In 2017, a friend who lives in Madison, Wis., sent me a message to tell me about a wonderful production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” he had just seen at the American Players Theatre, a repertory company based in Spring Green, Wis. He encouraged me to take a trip to see the show.
Paul is wild about APT and makes the one-hour drive from Madison to Spring Green several times a year. Having grown up with all the fantastic theater that Minneapolis has to offer, it’s been an adjustment for Paul to live in Madison. Having APT nearby, he said, helps make up for that lack.
He was right. I thoroughly enjoyed the production and the experience of visiting APT, which is located in a hilly wood, with a vast picnic area so visitors can make a day of it. The company has an indoor stage (the Touchstone Theatre) and an outdoor stage (the Hill Theatre), both of which are a bit of a walk from the parking lot. (If you go, wear sensible walking shoes.) The Hill Theatre has wonderful acoustics, and a neat silky canopy lofted over the stage and audience, to protect from the glare of the sun. The actors, meanwhile, are top-notch.
I decided to return this year. Paul said he’s never seen Shakespeare done better than at APT, and I wanted to see for myself.
I greatly enjoyed APT’s version of “As You Like It.” APT isn’t doing anything groundbreaking with the text, but there’s something to be said for doing classic plays excellently, allowing the great works to speak to the human condition. This production had a solid cast, and all had voices that could carry clearly outdoors without amplification, but the performance also felt intimate. I loved the musical interludes that rounded out the performance.
APT’s current season concludes with a production of “Engaging Shaw” through Nov. 17. (Find more info at americanplayers.org.)
High art and kitsch
Spring Green features a mixture of the “high art” of APT and sublime Frank Lloyd Wright architecture on the one hand, and the wild abandon of the House on the Rock on the other.
Spring Green is wild about Wright, and architecture in general. This isn’t surprising given the number of buildings designed by Wright and his apprentices in the area, such as the Spring Green Community Library, built in the 1990s by former Wright apprentice James Charles Montooth.
The top draw for Wright fans is Taliesen (taliesinpreservation.org), an estate that includes the architect’s former home. Tours are pricey, so I went for a more affordable self-tour, including the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center (completed from his design posthumously), which offers a lovely view of the Wisconsin River, and the Wyoming Valley School Cultural Arts Center, a short drive away on Hwy. 23.
Then there’s the curious House on the Rock (thehouseontherock.com). Outsider artist Alex Jordan Jr. began blasting rock for this strange building in 1945, and it opened to the public 15 years later. A highlight is the Infinity Room, built in 1985. (Jordan died in 1989.) The cantilevered platform juts out from the building, becoming smaller and smaller as it leads to its end point, creating a kind of optical illusion. It creates a wonderful sense of being in a treehouse. The house is a dark, mysterious place that twists and turns in a catacomb-like experience. The rock the house was built into makes up the structure’s walls, but there’s also plenty of shag carpet, stained glass and odd angles.
House on the Rock is filled with a decadent amount of 20th-century kitsch, which is cool if you can stomach the occasional racist caricatures amid the clowns, guns, creepy dolls, airplanes, sea creatures, medieval knights and life-size mechanical music boxes.
I returned to Spring Green with the purpose of seeing the Infinity Room from the outside, but was frustrated that the view was blocked by trees. I tried the scenic overlook a mile away on Hwy. 23, but couldn’t see it well without binoculars. The overlook does have a neat-looking pedestrian bridge, built by Montooth in 1992.
Throughout my various wanderings around Spring Green, the weather completely cooperated. The natural beauty surrounding the town’s notable architecture is part of the draw. I know I’ll be back to this little cultural oasis in southern Wisconsin’s lush landscape.
Spring Green is about four hours southeast of the Twin Cities. Take I-94 or I-90 east to Mauston, Wis., and then local roads south to Spring Green (springgreen.com).
I visited Cedar Grove Cheese (cedargrovecheese.com) in the nearby town of Plain. It uses a “Living Machine,” a mechanism that purifies the water used to make the cheese before putting it back into the ground.
Other interesting historic buildings include a former one-room schoolhouse built in 1875, now the Wyoming Town Hall, as well as a 1902 church used by Theatre de l’Ange Fou, dubbed the White Church Theatre Project (angefou.co.uk/ whitechurchtheatre.html).
Where to sleep and eat
I booked a room through Airbnb at a motel called Usonian Inn (usonianinn.com), named after Wright’s vision of an American architecture that incorporated landscape and natural elements. The inn was designed by Wright apprentice J.C. Caraway, and had an air of minimalism.
A friend said I just had to stay at the Don Q Inn (donqinn.net) in nearby Dodgeville. I had booked my room, but I decided to check Don Q out — and it was indeed very strange. There’s an airplane parked outside, and the lobby is filled with antique dental and hairdressing equipment. On weekends, the inn provides tours of its “fantasy suites,” with themed rooms such as Cupid’s Corner and Sherwood Forest (where your bed is nestled amid real tree trunks).
I had a pleasant dinner at Freddy Valentine’s Public House (freddyvalentines.com), built in a vintage bank in downtown Spring Green. I recommend the charred perch tacos.
The General Store (springgreengeneralstore.com) is a gift shop and breakfast place. You can pick up souvenirs after a hearty meal, complete with vegan options.
I also enjoyed Arcadia Books (readinutopia.com), a bookstore/restaurant. With a great selection and a cozy coffee-shop vibe, it invites a visitor to spend an hour or four.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based arts writer.