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Summer Classics: American Players Theatre opens a season of hits

Summer Classics: American Players Theatre opens a season of hits

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Brenda DeVita's first year as the new artistic director of American Players Theatre reads like a line up of greatest theater hits.

"I am committed – I understand who we are," said DeVita, who was tapped to replace David Frank in January 2012. "We do great plays."

Among the comedies and dramas set to play up the hill at the professional classical theater in Spring Green are great works by Shakespeare, including "Romeo and Juliet" and the witty "Much Ado About Nothing," George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde.

In the smaller, 200-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre, Sarah Day stars in an adaptation of a Joan Didion memoir and APT will produce its first David Mamet play. "Travesties" by Tom Stoppard has already sold out.

American Players kicked off with previews last week and officially opens its first two plays this Saturday. With an added final production from Frank, "Alcestis," coming in October, APT will present a total of nine productions in repertory this season.

"Everyone's telling me, your summers are so full, so busy," DeVita said. "But I can't imagine a better way to spend my summer. It's our life. It's what we do and we love it."

Tickets for shows at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road in Spring Green, cost $44-58 up the hill and $51-58 in the Touchstone, with a $10 service charge for phone, online and mail orders. Watch for discounts and promotions for up the hill shows as the season goes on.

"American Buffalo" by David Mamet (Touchstone)

June 7-Nov. 8

When 27-year-old David Mamet gave the script for "American Buffalo" to Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 1975, he promised it would win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It didn't – that was Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," in 1984 – but the gritty realism of "Buffalo" put a new kind of Chicago style on the theatrical map.

DeVita hopes audiences can see past the profane language to the heart of the story, which is about three frustrated men in a junk shop who plan a robbery out of a sense of entitlement and injustice.

"The language isn't the point," DeVita said. "It's just the vernacular of these men – it is truly who they are. Their struggles are profound.

"I love the play so much. It's a stretch for our audience and it should be … but I do think it's a great play. And it's in the hands of actors of actors our audience trusts, Jim Ridge and Brian Mani."

"The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde

June 7-Sept. 27

Oscar Wilde's deliciously ridiculous comedy of class and cucumber sandwiches comes through the vision of director William Brown, who led Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" last season.

"Once Bill decides to tell a story, he's going to do it through his own imagination. It's going to be completely original," DeVita said. "There are so many surprises in 'Earnest,' a play that everyone thinks they know."

"There's nothing predictable about this," she added. "I promise you've never seen this Gwendolyn," played by Cristina Panfilio, last season's Ophelia in "Hamlet."

Marcus Truschinski, a new company member as of last season, stars as Algernon, with Sarah Day as Lady Bracknell (played by Judi Dench in the film) and Tracy Michelle Arnold as Miss Prism.

"Much Ado About Nothing" by William Shakespeare

June 13-Oct. 5

David Daniel and Colleen Madden, APT company members with a long history of comic and dramatic collaborations, will play Shakespeare's feuding lovers in "Much Ado About Nothing," directed by David Frank.

Frank's cast is "stacked," DeVita said, with leading actors in other plays appearing in small or non-speaking roles here. Kelsey Brennan (Ann in "All My Sons") and Nate Burger play Hero and Claudio, respectively.

Milwaukee-based actor James Pickering – last year's ghost and player king in "Hamlet" and the Duke of Milan in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" – gets to ham it up as Dogberry, with Eric Parks as the villainous Don John.

In an interview with Mike Fischer for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Frank quoted literary critic Harold Bloom, who "suggests that 'Much Ado is the most amiably nihilistic play ever written.'"

Similar to Frank's melancholy take on "Twelfth Night" a few years ago, he told Fischer that "underneath all the sparkling fun, glittering wordplay and gorgeous poetry, there is a serious side to this play.

"It's actually funnier if you explore those darker themes a bit more deeply."

"Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare

June 20-Oct. 4

Some 20 years ago, Jim DeVita played Romeo in his American Players Theatre debut. This year, DeVita directs two young actors in the title roles of Shakespeare's star-crossed tragedy: Christopher Sheard and Melisa Pereyra, who played opposite each other in last fall's steamy "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."

"What Jimmy's doing with 'Romeo and Juliet,' it's not set contemporary, but the aesthetic of it is very contemporary feeling," said Brenda DeVita. "The kids … are young and very good. It has a danger and swiftness to it that feels very now."

"The Year of Magical Thinking," adapted from Joan Didion (Touchstone)

June 24-Oct. 4

DeVita herself directs longtime company member Sarah Day in this one woman show based on Joan Didion's best-selling 2005 memoir. It's been a challenge, DeVita said, but the "taut, very clean" language of Didion appealed to her, as did the dramatic style.

"The piece scared the heck out of me, in the right ways," DeVita said. "It's not a normal theater piece. It's not a play, it's an event and a personal conversation about grief and about loss."

"Magical Thinking," which will be produced in the intimate Touchstone, "lives in the moment, in the revelation of experience," DeVita said.

Though the events of the story are tragic – the sudden death of Didion's husband, and the prolonged illness and then death of her daughter, only 39 – it's not meant to be depressing.

"The Year of Magical Thinking" is not a downer," wrote Robert Pinsky in the New York Times. "On the contrary. Though the material is literally terrible, the writing is exhilarating and what unfolds resembles an adventure narrative … (Didion's) sense of timing, sentence by sentence and in the arrangement of scenes, draws the reader forward. Her manner is deadpan funny, slicing away banality with an air that is ruthless yet meticulous."

"The Seagull" by Anton Chekhov

Aug. 1-Sept. 20

Anton Chekhov is a natural choice for classical theater companies, but it has been more than 10 years since APT staged "The Cherry Orchard" in 2003.

This production of "The Seagull," a tale of family dysfunction, artistic ambition and unrequited love set on a country estate in Russia, stars Tracy Michelle Arnold as the vain actress Irina, Christopher Sheard as her hapless, lovestruck son, Jim DeVita as the egocentric writer Trigorin and Laura Rook as Nina, a young actress who idolizes him.

Director John Langs is fresh off a production of "The Seagull" that toured to Uzbekistan in April, part of The Seagull Project in Seattle.

"The Doctor's Dilemma" by George Bernard Shaw

Aug. 8-Oct. 3

This season, APT also returns to Shaw, that challenging wordsmith and political Irish dramatist, with "The Doctor's Dilemma."

The dilemma of the title falls to Dr. Ridgeon (Brian Mani) who has discovered a cure for tuberculosis. He can fit just one more patient in his clinic, but can't decide whom it should be – a kind and worthy fellow doctor (David Daniel) or a brilliant artist (Samuel Taylor, an APT newcomer) who also happens to be a jerk with a very pretty wife.

APT directors have a sure hand at cutting Shaw – a necessity, since even with trims his plays run three hours or more. But it's not easy.

"There are no extraneous plot points in his shows," DeVita said. "It isn't like you're going to cut the boring parts … (Shaw is) so good at intertwining plot with character and event."

"Travesties" by Tom Stoppard (Touchstone)

Aug. 10-Oct. 3

For the indoor theater, the sleeper surprise of the season is "Travesties," a weird and witty 1974 Tom Stoppard comedy which has already sold out its Touchstone run. In cases like this, APT sometimes add more performances.

"Most people won't know what they're stepping into and be completely glad that they did," DeVita said.

In one review from 2012, a Princeton theater critic praised the play as "a wildly extravagant intellectual feast."

"I want to marry the play of ideas to farce," Donald Gilpin quotes Stoppard saying. "Now that may be like eating steak tartare with chocolate sauce, but that's the way it comes out. Everyone will have to decide for himself whether the seriousness is doomed or redeemed by the frivolity."

"Alcestis" by Euripides, translated by Ted Hughes (Touchstone)

Oct. 10-Nov. 9

David Frank has called this, his last play as producing artistic director, a play that celebrates miracles.

"For the agnostics amongst us, it's the irrational miracle of love — love is at the root of it all," Frank said when the play was announced earlier this year. "I like to think of it as a play that celebrates the centrality of a miracle of some kind ... for all of us."

The Alcestis myth tells of a king, Admetos, who is told that he must die young unless someone is willing to take his place. The king's parents and friends all refuse, except his young wife, Aclestis. She descends to Hades and is bound to stay there until Heracles (David Daniel) decides to bring her back.

Brian Mani is set to play Death, with Melisa Pereyra as Alcestis and Marcus Truschinski as Admetos.

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