A Midsummer Night’s Dream

American Players Theatre

Spring Green, Wisconsin

The Devil’s Disciple

American Players Theatre

Spring Green, Wisconsin

By Jack Helbig

Every theatrical experience is a pilgrimage of sorts. But some are more arduous than others–and sometimes a trial of some kind actually enhances a show, especially if it also takes you to a sacred place where memory, desire, and the cultural unconscious meet. Some of my favorite theatrical pilgrimages have involved more physical travel than usual, too, to Broadway and the West End and humbler shrines closer to home.

I’ve gone to the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, almost every summer since the mid-80s. Early on, when I was a broke bohemian living on a temp’s wages, my future wife and I used to usher for the price of admission. And we kept going back even after I became a critic and began seeing more shows a week than most Americans see in a year. It’s not a long car trip–about four and a half hours–but it’s far enough to feel you’ve left Chicago behind. Set amid the rolling green hills of southwestern Wisconsin, Spring Green is a resort area, with golf courses for those who can’t take their nature straight and plenty of woods, marshes, and rivers for everyone else. There are the usual tourist attractions, some educational–like Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio–and some just plain wacky, like the notoriously kitschy House on the Rock. But Spring Green hasn’t become a congested summer mecca like Door County or the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan.

American Players Theatre was founded a little more than 20 years ago by a group of disenchanted New Yorkers who decided to move en masse to Spring Green (one actor’s hometown) and form a company. Two decades in Wisconsin have done nothing to dull their edge, though the plays chosen tend to be classics.

This year the shows we planned to see were innocuous enough: a Saturday-afternoon performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple that night. (APT also has running in rep The Winter’s Tale and, later in the summer, Racine’s Phedre and Gogol’s The Inspector General.) The Shakespeare play was being performed at an odd time, considering that most of the action takes place after the sun goes down and this was an outdoor theater. I’d already seen APT do A Midsummer Night’s Dream–a play I’ve watched 10 times and will probably watch 20 more. Yet it’s a good choice for the company, which seems to attract actors who really know how to do comedy. The play I was looking forward to, however, was The Devil’s Disciple. So I was secretly a little glad when the first drops of rain started to fall as we were driving up to the theater. Good, I thought, the afternoon show will be canceled and we’ll just catch the Shaw play later.

I was wrong. The rain fell as we parked the car. It fell as we walked up the trail to the amphitheater, set on the side of a wooded hill. The rain fell as we had our tickets torn, as we loitered in the gift shop, as we made our way to our seats. (The ushers gave us paper towels to wipe them off.) Apparently APT cancels a production only when there’s a full-fledged downpour or lots of thunder and lightning. Luckily I had a poncho. I could sit through an act or so–surely the rain would last no longer–and remain fairly dry.

The rain fell through the entire first half, reminding me of World War I movies with guys huddled in the trenches smoking soggy cigarettes. Pools of water formed onstage and on my poncho. Actors and audience alike were quickly soaked. The performers’ carefully coiffed hair hung in fat strands over their foreheads and down their backs. Their props became heavy and dark with water. Intermission came and went–along with an announcement that our tickets would be honored at a later show if we wished to leave–and still the rain fell. Paul Barnes in his director’s note had pointed out that Sam Fleming’s authentic costumes came straight from designs of the 1700s. But after an hour in the rain, they were just so many yards of wet fabric. During the catfight between Hermia and Helena, Helena raised a parasol to threaten Hermia and flung water everywhere. In another scene Paul Bentzen–playing a punky Puck–earned a big laugh by hydroplaning across the stage.

Perhaps 20 percent of the audience left at intermission. The rest of us remained–400 people by my rough count. True, some audience members retreated to the sides and back, where they could open their umbrellas. But most of us moved up front, the better to see the waterlogged actors. Most surprising, though, was how well the production stood up. A lesser company would have thrown in the towel. A less focused ensemble would have lost it.

This cast stuck it out, delivering Shakespeare’s lines clearly and beautifully. The rain brought all of us together, created an additional spectacle, and made everyone a bit looser and happier. The comic sections of the play worked like a charm. Even the silly bits–like the rude mechanical scenes, in which a group of amateur actors blunder their way through an awful script–were wonderful. Drew Brhel made a very moving, funny Bottom, playing this often hammed-up role with restraint and craft. He even made the obvious physical gag of wearing a donkey’s head funny. His confederates were equally restrained and effective.

Even more impressive were the four love stories. The young lovers usually fare well, of course: any quartet of nice-looking young actors can do a tolerable rendition of young love. More challenging are the roles of Oberon and Titania and the adult games they play. These characters begin by squabbling like old married folks, and in less careful hands their bickering and Oberon’s vengeful trick of making Titania fall in love with the first “vile thing” she sees might be played strictly for laughs. But Jonathan Smoots and Tracy Michelle Arnold make it clear how sexy these two are and how much they still love each other, even after years of infidelity and marital discord. As a result, their reunion is particularly satisfying.

As if on cue, the rain began to taper off as we headed back down the hill to our cars. It was pretty much over by the time we got to our motel room to change clothes.

After our wet but festive afternoon, The Devil’s Disciple was something of a letdown, though the production wasn’t bad. The plot follows a roguish young American, Richard Dudgeon, as he matches wits with the British during the Revolutionary War. Shaw’s joke was to pack the play with every melodramatic cliche of his time–the prodigal son returned, the poor orphan given a home, the secret revealed at the last minute–though Shaw’s contemporaries overlooked his satire, as the playwright slyly noted in a preface to the published work. Today we don’t even know the warhorses he was making fun of and are left to enjoy as best we can this ripping yarn.

The American Players’ production started slowly–melodrama, like farce, takes a while to get off the ground. But this version moved so slowly you could see people drifting off across the amphitheater. The production caught fire, however, halfway through the second of the three acts, in a terrific scene between the charismatic Dudgeon and a moralistic minister’s wife who pretends she’s morally repulsed even as she’s drawn to him. Featuring two of the strongest actors in the cast–Jim DeVita, full of animal magnetism as Dudgeon, and Emma Bates–this scene brought out the chemistry between them and transformed what had been a merely workmanlike production into a truly entertaining one. My only regret was that it didn’t rain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Zane Williams.