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Chicago by John Olson

Much Ado About Nothing
American Players Theatre

Also see John's review of The Qualms


David Daniel and Colleen Madden
One of the jewels of the southern Wisconsin/northern Illinois region (if my Badger State friends will forgive being lumped together with the "flatlanders" of Illinois), especially for lovers of classical theater, is the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, about 35 miles west of Madison and a three-hour drive from Chicago. The company, now in its 35th season, initially focused on Shakespeare but soon expanded to include a range of classics and eventually modern drama in their repertoire. Until 2009, all their productions were performed in an amphitheater lodged on a hillside when an indoor venue called the Touchstone Theatre was added. This year the two spaces will house nine productions to be performed in repertory by their resident acting company, composed largely of Equity actors based in Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison.

No denigration of the artistic product should be inferred when one says the physical setting is as much a reason for visiting the theater as is the work. First-time visitors to southwestern Wisconsin will be surprised by the wooded and hilly terrain, which resembles the hills of West Virginia rather than Midwestern prairies. Playgoers frequently arrive early enough to picnic at the foot of the hill, either with self-packed baskets or some of the reasonably-priced food and drink available at the concession stand. The amphitheater, now named the "Up the Hill Theatre," is fully open air and the natural setting provides perfect acoustics for the unmiked actors to be understood throughout its 1148 seats.

Some other business in Madison gave me the opportunity to make a way-overdue return visit to APT for a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by their Artistic and Producing Director David Frank. True to the company's reputation for straightforward productions of the classics eschewing flashy directorial concepts, Frank has delivered a handsome and accessible take on this Shakespeare comedy that showcases the considerable comedic skills of his cast. Designed with a 19th century Italianate look by Robert Morgan (who did the set as well as costumes), Shakespeare's observations on the nature of love and attraction still land for today's audiences (with the popularity of Joss Whedon's recent modern dress film adaptation of the play evidence of its timelessness).

As Benedick, the soldier who has so far disdained the idea of marriage while he spars verbally with the similarly confirmed single Beatrice, David Daniel gives an inventive and nuanced performance that many a movie rom-com actor could learn from. Romantic and masculine, yet a little awkward and goofy, we can believe Daniel's Benedick to be a competent and brave soldier and understand how he puts up a defensive wall when it comes to romance. He's smart, but gullible enough to fall for the ruse his friends create to make him believe the feisty Beatrice is in love with him in spite of the insults she routinely throws his way. The beautiful and independent Beatrice is played Colleen Madden as probably the smarter, more confident of the two, though she also falls for her friends' deceptive hints that Benedick is in love with her as well.

Shakespeare's less appealing though winningly played secondary romantic couple are Hero (Kelsey Brennan) and the soldier Claudio (Nate Burger). While Benedick and Beatrice fight their long-standing but real attraction to each other, Hero and Claudio give in all to quickly to theirs, ultimately proving the fragility of lust-at-first-sight. When Benedick and Claudio return to the home of Leonardo, governor of Messina, Claudio instantly falls for Hero and is determined they must marry. This all sounds great to Hero and her father Leonato, until a plot by the vindictive soldier Don John (Eric Parks) convinces Claudio that Hero has been sexually promiscuous and is unworthy of Claudio's hand in marriage. Brennan and Burger are convincingly earnest as these two young lovers and Parks makes a delicious villain.

There are wonderful supporting comic performances as well, beginning with Brian Mani as the kind but easily influenced Governor Leonato. Longtime Milwaukee Rep company member James Pickering is a delight as the likable yet self-important Constable who ultimately straightens out all the confusion. Abbey Siegworth and Cristina Panfilio have comic chops as lusty gentlewomen of Leonato's household, and Marcus Truschinski is recognizably suitably sleazy as the low-life hired by Don John to break up Hero and Claudio.

The performance I attended gave me an opportunity to address a frequently asked question—what happens at this entirely open-air (i.e. uncovered) theater when it rains? The actors will pause during a downpour, as we experienced about four or five minutes into the show. The rain let up and the company started over from the top. A light drizzle continued through much of the performance, but the actors kept going. Most of the audience—probably regulars—had come prepared and were wearing rain ponchos, which worked just fine. The seating is raked enough to see over poncho-clad heads, though not enough to see over opened umbrellas (which are forbidden while actors are performing). The audience took all the inclement weather in good spirits, as simply part of the APT experience. Enjoying the company of such a good-natured, relaxed crowd—who was clearly relishing the chance to see such a fine production of Shakespeare in such a beautiful setting—was itself a contribution to the experience.

Much Ado About Nothing will be performed in repertory through October 5, 2014 at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin. Plays in the outdoor Up the Hill Theatre are performed through October 5th. The indoor Touchstone Theatre operates through November 9, 2014. For a complete calendar of plays in this season's repertory and to order tickets, visit www.americanplayers.org or call 608-588-2361.


Photo: Carissa Dixon

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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