THE BLOG
07/26/2013 03:25 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2013

On, Wisconsin! And the World Premiere at Victory Gardens

I'm not sure what All My Sons has in common with Antony and Cleopatra, or Molly Sweeney with Dickens in America; but the first four plays of the American Players Theatre season in Spring Green, Wisconsin, were clearly chosen with cross-referencing in mind. Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, sure, but also The Two Gentlemen of Verona and W. Somerset Maugham's little-known Too Many Husbands. R&G hasn't opened yet so I can't comment on its resonance with Hamlet, but Two Gentlemen and Husbands make an extremely satisfying pair. And, though they're both comedies, they share a dark undertone as each investigates the meaning of betrayal in love and friendship. This gives them the heft many comedies lack.

Too Many Husbands was new to me. I think of Maugham for his prose, which veers from the blackest comedy to out-and-out agony ("Of Human Bondage"), but his playwriting is in a lighter strain: Noel Coward with content. After her husband dies in World War I, Victoria (Deborah Staples, in perhaps the definitive performance of name-your-ethnicity Princess) marries her husband's best friend Frederick (Marcus Truschinski). She proceeds to compare her new husband unfavorably to his predecessor, until the deceased William (James Ridge) turns out to be alive. Has Victoria betrayed William with Frederick, or is she now betraying Frederick with William? Have Frederick and William betrayed one another by loving the same woman? These serious questions (and the question of who is selfish and in what regard) come across clearly but without pomposity in David Frank's production. The piece is old enough to have gorgeous period sets (by Nayna Ramey) and costumes (by Robert Morgan) but contemporary enough to be--well, contemporary.

Two Gentleman might as well be called Too Many Suitors. Best friends Valentine and Proteus fall in love with the same woman, Sylvia. Proteus (Truschinski again, as persuasively rotten here as he was charming in Husbands) is already betrothed to Julia but doesn't hesitate to betray her or Valentine to get the woman he wants. Proteus is, of course, changeable, while Valentine (Travis A. Knight) is true. Sylvia* is even more virtuous, remaining faithful to Valentine even when she believes him dead. And the loyal Julia disguises herself to serve as Proteus's page, a position in which she gets to witness every nasty thing he does; and yet she loves and forgives him. So has Julia betrayed herself?

Tim Ocel's production is serviceable and features a splendid comic performance by Steve Haggard as Launce, Proteus's manservant. Haggard accomplishes the impossible, winning and holding the audience's attention while sharing the stage with a dog. The play, one of Shakespeare's earliest, is not great; its strict fathers, brigands, rings exchanged and then lost, disguised women and rival servants all appear in stronger form in later plays. And no Shakespeare comedy should last nearly 3 hours. All that said, it's a fine afternoon's entertainment.

And then there's Hamlet. It's a strong production, with Chicagoan Matt Schwader in the title role. Though I disagreed with his interpretation of the character in the opening scenes, the performance gets stronger as it goes along. By the time shouts "I loved Ophelia!" while standing next to her grave, we have no doubt of what he's sacrificed and lost in trying to fulfill his father's command.

Director John Langs seems to give special emphasis to places in the text highlighting the two meanings of the word "act" -- to pretend, and to do. That's always been a clear message in the scene with the traveling players, but here it also takes pride of place in the speech of the first Gravedigger (the excellent James Pickering). Hamlet is supposed to do something -- kill Claudius -- and instead he pretends, "assume[s] an antic disposition," and delays until the stage is littered with bodies.

Though the company has built an indoor theater for smaller shows, you find the real APT experience at the outdoor Top-of-the-Hill amphitheatre, with its racks of bug spray, classic platform stage and swirls of parachute silk shielding the audience from the worst of the elements. There's a shuttle up the hill in case the walk is too daunting, and concessions ranging from Italian ice to hot chocolate so you're sated regardless of the weather. Bring a sun hat and a sweatshirt; you'll need either, or both.

The entire summer repertory plays Thursday-Sunday until the end of October; details at the Website.

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Back in town at Victory Gardens you'll find Mojada, the world premiere of the latest play by Luis Alfaro (Oedipus El Rey). Like his previous play, this is the re-setting of a Greek myth in the barrio. While this device worked brilliantly when Alfaro transported Oedipus Rex to the streets and prisons of Los Angeles, it works less well with Medea.

Alfaro's Medea (Sandra Delgado, a bit too passive for my taste) is an overworked seamstress, exiled in Pilsen from her home in Mexico by her husband Jason's ambitions for a better life. (Spoiler alert, for anyone who doesn't know the myth or Euripides' play and wants to be surprised.) When Jason (Juan Francisco Villa) decides to leave her for his wealthy sexy assimilated boss, Medea goes mad and kills their son. Unlike Oedipus, this isn't a tragedy of inevitability: Jason has chance after chance to prevent the entire catastrophe, but instead persists until he's destroyed his life and that of everyone around him. That's clear in the interstices of Chay Yew's production, when confrontations flare between Jason and Medea, between Jason and boss Armida (the superb Sandra Marquez, cold as a slab) and between Medea and Armida.

But the playwright can't seem to decide whether he's adapting Medea or writing about the struggles of undocumented Mexican immigrants. The title means "Wetback," which suggests the latter, but the only dramatic tension comes from the former. One very long scene of the family's travels across the desert (seen in Liviu Pasare's magnificent projections) is wrenching, but it contributes little to the story arc. Charin Alvarez (who, let's face it, can do no wrong) provides local color as a street merchant making good; but she too is superfluous to the plot. And the same can be said of Medea's servant/honorary grandmother/healer, whom Alfaro has made the narrator as well as a character. Again, he can't seem to decide whether she's comic relief or eerie foreshadowing, nor whether she's in the myth play or the undocumented play, which leaves Socorro Santiago stranded, without a unified character and trying to perform in several incompatible styles at once.

Mojada seems like a piece needing at least one more draft. Perhaps Yew and the company can help Alfaro decide which story he wants to tell and then help him pare back the play to telling that story and no other. There's enormous potential here, but the readiness is all.

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*Fun facts to know and tell: Edward Albee's play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? takes the second half of its title from a song Proteus sings. The lyrics lament that love is inexplicable, seizing for no reason on one object instead of another. An apt allusion, surely, for a play about a man in love with a goat!