Thirty-seven years ago, Jonathan Smoots stepped onto a newly built stage in Spring Green and began the first season of American Players Theatre. Last Sunday, he uttered the same line — “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour/Draws on apace…” — upon a newly rebuilt stage. This production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened APT’s 2017 season, was a fitting sign of promising seasons ahead.
A few hours before the play began, hundreds of APT supporters toured the new facilities — the result of a nearly $8-million capital campaign and a frenzied construction schedule over the winter. Like the space in which it was performed, this Midsummer was very different than APT’s 1980 version, staged by one of APT’s co-founders Anne Occhiogrosso, and starring another co-founder, Randall Duk Kim, as Puck. The differences went beyond the bare-bones facility, which had no permanent buildings and no plumbing. Kim and Occiogrosso had a very particular approach to Shakespeare, one akin to the “original instrument” ethos in classical music. As founded, APT was devoted exclusively to Shakespeare (it expanded to include other “classic” plays a few years later), and it was dedicated to performing uncut, historically accurate texts. Seventeen years before the reconstructed Globe Theatre opened in London, a company in Wisconsin wanted to recreate the experience of Elizabethan theater.
The Midsummer that opened this season didn’t mark any abrupt changes in the APT aesthetic — the theater has been gradually changing over the years. But comparing it to the inaugural production is an index of the company’s 37-year evolution. John Langs honors the more traditional approaches to Midsummer, while adding a hefty dollop of contemporary sensibility. Murell Horton’s glorious costumes clearly parse the three worlds of the play: elegant Athenians looking very Jil Sander — save the toga-like “vests” the men wear under their cloud-gray jackets; the rude mechanical working stiffs heaped with the stuff of their trades–except for leader/director Peter Quince (Tracy Michelle Arnold), looking ready to direct a Mack Sennett silent comedy; and the unearthly spirits of the forest, who are spritely enough, but also suggest a crew that just survived an all-night party at a Gen-Con convention.
It’s in this spirit world that director John Langs works some of his freshest magic, aided to be sure by the imagination of his actors. Titania (Colleen Madden) is part fairy-queen and part dominatrix, and her ethereal charges (Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, et. al.) know not to get in the way of her stampeding libido. Cristina Panfilio plays Puck with wry wit, channeling Motown dance moves to celebrate her victories, and sporting a nifty set of wings that are one of the evening’s best sight gags.
As for the Athenian roundelay, Langs puts the two young couples (Elizabeth Reese, Melisa Pereyra, Juan Rivera Lebron, and Nate Burger) through their paces. Loose in the forest and bewitched by Oberon’s potions, they grow more desperate and tattered with every entrance–as if they’re trapped in a Walking Dead episode. The lovers quarrels grow more and more physical, eventually climaxing with Pereyra at the center of a slapstick pas de trois that has the audience in stitches (even though it seems to threaten to put the actors in the emergency room).
The finale—the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe by the itinerant players—is as raucous and hilarious as you might expect. As Bottom, John Pribyl’s comic performance is almost outdone by his Pyramus costume, an ingenious mélange of beer cans, hub caps and cookware. And the rest of the troupe hits all the right deadpan notes. Langs even remedies the working-stiff condescension of the scene by having everyone join in a thundering dance celebration to close the show. As the audience cheers suggested, they weren’t the only ones having a good old time.