3 New Productions Will Close Out the American Player Theatre’s Summer Season

“Three Sisters,” “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” and “A View from the Bridge” explore the perils of roaming, and of staying home.

Of all Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” Pericles, Prince of Tyre, presents more problems than most. Generally thought to be co-written by Shakespeare and George Wilkins (whom Harold Bloom calls, “a lowlife hack”), it’s known for abrupt transitions, lapses in story logic, and considerable strain in marching on toward its storybook ending.

That doesn’t seem to bother director Eric Tucker one bit, who turns it into a rollicking bit of storytelling that still packs some emotional — if sentimental — punch.

Tucker is a first-time director in Spring Green. His company, the New York City-based Bedlam theater, is committed to “the immediacy of the relationship between the actor and the audience,” and his Pericles, which opened at American Players Theatre this weekend, doesn’t waste any time establishing that.

Juan Rivera Lebron, Tracy Michelle Arnold and James Ridge.
Photo by Liz Lauren.

The cast, dressed in contemporary street clothes, emerges one by one from a huge trunk, like clowns from a Volkswagen. They wave to the applause, slip out into the aisles and toss around the opening words of the play, which echo through the outdoor Hill Theater.

It is a play of open spaces, after all. It charts the itinerant life of its title character (played by Juan Rivera Lebron). On the run from an assassin, he sails the Mediterranean, chalking up a good share of adventures and catastrophes, including the gain and loss of a wife and daughter.

Perhaps knowing that much of the play is strictly for Shakespeare purists and scholars, Tucker turns his actors loose, inflecting each of Pericles’s destinations into familiar dramatic/comedic territory. And they have a ball. David Daniel and Tracy Michelle Arnold are dustbowl yokels who can’t be trusted. James Ridge and Andrea San Miguel are uppercrust Brit royalty with a twee sense of humor. Ridge and Marcus Truschinski are the hilarious managers of a brothel, in which much of the second act takes place.

But through this irreverent pell-mell pantomime, Tucker has a dramatic ace up his sleeve. As Lebron goes through his adventures, Ridge lurks around the edges of the stage. We soon realize he’s is the elder Pericles, looking back on his adventures, and he’s none too happy about them. The reason becomes clear as the story progresses, eventually leading to the kind of heart-rending reversal of fortune germane to Shakespeare’s last plays. Thanks to Ridge’s performance, and Tucker’s winning concept, you’ll melt with sympathy long before you realize how absurd it all is.

“A View from the Bridge.”
Photo by Liz Lauren.

There are plenty of fireworks in APT’s shattering production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, but one of the most explosive moments is also one of the quietest. Toward the end of the first act, Beatrice Carbone (Colleen Madden) is having a heart-to-heart with Catherine (Melisa Pereyra), her husband Eddie’s niece, who they’ve raised since the death of her mother. Now that Catherine is 17 years old, Beatrice tries to quell the growing sexual tension in the household, cautioning Catherine to stop behaving like a child around Eddie (James DeVita): “You’re a grown woman and you’re in the same house with a grown man.” In the stage directions, Miller calls for Beatrice to be “at the edge of tears,” but Madden’s Beatrice demands that she “say goodbye” with a steely conviction and a piercing glare. This isn’t just motherly advice of a typical Miller woman, it’s also a woman staking a claim — the integrity of her own small world is on the line.

The tension is heightened by the arrival of Beatrice’s cousins, Rodolpho and Marco (Will Mobley and Casey Hoekstra), illegal immigrants from poverty-stricken Sicily. They are here to work on the docks and send money home, but Rodolpho and Catherine strike up a romance, which doesn’t sit well with Eddie.

Brian Mani and James DeVita.
Photo by Liz Lauren.

Much of Eddie’s reaction is couched in homophobic comments — that “he ain’t right” — which land a little awkwardly after 60 years of evolving attitudes about sexual identity. But there is no mistaking the compelling authenticity of DeVita’s performance. He projects Eddie’s pride and weariness, the bodily toll of his years working on the docks. You can see the source of Beatrice’s anxiety in the smallest gesture—Catherine helping him ease painfully out of his workingman’s jacket, his fatherly look at her from across the room. Every detail moves the story toward its tragic conclusion. Miller’s narration is almost superfluous to the drama, but Brian Mani delivers it with matter-of-fact reserve that befits Miller’s aspiration to pen an American tragedy worthy of Aeschylus.

For the superb specificity of the performances, also credit director Tim Ocel, who finely tunes the ensemble and controls the story’s inevitable pace. With a cast of ten actors, this is a story that could have held its own on the larger, outdoor stage, but it gains immeasurable power from the intimacy of the indoor Touchstone Theatre. It’s hard to imagine a finer rendering of this great American classic.

“Three Sisters”
Photo by Liz Lauren.

The expansive space of The Hill stage is right for William Brown’s superb production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. In fact, it helps tell the story. As the play opens, the back wall of the stage is open, and we can see the landscape and the household help gathering flowers for the picnic to come. The family and guests come together eventually around an elegant outdoor meal, and everything seems idyllically intimate. But at the story’s close, the space between the characters has expanded and the stage seems almost bare and empty. Kevin Depinet’s swoosh of a stage design suggests the road not taken, or perhaps a trajectory that exists only in the characters’ dreams.

That road, of course, leads to Moscow, an escape from the dreary existence of provincial life into an imagined life of urban sophistication. Most of the characters pine for that life—with varying degrees of ferocity — or they long for their own particular “Moscow,” and a life somehow “Other” than the one they find themselves.

With a universal idea so central to life as we know it, it’s not surprising that Three Sisters is considered Chekhov’s greatest play. And the most challenging.

APT is exactly the kind of company that’s capable of bringing it to life — talented actors who have built working relationships over the years. It’s the kind of company, for example, in which Sarah Day and John Pribyl can play small, “tangential” parts and imbue them with substance and pulse (Day’s scene in Act Three, in which she is coarsely berated by the haughty Natasha (Eliza Stoughton) is one of the play’s most heartbreaking.

Of course, no part in Three Sisters is truly tangential, and director Brown masterfully orchestrates the actors’ distinct trajectories. He’s not afraid of silences, either, which serves the play well. There’s nullity in the stretches of quiet that punctuate the lives of these people, and in that emptiness, you can almost hear the wind sweeping across the Russian countryside, reminding everyone that their Moscow is just down the road — beckoning, but always out of reach.

Pericles and Three Sisters run through late September on APT’s Hill Stage.

A View from the Bridge runs through October 22.




Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.