The muggy afternoons and mosquito-heavy evenings in Wisconsin may not sound like the ideal time or place to spend 2-plus hours pondering the human condition, the governments and other social systems we have built and the institutionalized danger they bring us… but American Players Theatre’s latest excellent additions to their summer rotating rep, George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, provide a compelling reason to douse oneself in bug spray, climb the hill, and mull over truth and lies, punishment and mercy, morality, mortality, and sin.
In the production of Heartbreak House, the richness of Shaw’s mind and prose are beautifully represented in all things: in Aaron Posner’s humane and cheeky direction–at the start of Act III, as all the characters take their places on the stage, they face the audience and let out a loud, long, satisfying scream to break the tension of the previous 2 hours of warring philosophies and jumbled relationships; in Andrew Boyce’s richly detailed set, stuffed with books and artifacts and other fine needlework, all capped with an enormous HEARTBREAK HOUSE sign looming above that serves as an elbow to the side every time a character mentions “heartbreak,” playfully ribbing the playwright’s metaphor; and in Rachel Laritz’s luxurious, meticulous costume design, speaking to each character’s purpose and heart.
No character has more purpose or more heart than Hesione Hushabye, and Tracy Michelle Arnold clearly loves every fiber of her. Gliding and enveloping both humans and furniture with her sweeping sleeves and caressing tones, Arnold makes Hesione every part genuine and kind; there is hardly an ounce of envy or sarcasm in any of Arnold’s notes because her Hesione contains none. One does not have to suspend disbelief when all three male characters believe she is addressing them when she warmly demands “Come and talk poetry to me under the stars.” Her performance is a charming bewitchment to behold.
Dressed in more form-fitting, proper garb, though equally jewel toned in purplish blues, is Colleen Madden’s Lady Utterword, speaking sternly and loudly to anyone and everyone about meeting her goals of escaping the ill-run Heartbreak House for an orderly life as a titled man’s wife, but betraying her secret heart by yearning for her father’s recognition and affection. Madden’s face flickers with her silent, childlike anguish then smooths, painted with haughty indifference, almost like a magic trick. She is no less captivating when she is switching in and out of coquettish flirtation with her sister’s husband. Together, she and Arnold are so in synch that when Hesione’s young and bright but impoverished friend Ellie announces their father brought her some tea, their facial expressions are identical.
While Arnold and Madden hold court, the rest of the performances are equally delightful, creating the charge that keeps the nearly 3 hour run time moving kinetically: APT newcomer Phoebe Gonzalez as Ellie, Hesione’s young, impoverished friend; Jim DeVita as Hesione’s “house pet” husband, Hector, who lives up to this label by claiming furniture with feline grace and insouciance; Tim Gittings as Ellie’s retreating but self-aware father; Sarah Day as the absent-minded, boundary-ignoring servant; John Taylor Phillips as the capitalist figurehead (and Ellie’s betrothed); and lastly, and in nearly as grand a performance as Arnold’s, Jonathan Smoots as the house’s absentminded misanthrope, Captain Shotover. The doddering mannerisms Smoots wears in Act I melt away during a prolonged scene with Ellie in Act II, showing the fearless youth that adventured into the world bracing for death, perhaps telegraphing to us all both the joy and sorrow of a life, and a country’s, journey from peacetime to war and back again.
Late in Act I, Captain Shotover says angrily to Hector, “ They believe in themselves. When we believe in ourselves, we shall kill them.” And perhaps he could have been thinking of Shakespeare’s Isabella, who fights always to remain true to her virtue, whether of body or soul, to unmask hypocrisy and save lives in Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-performed plays that tells the tale of a country’s return to archaic and inhumane rule after years of inattentive rule by a good-intentioned but unfocused leader. When a young man is sentenced to death for impregnating his girlfriend out of the bounds of holy matrimony, his sister the aforementioned Isabella, a novitiate set to take her vows for nunhood, seeks to sway the newly minted ruler… and finds herself faced with a decision that pits her moral and spiritual convictions against her brother’s life.
Director Risa Brainin’s thought-provoking contemporary take on the text, her ability to find unforced, sometimes haunting parallels, is profound and makes an otherwise uneven play (I incorrectly remembered Measure for Measure as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”; it is, nevertheless, a peculiarly toned comedy) riveting. She keeps the standard Shakespeare bawdiness–in the form of Claudio’s boon companion, Casey Hoekstra’s fibbing, lewd Lucio, and David Daniel’s hilariously kinetic pimp Pompey, a veritable cousin of Tigger in burnt orange and leopard print, bounding and springing over scenery and fellow cast members–but brings into sharp focus today’s current events: violent immigration crackdowns, citizens crying out for action while government officials seem stymied (the way Gavin Lawrence’s city leader Escalus shruggingly delivers “It grieves me for the death of Claudio; but there’s no remedy” is so casually tossed off, the effect was infuriating) and the ongoing dialogue about serial predators in powerful positions.
As the play’s linchpin, Melisa Pereya is as certain in her performance as Isabella is in her convictions–posture straight, blunt in her pronouncements but with eyes alight with equal parts curiosity and devotion, she earns the audience’s trust and respect, even as she is making hard choices with dire consequences–the mark of a born leader. Her tears, when they come, sometimes seem unwelcome and angry. One might imagine Joan of Arc crying similar tears.
The catalyst for both Isabella and her brother’s torment is the interim leader, Angelo, a man several characters pronounce is made of ice, but Marcus Truschinski reveals a vulnerable, nonetheless fallible human when Isabella figuratively touches his heart while literally placing her hand on his chest. In subsequent scenes with Pereya, the light in Truschinski’s eyes as he first kisses Isabella is gentle for a moment, tentatively alive with his earlier ponderings “that temptation that doth goad us on to sin in loving virtue,” only to curdle and sour as she rejects his advances. After what transpires, it makes Truschinski’s smug, camera-ready smirks, tinged with shameful knowledge, all the more recognizable and believable.
As the absentee leader, first in a business suit, then in a friar’s robes, hood obscuring his face, is APT master James Ridge, who undercuts the Duke’s frantic, nonsensical machinations with a vulnerability that begs the question: how human and doubting do we want our leaders? It’s a rare performer who can follow the text’s sometimes wild tonal shifts, but Ridge does it with grace, playing straight man to the broader comedic performances and frisking his way through a number of boulder-rolling scenes to move the intrigue and entanglements along. Without spoiling too much of how the final few moments are played, a delicate balance of more complex emotions and motivations.
Between the stark, utilitarian set design and the costuming–the Provost and the employees of the prison call to mind city and federal police officers and faceless prisoners trudge through one scene wearing jumpsuits emblazoned with a bar code–the contemporary is familiar. In a well-thought out and disturbing sequence in Act I, Angelo’s forced embrace presses Isabella out of the audience’s view, completely engulfed by Angelo into the white swivel chair that serves as the seat of power throughout the play. The audience is as pinned in horror as Isabella by Angelo’s subsequent actions and his confidence that, should she publicly out his actions, no one will believe her. She is later forced to stand before her attacker again in Act II in a public square. The play ends on an ambiguous note–one that plays to both Pereya and Ridge’s strengths. The post-show discussions had with family and friends will likely be robust and illuminating–and as of this writing, due to the bridge closure on Highway 14, you’ll have some extra road time during which to explore and share your thoughts–an added bonus, in my opinion.
Performances run through November 19. Tickets are on sale now, though some performances are currently sold out. Tickets and information at the americanplayers website or by calling 608-588-2361.