Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

American Players Theatre
Opening up the classics in the open air

Also see John's reviews of Beaches and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

American Players Theatre's Up-the-Hill Theater
Here in the upper Midwest, as the warm weather sets in, the theater season slows down somewhat. The crowded Chicago season with over 100 openings per month dwindles to maybe 20 or 30 each month. Milwaukee's venerable regional Equity companies take the summer off as the locals head to outdoor festivals. In culture-crazy Madison, the professional companies are mostly dark and the University Theatre has just one summer session production.

There is a place, though, for theater lovers who want to enjoy the region's short burst of balmy temperatures while satisfying their hunger for great drama. Each summer, thousands make the journey to American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, to get their fix of theatre and, for many, escape from their urban jungles for a bit. The two-stage theatre complex—which includes the outdoor Up-the-Hill Theater and the indoor Touchstone Theatre—is 32 miles from the nearest city and 40 miles off the closest interstate highway. An hour west of Madison (2-1/2 hours from Milwaukee and four hours from Chicago), it's a trek to reach this section of southwestern Wisconsin that, with its steep hills and valleys, looks more like the Appalachians than America's Dairyland. APT Artistic Director Brenda DeVita says "audiences have to expend some effort in planning their trip and getting out here. Once here, they seem determined to listen to the work in a way that is part and parcel of the whole experience. Their visit to our theatre is not just another night out in the city."

Artistic Director Benda DaVita
2015 is the 36th season for American Players Theatre—and DeVita's second as Artistic Director. Founded by Randall Duk Kim, Charles Bright, and Anne Occhiogrosso, the company's mission was to perform the classics, especially Shakespeare. Their first five seasons were dedicated exclusively to the Bard's work (except for a production of Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great in 1983), but DeVita explains the mission has since expanded to cover a more general range of "language plays." In a phone interview with DeVita, I asked her to elaborate. "It's a focus on the text," she tells me. "Though the language isn't necessarily realistic—one could argue that no one really talks the way the characters do in some of the plays, the language they use lets the audience experience the story and the emotions. This goes back to the original concept of theater, in which actors of only one gender and one color played all the roles. The focus then was on the words to do the storytelling rather than literal visual representation." Though APT casts actors in roles specific to their gender, as well as providing sumptuous visual design, DeVita says "we're interested in plays with great ideas that are communicated through their words, more than focusing on plot or storytelling."

While Shakespeare remains an essential part of each season, the company's repertoire has been expanded to include classics of all stripes. Most, but not all, were originally written in English and now include the likes of Williams, Miller, O'Neill, Shaw, Stoppard, and Mamet, as well as Chekhov, Anouilh, and Euripides. The 2015 season will include The Merry Wives of Windsor and Othello along with A Streetcar Named Desire, Pride and Prejudice and Private Lives—all on the company's original stage, the 1,147-seat Up-the-Hill Theatre. A second stage was added in 2009, the 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre. This season's Touchstone productions are An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Edward Albee's Seascape and The Game of Love and Chance by Marivaux.

I'd heard it said of APT that they have a reputation for eschewing highly conceptual interpretations of the plays, particularly Shakespeare's, and I asked DeVita about that. She paused a moment and said, "I don't think we go about it that way [starting with a concept and building from there]. These aren't plays that need to be fixed. Doing the plays themselves is an artistic act, but we look for references that help us understand the plays. For Merry Wives of Windsor, we initially thought about "The Andy Griffith Show"'s fictional town of Mayberry, though the production will be set in the late 1800s and use music of that period. We try different things, and the interpretation frequently changes through the process. Our A Streetcar Named Desire has been moved up to 1963, which director William Brown sees as a time of enormous hope, and hope plays a big role in Streetcar."

Whatever the time period suggested by the production design, APT's setting in a hilly forest is timeless. The box office and the Touchstone Theatre are not within sight of the Up-the-Hill Theatre, so only a few buildings for concessions and restrooms compete with its natural setting and it's quite easy for audiences to lose themselves in the story.

The isolation of the theater in a rural area so far from a city and accessible only by two-lane county and state highways is integral to the artistic development as well, according to DeVita. The members of the acting company are in residence for the full six-month season, taking roles in multiple plays performed in repertory (outdoors from June through early October, with indoor performances running through mid-November). "The isolation keeps the actors focused," DeVita explains. "They're kind of a little crazy. They could have worked anywhere. They came here, not to get rich, but to work at their art. How often do you get a chance to concentrate on your art without distractions from other projects? There's a different kind of energy, working outdoors in a forest—you and 35 other people in a place for six months. Some people get jazzed by it."

American Players Theatre's 2015 season will run through November 22, 2015. Complete information is at

Photos: Carissa Dixon

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-- John Olson

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