It’s Just Great That They’re Even Doing It
This month Skylight Music Theatre opens that delightfully bizarre chimera of a contemporary theatrical product as it presents Urinetown: The Musical. It’s a feel-good dystopian socio-political musical that manages to also cast a comic glance at issues of ecological collapse due to global drought. Oh: And it spoofs other musicals too. Really it’s pretty remarkable that a show this weird would ever have gotten produced in the first place. The Skylight has accomplished something in simply having chosen to produce something this cool.
The Officer Is Your Friend Narrator
Rick Pendzich opens the show as charming jackbooted police thug Officer Lockstock. He can be found walking the house nodding to attendees as he regards the attended through mirrored shades prior to the show. Pendzich nails the precise comedy of the cheerfully corrupt totalitarian thuggery that serves as an endlessly self-referential narrator who lives in a fourth wall that he’s constantly breaking. Pendzich has a clever sense of humor that a role like this is absolutely perfect for.
Only Love Pads the Show
Yes: It’s the story of a popular revolution against a totalitarian regime that makes people pay every time they use a toilet.
But: There’s a really cute and sweetly doomed love story at the center of it all.
Rachael Zientek is brilliantly articulate on a comic level in the role of Hope Cladwell--the daughter of Trumpian autocratic corporate despot Caldwell B. Cladwell (the satirically villainous Steven M. Koehler) who runs the sinisterly ubiquitous Urine Good Company. On her way in to work for the first time since graduating the most expensive university in the world, she runs into a handsome guy who works for a small pay restroom. The suitably lead-worthy Lucas Pastrana ultimately leads the revolution against UGC. He and his burgeoning love for Hope complicate matters in a cleverly funny romance. Zientek is sweet and optimistic with such intensity that it becomes positively sinister by the end of the show when the revolution actually takes hold.
And There Are Other People Here Too
I’m about 350 words into the review when I finally get a chance to mention that Doug Jarecki is in the show. He’s Senator Fipp--a comically awkward Ted Cruz of a guy who serves the UGC. Jarecki is great with what little he’s given here. That someone of Jarecki’s talent would wind up around the edges of the show is testament to just how much talent there IS here. Amber Smith is good in just about anything, but here she’s fantastic. With cold, passionate...angular intensity she plays Penelope Pennywise--the woman who runs the restroom that employs the male romantic lead. Smith leans-in to the comedy she’s given with a scalpel’s precision. He’s not given nearly as many moments, but James Carrington manages a very similarly comic precision in more than a few moments as UGC corporate underling Mr. McQueen. And then there’s Michael Stebbins as a crazy, old one-eyed revolutionary and Steven M Koehler and on and on...the Skylight is working with a really, really great cast here and they’re doing good things with it. Director Ray Jivoff has done a really good job of bringing it all together. I'd been kind of underwhelmed when I'd seen the show years ago on its national tour. The huge space of the Milwaukee Theatre just drowns everything...and people still pay ridiculous prices for those touring shows...ugh...don't see whatever's casually rolling through town right now. See THIS. It's important. Jivoff and company manage to give the relatively small stage main stage at the Broadway Theatre Center a feeling of immensity that doesn't compromise the intimacy of a huge show in a cozy space. Jivoff has been doing this for years...he really knows what fits onstage here and he does a very clever job of getting it all balanced in just the right way.
That Set, Though...Wow...The Earth In The Toilet and Everything
Scenic Director Brandon Kirkham is given an opportunity to get really weird here and he makes quite an impression with it. That skyline off in the distance feels very iconic with its ever-present UGC logo beaming out from atop it all. Kirkham manages to maintain this bombastic spoof-y immensity about everything onstage. Nowhere is this more present than at the desk of Caldwell B. Cladwell. Nearly every time the opulent desk glides out onstage, a massive wall descends that feels like it’s at least 200 stories tall.
And that cleverly streamlined UGC logo at the top of it all: totally looks like a floor plan view of a toilet with the globe of the earth in the bowl ready to be flushed. I love that. I love how brilliant that is given that this IS ultimately a story about people who are all far too distracted to notice that the world is falling apart ecologically. The meta-art of the fact that we’re all attending a big, flashy Broadway-style musical that only casually glances in the direction of things that we all really, really need to be addressing is all the more brilliant. It’ll give some of us something to chuckle about as the world dies from the coming global drought. Smile: it’s only the end of the world.
Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Urinetown: The Musical runs through June 10th at The Cabot Theatre in The Broadway Theatre Complex on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800 or visit the Skylight Online.
"The situation is quite critical. The water table is dropping all over the world. There’s not an infinite supply of water.”
--Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
It’s a Two-Person Romance
It’s an intimate, little space at the Irish Cultural Heritage Center. In a rear entrance far from a torn-up stretch of Wisconsin Avenue rests a cozy, little studio space. There’s a bar with a few beers on top at the back of the improvised studio. Folding chairs rest in front of a small stage for two: Becky Cofta and Nate Press. The play is The Good Father. The company is Milwaukee Irish Arts. Cofta and Press are playing Jane and Tim: an Irish couple who meet at a New Year’s Eve party somewhere in the early 2000s. Over the course of a couple of hours, they flutteringly fall in and out of love in a very earthbound romance that’s occasionally emotionally exhilarating.
Two actors. Two characters. Two hours. (There's an intermission.) The drama plays out over the course of a year in their lives. We never see the two characters with others. Just two people. (There’s also an implied dog. There’s also a pregnancy.) To say too much more would be giving away too much. Playwright Christian O’Reilly renders a drama that feels remarkably vivid complexity that gradually sneaks its way into the script. On the surface, it’s just two people in a series of isolated moments over the course of a single year, but things quickly get complicated beneath the surface the way things often do between two people when serious emotions are at work.
It’s About Romance Out of Youth’s Reach
All too often romance is something that we see onstage or onscreen as breathed through youth. Here we have a couple of characters in their 30s falling for each other between two New Year’s Eves. As the play opens, Becky Cofta plays a woman just out of range of a group of friends who are all becoming parents. She’s never had a kid. Events in life have set her adrift and she’s feeling lost. On the surface, though, she’s very much in control, even while intoxicated she has a sense of mastery over the situation which masks the chaos within. There’s a strong cultural component here. Modern women are expected to be completely together on every possible level. They need to be independent and resilient while emotionally connected and vulnerable. Cofta is heartbreakingly compelling as a woman desperately trying to hold every last dichotomy together with the increasingly ominous complexity of motherhood on the horizon. Cofta is as good in silence as she is in dialogue, rendering a captivatingly complex character. Wordless responses play across her face in a brilliantly natural little micro-choreography. It's quite difficult not to get drawn-in even when she's silent. As an audience we see in Jane what Tim sees in her. Cofta does an excellent job of delivering her end of the attraction to the romance.
It’s About Fatherhood, Too
A lot has been made of toxic masculinity of late. A culture of men aggressing other men into being aggressive has been handed down from generation to generation. There’s a certain isolation that plays a role in that. Here we have a story about a man who truly wants to be a father. No isolation here--he’s looking for connection. He's looking to break the cycle. His father was distant. There's some suggestion that he might have been physically abusive, too. He’s looking to be the father he never had. This becomes heartbreakingly touching when the all-too-rare subject of male factor infertility sneaks into the narrative. Press delivers a truly complicated character to the stage in flips and convolutions as his resolve is tested in the course of one hour that is one year. There character navigates some very tight emotional turns in the course of the play...sometimes in the span of a single dialogue. There’s one moment near the end of the play that requires Press to dive from wisdom to wounded to angry to apology...all within the span of a single brief monologue. Far from the extremes of flat affectlessness or exaggerated, over-rendered emotion, Press manages to bring every shade of emotion into that moment with just the right emphasis to make it all strikingly vivid.
It’s Sad, but It’s Not Sad
After the show, my wife actually felt as though she wanted it to have a sadder ending. O’Reilly’s drama is cleverly crafted and perfectly balanced, though. In conversation after the show, it occurred to me that a sadder ending would have come across as being unearned. This drama gets precisely the ending it deserves. There’s nothing that happens here that isn’t fully earned in the course of the script. Nothing comes out of nowhere...not even thee love at the center of it all and THAT is really difficult to pull of in a two-person drama. The success here has every bit as much to do with the script as it does with Press and Cofta, who do an admirable job of giving themselves to a thoroughly engrossing couple of hours in an intimate space.
(Did I mention it’s free?) Donations are accepted, but this is a free show. Milwaukee Irish Arts performs it a few more times from the intimacy of the Irish Cultural Heritage Center before taking the show to the Acting Irish International Theatre Festival later-on this month in Calgary, Canada. With a drama this good on a free show, there’s no reason not to be a part of the intimacy this weekend. There’s no reason for there NOT to be a packed house every night. Go have a pint and a few tears with a couple of great actors falling in love. It’s a grand time.
Milwaukee Irish Arts’ staging of The Good Father runs through May 14 at the Irish Cultural Heritage Center on 2133 W. Wisconsin Ave. Admission is “pay what you can.” For more information, visit Milwaukee Irish Arts onlinemilirisharts.wordpress.com/.
A live performance can be classy. A live performance can be whimsical. It takes a special kind of show to be both at the same time for a full hour without feeling strained. Svadba-Wedding nails it perfectly. There’s dance. There’s singing. It’s classy. It’s fun. Seeing a show this perfectly split between two worlds feels pretty rare. Going to The Best Place for a show like this isn’t exactly like spotting a unicorn. (That would be too precious. This is much cooler than that.) It’s more like...catching your garden gnome wearing a tuxedo and humming Beethoven's Ninth: Classy. But whimsical.
Words, melodic tones and the occasional bit of emotional syncopation deliver a funky kind of play ethic to the performance energy that feels totally fantastic, earthbound, delightfully abstract and utterly relatable all at once. Jubilant energy cascades through The Best Place tavern as Wild Space Dance Company and Milwaukee Opera Theatre present Svabda-Wedding—a little champaign toast of operatic dance in a snug space. Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik shuffles the energy throughout a stage-less space in a cleverly deft fusion of dance and vocals. Ponasik and Choreographer Debra Loewen use the space at The Best Place with as much attention to silence and empty space as they do to action, motion and melody.
Before a Wedding
Yeah, it’s opera and modern dance, but don’t worry: the story is simple. An all-woman cast of dancers and singers prepare for a wedding. There is excitement, casual socialization, hair and make-up and gossip and even a bachelorette moment shared by everyone at the bar. (The casual grace of a dancer clenching a PBR tumbler in her teeth was a nice touch given the venue, as is the experience of seeing the entire ensemble head over to the bar.) The vocals are Serbian (with music and libretto by contemporary Serbian-born Canadian composer Ana Sokolović), but the cast delivers uninhibited emotion to the stage with such electric expression that the vocals mean more in sound than they ever could in word. The exact meaning of what's being said would likely feel kind of clumsy next to this much grace. (Music,motion and emotion always find ways of being more graceful than words.)
Now I Want To See Them Doing Other Things
There’s a tremendous amount of rehearsal and planning that goes into a show like this. With a show like this, though...you don’t want to see all that. Ponasik and Loewen have done a remarkable job of delivering a totally compelling reality to the stage in song and movement. The fact that it’s also quite contemporary and relatable means that it’s also going to invite insight into casual human moments beyond the performance.
I know it’s not the case, but there’s some part of me that really wants this to be the way things always are when operatic singers and dancers hang out together. Here they’re getting ready for a wedding, but I could see the same grace, poise, playful melody with this same group of characters while they’re...doing laundry. (Or even their taxes.) I want to believe that this same group casually gets together to buy groceries or hang out at the beach or whatever and it’s every bit as graceful and melodic as it is here in performance. They're coloring their hair and they're getting dressed and engaging in small talk and so on. It all feels so gracefully organic. It’s such a nice reality that they’ve brought to The Best Place. You may not want to live there, but it would be difficult to walk out of Svadba-Wedding and not want to return to hang out with the ensemble after the wedding.
Dancers Sharing Moments with Singers and Each Other
The emotion flowing through the ensemble feels subtly authentic. It’s not often that an audience has an opportunity to get this close to dance. The intimacy is a huge challenge for any performer as any inauthenticity in emotion can crush the energy...and every face in the ensemble is almost conversationally close to some of the audience throughout the performance, so there isn’t much room for a performer to hide. The ensemble is incredibly vivid with the emotion. Look closely and you can see dancers sharing moments of emotional connection that goes well beyond the performance to reach right into the heart of human connection. It’s so amazing to see the subtle interplay of dancers making eye contact and really connecting. You don’t generally see that in a formally staged dance performance. It’s hard not to feel the energy of that, particularly as each character is so totally distinct. Everyone in the ensemble is bringing something distinctly different to the show.
Two More Performances
Svadba-Wedding has two more performances: tonight, May 9th and tomorrow night the 10th. Both performances are at the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery. Both performances start at 7:30 p.m. The show runs for an hour. (I did mention that it was an hour long, didn't I? Anyway...it's an hour long.)
You have two nights. Then the garden gnome stops wearing the tux and goes back to his usual attire. Spot this one while you can. It’s amazing. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.
And Right Next Door...
Also at the Best Place this week in a neighboring performance space: Shakespeare Raw’s AS YOU LIKE IT. Boozy Bard hosts another sketchy Shakespeare show right next door to the wedding at the Best Place. So cool to see a couple of shows like this on the edges of downtown. There's one more performance...tonight only.
It’s Peter Falk
Ask people about Peter Falk and they’ll mention...The Princess Bride. (Okay, maybe that’s just my generation.) But ask people about Peter Falk and they’ll mention Wings of Desire. (Okay, that’s probably just me. Good movie, though.) Ask MOST people about Peter Falk and they’ll mention Columbo. Peter Falk: there was an actor who truly became synonymous with a role. You think Columbo and you think Peter Falk. And you think Peter Falk and you think Columbo. You see him in Wings of Desire and you think Columbo. Hell...you see him in The Princess Bride and you think Columbo. So...say you’re staging a production of an old stage play on the south side of Milwaukee and that stage play happens to have Columbo in it. You know what everyone’s going to be thinking? That’s right: Peter Falk.
Only it’s not Peter Falk
It takes a hell of a lot of guts to stage a play where everyone walking into the show is going to be thinking very, very specifically of an actor who, barring any hauntings, seances or ouija boards is definitely NOT going to be showing-up. Alchemist Theatre Guy and Director Aaron Kopec has precisely that many guts. This month, he’s staging a production of Prescription Murder. It’s the stage play that got turned into a 1968 TV movie that introduced Columbo to television by way of...Peter Falk.
Here we have the exceedingly talented Randall T. Anderson in the role of the rumpled police detective on the trail of the murderer of the wife of a psychiatrist. Again: not an easy thing to step into the Falk for this one, but thankfully, Anderson’s only got one foot in the Falk. The other foot is firmly in Columbo. (Okay so this is starting to sound a little weird.)
The tradition of the rumpled gumshoe detective wasn’t originated by Falk or even Columbo. The archetype goes back to Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Theoretically, Anderson could have spent a bit more energy finding the rumpled gumshoe detective that uniquely resides within him and come away with something much more fascinating than what he ended up with here. It would have been really cool to see what he would have come up with, but he would have disappointed a lot of people who had come to see...Peter Falk. So like I say: Anderson plays it half-Falked. This is a Columbo somewhere between Peter Falk and Randall T. Anderson. This is actually as much fun to watch because it’s a balancing act as it is to watch because it’s just a really good performance.
Men of a certain aspect ratio
The costuming by Amanda J. Hull is very specifically 1960s. Something feels a bit off about that on account of the fact that this is Columbo.
At some point mention is made of Idlewild Airport. And suddenly I’m thinking: “Okay, so this is the ‘60s with the music and the costumes, but exactly when in the ‘60s is this?” They hadn’t called it Idlewild Airport since...1963. But most people aren’t going to think Columbo and think of the early 1960s. I think Columbo and I think of men of a certain aspect ratio and resolution. That sort of washed-out fuzziness of the 1970s when the character appeared in over 40 feature-length TV dramas that echoed into infinity on syndication for UHF back when THAT was a thing. Kopec and company firmly plant this thing outside that bleary 4:3 cathode ray era and bring it into something considerably more classy.
Columbo by Way of Hitchcock
So it wasn’t originally Falk as Columbo. An early TV appearance featured some guy named Thomas Mitchell in the role and before that there was a guy named Bert Freed. Go far enough back and you end up with a stage play called Prescription Murder which was originally staged back in 1962. More than simply using fashions, furniture and props that feel like the ‘60s, Kopec nails a very early ‘60s Alfred Hitchcock feel about it complete with overly dramatic lighting and music cues and just the right kind of chemistry between the actors.
Columbo himself doesn’t actually show-up for much of the early going of the play. For the early part of the play, we have Chris Goode as cunning psychiatrist Dr. Roy Flemming and Amanda J. Hull as his wife. Goode is ever-so-slightly over-the-top as a Hitchcockian murder villain who Columbo must find a way to outsmart. Goode’s got the feel of an early '60s murder-mystery drama nailed quite precisely here. For her part, Hull does a really good job as the murder victim. It’s got to be really, really difficult to make an authentic appearance in a role so obviously marked for death from the beginning of the play, but Hull gives the character enough depth to make her feel like someone who just might have gone on living had it not been for this whole, "becoming a homicide victim," thing that she ran into on her way out of town.
Rounding out the edges of the ensemble are Sharon Nieman-Koebert with an endearing New York accent as Flemming’s receptionist and Patrick Schmitz (yes, really) as Flemming’s friend Dave Gordon. There’s also a dog. His name is Rufus #1. He’s a Basset Hound. This is not his first time on a stage. Go figure.
Brenda Poppy is suitably restless as Dr. Flemming’s lover and accomplice. She’s got a very powerful physical presence which is cleverly muted by the character’s reluctance to go along with her lover’s plans to murder his wife. In the early going, Goode, Hull and Poppy rest within a very Hitchcockian Kopec set, lighting and sound design in what feels like a very stylishly cozy early ‘60s film murder for stage. Then Anderson shows-up as Columbo and there’s an engrossing battle of wits that draws the drama to a very satisfying close.
Alchemist Productions’ staging of Columbo: Prescription Murder runs through May 19th at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket requests and more, visit Alchemist Theatre online.
Off the Wall Theatre’s tiny space plays host to a moody drama as it presents Night Must Fall. The play is set in a remote home in Essex in the early 20th century. Donna Lobacz is admirably stern as Mrs. Bramson--a bitter, old wheelchair-bound woman of wealth around which the shadowy action of the thriller orbits. Jenny Kosek is subtly fascinating as Mrs. Bramson’s niece Olivia. As the drama opens, Kosek cleverly delivers Olivia’s disgust of Mrs. Bramson in shiftings and emotionality that serves to set the stage for the rest of the drama.
Mrs. Bramson is surrounded by people who have been pulled into her proximity. Gladys Chmiel is charming as Bramson’s longtime cook. Caitlin Kujawski Compton plays delicate and fragile in spite of a potentially imposing stage presence in the role of the maid Dora. Mark Neufang smartly finds great complexity in the character of her former lover Dan, who ingratiates himself with Mrs. Bramson. There’s a lot of emotion in and around the ensemble that finds counterpoint in a powerfully subdued Jeremy Welter as a painfully mild-mannered man looking to wed Olivia. Those familiar with Welter’s dynamic strengths onstage may find it odd. He’s just so...boldly flaccid and inert, which makes the role work beautifully and lends a really important sort of...lower register to the drama to keep it all grounded properly.
Once things have settled-down in establishing relations between an ensemble at Mrs. Bramson’s estate, a heroically sinister James Strange shows-up in the role of a police inspector who has come to investigate the disappearance of a woman in the area. Playwright Emilyn Williams spends much of the rest of the thriller allowing characters to interact with and suspect each other of kidnapping or murder. It’s a script that makes for a rather tight two hours in a small theatre.
At the center of the drama is a mysterious chemistry between Kosek and Neufang as Olivia and Dan. There’s a lot between the two of them that is totally unspoken and largely ineffable. Silences and glances come across almost...symphonically between the two of them as their conflict pushes the story through much of the time between the beginning and end of the drama. At times the drama seems ridiculously amplified...but with Kosek and Neufang there’s a balance which allows the overblown intensity to work in such a small space.
Light, Sound and Mood
Aiding matters considerably are lighting and sound design. Director Dale Gutzman and Technical Director David Roper splash lights in strange spaces across the weirdly cluttered landscape of the home. Jake Russell has provided just enough of a musical soundscape to slightly amplify the mood and allow the emotional reality of the drama a somewhat stylishly cozy place in which to reside.
I was given the option of a couple of different places to sit...and might have made the mistake of sitting in the front row. Typically I love getting as close as possible to a studio drama, but...once again I seemed to have forgotten just how hot it gets at the Off the Wall...particularly in months when it’s also warmer outside. The heat from the theatre AND the heat of the lights brings things over to the toasty side of uncomfortable, but that lack of physical comfort can ratchet-up the emotional discomfort of a compellingly moody drama for late April and early May.
Enter the theatre and Kosek is huddled in character amidst shadows waiting for everything to start again. It’s quite a journey.
Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Night Must Fall runs through May 6 at Off the Wall’s space on 127 East Wells St. For ticket reservations, call 414-484-8874 or visit Off the Wall online.
This month Cooperative Performance presents the war drama A Piece of My Heart. The Vietnam War is seen through the eyes of the women who served. It’s a compelling look at war from a perspective that doesn’t often get seen. So often war dramas have women serving around the edges of the action. A Piece of My Heart flips this. It’s quite refreshing to see a war drama with a token male. Just one guy in a cast of women in a story that covers one hell of a lot of ground in two hours with one intermission.
A Diverse Ensemble
The scope of the drama is surprisingly wide. The play opens with enlistment and volunteers signing-up to serve in various different ways. Then there’s training, active combat and recreation. We get the end of a tour of duty right before intermission and then...all of the horrors back home after war on the other side of it. It’s a really wide view of the war which manages to feel big and ominous. The impressive thing about this: There are only seven people in the cast and it's a very small performance space.
Tina Nixon is aggressively poised as a career military intelligence officer named Steele. Nixon has a stern strength about her presence which serves as a sturdy backbone for the ensemble. Her formidable energy in the role amplifies her frustration in dealing with the top brass.
Anna Figlesthaler and Nicole Martin play to the heartbreakingly exhausting life of medical support in a war zone. Figlesthaler plays the daughter of a nurse who served in World War II who volunteers for duty in Vietnam and gets more than she’d expected. The depth of Martin’s performance settles-in after intermission when dealing with tragedy at home after the war.
Sheng Lor is given the challenge of one of the most emotionally textured character arcs. At the opening of the drama she signs-up to serve in Hawaii, but gets drawn into Vietnam, where she experiences love, loss and deeper concerns of socio-cultural identity. Lor puts in an amazing performance. Don’t ever recall seeing her before. Hopefully she gets cast in more shows.
Emmaline Friederichs plays a woman from a wealthy family who goes out to serve in the Red Cross. Life in a war quickly toughens her at a price. During service she’s mercilessly precise. In the off-hours, she’s caving-in emotionally. Friederichs carves out quite a dichotomy between the two sides of the character.
In addition to the military and the Red Cross, we get the USO. Ashley Retzlaff plays a country music singer who extensively tours Vietnam. In addition to adding music that sets the mood via acoustic guitar, Retzlaff brings life to a side of the war that adds quite a bit of depth to the drama.
Josh Decker plays ,“The Men.” All of them. There are quite a lot of them in and around the edges of the drama. To his credit, Decker never exaggerates the difference between different characters. He’s able to play a number of different roles without over-rendering each of them in a way that would distract from the women at the center of the drama.
Sweeping War Drama in a Studio
The nation of Vietnam is 127,881 mi². The performance space at the War Memorial is...much smaller than this. Director Abigail Stein has fostered a tempo and intensity that makes the small space feel kind of immense at times. There’s no set and few props. Sound Designer Loren M. Watson’s audio backdrop for the show is minimalist. Stein allows the drama of an intimate space to be about the people caught-up in the drama. Aside from a few images projected in the background and a few sound effects here and there, the strength of A Piece of My Heart largely rests in the energy of the cast, which is well-modulated from beginning to end. Of particular note here is the flurry of activity that we feel in combat as medics get to work. Nixon is the fiery gravity at the center of a storm as Figlesthaler. Martin and Lor rush around amidst the pristine poise of Friederichs tirelessly keeping it all together. At moments like that, the ensemble pleasantly overwhelms.
The Milwaukee County War Memorial Center is the perfect venue for a show about war. A Piece of My Heart is a rare opportunity to see an intimate show in a beautiful space. It’s not often a small-stage show makes it to a piece of architecture that’s as striking as this. The entire space seems to be a tribute to straight lines, right angles an wide, flat expanses. The mid-1950s work by Eero Saarinen seems strange coming from an architect who would go on to design the tulip chair and the Gateway Arch. No subtly elegant simple curves here. Evidently Eero was feeling Brutalism in a very big way when considering the design of a memorial for those who served in the military. Very few curves in the wide, flat space one walks though on the way in to see a show about war. The walk out after the show is pretty breathtaking as well. Emerge from the war drama in the Memorial and there’s the ever-expanding Milwaukee skyline seen from a rather unique perspective. From beginning to end, A Piece of My Heart is remarkably intense.
Cooperative Performance’s production of A Piece of My Heart runs through Apr. 29 at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center on 750 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cooperative Performance online.
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is frighteningly simple in its complexity. With four characters, Shanley dissects a basic question of truth with the kind of emotional precision that reveals the deeper inner complexity of human reality. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre stages a thoroughly satisfying production of the drama this month from the stage of the Broadway Theatre Center.
It’s a Big Place. Lots of Space
It’s hard to miss the immensity of the set. We’re looking at a huge church meant to represent...in a way...all of Catholicism. The Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre is big and spacious without feeling overwhelming the way the larger venues in town do. Scenic Designer Steve Barnes manages to make it look positively immense, though. Huge stretches of empty space are contrasted against massive, ominous stretches of brick which seem to encompass everything. There’s a massive stained glass in the background.
There’s a delicate calculus at work between the cast, the set and all that empty space. It’s difficult to define quite why it works, but director C. Michael Wright has managed to find a way to make the drama of a few people seem every bit as big and powerful as the church itself. The right kind of blocking goes a long way here, but there’s something more at work and it has to do with the dynamic of the ensemble.
Father Brendan Flynn: Balanced Mystery
The Eastern New England accent is a really, really difficult one to nail down. Len too heavily on it and it sounds like you’re doing a weak impersonation of JFK. Lean too faraway from it and it sounds totally indistinct. Dialect Coach Raeleen McMillion and Marcus Truschinski have found the perfect voice for Father Brendan Flynn: a man of authority who is suspected of inappropriate relations with a young boy. There’s a mystery about the character from the moment we see him onstage. Truschinski cleverly delivers the casual day-to-day mystery of Father Flynn. There’s never anything overtly sinister in his interactions.
Truschinski allows the events of the drama to define the mystery within the character rather than attempting to over-render the warmth of his kindness or the coldness of his authority. The first time I saw Doubt, it was with the Rep just over ten years ago. Brian Vaughn played Father Flynn with a nice-guy charisma that was strong enough to wash away much of the mystery. To see Vaughn in the role, you’d just sort of...assume that Flynn didn’t do anything wrong. With Truschinski, there’s a delicate balance in the background of the character that keeps his true nature a truly fascinating mystery.
The Nuns in the Shadows
Colleen Madden and April Paul play Sister Aloysius Beauvier and Sister James-a couple of nuns at the church who suspect Father Flynn of impropriety. Reference to the progression of authority in the Catholic church throughout the play. The chain of authority seems to permeate every breath and heartbeat of the drama. Sister James is a young nun who answers to Sister Aloysius who serves the church far below Father Flynn. None of the three perfectly follow this authority, however. They respect it, but they don’t perfectly conform to it. Each of the three has a different reason for feeling uncomfortable with it, but they must all respect that it’s there. You could imagine this would be a really, really difficult dynamic to bring across onstage given only 90 minutes’ time. C. Michael Wright and company do an excellent job of bringing the specifics of this complexity to the stage in an approach which seems to start with the nuns.
Madden and Paul tread delicately around each other as two different people with two different levels of authority. Madden is sternly courageous as an elder educator determined to prove Flynn’s guilt. As Sister James, April Paul wields a heroic sense of compassion as the younger nun who has a passion for teaching. Both act with the best of intentions. Each acts on these intentions in her own way. The contrast between them draws them together in a search for the truth about what happened between Father Flynn and one of the choirboys.
Malkia Stampley rounds out the cast in a brief but powerful appearance as Mrs. Muller--the mother of the boy Father Flynn is suspected of having been involved in inappropriate relations with. Sister Aloysius invites her in to the office to question her about her son. Things get complicated. Mrs. Muller is a very strong African American woman dealing with life as a marginalized US citizen. (The drama is set in Autumn of 1964 just a few months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted. The ink was still dry. There was a lot of work to be done there still is...) Stampley makes quite an impression. She doesn’t hold much authority, but she is able to respectfully challenge the notions of a very established nun in one of the drama’s most powerful scenes.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Doubt runs though Apr. 29 at the Broadway Theatre Center. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800 or visit Milwaukee Chamber online.
Churchill Drama Returns to the Studio Theatre
Caryl Churchill’s Far Away is probably my favorite contemporary drama. Years ago I saw a production of it onstage at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. Naturally I’m going to jump at the chance to see anything written by her. This month, Renaissance Theaterworks stages Churchill’s 1982 comic drama Top Girls. It’s being staged in the same space I saw Far Away all those years ago. Cassandra Bissell plays an executive Londoner working for an employment agency. Having just been promoted, she celebrates with a dinner party featuring successful, largely forgotten characters from throughout history. After the party, we see her at the office and learn a bit about her past in a story that explores the psyche of an upwardly mobile woman in Thatcher’s England.
A Dream Cast Directed by Fete
Churchill’s all-woman cast allows for a wide range of actresses. Directed by Susan Fete, the cast of the Renaissance production features some of the best actresses from nearly every contemporary generation of Milwaukee theatre. Many of them are present in the opening dinner party. Jenny Wanasek is elegantly charming as the nineteenth-century English explorer Isabella Bird. Mary MacDonald Kerr commands a strikingly casual sense of authority as the a fictitious ninth-century female pope. Rachel Zientek is boldly silent as a a gruff Flemish folk hero named Dull Gret. Grace DeWolff is calmly radiant as Patient Griselda, who shows-up a bit late to the party. (This is probably the biggest departure for any of the established Milwaukee actresses in the play. I don’t ever recall seeing DeWolff play Calmly Radiant before. It’s an energy she handles as deftly as the more active dynamic she always wields so well.) In addition to this there’s the welcome addition of Chicago-based actress Karissa Murrell Myers in the role of 13th century Japanese concubine Lady Nijō. The dinner party casually rolls along in a gorgeously luminescent set by designer Stephen Hudson-Mairet. It’s a deeply-engaging intro. The conversation gradually meanders into the matter of motherhood, which nearly everyone at the party has experienced in a distinctly different way. This sets-up the focus of the drama’s four remaining scenes.
The Other Four Scenes
The strangely fantastic dinner party fades-out in favor of a very earthbound quartet of scenes which focus on a couple of different characters. Cassandra Bissell is Marlene--the incredibly together upwardly mobile Londoner who works for Top Girls Employment Agency. Her story is paired against that of a fearless, young girl named Angie, played with great childlike exuberance by Elyse Edelman. We first see her in the play’s third scene in a back yard blanket fort hanging out with a friend played by DeWolff. The progression from a dinner party in the first scene to an employment agency in the second scene to a couple of girls hanging out in a backyard feels a bit disjointed at first. Edelman and DeWolff are delivering a really interesting interaction between two girls, but it’s hard to settle-into a complex connection between yet another set of characters at the end of the first act. The overall flow of action in the opening act feels off, but each scene is solidly realized.
Things are a bit more focussed on the other side of intermission. Angie has come to visit Marlene at the office. She has come unannounced to witness Marlene on the job. The final scene takes place earlier. Marlene has come to visit her sister (played with a very organic energy by Libby Amato. This is the second time I can remember seeing Amato play a relatively young mother. She’s really, really good with the vaguely fatigued momentum of someone dealing with both work and parenthood. There’s a casually stylish grace and charm with Amato that anyone would love in a mother.)
Insight: It’s A Mix
Churchill is covering socio-political issues of being a woman and being successful that have been so thoroughly examined in so many different contemporary stories that it’s difficult for me to remember whether or not any of it would have even been terribly revelatory even when it debuted in 1981. I saw the play with my successful wife and she felt like she was cringing through a bit of what she has dealt with throughout her career in the financial services industry. This isn't anything new. She's seen it before. She doesn't need to see it here. Churchill’s coverage of a spectrum of different issues in the play seems to range from the painfully obvious to the deeply insightful. Where it's insightful, it's great. Where it's not, Churchill's script drags a bit. Throughout it all, though, there's this amazing cast that breathes such satisfying life into even the dullest moments of the drama.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Top Girls runs through Apr. 29 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations, visit Renaissance Theaterworks online.
Everything Means Something Else.
Lauren Gunderson’s I And You is a fiercely clever, little 90 minutes in a theatre seat. Two people have a conversation. It isn’t just any casual conversation, though. You can’t do casual conversation onstage. For one thing it’d be rude. People pay good money to watch the conversation. But also: you can’t have a casual conversation onstage because everyone is watching. You have to prepare. And if that preparation happens to include this particular script by Lauren Gundrerson, every last sentence is going to have some kind of double or triple meaning. And if it happens to be directed by David Cecsarini, the depth of multiple levels of meaning are going to appealingly drift across the stage in a very organic fashion thanks to the talents of talented actors Christina Panfilio as Caroline and Ibraheem Farmer as Anthony. It’s only 90 minutes or so without intermission, but there’s A LOT to think about here. Very clever stuff.
It’s a Messy Bedroom
Earlier this season, we got to see Jason Fassl decorate a young woman’s bedroom in Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Russian Transit. With I And You, Rick Rasmussen comes-up with the precise look for the bedroom of contemporary shut-in high school student Caroline. There are pictures cluttering the walls including a little shrine to retro-pop king Elvis and quite a lot of her photography. I heard someone in the audience mentioning that it looked as though the entire set could be folded-up into a little box and carried offstage at a moment’s notice. That’s no accident. This is the entire world for one high school senior. Rasmussen does a brilliant job of making it look big without losing track of the fact that it’s a very small space in which Caroline is forced to live. It’s more than just a place where the smoke detector seems to constantly be going-off and the cell reception suddenly seems to have disappeared: it’s the only place where Caroline can live.
When Adults Play Teenagers
About a decade and a half ago I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview with film director Catherine Hardwicke. During this interview, Hardwicke had inadvertently convinced me that the only way to do serious drama about teenagers was by having the teenagers PLAYED by teenagers. (Her indie movie Thirteen had Nikki Reed and Evan Rachel Wood playing 13 year olds while they were in their mid-teens.)
Granted, it IS difficult to get high school actors on a professional show like this. There are child labor laws and things of that nature...not to mention the pressure a show like this would have on a couple of teenagers as they are the only ones in the cast..but...we DO have First Stage here in Milwaukee...and it’s one of the best children’s theatre programs in like...the world. So there’s a part of me that feels like it’s almost disrespectful to try to stage a teenaged drama without using actual teenagers...but here it wasn’t an issue at all. With Next Act's staging of I And You I know I’m watching adults play a couple of high school seniors and...I’m okay with it.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I honestly don’t know exactly what makes actors Cristina Panfilio and Ibraheem Farmer so convincingly adolescent. I don’t know exactly what director David Cecsarini did to make it work but...it works.
It doesn’t hurt that the only two characters in the play are both teenagers. This is their world and the stage has brought it to us, so there’s no contrast between adults and teenagers to muddle things-up.
It doesn’t hurt that both Panfilio and Ibraheem have done a really good job of rendering the specific graces and awkwardnesses of late adolescence with a very close attention to detail and a great respect for early adulthood. They’re not playing down to the roles or exaggerating awkwardness. This is just a couple of people.
It also doesn’t hurt that Lauren Gunderson’s dialogue feels very authentically millennial teen. And it doesn’t hurt that Caroline is actually a really appealing character.
In Caroline, Gunderson has created the type of high school senior you would’ve wanted to hang out with or date. She’s sharp. She’s witty. She’s unobtainable on account of some really misfortunate health. So there’s that darkness that’s so appealing in high school. Okay...so yes: I would have had a HUGE crush on Caroline in high school, but there’s real wit in her dialogue and Panfilio does a brilliant job of delivering very, very clever on-liners that are clever, playful and sharply tactical. Panfilio’s graceful approach to the character makes Caroline one of the more vivid characters I’ve seen in recent years. It’s not real often that I want to hang out with a character after the end of a performance. At the end of this show I want the character of Caroline babysitting my kids. (She’s just that cool.)
It’s nice to see Cloud b Twilight Turtle® getting some work here. Over the years, the luminous, little plushy and his cohorts have been more accustomed to performing light shows on the ceilings of much smaller audiences of much smaller people while making “fear of the dark a thing of the past.” Here Twilight Turtle® plays Turtle...Caroline’s symbolic little, plush friend. Nice to see the plush turtle branching out and doing a little work onstage.
Next Act Theatre’s production of I And You runs through Apr. 29 on 255 S. Water St. For ticket requests and more visit nextact.org or call 414-278-0765. My concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.
There are places where The House of Bernarda Alba is popular enough to be produced every single year. Milwaukee is not one of those places. In over a decade of covering theatre here and over 1,000 plays, I haven’t seen Alba once. I finally had a chance to see Federico García Lorca’s classic drama last night courtesy of a production being staged this month by The Village Playhouse.
Erico Ortiz directs the show. He’s personally translated the script from the original Spanish. It’s clearly been a labor of love for the director who brings together an impressively large cast for an intimate, little staging of a complex family drama set in Spain just prior to the Spanish Civil War. It’s the mid-1930s and women are given a small corner of the world to inhabit. Lorca’s classic focusses-in on those women who resided in open shadows in the margins of an era preceding the rule of the dictator Francisco Franco.
Anne Gorski leads an all-woman cast as the matriarch Bernarda Alba. She is the head of a rather large and relatively wealthy household in the country. Gorski summons the gravity of a conservative authority about her. Gorski’s intensity is not quite the oppressive presence of a tyrant. Gorski is not without her power in the role, but as the drama unfolds, it becomes clear that Alba herself is losing her grip. Mary Lynn Ferwerda carries an almost whimsical sense of authority about her as Bernarda’s longtime maid La Poncia. She’s able to summon much of the familiarity between herself and LaPoncia and the ever-aloof Alba. Ferwerda has charm ans wisdom that lends considerable weight to Gorski’s performance.
The drama begins with a funeral and ends with a death. In the 2.5 hours (0r s0) between these two events, we are immersed in the politics of a group of people who aren’t allowed much freedom. It’s a different prison for each and every one of the characters onstage. Servants can scarcely rest. Non-servants can scarcely do anything but rest...restlessly. The intimacy of the studio theatre stage amplifies the deliciously restless feeling of the drama.
There’s a definite hierarchy rigidly defined in the confines of the household from servants to those they serve. There’s a stratification of age and stature in and within the family that can be a bit difficult to follow. There’s a rigidly-defined spectrum of ages in the cast of characters in the script that isn’t perfectly mirrored in the cast onstage. This isn’t as much of a problem as it might seem at the beginning of the first act. When the restlessness settles-in the drama between characters mix and the hierarchy ultimately falls to an engrossing interpersonal drama. They’re all prisoners here. Age and status fade into the background for a group of people who are forced to share a very small space together.
Though men are completely absent from the cast, their hold on the power is ever-present. There is a handsome, young man who never appears onstage who becomes a matter of contention between some of the sisters. Everyone wants out of the house and he might be a really nice way out for one of them. Bividiana Murguia beautifully plays to the center of this conflict as the youngest daughter Adela in subtle shades that can become casually explosive. His allegiances and affections become a central struggle between nearly everyone in the cast in some way as the drama rushes from funeral to death in three solidly engrossing acts punctuated by a couple of intermissions.
It would doubtlessly be difficult to get an all-latin cast for a show in Milwaukee with a cast of this size. As things settle-in over the course of the drama, the specifics of the Spanish setting fade into the background and ethnicity becomes as minor a detail as age in an interpersonal drama that works very well at its heart. That being said, it’s really, really nice to see a couple of Puerto Rican actresses in the cast. Sandra Hollander has a sparklingly earthbound charisma as a central servant for the household. Miriam Kopec is fairly haunting in and around the edges as the 27-year-old daughter Amelia. Kopec has a very magnetic presence onstage even in idle moments. It would be great to see her appear in more. The distinct Latin accents of Kopec and Hollander might not be absolutely necessary for the heart of the drama, but they’re refreshingly distinctive. Theatre audiences in Milwaukee so rarely get to hear that specific Latin voice. We need more of that voice.
The Village Playhouse’s production of The House of Bernardo Alba runs through April 22nd at Inspiration Studios on 1500 S. 73rd St. in West Allis. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.