Lives Out of Balance -- Teetering on the Edge

There is a theory that great writers lean heavily on their unhappy childhoods to create their art, and there are some notable examples that prove the rule. Stephen King’s early years make his novels look like a picnic in the park. Certainly Eugene O’Neill’s fraught family dynamics led to his greatest work; A Long Day’s Journey into Night. Tracy Letts has admitted that he based much of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County on his own childhood memories. And Edward Albee revealed that several of the characters in A Delicate Balance are based on members of his adopted family. They’ve each done us a great service in allowing us to be voyeurs in their miserable homes, instead of asking us to join them for dinner. To peek into the manipulations and machinations at work in the Albee household, see Strollers Theatre’s well constructed A Delicate Balance, on the Evjue Stage in the Bartell, through September 30th.

Remembering September 11th with the Musical "Come from Away"

There are so many stories about 9/11. 

It's been 16 years since that fateful September 11th, and I still remember how blue the sky was. In fact it seems like each anniversary day has identicial weather -- a brilliant, clear blue sky, bright sun, a slight chill in the air hinting that fall is right around the corner. And of course I remember looking up at that sky reflexively as I drove to work in 2001, listening to a special report on NPR that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, and wondering how a pilot could possibly make such a navigational error on such a bright, clear day. 

Then everyone listened to the news for the rest of the day, as the horrifying events unfolded.

In Agony and Ecstasy, Mike Daisey Lies to a Lot of People

On my way to see the one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, I switched on NPR in my car. Just in time, I heard the official announcement that Apple will be unveiling some as-yet-unnamed new products later this month, and I imagined the simultaneous elation and anger that Mike Daisey must have felt at that moment. I’m sure the author of the often controversial monologue—about Steve Jobs, the cult of Apple, and consumers’ responsibility to buy ethically created products—is still obsessed with upgrades to his iPhone and the latest shiny gadgets from Silicon Valley’s biggest star. And I was hoping the local incarnation of Daisey’s diatribe would shed some light on our current conundrums— about Foxconn coming to Wisconsin. About the necessity for labor unions and worker protections. About technology taking over our lives and frankly, the world.

A View from the Bridge -- An American Tragedy

A New York lawyer who worked with longshoremen in the 1950s once told a tragic, true story of illegal immigrants, betrayed loyalties, and the corrupted love between a good-as-he-had-to-be, hardworking Italian-American man and his niece. Fortunately for us, the lawyer was talking to renowned American dramatist Arthur Miller, who then turned the story into the play A View from the Bridge. Onstage in American Players Theatre’s Touchstone through October 22, it is a haunting tragedy of Greek proportions, deftly directed by Tim Ocel and featuring some of the best performances of the season at APT.

APT's Pericles is an Epic Adventure of Hilarious Proportions

Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre could be a director’s nightmare. More like an action-adventure movie than a play at times, it features dozens of characters, several perilous sea voyages, too many kingdoms to count, two competitions for a princess’s hand in marriage, raging storms, assassins, incest, love, loss, one goddess, and a brothel. Oh, and pirates.

Overheard at APT II

American Players Theatre's current production of The View from the Bridge. 

American Players Theatre's current production of The View from the Bridge

On Saturday I saw the opening performance of A View from the Bridge at American Players Theatre. The Arthur Miller classic was astonishing, thanks to stellar performances by Jim DeVita, Colleen Madden, Brian Mani, and the rest of the cast.

In the final moments of the modern tragedy, when the mounting tension of the play finally explodes in a fatal fight, the audience seemed to be holding its breath in unison. Except for the woman sitting behind me, who had already started to weep. Long before the final blow landed on DeVita's flawed hero, Eddie Carbone, she cried softly right through to the end of the play. And I thought, why are you sobbing already? You're ahead of the story. Why are you so devastated now? 

During the curtain call, as I wiped away my own tears,  I turned around to see APT Artistic Director Brenda DeVita holding a kleenex, eyes red and swollen. And it all made sense. 

“Three Sisters” Chronicles the Last Gasp of the Russian Aristocracy

The first moments of American Players Theatre’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters are picture perfect. It is early May, and one of the servants (an earthy Sarah Day) is laying out crystal and silver on ornate rugs for 20-year-old Irina’s name-day party. Far in the background, in the actual green hills behind the stage, Olga and another servant are picking flowers in the meadow to celebrate the occasion. As the two women bring their bouquets to the feast, several exuberant (and shirtless) young men tumble down the hill in a good-natured race, frolicking until a photographer urges them to gather for a picture. The group obediently assembles for the photo, but not before the vigor drains from their faces. Clothes are straightened and hair smoothed. Joy is replaced by steely eyes and stoic expressions. They hold the pose while the film is exposed. The image of this day, which will outlive all its participants, is one of dour resolve.

"Hamilton" U - A summer course explores the many facets of the wildly popular musical

It’s Friday morning in the Humanities Building on the UW-Madison campus. Sarah Marty, wearing a leaf-green dress and a faded jean jacket, searches frantically for the work laptop that’s supposed to be in her book bag. “I can’t believe it’s our last day already,” says Marty, a faculty associate from the Division of Continuing Studies and lead instructor for the summer class Hamilton: An American Musical. Then she makes a course-specific joke under her breath, “There’s a million things we haven’t done!”

Foolish and Rash? That’s Called Panache — APT’s Cyrano Delights

From the first moment of the play, the audience senses that Cyrano de Bergerac is not like other men. He is spoken of in hushed tones, his entrance much anticipated by a growing crowd of 17th century French fops and socialites, festively adorned. They wonder aloud if Cyrano will appear tonight at the theater, where he has forbidden the overstuffed, hack actor Montfleury (a delightfully hammy Brian Mani) from taking the stage so that he will not once again butcher the poetry he is supposed to perform. When Cyrano, unseen, hurls warnings at the stage from the back of the house, his stature only grows. And when he finally enters, he does not disappoint; Cyrano (an extraordinary James Ridge) is larger than life—as is the delightful production of Rostand’s classic at American Players Theatre, on stage at the Hill Theatre through October 6th. Adapted and directed by APT Core Company member James DeVita, Cyrano de Bergerac is an epic adventure and romance, comedy and tragedy rolled into one.

Les Petits Cadeaux in Cyrano for APT Fans

Marcus Truschinski takes centerstage with other elegantly dressed Marquises in Cyrano de Bergerac at American Players Theatre.  

Marcus Truschinski takes centerstage with other elegantly dressed Marquises in Cyrano de Bergerac at American Players Theatre.

 

For theatergoers who have enjoyed plays at American Players Theatre for a few seasons or more, there are some delightful details embedded in the production.

Friends and Enemies: Last season Chiké Johnson played Othello to Jim Ridge’s devious counselor Iago. In Cyrano, their roles are reversed. Johnson plays LeBret, who is constantly urging his friend to be less abrasive, less rash, and make fewer enemies. Where Othello succumbed to Iago’s treacherous advice, Cyrano does not attend his concerned companion’s concerns.

A Fine Fop: Since DeVita crafted the script for Cyrano with APT’s core company in mind, he expanded the role of an ostentatiously adorned fop and wrote it specifically for Marcus Truschinski. “I knew he’d have fun with it,” DeVita said in a pre-show talk.

Confidantes: The role of Roxane’s chaperone is usually filled by an older actress, but DeVita was so taken with the friendship and onstage chemistry between actresses Kelsey Brennan and Laura Rook that he changed the dynamic slightly so that Brennan was more friend and confidante than disapproving nurse. Incidentally, the two women will play siblings later this summer in Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

A Deep Collaboration: While DeVita was assembling the script, he frequently asked his leading actor Jim Ridge to read through scenes in development and offer feedback. An extraordinary opportunity for both writer and actor, this experience undoubtedly built trust in the project long before rehearsals began.

Another Iliad: Although it is called for in the original script, APT audience members can give each other a knowing smile when Cyrano suggests that his fellow soldiers feast on a copy of The Iliad during a long siege. DeVita garnered rave reviews for his one-man-show An Iliad in 2016, both at the Milwaukee Rep and at APT.

Another Musketeer: There are references to Dumas’ Three Musketeers in the original script of Cyrano and DeVita keeps several intact, which is fitting since he has also adapted The Three Musketeers for the stage. It was produced by the Madison Rep in 1999.

DeVita vs. DeVita: Shortly before the play opened, APT Artistic Director Brenda DeVita sat in on a dress rehearsal and expressed concern about the play’s length. At more than three hours, she worried about the audience’s attention span and, perhaps more importantly, the limited time the company would have to change over the set for another play on the same day. As he recounted the story, James put his foot down to his boss/spouse, saying, “No, that’s the play. We tell long stories here. And we tell stories from a time when there wasn’t Twitter or TV. We can’t cut it.” And they didn’t.