Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Playing in the Woods, Part 1

This past weekend, I passed a major milestone in my life as a Chicagoan. (Or, given my move, a Chicagolandian.) I visited Wisconsin for the first time. This is something that absolutely everybody in Chicago does--it's close enough for a weekend car trip, it's cheaper than a lot of vacations, and it's gorgeous. But I had never had the chance to take advantage of it, and so felt like I was missing out on an experience common to all natives of this fine city.

But no more! Adam and I visited Wisconsin this weekend, and a particularly wonderful part thereof: The American Players Theatre near Spring Green, not far from Madison. The people of APT invited me to visit this past weekend. I saw four plays over three days, and will herein be reviewing them for you, along with the experience in general.

So what is APT? It's a classical theatre, in the middle of the Wisconsin woods. The Up The Hill Theatre--so named because it is in fact a quarter-mile hike up a hill to get there--is an open-air amphiteatre with 1148 seats and excellent acoustics. The Touchstone, which opened in 2009, is a lovely 200-seat indoor space.

APT starts with an absolutely unfair advantage: When the weather is nice (and it was absolutely perfect this weekend), the entire audience is in a great mood. Particularly for the shows I saw in the evening, I have rarely been in an audience that was happier and more excited to see a show. It certainly didn't hurt that all of the shows I saw lived up to that expectation, but the setting itself is an invaluable part of the company's success.

First, a few words on food: Picnics are part of the tradition at APT--there are tables all over the place--and with good reason. It's not a first-rate food town. There are a few places with fine-but-not-exceptional diner and pub food, and some fancy restaurants that are reportedly pretty wonderful (we didn't want to pay to find out), but the only really excellent meal that we had was at the Spring Green General Store, which has a delicious menu of salads, sandwiches, and soups, very fresh and tasty. (If you want a drink and snack, though, I highly recommend the Bird of Paradise Tea Room for some tea and pie. Oh man, that was good pie. And I'd have spent so much time picking a tea if they hadn't been about to close.) Premade picnics are available to order from the box office, and there are certainly enough grocery stores around to prepare one for yourself. If we are able to return, that's certainly what we'll do.

As for lodging: we were fortunate that the theatre put us up at the House on the Rock Resort. It's a lovely hotel (all of the rooms are suites), and certainly recommended for those who have the means, or a love of golf--the resort has 27 holes. However, there are more reasonable options available as well, though none so close to the theatre.

And if you are in the area, I recommend The House on the Rock. It's a hugely popular tourist attraction, and something that really must be seen: it's the creation of a possibly mad visionary who build a gigantic house and filled it with...stuff. There's a room that extends out hundreds of feet over open air, a giant carousel, and way more. It's unlike anything you've seen, and certainly an American original.


After The House on the Rock, we saw the first show of the weekend, Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well. It's often known as one of his problem plays, and with good reason: the plot can potentially be quite off-putting. Helena (Ally Carey, who is remarkably only a year out of her BFA and still non-equity), a commoner and the orphaned daughter of a great doctor, is the ward of the Countess of Rossillion (Tracy Michelle Arnold), and in love with her son, Bertram (Matt Schwader). When she uses her father's medicines to cure the King of France (Jonathan Smoots), previously thought terminal, he grants her any husband she wants in the kingdom. She chooses Bertram, but he's horrified at the thought of marrying someone below his station, and just after their wedding runs away to war, the marriage unconsummated. She follows him to war, and initiates a scheme to win him back.

It would make sense to play this as bitter comedy, but director John Langs goes a different route. He emphasizes the characters' humanity and the reconciliation that comes at the end. There are many laughs, but rarely at the characters' expense. (The one exception is Jim DeVita as Parolles, Bertram's big-talking hanger-on, whom the script thoroughly humiliates. However, even he sees some redemption at the end.)

And it did wonders for a play I thought I knew--this production was more moving than I thought possible. I'd always thought of it as an odd, bitter little show, and the previous versions I saw didn't change my mind. But by emphasizing the characters' humanity and their consequences, without ever judging or dismissing them, Langs and his cast have given the show uncommon depth.

The acting is strong throughout, as it was in all four shows--the rotating repertory format clearly ups the game of everyone involved, and I wish there were more of it to be found in Chicago. Carey leads the way with an assured performance, making Helena's seemingly self-destructive decisions understandable, while Schwader makes you understand both why she wants him and why he doesn't deserve it. Arnold and Smoots bring moral authority to the play's older generation, and DeVita and John Pribyl are just hilarious, without taking the audience out of the play.

Langs' production does sag a bit in the second half--there were several sections when it seemed to take far too long to get through each plot point--but he's created a funny and moving production of a Shakespeare that often doesn't get the credit it deserves.


I hope you enjoyed the first installment--check back soon for the other three productions we saw in Spring Green!

No comments: