Milwaukee theatre openings in March have sort of a three-act plot structure. We open with themes of death at the beginning of the month...then move on to jazz-age dance and music and some light Shakespearian comedy followed by an even-tempered sort of warm-hearted dramas--one based on a beloved book and another featuring a book of an entirely different kind. So three acts: Sadness. Then Dance and Comedy. Then cozy drama. Here’s a look.
Okay, so it’s not exactly about death. It’s about what happens to those death leaves behind. It’s an ensemble piece about three women who meet each other in the presence of their late husbands’ graves. The Cemetery Club graces the stage of the Sunset Playhouse at the beginning of the month. Life moves on even after death in a charming script that should play well at the end of a placid suburban winter. Donna Daniels directs the poignant contemporary comedic drama March 2 - 19 at Sunset’s space on 700 Wall Street in Elm Grove. For more information, visit Sunset online.
This one IS serious drama. Right Before I Go concerns playwright/TV screenwriter Stan Zimmerman (The Golden Girls, Roseanne, The Gilmore Girls) and his journey to understand his friend’s suicide. He’s not able to read his friend’s suicide note, so he reads the suicide notes of others online. The play explores suicide notes of celebrities, veterans and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Erica Case & Sara Kohlbeck direct. All-In Productions and The Medical College of Wisconsin present a two-performance staging of the drama March 3 - 4 at Sunstone Studios on 127 E Wells Street. For more information, visit All-In online.
UWM Theatre lightens-up the late winter with a celebration the ’30s and ’40s. Fran Charnas’ The All Night Strut is billed by Music Theatre International as “an easy-to-produce crowd pleaser, has minimal set requirements and features a small orchestra and a small, flexibly sized ensemble cast.” The dance of the era accompanies songs like “Tuxedo Junction,” “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing.) The Gershwins, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and more swing across the UWM Mainstage one week only March 8 - 12. Steven Decker directs with musical direction and choreography by Ryan Cappleman. For more information, visit UWM Peck School of the Arts online.
Boozy Bard returns the The Best Place Tavern on on 917 W Juneau Avenue this month, They will be presenting a Shakespeare RAW production of As You Like It. A painstakingly adapted script of Shakespeare’s classic comedy is presented with an open, irreverent style that can feel more than a bit like improv comedy. (Actors are chosen for roles at random before the shows starts.) It’s been a lot of fun following the Facebook posts by Bardwriter Andrea Roedel-Schroeder regarding the editing process. Evidently she had to cut the character of Jacques entirely. Touchstone remains in the current edit. (“I’m sorry..." she says, "having 2 separate dingdongs is messing up the scene flow.” She’s posted animated GIFs of a ridiculously large pair of scissors and an enraged Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s a whole thing...) Warmer weather is welcomed by a cozy night with Shakespeare March 13th - 14th. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page.
The local small stage has been really good to actress Cassandra Bissel lately. She's been really good to it too. She's delivering some impressively intricate emotion in the role of an understandably frustrated professor with Next Act through the end of winter. At month's end, she returns to the exact same stage on 255 S Water St. with an entirely different theatre company: Renaissance Theaterworks. Bissell appears in the world-premiere production of Kristin Idaszak's one-person drama Tidy. Bissell plays a woman excavating her life in a sea of stuff as guided by Marie Kondo's self-help book: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The show runs March 24 - April 16. For more information, visit Renassaisnce online.
This month First Stage goes from a post-apocalyptic Middle Earth to the wacky, shiny technicolor of a cel animated Bikini Bottom. (That one opens in a couple of days.) Late this month the children’s theater group shuffles off to a genteel poverty in 19th century Concord, Massachusetts. The talented Karen Estrada directs the stage Kate Hamill adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women. The warm, emotionally rich drama of the March sisters makes its way to the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center from March 24th through April 2nd. For more information, visit First Stage online.
Next Act Theatre explores a playfully classy romantic mood with its latest. Mickle Maher’s There is a Happiness That Morning Is dances whimsically across the stage in rhyming verse as two actors speak of lust, love and so much else in monologues diving into dialogue which graces the stage for 90 minutes without intermission. The audience serves as a large class of undergraduates listening into a lecture that may be the last for either one of the two professors. They had engaged in very public lovemaking on the college campus and now they’ve each been asked to apologize to their students for the inappropriate behavior. Maher frames, the alternating monologues and graceful, rhyming verse that is so elegant that it scarcely feels like the poetry it so clearly is. It feels very natural, very casual very carefully constructed in crushingly beautiful all at once.
Neil Brookshire plays Bernard. His printing on the chalkboard is simple, very neat and very legible. He passionately speaks of the primacy of young love. He speaks the title, like it truly means something very deep in and within him. There’s a great emotional depth to what he is presenting. He manages a great deal of strength and wisdom that are also very childlike. It’s a cleverly captivating dichotomy that echoes so many of the rest of the dichotomies reverberating throughout the drama. Through it all, Brookshire remains radiantly charismatic. Bernard is attempting a deeply fearless aesthetic honesty that Brookshire fully embraces.
Cassandra Bissell plays Ellen. Her handwriting on the chalkboard is a dense cursive. She speaks with powerfully articulated vulgarity. She’s frustrated for a great many reasons. And there is a great elegance to her wit. Bissell slides deftly through a some of the most powerful emotions imaginable. She does so in a way that holds it all at an intellectual distance just a far enough away from her and the audience to appreciate its beauty. Ellen is passionately searching for the truth knowing full well the weight of the time that has been given to her. Bissell’s grasp of Ellen’s immediacy is inspiring.
Mark Corkins adds a crazy energy to the conflicts at the end of the drama. His passion crests over the passions of the other two with every bit as much manic exaggeration as the script seems to call for. There’s a real desperation in his performance, which provides a passionate counterpoint to the drama going on between the male and female leads.
Director Mary MacDonald Kerr has fostered a dynamic between the three actors that allows for very fluid transitions between moments of monologue. It would have been all too easy for flat and relatively lifeless transitions as one actor gives away to another in the alternation between contrasting passions. Kerr has assured that the overlapping energies of each actor exists in a very dynamic interplay. The other two actors aren’t always necessarily always present when one is addressing the audience, but the presence of every actor in the show is felt quite profoundly from beginning to end.
Next Act Theatre’s production of There is a Happiness That Morning Is runs through March 19th at the space on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act online.
Voices Found Repertory conjures a snug, little island to the tiny space Inspiration Studios in West Allis as it presents a staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. An ensemble of five swiftly spins through many more than five roles in the course of the immersive, little comedic drama. Under the direction of Alex Metalsky, weightier dramatic elements fade out in a flurry of well-aimed comedy that speaks to various aspects of the human condition.
Local theatre veteran William Molitor performs as the central anchor of the cast in the sole role of the wizard and displaced nobleman Prospero. The rest of the cast play castaways and spirits in a tumultuous tumble of comic conflicts, murder attempts and various other bits of scheming on an uncharted Shakespearian island.
Hannah Kubiak deftly inhabits a few different prominent characters including one quarter of the indentured spirit Ariel and drunken butler Stephano. (Everyone onstage but Molitor plays a quarter of Ariel in a well-modulated quartet.) Kubiak’s sense of comic conception and tasteful exaggeration serves the role well. Relative newcomer Grace Berendt makes quite an impression in a few roles. She plays to the darker end of the drama as the crafty usurper Sebastian. Berendt does an impressive job of taking-on the characters from every end of the play, making them her own and giving them life without undue exaggeration. It’s a lot of fun to watch. She’s powerfully present with physical and intricate verbal comedy in the meekly funny role of Stephano’s partner Trinculo and the sweetly romance of Prince Ferdinand.
Ferdinand falls for Miranda--daughter of the island who also falls for him. Miranda is given earnest life by Chloe Attalla. Towering Cory Fitzsimmons rounds-out the cast most prominently as Caliban. Fitzsimmons’ high-gravity presence could easily overpower everyone and everything else onstage. He does an impressive job of muting his physical presence to play a shambling slave. In the intimate confines of Inspiration, it’s quite apparent that Caliban could easily become the single most powerful character in the whole story if only he were confident enough to stand upright and stand-up for himself. This dynamic makes for an interesting contrast to most other stagings of the story that I’ve seen over the years. The only true native of the island is subjugated by interlopers. Fitzimmons is vividly portrays the innate power of the island itself in an enjoyably immersive comic staging of Shakespeare’s final script.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of The Tempest runs through Feb. 19th at Inspiration Studios on 1500 S. 73rd St. in West Allis. For more information, visit Inspiration Studios online.
A sad and wistful drama fairy tale is given a fun and playful staging as Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks present Rusalka. Dvořák’s opera playfully glides across Danceworks’ cozy space somewhere between Downtown and the East Side in a brisk 80 minutes without intermission.
The Czech version of the Little Mermaid legend is presented in a graceful dance and beautiful song that is hosted by narrator Jason Powell as The Moon. Powell also adapted the opera for the production, which conjures a crisp, contemporary atmosphere for the ancient story. Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik has found a clever variety of ways to keep things light while remaining true to the original opera. Quite a lot of this involves some very sharp and nuanced work by choreographer Christal Wagner.
Not long after a few mood-establishing moments, Powell enters to welcome everyone...dressed exactly like the moon in sparkly athletic shoes and something resembling a white jumpsuit with a sewn-on name patch that clearly identifies him as, “Moon.” Saira Frank is equal parts powerful and vulnerable as the water spirit Rusalka who has fallen in love with a mortal man. Colleen Brooks summons a darkly droll craftiness in the role of Ježibaba--the witch who agrees to turn Rusalka into a mortal girl in exchange for her voice. Tim Rebers is quite charming as the guy that Rusalka has fallen for. He’s completely unaware of the magic in the world around him, but deeply connected with the whole idea of romantic love as witness by the fact that he falls for Rusalka and a visiting foreign princess who becomes an integral part of the story’s central conflict.
Powell, Ponasik and Wagner’s best collaboration involves a party. A romantic triangle between Rusalka, her love and a foreign princess is given clever presence. The dancers move about in a brilliant fusion between a casual party mood and graceful ballet amidst the overwhelming iconic presence of shiny, red plastic solo cups. Kaitlyn Moore has a sharply witty presence onstage as the somewhat bored foreign princess who has kind of a lot to drink. Moore’s drunken grace has the same kind of understated precision that her disaffected, unengaged silence manages at the top of the scene.
The flow of action feels a bit strange. The sudden crash of events at the end of the story IS quite sad. Somehow Powell, Ponassik and Wagner manage to maintain the overall playfulness of the production without compromising the sadness of the ending. It’s not really all that clear how they manage this.
It's playful. It's witty. It's sad. It's tragic. It's romance and indifference and dance and song. And it's like...80 minutes in a cozy, little theatre. Things are so cleverly balanced onstage that the mood seems to make sense even if it really has no business doing so. There’s a kind of magic in turning a 3-hour-long show into a more manageable 80 minutes. It’s a magic that allows for whimsical, little dichotomies to peak out of the shadows and tumble across the stage in a graceful and deeply satisfying fusion of music and dance.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks’ production of Rusalka runs through Feb. 12 at Danceworks Studio Theatre on 1661 N Water Street. For mor information, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre Online.