As the weather continues to lack warmth outside, there’s actually kind of a lot of it coming from the small stages in and around Milwaukee. There are a pair of world premieres emerging onto cozy, little spaces this month. There are also a couple of holiday shows. Here’s a look at some of what lies ahead in the month of December.
The deeply endearing Samantha Sostarich returns as Cindy Lou Who all grown-up in playwright Matthew Lombardo’s twisted one-woman comedy. It’s a decidedly adult mutation of Dr. Seuss’ Grinch. Sostarich was a lot of fun in this role before. She brings a badass cuddliness to the intimate stage of Sunstone Studios once more. This show is a whole lot of fun. But...it’s not exactly for everyone. No kids. Only ex-children. Catch-up with Cindy Lou Who years later. Have a beer with her in the trailer she calls home. It’s way more fun than it has a right to be. Dec. 5 - 20 at the tiny, little space on 127 E Wells Street. (The show runs Mondays and Tuesdays as Sostarich is in a much larger production on a bigger stager over the weekends through the end of the year.) For more information, go to Sunstone online.
This coming month, UWM Peck School of the Arts launches the premiere of a new drama set in the sole residential neighborhood the Menomonee Valley. Written by Alvaro Saar Rios, it’s a Hamlet-inspired drama about a man who is trying to run the family brewery after the suspicious death of his father. So....Hamlet in a Milwaukee microbrewery? Sounds cool. The show runs Dec. 7 - 11 at UWM’s Mainstage Theatre. It’s a part of UWM’s New Dramaworks series dedicated to developing new plays written by Midwestern writers. For more information, visit UWM online.
Whirligig of Time
Rick Bingen is Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Carthage College. Pretty cool, but he’s also a playwright. And it’s also very cool that a play he’s written is making its world premiere with Sunstone Studios this coming month. Whirligig of Time finds a contemporary Olivia going into a pub and traveling back in time to the late 16th century. The play features an impressive cast including Samantha Biatch, Steve Decker, Sean Duncan, Adam Raul Medina, Alicia Rice, Keighly Sadler, and Liz Shipe playing the likes of John Heminges, Richard Burbage, Will Kemp and William Shakespeare. The Sunstone debuts the show Dec. 15 - 30. For more information, go to Sunstone online.
A Christmas Carol: RAW!
Boozy Bard returns to The Best Place Tavern with another decidedly underprepared stage adaptation of Dickens’ classic supernatural horror show. Actors take roles at random and perform from a breezily streamlined script. Cratchit, Scrooge and a few ghosts all appear in the right order, but anything could happen in an open beer hall atmosphere with some really good ales on tap. Dec. 16 and 17 at the Best Place on 901 W. Juneau Avenue. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook events page.
One of My Favorites
First off: I love The Dutchman. The Sunstone Studios production that’s running right now might be one of. the best dramas I’ve seen in the past few years. I’m biased. I love the play. And as it turns out I’ve never actually seen a production of it. And...I haven’t really thought about it for over a quarter century. So...y'know...that's weird. That and a few other things didn't make it into my upcoming Shepherd-Express review of the show.
A Partial Explanation
I didn’t realize that Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman was one of my favorites. It is. I remember that now. Even though I really haven’t thought about it much since I first read it in 1995. I didn’t know that when I went in to see it. I only remember knowing it as being one of the best stage dramas to come out of the 20th century. And though I’ve seen over 1000 plays in the past couple of decades, I’ve never seen THIS one.
Somewhere into the first quarter hour of the production, it occurred to me that I was INCREDIBLY familiar with the script: a train. A white woman. A black man. A knife. And so much of the dialogue and so many of the beatrs seem like I'd seen them a million times before. But I’d never seen it before. So where did I run into it? High school. 20th Century American Literature class. There was a substitute teacher. We read it aloud in class. I loved it. It was something that I’d always wanted to see performed. And then...I’d forgotten about it. I’d always remembered it as a great drama and then...having accepted that, never had to think about it again. Weird how the mind works.
You try to be present for the performance. You try to immerse yourself in the world of the play. Everyone brings their own reality into the theatre, though. There are distractions in any performance: I now have no day job after 11.5 years in the same office. Next week I’m going to have surgery on my left eye. But man...Denzel Taylor and Hannah Ripp-Dieter did a tremendous amount of character work developing a remarkably nuanced performance. But again: there are always distraction. Taylor and Ripp-Dieter were great, though.
I know Dutchman takes place in a New York City subway in the mid-1960s. On the walk in to the Sunstone, there’s an old New York tabloid format newspaper. I wasn’t even thinking about it until someone walked onto the stage’s abstract, little subway car and started reading it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was noticing a slight yellowing of the pages. And then I noticed the font and the kerning of the text and I knew it wasn’t from the 1960s. It was more recent issue than that. But it wasn't current.
I love the intimacy of the Sunstone. The way that Director DiMonte Henning has the stage set-up...the audience can get close enough to the action to notice the font on the paper being read by someone in the periphery of the action....I mean...WOW...(I really like that sort of thing.) Anyway...while Taylor and. Ripp-Dieter are winding their way through a very complex and captivating conversation between two strangers, my eye gets pulled to the page being read: there’s a column regarding the American theater on the page of that paper. In the upper-left corner of the page is an ad for the movie A Dry, White Season. And I’m thinking...”that was...what...late ‘80s? Early ‘90s?" Then I notice an ad for the Batman movie at the bottom of the page...so it’s...1989. She’s reading a New York City newspaper from late September of 1989. Batman was a big enough film in 1989 that it was released in late June and still playing in late September, so the add was kind of minimal, but very distinct. And again: Taylor and Ripp-Deiter are phenomenal in this play, but I love catching little details like that. Here’s this paper that was published in 1989 with over a million other copies. It was likely read by someone. All of the rest of them get thrown away or recycled as fish wrap or whatever. But not this one. This one made its way to Milwaukee and just...hung around in storage somewhere for a few decades. Now it’s onstage downtown Milwaukee playing a New York City newspaper from the 1960s.
For me, Opening Night of Sunstone’s Dutchman was a three-hour commute. Unless I’m there with my wife, I’m bussing it downtown. It’s n hour on the 80 there. It’s an hour on the 80 back. The show itself is an hour. Three hours on public transit, but only two hours of that time were actually spent going anywhere physically. But I mean...Henning and company do a remarkably good job of locking-in the feeling of a subway car for the sake of the performance. I had a very immersive experience with the evening.
It’s weird...I remember being in high school and being attracted to the female lead in the script. Ignore the disgusting racism, the knife and the homicidally sociopathic personality and...this woman is exactly who I would have been attracted to back then. And then I make it into college and I’m meeting all kinds of women like this...poetic and abstract and intellectual. It’s always really interesting until you see the knife. You see the knife and you just know there’s a sociopathic thing going on there...
The intimacy of the Sunstone really amplifies that poetic interaction between two strangers that could be something more. And it turns into something more...but not the way you want it to. It could be a romance, but there’s a knife. And on some level in encounters like this...on some level it just feels like there’s always a knife.
So anyway. LOVED this show. See this show. It’s...phenomenal. But I’m biased. Because it’s the type of show I’d always wanted to see since I first read it in high school.
Sunstone Studios’ production of Dutchman runs through Nov. 19 at Sunstone’s space on 127 E. Wells St. For more information, visit Sunstone online. My concise review of the show is coming soon to The Shepherd-Express.
November ushers-in a really impressive mix of drama on local small stages. There’s a high school girl with super powers at UWM, a team of indoor soccer players as Marquette, mid-1960s tensions at the Sunstone and quite a bit more. Here’s a look:
Teenagers with superpowers can wind up in pretty drastically different circumstances depending on the author and the era. A telekinetic girl written by Jack Kirby in 1963? That’s superhero Jean Grey of the X-Men. A telekinetic girl written by Stephen King in1974? That’s horror icon Carrie. One of them’s a hero. The other’s...not
Back in 2007, playwrights Nathan Allen, Chris Mathews and Jake Minton wrote The Sparrow a drama about a high school girl dealing with superhuman powers. The drama comes to the stage with the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. UWM’s production runs Nov. 2 - 6.
Amiri Baraka’s intimate 1964 drama Dutchman is explored on one of Milwaukee’s smallest stages early this month. DiMonte Henning directs the story of a man meeting a woman on a subway car in New York in the early 1960s. He’s black. She’s white. Hannah Ripp-Dieter and Denzel Taylor perform the show Nov. 4 - 19 at Sunstone Studios. If Henning and company up for it, Sunstones’ space can be lined-up almost exactly like a slightly enlarged New York City subway car. Baraka’s script is tight and uncomfortable. This could be a very powerful production.
About ten years ago, playwright Will Eno debuted Title and Deed. The guy who wrote the monologue Thom Paine (Based On Nothing) develops an entirely different monologue. This one is about a guy who lived in another country and now lives in the U.S. Theatre Gigante brings the character to the stage of the Kenilworth 508 Theatre on 1925 East Kenilworth Pl. Gigante’s Isabelle Kralj directs the talented Michael Stebbins as the guy from another country. Kralj and Stebbins have been working together for a long time...both are quite familiar with the space they’re working with. This should be a captivating evening with a single character. The show runs Nov. 18 - Dec. 3.
At mid-month, Marquette University Theatre presents playwright Sarah DeLappe’s 2017 locker room drama The Wolves. The story of a girls indoor soccer team finds a cast that’s roughly the perfect age to be playing a bunch of youth athletes. It’s a portrait of a group of American girls looking to score some goals. The show runs Nov. 18 - Dec. 4
Marquette alternates The Wolves with the drama of one man confronting memories of high school while watching The Academy Awards. Playwright Michael Perlman’s From White Plains explores the lasting effects of prejudice. In an acceptance speech, a man publicly denounces the high school bully he believes is ultimately responsible for pushing his best friend to commit suicide 15 years ago. Marquette’s production of From White Plains runs Nov. 19 - Dec. 3.
So...uh...the holidays are coming-up. It was just...it’s Halloween weekend as I write this. In just a few days...it’s...the holidays. This year First Stage returns to the cozy cathode-ray era of Rankin/Bass TV specials with a live stage adaptation of Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer the Musical. The show runs Nov. 25 - Dec. 24.
If opening night wasn’t a sell-out, it was really, really close. It’s a one-hour opera based on a classic 1968 horror film. With puppets and everything. And it’s Halloween weekend, so...it’s a perfect match. Everything else matches-up almost perfectly in Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Night of the Living Opera. The intimate, little studio theatre venue that hosts the concert performance is a perfect fit for the coziness of Romero’s low-budget classic, which largely takes placce in a single home during a zombie apocalypse. With a libretto written by Josh Perkins, the operatic amplification of the classic horror film. No set. Minimal costuming. Everyone is performing behind music stands...but the audio of the original zombie apocalypse feels deliciously creepy in places.
The production features prototypes of large-scale. zombie puppets by Angry Young Men, Ltd. These guys know from zombie puppets, having. done The Night of the Living Dead Puppet Show for a number of years now. Their presence in the studio adds to the mood of a tiny space that tumbles through zombie horror in a way that fuses perfectly with short, brutal opera.
Elizabeth Blood conjures a melodic terror as Barbara. She doesn’t have many lines in the film--which is incredibly sparse on dialogue to begin with. A young Judith O’Dea delivered an overwhelming sense of vulnerability to the screen in the original movie. Perkins gives Blood a great deal of room to emote that sense of terrified vulnerability in operatic form. Ben Yela gives considerably more sympathetic depth to her doomed brother Johnny than Romero’s original film allowed for.
After Johnny’s apparent death at the hands of a zombie (which happens between moments in the concert performance) Barbara finds herself in an apparently abandoned home that is defended by a heroic, level-headed guy named Ben. Jerome Sibulo is suitably heroic in the tole if Ben. In the midst of boarding-up the home, they find a small family in the basement featuring some very powerful singers...Julianne Perkins and Nathatn Wesselowski are impressive as Harry and Helen. Becky Cofta emerges from the Zombie Chorus to play their daughter. Cofta is a starkly chilling presence onstage once Harry and Helen’s daughter turns zombie. The vocalizations of the zombie chorus amplify the darkness around the edges of the opera.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Angry Young Men Ltd’s Night of the Living Opera continues through Oct. 30 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre on 158 N. Broadway. (There are performances today at 4 pm and 7:30 pm. There is also a 2pm matinee tomorrow.) For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.
This month The Milwaukee Rep hosts the world premiere of playwright Eleanor Burgess’ dark satirical comedy Wife of a Salesman. Directed by Marti Lyons with dynamically jarring scenic design by Andrea Boyce, it’s a jaw-droppingly complex comedy on many, many different levels. The post-modernist deconstruction of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is also a deep dissection of the nature of theatre, life and the socio-cultural impact of the past six decades on the psyche of the American woman. So...y’know...it covers kind of a lot of ground for roughly 90 minutes without intermission.
Heidi Armbruster conjures a profound complexity to the stage as the woman referred to in the title of the play. She’s come quite a distance to present herself as someone selling fabric door-to-door. She’s got a very narrow target market for what she’s selling: one woman. That woman is played by Bryce Gangel. She’s young. She’s confident. She’s having an affair with the other woman’s husband. Armbruster and Gangel hold the central conflict of the drama together with deft poise that allows for a great deal of comedy to slide cleverly around the edges of every word. Armbruster speaks to the wisdom of experience while Gangel conspires with the energy of ambition, but there’s a hell of a lot more going on here than hits the surface. This IS a confrontation between a wife and her husband’s lover, but it’s so much more than that.
It’s a social satire based on a play from over half a century ago. One might not expect it to explore the issues of contemporary life for modern women, but Burgess finds an ingenious way of bringing it altogether in deeply satisfying and provocative story of conflicting desires and ambitions. Lyons brings-out an impressively sophisticated dynamic between the two women. Bobak Cyrys Baakhtiari provides comic relief and contrast as a guy who is simply looking to do his job in and amongst the weight of so many conflicts. Burgess’ many, many layers of theme and subtext provide a vertiginous conceptual space for the story to inhabit. A meeting between two people might seem simple on the surface, but Burgess has managed to draw a complexity of perilously high thematic gravity into their orbit.
The dark satire largely focusses on one very long interaction between two women who have never met before. As it is over an hour long, it’s inevitable that the women are going to find a lot of common ground. Burgess manages to keep everything running through the darkness into the reality that awaits at the end of the story. Both characters are deeply interesting people who are each admirable in their own way. Armbruster and Gangel develop deeply engaging emotional dynamics to the stage. There’s a deep desire to see these two characters getting along. In many ways both characters feel like they represent equal and opposite ends of humanity itself. If only they could come together to an understanding maybe...and maybe they WILL come to an understanding one way or another. Burgess has built such a fascinating dynamic. Lyons and company have done such a good job of summoning that dynamic to. the stage.
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Wife of a Salesman runs through Nov. 6th at the Stiemke Studio Theatre on 108 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more, visit The Milwaukee Rep online.
Marquette University Theatre will open the month with its production of The 25th. Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. (I typed that title to the sound of the title song rolling through my head. Haven’t heard it in a while, but it and so many other songs in the show are so very catchy.) It’s the story of a group of musical kids jump through the hoops at a spelling bee in a fun, little competition that should play well in the intimate, little environment of Marquette’s Helfaer Theatre. The show runs Oct. 7 - 16.
Sunstone Studios continues its season with the regional premiere of What Was Lost--a stage drama set on the stage, It's the story of a recovering alcoholic actress who returns to the stage to star in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Amanda J. Hull directs what should be a deeply moving drama in the intimate confines of the Sunstone's studio theatre space. Hull is no stranger to working on a smaller stage as she had done extensive work with Milwaukee Entertainment Group in the basement of the Brumder Mansion. The cast includes Leslie Fitzwater, Cory Jefferson Hagen, Chris Hart, Alyssa Higley, Ashley Oviedo, and Deshawn Thomas. The show runs Oct. 7 - 22 at the Sunstone's space on 127 E Wells Street. For ticket reservations and more, visit Sunstone online.
It’s been described as “a striking exploration into the nature of madness.” A Page of Madness is a surrealistic 1926 Japanese film by Teinosuke Kinugasa is an early piece of dreamy visual fantasy that predates so much in Western cinema. This month, Theatre Gigante presents a screening of the film featuring an original score by composer Frank Pahl on toy and hand-made instruments that are performed by Little Bang Theory. There was a similar show last year featuring Nosferatu. Gigante returns to the Kenilworth 508 Theatre at 1925 E. Kenilworth Place for a couple of performances Oct. 8 and 9. For more information, visit Theatre Gigante online.
Macbeth. That’s really all I need to say. It’s the single best-known drama in the history of the stage. And it’s being performed without any specific preparation by Boozy Bard. Well...the script will have been adapted to the format. And there are costume items and props and things. But I mean...none of the actors know what they’re playing until they show-up to The Best Place Tavern at the Historic Pabst Brewery on 901 W. Juneau Ave. It’s the perfect choice for the month of Halloween. The show runs Oct. 10 - 12. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook Events Page.
The Constructivists present Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s 2015 political satire. It really is its own kind of weird horror. It’s a dark comedy about the nature of political discourse in the modern era set in Nebraska. The state is on the brink of revolution. Penny is a candidate for state office. Her aid Francine has nefarious plans for the state. The spoilery warning list reads a bit like poetry. This lookss like a lot of fun and it runs Oct. 15 - 29 at Interchange Theater Co-Op on 628 N. 10th St. For more information, visit
So here’s the deal with The Mystery of Edwin Drood: The guy who wrote The Piña Colada Song also wrote a musical. It was a musical based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. And it’s a detective story. So...y’know...it’s an unfinished detective musical. And it’s being performed as the opening show for the UWM Theatre this season. The show runs Oct. 19 - 23. For more information, visit UWM online.
It’s...opera with puppets. It’s horror opera with puppets. And...it’s horror opera with puppets that celebrates the most universally-loved work by George Romero. And...it’s happening this Halloween. So...yeah. This is really, really cool. Milwaukee Opera Theatre teams-up with Angry, Young Men to present one of the most truly unique Halloween shows onstage this year...an opera with libretto by Milwaukee theater veteran Josh Perkins and music by Andrew Dewey. The show makes it to the Broadway Theatre Center Studio Theatre on 158 N. Broadway. It’s one weekend-only: Oct. 28 - 30.
“This play is not realism and should not be performed as such.”
That’s James Ijames in his script for Kill Move Paradise. I saw the play last night with Next Act. Loved it. Went back to the script that had been provided in the press kit and just...read...
Ijames’ prose style makes for a very sharp read in script format. He’s wields words with grace. The play is about a group of four guys hang out in an afterlife called...Kill Move Paradise. (That’s what it’s called.)
Seeing Each Other
The afterlife is...kind of dark. As the audience, we’re there to see it. Ijames talks about this in the script right after dialogue that is spoken to the audience. He says:
“We have to be willing to really see each other for a spell. Maybe a spell that feels longer and costs more than we are willing to spend.”
It might be the only place to leave Kill Move Paradise...at least for the characters.
“Daz tries to escape the space. He runs up the wall and slides down. Runs up. Slides down. Runs, slides. Runs, slides. RunsSlides...We let this happen as long as he can take it. Be generous with his agony.”
Said again: “Be generous with his agony.” (Wow.)
So...there’s this printer in the afterlife.
Here’s what Ijames says about it in the script:
“Somewhere onstage a printer spits out a name on an increasingly growing list. We used a dot matrix printer and that was fire.”
Next Act has the printer right out front and on the left. It’s right above a few bottles of water, a few bottles of Perrier and a plate of brownies. (There are evidently complimentary brownies and carbonated water in the afterlife.) The rest of the set includes a fantastic collage of stuff...a TV with a built-in VCR next to a doorless mini-fridge full of VHS tapes. A bicycle, a football, a dartboard, a clock, a wheelbarrow, an Atlantic Record 45, a pair of lime green Nikes, a saxophone right next to a painting of a guy playing a sax, another clock, a solid body electric guitar and so much more. All of it is way at the back of the stage. The afterlife is alive with...stuff.
The list of names keeps growing. We all know what it is. No need to explain it. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Reginald Doucet. And so many more. The list in the script goes on for four pages. Here’s what Ijames says about it...just before it’s read...
“The impulse will be to make the list less agonizing...It should be speaking the names as an attempt to keep those bodies alive...This list has grown each time. I have done a revision of this play and, I fear, will continue to grow. Add the names of the newly fallen. We must say their names as well.”
Next Act’s production of Kill Move Paradise runs through Oct. 16 at the space on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act Online.
The theatre season opens in the greater Milwaukee area this September with a mix of drama, comedy and musical flavors. This September features a more diverse cultural fusion than previous years. It's quite a variety available on local stages this month as Summer turns to Autumn.
The Spitfire Grill
The 2022/2023 theatre season opens with a heartfelt musical drama. Director Michael Pocaro and Music Director Mark Mrozek lead Sunset Playhouse’s production of a 2001 musical adaptation of the 1996 indie film of the same name. The beloved story of a young woman looking to find herself in rural Wisconsin is brought to the stage with a rather impressive cast including local theatre veteran Marilyn White, the talented Josh Scheibe and local musical theatre icon Matt Zembrowski. The show runs September 8th through 25th at the Furlan Auditorium in Elm Grove.
Sunstone Studios opens its season next week with a production of Terrence McNally’s tragic mid-1980s comedy. A literary editor’s relationship is falling apart. He tries to keep his mind off personal matters while conversing with an opera diva that runs late into the evening. The cast includes Joshua Biatch, Cory J. O'Donnell, Bryan Quinn, and Deshawn Thomas. The stage and Sunstone is perfect for an intimate, little comic drama. It’s one of the smallest stages in town. Perfect for a cozy evening with a few characters. September 9th through 24th at Sunstone’s space on 127 E. Wells St.
The Seanchai opens-up September for Interchange Theatre (the space that In Tandem founded.) Marie Jones' A Night In November an Irish comedy about events surrounding the World Cup qualifying match between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at Windsor Park in 1993. John Dunleavy plays Kenneth Norman McAllister--a man who finds his entire life changed on a single night in November. The show runs Sep. 9 - 25 at the Interchange Theatre on 628 N. Tenth St..
Shakespeare RAW - Twelfth Night
Boozy Bard returns at mid-month to host another series of strangely irreverent explorations into the most acclaimed writer in the whole of the English language as they present Twelfth Night. The shipwrecked romantic comedy fits-in quite well with the Shakespeare RAW approach. Actors arrive at the show not knowing what to expect until the hat assigns them their roles at random. Admission is $10, but it’s only $5 for those who show-up in pirate attire. It’s a fun, breezy informal roll with a beloved comedy makes its way to The Best Place Tavern at the Historic Pabst Brewery September 12th through 14th.
Kill Move Paradise
Of all the shows on the coming month, this might be the one that I’m looking forward to the most: James Ijames’ dramatic look into the lives of four Black guys who are stuck in a cosmic purgatory in the afterlife. I love this sort of surrealism...it’s a chance to explore the deeper meanings of identity. The playwright has said that this drama was inspired by the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer. The cast that Next Act Theatre has put together for the show is phenomenal...Marques Causey, Ibraheem Farmer, Dimonte Henning and Joseph Brown Jr. Marti Gobel directs. September 22nd through October 16th at the space on 255 S. Water St.
Wife of a Salesman
Playwright Eleanor Burgess had come to realize that her grandfather was a salesman in Brooklyn right around the same time that Arthur Miller’s protagonist Willy Loman would have been around. Knowing that history doesn’t always look at the women in any situation, Burgess was inspired to write a dramatic comedy seen form the perspective of the wife of the salesman as she goes to confront his mistress. It’s a fun concept that The Milwaukee Rep explores in its first Stiemke Studio show of the season. Directed by Marti Lyons, the show runs September 27 through November 6.
Where Did We Sit On the Bus?
Milwaukee Chamber Theare opens its season with a fusion of talents as Kellen “Klassik” Abston and Isa Arciniegas present the story of a young Latino searching for identity and cultural history. The narrative fuses the music of Klassik with spoken word in a piece written by Brian Quijada. September 30th through October 23rd at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre.
The theater pavilion faces the water in a cozy, little tent far enough from the rest of the fest to hold its own atmosphere. Milwaukee Irish Arts returns to Milwaukee Irish Fest this year in a perfectly-placed theater tent that is far from the noise and commotion of the rest of the fest. The brief bits of comedy and drama fill a cozy, little space with more than enough time between performances to pop out for mead, ale, fish and chips and such amidst the festivities of the festival. I had the pleasure of seeing three shows opening night. Here’s a little bit of what to expect.
“Bring Your A Game”
Rising Irish playwright Méabh de Brún paints an endearingly complex picture of a couple of women caught in an elevator. It’s a brilliant comedy painted on the smallest possible canvas: 15 minutes in an elevator. Becky Cofta is remarkably balanced as someone suffering from a serious phobia. Cofta’s level of distracted focus in the role is inspired. Brittany Boeche-Vossler is charming as a wheelchair-bound overachiever looking struggling to deal with the predicament. The playwright manages a very, very sophisticated and relatable comedy that says a hell of a lot about the human condition without ever leaving the elevator.
The title character never quite manages to show-up in a three-person comedy. It’s set around a rural dinner table. Julia’s parents try not to wait for her when a suitor shows-up to ask for her hand in marriage. George Sheppard is the gruff-but-lovable father. Sarah Mankowski is cleverly subtle as the passively dominant personality that always seems a bit too over-eager to render the moment. Charismatic Joe Picchetti channels an impressively comic vulnerability about him. Picchetti does well in a performance that's solidly counter-intuitive for someone who has such a smooth stage presence.
“Dead Man’s Bells”
Méabh de Brún’s other piece on the fest is considerably darker than her elevator-based short. It’s the darkly comic tale of three sisters living on a farm. Libby Amato plays soft-spoken strength as the eldest sister. Maura Atwood conjures her trademark charm as the middle sister. Madeleine Craig is admirably nuanced in the role of the youngest daughter. Amato, Atwood and Craig have an engaging fluidity about them as they move in and around an ensemble of characters in a small town. The three bring together a captivating comic thriller.
These shorts and more will continue to appear in the theater tent as Milwaukee Irish Arts continues at Milwaukee Irish Fest through Sunday, August 21st. For a full schedule and more, visit Milwaukee Irish Arts online.
Prolific local comedy writer Patrick Schmitz sets his spoofy sites on classic horror this month as he presents The Comedy of Dracula...Kinda Sorta. It’s an exhaustive spoof of Bram Stoker’s original classic that runs around onstage for quite a long time without actually feeling like it. The spoof has a huge cast and a hell of a lot going on in and around the edges of everything. Intermission feels like it’s about a half hour into the show. The curtain call feels like it’s about a half hour after that. Leave the theatre and you’ll notice three hours have past. It’s weird, but it’s also Schmitz. So it’s fun.
Chris Goode capably carries the role of Jonathan Harker, who has gone to Transylvania to work out a land deal with Count Dracula (David Pritchard.) The epistolary aspect of the story allows for some clever comedy at the outset of the show. Harker is corresponding with his lover Mina who is endearingly played by Becky Cofta. Schmitz’ script elevates the women of the ensemble without compromising a somewhat bizarrely faithful spoofed adaptation of the overall plot of the original novel. The women are quite strong in Schimtz’s script...which give Cofta a lot of room to move around as Mina...showing-off both comedic AND dramatic talent. (Cofta is really cool. I don’t often get to talk about this coolness. In addition to appearing in this show this week, she’s also showing-up next week at Irish Fest with Milwaukee Irish Art as someone trapped in an elevator in the Méabh de Brún one-act Bring Your A Game.) Mina’s victimization by Dracula is, of course, foreshadowed by the victimization of her good friend Lucy, who is played with clever comic poise by Liz Whitford.
The female focus of the play is aided by a bit of casting. The script doesn’t seem to specifically suggest that the role of vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing be cast as a woman, but Beth Lewinski is perfect for the role. She’s got a very commanding comedic presence that works powerfully in the role. The staggering precision of Lewinsky’s comic subtlety fits the role brilliantly.
The rest of the cast features some really amazing talent in various supporting roles including Doug Jarecki as one of Lucy’s suitors, Tim Higgins as her Texan suitor and veteran comedy talent Nic Onorato in quite a few scene-stealing comedic moments as a rider, an orderly and...well...a wolf who drops by to work on the plumbing.)
There’s some interesting dramatic ends of the show that don’t often get explored in a great amount of detail in stage or screen adaptations. The dramatic end of relations between Dr. Seward and his patient/prisoner Renfield hit a cleverly dramatic counterpoint to all of the comedy. Dennis Lewis weaves an impressively sharp line between drama and comedy as Seward. Rollie Cafaro goes through quite a transformative arc as Renfield, which is particularly impressive considering how little he actually appears onstage.
Schmitz ’n Giggles’ one weekend-only production of The Comedy of Dracula...Kinda Sorta has one more performance tonight, August 13th at 7:30 pm. The show takes place at the Next Act / Renaissance Theaterworks building on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations, visit Next Act online.