Mel Brooks' The Prodcuers is weird. I had the occasion to contemplate this once more as I had been set up to review the Sunset Playhouse production of the show this past weekend. The idea of a couple of Broadway producers looking to get rich by developing an epic failure is a really clever one. It that had been appealing to me since I first saw the original film on a local indie TV station as a kid. And what with all of the movies that have been brought to the stage over the years and musical format, it seem like a natural fit for this stage. But at the same time it felt kind of strange.
A big commercial Broadway musical that spoofed big commerce on Broadway really IS the sort of thing but it’s making fun of. A big portion of what makes this so successful in a place like Elm Grove and not, say, the Marcus Center (or anywhere else a Broadway show would tour) is the fact that the Sunset Playhouse’s Furlan Auditorium is a relatively small stage where more of a textured feel to it. The audience is closer to the detail and so there's more personality in each detail present. Granted, the Furlan is one of the largest small stages in town. But for a big, over-the-top Broadway-style show, a space like the one that the Sunset Playhouse is working with in Elm Grove is relatively cozy.
Thanks to director Tommy Lueck, the Sunset Playhouse production only embraces the strange irony of creating a big, over-the-top musical in an effort to, among other things, make fun of big over the top musicals. I’ve seen a number of production of the show and I know that they don’t always manage that. And it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Lueck had company or going right that previous productions haven’t been able to manage.
The most interesting thing about the production is the fact that there are such a range of different talent levels on stage. It’s such a range of different types of performers all assuming different roles which may or may not fit perfectly into the type of thing they’re best at. And what you’ll get this with just about every production of any kind, bigger budgets allow for more of a uniformity and the overall feel of a show. The diversity of what is present on stage in Elm Grove makes the size of the cast that much more impressive. It’s not a whole lot of soulless faces and legs and arms and things. You tend to get that in the touring Broadway production. Everybody looks identical. It’s disturbing. And not in a good way that’s necessarily intended.
With a small, relatively intimate large stage the Sunset Playhouse is able to play-up individualities between different characters and different actors in a way that makes the large panorama of everything and present on stage that much more impressive. True to Brooks' cinematic style, there’s a lot of throwaway visual gags and in the musical. In any larger, more polished production all of those details feel washed out in all the glossy uniformity. With the level of texture that Lueck is able to work with here, we get a greater level of accent and in the midst every element of the cast. And yes, that is going to include some imperfections here or there. But that naturalistic imperfection is the type of thing that makes the smaller stages so intense.
All of this provides clarity to tragedy of the over-priced touring Broadway show. So much money is being pumped into touring Broadway shows. They can come to town and they can pretend that what they're doing is live theatre. And in that sense it is. It’s not live the way this is. It’s not live the way Lueck and company manage in Elm Grove with The Producers.
Sunset Playhouse’s staging of The Producers runs through Aug. 5 at the Furlan Auditorium on 700 Wall Street in Elm Grove. For ticket reservations, call 262-782-4430 or visit www.sunsetplayhouse.com. A comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.
The Underground Collaborative plays host to an interesting stage exploration into the works of Edgar Allen Poe. A version of The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe debuted in 2007 with Virginia’s Endstation Theatre Company. The adaptation renders various first-person narratives from the works of Poe as characters in a psych ward. Company of Strangers brings a modification of the adaptation into the basement of the Grand Avenue Mall this month as it presents a tightly-unraveled, little staging of the show that runs roughly 1 hour and 15 minutes.
The Mood As You Enter
Walk into the space as the entire cast is there. Onstage and off. Milling about. There’s a twitchy restlessness about them all. They’re pacing and crawling around and muttering to themselves. It’s a very slow metabolism about the place. Listless madness flows in and around a very moody atmosphere. The mood coats the tiny basement space. In an atmosphere like that, everyone seems a little crazy. Even people not directly involved in the production: the girl behind the bar, the rest of the audience, the person you came there with...everyone is suffering from demons of some sort.
It’s a diverse cast we meet as we enter. Mary Chuy clings to a baby doll she cradles in her arms. Later-on her maternalism fractures with “A Dream Within A Dream,” which ends the show. Esther Obain reaches out to the graffiti on the wall to embrace it. Later-on she performs the poem “Dreams,” with compelling passion. Rebecca Janny seems somewhat obsessed with the whitenesses of teeth, so it’s no surprise that she’s bringing Poe’s short story "Berenice" to the stage. Sarah Ann Mellström (always a captivating addition to an ensemble like this) slides across the stage in strangely compelling sensitivities. She taps here and there with fingers across various surfaces searching for no earthly percussion. She speaks through Poe’s “Alone,” with memories of childhood. Her hands later find a drum to tap out the rhythm of “The Telltale Heart,” as performed with cleverly aesthetic modulation by Race Rohde.
The modulation isn’t always strong, though...Poe performed as madness doesn’t have the kind of variety the would make for a very dramatically textured show. To their credit, the cast doesn’t try to reach into a garish spectrum of different mentally ill affectations. It all feels very well-grounded. And since the runtime of the show is only just over an hour, the mood is carried quite well and is never given enough time to feel stale.
The Concept Works
Atmosphere aside, on a fundamental level The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe is a recitation of Poe. Pure and simple. The rest of what’s going on in and around the edges cast it all in an interesting light but at its heart, this is a high-concept reading of Poe’s work. And it works. Each character in the cast represents almost a kind of psychotic personification of a different piece. So much of Poe’s fiction and narrative poetry is written from a first-person perspective. There are in-depth descriptions of each character in the program. Some of them are incredibly in-depth. Little 200 to 400-word sketches and analyses that inform on the performance. It would really amplify the experience to get-in early enough to read about the characters as they’re milling about prior to the show. Each of the 12 stories are analyzed and represented by characters in the cast. Between the text and the performance, there’s an opportunity for a really deep analysis of the text for those willing to really dive into it.
So...When are We Again?
The show imagines the Poe-based criminal psychotics all sharing space in the same Victorian-style psych ward with all of the restlessness that goes along with it. The costuming (which features contemporary scrubs and patient ID bands) and set design (which has the back walls covered in graffiti) suggest an altogether more contemporary setting. This feels a bit weird. Psychopharmacology has transformed contemporary mental institutions. It’s a much more static and dreamy space thanks to the wonders of modern medicine. (I remember a psych professor at UWM telling the story of visiting just such a place when psychotropic medications were first being introduced. He asked a nurse working the ward if the medicines really worked. She pointed at the curtains. She said that you could never keep the curtains on the windows before. With the drugs it wasn’t a problem. Things were so much more sedate than they had been.)
So it’s a bit disturbing to have a Victorian psych ward atmosphere in a modern psych ward atmosphere. Brian Lorenzo Pena plays a very charismatic Doctor who is described as being on “a quest for knowledge to the point of idolatry.” This would suggest a willingness to try out non-chemical forms of therapy even in those who could potentially hurt themselves (or anyone visiting in the audience within the context of the play.)
The nontraditional therapy angle on the character of the Doctor suggests a possible meta-story going on in which the characters aren’t reciting the narratives as personal experiences, but in actuality are being given different texts from Poe to identify with as a form of therapy being performed for the audience. And then maybe there’s enough around the edges of the introduction to suggest that the “Secretery” played by Julia Marsan is the REAL clinician here and she’s merely allowing one more psychotic the opportunity for therapy by way of allowing him to act as Doctor.
Company of Strangers has developed an explicit enough environment to form a moody backbone for Poe’s work. What an audience decides that it is will likely be something they bring-in with them. It's ambiguous enough to invite fun, little speculations and analyses long after the show has ended.
This Poe is a search for meaning along the fringes of mental health. It’s not meant to be a true exploration of mental illness any more than Poe’s work was. It’s a metaphysical descent into madness from which interesting insights might arise. Once again Company of Strangers presents a brief, thought-provoking evening of simple theatre on an intimate stage.
Company of Strangers’ production of The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe runs through Jul. 21 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Company of Strangers online.
Here's a promo video for the show:
I’m from Appleton, Wisconsin. So is big-name Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe. He moved Appleton to Milwaukee to study acting at UWM...and then went out to New York to win an Academy Award and then become the Green Goblin. Milwaukee is a transitional market. Our talent pool feeds terminal markets like LA and New York...where good talent goes...to die.
Seriously though: there are talented actors are leaving town every year. As the title of the horror film says...y’know...”Sometimes They Come Back,” but there’s always more talent leaving town than coming back in any given year.
Fresh Faces for Shakespeare
In light of the talent drain, it’s always fun to stumble across a cast list for a show featuring a whole bunch of names I haven’t heard of yet. See young actors while they're making early appearances and you'll have that much more time to hang out with them from a theatre seat before they leave town. Young talent can sometimes be found huddling together in tiny, little productions on small stages in some of the more pleasant margins of the city. Such is the case with Original Practices Milwaukee’s production of As You Like It on the East Side this coming weekend. Nearly half of the actors in the show are almost completely new to me.
Hey: I know THESE people
Even the names I recognize in the cast list look relatively fresh. By far the most recognizable name in the cast is Zach Woods, who has worked with Kohl’s Wild Theater, the Skylight, First Stage and has featured rather prominently at the Brumder...this guy gets around. He should. He’s a charismatic talent onstage. Also appearing in the cast are Bryant Mason and James Sevens: a couple of guys of reasonably advanced experience. It’s nice to see Jim Donaldson listed in a show as well. He’s great for light Shakespearian comedy--a genuinely funny guy with some of the most distinctive facial hair I’ve ever seen on an actual human being.
And then there are relatively new actors
The other 3/7 of the cast is a complete unknown to me and it makes me wish I could make the show (which runs this weekend only.) No idea what to expect here.
I may well have seen Jordyn Stewart onstage with my kids during a Kohl’s Wild Theatre performance not too long ago. She’s also a teaching artist at Lake Country Playhouse and performed in Bliss (or Emily Post is Dead!) last December for Renaissance Theaterworks “Groundworks” emerging artists’ series. (She’ll be appearing in the July 12th performance of As You Like It.)
Megan Orcholski is a PhD student at UWM who directed the weird alt-sitcom short Roommates that appeared in Cooperative Performances’ shorts festival earlier this summer, but I don’t believe I have ever seen her onstage. (She’ll be appearing in the July 14th performance of As You Like It.)
And this is the first time I’ve ever seen the name Paige Bourne, but in my defense, she looks young enough to have been in kindergarten when I started reviewing theatre. So I believe I can be forgiven for not having seen her onstage before. These three shiny, new actors are a big reason I regret that I am unlikely to be able to attend the show.
(I went to three shows last week. I’m going to three shows next week. There’s no way around other obligations this week. I will, however, be hanging out with Edgar Allen Poe in the Company of Strangers under Wisconsin Avenue on Friday the 13th. Look for a review of THAT show on Saturday morning.)
It’s First Folio Style So It’s Fun
It’s going to be an intimate show. When Shakespeare gets close, it can be fun. Here they’re performing the light comedy of As You Like It in a first folio style that engages the audience that is so very close to all of the action onstage. Women will disguise themselves as men. Identities will be mistaken. Love will be complicated and convoluted. And everything will work out in the end. Not a bad evening’s entertainment for a weekend in July.
Two Performance. Two Venues
The first performance will be on July 12th at 6:30 p.m. at the Villa Terrace Museum on 2220 N Terrace Ave. It’s a gorgeous space for Shakespeare. (I’ve seen his work there before.) There’s a very classy and classical feel about the space that pairs well with the poetic dialogue.
Then the show closes with its second performance on a Saturday, July 14th matinee at 3:30 p.m. a couple of days and 0.8 miles from when and where it opened. Its a second and final performance is at a second museum: the Charles Allis on 1801 N. Prospect Avenue.
Tickets are $10 each and available at the door before the performance. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page.
A Time of Division
Door Shakespeare pieces together an interesting fusion this summer with a distinctly American staging of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Set during in Wisconsin during the American Civil War, the story of two rivals being brought together in love makes a fascinating reflection on an era of bloody division between the North and the South as seen through the eyes of an audience that is much more familiar with the intellectual division between the left and the right in the contemporary political landscape.
USA by Way of Shakespeare
I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a production so completely wrapped-up in the visual trapping of US patriotism before. It’s actually kind of refreshing to see something this completely immersed in star spangled red, white and blue. Costume Designer Misti Bradford and Scenic Designer Jody Sekas give the production a very stylized and iconic Civil War/Civil War-era America for the intimate outdoor stage. There’s some really overpowering stars and stripes imagery saturating the stage during the play’s masquerade scene. The ball is sharply choreographed by Isabelle Kralj, (who is no stranger to choreographing on an intimate stage in her work with Theatre Gigante.) Everyone is decked-out in red, white and blue domino masks for the scene. It’s all very visually striking, but not all of the show’s impact comes from bright primary colors. There are earth tones too...this IS Shakespeare quite firmly planted in Northeastern Wisconsin.
The premise is that soldiers from the Civil War are returning to Wisconsin...Door County Wisconsin from the battlefield. And so there’s a really interesting stylistic fusion between the setting of the play and the quaint rural rustic feel of small-town Door County. (That authentic small town feel is still there in places if you look for it in the shadow of overwhelming gravity of garish Door County tourism.)
Old Friends Onstage
The show is a pleasant throwback to Joseph Hanreddy-era Milwaukee Rep. Hanreddy directs the show with longtime Milwaukee Rep resident actress Deborah Staples playing a world-weary Beatrice. Powerful Milwaukee theater icon Mark Corkins plays Don Pedro--a man among others who conspires to bring Beatrice to love with her romantic rival Benedick...played by Staples’ husband and Next Act Producing Artistic Director David Cecsarini. It’s really fun to see the husband and wife onstage together as Benedick and Beatrice.
It’s a show in Door County, but so much of it feels like a Milwaukee theater party on a small stage in the woods in Door County. James Carrington lends an authority of conscience to the role of Father Francis, who works to uncover a conspiracy against two lovers. Milwaukee theater veteran Carrie Hitchcock lends character to the edges of the production as Ursula and the Sexton.
Of course, this IS Shakespeare and there is A LOT going on in and around the edges of the show. Todd Denning has a purity about him as Leonato, who stands wronged by accusations made against his daughter Hero. The distinctive silent expressiveness of Elyse Edelman can do amazing things for any peripheral role in Shakespeare. Here the subtle mix of emotion that fades in and out of her countenance lends power to the drama of Hero. Also making a very memorable appearance in the periphery of the action is Drew Shirley, who seems to be channeling an interesting mix of midwestern moods for a very refreshingly comic turn as the night constable Dogberry. In a performance that feels reminiscent of a young Bill Murray, Shirley plays a Dogberry funny enough to hold the attention of even my pre-school-aged daughter whenever he made it to the stage.
Door Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing run in rotation with The Comedy of Errors through August 18th at Björklunden Lodge on 590 Boynton Lane in Baileys Harbor. For ticket requests, call 920-839-1500 or visit doorshakespeare.com. My concise, comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.
Come Into the Cool
Come in from one of the hottest weekends of the year in Milwaukee. Slide in through the elegant revolving door and you’re there in a stylish, little boutique hotel managed by Kimpton: a San Fransisco-based company. Feels very classy as you walk-up a few stairs and around the corner to a spacious, well-lit area that serves as the performance space. Outside it’s hot and uncomfortable. Inside it’s lavish, luxurious and sumptuously air conditioned. The stylish comfort is actually kind of disorienting at first: is this the Third Ward or San Fransisco? You may not know quite where you are, but you’ll know you’re cool, which is a perfect way to walk into I’ll Eat You Last. The one-weekend-only show staring Marcee Doherty-Elst is an Untitled Productions/Theater RED affair with a couple of performances left this weekend.
Here’s Your Pack of Cigarettes: Go Have a Drink
It’s probably one of the coolest theatre programs I’ve ever been given: an empty prop pack of cigarettes filled with “bio cards” in the form of business cards. The VIP package includes a business card that gets you a free drink at the high-end bar on your way in. You’re actually paying for your drink with a business card, which just seems so...Hollywood. (Very cool.) The play is about Sue Mengers: a chain-smoking Hollywood agent who really made a name for herself in the ‘70s. A prop cigarette pack filled with business cards sets the mood perfectly. Since this is Wisconsin, I order a Brandy Old Fashioned and head out to sit down in a very comfortable chair right next to the stage.
A Big Kind of Intimacy
The furniture in the space has a big, wide feel about it. The stage has a big, wide feel about it. There’s a couch onstage the looks like it could be a bed. The lighting deities at Antishadows LLC have lit a space that feels positively decadent. Pick-up a complimentary gourmet popcorn on your way to whatever seat you happened to feel drawn to and let the show wash over you. Sit down and you sink into a surprisingly luxurious 70 minute show without intermission.
Oddly Inspirational: Marcee Doherty-Elst as Sue Mengers
Motivational speakers don’t generally lounge around smoking cigarettes while waiting for a call from Barbara Streisand. Maybe they should. I’ll Eat You Last goes a long way on a couch.
Marcee Doherty-Elst glides out of a corner of the room and onto a couch onstage. She’s tanned and relaxed while easily commanding all the attention in the biggest little small stage in the Third Ward this weekend.
Doherty-Elst plays a Hollywood Agent. She plays a very specific Hollywood agent: Sue Mengers. Mengers represented Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Cher, Joan Collins, Burt Reynolds, and Nick Nolte (among others.) She’s got stories to tell about her life. She was an immigrant who taught herself to speak English with Hollywood movies...movies she wanted to place at the center of her life. Discovering that acting wasn’t right for her, she decided to become an agent.
She’s telling very specific stories. And though she is speaking the stories while smoking on a couch, the stories are all very graceful, motivational and nearly universal. In I’ll Eat You Last, Hollywood agent Sue Mengers is more than a figure out of history...she’s an archetype. She’s that totally confident woman who is mercilessly persistent when she’s not just being...merciless. She's doing a lot of name-dropping. People familiar with the era will be a bit more in synch with the show than others. In the role, Doherty-Elst wields a universality that transcends that trivia, though. Give her 70 minutes and she'll give you someone who doesn't really exist anymore, but probably should.
There’s real heart and personality to the character, which ends up being a really classy blend of Sue Mengers, Marcee Doherty-Elst, playwright John Logan and that one person everyone wishes they had in their corner. There’s a genuine warmth about Doehrty-Elst in the role...a personality just precisely big enough to fill the room without feeling too overpowering. It’s a light show of refreshing depth that Doherty-Elst swims through with great grace while sitting on a couch in the Historic Third Ward.
Untitled Productions and Theater RED's staging of the I'll Eat You Last runs through July 1st at the Journeyman Hotel on 310 East Chicago St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater RED online.
So...It’s An Awards Program
I was graciously invited to attend The Second Annual Footlights People’s Choice Awards at the Quadracci Powerhouse last night. Honestly I might have been a little hesitant to go. I don’t generally like the idea of an awards program for all those reasons I don’t like awards, but it was a pleasure to go out and see so many people gathered together to celebrate the local theatre that has been so much a part of my life over the years.
A Well-Dressed Musical Variety Show...with Awards
The ever-charming John McGivern wittily hosted a show featuring performances by a wide variety of different groups. The show opened with a really fun performance from the cast of Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s whimsical Svadba Wedding. Beautiful women with beautiful voices mounted the stage with boxing gloves and sang operatic bits while gracefully boxing each other in dramatized slow motion. Easily one of the funnest and funniest moments of the evening.
On the whole, the show was very classy, but it felt a bit strange. I kept wondering if there might not be some better way to celebrate local theatre. There was so much show that the awards were actually kind of in the way of the awards program. The show progressed like this: A charming presenter goes onstage, introduces him or herself, reads a little prepared text. The nominees are read. The winner is announced. The winner (or perhaps just as often a proxy FOR the winner) gets onstage, is handed the translucent little “F” and then politely escorted to the far corner of the stage...then offstage. It’s nice and everything, but politely shoveling the winner into some far corner feels a bit strange as the award itself is the given reason for the show. No words of thanks allowed...let alone any kind of acceptance speech that would have admittedly dragged things out way too long anyway...
So...There Was This...Sneeze...
A formal awards setting IS a kind of a unique atmosphere that can make for some rather interesting moments, though. There was a really stirring performance by the Chant Claire Chamber Choir. It was kind of breathtaking to feel a chorus singing this radiantly moody stuff that cascaded out over the audience...and then right as the performance was about to reach its end, a truly dramatic sneeze echoed through the entire space. It was a comically awkward moment. There was laughter. A few moments later, standing next to Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Jill Anna Ponasik to help present the awards for Outstanding Performers, Quasimondo Physical Theatre’s Brian Rott issued an impromptu verbal award for the sneeze. It was a fun moment...quite entirely unlike anything that could have happened in any other format.
Another notable (and notably irrepressible) personality was The Skylight’s Ray Jivoff. He was a high-energy presence both as presenter AND proxy for nearly all the awards The Skylight received this year, prompting my wife to lean-in and ask me, “is the Skylight in rehearsal for something? Is that why he’s going up for everything the Skylight wins?”
A Moment Between Seasons
There’s a genuine appeal to a formal fancy-dressed recognition of work at the end of the standard season and the beginning of the summer season. There is promotion for upcoming shows and a chance for encore performances from shows that had been staged in the past season. I loved seeing Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Svadba-Wedding open the show with is unique twist on a portion of the material they performed at The Best Place not too long ago. One of the best moments of the evening had to be the performance of “Light” by the cast of All-In Productions’ staging of Next to Normal. Such a moving song by such an amazing cast...and all sharing one more moment onstage. THIS is what this sort of show excels at. The fact that, just moments prior to the performance, Tim Backes happened to win the “F” for Outstanding Direction in a Non-Professional Production added to the emotional atmosphere.
The show was not without a couple of glances ahead at the upcoming summer. Shawn Holmes, Ben Tajnai and Rae Elizabeth Pare did an impressive song from their upcoming production of Shrek the Musical with Greendale Community Theatre later on this summer. Tajnai has a deeply powerful voice. I’m really looking forward to covering their show for the print edition of the Shepherd. The very charismatic pairing of Tajnai and Holmes went straight from sining to presenting in a rather quick transition.
There were a couple of presenters who were there in advance of a show opening in just a few days. The best-dressed man in the Quadracci last night might have been director Eric Welch, who co-presented the awards for outstanding costume design with Marcee Doherty-Elst. Welch is directing Doherty-Elst in this weekend’s upcoming production of I’ll Eat You Last. The two of them have been just about everywhere promoting the show this month. It would have been kind of weird not having them there for the awards.
And A Few Legends, Too
The big legends of Milwaukee theatre were a bit too numerous to mention in detail, but many of them were on hand. The highlight of the whole evening had Ruth Schudson receiving a standing ovation for her Lifetime Achievement Award as presented by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s C. Michael Wright. Schudson has had an amazing career and been extremely influential in Milwaukee theatre going way back. If anyone in that room deserved an award for excellence last night, it was her.
A Big Superhero Crossover For Local Milwaukee Theatre
It wasn’t just the legends. Lots of other people were their too. There really were a lot of people there at the Quadracci last night. There really were a lot of local theatre people there from many different ends. People from big, professional theatre companies are there hanging out with people from smaller companies most people in the audience have probably never even heard of. Incredibly talented people toiling away in the shadows of bigger stages stood in the same room as really talented people who can actually make a living doing this sort of thing. If I’m at 100 shows per year I’m only seeing them like...one at a time. It’s kind of cool to see so many people all in the same room at once and remember how big a community it really is.
I don’t think of local performers as celebrities so much as superheroes...each with their own unique powers to do their own unique thing onstage. And so if they’re all assembled in the same room, they must have all been assembled to combat some sort of evil, right? Isn’t this like Marcus’ Avengers: Infinity Show or something like that? Crisis on Infinite Stages perhaps? I found myself glancing around the room trying to anticipate why we had all been assembled:
“What evil have we all been assembled to fight? Is it the Republican Lieutenant Governor? SHE’S here to support her daughter (who won a well-deserved award for “Outstanding Youth Performer in a Non-Professional Production.”) But what nefarious purposes is she REALLY here for?”
My wife pointed out that when First Stage Jeff Frank gave a truly moving acceptance speech to the group’s Community Outreach Award, the Republican Lieutenant Governor did NOT join in the audience’s thunderous applause when he’d mentioned how badly we need change in this world. We’ve got our eyes on you, Lieutenant Governor...(Seriously, though Lieutenant Governor: you have a talented daughter and it’s really nice that you could show-up. Just know that whatever nefarious evil you and Scott Walker have planned for this fair state...we will be there...)
The Award Itself
It’s a cute, little round translucent thing with the ghostly image of the Footlights icon inside it. I don’t know who designed that trademark Footlights icon, but I had plenty of time to appreciate it over the course of the evening and I have to say that I’ve really grown fond of that little stylized “F”-looking guy. He’s cute. Really. With his little back arched and his little arms raised out beyond the little circle of his head, he’s appropriately dramatic. He’s in a hurry to get somewhere, but we don’t know where. So there’s a sense of mystery about him. My compliments to the designer.
With all due respect, though...they’re handing out “F”s all night to really respectable performers. I realize that it’s totally irrational, but on some instinctual level that feels kind of...disrespectful. There’s something that feels kind of weird about that. They ARE really nice “F”s, though If this thing takes off that little”F” will adorn so many shelves all over the city. Kind of weird to think about that...a big formal event to hand out a whole bunch of “F”s. Given enough time I’m sure that little guy will be the most coveted and sought-after “F” in all of southeastern Wisconsin.
Maybe A Whole Bunch of Smaller Performances Instead?
Like any big superhero crossover, you never get enough time with any one hero...there’s always way too many people for the amount of time available onstage. It’s nice that Marcus and Footlights could do this big, glitzy promotional event for local theatre, but given the amount that they charge for advertising, there’s A LOT more that they could be doing. They have the opportunity to really promote those groups that bring in such steady revenue for them and this might not be the best outlet for that promotion.
Chicago theatre has the Jeffs. Does Milwaukee theatre really need the “F”s? It’s a legitimate question. It could be an amazing ongoing addition to local theatre that will help to round-out the community or...it could be kind of misdirected. It seems to me that a series of smaller formal events would be that much more influential (and potentially lucrative for Marcus,) particularly if they could find some way for more non-theatergoers could be exposed to the amazing work that’s being done. I have to say, though...the formal atmosphere WAS really nice and it was cool to see such talent gathered into a single room to promote Milwaukee theatre. I just look around the room and think: “This really is a lot of talent. There’s a lot of responsibility that goes along with that talent. Shouldn’t we all be somewhere actually doing something right now?”
Anyway...congratulations to all who won and all who were nominated. And thanks to Footlights for inviting me to the show. A full list of winners can be found here.
The Marcus Corporation’s Footlights Magazine has a circulation of 1.04 million. Look for them the next time you’re at a show with a big enough budget for a Footlights program. And say hello to the little “F” guy while you’re at it. He’s kinda cute and easy to overlook.
Patrick Schmitz is best-known as a Milwaukee funny guy. As a writer, he’s responsible for stage spoofs like Rudolph the Pissed-Off Reindeer and the “Kinda Sorta” series of Shakespeare parodies. This weekend (and this weekend only) Schmitz unveils something entirely different: an original 70-minute family drama which draws some inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. The family drama Katelyn’s Wasteland is a series of brief moments between flawed and damaged people who are all struggling to understand the world. The drama plays out almost entirely without a set on the relentlessly intimate stage of the Alchemist Theatre.
Dominating the cast are three women largely known for their work in local comedy. Beth Lewinski, Melissa Kingston and Megan McGee play three grown sisters in a series of listlessly restless conversations in the shadow of the past. Very little of what’s happening onstage doesn’t involve talk about personal histories...some of which are shared and some of which are intensely private. What plays out onstage is a shadow of an echo of actual action with its own kind of lingering afterlife. There's drama between the characters, but the more active end of things has been and gone long before anything has settled onto Schmitz's stage. We're in a dreamy kind of an emotional afterlife for much of the 70 minutes of the drama.
So often this sort of thing can feel weird for someone sitting in an audience. You don’t even know these people and yet here they are dissecting themselves, their pasts, each other and each other's pasts intellectually and emotionally. Schmitz and company bring enough familiarity to the stage to keep this from feeling too distant, though. Each one of the characters in the ensemble reflects different aspects of everyone. It’s all very relatable. Schmitz’s dialogue is very organic. People are casually rendered in great emotional detail.
With heartbreaking empathy and subtlety, Lewinski plays Katelyn--the sister who has moved away and come back. She’s visiting the other two and their father. She and Melissa Kingston share a moment in the opening dialogue between Katelyn and Claire. Shades of unseen intricacy and competing exhaustions wrestle in casual conversational dialogue that is attached to deeper issues between the two. Not an easy place for any drama to start, but Lewinski and Kingston establish a very earthbound dynamic that resonates through the entire show. They’re both best-known for comedy, but Lewinski and Kingston show remarkable depth in a very nuanced drama. Lewinsky and Kingston clearly have a very clever grasp of drama. It’s too bad that there aren’t as many opportunities for original contemporary drama like this on the local small stage.
After the establishing moments, Schmitz’s drama trudges off to the residence of Katelyn and Claire’s sister Patti (Megan McGee) and her husband Mike (Jacob Woelfel.) They’re playing chess. She’s itchy. He’s inert. Then Katelyn shows-up and there’s conversation about a past Katelyn hadn’t been there for. It’s been years since Katelyn has seen her sisters. There’s been a wedding, a divorce and host of other things. Schmitz cleverly and concisely delivers the family drama one moment at a time.
A very somber and soulful Jeff Ircink rounds out the cast as Katelyn’s dad. It’s a single dialogue shared between aging father and adult daughter. He’s dealing with retirement in somber sadness and emotional distance. She’s trying to relate to him. He’s trying to relate to her. After the lights fall on the two of them, there are a few scenes left. There’s drama. There’s frustration. Some things are said. None of it really resolves. It's a lot like life. Or...it would be a lot like life if life was roughly 70 minutes long and followed by a talkback.
Schmitz and company have rendered a drama that is specific enough to be memorable while still being universal enough to be totally accessible. And with the very, very short runtime both performance AND talkback leave plenty of time for contemplation off into the evening beyond the drama. This is a quietly impressive departure for Schmitz. Given how easy it is to grab many, many roomfuls of audience with comedy, there’s a kind of fearlessness in Schmitz’s willingness to walk away from comedy long enough to explore something with a different kind of depth.
Katelyn’s Wasteland a new drama by Patrick Schmitz runs through June 23 at the Alchemist Theatre. There’s one more performance tonight. For ticket reservations, visit the Alchemist Theatre online.
Late this month, Untitled Productions and Theater RED present a staging of the one-woman biographical play I'll Eat You Last in an intimate space at hotel on the corner of Chicago and Broadway not far from MIAD. Actress Marcee Doherty-Elst and director Eric Welch took some time out to answer a few questions I had about the production.
This one-woman play has been around for a little over 5 years. If I’m not mistaken this is the Wisconsin premiere of the show. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) What specifically attracted you to the idea of doing this show?
Eric: That is correct. I remember this show being first premiered on Broadway with Bette Midler. I was immediately interested. I read was it was about and found it fascinating. Sue Mengers is such an interesting character. I am also a big fan of Barbra Streisand, who was one of Sue’s biggest clients, so naturally I loved the show. After discussing this show with my friend Briana who started up Untitled Productions with me, I thought that this would be the perfect show to start us off. One, because of budget costs but also because it’s such a clever, witty show that will literally make you laugh, cry, and laugh again.
Marcee: Correct! I’LL EAT YOU LAST (IEYL) premiered on April 24th, 2013 at the Booth Theatre in New York and this is the WI premiere! I know Eric will have more to say on this, but he is a huge Barbra Streisand fan, and Sue Mengers is perhaps most famous for being Ms. Streisand’s agent, so naturally there’s a fit there! Also, this is the inaugural production for Untitled Productions, and I think the idea of doing a one-woman-show was appealing to Eric both as a unique splash into the Milwaukee theater scene and for logistical reasons.
I’LL EAT YOU LAST was originally staged at the 783-seat Booth Theatre. You’re performing in an improvised hotel space on Broadway in Milwaukee, WI. It seats...far fewer than 783 people. Have you ever performed a room this intimate in a one-woman show before?
Marcee: That’s true! We will have seating for only 84 guests per night; 10 of those are VIP seats on couches and chairs right up front as a sort of extension of Sue’s living room (and they come with a signature cocktail from the bar!). Both as an actor and as a Producer (with my Theater RED cape on) I really like intimate theater and smaller spaces, so that’s really appealing to me. I have never performed a one-woman-show before, so that’s a first for me, but I do like the idea of performing it in an intimate space. In fact, the original idea was to perform it in one of the suites at the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel and only sell 20 tickets a night and have it be very intimate – just however many people we could fit in the suite using the furniture and adding a few chairs! When we presented this idea to the Journeyman, they loved the idea and offered to do one better – they said they could build a replica of one of the suites in one of their ballrooms so we could seat more people and that’s exactly what they are doing! They will be building a suite on their stage and after the row of VIP seating on couches and chairs there will be small and large small tables set up cabaret-style in the room. There will be a few tall boy tables in the back for additional seating and the bar will be in the back of the room, too! I love the idea of a non-traditional theater set up since this show is a very non-traditional 70 minute comedic romp! As an actor I’ve performed in many theaters that seat less than 100 and as a Producer, Theater RED has often rented venues that seat less than 100, so this is very comfortable for me. I think it will really work to set the feel that you could actually be sitting right in Sue’s living room listening to her dish!
You’re playing Sue Mengers--a Hollywood talent agent from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Though she’s far from an instantly-recognizable personality, she was known to many and there IS video footage of her (including a rather prominent feature on her for CBS’ 60 Minutes that aired a few decades ago.) It must be a challenge to play an actual 20th century figure. To what extent are you directly impersonating her for accuracy and to what extent are you playing a character that you feel is distinctly your own?
Marcee: Yes, I’ve watched that interview with Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes many times! She was quite a celebrity in her own right as an Agent, which is pretty unusual and speaks volumes about her ambition, drive, and chutzpah! There’s a good deal of information out there about Sue, from books to interviews to magazine features, and the research has been really fun! This might be the first 20th century figure that I’ve portrayed, but I as an actor I have portrayed several 19th Century women and I always try to honor who they were as a person through my performance. While I definitely want to capture some of the signature Sue Mengers’ style of speaking, Eric has challenged me to take Sue’s idiolect, but make it my own (I did work with Jill Zager as dialect coach for the show to help me learn Sue’s idiolect). We aren’t trying to do an impersonation of her. Instead, we want to find a balance of Sue-isms with my own portrayal of her, so I guess it’s a mix of Sue and Marcee. I think she’d describe it more as a homage to her (and to quote her referring to Hollywood, “we play a $*%@ a lot of homage out here”).
Eric: Being the director, I did not want Marcee to replicate or impersonate her. To me, that isn’t acting. I definitely want there to be a Sue Mengers quality to her character but not to impersonate. It’s a fine line since she is a real person but I feel that for the stage, you can embellish.
Hang out in a hotel with Sue Mengers for a couple of hours and she’s going to tell stories. The play starts and it’s 1981 and the audience is lounging around with a big-named Hollywood talent agent. She’s be dropping names. How heavily grounded in her era of Hollywood is the play? Do you feel it would it be easily accessible by those not terribly familiar with Hollywood of the second half of the 20th century?
Eric: I think this play is very well written that even if you don’t know all the names she’s dropping, you still are laughing or enjoying the stories she’s telling. Most names should be recognizable to audiences. I mean, everyone knows who Barbra Streisand is.
Marcee: It is very present in 1981. It takes place on a very specific, formative day in the life of Sue Mengers and everything she is talking about is very grounded in that present, but she also talks about her past and you learned how that shaped her into the person she is at this point in 1981. The tricky thing is that there’s an awful lot yet of Sue Mengers’ story that I know through my research, and I have to be careful not to let what I know about her and what will happen shape who she is on this particular day in 1981. You’re absolutely right, she does a lot of name dropping and “dishing”, as she likes to say. I think there may be some references to some actors, movies, and even other historical events that people may not be familiar with, but I do think that even if you don’t recognize the name, you still understand the point of her dropping that particular name through the context. I’ve had to look up several things and Christopher has done a lot of great dramaturgical work that has helped richen my understanding. Sue has a wicked smart sense of humor and some of the things she’s saying are so quick witted that my challenge as an actor is to balance her manner of speaking while still making sure the audience gets the more obscure or interesting references because they are so funny! I think it would be super cool to find out that someone went home and looked up a movie or actor or other figure referenced as a result of seeing the play!
“Forgive me for not getting up,” she says. So it’s just you playing Mengers onstage...and not a whole lot of movement because it’s just her telling stories. (And smoking. I understand there’s a lot of smoking.) Does that make you feel restless at all? You’re there to perform and she’s there to relax and tell stories while seated. You’re portraying HER so she’s in charge. But it's you up there. Is there any kind of a conflict there?
Eric: Yes, she is seated the entire time, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t move. She certainly smokes a lot in the show, and not just cigarettes! There’s a few moments of audience participation and the whole play is focused on Sue waiting for a phone call from Barbra Streisand telling her she’s fired.
Marcee: You really are just spending an hour (or so) in Sue Mengers’ living room listening to her “dish” while she awaits an important phone call. There’s that sort of nervous energy when you’re waiting for something you know is going to happen but aren’t sure when and what happens is that she just sort of starts talking and telling stories to fill the time. And she loves gossip and loves to “dish” so she’s really having a good time holding court with the audience while she passes the time. She never leaves the stage – in fact, she never leaves the couch. Which makes for some fun when there are some things she needs that aren’t within arms’ reach. All I can say is, for people who like a unique immersive experience, they should grab those VIP seats in the front row couches – there’s only 10 per night! Oh yes, she was known for being a chain smoker and she also enjoyed smoking illegal substances, too. She’s rarely seen without a cigarette, or something else, in her hand. This has been a really interesting challenge for me as an actor because I have never smoked. Now all of a sudden I have a prop in my hand (or hands) all the time! We’ve been working with the consumable props since Day 1 of rehearsal for that reason and I will be smoking live on stage (herbal cigarettes and legal herbs). I haven’t felt restless yet, but I think that’s because there’s a great deal of movement even without moving off the couch – strange but true! I’m honestly feeling more awkward learning to manage the smoking aspect than I am with the limits of not leaving the couch. While she’s telling stories, she’s definitely not relaxed the entire time – she’s waiting for a phone call that she is dreading and knows will change her life so there really is this nervous energy in places – she certainly has moments where she relaxes (and the smoking helps her do that) and moments where she is having a lot of fun with the audience, but there are also moments where she comes back to her present reality of waiting for the shoe to drop. I think the key, as with any character, is to settle into Sue and tell her story, in her way. The challenge is maintaining that with no other actors on the stage with you to help with that story.
Mengers’ personality is really strong. And she IS the center of the show. Do you feel her personality taking-over elements of production? Are there elements of her personality lingering in your life outside of rehearsals?
Eric: Obviously, it’s hard to do a show about a real life person and NOT having her fully appear in sections. Sue Mengers is a very interesting and boastful character. She will demand your attention.
Marcee: That’s an understatement for sure! And yes! We’ve only had 3 rehearsals (including the read through) as of this interview and I am already seeing aspects of Sue’s personality coming through in life outside of rehearsals. People that know me know that I don’t really curse all that much, I’m not really sure why. It doesn’t offend me when other people do it, I just think I’ve never been cool enough to pull it off – ha! But, Sue Mengers swears like a sailor and uses vulgar language. I’ve noticed that my language has definitely become more adult since rehearsals, that’s for sure! And the thing is, Sue uses curse words affectionately, so I’m finding that in moments of excitement I’m calling my friends things other than “little stinkers”, if you know what I mean! And it just comes out and I’m a little shocked hearing it, but it makes me giggle. On the production side, I think I’ve always been a little opinionated and vocal (just ask Christopher) so I think Sue’s influence on me there is again, the choice of words.
Untitled Productions and Theater RED's staging of the I'll Eat You Last runs June 29th-July 1st at the Journeyman Hotel on 310 East Chicago St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater RED online.
Far too long ago, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and writer/performer Jason Powell developed a clever comic book spoof/tribute operetta Fortuna the Time Bender vs. the Schoolgirls of Doom. The sharp, little comedy makes its return to the stage in a quietly breathtaking production this month courtesy of Milwaukee Metro Voices. Samantha Sostarich radiantly returns as the time-bending operatic superhero in a production now being staged at In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theatre downtown. I’d seen the Milwaukee Opera Theatre production years ago at the Alchemist Theatre. It is a pleasure to see the show return from the shadows to valiantly fight evil once more this summer.
Pop-Adjacent: Just Beyond the Splash Page of Mega-Popularity
It’s interesting to note how close Fortuna is to those genres that have reached the apex of mega-popularity in the modern world.
Broadway-style musicals are some of the biggest money-makers in live theatre. They rake-in tons of cash both on Broadway and from unsuspecting audiences all over the country in big, overstuffed touring productions. Fortuna isn’t a Broadway-style musical, though. It’s an operetta. Stylistically, Fortuna has a lot more in common with Gilbert & Sullivan than Sondheim, Menken or Andrew Lloyd Weber. Operettas like Fortuna may have been incredibly huge in an earlier time, but they have become something of a quaint throwback in the modern era.
Nowadays, superhero stories are some of the most popular reasons people go into large, darkened rooms all over the world. Just earlier this week Marvel’s latest Avengers movie recently broke over $2 billion at the box office and is well on its way to becoming the third highest-grossing film of all time worldwide (not adjusted for inflation.) Fortuna isn’t inspired by the contemporary superhero, though. Modern superheroes are equally focussed on themselves, their own problems AND saving the world. With the dazzlingly confident and altruistic Fortuna, we don’t get a whole lot of doubt or moody introspection. The beautifully beaming Samantha Sostarich poses triumphantly nearly every time she’s onstage. Never any doubts. Never any uncertainties. She’s a swoon-worthy paragon of superhero grace from an earlier era. She’s a throwback to a Golden Age Superman or the original Captain Marvel by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck.
Fortuna is musical theatre, but not the kind modern audiences are so in love with. It’s also a superhero story, but it’s not the kind that modern audiences funnel billions of dollars into multiplexes to watch. It’s a classy retro hybrid show that fuses the mega-pop precursors that are just beyond the splash page of contemporary mega-popularity.
Contemporary Aesthetics Nonetheless
Seeing the show a second time around, it’s interesting to pick apart what Powell is doing with Fortuna. Early-on in the story, we have the flash of those classic 1940s comic book superhero adventures. Fortuna cleans-up and completely abolishes crime in the cozy metropolis of Anyville, U.S.A. She stops a mugging, rescues a cat from a tree, stops a terrorist in a tank (offstage, of course. Let’s not get carried away with the budget. This isn’t Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark or anything like that.)
After the first couple of songs, the Golden Age is kind of over, though...turn the page and there’s Joe. He’s a guy who has always wanted to be a superhero, but he’s plagued by doubts. (In other words...he IS the Silver Age.) Moved by overhearing Joe’s dream as sung to his girlfriend, Fortuna decides to take Joe under her wing and train him to be a superhero. Jonathan Stewart is sweetly chivalrous as Joe--a guy who we first meet wistfully reading the paper in a (somewhat symbolically) faded classic Justice League throwback t-shirt. Melissa Kelly Cardamone is irresistibly human as Joe’s girlfriend Elizabeth, who works in a museum. Cardamone is brilliant in this kind of role for this kind of intimate space. She’s got a beautiful voice for big, sweeping operatic emotion paired with a very deft touch at comparatively subtle characterization that smartly balance out her performance.
Present throughout the show, the self-referential humor and casual breaking of the fourth wall reach a particularly charming crescendo in very modern comedic style as Joe and Elizabeth try to reach common ground in their relationship.
A more contemporary style illuminates the story as Elizabeth worries that Joe is getting too lost in his superhero studies with Fortuna. Powell allows Fortuna a Professor X-like ability to locate others with super-powers. (Look closely and you'll see that there’s a lot around the edges of the plot that feels Marvel mutant-inspired. That's no coincidence. A couple years back, Powell wrote a book about writer Chris Claremont’s historic run on the Uncanny X-Men.)
It’s not necessary to be a big fan of the genre to love the show, but there are quite a few little easter-egg style references in at least one song. Not long before intermission in, “Superhuman,” Fortuna is telling Joe what powers he might acquire through training. She glides through deft lyrics which, if I’m not mistaken, make reference to comic book characters as diversely obscure as Tony Stark, Carol Danvers and...was that Gorilla Grodd, too? (Weird.)
The Villain and His Henchwomen
Having established things between Fortuna, Joe and Elizabeth, Powell shifts focus to the antagonist: a toweringly villainous Nathan Wesselowski as The Headmaster. Wesselowski cuts a bombastic figure as a comically sinister academic. He promptly goes into his backstory in a very sharp and entertainingly-executed song, “Practitioner of Villainy.” It’s one of my favorites: a song that feels rather pleasantly like "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”
(It’s weird what you see a second time. This time around, the Headmaster’s origin reminded me of William Moulton Marston’s Golden Age Dr. Psycho...which casts the rest of the show in an interesting light. With its Golden Age female hero cast against a world of more contemporary and distinctly feminist concerns, Powell’s story here has much in common with William Moulton Marston’s early 1940s work for the company that was destined to become DC Comics.)
Part of the feminism in Powell’s story features three very liberated...uh...schoolgirl henchwomen: Mandy, Candy and Sandy. At first, three girls in plaid pleated skirts working for a villain known as The Headmaster might seem a trifle...misogynistic (at best.) Powell neutralizes this, though. The three of them (who are three distinctly different personalities) do a song near the end of the show that really casts a spotlight on the fact that the squad has had a relatively equal partnership with their “leader” the whole time. Lisa Morris strikes a balance between cuteness and villainy as Candy “the cute one.” Anna Van Nuland manages to seem commanding even while appearing occasionally submissive as Mandy “the mature one.” Dana Vetter wields the kind of confident poise that can casually spout a mouthful of highly technical sci-fi jargon as Sandy, “the smart one.”
The three Schoolgirls of Doom round-out a largely female ensemble that’s led by a very commanding Diane Lane as Narrator. It’s a really tightly-woven package. A retro neo-operetta and a Golden Age hero are cast in a contemporary spoof comedy that still manages to have enough heart to reach out to people not particularly enthusiastic about the genres in question. Director James Zager does an excellent job of juggling it all, which is pretty heroic in its own way. There's a lot going on here. Honestly there's no reason why this show should work as any kind of a cohesive experience. That it does (and does so quite well) says a lot about what Powell and Zager have managed here.
Fortuna the Time Bender vs. the Schoolgirls of Doom is such a bizarrely idiosyncratic hybrid of a show. It almost seems too weird to possibly exist...let alone in a little studio space across the street and down the block from the central public library downtown. Do yourself a favor. Go convince yourself this thing really exists by seeing this one-of-a-kind show before it bounds off the stage one more time.
Milwaukee Metro Voices’ production of Fortuna The Time Bender Vs. The School Girls Of Doom runs through June 24 at the Tenth Street Theatre at 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Metro Voices online.
This month Cooperative Performance runs a deliciously eclectic, little shorts program right downtown at the Underground Collaborative. The two-hour/one intermission program starts heavy, gets heavier and finishes light with some warm, endearing comedy that lingers pleasantly into the evening.
Here’s a look at what to expect if you go (and you should):
by Mary Buchel
directed by Eric Scherrer
performed by Brittany Meister and Raja “AayZee” Zafar
The program opens with a simple domestic drama. Husband and wife sit at a table near the close of a rummage sale. Raja Zafar is compellingly vacant as the husband until challenged by fate. A small artifact from his past becomes a rather large matter in the present, brining him into conflict with his wife.
Sharply reserved, Brittany Meister treads carefully as a woman forced to contend with the fact the one never knows the true significance of objects or moments. You never know the true meaning of something until it becomes life-changing for better or worse. It’s a complicated script that Meister and Zafar handle quite well under the direction of Eric Scherrer.
by Clayton Mortl
directed by Danielle Levings
performed by Jake Russell
original music composed and performed by Allen Russell
Jake Russell is a compassionate, extremely sensitive intellectual in a short but epic journey of a monologue. Russell is amazing storyteller. Jake Russell renders a depth of characterization and cerebral complexity that is deeply engaging on many different levels at once. The Clayton Mortl monologue he has so many moving pieces that are so very, very razor sharp in thematic concision. It would be easy for any actor to get lost in it all. Russell manages to modulate really well through a piece that might otherwise get lost in its own complexities in numerous places were it to be breathed in anything other than just the right way. Jake Russell nails it beautifully in one of the better pieces on the program.
devised and performed by Kelly Coffey and Don Russell
There’s the persistent sound of what might be heavy, hollow ceramic dragged against rough concrete. It is persistent and present throughout this entire third short. Kelly Coffey enters the stage and begins with captivating abstraction in monologue mixed with subtle restless movements. Kelly Coffey opens with a very earthbound verbal exposition of human behavior describing physical compulsions which echo all of those things that we as human beings seems so psychotically focused on. It’s all very precise and very, very aesthetically itchy.
Having rendered her behavioral obsession, Coffey is joined by Don Russell who walks on stage with a chair. The three of them--the two actors in the one piece of humble wooden furniture fall into a state of conflict. Russell is very much focused in on a very narrow kind of precision in placement with the chair. The chair seems almost apologetically inert in contrast to the two other performers with whom it shares the stage. It seems to be trying to bridge the gap between the two non-furniture organisms by simply being there as we are all trying to understand it by watching the stage conflict.
The progression of style in the program from one short to the next works to Coffey and Russell’s favor. Cooperative Performance has done a really good job of composing the program. One things lead to another and there's a kind of uneasy balance in a haunting abstraction of movement. Once Russell and Coffey have completed their conflict, lights rise on an intermission.
THE GHOST OF YOU
devised and performed by Emily Elliot
Emily Elliot works in arcs and respiration in a movement piece with spoken word pumped in around the edges of its entry. It’s spoken word about vulnerability and accountability. Very casually poetic movements and motions phrases and words. Hers is a very organic grace which bridges the abstract with something far more accessible. Hers is a brief journey that draws the program out of intermission and into far lighter fare than that which is onstage prior to intermission. Looking forward to more from Emily Elliot.
by Joel Kopischke and Don Russell
directed by Ro Spice-Kopischke
performed by Abigail Stein and Madeline Wakley
With a light, cheerfully frothy surface gently coating an engrossing inner complexity, this might have been my favorite piece on the program. This is surprisingly clever comedy. It’s an inter-species romance between a monkey and a cat--both of whom are entertainingly anthropomorphized. It’s so much more than that, though.
Kopischke and Russell create an impressively sophisticated relationship between two creatures that are human embodiments of all those things that we culturally associate with cats and primates. A cat and a monkey in a romantic relationship may sound like the set-up to cheap sketch comedy but there’s a considerable amount of depth here that really gets into the heart of why people are together in the first place and how we come to feel connected to each other.
Abigail Stein and Madeline Wakley exhibit warmth and complexity as a couple of people who are simply trying to connect-up but don’t know how. The fact that they’re animals fades into the background and we see two people and two archetypes trying to relate to each other. It's a comedy of frustration. Wakley enters first and firmly establish is a behavioral language to the piece that is fun and highly accessible. She's got a really solid balance between cat and human stage presence. It's endlessly fun to watch. Stein is fun as a monkey too. As I was sitting in the front row, she approached me and offered me a banana that she'd already taken a bite out of. (Given a second longer I probably would have gone for it.) It was a nicely ingratiating moment between man and monkey and woman playing monkey that mirrored the soul of the rest of the short. Very sweet stuff with great heart.
by Maria Pretzl
directed by Megan Orcholski
performed by Markaz Q Davis, Miranda Flores Farley, Brandon C Haut, and Ashley Retzlaff
Maria Pretzl crafts a fun, little sexy sitcom bite about a young guy (a crisply funny Brandon C. Haut) and a young woman (vivacious Miranda Flores) who are living together. They’re both quite sexually active, but they have absolutely no interest in each other at all. Things get weird when a guy she has hooked-up with (Markaz Q. Davis) and a girl he has come home with (Ashley Retzlaff) all end up in the same apartment.
The cast holds it all together quite well. It's sort of a modern bedroom farce for a short attention span that never lingers on stage for long enough to become anything other than fluffy, enjoyable silliness. It’s the perfect end to a program which had been to some particularly deep, dark places both intellectually and emotionally.
As a whole, the program is quite an odyssey. Remarkable how many different places the small, living stage can go in just two hours time given the right kind of momentum. Not all of it’s brilliant, but this type of show is exactly why I love smaller theater. So much going on in such a small space. So much to think about and so much time to think about it after the show.
Cooperative Performance’s One-Act Festival runs through June 23 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cooperative Performance online.