Heat wilts the leaves but can't compromise the Shakespeare in Spring Green

THEATER REVIEW: "Richard III," "Twelfth Night" and "Skylight" at American Players Theatre

 James Ridge, left, and David Daniel in "Richard III" at American Players Theater.

James Ridge, left, and David Daniel in "Richard III" at American Players Theater. ( / July 30, 2011)

SPRING GREEN, Wis. -- The heat of this broiling summer has taken a toll on this verdant corner of southwest Wisconsin, about three hours from Chicago, and not just on the field crops and the bounty at the local farmers markets, which seem less juicy than in prior seasons. At least the volumnes at Spring Green's Arcadia Books, the arty new bookstore run by former Chicago-based director James Bohnen, haven't yet wilted on the shelves.

The famously stoic patrons at the American Players Theatre, where Shakespeare plays al fresco, are well used to withstanding wind and, ponchos at the ready, driving rain. In past years, I've seen audiences here remain in their seats through thunder and lightning that was part of no previous "King Lear." And sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats are always essential equipment for matinees. But no one up here seems to remember another summer when the temperatures at night exceeded 100 degrees and sitting through, say, "Richard III," felt for some like risking a stroke. Nights here are full. Even though it's an outdoor theater in the woods, American Players does not believe in cutting the text to any meaningful extent.

This year's "Twelfth Night," directed by David Frank, clocks in at around three hours. The first act alone of "Richard III," directed by James DeVita, took one hour and 45 minutes (although this show, the best of the three I saw, was well worth it). There's no question, several local people said, that the audiences have been smaller this year, even at the relatively new indoor theater. Most people who come from Chicago or beyond come for more than one show; when it's cooking out, they tend not to come at all.

Fortunately for me, I waited out the heat this year, unhappily sacrificed my viewing of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and rolled into Spring Green on a picture-perfect summer weekend. On Saturday, the matinee of "Twelfth Night" was sun-kissed enough for one to bask, birds twittering in the trees instead of audience members tweeting in their seats, but hardly a meteorological trial. And the evening performance of "Richard III" took place on a simply gorgeous night, allowing the famously humped dude, played by James Ridge, to howl at the stars, even as some well-timed bats flew between he and us, rather like live props to his villainy.

Such potent intrusions of the natural world are a key part of the appeal of American Players Theatre, along with the way this particular theater, a big bowl in the woods but acoustically rich, so acutely focuses everyone on the words spoken on stage. This is not a theater that has much interested in concepts — no trendy Euro directors or auteurs thrive here and one rarely is shocked by progressive ideas or modes of Shakespearean interpretation. It is a very well-spoken theater far more interested in the language, especially of love.

Speaking of love — the lost variety — I also caught director John Langs' well-acted indoor production of David Hare's "Skylight," an intellectually nutritious if rather depressing play about the meeting of two old lovers (played by Greta Wohlrabe and Brian Mani) whose lives have taken them in opposite directions but who each remain desperately lonely, each in their own way. "Skylight," which explores how some couples need a third person in their lives to define them, is an uncommonly resonant drama (it's rare for APT to produce a contemporary work) that starts you looking back over your life and pondering what might have been, given that most of us have old lovers and had a few potential choices that could have taken us in opposite directions.

APT is a true ensemble theater — in that you watch much the same actors each year, and they almost all show up every summer. There are new youngsters but ringers are few. This continuity is reflected in the artistic direction: APT has had only two artistic directors in its 32-year history. And when the current holder of that office, David Frank, hangs it up in 2014, in honor of his 70th birthday, he's already got his board of directors to approve his passing the torch to his second in command, associate artistic director Brenda DeVita, who said in a conversation last weekend that job one remains the care and feeding of the company.

Happily, many of these actors are very good indeed. They're the main reason to come up here. Take, for example, Ridge. He's an uncommonly versatile actor whose Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" here a couple of years back remains one of my favorite interpretations anywhere of the old money lender. He's not a physically typical Richard: Ridge looks more like a guy who, say, designs computer servers for a living. If every Richard needs a deviation from normal, something to have poisoned him, this one has a geeky persona even though he lived in an era when such things did not get you billions in the tech sector.

This demeanor pulls Ridge (whose underexposure in Chicago is this city's loss) away from one of the role's great traps, which is villainy unadulterated and unsympathetic, thus rendering the play boring. In DeVita's earthy production, which has an early 20th-century look, Ridge's Richard keeps surprising his audience with each act of malevolence, which he seems to make up as he goes along. Little sounds of shock and offense kept coming all night from the front rows — "Oh!" No!" "Terrible!" — which tells you that something is working. We were taken in by the man's charm and trumped-up logic, allowing us to keep being let down, in real time and as in life.

The trajectory of the production only goes so far in terms of cohesion and logic (deep thought thereon produces a few dead ends in your head), but then you can say the same of the play. This Richard keeps going, it seems, mostly because he's already in so deep. Just like Tony Soprano. And DeVita's happily unwieldy show also features a fine young Chicago-based actress named Cristina Panfilio, in the role of Edward, Prince of Wales, whom Richard flays on the barbecue of his own neuroses.

Edward is usually a throwaway role played by a young kid. Not here. Panfilio offers an emotional well of a performance that underpins the emotional costs of all of this bloodshed and all this murder of family members in the Tower of London (once not the tourist-friendly image you currently see on your Olympic screens from London). Along with Tracy Michelle Arnold, whose raging Margaret casts a curse, and Colleen Madden, who offers a raw portrait of the confusion sparked by grief and chaos, Panfilio's performance becomes the conscience of a show that often doesn't seem to have one.

It is, to say the least, a very juicy production, drought or no drought.

Panfilio is also at the heart of the "Twelfth Night," a show that I saw at the matinee and thus without lights. The comedic subplot of the drama is mostly conventional, and although LaShawn Banks has his moments as Malvolio, the funny business all tends to flatten out into familiar pre-ordained patterns: In the best productions of this play, you stand in Malvolio's humiliated shoes; here you observe from afar. The costumes are disconcertingly dark, and the emotional needs of Susan Shunk's tough-to-penetrate Olivia and Marcus Truschinski's Orsino are not as clear as one would like, in part because these characters don't get enough of the foreground attention. You can tell Frank fell in love with his Viola: every time Panfilio opens her mouth, all of the familiar tropes slip away and you feel like you're standing with her in the here and now. At one point, with her cry of "Olivia," she nearly shakes the critters from their trees. Panfilio's melds the past and present — in both language and personality — with great charm and skill, and she's got a terrific match in Samuel Ashdown, who plays her long-lost brother and who reminds me of a young Barry Manilow, back when the crooner had more passion than polish. Their final, haunted reunion (that would be Viola and Sebastian, not Viola and Barry) brought me to tears. It's one of those great scenes that make you marvel anew at how life can actually end well, even when so much points to it ending badly. These two young actors catch that spirit of the play quite beautifully.

If Wohlrabe, a tough, round-faced actress, can't make too much of Maria, she makes far more of Hare's Kyra, a "Skylight" character who has chosen to live modestly and expend her formidable intellect on kids whom others have written off. The key to this woman is to show us both the self-satisfactions of choosing to be an idealist and the endless pull of living an easier, more sensorial life — as manifested by the appeal of a rich, older man, played with the right amount of a successful man's confidence, if not quite enough pain and insecurity, by the skilled Mani.

Wohlrabe dances on that particular knife edge (one we all know, regardless of where our lives finally landed) and reveals that those condemned forever to dance on the blade face the sharpest cuts of all. After a couple of hours of that Olympian angst, the bite of a gymnastic Wisconsin mosquito feels positively benign.

The season runs through Oct. 20 at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wis.; 608-588-2361 and americanplayers.org

cjones5@tribune.com

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