Gabriel Hammer jangles along on Casio set to piano mode as people filter in to the bar of the Astor Hotel. It's a sleepy, little Thursday night mood in the shadow of MSOE and where the East Side and Downtown might meet and somehow aspire to become each other.
It's Cabaret Milwaukee's opening of Clockwork Man: Origins. A fusion of music, comedy, drama and history. Nick Firer hosts the show in character as vintage golden age radio host Richard Howling. Dora Diamond opens the show with some suitably silky torch songs and we slide into the drama. In the course of the show we also get a very delicate sitar accentuating the mood accompanying the serial’s many scenes set in India.
The central story features the origin of the title character of Cabaret Milwaukee's current trilogy. Kirk Thomsen plays Dr. Boggs--a World War I-era physician studying in India. A very sharply intense Andrew Parchman plays a traditional native doctor who saves a dying man using a technique unknown to modern science that ultimately serves as tragic origin for a sinister villain. Thomsen manages to ride a very tight line between over-the-top melodramatic serial villain and something altogether more sophisticated. Thomsen weaves-in some reasonably sophisticated psychological layering for character. This is villainy that clearly has something deeper going on beyond the simple “bad because it's evil” motivation that so often plagues dark genre drama.
The ongoing dramatic serial is broken up periodically by comedy and music. The most notably funny comedy makes it to the stage courtesy of Laura Holterman as a depression-era housewife giving helpful household advice on how to make those leftovers last. Funny stuff. Later on she's delivering contemporary political satire in at comedy bit that draws subtle parallels between concerns about women in the workplace in the 20th century with immigrants in the work place in the modern era. Throughout the show, bits of script draw interesting parallels between contemporary events and historical events from the early 20th century. It's a pleasantly disorienting mixup which feels like a warm handshake with history amidst mixed drinks and variety acts.
Comedy fuses with music in bits performed by Haley San Fillippo, Sarah Therese and Kira Walters as the Howling Sisters--irresistible three part harmony punctuating the show with pretty, little ad jingles. They open early on by doing the old Pabst Blue Ribbon and song. (What’ll You Have?) The old familiar tune establishes Andrews Sisters-style three-part harmony. From there on-in they’re deliver some ads for Cabaret Milwaukee sponsors in the style of classy jingles from the golden age of radio. It's surprising the range they manage. The Astor hotel gets a smooth and moody atmospheric sort of a number. Twisted Path Distillery gets a really clever and sharply-written poetic ad.
In the course of things, a villain is born. The central narrative is wrapped around and the birth of villainy, which involves his discovery of a secret love affair between the villian’s wife (played with wistful passion by Abigail Stein) and his assistant (a charismatic Paul Fojut.)
The birth of the villain is bookended by the birth of a hero. Audwin Short is humbly charming as Sinfan--a valiant and mysterious dealer of rare books who finds himself on the front lines of World War I in search of an artifact. David Rothrock shows promise as a soldier named Pelonius who is enlisted by Sinfan into a secretive organization looking to turn back the darkness. With two chapters left to go in the serial, it’ll be fun to watch Sinfan and Pelonias set-up for what is likely to be an eventual showdown with Dr. Boggs.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s production of The Clockwork Man: Origins runs through Oct. 1 at the Astor Hotel on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For ticket reservations, visit the show’s page on Brown Paper Tickets.
A couple of years back Amber Smith performed in a show that she’s now directing a production of. It’s a comedy. A farce. And it happens to be the single most-produced French play in the entire world. Smith to a few moments to answer a few questions about the show for The Small Stage.
A couple of years back you were in a production of BOEING BOEING with Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Now you're directing a production of it for Racine Theatre Guild. What are your feelings on a farce that you've lived with in a couple of different ways from a couple of different angles?
I really hold this show near and dear to my heart, which I think is interesting for a woman to say given the subject matter we're working with in this script! I had such an amazing experience working with Michael Cotey and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, but it's so different to experience the show with a completely different group of cast members. I've approached the material in a similar way as when we worked on it at MCT - allowing the actors to play and have us collaboratively come to what we put together as an end product. My opinion is that it's the most fun way to approach this show and make it different with every cast you might see do it. This group has brought such a different perspective to the material, so that's been really fun to see.
Like DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER, Marc Camoletti's BOEING BOEING can be a bit of a challenge to live with whether directing or acting in a production. It's fun, breezy comedy, but it's easy to fall into sort of a love-hate relationship with a farce. Bits of the story or the dialogue might be a bit frustrating to have to work with. Is there anything about Camoletti's work that you find irritating?
Farces are VERY easy to develop a love-hate relationship with, regardless of the playwright, in my opinion. I don't know that anything about Camoletti's work specifically irritates me, but I do think that farces at times are pretty predictable, which isn't my favorite thing when it comes to theatre in general.
One of the things I love about your work as an actor is the delicious precision. Your movements motions, emotions and dialogue have such a crisp clarity onstage. When you were Gabriella in the Milwaukee Chamber production back in 2016 it felt like every single hand motion had a very definite rhythm and meaning to it. That kind of precision can be beautiful from a director's chair (particularly with the timing and precision required in a farce.) You might feel less control not actually being onstage, though. What's it like directing a show that you've recently acted in?
SO CHALLENGING! I truly didn't prepare myself for how tricky it would be! There are so many things I loved about the MCT production that I would love to just bring to this show - but what fun is that? It was tempting to want the actors to approach their characters in similar ways as we did at MCT, but I also wanted this to be different and really reflect the choices of the cast in this production. And this cast is fabulous!
But as far as the precision, I've said to the group multiple times in rehearsal, "this is truly choreography we're doing here". I think I drive them nuts by saying that repeatedly! But for farces, that precision and comedic timing is so necessary - jokes won't land, the pace will drag, and you'll lose the entire audience.
As an actor, do you feel like more of an "actor's director"? Here you're also working with sound/set/lighting/props/wardrobe etc. in greater depth than an actor often has. For the right person, this is a lot of fun. Are you diving deeply into those ends of the production or are you giving tech its space to work its magic while you do yours with the actors?
It truly depends on the company I'm working with. I love learning about all of the different aspects of the process - being on the Board of All In Productions has taught me so much from the production perspective. It really helps you become a better actor when you know and understand more about all that goes into staging a show. But I also think I bring good perspective to those other team members about what the actors need and what can help all of us be successful in pulling off a great show, since I am an actor as well.
The memory of the Chamber show is probably still quite fresh for you. Do you find that at all distracting as you work on this production? How much do you feel like you're working on this show in the shadow of your memory of the one in which you appeared?
Kind of similar to what I said above. It's definitely tricky when I loved that production so much - I want to steal moments from that to insert into this one, but I've tried to purposely make different choices that still make sense in the context of the show. But there are definitely some classic moments that I think all BOEING directors stick into this show that I just HAD to keep in because they're just too dang good! But like I said, we really played together as a group to make this come together for this specific production - lots of the ideas have also come from the actors, which automatically makes it more RTG.
The opening of the show is only a few days away. It IS the most-produced French play in the world. You KNOW there's going to be another opportunity to work with BOEING BOEING again. Would you consider getting involved in another production?
I wouldn't even think twice. Absolutely. Whatever anyone else says, I love this show and think it's hilarious. With all of the heavy stuff out there lately, everyone needs a show like this to just laugh. And the girls win in the end in this one, which of course is just icing on the top of the cake! :)
Racine Theatre Guild’s production of Boeing Boeing runs Sep. 15 - Oct. 1 at the RTG on 2519 Northwestern Ave. in Racine. For more information, visit Racine Theatre Guild online.
Cabaret Milwaukee is a unique and distinctive local variety show sculpted around a retro-contemporary style. The show features an drama/adventure serial accompanied by quite a lot of other acts. The group’s latest show THE CLOCKWORK MAN ORIGINS opens this week at the Astor Hotel. Cabaret Milwaukee’s Josh B. Bryan took a few moments to answer a few questions about the group’s latest outing.
A Cabaret Milwaukee show is very distinct. How would you describe it for people who haven’t been to a performance?
Cabaret MKE is a is a live theatre company that writes and produces original material drawing inspiration from radio shows of the 30's & 40's. We stage our sit down cabaret shows with attentive period accuracy and detailed stagecraft. There's our host, house band, crooner, a jingle crew, stand up comedians, bit segments like Mrs Millies innuendo-laden domestic tips, local and world news of the day drawn straight from newspapers dated the year we're going for (1937 for this series), and even a tap dancer because that's the sort of thing that folks of yesteryear did. Of course no show was complete without it's radio play and that's our anchor that keeps the show flowing. The show that our audience watches swings back and forth between radio segments and scenes of the radio play; a play within a play. It's a format that allows us to use various performance mediums, the sort of eclectic mix you might otherwise only see in a Vaudeville production, but still script and compose them to all contribute to a linear story. While the show bits don't share the characters or time frame as the play, they do reflect each other in theme, tone, or juxtaposition.
You’ve done shows at a number of different locations. For THE CLOCKWORK MAN ORIGINS you’re returning to The Astor Hotel. It seems like a very good fit for vintage radio-inspired drama. What’s it like working out of the Astor?
The Astor has been fantastic! The 20's art deco theme and antiqued finish of the bar (not the ballroom) is the perfect setting for us, even the pictures of actors off the old silver screen hanging on the wall reek of the era we reach for. Even the layout of the bar fits our format well, cabaret tables and seating on either side of the space almost feels like theatre in the round. There is comfortable seating for close to 60, 80 if we fill in the gaps, and even high top tables and chairs for people in the back. The odd pillars around the room give us perfect stage boundaries that, with minimal set dressing, serve as any backdrop we choose to take you to. We did our second show of last season here at The Astor for two weeks and this season we're able to do two shows for three weekends each. That's a first for us! It will also be particularly rewarding to have have one space to present in for two shows in a row. As always, our Valentines show will be at Best Place which is conveniently also on Juneau Ave, right across downtown.
Not much information is available about your new Clockwork Man trilogy. Could this be a sort of a hardboiled detective-meets-steampunk sort of a thing? The title has me picturing Philip K. Dick’s ELECTRIC ANT or the electric Lincoln from WE CAN BUILD YOU. What have you drawn from for inspiration in the script?
Not so much of the gangsters or detectives this time around. This season we're taking you on a Lovecraftian romp circa WWI! An otherwise melodramatic romance takes a turn for the sinister when the villain of the story, while traveling on a humanitarian mission in India, discovers a way to pull the soul out of a body and put it into a powder. Meanwhile the heroes of the story share an unlikely meeting in the muddiest and bloodiest of WWI trenches.
You’ve done extended multi-part serial fiction for Cabaret Milwaukee in the past. How set is the story for all three parts by the time the first one has made it to the stage? Is it all rigidly set down or do you adjust over the course of a season?
Our trilogies are always set in terms of story and arc trajectories however fleshing them out in time for rehearsals has at times been nail biting. Writing our own stories over the course of a trilogy does afford us the layer of being able to taylor to the cast somewhat.
You start a story in September that you won’t be finishing until February. Do you expect to draw artistic satisfaction from each episode, or is there going to be a gradually mounting stress until the whole thing is finished on February 17th?
It would be awfully rude of us to string one story out that long! It is a triology in so much as some characters overlap from one episode to another. As any good soap opera does, however, every episode we tie and untie a new knot in the greater stories thread.
What can you tell us about the talent assembled for this month’s show? What are some of the supporting features you’re using to back-up the main story this time around?
From the radio show you will recognize Richard Howling, Dora Diamond, Mrs Millie, and Micheal Palmisano with all new material for their characters. The jingle crew is still a 3 part harmony but with some rotation of the singers. One of them in fact was a lead in the radio play last season. A new sports caster character is being introduced this episode. Another new character will be introduced later this season as well. Dani will be doing a duet with another tap dancer who is also a former radio play actor. Our band this episode will include a sitar to compliment the radio play setting. In the radio play we have almost a whole cast who havent even seen a cabMKE show. This is pretty exciting as they have almost no idea what the other half of the production they are in is.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s production of The Clockwork Man: Origins runs Sep. 14 - Oct. 1 at the Astor Hotel on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For ticket reservations, visit the show’s page on Brown Paper Tickets.
Next to Normal is a bit of a paradox. It’s light and heavy. It’s serious and casual. It’s structured with great formality in a formula that climbs out of a soul of emotional chaos. The musical drama about a family dealing with mental illness in suburban America briskly sprints through some of the heaviest themes imaginable. All-In Productions’ staging of the show this month manages a fleetly deft dance through the passions and aggressions of middle-class life without compromising the thematic depth of suburban madness. From the intimate stage of the Next Act Theatre space, the energy of the rock musical can hit a full, crushing blast when it needs to. In other moments, it delicately reveals very subtle, unspoken and ephemeral human emotions.
Carrie Gray is strikingly witty as Diana--a wife and mother suffering from mental illness. She’s extremely articulate in the motions and expressions, fears and anxieties of a vividly bi-polar reality. Gray is a heroically vulnerable as she supports the character in her journey through treatments which challenge her understanding of her own past. It’s a touchingly sympathetic portrayal at the center of the ensemble.
Steve Pfisterer plays her husband Dan. He brings strength and compassion to the stage as a very human emotional anchor for Diana who struggles against his wife’s condition while battling his own inner conflicts. Pfisterer and Gray have a very earthbound chemistry about them that serves as a really solid foundation for some of the more aggressive songs in the show. His performance of “I Am the One,” ignites an emotional/musical intensity that would overpower the action were it not for Gray’s silent strength contrasting against his. He’s trying to get her to trust him and she wants to do so.
Writer Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt follow-up “I Am the One,” with “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” Two of the best songs in the whole show launch themselves into the story back to back. I love the fusion between those two songs. No dialogue. No rest. No space to breathe. We go straight from one explosive expression of rock’n’roll frustration to the next. As Diana and Dan are trying to connect in one room of the house, their daughter Natalie is in her room dealing with feeling distant and insubstantial in the shadow of her brother Gabe.
Austin Dorman is an intermittent force of nature as Gabe...appearing quite dramatically and then vanishing. Hailey Hentz sculpts a fascinatingly textured portrayal of Natalie. The character is under tremendous stress at a time in high school when her schedule is filled with studying and practicing piano and million other concerns. There’s real passion written into the dialogue, but Hentz cleverly plays that passion with listless frustration until a song like “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” comes along. Then the passion shoots out into the music. Listless, nuanced frustration in spoken dialogue. Passionate emotion in song. It’s not an exaggerated contrast by any means, but it’s distinct enough to feel like a really sharply thoughtful connection between actor and character. In her bio, Hentz mentions this Natalie has been a dream role for her. It shows.
Adam Qutaishat handles some of the more challenging bits around the edges of the production as Diana’s doctor. The character is kind of an abstract medical professional, but Qutaishat is able to imbue that with some distinct personality. Connor Dalzin has a tender persistence about him as a boy who has come to care about Natalie.
Rock musicals can be really difficult to bring across on a technical level. Director Tim Backes has done an admirable job of keeping the immense intensity of a show like this from overpowering the space. A few brief and minor sound issues aside, the energy of the piece is kept relatively well-balanced.
My wife and I teared-up numerous time over the course of the show.
For extra intensity sit where we sat: in the front row right next to the kitchen table on the side.
True...the marginally annoying visual of those body mics that everyone is wearing IS that much more visible from the front row, but the tech fades into the background right away in the rush of the show’s energy. One rarely gets a chance to be this close to a musical of any kind, but a rock musical like this. . . it’s really, really powerful. Pfisterer launches into “I Am the One,” and you’re right there at the kitchen table with him. Moments like that are that much more powerful from the front row.
All In Productions' staging of Next to Normal continues through Sep. 16 at the Next Act Theatre space on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit All In online.
There's a work factor in seeing a show for review that can fundamentally distance a critic from the rest of an audience. I arrived at the Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove last night from a Gold Line bus. At 41 years of age, I was on the younger edge of an audience that was there for casual entertainment. Everyone else was well-tuned to a light family sitcom and I was there for the work I love. The trip out had me thinking about politics and headlines and things that I read on the hour long commute. It took me a little while to synchronize-up with the mood of the rest of the audience.
The ensemble for the show is quite well-integrated. The family dynamic feels right. The director has brought them together in clever social modulation. A young guy is trying to tell all four of his grandparents that he's moving away to the other side of the country. He's younger than me, but I identify with him because he’s closer in age to me than anyone else in the story. This is an older audience, though. They’re going to identify with the larger end of the ensemble. This guy tells his grandparents that there isn't anything to keep him there in New Jersey and the whole audience gasps. The line hits all of them as a shock. To me it seems obvious. It's a nice family, but they’re driving him crazy and he wants to live somewhere other than Jersey his whole life. I’m with him and they’re with them. (The family I mean.) It's always weird to have that kind of distance from the rest of the audience. Just as the younger guy begins to realize what a good family he’s got, I begin to feel a bit more integrated with the rest of the audience. We’re starting to laugh at the same things. It’s fun.
During an intermission I overheard somebody (who was presumably a regular at the Sunset) mentioning something along the lines of it being really a good choice for the company. It's hard to disagree with that. This is really a play about family. It’s really a drama about family on a couple of different levels. There’s a family of actors here playing a family of characters. Most of the actors feel totally at home in the roles of retirees. Raffaello Frattura puts in a truly engaging performance, but that’s no surprise: this guy’s been performing for over THREE DEACES...and they ALL have that kind of experience onstage. They may not have always been playing a single family like this, but they all sink into a very organic relationship with the stage that feels very authentic BECAUSE IT IS. People with great comfort onstage play people in a very comfortable home. Family plays family. Familiarity plays familiarity. That guy I overheard during intermission was right: this IS a really good choice. I’m there for work. They’re there for the community in this community theatre. It’s nice to be a tourist in a space like that. It’s really satisfying to have been pulled into the gravity of a show like this even if doing so pulled me away from MY family for one more night and in the interest of exploring the nature human connection.
Sunset Playhouse's production of Over the River and Through the Woods runs through Sep. 24 at the Furlan Auditorium on 800 Elm Grove Rd. For ticket reservations, visit the Sunset Playhouse online. My comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.
Last night I saw a third Summer 2017 production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The season opened with Voices Found Repertory’s 1980s pop-inspired production in May. Then in July Door Shakespeare opened it’s production. This weekend Bard & Bourbon stages its Twelfth Night (drunk) at the intimate space of the Tenth Street Theatre. It's slyly directed by Dylan K. Sladky. The production is set in a pleasant 1920s. Design elements lock-in the feel of the era without overpowering the comedy. Robert Sharon’s beautiful costuming for the show feels very organic.
Bard & Bourbon issues a fun farewell to the summer on these first days of September with the show. Brittany Curran plays romantic lead as the lovely Viola who disguises herself as a man and promptly falls for a man who wishes her to woo another for him. It’s fun to see Curran in a central role this time around. There’s a heartwarming honesty in her portrayal of someone falling in love. The man in question is the Duke Orsino played here by Alexandra Pakalski. Honestly, I’d always found the character of Orsino to be a little flat. It’s difficult to understand why Viola is so taken with him. Shakespeare doesn’t offer much in the way of charm. Seeing Pakalski play the role...I get it. With her in that role I can relate to Viola. Pakalski has an irresistibly roguish appeal about her in the role that makes Viola’s emotions feel really really well-justified.
Alas, Orsino’s eye has fallen on someone else--the countess Olivia played with an impressively casual diva’s charm by Ashley S. Jordan. Shakespeare gives Olivia quite a bit more personality than Orsino, so she’s always come across as being more appealing to me. Jordan saunters into the role of aristocracy with sultry assertiveness, making Olivia’s appeal that much more palpable.
The more comic ends of the comedy are so well-executed that they almost threaten to overpower the drama of the romance. Adam Czaplewski is a diva all his own in the role of Olivia’s servant Malvolio. He glides and slices through a comportment and poise with microtome’s precision. There aren’t many people who can generate laughter by simply standing onstage with a perfectly straight face. Czaplewski is one of those people. He takes a graceful tumble into madness due to cruelty played upon him by Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria, played with sharp clarity by Madeline Wakley. Her cleverness is pursued by the comic swagger of Brittany Boeche as the brashly robust Sir Toby Belch .
The heavy comedy of the show falls on Sir Andrew Aguecheek, his good friend Sir Toby Belch and Feste the jester...all three of whom are really impressive here. Brandon Herr has great comic instincts as Sir Andrew. A few relatively flat lines come across with great comedy simply due to Herr’s tiny inflections and punctuations. Of course, his biggest moment lies in Sir Andrew’s duel with Viola over a gross misunderstanding. Comic fisticuffs involving a baseball bat come fluidly to the stage courtesy of fight choreographer Tawnie Thompson who once again does an amazing job bringing very compelling action to the stage. Thompson’s fight scenes have a speed, rhythm and style to them that are quite distinctive. (Someone please give this woman more work.)
Naturally there are going to be those who end up collecting around the edges of a production who are WAY more talented than what they’re given to do. All the same it’s nice to see Zachary Dean as the Sea Captain and a few other minor roles. Local stage veteran Joel Kopischke has potential for serious gravitas in the role of Antonio. The night I attended, he was one of the two getting drunk for the show...(this IS Bard & Bourbon, after all.) Kopischke embraced the gimmick with great energy and enthusiasm, adding one more element to a very fun show. Keegan Siebken was similarly poised (though completely sober) in the role of his friend and Viola's brother Sebastian.
It’s deeply, deeply satisfying to see Grace DeWolf in any show. She always ends up being my favorite in any cast. Here she’s playing Feste the jester with characteristically expressive glances and punchy charisma. There’s such a deftness of delivery with her. Here that deftness Grace-fully bounds through the jaunty wit of a jester with captivatingly textured nuance. Her work here serves as the centerpiece for the comic end of a show that may dip a little heavily into the laughter, but not at the expense of a fun, breezy Shakespearian romance.
Bard & Bourbon’s Twelfth Night (drunk) runs through Sep. 3 at In Tandem’s Tenth St. Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more visit Bard & Bourbon online.
Early next month, All In Productions brings the rock musical NEXT TO NORMAL to the stage of the Next Act Theatre. The story of a contemporary suburban family dealing with mental illness and so much else opens on an intimate stage. Director Tim Backes took some time to answer a few questions about the show.
The American musical has been around for over 100 years. Modern musical theatre offers such a huge scope of different possible productions. Why did you choose NEXT TO NORMAL for your next production?
When we were sitting down to discuss our 2017 season, it was right after the elections in November. We knew we wanted to have a single unifying theme for the season, and given the state of our country in the immediate aftermath of the election and the amount of polarization and conflict in our society, we wanted to aim for a theme and for shows that would bring people together. There’s a tendency for theater companies and artists to want to make big, bold political or ideological statements with their work, but we didn’t want anything divisive. So we settled on the theme “Let’s Talk” in the hopes of doing shows that would create positive, constructive conversations about important issues rather than adding to the division.
Next to Normal fit the theme perfectly. I would hope we can all agree that there needs to be more of a light shined on mental illness in the United States. There is still so much we do not know about the human brain, and as a result, there is such a stigma attached to conditions like bipolar disorder and depression. The show does a wonderful job of treating bipolar disorder responsibly, showing Diana as being a strong, capable woman in many regards while also not holding back on demonstrating the horrible ways in which the illness affects not only her, but her family.
The show also fit what we were looking for logistically. We wanted to do a musical with a smaller cast that we thought would be a popular selection, having opted for shows people might not know as well over the last couple years. Next to Normal is a hit with theatergoers of all backgrounds for how genuine its characters are, how touching its story is, and yes, the great music.
NEXT TO NORMAL is a delicate balance. There’s some really intense music balanced against harrowingly nuanced treatment of perilously heavy themes like drug abuse, mental illness and modern psychiatry. The productions that I’ve seen in the past have managed to tread a very precise path between the staginess of theatrical musical and the delicate nature of human drama. How are you balancing the musical and dramatic angles of the production?
Great question. It’s extremely difficult. If there is any element of campiness to the show, particularly with regard to the way we treat mental illness, then the show not only loses its effectiveness, but becomes disrespectful. At the same time, we can’t be so heavy-handed with the serious nature of some of the themes that we lose sight of the moments of levity and hope that are sprinkled throughout the show. If I had to pick one word to describe Next to Normal it would be “human,” and humans are incredibly complex creatures.
The biggest danger with Next to Normal is that the powerful rock music can become distracting for both the actor and the viewer. It’s easy for a production of the show to lose sight of its character-driven nature and turn into a belt-off, but that really detracts from the intimacy of the show.
For me, the most important thing was taking the time early in the rehearsal process to get into the headspace of the characters and to discuss bipolar disorder and the most prevalent themes in the show. I met individually with each cast member to closely analyze the songs, the feelings of the characters and the stakes of each scene, all before we blocked a single scene. I wanted the cast to have as much time as possible to put themselves into the positions of their respective characters and really think through how Diana’s illness was affecting theme, far beyond any of the ways written into the script. We were also extremely fortunate to have Dr. Anthony Meyer, the former head of Aurora Psych, come in and give a talk to our cast and production team about his decades of experience in treating patients with bipolar disorder. He had some incredible insights, and it really set the tone for the rest of our rehearsal process.
You recently posted an image from your first time in the theatre. It’s the back of your head. A few chairs. A few actors. A cello. It’s cool seeing an image of a rehearsal literally from the director’s perspective. I would imagine that there’s a lot going on for you during a rehearsal that wouldn’t be visible from any picture. How much of the total production are you seeing in your head when you’re rehearsing at the venue for the first time? Is there a point early on when you have to start fusing your internal conception of the show with the space you’ll be performing in?
It was a really amazing feeling to finally be able to get into the Next Act space and get a feel for the spacing and the actual pictures the audience is going to be seeing. Even without any of our set pieces in place yet, it just feels so much more like a real show when you get in there. So from a director’s standpoint, yeah—suddenly you are seeing everything at once with so much more clarity, and it’s a whole lot to process. You can suddenly get a better sense of how lighting will work in certain scenes, or whether you might need to move a certain set piece a little bit to improve sightlines.
The conception of the show has to be present throughout the entire process. We knew we wanted to create a more intimate, scaled back version of the show, getting rid of the “rock concert” aura that the Broadway production and many other productions tend to use and opting for building an actual, simple home instead. That guided everything we did, long before we even had a cast. But when blocking (and acting), it’s so hard to get an accurate sense of the pictures you are creating for the audience when you’re not in the actual space, especially a space as intimate and unique as Next Act.
The Next Act Theatre’s thrust stage poses interesting challenges to any production. The thrust stage can be difficult to work with. I remember Robby McGhee doing a really good job of filling the space from all angles with his production of The Wild Party for All-In. What’s it like directing a show for the Next Act Theatre space?
Having three sides of the stage surrounded by audience is a tremendous challenge. As I said in the last question, you can’t really get an accurate sense of what you’re dealing with until you really see the blocking for the first time in the space. We’ve had to make a few adjustments to ensure our sightlines were correct and that we’re giving each side of the stage enough love. The tough part is that you have to come to peace with the fact that not every single person in the audience will have a clear shot at every actor’s face at all times, just by the nature of how the stage is set up and by how many times in the script there are split scenes happening. But I think we have done a good job of being conscious of each side of the audience’s perspective of the action.
Despite these challenges, I have to say this is one of my favorite places in Milwaukee to see and do a show. The audience is right up close and personal to the stage. Considering how much of the focus for our production of this show has been on investigating the internal struggles of each character, the layout of the theater puts the audience right into those characters’ world, and I think it is going to make what’s already an extremely powerful show that much more emotional and affecting.
You’re really good about posting on social media. It’s cool to see a timeline of the show: June 29: auditions. July 2: Official announcement of the cast. July 8: official announcement on Facebook. July 24: first read through. August 24: designer run. I love the ongoing background on the production being visible on social media. Do you feel as though the increased behind-the-scenes visibility increases the pressure on a production?
There may be some element of that, but I think using social media like that gets people more invested in the journey we are taking with the show and more interested in coming out and seeing the end result of the process they’ve been following.
Honestly, most of the pressure I feel for this show is pressure I put on myself. I’m directing a show a lot of people know and love with a company that has been quite fortunate to receive some very positive feedback to our shows in our first several seasons. I came into the process knowing All In Productions had a growing reputation in our theater community that I needed to not just uphold, but expand, and I do not take that responsibility lightly at all. Add in the fact that I’m a first-time director, and it’s quite a lot to handle sometimes.
Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with an incredible support system throughout the process. Almost my entire production team has worked with All In Productions before and was able to hit the ground running because they know how we do things. The AIP board has been very supportive. Robby McGhee is serving as my assistant director for the show, and he’s been an incredible mentor, partner and sounding board. And I can’t say enough great things about the cast. These are people who really care about their roles and this show. For many of them, they’re taking on dream roles, and you can see every day how they are not taking this opportunity for granted. I’m so proud of the work they’ve put in.
As I write this, you’re only a couple of weeks away from opening. What are you learning about the show now that everything is snapping together less than 14 days from opening night?
We have really been able to make the adjustment from “let’s work this song and make sure we have the blocking right” to “let’s really dive into these characters and this story and see what we can discover.” It’s been fun watching the cast make discoveries about their roles and dissect each song, and I’m really excited to see how their understanding of their parts and of the overall humanity of the show continues to deepen over the final couple weeks we have before we open, and how that manifests itself in the choices they make on stage.
All In Productions' staging of Next to Normal runs Sep. 7 – 16 at the Next Act Theatre space on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit All In online.
The second and final performance was sold-out. Director Jill Anna Ponasik could be seen at the last minute swiftly rushing about the theatre with folding chairs for those of us who arrived fifteen minutes before the show was scheduled to start.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Theater RED’s two-performance production of A Chorus Line was one of those rare events in local theatre that brings a huge number of different people together from a wide range of different ends of the Milwaukee theatre scene. I ended up in one of the folding chairs Ponasik put down right in front of the stage. Quite an immersive experience. The cast of the show milled about in character as dancers waiting for an audition to start. Looking into the faces of those onstage I kept having, “oh yeah, that’s right: (S)HE’s in this show too,” moments. They were all very recognizable and all quite talented.
Joe Pichetti had a cooly authoritative poise about him as Zach: the guy in charge of the audition. Beth Mulkerron had considerable uplifting gravitas as Cassie--the dancer who shared a past with him. The show doesn’t give Cassie and Zach a whole lot of time to develop a connection that is supposed to be really, really intense. Mulkerron and Pichetti managed a strikingly vivid portrayal of a couple of people who had known each other quite well in some distant past in spite of relatively little time together onstage.
The rest of the show is a big parade of different performances all isolated onstage. Here are general impressions in no particular order:
Karen Estrada and Doug Jarecki have known each other for years. Here they played the newly married couple. He played brash clueless encouragement with blunt comic flare finishing all her sentences. She was an unassuming dynamo of sweetness as a character trying her best to assert herself in the challenge of the situation. Always nice to see both of them onstage.
Local musical theatre icon David Flores can dance. Really well. (I don’t recall ever seeing him dance before.) He played Mike...the one who tells of his love of dance discovered while going to classes with his sister. There’s a deep charm in Flores’ execution.
C. Michael Wright doesn’t do enough onstage. I don’t care if he’s in every single show there is. The Producing Artistic Director of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre is an amazing actor in his own right. Here he played Paul...a character who comes to the audition with what is likely the most complex and dramatically textured story of all the characters. Wright’s earnest, unflinching portrayal of the character was easily one of the best dramatic performances in the whole production.
Karl Miller has also been behind the curtain quite a lot lately. Nice to see him onstage as well. Here he played Bobby...a charmingly egotistical borderline sociopath with a heart of gold. (At least that’s how Miller played it...totally open and cheerful so long as Bobby was talking about himself. A fun role for Miller.)
Marcee Doherty-Elst was a bit of a force of nature onstage as Val--she who would probably kill to get as close to the center of the spotlight as possible. Her distinct take on the Val’s “Dance: Ten Looks: Three” was dynamic enough to light-up the whole audience.
Of course, Val is just a few auditions or a few more years away from becoming Sheila--a tough as nails dance veteran played with deadpan aggression by Angela Iannone.
The production was filled with so many other little moments of crisp characterization by Bill Jackson and Joel Kopischke and Melissa Kelly Cardamone and Mark Bucher and James Zager and on and on and on... Then there was real talent on the margins of the stage too. Zachary Dean and James Carington and Stephanie Staszak...well...it’s a big ensemble and a show like this can afford to put really, really good, young talent along the edges of much more established local theater stars. Really it’s just remarkable that Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Theater RED managed to bring so many people together onstage at once without like...ripping a hole in the fabric of spacetime or something.
A Chorus Line only ran for two performances.
Further information on Theater RED’s upcoming schedule will become available on their website.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s next collaboration will be with Skylight Music Theatre in March as both companies present a staging of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. For more information, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.
The dramatic action/adventure genre isn’t something one normally associates with live theatre. Quick pacing and fight choreography and such are commonly thought to best reside in flat, glowing rectangles. Pop adventure theatre IS possible, though. One of its best local practitioners made a quick appearance onstage last Sunday. Liz Shipe's new pop adventure theatre show The Incredible Adventure of Alvin Tatlock made a humble initial expedition to the stage on the final evening of the Milwaukee Fringe Festival. The concise one-hour adventure featured Liz Shipe as an adventurer named Gertie Pike. Tall, affable Sean Duncan had a reserved charisma about him as mild-mannered Alvin Tatlock--a very precise sort of person who is swept-up in Gertie's search for the legacy of her father. Also appearing were Brian Quinn as a charming narrator and Robert Thomas Schmeling in a variety of supporting roles.
Though the pacing of the adventure in Alvin Tatlock feels ever-so-slightly uneven in places, the overall intensity of the action is very engrossing. Shipe and company do and excellent job of bringing sweeping adventure to the stage with a little more than a bench and a few odd props. The ensemble is strikingly compelling in the delivery of the action. You don’t need big explosions and huge sets and massive scores and quick edits to get something that feels like Allan Quatermain or Tarzan or Indiana Jones or Jack Flanders or Lara Croft. All you need is actors who seem convinced enough that the adventure is real...actors who are in close proximity on a small stage. THAT is where the adventure truly lies...because it doesn’t matter how big the CGI is or how big the explosions are if we don’t care about the characters. The cast of Tatlock does an excellent job of bringing across the full reality of the adventure on a relatively bare stage. (Michael Bay and James Cameron could learn a lot from Shipe.)
It’s a fun hour. Shipe’s plot borrows from a lot of popular adventure fiction which has been told and retold over and over again. My favorite bits of the script seem (probably unbeknownst to Shipe) to echo the serial narrative voices of Douglas Adams or Metball Fulton or Chris Claremont who were themselves echoing of various other bits of adventure comedy that have reverberated through pop fiction over the years.
The list of Shipe’s shows has grown quite a bit in the recent past. It seems like every year she’s doing something new. Over the years and very many shows that she's written or what becomes clear is that she's really, really good with cleverly funny adventure dialogue. What Shipe brings to the mix is some strikingly sharp dialogue. There’s a clever sense of fun about the way the characters talk to each other. In the role of Gertie, Shipe has given herself some really cunning bits of dialogue.
The script is friendly and familiar--with a style and a flow reminiscent of so many contemporary action stories. (Actually there seem to be A LOT of echoes in this script coming from the 2001 Tomb Raider movie: wealthy young British adventurer in the shadow of her father racing against others to get ancient treasure. There's even a sort of a parallel clock motif.) Plot elements may be heavily recycled but the heart of the story that's being told feels very fresh and unique because of the way that Shipe bends the dialogue around the characters in an ensemble that she's taken great care in bringing together. It's all so a well-balanced. And it's framed as the first in what could be a whole series for Shipe.
The Incredible Adventure of Alvin Tatlock was announced as a one-off. With a debut like this, I would love to see a few or a few dozen more trips to the stage with Gertie and Alvin. Shipe has already announced that plans are in place for future Tatlockery, "in the near-ish." For more information as it becomes available, keep in touch with Reconstructing Grimm's Facebook page.
Theatre Gigante opened its 30th season at the Milwaukee Fringe Festival this year with a single half-hour performance. Lexington Avenue was a perfect example of precisely the sort of thing that Gigante does so well...a simple abstract narrative. Stripped of so much of the ancillary bits that bog down so many staged narratives, Gigante focused for a single half hour on a connection between two performers and two characters.
The words were by the late Frank O’Hara. The music was by Jason Powell. Gigante had turned a dramatic duet of a monologue by a poet and playwright and turned it into a beautifully operatic, little half hour onstage between Powell and Erin Hartman with musical accompaniment by Anne Van Deusen. There were simple lights. Primary colors. Simple movements. Moods, motions and emotions flitted about quite dramatically onstage between actors and characters in a story that was very vivid and intricate. The characters lived for a half hour amidst the many vicissitudes that live in love as two fall into it in an ever-changing world.
So much theatre tries to ground itself in the literal. Concrete reality IS something that feels that much more powerful on the small stage than it does on a screen of any size, but it’s far more familiar. There’s comfort in the familiar, but it can be very, very difficult to get something genuine out of a realistically-rendered plot that plays out over the course of an hour and a half or more with intermission. What Gigante did with Lexington Avenue is what they’ve done so very, very well over the course of the past ten or so years of their total thirty that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing...something primal exists in the abstractions of simple movements and bits of dialogue that no realistically grounded artifice could ever manage no matter how brilliantly rendered the sets, costuming and lighting might be.
Frank O’Hara is in good company on the coming season with the company. Theatre Gigante’s 30th includes four more shows drawing inspiration from authors Edgar Rice Burroughs and Franz Kafka, filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and the sparklingly witty 20th century German transvestite Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf. All remaining shows on the coming season take place at UWM’s Kenilworth Studio 508 Theatre.
For more information, visit Theatre Gigante online.