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Wit, Heart and Huguenet

August 17, 2010

Two more from American Players Theatre round out an excellent season.

The Circle

Wit and heart combine seamlessly in The Circle, W. Somerset Maugham’s comedy of manners that opened Saturday at American Players Theatre. A strong emotional streak threads its way through the wry observations and witty bon mots peppering the 1921 play about station, honor and infidelity. But the true spice in the pudding comes from stellar performances by APT veterans embodying the notion that wisdom gained through painful experience offers better antidote to human foibles than the unbridled passion of youth.

Elizabeth Cheney (Susan Shunk), wife of parliamentary up-and-comer Arnold Champion-Cheney (Paul Hurley), invites mother-in-law Lady Kitty (Tracy Michelle Arnold) and her paramour Lord Porteous (James Ridge) to their palatial country home in Dorset, England, to better understand how age and unfettered love have affected the former beauty.

Lady Kitty left her husband Clive Champion Cheney (Brian Mani) 30 years earlier to take up with Porteous, effectively destroying the friendship and political careers of both men. However, the elder Champion-Cheney arrives for an unexpected visit, putting the three former friends and lovers together once again in a triangle that mirrors Elizabeth’s conflicted emotions over her husband and Teddy Lutton (Marcus Truschinski), another guest at the house.

Arnold, Mani and Ridge all deliver outstanding performances, with Ridge stealing most scenes with his surly attitude and phlegmy retorts. Mani once again plays the patrician, a character type at which he excels, and Arnold runs a rich range of emotions from vanity to delight to despair. In the end, it is a wiser love that does indeed conquer all.

Exits and Entrances

The great South African actor Andre Huguenet (Kenneth Albers) is dying of unimportance, a classical performer at the end of his career. But the lessons he teaches the playwright (David Daniel) in Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances, which opened Tuesday at American Players’ Theatre’s Touchstone Theatre, are some of the most meaningful that the young man – and perhaps many audience members – will ever learn.

The playwright in this 2004 autobiographical drama is Fugard himself, and death analogy originally a reference to Fugard’s father. But it also applies to Huguenet, who served as Fugard’s theatrical father, and one forced to let his son go on to become part of the “new breed” of South African theater, one in which actors like Huguenet have no part. Exits and Entrances is a play about fathers and sons, hope and despair and the decline that accompanies time’s inevitable passage. Kate Buckley directs her veteran two-man cast like a beautiful sonata, playing very bright moments in a predominantly minor key.

Albers, himself a director, turns in a bravura performance that’s among the most complex of his APT career. In his refusal to accept pity, Huguenet engenders pathos and acceptance of this blustering, boastful and inherently flawed man. Daniel, one of APT’s most powerful performers, reins and channels his energy to create an appealing, sometimes confused character who comes to love and appreciate the flaws in the man who had been his hero. Both actors become masters of some difficult South African accents.

With Exits and Entrances Touchstone hits its third homerun in a very strong season.

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