American Players Theatre Presentation Of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town

Some how I put off seeing Our Town for 72 years and then suddenly experienced two compelling performances in a matter of months! (Here’s my response to my previous encounter at The Lake Country Players). But today, I want to share my thoughts about Our Town at APT!

cast Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

So once again, I find myself in Grover’s Corners, NH, but this time seated outdoors amongst towering trees, ten thousand crickets, a number of agile bats, and an audience of eleven hundred other theatergoers who are about to become my best friends and neighbors. Partly by our close proximity sheltering from a brief bit of rain and then by Wilder’s classic take on small town rural America!

Ronald Romàn-Meléndez, James Ridge, Teri Brown & Samantha Newcomb, Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

And as we settle into our seats, we see that APT has taken Wilder’s stage directions to heart and we have the two dining table sets and two ladders that define the two households that share the timeline of the story. Perfectly suited to the rustic stage at the Hill Theater. And the cast took to heart the directions to mime most of the activities…perfectly…from stirring pots in the kitchen, to pumping water, to delivering milk, and tossing the morning paper on the porch (accompanied by a very satisfying and resounding slap sound effect)!

In act one of course we meet Grover’s Corners through a pair of presentations to the audience from guest speakers on stage, the description of the town’s geography by the stage manager, and then the commencement of the typical day…and we meet the residents as they play out their familial interactions and daily activities. And as we watch and eavesdrop, we realize that every day life in an idyllic community isn’t always quite so idyllic. A far more realistic portrayal than sit coms of the 1950s and 1960s, for certain.

But we do meet the two nuclear families central to the story. The actors here exemplify their characters to a T! The Gibbs family, James Ridge is Dr. Gibbs, Teri Brown is Mrs. Gibbs, and their two growing, active, and curious children, Ronald Roman-Melendez as George and Phoebe Werner as Rebecca. And across the stage in Spring Green but across Town in Grover’s Corners, we learn to love the Webb family, newspaper editor Mr. Webb played by Jefferson A Russell, Mrs. Webb played by Tracy Michelle Arnold, and the aware Webb children, Samanatha Newcomb as Emily, and Susanna Van Hallgren as Wally. A perfect cast that presents the characters and personalities of their roles just as you’d expect for turn of the (20th) century rural America. And the young people to pay close attention to are George and Emily of course, as they age and mature, and discover how deep feelings can really really reside.

Ronald Román-Meléndez & Samantha Newcomb, Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

And of course scene two is where the pinnacle of the action in Grover’s Corners is told. As Emily calls out George for an unlike George change in attitude and action…and George comes to the realization of what he really wants out of his life and the best way to achieve it…and of course his love for Emily. Wedding bells ensue!

Samantha Newcomb, Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

And then on to the third and final act which gives us Wilder’s expressed theme, The play is about Mortality. And here brings to fruition the Emily she grew into in the previous two scenes…an observant, mature, and feeling human being unlike anyone and everyone else in the play. Samantha Newcomb truly presents that feeling human being and is the star of this show!

Sarah Day & Jefferson A. Russell, Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

An aside and then a quibble: For me the stage manager is the key ingredient for a successful Our Town. The stage manager needs to be flexible since the role changes throughout the play and it requires a certain amount of gravitas. Over the years, I have loved Sarah Day in any number of plays, but I don’t think she quite had the feel for the stage manager the evening I attended the play. And the quibble: I sat dead center although higher up in the seating bowl…but Sarah played too much to stage left, particularly during the intro even for me sitting in the center.

Our Town played as the classic play that it has become. Tim Ocel did a marvelous job directing given the sparse sets and props that Wilder allows if you are to stay true to his vision while also expressing your own. And the 1901 costuming provided by costume designer Scott A Rott sets the mood for the period as well…wonderful.

As always: Extra credit reading: The 2023 Season Playbill

And if you want to catch Our Town: click here for more info and tickets!!

Tamara Brognano, Ronald Román-Meléndez, James Ridge, Teri Brown, Samantha Newcomb & Tracy Michele Arnold, Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

all photos are courtesy of American Players Theatre

APT’s: The Liar: Take That, William Shakespeare!

Josh Krause, Samantha Newcomb, Kelsey Brennan, Phoebe González & Daniel José Molina, The Liar, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

First the play! The Liar is an adaptation from a piece by Le Menteur by Pierre Corneille. No, I don’t know either of them either. But the play presented here was written by David Ives and is the funniest and funnest play that I can ever remember seeing. And although Ives makes a few digs at poor Will Shakespeare here, he has imagined, through wordplay, puns, rhyming couplets, pentameter, and long drawn out comic ideas, the ideal contemporary Shakespeare comedy. YES! But no, you don’t have to know a speck of Shakespeare nor even how to spell Hamlet to get along here. Just listen closely and engage…and believe me, with Mr. Ives, engage you will. All it takes is an interest in language, wordplay, and the humor of human foibles and artifice to make you laugh at nearly every line! YES!

But yes, there will be tons of action, misplaced loyalties, mistaken identities, love, and well love, and a grand denouement that even Shakespeare would covet.

Daniel José Molina, Sam Luis Massaro & Casey Hoekstra, The Liar, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Now on to the director! Keira Fromm is the director! YES! Not to rest on his laurels with a wicked funny text, the action Ives describes includes the need for some very very active slapstick. How Fromm was able to block this out physically and keep all of the actors in motion while maintaining the exquisite timing of the verse and text is simply amazing. YES! There are pratfalls, slaps to the face, duels, and wild entrances and exits…truly worthy of the best silent movie comedies. I am certain that medium influenced some of the activity here. YES!

But without direct knowledge of who did what, I am also certain that we should thank Assistant Director Lulu Guzman and Director of Movement Jeb Burris for the effective and hilarious scurry and bustle of all of the actors all about the stage.

Daniel José Molina, The Liar, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

And finally the cast and story. I don’t understand how the entire cast could maintain the level of energy and activity called for in this play. That alone is quite amazing to me. YES! Now, Dorante comes to Paris to seek excitement and a love match. He is a liar…well…not just a liar but one who can not tell the truth and regales every questioner with tales beyond the ken of anyone’s imagination. Dorante is played by Daniel Jose Molina with an outstanding fearlessness that sells the lies and bravado required by the character. He hires one Cliton as his valet. And Cliton seems to be the only one who recognizes all of Dorante’s tales for what they are. Cliton is physically played by Josh Krause and even when he is not speaking, his facial gestures and body language is not to be missed. For me, Krause really steals more than a few scenes with his physical comedy bits. Cliton can tell no lies…and is at times jealous of Dorante’s lack of truthfulness…to the point of…oh, never mind…see the play!

Daniel José Molina & Josh Krause, The Liar, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

And Dorante is accompanied to Paris by his father, Geronte, who intends to arrange a marriage to the daughter of an old friend. Geronte is played by La Shawn Banks in an over the top flamboyance that makes a bit of fun of old period pieces and comedies. And Dorante runs into his old friend Alcippe, here played by Casey Hoekstra, who at once embraces his friend and then becomes his archenemy around love and lies!!!

Phoebe González, Kelsey Brennan & Samantha Newcomb, The Liar, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

And the ladies! They are at times coquettish, flirtatious, scheming, and completely vicious in their own humor! Phoebe Gonzalez is Alcippe’s betrothed, Clarice, who just happens to be the woman that Geronte is hoping to wed to Dorante. Her best friend and companion, Lucrece is played by Samantha Newcomb, who is totally complicit in the confusion and merriment sown around misidentities and misinformation flying around the Place Royale. And then there is Kelsey Brennan, who is double cast as Sabine and Isabelle…and Brennan’s skill in this double role results in her becoming an eagerly anticipated focal character mid-way through the play. There is more here than meets the eye and you will be sorely amazed when we reach the final act. Thank you Kelsey!

La Shawn Banks, The Liar, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Now if you have gotten this far, and have glanced at all of the pictures, you realize costume designer Holly Payne totally understands the values that over the top costumes can bring to farce and comedy. These characters are exquisitely attired for their persons, their place in this society, and for making fun of themselves and social mores, and just plain fun! Thank you!

And one extra kudo to Keira Fromm: what a marvelous cast you have put together here…they seem so absolutely suited to the characters that they play!

One side note and maybe I am mistaken: although this is set in Paris and there is a great bit of oration and speechifying here…I think only one character actually speaks with a French accent…if somebody can confirm this, I’d appreciate it!

So when you go, make sure you stretch out the muscles you use to laugh out loud…and put away your tendency to grown at puns…they are outrageously funny in The Liar.

Extra credit reading: The 2023 Season Playbill

There aren’t a lot of opportunities left to see The Liar this season (I visited APT a bit later than other years), but here is the link to more info and to purchase tickets.

all photos are courtesy of American Players Theatre

American Players Theatre: Hamlet

To be or not to be…almost became not to be when I waited until the very last day to stream the American Players Theatre Hamlet. And that would have been a silent tragedy as this is the most engaging and relatable version of Hamlet that I remember seeing.

Nick Burger as Hamlet with Yorick, photo courtesy of APT

As always, the focal point of this play is the character of Hamlet. And the play will be made or broken on how the actor perceives the personage of Hamlet, his relationships in the play, and how he decides to employ Hamlet’s apparent madness. Nate Burger was an incredible casting choice and here he is at the peak of his powers and as I said above…delivers a very real and very relatable Hamlet. This was just an incredible experience for me and now I am sorry that I didn’t make a second trek to Spring Green to see and hear this in person. Sometimes Hamlet as played is a bit too distant but here we feel an incredible empathy for and understanding of the character. Burger has always been an engaging actor, but this was simply his most outstanding performance!

Jamal James as Laertes, Chike’ Johnson as Polonius, photo courtesy of APT

Chike’ Johnson is the consummate Polonius. A bit haughty, a bit officious, but clearly a man in charge and a man in control of his destiny. Johnson has him down, precisely. I hope to see him in future APT productions…and sometime in the future, I’d like to see him play Claudius!

Triney Sandoval as Claudius, Colleen Madden as Getrude, photo courtesy of APT

And what a satisfying and regal couple we have in Colleen Madden as Gertrude and Triney Sandoval as Claudius. No doubts at all about the situation they find themselves in. No concerns in the world other than what the heck is wrong with Hamlet! Madden and Sandoval play the preening detached pair just the way you expect these two characters to act. And Sandoval’s reaction to the play within the play is priceless.

Laertes is played by Jamal James. And he easily takes on some of the characteristics explored by Johnson as Polonius…so he presents a striking and obvious son to the elder statesman. But he also, within propriety, exhibits the excitement of youth and that eagerness to strike out on his own in France…despite the obvious ties to his father’s purse strings. And in his own grief he is readily willing to conspire with Claudius to kill Hamlet.

Chike’ Johnson as Polonius, Alys Dickerson as Ophelia, photo courtesy of APT

And Alys Dickerson gives us the equally dutiful daughter, Ophelia, willing to listen to her father even though it goes against her heart. Dickerson gives a great reading of the doubtful young woman who is trying to balance social mores against her young persons instincts. She truly makes us feel the tragedy that befalls her character.

And the ghost of Hamlet’s father is played with sufficient regal bearing and foreboding by David Daniel to make us feel and fear his presence. Although I did feel that some of his spoken lines were overwrought…but his presence was quite intimidating on itself.

And this performance was perfectly understandable. No attempts to go deep into Elizabethan accents or pronunciations and as a result the dialogues gave us the complete story and the full beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry.

cast of Hamlet, photo courtesy of APT

And the costuming here was amazing. Of no discernible era, it enhanced the depiction of the characters in very transparent fashion. Daniele Tyler Mathews really outdid most costuming conventions for Shakespeare plays. Neither dependent on Elizabethan stylings nor outrageously usurping modern dress, Mathews combined styles across the centuries to complement the character’s traits and exemplify their actions in the play. So an Elizabethan vest here, an exaggerated 1930’s wide lapel man’s suit there, 1950’s clothing, an early 1960’s woman’s office casual jacket and slacks, to any number of costumes that bore a regal look without an identifiable period. And of course the costume for Hamlet’s father that helped install that ominous regal mien that David Daniel brought to bear here.

SO: this was directed by Jame DeVita. Bravo!! In past seasons the watch has always been, what is DeVita playing this season. Going forward we must all add to that, what is DeVita directing this season.

And to my readers, I am sorry. Because I procrastinated to long this has closed on stage as well as the streaming version. Hopefully the streamed version will be available again sometime in the future.