Spectacular “A Flea in Her Ear” at APT

Andrea San Miguel and Kelsey Brennan

Think, for a moment about the things in life that have made you laugh like mad.

Watching a baby, perhaps yours, take her first tottering steps.

Johnny Carson hosting the Tonight Show for a thousand years.

Donald Trump riding down an escalator to announce that he’s running for president.(Okay. That was a comedy but it soon turned into a tragedy).

Now think how hard you laughed at each of those events and imagine what it must be to laugh like that, steadily, for three consecutive hours.

That imaginative experience is fully realized in “A Flea In Her Ear,” the classic George ‘Feydeau farce that opened over the weekend at American Players Theatre.

Theater is not a competitive sport, but if it was then this production is just one more piece of evidence that APT is one of the best theater companies in Wisconsin and one of the very best classical theater companies in the world.

Let us set the scene, although mere words can’t come close to capturing what happens on this stage.

Victor Emmanuel (David Daniel) is married to Raymonde (Kelsey Brennan) who suspects him of being unfaithful at the sinful Mount Venus Hotel. Her evidence is that he has been unable to perform in the bedroom. The  hotel, a notorious site for assignation, is run by Feraillon (John Pribyl) and his worn slattern of a wife Olympe (Tracy Michelle Arnold.)

Raymonde elicits the help of Lucienne Homenides de Histangua (Andrea San Miguel) the wife of the dashing, testosterone driven Spaniard Don Homenides de Histangu (Juan Rivera Lebron).

Add to these couples Camille Chandebise (Nate Burger) who is Victor’s nephew and who has a cleft palate causing him difficulty in pronouncing vowels and who is having an affair with Antoinette (Cristina Panfilio) the household cook who is also married to the butler Etienne (John Taylor Phillips).

Just so we cover all the bases here, the couples are joined by Tournel(Marcus Truschinski) an aide to Victor in the insurance business and a noted roué; Eugenie (Rebecca Hurd) the hotel maid and a beleaguered servant; Herr Stompf (Jonathan Smoots), a horny Prussian guest at the hotel;  Baptistin (Kipp Moorman), rheumatic old man who is employed as a decoy at the hotel if an angry spouse should show up; and Dr. Finache (Gavin Lawrence) who ministers to the physical and moral needs of his patients while making sure that his own, slightly perverse, needs get met.

Nate Burger, Juan Rivera Lebron and Rebecca Hurd

In an adept bit of staging by Jack Magaw, Baptistin spends his time in either a bar or a bed that can be rotated to take the place of a bed otherwise occupied.

If you can’t keep all of this straight, and who could blame you, it’s high time to get on your horse, head to  Spring Green, and see this wonder wrought by director David Frank and the almost unbelievable work of Fight Director Brian Byrnes.

Like any great farce, this is a broadly acted play with no subtlety. It also has two sets with lots of doors and entrances that see a steady parade of characters crashing about. In the drawing room, site of the first and third acts, there are four doors, a window and an off stage entrance. In the hotel there are four doors, an upstage entrance and a front stage entrance. Everything gets people going in and going out and going in and going out. You get the point, I’m sure.

The story begins when Raymonde and Lucienne concoct a plot to catch Victor en flagrante dilecto at the hotel. Lucienne writes a note as a young maiden who had  spied – and fell for – Victor at a recent opera.  She suggestively suggests a meeting at the hotel at 5 p.m. that day in room number 5.

And we are off and running.

Juan Rivera Lebron and David Daniels

You can only imagine the glorious cases of mistaken identity, mistaken accusations, mistaken affections and mistaken morals that ensue. When they say you can’t tell the players without a program, this is what they mean.

As is normal with an APT production this is an impeccable cast with high standards both set and met.

Having said that there are some performances that stand out, most likely because of the characters drawn by Feydeau.

Kelsey Brennan, David Daniel and Marcus Truschinski

Mr. Burger, who is dazzling as Demetrius in the current production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is a sight to behold as Camille. His mastery of a comedic interpretation of a man with palate problems left with only vowels brought forth roars of laughter from his first moments on stage.

Mr. Daniel did double duty as the patriarch of the family and as Poche, the drunken manservant at the hotel. It is always difficult to play a drunk on stage and takes a special kind of experience and talent which Mr. Daniels has to spare. His butchery of the language and names and his tottering gait are priceless.

Ms. San Miguel shines brightly as the reluctant friend to Raymonde, climbs ever higher as a co-conspirator and has a monologue nobody can understand as she hides, fearful of her rampaging husband. That monologue may well go down as one of the finest and funniest in the history of this company.

Smoots takes the role of a non-English speaking warrior to places most actors can only dream about. His presence is also a clinic on stage movement. Not a single gesture is without an equally obvious motivation.

And then there is Mr. Truschinski who moved from Milwaukee to APT 14 seasons ago. He has matured into an engaging and versatile actor and his gift for physical comedy has never been more apparent than in this production. I could watch him on stage the rest of my life.

Genius is a word sometimes thrown about easily, but it is, in truth, a hard won triumph that belongs to Mr. Feydeau, Mr, Frank and Mr. Byrnes, the fight director.

First, of course, is the work of Mr. Byrnes who staged punches, falls, twists and turns a chases that must have required the mathematical skill of an Einstein. How to keep track of all of this frantic action is a magnificent task and one exercised with, well, genius.

Not easily noticed in this production are comic lines and jokes that are sometimes thrown away by misspent timing or a change in volume.

These occasions are, I’m sure, part of the genius, recognizing that nobody in the audience can laugh for three straight hours. At some point the audience needs a moment to breathe before collapsing from overwrought joy. The thrown-away moments provide just that resting place.

But nobody should see this play hoping to rest. It’s a fully engaging experience with more heart laughs than…say..that Donald Trump ride down the escalator.

Production credits: Director, David Frank; Assistant Director, Christine Weber; Voice & Text Coach, Sara Becker; Costume Design, Fabio Toblini; Scenic Design, Jack Magaw; Lighting Design, Michael A. Peterson; Sound Design & Original Music, John Tanner; Fight Director; Brian byrnes ; Stage Manager, Jacqueline Singleton; Photography, Liz Lauren. 

 

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Midsummer Night’s Dream at APT

William Shakespeare called “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” a comedy and it has been performed  more in the four centuries since it was written than any other of his plays.

There is a tendency to say “Oh, Not Again,” when it shows up on a bill for a theater company. I mean, what else can there be in this play that we’ve never seen before?

The answer to that, under the direction of John Langs at American Players Theatre, is more humor and laughs than I’ve seen in a dozen or so productions of this classic.

It took only a few seconds after the lights came up for this crew to put a stamp on this one as something unique and exciting.

With the thumping sound of a hundred drums there was a sudden onslaught of a thousand dancers and actors, moving with abandon around the brand new stage at the Hill Theatre.

Around and around they moved, all dressed in shades of gray, with the exception of one young woman dressed in a soft lavender. It was a crazy couple of minutes, creating a stiffening of the spine and a lean forward for the capacity crowd.

Of course it wasn’t a hundred drums or a thousand dancers, but it seemed like it as the joyful merriment never ever stopped.

Once the crowd exited, all of them to change costumes for the roles that were to come in the telling of this story, the crowd settled back to keep an eye on the mischievous shenanigans of this story.

Here’s how funny this show is.

I sat just a couple of seats away from James and Brenda DeVita. She is the artistic director of APT and he may well lay claim to being themes talented man in wWisconsin.

Ms. DeVita roared with laughter while Mr. DeVita, ever the detailed and diligent observer, leaned forward, chin on hand, watching with a serious look on his face.

And then, when a sexy Colleen Madden, as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, danced in flirtation with John Pribyl as Bottom, the weaver who wants to be and is the star of the play within a plan, Mr. DeVita at first cracked a tight smile, followed by a relaxation back into his seat and a full-throated laugh that matched the roars of the audience.

Most plays – at least the good ones – are often highlighted by the actors on the stage while the artists who work to bring the production into the light labor in relative anonymity.

Not this show.

The overwhelming ambiance created for this production forced me to move from my seat close to the stage to the last row, just to see what it looked and felt like.

It was amazing. Being able to sit back and see and hear the entire world of magical forest created by these superb artists was a special treat on this warm summer evening.

Most obvious were the costumes of Murell Horton.

Ranging from the particular and specific for Peter Quince (Tracy Michelle Arnold) and the crew of players who accepted, some with reluctance, the roles assigned by Quince, to the glorious panorama of the fairies and sprites who enchanted this forest.

Mr. Horton gave each of the members of this makeshift company of would be actors a costume emblematic of their profession: the Bottom woven vest; Flute was draped with a bellows; Starveling, a tailor, wore a suit of detailed elegance; Snug was burdened by tools and Snout the tinker (Ty Fanning) carried a cupboard full of pots and pans and also wins the prize for the most striking and enjoyable entrance of the night.

The fairies were cast in muted colors that were a forest of treats for the eyes, led by the costumed Ms. Madden who gave Titania a sex appeal that I’ve never seen before.

The breathtaking costumes were a steady parade of actors who played on an evocative and simple set by Nayna Ramey under the sparkling lighting of Michael A. Peterson.

And a special nod needs to go to Josh Schmidt, the Milwaukee native who is among the top sound designers in the world. and Ameenah Kaplan, Atlanta-based choreographer and co-composer/drum arranger. Much of Kaplan’s work rested in the composition of the constant and powerful percussion that carried the story on its shoulders.

But Mr. Schmidt also created a lovingly lilted lullaby, sung by Cher Desiree Alvarez toward the end of the first act. It was a gorgeous song made even more so by the simplicity of the instruments and the clarity of Ms. Alvarez’s voice.

There have been many moments of great comedy on the stages at  APT, but few that have ever matched the performance of Mr. Pribyl, who is in his sixth season with the company.

His Bottom is convinced that nobody in the cast can play all the roles, male, female and uncertain, any better than he. His seduction of Quince into agreement and his subsequent dance with the flirtations of Titania are the tuff that legends are made of.

In his director notes, Mr. Langs starts with a quote from “Misalliance.”

“There is magic in these woods…”

Ah, yes.

“The Unexpected Man” at APT

Sarah Day and Brian Mani are a tour de force in “The Unexpected Man” at ATP

If ever there was prima facie evidence that putting great actors together with a great director  can lift even the thinnest of scripts to heaven, this is it.

“The Unexpected Man”, a brief scramble down a path toward  conversation, friendship or even love, opened he season for American Players Theatre and with Laura Gordon at the helm and Brian Mani and Sarah Day manning the oars, becomes a surprising triumph.

Surprising because this 75 minute petit effort tackles no mind-numbing issues of importance, but it instead offers a mystery of such enthrall that sadness sweeps once the whole thing comes to a chuckling end.

This two person play allows the audience to see two actors who put their years of experience on stunning display along with Gordon’s intelligence in allowing Mani and Day to steer their course without distraction of interference.

The setup is a simple one.

A train traveling from Paris to Frankfurt and two people, sitting on opposite sides of the same berth. A man, a successful author, and a woman, one of his most devoted readers.

Nary a word passes between them for the first hour as we are treated a series of alternating monologues in which the pair reveal what is roiling inside them.

He is wrapped up in virtual disgust the lover of his daughter and full of rapture for issues regarding his digestive tract. He is also a man who has an obvious sense of false modesty, a writer proud of his words but claiming none of the trappings of authorly fame.

She, on the other hand, is torn. In her bag is the latest novel by the man, “:The Unexpected Man,” and she struggles to reach a decision about whether to pull the book out and read it in front of the author.

She is also still in mourning for her recently deceased friend, Serge, with whom she had a relationship.

It is in their individual musings that we see the brilliance of playwright Yasmina Reza, the French playwright who created the brilliant “Art,” an examination of men facing the destruction of their relationships.

In this play Reza takes the opposite path, two adults conquering fear and uncertainty as they step, with great hesitation, toward a relationship with each other.

We eavesdrop on the musings of these two actors, who  have a chemistry you get only after years and years behind the footlights.

From her as she contemplates the loss of her beloved Serge:

“How do you accept that the world contains one less person to love us.”

and..

“I’d like someone to explain tome why sadness always catches you by surprise.”

He on the novels he has written:

“What is it that counts, the long run or the moment?”

or when he ponders adapting one of his novels into a play and regards the audience with…

l”laughter in the theater that is congratulating itself for being intelligent enough to know why it’s being laughed.’’

The tension – and mystery – of this story is whether either of these two worldly and world weary travelers will actually find their way into the other’s life.

For Mani and Day this play presents and opportunity to share a bucketful of skill and experience with the audience, and with each other.

He is gruff and pointed, full of the kind of self-obsessed approbation that coffers innate insecurity. She is civilized and careful with an insecurity that truly is born out of confidence.

I have seen countless performances by both Mani and Day and been privileged to see a number of productions directed by Gordon.

It’s easy to say that I have never seen a combination that has filled 75 minutes so brilliantly. Once we passed the 75th minute I was full of hope for a second act. 

Production Credits: Director: Laura Gordon; Voice and Text Coach, Sara Becker; Costume Design, Rachel Laritz; Scenic Design, Jeffrey Kmiec; Lighting Design, Jesse Klug; Sound Design & Original Music, Joe Cerqua; Stage Manager David Hartig.

Titus Andronicus at Off The Wall

The first indication hat this is not going to be a nice enjoyable evening of summer theater comes shortly after the start when this doddering old man takes a knife and kills his own son.

That’s the signal for the parade to begin, a march featuring mutilation, incest, a freakishly buxom blow up sex doll, lying, cheating, a Tony Bennett song, decapitation and a little touch of cannibalism thrown in for good measure.

It could only be the triumvirate of William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus and Milwaukee’s own emperor of ambition, Dale Guzman.

Gutzman directs and stars as the title character in Andronicus, the most violent and bloody Shakespeare play and one that is produced only rarely. If it sounds like it’s right up the alley for Guzman’s Off The Wall Theatre, well, it is.

This Andronicus is a production with 24 characters crowded into the tiny space on Wells St., as hard is it may be to believe. But they all move easily in and out as one horror follows another follows another.

The play is the first tragedy written by Shakespeare and it’s set during the final days of the Roman Empire. It tells the story of Titus, a conquering general in the Roman army and Tamora (Laura Monagle), the queen of the just-conquered Goths.

It’s a complex story with revenge on he minds of everybody, but most especially Tamora, whose drive is eventually matched by Titus himself.

When Titus returns from his winning campaign he finds that the emperor has died and that he is being touted to take his place. But he turns the offer down so it is Saturninus (Max Williamson), a son of the late emperor who takes the helm.

Saturninus announces that he is going otmarry Lavinia (Marua Atwood) who is Titus’ daughter but who is coupled with Saturninus’ brother. During a scuffle over this complication Titus kills a son and Saturninus announces he will instead wed Tamora.

Once the couples are straightened out we are off and running with this tale of horror that Shakespeare himself called a “Lamentable Tragedy.”

Titus is the precursor to all of the tragedies to come from Shakespeare, and in the title character we see the inklings of what is to come from that pen.

Gutzman, who knows his way around a Shakespearean stage like nobody else in this city, creates a character who moves from hero warrior to a man gone mad by the end of the show. If this sounds a bit like King Lear, the comparisons are inevitable.

While this production has its uneven moments, it is rescued by some stellar performances that add new understanding and dimensions to a play that is often perplexing.

It starts, of course with Guzman himself, who lets you know what he is thinking even before he lets himself know. He’s a marvelous physical actor whose shaking hands and tight-lipped grimace are the kind of vision that leaves no dispute as to what’s going on.

Monagle continues her work as a marvelous actor with a role that demands both honesty and deceit in the same breath. There is not a moment that passes in this show that she is not scheming to complete her  vengeance. She is as sexy and sultry as you could want and there is no sense trying to figure out why all these men, including her two sons, are so enraptured with her.  And she, with them, until the pie she is served is revealed to be baked with the hearts of her sons.

Atwood spends most of the play without hands or a tongue, both of which have been cut out of her by Tamora’s sons. But she is able to say as much without a word as many actors do with a full script.

Gutzman is nothing if not a shameless purveyor of theatrical legerdemain and it’s present in abundance here. From his hand being cut off, to the bloody heads of two decapitated to the slit of the throat of Tamora’s sons by Titus, the blood flows.

Gutzman also knows about humor and uses it frequently in this gory story. For example, after a series of mutilations and deaths, he regales the audience with the Tony Bennett song, I Wanna Be Around… which includes the phrase “to pick up the pieces.”

But the key, as always with Shakespeare, is the language. The words that carry us through the complexities of the story. It is left to Titus, worn by life, to explain the horrors that have come and those that await over the next horizon.

Why, I have not another tear to shed:
Besides, this sorrow is an enemy,
And would usurp upon my watery eyes
And make them blind with tributary tears:
Then which way shall I find Revenge’s cave
For these two heads do seem to speak to me
And threat me I shall never come to bliss
Till all these mischiefs be return’d again
Even in their throats that have committed them.
Come, let me see what task I have to do.
You heavy people, circle me about,
That I may turn me to each one of you,
And swear unto my soul to right your wrongs.
The vow is made. Come, brother, take a head;
And in this hand the other I will bear.
Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d: these arms!
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.
As for thee, boy, go get thee from my sight;
Thou art an exile, and thou must not stay:
Hie to the Goths, and raise an army there:
And, if you love me, as I think you do,
Let’s kiss and part, for we have much to do.

“Titus Andronicus” runs through June 25 and information is available at http://www.offthewalltheatre.com.