Mel Brooks' The Prodcuers is weird. I had the occasion to contemplate this once more as I had been set up to review the Sunset Playhouse production of the show this past weekend. The idea of a couple of Broadway producers looking to get rich by developing an epic failure is a really clever one. It that had been appealing to me since I first saw the original film on a local indie TV station as a kid. And what with all of the movies that have been brought to the stage over the years and musical format, it seem like a natural fit for this stage. But at the same time it felt kind of strange.
A big commercial Broadway musical that spoofed big commerce on Broadway really IS the sort of thing but it’s making fun of. A big portion of what makes this so successful in a place like Elm Grove and not, say, the Marcus Center (or anywhere else a Broadway show would tour) is the fact that the Sunset Playhouse’s Furlan Auditorium is a relatively small stage where more of a textured feel to it. The audience is closer to the detail and so there's more personality in each detail present. Granted, the Furlan is one of the largest small stages in town. But for a big, over-the-top Broadway-style show, a space like the one that the Sunset Playhouse is working with in Elm Grove is relatively cozy.
Thanks to director Tommy Lueck, the Sunset Playhouse production only embraces the strange irony of creating a big, over-the-top musical in an effort to, among other things, make fun of big over the top musicals. I’ve seen a number of production of the show and I know that they don’t always manage that. And it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Lueck had company or going right that previous productions haven’t been able to manage.
The most interesting thing about the production is the fact that there are such a range of different talent levels on stage. It’s such a range of different types of performers all assuming different roles which may or may not fit perfectly into the type of thing they’re best at. And what you’ll get this with just about every production of any kind, bigger budgets allow for more of a uniformity and the overall feel of a show. The diversity of what is present on stage in Elm Grove makes the size of the cast that much more impressive. It’s not a whole lot of soulless faces and legs and arms and things. You tend to get that in the touring Broadway production. Everybody looks identical. It’s disturbing. And not in a good way that’s necessarily intended.
With a small, relatively intimate large stage the Sunset Playhouse is able to play-up individualities between different characters and different actors in a way that makes the large panorama of everything and present on stage that much more impressive. True to Brooks' cinematic style, there’s a lot of throwaway visual gags and in the musical. In any larger, more polished production all of those details feel washed out in all the glossy uniformity. With the level of texture that Lueck is able to work with here, we get a greater level of accent and in the midst every element of the cast. And yes, that is going to include some imperfections here or there. But that naturalistic imperfection is the type of thing that makes the smaller stages so intense.
All of this provides clarity to tragedy of the over-priced touring Broadway show. So much money is being pumped into touring Broadway shows. They can come to town and they can pretend that what they're doing is live theatre. And in that sense it is. It’s not live the way this is. It’s not live the way Lueck and company manage in Elm Grove with The Producers.
Sunset Playhouse’s staging of The Producers runs through Aug. 5 at the Furlan Auditorium on 700 Wall Street in Elm Grove. For ticket reservations, call 262-782-4430 or visit www.sunsetplayhouse.com. A comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.
The Underground Collaborative plays host to an interesting stage exploration into the works of Edgar Allen Poe. A version of The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe debuted in 2007 with Virginia’s Endstation Theatre Company. The adaptation renders various first-person narratives from the works of Poe as characters in a psych ward. Company of Strangers brings a modification of the adaptation into the basement of the Grand Avenue Mall this month as it presents a tightly-unraveled, little staging of the show that runs roughly 1 hour and 15 minutes.
The Mood As You Enter
Walk into the space as the entire cast is there. Onstage and off. Milling about. There’s a twitchy restlessness about them all. They’re pacing and crawling around and muttering to themselves. It’s a very slow metabolism about the place. Listless madness flows in and around a very moody atmosphere. The mood coats the tiny basement space. In an atmosphere like that, everyone seems a little crazy. Even people not directly involved in the production: the girl behind the bar, the rest of the audience, the person you came there with...everyone is suffering from demons of some sort.
It’s a diverse cast we meet as we enter. Mary Chuy clings to a baby doll she cradles in her arms. Later-on her maternalism fractures with “A Dream Within A Dream,” which ends the show. Esther Obain reaches out to the graffiti on the wall to embrace it. Later-on she performs the poem “Dreams,” with compelling passion. Rebecca Janny seems somewhat obsessed with the whitenesses of teeth, so it’s no surprise that she’s bringing Poe’s short story "Berenice" to the stage. Sarah Ann Mellström (always a captivating addition to an ensemble like this) slides across the stage in strangely compelling sensitivities. She taps here and there with fingers across various surfaces searching for no earthly percussion. She speaks through Poe’s “Alone,” with memories of childhood. Her hands later find a drum to tap out the rhythm of “The Telltale Heart,” as performed with cleverly aesthetic modulation by Race Rohde.
The modulation isn’t always strong, though...Poe performed as madness doesn’t have the kind of variety the would make for a very dramatically textured show. To their credit, the cast doesn’t try to reach into a garish spectrum of different mentally ill affectations. It all feels very well-grounded. And since the runtime of the show is only just over an hour, the mood is carried quite well and is never given enough time to feel stale.
The Concept Works
Atmosphere aside, on a fundamental level The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe is a recitation of Poe. Pure and simple. The rest of what’s going on in and around the edges cast it all in an interesting light but at its heart, this is a high-concept reading of Poe’s work. And it works. Each character in the cast represents almost a kind of psychotic personification of a different piece. So much of Poe’s fiction and narrative poetry is written from a first-person perspective. There are in-depth descriptions of each character in the program. Some of them are incredibly in-depth. Little 200 to 400-word sketches and analyses that inform on the performance. It would really amplify the experience to get-in early enough to read about the characters as they’re milling about prior to the show. Each of the 12 stories are analyzed and represented by characters in the cast. Between the text and the performance, there’s an opportunity for a really deep analysis of the text for those willing to really dive into it.
So...When are We Again?
The show imagines the Poe-based criminal psychotics all sharing space in the same Victorian-style psych ward with all of the restlessness that goes along with it. The costuming (which features contemporary scrubs and patient ID bands) and set design (which has the back walls covered in graffiti) suggest an altogether more contemporary setting. This feels a bit weird. Psychopharmacology has transformed contemporary mental institutions. It’s a much more static and dreamy space thanks to the wonders of modern medicine. (I remember a psych professor at UWM telling the story of visiting just such a place when psychotropic medications were first being introduced. He asked a nurse working the ward if the medicines really worked. She pointed at the curtains. She said that you could never keep the curtains on the windows before. With the drugs it wasn’t a problem. Things were so much more sedate than they had been.)
So it’s a bit disturbing to have a Victorian psych ward atmosphere in a modern psych ward atmosphere. Brian Lorenzo Pena plays a very charismatic Doctor who is described as being on “a quest for knowledge to the point of idolatry.” This would suggest a willingness to try out non-chemical forms of therapy even in those who could potentially hurt themselves (or anyone visiting in the audience within the context of the play.)
The nontraditional therapy angle on the character of the Doctor suggests a possible meta-story going on in which the characters aren’t reciting the narratives as personal experiences, but in actuality are being given different texts from Poe to identify with as a form of therapy being performed for the audience. And then maybe there’s enough around the edges of the introduction to suggest that the “Secretery” played by Julia Marsan is the REAL clinician here and she’s merely allowing one more psychotic the opportunity for therapy by way of allowing him to act as Doctor.
Company of Strangers has developed an explicit enough environment to form a moody backbone for Poe’s work. What an audience decides that it is will likely be something they bring-in with them. It's ambiguous enough to invite fun, little speculations and analyses long after the show has ended.
This Poe is a search for meaning along the fringes of mental health. It’s not meant to be a true exploration of mental illness any more than Poe’s work was. It’s a metaphysical descent into madness from which interesting insights might arise. Once again Company of Strangers presents a brief, thought-provoking evening of simple theatre on an intimate stage.
Company of Strangers’ production of The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe runs through Jul. 21 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Company of Strangers online.
Here's a promo video for the show:
I’m from Appleton, Wisconsin. So is big-name Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe. He moved Appleton to Milwaukee to study acting at UWM...and then went out to New York to win an Academy Award and then become the Green Goblin. Milwaukee is a transitional market. Our talent pool feeds terminal markets like LA and New York...where good talent goes...to die.
Seriously though: there are talented actors are leaving town every year. As the title of the horror film says...y’know...”Sometimes They Come Back,” but there’s always more talent leaving town than coming back in any given year.
Fresh Faces for Shakespeare
In light of the talent drain, it’s always fun to stumble across a cast list for a show featuring a whole bunch of names I haven’t heard of yet. See young actors while they're making early appearances and you'll have that much more time to hang out with them from a theatre seat before they leave town. Young talent can sometimes be found huddling together in tiny, little productions on small stages in some of the more pleasant margins of the city. Such is the case with Original Practices Milwaukee’s production of As You Like It on the East Side this coming weekend. Nearly half of the actors in the show are almost completely new to me.
Hey: I know THESE people
Even the names I recognize in the cast list look relatively fresh. By far the most recognizable name in the cast is Zach Woods, who has worked with Kohl’s Wild Theater, the Skylight, First Stage and has featured rather prominently at the Brumder...this guy gets around. He should. He’s a charismatic talent onstage. Also appearing in the cast are Bryant Mason and James Sevens: a couple of guys of reasonably advanced experience. It’s nice to see Jim Donaldson listed in a show as well. He’s great for light Shakespearian comedy--a genuinely funny guy with some of the most distinctive facial hair I’ve ever seen on an actual human being.
And then there are relatively new actors
The other 3/7 of the cast is a complete unknown to me and it makes me wish I could make the show (which runs this weekend only.) No idea what to expect here.
I may well have seen Jordyn Stewart onstage with my kids during a Kohl’s Wild Theatre performance not too long ago. She’s also a teaching artist at Lake Country Playhouse and performed in Bliss (or Emily Post is Dead!) last December for Renaissance Theaterworks “Groundworks” emerging artists’ series. (She’ll be appearing in the July 12th performance of As You Like It.)
Megan Orcholski is a PhD student at UWM who directed the weird alt-sitcom short Roommates that appeared in Cooperative Performances’ shorts festival earlier this summer, but I don’t believe I have ever seen her onstage. (She’ll be appearing in the July 14th performance of As You Like It.)
And this is the first time I’ve ever seen the name Paige Bourne, but in my defense, she looks young enough to have been in kindergarten when I started reviewing theatre. So I believe I can be forgiven for not having seen her onstage before. These three shiny, new actors are a big reason I regret that I am unlikely to be able to attend the show.
(I went to three shows last week. I’m going to three shows next week. There’s no way around other obligations this week. I will, however, be hanging out with Edgar Allen Poe in the Company of Strangers under Wisconsin Avenue on Friday the 13th. Look for a review of THAT show on Saturday morning.)
It’s First Folio Style So It’s Fun
It’s going to be an intimate show. When Shakespeare gets close, it can be fun. Here they’re performing the light comedy of As You Like It in a first folio style that engages the audience that is so very close to all of the action onstage. Women will disguise themselves as men. Identities will be mistaken. Love will be complicated and convoluted. And everything will work out in the end. Not a bad evening’s entertainment for a weekend in July.
Two Performance. Two Venues
The first performance will be on July 12th at 6:30 p.m. at the Villa Terrace Museum on 2220 N Terrace Ave. It’s a gorgeous space for Shakespeare. (I’ve seen his work there before.) There’s a very classy and classical feel about the space that pairs well with the poetic dialogue.
Then the show closes with its second performance on a Saturday, July 14th matinee at 3:30 p.m. a couple of days and 0.8 miles from when and where it opened. Its a second and final performance is at a second museum: the Charles Allis on 1801 N. Prospect Avenue.
Tickets are $10 each and available at the door before the performance. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page.
A Time of Division
Door Shakespeare pieces together an interesting fusion this summer with a distinctly American staging of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Set during in Wisconsin during the American Civil War, the story of two rivals being brought together in love makes a fascinating reflection on an era of bloody division between the North and the South as seen through the eyes of an audience that is much more familiar with the intellectual division between the left and the right in the contemporary political landscape.
USA by Way of Shakespeare
I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a production so completely wrapped-up in the visual trapping of US patriotism before. It’s actually kind of refreshing to see something this completely immersed in star spangled red, white and blue. Costume Designer Misti Bradford and Scenic Designer Jody Sekas give the production a very stylized and iconic Civil War/Civil War-era America for the intimate outdoor stage. There’s some really overpowering stars and stripes imagery saturating the stage during the play’s masquerade scene. The ball is sharply choreographed by Isabelle Kralj, (who is no stranger to choreographing on an intimate stage in her work with Theatre Gigante.) Everyone is decked-out in red, white and blue domino masks for the scene. It’s all very visually striking, but not all of the show’s impact comes from bright primary colors. There are earth tones too...this IS Shakespeare quite firmly planted in Northeastern Wisconsin.
The premise is that soldiers from the Civil War are returning to Wisconsin...Door County Wisconsin from the battlefield. And so there’s a really interesting stylistic fusion between the setting of the play and the quaint rural rustic feel of small-town Door County. (That authentic small town feel is still there in places if you look for it in the shadow of overwhelming gravity of garish Door County tourism.)
Old Friends Onstage
The show is a pleasant throwback to Joseph Hanreddy-era Milwaukee Rep. Hanreddy directs the show with longtime Milwaukee Rep resident actress Deborah Staples playing a world-weary Beatrice. Powerful Milwaukee theater icon Mark Corkins plays Don Pedro--a man among others who conspires to bring Beatrice to love with her romantic rival Benedick...played by Staples’ husband and Next Act Producing Artistic Director David Cecsarini. It’s really fun to see the husband and wife onstage together as Benedick and Beatrice.
It’s a show in Door County, but so much of it feels like a Milwaukee theater party on a small stage in the woods in Door County. James Carrington lends an authority of conscience to the role of Father Francis, who works to uncover a conspiracy against two lovers. Milwaukee theater veteran Carrie Hitchcock lends character to the edges of the production as Ursula and the Sexton.
Of course, this IS Shakespeare and there is A LOT going on in and around the edges of the show. Todd Denning has a purity about him as Leonato, who stands wronged by accusations made against his daughter Hero. The distinctive silent expressiveness of Elyse Edelman can do amazing things for any peripheral role in Shakespeare. Here the subtle mix of emotion that fades in and out of her countenance lends power to the drama of Hero. Also making a very memorable appearance in the periphery of the action is Drew Shirley, who seems to be channeling an interesting mix of midwestern moods for a very refreshingly comic turn as the night constable Dogberry. In a performance that feels reminiscent of a young Bill Murray, Shirley plays a Dogberry funny enough to hold the attention of even my pre-school-aged daughter whenever he made it to the stage.
Door Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing run in rotation with The Comedy of Errors through August 18th at Björklunden Lodge on 590 Boynton Lane in Baileys Harbor. For ticket requests, call 920-839-1500 or visit doorshakespeare.com. My concise, comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.