American Players Theatre: Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing! A lesson in the importance of precision in language!!

Although a devoted fan of Oscar Wilde and Larry Shue, I have never quite gotten on board with Tom Stoppard’s work. But with APT’s boisterous and rousing Hill Theatre presentation of Rough Crossing, adapted by Mr. Stoppard from a play by Ferenc Molnar, I have a new appreciation for Mr. Stoppard! And every piece to this play was pitch perfect.

I seldom pay much attention to wardrobe, but the characters here are dressed exquisitely for their roles and the time period. The costumes set the perfect mood and totally pulled me out of the now and into the era of the play. Bravo to Rachel Anne Healy!

And before I go on further, Scott Adam Davis’ set put us asea on a cruise without distraction despite having to work with the historic rustic stage of the Hill Theatre as his base!

Now Stoppard has a great deal of fun opening this play with four of the principal characters on the balcony of playwright Sandor Turai (James Ridge). He is accompanied by his partner, Alex Gal (Jamal James), and their new composing partner Adam Adam (Josh Krause), and as the occasion calls for their foil and narrator and salvation, the steward, Dvornichek (David Daniel). This is probably the most difficult part to play because it requires impeccable timing and stage positioning on the part of all of the actors. If there’s just a bit of a hesitancy, a good bit of the humor can be lost…as well as an understanding of the relationship of the characters and particularly how Dvornichek works the magic that is the play! And hesitancy itself is in fact a character here, so it requires all the more care. The fours actors execute right on the money and director William Brown has envisioned a staging that plays just just right!

Josh Krause, James Ridge and Jamal James, Rough Crossing, 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

The four actors here seem to have been born into these roles or are successfully channeling actors from the period without effort. David Daniel as Dvornichek (aka Murphy, you’ll have to see the play to understand) moves effortlessly from steward to life saver to announcer to seer! A marvelous bit of acting and aplomb for what I consider the pivotal role in the play.

Josh Krause, James Ridge and Jamal James, Rough Crossing, 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of American Players Theatre.

Now there is a little sub-plot here and even if you have no experience with Rough Crossing, this probably won’t be a spoiler. But like many a classical play there is a play within a play or a play implied within the play and any number of alternate takes, starts, middles, or endings to all of them…a multi-tiered and multi-faceted piece. This game is laid in the opening lines and although it seems smooth enough, the only one in control is Murphy and maybe some of you!

So now the stage is set, we know that misdirection, misunderstanding, and precision in language will be the engine that drives the humor from here on in…so time to introduce drama, subterfuge, angst, and a love interest! So we add a balcony scene from above featuring the remaining lead actors from our play, but the intended lead actors for the storied play being developed by Mr. Turai, Gal, and Adam! A former Juliet, Natasha Navratilova (Kelsey Brennan), has the cabin just above Mr. Turai’s. She is the current love interest of Mr. Adam but the former lover of smarmy actor Ivor Fish (Marcus Truschinski) who is now putting the moves on Miss Navratilova within plain hearing of our trio of playwrights, including Mr. Adam. So off we go in the main farce that is Rough Crossing!

Marcus Truschinski and Kelsey Brennan, Rough Crossing, 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of American Players Theatre.

So I found myself immersed in Rough Crossing…certainly putting aside our current era and issues…and wonder what the future holds for the multi-talented Dvornichek (and David Daniel as well)!!

And when it’s over you will need something to relax your funny bone, maybe a cognac?

Rough Crossing continues through August 7, 2021 at the APT’s Hill Theatre or can be streamed and watched at home through that date. Click here for ticket and event information!

Marcus Truschinski, Jamal James, David Daniel, Kelsey Brennan, Josh Krause and James Ridge, Rough Crossing, 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of American Players Theatre.

American Players Theatre: An Iliad: A Living Classic or A Trojan Horse?

The American Players Theatre is currently offering An Iliad, directed by John Langs, in their intimate Touchstone Theatre. This presentation is an adaption by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, of Homer’s The Iliad, from the 20th Century translation by Princeton professor Robert Fagles.

Most everyone reading this probably has some knowledge of the Trojan War…whether through study of The Iliad in a college classics course, reading an excerpt in a literature course during your educational career, reading it in a prose translation for fun or high school English, a movie adaptation at some point, or maybe even more likely a Disney or Warner Brothers cartoon using the Trojan Horse as a prop. So certainly we are all familiar at some level with Helen of Troy, “the face that launched a thousand ships”, and of course, the aforementioned Trojan Horse.

So given that familiarity, my next statement will seem a bit unusual…but the rest of my response to the play requires…A Spoiler Alert…read beyond the next quote at your own risk!

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,

murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,

great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,

feasts for dogs and birds,

and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

first line of Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad, © 1990

So this play wasn’t what I expected at all…I expected twenty actors…playing multiple roles…as Greeks, Trojans, or Olympians…in togas or armor…keeping me totally off balance trying to keep them all straight. Instead we have the cornerstone of the APT’s acting company, Jim DeVita, appearing as The Poet and Alicia Storin as The Muse.

Alicia Storin and Jim DeVita in An Iliad, 2021. photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

So let Achilles rage on.

If not on the shore of Troy amongst the boats of the Greek fleet, where do we find ourselves? Well, in a contemporary college lecture hall…well…maybe..not. Rather a contemporary college lecture hall of some twenty five years back when overhead projectors and white chalk on blackboards was still the resident technology. But even then it isn’t like any lecture hall we’ve ever experienced…it’s obviously been vandalized in a number of disturbing ways.

Opening set for An Iliad, 2021, photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of American Players Theatre

And why has the room been vandalized? When The Poet enters he just starts putting things straight…while he begins talking to his class (i.e. the audience)…and although obviously disgusted and disapponted…he never expresses a true moment of surprise. (btw: the orange and red book just left of center is a copy of Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey…curious or clever prop selection?) But he never offers an explanation for this state of affairs. Is this a modern reflection of the war whose history we are about to experience…or a comment on the turmoil around colleges deciding to eliminate departments of the classics or reduce classes and coursework in the classics…or is it just my overactive imagination? But if you have an idea about why we are learning in the wreckage, please comment below (and if this is your first time commenting it won’t show up until the moderator, me, approves it).

And so we meet The Poet, someone not unlike a favorite or notable educator in each of our experiences…a bit rumpled…certainly a bit weary…and extremely passionate about their area of expertise. And he introduces himself indirectly while at the same giving us the opening line in Greek and the Fagles translation as published above. And here, although we see a mortal man whose attributes say late 20th Century college professor…the speeches we hear say we are in the presence of an immortal Homer come to sing his song one more time.

Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.

The Poet in An Iliad

And what a song it is, the song of the Trojan War. And The Poet displays all of the personalities…all of the antagonisms and interactions…and pulls us in. But the cost is high for this story teller, who intimately knew many of the people involved. You quickly understand his weariness and eventually feel the anger and passion and then the sense of loss and maybe even a bit of modern PTSD involved in his effort to make us a part of this story.

How do you know when you’ve won?

The Poet in An Iliad
Jim DeVita with a model of Troy, An Iliad, 2021, photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of American Players Theatre

And the story, the modern play here, is a tapestry built on Fagles modern translation and embellished with the colors and contrasts written for the storyteller by Peterson and O’Hare. A modern contrivance and a modern convenience that brings us back to my title: An Iliad: A Living Classic or A Trojan Horse?

Why did I ask this question? Because after settling in with Homer, we expect the recitation of the epic story of the Trojan War. The victories, the losses, the glory for Greece. But in addition there is an active anti-war thread woven into the tapestry that eventually comes to an obvious conclusion in the final minutes. What better vehicle? What a better messenger? A story and plea thousands of years in the making.

Alicia Storin and Jim DeVita, An Iliad, 2021, photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of American Players Theatre

Where do the old gods go?

The Poet in An Iliad

So, please plan to see this re-timed and re-tuned epic. It plays live on stage in the Touchstone Theatre at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green through August 15, 2021. An At Home streaming option is also available through that date! Tickets are available here: *An Iliad contains adult language and content with a run time of an hour and 50 minutes. This response was written after viewing the remarkable streaming option.

World Premiere of “An Improbable Fiction” Opens American Players Theatre LIVE Performances In Their Hill Theater.

This amazing intersection of all things Shakespeare as written by James DeVita, and directed by Tim Ocel, brings smiles and nods to every theater nerd in the audience…even those with only a passing fancy in the Bard. But before you think that Mr. DeVita leaves us stranded in Elizabethan London, he has brought much to bear in the dialogue that brings us to contemporary culture and society…a mirror that spans centuries. To open, here are the footnotes from the video presentation that I watched since I wasn’t able to attend in person in Spring Green:

This world-premiere play is, among many other wonderful things, a glorious gift to lit-nerd wish fulfillment, providing a heartfelt and hilarious answer to the question “what would it be like to sit out the plague at a bar with your five favorite Shakespearean characters?” (We know! We’ve thought about it too!) Like the very best taverns, this story is buoyed by community, and ringing with good cheer; a tale that feels custom-made for APT. Because it was.

Featuring: Tracy Michelle Arnold (Cleopatra), Sarah Day (Mistress Nell Quickly), Chiké Johnson, (Othello), Brian Mani (Sir John Falstaff), Melisa Pereyra (Juliet) & Ronald Román-Meléndez (The Messenger).

So where should I start? Well, let’s riff off the conceit of the play and contemporary humor. Othello, Cleopatra, and Juliet walked into a bar where all the world’s a stage and Sir John Falstaff is the sun. So yes, Falstaff holds sway over this grand stage. He draws all of the characters in and draws all of the characters out. Mr. DeVita has done a marvelous job in keeping Falstaff true to his Shakespearean persona while also bringing us a new and more empathetic character. And for me, Brian Mani, after this tour de force performance, will forever own the role! Bravo!!

screen capture by Ed Heinzelman of Brian Mani as Sir John Falstaff

But while Falstaff is the sun, The Messenger is the glue that holds the story line in place. Although these characters are all from far far different plays, they are all a part of the Shakespearean universe and not only seem to know each other but each others backstories as well. But the one player that they do have in common is here in The Improbable Fiction. The Messenger shows up throughout the canon as one nameless bit player or another and is familiar to each of the others at the face recognition level. His appearance always draws a puzzled look and a shaken head of recognition when the connection is finally made. And Ronald Román-Meléndez brings exactly that right balance of exposition to the play while maintaining the character’s subordinate place in the action…until he doesn’t and then the action pivots. Not a simple thing…but critically important to the fiber of this play. As you can see from this question directed to him and his reply:

Why so quiet lad?

When my cue comes I will answer!

And yes I mentioned that this play is also of our time…and the characters have something to say about the pandemic, misogyny, and racism. I am quoting from the play but in a very poor paraphrase because I was note taking while watching and now can’t always read my own handwriting.

Fallstaff on the pandemic: “It’s not the damn plague will kill me, it’s the solitude.”

or “Sad hours seem long.”

Othello on racism: ” No color could they see were there battles I could win. Then I was I the noble Moor. Loved for only what I can do. Yet I could bear this, I’ve done all my life.”

Juliet on misogyny: “These men…ever and anon endeavoring to fashion our lives unto their desires.”

My apologies in advance to James DeVita for my errors…

Chiké Johnson & Tracy Michelle Arnold, An Improbable Fiction, 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

But despite the particulars that apply to our contemporary era, this play will play and be understood and appreciated for as long as Shakespeare is presented on stage…and it should become part of the repertoire of any and every Shakespearean theater company. It will be much appreciated.

How comes it you know all that?

I am the messenger!

Sarah Day, Brian Mani, Melisa Pereyra, Chiké Johnson & Tracy Michelle Arnold, An Improbable Fiction, 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.

And now a few bit off the track remarks. This world premiere opened the 2021 Hill Theatre season of live performance. But it was originally offered by APT as a streamed reading in July 2020 and also featured Brian Mani as Falstaff and Sarah Day as Miss Quickly. It was mesmerizing then but the comparison to this live on stage performance is of course night and day and I can’t wait to get back into the theater. (And I am sore amazed that I did not write a response at the time or I would have linked to it here.) But I do think there is a future where theater and Zoom will co-mingle and continue to entertain us but that’s for another post.

Ronald Román-Meléndez, Sarah Day, Melisa Pereyra & Chiké Johnson, An Improbable Fiction, 2021. Photo by Liz Lauren. Courtesy of the American Players Theatre.