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Review: APT delivers regal performance of 'Royal Family'

By William R. Wineke, Special to Channel 3000
Published On: Jul 08 2012 04:47:06 PM CDT

SPRING GREEN, Wis. -

When one thinks of an outdoor theater, one expects the cast to be able to absorb a certain amount of weather -- and the same goes for the audience.

Still, when the American Players Theatre staff suggested that I might prefer to review its production of "The Royal Family" on a night when the temperature wasn't 101 degrees at show time, I was tempted.

But fair is fair and if veteran actor Paul Bentzen, who plays the part of a butler, Jo, can spend three hours dressed in black tie and tails, then, by God, a reviewer dressed in casual clothes ought to be able to sit through it.

As it turned out, the performance was so delightful my wife and I soon pretty much (but not completely) forgot the sweltering atmosphere and just joined in the fun.

"The Royal Family," written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber in 1928, is a fictional portrayal of the legendary Barrymore family, disguised in the play as the Cavendish family. The cast includes Fanny Cavendish (Sarah Day), the matriarch of the family, Herbert Dean (Jonathan Smoots), an over-the-hill family member trying to regain the spotlight; Kitty Dean (Colleen Madden), his not-so-talented wife; Gwen Cavendish (Ally Carey), Fanny's daughter and Julie Cavendish (Tracy Michelle Arnold), Gwen's daughter.

One of the things that make APT work is that veteran players and rookies work side-by-side. Bentzen, celebrating his 30th year in the cast, works opposite Melissa Graves, who is beginning her first APT season. They bring out the best in one another. Sarah Day, a cast member since 1986, truly does keep getting better each year and certainly fits well into the role of a theatrical family matriarch.

It is difficult, I would think, for actors to portray other actors, particularly those so flamboyant as were the Barrymores. The trick is to combine over-the-top comedy with a depth of sympathy and admiration that makes those being portrayed seem more than comic-book cutouts.

Even two square businessmen, Perry Stewart (Travis A. Knight), who wants to marry Julie, and Gilbert Marshall (Nathan Hosner), who wants to marry Gwen, become human by the end of the play. That pairing, incidentally, is another that includes an established APT figure, Knight, who is in his fourth season, with Hosner, who is making his debut.

The play -- this particular evening -- ended at about 11 p.m., when the temperature was still close to 90. No one left early or even tried to rush to the parking lots. People remained to offer the actors a standing ovation, a well-deserved ovation no matter what the weather.

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