English history presents King Richard III from a different perspective then William Shakespeare’s famous dramatic tragedy, Richard III. Yet, Shakespeare’s vision remains firmly fixed in the audience’s mind. American Players Theatre portrays a very cunning, very intelligent and minimally disfigured Richard, Duke of Gloucester, much to Director James DaVita’s astute credit. By allowing the masterful actor James Ridge to contain the Duke’s withered arm to a metal splint, courtesy of Rachel Anne Healy’s elegant Edwardian costumes from the turn of  20th century, Richard’s evil murders and ascent to the throne consumes and thrills the audience on APT’s  stage. 

Scenic Designer Takeshi Kata underscores Richard’s regally debased political deceit with a set built similar to a silver steel fortress. A sophisticated design tinged in metallic gold around the edges appears to block out any goodness or mercy that could enter into the Duke’s bloody plans to become King. Kata’s sets also grant access to the audience, and the APT cast freely moves through the theater aisles, whether in a courtly procession or storming the battle scene at Bosworth Field. 

That battle scene delivers Richard’s famous line, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” and determines his death because his horse by one account was supposedly trapped in a nearby stream and left Richard unable to escape. Shakespeare alludes that Richard was trapped by his conscience, the guilt from his murderous ways, and the ghosts from his past. He’s the last English King killed on the battlefield, and the Tudors eventually forge peace by uniting the Red and White Rose lineage. Fight Director Kevin Asselin strategically assaults the stage with convincing combat scenes that send shivers through the audience’s spines. Afterwards they welcome peace when Richmond, a sublime Travis A. Knight, confirms the treaty by marriage to the young Elizabeth when reading the final lines.  

More revealing than Richard’s most well-known line is one from a previous scene, where Richard dreams of horrors ahead before the fateful battle and admits: “Richard loves Richard.” This narcissism ruins Richard from beginning to end. Ridge fully evolves from that deliriously power hungry Duke of Gloucester bent on murdering anyone in his path to this delusional English King racked with guilt. For all the multiple murders Shakespeare attributes to Richard and plague him in his dreams, which APT stages to ominous effect. 

Ridge gives Richard psychological depth, devilish desire and an acerbic wit that adds additional layers to Shakespeare’s story and provides the perfect contrast to DeVita’s four strong queens, equally imposing. Women who lament their lost husbands and sons, many killed at Richard’s hands, and curse him. Tracy Michelle Arnold’s powerful Margaret of Anjou leads the performance with her wrathful prophecy. Colleen Madden’s Queen Elizabeth, Sarah Day’s Duchess of York (Richard’s mother), and Melissa Graves’s Lady Anne that eventually becomes Richard’s Queen speak sorrowful counterpoints to Richard’s destruction and the men under his command at court. Grief arises from every corner on stage, especially London’s prison tower, despite any efforts to dismantle Richard’s treachery. 

While APT’s alternate Up The Hill Theatre selections provide comedy and romance, this stunning Richard III confronts humanity’s obsession with power at all costs. In this election year facing a polarized constituency, placed against world economic woes, Shakespeare’s multiple plot points could be considered carefully. Who can the public or anyone trust even when one thinks they are catering to who’s ultimately in political control?  While Richard III presents tragic consequences to this moral conundrum, APT’s extraordinary 2012 production dramatically proves lasting peace often comes at excessively high costs.

American Players Theatre presents William Shakespeare's Richard III directed by James DeVita through September. For further information and tickets please call: 608.588.7401 or click the APT link to the left   by Peggy Sue Dunigan





“Would you have a love song? Or a song of good life?” Feste, Olivia's fool in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night asks the melancholy Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. They decisively answer, "A love song."  

And so American Players Theatre composes an exotic love song at their Up the Hill Theatre for the 2012 season. Their stellar Twelfth Night unfolds before the audience similar to romantic folktales from Eastern Europe. Splendor and courtly beauty embody each costume, each actor’s gesture and Sarah Pickett’s huanting music that hypnotizes the audience with its mystical melodies throughout the performance.

Director David Frank sets Shakespeare's Illyria on the Adriatic Coast where Duke Orsino resembles a handsome gypsy king out of his regal clothes, a dark, charismatic Marcus Truschinski. The object of the Duke’s affection is Susan Shunk’s exquisite Olivia, draped in a diaphanous veil over a gorgeous ebony gown that combines Elizabethan formality with Byzantine influences to give the story a surreal touch.  

Olivia’s cousin, the larger than life Sir Toby Belch, steals many a scene when played by the marvelous Brian Mani. Who humorously orchestrates Shakespeare’s more bawdy action and rhyme to almost perfection, especially when courting Olivia’s lovely waiting gentlewoman, Maria, a quick-witted Greta Wolhrabe.

All Shakespeare’s various love songs strike a different chord. That begins when twins Viola and Sebastian were thrown upon Illyria’s shores in a shipwreck by a great tempest. Each sibling assumes the other has perished. And so hiding her sorrow, Viola becomes Cesario, a manservant to Duke Orsino and immediately falls in love with him. While Orsino orders that Cesario would plead his case for the mourning Olivia, Olivia unabashedly gives up 1000 sighs to woo the “man” she loves, the disguised Viola. Often mistaken for his new twin "brother," Sebastian comes to life in Samuel Ashdown and falls head over heals for Olivia, to make her false dreams with Viola into manly reality.   

This gender confusion in Twelfth Night bears a theatrical burden on Viola, who needs to court the audience into believing her masculine persona. The dleicate Christina Panfilio asserts herself with assurance and passion in her performance while adeptly disguising her longing for Orsino, her brother’s hoped for safety, and a fortuitous life that returns her to feminine dresses or “maiden’s weeds.”.

Olivia’s steward Malvolio also shares this longing when he’s tricked into believing Olivia wishes for his love. Played to the edges of comic exaggeration by La Shawn Banks, Banks won applause from an appreciative audience several times during the evening. As did many cast members during the three hour performance, pure pleasure on any star studded night in Spring Green. APT retells Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with clarity while recalling all the sophisticated wit that struts and sings “If music be the food of love, play on.”

Robert Morgan’s costume and scenic design transform the production into that miraculous journey, like an imagined magic carpet ride, where love’s frailties expose the dreams of human hearts into heavenly desires. APT’S magnificent cast captures this enchanting spirit allowing Shakespeare to be modern and meaningful in this poetic setting. Be enthralled with APT’s Twelfth Night, a brilliant theatrical evening to admire and treasure. 

American Players Theatre presents William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night directed by David Frank throughout their 2012 season at the Spring Green Up the Hill Amphitheater. For further information, schedules of performances and tickets, please click the APT Plays in the Woods link to the left or call: 608.588.2361       by Peggy Sue Dunigan






American Players Theatre stages a lavish revival in their Up the Hill Amphitheater of Edna Ferber’s and George S. Kaufman’s The Royal Family. Written in the late 1920’s, the production might appear grand. comedic “fluff” in this century, even though a 1975 revival won a Drama Desk Award for Best Revival of a Play. Director Laura Gordon delivers the dramatic undertones in this script with three strong women characters that symbolize not only a matriarchal lineage, but also a connection to contemporary women and their career dilemmas. Dilemmas that might elude the audience amid this delightfully crazy family, a humorous parody to the acting legacy left behind by the real life Barrymores. 

Actor Sarah Day rules as Fanny Cavendish, a fading stage star that denies the demise of her career because of of physical ills. Her understudy to the family legacy, daughter Julie comes to life in Tracy Michelle Arnold, the middle layer in this “sandwich” generation. Trying to decide if she needs to care for an ailing mother or be the acting coach for her own daughter Gwen, a sassy Ally Carey. Underneath all these comical antics with the men surrounding their lives, it’s these three women who have held the family bonds together. And together they wonder if there’s any meaning to the celebrity they’ve achieved, or might be trying to achieve for the future. How much do they need to sacrifice for the family profession, the theater? After all, Gwen pouts, “When it’s all over, name me two 17th century stockbrokers you remember.” 

There’s truth in Gwen’s words, celebrity breeds continual adulation, perhaps a place in history. A truth illustrated by Anthony Cavendish, their black sheep brother constantly in the media spotlight and asking for money. His petulant, self-absorbed temperament consistently breaks his movie contracts or carouses with women off screen in true celebrity style. Marcus Truschinski throws himself into this role with devilish delight, a master at the royal family's overly indulged actor and son. 

The family’s long-term manager Oscar Wolfe played by a warm David Daniel puts this into modern perspective when he admits to Fanny that she was a one of kind. No stage diva who asked for outlandish requests before signing to do a show or when appearing on stage. What has the 20th century wrought with the Kardashians and Britney Spears? Would Tony Cavendish or any of these women exist without society’s craving for celebrity? 

Gordon deftly delves into these timely issues, when her characters ask the tough questions with nuanced, serious performances that linger on these moments and their elusive answers. Is a celebrity’s life worth the sacrifices? What does Gwen want…marriage and a baby or a life on the stage? Can she have both and do them well? Neither Julie or Gwen will be completely satisfied, because a dependable life symbolized by their rich, business minded fiancés might leave them wanting for the excitement of the stage. Any woman might question these choices necessary to make in life, or debate when does she need to care for a parent or child instead of her own career: Either on the stage or in any 21st century career?  

Or perhaps ask these questions about the present day Drew Barrymore, who mid-thirties and after two dissolved marriages weds the financial wizard Will dressed in a Chanel designer gown, already pregnant with their first child. Is marriage only an incident instead of a career as Fanny claims? In an oddly prophetic take, what has Drew suffered for this celebrity legacy and her late attempt at personal contentment, life alongside a “dependable” husband? 

Appreciate and adore APT’s elegant The Royal Family, a performance full of laughter that underscores all women's hard won decisions. Decisions still considered relevant that will add dimension to the celebrity comedy of this entertaining production filled with great supporting performances. Gordon’s Director Notes in the playbill admit she has gratefully chosen a theatrical life and marriage, a decision her audiences applaud. APT’s royal Cavendish family portrays those heartfelt if ambivalent relationships between three generations of women, grandmother, mother and daughter. Women who care for themselves and each other, together with the reliable men they might love to piece together a wonderful if eccentric life from the remnants of their choices.  

American Players Theatre presents The Royal Family directed by The Rep's Laura Gordon through September at the Up the Hill Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. For further information, please click the APT Plays in the Woods link to the left or call: 608.588.2361  by Peggy Sue Dunigan







An old story first told in 1906, O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi  follows on the pages of an ancient story: Three kings bearing gifts after sighting a star that hovers over a humble manger in Bethlehem. Either story continually refreshes the soul in this century because the words speak gratitude and love instead of dissent and isolation. 

The accomplished James DeVita’s adaptation of the short story The Gift of the Magi begins on the Touchstone Theatre Stage at American Players Theatre  (APT) with these thoughts in mind. The cast’s initial moments and memories envision holidays overflowing with presents, sweets and toys. Yet, James and Della Dillingham Young struggle in 1908 with Jim’s reduced pay similar to many individual’s circumstances this very year. How does one survive when you’re “one in a million, living on New York’s streets” in a three stair tenement apartment in the center of Clothesline Alley?” 

In APT's perfect casting, the sophisticated Brian Mani acting as O. Henry narrates the powerful tale through multiple roles accompanied by 24 original melodies. Josh Schmidt (At Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera Theatre this spring for a performance of his The Adding Machine) composed the haunting score together with the lyrics alongside DeVita. Their rhythmic book and measures ring from Nick Ertinger’s violin and  Eric Miller’s cello. On stage for the entire performance, these musicians' strings evoke those in the heart. The “sobs, sniffles and smiles” that O. Henry speaks about in Della’s life. 

Tracy Michelle Arnold plays opposite her real life husband Marcus Truschinski in Della and Jim’s rich tale that devotedly unwraps their gratitude for each other instead of expensive presents. With the production’s added compositions and streamlined revisions, the evening reveals a treasure in music, song and storytelling perhaps reflecting the three gifts brought by those earthly kings from afar when following the star. A surprising regal production arises from this dedicated humility portrayed on the Touchstone stage while the five cast members eloquently capture the two old stories that persuasively offers the audience the most luxurious gift of all.

APT’s The Gift of the Magi appreciates the eternal truth to every holiday season. That gratitude for those who appear in one’s life can be more essential than any purchased package. O. Henry believes love without lavish possessions, despite the monetary value one tries to attach to the emotion, can never be wasted, at the holidays in December or into the New Year. May those in the audience make the APT's seasonal production a tradition to attend with those they dearly cherish. These Magi’s gifts, along with those of Della’s and Jim’s, remind the audiences to love one another wastefully, whatever the cost to the heart. Genuine love and concern for others might be the wisest investment for all.  

American Players Theatre presents The Gift of the Magi based on the classic story by O. Henry through December 18. The drive to Spring Green can be serenely beautiful, a restful afternoon before enjoying this timeless theater treasure. For information or tickets call: 608.588.2361 or click the link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan 


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