An already unstable post-winter has bled right through a full season of COVD. A pandemic mixes with calls for long overdue equality and a complete re-thinking of the way the police are allowed to operate. Welcome to July of 2020.
Digital Bardery in the Age of COVID
The local small stage continues to pause as one of the largest multiplex chains in the state opens some of its doors for the summer. Local shows that had been previously announced continue to recede into the future. Optimist Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park program recently announced the postponement of its production of Romeo & Juliet to the summer of 2021. Nevertheless, the Optimist has got a host of things planned for the near future including a mysterious project that they’re calling “No Holds Bard.” Not to be outdone by Optimist’s wordplay, Voices Found Repertory has been posting a series of behind-the-scenes videos that it’s calling the “Build-A-Bard Workshop.” (...sigh...) Don’t let the name fool you, though...this has actually been a really fun series that’s looked at the nature of producing a small-stage show. Every Monday, Voices Found’s cleverly charming Education and Hospitality Director Hannah Kubiak and the Skull of Yorick introduce an in-depth look at a different aspect of production. (Kubiak and the skull evidently had yesterday off.) The first episode had Company Manager Sarah Zapiain discussing the first considerations when beginning work on a production. The second episode had set designer Michael Cienfuegos Baca talking about scenic design. The series continues every Monday on Voices Found’s YouTube Site. Part 4 goes live on July 6th.
ALSO local rehearsal-free theatre company Boozy Bard continues its online shows this month with Shakespeare Raw(ish?):Much Ado About Nothing. The show goes very, very live at 7:00 pm on July First. The group had departed a bit from its standard unrehearsed format last month with a videoconference-style broadcast of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Musical Danger with Milwaukee Opera Theatre
With an impressive cast moving through a fun, pulpy action story, Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Doc. Danger and the Danger Squad is one of the more enjoyable bits of online fare to come out of local theatre groups online since the pandemic first came into town. The impressive cast includes Briana Rose Lipor, Carrie Gray, Stephanie Staszak, Becky Cofta and more. The series is updated weekly every Thursday. As of this post, the first two episodes are available.
Milwaukee Chamber In A Rectangle
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre collaborated with Chicago’s Three Crows Theatre this past month for Zoom-based reading of Milwaukee playwright Liz Shipe’s A Lady In Waiting. The Robin Hood comedy that focussed on Maid Marian as action hero made a surprisingly well-produced transfer to Zoom. Directed by Jennifer Vosters the reading included the talents of Anna Cline as Maid Marian, Jonathan Wainwright as the Sheriff of Nottingham and Josh Krause as Robin Hood. Once a gain, Kelly Doherty shows a great deal of depth and comic poise in a role that she debuted with Theater RED back in 2014.
Visit The Mesopotamian Underworld Live Via Facebook
This month, Milwaukee Chamber presents an online reading of Eric Schabla’s Reign/Fall. Set in the legends of ancient Mesopotamia, the reading features Allie Babich as the war and love goddess Ishtar journeying into the underworld to visit her sister. Her absence from the realm of the living causes upheaval in a reading which also features Cassandra Bissell as Ereshkigal--queen of the underworld and Elyse Edelman.
Cassandra Bissell as the ruler of the underworld? (So cool.) She’s been memorably impressive in a couple productions in recent memory. I loved her as a highly influential astrophysicist for Next Act and charismatically heroic Sherlock Holmes in Door County. She's a perfect fit for the role of a goddess.
Like Lady in Waiting, Milwaukee Chamber's online reading of Reign/Fall will be presented on Facebook. The show starts at 7pm on July 8th.
COVID-19 continues to keep theatre seats empty as the dormant Milwaukee Theatre community enters June. One of the classiest, coziest little small stages in Milwaukee has become a victim of the pandemic as Matt Kemple announced earlier today that the Underground Collaborative is no more. The has been a flood of condolences appearing n Kemple's Facebook page. The UC will be missed.
Outdoor summer theatre is usually quite vibrant in and around Wisconsin. This is typically Shakespeare’s time of year with quite a lot going on in some of the most enduring comedies and dramas in the history of the stage brought to life beneath no earthly roof. Unfortunately, American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Door Shakespeare in Door County and Optimist Theatre here in Milwaukee are all in various states of postponement and cancellation. This is particularly disappointing as outdoor theatre might have been the one potential for live, in-person performance this coming summer what with indoor gatherings still being a reckless proposition.
For the time being, local theatre groups continue to provide work, live and otherwise, online. Here’s a look at a few things debuting this coming month of June, 2002.
Troilus? & Cressida?
Boozy Bard Productions has been hosting a series of fun evenings of breezy Shakespeare online. Actors’ roles are generated at random from a hat and all read from an abbreviated version of the script from the comfort of their own homes. No telling who is going to end up as what until the evening of the performance.
Boozy Bard’s Andrea Roedel-Schroeder was working on an adaptation for next week’s online staging of Troilus and Cressida when she realized that she didn’t like the title characters. She consulted with collaborator Jeremy Einehcner and well...they’ve decided to throw-out the main characters entirely. So it’s a play about the background...a drama about the Trojan War drawn from Shakespeare’s drama.
Troilus and Cressida (without Troilus and Cressida) will go live online June 3 from 7 pm -10 pm on Boozy Bard’s Facebook page. (Boozy Bard posted a very cool, little video of Roedel-Schroeder talking to Nicole Allee about the bits of the script that have been left out...pseudo-kinda-sorta Drunk History-style. It’s really, really fun hour.)
Waukesha Civic Theatre will be presenting a program featuring some impressive musical theatre talent. The program has talented singers performing works that they never would have been cast in. Directed by Ami Majeskihe free virtual cabaret will feature such talents as Mark Neufang, Becky Cofta, Ben Tajnai and more.
MisCast: A Virtual Cabaret takes place June 6 from 7:30 pm - 10:30 pm on WCT’s Facebook page.
53212 Presents is hosting a series of interactive dance sessions on Zoom and Twitch. People can join in the party on Zoom or watch via Twitch. Interior spaces are reclaimed in a virtual place featuring live music by Colorado-based electronic musician The Red Side. Denceteria runs from 12 - 1 pm (CST) on June 6 ,13 , 20 and 27 this month. For more information, visit the event’s Facebook page.
Monday Morning Workshops
It’s been fun seeing local theatre talent get the kind of spotlight that it might not normally be allowed in a full production. (Back in April Outskirts Theater Company had a couple of videos featuring hair and make-up artist Gemma-Louise Fitzsimmons working on a very classy head of hair known as Ingrid. It’s a really fascinating couple of videos...even for a bald theatre critic with no inherent interest in hair design.)
Voices Found Repertory has recently announced that it will be posting a series of workshops to its YouTube channel. Every Monday morning VFR will post a new video on its YouTube channel. Given the level of talent connected with VFR, this should be an edifying look at various ends of theatre from the people who make it happen.
Big Fish Live Stream
This might be the first local multi-performance show to be scheduled since Safer at Home was announced. Waukesha Civic Theatre will be live-streaming two performances of the musical adaptation BIG FISH. The fully-staged show had to be shut down due to the outbreak. Cast and crew return to the theatre for a pair of live performances June 27th and 28th. More information will be posted to the Waukesha Civic website as it becomes available.
Doc Danger: Radio Edition
Jason Powell’s pulpy, weirdly cool Gilbert & Sullivanesque sci-fi adventure is brought to audio in a special “radio edition,” which is being produced by Milwaukee Opera Theatre. With characters inspired by various heroes from the golden age of pulp adventure, Powell’s adventure lends itself remarkably well to radio theatre format. The first episode of the new series is being brought to the internet. The series will consist of four weekly episodes that will “air” between June and July. Exact dates have yet to be announced. For more information on the project, visit its fundraising page on Mightycause.
I can relate to what Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Jill Anna Ponnasik posted on Facebook last week.
I mean...it’s been over a month since I’ve seen a live theatre show in a live theatre. I can only imagine how difficult this is for actors and performers on the local small stage. I see the Facebook posts, but I can only imagine what it’s like for them.
The Safer At Home Order continues to offer new challenges to the Milwaukee theatre community. It’s upended a lot of work and imposed a virally-induced early end to the 2019-2020 Milwaukee Theatre season. Theatre continues, though. This past month has featured a lot of really interesting work that has migrated online during a time of pandemic.
A couple of the single best-produced local theatre videos were released in conjunction with the presumed date of Shakespeare’s birth.
The American Players Theatre has delayed its season. APT has had some interesting activity on YouTube. James DeVita read some Tennyson yesterday. On Earth Day, James Ridge showed viewers around his yard. The Spring Green-based group posted a deeply moving Shakespeare mash-up on the 28th. It’s a well-edited fusion of many APT voices in the intimacy of home environments.
Closer to home, Mad Rogues teamed-up with Nō Studios and actors who have worked extensively for nearly every Shakespeare-producing company in Milwaukee to put together a staggeringly diverse one hour Bard & Bourbon Shakespeare Birthday Happy Hour. Mad Rogues’ Artistic Director Bryant Mason hosts actors intimately performing Shakespearian excerpts for the camera. There’s a hooded Grace DeWolff reading Sonnet XXX in the rain before a wall of cream city brick. Maura Atwood is similarly hooded in an endearing face-to-camera performance of some lines. of Juliet. Rebecca Farr reaches for something altogether more tragic in HER reading from that play indoors in front of a night sky tapestry. Maggie Marks performs "To be, or not to be" by way of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as performed with a Cabbage Patch Kid-style doll (a strangely captivating bit of work.) The one hour, which is posted below includes all of this, The Summit Players, Schmitz & Giggles, Boozy Bard, gender-swapped Taming of the Shrew performance and more. It’s an enjoyable survey in local theatre from behind a glowing screen.
The video looked to raise funds for the Imagine MKE Artist Relief Fund, which is still looking to raise funds for local artists. For more information, visit Imagine MKE online.
Elsewhere online, Boozy Bard wrapped-up its Sickly Days only shorts series with its own cleverly patchwork group of readings from Shakespeare and others. Nick Firer struck an Alistair Cooke-like pose in a large, comfy chair beneath a large plush tiger as he exhibited contempt for a couple of Shakespearian sonnets. David Kaye performed a bit of monologue from Moll Cutpurse with drink in hand outside while performing at an interior camera viewing him through a window. Clever stuff. Andrea Roedel-Schroeder gave one of the sharpest Shakespearian sonnet performances of the month with a well-executed 2.5 minute performance. Roedel-Schroeder also posted a couple of really cool short story readings or Kaye’s Quarantine Variety Hour. Small stage talent has been providing some great short person-to-camera performances this month. Local actor Mark Neufang talks baking, Matt Zembroski plays the piano, Nicole Allee talks bout Gnome attacks and more. Quarantine Variety Hour still has a great many slots for Facebook Live video streaming channel.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Browsers
Having made it through a slightly shaky first run at the beginning of the month with As You Like It, Voices Found Rep hosted a fun reading of Julius Caesar on Twitch featuring an honorable Jessica Trznadel as the doomed emperor Caesar, Maya Danks as the cool conspirator Brutus and the crisply articulate Sarah Zapiain as Marc Antony. Full-cast Shakespeare by video conference probably doesn’t SOUND that engaging, but a sea of faces appearing onscreen actually fits the Caesarian feel quite well. The full performance is available on Twitch free of charge.
There are a couple of locally-written plays that will be performed online tonight. Pharyne Stephney-Gremore’s Built of Ivory is a drama about a biracial college student who must derail her ambitions in the interest of looking after her dying mother. The online performance, which features Raven Ariele and Kilian Collins, starts at 7:30 pm. There’s another performance on May 30th at 7:30 pm.
AND in just a few hours from when this is posted (at 7pm), Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Theater RED will present a live online reading of Angela Iannone’s The Seeds of Banquo. The drama of Edwin Booth should make for a deeply casual evening of drama at home.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre also hosts a regular Monday Morning via Facebook Live with Michael’s Monday Morning Musings--Milwaukee Chamber’s Artistic Director Michael Wright offers an inside look at some of the things going on at MCT. Past guests have included Director Micheal Cotey and Associate Artistic Director Marcella Kearns. Actors Sam Douglas and Ian Toohill appear on the series in the weeks to come as well as Samantha Martinson (a remarkably talented actress in her own right who is serving as MCT’s Education Associate) and Actress/Educator/Dialect Coach Raeleen McMillion.
COVID-19 has shut down every show in town. Every. Single. Show. Even the multiplexes are down. Local small stage theatre types are performing before little cameras in kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and home offices all over Milwaukee. It’s an opportunity to look at some VERY off-center work being done by local performing artists. Sadly, Liz Shipe’s live radio performance of The Adventures of Alvin Tatlock had to be canceled, but there’s still a lot of stuff going on out there with local performers. Here’s a look at some of my favorites that are available now and/or coming-up soon:
Sickly Days Shows with Boozy Bard
The traditional Boozy Bard show has a lot of people congregating around in a tap room or a microbrewery or some such performing shows vastly unprepared with little to no prep time. This is perfect for the days of Stay Safe at Home in Milwaukee...save for the whole ”congregating together” thing. Boozy Bard’s Jeremy Eineichner and company are going to be performing a regular stay-at-home version of their show on Facebook. Shows run Tuesday and Thursday nights starting at 7 pm. The communal nature of theater may not be there, but since liquor stores are considered essential and therefore immune from Wisconsin's Safer at Home, audience members can settle-in and drink along with the microbrew of their choice while supporting the local small brewery of their choice.
Outskirts TheatreCo. will be presenting a series of five locally-written ten-minute shorts via Livestream on Friday, April 3rd starting at 7:30 pm. What are they going to be? We don’t know yet. Script submissions for the show are still open until 11:59 pm tonight.
Forge Theatre Co.
One of many shows that had its run cut short, Forge Theatre Co.’s locally-written comedy Not Today has posted a multi-camera video of the entire show from beginning to end complete with ‘70s TV-style rolling credits at the end. This is a fun comedy. Evidently shot entirely onset at Urban Harvest, it’s a pleasant reminder of what going to a small stage show can feel like.
Tarot is a performance art that’s done on THE smallest stage. When it’s done right, Tarot is its own kind of performance art that taps cleverly and poetically into thematic apperception and the universality of the human condition. Local reader Skully Sati has a sharp sense of rhythm and poise about her readings as evidenced by her work done on her YouTube channel. She’s totally captivating. She’s also recently done her first Facebook Live show.
Cooking with PANdemNICK
Milwaukee actor/funnyguy Nick Firer has been posting regular Facebook Live cooking segments from his kitchen. There’s nothing explicitly scripted here...just one guy in his kitchen cooking stuff while talking about it. Watching a normal cooking show feels unsettling. PBS, the Food Network and other bigger outfits don’t seem to grasp how artificial it feels. A kitchen made to look domestic on a TV soundstage? It’s as disturbing as it is unnatural. Cooking With Nick is far better. It’s just one guy and a camera with a live feed from his actual kitchen, which ends up being so organic that it’s practically hypnotic.
WQVH, the Quarantine Variety Hour
Whether it’s David Kaye with a guitar, Andrea Roedel-Schroeder reading Neil Gaiman, Michael Timm reading Douglas Adams or anything else, Kaye’s Facebook group is an interesting scroll through various locals and others passing time until the Virus has strolled-on to other places. (Roedel-Schroeder has mentioned plans to do daily readings from Night Vale’s Faceless Old Woman, which would be really cool.)
This is largely a podcasting group, but I love the YouTube component and sometimes find myself hanging out with it in a corner window while I get other work done. It’s been nice to have the opportunity to catch-up on this YouTube channel that wasn’t specifically inspired by the Coronavirus. It’s a podcastLocal actors and comedy people sit around like figures in DaVinci’s Last Supper engaging in weird role-playing games (with the All-Arcadians) or reading from old Choose-Your-Own Adventure books (with Turn to Page Fun) or...my personal favorite: engaging in bookclub-style discussions about wildly inappropriate juvenile and YA fiction with Who Let Me Read This?
It’s getting kind of scary out there. Sometimes the best theatre for a moment of crisis is lightly refreshing social comedy. That’s exactly what Forge Theater manages with the premier of Not Today. Directed by Jake Brockman, a talented, appealing cast delivers a genuinely funny script to the stage that’s been written by David Stein and Hannah Mitchell. Two couples and a couple of others meet in a cozy domestic setting for a wedding anniversary dinner. Things predictably go wrong. Things inexplicably go right. It’s a fun 90 minutes of light comedy without intermission. It’s a new script. A couple of writers (sort of) had a chance to hang out with a piece of writing they wrote about a group of people hanging out together. So it’s a party, but nothing fancy. You don’t have to dress-up or anything like that. Go to the bar at Urban Harvest. Get a beer and head in to the theatre to see the show.
Settle-in for the show and you’ll get to know the living room of one of the characters before she shows-up onstage. Scenic Designer Amy Sue Hazel has managed the tricky task of making a very small space on a small stage feel cozy and lived-in. It’s a living room. There’s a doggy bed, framed pictures of Disney characters, a few owl-themed knickknacks and a few Harry Potter novels. Not far from a trio of white, ceramic owls recreating the three wise monkeys there rests the ashes of a beloved pet named Guinea Weasley.
The living room decor comes courtesy of Claire. Casually dazzling Stephanie Staszak is sweet and earnest as Claire—a veterinarian who has decided to get a little ambitious and make beef bourguignon for the occasion. She’s had problems with cooking in the past, but she’s totally confident about her ability to host an anniversary party for her friends with her live-in boyfriend Byron.
Seth K. Hale is sweetly unhinged as Byron—-a man with far deeper concerns than the fate of the beef bourguignon. He hopes to propose to Claire. He’s so wrapped-up in his own nervousness that he’s totally oblivious to the fact that doing so during a challenging anniversary get-together might not be the best idea, especially after what he did at the couple’s wedding one year ago.
Appealingly affable April Paul plays Jo, who was particularly upset about Byron’s behavior at her wedding. Paul has a warm confidence about her in the role. She seems totally at home playing a very responsible and caring person. Send Jo out for beer and she’ll come back with beer and Gatorade. (She’s just that cool.) Paul is perfect for the role of a woman who is perfectly suited to the impending motherhood that she and her husband announce very early-on in the comedy.
The father-to-be is the other half of “Team J.” (Husband and wife met in high school chemistry class and have been inseparable ever since.) Ben Yela taps into some comically restless energy in the role of Jack: a man on the verge of a major life change that he may not be totally ready for. Yela and Paul have a cute familiarity about them as “Team J” that adds considerably to the openly social atmosphere onstage.
There are a couple of others showing-up for the party. Actor/playwright David Stein tactfully plays a friend of Jack and Byron--a guy named Tommy. Tommy owns a bar. He’s straining under the yoke of his injured mother who constantly calls him. The guy could have come across as a sad sack, but Stein plays to the inner complexities of the character. He may hate getting calls from his mother, but he’s not exactly turning his phone off. And he may be lonely and not actually pursuing anything in the way of a relationship, but he IS a small business owner and likely very busy and stressed-out. Nevertheless, Jack and Byron are really, really concerned about Tommy’s sexless sex life and want to do something about it. Tommy would prefer to relax.
What is a party without the unexpected? Kyle Conner plays Jimmy--an old, dear friend of Claire’s who happens into the party in a rather unexpected way. Conner is great fun as a totally together guy who serves as a vibrant splash of wisdom looking-in around the edges of life in a group of semi-neurotic people--most of whom are complete strangers to him.
It’s a great group of people to spend 90 minutes with. Every so often there’s an exceedingly social comedy like this the comes along that is SO comfortable that it scarcely feels like 90 minutes. On some level it didn't even fee like theatre. On some level it feels like they’re people I just met. I just kind of...expect to see the characters around town at coffee shops and grocery stores and things. I KNOW I won’t. And that IS a little disappointing. They’re only there onstage for an hour and a half. It’s a really fun 90 minutes, though.
Forge Theater’s production of Not Today runs through Mar. 28th at Urban Harvest Brewing Company on 1024 S. 5th St. For ticket reservations and more visit Forge Theater online.
The best children’s fare is a fusion of different types of entertainment that engages all ages on different levels. This month First Stage opens a show that is best-suited to kids ages 4-10+. That’s quite a range. With The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors, First Stage does a strikingly impressive job of embracing a wide range of different kids while also maintaining the kind of appeal that keeps parents entertained for the full 90 minutes with intermission for cookies and juice.
Based on the popular children’s book by Drew Daywalt (who also wrote The Day the Crayons Quit) The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors follows the three powerful warriors on a musical journey to find worthy opponents. First Stage’s John Maclay has done a very sharp job of expanding Daywalt’s book into an impressively sophisticated bit of musical theatre for the whole family. Rock, Paper and Scissors exist in a mystically mundane realm based on a traditional middle class household. Paper hails from Mom’s Home Office. Scissors comes from the junk drawer in the kitchen. Rock originates in the back yard. Each must best opponents in song and dance numbers in their home domains if they are to meet at the end of the show for the big showdown.
My youngest daughter is in kindergarten. She loved the show for all the colorful characters cleverly brought to life by the cast through costuming and puppetry. Costume/puppet designer Brandon Kirkham finds some remarkably vivid ways of brining common household things to life including ominously large dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets from the frozen tundra of the freezer and a tap dancing Scottish scotch tape dispenser from the kitchen junk drawer. Scenic Designer Arnold Bueso and Lighting Designer Jason Fassl give the action of the musical a radiant, brightly-colored abstract space in which to exist.
My oldest daughter is closer to the upper age range of the show. She loved the show for all the clever, little bits of humor that Maclay puts into the script. It was fun to engage her on the finer details of the production during intermission and after the show. (Her review of the show follows.) The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors is a surprisingly diverse tour through different genres of popular music. Rick Pendzich charismatically opens the show in a very metal mood as the hard rock Rock. His opening song is a tribute to ‘80s glam metal. Lamar Jefferson is charmingly heroic as the energetic R&B master Paper. His first big number has him singing his “Jam” to a menacing printer in Mom’s Home Office. Karen Estrada rounds out the central cast as a pair of classy fabric scissors with a stylish Latin energy. Also included on the show are a country/western Georgia Peach, a disco clothespin and a bag of half-eaten trail mix that sings the blues. As an adult it’s fun to see just how seamlessly it all comes together. Director Kelly Doherty does an excellent job of bringing it all together and keeping it moving with brisk pacing.
The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors continues through April 5th at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater. For ticket reservations and more, visit First Stage online.
Costumes, Props and Friendship
(A Kid's View by Amalia Bickerstaff)
I saw The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors at First Stage with my family. I think that it’s a really good play for the whole family to watch together. It’s a funny musical about the game and how it started. It has jokes in it that make everyone in the family laugh.
The costumes and the props were really interesting. The Paper costume incorporated paper clips and the blue lines of notebook paper. I can tell they put hard work into the design of the costumes. And when I’m talking about the costumes I mean like ALL of the costumes: Rock, Paper, Scissors AND the supporting cast.
The props are really cool. Some of them are kind of like costumes like the chicken nugget dinosaurs (that are kind of like on peoples heads and bodies) and the trail mix (which is four puppeteers in a giant sleeping bag holding eight puppets.) In terms of the action the chicken nugget dinosaurs were the funniest. Scissors was battling them as they all attacked her at once. They were surrounding her!
Overall I feel like this was a very good musical. In the end they learn that there’s no true winner. Winning and losing doesn’t really matter. What’s important is friendship.
Amalia Bickerstaff is an MPS student at Zablocki Elementary. This is her first review for The Small Stage
The Twilight has written a score specifically for Voices Found Repertory’s production of The Elephant Man. It’s very moody atmospheric music. The stage is sparse and grey. There’s a calm solitude about the stage as the show opens.
Thorin Ketelsen is poised and compassionate in the role of Fredrick Treves—a British medical Doctor from the late 19th century who finds his life changing when he runs across a man displayed in a freak-show-style exhibition. He wishes to diagnose The Elephant Man.
The challenges in presenting Joseph Merrick on the small stage are handled quite capably by actor Zach Ursem. The script has the actor presented fully for the first time contrasted against large projections of actual historical photographs of Merrick as Ketelson plays Treves presenting his findings in vividly clinical detail.
With a strong initial connection between Ursem and the photographs of Merrick at the beginning of the drama, Ursem is free to play internal emotions against a gait and comportment sympathetic to the tragic historical figure. The deep, inner beauty and humanity of Merrick resonate through Ursem in a performance that never overreaches for a cloyingly pathetic subhuman presence, which would be the chief danger in presenting Merrick’s drama onstage. Above all, Ursem’s performance respects the underlying flaws and inner humanity of the man he’s playing.
Michael Chobanoff is cunningly human in a pair of supporting roles. He’s suitably seedy as Ron—-a street-level cockney showman who has been charged with looking after Merrick. Rob DOES have some respect for Merrick, but only as a resource. Relations between Ron and Merrick play out quite vividly in two of the more heavy emotional scenes in the drama. Chobanoff plays to a completely different temperament as a priest who makes Merrick’s acquaintance.
Haley Ebinal deftly walks a very thin line as Mrs. Kendal. Kendal is a stage actress who Treves enlists to try to connect-up with socially. Prior to the actress’ arrival, a parade of marginal characters played be other members of the ensemble have leered at Merrick or turned away in disgust. Ebinal makes no grand display of the fact that Mrs. Kendal is in no way disgusted by Merrick’s appearance. Treating Merrick as a human and a dear friend, Kendal makes for a very tender figure. Ebinal is very gracious about presenting Mrs. Kendall as a very organically interesting person who happens to be just as fascinated by Merrick as the rest of the script is.
Originally debuting in the late 1970s, playwright Bernard Pomerance’s script is smartly balanced. The sharp distillation of the life of a man born with a debilitation disorder reaches right into the heart of humanity. Themes of love, acceptance and the nature of human generosity are all viewed in strikingly simple complexity from a rather breathtaking range of angles simultaneously. It’s a brilliantly concise script. Director Brandon C. Haut brings Pomerance’s script to the stage with an economy on a very intimate stage.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of The Elephant Man runs through March 15th at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Voices Found online.
Off the Wall Theatre explores art and truth in an ambitious drama on its cozy, little stage late this Winter. Director/playwright Dale Gutzman’s The Glance rumbles through the Renaissance in a dramatically unflinching look at the life of Italian painter Caravaggio. The action plays out in the cluttered, little studio of the painter as he engages with commercial concerns in the era of the Bubonic Plague. Life and death hang on every edge of the drama as the painter is forced to deal with compromise in the interest of survival and possible fame as balanced against artistic integrity and an open embrace of reality through art.
Over the years, Dale Gutzman’s writing/directing work has been hit-or-miss. Without question, The Glance is a hit. Gutzman shrewdly brings four central characters to the stage who are all intensely interesting. Four very talented actors give Gutzman’s script a complexity that makes for a deeply engaging drama.
Max Williamson is ruggedly charming as Caravaggio. He’s a man who could become a towering legend if only he were to compromise a bit. Williamson cleverly wields a canny respectability about him that edges occasionally in the direction of madness as artist grapples with the very nature of truth.
Caravaggio’s art is cast against that of his brother Giovanni, who makes a similarly artistic living through carnal passions. Nathan Danzer breathes depth into an ambivalent man who finds himself harnessed into something more serious by chance and circumstance. Danzer and Williamson have a strong fraternal connection as the two brothers in a dynamic that is central to the whole drama.
Randall T. Anderson adds contrast to the fraternal love in the role of Father D’Angelo. He’s plague doctor who also serves as an aid to the Cardinal. Anderson imbues the character with an appealing personality through a rather dramatic character arc. What opens as a casual interest in Giovanni turns into something more as he is forced to question his thoughts on love and carnality. Gutzman has D’Angelo navigating through a massive shift in personality in the course of the play. This would be challenging enough for any actor. D’Angelo is only a peripheral character, which makes the dramatic transformation all the more difficult. Anderson handles it with a clever wit, tactfully muting some of Gutzman’s more leaden dialogue while accentuating some of the more sophisticated bits of intricacy Gutzman has written into the character.
Michael Pocaro rounds out the cast as Caravaggio’s patron Archbishop Borromeo. Pocaro is forcefully charismatic as a holy man desperately trying to understand the mind of God through a deeper understanding of Christ’s suffering. Borromeo is a deeply flawed man. Pocaro approaches the role with respect and sympathy that results in a nuanced portrayal of a man afflicted with his some of the very hubris he is looking to conquer in Caravaggio.
The Cardinal could give the artist the fantastic life of a wealthy artist if only he were to soften-up the carnal reality of his paintings. (And maybe get rid of the dog in that painting of John the Baptist.) Pocaro and Williamson are cleverly poised in an intellectual battle of wills that echoes struggles that have been going on between art and authority since the dawn of time.
The central themes of The Glance have been resonating through drama forever. Gutzman’s gaze into the struggles of a single artist are haunting at times. At other times they’re a weak echo of an endless struggle. The script is at its best when actors are allowed to dive directly into the struggle between each other without too much intellectual or historical ornamentation. Thankfully, most of the script allows for direct dramatic clashes between strong-willed characters. It is in those clashes that The Glance finds its greatest power.
Off the Wall Theatre’s The Glance runs through March 8th at the theatre on 127 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Off the Wall online.
Traditional folklore doesn’t exactly have a reputation for dispensing valuable lessons about the “real world.” In the modern world, fairy tales are generally synonymous with fanciful magic in simple realms of good and evil. As Winter becomes Spring, First Stage presents a small stage fairy tale for kids 8 years and older that goes beyond overly simplistic good-vs-evil themes to cover a huge range of different issues including the death of a parent, being forced to do things against one’s wishes and even the sometimes ambiguous nature of human morality.
Based in part on Slavic legend, the folk-rock musical Gretel! follows a young girl into the woods to search for the mysterious being known as Baba Yaga. Her mother has passed away and her father has remarried. Now Gretel has to contend with as wicked stepmother and stepsister who force her to do all the work and demand that she steal magic from Baba Yaga in order that they may have food and light. In order to get what she wants, Gretel must work for Baba Yaga, who slowly teaches her magic, forcing Gretel to wonder wether the sinister witch is truly evil or something else altogether. Can she really be that bad if she's sharing her magical knowledge? This isn't some cheery, little Hogwart's with classrooms and teachers and lessons, though. Baba Yaga is a very cunning and demanding mentor who leads Gretel to some pretty shadowy places.
Natalie Ford has wit and wisdom about her in the role of Baba Yaga. There’s a playful darkness about her that seems at once completely honest and completely whimsical. Gretel doesn’t know whether or not to trust her. This could have been terrifying if allowed to develop in a dark direction, but Ford keeps it firmly rooted in a sense of fun and mystery that keeps the mood of the play firmly rooted in drama and solidly removed from realms of nightmare.
Max Mainwood is versatile in a few different supporting roles. He’s a flaky, well-menaing father who trusts his daughter to a new wife he hardly knows. Mainwood also picks up rake and broom in the role of Stepmother and Stepsister as well...effectively selling the idea of a number of other characters with subtle, abstract props and without the benefit of a single costume change.
Ford and Mainwood are joined by a group of kids in one of two different casts. Kids play Gretel herself, a girl, a boy and a cellist. The cellist joins Ford and Mainwood on acoustic instruments that perform some remarkably high-energy folk rock that’s been written specifically for the show.
Scenic Designer Sarah Hunt-Frank has done a brilliant job putting together a very engagingly abstract, little set for the musical. A big, fantasy story featuring moody magic set in the woods might seem ill-suited for the intimacy of a small stage, but Hunt-Frank plays with the wooded imagery in simple, flat planes and cylinders that cleverly calls to the primal aesthetics of a target audience raised with iconic interactive emulations of nature like Minecraft and Roblox. Just to look at it, the simplicity of what Hunt-Frank put together for the stage here would seem a little too quaint to be appealing, but for a generation that’s increasingly interacting in little worlds like this on small glowing screens, it works. Hunt-Franks work here is actually a very, very savvy way to engage kids aesthetically in this kind of cozy, little show.
The iconography is very abstract, but it’s appealing. Stepmother appears onstage as a wooden rake. The stepsister is represented by a wooden broom. The mystical knight of night is a bucket and a sash. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does. And it does so beautifully. (Days after attending the musical, I showed my daughter a picture of a classical wooden rake and we both laughed thinking about the stepmother. It's sharply minimalist design work.) The most appealing, little bit of design work comes in the form of a magical, little boy doll given to Gretel by her late mother. It’s a stylized classical outline of a paper doll-like boy made of fabric. It’s just abstract enough to be cute and just articulate enough to bring a really cool, little emotionally expressive magical character to the small stage. In a show like this, it’s the tiniest things that can make for the biggest magic.
First Stage’s Gretel! runs through March 22nd at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on 325 W. Walnut St. For ticket reservations and more, visit First Stage online.
As February draws to a close, Mad Rogues presents an intimate, little studio staging of Shakespeare’s Othello performed without all the usual props and lighting and sound design and scenic design and costuming. Without any other distractions AT ALL, director Bryant Mason focusses the show on some remarkably stunning acting. A cast of actors approach the material from a very organic place that moves the tragedy briskly across the stage in a deeply satisfying production.
Izaiah A. Ramirez is a warm, articulate presence onstage. There is not menace or malice about him at all. There’s no sense of danger at all about the guy playing Othello in THIS production, which makes the tragedy of his sensitivity all the more crushing. The danger in playing Othello with this much sensitivity lies in the disconnect when the villain Iago awakens suspicion in him. Play Othello too much like a nice guy in the beginning and you run the risk of making the suspicious menace of Othello at the end of the play coming across like a COMPLETELY different character. Ramirez deftly manages an arc that manipulates the joy of emotional sensitivity at the beginning of the play and mutates it under the influence of Iago to the horror of emotional sensitivity at the end of the play. It’s a really refreshingly dynamic take on the character that Ramirez handles perfectly.
There’s great heroism in Caitlyn Nettesheim’s performance as Othello’s wife Desdemona. She’s bravely chosen new romantic love over her family’s old, conditional love. When a confidant and longtime friend of Othello’s stands disgraced, Nettesheim brings out the beauty of Desdemona’s selflessness. When her husband’s sensitivity turns to ill-temper, Nettesheim amplifies that selfless heroism in aiding a newfound friend in his quest to regain the trust of her husband. Nettesheim’s Desdemona is refreshingly inspiring.
Ken Miller's approach to the villain Iago is a pleasant alternative to the political villainy out of the White House and the Senate in the recent months. Contemporary U.S. politics is a theatre of villainy through childish bully brutality. As cleverly as he is written, Iago can sometimes make it to the stage with a menace that feels a bit childish around the edges. Miller plays to the intellect of the character without distraction. Politics for Miller’s Iago aren’t for the pleasure of personal gain...they’re a game. Miller’s Iago might be casually playing with people’s lives or he might be playing a multiplayer online game. All of the obstacles that line his path are problems to be solved for nothing more than the satisfaction of seeing his vision happen...which fits in impressively-well with what Shakespeare put on the page centuries ago.
Marcel Alston is given the unenviable task of playing Othello’s friend Cassio. Shakespeare gives the actor playing Cassio a hell of a lot of ground to cover in a relatively short span of time onstage. Alston breathes the complexity of a full personality around the edges of the dialogue. The script gives Cassio passion, duty, responsibility, irresponsibility, anger a few other things that all have relatively important roles to play in the tragedy. It's a weird scattershot for any actor to try to hit all of that cohesively without a whole lot of fluid time onstage. Alston cleverly strings it all together in a performance that speaks to a depth that might have come from an entirely different play focussed entirely on Cassio.
In my experience, Iago’s wife Emilia doesn’t traditionally make much of an emotional impact on the stage until the end of the play. Brittany F. Byrnes puts together a take on the character that is that much more engaging from the beginning to the end of the play. More than just an unwitting pawn for her husband, Byrnes brings the personal day-to-day life of the character a lived-in presence that makes her lack of suspicion for her husband that much more respectable. Byrnes gives Emilia her own life, so it's understandable that she wouldn't see her own husband's villainy even though it IS the center of all the action in the drama everyone in the audience is actively watching.
Roderigo is another character who often comes across as a witless pawn of Iago. Rather than going against the grain on this, Simon Earle has been allowed to play-up the character’s fragility as comic relief from the darkness lying in the heart of the rest of the play. And rather than amplifying that fragility in an exaggerated clown-like manner befitting the circus or the current Oval Office, Earle brilliantly plays the comedy of the character in impressively subtle sighs and sags that are all delivered with head-spinning precision. Earle is comic relief, but he’s playing it in a way that is carefully calculated not to overpower any other part of the drama.
Reva Fox lends respectable structure to the edges of the ensemble as Desdemona’s father Brabantio. Emmaline Friederichs is suitably seductive as Cassio’s love interest Bianca. Friederichs’ thoughtful sensuality adds a layer of depth to a production that is successful on a great many levels without the benefit of all the other non-acting stuff that can distract from a well-written script.
Mad Rogues’ production of Othello runs through Feb. 22nd, 24th, 27th, 28th and 29th at the Marcus Center or the Performing Arts’ Studio 4A on 929 N. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Mad Rogues online.