Review: At Spring Green, It’s Shakespeare—and More—in a Pastoral Setting

American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis., opens with a summer bouquet of plays for every taste

American Players Theatre, located in rural Spring Green, Wis., has attracted Illinois theatergoers ever since its opening 43 summers ago. Now, with its first full season of plays since the pandemic, American Players (APT) offers a bountiful mix of shows in rotating repertory. This means that one can experience several plays over a long weekend. We give Spring Green four stars for the overall quality of the experience and its productions, including staging and performances.

As regulars know, plays by Shakespeare, as well as shows with larger casts, are reserved for the Hill Theatre. Theatergoers take a long hike up a semi-steep hill to find 1,100 cushioned seats in a natural, outdoor amphitheater. This is APT’s original home, and on a sparkling summer evening, it can’t be beat. (Elderly and disabled patrons are encouraged to use one of the complimentary shuttle buses to travel up and down the hill.)

Wisely, the theater company eventually installed a much smaller indoor theater, the Touchstone, for contemporary plays and more recent classics. With only 200 seats, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Most casts consist of a mere handful of actors, who perform mere feet away from the audience.

Indoor audiences can relax in air-conditioned comfort, far away from the bugs that occasionally plague patrons at the outdoor theater (please note that an endless supply of bug spray is always within easy reach outdoors). As of this writing, everyone entering the Touchstone Theatre must wear masks.

These days, APT is in full swing, with two or three plays in rotation in both theaters. Things don’t slow down until the late fall, when the summer stage goes dark and only indoor shows continue until late November.

A recent visit included two of APT’s outdoor shows, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Rivals, an 18th century comedy of manners that is played as a full-out, hilarious funfest. One of the Indoor productions is The Brothers Size, which illuminates African culture and also makes some pointed social statements.

Here’s a brief recap of all three shows:

Hamlet: Triney Sandoval and Colleen Madden Photo by:
“Hamlet” royalty: Triney Sandoval and Colleen Madden. Photo by Liz Lauren.
The Many Moods of Hamlet Are Explored in Spring Green

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies,and it appears regularly in APT’s roster. Over the years, veteran actor-director-author James DeVita has often been a part of these shows. DeVita is the current production’s director. In the 2013 version, he played Claudius, the murderer who seizes his brother’s crown and his queen. Going back even further to the 2003 APT production, DeVita played the title character. DeVita and his family are year-round Spring Green residents, and he is still one of the most popular fixtures onstage.

The grieving Danish prince first appears onstage dressed entirely in black, a sign that he is still mourning the death of his father, the king. Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother (Colleen Madden), wears a slinky, form-fitting gown made of pale blue satin. This indicates that she has moved on from her former husband’s death. The occasion is a royal party, celebrating Gertrude’s recent marriage to her ex-brother-in-law Claudius, who has also become king (played by a scheming Triney Sandoval). The new king is jubilant over his recent possession of both crown and queen.

Nate Burger as Hamlet. Photo by Liz Lauren.

In the hands of veteran APT player Nate Burger, Prince Hamlet displays all the shock, awe and anger one would expect from his early scene with his father’s ghost. Emboldened by one of the ghost’s requests, Hamlet devises a plan for revenge. He also makes time to ask bold questions about the meaning of life. In this moment, Nate Burger turns to the hushed audience. The theatergoers are waiting expectantly for Hamlet’s famous “to be, or not to be” monologue, as well as the one that begins with “what a piece of work is man.” Burger doesn’t disappoint.

Burger’s Hamlet may seem less melancholy or forceful than some would wish, but Burger works hard to establish a close connection with the audience. These frequent attempts to draw the audience into the action meet with some success. In Hamlet’s final swordfight, for example, there’s no question about who the audience is rooting for.

Director and Cast Bring Out Riotous Humor in The Rivals

Also performing on the hill is Richard Brimley Sheridan’s The Rivels. APT has loaded this production with an all-star cast featuring many favorites of regular APT theatergoers. The cast members appearing in this show include: Tracy Michelle Arnold, Kelsey Brennan, Tim Gittings, David Daniel, Milwaukee-based Brian Mani, James Ridge, Marcus Truschinski, Colleen Madden and Sarah Day. If all their theater credits were lumped together, this group of actors basically has appeared in every Wisconsin theater company over the years, not to mention many out-of-state regional theaters.

But that’s only a sliver of The Rivals entire cast, which toils supremely under the direction of Aaron Posner. Perhaps “toil” isn’t the operative word, since everyone onstage seems to be having as much fun as the audience.

Some of the characters’ names are direct giveaways to the audience, such as Lydia Languish (Kelsey Brennan) and Captain Jack Absolute (Marcus Truschinski).

Pulling off this breezy endeavor is much harder than it looks, although these theatrical pros seem to toss off their witty banter with easy confidence. The quips fly fast and furious here, and there’s no daydreaming allowed in the audience if one wishes to mine all of the plot’s comedic gems.

Ensemble in The Rivals. Photo by Liz Lauren.

One need only to concentrate on the character of Mrs. Malaprop (played winningly by Tracy Michelle Arnold) to tickle one’s funny bone. The poor dear is prone to so many word misappropriations that the word “malapropism” was added to the dictionary long ago.

True to the show’s title, there are a number of “rivals” (some more serious than others) who must be thwarted before everyone ends up with their “true love.” One couldn’t imagine this light-hearted frolic ending any other way.

A Multi-Layered The Brothers Size Thrills on Every Level

Three male actors and a mostly non-speaking “griot”—or storyteller—comprise the entire cast of The Brothers Size. This play combines a unique blend of West African storytelling, music and movement, merged with a contemporary tale of the Black experience. Playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney creates an unusual and brilliant work, directed here by APT Core Company member Gavin Lawrence.

The Brothers Size is a pandemic hold-over from the 2020 season, which was scrapped due to the pandemic. Judging from a recent performance, the play was certainly worth the wait.

The play focuses on several deities within the Yoruba culture, which originated in Africa and eventually traveled to America. However, it is entirely possible for theatergoers to enjoy and appreciate the contemporary context of the play without any prior knowledge of its African origins.

Ensemble in The Brothers Size. Photo by Liz Lauren.

In essence, The Brothers Size tells the story of two brothers in small-town Louisiana. The hard-working older brother Ogun (Rasell Holt) runs his own car mechanic shop. His less-motivated younger brother, Oshoosi (Derrick Moore), has just been released from prison. He prefers to laze around Ogun’s house, much to Ogun’s dismay. Grudgingly, Oshoosi agrees to help Ogun at the shop. Oshoosi does his best to live up to his older brother’s expectations, but he is eventually led astray by a third character, Elegba (Nathan Barlow). The two men served prison time together.

The narrative is punctuated throughout with songs, chants and abstract dance moves. There’s a sense of rhythm and poetry in this piece, as dialogue fades in and out of the play’s soundscape (sound design by Josh Schmidt).

This profoundly moving story is a not-to-be-missed treat for those who have never seen a production of The Brothers Size.

These are only three of nine shows that comprise the current APT season. Hamlet, with running time of 3 hours, continues until October 8. The Rivals, which runs 2.5 hours, continues until September 17. The Brothers Size is a 2-hour play that continues through October 8. All three plays have an intermission. Indoor shows require a mask. Other shows on the APT roster include Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (through October 9), Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (August 5-October 7) and The River Bride by Marisela Treviňo (through September 30). For the complete list, visit americanplayers.org, or call the box office at 608-588-2361. Single tickets are priced at $59-$99, although ticket deals may be offered during the season.   

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Anne Siegel
Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic who has been a member of the American Theatre Critics Association for more than 30 years. She has served on the organization’s executive committee and has held a number of committee chairmanships. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites. We're pleased that she sometimes also writes for Third Coast Review.

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