What a long, strange year it’s been

Posted December 19, 2019

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By Gwendolyn Rice, Isthmus, December 19, 2019

Tis the season for making lists and taking stock of the past 12 months. As usual, this is the time when I look back wistfully at the live performances I’ve been lucky enough to attend in the Madison area in the past year. Here are the moments that had the most impact on me.

Best reinvention of a classic: A three-way tie

A Doll’s House, American Players Theatre

It’s no surprise that APT knows how to breathe life into dusty classics, but the production of the often melodramatic Ibsen chestnut A Doll’s House was simply stunning. From the thoughtful direction to the gorgeous set and costumes to the heart wrenching portrayals by Nate Burger, Kelsey Brennan and Marcus Truschinski, I will never think about this play the same way again.

Romeo + Juliet, Theatre LILA

Another canonical work that has been done with hundreds of updates and variations (including as operas, movies, cartoons and ballets), this magical production had a bilingual script and a doomed love story that revolved around a same sex-couple. Aesthetically astonishing and emotionally true, it was a testament to Shakespeare’s relevance and the poetic conclusion that “love is love is love is love.” (Disclosure: I do marketing and publicity for Theatre LILA, but had no creative role in this production.)

Life Sucks!  Forward Theater Company

In Aaron Posner’s interpretation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a lot of middle-aged white people wallow in the misery of lost love, unrealized ambitions, the specter of death and the absurdity of life. The Russian classic is thoroughly modernized and energized in this take, which Forward Theater brought to life with delightful whimsy and irreverence, along with an all-star cast. Directed by artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, the production emphatically did not “suck.”

Best Ceili band, spawned by a classic:

She Stoops to Conquer, American Players Theatre

This year, APT infused several outdoor productions with original music performed live. In She Stoops, a motley crew of servants showed off their hidden talents, as a traditional pub band called Tony Lumpkin and the Bumpkins, playing rollicking drinking songs. The talented ensemble included Michael Goldstein, Jennifer Vosters, Tim Gittings, Noah Yaconelli and Rasell Holt, playing violin, guitar and bodhran (Celtic drum), all backing up vocals by Josh Krause. Xavier Roe also frequently joined them in post-show performances as a drunken backup singer. What could have been throw-away moments in the show became high points that were so popular, crowds gathered after the show to hear the band continue to play. 

Most defiant speech in a storm:

David Daniels on the opening night of Twelfth Night at APT

The only time I have ever been to a rained-out show at APT was the opening night of the first show this season, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And while I have seen many actors do battle with the unpredictable Wisconsin elements onstage in Spring Green (bats, bugs, bitter cold and punishing heat), I have never seen an actor so determined to carry on with the show than Daniels, as he played the stuffy and pompous Malvolio. In driving rain that ran down his face in rivulets, he persevered, projecting to the back of the house with steely resolve until the show was finally called on account of horrific weather. It was a sight to behold.

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