festivals. I'm here to tell you folks: Go ( relatively ) local!

Located 40 miles due west of Madison, American Players Theatre ( APT ) is set on a hill near the south bank of the Wisconsin River, about one mile from Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Taliesin estate and artists' colony. You'll keep company with wild turkey, deer, chipmunks, hummingbirds and maybe a genuine Wisconsin badger. ( I spotted one recently. )

Spring Green itself is two miles away across the river. With fewer than 2,000 inhabitants, it still has true small-town charm unlike the too-crowded bustle of Stratford or the picture-postcard look of Niagara-on-the-Lake ( home, respectively, to the Stratford and Shaw festivals ). Downtown Spring Green has no parking meters and only one stoplight, but it does have several farm-to-table restaurants, a first-class bookstore ( Arcadia ), a couple of decent bar-and-grill joints ( The Shed, Freddy Valentine's ) and two old-fashioned general merchandise stores ( Nina's and Spring Green General Store ).

The 2018 APT season offers nine productions in rotating repertory, presented in the 1,089-seat outdoor Up-the-Hill Theatre and the indoor, air-conditioned, 201-seat Touchstone Theatre ( where performances continue through mid-November ). Matinees are only on weekends ( Friday-Sunday ), so visitors have days free to check out the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture; enjoy the wide, shallow and warm Wisconsin River ( canoe, tube, fish and/or swim ); or visit local artists and artisans or nearby Tower Hill State Park.

APT has a resident core company of 13 actors, some of whom have been with APT for over 20 years. Other actors are brought in each season, as well as guest directors, designers, composers, etc., although many have returned to APT time and time again. Several core company actors have worked in Chicago during the winter, while Chicago directors and designers frequently are found at APT ( among them, designers Kevin Depinet and Jesse Klug and composers Joe Cerqua, Victoria DeIorio and Andrew Hansen ).

Outdoors at the Up-the-Hill Theatre

James Bohnen, founder of Chicago's Remy Bumppo Theatre and owner of Spring Green's Arcadia Books, has directed a sparkling As You Like It ( through Oct. 7 ) which breaths fresh energy—especially comic energy—into the familiar classic and features a female Jaques. ( "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." ) The stage is open at the back so the real Wisconsin woods represent the play's Arden Forest locale. Bohnen sets it in the 1870s, a good excuse for gorgeous patterned costumes featuring buttons, bows and bustles, and for elaborate hair pieces and moustaches.

Another Chicago director, William Brown, has conquered George Farquhar's 18th-century comedy, The Recruiting Officer ( through Sept. 29 ), a witty take on social and sexual mores of the early 1700s, and once the most popular play in the English language. Like the play itself, Brown's production is thoughtful and robust, although the women seem far worthier than the men. At least the hero, Captain Plume ( Nathan Burger, who will be at Writers Theatre in the fall ), proves to be less a bounder than he pretends to be. This production, too, is handsome and elaborate in its costumes and props.

APT artistic director Brenda DeVita has staged Garson Kanin's familiar 1946 Born Yesterday ( through Sept. 22 ), a political comedy that's liberal and democratic in a general sort-of way. But who'd a thunk it still would have immediate relevance? Up in Wisconsin—the red state that handed Trump his Presidency—the audience burst into spontaneous applause at two lines: "Sometimes selfishness gets to be an organized force, even a government, and then it's called fascism," followed moments later by "A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in." Theater still engages people and triggers reactions. No wonder authoritarian governments fear it . . . and Trump knows he's not welcome at the annual Kennedy Center Honors for the performing arts. You'll enjoy Colleen Madden's dumb-blonde Billie Dawn.

Indoors at the Touchstone Theatre

Chicago-based director Ron OJ Parsons has staged Athol Fugard's 1961 drama, Blood Knot, ( through Sept. 28 ). This very powerful two-man play concerns Black half-brothers in South Africa at the height of apartheid—with one brother light-skinned enough to pass for white. They live together in a shack in a Black township. Traditionally, the light-skinned brother has been played by a white actor ( Fugard himself originated the role ), and so it is at APT, with Jim DeVita and Gavin Lawrence providing tour-de-force performances, filled with nuance, humor, rivalry and intense caring. It makes clear the social disaster, injustice and human pain of Apartheid although it isn't specifically about that terrible system.

Finally, I saw an extremely engaging production of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist comedy Exit the King,( through Sept. 27 ) about a long-reigning monarch who confronts his imminent death with denial, hubris and half-madness. Veteran core company actor James Ridge is agile, feral, peremptory, absurd and—ultimately—all too aware of his impending farewell in a dazzling acting display, capably supported by a wry and dry cast. Tim Ocel directed.

Spring Green offers accommodations at several motels ( Spring Valley Inn is the best ), country B&Bs and one full-service resort, the House on the Rock Resort. It's pricier than other accommodations ( although reasonable by big city standards ) but sports a gorgeous, undulating 27-hole golf course, outdoor and indoor pools, tennis courts, racquetball, a good fitness center, free parking and enormous two-room suites ( some with extra sofa beds ) with views. A free shuttle takes guests on the five-minute drive to/from APT.

Warnings: Wisconsin nights can be chilly ( bring a jacket/sweatshirt ) and the woods have mosquitoes, for which APT supplies complimentary bug spray. Also: AT&T mobile doesn't work in Spring Green.

Upcoming productions include George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House ( Aug. 3-Oct. 5 ), Measure for Measure ( Aug. 10-Oct. 6 ), Our Country's Good ( Aug. 15- Oct. 7 ) and Engaging Shaw ( Oct. 25-Nov. 18 ) . For more information, go to AmericanPlayers.org .


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