American Players Theatre hits big 4-0

Spring Green company illuminates milestone season
American Players Theatre hits big 4-0
Photo by Liz Lauren
Gavin Lawrence, the APT’s first African-American Core Company member, plays Duke Orsino opposite Kelsey Brennan’s Viola in  “Twelfth Night,” opening this weekend.

Brenda DeVita’s not eating cake when she picks up the phone — she’s eating lunch, actually — but she certainly could be. American Players Theatre, the troupe she’s guided as artistic director for the last four years, is about to launch its 40th season, with the first two shows of the company’s nine-play summer season opening on Saturday.

It’s a meaty and diverse season, split as always between the company’s outdoor Hill Theater and its indoor Touchstone space. There are familiar elements, like a little Bard (“Twelfth Night” and “MacBeth”) and George Bernard Shaw (“Man of Destiny”) and a few things the company’s never attempted before.

“It’s important to honor where we’ve come from; take the time to appreciate that,” says DeVita. “We picked a season based on our history as a classic company — playwrights and works honoring who we’ve been and who we’re becoming.”

As the lights get closer to dimming, here at some of the highlights of the current APT season.

Another First for the Core Company

One of the season’s most interesting stories is the addition of Gavin Lawrence as the first African-American member of APT’s Core Company. Lawrence has been a key member of the troupe for several summers now. He played Oberon in the production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” that inaugurated APT’s new stage two years ago. Last summer, he appeared in the controversial “Blood Knot,” among other roles. This summer, he’ll play Duke Orsino in “Twelfth Night” and star in “Fences,” the first August Wilson play APT has ever staged.

“He’s a divine leader, such a force and a talent,” says DeVita. “He’s a visionary.”

Last season, Lawrence was instrumental in recruiting Jefferson Russell to Spring Green.

“It has taken Gavin extra effort to be out here, and his mentorship as we diversify the company to be authentic and unafraid is critical,” says DeVita.

APT Avengers Assemble!

DeVita and communications director Sara Young laugh when I suggest that “The Book of Will,” which opens Aug. 17, is APT’s “Avengers: Endgame.” But it’s not hard to see the truth in that. Lauren Gunderson’s play about a group of actors scrambling to stitch together Shakespeare’s plays into a single volume features a sizable chunk of the company’s heavy hitters in one place: Jim DeVita, Tracy Michelle Arnold, Sarah Day, Colleen Madden and Melisa Pereyra. (Feel free to make your own decisions as to which of them are Captain America, Iron Man and Black Widow.)

“With our audience and the alchemy of this piece about a group of storytellers saying, ‘What have we done?’ as they do this monumental thing, it’s such a great confluence,” DeVita says. “What does this say about our own acting community?”

It’s also the first time APT’s staged a work by Lauren Gunderson, who continues to be one of the hottest American playwrights.

Even with its all-star cast, “Will” gets a mere 12 performances, a consequence of cast scheduling. With most of the actors appearing in big roles in other plays, finding dates where they were all free to rehearse and perform in this ensemble was challenging. Most of the performances are spaced out within the week to make room for other shows.

The Kids Are Alright

It’s not unusual to see the children of APT’s actors and staff occasionally gracing the Spring Green stage — but not to the degree that they’ll do so this season. This season’s cast list includes Marcus Truschinski and Tracy Michelle Arnold’s son Gus, David Daniel’s son Isaac, Collen Madden and Jim Ridge’s son Jameson and managing director Carrie Van Hallgren’s son and daughter Dave and Susanna.

“We did hold auditions,” DeVita says, chuckling. “And the directors did not know whose kids were whose.” And for the record, there are several other young actors not related to APT staff who’ll also play ensemble roles in the company’s plays.

“There’s something profoundly moving about having the legacy of having these kids on stage,” says DeVita. “Theater kids give a lot up, especially in the summer. This is just a lovely opportunity for these kids to see the power of what their parents have been doing.”

All Hail, King Hereafter

One of this season’s underrated shows may end up being director Jim DeVita’s production of The Scottish Play (opening June 29), which will feature both a modern sensibility and gender-swapped castings for a few key roles. Cristina Panfilio will play Malcolm, the son of the king Marcus Truschinski’s MacBeth murders to clear his path to the throne, and Laura Rook will play Banquo, the friend and fellow Scottish warrior MacBeth also murders as he climbs the ladder. (Perhaps you’re noticing a pattern.)

“He wants to focus on the story,” says DeVita of her husband’s approach, which gives the murderous onus of MacBeth and his Lady human agency rather than fate prophesied by the play’s signature trio of witches.

“Some things are completely unforgivable,” she says. “What happens when you find yourself having taken those actions?”

As for the casting, Brenda DeVita says it’s an inevitable consequence of staging classic work.

“It’s inequitable. So many of our plays are all men, white men,” she says. “For us, it becomes about the story — who are the actors who can tell it?”

We’re betting Panfilio and Rook will have no trouble whatsoever.

Part One and Part Two

DeVita’s been waiting to stage Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” for some time. In fact, the last time APT staged any Ibsen at all was 20 years ago.

“We were waiting for the right doll,” she jokes. “We needed someone who was multifaceted and brave, with a willingness to go there.”

For those who’ve never seen the play, “there” means inhabiting the character of Nora, a woman who finds the courage to free herself from the bonds of an oppressive marriage. For those planning to catch it this summer, “the right doll” means Kelsey Brennan.

“It’s an exciting time to do this play,” DeVita says. “It’s sadly always relevant, but it’s more than that right now — it’s necessary.”

Nobody leaves “A Doll’s House” with a long list of questions about the fates of the characters. APT’s kind enough to provide some answers in the form of Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House Part Two,” the show that sits in the company’s late-October shoulder-season slot this year. The action’s set 15 years after the original.

Tickets for all of APT’s plays are currently available. For more information, click here.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for