As society moves more and more into an information-based existence, it’s forced to grow-up into the kind of sensitivity that prompts nauseatingly empty terms like “politically correct,” and “cancel culture.” As a society, we’re only starting to learn how to become truly sensitive to the injustice and inequalities that form the basis for everything we know. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre explores the difficulties of this growth with Larissa FastHorse’s surprisingly brisk and effervescent comedy The Thanksgiving Play. Director Laura Gordon brings together a very thoughtfully-constructed ensemble in the story of a group of actors trying to put together a culturally sensitive traditional Thanksgiving play for kids.
Kelsey Brennan and Eric Schabla are warmly endearing as Logan and Jaxton--two very progressive people trying to put together a staged story of “the first Thanksgiving” for kids. The ever-charismatic Torrey Hanson plays Caden--an aspiring playwright and history teacher looking to be as historically accurate with the play as possible. Hannah Shay rounds-out the cast as Alicia: a professional actress who has been hired to help fulfill requirements for an arts grant that’s been bestowed upon the production. Every member of the creative team trying to bring the show before the kids is saddled with serious handicaps of some sort. Will they be able to somehow bring together both educational children’s theatre AND a story the lends historical accuracy to a very bloody time in the history of North America? Probably not, but it’s fun to watch them try.
FastHorse’s script renders some pretty sophisticated characters for something that could easily be read as a light sitcom. Gordon lends the ensemble more than enough room to bring the characters to life with tender nuance. Logan and Jaxton could easily read like annoying amplifications of awkward liberal over-sensitivity, but Brennan and Schabla play them with a deep respect. These are a couple of characters who are aching to get it right in every possible way both on and off stage. Brennan and Schabla focus on that deep and driving desire for total perfection.
It’s refreshing to see former Rep actor Torrey Hanson in another local production. Caden could have struggled through an overly awkward and pathetic presence onstage. Hanson lends Caden an inner strength and integrity that fits well within the ensemble. Shay’s character could be read as the problematic stereotype of a vapid professional Hollywood-style actress who prefers to be superficial. Alicia DOES gain a great amount of power from the apparent superficiality of her personality. Shay stalks the role with impressive Zen-like preternatural poise. It’s really, REALLY hard to get preternatural wisdom to work in a portrayal of someone who appears to be stereotypically vapid at first glance. Shay lounges gorgeously into Alicia’s depth, deftly balancing out the more cerebral energies of the rest of the cast.
FastHorse’s script weaves very, very quickly between light sitcom and very, very heavy moments of social satire. Gordon and company faithfully follow the switches in tone in a production that can play equally well to those looking for something light and those looking for something a little deeper. It’s deliciously imperfect as it casts a mirror to contemporary culture. As a society, we are caught somewhere between light comedy and the need for something deeper.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s online production of The Thanksgiving Play is available through May 23. For more information, visit Milwaukee Chamber Theatre online.
There’s a little bit of everything online as the traditional theatre season closes in an age of COVID. Local Milwaukee theaters are still planning for live seasons in 2021-2022, but there’s still an opportunity to catch some really interesting and potentially innovative locally-produced stuff online before everything begins to migrate back to the live stage late next fall.
The Loud ‘N Unchained Black Theater Festival
All the theatre going on online lately has offered a really cool opportunity to see locally-produced stuff that hasn’t been locally produced in Milwaukee. April closes into May this year with Madison’s Loud ’N Unchained Black Theater Festival. It’s a live two-day streaming show featuring work from Madison-area theater, drag and spoken word artists. And...y’know...it’s free. Given all the stuff going on at the festival, this looks like a really fun way to enter May. The show runs April 30th and May 1st. For more information, visit the festival online.
The Laramie Project
It’s been nearly a quarter century since the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard. I’t would be nice to think that things have gotten better since then. I’ve seen productions of Moises Kaufman’s exploration of the murder quite a few times over the years in quite a few different formats. This coming weekend, the UW Green Bay theatre department stages a live production of the show online. In addition to being a really important exploration of the brutality the people are capable of, it’s a good project for university theatre online. The show consists largely of first-person accounts delivered directly to the audience...it’s a chance for an actor to really explore the portrayal of deep individual thought and intellectual reflection.
UWGB’s production of The Laramie Project runs April 29 to May 2 online. The show is free. For more information, visit the show’s page at UWGB.
This month 53212 Presents welcomes UWM Dance composer Allen Russell to the screen with another improvisational dance performance. The show mixes live and limited in-person audience with a free online streaming presentation in an eclectic digital atmosphere. Up to 12 people can register in advance to attend the performance live. (This IS one of the most intimate stages in Milwaukee right now.) The rest of us are free to watch it live on May 2nd from 10:00 am-12:00 pm. (Sunday mid-day dance? Sounds lovely.) For more information, visit the show’s page on Eventbrite.
KidsWrites: Time Capsule
The Skylight’s KidsWrites program has been around in one format or another for decades. This year, the project that pairs kids’ writing with professional musical theatre producers tackles the subject of the pandemic. Kids had written about a variety of different things impacting them that were developed into little video packages online...from the soulfully operatic Time Capsule to moody acoustic guitar to the straight-ahead comic opera of Ode to Toilet Paper. The show runs online from May 3 - June 13. It’s free. To register to see it online, visit Skylight online.
The Very First zoom Comedy Show Ever: Why has no one thought of this before?
If sarcasm had a title it might be the name of the new Broadminded Comedy show. The seemingly invincible all-woman comedy group continues straight into the pandemic with an online sketch comedy show. The prolific group will feature all-new material that has been constructed specifically for videoconferencing format. Zoom has become such a universally...tolerated...format over the course of the past year. It should be fun to see the unique mix of comedy brought to the screen by a group of writer/performers who have a long history onstage together. Broadminded’s new show runs May 8 and 22nd online. For more information, visit Broadminded’s website.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has been doing a really good job of tackling the challenges posed by COVID. The pre-recorded productions that the group has been bringing to the internet are among the most satisfying that Milwaukee has had to offer. This month MCT opens its production of Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel. The production stars Elyse Edelman as a librarian giving a presentation regarding the mystery of a library book that had been retuned 113 years overdue. A dry cleaning ticket and a number scribbled into the margin of the book serve as the opening of a long and winding story told with great enthusiasm in a one-woman show that’s online this month.
Traditionally the one-character play draws a great deal of appeal from the strength of a single performer onstage drawing-in an audience for a sustained, intermission-less 90 minutes or so. It would take a very unique kind of energy to translate that energy to the screen for an online production. Edelman plays a librarian from Holland who travels far to discover the mystery of the book’s history. Edelman’s Dutch accent is warm and deeply engaging. She brings a very sophisticated reality to the stage aided only by a slide projector, blackboard and irrepressible intellectual exuberance. A video format would theoretically tempt a director to add-in superfluous elements intended to amplify the production. MCT Artistic Director Brent Hazelton shrewdly allows Edelman a stylishly minimalist production.
The playwright hands Edelman numerous difficulties that the actress finesses with a strikingly deft poise. Berger’s script requires the librarian to be an expert storyteller gradually unveiling the elegant convolutions of the story. Edelman does the brilliantly. Berger’s script requires the actor playing the librarian to be vulnerable while wielding a great inner strength. Edelman plays the librarian’s arcane constellation of trivia with a beautifully idiosyncratic appeal that swims in and around Berger’s script. The complex intricacies of the mystery can make the librarian feel like a bit of an obsessive schizophrenic obsessing away at minor trivialities even as her life seems to be falling apart in the process, but Edelman draws strength from the character’s love of the mystery that’s truly inspiring.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre staged a production of Underneath the Lintel back in 2013. James Ridge played the librarian. Like that live staged production, Edelman’s pre-recorded performance engages audiences in a journey through the fringes of history that reaches into the heart of human curiosity. There are moments in every mystery thriller in which intrepid investigators discuss clues that they have run across in the course of their struggles. (It’s one of the better elements of any good mystery story.) Berger’s script lives exclusively in those moments. Like Ridge before her the better part of a decade ago, Edelman finds the energy of those moments with graceful tenacity. Edelman is an immensely appealing video Sherlock Holmes for any number of living room Watsons.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Underneath the Lintel is available through May 2nd. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Chamber Theatre online.