Highlights of the 2018 American Theater Critics Association Conference in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
By Beverly Friend, PHD, Member American Theater Critics Association
One essential piece of advice I always offered my students was that no matter what career they chose, they should be sure to join the relevant professional organizations. Not only does this keep them up to date on the latest happenings — on the cutting edge — but in addition to the knowledge gained, there is also a wonderful collegiality.
Never was this truer than at the recent meeting of the American Theater Critics Association. Not only did we refresh and update our professional expertise by going behind the scenes with actors and directors, but we also had the opportunity to see five magnificent productions by the American Players Theatre in four days — all well worth the 3-4 hour trip from Chicago. This, their 39th summer season, runs until Oct 14, so there is ample time to head north. You can join their annual audience of over 110,000.
Yes, there were mosquitoes in 1089- seat outdoor Hill Theatre, but they were tolerable. Touchstone, the smaller, indoor theater holds 201 seats and is air-conditioned. In addition to the 42 of us attending panels, lectures and workshops, we were scheduled to enjoy three outdoor and two sheltered performances and there could not have been more complete preparation for audience comfort, from ample insect repellent to ponchos if there were to be inclement weather. In addition, trams and golf carts were provided for those who were daunted by the climb from the parking lots to the theaters and while the players do not have microphone, hearing assists were readily available.
Our theater orgy began with William Shakespeare’s delightful comedy, As You Like It, in the lovely, forested Hill amphitheatre. Never was an audience more enraptured as this one –braving heat and mosquitoes as this fantastic romp unfolded its tale of star-crossed lovers, gender reversals, and mistaken identities. The children in the audience were as captivated as their elders. Never did three hours pass as quickly. The cast was splendid, especially Melisa Pereyra as Rosalind – -who could easily hold her own against the skill of those more famous in the role, including Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Patti Lapone. Pereyra’s wonderful facial expressions lit up the production
Later, when Pereyra appeared on a panel, she told us that a major lesson she and her fellow actors had learned was that if the audience failed to understand a play, it was the actors’ fault. No one could be faulted in this cast and the same was true with the second period piece, The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. Farquhar had been more famous in his own time than Shakespeare had been in his. However, he is seldom remembered now and his work is seldom performed. It was therefore a high treat to enjoy this rousing comedy with hilarious scoundrels who con innocent farmers into joining the military via witty dialogue, fast-paced timing (especially in the fighting scenes) and — once again — cross-dressing. The Recruiting Officer was one of the most frequently performed plays of the 18th century and the seeds of feminism sown here germinate even more effectively now in the 21st century.
The American Players Theatre focuses on classic plays — defining classic as that which is timeless and universal. This was true of all the plays we enjoyed. David Frank, who had served for 23 years first as the artistic director and now, in retirement, as a guest director told us that the key goals of the plays were to answer two questions: “What happens next?” and “Why all these words?”
We learned both with the next offerings when there was a vivid change of pace. Our first foray into the smaller, air-conditioned theatre was with Blood Knot by Athol Fugard. Earlier panels had been devoted to diversity, and no play could better or more brilliantly deal with the subject. Here are two brothers — one of light, the other of dark skin –who share a dingy room, and live through an experience that not only heightens their differences but also brings to the fore their bitter antagonisms.
It was amazing to learn that the play was written long ago — in 1961 — it is so relevant today. Originally, the South African playwright himself took one of the two roles he had created — for the single performance before the government shut them down.
Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco, the second indoor play, was a wonderful example of absurdist drama. The King is going to die — not tomorrow, or in a week, month, year or decade. He is going to die in exactly two and a half hours — at the end of the play– and his anguish is palpable. His first wife counsels facing reality. His second wife wants him to struggle against and transcend reality. Humor becomes darker and darker as the King (played brilliantly by James Ridge) — and the audience — struggle with mortality. Very funny. Very profound. Very moving.
It is an added pleasure to see repertory theater where actors appear in varied very different roles. In fact, the center of the program has a large, two-page spread listing who plays whom and in what play — in dazzling array. Their skills are wonderfully displayed. In the change of pace offered by our final play, Born Yesterday, by Garson Kanin, we once again met three actors from As You Like It — and they would have been unrecognizable without the program grid. Now we are in a thoroughly modern story with a familiar plot reminiscent of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. Can a silk purse be made of a sow’s ear — or, in other words, can a brazen, uneducated girl be transformed? Yes –Colleen Madden does it all in the role of Billy Dawn made famous by Judy Holiday in the famous 1950 film — with a bang-up job. How pertinent this story is today was exemplified by the spontaneous applause that greeted dialogue dealing with political graft and ugliness in the plot so recognizable in the present.
The audiences were responsive to everything. It was unbelievable but gratifying to see five consecutive plays — very different in tone and staging — and to see all five get well-deserved standing ovations! Theatre is alive and well in the middle of Wisconsin!
Note: Three more plays will be running this season:
Heartbreak House, by George Bernard Shaw
Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare
Our Country’s Good, by Timberlake Wertenbaker (where prisons put on a production of The Recruiting Officer), and
Engaging Shaw, by John Morogiello will opening in November.
American Players Theatre is located in Spring Green, Wisconsin on 11 acres of woods and meadows above the Wisconsin River. Ticket prices range from $51 to $86 and discounted packages are available. For more information, visit www.americanplayers.org