Entries in Touchstone Theatre (4)


APT’s Elegant and Sparse Anthony and Cleopatra

The Touchstone Theatre at Spring Green’s American Players Theatre inspires the legendary company to take dramatic risks. Staging William Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra by incorporating a mere seven characters that act the story within three hours embodies a small miracle on opening weekend. With certainty, APT’s Anthony and Cleopatra: An Adaption relies on the assured genius of Kate Buckley, Director, and James DeVita, actor as Mark Anthony, who collaboratively adapted this production to an ephemeral essence of the play’s politics and romance.

An experienced APT cast illuminates the production further, including debuting company member Abbey Siegworth playing Cleopatra’s singular maid of honour Charmian in lieu of Colleen Madden who suffered a family emergency. Somehow the shortened version cystallizes the contemporary aesthetics in the historically based romance performed in the intimacy of the air-conditioned Touchstone.

For those theatre-goers less familiar with ancient history, Shakespeare had originally toyed with all the absolute facts surrounding these characters taken from Roman antiquity. However, the two main male characters, Mark Anthony and Octavius Caesar ruled Rome in a triumviri with another royal. Cleopatra led Egyptian culture from a cosmopolitan Alexandria, as one of the most intriguing feminine leaders the world has known.

Literally, hundreds of writers in every discipline have discussed the philosophical, political, racial and romantic underpinnings to the Shakespearean script since the first production in 1608. Myths surrounding Cleopatra and Mark Anthony also recall the subsequent stereotypes and various interpretations that have been embraced and known by audiences in 2013.

Perhaps the APT adaptation strips away some of these stereotypes when staging the production in the Art Deco period, complete with 1930’s costumes designed by Robert Morgan, a stark set by Nathan Stuber and a chimerical lighting backdrop by Noelle Stollmack. The serene and sophisticated nature of the technical elements transcends an audience’s previous inclinations towards the famous or infamous couple and the resulting iconic films to look at the production, the performance, the meaning with fresh eyes.

Cleopatra was an enigmatic woman, sensual and savvy, a powerful seducer in both the political and romantic realms, an intelligent, feminine force to be reckoned with.  A queen Tracy Michelle Arnold inhabits by dressing in luxurious satin garments worthy of an exotic Erté illustration. Her costumes envision ambition, leadership, royalty and sexuality, a complex set of qualities for any woman and actress Arnold carries with ease.

Her romantic paramour Marc Anthony comes to the stage in DeVita, black bearded and headed, with a lust for power and Cleopatra’s passion, which conflicts in this play to his demise. As his political partner and then rival, Christopher Sheard stands regally in pressed suits as Caesar, with Eric Parks acting as Thidias, his valiant cohort. James Ridge serves as a fine interpreter of Enobarbus, dissecting the character’s divided loyalties to both leaders towards his own destruction. While a capable and young Will Mobley remains ever faithful to Anthony in the part of Eros.

Only a cast this gifted could set their sights on an ambitious production that moves quickly through this set of cataclysmic events to christen the eventual Roman Empire. The fierce and fleeting production unfurls as seamlessly as the stage’s singular silk column, that becomes both pillar in court, dressing curtain in a bedchamber, and billowing sail on one of Anthony’s doomed battle ships at sea.

APT’s Anthony and Cleopatra resembles an intoxicating aroma of a fragrance when compared to a full blooded perfrum and production, yet releases a scent equally alluring and potent. The performance’s potency equals the allure of power that continually seduces modern humanity, still frail and flawed since this ancient time, whether misconstrued for countries, fortunes or love. An allure that Shakespeare speaks of in his play’s verse, relates to the dramatic fragrance that captured the audience’s complete attention in APT’s unique adaptation. With the production’s essence similar to the bard’s words when he wrote, “the air seemed dizzy with love…the winds were lovesick with them.”

American Players Theatre presents William Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra through the fall season. For further information on the performance schedule or tickets, please call 608.588.2361 or click the APT link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan



 The Miracle of APT’s Molly Sweeney

In the Touchstone Theatre for the 2013 season, American Players Theatre presents Brian Friel’s compelling Molly Sweeney. The 1993 play written by the renowned Irish playwright, often compared to Chekhov, sets his three characters in one of his favorite imaginary towns, Ballybeg, and uses a format similar to his previous play Faith Healer: Where three characters retell the story through monologues without any dialogue between them for the entire performance.

Friel’s premise introduces the main character, Molly Sweeney, a now fortyish woman blind since an illness at 10 months of age. Then her husband, Frank, a man enthusiastic to take up the cause of restoring Molly's vision with vigilance. And a brilliant ophthalmologist, Dr./Mr. Rice, a man “blindsighted” by his former successes and needs the miracle of restoring Molly’s sight to revitalize his personal and professional integrity.

Playing Sweeney, Colleen Madden gives a stellar performance, where Molly leaps off center stage with clarity and warm character embodying a cheerful, confident person who believes her blindness is a slight misfortune rather than a disability. Molly reveled in developing her other senses, smell, sound, taste and touch, with such acuity she “saw” experiences and people in ways a sighted person was unable to, or perhaps never could. 

David Daniel acts as the complex Frank, whose passion for various causes or money making ventures drives him toward several ill fated journeys. Without common sense and good in his heart, he wishes the best for “his beautiful Molly.” On the other side of the stage sits the once super star physician Dr./Mr. Rice, who comes to life through actor Jonathan Smoots in poignant portrayal of a once famous healer, conflicted and trying to rationalize his desire to create Molly’s miracle for himself instead of her. Each man encourages Molly to reach for her new vision with few considerations for Molly, if she needs this restoration at all.

The real miracle in Friel’s profound play might be realizing physically seeing anything rarely leads to complete understanding or believing. Today’s society can create a trompe l’oeil, airbrush or Photoshop image, and then stares at tiny screens continuously, sometimes wondering if what they read or see can actually be real.

Molly's character reminds the audience physical sight constitutes only one fifth of a human’s sensory perceptions, and when Molly danced, swam in the sea, or caught the fragrance of flowers, touched their petals, these other sensations can be far more exciting and pleasurable than merely visually recognizing or watching from afar. In a contemporary culture obsessed with visual impressions, in how people or objects look, which Molly never consumed herself with, Friel’s script resonates more powerfully today. He asks the audience to consider incorporating the entirety of human sensations into one’s life, while pondering the imperfection of relying on sight, or primarily on sight alone.

APT crafts a riveting afternoon or evening under the sure handed direction of Kenneth Albers, who sends Molly Irish dancing or swimming when rising from her chair, to show the audience how she lives in her alternate world full of scents, sounds, touches and tastes. These performances from three immensely gifted actors ask the audience to intellectually consider what "seeing," apart from that singular physical activity, might mean even though very few people would choose to be without sight and live in perpetual darkness. Many people rarely "see" all that surrounds them, due to distraction, much less completely use their other four senses.  

The play also inspires an acute appreciation for being grateful for what one already has, while anticipating the unknowns to any unseen futures. Where using the alternate skill of hearing, sound, really listening to another human being might prove to be more useful than convincing an individual to conform to someone else’s ideal. Do Frank and Mr. Rice use Molly to validate their own choices instead of considering the genuine person she has grown to be? This thoroughly compelling APT production in the intimate Touchstone venue, which has provided exceptional new theatrical experiences for their ardent fans, plays perfectly to the true miracle of Molly Sweeney.

American Players Theatre presents Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney through the summer 2013. For information, show times and tickets, please call 608.588.2361 or click the APT link to the left. by Peggy Sue Dunigan




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











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