The newly reorganized Mad Rogues theater company opens its first Bard & Bourbon show this month as it presents Merchant of Venice (Drunk) in the Underground Collaborative. The show continues Bard & Bourbon’s tradition of intimate Shakespeare performed in a cozy stage bereft of all distractions of production save actors, audience and lighting. Maya Danks directs a talented cast through a staging of Shakespeare’s classic that presents the entire ensemble onstage in folding chairs behind actors performing in the foreground. The warm communal atmosphere of a traditional Bard & Bourbon show continues in a deeply dramatic staging which mixes heavy drama with light, refreshing romantic comedy.
The dramatic end of the show is heavily anchored by a powerful Isaiah A. Ramirez as the revenant moneylender Shylock who demands a pound of flesh in return for a debt unpaid. Ramirez brigs an impassioned, high-gravity drama to the stage, wielding both even-tempered voice and silence like a dramatic scalpel. Thomas Sebald solemnly plays the target of Shylock’s vengeance, the Merchant Antonio. No modern production of the drama would feel right without some acknowledgement of the bigotry of the era. Mad Rogues delicately render the tragic drama of antisemitism around the edges of the production. Director Maya Danks met with the Education Director of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in preparation for the production. This is a very thoughtful staging of the plight of Shylock and those suffering widespread discrimination.
The comic end of the production is juggled between a number of different actors tumbling through the wild uncertainty of tenuous romantic love. Towering, charismatic Cole Conrad plays to the straight-ahead male romantic hero dynamic as Bassanio—-a man madly in love with a lady named Portia. Rebekah Farr has a sharp wit about her as Portia—a young person of deft wisdom. The traditional romantic dynamic between Farr and Conrad firmly asserts itself, but it’s Farr’s delightfully organic friendship with Rachel Verhoef as her waiting maid Nerissa that is easily the most endearing aspect of the production. The active friendship radiating through the lines between Farr and Verhoef is great fun to watch as unwanted suitors arrive in advance of the greatly favored Basanio.
Verhoef’s warmth with Farr is mirrored in the fascinating development of her love for Antonio’s friend Gratiano. J.J. Gatesman is vivaciously playful as Gratiano, who is swiftly drawn into love with Nerissa in the shadow of the actions and interactions between Bassanio and Portia. Gatesman and Verhoef don’t have a whole lot of space to move around in as various twists and turns in a young romance develop and meet their resolution. The two actors pack an impressively textured mini-romance in and around the edges of the action that feels every bit as sophisticated as the one going on in the foreground between Bassanio and Portia. Danks is wise to give them the space to do so. Maya Danks has done an admirable job of allowing the full ensemble a freedom of movement and expression in larger crowd scenes. Group scenes might have a tendency to overpower the action with so many people sharing such a small stage, but Danks swiftly juggles things without having all of the dramatic energy collide into a messy cacophony. Danks is great onstage as an actor, but this production shows that she has great vision in direction as well.
Mad Rogues’ Merchant of Venice (Drunk) runs through September 1st at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Mad Rogues online.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre sharply fuses bedroom farce with crime suspense in its season opener Paul Slade Smith’s Unnecessary Farce. Ryan Schabach directs a briskly-paced comedy set in a pair of adjoining hotel rooms in Sheboygan. A couple of police officers are engaged in a stakeout involving a mayor and conspicuous accounting at city hall. As this is a farce, things inevitably get incredibly complicated when the Scottish Mafia gets involved and a secret romance is revealed. The standard bedroom farce is beautifully amplified by crime mystery plot elements. It’s fun light comedy fusion to kick off the season for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
It’s a beautiful scenic design by Martin McClendon. A wall bisects the stage. The room on the left of that wall is the outpost of officers Sheridan and Dwyer. Ben Yela is sternly fragile as the undercover Officer Sheridan. Yela delicately plays the uneasy authority of a man in WAY over his head on an important stakeout. Rachel Zientek is deeply appealing as Officer Dwyer. She’s playing a police officer who has worn her uniform to an undercover stakeout so...y’know...her heart is in the right place, but she’s not exactly the most functional member of the Sheboygan police force.
The motel room on the right is identical to its counterpart on the other side of the wall in every detail down to the placements of the identical art prints on the walls. The room plays host to a meeting between the mayor and his new accountant who is secretly working with the police on the sting operation. Amber Smith deftly balances between confidence and vulnerability in a role which also finds her as a very nuanced and engaging romantic lead. She and Zienek have very impressively sophisticated grasp of the physical end of the comedy. There’s a subtlety to nonverbal comedy that both Smith and Zientek handle brilliantly. They both have a very clever awareness of how their respective sections of the chaos onstage fits into everything else that’s going on.
Local theatre veterans Jonathan Gillard Daly and Jenny Wanasek are cleverly comic as the mayor and his wife—stereotypical small town Wisconsinites on the surface with much more going on in beneath the surface for both of them. Their ability to play simplicity on the surface with a deep sophistication lurking underneath is an ideal job for a pair of seasoned actors.
Tim Higgins plays Agent Frank--the Mayor’s bodyguard who...in spite of his apparent competency is ALSO in way over his head. Higgins’ mastery of verbal comedy allows comedy to hit that really has no business working on its own. This guy has been with ComedySportz for a quarter century. He knows how to deliver comedy and fuse it perfectly into a narrative. His Sconnie accent is probably the best. He’s amplifying it and exaggerating it a little bit, but it’s perfect. Having grown-up in northeastern Wisconsin, it’s really difficult for me to hear most actors try to do a working-class Wisconsin accent. It’s really, really hard for most actors to nail in just the right way. Higgins has it down perfectly, which lends a great deal of atmospheric authenticity to the rest of the production.
And Rick Pendzich plays a weird Scottish hitman. It’s weird. Just weird. But good.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Unnecessary Farce runs through August 25 at the Broadway Theatre Center on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800 or visit Milwaukee Chamber Theatre online.
A robust audience greeted opening night of Patrick Schmitz’s The Comedy of Romeo & Juliet: Kinda Sorta. The latest in a long line of productions of Shakespeare parody briskly rolls through the stage of the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall in a three-hour stretch lightly entertaining enough to feel like a half hour sitcom. Though there may be a few slightly dated pop cultural references lingering about various corners of the script, the light comic treatment of Shakespeare’s classic romance is still hugely enjoyable several years after its original staging.
Writer/Director Patrick Schmitz juggles a clever array of humor surrounding the central comedy of a couple of kids who have fallen deeply in love having only just met for the first time. The fourth wall isn’t broken so much as casually disregarded in a highly self-referential script. The play’s awareness of itself helps cut the tragedy of a couple of young lovers who kill themselves. It’s a very sharp strategy that works once more in the show’s latest staging.
As Romeo, Josh Decker is at his best when he is over-the-top passionate whether tragically pining after fair Rosaline or lamenting a whole host of problems in his romance with Juliet.
Schmitz hands quite a challenge to the actress playing Juliet. His treatment of the female lead can come across a bit emotionally flat, bratty and petty in places. (It’s all part of the comedy.) And while it works for the comedy, it keeps her at an emotional distance from everything. Kara Minelli does am admirable job in keeping the character engaging throughout the twists and turns of the story. Minelli’s brash confidence in the role keeps Juliet from becoming a vapidly tedious title character.
There is great talent around the edges of the ensemble. Laura Holterman has a cunning mastery of Schmitz’s humor in the role of Juliet’s mother Lady Capulet. Holterman has a sharply droll sense of authority about her as matriarch that serves the comedy well.
Beth Lewinski is deftly comic in almost anything. (She’s just...really good. Trust me.) Here she’s playing Juliet’s Nurse with a heroic level of patience that becomes a brilliant kind of comedy in its own right.
Hayley San Fillippo has brilliantly tempered comic instincts as Benvolio. Part of the joke of the role in Schmitz’s script is that everyone recognizes her as a woman. Benvolio has to constantly remind everyone she’s actually a man being played by a woman. It’s kind of a dated joke given the number of women that have been playing male roles in local Shakespeare lately, but San Fillippo has a very charmingly earnest approach to the role that makes it work beautifully. Intended or not, San Fillippo has that cleverly endearing ”woman-putting-up-with-the-guys-in-order-to-be-one-of-the-guys” dynamic going on that really illuminates the role.
As typically occurs in any large ensemble show like this, there are so many talented actors in and around the edges of the production who feel underused. Erik Koconis is comically creepy as Count Paris: a grown man who wants to marry the 13 year-old Juliet. Michelle White makes a strong impression as an appealingly salty Apothecary/homeless woman. Chris Goode is childishly aggressive as hot-tempered Tybalt. Nic Onorato draws on an entirely different kind of comic childishness as would-be aggressor Sampson. Rollie Cafaro draws on substantial sketch/improv experience to conjure a very wise Friar Lawrence. For light comedy, Schmitz’s script has a lot going on in every angle of the ensemble. Directing his own script, Schmitz knows exactly what he needs out of his cast to make even the weirdest bits of humor work.
Schmitz 'n Giggles’ The Comedy of Romeo and Juliet: Kinda Sorta runs for one weekend only through this Sunday, August 10th. (Tonight and tomorrow night. Both shows start at 7:30 pm) For more information, visit the show’s Facebook Events Page.
For ticket reservations...ugh...you’ll have to deal with Ticketmonster. For the love of all that is good, just go early and stand in line to buy tickets in person. It’s a nice night out. There’s a river nearby and everything. Seriously: just go early and wait in line at the Box Office and save yourself the surcharge.