A show with a title like Zombies on Broadway brings with it certain expectations. There will be zombies. There will be Broadway. There will be campy music. Off the Wall Theatre delivers on all of these things with its season-ending musical comedy. The premiere of Dale Gutzman’s hand-crafted original show ambles humorously across the stage, successfully avoiding the potential genius of its premise. The show instead curls somewhat charismatically around a mid-twentieth century musical sitcom format that capably delivers light, inconsequential comedy to an intimate stage. Gutzman’s done far better work with his original shows in the past. The campy cheesiness of Zombies on Broadway doesn’t reanimate well enough to live-up to his best work.
Michelle Waide lifelessly generates laughter as Dottie Lotrine: a faded star of Broadway who has been turned into a zombie in order to ensure that her latest show opens on time as expected.
Dale Gutzman is admirably flawed as Carl Denham—the man who brought the disaster out giant ape Ling Kong to New York. He looks to make-up for it by reviving a dead actress and teaching her to sing and dance.
Among those pulled into the horror of the endeavor is broadway star Gilbert Goddard played with comic grace and poise by a dapper Mark Neufang in a pencil-thin mustache. Neufang has a very nuanced and sophisticated understanding of campy comedy that fosters some of the best comic moments in the production. Kristin Pagenkopf also exhibits a clever mastery of cheesy comedy delivery in the role of veteran chorus girl Sassy.
The story itself is a bit of a jumble. There’s problems with a sleazy producer (played by Larry Lukasavage) There’s a budding romance between a chorus girl named Susie (played by Jenny Kosek) and a charmingly wholesome dance captain (Teddi Jules Gardener) named Dick. (And would you believe that his name is used a number of times for wordplay humor? Part of Gutzman’s charm lies in going for easy jokes. They CAN get a bit repetitious.) Gutzman ties together so many elements that the central zombie conflict feels a bit like a gimmick. The script is tolerable as a well-balanced musical, but it misses a great opportunity for something more dynamic.
Horror is one of the more popular genres of fiction in ANY format. Horror fans love parody. People who might not normally think to go to a live stage play are GOING to want to go to a show like this. And they’re going to be disappointed. Gutzman’s script sells the zombie element short. The premise of maintaining a zombie leading lady in a Broadway show has lots of potential, particularly as it might not always be all that clear who she might have been in contact with. Cast and crew alike would have to watch each other very, very closely to make sure no one else might have gotten turned into a zombie or they themselves might unwittingly become the next victim. This and other horror elements are only given occasional time onstage. Gutzman trying to teach zombie-Waide to sing onstage is a bit fun...reminiscent of Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle as Frankenstein and The Monster singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in Young Frankenstein.
One of the best moments in the entire play has Gardener, Neufang and Waide onstage trying to make it through a rehearsal of a single scene. Waide’s zombie grunts. Gardener’s leading male can’t remember any lines and the recently-infected actor played by Neufang is struggling to keep it together. Neufang’s clever balance between poised stage actor and infected zombie about to go full Romero-zombie at any time is a great deal of fun. Too bad more of the rest of the script doesn’t play clever games with the zombie horror. The right talent is clearly assembled for a proper comedy horror show. Composer/Musical Director Chris Holoyda has done great work with musical horror including Lobotomy the Musical and Flesh Trade. This could have been another great locally-written musical/horror crossover for the small stage. Gutzman does a solid job of putting together a campy musical, but it could have been much more.
Boulevard Theatre’s Zombies on Broadway runs through June 30th on 127 E. Wells Street. For ticket reservations and more, visit Off the Wall online.
A very earthy indie Riverwest feel greets audiences on the walk through a curtain of plastic into 53212 Presents’ I’m a Father Under Construction. Beautiful live acoustic alt-pop plays as the sound of traffic on Center Street rolls in from just outside the second floor space above Company Brewing on Center Street. Nerissa Eichinger’s set is a stylized classic blueprint of the front of a residential home with picket fencing covering the stage floor and scenic flats which are rolled around in the course of the show.
Kirk R. Thomsen directs a concise, little seven-part exploration into fatherhood featuring dance theatre, drama, poetry and more. The opening dance piece gives the show its title. Conceived by Posy Knight, the piece represents some of the show’s best abstract work. Ida Lucchesi, Lindsay Stevens and Joelle Worm render a struggle amidst a deep soundscape that includes spoken word from various voices and echoes of the distinctive eloquence of Barack Obama speaking of fatherhood. The abstract multi-person movement work is some of the more beautiful stuff on the program.
The show gets a bit more directly narrative in a trilogy of “Family Life” pieces which include an imaginary ball thrown around between father and kids. Sounds of the construction which echo the title take the form of power drills, hammers and saws that don’t seem to be organized in any particular way. (There’s almost an abstract kind of confusion in the sound effects. This is what it’s like to be a father, though: it’s a lot of work and it can feel like you don’t have a goddamned clue as to what you’re doing. Just keeping sawing and drilling and pounding-in the nails and you’ll be fine..the important thing is that you’re actually there and doing something. you’ll figure it out as you work...) One of the more starkly simple and hauntingly dark pieces in the show is the “Family Life II” between Thomsen and Ben Ludwig. The two engage in admirably complex relations which swiftly shift in an elegantly primal, little moment between two men in a public men’s room.
Ludwig brings the show to a bit of a crescendo with “Legacy,” a piece featuring choreography by Zach Schorsch. There’s a genuine struggle to find identity and gender identity as Ludwig engages in an energetic and aggressive pseudo-duet with a mannequin and number of feather boas. The piece is fairly simple, but Ludwig’s subtle magnetism does an elegant job of selling the gravity of the drama.
The concept of fatherhood is as dizzyingly complex as it is vague. The show doesn’t attempt any kind of a comprehensive dissection of the topic. This works to the overall advantage of the show. There’s so much interpretive artistic abstraction in form and movement that a more explicitly-rendered analysis of fatherhood would suffer. Instead, the show dreamily coasts through certain feelings of universal dad-like Americana. The show’s traditionally American father abstraction is just ambiguous enough to draw-in audiences to a personal connection with the concept of “dad.” Just about any open heart can connect with it regardless of personal history. That’s the beauty in this kind of abstraction.
I wasn’t exactly “fathered” by a dad. I’m not really a traditional dad to my daughters either...not in the cliche way anyway. The show managed to resonate with me on a personal level anyway. With vaguely dad-like notions playing across the stage, the show draws on vague notions that coax vivid memories in a shadowy space beyond the plastic curtain above a bar in Riverwest.
53212 Presents’ I’m a Father Under Construction runs through June 29th at Grapefruit Studios above Company Brewing on 735 E. Center St. For more information, visit 53212 Presents online.
I love a locally-written show. If Milwaukee’s theatre scene is going to expand and evolve, it’s really going to need to produce more original stuff. Even if it’s not great, a locally-written show is fresh. Fresh goes a long way when it is far easier to go with something safe and established. This month, Milwaukee Entertainment Group stages a clever, deceptively light comedy with Andrew Peterson’s Not Dead Yet. On the surface, it’s a weird, screwball comedy that feels like a comfortable fusion between Mel Brooks and the Zucker Brothers. Weird jokes are packed around the edges of a comedy with clever, little pop cultural references and odd bits of visual humor cuddling in the margins of the action. On a deeper level, all of the weirdness is lovingly constructed around a rather sophisticated, little satirical look at fascism and the madness of megalomania. (So...y'know...very topical given the current political climate here in the US.) Directed by Robert A. Zimmerman, a small ensemble agilely weaves the right kind of comic fusion for a really satisfying screwball political satire.
Dennis Lewis is dramatically poised as Cameron James Pinchurst III--a film director who produced the top three highest-grossing films of all time including The Abuse and Iceberg Shmiceberg. He’s clearly a spoof of legendary Hollywood egotist James Cameron. The script features clear references to Cameron’s movies The Abyss, Aliens and probably quite a few more. The show starts on the main floor where everyone in the audience is handed an NDA with incredibly fine print which signs away all rights directly to the filmmaker. Lewis’ comic poise as a Hollywood egotist serves as a central focal point for the entire comedy.
The presentation in the basement is intended to be a table reading of a new script for Pinchurst. In a cozy spoof of a murder-mystery show, things start going wrong and people start to drop dead. Involved in the reading are a group of actors who couldn’t escape Pinchhurst’s influence.
Amber Regan is suitably nihilistic as the hard-drinking Bernice Is-not-my-name. Ms. Is-not-my-name is a veteran/victim of an evidently long line of Pinchurst’s previous productions.
Zach Sharrock plays the aggressively reluctant actor Adolf Ebola. Adolf gradually gets drawn-into the immense gravity of an inescapable project, invariably becoming every bit as dedicated to it as everyone else. Sharrock's is probably the closest to the heart of the satire. Ebola suffers from s weird mutation of Stockholm syndrome as he is forced to join the group and engage in cheerleading for fear of being forced into the punishment of yet another project with Pinchurst later-on. Everyone involved must participate or be punished...with contractually-obligated future projects. The NDAs that the audience signs suggest that everyone in the theatre is suffering from the same conditions at the hands of the mad James Cameron-like Hollywood egotist.
I loved Brittany Curran as the cheerful Susie Ditz--heir to the Ditz Cracker fortune. Peterson’s script could easily make the character come across as some flat, comically stupid stereotype. To her credit, Curran gives Ditz many subtle layers of comic complexity. Ditz isn’t stupid...she’s just so completely lost in her own world that she doesn’t totally connect-up with the world around her. Curran gives Ditz a lot of clever comic affectations that suggest a very deep character beyond the script. It’s a really endearing performance.
Chris Goode stands at the helm of the production in the role of Pinchurst’s assistant E. Orr Block. Goode’s cheerful fidelity in the role is animated by a genuine concern for the wellbeing of his lord and master Pinchurst. The love at the heart of Goode’s performance keeps the character from being the kind of weak character toadies and lackeys so often are.
One by one, various characters die-off...evidently at the hands of Pinchhurst’s obsessive jilted lover Ginger Katz. Cara Johnston vamps it up as the comically sexy femme fatale. Katz’ psychotic kitty fursona is played for laughs. The human kitty jokes end up forming some of the weaker humor in the script, but Johnston does such a good job of selling it that it actually becomes funny. Johnston has great comic instincts which came to light opening night in her ancillary role as Adolf’s girlfriend “Tweets.” There was an evidently accidental incident involving bubble gum that would be really difficult to repeat. Johnston's smart comic instincts made it work. Some of the best stuff in a show like this can’t be scripted. Johnston and Curran give this production some impressive life around the edges of a largely sharp satirical script.
Milwaukee Entertainment Group’s Not Dead Yet runs through June 22nd at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Entertainment Group online.
The cast bursts into the Tenth Street Theatre at the opening of the show. The stage seems like a random collection of wreckage collected from a beach, which makes sense. This is Bard & Borubon’s production of The Tempest. In keeping with tradition for the company, the show is very fluid with really all actors present on stage throughout the production. There is minimal sat and lots of little props (including puppets and masks by Keighley Sadler) and costume elements (stylishly designed on a tight budget by Liz Shipe) which are gracefully glided through on stage in the course of the production.
Joel Kopischke plays the wizard and displaced nobleman Prospero with considerable vigor. Kopischke has impressive vitality in the role of an old man on a distant island far from traditional civilization. More than merely energetic, Kopischke has a whimsical warmth on stage that doesn’t compromise the actor’s solidly grounded gravitas.
B&B newcomer Rayne Kleinofen is sparklingly endearing as Prospero’s daughter Miranda. The rule allows a actress to really dive into the full emotionality of falling in love. Doing shell on a stage as small as the 10th St., Theatre means that she’s able to exhibit all the signs of falling in love in a very subtle way. Kleinofen is positively radiant as a young woman falling in love for the first time. There’s equal humor and fire in her performance. (It's SO much fun watching her fall in love.)
Grace DeWolff is allowed similar opportunities for subtlety in her performance as the magical spirit Ariel. All too often in performances of supernatural beings in productions of this sort of fantasy, there’s a sense of joy and exuberance in the entities in question. Particularly ones that engage in mischief the way Ariel does. It’s a nice way to play that type of role that is engaging to the audience but it doesn’t feel very well lived in. DeWolff for a more natural and subtle performance as a being of magical power to home magic is something as simple as walking down the street. No need to exaggerate emotion or excitement or anything of that nature. No need to exaggerate any kind of emotion. DeWolff ingeniously allows the character’s casual subtlety to become its own kind of fantasy. Though she does run the risk of underplaying the wonder of a magical being on stage, she knows what she’s doing and she knows how to catch and audiences attention with out the sort of desperation that can often accompany such an endeavor. It’s quite a performance.
Also inhabiting the island is the half human/half monster Caliban, played by Ashley Retzlaff. There’s some distinctly graceful crudeness to Retzlaff’s performance which makes a striking contrast with her performance as the elder Gonzalo who finds himself stranded in the island with a few others due to a nasty storm that has brought them to the island. Retzlaff has nimble comic instincts that serve both characters quite well.
Madeline Wakley and Ro Spice-Kopischke are great fun as Trinculo and Stephano—a couple of Castaways who are soon befriended by Caliban due to the strange alchemy of alcohol. Spice-Kopischke has a playfully dominant presence as Caliban’s new earthbound god. Wakley is clever with her portrayal of a character who could easily come across as a buffoon. Wakley isn’t a fool here. She’s merely the one foolish enough to follow another fool. There’s clever dignity in that which adds to the comedy of the character.
It’s a very well-crafted performance throughout. Director Samantha Martinson has quite a cast to work with here. The ensemble dynamic of a Bard & Bourbon show is as much fun as the show itself. The sense of synthesis between every member of the cast is a s fun to watch in the foreground with characters who are performing as it is to watch the actors in the background preparing for the next moment. Everything moves so swimmingly through the chaos of The Tempest. It’s as relaxing as it is inspiring. The world’s a mess. Maybe if we get the right cast together we can sort everything out.
Bard & Bourbon’s The Tempest (Drunk) runs through May 27 at the Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations, visit the show’s page on Brown Paper Ticket.
All In Productions brings unsullied fun to the stage this month with its stAging of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. A cozy, little staging at Next Act Theatre comes to life with a very pleasantly diverse cast. The musical comedy moves along quite briskly with heartwarming characterization resonating through a large ensemble. The musical version of a small town spelling bee somewhere in the late ’90s comes to life on stage with more of a sense of comedy than it has in the past. All of the cheesy, little jokes feel that much more vivid here. All in productions has done a remarkable job of coaxing genuine humor out of what might at times feel like relatively weak jokes.
The show’s director Mitch Weindorf’s handling of the production comes from a place of familiarity. He knows what works and what doesn’t. Weindorf finds the right mix of music and mood and emotion in a story where adults play children in a very adult-feeling competition.
He balances everything in a production that does better with the comedic end of the show the most previous productions have managed on local stages. Some of the success of the comedy might come from assistant director and Milwaukee comedy veteran Beth Lewinski. She works for the cast of that does a really good job of amplifying silly little jokes in a way but make them land a much better than the release good. The fact that she’s able to do this without making it seem cloying or desperate is quite an accomplishment. This show knows it’s funny. There’s no sense of panic or desperation...which keeps everything refreshingly fun throughout.
As the show opens, faculty and students arrive for a spelling competition that will run roughly 2 hours with one intermission. Samantha Sostarich proudly radiates gentle authority in the role of Bee official Rona Lisa Perretti. Long ago Rona won that spelling bee that she know helps officiate. Sostarich has a sweetly maternal sense about her in the role. She is matched by Robby McGhee in gruff-but-lovable mode as Vice Principal Douglas Panch who has recently returned to his post after a bit of an outburst forced him to take some time away from school. The role allows McGhee to improvise in places, which plays to the strengths of someone who has a lot of experience doing clever improv comedy. Ernest Bell rounds out the central adult characters as the charismatically intimidating Mitch Mahoney--a comfort aid for contestants who fail.
Stephanie Staszak plays one of the youngest more prominent students in the competition: Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre. Staszak cuts a heroic figure as a precocious, socially conscious little girl who is a big part of the gay-straight alliance at her grade school. The character can come across as being strangely awkward, but Staszak imbues the character with the kind of vulnerable confidence that makes her refreshingly complicated.
Adam Qutaishat sits next to Logainne throughout the competition in the role of gracefully clueless, endearingly weird. savant Leaf Coneybear. Qutaishat plays the role in a dreamy daze that adds a whimsical layer of personality to the ensemble.
Ava Bush navigates an irresistibly fragile sweetness in the role of Olive Ostrovsky. Olive’s mom is off on a spiritual journey in India while her father is running late and has yet to arrive at the competition, so it’s up to speculation as to quite how she’s going to pay the entry fee. Bush’s body language is remarkably expressive in the role of an outsider girl who loves spelling. It’s an impressively moving performance. So much of the architecture of the script is pointed in the direction of sympathy for Olive. It can be difficult to deliver a genuinely heartfelt performance when the pathos of a character is so heavily-rendered, but Bush is heartbreakingly subtle onstage. In and amidst all of the craziness of the story, Bush allows herself to be shy and reserved. It’s a really striking contrast.
Romesh Alex Haya amplifies the awkwardness as a competitive jock fish-out-of-water who is determined to win the bee. The script does the character a great service by not making him out to be the bully that this kind of character so often gets framed as in this type of show. Haya takes the awkwardness of the character and runs with it.
Gabe Patterson is charming as the impeccably confident William Barfée--a competitor who gains confidence through spelling everything out on the floor with his foot to make certain that he’s got the right answer. Patterson’s distinctly muffled spin on the Barfée’s personality gives the character a very distinctive stage presence.
Ashley Oviedo is mercilessly precise as multi-disciplinary perfectionist Marcy Park. Oviedo is irresistible as a grade school ninja deftly slicing through every challenge that’s placed in her path. Her greatest challenge awaits in the course of the play when the vision of a certain messiah gives her an opportunity that she might not have ever previously considered.
Every character in the ensemble has his or her own character arc. All the character arcs slide around each other remarkably well in a story that’s been brought together by Weindorf, Lewinski and Music Director Paula Foley Tillen. I’ve seen at least three other productions of this show including the touring Broadway version a few years back. Thanks to an impressive cast under great direction, this is easily the most satisfying production of the musical that I’ve seen. Honestly prior to All In, I don’t know that I honestly would have been able to say that I even liked the show. Now I know I do. In the right hands, it’s a great script. All In has brought together the right elements to bring this show together.
All In Productions’ staging of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee run through May 25 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit All In online.
There’s a line-up of swords on a far table. They’re all ridiculously large wooden things that portend something seriously...silly. The table they rest upon is in The Best Place Tavern. They’re there for Boozy Bard’s staging of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Like any Boozy Bard show, it’s a breezy adaptation of a great script brought to life with no preparation at all. Actors pick roles at random from a hat held by chief conspirator and host Jeremy Eineichner prior to the show.
Each one is given a pretty, red script and a few moments to do whatever it is that they need to do. They then proceed to go at it with minimal props and minimal one-size-kinda-fits-all costuming with wigs and helmets and swords and things. Boozy Bard tackles Richard III as drama in the goofy sketch/improv style: the way Shakespeare intended. (Or not.) The breezy approach would seem a bit strange for a tale of conspiracy and treachery, but Boozy Bard brings it together in a cartoony tale of evil that managed to sail its way through a few dull points opening night.
The beauty of choosing actors from the ensemble at random is that it allows each actor to dive into a different roll and get it running from the inside. There’s a lot of talent with Boozy Bard, so it’s always interesting to see who is going to rise to prominence by being inadvertently jostled into the right role at the right time in the right frame of mind on just the right night. Granted...the casting doesn’t ALWAYS work out in the favor of the performance, but seeing chance and circumstance shove some really talented actors into marginal roles while others shuffle into prominence is part of the fun of a show like this.
Stephen M. Wolterstorff drew the honor of playing the title character opening night. His approach to the character was a bit sedate. He’s been played with exaggerated villainy in the past. With Wolterstorff in the role opening night, one gets the impression of a man who is engaging in his sinister actions simply to pass the time, which fits the role oddly well. It wasn’t until his plans for usurping the throne finally got underway that Wolterstorff’s Richard really got moving.
Laura Holterman has a great sense of the crazy energy necessary to really bring a show like this together. Opening night, she had the honor of playing the heroic Earl of Richmond who meets Richard III on the field of battle at the end of the play. She knew to play to the comedy of heroism itself by simply taking the role seriously. It’s a remarkably clever move to pull comedy out of the heart of honest, noble heroism. It was kind of cool to see Holterman pull that off at the end of opening night.
The ensemble has fun rolling through the classic drama. Boozy Bard is good enough at what it’s doing that a lot of that fun transfers to the audience. Played as comedy without fundamentally changing the script, Richard III is a lot of strange energy being pointed in various different directions. The weird drama of an evil man rising to power and eating his destiny on the battlefield is played for light comedy.Costuming really IS made to fit everyone in the cast. There’s no set. It’s just a bunch of weird people playing with Shakespeare in a bar, but there’s a sense of depth to it. The guy in the Oval Office is a bit too much like Shakespeare’s Richard III, so it’s nice to find some small, cozy corner in which to laugh at the folly of power as everyone has a drink. Sink into a bit of cathartic laughter about this sort of thing before returning to the real world of idiotic presidential tweets and the awful theatre that is the contemporary US political arena.
Boozy Bard’s Shakespeare Raw: Richard III runs has performances May 14th and 15th at the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery on 901 West Juneau Ave. Both shows start at 7:00 pm. For more information, visit the event’s Facebook page.
Staged readings can feel like a strange ghost of a show. There’s no set. No costuming. Maybe the occasional prop. There’s a cast and a script and an audience. Even without all of the rest of it, a staged reading is just a different kind of theatre. Intricacies of a script can get lost and amidst all of the elements of full-fledged production. Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses is alive with the kind of intricacy that can make for an entertaining staged reading. The strangely idiosyncratic suburban two-couple drama’s symphony of non sequiturs resonates through an intimate space courtesy of four actors and four music stands. Audience and actors spend a little over an hour and a half hanging out with four characters who stumble through getting to know each other in various ways.
Ensconced in the pleasantly residential East Side, a cozy, little corner of the Plymouth Church plays host to a story set somewhere in the American suburbs. David Ferrie and Sandra Hollander play an older couple who find themselves getting acquainted with a younger couple who have just moved into the neighborhood, played by Ericka Wade and Matt Specht.
Sandra Hollander radiates warmth and patience in the role of Jennifer—a woman dealing with an increasingly scattered husband. He’s not working. She’s taking the time to try to get to know him a bit better after a busy life spent together. Hollander has a beautiful voice that lends a great deal of personality to the reading without overpowering the rest of the cast. Jennifer is happy to have new neighbors. Her enthusiasm isn’t exactly shared by her husband.
David Ferrie crafts a charmingly dense personality for Jennifer’s husband Bob. Time is beginning to catch-up with him as he finds himself less and less capable of communicating directly with the outside world. Bob’s fractured connection with the world provides some of the more endearingly comic moments in the play. Ferrie cleverly navigates his way around a character who doesn’t seem to understand how little he’s actually connecting with the world outside his head. It’s a delicate performance. Ferrie clearly respects the guy he’s playing or the character wouldn’t come across anywhere near as human as he does.
Ericka Wade has sparklingly witty comic instincts as Bob and Jennifer’s new neighbor Pony. She’s both fragile and volatile--someone who can’t seem to find the proper footing in her life or relationship with her husband. There’s an occasionally explosive anger in the character that might run the risk of coming across as like a sexist temperamental woman stereotype. Wade builds Pony’s anger around a very poised and structured intellect that supports a sophisticated and deeply funny character.
Matt Specht plays Pony’s husband John. He’s an industrious guy looking for freelance work of some sort. Eno lends John the strangest end of his humor, which could be read in a million different ways that would all be totally consistent with the character and the rest of the cast. Specht goes for a remarkably straightforward delivery of John’s lines. Awkwardly missed communication fits Specht’s portrayal of John in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it seems like John isn’t understanding basic elements of conversation. Sometimes it only SEEMS like he is for comic effect. Through it all, Specht comes across as a nice guy, which goes a long way towards rounding out a completely likable cast.
Boulevard Theatre’s staged reading of The Realistic Joneses runs through May 18 at Plymouth Church on 2717 E. Hampshire St. For more information, visit Boulevard online.
Light comedy is remarkably popular in TV and movies. It might seem like cheap pop fare, but live performance of a sitcom-like script can be a strangely satisfying experience. There’s a depth in live performance with an audience that can enhance even the hokiest comedy. Bereft of glossy packaging, scoring and laugh track, raw reality can edge its way through situation comedy without compromising the overall sense of fun. Lemonade Theatre manages this with its debut show: The Odd Couple, Female Version.) Neil Simon’s 1980s female re-framing of his classic 1965 comedy is a double retro echo that conjures images of old re-runs of the classic sitcom. Jessica Betts directs a cozy, small stage production of the play this month on the stage of the Next Act Theatre.
Based on the original 1965, the comedy plays out like three episodes of a sitcom...live onstage. There’s no laugh track...only the laughter of others in a very large living room that only happens to be the intimate space of the Next Act Theatre. The set is the apartment of the sporty, casually untidy Olive Madison. Olive is played by Brittany Ann Haut. Olive gets some of the best lines in the script. In the wrong hands, Simon’s humor can plod along with an annoyingly percussive punchline.To her credit, Haut plays all the humor with a totally straight face, which overcomes some of the overwhelming jokey-ness of the script. Haut’s approach might run the risk of underselling some of the humor, but this is vastly preferable to cloyingly exaggerating the comedy.
As the play opens, Olive is having a few friends over for a game of Trivial Pursuit. Her friend Florence is conspicuously missing, which is a bit of a curiosity for everyone involved until it is discovered that she and her longtime husband have split quite suddenly and abruptly. Comic tensions mount as a despondent Florence shows up specifically NOT to play Trivial Pursuit. A respectably poised Carrie Johns plays a very precise person who has been cast into a world of uncertainty after over a decade of marital stability. Johns manages admirable success with the subtle intricacies of being both totally in control of her immediate surrounding and completely vulnerable. Naturally Olive is going to offer her to move-in temporarily. Naturally things are going to get complicated between the two of them. What follows is safe, predictable comfort comedy made all the more comfortable by a couple of really enjoyable actresses.
Haut and Johns are supported by a cast. Florence and Olive’s friends include a pleasantly blunt Michelle White as Sylvie, a subtly commanding Marina Dove as their off-duty police officer friend Mickey, the endearing Sheng Lor and Megan Harrington as their warmly obtuse friend Vera. Invariably, Olive manages to coax Florence into something of a date with a couple of co-residents of the apartment played with ample exotic charm by Jesse Kaplan and Dennis Lewis as Jesus and Monolo: the Costazuela brothers.
Co-Producers Audwin Short and Michelle White bring a fun, little “hello” to the stage with this light comedy. It’s a humble, little sitcom, but there’s genuine fun brought to the stage by Betts and company. A strong first show for Lemonade.
Lemonade Theatre Productions’ staging of The Odd Couple: Female Version runs through May 12 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations, visit Next Act online.
Welcome to Milwaukee Lemonade Theatre. This town has lost a couple of prominent theatre outfits this season. It’s nice to see a the first of a couple of new companies to debut this year. (On the other side of the summer, Milwaukee welcomes Kira Renkas’ Aura Theatre Collective.)
The Milwaukee Entertainment Group delves into the complexities of professional, interpersonal and romantic relationships on an intimate stage this month in Theresa Rebeck’s comedic early ’90s drama Spike Heels. Director J.J. Gatesman brings together a cast of two men and two women in a modern Pygmalion story revised for the American middle class at the end of the 20th century. A very talented quartet breathes compellingly organic life script which sometimes paints nuanced details with very broad strokes. Male-female relations are gently drawn against themes of wealth and influence in contemporary society. The drama holds-up quite well. Rebeck’s observations on power and gender are every bit as relevant now as they were when this play debuted nearly 30 years ago.
Becky Cofta is effervescently charming as Georgie--a secretary at a law firm in Boston. As the play opens, she has had a tremendously bad day that she REALLY wants to talk about the fact that she doesn’t want to talk about. A blue collar waitress who has been turned into a white collar secretary, Georgie is perplexed by the enigma of her own reflection. Every one of her desires seem fundamentally conflicted with each other. Though she is a profoundly sophisticated personality, Rebeck’s characterization of Georgie feels like a flat stereotype in quite a few places. Thankfully, Cofta does a brilliant job of selling EVERYTHING that Georgie is including those moments when the character seems to lack depth.
Josh Perkins plays Georgie’s friend Andrew. Andrew’s a writer. The first part of the play takes place at his apartment. Georgie lives upstairs from him. The two met at the mailboxes. He gave her a book. The friendship has allowed her to advance beyond the life if a waitress. Perkins is intellectually heroic as a man who isn’t totally aware of the depth of his feelings for Georgie. The character runs the risk of coming across with crippling pomposity, but Perkins immerses the character’s verbosity in a tender vulnerability that keeps him likable even as his inner ugliness emerges.
Cory Jefferson Hagen has considerably more to overcome than Perkins in the role of Georgie’s boss Edward. Before he even appears onstage certain things come to light about him that make him come across as being particularly sleazy in the #MeToo era. Rebeck doesn’t do him a whole lot of favors with the script. Edward is shamelessly slimy. He even takes pride in his detestability. Cory Jefferson Hagen deftly slides into the character. The actor cleverly casts character’s genuine concern for others in a wittily aloof cynicism that’s about three seconds away from full-blown nihilism. He’s so emotionally cold that his performance achieves an inverted warmth through sparks of stylishly apathetic gravitas.
It’s really, really cool to see Brittany Curran in a show like this. It seems like she’s always in huge ensemble shows. Here she’s playing Andrew’s fiancee Lydia...a staggeringly precise person who comes from wealth. As she appears onstage, it’s been a particularly rough day for her and she’s not at all herself. Curran imbues strength and courage into the crumbling perfection of a person born into wealth who just might be experiencing one of the worst moments of her life. Curran’s emotional strength in the role lends a stunning complexity to her chemistry with Cofta. She overcomes a very endearing stage presence to portray a character who occasionally lapses into casual arrogant cruelty. Like every other character in the ensemble, Lydia is a deeply flawed person. Curran embraces Lydia’s flaws on many levels.
Milwaukee Entertainment Group’s Spike Heels runs through May 18th at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 West Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Entertainment. Group online.
The truth is nothing if not inconsistent. Sometimes truth comes from a place of beauty and wisdom. And sometimes it comes from an evil, ugly, little puppet. Voices Found Repertory celebrates many paths to truth this month in Robert Askins’ Hand to God. The Underground Collaborative hosts a provocative 90-minute show directed by Jessica Trznadel that tenderly fuses drama, dark comedy, psychological horror and existential weirdness. There are a few weak points shadowing the script, but Trznadel guides the show through pleasantly bewildering moments that slice through clever allegorical terrain in a coming-of-age drama the playfully dangles itself over the edge of madness on more than one occasion.
In the small, religious town of Cyprus Texas, recent widow Margery is attempting to get on with her life as best as possible. She’s involved in trying to establish a Christian puppet troupe. There are only three high school kids involved. One of them is her son...a kid who seems a bit too interested in his puppet, which seems to be developing a mind of its own.
Ramsey Schlissel treads delicately through the psyche of Margery--a woman who is suffering from great loss who is deeply flawed. Schlissel allows Margery to asset just enough inner strength to contrast against the characters somewhat crippling vulnerability. Margery’s search for perfection brushes against a lonely Pastor Greg (Jake Konrath) who harbors a romantic attraction to her. Konrath sters the pastor away from seriously self-righteous characterization that would be all too easy for anyone playing clergy in this type of show. Konrath exhibits a genuine respect for the character AND his flaws. Thomas Sebald plays Timothy--a student involved in the puppet troupe who holds an altogether less wholesome attraction for Margery. Sebald dives directly into a very immature but earnest kind of bullying persona for the often cruel Timothy.
A.J. Magoon plays the dual roles of a high school kid names Jason who has just lost hid father and the evil puppet Tyrone who seems to be controlling him. Magoon has crafted a really clever contrast between the sweet, lost, confused kid and the sinister puppet who is dominating him. Tyrone is a crude, little ugly guy, but Magoon gives the head, torso and two arms a very striking personality. There’s a great deal of subtlety in Tyrone’s body language. He’s a very distinct character and a very magnetic presence onstage. Magoon has the rare opportunity to play two characters onstage at once and he’s doing a breathtakingly believable job of doing so.
One of Tyrone’s best scenes involves fellow puppeteer Jessica (Emily Elliott) and HER puppet. Elliott imbues Jessica with a great preternatural wisdom that is tempered by the character's lack of experience. Her presence anchors the ensemble with a stable portrayal of the one character in the cast who might be the most least messed-up. Her best moment, though, has to be between herself , her puppet, Jason and Tyrone. It’s a very smart and multi-layered four-character scene in which two of the characters just happen to be puppets. Elliott and Magoon brilliantly carry off a scene that fuses serious character development against one of the funniest moments in the entire play. It’s probably one of the single most sophisticated scenes I’ve seen all season. It would be so easy to dismiss it as a cheap gag, but there’s really a hell of a lot going on there with the people and the puppets and the actors and the characters. It’s easily the high point of a very fun 90 minutes at the theatre.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of Hand To God runs through May 12th at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit Voices Found Online.