Onstage Online in April
Milwaukee theatre percolates in and around the edges of the internet in April as COVID’s impact on the stage continues to be felt more than one full year after the initial outbreak. April offers a little bit of everything from drama to comedy...from shorts to feature-length shows. There’s even a live reading onstage for those interested in venturing out to Hartland this month.
Someone has returned a book to a library that is 113 years overdue. A sole librarian goes in search of the book’s history with one initial clue: an unclaimed dry cleaning ticket. This is the premise behind Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel. This coming month, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre stages the show online in a production featuring the always-engaging Elyse Edelman as the librarian in question. Brent Hazelton directs the show, which runs April 9 - May 2 online. For more information, visit Milwaukee Chamber Theatre online. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has done a really good job of bringing compelling local theatre to the internet. With Edelman paired with a good script, MCT appears to have another compelling show for the 2020-2021 season.
The Village Playhouse has maintained activity over the course of this past year. This coming month, they’re bringing program of three shorts by George Bernard Shaw online.
“Overruled,” is a one-act about a pair of couples looking to negotiate complexities of open relations.
“Passion, Poison and Petrification,” involves a poisoning and cure-by-plaster in a rather strange comedy.
“How He Lied To Her Husband,” is a three-person comedy involving a woman named Aurora, her husband and her lover.
An Evening With Shaw is available April 15-25 online. For more information, visit Village Playhouse online.
Deanna Strasse directs a staged reading of a play she’s written that will be staged in Hartland at Lake Country Playhouse this month. Islands is set in a bed and breakfast in Ireland. A group of strangers come together in a potentially fun, little excursion outside of Milwaukee for anyone interested in seeing something live. Lake Country Playhouse will, of course, be staging the reading in a reduced-capacity socially distanced format. The show will be performed Saturday, April 24 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, April 25 at 2:00 pm. For more information, visit Lake Country Playhouse online.
Director Michael Cotey brings a contemporary drama to light in Next Act Theatre’s latest. An American soldier is accused of war crimes in Iraq. Casey Hoekstra plays the soldier in question who finds himself lost in encounters with superior officers, lawyers, preachers and more. The cast also includes Next Act Artistic Director David Cecsarini, Chike Johnson and Malkia Stampley.
“9 CIRCLES is not about war or Iraq,” says Next Act Producing Artistic Director David Cecsarini, “but the journey of a man discovering himself within the environment of war.”
The show runs April 26 - May 16. For more information, visit Next Act online.
One Hour in a Basement
It’s an hour in a basement with an insurance agent. It’s okay, though: she’s cool. She’s enjoyably philosophical and engagingly articulate. And she’s played by Jennifer Vosters so…y’know…she’s really cool. It’s a one hour video production of Lauren Gunderson’s Natural Shocks. The one-act monologue is set in “A half-finished basement in a normal house in America right now.” Only it’s not right right now. She doesn’t mention anything about COVID. And she would because she gets into A LOT of different topics over the course of the monologue. And because she’s really really into risk assessment. She would have preferred to be an actuary, actually.
Directed by Micheal Cotey, the incredibly tight, little video package was produced for the Third Avenue Playhouse as a part of its PlayWorks 2021 online series. It was available for one night only on the 19th, but wow…it’s REALLY too bad this video isn’t available anymore as it was one of TAP’s “special events.” Vosters’ one-hour performance was an incredibly nuanced portrayal of one of the sweetest, most endearing characters ever committed to drama. She’s trying to be honest to the audience, but she lies about some things. She says that there’s a disaster coming. A tornado. And so she’s addressing an audience. And since this is made-for-internet, Vosters plays the character delivering the monologue into her phone. It’s a powerfully intimate performance.
Vosters has had a lot of experience delivering monologues into the internet recently. Her “Impassioned Video Monologue” series on Facebook has been raising money for American Players Theatre over the course of the pandemic. She’s a captivating presence pointed directly at an audience from within a glowing rectangle. In the course of that series, she’d played…actually she’d played a few characters in one of those videos. (But only briefly. And they were all played for comedy.) With Natural Shocks Vosters a deeply engrossing ability to render the inner complexities of a single person and her memories. Vosters deftly dives into one hour in the life of a person who is very, very familiar with the nature of risk and hazard as she hides out in her own basement.
Lauren Gunderson’s script is jaw-droopingly intricate. There’s a HELL of a lot going on in the script narratively, poetically and thematically. The themes being covered in the script are staggeringly important in today’s socio-political environment. It’s a play that needs to be seen. Again: it’s really too bad that this was a one-night thing. With any luck this script gains traction and makes it onto tiny, little stages all over the place once COVID restrictions lift. This video, though…wow. Things can be incredibly intimate on the small stage, but this script played to a phone on low-res video…it gains quite a bit. It’s just you and her and the screen. It is darkly stunning in so many ways.
The Third Avenue Playhouse’s PlayWorks 2021 online series continues into the Spring and beyond with James Valcq’s The Kissing Girl and Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy coming-up in April and May. For a full schedule of upcoming events, check out TAP online.
You may not be able to see Vosters cowering in a basement in character, but you CAN see her delivering monologues online. Jennifer Vosters’ Impassioned video monologue series remains available on Facebook. There are 16 of them. They’re all 5-6 minutes long and they’re all a lot of fun.
And the show may be over, but audiences can still view the trailer. Here it is:
A Drama of Shadows
As the COVID pandemic continues into the current Milwaukee theatre season, the more established local companies have been putting some really compelling stuff onto the internet. It may not be live performance, but the intimate, small-cast productions have been host to some remarkably compelling drama. The latest show to premiere with Milwaukee Chamber Theatre online is Isaac Gómez’s The Way She Spoke. Michelle Lopez-Rios plays an actress reading a script for a writer friend of hers. Director Lisa Portes has brought together subtly minimalist elements to amplify Rios’ performance in a one-actor one-act that progresses through an uninterrupted 83 minutes.
As the actress sits-down, she’s reading the script for the first time. Lopez-Rios plays an actress engaging with a script that recalls certain memories for her. The memories aren’t hers, though. The narrative tells the story of a town in Mexico where numerous women have been disappearing. Thousands of women have vanished from Mexico. Horrific murders have been targeting women in the area. The memories are those of the narrator who is the playwright who wrote the script that the character is reading. As this begins to become apparent, she’s learning things about a man she’s known for years.
The drama unfolds at a table against a black brick that feels very much like the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre that has played host to so many memorable MCT productions over the years. As Lopez-Rios reads the script, photo and video are projected against the brick wall. The projections are faded imagery in the background as the narrator breathes through an actress being portrayed by Lopez-Rios. Her voice echoes off of the walls. She’s trying to understand the tragedy of so much death and human trafficking. The darker side of humanity is explored with powerful resonance through a single script and a single performer, but the narrative valiantly reaches for an alchemy that reaches for the shadows of so many missing women.
The drama of the narrative casts light from the darkness of human horror to those courageous enough to explore it to the playwright to the actress to actress who is playing her and out into the video that’s captured it all. As remarkably vivid as the drama is, it’s very, very difficult to connect with the reality of it. It all feels like such dark fiction, but it’s weaving a story that is an appalling reality for so many people living in the shadow of the good fortune that so much of the rest of the population of the world has been gifted with. It’s absolutely essential that stories like Gómez’s continue to be told. It’s all too easy to forget about those occupying the edges of popular perception. There’s darkness in the periphery, but it needs to be seen if we are to come together as a compassionate species. This drama needs to be seen if we want to be something better than we are as a society.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of The Way She Spoke is on-demand until April 11th, 2021. More information about MCT, its virtually reimagined 20/21 season, how to purchase tickets, and how to donate can be found at www.milwaukeechambertheatre.org.
UWM Theatre BFA graduate Erika Kirkstein-Zastrow has put together a short film that’s being submitted to various film festivals. Save All Who Dare has made “Special Mention” at the London International Monthly Film Festival and “Honorable Mention” at the Athens International Monthly Art Film Festival. UWM BFA Gretchen Mahkorn co-wrote and co-produced and co-stars in the short which also features LA-based actor Ross Crain. The 7-minute short film is being screened at various film festivals. I had an opportunity to see it online last month. It’s been circulating around in my mind ever since. Finally I get an idle moment to write about it.
The film was entirely shot in rural Wisconsin. Crain and Mahkorn play a couple who are struggling with life in a cult. Far from being the sort of overly-expository stuff one might expect from a 7-minute narrative about life in a cult, the dialogue is sparse and poetic. Crain and Mahkorn spend some time alone in a field and a church thinking about a really important decision that they’ve essentially already made. Wind blows through tall grasses as the two stare meaningfully off into the distance. Things are as sturdy and firm as ever inside the church as the two stare forward discussing the only option they truly have in the midst of a crisis of faith.
I know firsthand what it’s like to sit through shorts being submitted to a film festival. Save All Who Dare has a bit of an uphill climb. Not much actually happens in the course of the film. It’s quite pretty, but its beauty lies in the kind of beautiful stillness and vacancy that doesn’t play terribly well as the next film in a large cue for a panel of judges to consider including on a film festival. I’d watched the film, felt its mood and drifted away from it for a few weeks, slowly being reminded of the essence of its energy as the local winter has begun to warm to spring. It’ actually quite haunting when it’s had a chance to breathe into idle moments beyond the constant rush of work, life, love and social media.
Kirkstein-Zastrow and Mahkorn’s story is a simple exploration of that restless stillness that accompanies the weight of overwhelming existential issues. There’s a kind of death and rebirth captured in Save All Who Dare. It’s not exhilarating or intensely explosive the way such things are so often represented on stage or screen. This I death and rebirth at the moment of acceptance. Years ago I’d had the opportunity to speak with a number of people shortly after the moment they realized they weren’t going to commit suicide. (I’d lived through that moment myself decades ago.) It's not a moment that gets a whole lot of attention in plays or movies. Save All Who Dare doesn't capture that moment exactly, but the narrative resonates through that precise type of moment when revelations are made, exhaustion sets-in and all that’s left is the stillness of the human spirit slowly asserting itself from the ruins of great stress. It’s a beautiful seven cinematic minutes for a Springlike mood. I hope it finds its way onto a great many screens in the coming months.
Erika Kirkstein-Zastrow and Gretchen Mahkorn’s Save All Who Dare continues its journey. For more information including a brief trailer, visit the short’s Twitter page.
The societal changes that are go along with the latest global pandemic are transforming human interaction in ways that society is only beginning to comprehend. Cooperative Performance explores the nature of truth and human connection in the age of COVID with director/creator
Andrew Coopman’s RE: Social/Divide. The pre-produced 90-minute dramatic comedy features a rather large ensemble playing a group of writers and editors for a publication as they navigate the complexities of life and work via videoconference.
The 90-minute show consists of many, many little scenes outlining a week in the life of the magazine. It’s a highly episodic plot that plays very much like highlights from an entire season of a well-written sitcom. Not every single moment is brilliant, but the RE: Social/Divide holds more than enough moments to hold together for a fun 90 minute week with an enjoyable group of characters. New York-based actor Benjamin Neumayer plays editor of a publication the employs an appealingly diverse group of writers. Julia Gorordo (who also wrote some particularly poignant music for the show) appealingly plays tenacious serious journalist Kate. Maria Rojkova brings some remarkably heartfelt emotionality as Elvira: the privaely conflicted sexy social influencer working for the publication.
There’s a whole lot of subtlety in a script that seems modeled after video serial sitcoms that have a tendency to lean in a far lighter, less complicated direction. Of particular note here is Niv Joshi as a sweetly enigmatic gossip columnist who seems almost impossible to read socially even though she seems almost completely open an earnest in casual conversation. In some of the better scenes in the show, Joshi reaches an impressive amount of characterization with relatively little screen time.
One of the more intricate dramatic moments in the show happens between well-meaning aspiring black community ally Shannon Annabelle (Ashley Retzlaff-Rogaczewski) appears on the “Spill the Tea” podcast hosted by Reenah and Teenah (Aria Caldwell and Kayla V. White.) Race relations are dizzyingly complicated. Retzlaff-Rogaczewski manages a thoughtful rendering of a woman who really IS trying to connect-up through an earnest appreciation of black culture. Caldwell and White sharply render a couple of characters caught in a particularly difficult moment for themselves socially and professionally.
The Reenah/Teenah/“Shannabelle” plot has more than enough weight to carry a feature-length drama. It might feel a little light mixed-in with everything else, but then...so does the plight of Elvira and...well...A LOT of the rest of what’s going on in a very large ensemble piece which comfortably presents a hell of a lot more story than one might expect from a single 90 minute program. Audiences are getting a great deal of content for only $15...it’s a remarkably tight, little package of drama and comedy.
Cooperative Performance’s RE: Social/Divide is streaming on demand through April 11th on Vimeo. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cooperative Performance online.
There’s a deep, intense power in staged prison dramas. There’s an inescapable emotional gravity in sitting down in the front row of a small theater to watch people play prisoners. For a few brief moments, actors and audience alike are tourists in a place that is all too well-known to a huge, hidden worldwide population of incarceration. For a few moments everyone in a theatre feels some shadow of imprisonment. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre brings a bit of that feeling to the small screen this month with its production of The Island: Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona’s two-prisoner apartheid-era drama.
DiMonte Henning and Sherrick Robinson play Winston and John: a couple of South African prisoners who have been sharing a life without freedom for many, many years. John is working with Winston to develop a theatrical staging of Antigone. Winston is reluctant to study for a role as the title character. He’s afraid of looking ridiculous playing a woman. He’s also serving a life sentence. John believes in the power of theater and the importance of the story. Prior to the performance, John has been granted a release. The two are forced to come to terms with the fundamental nature of art and prison prior to the performance.
The absence of the live stage is felt with particularly intense depth in a prison drama. As much as an audience might want to feel the pull of the emotional gravity, Winston and John are imprison on a glowing rectangle for 01:15:37 seconds that can be paused, rewound and scrubbed through. There’s a maddeningly comfortable distance between audience, actors and characters. Director Mikael Burke keeps the production stark and simple. It’s a largely bare set. The editing is simple. The drama is right there in the center of the screen for the entire run of the show.
Robinson is engagingly passionate as a prisoner restlessly trying to keep himself active. Henning plays a man far more existentially adrift who knows exactly where he is going to be the rest of his life. Henning and Robinson do a remarkably vivid job of portraying a couple of people who know each other extremely well. The deep and intimate familiarity between characters who have known each other for years can be extremely difficult to bring across. Henning and Robinson manage a very intricate portrayal of a couple of guys who know each other well enough that each one seems to know exactly what the other isn’t thinking. That level of intimacy can be a challenge for any pair of actors. More than merely working well together, each actor has an opportunity for solitude onstage that further defines the external desolation of each character in a thoroughly satisfying drama.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of The Island is available through March 28th. For more information, visit Milwaukee Chamber online.