Monday
Jul082013

APTs Saucy Maugham Farce Delights the Eye

For this hot and humid 2013 summer season, American Players Theatre revives a saucy British farce by W. Somerset Maugham produced in 1919, Two Many Husbands. Originally titled Home and Beauty, the 1940’s film starring Jean Arthur, Melvyn Douglas and Fred MacMurray billed the movie adaptation under this alternate name, which APT prefers and seems to give additional meaning to Maugham’s script.

The play draws an uncanny humor from post World War I, when fathers, husbands and brothers were reported lost on the front, the war office then naming them missing in action, so their young widows after a year of proper mourning, were eventually free to remarry. Such is the case in Maugham’s less romanticized version of soldiers and home life after the war.

In Maugham’s script, the beautiful, privileged Victoria loses her first husband William at Ypres, dashed in the head from a bullet, and then marries his best friend Frederick, who returns from France for a less dangerous job at an office in London. Three years later after William was determined to have died in the war, he suddenly returns, very much alive, to discover Victoria must choose between her two husbands.

Acting in the role of the slightly shallow although effervescent Victoria, Deborah Staples sashays around the stage admiring her polished nails in lace trimmed satin nightgowns, glittering pink dressing gowns fringed with feathers and a fox fur trimmed suit worthy of haute couture.

These scenes, while indeed visually striking, also allow Staples to give Victoria a sensuous and savvy persona from a worldly point of view. The audience knows who she is and yet adores her for her prodigious charms. As do her two husbands, William and Fredrick, even if marriage to Victoria has proven less fulfilling than they imagined.

Marcus Truschinski suits up in fine military form as Frederick, who laments his Victoria always being right, and mentions at times she can be rather infuriating, similar to the returning William, a buoyant James Ridge. Both husbands, men, are having a difficult time resisting Victoria’s outward assets. However, as the play ambles forward, the three find themselves in an uncomfortable ménage à trois before the situation is sorted out.

Some exceptional cameos add to Maugham’s satirical script on British social class, war heroism and touches on women’s rights. Colleen Madden plays three different women, continually leaving the audience with a memory of her stage presence. Playing Victoria’s mother Mrs. Shuttleworth, Tracy Michelle Arnold takes great joy in instructing and sympathizing with her daughter, all under David Frank’s nuanced direction.

For these characters, Nayna Ramey’s scenic designs portray an off kilter world, elegant and somewhat shifting, while Robert Morgan’s costumes drape Staples and everyone else in garments that are literally “smashing.” The last act plays, almost predates a comic scene from Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, with the two husbands manning domestic life without wait servants.

However, in every satire there are silver linings of truth. Contemporary wives could easily complain as Victoria, “Husbands simply don’t understand what things cost!” In her day, coal for heat, French face cream or household help, in particular cooks; in 2013, dresses, French face cream, shoes.  

APT’s theatrical British eye candy offers delightful humor, with those slivers of truth. Victoria was more of an anomaly in 1919, commandeering her future the best way she could for the time, as her two husbands hope to escape the “habit” of marriage with scant remorse. Staples honestly plays Victoria as a stronger woman than she appears, who realizes what she wants, and has no trouble in the final scenes deciding what to choose for her life.

Perhaps some of these sentiments can be understandable after a devastating war, eminently relevant in 2013 with the continual controversy on what marriage means in the recent news. Especially when Victoria utters the line in the first act: “Who wants to be understood? I don't want to be understood. I just want to be loved.”

Experiencing a personal life that included a traumatic childhood, Maugham was orphaned at ten, and later raised by an uncle who forced him into studying medicine. After publishing his first novel, he eventually renounced the profession for his enormously successful writing career. Exhibiting an unpopular and fluid sexuality, Maugham divorced his wife in 1929 after a daughter was born, and went on to have men partners throughout his long life.

Maugham could certainly understand what wanting to be loved might look like amid the often arbitrary social conventions of Victorian British life. APT's audience will leave smiling, appreciating the sophisticated production, admiring the accomplished yet gorgeous Staples and pondering Maugham’s farce with fresh perspectives.

American Players Theatre presents W. Somersets Maugham's Two Many Husbands throughout the 2013 season. For informaitons, performance times and tickets, please call 608.588.2361 or click the APT link to the left.             by Peggy Sue Dunigan  

 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Jul032013

The Humanity of APT’s Hamlet

American Players Theatre opened William Shakespeare’s often-produced Hamlet despite Spring Green’s stormy weather at the Up the Hill Theatre this June. A short lived downpour only detained instead of deterred Director John Langs’ masterfully realized performance of this timeless drama opening night for a must see evening at APT.

As acclaimed Langs details in the APT playbill notes, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, above all, merely acts human. Matt Schwader’s nuanced and riveting performance engages the audience because his grief and desire to avenge his father’s death trigger his ever-increasing descent into a horrifying personal chaos instead of an incoherent madness often depicted in other versions.

Hamlet’s chaos almost mirrors that of the woman he supposedly loves, Ophelia. When Ophelia learns her father is ultimately dead, murdered by accident instead of premeditated as Hamlet’s father was, she, too experiences a descent into that break from lucid reality. Langs moves the audience by having Cristina Panfilio’s heart wrenching Ophelia lyrically chant, almost sing, her lines after her father Polonius’ death directly before her drowning.

The audience then views these two characters that might have been achingly in love, married, except for these incomprehensible losses that render Hamlet and Ophelia unable to cope any longer in their royal worlds. Their grief, and then Hamlet’s promise to his father’s ghost that he will redeem the crown of Denmark, motivates the horrific actions preceded by Shakespeare’s eloquent writing of these characters’ musings. .

These musings, including Hamlet's renowned soliloquies, or Hamlet’s words with Ophelia before her father’s murder, acquire heightened meaning on a bare bones stage designed by Takeshi Kata and Andrew Boyce. The scenery appears ancient, yet neo monolithic while magically transforming into the court, a tomb or lush terrain through Lighting Designer Michael A.Peterson’s effects. At a late night hour, the changing lights create larger than life silhouettes of the characters, especially Hamlet and Ophelia, on the set’s backdrop to make their shadows a monumental replica of the actors, and consequently, their emotions.

Staples’ sensual Gertrude played to James DeVita’s at first humorous, powerful Claudius also generates palpable sexual tension. Afterwards, when his crime is discovered, DeVita bemoans his deeds, his desire for ambition, power and love, all equal in his motivation to commit the murder. On his knees, a distraught Claudius humbly asks for forgiveness in repentance while still longing for the ample kisses of the beautiful Gertrude that are generously given on the stage. 

Throughout the performance, Designer Alejo Vietti’s elegant, understated costumes combine lustrous, modern materials into period garments simplified, yet shining, lightweight instead of laden with heavy ornamentation. This concept allows Shakespeare’s characters and their words to illuminate the stage. There are fewer costume changes except for Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, where Staples wears gorgeous gowns the audience can view closely when sitting on the center right aisle of the theater. 

Players also parade up and down theatre's center aisle steps in another vivid scene that will resonate in memory for years, when the actors descend for the burial of the drowned Ophelia. Langs’ cast carries Panfilio on a flat bier hoisted by ropes that are then literally released into “the ground” below stage level to recreate an actual grave site, and the audience grieves in reverence. 

Before this, tiny details such as Ophelia carrying rocks instead of the usual herbs and flowers in one scene directly before her death, when Panfilio crosses her bosom with every rock, placing them next to her kneeling body, breaks the audience’s heart. Tender father-daughter scenes in the first act previous to Ophelia’s lamentations sets up this sorrowful humanity unraveling on stage, a foreshadowing for all Shakespeare’s characters in the script. As the three-hour plus tragedy draws to a close with a compelling duel of swords and words, a deeply moving Laertes, Ophelia’s brother played by Eric Parks, and Hamlet also grieve their multiple losses and seek forgiveness from each other before their last breaths. 

The combination of these theatrical elements, carefully crafted by gifted APT actors that Langs wills into these magnetic performances, including the supporting cast completed by the Milwaukee Rep's long time actor James Pickering, make APT’s Hamlet more than memorable. This play moves quickly under an eventually star-studded night sky, focusing on the magnificent human drama, inevitably fallible characters. Which ultimately mesmerizes the audience into believing neither Hamlet or Ophelia were actually mad, only stricken with unbearable and uncontrollable grief that spirals into multiple losses with tragic results. An evening of human complications where these storied emotions were strewn over the stage and the theatre into a marvelous production. And then enlightens the audience to what can and could happen while attempting to accept the joys or sorrows that accompany the struggles during any one lifetime. 

American Players Theatre present William Shakepeare’s Hamlet at Up the Hill Theatre throughout the 2013 season, so please check the website for schedules, special events and ticket information by clicking the link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan

Tuesday
Aug212012

A COURAGEOUS TROILUS & CRESSIDA ON STAGE AT APT

William Shakespeare’s The History of Troilus and Cressida presents a grim picture of war and the world in which it prevails, while the Trojans and Greeks wage untold battles over the exquisite Queen Helen for seven years. At Spring Green’s Up the Hill Theatre last weekend, American Players Theatre premiered a Troilus & Cressida that chilled the audience as much as the Spring Green night air on an August evening.

A play written or performed somewhere between 1600 and 1610, this Shakespeare evening requires a focused audience for the emotionally and intellectually demanding performance. APT stages a dauntless production because of the brutal battle scenes, numerous cast members and lengthy running time, over three hours with intermission. However, for those who attend the performance, the outdoor experience pays magnificent dividends to appreciate the rarely performed play.

The original story culled from history and several outside sources, including perhaps the scripts from the great Greek tragedian Euripides, uncovers the uncouth humanity in gods, goddesses, and the supposed divinity assigned to kings, rulers and war lords. Shakespeare follows the lead in his play that defies a specific genre, with aspects of comedy, history and tragedy that adds a dose of satire to his script when it scrutinizes these famous personas that history admired although were certainly flawed.    

Director William Brown mines the humor in APT’s production, expertly generated in the first act with resident actor James DeVita. He navigates the rough territory as Pandarus, an uncle and Trojan protector of his niece, Cressida. His aging character given little power, Pandarus uses only his clever words and less than heroic deeds to make life right where wrong lies. DeVita proves this when he sings Shakespeare’s very comic/tragic love song: “Love, love nothing but love, still love, still more, “ and eventually convinces a handsome Nate Burger as Prince Troilus to woo Laura Rock appearing as an ambivalent, handsome Cressida. 

Contrast that with Thersites, a superb portrayal of the pitiful Greek acted by La Shawn Banks, who rails that “there’s nothing but war and lechery....to confound all….and love is death, swooning destruction.” His comments spread with spite when Cressida is traded to the Greeks for an important Trojan warrior. Now separated from Troilus, Cressida cavorts with Travis A. Knight’s sexually persuasive Diomedes, to the Prince’s distress.   

The war begins again all for the sake of Helen, who remains in the Trojan Camp, and this feminine/masculine trade only restarts the battle after a false truce. Oaths and vows now break, where words mean little to the deeds eventually done. Words spoken by Achilles, Agamemnon, Ajax, Hector, Paris, Ulysses, Troilus and Cressida, and other god-like persons, played by an superb supporting cast, display there ever despicable personal characteristics that crack through their respectable lives.   

Kevin Asselin’s realistic fight choreography invokes the audience to cringe when swords fly. Rachel Anne Healy’s elegant costume designs, diaphanous gowns ornamented in metallic gilt, meld seamlessly with technical skills from associated lighting, music and sound designers. APT stages a commanding play that dominates an evening as the actors travel the theatre aisles during the performance while the audience watches fitfully.    

In the hours after the performance feeling both discouraged and enthralled, one questions the reasons to why and when do wars attain honor and glory, to justify the resultant destruction? As the curse of Shakespeare’s Pandarus repeats in his epilogue, Shakespeare ponders the perverse in his play to make the audience review war’s consequences and the human condition that lay waste in the aftermath. An exceptional, yet uneasy story APT courageously delivers to their audience.

American Players Theatre presents Troilus & Cressida at the Up the Hill Theatre through October. Please consider dressing appropriately warm for these evenings, a pleasure outdoors under the stars. For further information and tickets, please call 608.588.2361 or click the link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Aug212012

ANNE HATHAWAY’S MODERN SONNET TO SHAKESPEARE AND THE SEA

Canadian born playwright Vern Thiessen wrote Shakespeare’s Will in 2005 when commissioned for the River City Shakespeare Festival by Free Will Players and then Stratford Shakespeare Festival restaged the play in 2011. In the American Players Theatre 2012 season at the Touchstone Theatre, the company opened the poetic monodrama on an August weekend when Tracy Michelle Arnold embodied Thiessen's vision of Shakespeare’s wife, the little known Anne Hathaway.

The play ebbs and flows similar to the sea that becomes a theme for Hathaway’s life. Thiessen’s fictional retelling devised from only nine known facts begins when Anne comes home from burying Shakespeare in 1616 after her husband has spent years away from Stratford upon Avon and their three children, Susanna, and the twins Hamnet and Judith. Shakespeare stayed in London becoming a celebrated player and playwright, sending shillings to Anne for furniture to fill a new house and servants.

After Shakespeare’s funeral, Anne must deal with his unlovable sister Joan and read Shakespeare’s will: his last testament and final words, words that had so profoundly influenced Anne’s life since they met at a fair when Will was 18, Anne, 26. In their chance encounter as lovers before her pregnancy preceded a hasty marriage.

Arnold embraces this very provocative Anne with agility, dignity, and nuanced performance. Often maneuvering a watery blue scarf to underscore images of rolling waves and serpentine shorelines. Or gracefully arranging the skeletal wood bed frame on center stage as the primary prop for the scenes in her life. This controversial four-poster marriage bed focuses the ambivalence in Hathaway's life. For Will deserted it, took to other beds with men and women, as did Anne with her other lovers, and on it they recited personal wedding vows where they pledged to an unusual marriage: To live their own lives, have separate desires and hold secrets, which they both do for better or worse that runs the course of the years Hathaway reminisces.   

These secret vows open another door to numerous speculations on the playwright’s intentions: Does Theissen’s script speak to necessary changes needed in marriage from a contemporary viewpoint, especially regarding same-sex marriage? Does it speak to women’s desire for physical fulfillment normally overlooked in past centuries? Does it question the male-based lineage in a patriarchal society that values men over women and needs to be changed? 

When Anne and Will’s only son Hamnet drowns in the sea (also an unknown fact), Thiessen suggests Will never forgave Anne for this tragedy. Yet, it was Will who tragically remained distant when playing and working in London, although the couple’s unique marriage vows allowed for his preferences. And as an interesting note to the conclusion, when Anne actually reads Shakespeare’s will, the historical facts uncover that as Will’s wife, Anne would have been legally entitled to one third of Shakespeare’s estate without him specifically stating this in his own words. 

APT’S production by premier actor Arnold could be thought of as an elusive performance of a sonnet with various interpretations and multi-layered meanings to readdress the title. What exactly can be named as Shakespeare’s “wiil?” A romanticized, seamless 95 minutes of dance, lyrics and song APT audiences will applaud because opening night warranted a standing ovation. And afterwards muse over the play in reflection as one does poetry. In her debut, Brenda DeVita beautifully directs APT’s Shakespeare’s Will. A stunning visual evening that attempts to shed a glimmer of light on one women’s life and the Hathaway that happened to be the wife cast in this playwright’s personal drama.

American Players Theatre presents Shakespeares' Will at the Touchstone Theatre through October. For further information, performance times and tickets, please call: 608.588.2361 or click the link to the left.                 by Peggy Sue Dunigan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Aug142012

J.M. BARRIE DREAMS OF AN “ADMIRABLE” AND ENCHANTING ISLAND AT APT

Author and playwright J.M. Barrie will be best remembered for writing Peter Pan rather than The Admirable Crichton, the new American Players Theatre production that opened at the Up the Hill Theatre on a cool August Saturday night. Barrie’s earlier composed play The Admirable Crichton unleashed a hilarious, dreamlike atmosphere when the downstairs butler Crichton upended the upstairs British aristocracy while stranded on an isolated pacific island.

At first glance the stage, enhanced only by several pieces of wicker furniture, sets the scene for three sisters (Lady Agatha, Lady Catherine and Lady Mary) dressed in frothy, summer white gowns to discuss a sea sojourn with their Uncle Lord Loam and the Honorable Ernest Wooley. A three-month excursion on their Uncle’s yacht will test their mettle by depriving them of many Victorian luxuries attributed to their idle upper class. Where if the heavens fall into the sea, the three sisters will need to share only one lady’s maid!

The idea shakes the propriety of the servants and sisters alike, and needless to say, the dutiful butler Crichton and one scullery maid Tweeny accompany Lord Loam, a narcissistic Earnest and the three sisters together with Reverend Treherne on the yacht. Only to find themselves shipwrecked without any frivolities or pleasures, especially hairpins that could be used for needles, although this disparate group finds themselves grateful to be alive. 

Crichton and Tweeny, who were productive in London, lead the clueless upper class to where a new “natural order” will be established on the tiny island. Crichton transforms, as does the entire crew, when settled into these tropical set designs envisioned by Scenic Desginer Michael Ganio and lifted from images by primitive painter Henri Rousseau. An artist that believed his “jungle scenes and strange plants came from exotic dreams.” 

Exotic dreams eventually unfold on the island when Crichton ascends to Lord and Master over everyone. APT Director Kenneth Albers challenges an all star cast where the incomparable James Ridge inhabits the admirable, ingenious Crichton, contrasted by Steve Haggard’s cheeky, yet likeable Wooley. Colleen Madden endears the audience with her good hearted, soulful Tweeny. A Tweeny who could supposedly be the perfect matrimonial match that complements Crichton’s natural order in London, Wooley’s on the island. 

However, Susan Shunk’s Lady Mary steps into the scariest sojourn of all and renames herself Polly. The attractive, petite Shunk chases eight point dear, skims over island streams and serves her new master Crichton with equally unbound dreams and love. She exclaims with awe, “I feel so alive.” 

When a rescue ship arrives two years later the island dream abruptly ends, much to the chagrin of Crichton, Lord Loam and the Lady Mary. The newly evolved Wooley rejoices and afterwards authors a completely unnatural version of the sextet's captivity. 

While sitting in the revised London garden amid Rousseau’s wild foliage surrounding them instead of their tightly trimmed topiaries, Lord Loam and Lady Mary reminisce. Mary uncomfortable in her floor length red dress and proper British manners. Loam's eyes find a wistful Mary and he reflects, “We were happy there, weren’t we?”

Perhaps Barrie intended each audience member to question what they dream about, what makes them “happy” or fulfilled. What present actions determine true service and how does this affect the natural order? Perhaps the Victorian aristocracy was more satisfied self-sufficient and unbound on a primitive island than pampered and caged in their neatly groomed garden. 

Barrie’s narration (performed by David Frank)  to the play and delightful humor deliver more than a satire on social class, which transfers to the contemporary world. Even in 2012, someone, some ethnicity or persons need to be "downstairs" to make another human being feel superior. When walking down that long hill from the theater after a dream like evening under the stars, perhaps consider what unbound to the status quo might mean. Allow APT’s enchanting The Admirable Crichton to unleash a personal dream and define how to feel incredibly alive. 

American Players Theatre presents J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton at the Up the Hill Theatre in Spring Green through September. For further information and a performance schedule please call: 608.588.2361 or click the link to the left.                      by Peggy Sue Dunigan