Tales of Hoffmann has a casually epic feel about it. It was the last work of the great composer Jacques Offenbach. (He died a year before it debuted.) It wasn't what one might expect as a final exit for a great artist, though. It wasn’t a big, sweeping magical end of life journey. The story might be seen as a perfectly ordinary evening between a man and his muse as he relates the story of three lost loves. All the same, there's magical emotional weight to it. This month The Milwaukee Opera Theatre and The Skylight invite audiences to a magical evening at the Broadway Theatre Center as they present a production of Hoffman’s three tales.
John Kaneklides is suitably passionate as Hoffmann—a man lost to his loves who must be coaxed into reliving them by his muse—a compassionate host played by the golden-voiced Diane Lane. From a stylishly-detailed set, Hoffmann scratches away searching for some kind of insight until his muse finally conjures a trio of stories out of him.
The first love gracefully cascades into a steampunk mood. Hoffmann falls in love with a clockwork girl named Olympia. She’s played by Cecilia Davis with clever shades of automation breaking through the beauty of creation. There’s a subtle horror of it that Davis delivers brilliantly...sort of a clockwork operatic rendering of the uncanny valley effect that’s great fun between the ticktock woman and the doll she holds. Nathan Wesselowski plays the inventor who designed her. Wesselowski plays the role with deft slices of style from a characteristically sharp sense of humor. Ariana Douglas is clever as the conniving rival inventor who threatens to bring an end to it all.
Josh Robinson (assistant music director), Susan Wiedmeyer (Antonia), Carol Greif (a ghost) and Cecilia Davis (Dr. Miracle) in rehearsal for Skylight Music Theatre’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann in association with Milwaukee Opera Theatre, March 16-29 on the Cabot Theatre stage. PHOTO: MARK FROHNA
With one tale ending poorly, Hoffman is allowed the first of two intermissions before launching into his second story. The clockwork mood of the first story vanishes in favor of a more haunting ghostly feel as the writer speaks of his love for Antonia. Susan Wiedmeyer is longingly spectral as the love interest...she’s in slightly ill-health which threatens to get worse, but she loves to sing, but her father has forbidden it. Edward Lupella summons a very touching paternal concern for Antonia. He’s a violin maker whose wife has died. All singing reminds him of her. There’s a tenuous balance to things that tumbled apart at the touch of the sinister Doctor Miracle, played with delicious menace by Cecilia Davis. Each Of the three stories has it’s one incredible moment of intensity. In this tale, it is divided between a daughter and the ghost of her late mother. There is real magic and how they’re putting it on the stage. The very real image of her mother appears on A piano as the doctor looks on. Mother and daughter saying in that hazy space between death and life.
Ariana Douglas plays with grace as Hoffmann’s final love of the night. She appears after the second intermission to woo Hoffmann at the request of a sorcerer played by Wiedmeyer. Sonya Berlovitz has the costume designer’s dream of working on this show. There are some really beautiful pieces in this production. By far my favorite has to be that of the sorcerer Dapertutto. Asymmetrical top hat. Eyepatch. The look of us stage magician crossing over into vaguely hypnotic kind of black magic. Very cool stuff.
And why does this sorcerer want Hoffmann to be seduced? If Giulietta can enchant Hoffmann, she can capture his reflection for her. In exchange Giulietta gets a shiny valuable. That’s got to be one of the most poetically badass things to steal from someone: their reflection. Any villain can demand someone's soul. It takes a very special kind of sinister to demand someone's reflection. The theme of reflection echoes into the costuming. All the attendees at the little get-together are wearing mirrored domino masks. It's a cleverly stylish amplification of the theme of identity loss in pursuit of passion.
Yes: It's Opera...but on the Other Hand...It's Opera (!)
Opera can be dauntingly long. The prospect of being in a theater for a 2 1/2 hours can give any potential audience pause. What with so much emotion coming out in over such a protracted period of time it can feel over-rendered. Milwaukee Opera Theatre does a really good job of striking a balance between casual approachability and the popular stereotype of opera as over-the-top high art drama. For all practical purposes, Tales of Hoffman is simply the story of a writer coming up with an idea for a new piece. It doesn’t need to be anything more intense than that. However, that act of creation has its own intensity. That casual creation lies the heart of all art which is the center of all existence itsef. So at the same time as it is just a casual talk with them use over a few drinks with someone who is sensitive enough to be quite dramatic about it it’s also reaching into the very soul of life. Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik understands the balance between the casual and the fantastic and delivers that balance to the stage quite well once again.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Skylight Opera Theatre’s production of Tales of Hoffman runs through Mar. 29 at the Cabot Theater in the Broadway Theatre Center. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.
Playwright Deanna Strasse’s Dancing With Hamlet has a very raw and organic emotional connection about it. The family drama makes its world premiere this month in one of the coziest spaces in town: the early 20th century domestic warmth of the Brumder Mansion Bed & Breakfast. A space that once housed a family now serves as home to a family of characters who are dealing with a funeral and a wedding.
Dancing With Hamlet is a contemporary middle-class American sort of thing. A husband and father have died and his divorced wife is getting remarried. Wedding plans have been made and they will go through regardless of the death of the bride’s ex-husband. The three adult children of the wife and her late ex-husband are a bit upset about the whole situation.
There’s a powerful simplicity about the contrast between wedding and mourning that Strasse does a respectable job of rendering. The three adult kids play like the three parts of the Freudian model of the human psyche:
Melody Lopack plays Elvira Flack. She’s the Ego of the play. We see everything more or less through her eyes. She’s a professor of English and she’s learning to cope with the death of her father. Naturally the juxtaposition between death and marriage is going to remind her of Hamlet. The play is punctuated in her mind onstage by bits from Hamlet, but to her credit, Strasse doesn’t try to gouge Shakespeare’s tragedy too far into the heart of the contemporary family drama. Lopack is irresistibly fun in the role on an intellectual level. Lopack says as much in silence as she does in dialogue. In any given moment there are about a half a dozen things that Elvira could be saying. She chooses one of them and the dialogue continues. Lopack surrenders herself so completely to the role that we see Elvira drift between possible responses in silence as thoughts glide across her face.
Cory Jefferson Hagen plays Beau Flack. Of the three siblings, he’s the most grounded and totally together so naturally...he’s the Superego of the play. He’s stable. He has a solidly grounded and realistic perspective on things. And he drinks liquor...just like a real Superego. Being the calm voice of reason in the room would run the risk of coming across as being profoundly dull were it not for the fact that Hagen’s playing the role. He has this almost comically level-headed poise about himself that’s a lot of fun to watch in the role.
Josh Scheibe plays Wilde Flack. He’s the Id. He wants to deal directly with the emotions at the heart of everything that everyone else seems so intent on diverting or pivoting away from in some way. He wants to feel the pain of the loss and really embrace it, but he may love the loss more than he loves the father he lost. So it’s complicated. And so is he. They say he’s named after Oscar Wilde. So he’s got just as much of a sense of the dramatic as Elvira does...only he acts on it. Scheibe cleverly keeps Wilde’s wild in check. The character’s temperament is erratic and emotional, but he’s very methodical in his approach to it all. Scheibe does a really impressive job of delivering the cold calculations of the character without compromising his passions.
Donna Daniels plays matriarch Rosie Flack. She’s excited about her marriage. She’s quite happy. And her longtime husband has just died. Daniels plays the in-your-face mystery about the character with a theatrically casual demeanor. Does she really think she’s starting her life with a man at this stage in her history? Is the wedding about her or is it about her AND her intended husband? Why does she seem to have no response at all to the death of her ex-husband? Clearly she has issues going into this marriage. It is to her great credit that Daniels doesn’t over-render those issues because the center of her personality really rests in her ability to ignore it all and just have a good time. Daniels delivers that beautifully.
And then there are the two who AREN’T related to anyone else by blood...
Emmitt Morgans is delightfully awkward as a cancer research scientist Dr. Tony Simms. A bit of a socially flaccid individual, Simms seems to have followed Rosie around long enough to have stumbled into a wedding where he he just happens to be the groom marrying her. Morgans plays it just a few shades shy of outright silliness, allowing the character just enough emotional center to feel heartbreakingly real throughout the play. There are people like this. There are people who feel like cartoon characters in real life. It can be monumentally difficult to bring that kind of thing to the stage and make it still feel like real life. Strasse and Morgans have done an informally brilliant job of this.
Amanda J. Hull plays the girl next door. Literally. She’s Jean: a receptionist who could have been a hair stylist who just happens to live next door to the family with her mother. She grew-up right next to the three siblings and right along with them. As she’s playing a bit of an outsider, she’s not given a whole lot of depth to explore. The comedy of the character may come in the fact that...even though it’s not her home, she’s actually the only one playing the part of the hostess trying to smooth things over and make them pleasantly sociable throughout the play.
Thankfully, Hull plays half of the single most memorable scene in the entire play. There’s a conversation between her and another. Hull does a clever job of slowly backing into a moment between Jean and one other character and it really IS a heartbreakingly sweet moment that has so tragically little to do with the rest of the play. To say more would be to ruin the moment, which I may well have done simply by bringing it up. With this and so much else, director Carol Zippel has found just the right balance.
Beyond the Freudian family drama there’s real allegory that could be read into the plot as any well-rounded family tends to echo the society that it’s a part of. On one level, Dancing With Hamlet can come across as being profoundly political. Maybe we’re all Melody Lopac carrying around our father’s ashes just trying to make sense of it all in such a strange and strangely familiar world that isn’t quite what we want it to be.
Windfall Theatre’s production of Dancing With Hamlet runs Mar. 15-24 at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations, call 414-332-3963.
Drive around in the vicinity of Madison and you’ll see the name on road signs. Verona, Wisconsin. (A city of 10,000 outside of Madison.) The name of that town always seemed to suggest an interesting location for a Wisconsin-based adaptation of the romantic Shakespeare drama that is famously set in Verona, Italy. The obvious joke makes it to the stage courtesy of writer/funny guy Michael Christopher and Emerald Condor Productions as it stages a fun, little light comedy at the Alchemist Theatre this month. Originally developed for Madison’s Broom Street Theater, the comedy in question is Dick Pix Montana--a spoof of Romeo and Juliet set in contemporary Verona...Wisconsin.
Two Young Lovers Separated by Text
Bryson Langer and Katie Katschke play a pair of young Millennials who fall in love in suburban Wisconsin. Michael Christopher puts the two high school kids through an extended courtroom drama spoof that ultimately results in...social suicide. The heaviness of the original story is made light in a breezy sketch comedy haze that also manages to cast a stern glance in the direction of the law as it pertains to sexting. (I honestly don’t know why I didn’t see that coming given the name of the comedy. The program lists an anonymous “Legal and Procedural Consultant.” For light sketch-like comedy, this show makes a surprisingly sober point about current laws.)
The Humor of ...y'know...the Casual
Bryson Langer is enjoyably affable as the Nice Guy Romeo--a guy named Richard Montana. His penchant for getting interceptions on the football field has earned him the name “Picks.” (So...y’know...Dick “Picks.”) Anyway...Katie Katschke has a nicely appropriate deadpan delivery even for the weakest humor. I love that they’re really casual about the romance. Langer and Katschke have a really nice nonchalance as high school characters who have taken a liking to each other. In a culture raised on social media, everything’s cool. No big deal. It’s just love, y’know?
There are Other People Too
There are some great appearances in and around the edges. Writer Michael Christopher shows-up as the prosecuting attorney. He’s got sharp delivery and a sense of subtlety in places that go a bit beyond the level of standard sketch comedy. Also of note here are Michelle White as a local news anchor, J.J. Burch as the chronically distracted judge and J.J. Gatesman (yes: a TWO J.J. production) as Richard’s good friend Ben Volio.
The Dragging of the Comedy
Shaving the original story into 70 minutes (give or take) and turning it into a courtroom drama keeps the whole thing feeling quite breezy. Some of the comic rhythm is thrown-off a bit as the script features A LOT of scene changes. There are twenty scenes listed in the program. That’s a lot of, “fade to black, move things around, lights rise...and action,” to throw into anything less than 90 minutes and it can feel like it’s dragging in places.
The Comedy of the Comedy
The comedy in Christopher’s script comes primarily from three different places: Shakespeare, Millennial culture and the sweaty basement of sketch comedy.
...I'm Just Saying...
The standard sketch milieu is apparent from the beginning. All other elements aside this IS a courtroom comedy in which a Romeo-like character is standing trial for accidentally posting a sexually explicit picture (intended for Julia) on Instagram. So there are going to be dick jokes and such. Personally I would have liked to see the lowbrow stuff fade into the background in favor of a more determined focus on satire specific to South Central Wisconsin, but there’s some of that there as well.
The Shakespeare Thing
There are quite a few Shakespearian references here. Some of them work quite well. One cannot stage a comedy like this without making some reference to West Side Story...which is handled here by surmising a two-high school “Verona East” and “Verona West” rivalry with Sharks and Jets. Cute. The Jets wear the logo for the NFL team. Julia can be seen wearing a shark snuggie as she texts her Romeo. It’s cute.
The Millennial Thing
Then there’s the whole Millennial end of things. Romeo and Juliet suggests a traditionally tragic romance. Michael Christopher does a good job of comically juxtaposing traditional romance against the realities of contemporary young love. Parents can forbid kids from seeing each other, but in an era of social media, it’s really difficult to keep them away from each other. The two characters might have only seen each other in person a couple of times, but through social media they know each other a lot better than Shakespeare’s lovers did. It’s more of a casual romance.
Key conversations in the course of the play take place over text messaging complete with emojis that pop-up on cards net to the actors. There’s a clever economy to the emoji cards. There’s a clever timing between the cards and the dialogue that amps-up the overall cuteness of the production as a whole. It might not always be as clever as it’s trying to be and not every joke is terribly funny, but there’s a cuteness at the heart of the production that holds it all together quite well.
Emerald Condor Productions’ Dick Pix Montana runs through Mar. 17 at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.
This month, The Sunset Playhouse hosts the weird musical fantasy fairy tale collision Into the Woods. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a production of the musical. This past Thursday it was fun to return to the land where fairy tales meet courtesy of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. As always, the 300-word space that I’ve got for my upcoming Shepherd-Express print review of the show leaves out a few details that I would have loved to get into. Here’s some of what didn't make it in:
The Cow Has A Handle
The part of Milky White the Cow is played by a rather tasteful, little prop with a cute, little handle on its back. The Nick Korneski set has a few different levels to it which require actors to lift and carry the little cow. They carry it like a large suitcase. There’s something really, really appealing about the design of this cow. It’s a shiny, white thing without any features on its face other than a mail slot-like mouth. Open it up and in go a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold and hair as yellow as corn...very cute design on that cow.
Check it out in the photo above: The cow visible on the far left side of the picture--slack-jawed looking on in awe at Laura Monagle being all witch-like to Nathan Marinan and Carrie Gray as a Baker and the Baker's Wife. You might not b e able to tell from the picture, but that cow is very cool and surprisingly expressive for something without a face.
It’s Like a Surveillance Camera with The Wolf andRed Riding Hood
It’s not the easiest thing imaginable to try to stage: You’ve got the wolf. You’ve got Red Riding Hood. Red Riding Hood gets devoured by the wolf. In walks a baker, who slices open the wolf and pulls out little Red. Even with a huge budget, there are a lot of weird logistics to work out. There are a lot of questions to answer: How realistic should it look? How messy does it have to be? Do we really want to traumatize people? Questions like that.
Sunset finds a cute way to stage the Red/Wolf showdown with shadow puppets. There’s a sheet. There’s clearly the silhouette of a wolf in bed. Across from the bed is little Red in silhouette. In the midst of the set, it doesn’t really feel like traditional puppet theatre, though. It feels more like lo-res security cam video from inside Grandma’s house. Oddly enough, it works even though there isn’t really any other shadow puppetry in the entire show.
The classic dialogue between Red and the wolf plays out as we watch the puppets move. Kevin J. Gadzalinski and Ella Rose Kleefisch manage to make the classic dialogue between Wolf and Red seem fresh even though the lines are some of the best-known in all of literature. In walks the Baker (Nathan Marinan) and slices the sheet in half. Out walks Kleefisch. It’s a very cute staging.
So...There’s This Giant...
The giant in question is the center of the conflict for Act Two. She’s come down to earth from the sky to get revenge. So she’s a villain...but it’s more complicated than that because the heroes of the story...haven’t exactly been heroes.
The giant is present onstage in the form of a voice and booming footfalls. The space of Sunset’s Furlan Auditorium is a suitably large space for the deafening bass of giant footfalls to echo through. Sound designer Heather Pulkowski and sound engineer Jan Pritzl did a really good job of delivering the immensity of the giant to the stage. Pulkowski and Pritzl generally did a really good job with the sound for the first performance. The bewildering number of mics and speakers and things that must go into a production like this always tend to result in pops and clicks and things and aside from a brief moment where the Witch’s mike went out, this production of Into the Woods is one of the better soundscapes I’ve seen for a musical. By contrast touring productions that people pay ridiculous prices for at the Marcus Center always end up having annoying sound problems throughout a show. So happy to have Pulkowski and Pritzl putting together a satisfying soundscape here. It's interesting to track the origin of the presence of the giant in the second act. With no actor onstage, the existence of this character is a fusion between sound design, reactions of the actors onstage, the imagination of the audience AND...the work of a voice actor. Everything fused pretty well for me in the Sunset production...for the most part...
How Giants Talk To People
You never know what’s going to hit you as a distraction when you’re going in to see a show. Somewhere towards the end of the production I realized that I have an opinion on how it is that giants would talk to non-giants. (?) I may never have actually given it any conscious consideration before, but now I know...I have an opinion on how giants talk.
The giant in question is not visible but you know she’s there. Jana Rinelli plays the voice of the unseen giant. There wasn’t anything specifically wrong with the way that Rinelli delivers the lines. It's totally consistent with the overall feel of the play, but...she might have been directed to perform as a traditional villain. The plot doesn't give her a whole lot of depth, so it's understandable. She IS upset and angry and vengeful and such, but there was something off about the gruff anger for me. When a giant is angry with another giant, she might sound traditionally angry, vengeful and villainous. When a giant is talking to a non-giant though? THAT’s going to sound different to me. I don’t know why (exactly) Like I said...I didn’t even realize that I had an opinion on this until I tried to figure out what I didn’t like about the giant’s voice, but I imagine more of a maternal thing going on in her voice as she talks to tiny, little people cowering beneath her. She’s upset. They’ve done something very, very wrong and very malicious and . . . something more complicated than traditional menace might be called for here. She's not going to think of them as being equals, so she's not going to talk to them with anger directed directly at them in a traditionally villainous tone.
Again...I realize that I’m talking about this like I’m some sort of an expert on a mythical creature. It's kind of a strange thing to be distracted by, but evidently I have an opinion on this sort of thing. You learn so much about yourself when you go to see a show. A casual trip to the theatre can be a strange, strange journey.
Sunset Playhouse’s production of Into the Woods runs through Mar. 18 at the Furlan Auditorium on 800 Elm Grover Road in Elm Grove. For ticket reservations, call 262-782-4430 or visit sunsetplayhouse.com. A concise review of the show runs in next week’s print edition of The Shepherd-Express.
In Tandem Theatre’s latest is a very nuanced family drama in which James Pickering plays a man nearing the end of his life. His wife (Susan Sweeney) and middle-aged son (Simon Jon Provon) deal with a man who is a concave shadow of the man they had known their whole life.
On the surface, The Outgoing Tide is a slow metabolic exploration into human drama. A comprehensive synopsis of the basic plot would put anyone to sleep. There isn’t much that actually happens. Go and casually see the drama and you’ll see a bittersweet family drama, but you’ll be missing like...90% of what’s actually going on in the play, which is actually breathtakingly deep...a symphony of nuance that seems to echo in endless depth.
And then there’s the fact that it’s about the Alzheimer’s/dementia symptoms that effect 6% of people 65 or older and is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. It deals with problems that a growing number of people are having to deal with as baby boomers and their parents advance in age. It’s not anything anyone wants to have to think about. So...The Outgoing Tide is a drama that rewards those willing to think a lot about something no one really wants to think about. So yeah...I don’t envy anyone trying to market this show, but it’s really REALLY good.
James Pickering plays a guy named Gunner. We find out over the course of the play that he’s always been really independent. It’s an independence he’s wanted to instill in his son for a long time, but he’s never been able to manage the right finesse--always instigating slightly cruel jokes on his son that are good-natured, but ultimately harmful. Pickering summons a gruff charm about him in the role. This is rally important because he could really come across like a jerk if there wasn’t something there to invite thought about Gunner and who he really is.
It’s delicately implicit in and around the edges of the script that Gunner’s always challenging those around him to think for themselves, which is really noble. The way he goes about it is hopelessly gruff, but Pickering constructs a character with enough depth to make him seem positively heroic. The dementia is getting to Gunner and he’s building a very sophisticated endgame for his life in which he’s trying to outsmart his own dementia and sneak his way out of life on his own terms.
Simon Jon Provon’s performance is its own kind of heroism. There’s a tremendous amount of thought and planning that’s gone into the Provon’s portrayal of Gunner’s midd-aged son Jack. We’re seeing the character out of his daily life. He’s visiting parents that he’s familiar with without necessarily being very intimate with. He’s going through a divorce and dealing with a teenaged son who doesn’t seem motivated to do much of anything, but that stress rests around the edges of the central drama.
So Jack’s exhausted as he goes to visit his parents...echoes of a past which are beginning to dissipate into dementia and loss. The challenge that Provon has to deal with is making an emotionally exhausted man feel dramatically dynamic in a slow-moving plot. Any actor would want to amp-up the affect to keep the character from feeling dramatically flat, but anything more than what Provon brings to the stage here would feel totally out-of-synch with the character. It’s an admirably reserved kind of energy that he’s bringing to the stage here.
Susan Sweeney plays a character who is heroic in her own way. Like Provon, she has to mute her overall frustration in character. Gunner’s wife Peg has been dealing with his relentlessly progressive dementia for weeks that are going to feel like years. She’s very upset over Gunner’s stubbornness and so...like Provon, she’s playing someone without the energy to be toweringly dramatic.
The man Peg’s spent her life with is dying...anyone would WANT to break out into a heavy Shakespearian drama-mode but real life isn’t like that...and The Outgoing Tide is real life made moodily poetic for the stage. There’s a visceral quality to the emotion that Sweeney delivers quite well. Peg had been very young when she met and married Gunner. There had been the possibility of a carer in teaching. Instead she ended up taking care of people her whole life. And now the last person she’s taken care of is about to make his exit and she doesn’t know what to do about it. Sweeney has a gentle passion about her that serves the character well. She’s allowed the strongest visible emotions onstage and it’s to her credit that she doesn’t try to make them any more explosive than they are. As with everyone else onstage, Sweeney is very careful not to be too explosive.
Director Chris Flieller has worked with the ensemble here to deliver a very thoughtful kind of moodiness about the drama. Flieller is great with comedy. Punchlines are easy. It takes a lot of courage to go for something infinitely more subtle and nuanced like this.
In Tandem Theatre’s production of The Outgoing Tide runs through March 18th at the Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit In Tandem online.
An Audience Onstage Once More
Leda Hoffmann has everyone onstage for Marquette’s production of Student Body. It’s been happening a lot lately. Greendale Community Theatre did it a little while back with [title of show]. Just last week Cooperative Performance did it at Alverno with Ellis. Hoffmann is particularly bold given the nature of the play. The stage at Marquette’s Helfaer Theatre is modest for a bigger theater to begin with. Get everyone onstage and it’s remarkably cozy. Here characters, actors and audience all hang out onstage in a one-hour drama that feels like a much more intellectually confrontational take on 12 Angry Men. For one hour, there’s nowhere to hide for any of us. We all have to take a look a ourselves and it’s not going to be pretty.
The Role of A One-Hour Conversation Will Be Played By... A One-Hour Conversation
Oh...and it’s a play set in a college theatre for one hour. As audience and actors, WE are onstage for one hour.
The cast of ten is really, really good. The big problem I have with Twelve Angry Men is that it’s Twelve Angry Men. Big questions of guilt, innocence and justice NEED to be an all-inclusive discussion. That’s a big reason why I think this is a much more relevant work than its predecessor.
It’s reassuring to see a group of ten young actors navigate the linguistic complexities of a passionate one-hour conversation that rolls through many twists and turns over the course of an hour. The characters’ arrival at the beginning of the play are staggered, but for the most part this is ten actors all onstage for a full hour, which means that everyone in the cast needs to stay in character for a full hour even when they’re not actually saying anything. In a studio theatre setting, it can be really obvious when people slip out of character for even a moment even when the direction of the dramatic action is nowhere near them.
Playwright Frank Winters’ Student Body stages an extremely frustrating situation. A group of students have shown-up at a college theatre to discuss whether or not video footage of a sexual assault at a party should be handed-in to the police. Unlike Marquette, it’s a small town college. Everyone has a different relationship to the events at the party. Everyone’s at least a bystander by the end of the play, even if only in being a part of a group of people who could bring the footage to the authorities.
Every one in the audience is going to have a slightly different perspective on the matter. I realize the playwright is trying to show the complexities of the matter, but as a father of a couple of girls who are going to be in college in a little over a decade, I want it to be every simple as it seems on the surface. A crime has been committed. The authorities need to know about it. It’s the only way this sort of thing can be properly addressed. Otherwise all we get is the smug face of Brock Turner staring back at us as a society. The footage should be handed over. Isn’t it that simple? Please?
Winters’ script covers the sophisticated web of problems surrounding the issue while still managing to keep it feeling very natural and organic. Hoffmann does a really good job of pointing us as an audience at this thing and making sure that we’re all paying really close attention to it.
One Hour and One SD Card (and possibly one big spoiler)
On a very physical and superficial level, the play is one hour of dramatic conversation between ten actors playing ten characters seen by an audience. On a purely physical level, it all involves a video file on a single SD card. It’s a piece of plastic 15 mm x 11 mm x 1 mm. A prop that small would get lost on the stage of anything other than a studio theatre. With cast and audience onstage at the Helfaer, it’s small enough to seem perilously tiny without being so small as to be totally immaterial.
The fates of victim, perpetrator and bystanders all rest on a tiny piece of plastic. It’s a very potent visual. Rene Leech holds it in her hand at one point. She’s playing Liz. Liz is a very assertive voice in the ensemble and Leech does a really good job with that towering assertiveness. In Leech’s hands, Liz is an authority onstage. She pulls the SD card out of the camera and the tension in the room goes up a few hundred degrees.
Marquette University’s production of Student Body runs through Feb. 25 at the Helfaer Theatre on 525 N. 13th St. A concise and comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express. For ticket reservations, visit Marquette online.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, Henry V walked into the front row, shook my hand and asked me if I was ready for battle. I smiled and nodded. It was a gesture that was as empty as a box of tennis balls. Because it wasn’t really Henry V who wasn’t really asking me to go into battle. But it was one hell of an experience being asked to go into battle like that. It may not have amounted to much in and of itself, but it was precisely the type of clever connection that Bard & Bourbon manages with some of its sharper moments in its latest offering.
A King In Woods
The man who was actually shaking my hand and looking deeply into my eyes with a steely charisma was Zach Thomas Woods...an explosively energetic, young actor playing the role of a man who launched England to war with France and led them to victory in the Battle of Agincourt. Woods lives up to the power of the legend of a Shakespearian hero. He trembles with strength in accepting the crown. He carries a high-gravity approachability when delivering the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in launching troops into battle.
The deeper stuff, more conflicted stuff, though, is always a bit more tricky with Shakespeare. The script doesn’t allow for the right kind of distance to truly explore the travesty of inequality between nobles and commoners that echoes into today with the ever-growing divide between wealth and poverty. Shakespeare’s address of the greater complexities in the horrors of war and such never have a chance to come into full resolution in a production that is otherwise a great deal of fun. Woods does a noble job of delivering conflict as Henry struggles with internal uncertainties in leading the troops into France, but it is a noble job. It’s very difficult to deliver on the deeper problems of war in a script that also celebrates the legend of one nation’s victory over another.
Rather than grapple with the deeper problems at the heart of the script, director Grace DeWolff directs the focus of the play on interpersonal dramas one scene at a time. The British are in red. The French are in blue. There’s a cultural divide. Nationality is acknowledged...as is the divide the distances noble blood from commoners, but DeWolff cannily shrugs off bigger concerns for the drama of those present onstage. It serves the production well. On an intimate stage, all we have in the space are the individuals who have loves and fears and hatreds and so on.
A Rather Nicely Doubled Duecker
In a play of individuals, Susie Duecker plays a couple of different characters who find themselves in the unenviable position of being drawn against the king...initially in the role of the French Herald Montjoy who delivers the tennis balls to Hernry and then later-on as Michael Williams, who unwittingly picks a fight with the Henry prior to the big Battle of Agincourt. Duecker is smartly poised from a couple of different angles playing a couple of different people who are in way over their heads. It’s a memorable pairing for Duecker. (She also plays Bedford and the French King, but I really like the Moujoy/Williams pairing. It’s fun.)
Laude Ad Vance*
It helps that DeWolff is working with a great cast. LeAnn Vance manages some sophisticated moments with a few different characters, but she’s positively magnetic as the Chorus. It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes her work in the show’s narration work as well as it does. Her voice never reaches for any overwhelming sense of authority. Nor does it reach for a cloyingly ingratiating friendliness. Vance is just...really cool. She sets the scene with beautifully pragmatic tones. (So cool.)
LaBelle Belle En Français
The specifics of culture exist around the edges of the production, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t openly embrace the French En Français. Jeremy James LaBelle and Ashey Retzlaff are strikingly delightful as Alice and Catherine. The English tutorial scene is great fun. Retzlaff’s charming French is matched by LaBelle’s subtly witty sense of authority with the language. When Woods gets tossed into the mix attempting to woo Catherine the fun manages a gallantly tenuous charm about it.
And Always...There Is Drinking
The play plays out in a cozy subterranean space with a bottle bar. Nothing on tap, but the Under Ground Collaborative’s Matt Kemple keeps some rather nice beer behind the bar including a classy microbrew or two. This allows the audience to drink along with Shakespeare in style. This is Bard & Bourbon. Every performance features a different actor knocking back several shots of liquor before, during (and possible after) the performance. Opening night it was Christopher Braunschweig...a large and towering man who plays...like...five different supporting roles over the course of the play. With a casually engaging fire behind his eyes, Braunschweig has an innate appeal that’s at least 10/12 as tall as he is. He knocked back...a lot of liquor last night...over the course of the evening that comic mumbling under his breath became ever more pronounced. Thankfully, Braunschwieg seems totally incapable of being annoying about that sort of thing onstage.
Bard & Bourbon’s Henry V (drunk) runs through Feb. 17 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Bard and Bourbon online.
*(probably not quite Latin, but I like it.)
William Shakespeare is a towering literary legend. It can be really, really difficult to portray a guy like him as a flesh-and-blood person who once ate, slept and had a family. In his drama Equivocation Bill Cain opens with a meeting. There’s Shakespeare being given a commission for a play he doesn’t want to write. This month the drama resonates into the Next Act Theatre. Mark Ulrich sits there at the opening of the play in the center of the stage as “Shag.” He’s being asked to write about the recent past. The Gunpowder Plot would make for interesting drama, but “current events” simply aren’t done onstage. Shakespeare doesn’t want to do it. Ulrich inhabits a kind of passionate exhaustion in the role of Shakespeare that’s present from that very first moment. It brings the legend down to earth so as to elevate his passions into something far more electrifying than some stuffy, old legend about a guy who wrote plays a few hundred years ago.
The villain of the story is the man giving Shakespeare the commission. He’s a nobleman who speaks for the king...and the king wants a story about the Gunpowder Plot. He’s played with a deft and brutal wit by David Cecsarini. In the course of the drama, we see the character slice through a very precise character arc that Cecsarini manages with impressive emotional precision. Shakespeare is coerced into bringing the project back to The Globe for development. Director Michael Cotey gives The Globe an earthiness with an excellent cast playing an excellent cast. Milwaukee stage veteran Jonathan Smoots plays a veteran Globe actor Richard Burbage...a professional who clashes with Shakespeare throughout the story. Smoots’ chiseled charisma serves the role well. He also plays Father Henry Garnet--a Jesuit priest implicated in the plot. Shakespeare drags himself to see the man in the interest of getting the story right and gets more than he would have expected in a story that manages to remain totally compelling for a solid 3 hours onstage.
Always a welcome presence in anything to do with Shakespeare, T. Stacy Hicks is delightful in a few different roles. He’s perfectly-cast as one of Shakespeare’s players. Josh Krause is excellent in the role of an actor as well, but he’s at his best here in the role of King James I--played here as a particularly jovial and playful Scotsman. Eva Nimmer smartly plays the most clever component of the cast--Shakespeare’s daughter Judith. She hates soliloquies and so therefore is the only one who speaks directly to the audience.
Shakespeare’s challenge is to write a drama about people who haven’t died yet. There's honesty, there's respect, there's duty and..then there's the play. There are political concerns constricting everything. Shakespeare becomes investigator and journalist as well as actor and playwright. Family drama and very topical concerns about the nature of truth loom into view. Cherry pick what you want for the release of some damned self-serving memo and label anything you don’t like as fake news, but you’re doing a severe disservice to the people you want to tower over. More than simply historical, Equivocation is an important exploration into the importance of getting the story right...not just for now, but for those people who have to live with the stories we tell once we’re gone.
Next Act’s production of Equivocation runs through Feb. 25 at Next Act’s space on 255 S. Water St. For more information visit Next Act online.
Life is a way of collecting love and injuries. The Constructivists explore this on one of the coldest weekends of the year as they present Rajiv Joseph’s comedic drama Gruesome Playground Injuries. Scenes from a couple of somewhat fictional lives glance through light and shadow in a warm and cozy, little subterranean stage downtown. Two people intermittently meet in non-linear moments from the end of one millennium and the beginning of the next and back again. There’s love and concern. There’s pain and loss. There’s a beautifully fragmented human connection that materializes as time passes. (Roughly 90 minutes without intermission.)
Designer Sarah Harris’ set presents the drama in front of a group of large, monolithic slabs made to look like cracking plaster. There are a few wooden beams visible. The year of any given scene is written by one of the two actors in chalk on a little blackboard painted onto a central rear wall. Harris also assembled the wardrobe, which scatters a clever style from childhoods at the end of the ’80s to adulthoods somewhere in the present. In the sonic background of it all, there’s the persistent melody of Phil Collins’ 1988 cover of, “Groovy Kind of Love,” mixing with fragments of various other songs.
Solana Ramírez-García is hauntingly earthbound as Kayleen. There’s a restlessly still silence about her. Kayleen is quietly enduring some overwhelmingly intense stress in her life. Ramírez-García delicately treads a fine line in characterization. The character wants someone to emotionally open-up to, but she might not want to actually go through the business of opening-up. The character seems to want to show just enough strength to show people the fact that she’s enduring casual horrors. Maybe she’s just sitting there or maybe she’s just lamenting the lack of maturity of her companion, but underneath it all that is summoned to the stage with Ramírez-García’s distinctively beautiful voice. There's a subtle Latin American lilt in her voice that adds character to the overall aesthetic of the production.
Rob Schreiner plays the guy who is falling in love with Kayleen. A guy named Doug. Doug is accident-prone. He’s a student. He’s a hockey player. Later-on he’s a claims adjuster. He’s irrepressibly positive about everything. He’s always walking into a scene with a different injury from a different off-stage encounter with risk, misfortune or both. Schreiner does a good job with Doug. There’s no doubting his overall nice-guy charisma decked-out in rugged street clothes, a few tattoos and flesh-colored plug retainers. Schreiner manages the tricky business of seeming resilient in the face of constant injury without compromising Doug’s personality. He’s going to be there for Kayleen no matter what. Schriener’s earnestness keeps this from ever coming across as anything other than compassionate. It’s not weird. It’s not creepy. It’s not emotionally imbalanced. It’s just Doug. And Doug’s a nice guy. Schreiner makes it look easy.
It’s almost as fun watching scenes change as it is watching them play out. We see the whole process of going from one scene to the other between scripted moments as two actors share the small stage with two characters moving from one moment in the past 30 years to another. They’re changing from one set of clothes to another. Schreiner changes the make-up from one injury to the other. Actors re-center themselves from one point in the characters’ lives to another. This is fascinating on one of the most intimate studio theatre spaces in town...you can see two actors and two characters sharing a moment in passing between nearly every scene where Ramírez-García and Schreiner look at each other for a brief second before the scene starts. The actor and character from on face glances at the actor and character from another face. In one unspoken moment they set the emotional stage for the next moment that they’re going to play through. As an audience we get to see the process behind the process. We’re seeing actors and characters in very emotionally intimate and vulnerable moments. It’s quite an experience.
Director Jaimelyn Gray establishes a very dynamic gravity for The Constructivists’ first show. It’s a really sophisticated juxtaposition of actors, characters and audience in a comfortable space that explores some of the deeper end of human emotion without faltering, fumbling or overreaching. An excellent first outing for the group. Too bad the show only runs for one weekend.
The Constructivists’ production of Gruesome Playground Injuries runs through Feb. 4 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit The Constructivists Online,
Arguably there is no character in pop fiction who is quite as popular as Sherlock Holmes. The heroic investigator first crept onto the page in 1887. Years later, he’s in the public domain and many have told of his adventures. One such storyteller was writing for television when he came across an idea for a rather unorthodox Holmes story.
British writer Jeremy Paul wrote scripts for a long-running British TV adaptation of Sherlock Holmes that was on the air from the mid-’80s to the mid-‘90s. Somewhere in the midst of that, he wrote a stage play that was distinctly unlike the typical Sherlock Holmes story that play is now being staged at the historic Brumder Mansion courtesy of Milwaukee Entertainment Group.
The Secret of Sherlock Holmes' deviation from expectation is apparent in the cast, which consists entirely of Holmes, his associate Dr. Watson and the looming shadow of his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty. With such a small cast, the drama is perfect for a cozy, little space in a mansion that was built in an era where creator Arthur Conan Doyle was still writing Holmes’ original stories. (The space has a history with Holmes. It had also played host to Liz Shipe’s Holmes trilogy in relatively recent memory.)
Directors Tom Marks and Amanda J. Hull have an excellent pair of actors to work with on the show. Randall T. Anderson has a very precise charisma about him in the title role. He handles the daunting task of breathing life into a character played so well by so many others in the past. As the title suggests, the script delves not into any other mystery than Holmes himself. Anderson inhabits the twin roles of mystery and detective quite well. A torch cast directly into the heart of one of the most celebrated figures in all of literature would challenge any actor. Anderson allows the legend to be both approachable and impossibly mysterious at the same time. It’s quite an accomplishment.
Jim Owczarski is the other half of the cast. He plays Watson. Owczarski lends an emotional gravity to the drama in the role of Holmes’ longtime associate. Thankfully, the playwright delicately allows Watson something approaching equal intellectual footing for Holmes, which is absolutely essential if he’s going to be the only other guy onstage. The drama focusses-in on the relationship between the two colleagues. A good portion of what Owczarski is accomplishing here is simply playing host between Holmes and audience...giving him a warm social space in which to inhabit. More than that, though, Owczarski has a sharp, dry wit about him that lends the character a classiness that comes to equal that of the deeply troubled Holmes.
The tradition of Holmes’ stories has the detective piecing together disparate bits of information to solve an ostensibly unsolvable crime. It’s a bit like stage magic: present the mystery, lift the curtain and show the solution. Everyone is mesmerized and feels a bit pleasantly like an idiot. What’s quite clever about Paul’s presentation here is the fact that it ISN’T a traditional Holmes mystery. Here’s how it worked for me: the mystery of Holmes is presented. A central premise of the story is revealed. Instinctually, I knew what the probable solution to the problem would have been. The plot ran its course. Holmes outlined a theory which backed-up what I instinctually thought was the right answer and then proceeded to defend that theory. Holmes is working hard to understand that which seems quite apparent. This was my experience with the show anyway: It's just the reverse of traditional mystery fiction. Your gut instinct is right and what seems impossible turns out to be plausible. You walk away from the whole experience feeling fiercely clever without having had to do a whole lot of work. I don’t know that Paul had intended this when he wrote the script, but if he did, it’s quite a way to tell a story.
Anyway...mystery aside, this is the story of a couple of friends who care about each other. One of them is plagued with the distortions of genius. The two of them work through the inner demons. It all plays-out quite briskly with a brief intermission. It’s a fun, uniquely dramatic experience in a historic space.
Milwaukee Entertainment Group’s production of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes runs through Feb. 10 at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Entertainment Group online.
One More Thing: Later-on this year, Randall Anderson tackle the daunting role of another detective as he appears in Columbo with the Alchemist Theatre.