Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! High-Level Wisconsin Outdoor Theater Destination Rolling On

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It rained.

My busman’s holiday* to two American Players Theatre plays ran up against one performance being cut off before the conclusion and the other stopped 20 minutes in from the start.

Oh well, rain is the chance you take with outdoor performances.

I was still able to get a flavor of the place. The professionalism is tasty.

That’s why American Players Theatre continues as a destination for people who like quality theater with other attractions around it – a type of Door County but not a carbon copy.

The theater is in the rolling part of Wisconsin, the scenic southwest.

Nearby attractions include a couple of notables – the wonder of hoarding (House on the Rock) and the wonder of genius (Taliesen, the home of great architect Frank Lloyd Wright).

American Players Theatre is one of the if-you-build-it-they-will-come phenomena.

The campus is off a winding road off a winding road at the top of the hill in the middle of the woods. Also, you have to trundle about a quarter of a mile up to the theater on a winding gravel path. They payoff once you settle into the amphitheater seating is adventuresome theater.

This season’s lineup for the outdoor theater, the fare being called On the Hill, consists of William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and “Measure for Measure,” George Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer,” Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House.” Performances continue to Oct. 7.

This season’s indoor fare, called In the Touchstone, consists of Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot,” Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King,” and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Our Country’s Good.” Performances continue to Oct. 7. John Morogiello’s “Engaging Shaw” opens Oct. 27 for a late fall run.

Overall information is at americanplayers.org.

My interest was the outdoor productions.

I saw much of William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” before an impending thunderstorm shut down the performance in the second act. The play is one of Shakespeare’s cosmic mistaken identities comedies. Famously, it contains the monolog on the stages of man (humankind, if you prefer) that’s set off by the line, “All the world’s a stage.” Fourhundredsome years ago, we had in writing the human template. Great stuff.

Three side trips here:

One. That *. A busman’s holiday finds a vacationer doing what he/she normally does. I review performances – 175 last year – and here I am on vacation taking in two plays for funsies. Well, kinda/sorta funsies because I AM writing about them now.

Two. A chance meeting. American Folklore Theatre’s production of “As You Like It” contains rugged and demanding action set up by a fight choreographer. Included are a nasty deliberate tumble in an aisle and a wrestling match in which actors put their bodies in jeopardy performance after performance. I was especially looking for the effects because I met the choreographer that morning in a remarkable way. My wife and I were taking in the shops of Spring Green (an eclectic collection) when we came upon a vacant building on Jefferson Street with a sign out front – The Evergreen… Two Crows Theatre Company. Noise was coming from inside, so I went in. (It’s a habit from being in the news business). One of two guys toiling away told about starting a performance venue that will include theater performances. Central will be a black box theater for winter productions. The first are to be “The Mystery of Irma Vep” and “Agnes of God” – a couple of little toughies, one a comedy and the other a drama. The person telling me this is Brian Byrnes, the fight choreographer for American Players Theatre. This place would be an off-season venue. It would be agreeable for such establishments as Freddy Valentine’s, an atmospheric restaurant in a former bank across the street. By my estimate, the restaurant and theater could have a symbiotic relationship. Even on holiday/vacation, I couldn’t resist exploring this new-theater venture.

Three. A comment. After meeting Byrnes in his work-in-progress place that was pretty much gutted at the time, my wife and I stopped at a nearby coffee shop where four townies were gathered. We chatted. What was taking place in The Evergreen was news to them. One commented, “This town’s getting more artsy all the time.” Indeed, Spring Green has a tone of artsy-ness. There are galleries and shops that feature décor, and one of the jewelers has precious gems for the not-so-faint-of-heart (large pocketbooks).

The other play on my (our) schedule was “Born Yesterday,” which I saw this spring in a fine production at Green Bay Community Theater. My wife had never seen the play – and still has yet to see more than the beginning because a soaking rain slipped in and stopped the action. We opted to leave. We learned later that the performance resumed and ran to the end with a mist falling. Three separate patrons who stuck it out said the same thing: The production was funny, but they were not happy sitting in the damp and getting a chill.

Even seeing partial performances was educational for me.

“As You Like It” was an adaptation that demonstrated (again) how pliable Shakespeare is. The clown Touchstone was dressed in a fairly formal suit. The character Jaques, usually played by a man, is played by a woman, Tracy Michelle Arnold. Fortunately, the rain held off until Jaques/Arnold finished the speech: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances…” Having heard that expertly presented made me happy.

“Born Yesterday,” a beauty of an American comedy with a huge message about the democratic way, had me taking mental notes. I compared the pros with the other performances I’ve seen. Amateurs can stand up very well, by the way. Everything clicked at American Players Theatre until the players – and audience – started getting soaked.

Interesting for me was seeing a stage setup that is akin to Northern Sky Theatre’s in the amphitheater of Peninsula State Park in Door County. Both have wooden walls that are permanent, with exit and entry ways also pretty well locked in. Both theaters have to dress the walls differently from play to play. Both theaters have to use their imagination to make the place fit the action as best possible. Both theaters have a lot of trees around – also in the stage in the case of Northern Sky Theatre. While both theaters employ stage pieces to help set time and place, they are limited and thus the focus at both is the acting.

That said, “Born Yesterday” shows what American Players Theatre can do with décor. A wall and staircase are built out from the stock wall. Posh furnishings and decorations from the 1940s era set the scene of a high-tone hotel suite. Everything has to withstand the weather… better than I did.

People like good, better, best comparisons. I’ve been to the Shakespeare-minded Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. I’ve been to the (George Bernard) Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada between Buffalo (U.S.) and Toronto (Canada). I’ve been to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. I’ve been to Shakespeare’s Globe in London, England. I’ve been… da da da da da. Add in American Players Theatre – good, better, best? Forget it. Just go and enjoy theater.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.

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