Cabaret. Milwaukee swings into the final chapter of its Jealous Revolver serial. The bar at the Astor Hotel once again serves as the perfect venue for a retro variety show done in the style of an old live radio show. Chris Goode brings a distinctive (And distinctively energetic) old-timey radio voice to the stage as show’s host Richard Howling.
This time around Howling introduces a very evenly-mixed evening of entertainment with the final chapter of the original Milwaukee-based crime thriller starring a suitably dramatic Dora Diamond and Maura Atwood as business partners who have taken over a speakeasy in the wake of a few homicides in earlier episodes. The tradition with old-style crime drama (going all the way back to the original old radio shows) is to over-play the dramatic intensity. To their credit Diamond and Atwood keep the energy of the drama on a very believable range that makes for an engaging tension not often seen in gangster thrillers. Randall T. Anderson makes a striking appearance as the sinister visiting villain from Chicago--a gangster who plays a man known as Happy Memories. The cast is rounded-out by a dashing Andrew Parchman as a police detective and a comically inept cop played by Michael Keiley.
The show is separated into two halves...each opened by the classy crooning of Cameron Webb, who does a hell of a job with a Billie Holiday tune. Cabaret Milwaukee newcomer Anna Brink is a classy addition to the show. Her agile piano work throughout the show provides a jazzy background for the show that fits in perfectly around the edges of all the rest of the action. (She's appeared various place over the years. It's fun to see her add to the dynamic of a theatrical show.) Allen Russell adds to the atmosphere with period-perfect violin that lingers around the edges with Brink’s piano.
Michelle White sharply shifts to comedy this time around. She’d been delivering some of the drama in earlier episodes. Here she’s filling-in for comic 1940s "helpful hints" housewife Laura Holterman in a bit of clever retro comedy based on an actual 1939 “Marital Rating Scale” by one Dr. George W. Crane that appears in the program. Elsewhere, White joins Lindsay Willicombe and Marina Dove as the three-part harmony of the Howling Jinglers, who also engage in a bit of fun comedy between the music. Michael Palisano reappears as the slyly alliterative comedian in a particularly deft tongue tangle tango with witty anxiety. In one of the more clever bits of staging in the show, tap dancer Danielle Joy Webber performs her second set onstage with the corpse of a murder victim still onstage as a tied-up police office Micheal Keiley serves as captive audience. Elsewhere in the story, dance comes in an altogether different form as Maria Pretzl and Jullian Williams perform a burlesque for the cops.
So to review: Burlesque, tap, vaudevillian stand-up, jazz crooning with keyboard and violin, drama and suspense. It's a classy time at the Astor.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s The Jealous Revolver: Episode Three runs through March 2nd at the Astor Hotel on 924 E. Juneau. For ticket reservations and more, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.
Theatre Gigante’s adaptation of Enemy of the People covers a tremendous amount of ground in allegory. Isabelle Kralj has put together a really tightly-focused, little ensemble for their adaptation of Ibsen’s classic. At the center of it all is a doctor played by Emmitt Morgans. Morgans’ journey as the doctor is a fascinating one that takes him from being a simple consultant with an idea to being something far better and then...far worse in the eyes of the people.
At the opening of the story, Morgans is consulting with the mayor of a small town (played with seedy, duplicitous officiousness by David Flores.) The mayor suggests using a local water source to bottle natural spring water, but Morgans suggests something much more substantial: a health spa which could promote a tourist economy in the town. The mayor approves and the musical proceeds. At this stage, Morgans could have been playing a minor, supporting character--just a casual guy with an idea that happens launch the plot on its course.
As plans for the spa develop, the doctor suggests drawing water for the spa from a pure place that turns out to be cost prohibitive to the mayor, who has the final say. Lacking any real power, the doctor must relent to the wishes of the mayor. Here Morgans is still playing someone who could have theoretically ended-up as a minor character in a much larger plot.
The spa opens and everyone is celebrating. Somewhere in the background in and amidst it all, Morgans stands a a counter regarding a few test tubes. Having done some rather official-looking sciencey-stuff in the background, he addresses the people of the town (represented by a very energetic ensemble.) Sadly, the water is being drawn from a toxic source and the entire spa may have to be shut down for quite some time in order to protect people. Here Morgans is playing the doctor as a hero everyone respects. Things get complicated from there. The doctor’s fortunes reverse when he brings the health hazard to the attention of Flores’ corrupt mayor.
Morgans cleverly treads the path of a man who shifts from some minor character in the background to prominence as a hero, then an activist and a vilified scapegoat for the bad decisions of others. Kralj has framed the journey of the hero with remarkable complexity for a tiny allegorical musical. What starts-off as a desire to help others shifts into a self-defining journey as well. And though the doctor is not without his own arrogance, the negative side of the character is a slight shadow around the edges of someone who really IS extremely selfless and willing to sacrifice himself for the benefit of the public.
Morgans brings clever nuance to a role that could have easily played as more of a gleaming heroic altruist. He’s aided at a crucial moment by a cleverly-written Jason Powell song. The doctor is consulting with the people about the dangers of environmental hazards of the spa. They are grateful for his interest in the public health, happily praising him as a hero. In the course of the song, Morgans is allowed brief flashes of pride which grow into open acceptance of the hero label even as he shies away from it. It’s a tricky balancing act to portray a character tacitly accepting adulation that he is openly shying away from. More than simply showing subtlety, Morgans allows the moment to be a major turning point in the personality of the character without making it overwhelmingly obvious that he is doing so. The doctor’s rise to prominence casts a shadow over everything that he does from that moment on. Powell gives Morgans just enough space to play to a few different angles of heroism in remarkably clever moment in a provocative look at the politics of survival in an increasingly complex world.
Theatre Gigante’s Enemy of the People runs through Feb. 16 at Kenilworth 508 Theatre on 1925 East Kenilworth Place. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theatre Gigante online. A more complete and concise review of the show runs in this week's Shepherd-Express.
Cooperative Performance’s Allusion/Illusion is an intellectually exhilarating 45 minutes of experimental theatre. Like anything that’s truly experimental, it is many different things in many different ways. For 45 minutes the tiny, little improvised space in the Third Ward just down the street and around the corner from the Milwaukee Public Market becomes a fun existential playground cast in the emptiness of a vacant warehouse with vast expanses of plaster and Cream City brick.
On one level, Allusion/Illusion feels oddly like a video game. Emily Elliot and Caitlyn Nettesheim are enjoyably confrontational as a pair of abstract entities in conflict who are debating whether or not to reveal the artifice of reality to the audience. There are multiple levels that the audience is ushered through in the course of the show as Allusion and Illusion guide us through the central question of morality in reality versus perception. The conflict progresses as curtains are raised, each one revealing another performance at a different level. Each level ends in a kind of climax, building on the levels before it.
On another level, Allusion/Illusion is a simple intellectual funhouse. The show is introduced by a lovable blue fuzzy puppet named Little Blue who is brought to life by Billy Ray Olsen. Olsen delivers the character of Little Blue to the performance in a casually friendly tone. There's little done to separate puppet from the puppeteer. Olsen changes his voice very little for the character, appearing in plain view right behind him. Little Blue even makes reference to the guy standing behind him. It’s a really sharp introduction to the show. Much like everything else in the show he’s introducing, Little Blue can be taken for face value as a character...or as a puppet...or as an abstract symbol for something else entirely. It’s all so deeply open to interpretation.
On another level, Allusion/Illusion is a variety show. There’s drama. There’s music. Jo Kerner from the prog rock band Rocket Paloma sings and plays guitar beautifully amidst the strange abstraction of it all. There’s dance and drama and shadow puppetry. (Here the show is being playfully literal. We see Plato’s Allegory of the Cave rendered in actual shadow puppets on the cavernous wall of an empty warehouse.) There’s multimedia mutation as well. One of the better moments in the entire show has Kerner’s face as a visage of inner turmoil broadcast onto the body of Raja Zafar. It’s weird. It’s disjointed. And it’s all in the service of subjectivity in reality.
On another level still, Allusion/Illusion is an abstract existential fairytale. Emily Elliot is Allusion...a gritty, aggressive de-constructivist trying to guide the audience through artifice into something more real even though she knows that there isn’t anything beyond it. She’s a compelling nihilist in a tie and a black leather jacket. She’s contrasted against Caitlyn Nettesheim as Illusion...the gracious hostess who wants us all to be happy in the world that’s been constructed for us. I love the idea that two of the most powerful forces in the universe are present onstage as a couple of young women. On an aesthetic level this makes a lot of sense to me. The script makes pretty extensive reference to the Wachowskis’ Matrix movies, but so much of the dreamlike fairytale nature of the show reminds me of Gaiman’s Sandman right down to powerful forces taking the form of young women. We don’t have the pleasure of the company of a Goth girl death or a mismatched, pleasantly scattered Delirium, but it’s endlessly cool that Nettesheim and Elliot are opposing Order and Chaos-like forces in the title roles of Allusion and Illusion.
One of most fascinating moments in the narrative a brief scene where the audience is led out of the space and into the cold reality of the Third Ward at night. Traffic is going by in the distance. There are the sounds of a weekend just south of downtown in late winter. There’s a whole world out there. But how real is it? As tired as the overall premise is, there’s still a phenomenal amount of electricity in the theatre calling attention to its own reflection. It’s powerful stuff. It’s also playful and bizarre. It’s rare when something this abstract and philosophical dives into view in local theatre. It's a show that needs to be seen.
Cooperative Performance’s Allusion/Illusion runs through Feb. 23 at a storefront space in Historic Third Ward on 329 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cooperative Performance online.
This month Alex Hoffmann and Jessica L. Sosnoski debut Pure Enough to Drink—an original drama of addiction and redemption set in Milwaukee. Kerric Stephens is endearingly flawed as Alex— a successful businessman suffering from alcoholism which is mirrored in his son’s heroin addiction. Markaz Q. Davis is toweringly aggressive as his nihilistic, self-destructive son names Shay. Kellie Wambold cuts a very composed figure as Alex’s wife Judy. Wambold is the picture of exhausted poise trying desperately to keep it all together.
The drama plays out in percussive aggression. Anger thrashes out in restless shouting. The drama starts at a very high intensity and maintains without much more than an intermission for break. It can be kind of breathtaking at times.
The constant intensity of the tension causes characters tend to consist entirely of the substance of their conflicts. The audience doesn’t get much of a chance to see what might have held husband to wife to son. The characters ARE allowed some life outside all of the anger and shouting, but the aggression and frustration in the drama are overpowering.
Amidst the intensity there is a varied spectrum of aggression. Things get particularly physically brutal when Alex enters Huber. The brawl choreography amidst convicts feels remarkably brutal and authentic on such a small stage, but the emotional edge of the aggression feels every bit as powerful as Stephens and Wambold tangle through a complex emotional dynamic of husband and wife dealing with father and son in the grips of addiction.
The plot gains complexity as Alex deals with life in incarceration. Alex deals with oppression from a bully with clever sympathy. Things get complicated for Alex when a friendship with the fellow inmate leads to an offer to have the gang kill his son’s dealer. Alex’s pacifism is out to the test in a conflict that becomes a defining moment in the drama.
The drama spends a great deal of its time in Huber with the convicts. Some of the most interesting moments in the drama happen amidst a diverse group of prisoners. A boisterous game of Monopoly in prison is perhaps one of the single most memorable scenes in the entire drama as it feels incredibly natural with characters talking over each other in the cagey dynamics of a group of people forced to spend way too much time together.
The subtle and not-so-subtle aggression in prison forms some of the most intricate moments of the play. So much of the dialogue in the script fits the confrontational energy of the plot. The overall plot are being covered in the drama is not a clean and easy sweep from beginning to end. Reflecting life as it does, and the pacing is uneven and there aren’t any easy answers.
The script stops short of discussing greater problems with the US prison system and a country with the highest rate of incarceration as well as issues involving the political aspects of substance-abuse and prohibition of illicit drug use. All of the bigger political issues are safe we avoided in favor of working at the human element and its rawest emotional form. It’s a deeper gaze into the abyss of emotional complications of addiction and recovery from a deeply human angle. It’s ugly. it’s uneven. It’s every bit is ragged around the edges as the life it seeks to reflect.
The Company of Strangers’ Pure Enough to Drink runs through Feb. 9 at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit The Company of Strangers online.
Clearing-up racial tensions in the U.S. should be easy. We should be able to look around and identify that we’re all essentially the same in a tiny, dangerous world in the big, scary vacuum of the universe. We should acknowledge our past and get on with the complex nature of survival in a precarious socio-economic world with an environment on the brink of collapse. We should realize that there’s a hell of a lot of work to do. We should realize that we need to grow-up if we’re going to survive. We live in an intellectual world that’s a lot more complicated than that, though. Playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Blood at the Root explores the complexity of racial relations in the U.S. with a cleverly-constructed script that reaches into a big, messy issue with a tender scalpel. Marti Gobel directs a sharp production of the drama for Next Act Theatre this month.
Chantae Miller makes a vulnerably heroic appearance as Raylynn--the first African-American student to run for class president at a small school in Louisiana. She challenges unwritten norms by hanging out beneath an old tree near the school that has been the exclusive domain of white students. Tensions flare when the action evidently provokes a few foreboding nooses to appear on the tree in an act the school principal dismisses as a prank.
Gobel applies a deft hand to a very intricate script. It’s far too easy to think in simplistic terms of Good vs. Evil when dealing with racial tensions in the U.S. It’s far too easy to stage a drama in and around a high school that features the time-worn two-dimensional archetypes that litter so mean teen exploitation comedies and dramas in TV and pop cinema. The archetypes can make for decent drama, but they don’t do justice to the true complexities of modern society. Morisseau recognizes the sophisticated complexities of high school students, allowing the drama to reach a striking emotional depth not often seen in pop drama on any flat, glowing screen.
Miller is joined by a thoughtful, talented ensemble. Justin Lee has a charmingly relatable gravity about him in the role of De’Andre, who plays in the school’s football team. Ibraheem Farmer cleverly encumbers himself with a lightly brooding pragmatism as Justin--editor of the school newspaper. Justin runs into some occupational friction with student journalist Toria, played with passion tempered with a smartly muted intellectual frustration by Grace DeWolff. Cultural complexities are vividly brought into the ensemble by April Paul, who plays Asha: a white student who only feels at home in African-American culture. Paul has shown great versatility in a number of productions. Here she disappears into a captivating role around the edges of a very interesting ensemble. Casey Hoekstra compellingly rounds out the cast as a high school quarterback who has transferred-in from another school. His admiration for Raylynn adds another level of depth to an already complicated script. Hoekstra’s naturalistically composed presence keeps the added layer of complexity from feeling too extraneous to be explored in an already dense script.
The action of the scenes is fused together by dance that’s been engagingly choreographed by Alicia Rice to powerful music composed by Kemet Gobel. It’s doubtlessly difficult to find the right movements for six people to fill a small stage dominated by a rather large tree, but Rice makes it work. Scenic/lighting designer Jason Fassl’s huge, imposing rope-covered tree is beautifully ominous, but it poses interesting challenges to movement in and around the stage in the very concrete and earthbound reality of an American high school. As the show’s movement director Marti Gobel has found a way to make the small space onstage feel big enough to hold the tense drama of a very satisfying script.
Next Act’s production of Blood at the Root runs through Feb. 24 at Next Act’s space on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act Online or call 414-278-0765.