Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Skylight Music Theatre open the year with a cozy Gilbert & Sullivan show on the small stage at the Broadway Theatre Center. Ruddigore (or The Witch’s Curse) is a quaint, little story of romantic love in collision. The curse the title refers to requires the ruler of a small barony to commit one crime a day or suffer an agonizing death. The rightfully born Baronet has feigned his own death to escape the curse, leveling it on his brother. He has fallen in love. Will there be complications? Absolutely. Will it all get resolved? Without question. Will that resolution involve something weird in the fashion of a Deus Ex Curse Loophole? Well...maybe. (kindasorta)
With no room for an orchestra, the music is delivered by a small choral harmony. The production design is beautiful on the small stage. Scenic elements are projected behind the action with vivid flair by lighting and projection designer Nathan W. Scheuer. It’s a silent movie kind of a feel that even has the opening curtain speech delivered in old-timey title cards. The silent movie feel extends to Molly Mason’s humble, largely black and white costume design and Shen Heckel’s scenic elements which are gracefully whisked across the stage to serve as foreground for Scheuer’s backgrounds. The stylish depth managed between Heckel and Scheuer is kind of dazzling for a studio theatre show.
Doug Clemons charms as Robin Oakapple: a reluctant man bravely cowering in fear of his family curse. He is every bit as bold with his cowardice in love, smitten as he is with romantic feelings for Rose Maybud. Susie Robinson is breathtakingly endearing as Rose, who steadfastly lives her life by a code of etiquette found in a dainty, little book. The bashful, young lover asks his foster-brother Richard to aid him in expressing his feelings for Rose. Things naturally get a little complicated when Richard falls for Rose as well. Adam Qutaishat is the heart of comic instinct in the role of the utterly guileless Richard. An an accordion-laden Karen Estrada brings her own distinctly cunning comic presence to the stage as Robin’s faithful servant Adam.
From music to staging to character and characterization, Ruddigore is positively plush with overwhelming cuteness. The love story is cute. The love rivalry is cute. The subterfuge that threatens to tear that love apart is cute. The lack of a large orchestra is cute. The choral arrangement is cute. The tiny piano played by the onstage conductor is cute. The silent movie-style title cards projected behind the action are cute. A production does NOT get away with this much cuteness without being tediously cloying unless it manages every single element of cuteness and/or adorability with the kind of precision it takes to split an atom at CERN. It’s no surprise that Skylight/Milwaukee Opera Theatre manage precisely this. A production like this is in good hands with directors Jill Anna Ponasik and Catie O’Donnell. The show is populated with a small civilization of simple, little comic elements which playfully bounce across the stage as the music whimsically renders the comic complexity of love and conflicting romances. Without exception every one of these elements seem to be delivered with the kind of precision it would take to shake hands with a neutrino. The fact that it all happens on such an adorably tiny stage makes the production all the more irresistible.
The Skylight and Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s production of Ruddigore (or The Witch’s Curse) runs through Jan. 19 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre on 158 North Broadway. For ticket reservations, visit The Skylight online.
It’s kind of shocking how incredibly complex things can get between two people. Put those two people onstage and have a couple of actors playing them and you’ve got a really compelling drama. Bring those two actors and their two characters into really, really close proximity to an intimate, little audience and you have a captivating night of theatre. Outskirts Theatre Company opens 2020 with all of the above in its production of Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat. Directed by Kelly Goeller, the talented pairing of actors Carrie Gray and Seth K. Hale play a couple ofNew Yorkers dealing with life in the wake of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.
Seth K. Hale plays Ben. Ben is a fugitive from his own life. He was supposed to be at work in the World Trade Center. Instead he was engaging in extramarital intimacy with his boss. Now it’s the next day and he’s missing with a whole bunch of other people. He’s at her apartment. Hasn’t called his wife and kids. Hale gives the crassness of an anti-intellectual a sympathetic depth. His delivery lacks some of the crude bluntness that seems to be written into the dialogue, but a little bit of THAT goes a long way and it would be way too easy to overemphasize that character’s general lack of sophistication.
Carrie Gray plays Ben’s boss Abby. She’s a few years older than him. She’s much more sophisticated. LaBute seems to have given her a great deal more complexity. Abby wants Ben to be open about their relationship with his wife and kids. It would be the honest thing to do, but she doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. She IS having an affair with a guy who works for her and she knows that it’s wrong. LaBute renders Abby in a dizzying level of intellectual and emotional complexity. Gray does a brilliant job of bringing Abby’s complexity to the stage. Given the sophistication of the character and the fact that she’s given just over half of a full 90 minutes onstage, this may be one of the most accomplished dramatic performances I’ve seen onstage in the past few years. This would be a dream role for 40s-ish actress...partially because there aren’t many roles like this for women but partially because it’s an opportunity to unflinchingly play a contemporary character of great depth. Gray is breathtakingly organic as an intellectual who is given pause to consider who she is and who she might be in the fact of national tragedy. Gray lends the character a clever restlessness as she gets lost in simple pleasures and idle humor as she contemplates what just happened in lower Manhattan.
The drama plays out in 90 minutes of realtime. This is the type of theatre I love: two people delving into a really, really deep conversation in a small room on a small stage for 90 minutes and no intermission. It’s a very big conversation for the two of them that drifts in and out of small talk and idle bickering, occasionally delving into some very serious emotional and philosophical ground. LaBute, Goeller, Hale and Gray conjure a portrait of two people searching for identity in the face of tragedy on the precipice of a new millennium.
Outskirts Theatre Company’s production of The Mercy Seat runs through January 12 at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit the event’s Facebook Page.
The last theatre company to debut this year opens a one-weekend production the final days of the decade. Nonsense Theatre Company presents a modest, richly intense staging of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty. Gabriella Ashlin directs a small ensemble in the intimate space of The Retreat on north MLK Dr. Though some of the physicality of the production lacks convincing physical aggression, the complexity of the drama between two couples is vividly conjured to the stage in a promising opening for the new company.
The play opens in a heated argument between Tyler Fridley and Emily Elliott in the roles of Greg and Steph. Steph’s friend Carly told her that Greg said something rude about her. He doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about. Fridley comes across as a jerk as the play opens, but that honestly might have been more a product of my bias than anything. (I have a wife and two daughters. I generally don’t like guys.) LaBute had written the dialogue to be a sophisticated balance of an argument between two people who are about as rational as...most people are. The beauty of LaBute’s script is that it flows cleverly without losing sight of an earthbound dialogue that feels quite natural. This sort of thing can be maddeningly difficult to bring to the stage in a way that FEELS natural. To their credit, Fridley and Elliott not only make the dialogue feel natural, they also manage to make a small commercial space near the offices of the DNR on North MLK feel kind of like somebody’s apartment.
With the addition of a couple of tables and a few minor elements, the stage shifts to represent a factory break room. It is there that the other two characters are introduced. Colin Kovarik plays Greg’s co-worker Kent. (He also worked as sound designer for the show. Subtle atmospheric sound in the background goes a long way toward establishing different locations in a play with almost no substantial scenic elements.) Kent IS an asshole. He makes no attempt to hide this with Greg. Kovarik does as pretty good job of making Kent’s petty villainy seem totally shameless. LaBute does attempt to etch some complexity into Kent, but the guy really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. The physicality of the aggression that breaks out between Kent and Greg isn’t terribly compelling, but it’s really, REALLY difficult to make an open brawl work on a stage as small as the one at The Retreat. Kovarik’s aggression with Fridley may not work all that well, but the seediness of his physicality with Carly is undeniable.
Carly is a security officer at the plant that Greg and Kent work at. She’s also Kent’s wife. Emmaline Friederichs has a sharp and apparent perspicacity about her in the role of Carly. The uniform she’s wearing as security at the factory isn’t very assertive. Friederichs makes-up for this with a poise and presence that asserts itself without being constantly pushy or aggressive. Friederichs lends a sharp sense of authority about her onstage. Friederichs’ adroit awareness as Carly makes her inability to see Kent’s duplicity a bit difficult understand. There’s a scene between Kent and Carly that goes a long way toward explaining this, but LaBute makes it a real challenge by making Kent so very, very irredeemable. Friederichs’ confrontation in the break room with Kovarik is one of the more complex scenes in the entire drama. Friederichs and Kovarik handle that complexity beautifully in a scene which firmly establishes Greg as a nice guy who happens to be very flawed. All personal biases aside, Fridley does a brilliant job of making Greg an appealing and even slightly witty guy. It’s a very complicated 90 minutes or so onstage that makes fo a very enjoyable opening for Nonsense.
Nonsense Theatre Company’s staging of Reasons to Be Pretty runs through December 30th at The Retreat on 2215 N. Martin Luther King Dr. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page.
Off the Wall Theatre explores the dangers of doing deliberately bad theatre for comic effect in The Great Scrooge Disaster. Written by Off the Wall’s Dale Gutzman, the brief musical comedy misses a few opportunities for clever comedy in favor of inoffensively light humor that misses more often than it hits. Gutzman’s script has cast of Off the Wall regulars playing themselves and characters in a production of A Christmas Carol that has been beset with technical problems and an outbreak of illness. Gutzman goes for the easy humor in a show that might have been a darkly comic exploration of something far deeper.
Gutzman plays himself as a last-minute replacement for the actor playing Scrooge. Gutzman develops a comically confused and bewildered version of himself drifting in and out of dialogue from other plays as he fumbles his way through the early stages of A Christmas Carol. The cast of regulars shifts between frustration with and concerned for Gutzman, who really DOES seem to be crumbling beneath the stress of everything. Gutzman’s acting here is really quite good. (It’s like he wrote the role for himself or something.) Gutzman flounders. A cast is on edge. Regulars like Kristin Pagenkopf and Lawrence J Lukasavage manage a balance between themselves and the actors they’re pretending to be onstage. In subtle moments of silence between lines, the energy seems to be reaching towards a deep, dark comedy on the nature of reality onstage reflecting into itself.
A production of a play about a comically bad play performed by actors playing actors could have been a darkly humorous examination of the very idea of quality. There’s potentially deep humor in watching actors play themselves in a potentially bad play about a bad play satirizing the continued success of the Milwaukee Rep’s annual production. Something like The Great Scrooge Disaster could have worked on multiple levels. A comedy that’s written to be bad might have been brilliant given the right direction. Instead, Gutzman’s humor is cheesy, breezy, superficial comedy that ranges from mild injuries onstage to technical miscues to a door that never seems to open.
The show has a few fun moments that could have been accentuated a bit more. There are some sharp elements of comedy punctuating the show: James Strange has clever comic instincts as an actor reluctant to enter the collapsing production. Caitlin Kujawski Compton has a firm graps of the comedy of Christmas Present who is determined to go through with her scene even if it means occasionally breaking with character in comically poised frustration. Towards the end when both Gutzman AND the actor the had come-in to replace him as Scrooge are both determined to make it through to the end of the show. Gutzman is seen in a long scarf that’s being crocheted as he wears it for no clear reason. Somewhat witty bits like this don’t add-up to a fun show, but they DO suggest a better show could have come out of the overall energy onstage.
The one clearly bright point in the whole production is Gutzman’s choice of music. He’s found some really charming alternatives to the traditional Christmas musical fare that firmly avoids the kind of schmaltzy sentiment so often littering Christmas shows. It may not be perfect, but The Great Scrooge Disaster is definitely an odd, little alternative to bigger live theatre shows this holiday season. Even though I didn’t personally like it that much, I’m really happy this one is almost completely sold out. Even the least appealing live theatre is worth seeing over the big, ugly live performances and big screen offerings this holiday season. It’s nice to know that Gutzman’s energy can sell out so many performances of a show like this before it even opens.
Off the Wall Theatre presents The Great Scrooge Disaster through Dec. 31 at 127 E. Wells St. For more information, visit Off the Wall online.
This month, Voices Found Repertory presents an engaging staging of Shakespeare’s history Henry V. Under the direction of Alec Lachman, the faced-paced intermission-less production breezes briskly through in the form of an intimate, little pop action drama. The deeper dramatic elements shoot by with a rather large ensemble in a very, very cozy space beneath Wisconsin Avenue. What it lacks in Shakespeare’s evenly-weighted exploration of the nature of war it more than makes up for in sweeping action and resonant emotional energy.
Heroes and Villains
Like so many of Shakespeare’s scripts, Henry V has a complex constellation of elements that can be accentuated in various ways to make for pretty drastically different stagings. The production at Door Shakespeare this past summer went for an even-handed approach which featured French and British sides of the war in relatively equal light. Voices Found takes the villainy of the French found in the script and amplifies it in a slickly cool pulpy sort of a style. The villains all smoke and glide across the stage. The heroes are scrappy fighters. Even the Jake Thompson’s King Henry looks tousled and ruggedly disheveled. Thomsen’s charm (which is usually pretty impressive) reaches a kind of unassumingly overwhelming halo of coolness as a man who fate has chosen to fight the French. With the heavier end of the drama compromised by the pacing, the weightiness of Thomsen’s delivery of the classic St. Crispin’s Day Speech feels a bit casual. (To me that speech is a bit like the Hamlet’s soliloquy: really, really beautiful but absolutely impossible for any actor to do justice to. It’s so impossibly delicate that it would shatter across even the most graceful tongue.)
The French Thing
There’s a very stylishly stark contrast between the French and the British. Nowhere is this more evident than the mercurial switch made by Caroline Norton, who plays the scruffy, old Brit named Pistol and the gracious noble Queen Isabel of France.
French villains smoke, but there are heroes here too. While Alexis Furseth glides around in style with classy, sardonic shade as Montjoy and others slide around in sinister pomposity, Caroline Fossum and Thomas Sebald make an impressively noble appearance as princess Catharine and um...her lady in Waiting Alice. Alice is a guy here...Sebald is a very tall and imposing figure who carries around an intimidatingly massive semi-improvised melee weapon. So Alice here is a bodyguard who happens to speak both English and French . Traditionally the scene between Catharine and her Lady In Waiting has a completely different weight and context about it as Alice gives the princess a lesson in English that is performed almost entirely in French. Fossum and Sebald make the tender comedy of the scene glide with a sharply nuanced dynamic.
The romance that blossoms between Catharine and Henry at the end of the play is very, very difficult. The two have almost no time onstage to develop a chemistry. Thanks to a brilliantly-executed Catharine/Alice moment earlier on in the play, the Fossum is given more than enough of a chance to make a beautiful impact as a princess before launching into a romantic moment with Henry, who has a charm that is deftly wielded by Thompson. Oddly enough for an action drama, Thompson and Fossum’s romance here is one of the most compelling I can remember seeing on the small stage all year.
That’s Us: The Action
Whether onstage or onscreen, action is something that an audience has to work on. We know no one is actually in danger. We complete what the fight choreographers have developed. Fight Choreographer Connor Blankenship has done a remarkable job of developing many, many layers of action on a stage that is essentially the corner of a room in a basement. He’s making something the size of a large closet feel like it has the depth of an entire stretch of battlefield. The ensemble does a very sharp job of bringing it to the small stage. It’s such a small space that if one pair of combatants were to bump into another pair could easily create a cascade effect that would feel a bit like a cue ball breaking up a billiard balls on green felt. The fight scenes in this production have a depth to them that’s a lot of fun to watch. Blankenship himself actually looks really cool onstage. He’s got a powerful voice in the role of Exeter that feels reminiscent of screen actor Clancy Brown. With grey hair, beard and right eyepatch accompanying various other elements of his costuming, Blankenship’s Duke of Exeter seems to have (inadvertently or not) drawn inspiration from Wolfman and Perez’s pop fictional mercenary Slade Wilson. Intentional or not, the badass antiheroic look of Exeter lends texture to the production that is echoed in a ragtag visual aesthetic. Melee with archaic weapons includes rags, scarves and welding goggles. The action here is very stylish.
Sometimes It’s the Subtle Things
The small stage can draw a tremendous amount of impact from subtle juxtapositions. Rebekah Farr has great instincts in the role of the French aggressor Louis, Duke of Guyenne, the dauphin. The character is a comically petty braggart. There’s a moment when Farr takes a moment to play her deliberately distasteful on a very visceral level. She’s found smoking a cigarette and eating a bag of Cheetos® at the same time. It’s the cheapest special effect imaginable, but even though the cigarette isn’t lit and even though we’re not actually tasting the Cheetos, there’s a very distinct visceral appeal to sent, taste and tactile sensations that adds a great deal of distastefulness to Farr’s dauphin. I love little elements like that in a production.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of Henry V runs through Dec. 16th at The Underground Collaborative. For ticket reservations and more, visit Voices Found Online.
Back in the early 1990s, Neil Simon debuted a play about his days working in TV back in the 1950s. Laughter on the 23rd Floor was a clever tribute to comedy writing that was a precursor for Tina Fey’s beloved, long-running TV sitcom 30 Rock. Simon is best-known for helping to define contemporary comedy with Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Last of the Red Hot Lovers. There’s a clean sense of construction about Simon’s earlier work. The comedy comes from the heart of honest characters with a little bit of craziness thrown-in for comedic effect.
In Laughter, Simon populates an entire comedic ensemble with characters who all have more than a bit of madness within them. As a result, it’s a lot more fun than most of Simon’s comedy. Directed by Edward Morgan, the Next Act production brings together an appealing mixing of talents from various ends of the Milwaukee theatre community to conjure a sense of the whimsically unpredictable that taps a wild comedic energy.
A clean-shaven Zach Thomas Woods plays a young writer named Lucas who has just been hired to work on a very popular variety show on NBC. Woods is a charming emotional center to the play in the role of a young writer Simon based on himself in the era in which he was working on Your Show of Shows. Every character in the writer’s room is based on actual legends of comedy who worked for the show like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar.
Next Act’s David Cecsarini has a charming instability about him in the role of the show’s host Max Prince (based on Caesar.) The role would be a challenge to anyone. The rest of the writers are paid to be funny to make a living. There’s a practicality to their madness. Prince is a paranoid iconoclast who has been driven into a very strange place psychologically as a result of his massive success. Cecsarini finds a way to make a totally shrewd, psychologically scattered psyche seem perfectly natural and totally rational in and within its own frame of reference. Cecsarini is embracing the character’s madness with a very sophisticated understanding of the inner dynamics of the character’s insanity. It’s a deeply engrossing performance.
The rest of the cast features a scattering of some great local comedy talent. Karen Estrada is a very adult presence in the room as Carol--one of the few women who were able to make it in TV writing at the time. Simon’s attempt to deliver some of the challenges of a woman in a man’s world feel a bit weak, but Estrada is able to sell the character’s formidability so well that the character works even through the more cringe-inducing moments of a very successful male writer trying to write from the perspective of a woman who would have had. to be a LOT more clever than he was to be in the same room as him back in the 1950s.
The rest of the ensemble handles itself quite well. Local comedy veteran Dylan Bolin has sharp timing and delivery as a writer who is totally confident that he will be able to get a career rolling in Hollywood. Seth K. Hale carries a crisp wit about him as s clever guy based in part on Carl Reiner. Rick Pendzich is a smart slouch as Milt--a funny guy who would be totally unequipped to handle any serious job for very long. Mohammad N. Elbsat lends an intensity to the comedy as a Russian immigrant who has mastered the nimble perspicacity needed to land the miracle of a TV writing job in America.
Next Act’s production of Laughter on the 23rd Floor runs through Dec. 15 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For more information, visit Next Act online.
Milwaukee comedy institution Broadminded opened its 23rd original sketch comedy show to a packed theatre Friday night. The theme this time around is Cheers. The all-woman sketch comedy group has been around for many years. The familiarity between the “Broads” continues to foster a fun and crazy feel of intimate informality that makes for an exceedingly enjoyable evening’s comedy. The current offering is a nice mix of different comedy moods. Not all of it works, but since this is a Broadminded show, it’s fun even when it’s not terribly funny.
One of the more notable sketches this time around has McGee and and Babl as anchors on “Wed Center.” They’re there to do play-by-play commentary for toasts at a wedding reception. Kingston played an unflappable pro at delivering wedding toasts while LaDisa played a nervous first-timer. (Opening night the warmth of the near sell-out audience generated a cheer for LaDisa after the end of the sketch when the simple act of picking-up fallen index cards from the sketch turned out to be more difficult than it might have been in rehearsal.) The toast motif is echoed in a series of improv bits where the group deliver toasts to...whatever it is that the audience has offered-up for suggestions on slips of paper into a cup before the show. The “Cheers” motif also echoes into a couple of appearances of the Broads as cheerleaders. There’s a bit of clever style in a short that has Babl being followed around by a pair of rental cheerleaders providing high-energy support for everyday activities. Funny stuff.
The generational aspect of the groups’ work feels particularly prominent this time around. Stacy Babl, Anne Graff LaDisa, Melissa Kingston, and Megan McGee are all Gen Xers. Sketches make fun pop cultural reference to the generation throughout the show. The group does a particularly clever mash-up that has the Care Bears act as Queer Eye-style life coaches. Three of the Broads play pseudo-neo-Jungian Care Bear archetypes trying to get a white collar woman in need into find some direction in her life. There’s profound unexpected depth in that sketch that is echoed through some of the other bits. Megan McGee plays a college student wary of the apocalypse on New Year’s Eve of 2000 as roommates. Her concerns for basic survival are contrasted against the much more superficial concerns of Kingston and Stacy Babl as a couple of roommates, which makes for some fun double-tiered comedy that makes reference to millennial style and fashion which is already feeling A LOT older than it should be. (Hard to believe New Year’s Eve 1999/2000 will be 20 years old at the end of next month.)
Some of the weaker moments draw a bit closer to direct homage to the pop culture of the ‘80s from the perspective of children of the ‘80s. It’s comfort comedy for Xers...a mercifully brief bit has Kingston and McGee play aging singers that feels like a fusion between The Golden Girls and SNL’s Sweeney Sisters. There’s an oddly enjoyable bit that plays on the enduring appeal of a show that ran the length of the ‘80s as all of the Broads fall neatly into a characters from the hit sitcom Cheers. Naturally Kingston takes to George Wendt’s Norm while McGee plays to the role of the John Ratzenberger's trivia-spouting Cliff. Anne Graff LaDisa is fun as a hayseed character drawn in the mold of Woody Harrelson’s character...uh...Woody. (Really? His character was named Woody? I forgot about that.) Like the weaker scripting on that show, the sketch is deeply endearing without actually having much of any depth to it.
Some of the more original bits feel particularly clever in Cheers. McGee plays Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a spoof of Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect singing the Carter Family’s “When I’m Gone,” (the cup song,) complete with the rest of the group performing the cups in accompaniment. It’s a sharply-executed bit of comedy.
The show closes with the triumphant return of LaDisa’s Sally Ann character. The precocious, sci-fi-loving high schooler is drawn against Babl as a cheerleader. It’s a fun closing sketch to a fun show.
Broadminded’s Cheers continues through Nov. 23 at the Underground Collaborative at 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit Broadminded online.
The space is very humbling. Built in 1847, the Irish Heritage and Cultural Center was originally a church. This month the stained glass and massive arched ceiling play host to Aura Theatre Collective’s staging of Measure for Measure. A man in a position of authority assaults a woman in no position to tell anyone about it in a story that is sadly as relevant now as it’s ever been.
Timothy J. Barnes summons a towering sense of poise and stature to the role of Angelo. He has been left in a position of authority by the Duke of Vienna. Seated in this authority, the immovable granite of Angelo’s resolve falls upon the shoulders of a young man named Claudio who is charged with the crime of fornication for which he is to be put to death. Jarrod Langwinski clutches a weary fear about him as Claudio. In Langqinski’s hands, Claudio’s frustrations are kept at bay, allowing him to explore a subtle interplay of emotions that would be lost in a more powerful show of desperation.
Informed of Claudio’s predicament, his sister Isabella goes forth to Angelo in order to plead for her brother’s life. Laker Thrasher is fiercely forthright as Isabella: a novice nun who is given the opportunity to save the life of her brother if she will allow Angelo to take her virginity. Thrasher casts an admirably impressive sense of altruism into the soul of Isobel. Far from being a simple, pitiful victim, Thrasher’s performance casts Isabella’s victimhood against the intellectual resilience and emotional fortitude of someone who would have done much better in a better era for women.
Thrasher’s intensity in the role of Isabella is matched by the dramatic gravity of Kira Renkas’ performance as Marianna. Angelo had abandoned his betrothal to Marianna when her dowry was lost to sea. The fact that Marianna would want to be with him anyway is a bit of a problem. Doesn’t she realize that this guy’s a monster? Renkas’ magnetic stage presence imbues Marianna with a kind of power that suggests an inner authority that could easily keep Angelo in check. In silent authority, Renkas wields a kind of influence onstage that Angelo could only aspire to. Marianna is in a position well below Angelo, but under the influence of Renkas, she’s got a righteousness about her that well outweighs his petty cruelty.
Randall T. Anderson is infinitely likable onstage. Anderson’s charm is granted to Duke Vincentio. The Duke has announced his intention to leave the city. He remains in disguise as a friar in the interest of viewing life in the city outside the confines of authority. Shakespeare casts the Duke in a heroic light. Anderson takes to the heroism with an adroit grasp of the character’s cunning. Director Jaimelyn Gray cleverly subverts this, playing with expectations in a staging of Shakespeare’s classic that allows the women in the cast their own kind of authority without compromising the basic structure of the script in any fundamental way. A good portion of this comes from a very talented cast, but Gray has juggled things quite well in a very compelling production.
The rest of the cast includes some great talent. Tom Marks has a very shrewd and focussed energy as Escalus. Logan Milway balances drama with a slicingly clever sense of humor as Claudio’s friend Lucio. Liz Ehrler has a commanding presence onstage as Mistress Overdone--manager of a Viennese brothel. Ehrler opens the show as Overdone in a burlesque act that is promptly shut down by authorities. It’s a fun bit of staging that sets the tone for the rest of the show. It can feel kind of weird seeing Shakespeare in a church. Opening the show with burlesque cuts some of the strange formality that can overpower in a 19th century church.
Aura Theatre Collective’s production of Measure for Measure runs through Nov. 24th at the Irish Heritage and Cultural Center on 2133 W. Wisconsin Avenue. For more information, visit Aura Theatre online.
This month, Theater RED collaborates with Carroll University on a production of Once Upon a Mattress the 1958 musical based on Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Princess and the Pea has seen countless productions over the years. Theater RED’s production is helmed by Artistic Director Eric Welch and stars Marcee Doherty-Elst as Princess Winnifred.
Theatre RED and Carroll took some time to answer a few questions about the production:
This show is being staged at Carroll University in Waukesha. How did the collaboration with Carroll come about?
Professor James Zager, Carroll University (Producing Liaison): Providence. I was scheduled to do a cabaret performance in the Otteson Theatre this Fall and decided to use the more intimate Studio Theatre right around the same time we heard that TheaterRED was looking for a space.
Marcee Doherty-Elst, Theater RED (Producing Director, Princess Winnifred): When Theater RED was looking for a home for ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, we reached out to Carroll University originally because of my prior collaboration with James Zager (Milwaukee Opera Theater and Theater RED’s A CHORUS LINE), who is on faculty there. I quickly got connected to Professor Jennifer Dobby and the rest of the incredible folks there. In talking with them, we learned that their mainstage, the Otteson Theatre, was not being used this fall. Carroll University had a Musical Cabaret slotted for the fall, but Professor Zager wanted that staged in their Studio Theatre, leaving the Otteson vacant. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to move ONCE UPON A MATTRESS in to the beautiful Otteson space and also opened up the possibility of a collaboration with the University, which you know Theater RED loves to do! We have collaborated with other theaters and other colleges/universities in the past and have had wonderful experiences. For ONCE UPON A MATTRESS we have students working alongside professionals in all aspects of the production, onstage and off, and that is really exciting!
I’m also very excited to be collaborating with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and their American Sign Language/English Interpretation Program for our Saturday 11/16 performance (7:30 PM) that will be interpreted by 2 Student Interpreters!
Eric Welch, Theater RED (Director): As we were looking for a venue for this production, Marcee thought it would be a good idea to collaborate with a school again. I’m doing so, I believe this was our first school we contacted and it ended up being a perfect fit, on both ends!
Carroll’s Otteson Theatre is an intimate 150-seat theatre, but the set developed for the show as seen in promo video looks like it’s big enough to fill a much larger space. Is there an equally big feeling for the choreography or is there more of an intimate feel to the way the action of the show inhabits the space?
Justin Gale, Carroll University (Technical Director, Scenic Design): The Otteson is a unique space that comes with its own challenges and opportunities. Yes, it is a relatively small, 150 seat theatre, but it also has a decent amount of vertical space to fill, while allowing for at least a dozen people at once to dance on stage. Eric's vision was based around the idea of a story book, with the necessity to facilitate dancing and physical comedy across the entire stage. My hope, through the design and build techniques, was to accomplish a bit of story book, medieval grandeur, and still leave room for the actors and choreography to take center stage.
Ceci Scalish, Theater RED (Choreographer): I believe the choreography designed balances the marriage between this intimate space and larger than life set. Each choreographed piece defines how big or intimate the stage should feel during teach scene versus the space or set defining such.
Eric Welch, Theater RED (Director): For the choreography, I wanted something fun, funny, and visually stunning. And that’s just what Ceci brought to the table. She has a wonderful way of working with the actors and really showing off their strengths. I can’t say enough kind words about her. We also did make plenty of room on stage to fit all the dancing needs in this show. We definitely planned in advance for that.
Marcee Doherty-Elst, Theater RED (Producing Director, Princess Winnifred): Eric’s vision from the beginning was to create a magical, madrigal, musical comedy celebration and the Otteson Theatre provides so much space to do that! We do have a large cast (17), so that space is definitely welcome! Eric also wanted the audience to feel included in the action and in on the jokes, so with the space he is able to bring some of the action off the stage and into the audience (and beyond – we have to keep some surprises, don’t we?). I think the show balances big production moments with more intimate moments and we are able to use everything the Otteson has to offer us in that way. Justin and the students working on the set have done an outstanding job of realizing Eric’s vision of what he wanted the set to look like, while being able to add some things that really add to the dimension of the action, while still allowing the storytelling of the scenes, song, and dance to take center stage (quite literally). As Eric has done with NINE the musical, he places the emphasis of the show on the storytelling of the actors and has a more intentionally minimal set supporting them. We do, of course, have the majesty of the incredible bed of 20 mattresses – the most important set piece of them all!
Erich Welch is directing Marcee Doherty-Elst as Princess Winnifred in the show. The two of you at the center of Theater RED are also very good friends. What’s the dynamic like working so closely together on this kind of a musical?
Eric Welch, Theater RED (Director): We have got it down to a science now. This will be the third show I’ve directed and directed her in. She is a very close friend and I find it rather easy to direct her because I know her instincts and motives so it’s easy to play and build off of that. I also know what’s she’s capable of, even if she doesn’t!
Marcee Doherty-Elst, Theater RED (Producing Director, Princess Winnifred): This will be the 3rd show that Eric has directed me in (I’LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS and NINE the musical, previously) and also the 3rd where we have worked together behind the scenes (with me as Producing Director). I think on the production side of things, we get better with roles and responsibilities each time and it has become a well-oiled machine by this time! As an Actor, I really enjoy working with Eric as a Director. He has a very clear vision for what he is looking for in the scenes and as an Actor himself, he understands what the challenges and opportunities might be for realizing that vision. He knows me nearly better than almost anyone and it makes it very easy for us to work together as Actor/Director because he can tell what I am trying to do, even if it is not coming through clearly and he knows how to explain things in a way that I will grasp immediately. There’s a great degree of trust in that relationship based on our deep friendship, as well. Eric has always been one of my biggest fans and supporters and he believes in me way more than I ever believe in myself and for that reason, he is able to challenge me in a unique way.
Winnifred is a very strong character who could be brought to the stage with a big heroic approach. The story is a very silly comedy in places. How do the heroic and comedic ends of the show match-up in this production?
Eric Welch, Theater RED (Director): This is a very silly, comedic show but there is still heart in the story and we have definitely tried to angle this show toward female empowerment. This show is about a strong female who doesn’t care what people think of her and really goes for what she wants.
Brianna (Bree) Cullen, Theater RED (Stage Manager): The two go hand in hand in this production. The heroic moments bring out how silly the whole story is while the comedic bits between characters really pushes out who these people are.
Mark Morris, Carroll University (Assistant Stage Manager): Winnifred's strength is balanced on stage with an air of shyness and self-doubt that emboldens our sympathy with her as she navigates the social labyrinth of a swamp-less kingdom. Because she is not like a "typical" princess, she isn't limited by any social restrictions placed on princesses and her lack of manners and outspoken attitude is a refreshing take on a classic fairytale. The real comedy comes from her fervent optimism in the face of every obstacle she encounters and the heroics are found in the inspiration she instills in the other characters suffering under the Queen's rule.
Skylar Campbell, Carroll University (Assistant Stage Manager): I believe the heroic and comedic ends match up in places where the women like Winnifred and Lady Larken "play up" being the helpless damsel in distress. It makes for a funny scene but also is being played up to show the ridiculousness of the "damsel in distress" it's a small way of putting a feminist twist in the show without changing the show completely and continues to make people laugh even with a hidden deeper, more heroic, note.
Marcee Doherty-Elst, Theater RED (Producing Director, Princess Winnifred): Sometimes princesses don’t look or act like princesses! I see Princess Winnifred as a brave character who comes to the rescue of a kingdom in need of new outlook on love, leadership, and life. The best laughs come from intellectual connections and emotional realizations, and Princess Winnifred represents something so different from the conventions of the kingdom and she speaks some important truths. The role of Princess Winnifred has been portrayed by some of the funniest women to ever grace the stage or screen and what I think is most exciting is that there is wide room for interpretation of this character while still playing up the comedic aspects. Winnifred is a very strong character, but I think the fun comes in relaying that strength through comedy. Some of the most important truths we speak, as a society, are conveyed through humor.
“Humor is what happens when we are told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to” (George Saunders, NY Times bestselling author).
ONCE UPON A MATTRESS is surprisingly enduring for a fun, little bit of musical comedy. Where do you think the long-term appeal of the show comes from?
Professor James Zager, Carroll University (Producing Liaison): The retelling of Fairy Tales has always been popular. We love to look at old stories with a new twist that brings out different aspects of the story. This uses the music theatre form to highlight a powerful female not a maiden in distress rescued by a prince.
Marcee Doherty-Elst, Theater RED (Producing Director, Princess Winnifred): I think the long-standing appeal is how funny this show is, even though the tale itself is familiar. And it doesn’t hurt that Carol Burnett has famously portrayed (with great hilarity) both Princess Winnifred and Queen Aggravain! ONCE UPON A MATTRESS is a musical retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Princess and the Pea” and who doesn’t love a good fairy tale? This show will carry you on a wave of wonderful songs, both hilarious and raucous as well as romantic and melodic, as you come along on for the ride on the familiar classic tale of royal courtship and comeuppance with a healthy side helping of side-splitting shenanigans. While the Junior version of this show is done with regularity in theaters, the full-length production has not been done in Milwaukee professionally for quite some time. Eric’s vision really plays up the fairy tale aspects while also infusing the show with a modern, SNL-inspired approach to the comedy in the show and we have a cast of some of the funniest folks in Milwaukee. Chances are you’ll never look at fairy tales the same way again!
Eric actually put this show on the Theater RED radar – he has a love of taking older musicals or musicals that we don’t see done very often and brining a modern interpretation to them, placing them back center stage. He also grew up with this musical and it has a special place in his heart as one of his mom’s favorites. He’s also a huge Carol Burnett fan – in fact, when she was in Milwaukee last we splurged on VIP tickets and we were in the first few rows and he got to ask her a question! She is one of his favorites and there is more than 1 nod to her in the show – you’ll have to come and see for yourself!
What attracted you to the show?
Eric Welch, Theater RED (Director): I was partly brought up with this musical. My mother introduced it to me as it had been a favorite of hers growing up. It’s such a fun fantasy story with great music. I feel like many schools have done this show (the Junior version, as well), but not many professional theaters and I feel that it needs to come back into the limelight. It has such a great message and is so entertaining. People are going to love this show.
Theater RED and Carroll University's production of Once Upon a Mattress runs Nov. 15 -23 at the Otteson Theatre on 238 N. East Ave. in Waukesha. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater RED online.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s unique blend of crime drama, history and music materializes from the ether once more this month for the first live episode of a new trilogy as it presents Cream City Crime Syndicate: Politics & Anarchy. Marcus Beyer returns as golden age radio host Richard Howling of the Howling Radio Hour. The variety show includes music, drama, comedy and the 32nd mayor of Milwaukee as an impressively compelling hero. The ensemble assembled by writer/producer Josh B. Bryan for the first part of the new Cabaret Milwaukee season seems particularly well-developed in this first part of a new trilogy.
Beyer opens the show with a smooth voice straight out of the early days of radio. His cool presence is a remarkably vivid centerpiece to the rest of the variety. The first act he introduces is Cameron Webb. Accompanied by Maggie Deagan, the jazzy soulful singer opens the show with “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” He comes around after intermission for a classy glide through “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” Hayley San Fillippo and Sarah Therese continue to charm in old-timey commercial vocals as the Howling Jinglers, accompanied by Michelle White.
The central drama is written by David Law, who also wrote Cabaret Milwaukee’s Clockwork Man series. It’s a clever fusion between history and crime/suspense drama that frames Mayor Daniel Hoan as the central hero in a political drama with themes which hauntingly echo into current events. Max Williamson plays Hoan as a cool, charismatic figure who heroically steps into a great deal of danger in order to serve the people. Rob Schreiner plays to the rough and tumble action hero archetype as a hard drinking Milwaukee cop who finds himself drawn into the dangerous life of the mayor. Williamson’s heroism as a politician genuinely trying to bring everyone together contrasts well against Schreiner’s gritty selflessly self-destructive action heroism. Without irony Willaimson and Schreiner play to an ideal of public service...those willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. It's a refreshing fantasy.
Also making notable appearances around the edges of the ensemble are a couple of talented guys better known for their work with Shakespeare RAW. Stephen M. Wolterstorff lends both weight and levity to the stage as Hoan’s assistant. Jim Donaldson plays to a more volatile energy in his appearance. The more aggressive darkness of the drama comes in the form of Connor Blankenship as a sinister political figure named Wheeler Bloodgood. He’s accompanied by a couple of ragged accomplices played with a pulpy sense of villainy by Michelle Paura and Nicole Allee.
Though it's clearly drawn for a vintage radio style of entertainment Law’s script highlights aspects of the early days of Hoan that mirror some of what’s going on today. Bryan’s work amplifies that in the world of the variety show beyond the radio play. History has a very frustrating way of repeating itself which comes across much better here than it has in previous outings with Cabaret Milwaukee. As “Mrs. Millie,” seriously funny actress/comedy writer Laura Holterman slices into the frustration of this with a very sharp bit of satire that conjures shadow precursors to Hollywood predators like Harvey Weinstein. Some of the best comedy comes from frustration and there's nothing more frustrating than watching the same mistakes made over and over again throughout history. Holterman, Bryan and Wallsich (who wrote sketches for the Holing Jinglers) cleverly tap into the comedy of that fraustration. Joined by Michelle White as Billie, Holterman discusses US immigration policies of Herbert Hoover which hauntingly echo those of the current administration. With clever precision Holterman and White help to bring together the fusion of comedy and history in a show that glides along quite swiftly from beginning to end.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s Cream City Crime Syndicate: Politics & Anarchy runs through Nov. 22 at the Hotel Astor on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook site.