A hell of a lot of fantasy is coming to inhabit small stages in Milwaukee this month. Fairies, time travelers, nymphs a Shakespearian wizard, a dragon and at least one Hobbit are drawn to small Milwaukee stages this month. The month ends with an opening featuring Cassandra Bissell. It may not exactly be fantasy, but Bissel is kinda magical in her own way. Here’s a look at what’s opening on small stages in February.
Shakespeare. Time travel. Sunstone Studios explores something new with the big premiere of playwright Rick Bingen’s Whirligig of Time. There’s a Shakespeare-themed pub in London. There are Shakespeare-themed drinks. Things happen. (The aforementioned time travel and such.) Sounds like fun fantasy in the intimate space of one of Milwaukee’s smallest theatre spaces. Tim Kietzman directs a show featuring original musical compositions by Kaila Bingen. February 3rd - 18th on 127 E Wells St. Bingen’s script calls for seven actors, which should feel like a relatively large crowd for this month’s trip to Sunstone. (The space has recently been home to smaller casts.) For more information, visit Sunstone online.
I love how ambitious projects can find their way onto even the smallest of stages. Sometimes it’s like...it’s like a hobbit walking into Mordor. This month First Stage presents a small-stage adaptation of a J.R.R. Tolkien classic as it stagesThe Hobbit at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on 325 W Walnut St. Some 96,000 words are lovingly compressed into a 90 minute stage drama as Bilbo, Smaug, Sting and the One Ring all come to inhabit a cozym little stage attended by parent and children Feb. 3 - Mar. 5. For ticket reservations and more, visit First Stage online.
Music and dance fuse in a cozy space as Danceworks and Milwaukee Opera Theatre present a staging of Antonín Dvořák’s classic story of magic, nymphs, love and the moon. Between the Stage Direction of Jill Anna Ponasik and the choreography of Christal Wagner, this should be a spellbinding experience. The traditional runtime of Dvořák’s opera is like...three hours. I ran into Ponasik recently and she assures me that the show is actually like...one hour long. As I recall, she also assures me that they haven’t abridged it or messed with the fabric of space and time or anything like that. Ponasik didn’t exactly explain to me how they manage this...but she didn’t NOT tell me either. Evidently it has something to do with Jason Powell, who not only adapted the opera for the production...he also plays The Moon. I will not question his powers further. Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks’ production of Russalka runs February 9-12 at Danceworks Studio Theatre on 1661 N Water Street. For more information, visit MOT online.
Voices Found Repertory chooses the coldest month of the year to go tropical as it presents The Tempest at Inspiration Studios in West Allis. William Molitor plays Prospero in a streamlined 5-person cast that includes charming longtime VFR-er Hannah Kubiak, Chloe Attalla, Grace Berendt and Cory Fitzsimmons. It sounds like kind of a tricky thing to manage, but these guys know what they’re doing. The warmth inhabits the stage for two-hour stretches February 10th - 19th on 1500 S 73rd St. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page.
The one big non-fantasy to open on a small stage this month is a romance that is delivered entirely in rhyming verse. Cassandra Bissell and Neil Brookshire play a couple of university professors who had engaged in “coitus on a campus green.” They take turns explaining themselves in a romantic comedy that is cute in the best possible way. Playwright Mickle Maher’s There Is a Happiness That Morning Is runs February 23 - March 19th in a production with Next Act Theatre. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act online.
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the final preview performance of the midwest premiere of playwright Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living. The show makes its local debut in a remarkably vivid Renaissance Theaterworks production. Two pairs of people deal with the complexities of human connection in the course of two hours on an intimate stage. Director Ben Raanan shepherds the dramatic energies through alternating scenes between the two pairs in a deeply moving emotional drama.
Bryant Bentley and Regan Linton are an estranged couple who struggle to find some common ground in the face of tragedy. Bentley is quite charming as Eddie--a trucker who is turning his life around. Majok’s script arms him some of the sharpest lines in the script. He’s matched in grit and wit by his wheelchair-bound wife Ani. She’s been through hell. Thanks to Eddie, she’s going to be through a bit more before things can have a chance to turn around for her. Linton carves together a gruff appeal of her own as Ani tolerates the company of a man she has not spent much time with in recent months. Raanan has helped Bentley and Linton climb their way through some very tricky emotional territory between the two characters. The tragedy that binds the two of them is beautifully crushing on a deep emotional level.
Jamie Rizzo and Valentina Fittipaldi captivatingly fill their half of the two-hour drama as John and Jess. John is a man suffering from neuromuscular challenges that leave him largely wheelchair bound as well. As the play opens, John is looking to hire Jess as a personal aid to help him with the arduous tasks of shaving, showering and so on. Fittipaldi and Rizzo carefully manage the dauntingly complex relations between John and Jess. The unlikely pairing of a wealthy man and his financially challenged aid hit the stage with a deeply engaging emotionality. Fittipaldi is crushingly endearing as a woman who has been through far too much to be able to casually trust anyone. Her performance might be one of the most memorable performances of the whole season thus far. Fittipaldi makes clever and beautiful use of the chance to deliver great complexity in a wide spectrum of silences in and around a charmingly pensive performance.
The alternation between the two different stories sometimes felt a bit interruptive. Just as things were really developing between Eddie and Ani, Majok jumps over to Jess and John. Jess is such a deeply interesting character for me...and Fittipaldi was so good at bringing her to the stage that I found myself taking a bit more time to warm-up to the perfectly charming gruffness of relations between Bentley and Linton. The two stories inevitably fuse at the end of the drama’s two hours onstage. It’s a very touching end to the whole thing, but I wish I would have been able to focus a bit more on things with Eddie and Ani.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Cost of Living runs through Feb. 12 at the theatre space on 255 S Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Renaissance online.
The set is kind of an advanced-looking fifth grade classroom. The theatre in question is Sunstone Studios. It isn’t really a whole lot bigger than most fifth grade classrooms. A teacher’s desk and a few kids’ desks are visible. A few essays are tacked-up on the walls amidst posters of various gods and goddesses. It’s the site of a cozy, little two-person drama called Gidion’s Knot. Specitic moments might falter a bit here and there, but Director Caroline Norton has done an excellent job of fosters an environment which delivers the depth, shadow and nuance of a very sophisticated script by Johnna Adams.
Sarah Mankowski-Lathrum shows strength and compassion as Heather--an elementary school teacher who is relatively new to the job. (She’s already had a career in advertising and moved on to education.) She’s dealing with a couple of different traumas and quite unprepared for a parent-teacher conference. One had been scheduled for the afternoon, but she hadn’t expected it as the child in question had died at his own hands. When the mother of the late student does, in fact, show up, she’s taken more than a little off-guard. Sarah Mankowski Lathrum maintains a light-but-firm handle on the gentle emotional shifts that Heather undergoes as she and the mother discuss the late student.
Tina Nixon is a strong and formidable intellect in the role of the mother Corryn. She’s made an appointment and she intends to keep it. Her sone had been suspended for doing something that the teacher had felt was inappropriate. Corryn was contacted. Now that he’s dead, the mother is looking for answers. Heather would rather the school principal be present for the discussion, but Corryn is insistent. Nixon has a powerful silent presence onstage as Corryn deftly navigates her way into some sort of an explanation for a suicide that she feels Heather may have been responsible for in some way.
An investigation into the nature of passion, aggression and emotion gradually reveals itself in a single conversation that isn’t much longer than an hour. Adams packs a hell of a lot into that hour. There are some pretty tight narrative corners with tensions shifting back and forth at breakneck speeds. The delicate shifts of aggression, intension and emotion don’t always flow through the performance quite as swiftly as the script might require.
Suicide is one of the more difficult subjects to dive-into in a two-person drama. Even without the subject of loss and grief, the whole concept of fifth grade is absurdly complicated on so many levels. People on the edge of childhood who are tumbling across the precipice of adolescence have a dizzying amount going on in their lives. Adams’ script handles that complexity without much in the way of direct interaction with them. The kids who are characters are only presented in their writing. Crushingly bewildering concepts are held at a distance as two people try to figure out what went wrong. It’s a very, very beautiful and brief moment of drama on a small stage.
Gidion’s Knot runs through January 28th at Sunstone Studios on 127 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Sunstone online.