By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jul 15, 2010 at 9:02 AM

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.

Lillian Hellman was a 20th century American writer whose work has all but disappeared from our stages. The APT is demonstrating why that is our loss in its engrossing production of "Another Part of the Forest," her 1946 prequel to the better known "The Little Foxes."

Set in rural Alabama in 1880, with the Civil War still a fresh wound, the darkly comic drama focuses on the viciously avaricious Hubbard clan. Patriarch Marcus is a steely self-made man whose fortune was built on unscrupulous cunning. He presides over the family nest of vipers.

Older son Ben is striving to beat his father in the familial business of treachery. Younger son Oscar is a floozy-chasing bully. Although she is only 20, daughter Regina has mastered the art of manipulating men, with her father her biggest conquest.

Poor Lavinia, Marcus' wife, has been disregarded and marginalized for so long, she has become a pathetically loopy religious nut.

Watching these people inhabit the same house is the fun of "Another Part of the Forest." APT's production rewards us with a compelling production.

Veteran director William Brown captured the precisely correct tone with an exceptional cast led by Sarah Day's poignantly troubled Lavinia and Tiffany Scott's rapaciously girlish Regina. David Daniel, Sharina Martin, Jonathan Smoots, Marcus Truschinski, Paul Bentzen, Eric Parks, Susan Shunk and Tracy Michelle Arnold share the acclaim here.

"Another Part of the Forest" is fittingly being staged under the stars in APT's own forest, where a production of "All's Well That Ends Well" is also up and running. I saw a performance of the latter that was truncated by a lightning storm.

"All's Well" is often cited as one of Shakespeare's problem plays. Despite John Langs' worthy production, it still is.

"Waiting for Godot" and "The Syringa Tree" have opened in the APT's indoor Touchstone Theatre. Three more shows will be introduced in the company's two performance spaces next month.

The APT presents its productions in rotating repertory. The final outdoor performance is Oct. 3, and the indoor season closes Oct. 17.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.