Michael Lenehan had a really exciting summer vacation in 2014, and now he’s been assigned to write an essay about it to share with the class. That’s how Much Ado: A Summer with a Repertory Theater Company feels to a reader familiar with American Players Theatre.
It’s almost as if Lenehan was dropped off at theater camp in the rolling hills of Spring Green without a counselor and without a clue. His recollections of months embedded with the actors and creative team that produced Much Ado about Nothing read like a Yelp review from someone who has never seen live theater before.
The short, stream-of-consciousness chapters bounce from a Google-generated list of outdoor Shakespearean theaters, to a conversation about yak hair with the costume shop’s resident wig makers, to a realization that stage managers do more than “manage the stagehands.” He presents the stunning revelation that part of an actor’s job is to re-create a scene “again, and again, and again, dozens of times over the course of the summer, every time as utterly convincing as the first.” Then he posits: “That’s acting I suppose.”
Lenehan is an award-winning newspaper and magazine writer who spent years as chief editorial executive at the Chicago Reader. He may not have a wide range of experience with live Shakespeare performance, but he does have a deep affection for APT, which shines through his prose. Lenehan was inspired to write this book after attending performances with his wife for many years and taking a behind-the-scenes tour that the theater conducts between performances.
Like many fans of the remarkable company, he clearly is in awe of the artists who make magic onstage. Much Ado, the production he focuses on, was directed by former APT artistic director David Frank and featured talented veterans David Daniels and Colleen Madden in the lead roles. It follows, then, that Lenehan’s interviews, mini-bios and rehearsal reports revolve around the affable director, earnest Benedick and irrepressibly smart Beatrice. The writing has the giddy tone of someone who is allowed to shadow the players on his favorite sports team. Members of APT’s devoted audience base — many of whom probably remember this Much Ado production fondly — will find a guilty pleasure in eavesdropping on discussions that took place in rehearsal rooms. It feeds the fantasy that we know these actors even better, now that we have a window into their creative process and a bit of their lives offstage.
But it is all presented as a fanboy’s first attempt at documentary, with little focus and even less analysis. For all of Lenehan’s attention to pivotal moments in the Much Ado script, and how they are handled by the talented cast and director, he offers very little context or critical point of view. Instead, he briefly references both the Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon movie versions of the play, which doesn’t lend much credibility or insight.
The only real drama in the book, which is published by Agate Midway, an imprint that focuses on Midwestern topics and authors, arises in lengthy discussions with set designer Robert Morgan, on his summer of disappointment as each of his proposed design elements is cut, modified, dismissed or deemed too difficult or expensive to build.
And if there was any doubt as to whether the show was a rousing success, fear not: Lengthy sections of effusive reviews of the play are included at the end of the book, including one from Madison Magazine by Aaron Conklin, one from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Mike Fischer and my review for Isthmus.
For anyone truly interested in learning about how American Players Theatre presents a full roster of exceptional classical and modern plays each summer, I suggest subscribing to the company’s e-newsletter, which is always filled with interesting behind-the-scenes stories. Then, the next time you are in Spring Green for a show, do what Lenehan did: Take a backstage tour. It will most likely be more educational, revealing and entertaining than reading this book.