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"Acting is all I've ever really wanted to do," says Tracy Michelle Arnold of American Players Theatre. Thank goodness, then, that Arnold is so exceptionally talented. Now heading into her 12th season with the Spring Green-based professional company, Arnold is a magnetic stage presence who can master a wide range of roles.
For me, the 2009 season in particular really highlighted Arnold's skills. As Judith Bliss, the matriarch of a batty, self-absorbed family in Noël Coward's Hay Fever, Arnold showed her comedic side. With her big gestures and histrionics, retired stage actress Judith needs to be the center of attention at all times. Arnold's performance was one of the funniest things I've ever seen on stage.
During the same season, Arnold played Kate in Harold Pinter's Old Times, a spiky, enigmatic play from 1971. Pinter's drama, with pointed silences and only three characters, required Arnold to convey meaning through the smallest of gestures and facial expressions. As APT artistic director David Frank puts it, "She's so innately economical in what she does; stillness is an enormous power that she has."
More recently, Arnold wowed audiences as flinty prostitute Jenny Diver in Madison Opera's The Threepenny Opera, which played this past winter at Overture Center. More than anyone else in the cast, Arnold - who doesn't get to do as much musical theater as she'd like - nailed Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's seedy Victorian-London-via-Weimar-Germany vibe. Sexy, edgy and glowering, Arnold's rendition of "Pirate Jenny" was a showstopper.
Of course, in a repertory company like APT, each actor needs to be able to tackle many different roles, from Shakespeare to more modern writers like George Bernard Shaw or Eugene O'Neill. At the same time, each actor brings certain ineffable qualities that are his or her own.
Arnold's low voice and lanky, athletic build make her a natural for playing, as she puts it, "tough, no-nonsense, wily" women, even though she claims she's nothing like that.
Says Frank, "Great actors use themselves as much as they use their powers of observation to create a life outside themselves. Tracy is an actress capable of a laser-like focus. She's so grounded and so convincing and so in the moment, having the facility to duplicate a moment, to make it really happen as if for the first time. That quality's a rare quality, though any good actor has to have it. Tracy has it to the nth power."
This season, Arnold will dive in to two Shakespeare plays (The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest), as well as an 18th-century British satire, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Critic, that will be unfamiliar to most audiences.
It's a busy, full life for the actor, who will be 42 in June. Though very serious health problems sidelined her several years ago (she copes with a rare kidney disease called hemolytic uremic syndrome), she's faring well these days. She and her husband, fellow APT actor Marcus Truschinski, have a 2½-year-old son, Gus.
Though her days are logistically complex - "The hardest part of my job, my life, is scheduling babysitters," she admits - she wouldn't have it any other way.
Even as a young child, Arnold, whose family settled in Belleville, Ill., when she was 10, was drawn to entertainment. "When I was a little girl, I thought I was going to be a singer. I had a set bedtime as a kid. My mom would be ironing, and I'd sneak down the hallway and watch Sonny and Cher on TV and think, 'I've got to do that! Look at her!'"
Arnold earned a master's degree in acting from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. After grad school, she landed her position at APT, and one of her early experiences was playing Regan in Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear.
Says the actor of APT's famously passionate and somewhat idiosyncratic audiences, "I had no idea what the audience was [like]. I'll never forget it. This rolling laughter came from the audience" at another actor's tragic line while she was still backstage. "It blew me away. I'd never experienced an audience like that; they're one of a kind. They make such a huge difference."
Arnold credits APT's audiences with helping her, her cast mates, and directors with honing shows. "They are such a listening audience. They lean in, they teach us when a line needs to be adjusted a little bit. We will think some word is the word that makes them understand the line, but they react to a different word. Those details pay off in our ability to tell the story clearly, and that's what it's all about. The point is to make [audiences] think and to feel something, to go home and have a conversation about something. Even when a show's open, we don't stop working on it, trying to make it better."
Though her commitment at APT is ongoing, the five-month season contract leaves her and her husband time to pursue work at other theaters. Arnold's other credits include numerous Chicago-area theaters (Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, Northlight, Remy Bumppo, Writers') and Milwaukee companies (Milwaukee Chamber, Milwaukee Repertory, Renaissance Theaterworks).
At APT, Arnold has carved out a place among other first-rate female actors like Colleen Madden and Sarah Day. Her fluid ease with cast mates like James DeVita - with whom she starred in Madison Opera's Threepenny Opera - is visible.
Indeed, DeVita and his wife, Brenda, APT's associate artistic director, are offstage friends with Arnold and Truschinski and godparents to their son.
DeVita compares acting with Arnold to "playing ball with a really good athlete. You step up." APT's 2007 production of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana gave them many scenes together, he as a disgraced ex-minister and she as a bawdy widow running a decrepit resort. Together, they convincingly portrayed the earthy, affectionate yet combative dynamic between the two characters.
Gushes DeVita, "Tracy brings so many things [to acting]. I kind of adore her as a person and as an actor. She makes you better. Tracy always brings a kind of ruthless authenticity; she's so honest onstage."
During their recent run in Threepenny, DeVita admits, "I was out of my element and trying to do my best. She was my rock. I was like, 'I'm with Tracy, I'm okay.' I learned a great deal from her."
Though theater life is often nomadic - and, with two professional actors, the Arnold/Truschinski family's days are even more complex - Arnold is grateful to have a steady home base at APT.
"I feel so grateful to call it my artistic home. I've learned so much as an artist. The attention paid to language at this theater - the dividends are great."
American Players Theatre's 2011 season
APT artistic director David Frank offers a rundown of the upcoming season, which features five shows in the outdoor amphitheater up the hill and three more in the intimate, indoor Touchstone Theatre.
Up the Hill
The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare
Opens June 11
Tracy Michelle Arnold stars as Kate, the titular shrew in Shakespeare's controversial play, directed here by Tim Ocel. Says Frank of the Bard's female lead, "He doesn't see her as a hellcat, he sees her as an ahead-of-her-time woman, more than the people around her know how to take."
Blithe Spirit, by Noël Coward
Opens June 18
Frank, who'll direct Blithe Spirit, dubs it "a classic Coward," with the sparkling, urbane wit that audiences love. "He writes really good relationships. [His plays] are funny and mean and true. He loves words as subtle instruments of torture." If this production - about a cocktail party séance that brings a woman back from the dead - is even half as entertaining as 2009's Hay Fever (APT's first Coward production), theatergoers are in for a treat.
The Critic, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Opens June 25
APT harks back to 18th-century England for what promises to be a riotous comedy directed by William Brown. Frank describes it as a "flat-out satire on the worst aspects of the theater in the late 18th century. Sheridan was a remorseless satirist, and anything in the profession is fair game to him." Look for an onstage sea battle, itinerant Italian singers, terrible critics and more. Tracy Michelle Arnold will play several of the female roles.
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
Opens Aug. 6
Kate Buckley, who directed last season's moving production of Exits and Entrances, tackles a classic of American literature about migrant workers during the Great Depression. Says Frank of Steinbeck: "Talk about an American poet; that play just sings and sings. I expect it to be beautiful, haunting and sad."
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
Opens Aug. 13
James Bohnen directs Shakespeare's tragicomic tale. Says Frank, "It's probably Shakespeare's last complete play. It's such a wonderful, sad, funny, fantastic play; it's one of the great ones. At the end, it steps out into the unknown. I love it."
In the Touchstone Theatre
The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams
Opens June 21
While APT's other shows this season feature returning directors, newcomer Aaron Posner will helm this classic. Frank says it's ideally suited to the roughly 200-seat Touchstone: "It's a piece we could never do up the hill, ever. It has to be gossamer. I think it will be gently and richly original in its staging." Posner has directed frequently at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., and other venues nationally.
Crime and Punishment, by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus
Opens June 26
"This is Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment in two hours, with three characters," says Frank. "You'd think it was a ridiculous undertaking, but it's not. It exists mostly in the mind of Raskolnikov being interrogated. It will be a tense, powerful and very rich theatrical experience." Kenneth Albers, who helmed last year's well-received Waiting for Godot, directs.
The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, by Seamus Heaney
Opens Aug. 14
Frank himself will direct this modern adaptation of an ancient drama, by a man he calls "a candidate for the greatest living English-language poet. He's so direct, powerful and quietly original. It's dense, high-level, ambitious, but accessible and - much of the time - bone simple." It's also a play well suited for our times, he argues: "In an age of polarization that makes me despair, and sloganeering that has been substituted for conscientious analysis, it's an extraordinarily opportune wail for our attention."