Suburban natives find artistic home on Wisconsin stage
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Downers Grove native Cristina Panfilio walked into a bar after performing in "Hamlet."
A man recognized her. "I'm glad to see you're not really dead!" he said.
Panfilio plays the tragic Ophelia in "Hamlet" and "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead," along with a smaller role in "Too Many Husbands." The productions premiered at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis.
She appreciates the small-town setting of Spring Green because she regularly runs into audience members the day after a performance, usually at the town grocery store. She likes discussing the plays and how people relate to them.
"It's always interesting to hear people's insights," Panfilio said.
Panfilio first heard about APT in 2004 while auditioning for the theater's casting director, Brenda DeVita, at the University of Illinois.
"Since I met Brenda, it's felt like I've been courting this theater," Panfilio said.
During the next few years, she kept auditioning for the APT's summer shows until she landed parts in "Twelfth Night," "Richard III" and "Troilus and Cressida" last year.
Before settling in with APT, Panfilio graduated from Illinois in 2005 and interned at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater later that year. She said it was a good environment to practice the performance tools she learned in college while acting in small roles.
"No matter where you go for school, you just don't know until you do it," Panfilio said.
So how has Panfilio's experience with APT been?
She said the audiences that fill the 1,100-seat outdoor theater have been the "best audiences I've performed in front of." Even in the heat or on mosquito-infested nights, she said people still show up.
"When it rains, they stay like it's a Packers game," she said.
Panfilio came to Spring Green last year expecting to work at a great theater. She considers herself lucky because she fell in love with APT so quickly.
"It was such a match." Panfilio said. "It actually turned out to be what I thought it was. We fit."
Naperville resident Barbara Zahora also expected "artistic excellence" from APT. And she hasn't been disappointed.
"It's fantastic," Zahora said. "It's everything I had heard it was and hoped for."
Zahora will perform in "All My Sons," which premieres Saturday, Aug. 17. She will also play Madame de Volanges in APT's fall production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."
The theater has impressed Zahora with old-fashioned techniques. Actors don't use microphones and instead project their voices during performances.
Zahora also appreciates the six weeks of rehearsal she gets before "All My Sons" opens. It's more than she's accustomed to after working with Chicago theaters that schedule about four weeks for rehearsal.
In "All My Sons," Zahora plays Sue Bayless, a neighbor to the main family, the Kellers. Zahora describes Bayless as a deconstructed stereotype of a stay-at-home mother.
She's also the "truth point" of the story, calling out what other neighbors say behind the Kellers' backs.
"It's a tough play," Zahora said. "(It's) emotionally devastating. You could do it in a short time, but it would be shallow and superficial."
Zahora said the extra rehearsal time lets the director integrate his "jewels of ideas" to make the play resonate better with the actors and the audience.
In the off season, Zahora is the associate artistic director for the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, presenting free readings of the Bard's plays. Zahora also teaches acting at Roosevelt University and Northwestern University, where she specializes in training opera graduate students.
"When I'm not acting, I really do love trying to help actors younger than me," Zahora said. "It's amazing to watch people, with a little suggestion, change everything for the better."
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