In the summer of 1980 American Players Theatre mounted its first production on a hill in the woods of Spring Green. The fledgling company, led by founders Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso, chose only two plays for the company’s debut season: Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
From its humble beginnings, APT has evolved into a premier regional theater presenting Shakespeare and many other classics in repertory. Now at the beginning of its 37th year, the company has much to celebrate: after an $8 million capital campaign, the outdoor stage has been completely rebuilt, the sightlines and sound improved, the lobby space enhanced, and several rehearsal halls added to the complex. So it seems fitting that American Players should go back to its roots and open this season with the delightful comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with actor Jonathan Smoots as Theseus, The Duke of Athens, the part he played in the debut production almost four decades ago. After seeing the company perform opening night, I am convinced there are many additional reasons that Midsummer is the perfect way to kick off the year.
It is a designer’s playground. Much of the Midsummer plot revolves around woodland fairies making mischief in the forest, so the set and costumes can be as elaborate, creative, and magical as one can invent. Breathtaking from start to finish, this production delivers on that challenge; it is visually stunning.
Costume designer Murell Horton’s playful aesthetic combines layers of sumptuous fabric with the eyes and wings of giant bugs, and fanciful wigs and makeup of every color. Athenians are dressed in contemporary suits combined with traditional Grecian drapes of fabric. As the two pairs of young lovers become more desperate to find one another in the forest, their clothing disappears or becomes more comically distressed until the youths are half naked and covered in mud. Costumes for the acting troupe echo each man’s profession; Bottom the weaver sports a particularly beautiful woven vest and Starveling the tailor wears a very sharp, custom suit.
The set, by Nayna Ramey, is striking in its simplicity and elegance. A brilliant moon changes color with the mood of the action on stage. The forest is composed of several thin poles adorned with teardrop lights. It is more than enough to frame the action of the play.
It showcases the talents of a truly dynamic foursome. As good as she was as Cordelia in King Lear last season, Melisa Pereyra is even better as the diminutive and tenacious Hermia. With the ease of a gymnast, she clings, leaps, and is transported across the stage, fighting to regain the love of Lysander. Nate Burger is also especially good as the disinterested Demetrius, who pursues Hermia into the woods, but leaves with Helena. Newcomers Elizabeth Reese and Juan Rivera Lebron round out the group of exhausted, enchanted lovers brilliantly.
It gives the actors in small parts a great opportunity to shine. When the “rude mechanicals” – a weaver, bellows maker, tinker, tailor and joiner — gather in the forest to rehearse a play that the carpenter Peter Quince has written, the bumbling amateur actors upstage the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe with their comic attempts to perform it. Except for Bottom, the lovable ham who wishes to take on every part, the players have few lines. But they do have enormous opportunity to create memorable characters. In just a few words Xavier Roe brings down the house with his fashion-conscious character’s sass. Ty Fanning makes unforgettable—and loud—entrances with a vast collection of metal utensils strapped to his person. And in one of the most touching moments of the night, Casey Hoekstra transforms from a self-conscious craftsman, embarrassed to be playing Thisbe in a pink dress and blonde wig, to a passionate and poetic lover lamenting the death of her beau. The tone shift from panto to tragedy happens in the blink of an eye and is as exquisite as it is surprising.
It puts some familiar faces in a new light. There are some “bucket list” roles in Midsummer and surely Bottom the weaver was one that John Pribyl has been eyeing. As the blustery actor who is turned into an ass and mistaken for Titania’s true love, Pribyl is simply genius. Milking each line, basking in the fairies’ attention in his donkey hooves and mane, and striding onstage as the noble Pyramus proudly wearing a costume made of beer cans, a hubcap, pot lids, and a teapot, he is sublime.
Likewise, Colleen Madden takes on the role of Titania with verve; she is impossibly sexy and fierce in her feud with Oberon, hissing at him like a wild cat when she is displeased. Enchanted to dote on a random creature, she shakes with joy at the sound of Bottom’s braying one moment, then turns on her fairy servants the next, jealous and possessive of her new, absurd plaything.
Madden is equally matched by Gavin Lawrence as Oberon. A relative newcomer to APT, Lawrence’s voice booms as he commands his faithful sprite Puck to punish Titania and bring the Athenian youths together through magical herb potions. Like an ancient god of the forest, he controls his minions with a wave of his hand.
It lends itself to exuberant music and dance. Choreographer and co-composer Ameenah Kaplan injects the play with a distinct rhythm and movement style, influenced by her experience in the original cast of Stomp and as a drum coach for The Blue Man Group. It is energetic, infectious, and invigorating, and involves a lot of percussion.
It invites creative casting. There are no rules in Midsummer’s fairy kingdom, which means that the chief spirit and mischief maker Puck can be played by an actress instead of an actor. In this case Cristina Panfilio fills those magical shoes, after playing the traditionally male roles of Dromio in The Comedy of Errors and the Fool in King Lear last season. With her infectious laugh, delightful sense of wordplay and an expressive pair of wings, she is part skater boy, part Peter Pan.
In the hands of director John Langs, it is very, very funny. Some scholars speculate that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written as entertainment for a wedding. Whether that’s accurate or not, it feels like a lighthearted celebration of love that overcomes many obstacles, and on paper it’s already a great comedy. As evidenced by this production, there are even more laughs to be mined on every page. (And let’s face it, when a forest nymph steals a guy’s pants, that’s funny.)
It’s the perfect gateway Shakespeare play. Not only are there children portraying fairies in the cast of Midsummer (including the absolutely enchanting Jameson Ridge and Elijah Edwards), there were quite a number of young people in the audience on opening night, which is unusual for APT. But this is a fast moving play that’s filled with chases, transformations, broad comedy, and spectacle, as well as singing, dancing and a happy ending. For those who have never experienced live Shakespeare before — no matter what their age — it’s absolutely accessible and a lot of fun. It also palpably demonstrates the sheer magic of what is possible onstage.
And finally, it’s a wonderful metaphor for the APT experience. Like the lovers who flee the city to play in the forest, American Players Theatre is a rustic escape for theatergoers from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond. It is a place far removed from everyday life where passions run high, conversations are elevated to poetry, and ultimately actors and audience part as friends, enriched by the experience of participating in a magnificent dream.