This weekend Seat of Our Pants Readers Theatre and 53212 Presents stage a cozy evening of shorts in a warm corner of Riverwest on a second floor amidst floorboards and Cream City Brick. The six-short program features a cast of four: Posy Knight, Nate Press, Kirk Thomsen, and Tess Rutkowski. L. Mark Flagg directs the program. Flagg and company glide through six quick narratives including the premiere of Jon Kolb’s The Waitress. Seat of Out Pants and 53212 Presents make another strong case for the appeal of the theatrical shorts format that really SHOULD make it to the stage more often. The reader’s theatre format keeps the comedy and drama pleasantly informal.
The program opens with two of Karen Ellison’s Harry and Sam Dialogues. Kirk Thomsen and Nate Press play a couple of guys engaging in casual philosophy and theology. The first takes place in a bar. The second takes place at a baseball diamond. Thomsen and Press have solidly comic bromantic chemistry as a couple of guys who know enough to know exactly how to annoy each other intellectually. Press and Thomsen have a clever grasp of the subtly playful antagonism that runs throughout both dialogues.
Conrad Bishop’s Anniversary is a harrowingly disturbing, little comedy in which Nate Press and Tess Rutkowski play an alarmingly smug couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary. Everything’s perfect but for the small matter of the trash...both real and metaphorical which seems to be piling-up around the edges of everything. It’s a cleverly absurdist short which has deeply disturbing implications as the nature of human connection continues to get increasingly disconnected from an ecosystem that’s rapidly decaying due to human dysfunction. I may be reading A BIT into the implications of this piece, but not by much. And I realize that it’s only a short, but I’d LOVE to see a group like Theatre Gigante or Milwaukee Opera Theatre add additional music and/or dance material to expand this one into something more substantial than a short on a reader’s theatre program. Intentional or not, the deeper allegory of this one is very, very important.
Posy Knight has radiant, comfortingly hypnotic eyes. She wields her unique gaze with a surgeon’s precision in the Beverly Creasey short Auld Lang Syne or, I’ll Bet You Think This Play is About You. Knight plays a cripplingly sensitive person confronting an ex-boyfriend (played by Kirk Thomsen.) Flagg’s reader’s theatre staging has both actors facing the audience as they speak to each other. This produces a really weird and compelling kind of empathy. The audience is thrust into the position of both of the characters in turn in an increasingly surreal alternation between man and woman. It’s an interesting experience, but my focus on it hit a bit of a snag early on. Creasey’s script is quite intricate in its characterization, but there isn’t a huge window of time for characterization in a short. My initial impression was that of a generic obsessive ex-girlfriend stereotype and an equally generic aloof, emotionally distant male stereotype. By the time I was able to overcome this and start accepting the characters as unique individuals, the short was already over.
The final short before the half is a strikingly clever 2-man piece from a number of years ago written by Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! (Search for it on You Tube and you’ll find fuzzy footage of Sagal himself performing the piece with MST3K’s Bill Corbett.) Game Theory features Press and Thomsen as a couple of guys at a corporate leadership-building retreat. They’re playing a simple game: There’s a line between them. Each of the two can win the game if they can convince the other two step across to their side of the line. Press and Thomsen play the comedy well, but I found myself tripping over my own ideas as the script ran its course. The two characters reminded me of like...every sleazy competitive corporate asshole I’ve ever met. Sagal’s script could have been interpreted in a way in which every single line was an attempt to gain leverage over the other whether it was in idle small talk or overt, manipulative coerciveness. The YouTube video mentioned above shows that even Sagal didn’t really have this interpretation of his own script, though...so...clearly this was all in my head. Still would have been fun to see it performed in more of slimy, competitive way.
Press DOES get in touch with his inner douchebag as the boss in the final short of the program: Jon Kolb’s The Waitress. A very captivatingly nuanced Tess Rutkowski plays a scrappy waitress from the other side of the river working at a coffee shop managed by a guy from this side of the river played by Kirk Thomsen. The manager has caught the waitress stealing from the till. Thomsen plays to the thoughtful vulnerability of the manager as Rutkowski renders depth and complexity to a waitress who is cunningly trying to advance her position. The aforementioned Press is suitably slimy as the owner of the business...a man who has vulnerabilities all his own. It’s a complex drama that closes the program on a smartly provocative note.
Seat of Our Pants/53212 Presents’ Winter Shorts runs through Feb. 1 on 731 E. Center St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Brown Paper Tickets.com.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Skylight Music Theatre open the year with a cozy Gilbert & Sullivan show on the small stage at the Broadway Theatre Center. Ruddigore (or The Witch’s Curse) is a quaint, little story of romantic love in collision. The curse the title refers to requires the ruler of a small barony to commit one crime a day or suffer an agonizing death. The rightfully born Baronet has feigned his own death to escape the curse, leveling it on his brother. He has fallen in love. Will there be complications? Absolutely. Will it all get resolved? Without question. Will that resolution involve something weird in the fashion of a Deus Ex Curse Loophole? Well...maybe. (kindasorta)
With no room for an orchestra, the music is delivered by a small choral harmony. The production design is beautiful on the small stage. Scenic elements are projected behind the action with vivid flair by lighting and projection designer Nathan W. Scheuer. It’s a silent movie kind of a feel that even has the opening curtain speech delivered in old-timey title cards. The silent movie feel extends to Molly Mason’s humble, largely black and white costume design and Shen Heckel’s scenic elements which are gracefully whisked across the stage to serve as foreground for Scheuer’s backgrounds. The stylish depth managed between Heckel and Scheuer is kind of dazzling for a studio theatre show.
Doug Clemons charms as Robin Oakapple: a reluctant man bravely cowering in fear of his family curse. He is every bit as bold with his cowardice in love, smitten as he is with romantic feelings for Rose Maybud. Susie Robinson is breathtakingly endearing as Rose, who steadfastly lives her life by a code of etiquette found in a dainty, little book. The bashful, young lover asks his foster-brother Richard to aid him in expressing his feelings for Rose. Things naturally get a little complicated when Richard falls for Rose as well. Adam Qutaishat is the heart of comic instinct in the role of the utterly guileless Richard. An an accordion-laden Karen Estrada brings her own distinctly cunning comic presence to the stage as Robin’s faithful servant Adam.
From music to staging to character and characterization, Ruddigore is positively plush with overwhelming cuteness. The love story is cute. The love rivalry is cute. The subterfuge that threatens to tear that love apart is cute. The lack of a large orchestra is cute. The choral arrangement is cute. The tiny piano played by the onstage conductor is cute. The silent movie-style title cards projected behind the action are cute. A production does NOT get away with this much cuteness without being tediously cloying unless it manages every single element of cuteness and/or adorability with the kind of precision it takes to split an atom at CERN. It’s no surprise that Skylight/Milwaukee Opera Theatre manage precisely this. A production like this is in good hands with directors Jill Anna Ponasik and Catie O’Donnell. The show is populated with a small civilization of simple, little comic elements which playfully bounce across the stage as the music whimsically renders the comic complexity of love and conflicting romances. Without exception every one of these elements seem to be delivered with the kind of precision it would take to shake hands with a neutrino. The fact that it all happens on such an adorably tiny stage makes the production all the more irresistible.
The Skylight and Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s production of Ruddigore (or The Witch’s Curse) runs through Jan. 19 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre on 158 North Broadway. For ticket reservations, visit The Skylight online.
It’s kind of shocking how incredibly complex things can get between two people. Put those two people onstage and have a couple of actors playing them and you’ve got a really compelling drama. Bring those two actors and their two characters into really, really close proximity to an intimate, little audience and you have a captivating night of theatre. Outskirts Theatre Company opens 2020 with all of the above in its production of Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat. Directed by Kelly Goeller, the talented pairing of actors Carrie Gray and Seth K. Hale play a couple ofNew Yorkers dealing with life in the wake of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.
Seth K. Hale plays Ben. Ben is a fugitive from his own life. He was supposed to be at work in the World Trade Center. Instead he was engaging in extramarital intimacy with his boss. Now it’s the next day and he’s missing with a whole bunch of other people. He’s at her apartment. Hasn’t called his wife and kids. Hale gives the crassness of an anti-intellectual a sympathetic depth. His delivery lacks some of the crude bluntness that seems to be written into the dialogue, but a little bit of THAT goes a long way and it would be way too easy to overemphasize that character’s general lack of sophistication.
Carrie Gray plays Ben’s boss Abby. She’s a few years older than him. She’s much more sophisticated. LaBute seems to have given her a great deal more complexity. Abby wants Ben to be open about their relationship with his wife and kids. It would be the honest thing to do, but she doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. She IS having an affair with a guy who works for her and she knows that it’s wrong. LaBute renders Abby in a dizzying level of intellectual and emotional complexity. Gray does a brilliant job of bringing Abby’s complexity to the stage. Given the sophistication of the character and the fact that she’s given just over half of a full 90 minutes onstage, this may be one of the most accomplished dramatic performances I’ve seen onstage in the past few years. This would be a dream role for 40s-ish actress...partially because there aren’t many roles like this for women but partially because it’s an opportunity to unflinchingly play a contemporary character of great depth. Gray is breathtakingly organic as an intellectual who is given pause to consider who she is and who she might be in the fact of national tragedy. Gray lends the character a clever restlessness as she gets lost in simple pleasures and idle humor as she contemplates what just happened in lower Manhattan.
The drama plays out in 90 minutes of realtime. This is the type of theatre I love: two people delving into a really, really deep conversation in a small room on a small stage for 90 minutes and no intermission. It’s a very big conversation for the two of them that drifts in and out of small talk and idle bickering, occasionally delving into some very serious emotional and philosophical ground. LaBute, Goeller, Hale and Gray conjure a portrait of two people searching for identity in the face of tragedy on the precipice of a new millennium.
Outskirts Theatre Company’s production of The Mercy Seat runs through January 12 at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit the event’s Facebook Page.