Wineke: APT’s 40th season is the best ever

Wineke: APT’s 40th season is the best ever

American Players Theatre has just completed its 40th anniversary season and, I think, it was the best ever.

I admit I have no particular qualifications as a drama critic. But I have held season tickets to APT performances for 30 years, meaning the only current member of the APT cast who was acting when I began attending plays is Sarah Day, who has been part of the company since 1986. So I at least count as a fan.

As a fan, it seems to me that this year’s performances were just a bit crisper, the overall ambiance just a bit friendlier, the acting just a bit more on point than in previous years.

While no one else in the cast has quite the tenure of Day, a good number of the actors have been there 20 years or more, so what makes this year different?

My guess is that we have to give credit to Brenda DeVita, who was appointed artistic director in 2014.

It’s not that she does it all. She doesn’t create the sets, sew the costumes or acts the parts. And she didn’t create the theater’s international reputation.

The thing is that a good leader doesn’t take a mediocre organization and make it great. A great leader takes an already good organization and helps its members reach just a bit beyond themselves.

That’s what John DeMain has done as conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. That’s what Donna Shalala did years ago as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen without a vision to share.

At any rate, this year was special in Spring Green.

For me, the highlights of the season were the two Shakespearean plays, “Twelfth Night” and “Macbeth.”

My wife, Jackie, really likes Shakespeare. I usually don’t. I have trouble understanding what’s going on. I don’t like the fact that the plays are written in poetry. I think they are too long. I usually have trouble understanding why the original patrons of the Globe Theater were willing to sit through them.

This summer, I understood.

I have seen both plays several times, often dozing through some parts. But APT this year made them come alive. I caught the humor of “Twelfth Night” without needing a guidebook to tell me what people in Elizabethan England found funny. I followed the twisting subplots of “Macbeth” without getting confused.

It wasn’t just the acting; it was the overall ambiance. In “Macbeth,” for example, one scene features Banquo’s ghost. Portraying a ghost onstage (or in a movie, for that matter) can be trying. APT didn’t feature a ghost at all, just a green spotlight, but that spotlight on the stage created a more powerful image of a ghost than any physical manifestation would have done.

But the acting was superb throughout the season.

I’m not sure anyone is likely to equal Brian Mani’s portrayal of Willie Loman in the 2016 production of “Death of a Salesman,” but David Allen Anderson brought Troy Maxson’s role in “August Wilson’s Fences” to life, and James Ridge seemed typecast for the role of Mr. Hardcastle in “She Stoops to Conquer.”

Mani, incidentally, spent the summer in Scotland but will be back at APT next season.

And the casting of Tracy Michelle Arnold, Carolyn Ann Hoerdeman, Colleen Madden and Cristina Panfilio in “A Lovely Sunday in Creve Couer” is about as good as it gets.

Though the official season is over, APT does have one postseason play about to open. “A Doll’s House, Part 2” will open Oct. 24 and play through Nov. 17. DeVita is the director. Her husband, Jim DeVita; Day; Madden and Melisa Pereyra will be the cast. You might want to see that.

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