Director Ray Jivoff brings a beloved classic to the stage of the Cabot Theatre as The Skylight presents a staging of the musical Pippin. Actors onstage play actors in a troupe telling the tale of the son of king Charlemagne lends style, intimacy and charm to a relatively large stage.
In the carefully rendered informality of it all, Jivoff and company make a big stage seem small by embracing its immensity. With Pippin, they've made a show that's just big enough to be small. It’s kind of a strange paradoxical dichotomy. The musical came out of an early ’70s where there was radical commercial experimentation even in the mainstream arts. The style is so very specific to the era, which always makes it kind of weird to see this sort of thing brought the stage again. So many people remember it from high school. It was originally developed as a show for students at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s perfect for that sort of production. Coming of age. Loss of innocence. Trying to find one’s place in the world. These themes are right at home in a university or high school setting. Brought onto a bigger stage, the show has an opportunity to play on some of the show’s more abstract, existentialist themes that deal with the nature of messy life-versus-tidy narrative.
Jivoff and company do a good job of playing on the more universal notions with a circus-like atmosphere cast against a bare stage. As Pippin, Lucas Pastrana is radiant enough to capture attention and hold it amidst all of the war and sex and love and responsibility that plague the character. Even with every spotlight cast on him, Pastrama seems like a nice guy. This is always a lot more difficult than anyone gives it credit for being. Pastama’s niceness goes a long way toward lending the overall production some warmth and bringing emotional immediacy to a bare stage that could otherwise feel cavernous.
True to the original inspiration of the show the stage is pretty empty. Scenic Designer Keith Pitts has been allowed to get strikingly clever with the minimalism. We get steamer trunks that are rather creatively used for various set pieces. One in particular falls out into a beautiful picture frame that is positively surreal. Steamer trunks aside, we get lots of scaffolding and folding chairs and things of that nature.
Kärin Simonson Kopischke’s costuming is fun as well. Knights wear the shining shoulder padding that appears to be pulled straight out of the NFL. Patterns and designs are ornate enough to give a sense of place on a largely empty stage without being so overpowering that they stifle the choreography. (And there really is one hell of a lot of that.) The Skylight puts together a sharply distinctive visual end of the world of Pippin. Really nice production design. Jason Fassl brings it all together with a lighting design that brings the warmth and emotional immediacy of the show even as far back as the balcony.
And then...there’s the music. Having been from a very specific end of a very specific generation, musicals of the late ’60s and early ’70s feel to me like the natural default position for a stage musical. Stephen Schwartz’s music for this show always felt very nondescript to my ear. The distinct style of Broadway music from this era feels like so much musical wallpaper to me. Jivoff and the Skylight have managed to make this feel fresh and emotionally engaging in spite of this, so I can only imagine how good this feels to someone who truly loves the era. Part of the success lies in overall presentation. Part of it also has to do with the fact that there are some really talented people even in around of the edges of the production.
I’m drawn to the edges of everything with people I’ve seen on smaller stages. It’s nice to see Stephanie Staszak in a big musical like this...particularly where there’s a lot of very precise choreography. She’s good for that. Becky Cofta is capable of delivering an irresistible and irresistibly comic sensuality to the stage even from a great distance. Here she is having a lot of fun with that and that fun transfers to the audience quite well.
Closer to the center of the stage we have Todd Denning as Charlemagne himself. Denning hauls in quite a bit of stage presence to develop a kind of gravity that the role requires. It turns out Denning isn’t only a very intense Shakespearian actor. The guy can sing. As always, he’s got a very sharp wit, too. The character of his scheming wife Fastrada feels a weak. To her great credit, Catherine Hausman reaches into the role and pries personality from the jaws of dullness. Natalia Ford lends humanity, compassion and patience to the role of Pippin’s love interest Catherine. In the center of it all is Crystal Drake as the Leading Player hosting the show. She’s got a classy precision about her that she has that mix of charisma and steely, cold showmanship that the role really thrives on. She carries it all with an emotional center. There’s a great depth about it. A great sense of power and intensity the rests at the heart of the show.
The Skylight’s production of Pippin runs through Oct. 7 at the Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center. For ticket reservations and more, visit the Skylight Music Theatre online.
It’s About Love
J.J. Gatesman’s romantic stage drama The Beauty of Psyche is about many things. There is danger and sacrifice. Nearly every character is in WAY over his or her head for one reason or another. There's real drama in that. More than anything, though, it’s about love. Staged the Underground Collaborative for one more weekend, Gatesman’s adaptation of the classic story of Eros and Psyche gazes into love from many different angles.
In the role of Psyche, Abigail Stein plays a woman who must fall in love with a voice and a silhouette. What’s worse: the woman she’s playing has been taken captive by a monster. So there’s a whole...Beauty and the Beast/Stockholm Syndrome thing going on between the God Eros and the mortal Psyche that the script has to overcome in order to ultimately deliver a very compelling romance.
We get a brief introduction by the intoxicatingly excited Kellie Wambold in the role of Pan. Aside from that, a crucial early stage of the play requires that Stein play romantic lead to a shadow cast across a sheet and the voice resonating from it. (That’s Eros as played by Josh Decker.) There’s novelty in the set-up between a divine silhouette and a woman that’s interesting to watch, but it must be incredibly daunting for an actor to try to convincingly fall in love with the shadow of her captor.
Stein deftly renders the title in her performance. There’s an earthy, organic beauty about her...clever expressiveness in her face and her voice that connects the audience to romantic love with a god. So she doesn't seem at all like a victim even though it's essentially what defines her early on in the story. So Stein is beautiful and a prisoner without being a victim. Stein’s able to do this without a hint of exaggeration, which is as a huge accomplishment for her, Decker AND Gatesman.
Romance is incredibly difficult to bring across onstage. Love is complicated enough without having to worry about blocking and lighting and all those things that make the stage an unnatural place. Gatesman finds the perfect pacing to keep an interaction between god and mortal believably moving into greater and greater intimacy. It feels totally natural when she finally tears down the sheet and embraces him.
Decker does quite a job as well. He’s playing a god who is totally burdened with his own divinity. He feels real romantic love for the first time, but he has NO idea how to deal with it. This is a god dealing with emotions of and for a mortal...so he’s GOING to come across a bit beastly. There are all kinds of direction this could be taken in that would distract from the essence of the romance. To his credit, Decker holds steady and allows the moment to render itself around him...which is exactly the way a divine god would likely handle a situation like this, so it feels really, really believable.
Sympathy for the Antagonist
Audrey Thompson-Wallace plays Eros’ mother--listed in the program as “Rose.” She love her son and knows that he is falling for a mortal. She wants to spare him the heartache of falling in love with something so fleeting, so she tries to keep him from her. When we first see her, there’s an icy cold superiority about her, but Thompson-Wallace radiates warmth beneath the brutality. Gatesman allows Rose and Eros mother and son time that heartbreakingly renders the maternal love that is forced against her son’s romantic love of a mortal. Again--Gatesman does a really good job with the overall pacing here, allowing Eros and Rose just enough time onstage to firmly establish the conflict between Rose and Psyche. She's not domineering. She's caring. She's also cold. (Nobody's perfect.)
And There’s Other Love
Eros and Psyche get separated. In order for Psyche to reunite with him, she must embark on a quest for a few things. The impossible feats that she’s engaging in aren’t really the focus of the story, so they don’t get a whole lot of time onstage...what’s important here is that she learns to find the love of friendship with Pan and her ants. (It’s hard to explain...just see the show. It’s cool. Trust me.) Wambold is whimsically exasperating as Pan...so the real challenge for Psyche is to find a way to relate to her in order to collect what she needs to reconnect with the god she loves.
So we have romantic love, maternal love...love for companions. There’s also real love for storytelling going on here. It’s a show in a basement that’s been lovingly crafted for very, very small audiences. There’s a deep intimacy here that seems to be embracing love itself from a cozy, little basement downtown. Romance isn’t done nearly enough on the small stage, but The Beauty of Psyche goes beyond romance. It’s a play about love. Gatesman and company do a really good job of bringing that love out of the shadows and into the hearts of anyone interested in showing-up.
A Fool’s Enigma’s The Beauty of Psyche closes this weekend at the Underground Collaborative. There are just two performances left: Sep. 14th (Friday) and Sep 15th (Saturday.) For ticket reservations and more, visit the show’s page on Eventbrite.
Writer Matthew Konkel and Director Tom Marks bring a multi-tiered retro-spoof down to earth as Milwaukee Entertainment Group presents Jake Revolver VCR Repairman. The show has a cast of actors playing actors from a fictitious live radio show. A vibrant cast brimming with contrasting energies deliver a gumshoe detective spoof to the cozy subterranean space beneath the Brumder Mansion.
The hardboiled detective spoof has a long history. It might even go back as far as the authors who defined the genre in the ’30s. One can feel the humor radiating out from the edges of the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. With this one, Konkel decides to be deliberately ambiguous with the era in a sci-fi mashup set in a hazily present era. Phil Stepanski is charming as detective-turned-VCR repairman Jake Revolver. In a clever duality, Amy Geyser plays a shy voice actress who transforms into a sultry femme fatale named Dearly Leading. Ms. Leading has hired Jake Revolver in a caper involving a fabled VCR that, according to legend, has mysterious powers over reality.
Aiding Revolver in his task is his brilliant and brilliantly quirky assistant Top Load played with dizzyingly effervescent cheeriness by Hayley San Fillippo. She’s part of an eclectic supporting cast that includes a reasonably tall Jason Nykiel as a couple of very short characters, Pam Scheferman as a detective who is trailing Revolver and the distinctive voice of Jim Donaldson in a couple of different characters influencing Revolver from the corners of the script.
Konkel’s humor is a comically twisted torture of the prose styles of Hammett and Chandler. The comic surrealism of Konkel's dialogue threatens to overtake the comedy at nearly every turn. Sometimes the comedy is going so far in the direction of The Weird that it seems to misplace the comedy altogether. Even when it occasionally drifts away from outright comedy, Jake Revolver VCR Repairman is a pleasantly bizarre mutation of traditional spoofery that nearly transforms into its own kind of meta-comic adventure.
(So it’s weird. And that’s cool. Even when it's not funny.)
But there IS some really inspired comedy here. The best of it comes from Laura Holterman and Marcus Beyer as generic ad couple Ginger and Sage in a series of commercials for existentially scented candles. Beyer has the voice of a classic radio announcer. Holterman has the presence of the classic domestic woman found in so many mid-twentieth century TV and radio commercials. The two play a couple so lost in the effect of the product they’re selling that they don’t seem to notice how truly imbalanced they are psychologically. There’s really deep satire going on with Ginger and Sage that takes up exactly the right amount of space in the larger program. Beyer and Holterman are comically magnetic. When not in character as Ginger and Sage, Holterman and Beyer are a couple of casually oblivious consumers. Early-on they can be seen in the background eating what appears to be an entire meal. Onstage. While the action is going on. It's difficult to express how weirdly cool that is.
The rest of the cast has a really friendly dynamic that’s fun to watch. Geyeser can be seen in character reading a copy of Smithsonian Magazine. Others roam about at times checking out scented candles and rotating through various nonverbal exchanges. They’ve rendered a really complex, unspoken dynamic between them. Director/Sound Effects Guy Tom Marks has done a good job of bringing both layers of the narrative to the stage...only allowing them to conflict with each other when the script calls for things to tumble about between the actors, the actors they’re playing and the characters they’re playing. It all blends and blurs together in a very satisfyingly surreal trip to a performance space under a mansion on Wisconsin just outside of Marquette.
Milwaukee Entertainment Group’s Jake Revolver: VCR Repairman runs through Sep. 22nd in the Subterranean Theatre at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 West Wisconsin Avenue. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Entertainment Group online.
A 90-Minute Rock Monologue
The Cold War. Duality. Gender Identity. Sexuality. Pop culture. Wig-based existentialism. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is about so many things that it’s easy to forget that it’s one guy onstage delivering most of the story. We get the character’s entire biography between and within a series of songs and a few costume changes. There’s a lot of decoration, but at its heart, it’s still just one person’s story. It's less of a rock opera and more of a rock monologue. This month All-In Productions stages the monologue in a dreamy, fully-rendered fugue featuring a full band in full costume. 90 minute slips away without intermission. Then there’s applause.
Sometimes it Can Feel Like An Audition
An intimate show in an intimate space can connect an audience with a performance like nothing else. There’s that direct fusion between material, performer, characters, audience and venue that can be transcendental. Or it can feel a bit like an audition. In the role of Hedwig Brett Sweeney is a very talented vocalist. He’s a very precise actor. There’s a very thoughtful symmetry to his construction of the complex psyche of a personality caught between genders, cultures and so much else. Somewhere along the line, though it starts to feel like a really elaborate 90-minute audition. I don’t know...maybe it was the precision and careful emotional composition of it all. Maybe that’s what gave me the impression. Try as hard as I could to shake, it, the audition impression stuck with me throughout the entire show. Sweeney is an immensely talented performer. The role he's auditioning for is really interesting, It doesn't feel like Hedwig to me, though.
Rock vs. Musical
This is the 3rd or 4th production I’ve seen of the show. Hedwig always felt like a powerfully...almost explosively fragile character to me. Hedwig is caught between so many dichotomies...so many opposing charges from opposing forces that it feels like the whole thing could detonate at any time. There’s a heartbreaking vulnerability in that. Years ago I saw former Milwaukee actor Jordan Gwiazdowski in a staging of the musical on a smaller stage. He openly embraced the character’s vulnerability. Sweeney doesn’t exactly avoid Hedwig’s vulnerability. (It would be really difficult to do so.) Opening night it didn’t feel to me like he was embracing Hedwig's fragility on an emotional level, though. Sweeney carefully places the character’s tenuous fragility into a well-proportioned performance structure that approaches a kind of technical perfection. When rock is true to rock, though...it isn’t about perfection, though. It’s messy and ugly and passionate. That’s the way it feels most natural to me.
Over the course of the show, it’s difficult not to appreciate the Hedwig that Sweeney is presenting here. He’s wearing the role like a complex mask...rendering a cold character of great strength. Sweeney’s Hedwig has powered through a lot, He wears awkwardness and imperfection like its own kind of armor. It’s all a part of the show and we’re all a part of it. It’s not a show without an audience...so we’re there to complete the equation that gives this Hedwig meaning. Sweeney’s Hedwig feels almost...sinister. Vulnerability is bent and twisted around a resilience that is still feigning a kind of fragility. Sweeney’s not betraying the spirit of the character, though. So we learn to sympathize with the sinister artifice. It’s a very clever approach. Sweeney's Hedwig is a cunning anti-hero. There's a really interesting depth to it. It's good. I just wish I liked it more. I guess I’m still haunted by the phantom of Gwiazdowski’s much more openly emotional punk rendering of the character.
The Rest of It
There’s a lot going on in the space around Hedwig. Director Robby McGhee has fostered an environment that allows Hedwig a cleverly-textured backdrop. The title character’s name towers over everything in the background. There’s the full set-up of a rock and roll show. On first glance, there's nothing much there. Just a band. It’s the little things, though: a couple of cans of cheap American lager rest not far from what appears to be a full bottle of vodka resting in a mic stand. The band has a scrappy, scavenged ragtag look about it. We get the feeling that every one in the band has a story every bit as fascinating as that of the lead singer. Ken Marchand is a saddened, tortured-looking animal in white face paint resting behind a drum kit. Guitarist Joey Chelius (of the local ’80s alt pop band Bueller Bueller) seems to be tightly patched together from various parts of other musicians. Lights, costuming and overall energy give the impression that the whole band has been through a lot...and no one has been through more than backup vocalist Yitzhak.
Hedwig’s love can come in the form of abuse. No one is more abused than Yitzhak, who is played here by a very aggressive and emotionally combustible Lydia Rose Eiche. She’s always there in the background. She knows that if she gets too close, she’s going to lose Hedwig. Over time she begins to wonder if it’s worth it. The character isn’t given much room to relay all of this to the audience, but Eiche does a brilliant job of bringing it across. She's living and breathing the kind of rock and roll that feels real to me. She’s a much-needed counterpoint to Sweeney’s perfect cold poise as Hedwig. There’s a moment between her and Chelius that ushers-in one of the most aggressive moments in the show. It’s a surprisingly satisfying exchange given the fact that it’s not terribly central to the plot. The best moments of this production lurk around in the corners like cans of cheap American lager. Those moments speak to something beyond the moment...like tortured visage of a drummer in white face paint staring blankly into the haze of the stage. There's something there that's bigger than what we're seeing.
All In Productions’ staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through Sep. 15 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. for ticket reservations, visit All In online.
Josh B. Bryan’s special blend of old-timey radio variety returns to the Astor Hotel bar this month as Cabaret Milwaukee presents another staging of The Jealous Revolver. Bryan, Amanda J. Hull and Jackie Benka have put together a classy, little crime drama peppered with bits of history and acts of variety in an old-style live radio format.
Michael Keiley hosts the show as dapper emcee Richard Howling. The variety mixes a little singing with a little drama and a little dance. This month’s offering includes jazzy vocals by Cameron Webb, who opens the program with a powerful Billie Holiday tune. Dance comes later-on in the form of Danielle Joy Webber performing some impressively intricate tap. Once again...it’s not that often that genuine tap gets featured on the local theatre stage. Seeing a lone woman perform the lost art onstage has an irresistible novelty about it that can make tap dance almost seem like something new.
Cabaret Milwaukee puts together a dual-tiered retro vibe for its shows. The Jealous Revolver is a 1930s gangster crime serial that’s being performed live on the Howling Radio hour...a fictitious radio program set during World War II. This time around the drama outside the drama has a very passionate and compassionate Samantha Paige Deibler as USO Founder Mary Ingraham squaring-off against Deborah Oetinger as a proponent for the newly-founded Women’s Army Corp. Women looking to define themselves in a new era take two different positions on the emerging feminism. The show features an all-new trio of Howling Singers. Lindsey Willicombe, Vanessa Schroeder-Weber and Marina Dove perform classic and classic-sounding jingles for Pabst and Cabaret Milwaukee sponsor Twisted Path Distillery.
The story itself features a stylishly imposing Kerric Stephens as crime boss Vic Marconi who finds himself in a bit of a predicament with loose cannon named Tony (a very charming Dennis Lewis.) Dealing with him could prove to be difficult as his closest confidant is Tony’s older sister Stella (played with intensity by Dora Diamond, who also appeared in the same role of the original staging of The Jealous Revolver a few years back.) Aiding Vic in eliminating the problem is a crooner named Joey who is clearly in over his head. He’s looking to make a bit more money for himself and his girlfriend Vivica (who also works Vic’s club.) As Joey and Vivica, Adam Qutaishat and Michelle White provide a conflicted romantic counterpoint to the far more explosive conflict between Vic, Tony and Stella.
It all plays out in an intimate, little bar in the historic Astor Hotel. It’s a classy evening out on the east side accompanied by Joe Makovec on keyboard and Allen Russel on violin. The old-timey, early 20th century atmosphere is something that Cabaret Milwaukee has had plenty of experience putting together over the years. It’s a complicated variety show that glides across the bar with smooth style. All of the elements of variety are juggled quite well.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s The Jealous Revolver Episode One runs through Sep. 14 at the Hotel Astor on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For more information, visit Cabaret Milwaukee online.
It’s a messy world out here. People in positions of great wealth and authority are acting like dangerous and dangerously terrible infants. It’s getting more and more difficult to get behind the idea of any kind of authority at all. And it’s kind of difficult to accept stories about ancient deities these days. This is the modern world. Even our superheroes are mortal. J.J. Gatesman and A Fool’s Enigma Productions have found a really interesting approach to an ancient story of gods and goddesses with their retelling of the myth of Psyche and Eros.
A teaser preview of Fool’s Enigma’s The Beauty of Psyche closed-out the Todd Wehr Theater for the Milwaukee Fringe Festival this past weekend. It looks really, really promising. Author/director J.J. Gatesman has streamlined the story into something simple and powerful: a love story. Abigail Stein plays Psyche...a charmingly clever intellect who has been taken prisoner by Eros...played here by Josh Decker. Stein’s beauty in the role is very down-to-earth. It’s the poetry of pragmatism that we see radiating from her...Stein has a delightful humanity in the role. Josh Decker’s end of the romance has him playing an Eros who is absolutely crippled by his own divinity. He’s completely out of touch with the mortal world...and maybe feeling love for Psyche has caused him to become curious about the whole mortality thing. It’s as frustrating for him as it is for her. Granted...it IS a love story that starts with a kidnapping, but in a way they are both captives of very different kinds.
We first see Eros only in silhouette. It’s a very simple device: a single white sheet has his silhouette cast against it by a powerful light from behind. We first see his mother Aphrodite cast against it as well. It’s really remarkable how effective that is. Big-budget films can render amazing figures in very impressive CGI, but a simple silhouette projected against a white sheet in the intimacy of a studio theatre has a capacity for mystery that simply isn’t there in the dizzying detail of high-definition video in a multiplex. Compared to a sea of pixels, shadows against a single sheet can feel almost transcendentally organic. It’s so poetic: Divinity is a shadow on white linen.
Not every god we run into in Gatesman’s staging is totally aloof. I adored Kellie Wambold’s intoxicatingly playful interpretation of the god Pan. She introduces the show with a greeting and opening narration in a bewildered rush of words. She’s real friendly. She’ll shake your hand and everything...tumbling across the stage in a childlike divinity that prefers to be closer to people. Wambold adds emotional warmth that serves as a pleasant path into a show that jumps right into the drama of love without much of any further introduction. Wambold’s warmth guides us to the right emotional place to embrace a love story between god and mortal.
It’s not easy. Psyche can see Eros only in silhouette. He never tells her his name. Eventually Psyche DOES catch a glimpse of the face of Eros . . . and then things shift. Now we can see Eros in flesh, blood and three dimensions. He’s a god and he’s...a person just like anyone else (as all divinity is a reflection of humanity.) The problem is that he’s not mortal...so there’s that distance.
Pulling the veil from the gods we are also able to see Aphrodite...and she is beautiful as played by Audrey Thompson-Wallace. . . but we see her as a divinely haughty entity who is weighted down by the ugliness of mortal pettiness. It’s not a depiction of the goddess that I’m particularly fond of, but it works within the structure of the story and Thompson-Wallace sells it with an emotional chill approaching absolute zero, so it’s a very stylish rendering.
It’s my understanding that in the original story, Psyche possessed beauty that caused people to worship and make offerings to her and NOT Aphrodite. Naturally she was a bit upset about this. Without a vivid representation of this onstage, the jealousy that drives the character in Gatesman’s adaptation seems to compromise the character’s divinity. The goddess of beauty should not bear the ugliness of petty jealousy. It feels weird. Be this as it may, Gatesman’s streamlined script feels very primal and Aphrodite’s pettiness is only visible once the veil has fallen from divinity and we see her and Eros in three dimensions.
There’s real poetry in this. When the veil falls from the shadow of divinity, we see everyone for who they truly are. It’s a really clever effect. Pan’s divinity is drawn from wild impetuousness so she’s going to live on our side of the veil, but Eros and Aphrodite can only be truly seen once the veil falls.
There's also an original score for the show written by Amanda J Hull and Cole Heinrich. In keeping with the streamlined nature of the rest of the show it is simple, primal accompaniment to an engaging romance.
The preview that ended the Fringe Fest for Todd Wehr was only a portion of a show which will be staged in a much cozier space. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to see the full show in the UC.
J.J. Gatesman’s The Beauty of Psyche gets a full staging next week at the Arcade Theatre in the Underground Collaborative. The show runs Sep. 6 - 15. For more information on this and more coming to the UC, visit the Underground Collaborative online.
This past weekend, Theater Red opened Writer/Director Angela Iannone’s historical drama This Prison Where I Live. The lovingly-researched drama focuses on a late 19th century actor who survives an attempt on his life while performing onstage. It’s a briskly-paced drama with two men at the center of a small ensemble on an intimate stage.
Think of it as a Historical Buddy Drama
Because of the nature of the people involved, it’s easy to get bogged-down in the weightiness of the history behind the play. Strip it of everything else and it’s the story of an actor haunted by the uninvited ghost of his late brother...who was also an actor. Iannone’s script works really, really well as a family drama centered on two people. That one of them happens to be dead gives the story a bit of intriguing depth. The ghost is, among other things, trying to keep his living, breathing sibling alive and well. The living brother would far rather be spared the presence of his late brother...partially because he’s annoying but mostly because he killed President Lincoln.
Cory Jefferson Hagen is a delight as John Wilkes Booth. He radiates gentlemanly southern charm in the role of a very passionate man. Corey Jefferson Hagen plays with clever intricacies of characterization in the role of an actor who might have been far too self-confident to ever become truly great, but possessed a magnetic charm that awarded him great adulation. There’s a gentlemanly lack of restraint in him that edges on the sociopathic, but he cares deeply for his brother. Corey Jefferson Hagen does a brilliant job of rendering all the subtleties of one of U.S. history’s greatest villains.
Jared McDaris deftly wields precision and perfection in his portrayal of the brother haunted by the ghost of an assassin. Edwin Booth was a legendary actor in his own right with tremendous and heroic dedication to a life in the theatre. McDaris plays a haunted man with relentless focus tempered by passion. McDaris and Hagen have a quick chemistry about them that propels the dialogue. The two actors manage to render a great familiarity between the two actors they are portraying. There’s clever wit to their verbal dueling that expresses a great affection through constant tension. It’s great fun to watch.
Marcee Doherty-Elst lends support to the family dynamic as Edwin’s wife Mary. She’s haunted too, but not by any visible ghosts. Trauma has left her something of an earthbound ghost herself...just another figure to haunt Edwin. Doherty-Elst glides across the stage in an affectionate haze that feels disturbingly lifeless at the core. There is some suggestion of deeper darkness in the script as John strongly suggests that Edwin distance himself from her. There’s a kind of dormant menace in Doherty-Elst’s portrayal of Mary’s love for Edwin. It adds a great deal to the dramatic dynamic of relations between the two brothers.
Brandon Haut makes a single appearance onstage as an admirer of Edwin’s who wishes to engage him in conversation. Plagued as he is by the ghost of his brother, Edwin is scarcely in the frame of mind to entertain conversation from a stranger. Things get rather conversational without ever being entirely uncivil. That there is tension at all in the scene shows a great deal of finesse on Haut’s part. He’s a very calm man, but there is a machinery beneath it all fueled by a passion that Haut wields quite well.
Andrea Burkholder rounds-out the cast as the vision of Edwin’s first wife. There’s sweetness and concern in her presence, but she is elusive.
Iannone keeps the pacing of the drama slow and soulful throughout. There are a few moments of slightly stiff dialogue here and there, but the overriding presence of the drama feels quite authentic. Where there is unintended stiffness, it might be due to a dizzying amount of detail and symbolism Iannone has carved into the drama. Iannone crafted this thing like a Swiss clock, which sometimes runs the risk of approaching a kind of unintended soullessness. Thankfully (and no doubt by design) the thematic and historical intricacies of the script are largely ticking around in the background of an otherwise thoroughly satisfying fraternal drama. There are A LOT of things moving around in the script thematically that would be far too easy to get lost in, but at its heart, this is a really engrossing drama about a man and the ghost of his late brother.
Theater Red’s This Prison Where I Live runs through Sep. 9 at the Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater Red online.
There's a really talented actor who left Milwaukee for New York some time back. Evidently he thought the idea of a Milwaukee Fringe Fest was kind of funny. He'd joked about in social media. In Milwaukee it’s ALL fringe. (Is what he said.) And he’s right, of course...but there’s something really cool about a formal fringe festival that celebrates the ephemeral aspects of theatre...someone’s onstage for about an hour and then they’re gone. There's no extended promotion for any one show on the festival. It's presented as a big temporary gallery of work. There's no opening and closing. No extended run. There’s only the moment. Only the performance.
This year the festival opened its Todd Wehr Hall shows with (among others) a trio of one-person pieces. John Schneider’s Where or When was a touching tribute to the tragic life of composer Lorenz Hart had him accompanied by pianist Connie Grauer, One piano aside, yesterday Todd Wehr played host to a consecutive trio of intimate exchanges between a single performer and a small audience. Schneider received a standing ovation. He was followed by stage veteran Elizabeth Fuller in Survival--an aphoristic, little piece in which she played three different characters...one of them being Elizabeth Fuller.
The most interesting experience on the first evening for me was Tyler Anthony Smith’s Mein Comps. Smith plays an aspiring New York actor named Adolf Moira Angela Hitler. Smith crafts a character who is touchingly out of synch with the rest of the world. He's a dreamer who has lost touch with reality in favor of cuddling with his own ego.
Smith’s work is fascinating to me. The rest of the audience loved it as comedy. I loved it as drama. The Todd Wehr was electrified with laughter, but...honestly I didn’t find it at all funny. I might have been the only one in the entire theatre who wasn’t laughing, though. So by the standards of the audience in question, he's objectively funny. But I didn't laugh. But I loved the show. I’ve never been so captivated by a comedy that I didn’t even find remotely funny.
It would be understandable for me having missed the humor everyone else was enjoying if I had found it offensive. Honestly...seeing a guy play a character engaging in simulated phone sex with Mike Pence on a stage that usually plays host to children’s theatre...yeah...I could see how someone might be offended. I wasn’t, though. I can separate the performance from the venue while respecting the strange novelty of it.
It would be understandable for me having missed the humor everyone else was enjoying if it wasn’t my kind of humor. That wasn’t the case either, though. Adolf Moira Angela Hitler reminds me of an exaggerated version of various characters one might have expected to see on Kids in the Hall and I DO like Kids in the Hall. And it’s not like the humor that Smith was putting on the stage felt overly derivative of the old sketch comedy show (or anyone else for that matter. It’s quite unique in fact.)
Regardless of what it was that kept me from laughing at Smith, I found myself wanting everyone else to laugh at him. I felt like there was a part of me cheering for him to be funny...which is weird because I’ve never even met the guy and he’s from out of town so there’s no connection there. I'm not so strangely altruistic to want him to do well because he's onstage or anything like that. But I cared about the character because Smith was admirably vulnerable in the role.
A good portion of comedy is simply getting an audience to like you...and I really do like the character of Adolf Moira Angela Hitler. Throughout the show, he’s making exceptionally bad decisions and he’s doing so in a way that feels so crushingly human. So an audience identifies with that and WANTS him to be successful even as he makes mistake after mistake. So on a dramatic level, Adolf Moira Angela Hitler works even if his humor doesn’t. That says a LOT about Tyler Anthony Smith as an actor...that he’s able to construct a character who might be a little abrasively annoying and turn him into someone the audience actually cares about for about an hour or more.
For me this was a big reminder of the importance of a fringe festival. Yes...everything in Milwaukee is more or less “fringe” unless it’s a big-budget touring production or one of the top-tier UPAF groups, but . . . the atmosphere at a fringe fest makes it really easy to go in and see a comedy that isn’t funny...and actually end up loving it in spite of that. It’s one performance on one stage for one moment. Then it’s gone. You engage with it as more of a theatrical event. You’re more open to enjoying something that you might not otherwise give much of a chance. You see things differently because things look different from the fringe.
The Milwaukee Fringe Fest continues through today at the Marcus Center. For today’s schedule and more information, visit the Fringe Fest online.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre pays homage to early 20th century pulp action heroes with the two-act musical Doc Danger and the Danger Squad. A group of super-heroines based on old pulp heroes square-off against a villain with the ability to warp reality in another action-based Jason Powell musical.
Pulp Action Anthology--The Musical!
Act One opens as a very charming Harper Navin plays a little girl reading an old action pulp fiction anthology magazine. Songs alternate as three different storylines are joined by a fourth in a nearly all-woman musical tribute to pulp action heroes. (On a personal aesthetic level, this is very appealing to me. Super-heroism always made more sense to me coming from a woman. Even growing-up reading Marvel comics as a kid in the ‘80s, my most reliably favorite hero ended up being Rachel Summers.) There’s a really nice episodic rhythm to the action as one scene follows the next.
An Avenging Pulp Justice League of Extraordinary Women
Under the direction of Jill Anna Ponasik, Powell’s transfer from pulp-era super heroes to operatic super-heroines is fairly dazzling.
Stephanie Staszak is Jesai of the Jaguars--a jungle girl inspired (as all jungle girls were) by Tarzan. Staszak has a strong nobility in the role. She squares-off against Ana Gonzalez as the suitably sinister Beetle Queen.
A bright-yellow-haired Carrie Gray plays space cowgirl Satellite Sally. She’s goes on adventures with Hannah Esch as Clare de Lune: her long-suffering sidekick who does all the dangerous work. In one of the most appealing songs of the show, the two “Cowgirls on the Moon” sing about Flash Gordon/Lone Ranger-style adventures. Gray manages a few sweet romantic moments with charismatic Sean A. Jackson as a composer who is being held captive by the arch-villain. Becky Cofta gets a few interesting moments as Clare and Sally’s nemesis, the lunar desperado Penny Dreadful. Like so many others in the ensemble, Cofta doesn’t get nearly enough time to explore an interesting pulp archetype transferred to the musical theatre stage.
Briana Rose Lipor plays the title character--a brilliant scientist and superhuman adventurer modeled after Doc Savage. Lipor is inspiring as the heroine. Doc Savage never appealed to me as a character, but with Lipor playing a charismatically campy musical theatre iteration...it actually makes a lot of sense aesthetically. Erich Welch plays Doc Danger’s nemesis Professor Z. He has sort of a towering Tim Curry-like presence onstage as he carries around a plush cat...the way you do when you’re an evil super-villain. Welch makes a tired, old stereotype feel fresh...aided as he is by a sharp, little bit of political satire written into the script by Powell.
Rae Elizabeth Pare rounds out the central heroic cast as The Lady In Black. She’s the silently mysterious heroic persona that had been pioneered by The Shadow and then popularly ripped-off nearly a decade later by Batman. Once again, she’s my personal favorite in a musical ensemble populated with a LOT of talent: Rae Elizabeth Pare is irresistibly stylish as she’s slyly smiling in the role of the dark detective who brings the team together to defeat the sinister Professor Z and his menacing android (played by Melissa Anderson.)
The Shift After Intermission
Act Two opens as Harper Navin plays the kid reading the pulp magazine returns to “real life” and runs into the same personalities twisted into a more contemporary office setting. (Melissa Anderson isn’t a robot anymore...she’s a mother...) So maybe she’s just imaginative but maybe there’s something far more sinister going on here...
It Needs More Room to Breathe
Doc Danger would be really, really satisfying as a trilogy. Or it would make for a very tightly-drawn duology. As a single two-act show...it’s pleasantly bewildering and a lot of light fun that only drags a little in Act Two.
It’s so cool to see women in a musical theatre adaptation of The Shadow and Tarzan and Doc Savage and Buck Rogers stories. Each one would be cool enough on its own, but here they’re all teaming-up, which is that much more enjoyable. It’s a big, sweeping crossover between sub-genres. Like any superhero crossover, though, there’s never enough time for any one character.
In a departure from the standard convention of the genre, the first act ends on a cliffhanger that isn’t directly picked-up after intermission. And though it’s really obvious what’s going on as the story shifts from the pulp era to the modern era, the second act drags as we are introduced to reiterations of characters we were already introduced to in Act One. It feels a bit repetitious to be introduced to them as other characters.
The overarching storyline between the pulp world and the world outside it is genuinely interesting, but the pacing feels wrong. Oddly enough, it wouldn’t feel like the Act Two was dragging if it was expended into a sequel. What happens after intermission feels more like a second episode and less like a second act. We really need more time between these sections of the mini-saga. One intermission isn’t enough.
A Doc Danger duology would expand things quite nicely. Each character could have her own signature musical genre (Jesai could be rock’n’ roll. Satellite Sally could be classic Roy Rogers-style singin’ cowboy. The Lady in Black’s musical presence could sound like a Danny Elfman musical and so on...) The story would have more time to explore both the concept of a heroic musical action pulp anthology genre before marching off into an exploration of what the modern world does to potentially heroic people. A trilogy would allow for a progression from fantasy to reality to the proper heroically balance between the two.
It’s a bit extravagant to think of a show like this as a trilogy...I mean...it’s pretty miraculous that a musical tribute to action pulp heroes of the early 20th century even exists...let alone that it would be able to spread out over three feature-length parts. Jason Powell and Milwaukee Opera Theatre have done an admirable job of bringing something like this to the stage. Pulpy super-heroism tends to inspire that kind of starry-eyed over-the-top imagination. So I think I can be forgiven for ending this one on the fantasy of spending more time at the small stage with Doc Danger and her friends.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Doc Danger and the Danger Squad runs through Aug. 30 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. For ticket reservations, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.
Milwaukee Irish Arts returns to the theatre tent at Milwaukee Irish Fest this year with a few more offerings. Of particular note is a two-man comedy show written by noted Irish-Americans Frank and Malachi McCourt. The autobiographical comedy show involves the memories of a couple of guys who grew-up in Limerick, Ireland during the Great Depression. Milwaukee Irish Arts brings the show to a cozily shady tent amidst the lighthearted, boisterous celebration of Irish Fest courtesy of a couple of seasoned local actors: Brian Faracy and Dylan Bolin. In addition to playing the two brothers, Faracy and Bolin play a number of characters, donning and discarding various bits of costuming in a breezy, little poetic comedy that occasionally dwells in some pretty deep moments of drama.
Faracy plays the younger of the two brothers who were born only a little over a year apart. (They’re essentially the same age.) Faracy holds some of the more serious end of the dramatic moments . . . rendering them with soulful depth. For the most part, though, he’s there as some of the comically overarching authority that the boys had to contend with growing-up. He’s a rather severe priest and a very domineering grandmother. His comedy is at its best in subtle moments, though. At one point, young Frank has a rather unfortunate experience with his first communion and is carted off to a Jesuit priest’s confessional to find out what can be done about it. Faracy is charmingly nuanced for a few seconds as the highly-educated priest who is forced to put up with the burden of being an authority. An interesting contrast to this has Faracy (who is a very respectable Financial Advisor with 25 years of experience in his day job) as a comically cheerful life insurance salesman in an era when not being insured meant not having the money to get buried on consecrated ground and hence...unable to make it into heaven. Very darkly humorous stuff.
Towering Dylan Bolin plays young Frank and a variety of other roles. Bolin has great comic instincts that play to the more openly funny end of a script with some rather cleverly poetic humor. Bolin can be a very physically imposing presence onstage. It’s fascinating to see this big, imposing figure onstage in the service of a character growing-up poor in a small town during the Great Depression. He’s sheepishly lost in a bewildering maze the mixes childhood with poverty in a society that’s struggling to scrape its way into the middle of the 20th century. There’s genuine charm in Bolin’s time onstage...even when he’s playing a clueless politician who can’t seem to get logic to connect with much of what he’s saying . . . it’s harrowingly difficult to get that to come across comedically in the current US political climate, but Bolin makes it fun.
Bolin and Faracy work well together. It may be light comedy, but it’s very, very difficult to bring the material together onstage successfully without maintaining an earnest connection between the actors. They’re playing brothers in a two-man show written by those brothers. Director James J. Gallagher has doubtlessly helped to foster a genuine professional connection between the two actors that serves as a really good foundation for the dizzying spin of characters rushing through memories of a childhood neither of them really shared. That genuine energy onstage animates a poetic comedy that is quite lyrical in places. If you get a chance, hang out with a couple of Blaguards in a place somewhere between comedy, drama, song and memory. It’s a nice spot to be found in amidst all the song, dance and celebration of the rest of the fest.
A Couple of Blaguards runs in rotation with a couple of other Milwaukee Irish Arts shows in the Theatre Pavilion at Irish Fest this year. There are two more performances: Noon today and 4:30 pm on Sunday.
Included in the mix are Nate Press and Becky Cofta in The Good Father...a sweet romantic drama about a couple of people who meet at a New Year’s Eve party...kind of a fun two-person show with two great actors. I’d seen it staged at the Irish Cultural Heritage Center in the past...amazing show. For a complete listing of dates and times for these shows and more, visit the Theatre Pavilion schedule for this year’s Irish Fest.