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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

David Daniel, Hillary Clemens (center) and Tiffany Scott in "As You Like It" (PHOTO: Zane Williams)

Sublime theater in Spring Green


SPRING GREEN -- The most important factor in the American Players Theatre's exceptional level of artistic achievement during its 31 seasons is this: the company has an uncanny ability to identify and successfully recruit special talent.

We're blessed with an abundance of gifted stage artists in the state. Rarely does a professional production founder due to its acting or direction. The bar is high every time the house lights dim, and Wisconsin audiences are, frankly, spoiled.

Within that context of consistent quality, a handful of theater folks occasionally take their work to a higher level of artistry that touches the sublime. They provide moments of marvel.

This is what's happening in the American Players Theatre's outdoor production of "As You Like It." Two newcomers to APT, Chicago-based actress Hillary Clemens and veteran theater and opera director Tim Ocel, are responsible for a glorious production that takes its place among the company's all-time best.

Clemens plays Rosalind, a plum role in the Shakespearean canon and a representative of the Bard's favorite plot device -- disguising a female as a male. In "As You Like It," the gender deception is engineered to ensure Rosalind's safe passage after she is sent into exile by an insecure ruler. A single young woman on the run can't be too careful.

The disguise has an immediate and exasperating consequence. It disrupts an embryonic romance with the eminently eligible bachelor Orlando. Rosalind has become such a convincing boy -- or so the story would have us believe -- Orlando doesn't realize she is standing right in front of him when their paths cross in the wilderness.

No amount of hint dropping by the clearly smarter young woman gets through to the pining fellow. Romantic dysfunction ripples through the plot to other characters until the Rosalind-Orlando muddle is resolved.

Good leading actresses in their 20s covet a shot at playing Rosalind, and we have seen some fine ones at APT over the years. But Clemens is in a class by herself.

Her presence is so natural, her demeanor so calm, we don't detect the tiniest trace of acting. The audience is left to wonder if Clemens is even aware she is performing.

We see a total lack of pretense, and the APT has a master of that in veteran company member James DeVita. Two such actors in one ensemble is a rare bit of serendipity.

Director Ocel boldly gambled with this production, and the wager paid off with a big jackpot. The APT was founded on an adherence to staging Shakespeare's works in the style and period he intended. That meant no "concept" productions that placed the plays in another time, context or location.

The company's audience bought into the precept, but over the years the policy has been relaxed. Ocel took a big leap in moving the story to the Depression-troubled 1930s in the U.S. There is now a vague "The Grapes of Wrath" vibe to the show.

The production is vivid and earthy, with composer Josh Schmidt contributing clever 20th century Western American musical twists to the Elizabethan ditties we are accustomed to hearing in Shakespeare. There is even a soft shoe routine that is positively magical.

It all works without undermining the text because Ocel has an incredibly deft touch. The production brilliantly walks a tight rope of modern humor and fidelity to the script, and it never slips into excess.

The entire cast is superb, with particular praise earned by David Daniel (Touchstone) and Colleen Madden (Audrey). A sweaty, spectacularly physical wrestling scene, choreographed by Kevin Asselin and featuring Michael Huftile (Charles) and Matt Schwader (Orlando), is especially evocative.

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