Late this month, Untitled Productions and Theater RED present a staging of the one-woman biographical play I'll Eat You Last in an intimate space at hotel on the corner of Chicago and Broadway not far from MIAD. Actress Marcee Doherty-Elst and director Eric Welch took some time out to answer a few questions I had about the production.
This one-woman play has been around for a little over 5 years. If I’m not mistaken this is the Wisconsin premiere of the show. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) What specifically attracted you to the idea of doing this show?
Eric: That is correct. I remember this show being first premiered on Broadway with Bette Midler. I was immediately interested. I read was it was about and found it fascinating. Sue Mengers is such an interesting character. I am also a big fan of Barbra Streisand, who was one of Sue’s biggest clients, so naturally I loved the show. After discussing this show with my friend Briana who started up Untitled Productions with me, I thought that this would be the perfect show to start us off. One, because of budget costs but also because it’s such a clever, witty show that will literally make you laugh, cry, and laugh again.
Marcee: Correct! I’LL EAT YOU LAST (IEYL) premiered on April 24th, 2013 at the Booth Theatre in New York and this is the WI premiere! I know Eric will have more to say on this, but he is a huge Barbra Streisand fan, and Sue Mengers is perhaps most famous for being Ms. Streisand’s agent, so naturally there’s a fit there! Also, this is the inaugural production for Untitled Productions, and I think the idea of doing a one-woman-show was appealing to Eric both as a unique splash into the Milwaukee theater scene and for logistical reasons.
I’LL EAT YOU LAST was originally staged at the 783-seat Booth Theatre. You’re performing in an improvised hotel space on Broadway in Milwaukee, WI. It seats...far fewer than 783 people. Have you ever performed a room this intimate in a one-woman show before?
Marcee: That’s true! We will have seating for only 84 guests per night; 10 of those are VIP seats on couches and chairs right up front as a sort of extension of Sue’s living room (and they come with a signature cocktail from the bar!). Both as an actor and as a Producer (with my Theater RED cape on) I really like intimate theater and smaller spaces, so that’s really appealing to me. I have never performed a one-woman-show before, so that’s a first for me, but I do like the idea of performing it in an intimate space. In fact, the original idea was to perform it in one of the suites at the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel and only sell 20 tickets a night and have it be very intimate – just however many people we could fit in the suite using the furniture and adding a few chairs! When we presented this idea to the Journeyman, they loved the idea and offered to do one better – they said they could build a replica of one of the suites in one of their ballrooms so we could seat more people and that’s exactly what they are doing! They will be building a suite on their stage and after the row of VIP seating on couches and chairs there will be small and large small tables set up cabaret-style in the room. There will be a few tall boy tables in the back for additional seating and the bar will be in the back of the room, too! I love the idea of a non-traditional theater set up since this show is a very non-traditional 70 minute comedic romp! As an actor I’ve performed in many theaters that seat less than 100 and as a Producer, Theater RED has often rented venues that seat less than 100, so this is very comfortable for me. I think it will really work to set the feel that you could actually be sitting right in Sue’s living room listening to her dish!
You’re playing Sue Mengers--a Hollywood talent agent from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Though she’s far from an instantly-recognizable personality, she was known to many and there IS video footage of her (including a rather prominent feature on her for CBS’ 60 Minutes that aired a few decades ago.) It must be a challenge to play an actual 20th century figure. To what extent are you directly impersonating her for accuracy and to what extent are you playing a character that you feel is distinctly your own?
Marcee: Yes, I’ve watched that interview with Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes many times! She was quite a celebrity in her own right as an Agent, which is pretty unusual and speaks volumes about her ambition, drive, and chutzpah! There’s a good deal of information out there about Sue, from books to interviews to magazine features, and the research has been really fun! This might be the first 20th century figure that I’ve portrayed, but I as an actor I have portrayed several 19th Century women and I always try to honor who they were as a person through my performance. While I definitely want to capture some of the signature Sue Mengers’ style of speaking, Eric has challenged me to take Sue’s idiolect, but make it my own (I did work with Jill Zager as dialect coach for the show to help me learn Sue’s idiolect). We aren’t trying to do an impersonation of her. Instead, we want to find a balance of Sue-isms with my own portrayal of her, so I guess it’s a mix of Sue and Marcee. I think she’d describe it more as a homage to her (and to quote her referring to Hollywood, “we play a $*%@ a lot of homage out here”).
Eric: Being the director, I did not want Marcee to replicate or impersonate her. To me, that isn’t acting. I definitely want there to be a Sue Mengers quality to her character but not to impersonate. It’s a fine line since she is a real person but I feel that for the stage, you can embellish.
Hang out in a hotel with Sue Mengers for a couple of hours and she’s going to tell stories. The play starts and it’s 1981 and the audience is lounging around with a big-named Hollywood talent agent. She’s be dropping names. How heavily grounded in her era of Hollywood is the play? Do you feel it would it be easily accessible by those not terribly familiar with Hollywood of the second half of the 20th century?
Eric: I think this play is very well written that even if you don’t know all the names she’s dropping, you still are laughing or enjoying the stories she’s telling. Most names should be recognizable to audiences. I mean, everyone knows who Barbra Streisand is.
Marcee: It is very present in 1981. It takes place on a very specific, formative day in the life of Sue Mengers and everything she is talking about is very grounded in that present, but she also talks about her past and you learned how that shaped her into the person she is at this point in 1981. The tricky thing is that there’s an awful lot yet of Sue Mengers’ story that I know through my research, and I have to be careful not to let what I know about her and what will happen shape who she is on this particular day in 1981. You’re absolutely right, she does a lot of name dropping and “dishing”, as she likes to say. I think there may be some references to some actors, movies, and even other historical events that people may not be familiar with, but I do think that even if you don’t recognize the name, you still understand the point of her dropping that particular name through the context. I’ve had to look up several things and Christopher has done a lot of great dramaturgical work that has helped richen my understanding. Sue has a wicked smart sense of humor and some of the things she’s saying are so quick witted that my challenge as an actor is to balance her manner of speaking while still making sure the audience gets the more obscure or interesting references because they are so funny! I think it would be super cool to find out that someone went home and looked up a movie or actor or other figure referenced as a result of seeing the play!
“Forgive me for not getting up,” she says. So it’s just you playing Mengers onstage...and not a whole lot of movement because it’s just her telling stories. (And smoking. I understand there’s a lot of smoking.) Does that make you feel restless at all? You’re there to perform and she’s there to relax and tell stories while seated. You’re portraying HER so she’s in charge. But it's you up there. Is there any kind of a conflict there?
Eric: Yes, she is seated the entire time, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t move. She certainly smokes a lot in the show, and not just cigarettes! There’s a few moments of audience participation and the whole play is focused on Sue waiting for a phone call from Barbra Streisand telling her she’s fired.
Marcee: You really are just spending an hour (or so) in Sue Mengers’ living room listening to her “dish” while she awaits an important phone call. There’s that sort of nervous energy when you’re waiting for something you know is going to happen but aren’t sure when and what happens is that she just sort of starts talking and telling stories to fill the time. And she loves gossip and loves to “dish” so she’s really having a good time holding court with the audience while she passes the time. She never leaves the stage – in fact, she never leaves the couch. Which makes for some fun when there are some things she needs that aren’t within arms’ reach. All I can say is, for people who like a unique immersive experience, they should grab those VIP seats in the front row couches – there’s only 10 per night! Oh yes, she was known for being a chain smoker and she also enjoyed smoking illegal substances, too. She’s rarely seen without a cigarette, or something else, in her hand. This has been a really interesting challenge for me as an actor because I have never smoked. Now all of a sudden I have a prop in my hand (or hands) all the time! We’ve been working with the consumable props since Day 1 of rehearsal for that reason and I will be smoking live on stage (herbal cigarettes and legal herbs). I haven’t felt restless yet, but I think that’s because there’s a great deal of movement even without moving off the couch – strange but true! I’m honestly feeling more awkward learning to manage the smoking aspect than I am with the limits of not leaving the couch. While she’s telling stories, she’s definitely not relaxed the entire time – she’s waiting for a phone call that she is dreading and knows will change her life so there really is this nervous energy in places – she certainly has moments where she relaxes (and the smoking helps her do that) and moments where she is having a lot of fun with the audience, but there are also moments where she comes back to her present reality of waiting for the shoe to drop. I think the key, as with any character, is to settle into Sue and tell her story, in her way. The challenge is maintaining that with no other actors on the stage with you to help with that story.
Mengers’ personality is really strong. And she IS the center of the show. Do you feel her personality taking-over elements of production? Are there elements of her personality lingering in your life outside of rehearsals?
Eric: Obviously, it’s hard to do a show about a real life person and NOT having her fully appear in sections. Sue Mengers is a very interesting and boastful character. She will demand your attention.
Marcee: That’s an understatement for sure! And yes! We’ve only had 3 rehearsals (including the read through) as of this interview and I am already seeing aspects of Sue’s personality coming through in life outside of rehearsals. People that know me know that I don’t really curse all that much, I’m not really sure why. It doesn’t offend me when other people do it, I just think I’ve never been cool enough to pull it off – ha! But, Sue Mengers swears like a sailor and uses vulgar language. I’ve noticed that my language has definitely become more adult since rehearsals, that’s for sure! And the thing is, Sue uses curse words affectionately, so I’m finding that in moments of excitement I’m calling my friends things other than “little stinkers”, if you know what I mean! And it just comes out and I’m a little shocked hearing it, but it makes me giggle. On the production side, I think I’ve always been a little opinionated and vocal (just ask Christopher) so I think Sue’s influence on me there is again, the choice of words.
Untitled Productions and Theater RED's staging of the I'll Eat You Last runs June 29th-July 1st at the Journeyman Hotel on 310 East Chicago St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater RED online.
Far too long ago, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and writer/performer Jason Powell developed a clever comic book spoof/tribute operetta Fortuna the Time Bender vs. the Schoolgirls of Doom. The sharp, little comedy makes its return to the stage in a quietly breathtaking production this month courtesy of Milwaukee Metro Voices. Samantha Sostarich radiantly returns as the time-bending operatic superhero in a production now being staged at In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theatre downtown. I’d seen the Milwaukee Opera Theatre production years ago at the Alchemist Theatre. It is a pleasure to see the show return from the shadows to valiantly fight evil once more this summer.
Pop-Adjacent: Just Beyond the Splash Page of Mega-Popularity
It’s interesting to note how close Fortuna is to those genres that have reached the apex of mega-popularity in the modern world.
Broadway-style musicals are some of the biggest money-makers in live theatre. They rake-in tons of cash both on Broadway and from unsuspecting audiences all over the country in big, overstuffed touring productions. Fortuna isn’t a Broadway-style musical, though. It’s an operetta. Stylistically, Fortuna has a lot more in common with Gilbert & Sullivan than Sondheim, Menken or Andrew Lloyd Weber. Operettas like Fortuna may have been incredibly huge in an earlier time, but they have become something of a quaint throwback in the modern era.
Nowadays, superhero stories are some of the most popular reasons people go into large, darkened rooms all over the world. Just earlier this week Marvel’s latest Avengers movie recently broke over $2 billion at the box office and is well on its way to becoming the third highest-grossing film of all time worldwide (not adjusted for inflation.) Fortuna isn’t inspired by the contemporary superhero, though. Modern superheroes are equally focussed on themselves, their own problems AND saving the world. With the dazzlingly confident and altruistic Fortuna, we don’t get a whole lot of doubt or moody introspection. The beautifully beaming Samantha Sostarich poses triumphantly nearly every time she’s onstage. Never any doubts. Never any uncertainties. She’s a swoon-worthy paragon of superhero grace from an earlier era. She’s a throwback to a Golden Age Superman or the original Captain Marvel by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck.
Fortuna is musical theatre, but not the kind modern audiences are so in love with. It’s also a superhero story, but it’s not the kind that modern audiences funnel billions of dollars into multiplexes to watch. It’s a classy retro hybrid show that fuses the mega-pop precursors that are just beyond the splash page of contemporary mega-popularity.
Contemporary Aesthetics Nonetheless
Seeing the show a second time around, it’s interesting to pick apart what Powell is doing with Fortuna. Early-on in the story, we have the flash of those classic 1940s comic book superhero adventures. Fortuna cleans-up and completely abolishes crime in the cozy metropolis of Anyville, U.S.A. She stops a mugging, rescues a cat from a tree, stops a terrorist in a tank (offstage, of course. Let’s not get carried away with the budget. This isn’t Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark or anything like that.)
After the first couple of songs, the Golden Age is kind of over, though...turn the page and there’s Joe. He’s a guy who has always wanted to be a superhero, but he’s plagued by doubts. (In other words...he IS the Silver Age.) Moved by overhearing Joe’s dream as sung to his girlfriend, Fortuna decides to take Joe under her wing and train him to be a superhero. Jonathan Stewart is sweetly chivalrous as Joe--a guy who we first meet wistfully reading the paper in a (somewhat symbolically) faded classic Justice League throwback t-shirt. Melissa Kelly Cardamone is irresistibly human as Joe’s girlfriend Elizabeth, who works in a museum. Cardamone is brilliant in this kind of role for this kind of intimate space. She’s got a beautiful voice for big, sweeping operatic emotion paired with a very deft touch at comparatively subtle characterization that smartly balance out her performance.
Present throughout the show, the self-referential humor and casual breaking of the fourth wall reach a particularly charming crescendo in very modern comedic style as Joe and Elizabeth try to reach common ground in their relationship.
A more contemporary style illuminates the story as Elizabeth worries that Joe is getting too lost in his superhero studies with Fortuna. Powell allows Fortuna a Professor X-like ability to locate others with super-powers. (Look closely and you'll see that there’s a lot around the edges of the plot that feels Marvel mutant-inspired. That's no coincidence. A couple years back, Powell wrote a book about writer Chris Claremont’s historic run on the Uncanny X-Men.)
It’s not necessary to be a big fan of the genre to love the show, but there are quite a few little easter-egg style references in at least one song. Not long before intermission in, “Superhuman,” Fortuna is telling Joe what powers he might acquire through training. She glides through deft lyrics which, if I’m not mistaken, make reference to comic book characters as diversely obscure as Tony Stark, Carol Danvers and...was that Gorilla Grodd, too? (Weird.)
The Villain and His Henchwomen
Having established things between Fortuna, Joe and Elizabeth, Powell shifts focus to the antagonist: a toweringly villainous Nathan Wesselowski as The Headmaster. Wesselowski cuts a bombastic figure as a comically sinister academic. He promptly goes into his backstory in a very sharp and entertainingly-executed song, “Practitioner of Villainy.” It’s one of my favorites: a song that feels rather pleasantly like "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”
(It’s weird what you see a second time. This time around, the Headmaster’s origin reminded me of William Moulton Marston’s Golden Age Dr. Psycho...which casts the rest of the show in an interesting light. With its Golden Age female hero cast against a world of more contemporary and distinctly feminist concerns, Powell’s story here has much in common with William Moulton Marston’s early 1940s work for the company that was destined to become DC Comics.)
Part of the feminism in Powell’s story features three very liberated...uh...schoolgirl henchwomen: Mandy, Candy and Sandy. At first, three girls in plaid pleated skirts working for a villain known as The Headmaster might seem a trifle...misogynistic (at best.) Powell neutralizes this, though. The three of them (who are three distinctly different personalities) do a song near the end of the show that really casts a spotlight on the fact that the squad has had a relatively equal partnership with their “leader” the whole time. Lisa Morris strikes a balance between cuteness and villainy as Candy “the cute one.” Anna Van Nuland manages to seem commanding even while appearing occasionally submissive as Mandy “the mature one.” Dana Vetter wields the kind of confident poise that can casually spout a mouthful of highly technical sci-fi jargon as Sandy, “the smart one.”
The three Schoolgirls of Doom round-out a largely female ensemble that’s led by a very commanding Diane Lane as Narrator. It’s a really tightly-woven package. A retro neo-operetta and a Golden Age hero are cast in a contemporary spoof comedy that still manages to have enough heart to reach out to people not particularly enthusiastic about the genres in question. Director James Zager does an excellent job of juggling it all, which is pretty heroic in its own way. There's a lot going on here. Honestly there's no reason why this show should work as any kind of a cohesive experience. That it does (and does so quite well) says a lot about what Powell and Zager have managed here.
Fortuna the Time Bender vs. the Schoolgirls of Doom is such a bizarrely idiosyncratic hybrid of a show. It almost seems too weird to possibly exist...let alone in a little studio space across the street and down the block from the central public library downtown. Do yourself a favor. Go convince yourself this thing really exists by seeing this one-of-a-kind show before it bounds off the stage one more time.
Milwaukee Metro Voices’ production of Fortuna The Time Bender Vs. The School Girls Of Doom runs through June 24 at the Tenth Street Theatre at 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Metro Voices online.
This month Cooperative Performance runs a deliciously eclectic, little shorts program right downtown at the Underground Collaborative. The two-hour/one intermission program starts heavy, gets heavier and finishes light with some warm, endearing comedy that lingers pleasantly into the evening.
Here’s a look at what to expect if you go (and you should):
by Mary Buchel
directed by Eric Scherrer
performed by Brittany Meister and Raja “AayZee” Zafar
The program opens with a simple domestic drama. Husband and wife sit at a table near the close of a rummage sale. Raja Zafar is compellingly vacant as the husband until challenged by fate. A small artifact from his past becomes a rather large matter in the present, brining him into conflict with his wife.
Sharply reserved, Brittany Meister treads carefully as a woman forced to contend with the fact the one never knows the true significance of objects or moments. You never know the true meaning of something until it becomes life-changing for better or worse. It’s a complicated script that Meister and Zafar handle quite well under the direction of Eric Scherrer.
by Clayton Mortl
directed by Danielle Levings
performed by Jake Russell
original music composed and performed by Allen Russell
Jake Russell is a compassionate, extremely sensitive intellectual in a short but epic journey of a monologue. Russell is amazing storyteller. Jake Russell renders a depth of characterization and cerebral complexity that is deeply engaging on many different levels at once. The Clayton Mortl monologue he has so many moving pieces that are so very, very razor sharp in thematic concision. It would be easy for any actor to get lost in it all. Russell manages to modulate really well through a piece that might otherwise get lost in its own complexities in numerous places were it to be breathed in anything other than just the right way. Jake Russell nails it beautifully in one of the better pieces on the program.
devised and performed by Kelly Coffey and Don Russell
There’s the persistent sound of what might be heavy, hollow ceramic dragged against rough concrete. It is persistent and present throughout this entire third short. Kelly Coffey enters the stage and begins with captivating abstraction in monologue mixed with subtle restless movements. Kelly Coffey opens with a very earthbound verbal exposition of human behavior describing physical compulsions which echo all of those things that we as human beings seems so psychotically focused on. It’s all very precise and very, very aesthetically itchy.
Having rendered her behavioral obsession, Coffey is joined by Don Russell who walks on stage with a chair. The three of them--the two actors in the one piece of humble wooden furniture fall into a state of conflict. Russell is very much focused in on a very narrow kind of precision in placement with the chair. The chair seems almost apologetically inert in contrast to the two other performers with whom it shares the stage. It seems to be trying to bridge the gap between the two non-furniture organisms by simply being there as we are all trying to understand it by watching the stage conflict.
The progression of style in the program from one short to the next works to Coffey and Russell’s favor. Cooperative Performance has done a really good job of composing the program. One things lead to another and there's a kind of uneasy balance in a haunting abstraction of movement. Once Russell and Coffey have completed their conflict, lights rise on an intermission.
THE GHOST OF YOU
devised and performed by Emily Elliot
Emily Elliot works in arcs and respiration in a movement piece with spoken word pumped in around the edges of its entry. It’s spoken word about vulnerability and accountability. Very casually poetic movements and motions phrases and words. Hers is a very organic grace which bridges the abstract with something far more accessible. Hers is a brief journey that draws the program out of intermission and into far lighter fare than that which is onstage prior to intermission. Looking forward to more from Emily Elliot.
by Joel Kopischke and Don Russell
directed by Ro Spice-Kopischke
performed by Abigail Stein and Madeline Wakley
With a light, cheerfully frothy surface gently coating an engrossing inner complexity, this might have been my favorite piece on the program. This is surprisingly clever comedy. It’s an inter-species romance between a monkey and a cat--both of whom are entertainingly anthropomorphized. It’s so much more than that, though.
Kopischke and Russell create an impressively sophisticated relationship between two creatures that are human embodiments of all those things that we culturally associate with cats and primates. A cat and a monkey in a romantic relationship may sound like the set-up to cheap sketch comedy but there’s a considerable amount of depth here that really gets into the heart of why people are together in the first place and how we come to feel connected to each other.
Abigail Stein and Madeline Wakley exhibit warmth and complexity as a couple of people who are simply trying to connect-up but don’t know how. The fact that they’re animals fades into the background and we see two people and two archetypes trying to relate to each other. It's a comedy of frustration. Wakley enters first and firmly establish is a behavioral language to the piece that is fun and highly accessible. She's got a really solid balance between cat and human stage presence. It's endlessly fun to watch. Stein is fun as a monkey too. As I was sitting in the front row, she approached me and offered me a banana that she'd already taken a bite out of. (Given a second longer I probably would have gone for it.) It was a nicely ingratiating moment between man and monkey and woman playing monkey that mirrored the soul of the rest of the short. Very sweet stuff with great heart.
by Maria Pretzl
directed by Megan Orcholski
performed by Markaz Q Davis, Miranda Flores Farley, Brandon C Haut, and Ashley Retzlaff
Maria Pretzl crafts a fun, little sexy sitcom bite about a young guy (a crisply funny Brandon C. Haut) and a young woman (vivacious Miranda Flores) who are living together. They’re both quite sexually active, but they have absolutely no interest in each other at all. Things get weird when a guy she has hooked-up with (Markaz Q. Davis) and a girl he has come home with (Ashley Retzlaff) all end up in the same apartment.
The cast holds it all together quite well. It's sort of a modern bedroom farce for a short attention span that never lingers on stage for long enough to become anything other than fluffy, enjoyable silliness. It’s the perfect end to a program which had been to some particularly deep, dark places both intellectually and emotionally.
As a whole, the program is quite an odyssey. Remarkable how many different places the small, living stage can go in just two hours time given the right kind of momentum. Not all of it’s brilliant, but this type of show is exactly why I love smaller theater. So much going on in such a small space. So much to think about and so much time to think about it after the show.
Cooperative Performance’s One-Act Festival runs through June 23 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cooperative Performance online.
June begins in greater Milwaukee with a couple of shorts programs. Next week Cooperative Performance opens a shorts show downtown. This past weekend, the Village Playhouse opened its 33rd Annual One Act Play Festival. Produced by Milwaukee theatre veteran Tom Zuehlke, the show consists of six original shorts and one 15-minute intermission which run about 2 hours in length.
And if it was just me reading this (and not actually...writing it) I’d probably stop reading here. I like the mystery of an original shorts program. You know there are going to be six stories. You know there are going to be 2 hours in the theatre. The rest is a big question mark. It’s an intrepid exploration of art from a theatre seat. And since this is the Village Playhouse, none of the shorts are going to be weird and abstract. This isn’t experimental stuff that you’re going to have to be in the right mood for. Nothing too challenging. It’s all very accessible stuff. But there’s no telling how complete any of it might feel because nothing's going to be onstage for all that long. In the first half you don’t even necessarily know when any given short is going to be over. Sometimes the end of one short isn’t entirely clear until the show is well into its next one. I love that sense of earthbound disorientation--that sense of the approachable unknown.
But I'm not everyone and there are going to be people who want to have some idea what to expect. So from here on-in there are mild spoilers. Here’s a little bit of what to expect from each of the six shorts:
The first short is a piece by Deanna Strasse which weaves together with two other Strasse shorts. Rob Schreiner plays a writer having difficulty crafting a simple children’s theatre script. Schreiner has a very distinctive look about him...tattoos on his arms and spacers in his ears. Not exactly the picture one might conjure when thinking of someone writing children's fare. Schreiner's playing a guy who seems to be overthinking a show he's trying to write for a children’s audience. Though it’s never addressed in the script, the character clearly isn't familiar enough with contemporary children’s theatre or he would know the last thing you want to do is write down to your audience. The writer's difficulties develop and we run into a very promising, young Kellie Wambold in the role of his cleverly complicated muse. In her we see the origin of his distraction. Things ultimately get resolved, but not before Schreiner’s playwright is interrupted by a couple of other distracting Strasse-written shorts.
The Dolly Agenda
Donna McMaster and Kellie Wambold play a couple of precocious toddler girls playing with dolls when the echoes of politics begin to reverberate into their imaginative playtime. It’s a clever short in places, but the dialogue doesn’t seem quite authentic. As a father of two girls roughly the age of the characters, I know how truly complicated their language is. Every day is an immense discovery. There’s a tremendous amount being learned by anyone who is just beginning to understand the world and its mind-numbing complexities. It may not sound like much on the surface, but the language spoken by toddlers and young post-toddlers has its own kind of beautifully bewildering complexity. It’s almost impossible to write dialogue from that kind of an expanding intellect and get it right. Strasse does a pretty good job of capturing the essence of it nonetheless. And once again Wambold makes a really sharp and pleasantly clever appearance. This is quite an accomplishment on her part. All too often, adults playing kids miss the mark and seem...vaguely disturbing. With the right blend of confidence, curiosity and uncertainty, Wambold has just the right approach.
The Ambitious One
Strasse seems to be stumbling a bit with this one which involves a thoughtful, caring woman returning home to her live-in neurotic writer girlfriend. Karolyn Wolkos has some remarkably genuine moments dealing with the awkwardness of her girlfriend. As a romantic short, it almost sort of works, but there isn’t quite enough connection between Wolkos and her writer girlfriend (played by Donna McMaster.) The script isn’t of much help as it seems to be reaching for insight that is ever-so-narrowly out of reach. The script is edging over writer/artist cliches that are precariously dangled over the potential of real insight that the dialogue never quite stumbles into.
I love the way this one begins. There’s the ambient sound of a coffee shop being pumped-in through the sound system of a uniformly-lit stage. Nearly every actor in the show is sitting down in a coffeehouse atmosphere. As the short opens, the dialogue is only implied and we’re not exactly being directed to look at any one person. The first five minutes or so (possibly less) feel like a formless coffeehouse drama that could fuse into something truly interesting. It would have been cool to see the scene slowly congeal into something specific...possibly with implied dialogue the entire way--possibly without anyone ever saying anything perfectly audible. Playwright Mark Borchardt doesn't allow us this. Instead, the play rather rapidly descends into an awkward moment shared between two strangers. Rita Bates plays a woman on a laptop desperately trying to get work done. Michael Fisher-Zaragoza plays a very clingy and manipulative guy who seems obsessed with making a connection with the woman. Awkwardness ensues. There's a moral to the story at the end which feels almost oddly satisfying.
Then there’s intermission.
(It’s 15 minutes long.)
Carl Liden and Sandra Wiss play upper-middle-class husband and wife in this short by Nick Schweitzer. He’s a lawyer. She’s a therapist. (I think. Maybe a social worker.) As the play opens, she hasn’t arrived home yet. He’s having a beer while hanging out with a man he’s hired as a gardner for a couple of days. Scott Stenstrup plays the gardner...a guy who turns out to have been an ex-boyfriend of hers from college. He’s an intellectual drifter. She’s settled-down and perhaps tempted to rekindle things with him.
It's subtle but...Liden nails the casual feel of a white collar guy on a day off at home...which is probably a lot more difficult than it would seem. He’s relating to the stage like it actually IS the living room. It's difficult to describe how difficult that is. A stage (particularly a small one) is NOT a natural place. Liden makes it feel like home. Normally you don't notice this quite as much in a live show, but on a stage this intimate, it's actually quite an accomplishment to simply appear to be at home.
Wiss is given the rather difficult task of trying to make the drifter she's attracted to seem appealing enough to the audience to believably establish the conflict she’s feeling.
The drifter is written in a way that could theoretically show some charm, but there’s a strong undercurrent in his dialogue which suggests that he’s almost pathologically manipulative. Stenstrup’s slimy, sensually reptilian slowness tilts the character really, really heavily in the direction of creepiness. This makes the whole thing seem really uncomfortable.
(And now that I’m thinking about it, there are socially awkward moments written into nearly every short in the program. If there’s a theme here, it’s definitely social awkwardness in multiple different shades from many different angles. This has got to be the most deeply cringe-inducing awkwardness in the whole program.)
The Last Love Story
Mike Willis writes the story of a Hollywood producer meeting with a screenwriter (Scott Sorenson,) and a couple of actors (Sandra Hollander and Jacob Ortiz) As the story opens, the producer (capably played by Greg Ryan) is agonizing over a script written by the screenwriter. Judy Parelli-Wambach is appealing as his shrewd and capable assistant.
Basically this short is a meeting to discuss with a screenwriter the possibility of producing a romantic drama. The writer isn't doing a terribly good job of selling it. A six-hour romantic drama is NOT going to be produced. Any successful screenwriter is going to know that. With some tweaking and editing, the producer is interested in having a big named action star (Jacob Ortiz) and a Hollywood sex symbol (Sandra Hollander) into being in a serious romantic drama that features no gratuitous sex or violence. It's a short comedy. With heart. The cast is fun in places. It’s the last short on the program.
There are numerous problems with Willis’ story. It’s difficult to tell what era the story is set in. There’s language in the script that suggests that it could be anywhere from the ’60s to the ’70s to...now. The business of Hollywood is distinctly different every decade and the changes are never subtle. So it's difficult to tell exactly where the action of the short is grounded. Naturally this feels...uncomfortable.
The comedy of trying to get a wholesome drama green-lit in Hollywood has potential, but it would need to be framed differently in order to make it really work. The central premise here seems to be that sex and violence sell in Hollywood where as simple romance is never given a chance. Hollywood doesn't seem to understand the potential in real romantic human drama anymore.
The problem is that Hollywood DOES love a romance. Granted...romance DOESN’T generally make a whole lot of money in Hollywood. James Cameron’s historical romance Titanic is the second highest-grossing film of all-time worldwide (not accounting for inflation) but it IS the exception. That being said, producers are well-aware that romantic dramas CAN be highly profitable. They cost relatively little to make and given the right mojo, they can bring in more than enough money to make a huge profit on a relatively small investment even if they're NOT topping the box office on any given week.
Put a big name action star and a hot sex symbol in a serious drama and theoretically you could make a huge profit on a small-budget film. THAT'S where Willis' short has potential. I think it’d be fun to re-frame this short as the story of a producer and a screenwriter trying to get two big-name actors who have NEVER done serious drama to wrap their minds around the idea that there isn’t going to be any sex or violence in the movie they're being asked to appear in. Willis' script has an element of that, but that’s not quite what’s going on here. The short seems to be trying to lean to far into the idea that Hollywood just doesn't understand that real-life makes the best drama. This might be true (if a bit oversimplified) but it's a statement that doesn't necessarily make for a great comedy. The cast manages to juggle the energy enough to make it a fun ending for the program, though.
The Village Playhouse’s 33rd Annual Original One Act Festival runs through June 17th at the Village Playhouse on 1500 S. 73rd St. in West Allis. For ticket reservations and more, visit the Village Playhouse online.