An intimate, little group of 16 or so assembled in a space not far from the stage at the Underground Collaborative for a Voices Found Repertory presentation. There was a cozy kind of welcoming informality about the place as people settled-in for a staged reading of Jake Thompson’s Beautiful Things Or the Rise and Fall of Dorian Gray and the Writer From Mars.
Actors and others involved in local theatre sat in a circle of chairs. There were pillows on the carpeted floor of a room just precisely big enough to hold all in attendance. The charmingly engaging Jake Thompson introduced the reading of his script from paper packets and mobile devices. He spoke of the long process of getting the script into its current form: an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and biographical bits of Wilde’s life fused together under the influence of David Bowie’s 1972 Ziggy Stardust album.
The title of the script almost feels suggestive of some sort of weird Bowie-esque rock opera fusion between author and adaptation of his novel. This is not the case. Every scene is named after a different David Bowie song. Other than that, Bowie is nowhere to be found aside from a vague thematic connection Bowie’s relationship with his Ziggy Stardust character and Wilde’s relationship with the inhabitants of Dorian Gray.
Thompson’s work is an alternating fusion between biography and adaptation of Wilde’s novel. On the surface, this feels a bit redundant as Wilde’s work is essentially a dialectic exploring different elements within him. Wilde has even stated that the three central characters in the novel are essentially aspects of his own personality, so it’s already about him. Throwing biographical moments with Wilde into the adaptation might feel a bit unnecessary. The work speaks for itself. It’s difficult enough to distill any decent novel down to the script’s 90 minutes as it is. Throwing biography in there would seem absurd. In attempting to be both fiction and biography at the same time, any production of Thompson’s work runs the risk of failing at both. That being said, there was something very haunting about Wilde contrasted with his three central characters that became apparent in the course of the reading. Clearly Thompson’s on to something with his script.
Prior to the beginning of the reading, actors were paired with characters. Kyle Conner (last seen onstage in an entirely different reading of an entirely different original locally-written script in an entirely different basement) was chosen for Wilde. Conner’s deft emotional instincts served that character of Wilde quite well, allowing for emotion not often exhibited in traditional depictions of the writer.
The three central men in Dorian Gray were read by women. Voices Found’s Alexis Furseth read the part of Dorian Gray in Thompson’s adaptation of selected highlights of the novel. The sensitive innocence at the opening of the story pummeled its way through intermittent scenes to the harshness of the character at the end of the story. There isn’t a whole lot of room for delicate character development in selected scenes pulled from an 80,000 word text over the course of 90 minutes, but existing as he does in shadowy echoes of Wilde and two other characters, the adaptation works.
Sarah Zapiain responded most noticeably to Thompson’s description of corrupting influence Lord Henry as the Kevin Kline character from A Fish Called Wanda. She was given the role to read. An actress of intricate gravities, Zapiain was a perfect fit. She’s magnetic. Some of Wilde’s wittiest lines were casually amplified by the woman reading Henry. Who wouldn’t want to be corrupted by Sarah Zapiain?
Maya Danks rounded out the central quartet reading the role of painter Basil Hallward, who serves as the conscience of the piece. Danks earnest emotional warmth in a role helped to shine a light on the strengths of pairing Oscar Wilde’s biographical moments with the fiction.
The four central characters in Thompson’s adaptation had an undeniable appeal in the reading. During the reading, part of this appeal came from a really talented quartet of actors. In the script, part of this appeal also comes from the inherent appeal of seeing echoes of the same personality reflected between four different characters in two different worlds onstage.
Thompson’s work could really harness this appeal by focusing the energy of the script more centrally on those central four characters. If he can do so in a way that harnesses the moody, mercurial rock and roll of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, all the better. (Otherwise...y’know...maybe drop the Bowie connection altogether as it’s not a very strong connection as it is.) Conner’s passionate reading of Wilde’s words taken from courtroom transcripts show that he can work in more of an emotionally aggressive context. Why not go all the way with it? It would be interesting to see the wit of Wilde delivered with a brasher, higher-energy delivery than is allowed in traditional performances of Wilde’s work. Tightening-up the script and amping-up the tempo could turn this 90-minute script into a remarkably taut 60 minutes. This could theoretically allow for more coverage of both fiction and biography in a future draft of Thompson decides to explore it. Of course, judging from audience reaction to the reading, this might not be necessary. Everyone in attendance enjoyed it.
As this was more of a workshop reading of Thompson’s adaptation for local theatre people, there was some rather in-depth conversation regarding the script afterwards. The most interesting element of this post-reading conversation was finding out how much appeal the script held for those in the audience who weren’t as familiar with Wilde. A dive as deep as his into Oscar Wilde from fiction and biographical angles would be excessively dull if not handled well. Clearly the script can hold the interest of theatergoers not already a fan of Wilde’s. That Thompson’s work was able to hold them is quite an accomplishment. (A couple of people in attendance expressed an interest in reading the novel for the first time.) Thompson’s really got something here. It’ll be interesting to see how Thompson’s work develops in the future.
Beautiful Things Or the Rise and Fall of Dorian Gray and the Writer From Mars. rests for now. Next up for Voices Found Repertory is an appearance at Milwaukee Fringe Fest on August 24th. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook events page.
Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel is host to an appealing, little buffet of little arts experiences. Somewhere beyond the large horse sculpture inhabiting the lobby, the tiny gallery and the Poet Phone (a classy little phone featuring recordings of Timothy Kloss, Matt Cook and more) there rest a tiny, little 90-seat black box theatre. The Saint Kate artists in residence company ARCo introduces itself late this summer with a production of America Hurrah—a program of three shorts from playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie. Originally written for small crowds in New York during the Vietnam Era, the program is a look back at a tumultuous era in the nation’s history that echoes universals that continue to beat through the pulse of contemporary cultural consciousness.
The opening short is “Job Interview.” It’s a rhythmic abstraction of human interaction that opens with a deconstructed cascade of job interview dialogues before melting and fusing into a series of smaller narratives the illustrate the absurd difficulties of human connection. As this is also the first short on the inaugural ARCo show, it also serves as an opportunity to meet the ensemble that will be working out of the space. It’s a strong group of young performers led by the show’s director Nancy Kresin. The characters present in the short were a rage from Ian Tully’s polished, professional bank president to Tim Gutknecht’s earthy house painter to Gabriella Ashlin’s somewhat abrasive floor washer. Perhaps the single most disturbing character in the set had Seth Hale pouring himself through the shiny veneer of an impersonal politician being rapidly pursued by the rest of the cast. Susie Duecker is particularly engaging as a woman at a party reaching out in an apparent attempt to try to make sense of something horrific. She and a few others look to engage directly with audience in the front row.
After the first intermission, Duecker returns as a woman working a at a TV station. She and her co-workers (played by JJ Gatesman and Ian Tully) are contrasted against the artificiality of the TV programming they are broadcasting. The contrast blurs between reality and the television which mocks it. The specifics of the TV medium as they have evolved over the course of the past half century make “TV” the most dated of the three shorts, but the questions of the relationship between pop art drama and the reality of human drama on this side of the TV remain captivating in a fascinating piece of drama.
The short that closes the show (“Hotel”) might have been a bit more ambitious a project to tackle on a small budget than the other two. Emily Elliott and Rachel Meldman we’re nevertheless dynamically destructive in masks as a man and a woman destroying a hotel room while the voice of Gabriella Ashlin could be heard delivering a monologue about a hooked rugs and other fine amenities in a hotel on Route 666. Eliot and Meldman are graceful and breathtaking in a ’60s proto-punk dance destruction piece. The problem with the staging was that everything onstage LOOKED like it was made to be destroyed. In a way the might say something about the disposable nature of a landscape strung together with temporary housing for populations in transit, but if Meldman and Elliot aren’t destroying something that appears to have been built to stand the test of time, the destruction of the props doesn’t carry the impact that it could have otherwise had. The energy that Meldman and Elliott were able to bring to the piece was strong enough to overcome props and scenery. There’s kind of power in seeing people in mask and costume making a mess. It’s a strong visceral statement on which to end ARCo’s debut show.
ARCo Ensemble’s production of America Hurrah runs through August 24th at Saint Kate--The Arts Hotel on 139 East Kilbourn. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook Events page.
Given how many full productions of established material make it to the stage in a given year, the opportunity to see an intimate staged reading of something new. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity in my schedule this past weekend to see local playwright
Given how many full productions of established material make it to the stage in a given year, the opportunity to see an intimate staged reading of something new. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity in my schedule this past weekend to see local playwright Matthew Konkel’s In Celebration of the Oblique onstage in the basement of the Brumder. The one night only reading was directed by Grace DeWolff for a group of local theatre people. Billed as a love story between a cannibal and a vegan, the weird existential romantic comedy feels right at home in one of the smallest stages in Milwaukee.
Vegetarian actress Abigail Stein played a woman suffering from an inability to digest anything that didn’t come from a a human body. With the aid of a very delicately-written script, Stein brought a degree of humanity to a woman trying to navigate the difficult morality of her own diet. Stein has a compelling sense of humanity about her that makes the role feel strikingly compassionate.
Kyle Conner has developed considerably as an actor over the recent past. Here he’s playing a man who is passionately vegan. Conner plays the socially crippling passion of a vegetarian activist with clever nuance. Conner’s sense of humor allows comedy to glide out onto the stage in a range that includes everything from a subtle whisper to far more aggressive volumes. There was a particularly clever bit of subtle comedy as he shared the stage for a moment alone with Chris Goode.
Chris Goode played a man lost in the torpor of his own apathy. A janitor at a medical college, he’s a friend of the young cannibal woman who provides her with the only food that she can eat. Goode added a level of curiosity to the apathy that makes the character truly interesting. When paired onstage in relative silence, the two conjured laughter with their presence alone. A lot of the success of that one moment of silence had to do with how well-defined all of the characters in Konkel’s script.
Casey Van Dam had an opportunity to play the single most interesting character in the entire script--a secular humanist street preacher who addresses the audience directly on a number of different occasions. Van Dam has a very engaging charm that amplified the character’s theatrically German accent. Van Dam played the role somewhere in between Hitler, Einstein (and...I don’t know...Dr. Ruth?) as a very aggressively curious mystery inhabiting the edges of the script until he rises to prominence midway through the play.
Zach Sharrock rounded out the cast as a classic Sam Spade-style gumshoe detective trying to solve the murder of the preacher. His role seems minor until things get REALLY weird at the end of the play.
It’s a very clever script with a variety of characters along the edges of humanity. The strange chemistry of these characters works quite well...but the real fun of seeing a script like this in its infancy lies in all the imperfection. There’s a very deep philosophical energy at the heart of the script which devolves all too often into Philosophy 101-style conversations. They sound perfectly natural in the context of the play, but directly talking about themes covered in the script feels incredibly tedious on all those occasions it pops up. Except for Van Dam’s street preacher. (Everything sounds A LOT more important when spoken with an engaged German accent.)
On the whole, it’s a really great script. There are contemporary playwrights who have been acclaimed who haven’t written anywhere near this good....even WITH the Philosophy 101 moments. Milwaukee needs to celebrate its local playwrights. Stuff like Oblique needs to get staged much more often if Milwaukee is to have an active voice in the national theater. There’s real talent here. This staged reading was further proof of this.
When it’s not hosting special, little events like the reading of In Celebration of the Oblique, the Brumder Mansion’s intimate stage is host to the Milwaukee Entertainment Group. For more information.
The Sunset Playhouse takes a trip back in time with its latest: Hairspray. The 2002 musical based on the 1988 John Waters film is set in 1962. The fun and classy, little allegorical look at the Civil Rights Movement plays across the stage of the Furlan Auditorium in a quick, little whisk of an evening’s performance. The endearing musical comedy is brought to Elm Grove with a pleasantly textured sense of passion and imperfection which suits the themes of the story quite well. Director L. Tommy Lueck brings the story to the stage with a fun, breezy sense of humor that is marred only a bit by the complexity of difficult sound design on a two-tiered set that poses all kinds of acoustic challenges. Beyond the occasional dropout in the sound, there’s a really enjoyable evening to be had in Elm Grove.
Emma Borkowski is deeply charming as Tracy Turnblad...a Baltimore girl who dreams of being on the local TV dance program The Corny Collins Show. Noah Maguire has an imposing sense of authority in the role of Tracy’s mother Edna, who discourages her from her dreams in order to shelter her from disappointment.
In the process of pursuing her dreams, Tracy comes into contact with black students who introduce her to a culture that she has been sheltered from. Jahbarri Bradshaw has a strong, warm presence onstage as Seaweed J. Stubbs--a friend Tracy meets in detention. Tracy’s best friend Penny (an endearingly anxious Amber Weissert) promptly falls for Seaweed. An invitation to visit Seaweed and his family also introduces formidably wise matriarch Motormouth Maybelle (Sharon Tyler) who encourages the integration. Tyler’s ability to assume authority onstage matches Maguire’s as the two matriarchs help march the heroes into conflict with a deeply segregated Baltimore in 1961.
In the current political climate, it is immensely reaffirming to see a tale of integration set in 1961. The Elm Grove production adds something of a weird social anthropological angle for those of us who are younger than so many Sunset Playhouse subscribers. The script is filled with comic references to the late ’50s/ early ’60s. No one in the cast is likely old enough to have remembered the era, but in a house full of baby boomers in the audience, it is aesthetically satisfying to hear so many pop cultural jokes from the era land so well. There’s also a sense of disappointment in the era that’s palpable in the audience.
There’s that distinct subtly groaning sense of disgust for the casual racism prominent in 1961 that is delicately brought to the stage in the musical. In an era where racism seems to be creeping back around the edges of contemporary culture, it’s kind of a relief to be reminded of how far society has come from the safe and cozy confines of an enjoyable musical. With music inspired by the era with an engaging story of love and acceptance, Hairspray finds a very appealing natural habitat onstage in Elm Grove.
The Sunset Playhouse’s production of Hairspray continues through August 11 at the Furlan Auditorium on 700 Wall Street in Elm Grove. For ticket reservations and more, visit the Sunset Playhouse online.
A Light Tempest in July
Boozy Bard returns to an old classic this month for another run at Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Raw). Once again, roles are chosen at random before the beginning of each show for a weirdly unique Results May Vary brush with one of the English language’s most celebrated authors. Mandi Veeder takes directorial duties for this show. The show's host Sarah Wallisch lent a refreshingly informal energy to the evening. The atmosphere of The Tempest with its strange chaos and interactions lends itself quite nicely to a freewheeling improv comic energy that Boozy Bard brings to the stage.
Opening night of the show a respectably large crowd filtered in to the Best Place Tavern in the shadow of the Bucks’ new place for a comfortably warm evening of comedy. The “casting director” hat felt as random as ever before the show, granting roles in a pattern that lent inadvertent comic strength to some scenes while leaving others a bit stylistically sparse. Sometimes the energy catches...sometimes it doesn’t. Actors take the stage with scripts...the iconic glaring red of the covers contrasts against the white of the pages in a darkened room that’s blasted with light. Actors launch themselves into characters they didn’t know they’d be playing until they arrived at the venue. There’s some great energy here even when things slow down.
A delightful energy all her own onstage AND off as both audience and performer at various points in the show, Sarah Seefeldt drew the honor of playing Miranda—the only woman on an isle ruled over by an old man with various magics. Seefeldt warmed-up to the strangeness of the role over the course of the evening, finding firm comic grounding for the character once Miranda’s love interest set-in.
Jim Donaldson wore an iridescent veil as Ariel. Beer perpetually in hand, Donaldson’s spirit carried himself across the floorboards of the Best Place in a magical slouch, shrugging chaos into the story while sipping beer. As always, Donaldson is perfectly in tune with the spirit of the show.
Also of note were scenes featuring Stephen M. Wolterstorff and Michelle White playing Stephano and Trinculo...a couple of the king’s servants who quickly find themselves in the company of a rather large Caliban in an awkwardly simply bit of green costuming. Wolterstorff and White had clever comic instincts that animated an already comic set of moments in the play. The great strengths of a script like The Tempest is that so much of it is already strange and comic. Add a little random casting and a few glasses of beer into the mix and it’s the perfect show for an informal evening at a bar with echoes of great writing bent around a weird mood.
Boozy Bard’s production of The Tempest runs through July 10 at the Best Place Tavern on 901 W. Juneau Ave. The run closes-out with a one-night-only performance July 12 at Hawthorne Coffee Rosters on 4177 S Howell Ave. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page.
Theatre is universal. If it’s done well, there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be accessible on some level to everybody. Responsible adults tend to overthink this. We tend to think that there are some types of shows that might simply not appeal to very, very young kids. Given them the right attention, though, and even a little girl entering kindergarten next fall would have no trouble becoming remarkably engrossed in something as culturally obtuse as one of Shakespeare’s histories.
Door Shakespeare does a remarkably good job of drawing-in the tiniest theatergoers with a Saturday pre-show program called Shake It Up Saturdays. The intimate, little outdoor theatre in Bailey’s Harbor, has early 5:00 p.m. Saturday evening performances of Henry V throughout the summer. An early 5pm show is great for families, but a history like Henry V could seem like a really bad idea for really, really young kids. Door Shakespeare Managing Director Amy Ensign hosted a fun, little Shake It Up this past Saturday that engaged my two daughters before an afternoon with Shakespeare.
Ensign does an admirable job of bringing the complexities of an ancient play to life for kids prior to the show. The kids played with slips of paper assembling an ordered synopsis of and addressed various aspects of the play. (My daughters were particularly amused at the idea of France sending a king of England a chest full of tennis balls to mock him.)
The specifics of the tiny outdoor production were also of interest in the children's pre-show. It is explained to the kids that there are two opposing teams in the play: one in red and one in blue. Actors play counterparts on both teams based on cleverly simple Kim Instenes costuming. The basics of this are brought to the kids via props and costuming. They take turns choosing items, creating characters and improvising interactions between them.
The lessons from the free pre-show workshop are brought into the theatre. Henry V director/chorus presenter Matt Daniels is there onstage warming-up. The rest of the cast gradually filters-in to join him in warm-ups and pre-show socializing. Daniels has chosen to allow aspects of the backstage atmosphere to be visible onstage in the narration-heavy spirit of Shakespeare’s script. This semi-visible backstage is a great introduction for the younger theatergoers. My oldest daughter was given a checklist of classic lines from the play to listen for. The connection between script and spoken word seemed particularly interesting to her.
My oldest daughter is an easy match for this sort of show. It would be understandable that an eight-year-old would be able to dive into the reality of the drama as she is given something like a checklist to interact with. A little girl not quite in kindergarten could have been a bit more of a distance from the show, but Ensign did a great job of selling it to her. It was really fascinating to see my pre-kindergartner get into it. Little Isobel wore a flower crown from the concession stand with her tiny plush ocelot toy on one knee and her tiny plush bunny toy on the other. She was slack-jawed with wide, little blue eyes as she watched a Frenchman barter for his life with the British ensign named Pistol. Little Isobel might not have understood the specifics of what was going on, but she WAS totally engaged in so much of what was going on onstage. She may not have been totally engaged for the entire show, but an intimate outdoor performance of one of Shakespeare’s histories carried her attention MUCH more than one might have expected from a little girl entering kindergarten this fall.
It's a show meant for adults that has been made accessible for the whole family. Credit a talented Amy Ensign for drawing out some of that interest with an ambitious, little class. for ambitious, little theatergoers prior to the show every Saturday.
Door Shakespeare’s production of Henry V runs in rotation with The Merry Wives of Windsor through August 24th in Björklunden Lodge in Bailey’s Harbor in Door County, WI. Shake It Up Saturdays are free to attendees of the show every Saturday by reservation only. Shake It Up starts at 3:15. The show starts at 5 pm. For more information, visit Door Shakespeare online. My full review of both Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor appear in upcoming issues of The Shepherd-Express.