COVID-19 has shut down every show in town. Every. Single. Show. Even the multiplexes are down. Local small stage theatre types are performing before little cameras in kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and home offices all over Milwaukee. It’s an opportunity to look at some VERY off-center work being done by local performing artists. Sadly, Liz Shipe’s live radio performance of The Adventures of Alvin Tatlock had to be canceled, but there’s still a lot of stuff going on out there with local performers. Here’s a look at some of my favorites that are available now and/or coming-up soon:
Sickly Days Shows with Boozy Bard
The traditional Boozy Bard show has a lot of people congregating around in a tap room or a microbrewery or some such performing shows vastly unprepared with little to no prep time. This is perfect for the days of Stay Safe at Home in Milwaukee...save for the whole ”congregating together” thing. Boozy Bard’s Jeremy Eineichner and company are going to be performing a regular stay-at-home version of their show on Facebook. Shows run Tuesday and Thursday nights starting at 7 pm. The communal nature of theater may not be there, but since liquor stores are considered essential and therefore immune from Wisconsin's Safer at Home, audience members can settle-in and drink along with the microbrew of their choice while supporting the local small brewery of their choice.
Outskirts TheatreCo. will be presenting a series of five locally-written ten-minute shorts via Livestream on Friday, April 3rd starting at 7:30 pm. What are they going to be? We don’t know yet. Script submissions for the show are still open until 11:59 pm tonight.
Forge Theatre Co.
One of many shows that had its run cut short, Forge Theatre Co.’s locally-written comedy Not Today has posted a multi-camera video of the entire show from beginning to end complete with ‘70s TV-style rolling credits at the end. This is a fun comedy. Evidently shot entirely onset at Urban Harvest, it’s a pleasant reminder of what going to a small stage show can feel like.
Tarot is a performance art that’s done on THE smallest stage. When it’s done right, Tarot is its own kind of performance art that taps cleverly and poetically into thematic apperception and the universality of the human condition. Local reader Skully Sati has a sharp sense of rhythm and poise about her readings as evidenced by her work done on her YouTube channel. She’s totally captivating. She’s also recently done her first Facebook Live show.
Cooking with PANdemNICK
Milwaukee actor/funnyguy Nick Firer has been posting regular Facebook Live cooking segments from his kitchen. There’s nothing explicitly scripted here...just one guy in his kitchen cooking stuff while talking about it. Watching a normal cooking show feels unsettling. PBS, the Food Network and other bigger outfits don’t seem to grasp how artificial it feels. A kitchen made to look domestic on a TV soundstage? It’s as disturbing as it is unnatural. Cooking With Nick is far better. It’s just one guy and a camera with a live feed from his actual kitchen, which ends up being so organic that it’s practically hypnotic.
WQVH, the Quarantine Variety Hour
Whether it’s David Kaye with a guitar, Andrea Roedel-Schroeder reading Neil Gaiman, Michael Timm reading Douglas Adams or anything else, Kaye’s Facebook group is an interesting scroll through various locals and others passing time until the Virus has strolled-on to other places. (Roedel-Schroeder has mentioned plans to do daily readings from Night Vale’s Faceless Old Woman, which would be really cool.)
This is largely a podcasting group, but I love the YouTube component and sometimes find myself hanging out with it in a corner window while I get other work done. It’s been nice to have the opportunity to catch-up on this YouTube channel that wasn’t specifically inspired by the Coronavirus. It’s a podcastLocal actors and comedy people sit around like figures in DaVinci’s Last Supper engaging in weird role-playing games (with the All-Arcadians) or reading from old Choose-Your-Own Adventure books (with Turn to Page Fun) or...my personal favorite: engaging in bookclub-style discussions about wildly inappropriate juvenile and YA fiction with Who Let Me Read This?
It’s getting kind of scary out there. Sometimes the best theatre for a moment of crisis is lightly refreshing social comedy. That’s exactly what Forge Theater manages with the premier of Not Today. Directed by Jake Brockman, a talented, appealing cast delivers a genuinely funny script to the stage that’s been written by David Stein and Hannah Mitchell. Two couples and a couple of others meet in a cozy domestic setting for a wedding anniversary dinner. Things predictably go wrong. Things inexplicably go right. It’s a fun 90 minutes of light comedy without intermission. It’s a new script. A couple of writers (sort of) had a chance to hang out with a piece of writing they wrote about a group of people hanging out together. So it’s a party, but nothing fancy. You don’t have to dress-up or anything like that. Go to the bar at Urban Harvest. Get a beer and head in to the theatre to see the show.
Settle-in for the show and you’ll get to know the living room of one of the characters before she shows-up onstage. Scenic Designer Amy Sue Hazel has managed the tricky task of making a very small space on a small stage feel cozy and lived-in. It’s a living room. There’s a doggy bed, framed pictures of Disney characters, a few owl-themed knickknacks and a few Harry Potter novels. Not far from a trio of white, ceramic owls recreating the three wise monkeys there rests the ashes of a beloved pet named Guinea Weasley.
The living room decor comes courtesy of Claire. Casually dazzling Stephanie Staszak is sweet and earnest as Claire—a veterinarian who has decided to get a little ambitious and make beef bourguignon for the occasion. She’s had problems with cooking in the past, but she’s totally confident about her ability to host an anniversary party for her friends with her live-in boyfriend Byron.
Seth K. Hale is sweetly unhinged as Byron—-a man with far deeper concerns than the fate of the beef bourguignon. He hopes to propose to Claire. He’s so wrapped-up in his own nervousness that he’s totally oblivious to the fact that doing so during a challenging anniversary get-together might not be the best idea, especially after what he did at the couple’s wedding one year ago.
Appealingly affable April Paul plays Jo, who was particularly upset about Byron’s behavior at her wedding. Paul has a warm confidence about her in the role. She seems totally at home playing a very responsible and caring person. Send Jo out for beer and she’ll come back with beer and Gatorade. (She’s just that cool.) Paul is perfect for the role of a woman who is perfectly suited to the impending motherhood that she and her husband announce very early-on in the comedy.
The father-to-be is the other half of “Team J.” (Husband and wife met in high school chemistry class and have been inseparable ever since.) Ben Yela taps into some comically restless energy in the role of Jack: a man on the verge of a major life change that he may not be totally ready for. Yela and Paul have a cute familiarity about them as “Team J” that adds considerably to the openly social atmosphere onstage.
There are a couple of others showing-up for the party. Actor/playwright David Stein tactfully plays a friend of Jack and Byron--a guy named Tommy. Tommy owns a bar. He’s straining under the yoke of his injured mother who constantly calls him. The guy could have come across as a sad sack, but Stein plays to the inner complexities of the character. He may hate getting calls from his mother, but he’s not exactly turning his phone off. And he may be lonely and not actually pursuing anything in the way of a relationship, but he IS a small business owner and likely very busy and stressed-out. Nevertheless, Jack and Byron are really, really concerned about Tommy’s sexless sex life and want to do something about it. Tommy would prefer to relax.
What is a party without the unexpected? Kyle Conner plays Jimmy--an old, dear friend of Claire’s who happens into the party in a rather unexpected way. Conner is great fun as a totally together guy who serves as a vibrant splash of wisdom looking-in around the edges of life in a group of semi-neurotic people--most of whom are complete strangers to him.
It’s a great group of people to spend 90 minutes with. Every so often there’s an exceedingly social comedy like this the comes along that is SO comfortable that it scarcely feels like 90 minutes. On some level it didn't even fee like theatre. On some level it feels like they’re people I just met. I just kind of...expect to see the characters around town at coffee shops and grocery stores and things. I KNOW I won’t. And that IS a little disappointing. They’re only there onstage for an hour and a half. It’s a really fun 90 minutes, though.
Forge Theater’s production of Not Today runs through Mar. 28th at Urban Harvest Brewing Company on 1024 S. 5th St. For ticket reservations and more visit Forge Theater online.
The best children’s fare is a fusion of different types of entertainment that engages all ages on different levels. This month First Stage opens a show that is best-suited to kids ages 4-10+. That’s quite a range. With The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors, First Stage does a strikingly impressive job of embracing a wide range of different kids while also maintaining the kind of appeal that keeps parents entertained for the full 90 minutes with intermission for cookies and juice.
Based on the popular children’s book by Drew Daywalt (who also wrote The Day the Crayons Quit) The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors follows the three powerful warriors on a musical journey to find worthy opponents. First Stage’s John Maclay has done a very sharp job of expanding Daywalt’s book into an impressively sophisticated bit of musical theatre for the whole family. Rock, Paper and Scissors exist in a mystically mundane realm based on a traditional middle class household. Paper hails from Mom’s Home Office. Scissors comes from the junk drawer in the kitchen. Rock originates in the back yard. Each must best opponents in song and dance numbers in their home domains if they are to meet at the end of the show for the big showdown.
My youngest daughter is in kindergarten. She loved the show for all the colorful characters cleverly brought to life by the cast through costuming and puppetry. Costume/puppet designer Brandon Kirkham finds some remarkably vivid ways of brining common household things to life including ominously large dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets from the frozen tundra of the freezer and a tap dancing Scottish scotch tape dispenser from the kitchen junk drawer. Scenic Designer Arnold Bueso and Lighting Designer Jason Fassl give the action of the musical a radiant, brightly-colored abstract space in which to exist.
My oldest daughter is closer to the upper age range of the show. She loved the show for all the clever, little bits of humor that Maclay puts into the script. It was fun to engage her on the finer details of the production during intermission and after the show. (Her review of the show follows.) The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors is a surprisingly diverse tour through different genres of popular music. Rick Pendzich charismatically opens the show in a very metal mood as the hard rock Rock. His opening song is a tribute to ‘80s glam metal. Lamar Jefferson is charmingly heroic as the energetic R&B master Paper. His first big number has him singing his “Jam” to a menacing printer in Mom’s Home Office. Karen Estrada rounds out the central cast as a pair of classy fabric scissors with a stylish Latin energy. Also included on the show are a country/western Georgia Peach, a disco clothespin and a bag of half-eaten trail mix that sings the blues. As an adult it’s fun to see just how seamlessly it all comes together. Director Kelly Doherty does an excellent job of bringing it all together and keeping it moving with brisk pacing.
The Legend of Rock, Paper Scissors continues through April 5th at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater. For ticket reservations and more, visit First Stage online.
Costumes, Props and Friendship
(A Kid's View by Amalia Bickerstaff)
I saw The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors at First Stage with my family. I think that it’s a really good play for the whole family to watch together. It’s a funny musical about the game and how it started. It has jokes in it that make everyone in the family laugh.
The costumes and the props were really interesting. The Paper costume incorporated paper clips and the blue lines of notebook paper. I can tell they put hard work into the design of the costumes. And when I’m talking about the costumes I mean like ALL of the costumes: Rock, Paper, Scissors AND the supporting cast.
The props are really cool. Some of them are kind of like costumes like the chicken nugget dinosaurs (that are kind of like on peoples heads and bodies) and the trail mix (which is four puppeteers in a giant sleeping bag holding eight puppets.) In terms of the action the chicken nugget dinosaurs were the funniest. Scissors was battling them as they all attacked her at once. They were surrounding her!
Overall I feel like this was a very good musical. In the end they learn that there’s no true winner. Winning and losing doesn’t really matter. What’s important is friendship.
Amalia Bickerstaff is an MPS student at Zablocki Elementary. This is her first review for The Small Stage
The Twilight has written a score specifically for Voices Found Repertory’s production of The Elephant Man. It’s very moody atmospheric music. The stage is sparse and grey. There’s a calm solitude about the stage as the show opens.
Thorin Ketelsen is poised and compassionate in the role of Fredrick Treves—a British medical Doctor from the late 19th century who finds his life changing when he runs across a man displayed in a freak-show-style exhibition. He wishes to diagnose The Elephant Man.
The challenges in presenting Joseph Merrick on the small stage are handled quite capably by actor Zach Ursem. The script has the actor presented fully for the first time contrasted against large projections of actual historical photographs of Merrick as Ketelson plays Treves presenting his findings in vividly clinical detail.
With a strong initial connection between Ursem and the photographs of Merrick at the beginning of the drama, Ursem is free to play internal emotions against a gait and comportment sympathetic to the tragic historical figure. The deep, inner beauty and humanity of Merrick resonate through Ursem in a performance that never overreaches for a cloyingly pathetic subhuman presence, which would be the chief danger in presenting Merrick’s drama onstage. Above all, Ursem’s performance respects the underlying flaws and inner humanity of the man he’s playing.
Michael Chobanoff is cunningly human in a pair of supporting roles. He’s suitably seedy as Ron—-a street-level cockney showman who has been charged with looking after Merrick. Rob DOES have some respect for Merrick, but only as a resource. Relations between Ron and Merrick play out quite vividly in two of the more heavy emotional scenes in the drama. Chobanoff plays to a completely different temperament as a priest who makes Merrick’s acquaintance.
Haley Ebinal deftly walks a very thin line as Mrs. Kendal. Kendal is a stage actress who Treves enlists to try to connect-up with socially. Prior to the actress’ arrival, a parade of marginal characters played be other members of the ensemble have leered at Merrick or turned away in disgust. Ebinal makes no grand display of the fact that Mrs. Kendal is in no way disgusted by Merrick’s appearance. Treating Merrick as a human and a dear friend, Kendal makes for a very tender figure. Ebinal is very gracious about presenting Mrs. Kendall as a very organically interesting person who happens to be just as fascinated by Merrick as the rest of the script is.
Originally debuting in the late 1970s, playwright Bernard Pomerance’s script is smartly balanced. The sharp distillation of the life of a man born with a debilitation disorder reaches right into the heart of humanity. Themes of love, acceptance and the nature of human generosity are all viewed in strikingly simple complexity from a rather breathtaking range of angles simultaneously. It’s a brilliantly concise script. Director Brandon C. Haut brings Pomerance’s script to the stage with an economy on a very intimate stage.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of The Elephant Man runs through March 15th at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Voices Found online.