This Is B&B
Shakespeare is done on a small stage with minimal costuming and effects. Actors not involved in a given scene sit in chairs around the perimeter of the action. We’re all in on the action backstage and onstage. Actors pop in and out of roles without breaking pace. Every performance a different actor is designated to get drunk over the course of the show with a series of shots of liquor. This is a Bard & Bourbon show. If it sounds like great fun, it is. As evidenced by their current production of Richard III, it’s even fun when it’s not terribly brilliant.
Richard III on the cover of GQ
It’s the story of a twisted and scheming villain who twists and schemes his way onto the throne of England before everything collapses beneath him. The text refers to a brutal, ugly man who personified a brutal, ugly reign. B&B has Ian Tully playing Richard. Ian Tully is great with Shakespeare. A very strong presence. Not exactly one that would be associated with traditional depictions of Richard, though. Tully is...attractive. And it's like... a near-GQ-level attractive. Feed the guy through Photoshop with the right lighting from the right angles and he'd be there on a coffee table all glossy and smelling like scent strip ads. Here it's a little different, though. Aside from a slight limp and a little bit of padding for a hunchback, this is a traditional Shakespearian hero stage presence in the service of someone more commonly portrayed as a twisted monster, which is a bit unpleasantly disorienting. And not necessarily in a good way.
But It Kind of Works
It might have just been opening night, but Tully seemed a bit inert until Richard took the throne. The fact that he’s not being overly dramatic with comically exaggerated villainy is respectable, but Tully plays Richard almost...bored with his own scheme. Large portions of the first half of the show sort of...sag into his performance. I like the passionless disinterest as a premise, though, and it would have been fun to see Tully really lean-into it.
Here’s the idea: Richard is so totally confident that he’ll gain the throne that he’s utterly bored with it and THAT is what everyone finds so repellent about him. He confronts Anne to try to woo her with a dull disinterest for everything including his own life when he lifelessly shrugs and puts a dagger to his throat because, y’know, why bother? She relents out of pity and disgust. This continues to happen scene after scene with every step of his plan. Everyone’s so totally put off by him that he just sort of...becomes king. I think it could work. (Sadly: it kind of feels like we’re headed that way with the U.S. presidency, but I digress.)
As it is, Tully’s performance is pretty solid regardless. Then Richard takes the crown and he’s got a powerfully pretty sort of a dark anti-hero about him that serves the production well. After Richard gets the crown, Tully occasionally dazzles as a dark anti-hero. It’s quite a transformation. I don’t know if I really think of it as being a Richard III, though...
Gender is Really Weird When You Think About It
Oh...and about that wooing of Anne: Anne is played by a guy. Dylan Sladky plays Anne as a...person. There’s no attempt made to go along with conventional stage man-playing-woman affectations. This is actually really, really refreshing because it gets to the heart of who Anne and Richard are. Richard is a disgusting person who is trying to woo Anne for political gain and Anne is understandably disgusted having been interrupted while mourning the loss of family. There doesn’t HAVE to be anything sexual going on here because there isn’t and yet...I really like the strength of some of Shakespeare’s women and I love it when the right Anne puts Richard in his place...and still falls for his machinations. We all know he’s doomed anyway, but it’s a fascinating scene and it just feels a bit weird with two aesthetically powerful presences that are aesthetically powerful in the same way.
Speaking of which, Samantha Martinson is formidable as Brackenbury--the lieutenant of the Tower of London when Richard sends his killers for Clarence. I say again: Samantha Martinson is formidable. She’s short and petite...4 foot tall or something like that, but she’s got gravity about her in the role of a physically imposing guy even as one of the killers is a towering Sean Duncan who is at least like . . . 8 foot tall in comparison. Martinsek is given possibly the widest range to work with in the cast, playing Brackenbury, a very ingratiating toady of a politician as the Lord Mayor of London and at least one precocious boys (along with a similarly mercurial Maura Atwood who...if I’m not mistaken plays a prince in one scene and the assassin who kills him in another...both of these and Queen Margaret in one show for one actress, who carries it off wonderfully.)
And About That Murder
Sean Duncan plays a few different roles here, but he’s most memorable as one of the two murderers sent off to kill Clarence in the tower. He’s a tall, slimy low-level thug with a very textured approach to the text that gives it a lot of life. Amber Regan provides back-up quite nicely as a skittish sociopath sent to aid in the murder. The show is peppered with cleverly composed moments like the death of Clarence, but his murder is one of the more memorable scenes. Bryant Mason plays the victim in that scene--a man who doesn’t live long after being awakened by his killers. That always struck me as a difficult place to be as an actor, but Mason gives the drama of that scene the right kind of balance.
It All Comes Together in the End
The final battle at Bosworth Field has a nice pacing and lead-in. Tully delivers the pre-battle speech as Richard to one side of the audience while Maggie Arndt delivers a speech to the other side as the opposing Earl of Richmond who is destined to dispatch Richard. Director Katie Merriman does a really good job of delivering the intensity of that decisive battle to the stage and those pre-battle speeches feel particularly amped-up. It doesn’t hurt that Arndt is really good as the hero here. Richmond shows-up only briefly and isn’t given a whole lot of time to develop a suitably commanding heroic presence onstage. Arndt makes the commanding presence of heroism look really, really easy. She’s radiant...casually beaming with benevolent authority without giving it any comical tinge of egotism. This is a nice welcome back for Arndt. Her bio says she’s been off the stage for nearly ten years. You wouldn’t know it.
Bard & Bourbon’s staging of Richard III runs through June 2 at the Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Bard & Bourbon online.
It’s Just Great That They’re Even Doing It
This month Skylight Music Theatre opens that delightfully bizarre chimera of a contemporary theatrical product as it presents Urinetown: The Musical. It’s a feel-good dystopian socio-political musical that manages to also cast a comic glance at issues of ecological collapse due to global drought. Oh: And it spoofs other musicals too. Really it’s pretty remarkable that a show this weird would ever have gotten produced in the first place. The Skylight has accomplished something in simply having chosen to produce something this cool.
The Officer Is Your Friend Narrator
Rick Pendzich opens the show as charming jackbooted police thug Officer Lockstock. He can be found walking the house nodding to attendees as he regards the attended through mirrored shades prior to the show. Pendzich nails the precise comedy of the cheerfully corrupt totalitarian thuggery that serves as an endlessly self-referential narrator who lives in a fourth wall that he’s constantly breaking. Pendzich has a clever sense of humor that a role like this is absolutely perfect for.
Only Love Pads the Show
Yes: It’s the story of a popular revolution against a totalitarian regime that makes people pay every time they use a toilet.
But: There’s a really cute and sweetly doomed love story at the center of it all.
Rachael Zientek is brilliantly articulate on a comic level in the role of Hope Cladwell--the daughter of Trumpian autocratic corporate despot Caldwell B. Cladwell (the satirically villainous Steven M. Koehler) who runs the sinisterly ubiquitous Urine Good Company. On her way in to work for the first time since graduating the most expensive university in the world, she runs into a handsome guy who works for a small pay restroom. The suitably lead-worthy Lucas Pastrana ultimately leads the revolution against UGC. He and his burgeoning love for Hope complicate matters in a cleverly funny romance. Zientek is sweet and optimistic with such intensity that it becomes positively sinister by the end of the show when the revolution actually takes hold.
And There Are Other People Here Too
I’m about 350 words into the review when I finally get a chance to mention that Doug Jarecki is in the show. He’s Senator Fipp--a comically awkward Ted Cruz of a guy who serves the UGC. Jarecki is great with what little he’s given here. That someone of Jarecki’s talent would wind up around the edges of the show is testament to just how much talent there IS here. Amber Smith is good in just about anything, but here she’s fantastic. With cold, passionate...angular intensity she plays Penelope Pennywise--the woman who runs the restroom that employs the male romantic lead. Smith leans-in to the comedy she’s given with a scalpel’s precision. He’s not given nearly as many moments, but James Carrington manages a very similarly comic precision in more than a few moments as UGC corporate underling Mr. McQueen. And then there’s Michael Stebbins as a crazy, old one-eyed revolutionary and Steven M Koehler and on and on...the Skylight is working with a really, really great cast here and they’re doing good things with it. Director Ray Jivoff has done a really good job of bringing it all together. I'd been kind of underwhelmed when I'd seen the show years ago on its national tour. The huge space of the Milwaukee Theatre just drowns everything...and people still pay ridiculous prices for those touring shows...ugh...don't see whatever's casually rolling through town right now. See THIS. It's important. Jivoff and company manage to give the relatively small stage main stage at the Broadway Theatre Center a feeling of immensity that doesn't compromise the intimacy of a huge show in a cozy space. Jivoff has been doing this for years...he really knows what fits onstage here and he does a very clever job of getting it all balanced in just the right way.
That Set, Though...Wow...The Earth In The Toilet and Everything
Scenic Director Brandon Kirkham is given an opportunity to get really weird here and he makes quite an impression with it. That skyline off in the distance feels very iconic with its ever-present UGC logo beaming out from atop it all. Kirkham manages to maintain this bombastic spoof-y immensity about everything onstage. Nowhere is this more present than at the desk of Caldwell B. Cladwell. Nearly every time the opulent desk glides out onstage, a massive wall descends that feels like it’s at least 200 stories tall.
And that cleverly streamlined UGC logo at the top of it all: totally looks like a floor plan view of a toilet with the globe of the earth in the bowl ready to be flushed. I love that. I love how brilliant that is given that this IS ultimately a story about people who are all far too distracted to notice that the world is falling apart ecologically. The meta-art of the fact that we’re all attending a big, flashy Broadway-style musical that only casually glances in the direction of things that we all really, really need to be addressing is all the more brilliant. It’ll give some of us something to chuckle about as the world dies from the coming global drought. Smile: it’s only the end of the world.
Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Urinetown: The Musical runs through June 10th at The Cabot Theatre in The Broadway Theatre Complex on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800 or visit the Skylight Online.
"The situation is quite critical. The water table is dropping all over the world. There’s not an infinite supply of water.”
--Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
It’s a Two-Person Romance
It’s an intimate, little space at the Irish Cultural Heritage Center. In a rear entrance far from a torn-up stretch of Wisconsin Avenue rests a cozy, little studio space. There’s a bar with a few beers on top at the back of the improvised studio. Folding chairs rest in front of a small stage for two: Becky Cofta and Nate Press. The play is The Good Father. The company is Milwaukee Irish Arts. Cofta and Press are playing Jane and Tim: an Irish couple who meet at a New Year’s Eve party somewhere in the early 2000s. Over the course of a couple of hours, they flutteringly fall in and out of love in a very earthbound romance that’s occasionally emotionally exhilarating.
Two actors. Two characters. Two hours. (There's an intermission.) The drama plays out over the course of a year in their lives. We never see the two characters with others. Just two people. (There’s also an implied dog. There’s also a pregnancy.) To say too much more would be giving away too much. Playwright Christian O’Reilly renders a drama that feels remarkably vivid complexity that gradually sneaks its way into the script. On the surface, it’s just two people in a series of isolated moments over the course of a single year, but things quickly get complicated beneath the surface the way things often do between two people when serious emotions are at work.
It’s About Romance Out of Youth’s Reach
All too often romance is something that we see onstage or onscreen as breathed through youth. Here we have a couple of characters in their 30s falling for each other between two New Year’s Eves. As the play opens, Becky Cofta plays a woman just out of range of a group of friends who are all becoming parents. She’s never had a kid. Events in life have set her adrift and she’s feeling lost. On the surface, though, she’s very much in control, even while intoxicated she has a sense of mastery over the situation which masks the chaos within. There’s a strong cultural component here. Modern women are expected to be completely together on every possible level. They need to be independent and resilient while emotionally connected and vulnerable. Cofta is heartbreakingly compelling as a woman desperately trying to hold every last dichotomy together with the increasingly ominous complexity of motherhood on the horizon. Cofta is as good in silence as she is in dialogue, rendering a captivatingly complex character. Wordless responses play across her face in a brilliantly natural little micro-choreography. It's quite difficult not to get drawn-in even when she's silent. As an audience we see in Jane what Tim sees in her. Cofta does an excellent job of delivering her end of the attraction to the romance.
It’s About Fatherhood, Too
A lot has been made of toxic masculinity of late. A culture of men aggressing other men into being aggressive has been handed down from generation to generation. There’s a certain isolation that plays a role in that. Here we have a story about a man who truly wants to be a father. No isolation here--he’s looking for connection. He's looking to break the cycle. His father was distant. There's some suggestion that he might have been physically abusive, too. He’s looking to be the father he never had. This becomes heartbreakingly touching when the all-too-rare subject of male factor infertility sneaks into the narrative. Press delivers a truly complicated character to the stage in flips and convolutions as his resolve is tested in the course of one hour that is one year. There character navigates some very tight emotional turns in the course of the play...sometimes in the span of a single dialogue. There’s one moment near the end of the play that requires Press to dive from wisdom to wounded to angry to apology...all within the span of a single brief monologue. Far from the extremes of flat affectlessness or exaggerated, over-rendered emotion, Press manages to bring every shade of emotion into that moment with just the right emphasis to make it all strikingly vivid.
It’s Sad, but It’s Not Sad
After the show, my wife actually felt as though she wanted it to have a sadder ending. O’Reilly’s drama is cleverly crafted and perfectly balanced, though. In conversation after the show, it occurred to me that a sadder ending would have come across as being unearned. This drama gets precisely the ending it deserves. There’s nothing that happens here that isn’t fully earned in the course of the script. Nothing comes out of nowhere...not even thee love at the center of it all and THAT is really difficult to pull of in a two-person drama. The success here has every bit as much to do with the script as it does with Press and Cofta, who do an admirable job of giving themselves to a thoroughly engrossing couple of hours in an intimate space.
(Did I mention it’s free?) Donations are accepted, but this is a free show. Milwaukee Irish Arts performs it a few more times from the intimacy of the Irish Cultural Heritage Center before taking the show to the Acting Irish International Theatre Festival later-on this month in Calgary, Canada. With a drama this good on a free show, there’s no reason not to be a part of the intimacy this weekend. There’s no reason for there NOT to be a packed house every night. Go have a pint and a few tears with a couple of great actors falling in love. It’s a grand time.
Milwaukee Irish Arts’ staging of The Good Father runs through May 14 at the Irish Cultural Heritage Center on 2133 W. Wisconsin Ave. Admission is “pay what you can.” For more information, visit Milwaukee Irish Arts onlinemilirisharts.wordpress.com/.
A live performance can be classy. A live performance can be whimsical. It takes a special kind of show to be both at the same time for a full hour without feeling strained. Svadba-Wedding nails it perfectly. There’s dance. There’s singing. It’s classy. It’s fun. Seeing a show this perfectly split between two worlds feels pretty rare. Going to The Best Place for a show like this isn’t exactly like spotting a unicorn. (That would be too precious. This is much cooler than that.) It’s more like...catching your garden gnome wearing a tuxedo and humming Beethoven's Ninth: Classy. But whimsical.
Words, melodic tones and the occasional bit of emotional syncopation deliver a funky kind of play ethic to the performance energy that feels totally fantastic, earthbound, delightfully abstract and utterly relatable all at once. Jubilant energy cascades through The Best Place tavern as Wild Space Dance Company and Milwaukee Opera Theatre present Svabda-Wedding—a little champaign toast of operatic dance in a snug space. Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik shuffles the energy throughout a stage-less space in a cleverly deft fusion of dance and vocals. Ponasik and Choreographer Debra Loewen use the space at The Best Place with as much attention to silence and empty space as they do to action, motion and melody.
Before a Wedding
Yeah, it’s opera and modern dance, but don’t worry: the story is simple. An all-woman cast of dancers and singers prepare for a wedding. There is excitement, casual socialization, hair and make-up and gossip and even a bachelorette moment shared by everyone at the bar. (The casual grace of a dancer clenching a PBR tumbler in her teeth was a nice touch given the venue, as is the experience of seeing the entire ensemble head over to the bar.) The vocals are Serbian (with music and libretto by contemporary Serbian-born Canadian composer Ana Sokolović), but the cast delivers uninhibited emotion to the stage with such electric expression that the vocals mean more in sound than they ever could in word. The exact meaning of what's being said would likely feel kind of clumsy next to this much grace. (Music,motion and emotion always find ways of being more graceful than words.)
Now I Want To See Them Doing Other Things
There’s a tremendous amount of rehearsal and planning that goes into a show like this. With a show like this, though...you don’t want to see all that. Ponasik and Loewen have done a remarkable job of delivering a totally compelling reality to the stage in song and movement. The fact that it’s also quite contemporary and relatable means that it’s also going to invite insight into casual human moments beyond the performance.
I know it’s not the case, but there’s some part of me that really wants this to be the way things always are when operatic singers and dancers hang out together. Here they’re getting ready for a wedding, but I could see the same grace, poise, playful melody with this same group of characters while they’re...doing laundry. (Or even their taxes.) I want to believe that this same group casually gets together to buy groceries or hang out at the beach or whatever and it’s every bit as graceful and melodic as it is here in performance. They're coloring their hair and they're getting dressed and engaging in small talk and so on. It all feels so gracefully organic. It’s such a nice reality that they’ve brought to The Best Place. You may not want to live there, but it would be difficult to walk out of Svadba-Wedding and not want to return to hang out with the ensemble after the wedding.
Dancers Sharing Moments with Singers and Each Other
The emotion flowing through the ensemble feels subtly authentic. It’s not often that an audience has an opportunity to get this close to dance. The intimacy is a huge challenge for any performer as any inauthenticity in emotion can crush the energy...and every face in the ensemble is almost conversationally close to some of the audience throughout the performance, so there isn’t much room for a performer to hide. The ensemble is incredibly vivid with the emotion. Look closely and you can see dancers sharing moments of emotional connection that goes well beyond the performance to reach right into the heart of human connection. It’s so amazing to see the subtle interplay of dancers making eye contact and really connecting. You don’t generally see that in a formally staged dance performance. It’s hard not to feel the energy of that, particularly as each character is so totally distinct. Everyone in the ensemble is bringing something distinctly different to the show.
Two More Performances
Svadba-Wedding has two more performances: tonight, May 9th and tomorrow night the 10th. Both performances are at the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery. Both performances start at 7:30 p.m. The show runs for an hour. (I did mention that it was an hour long, didn't I? Anyway...it's an hour long.)
You have two nights. Then the garden gnome stops wearing the tux and goes back to his usual attire. Spot this one while you can. It’s amazing. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.
And Right Next Door...
Also at the Best Place this week in a neighboring performance space: Shakespeare Raw’s AS YOU LIKE IT. Boozy Bard hosts another sketchy Shakespeare show right next door to the wedding at the Best Place. So cool to see a couple of shows like this on the edges of downtown. There's one more performance...tonight only.
It’s Peter Falk
Ask people about Peter Falk and they’ll mention...The Princess Bride. (Okay, maybe that’s just my generation.) But ask people about Peter Falk and they’ll mention Wings of Desire. (Okay, that’s probably just me. Good movie, though.) Ask MOST people about Peter Falk and they’ll mention Columbo. Peter Falk: there was an actor who truly became synonymous with a role. You think Columbo and you think Peter Falk. And you think Peter Falk and you think Columbo. You see him in Wings of Desire and you think Columbo. Hell...you see him in The Princess Bride and you think Columbo. So...say you’re staging a production of an old stage play on the south side of Milwaukee and that stage play happens to have Columbo in it. You know what everyone’s going to be thinking? That’s right: Peter Falk.
Only it’s not Peter Falk
It takes a hell of a lot of guts to stage a play where everyone walking into the show is going to be thinking very, very specifically of an actor who, barring any hauntings, seances or ouija boards is definitely NOT going to be showing-up. Alchemist Theatre Guy and Director Aaron Kopec has precisely that many guts. This month, he’s staging a production of Prescription Murder. It’s the stage play that got turned into a 1968 TV movie that introduced Columbo to television by way of...Peter Falk.
Here we have the exceedingly talented Randall T. Anderson in the role of the rumpled police detective on the trail of the murderer of the wife of a psychiatrist. Again: not an easy thing to step into the Falk for this one, but thankfully, Anderson’s only got one foot in the Falk. The other foot is firmly in Columbo. (Okay so this is starting to sound a little weird.)
The tradition of the rumpled gumshoe detective wasn’t originated by Falk or even Columbo. The archetype goes back to Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Theoretically, Anderson could have spent a bit more energy finding the rumpled gumshoe detective that uniquely resides within him and come away with something much more fascinating than what he ended up with here. It would have been really cool to see what he would have come up with, but he would have disappointed a lot of people who had come to see...Peter Falk. So like I say: Anderson plays it half-Falked. This is a Columbo somewhere between Peter Falk and Randall T. Anderson. This is actually as much fun to watch because it’s a balancing act as it is to watch because it’s just a really good performance.
Men of a certain aspect ratio
The costuming by Amanda J. Hull is very specifically 1960s. Something feels a bit off about that on account of the fact that this is Columbo.
At some point mention is made of Idlewild Airport. And suddenly I’m thinking: “Okay, so this is the ‘60s with the music and the costumes, but exactly when in the ‘60s is this?” They hadn’t called it Idlewild Airport since...1963. But most people aren’t going to think Columbo and think of the early 1960s. I think Columbo and I think of men of a certain aspect ratio and resolution. That sort of washed-out fuzziness of the 1970s when the character appeared in over 40 feature-length TV dramas that echoed into infinity on syndication for UHF back when THAT was a thing. Kopec and company firmly plant this thing outside that bleary 4:3 cathode ray era and bring it into something considerably more classy.
Columbo by Way of Hitchcock
So it wasn’t originally Falk as Columbo. An early TV appearance featured some guy named Thomas Mitchell in the role and before that there was a guy named Bert Freed. Go far enough back and you end up with a stage play called Prescription Murder which was originally staged back in 1962. More than simply using fashions, furniture and props that feel like the ‘60s, Kopec nails a very early ‘60s Alfred Hitchcock feel about it complete with overly dramatic lighting and music cues and just the right kind of chemistry between the actors.
Columbo himself doesn’t actually show-up for much of the early going of the play. For the early part of the play, we have Chris Goode as cunning psychiatrist Dr. Roy Flemming and Amanda J. Hull as his wife. Goode is ever-so-slightly over-the-top as a Hitchcockian murder villain who Columbo must find a way to outsmart. Goode’s got the feel of an early '60s murder-mystery drama nailed quite precisely here. For her part, Hull does a really good job as the murder victim. It’s got to be really, really difficult to make an authentic appearance in a role so obviously marked for death from the beginning of the play, but Hull gives the character enough depth to make her feel like someone who just might have gone on living had it not been for this whole, "becoming a homicide victim," thing that she ran into on her way out of town.
Rounding out the edges of the ensemble are Sharon Nieman-Koebert with an endearing New York accent as Flemming’s receptionist and Patrick Schmitz (yes, really) as Flemming’s friend Dave Gordon. There’s also a dog. His name is Rufus #1. He’s a Basset Hound. This is not his first time on a stage. Go figure.
Brenda Poppy is suitably restless as Dr. Flemming’s lover and accomplice. She’s got a very powerful physical presence which is cleverly muted by the character’s reluctance to go along with her lover’s plans to murder his wife. In the early going, Goode, Hull and Poppy rest within a very Hitchcockian Kopec set, lighting and sound design in what feels like a very stylishly cozy early ‘60s film murder for stage. Then Anderson shows-up as Columbo and there’s an engrossing battle of wits that draws the drama to a very satisfying close.
Alchemist Productions’ staging of Columbo: Prescription Murder runs through May 19th at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket requests and more, visit Alchemist Theatre online.