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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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THEATER

American Players Theatre in transition: The Spring Green troupe prepares for new directions in 2013 and beyond

James DeVita and Colleen Madden will end the season on a spicy note with <i>Les Liaisons Dangereuses.</i>
James DeVita and Colleen Madden will end the season on a spicy note with Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Credit:Eric Ferguson
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For many local theatergoers, summer means grabbing the sunscreen and bug spray, packing a picnic basket and heading to American Players Theatre in Spring Green. While theater options are plentiful year-round, outdoor shows are a fleeting pleasure here in the frozen North. And though APT opened an indoor stage in 2009, its 1,148-seat, open-air amphitheater is still an integral part of the experience. Situated outdoors on the company's wooded, 110-acre property, it's simply referred to as "up the hill."

This summer marks the venerable company's 34th season, but it's also part of an important transition. Early last year, APT announced that associate artistic director Brenda DeVita would succeed artistic director David Frank upon his retirement. (DeVita is now called "artistic director designate.") The announcement seemed unusual, coming nearly three years before Frank's December 2014 retirement date, but APT appeared eager to signal that it was not planning a major shift in direction.

Indeed, APT has been remarkably successful during tough economic times, sometimes adding performances due to high demand, even before the start of the season. The company netted $3.1 million from ticket sales in 2012, not including tickets for The Gift of the Magi, its holiday production. Born as a Shakespearean theater, APT has evolved to offer American classics and even work by contemporary playwrights like David Hare and Seamus Heaney. The 2013 season is notable for an original adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra fitted to APT's small indoor theater and a risqué fall production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Bringing the Bard indoors

For much of its history, APT has seemed synonymous with Shakespeare under the stars. This year, however, the company is taking the Bard indoors with an adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra. The tragedy has been reworked by director Kate Buckley and APT core company actor James DeVita, who is also a playwright and novelist.

Presenting Shakespeare indoors is part of a larger strategy.

"It's testing the waters for something that's terribly important for this company over the long term," Frank says. "To do the entire range of that canon is dependent on finding ways to do it indoors. We can't do all 37 works up the hill, but if we can find ways to make them work indoors as well, versions of that, over time, are likely to happen. There are glorious pieces that need to be done."

With only 200 seats, the indoor Touchstone Theatre offers a more intimate experience and alleviates the pressure to fill a much larger house. It also gives APT a chance to experiment with material that might attract a smaller audience, or simply wouldn't work artistically on a large outdoor stage.

"It's an idea I've had for years," Brenda DeVita says of APT's first indoor Shakespeare production. "There's no way you can separate your experience of the plays up the hill with the natural setting. That experience is what it is, but to take that experience inside, 10 feet away from the actors, it's like everyone has a front-row seat."

For reasons including sea battles and wars, it wouldn't be feasible to do Antony and Cleopatra in its entirety, so Buckley and James DeVita have distilled the play significantly.

"It can't just be a cutting," Frank explains. "If you're going to reduce from a huge, epic piece, you have to extract themes rather than just condense it."

APT trimmed the cast down to seven characters. This makes sense since it's a repertory company, with a core company of 11 actors who perform in multiple productions throughout the season. Casting is built around this small cluster of key players, and other actors are hired as needed.

"That's something that is specific to repertory," Brenda DeVita says. "No one else gets to do this quite like us.... Knowing our players like we do, it allows for a really focused, sharp, specific adaptation to the people in room."

Of course, Antony and Cleopatra won't be the only Shakespeare on APT's stages this summer; the company remains committed to doing two or three Shakespeare plays each year. Up the hill, there will be performances of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Hamlet.

Two Gentlemen, about youthful friends Valentine and Proteus, will feature Marcus Truschinski in one of the lead roles. Truschinski just joined the core company this year, his 10th with APT. His costar is Travis A. Knight, who also got his start in APT's apprentice program.

Brenda DeVita views the apprenticeship as a tool for cultivating the next generation of classical actors.

"I love that our two gents are two young men who have grown up with us," she says. "I'm so proud of the work that those guys are doing. Marcus and Travis started with us as apprentices and are now playing leads on our stage, and that makes me giddy."

Hamlet will showcase another core company actor, Matt Schwader, who DeVita says "might be one of the best verse speakers in the country."

Adds Frank: "He's a wonderful young actor, and this is the Everest he needed to tackle."

'Their own kind of poetry'

As always, there's more to the APT season than Shakespeare. More and more, particularly under Brenda DeVita's influence, the company has been taking on classics of the American stage.

"It's something that Brenda has really brought to how APT thinks of itself," Frank notes. "She's had an interest in adding truly great American plays that have their own kind of poetry, and that gain from being outdoors."

Previous productions in this vein have included Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. This year, the troupe will tackle Arthur Miller's All My Sons.

Rather than remounting its holiday show, The Gift of the Magi, for a third year, APT has chosen some decidedly adult fare for a fall production: Les Liaisons Dangereuses by the contemporary British playwright Christopher Hampton, who adapted it from an 18th-century French novel. (Many will remember the 1988 movie version starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close and John Malkovich.)

"It's risqué, more so than we would do on the hill," says DeVita.

The shift from summer to fall will also bring a national search for a managing director to support DeVita once Frank has fully retired. To facilitate a smooth transition, the company plans to have all three roles overlap for a time.

The successful candidate will be dynamic and collaborative, according to Frank, who describes APT as "a very consensus-driven organization."

He has just one caveat: "[We're] also looking for someone who can teach us things. Healthy humility is critical to continuous improvement. It sounds clichéd, but it's true."


American Players Theatre will produce nine plays during the 2013 season, five "up the hill" in the large, outdoor amphitheater and four in the intimate, indoor Touchstone Theatre.

Up the Hill

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
by William Shakespeare
Opens June 15

Shakespeare's comedy about two young friends, Valentine and Proteus, sheds light on the "stupid, wonderful things we do in adolescence," says artistic director David Frank. "It has lessons, and it's both funny and dangerous."

Too Many Husbands
by W. Somerset Maugham
Opens June 22

Frank helms this production about a woman who, in the aftermath of World War I, believes her husband is dead and remarries, only to find that husband number one is very much alive.

"It's high farce, but like all great farce, it has to have a solid core of truth," Frank says.

Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
Opens June 29

Something is rotten in Denmark in this tragedy, considered one of the greatest plays in the English language. John Langs, a frequent presence at APT, directs core company actor Matt Schwader in the title role.

"John Langs is one of the most emotionally insightful directors, and to put the two of them together excites me," says artistic director designate Brenda DeVita. "They push each other."

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
by Tom Stoppard
Opens Aug. 10

This is APT's first production of a play by Stoppard, who's now in his 70s. Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy takes two minor players from Hamlet, a pair of courtiers, and makes them the focus of attention. In a unique twist made possible by APT's rotating repertory setup, actors in Hamlet will fill the same roles in R&G.

All My Sons
by Arthur Miller
Opens Aug. 17

Set in post-World War II America, All My Sons deals with the aftershocks of a family scandal.

"It may be my favorite Arthur Miller, even over Death of a Salesman," Frank says.

DeVita promises a memorable set design by Kevin Depinet.

"It's an incredible mix of realism and realistic elements that are treated in an abstracted way," she says.

Touchstone Theatre

Molly Sweeney
by Brian Friel
Opens June 15

Molly Sweeney has been an unexpected hit for APT, even before its opening night. Several performances have been added to the run, and most show dates are close to being sold out. The story of a blind Irish woman now faced with the chance to see, it's "poetic and becomes huge in a small space," says Frank. Colleen Madden stars in the title role, and famed penny whistle player Joanie Madden (of the band Cherish the Ladies and no relation to Colleen) contributes original music.

Dickens in America
by James DeVita
Opens June 29

APT has staged numerous one-person shows featuring core company actors, such as James DeVita's In Acting Shakespeare and Colleen Madden in The Syringa Tree, both of which were hits with audiences and critics. The latest work in this tradition is Dickens in America, starring James Ridge. Ridge, who Frank describes as "a master of quick, deft, funny, dramatic characters," portrays Charles Dickens himself, as well as numerous Dickens characters.

Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare (adapted by Kate Buckley and James DeVita)
Opens Aug. 17

APT experiments with its first indoor Shakespeare production, exploring works by the Bard that do not quite fit the up-the-hill stage.

"The Touchstone affords us that kind of risk-taking," says DeVita, whose husband, APT acting favorite James DeVita, stars as Antony. Tracy Michelle Arnold will be his Cleopatra.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Christopher Hampton
Opens Nov. 1

Brenda DeVita directs this adaptation of the French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, in which two aristocrats use sex as a weapon in a cruel and twisted game.

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