COVID-19 has shut down every show in town. Every. Single. Show. Even the multiplexes are down. Local small stage theatre types are performing before little cameras in kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and home offices all over Milwaukee. It’s an opportunity to look at some VERY off-center work being done by local performing artists. Sadly, Liz Shipe’s live radio performance of The Adventures of Alvin Tatlock had to be canceled, but there’s still a lot of stuff going on out there with local performers. Here’s a look at some of my favorites that are available now and/or coming-up soon:
Sickly Days Shows with Boozy Bard
The traditional Boozy Bard show has a lot of people congregating around in a tap room or a microbrewery or some such performing shows vastly unprepared with little to no prep time. This is perfect for the days of Stay Safe at Home in Milwaukee...save for the whole ”congregating together” thing. Boozy Bard’s Jeremy Eineichner and company are going to be performing a regular stay-at-home version of their show on Facebook. Shows run Tuesday and Thursday nights starting at 7 pm. The communal nature of theater may not be there, but since liquor stores are considered essential and therefore immune from Wisconsin's Safer at Home, audience members can settle-in and drink along with the microbrew of their choice while supporting the local small brewery of their choice.
Outskirts TheatreCo. will be presenting a series of five locally-written ten-minute shorts via Livestream on Friday, April 3rd starting at 7:30 pm. What are they going to be? We don’t know yet. Script submissions for the show are still open until 11:59 pm tonight.
Forge Theatre Co.
One of many shows that had its run cut short, Forge Theatre Co.’s locally-written comedy Not Today has posted a multi-camera video of the entire show from beginning to end complete with ‘70s TV-style rolling credits at the end. This is a fun comedy. Evidently shot entirely onset at Urban Harvest, it’s a pleasant reminder of what going to a small stage show can feel like.
Tarot is a performance art that’s done on THE smallest stage. When it’s done right, Tarot is its own kind of performance art that taps cleverly and poetically into thematic apperception and the universality of the human condition. Local reader Skully Sati has a sharp sense of rhythm and poise about her readings as evidenced by her work done on her YouTube channel. She’s totally captivating. She’s also recently done her first Facebook Live show.
Cooking with PANdemNICK
Milwaukee actor/funnyguy Nick Firer has been posting regular Facebook Live cooking segments from his kitchen. There’s nothing explicitly scripted here...just one guy in his kitchen cooking stuff while talking about it. Watching a normal cooking show feels unsettling. PBS, the Food Network and other bigger outfits don’t seem to grasp how artificial it feels. A kitchen made to look domestic on a TV soundstage? It’s as disturbing as it is unnatural. Cooking With Nick is far better. It’s just one guy and a camera with a live feed from his actual kitchen, which ends up being so organic that it’s practically hypnotic.
WQVH, the Quarantine Variety Hour
Whether it’s David Kaye with a guitar, Andrea Roedel-Schroeder reading Neil Gaiman, Michael Timm reading Douglas Adams or anything else, Kaye’s Facebook group is an interesting scroll through various locals and others passing time until the Virus has strolled-on to other places. (Roedel-Schroeder has mentioned plans to do daily readings from Night Vale’s Faceless Old Woman, which would be really cool.)
This is largely a podcasting group, but I love the YouTube component and sometimes find myself hanging out with it in a corner window while I get other work done. It’s been nice to have the opportunity to catch-up on this YouTube channel that wasn’t specifically inspired by the Coronavirus. It’s a podcastLocal actors and comedy people sit around like figures in DaVinci’s Last Supper engaging in weird role-playing games (with the All-Arcadians) or reading from old Choose-Your-Own Adventure books (with Turn to Page Fun) or...my personal favorite: engaging in bookclub-style discussions about wildly inappropriate juvenile and YA fiction with Who Let Me Read This?
It’s getting kind of scary out there. Sometimes the best theatre for a moment of crisis is lightly refreshing social comedy. That’s exactly what Forge Theater manages with the premier of Not Today. Directed by Jake Brockman, a talented, appealing cast delivers a genuinely funny script to the stage that’s been written by David Stein and Hannah Mitchell. Two couples and a couple of others meet in a cozy domestic setting for a wedding anniversary dinner. Things predictably go wrong. Things inexplicably go right. It’s a fun 90 minutes of light comedy without intermission. It’s a new script. A couple of writers (sort of) had a chance to hang out with a piece of writing they wrote about a group of people hanging out together. So it’s a party, but nothing fancy. You don’t have to dress-up or anything like that. Go to the bar at Urban Harvest. Get a beer and head in to the theatre to see the show.
Settle-in for the show and you’ll get to know the living room of one of the characters before she shows-up onstage. Scenic Designer Amy Sue Hazel has managed the tricky task of making a very small space on a small stage feel cozy and lived-in. It’s a living room. There’s a doggy bed, framed pictures of Disney characters, a few owl-themed knickknacks and a few Harry Potter novels. Not far from a trio of white, ceramic owls recreating the three wise monkeys there rests the ashes of a beloved pet named Guinea Weasley.
The living room decor comes courtesy of Claire. Casually dazzling Stephanie Staszak is sweet and earnest as Claire—a veterinarian who has decided to get a little ambitious and make beef bourguignon for the occasion. She’s had problems with cooking in the past, but she’s totally confident about her ability to host an anniversary party for her friends with her live-in boyfriend Byron.
Seth K. Hale is sweetly unhinged as Byron—-a man with far deeper concerns than the fate of the beef bourguignon. He hopes to propose to Claire. He’s so wrapped-up in his own nervousness that he’s totally oblivious to the fact that doing so during a challenging anniversary get-together might not be the best idea, especially after what he did at the couple’s wedding one year ago.
Appealingly affable April Paul plays Jo, who was particularly upset about Byron’s behavior at her wedding. Paul has a warm confidence about her in the role. She seems totally at home playing a very responsible and caring person. Send Jo out for beer and she’ll come back with beer and Gatorade. (She’s just that cool.) Paul is perfect for the role of a woman who is perfectly suited to the impending motherhood that she and her husband announce very early-on in the comedy.
The father-to-be is the other half of “Team J.” (Husband and wife met in high school chemistry class and have been inseparable ever since.) Ben Yela taps into some comically restless energy in the role of Jack: a man on the verge of a major life change that he may not be totally ready for. Yela and Paul have a cute familiarity about them as “Team J” that adds considerably to the openly social atmosphere onstage.
There are a couple of others showing-up for the party. Actor/playwright David Stein tactfully plays a friend of Jack and Byron--a guy named Tommy. Tommy owns a bar. He’s straining under the yoke of his injured mother who constantly calls him. The guy could have come across as a sad sack, but Stein plays to the inner complexities of the character. He may hate getting calls from his mother, but he’s not exactly turning his phone off. And he may be lonely and not actually pursuing anything in the way of a relationship, but he IS a small business owner and likely very busy and stressed-out. Nevertheless, Jack and Byron are really, really concerned about Tommy’s sexless sex life and want to do something about it. Tommy would prefer to relax.
What is a party without the unexpected? Kyle Conner plays Jimmy--an old, dear friend of Claire’s who happens into the party in a rather unexpected way. Conner is great fun as a totally together guy who serves as a vibrant splash of wisdom looking-in around the edges of life in a group of semi-neurotic people--most of whom are complete strangers to him.
It’s a great group of people to spend 90 minutes with. Every so often there’s an exceedingly social comedy like this the comes along that is SO comfortable that it scarcely feels like 90 minutes. On some level it didn't even fee like theatre. On some level it feels like they’re people I just met. I just kind of...expect to see the characters around town at coffee shops and grocery stores and things. I KNOW I won’t. And that IS a little disappointing. They’re only there onstage for an hour and a half. It’s a really fun 90 minutes, though.
Forge Theater’s production of Not Today runs through Mar. 28th at Urban Harvest Brewing Company on 1024 S. 5th St. For ticket reservations and more visit Forge Theater online.
The best children’s fare is a fusion of different types of entertainment that engages all ages on different levels. This month First Stage opens a show that is best-suited to kids ages 4-10+. That’s quite a range. With The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors, First Stage does a strikingly impressive job of embracing a wide range of different kids while also maintaining the kind of appeal that keeps parents entertained for the full 90 minutes with intermission for cookies and juice.
Based on the popular children’s book by Drew Daywalt (who also wrote The Day the Crayons Quit) The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors follows the three powerful warriors on a musical journey to find worthy opponents. First Stage’s John Maclay has done a very sharp job of expanding Daywalt’s book into an impressively sophisticated bit of musical theatre for the whole family. Rock, Paper and Scissors exist in a mystically mundane realm based on a traditional middle class household. Paper hails from Mom’s Home Office. Scissors comes from the junk drawer in the kitchen. Rock originates in the back yard. Each must best opponents in song and dance numbers in their home domains if they are to meet at the end of the show for the big showdown.
My youngest daughter is in kindergarten. She loved the show for all the colorful characters cleverly brought to life by the cast through costuming and puppetry. Costume/puppet designer Brandon Kirkham finds some remarkably vivid ways of brining common household things to life including ominously large dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets from the frozen tundra of the freezer and a tap dancing Scottish scotch tape dispenser from the kitchen junk drawer. Scenic Designer Arnold Bueso and Lighting Designer Jason Fassl give the action of the musical a radiant, brightly-colored abstract space in which to exist.
My oldest daughter is closer to the upper age range of the show. She loved the show for all the clever, little bits of humor that Maclay puts into the script. It was fun to engage her on the finer details of the production during intermission and after the show. (Her review of the show follows.) The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors is a surprisingly diverse tour through different genres of popular music. Rick Pendzich charismatically opens the show in a very metal mood as the hard rock Rock. His opening song is a tribute to ‘80s glam metal. Lamar Jefferson is charmingly heroic as the energetic R&B master Paper. His first big number has him singing his “Jam” to a menacing printer in Mom’s Home Office. Karen Estrada rounds out the central cast as a pair of classy fabric scissors with a stylish Latin energy. Also included on the show are a country/western Georgia Peach, a disco clothespin and a bag of half-eaten trail mix that sings the blues. As an adult it’s fun to see just how seamlessly it all comes together. Director Kelly Doherty does an excellent job of bringing it all together and keeping it moving with brisk pacing.
The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors continues through April 5th at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater. For ticket reservations and more, visit First Stage online.
Costumes, Props and Friendship
(A Kid's View by Amalia Bickerstaff)
I saw The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors at First Stage with my family. I think that it’s a really good play for the whole family to watch together. It’s a funny musical about the game and how it started. It has jokes in it that make everyone in the family laugh.
The costumes and the props were really interesting. The Paper costume incorporated paper clips and the blue lines of notebook paper. I can tell they put hard work into the design of the costumes. And when I’m talking about the costumes I mean like ALL of the costumes: Rock, Paper, Scissors AND the supporting cast.
The props are really cool. Some of them are kind of like costumes like the chicken nugget dinosaurs (that are kind of like on peoples heads and bodies) and the trail mix (which is four puppeteers in a giant sleeping bag holding eight puppets.) In terms of the action the chicken nugget dinosaurs were the funniest. Scissors was battling them as they all attacked her at once. They were surrounding her!
Overall I feel like this was a very good musical. In the end they learn that there’s no true winner. Winning and losing doesn’t really matter. What’s important is friendship.
Amalia Bickerstaff is an MPS student at Zablocki Elementary. This is her first review for The Small Stage
The Twilight has written a score specifically for Voices Found Repertory’s production of The Elephant Man. It’s very moody atmospheric music. The stage is sparse and grey. There’s a calm solitude about the stage as the show opens.
Thorin Ketelsen is poised and compassionate in the role of Fredrick Treves—a British medical Doctor from the late 19th century who finds his life changing when he runs across a man displayed in a freak-show-style exhibition. He wishes to diagnose The Elephant Man.
The challenges in presenting Joseph Merrick on the small stage are handled quite capably by actor Zach Ursem. The script has the actor presented fully for the first time contrasted against large projections of actual historical photographs of Merrick as Ketelson plays Treves presenting his findings in vividly clinical detail.
With a strong initial connection between Ursem and the photographs of Merrick at the beginning of the drama, Ursem is free to play internal emotions against a gait and comportment sympathetic to the tragic historical figure. The deep, inner beauty and humanity of Merrick resonate through Ursem in a performance that never overreaches for a cloyingly pathetic subhuman presence, which would be the chief danger in presenting Merrick’s drama onstage. Above all, Ursem’s performance respects the underlying flaws and inner humanity of the man he’s playing.
Michael Chobanoff is cunningly human in a pair of supporting roles. He’s suitably seedy as Ron—-a street-level cockney showman who has been charged with looking after Merrick. Rob DOES have some respect for Merrick, but only as a resource. Relations between Ron and Merrick play out quite vividly in two of the more heavy emotional scenes in the drama. Chobanoff plays to a completely different temperament as a priest who makes Merrick’s acquaintance.
Haley Ebinal deftly walks a very thin line as Mrs. Kendal. Kendal is a stage actress who Treves enlists to try to connect-up with socially. Prior to the actress’ arrival, a parade of marginal characters played be other members of the ensemble have leered at Merrick or turned away in disgust. Ebinal makes no grand display of the fact that Mrs. Kendal is in no way disgusted by Merrick’s appearance. Treating Merrick as a human and a dear friend, Kendal makes for a very tender figure. Ebinal is very gracious about presenting Mrs. Kendall as a very organically interesting person who happens to be just as fascinated by Merrick as the rest of the script is.
Originally debuting in the late 1970s, playwright Bernard Pomerance’s script is smartly balanced. The sharp distillation of the life of a man born with a debilitation disorder reaches right into the heart of humanity. Themes of love, acceptance and the nature of human generosity are all viewed in strikingly simple complexity from a rather breathtaking range of angles simultaneously. It’s a brilliantly concise script. Director Brandon C. Haut brings Pomerance’s script to the stage with an economy on a very intimate stage.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of The Elephant Man runs through March 15th at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Voices Found online.
Off the Wall Theatre explores art and truth in an ambitious drama on its cozy, little stage late this Winter. Director/playwright Dale Gutzman’s The Glance rumbles through the Renaissance in a dramatically unflinching look at the life of Italian painter Caravaggio. The action plays out in the cluttered, little studio of the painter as he engages with commercial concerns in the era of the Bubonic Plague. Life and death hang on every edge of the drama as the painter is forced to deal with compromise in the interest of survival and possible fame as balanced against artistic integrity and an open embrace of reality through art.
Over the years, Dale Gutzman’s writing/directing work has been hit-or-miss. Without question, The Glance is a hit. Gutzman shrewdly brings four central characters to the stage who are all intensely interesting. Four very talented actors give Gutzman’s script a complexity that makes for a deeply engaging drama.
Max Williamson is ruggedly charming as Caravaggio. He’s a man who could become a towering legend if only he were to compromise a bit. Williamson cleverly wields a canny respectability about him that edges occasionally in the direction of madness as artist grapples with the very nature of truth.
Caravaggio’s art is cast against that of his brother Giovanni, who makes a similarly artistic living through carnal passions. Nathan Danzer breathes depth into an ambivalent man who finds himself harnessed into something more serious by chance and circumstance. Danzer and Williamson have a strong fraternal connection as the two brothers in a dynamic that is central to the whole drama.
Randall T. Anderson adds contrast to the fraternal love in the role of Father D’Angelo. He’s plague doctor who also serves as an aid to the Cardinal. Anderson imbues the character with an appealing personality through a rather dramatic character arc. What opens as a casual interest in Giovanni turns into something more as he is forced to question his thoughts on love and carnality. Gutzman has D’Angelo navigating through a massive shift in personality in the course of the play. This would be challenging enough for any actor. D’Angelo is only a peripheral character, which makes the dramatic transformation all the more difficult. Anderson handles it with a clever wit, tactfully muting some of Gutzman’s more leaden dialogue while accentuating some of the more sophisticated bits of intricacy Gutzman has written into the character.
Michael Pocaro rounds out the cast as Caravaggio’s patron Archbishop Borromeo. Pocaro is forcefully charismatic as a holy man desperately trying to understand the mind of God through a deeper understanding of Christ’s suffering. Borromeo is a deeply flawed man. Pocaro approaches the role with respect and sympathy that results in a nuanced portrayal of a man afflicted with his some of the very hubris he is looking to conquer in Caravaggio.
The Cardinal could give the artist the fantastic life of a wealthy artist if only he were to soften-up the carnal reality of his paintings. (And maybe get rid of the dog in that painting of John the Baptist.) Pocaro and Williamson are cleverly poised in an intellectual battle of wills that echoes struggles that have been going on between art and authority since the dawn of time.
The central themes of The Glance have been resonating through drama forever. Gutzman’s gaze into the struggles of a single artist are haunting at times. At other times they’re a weak echo of an endless struggle. The script is at its best when actors are allowed to dive directly into the struggle between each other without too much intellectual or historical ornamentation. Thankfully, most of the script allows for direct dramatic clashes between strong-willed characters. It is in those clashes that The Glance finds its greatest power.
Off the Wall Theatre’s The Glance runs through March 8th at the theatre on 127 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Off the Wall online.
Traditional folklore doesn’t exactly have a reputation for dispensing valuable lessons about the “real world.” In the modern world, fairy tales are generally synonymous with fanciful magic in simple realms of good and evil. As Winter becomes Spring, First Stage presents a small stage fairy tale for kids 8 years and older that goes beyond overly simplistic good-vs-evil themes to cover a huge range of different issues including the death of a parent, being forced to do things against one’s wishes and even the sometimes ambiguous nature of human morality.
Based in part on Slavic legend, the folk-rock musical Gretel! follows a young girl into the woods to search for the mysterious being known as Baba Yaga. Her mother has passed away and her father has remarried. Now Gretel has to contend with as wicked stepmother and stepsister who force her to do all the work and demand that she steal magic from Baba Yaga in order that they may have food and light. In order to get what she wants, Gretel must work for Baba Yaga, who slowly teaches her magic, forcing Gretel to wonder wether the sinister witch is truly evil or something else altogether. Can she really be that bad if she's sharing her magical knowledge? This isn't some cheery, little Hogwart's with classrooms and teachers and lessons, though. Baba Yaga is a very cunning and demanding mentor who leads Gretel to some pretty shadowy places.
Natalie Ford has wit and wisdom about her in the role of Baba Yaga. There’s a playful darkness about her that seems at once completely honest and completely whimsical. Gretel doesn’t know whether or not to trust her. This could have been terrifying if allowed to develop in a dark direction, but Ford keeps it firmly rooted in a sense of fun and mystery that keeps the mood of the play firmly rooted in drama and solidly removed from realms of nightmare.
Max Mainwood is versatile in a few different supporting roles. He’s a flaky, well-menaing father who trusts his daughter to a new wife he hardly knows. Mainwood also picks up rake and broom in the role of Stepmother and Stepsister as well...effectively selling the idea of a number of other characters with subtle, abstract props and without the benefit of a single costume change.
Ford and Mainwood are joined by a group of kids in one of two different casts. Kids play Gretel herself, a girl, a boy and a cellist. The cellist joins Ford and Mainwood on acoustic instruments that perform some remarkably high-energy folk rock that’s been written specifically for the show.
Scenic Designer Sarah Hunt-Frank has done a brilliant job putting together a very engagingly abstract, little set for the musical. A big, fantasy story featuring moody magic set in the woods might seem ill-suited for the intimacy of a small stage, but Hunt-Frank plays with the wooded imagery in simple, flat planes and cylinders that cleverly calls to the primal aesthetics of a target audience raised with iconic interactive emulations of nature like Minecraft and Roblox. Just to look at it, the simplicity of what Hunt-Frank put together for the stage here would seem a little too quaint to be appealing, but for a generation that’s increasingly interacting in little worlds like this on small glowing screens, it works. Hunt-Franks work here is actually a very, very savvy way to engage kids aesthetically in this kind of cozy, little show.
The iconography is very abstract, but it’s appealing. Stepmother appears onstage as a wooden rake. The stepsister is represented by a wooden broom. The mystical knight of night is a bucket and a sash. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does. And it does so beautifully. (Days after attending the musical, I showed my daughter a picture of a classical wooden rake and we both laughed thinking about the stepmother. It's sharply minimalist design work.) The most appealing, little bit of design work comes in the form of a magical, little boy doll given to Gretel by her late mother. It’s a stylized classical outline of a paper doll-like boy made of fabric. It’s just abstract enough to be cute and just articulate enough to bring a really cool, little emotionally expressive magical character to the small stage. In a show like this, it’s the tiniest things that can make for the biggest magic.
First Stage’s Gretel! runs through March 22nd at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on 325 W. Walnut St. For ticket reservations and more, visit First Stage online.
As February draws to a close, Mad Rogues presents an intimate, little studio staging of Shakespeare’s Othello performed without all the usual props and lighting and sound design and scenic design and costuming. Without any other distractions AT ALL, director Bryant Mason focusses the show on some remarkably stunning acting. A cast of actors approach the material from a very organic place that moves the tragedy briskly across the stage in a deeply satisfying production.
Izaiah A. Ramirez is a warm, articulate presence onstage. There is not menace or malice about him at all. There’s no sense of danger at all about the guy playing Othello in THIS production, which makes the tragedy of his sensitivity all the more crushing. The danger in playing Othello with this much sensitivity lies in the disconnect when the villain Iago awakens suspicion in him. Play Othello too much like a nice guy in the beginning and you run the risk of making the suspicious menace of Othello at the end of the play coming across like a COMPLETELY different character. Ramirez deftly manages an arc that manipulates the joy of emotional sensitivity at the beginning of the play and mutates it under the influence of Iago to the horror of emotional sensitivity at the end of the play. It’s a really refreshingly dynamic take on the character that Ramirez handles perfectly.
There’s great heroism in Caitlyn Nettesheim’s performance as Othello’s wife Desdemona. She’s bravely chosen new romantic love over her family’s old, conditional love. When a confidant and longtime friend of Othello’s stands disgraced, Nettesheim brings out the beauty of Desdemona’s selflessness. When her husband’s sensitivity turns to ill-temper, Nettesheim amplifies that selfless heroism in aiding a newfound friend in his quest to regain the trust of her husband. Nettesheim’s Desdemona is refreshingly inspiring.
Ken Miller's approach to the villain Iago is a pleasant alternative to the political villainy out of the White House and the Senate in the recent months. Contemporary U.S. politics is a theatre of villainy through childish bully brutality. As cleverly as he is written, Iago can sometimes make it to the stage with a menace that feels a bit childish around the edges. Miller plays to the intellect of the character without distraction. Politics for Miller’s Iago aren’t for the pleasure of personal gain...they’re a game. Miller’s Iago might be casually playing with people’s lives or he might be playing a multiplayer online game. All of the obstacles that line his path are problems to be solved for nothing more than the satisfaction of seeing his vision happen...which fits in impressively-well with what Shakespeare put on the page centuries ago.
Marcel Alston is given the unenviable task of playing Othello’s friend Cassio. Shakespeare gives the actor playing Cassio a hell of a lot of ground to cover in a relatively short span of time onstage. Alston breathes the complexity of a full personality around the edges of the dialogue. The script gives Cassio passion, duty, responsibility, irresponsibility, anger a few other things that all have relatively important roles to play in the tragedy. It's a weird scattershot for any actor to try to hit all of that cohesively without a whole lot of fluid time onstage. Alston cleverly strings it all together in a performance that speaks to a depth that might have come from an entirely different play focussed entirely on Cassio.
In my experience, Iago’s wife Emilia doesn’t traditionally make much of an emotional impact on the stage until the end of the play. Brittany F. Byrnes puts together a take on the character that is that much more engaging from the beginning to the end of the play. More than just an unwitting pawn for her husband, Byrnes brings the personal day-to-day life of the character a lived-in presence that makes her lack of suspicion for her husband that much more respectable. Byrnes gives Emilia her own life, so it's understandable that she wouldn't see her own husband's villainy even though it IS the center of all the action in the drama everyone in the audience is actively watching.
Roderigo is another character who often comes across as a witless pawn of Iago. Rather than going against the grain on this, Simon Earle has been allowed to play-up the character’s fragility as comic relief from the darkness lying in the heart of the rest of the play. And rather than amplifying that fragility in an exaggerated clown-like manner befitting the circus or the current Oval Office, Earle brilliantly plays the comedy of the character in impressively subtle sighs and sags that are all delivered with head-spinning precision. Earle is comic relief, but he’s playing it in a way that is carefully calculated not to overpower any other part of the drama.
Reva Fox lends respectable structure to the edges of the ensemble as Desdemona’s father Brabantio. Emmaline Friederichs is suitably seductive as Cassio’s love interest Bianca. Friederichs’ thoughtful sensuality adds a layer of depth to a production that is successful on a great many levels without the benefit of all the other non-acting stuff that can distract from a well-written script.
Mad Rogues’ production of Othello runs through Feb. 22nd, 24th, 27th, 28th and 29th at the Marcus Center or the Performing Arts’ Studio 4A on 929 N. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Mad Rogues online.
Every now and then a touring show rolls through the Marcus Center that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. The big budget shows blast theeir way across the main stage making way too much money and tiny, little touring acts of far greater substance get ignored altogether. Thankfully, there was a respectably sizable crowd at the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall for dancer Jade Solomon’s one-night-only public Milwaukee performance of Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word Nigger. A series of short narrative dances were punctuated in the middle and at the end with a couple of conversations about the nature of the word. The latest performance in Jade Solomon Curtis’ tour was at times deeply moving and disturbingly thought-provoking.
The show opens with delicate movements against a large video projection featuring an aerial shot of wind through tall grasses. There was a serene warmth in the visuals accompanying slow, hopeful music while a snowstorm whipped around in the Milwaukee winter evening outside the venue. The simple summery movements of tall grasses in the background establish the immensity of the backdrop the dancer is working with. It’s a nice place to start in a journey that jolts over into some deeply disturbing territory. The video screen behind Solomon is a large wall of visuals that also act as interstitial extensions on the theme. Some of the visuals are more powerful than others. It's particularly disturbing to see dash-cam footage of cops being overtly racist on a screen that large.
Anatomy of a Moment: Colored on the Wall
Disturbing shock isn’t the sort of thing often played on in small stage theatre. It’s difficult to get an overwhelming visceral jolt to come across in the context of a performance. When it’s carried across with the kind of power Jade Solomon is working with, it can be very powerful stuff.
The second piece on the evening is “Colored on the Wall.” Jade Solomon Curtis appears in a neon green hoodie and baggy shorts of the same color which glow dazzlingly in Reed Nakayama’s cool blue light. Solomon Curtis’ balletic hip-hop dance movements assert themselves with inspiring power and confidence that never quite edges over into aggression or violence. Solomon Curtis glides across the stage with a beautifully graceful dominance amidst techno beats from VIBEHEAVY. Solomon is a beautiful silhouette in radiant green. It's hypnotically gorgeous stuff amidst moody dance music until the boom is lowered in a powerfully visceral emotional gut punch. The dancer hits the ground screaming. The music switches to the upbeat power of the Otis Day and the Knights’ celebratory 1978 cover of “Shout.” The massive video screen backdrop explodes in lightly animated archival photos of blacks hung from trees. The video has the tragic victims from those old photos slowly swaying amidst the upbeat celebration of Otis Day while Solomon screams. The layering of scream, upbeat music and grizzly images from history had me picking my jaw up off the floor. In ten years of going to over 1100 shows, I can scarcely remember a more viscerally jarring moment in a theatre seat. This sort of emotional assault is attempted so rarely and it’s so rarely done well. I’m still getting chills writing about that moment, which will likely haunt me through the rest of the winter.
Jade Solomon dances with a lot of other weighty themes in the course of the program. “A Star Named Nigga,” analyzes the stereotype of hip-hop culture with Solomons’ distinctly precise and passionate balletic fusion. “Under Fire” is an exploration into aggression and self-destruction. The dancer’s passion and intensity are strikingly unflinching.
Direct Discussion in Two Parts
It’s all abstract movement except for the conversations. There’s one in the middle of the program and a more traditional talkback at the end of the show. There’s a kind of fearlessness in holding something that feels like a talkback in the middle of a program...but it’s more than that. Local talent and others including educator Walter Beach III and the show’s sound designer DJ Topspin discuss the word at the heart of the program. Mics are available to the audience to join-in the discussion. It may be obvious that the word is vulgar and oppressive regardless of who speaks it, but there ARE more complex issues that make an open discussion of the word an interesting exercise at times.
The Marcus Center performance of Black Like Me is the last date listed on Jade Solomon’s tour schedule. For more information, visit Jade Solomon Online.
Cabaret Milwaukee makes a classy splash into February with a swinging retro variety show. Cream City Crime Syndicate: Ransom is Relative continues the group’s heroic historical serial about Milwaukee’s Mayor Daniel Hoan in an era of prohibition and organized crime. Cabaret Milwaukee’s mix of music, comedy and hardboiled action drama feels a bit more balanced than it has in the past. The large ensemble brings a diverse and complex retro world to the historic space of the Astor Hotel bar.
Tall, smooth Marcus Beyer plays classically poised radio host Richard Howling. Once again he introduces the show and welcomes the audience back from intermission with the velvety jazz of crooner Cameron Webb, who sings jazzy pop to establish the retro mood of the show.
Written by David Law, the central Ransom is Relative serial that winds through the show is another fun heroic take on history as charismatic Josh Scheibe plays a humble Mayor Daniel Hoan. This episode has Hoan helping his aid Oscar (Stephen Wolterstorff) get his daughter back from kidnappers looking to bring a key and iconic part of Milwaukee’s lakefront into private hands. Rob Schreiner is ruggedly gritty as hardboiled detective hero Jack Walker, who Hoan enlists to get Oscar’s daughter back. Carrie Johns gives a defiant edge to the victim Dotty. Andrea Roedel-Schroeder has engagingly sophisticated power as Dotty’s friend Liv, who is caught-up in the conspiracy. There’s a vulnerability to Liv that Roedel-Schroeder cleverly delivers to the stage. Roedel-Schroeder's a talented addition to the Cabaret Milwaukee ensemble.
Back-up drama and comedy populate the edges of the action in between segments of the central story with Sarah Therese, Rebecca Sue Button and Liz Whitford Helin sing radio ad jingles as vintage ingenues. Between the tunes, they’re dealing with certain issues that continue to be tragically topical today. Laura Holterman and Michelle White continue to provide some of the most appealing provocative supporting material in the show as vintage radio homemaker Mrs. Millie and her thoroughly modern younger sister Billie. On the surface, it’s simply humor, but Holterman and White bring a hell of a lot of interpersonal characterization to the stage with Millie and Billie that strikes on a number of different themes. As with the best stuff in the show’s main serial, Holterman and White’s material cast the past in a light that resonates insightfully into the current world beyond the stage.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s Ransom is Relative continues through Jan. 22 at The Astor Hotel on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Brownpapertickets.com
Adam Bock’s A Small Fire plays out on dual tracks of drama and horror. Like any good drama and most good horror, the underlying power in the journey lies in its tribute to human survival. David Cecsarini directs a small, stellar cast of Milwaukee theatre icons in a very gripping story of a woman who is slowly becoming disconnected from the outside world.
Mary MacDonald Kerr is deeply inspiring as Emily Bridges. Emily has a very strong sense of drive and direction about her. She’s the head of a construction company who deals with a million problems at once. Kerr deftly manages the task of maintaining an appealing and approachable presence in her portrayal of a person who is also very abrasive and totally immersed in work. As Emily, Kerr is, "gruff but lovable." Not many actors can truly pull that off. It’s impressive when it works. It’s particularly impressive here as it is the case that Emily gradually loses her senses over the course of 75 intermission-less minutes. She first loses her sense of smell. Her sense of taste goes with it. Then she loses her sight. Finally she loses he hearing. It’s never really explained what’s going on. Evidently doctors just don’t know. There’s very, very deep horror in that. Kerr sits in a room completely unable to see or hear anyone else in it. She’s had her senses to rely on her whole life. Now they’re gone. It’s difficult to imagine anything more horrifying than that.
Jonathan Smoots plays her husband John. He's a nice guy who works in H.R. Smoots taps-into an endearing empathic energy as a man very much in love with his wife who is challenged to help her in whatever way he can. Smoots finds a valiant middle ground between powerlessness and restless compassion that serves the production well. Smoots’ heroism as John matched Kerr’s as Emily. John’s selflessness also speaks to a vulnerability that Smoots is able to articulate with breathtaking fluidity.
No one seems more struck by John’s devotion to Emily than their daughter Jenny. Emily Vitrano wisely takes elements of compassion from Smoots and elements of driven self-sufficiency in the role of Jenny. There’s a very natural sense of family about the three actors and it has a lot to do with the way Vitrano links them all together. Her mother’s abrasiveness seems to have kept Jenny at a distance her whole life. She’s getting married to a man her mother doesn’t like. She’s concerned that her father’s devotion to her mother is unhealthy. Vitrano treads the delicate border between bitterness and love for her mother in a very sophisticated portrayal of someone trying to move on with her life as her mother’s falls apart.
The family dynamic between Kerr, Smoots and Vitrano is given further definition by Mark Corkins in the role of Emily’s workplace assistant Billy Fontaine. Corkins summons an irresistible workin’ guy charm to the stage dynamic. What appears to be a minor supporting role early-on adds a striking depth to the story as Emily’s condition worsens.
The drama plays out on a minimal stage co-designed by Rick Rasmussen and Cecsarini. It’s a very cleverly thought-out stage design that allows just enough detail to give the impression of Emily’s world as it slowly dissolves around her. Aaron Sherkow’s lighting design and Cescarini’s sound design profoundly punctuate Emily’s sudden losses of sensation with notable impact. It’s delicately finessed. Those moments of loss are never over-rendered with production elements. Bock’s script never leans-into them with a whole lot of dialogue. This is deeply terrifying in its own way. There’s no warning when losses occur...they just happen. The cast does a brilliant job of exploring the emotional impact of those losses.
Next Act’s production of A Small Fire runs through Feb. 23 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act online.