Plus, Jonathan recommends Endgame and King Lear at American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
On WDCB on Sunday, we discuss the US premiere of Simon Stephens’ play at Steep, and then K. recommends the two plays she saw at American Players Theatre up in Spring Green, WI.
American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, has always presented fine work, including the only perfect production of The Tempest I’ve ever experienced. But this is the first time I’ve seen such uniformly excellent shows, ranging from strong to out-and-out superb. New Artistic Director Brenda DeVita has reason to be proud of her inaugural season—and not only because her husband Jim delivers a tour-de-force in the one-man An Iliad.
Tim Kaine played the Poet in An Iliad at Court Theatre in Chicago, on a smoking battleground in his combat fatigues creating an indelible impression of the chronicler as a casualty of war. This production is completely different, with DeVita dressed in tweeds lecturing in what appears to be a high-school science classroom, complete with skeleton. But the piece, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare and directed here by John Langs, is equally powerful: simultaneously a clear and engaging retelling of The Iliad and a sharply drawn portrait of the uselessness of combat. Cellist Alicia Storin plays the Muse who provides literal counterpoint to the Poet, complementing Josh Schmidt’s recorded sound design as it conveys the aural fog of war. But nothing can distract your ears or eyes from DeVita’s riveting, exhausting, utterly truthful performance. Don’t miss this production, whether you’ve seen the play before or not.
Langs likewise works directorial magic with Othello. Every other production I’ve seen has made me wonder why the play isn’t called Iago instead, as we spend most of the play in his company. But Langs and actor Chike Johnson here present an Othello worthy of the name: a character whose formidable presence makes Iago seem like an annoying insect buzzing around his head. Yet it’s the tragedy of Othello that he’s allergic to bee-stings, and thus can be destroyed by this lesser man. James Ridge mixes wit with fury to create a wonderfully unsettling Iago, whose loathing for Othello stems simply from the other’s great superiority. Like men who are “jealous for they’re jealous,” Iago is envious because he’s envious, and all his other excuses for hating the Moor are just that. Despite a few slips on opening night (Iago’s knife’s flying out of his hand into the audience, Bianca’s shoe doing the same), the entire ensemble handles itself well. An absorbing evening.
Edward Albee’s Seascape violated all expectations by being a comedy in which a couple of large green lizards encounter a couple of old white people on a beach. As the two married couples explain their cultures to one another (and fight among themselves), the effect is sweet and charming and thought-provoking all at once, with a tart undertone sustained by Albee’s typically cynical view that it’s impossible ever to know another person (or creature). Laura Gordon’s production is, in a word rarely evoked by Albee, delightful, with strong performances by all.
An Iliad and Seascape are performed in the divinely air-conditioned Touchstone Theatre. Othello is presented at the open-air Up-the-Hill Theatre, and it’s a testament to the production’s strength that the audience was fully engaged even before the sun went down and relieved the 90-plus-degree heat.
Even more impressive, though, was A Streetcar Named Desire, performed in the open air at 1 o’clock on a scorching day. The weather matched the play’s overheated setting, of course, but it still takes an amazing production to command total attention from an audience squinting against the sun and dripping in perspiration. This was such an exceptional production, directed by Chicago veteran William Brown and resting on the capable shoulders of Chicago actress Tracy Michelle Arnold as Blanche, whose every move and facial expression told you about the slow collapse of her life. The production highlighted playwright Tennessee Williams’s obsession with the line between illusion and delusion, as Blanche teeters between them. Stella (Cristina Panfilio, also Seascape‘s lizard-wife) represents reality, balancing loyalty to her sister with her love not only for Stanley but for their down-to-earth life together, one without gentility or any nostalgia for it. Eric Parks (the husband of Panfilio off- as well as onstage) makes a fine Stanley, resisting every temptation to imitate the over-familiar Brando approach, and it’s not his fault that there’s not actually much to his character: the role is less about acting than about exuding sexiness. (No wonder Brando aced it.) Tim Gittings is excellent as Mitch, bringing humor as well as humility to that nearly-thankless part. It was an extraordinary three hours, notwithstanding the glare and the heat and the mosquitoes, and if for some reason they’d chosen to start again I would have stayed for another three. The show only runs through September 5, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend; don’t miss it.
Othello plays through the first weekend in October, while Seascape and An Iliad continue through October 18. It’s well worth a 4-hour drive to see such consistently terrific work.
J. and K. take to the airwaves with host Gary Zidek of The Arts Section on WDCB, 90.9 FM, for an overview of drama under the stars and in the heat throughout the Midwest.