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Stage Door Jonny does Spring Green
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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The small town of Spring Green sits at a confluence of nature where the valley of the Wisconsin River cuts through the gently rolling hills of Wisconsin's southwestern quadrant.

Within a few square miles one encounters dense woodlands, oak savannah, prairie remnants and river wetlands along with farmland as rich as any in the country. A century ago the beauty and peacefulness of the region—with its limestone outcroppings, sandy river shores and abundant flora and fauna—drew native son Frank Lloyd Wright back to establish Taliesin, his first great boot camp for architects. Not quite 35 years ago, a natural amphitheater just up the road from Taliesin became the home of American Players Theatre, now among the great cultural attractions of the Upper Midwest.

American Players Theatre (APT) offers eight productions in rotating repertory, five of them staged in the 1100-seat outdoor Up-the-Hill Theatre and three in the Touchstone Theatre, a 250-seat indoor (and air conditioned) house just down the hill. The APT's 110 acres offer scores of picnic tables, gas-fired barbeques free for use by patrons and food and gift concessions. But one comes for the theater, which mixes Shakespeare and more contemporary works. The 2013 season includes Hamlet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and an adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra along with plays by Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller, W. Somerset Maugham, Brian Friel and James DeVita (member of the APT core company). The season runs into October so you still have plenty of time to visit.

For some years APT made no particular effort to woo Chicago's large theater audience. Now, however, APT actively markets in the Windy City and encourage traffic between Chicago actors, directors and designers and APT core company members. Chicago folks spend the summer in Spring Green, while Spring Green folks work here during the winter.

For example, Chicago-based Matt Schwader is at APT (for the seventh season) playing the large and demanding title role in Hamlet but also the small supporting role of Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Other Chicagoans in the hills this year are Kelsey Brennan, Steve Haggard (A Red Orchid ensemble member), Rob Fagin, Cristina Panfilio and Barbara Zahora among others. And Chicago-based directors James Bohnen, William Brown and Kate Buckley have become APT regulars. The exchange of clear country air for urban grit has been a fertile one, to judge by this season's productions.

The centerpiece of a recent two-day visit was The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare's early romantic comedy in rhymed verse. It concerns lifelong best friends (the gents of the title) who fall in love with the same woman. One friend betrays the other and jilts his own sworn love before things are set right. What a delight to see this Shakespeare rarity (I've seen it only twice before) at an outdoor matinee, performed without any artificial lighting, just natural daylight and filtered sunshine! The company was engaging and the pace was swift, but the star of the show was Chicagoan Steve Haggard. As Launce, the comical servant to one of the gents, he fired a series of puns and double-entendres directly at the audience, acknowledging with a nod or wink the viewers who picked up each line the quickest.

Although more subdued, Haggard was just as pitch-perfect as Guildenstern, the smarter title character in Tom Stoppard's intellectual comedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I saw the first preview so I can't officially review the show, but I told director James Bohnen the show was in fine shape and he could quit worrying. Bohnen was the founding artistic director of Remy-Bumppo Theatre here in Chicago, and directs annually at APT. He also owns Arcadia Books & Kitchen in Spring Green proper, a short distance across the river, and a great place to hang, browse and sip coffee.

My third show was Dickens in America in the intimate Touchstone Theatre, a one-man show by James DeVita which recreates (with a few liberties) one of Charles Dickens's famous appearances in which he read from his own works. Performed with passion and nuance by James Ridge, who is a fair physical match for Dickens, it was an engrossing and enjoyable change-of-pace. It would be a great show for someone to do in Chicago with an actor such as Larry Neumann Jr.

Spring Green accommodations range from town or farmhouse B&Bs, to several motels (Spring Valley Inn is the nicest), to the House on the Rock Resort with a magnificent physical setting, golf, two pools, tennis, nightly APT shuttle and bargain-priced top-shelf drinks in the restaurant and bars. FYI: a few miles up the Wisconsin River is legal clothing-optional Mazomanie Beach with its share of LGBT patrons. You get there by car, canoe or kayak.

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