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September 21, 2012

TT: Politically personal

In today's Wall Street Journal I review three productions currently on the boards at Wisconsin's American Players Theatre: David Hare's Skylight, Tom Stoppard's Heroes, and Richard III. All are superior. Here's an excerpt.

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TOUCHSTONE%20EXTERIOR.jpgTheater isn't about theaters. You can see a great show in a living room--or a parking lot. The only thing that a good-looking performance space guarantees is a performance. But when a well-run company builds a well-designed new house, then uses it with taste and imagination, the plays that you see there will be all the more satisfying for being enacted in a space that sets them off in the way that a first-class frame enhances a first-rate painting.

Wisconsin's American Players Theatre did just that in 2009 when it opened the Touchstone Theatre, a low-slung, elegantly simple 201-seat indoor house located a stone's throw-and-a-half from the 1,148-seat rural amphitheatre where the company has been headquartered since 1979. Having spent three decades presenting Shakespeare and Shaw in the Up-the-Hill Theatre, APT wisely opted to use the Touchstone to broaden its repertory with modern fare. This summer's offerings include David Hare's "Skylight" and Tom Stoppard's "Heroes," two smartly written small-cast-single-set shows...

Mr. Hare's unhappy lovers embody England's latter-day class conflicts: Tom (Brian Mani) is a nouveau-riche Thatcherite entrepreneur with a boorish streak, while Kyra (Greta Wohlrabe) is a chastened idealist who has renounced her upper-middle-class background to teach poor children. But both characters are much more complicated than they look...

SKYLIGHT.jpgAPT knows how to spot and cultivate up-and-comers, and Ms. Wohlrabe, who made her company debut last year, is a formidably gifted artist who, like Carrie Coon before her, oozes star quality. You can read her feelings off her face as easily as you can the temperature off a king-sized thermometer....

"Heroes," Mr. Stoppard's English-language adaptation of Gérald Sibleyras' 2002 play about three World War I veterans who live in a French hospital for old soldiers, is wholly different in tone from "Skylight," but no less moving in its quieter way. Next to nothing happens to this ill-sorted trio of decrepit comrades (played with great conviction by Paul Bentzen, John Lister and Jonathan Smoots). All they do is sit on a balcony, watch the world go by without them, and long to live out what's left of their lives with such flair as they can muster between them. "One must strive a little for the epic," says Gustave (Mr. Smoots), their querulous leader, knowing full well that his striving will be in vain. Yet here as in "Waiting for Godot," after which "Heroes" is obviously modeled, the vanity of human wishes is made the subject of dark, bittersweet comedy....

Just a short walk up the hill from the Touchstone, APT is mounting a "Richard III" from whose unassuming yet comprehensive excellence a great many better-known theater companies could learn a thing or two...or three. Set in Edwardian times and staged with brutally lucid directness by James DeVita, it centers on James Ridge, who plays Shakespeare's crippled monster of ambition as a snide, balding comedian with a strong resemblance to Fred Astaire who makes no secret of being delighted with his monstrosity--until his façade crumbles...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted September 21, 2012 12:00 AM

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