Tag Archives: American Players Theatre

Allure

Before the play I watched her sit, posed, on a rock,
one knee bent up, near her chin. She was covered just so
modestly with what can only be called a frock,
one bright red shoe dangling from a pedicured toe.
Let me say more about her fabulous dress
which I got to observe going down the hill after
the play. Sheer and sleeveless, white, a mess
of summer flowers painted on the skirt.
Everything looked expensive and just exactly right.
I haven’t mentioned yet how old she was.
Seventy-something I’m guessing, which is why
it wasn’t a surprise to see her favoring her knees
as we made our way to the parking lot and why
I can’t get the way I saw her first out of my mind.

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These are my red shoes. Not hers. Still.

 

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I saw her before and after seeing The Unexpected Man at the Touchstone @ American Players Theatre (which is wonderful and which you should go see and which I will write about more if I can think of anything to say other than “perfect”) so of course I couldn’t possibly say anything to this woman about any of this.

The Year of Buffalo Pokey

An embarrassment of entertainment riches, really.

In less than a week, all within a few minutes of my house, I’ve seen two great plays and one great concert.

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Pokey LaFarge and his horn section.

All that greatness is dizzying, apparently.

In a dizzy moment, I asked the usher to help me figure out where I was sitting for David Mamet’s American Buffalo last night.  She looked at the ticket, here:

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“You’re in Aisle 2,” she said (which was actually the only thing I was confused about–still not quite familiar enough with the aisles in the wonderful Touchstone to know for sure where to go). “Row E, Seat 204,” she said.

Well, all of us looking at the ticket now can clearly see it was Row F.

Imagine if I were sitting near Teach or Donny from American Buffalo.

“Fucking usher,” Teach would’ve said (not taking any responsibility for looking closely at his own ticket).

“Sorry, sorry,” Bobby would’ve said, when the correct inhabitants pointed out they wanted the seat they paid for.

“No shame in a simple mistake,” Donny might have said to himself later in the evening, after moving from Row E, Seat 204, to Row D, Seat 204.

But then what would Teach say, when he realized, after the house manager pointed it out later, that Row D, Seat 204 also belonged to someone else?  And what would he have said when he pulled out the ticket to show the house manager who gently pointed out, “That’s the wrong date.  And the wrong play,” thus:

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Teach would’ve had a manic meltdown; I just felt flustered (the house manager was just trying to figure out what the issue was; she’d found seats for the other people already). I said I’m sorry a bunch & I’ll say it again, to whomever I displaced, “I’m sorry.”

Last night, the second half of American Buffalo almost immediately distracted me from my flustered state.

What a play.

I’m so, so pleased American Players Theatre decided to do Mamet.  And this play.  With these actors, because, of course–Brian Mani is perfect as Donny, put-upon, and too generous, and forgiving in such a complex way we feel equal parts pity and admiration for how he navigates his little world.

And oh, what frightening fun to watch Jim Ridge as Teach.

Part of the pleasure of going to APT year after year is seeing the actors in different roles. As I was driving home last night I was remembering Ridge as Tartuffe–serpentine and frightening and clever.  I think Teach thinks he’s serpentine and frightening and clever, but what’s frightening is how wrong he is about everything, how worked up he is about how right he thinks he is.  Poor Teach–he’s in a play by Mamet, not Moliere.

Awfully nice work, too, by Brendan Meyer, as Bobby.  And once again, I love plays directed by Kenneth Albers.

If you haven’t gone yet, you should go.  Or, to put in Mamet terms, you should fucking get there already. Lots of shows available from now through October.

You should also go see The Year of Magical Thinking.

Aaron Conklin has a fine review that I concur with, on every point.

In my head, I routinely mis-label Didion’s amazing piece as The Year of Living Dangerously, and that’s not entirely wrong. It’s a dangerous place Didion goes to, narrating her harrowing time when she lost her husband and child. It strikes me as dangerous for APT to have chosen the play, given the difficult subject matter. Sarah Day plunges into the danger of the subject matter, of course–courage has to be in the top five features of her mode as an actor.

And it is a dangerous journey for an audience, but it’s not unrelenting awfulness.  It really did feel like a journey, a necessary one.  There is humor and insight, too, but most importantly, I felt different when I left.  As though I had traveled somewhere I needed to go, and that I could now move on.  Kind of like a gentler, prettier Charon taking me partway across the river Styx and back to the land of the living.  A three-hour tour (well, actually two).

Pretty amazing. Lots of tickets available from now until October.

There are no more tickets for Pokey LaFarge, that show is done.  There are plenty of tickets left for other shows at The Sh*tty Barn, however, and if you’re kicking yourself for missing Pokey, you might get yourself a ticket for Nick Brown on July 30. In the venn diagram of Barn Sessions, there’s some overlap between Pokey and Nick in the area of Gentlemen Country/Western Swing styles–a genre I hadn’t realized I was craving until Nick’s show last summer.

I knew I was going to enjoy Pokey’s music, but I was a little nervous it was going to be hipster country, given the theatricality of the photos.  When I told people about him I’d been saying he looked like k.d. lang and Pee Wee Herman had a love child, and I’m not taking that back because it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever come up with.

But I was happy to find out that k.d. lang was a good call–musically, it was a rich night, and the theatricality was not so much camp as just big, big fun.

The horn section was great:

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And once again, one of the many extreme pleasures of the Barn is how close you are to the performers.  I zoomed in a little, but not much to get this shot of Pokey his own self:

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Everyone should come see great stuff in Spring Green. All summer long.

APT’s Hamlet is Awesome. Go See It.

Q: How’s Hamlet?

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The short answer, for American Players Theatre’s 2013 production is that it’s terrific and I’m still processing how terrific it is.

It took me to my APT happy place numerous times on Sunday night (a very muggy-buggy night), by which I mean I forgot I was watching a play, forgot I knew the actor playing the part, forgot I was anywhere but in the moment on the stage.

Part of me wants to stop there–to say, simply, it was great. Everyone who can get here should get here and see it.

Except this Hamlet was so freakingly brilliant–I thought about it for hours after I got home, and I’ve thought about it all day.

So at the risk of revealing my theatrical and Shakespearean ignorance (the vastness of which undiscovered country has not been mapped), here are some of those thoughts.
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I really think John Langs, the director, is brilliant. I know a theater production is a collaborative process, so my appreciation of the unnerving, stark, gorgeous, imposing, spare set goes to Takeshi Kata and Andrew Boyce. And the way the lighting shows two Hamlets–his posture saying one thing, his face saying another?  Credit for that goes to Michael A. Peterson.

The shadow seems much surer of itself here.

The shadow seems much surer of itself here.

But over and over, each component worked with every other component. The costumes worked with the set. And the set worked with the lighting. And the lighting emphasized the performances. And the performances were awesome. That’s to the director’s credit.

And having James Pickering–a really well-known Milwaukee actor who’s never appeared on the APT stage before–play the ghost and the player who plays the king parts and the gravedigger–that’s not just a casting idea. That’s an interpretive idea.

It made it seem like the ghost was showing up ALL THE TIME.

The child longing for the nuclear family that no longer exists.

The child longing for the nuclear family that no longer exists.

I know directors pluck from other performances (and there are a lot of Shakespeare casting traditions that would be utterly lost on me–I mean, I know about Cordelia/the fool, but that’s about it), and I know Langs directed Darragh Kennan in Hamlet in Seattle pretty recently, so I don’t know if this is the FIRST Hamlet to do that with the ghost/player/gravedigger, and I don’t know if the ghost has shown up other times when he doesn’t have lines, as he does in this performance (I won’t say where-all, because at least one of them seemed like a big risk with a big payoff), but it all went beyond “interpretive idea,” actually. It felt like vision. Genuine artistic vision.

What a counterpoint to Bassanio and Antonio from Merchant of Venice.

What a counterpoint to Bassanio and Antonio from Merchant of Venice.

Casting at APT is a complicated thing–eight plays done in repertory, core company and guest artist needs and contributions considered (who had a huge part last year, who had only supporting roles, who has one huge role this year and needs other supporting roles, who has reliable chemistry with who else)–so I can’t attribute the genius casting of this production of Hamlet to John Langs alone. Whoever had a hand in it, though–bravo.

If I’d been asked, prior to seeing this performance, to list Shakespeare’s really nasty kings, I’d have said Richard and Richard and then changed the subject, since I don’t know the histories as well as I ought. I might not have thought of Claudius at all. It’s not what I would typically think of as a meaty part.

But in Jim DeVita’s hands? Well, I hear Jim’s a fine cook, so I could say it’s like carving a chicken and understanding there’s good meat to be found places other than the drumstick and breast. Anyway, he found the meat. And chewed it up.

I mean, wow. When he says, of Fortinbras, “Holding a weak supposal of our worth,/ Or thinking by our late dear brother’s death / Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,” the delivery was so powerful I found myself wondering if Langs had somehow let Claudius deliver one of Hamlet’s speeches. (He didn’t. At least that one’s not Hamlet’s.)

“I like him not,” he says of Hamlet. And you think, “uh oh.”

I don’t mean Jim was upstaging or scene-stealing or anything bad. He just made it so clear how powerful Claudius was. How mean.

And unlike some productions, which maybe emphasize the Oedipal-incestuous-icky embraces between Hamlet and his Mom because no one can possibly imagine her really being turned on by whatever Claudius they’ve cast (the pompous guy in the Slings and Arrows production comes to mind, Season Two, Episode One, not the first season’s Claudius), De Vita and Staples have awesome onstage chemistry. One review found it “puzzling” why they were “hanging all over each other.” It didn’t puzzle me at all. Wouldn’t you, on him, were you she? And wouldn’t you, her, were you he? I, me, we would, methinks.

Gert and Claud

Gert and Claud

And then of course there’s Hamlet his own self.

Bravo, Matt Schwader. Bravo.

Mike Fischer’s review gets it right, that Matt’s “intensity adds bite and even menace to Hamlet’s encounters.” He calls him “white-hot,” and says he “handles Shakespeare’s verse as well as anyone at APT.” Yes, and yes, and yes.

I am enjoying reading and re-reading about Matt’s Hamlet process in his blog, “Bounded in a Nutshell.”

(He’s not just pretty. He’s also thinky.)

Matt’s explanation of his process helps explain one of the things that amazed me last night: the BIG ASS SPEECHES melded into the play so smoothly. They weren’t under-played, and not muted, but at no point did the production feel like this:

Druuuuuuuuummmmmmmroll: SOLILOQUY. (more stuff, more stuff, more stuff) and then
Druuuuuuummmmmroll: SOLILOQUY.

For example, leading up to the most famous of the BIG ASS SPEECHES, the “to be or not to be” one, because David Daniel’s Polonius is so strong, and Jim De Vita’s Claudius is so strong, and Christina Panfilio’s Ophelia is so strong, I found myself focused on what THEY were doing. Especially Ophelia. (I’ve never felt so pissed at Shakespeare for killing someone off as this Ophelia. She had spunk, damn it.)

Lou Grant to Mary Richards: "You've got spunk. I hate spunk."

Lou Grant to Mary Richards: “You’ve got spunk. I hate spunk.”

So when Matt came onstage and began speaking, to the audience, it took me a beat or two to realize that what he was saying was one of those speeches, even though I’d known what was coming.

In terms of speaking to the audience, as he was, part of the time, in this speech, Matt has this to say, “I’ve found that it is simply much more dramatic and engaging to watch an actor speak with another person (or group of persons, as is the case with direct address), than to be muttering to his or herself. Tremendous drama lives in the unexpected. What unexpected thing can happen to a person talking to his or her self? Not much. On the other hand, talking with an audience opens a flood of possibilities as to what might happen.”

The unexpected here is that Ophelia is listening, and she startles Hamlet, which was startling. In a good way. Because then the “get thee to a nunnery” lines seem startling, even though I knew they were coming.

Hamlet and Ophelia.

Hamlet and Ophelia.

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Matt did a fantastic job, which wasn’t startling. Anyone who’s watched him the last few years knew this was coming, that he’d earned it & that he could do it.

But what was startling overall was how his performance seemed utterly in service of the play.

I don’t mean I expected Matt to be selfish or show boaty. I’m just used to thinking of Hamlet as a vehicle for Hamlet (the character and the actor who plays him). This didn’t feel vehicular at all.

What a great play.

Another fantastic shot from Carissa Dixon

Another fantastic shot from Carissa Dixon

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(All these awesome images of the production are used with permission from the awesome Carissa Dixon.)

Hamlet’s Back at Devil’s Lake

The actor playing him this summer’s there,
I mean to say. He likes to memorize
while hiking, where the purple quartzite shines
and the T-Rex headed vultures soar.
The rock he’s on is so much older than
the play he’s in. They’re metamorphic mirrors–
hard things from Shakespeare and tectonic shifting–
still shiny, still showing us us after years
and years, hundreds, and millions, a billion years.
It is time and timelessness. And time is time,
not out of joint, not yet, still gracious here.

He is morphing, but the actor is still Matt,
and this Prince of Denmark loves his dog.

(If only poor Ophelia’d had a cat.)

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Oh! I can’t wait to see Hamlet this summer–great fun to be had and heartache to be felt and always, always interesting to see a new actor take on the old speeches and give them to us new.

Which reminds me–I need to get all my tickets figured out! To the box office with me, anon!

If you haven’t already made your own plans, you really oughta go to American Players Theatre.

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(Apologies for the sprung rhyme scheme above. Once I’d thought of “If only poor Ophelia’d had a cat,” I couldn’t let it go. Fortunately “cat” rhymes with “Matt.” But “dog” is just hanging out there, not rhyming with anything. Yet. I might revise. In any case, I know Matt will take care of his dog. And dogs mostly don’t care about rhymes. Thanks, Matt, for letting me share the pics–especially the puppy one. How could anyone look at that picture and not smile?)

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Matt Schwader, appearing this summer in Hamlet.

Matt Schwader, appearing this summer in Hamlet.

Muncie Jones and the “Lawn Sprinkler of Hope”

It’s so easy for me to take an uncharitable view of the last 21 years and zoom in on the goals I haven’t met.

Tongue-in-crater-where-there-used-to-be-a-tooth.

A sort of obsessing that can be genuinely damaging.

If I do it long enough, I feel like George Bailey, surveying Potterville, with the full horror of it beginning to dawn on me:

(That’s actually a pretty good depiction of how I felt at AWP in Chicago, last spring, and Unmetgoalville was pretty much why, although I also get awfully used to my little town and don’t necessarily function well in towns larger than 17,000 or so, at least not without some self-coaching. Pitiful, really, given that 17,000 is how big Mt. Vernon is, where I went to high school–if you’d told 17-year-old Marnie that 47-year-old Marnie would have a hard time feeling comfortable in Chicago, the teenager would’ve laughed, since she regularly drove in the Windy City whilst visiting her brother.)

And here I am, coming across the teaching job that doesn’t even seem to recognize me.

“But I’m a full professor,” I yell, chasing the poor ad hoc position into the bar where she faints.

“My life’s not like that,” I says to myself. “Really it’s not,” I assure myself on a cold, rainy, November afternoon. “I’m not Muncie Jones.”

Whereas, of course, I am in some ways. Indiana Jones’s sister Muncie wasn’t intentionally a play on Virginia Woolf’s Judith (Shakespeare’s sis), but that had to be lurking in my mind somewhere.

However. Now that I’ve seen Shakespeare’s Will, I can’t think of any woman in Shakespeare’s life without thinking of Tracy Michelle Arnold.

Which is where things take a turn for the better. Tracy portrayed Anne Hathaway with a phenomenal range of vulnerability and fierceness. (Now that I’m reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, everything has something to do with vulnerability.)

There is fierceness in this family of women–the Jones family, the Shakespeare family, my own family.

A lot of my life, that fierceness has come out in less-than-productive ways. It may be why I liked playing with fire.

In my middle age, I am finally, finally learning to channel that fierceness into focus and grit.

One of my role models is Jenny Shank, who first caught my eye in Poets & Writers (Jan/Feb 2011), when she wrote about being a “Ham-and-Egger,” a phrase she got from Don DeLillo, which she defines in this way:

“I love that phrase, ham-and-egger. It’s how I think of myself as a writer. I’m not going to dazzle anybody with lyricism or structural ingenuity. But I put my head down and work and sometimes a story comes of it. I ham-and-egg my way through. It took me a long time to figure out that not every writer has to be brilliant.”

She also writes about sobbing during a Fellini movie because it reminded her “of my childhood dream of becoming a writer, one that I haven’t shaken for three decades, a dream that I almost gave up on a number of times, even though I still continued to write.”

And if the subject matter itself weren’t inspiring enough, she referred back to Fellini and said “Okay, so I’m not an orphaned Italian hooker in a ratty fur. But inside, aren’t we all orphaned Italian hookers in ratty furs?”

I know I am.

And I sobbed and sobbed later that spring in 2011, two different times (I don’t sob much, so I remember them). One time was taking a detour on my way to work, to go sit in the gorgeous St. Luke’s in Plain, Wisconsin and pray–this was in the midst of Wisconsin’s Arabesque Spring, when we were protesting in the snow. I felt as though the job I’d worked so hard at for 20 years was just being spit on and ground into the mud by the heel of a governor’s anti-union, anti-education Act 10.

The other sobbing happened when I got my rejection from Wisconsin Wrights. I’d submitted a revised version of Gashouse Love, a full-length play I started writing in February of 2003. I got a full typed page of comments that told me pretty thoroughly the play didn’t work. That was the bad news. But there was plenty of good news in that page–the anonymous commenter took the play very seriously, was clearly hooked by it in several ways, and very much seemed to want it to work. The sobbing came from having put in a lot of hours revising, all those hours COMING TO NAUGHT (that’s how it felt at that moment), but mostly a sense of exhaustion (see previous paragraph’s sobbing) and utter bafflement–I had almost no idea at all how to make the play better, but any little hint of how to revise carried with it a tag of THIS WILL TAKE HOURS, WEEKS, MONTHS, POSSIBLY YEARS OF WORK.

But I didn’t give up. I didn’t. I almost can’t believe it, but I didn’t.

I am sure I had the phrase “ham-and-egger” in mind.

I’d spent most of the summer of 2010 working on the poems of Speakeasy Love Hard. Gashouse Love has three generations of a family dealing with what they call “the flapper girl poems,” and I knew those poems needed to exist in full, regardless of how much showed up in the play.

The anonymous commenter for Wisconsin Wrights said the poems needed to be in the play more, and I didn’t know how to do that. I know a little more, now.

The poems from 2010, whose origin was a play begun in 2003, finally went public in the fall of 2012. It was a wonderful evening. One of the outcomes of getting to hear Sarah Day, Ashleigh LaThrop, and Nate Burger read those poems was that I felt as though a nuclear reaction had gone off in the middle of Gashouse Love.

Is the path to revision any clearer? No–but I’m excited to work on my writing plan for the rest of this semester/academic year, and will include in it “Listen to recording of Speakeasy Love Hard multiple times, with friends, taking notes and getting feedback on revising Gashouse Love.” I’m giddy with the thought of it because that play needs those poems. All of them.

Forever is how long I’ve heard you have to focus less on publication and more on enjoying revision. Could it be I’m finally there?

Not that I’m giving up on publishing. I’m not. But I am compartmentalizing and strategizing. Here again, Jenny Shank’s article was helpful: she says she invented “Johnny Business” as a way to compartmentalize the publication goals. It seems to me he lives in the same neighborhood as Michael Perry’s muse–Perry says his muse is the guy at the bank who’ll repossess his house if he doesn’t write more and get paid for it.

All of this is validated in creativity studies. In a textbook on creativity (would love to teach or take a class using this as a textbook!), Mark Runco summarizes several sources on persistence and calls it “a prerequisite for creative accomplishment,” saying that “important insights often demand a large investment of time.”

“A decade may be necessary for the person to master the knowledge necessary to understand the gaps and nuances of a field.”

[Or in my special, special case, a decade OR TWO.]

Runco quotes Arthur Cropley (one of his books charmingly has a picture of a chicken and an egg on it) who says, “In addition to possessing certain personal traits, creative individuals are characterized by their willingness to expend effort.”

Runco follows that up with a nice reiteration: “That is a good definition of persistence: The willingness to expend effort.”

Jenny Shank’s efforts are paying off–her most recent book, The Ringer, won a High Plains Literary Award. I’m so happy for her!

And Muncie Jones? Maybe she hasn’t spent as much time dodging poison darts as her hotshot brother. But she’s hanging in there. She’s been teaching four sections a year for 21 years, and sure, in one way, you could say that job has has ground her soul down to nubbins.

But you could also say it’s been really helpful ballast, and that her hot air balloon, her ship, her (whatever transportation mode requires ballast), is about to dock somewhere truly exciting.

It’s like what Jenny Shank calls “a lawn sprinkler of hope that just sprays randomly around without any direct target.” That’s not cold, gray rain on my window. That’s hope.