It’s A Casual Line, But It’s really Cool
Somewhere in [title of show], an actress is told that she’s ben a bit quiet. In the role of the actress, Amber Smith casually mentions that she hadn’t had a line until that moment. Amber Smith is the actress who said that she hadn’t had a line until that moment, but she was saying the line about not having a line in character as an actress named Susan. Smith is an actress playing an actress who is playing an actress who is herself in the process of rehearsing a musical that’s being staged about a musical that’s being produced. All of this is implicit in a casual moment where she happens to mention that the line she’s speaking is the first line she’s scripted to have in the scene. It’s a sweetly clever moment in the show. It's indicative of the weird existential funhouse that is [title of show].
It’s Really Fun to Write Some of the Sentences in This Blog Entry
[title of show] is contemporary musical theatre in the mold of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. It’s a brief musical about a couple of guys (Doug Clemons and Matt Zeman) writing a brief musical. The musical they’re writing is the musical that they’re in...and rehearsing. You don't have to think about any of the deeper stuff, though. Watch it casually and you’re hanging out with 4 actors. Watch it a bit more deeply and it’s a really dizzying metaphysical musical. I'll say it again: Zeman and Clemons play a couple of actors in New York who are playing themselves in a musical about themselves writing a musical that they are in. It’s a show abut a show that is the show that the show is about. Right now I’m trying to figure out whether or it's hopelessly silly or it’s conceptually the best musical I’ve ever seen. Or maybe it’s just really good. I dunno.
Did I Mention We’re All Onstage?
Director Brian Bzdawka has the cast on a set onstage that is also occupied by the audience. This is the Greendale Community Theatre and they have a HUGE stage (relative to so many small stages in and around Milwaukee.) On one level, it’s only practical to have a show like this in a studio theatre space, but on another level it’s actually really, really clever to have the audience onstage with the actors playing the actors who are playing themselves onstage. We're all onstage and the lines get blurred, but never so much as to make anyone uncomfortable because this IS a musical with some rather catchy tunes. You just want to sit back and enjoy the music.
Deceptively Contemporary References
Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell wrote [title of show] back in 2006. Some of the references might feel a bit dated. The pop cultural references will NOT date well as the years go by, but that doesn’t stop this show from feeling remarkably fresh right NOW. That being said, they’re all contemporary enough to feel like this might’ve been something that was written last week. So it feels like there shouldn’t be any problem staging a show like this every week somewhere in Milwaukee...and cities of comparable size all over the country. I know it doesn’t work that way though: a show like this needs to be developed and thought-out and...everything else that the show itself is illustrating. When you watch a show about a show being produced, though, and when it comes across this fluidly...it just feels like there’s GOT to be an audience for this sort of thing on a rolling basis. There's no reason we can't constantly have the theatre gazing at itself longingly in the mirror from at least ONE stage in a city this size. This is way too much fun to happen just one place for a couple of weekends.
The Music is Good, Too
My wife and a went out to the car after the show with “Nine People’s Favorite Thing” rolling through our heads. Looking back over the list of musical numbers, there are so many good songs here. What I love about it is the fact that...yes, there are songs making reference to musical theatre...”Monkeys and Playbills” weaves weird lyrics out of titles of forgotten shows. There are songs directly about the creative process like “Die, Vampire, Die!” and “Change It, Don’t Change It,” and “An Original Musical.” My favorite songs, though were reflections on the piece as it was happening. Rachel Zientek has a really classy moment singing a song in character as Heidi Blickenstaff in character as herself singing “I Am Playing Me.” My favorite song has her and Amber Smith settling into a moment without the guys singing about being “Secondary Characters.” They're not central to the plot, but for one moment they get to hang out there in the center of everything and they have a song about it. (So cool.) I wish there could be more moments like that in musical theatre.
Greendale Community Theatre’s production of [title of show] runs through Jan. 20 at the Henry Ross Auditorium in Greendale High School on 6801 Southway in Greendale. For ticket reservations and more, visit greendaletheatre.org. A comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.
Next weekend, All-In Productions places a couple of actors in-the-round at the cozy Tenth Street Theatre for a show about two people and endless possibilities in an infinite multiverse. Sounds complex, right? At its heart, though, it’s the emotional story of two characters delivered to the stage by a couple of really good actors. Show’s director Mitch Weindorf took the time to answer a few questions about the show for The Small Stage.
On the surface, from a basic logistical perspective this is a real challenging show: One actor. One Actress. A small stage. 70 minutes no intermission. It’s just...the audience and two people and a story. Thankfully, you have Libby Amato and David Sapiro working on this with you. Two truly talented actors. What’s it been like working with them on a show that’s designed to be this tightly-woven?
Working with Libby and David has truly been a delightful experience! When I first read the script about two years ago, I remember having this feeling of excitement of the possibilities of what could be with the show. My next thought was this is a show that needs to have experienced actors and design team working to do justice to Nick Payne's writing. Having worked along side both previously on stage and seeing their work, I knew Libby and David were the actors to bring Marianne and Roland to life. The experience they brought along with them allowed us to spend rehearsal time doing a lot of intricate, detail orientated work that you don't often have the luxury of. This allows any of the technical elements to be smoothed out allowing the show to flow naturally.
Beyond the basics of the set-up, you have a tremendously complex script on a conceptual level. The idea of multiple different timelines and multiple different possibilities all existing in and within a multiverse cast against two people in a romantic connection...it’s a lot. How have the three of you been tackling the complexities of the script?
The exciting and terrifying thing about this script is not only, like you mentioned, that it is filled with complexities of multi-verses, but Nick Payne also eliminates stage directions. He gives us the words the characters say and leaves the rest for interpretation. It is exciting to have a blank canvas to paint on, but also daunting since there are an infinite number of possibilities. I remember talking with my design team, mentors, Lindsey [Gagliano], and other theatre professionals about their thoughts on the show, even before casting to help me create a vision for the show. In the end, I decided to approach the show with simplifying everything, and allowing the words to do the work for us. Once we started rehearsals, Libby, David, Brittany (our Stage Manager and Assistant Director), and myself did a lot of table work. We read the show out loud and talked of concepts and ideas in the script. Then, we broke that down into each grouping of scenes, reading those and discussing, until finally we analyzed each individual scene and universe. The process took a good amount of time, but has definitely helped us shape our understanding of the show and finding little details that may have gone unnoticed. It was great because one rehearsal Libby would come in with an idea about a scene, David would have a completely different idea, and I would have yet another idea. The collaborative process allowed us to realize things that we may not have noticed or thought about. Even in the blocking, the process has been collaborative and open, allowing to create a show that finds different elements that may not have come to fruition without our table work and openness of ideas in the rehearsal room. This also allowed us to let the words be the focus of the show, rather than attempt to add spectacle or glamour to distract from flaws that may have been there. It's a bit unnerving, but I think ultimately, will be rewarding.
At the heart of all live drama there is the connection between people and an audience. Here you are aided considerably by one of the coziest spaces in all of Milwaukee: the Tenth Street Theatre. This can be both a blessing and a curse as you are flanked on more than one side by audience. You get a chance to reach out into the audience emotionally,but with two people, an audience, 70 minutes and no intermission, there really isn’t anywhere to hide. Have rehearsals addressed the intimacy of the venue you’ll eventually be performing in?
I am thrilled to be working at the Tenth Street Theatre, and that they are allowing us to transform their space. Because of the intimacy of the show, I wanted to stage it in the round (audience on all four sides), leaving Libby and David and the words at the center of everyone's gaze. Thankfully, we have been rehearsing at the Underground Collaborative, which provides us with a cozy rehearsal room. We have had the opportunity to have designers and guests see rehearsals and sit around the edges to address what the intimate feel will be like when we move to the theatre.
I’ve not had an opportunity to personally connect with the script. (Haven’t read it.) How would you introduce the concept to someone who is more comfortable with a more straightforward romantic drama?
At the heart of the play, it is a show about two people, the choices they make or don't make, and the various circumstances around them. Nick Payne did a wonderful job of crafting variations of situations that people have experienced, like being at a BBQ, or going on a first date, or having a fight. Yes, the ideas of multi-verses and string theory are present, but it is Nick Payne's way of presenting Marianne and Roland's story. The relationship and situations are familiar enough, that those theories are playing a supporting role rather than dominating the show. What sets it apart from a straightforward romantic drama, is that you get to experience the triumphs and failures of these characters in a situation that you would normally only get one version. It's a choose your own adventure where you find out all of the possibilities.
It’s a fascinating concept. I always find that my mind wants to wander off on its own when a piece of drama is exploring something that’s conceptually interesting. What’s the pacing like in this 70 minutes? Do we as an audience have much time to digest the story as it’s being presented?
I believe this is a show that doesn't lend itself to digesting the story since the plot is easy to follow. The important part of the show is the relationship of these two and how it changes based on their choices and circumstances. One of my favorite lines that stand out in the show is "Time is irrelevant at the level of atoms and molecules. It's symmetrical. We have all the time we've always had". While in our universe, we see time as a straight line always going forward no matter what, but on the atomic level, time doesn't exist. All of these scenes and moments exist simultaneously with one another. Marianne and Roland are meeting for the first time in one universe and engaged in a fight in another.
All-In Productions’ staging of Constellations runs Jan. 12 - 20 at the Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N. Tenth St. For more information, visit All-In online.
All-in also posted a really interesting behind-the-scenes video with Weindorf, Amato and Sapiro, which is available on Facebook.
Check it out:
Aaron Kopec considers it one of the best shows he’s ever done. Only it wasn’t a show. It was a New Year’s Eve party at the Alchemist Theatre. It was a show that wasn’t really a show. (And maybe on some level it was an initial study for something much bigger that he’ll be doing in the space next Halloween.)
Conceptually the Alchemist Theatre’s Soviet Spy Themed New Years Eve Party on Dec. 31, 2017 was...remarkably well-rendered. Recent politics have given Russia a creepiness that's lived-up to some of those things they told us about the Soviet Union in the '80s. There’s genuine concern over our sense of autonomy in the U.S. with an infected orange stain in the oval office that seems fascinated with fascism. And so naturally there’s a desire to laugh in the face of any authority (phantom, puppeteered or otherwise) as one year becomes the next.
There was an agent at the front door checking people-in as they arrived. Step inside and there was a guy in track suit and women dressed as spies. (Didn't see any excessive denim, though. Soviet-era Russians LOVED denim. There was a fetish for "Authentic Amerikkan Bluezheance," as I understand it.) Natasha Mortazavi wasn't far from the entrance in white dancing with a stripper pole. There was a go-go girl on a platform over a bar made out to look like Checkpoint Charlie. There were posters and barricades. The entire place was strung with ropes tied to look like barbed wire. The music blared in a place filled with smoke pierced by dancing laser lights amidst video of vintage tanks and missiles on video screens.
Libby Amato was standing next to the bar--a cool precision in a little trench coat as my wife and I entered. Actresses milled about the bar as cold war-era Russian spies with comically thick Boris-and-Natasha accents. It was an immersive atmosphere that seemed to preternaturally know when to lay back in favor of something that felt much more like a traditional New Year’s Eve party. Nevertheless there was something slinking along the background that made the party feel like...something more. Speak the right words and you might have ended up in some back room.
If I’m not mistaken it was April Paul from the go-go platform who told us a password to enter the speakeasy behind the bar. (“Sexy Sexy Fun Times” turned out to be wrong. And it might have been the Carrie at the bar who told us there was a third “Sexy” in the password. Or maybe not. As always, you’ve got to be careful where you get your intel from...)
The speakeasy was behind a plywood wall actually onstage at the Alchemist...with Randall T. Anderson behind the bar fresh from his run as The Bartender in the one-man show of the same name. (Turns out it's not just an act. The guy LOVES talking about mixed drinks. This is a good thing because he's really good at it. He told my wife and I the story of the Old Fashioned.) There were anti-alcoholism posters from the USSR plastered all over the speakeasy. There was Lindsey Gagliano in black with a thick Russian accent resting at the bar in a quiet corner away from the lights and loud music.
Exiting the speakeasy, the rest blurred in big, furry hats and various mixed drinks amidst more traditional New Year’s Eve club attendees. Naturally there was a champaign toast. The video images of May Day parades and Cold War-era military operations, demonstrations and detonations made way for a video celebration of the year that passed. It ended up being one of the more sophisticated pieces of New Year’s video I’d ever seen anywhere. The video was meant to be a call to action and inspiration.
The atmosphere didn't quite slide perfectly into place at the end. Ideally there might have been more of a gradual breakdown of the artificial authority over the course of the party that culminated in the video, Throwing-in too much artificial structure would have led to problems, though. You don't want to try to be too oppressive with the formatting where a party is concerned, especially where it's New Year's Eve and people want to slink and sink into a haze with the lasers and the smoke machine. Still...it was conceptually remarkable and one of the more sophisticated parties I've ever seen. It was a tightly-rendered small stage theatre backdrop to the end of a year that could have been the end of the world.
Kopec has put some of that night online. Here's that final countdown video straight from YouTube.
As always with the Small Stage...you kinda had to be there...oh well...Happy New Year anyway...
Aaron Kopec's next big show at the Alchemist Theatre is Columbo in May. For more information as it becomes available, visit the Alchemist online.