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Classically Summer
Shakespeare lives on after Labor Day.

 Tracy Michelle Arnold and Jim DeVita in "Antony & Cleopatra"

With Shakespeare festivals spreading across the country from Maine to Southern California, summertime has become a time for the classics. And this year, Milwaukee has joined the crowd. In July, Optimist Theatre presented its fourth annual Shakespeare production, a playful staging of As You Like It, featuring great comic performances by Bryce Lord and Todd Denning. And Leda Hoffman’s pared down version of King Lear at Alchemist Theater presented Shakespeare’s tragedy as a searing family potboiler, while not sacrificing the poignancy of the central character’s troubled last days (here played with grit and fire by Bo Johnson). In August, a new troupe, Cooperative Performance Milwaukee, staged a site-specific Hamlet at the Villa Terrace Museum, using both indoor and outdoor spaces to tell the story (I didn’t make it to this production). And Hoffman tackled a different outdoor space with a smart and stirring production of Margaret Atwood’s women-centered version of Homer’s Odyssey, titled The Penelopiad. (See my review here.)

And there were more riches for those who made the trek to Spring Green, where American Players Theatre is offering a slate of both classical and contemporary plays. If you pay attention at all to local theater, you have probably already heard about APT’s stellar Hamlet. It’s worth the 2-plus-hour trip west, and it is being performed through early October, along with much of APT’s season.

Director John Langs’ great achievement here is to present Shakespeare’s great tragedy in full form, free of confining concepts or rushed concessions to 21st-century attention spans. The breadth of the production allows even secondary characters to chart a compelling journey over the span of the story. Laertes (Eric Parks) begins the play as an adolescent, cavorting with his sister, Ophelia (Cristina Panfiglio), but the events of the play—unveiled to him in a single dramatic homecoming—age him into a spectre of dark vengeance. Panfiglio, too, is able to bring true poignancy to Ophelia’s madness by suggesting the ocean between these early scenes of childish goofiness.

There’s a kind of childishness, too, in Matt Schwader’s Hamlet. At his entrance, he’s hardly the clichéd, brooding melancholic Dane, but a young man still shaken to the core with grief. His loss charges rather than saps him, and it’s that youthful energy—on display in Hamlet’s wit and plotting—that drives the play toward its bloody conclusion. Langs cannily casts Jim Pickering as the ghost, the Player King, and the gravedigger, and plays on Pickering’s haunted expression as a goad to the prince’s drive to vengeance.

There is still time to catch this near-definitive Hamlet, which plays nine more times, including several morning, student matinees. I can’t think of a better way to be introduced to the glories of Shakespeare.

There is also ample opportunity to catch Jim DeVita and Kate Buckley’s adaptation of Antony & Cleopatra, which pares one of Shakespeare’s most unwieldy tragedies (35-plus speaking roles) into a taut exploration of power and romantic obsession. In the original play, there is a powerful sense of a world shaped by idiosyncratic personalities—the passions and bargains of a powerful few slicing up the ancient world and the millions who dwell there. Here, it is a canny examination of how powerful characters interact—and how acting a part gets them to their appointed ends. The two title characters (played with subtle intelligence by Jim DeVita and Tracy Michelle Arnold) certainly do display nobility and passion, but they also display a calculating self-awareness. There certainly is more at stake in ancient Rome, but watching the pair interact brings to mind a pair of Hollywood celebrities, or even an episode of the Kardashians. Image is everything—let the games begin.

Cristina Panfiglio and Matt Schwader in "Hamlet"

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