Six by Six Poe: Phantasies at Sunset
The work of Edgar Allan Poe has a shadowy universality. The intellectual heart of ubiquitous human darkness is vividly rendered through his prose. The Sunset Playhouse brings some of that darkness to the stage this weekend as it presents Phantasies Such As These—a dramatic studio theatre reading adapted for the stage by Michael Pocaro.
The stage has a few chairs and a few candles. There are cavities in the brick walls and pictures in the gilded frames. A cast of six read the prose from tan scripts on the intimate studio theatre space next door to Sunset’s main stage. Six stories resonate through six actors.
The first is Hop Frog. A slyly angular Brandon Haut plays the title character—a jester who takes his revenge on royalty in a dramatic combustion. The story has many of the cast playing the doomed royalty in fixed roles, but much of the staging is a mix as each actor tales a turn speaking as Poe’s protagonist in The Tell Tale Heart and The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar. Each actor carries a different strength into the darkness. Michael Chobanoff is a powerfully charismatic presence onstage. Chobanoff walks a line between politician and stage magician in his delivery of the prose. Calmly restless Jim Donaldson plays best to a tortured neurotic quality echoing through Poe’s work. Donaldson wields the weaknesses of Poe’s protagonists like a weapon at times. With a stage presence that suggests wisdom, Hal Erickson is the afflicted decay of age from within and without both psychologically and physiologically. Anna Murray has a crisp precision about her emotion in the narration that makes the drama of her manifestation feel like a mystery hidden in plain sight. Natasha Mortazavi is the voice of levelheaded narrative detachment tempered by clarity of morality. There’s a casual wonder in her narration that adds a sort of grounded framework to the ensemble.
Nearly every story passes from one character to the next from paragraph to paragraph. We often end up seeing the same protagonists speaking in first person through all six on stage. Far from being disorienting or detracting from the overall experience of the show, the multi-actor narration actually serves to echo the universality of Poe’s psychological explorations. One imagines the same motives and the same actions and the same consequences playing out in murder, cruelty and suffering in many different people over and over again echoing back to the beginning of time. We’re all the same and so we’re all subject to the same haunted pettiness that animates so many first-person narratives penned by Poe.
Three stories open. There is an intermission. Three more stories close. The procession begins with Hop Frog and ends with The Raven. Revenge is followed by a couple tales of murder. Then a story of an obsessed artist, a cat and that famous raven. It’s a nice progression that ends with the classic for which Poe is best-known.
It's a one-weekend show for Halloween weekend. There are two performances left of Phantasies Such As These: Oct. 28 at 8pm and Oct. 29 at 2pm. Tickets are $15. For ticket reservations and more, visit the Sunset Playhouse online.
What Didn't Make It In: Everything Before the Intermission with Angry Young Men
This year The Night of the Living Dead Puppet-Show celebrates its 10th anniversary October performance with a one-weekend run in a classy studio theatre space just outside of downtown. Bill Olsen and company fill an evening’s performance with a show that features the standard scene-for-scene spoof of George Romero’s classic horror film. The show opens with a series of variety acts by Angry Young Men Ltd. It’s largely hosted by Josh Perkins in the role of the group’s most venerable puppet who welcomes everyone to the show and establishes a crazy energy that comes to inhabit the intimacy of the Next Act Theatre space.
Regular puppets include the delightfully uneven poetry of Lumpy the Golem Boy and fuzzy, little scientist/inventor Blondie. There are comedy sketches, jokes and a few musical moments. It’s a pretty diverse mix of moods for head-and-torso felt. It’s pretty amazing just how diverse the mood can get with just plastic, felt and puppeteers wearing black. There’s a lot of comedy, but there’s some genuine emotional warmth and pathos as well.
Bill Olsen leads much of the show with Lumpy. Olsen’s got really great comic instincts which deliver a good portion of Lumpy’s personality to the stage. The soft, little blue one does the rest of the work all on his own with poise and poetry.
The comedy involved sometimes treads its way over to the political end. There’s a cute moment where Blondie delivers a public service announcement about the impending zombie apocalypse which features one of the most bad-assed fuzzy puppets I’ve ever seen: a stern-looking brown rabbity-thing carrying a shotgun. (It’s introduced to the audience as Smartass.) Funny stuff.
Overall there’s a fundamentally surreal feeling about the atmosphere. A group of adults have come together in an audience to un-ironically enjoy a puppet show. This isn’t camp. It isn’t kitsch. The puppets are brought to the stage for earnest, heartfelt entertainment and moments that even occasionally tug at the heartstrings. It’s strange to sit back for a moment and realize that these are puppets...those stage creatures so often associated with children’s fare. And no--the budget isn’t great and and yes--maybe the puppets feel a little crude and haphazard in places, but aren’t we ALL, in a sense, crude and haphazard? Identifying with the characters onstage may be the most important part of a theatrical experience and Angry Young Men Ltd. doe a really good job with that.
Of course, the group goes pretty far with the genre alone. Not many people are crazy enough to do a full, feature-length puppet show largely for adults that doesn’t have some other gimmick to it. (Like say...maybe it’s a touring Broadway puppet musical with pop cultural references to Sesame Street for instance. Or maybe the puppets are mostly seen in silhouette heckling bad movies.) Angry Young Men’s variety act is essentially a live, contemporary version of The Muppet Show without a huge budget and no safety net. There’s a real fearlessness in that which is best summed-up in the image of fuzzy brown fur and a stern gaze bravely holding a shotgun in a PSA spoof. This is the face of contemporary adult puppetry in Milwaukee. It’s not perfect. Neither are you. It can be fun. As an audience it’s a good time to be fun right along with it.
Angry Young Men’s Night of the Living Dead Puppet Show continues through Oct. 28 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S Water St. For ticket reservations, visit Next Act online. For more information about the group, visit Angry Young Men’s Facebook page.
12 Angry Men on a Small Stage
Twelve guys sit around in a room discussing the fate of another. It’s such a simple story, but it’s been on of the most hugely influential dramas of the mid-20th century. I find it interesting that 12 Angry Men started out as a teleplay in 1954. (It was part of an anthology series on CBS called Studio One.) The next year it was adapted for the stage. A couple of years after that it was adapted into the 1957 film it’s best known as. 12 people in a single room would have been cheap and easy to stage for a small TV production in the early 1950s.
The drama which radiated out of an old black and white Zenith or RCA would have given deeper matters of life and death some strange ghostly weight in an living rooms all over the country. There’s a certain weight about that movie that still works in a living room or..even on an iPhone screen, but the classic 1950s jury drama 12 Angry Men has a tightness and concision about it that works the best on the small stage. Cream City Theater takes a trip to the ’50s with a staging of the drama in a nice, little out-of-the-way space in a semi-residential stretch of West Allis.
It’s a studio theatre space so small you can almost hear every individual clap. There’s a long table with everyone sitting facing the audience. Sit down in the front row and soon the actors are all sitting there as well. The fact that it’s all guys (12 of ‘em) sitting at a very long table facing the audience makes the framing of the drama feel A LOT like da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The twelve of them are there to decide the fate of someone accused of killing his own father.
Directed by Katherine Beeson, the cast sinks into the jury as they discuss particulars of a murder. A calmly towering Nicholas Callan Haubner plays the protagonist: an architect who is the sole juror not certain of the defendant’s guilt at the beginning of the play. Haubner delivers the protagonist’s soft-spoken confidence with steady, mild-mannered confidence. It’s an interesting execution. As I recall there was real passion and emotion...even an occasional twinkle of wisdom in the eye of Henry Fonda in the original film adaptation. Haubner isn’t quite so flashy, but he’s far from soulless in the role. Quite the opposite in fact. He seems to contrast against that with a cool inner peace that pairs well against the more aggressive natures of some of the other characters.
Doug Smedbron puts in a notably compassionate performance as Juror #9--the wise, old man who is the first to seriously consider the protagonist’s perspective. There are a couple of moments in Smedbron’s oration here that feel nearly moving. Very deep stuff about the loneliness of old age and such. Smedbron delivers it to the stage quite well in places.
There are a couple of notable performances by some of the last jurors to reach the consensus. Gene Schuldt has a powerful physical presence onstage as the pushy, aggressive Juror #10. Mack Heath puts in a similarly aggressive performance as the last juror to reach consensus.
While moments are attained by Haubner, Smedbron, Schuldt and nearly everyone else in the cast, the overall rhythm of a piece like this is pretty illusive. Twelve Angry Men is an extended debate between twelve guys. This is not an easy thing to stage while consistently hitting all the high points, maintaining momentum AND allowing one moment to flow seamlessly from the next. Nowhere is this disjointed energy more prominent than in the break for intermission. One of the most physically aggressive outbursts of combusts onstage and the lights fall. We come back from intermission and the actors all have to pick up right where they left off. It’s awkward. Granted, the original TV version of the play would have had the occasional break for Westinghouse commercials, but a sudden break at that specific moment knocks some of the energy out of the build-up. The energy can feel a bit disjointed in places, but this sort of 12-person-in-one-room drama is attempted so rarely that it’s fascinating to watch even when everything isn’t connecting perfectly onstage.
Cream City Theater’s production of Twelve Angry Men runs through Oct. 29 at Inspiration Studios on 1500 S. 73rd St. in West Allis. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cream City Theater online.
The '70s...Survive Onstage In Elm Grove
The stage adaptation of Sister Act makes it to Elm Grove this month in a production that closes at the beginning of November. It's a soulful show that mixes a church-based Catholic milieu with a '70s disco style. Is precisely the kind of distinctive mix of different moods that makes for good theater. There is a very distinctive a world being presented on stage that my not actually a late 1970s that actually happened but feels like it should be anyway. Everything seems so clean. Even sleazy bar feels quaint and cozy and a charming. One of the characters is taken into custody by the police and even apparent prostitutes seem stylishly classy.
More Local Roles For African-American Actors, Please
Ashley Levells does an amazing job as aspiring '70s pop diva Deloris Van Cartier. In places it feels like she's carrying the entire show, but this is me being disingenuous. In reality the script gives her more central stage time than any other actor on the ensemble, so naturally she's going to dominate the stage. A powerful voice and somewhat blindingly dazzling charisma are only as good as the stage allows them to be. A good portion of what Levells is doing here is living up to kind of a dream role in musical theatre. One of the reasons it feels like such a novelty is the fact that she's an African-American talent. It's not often that there are roles this prominent for black actors. So...more roles for African-Americans. (please?)
The Casually Deft Grace of Greg Malcolm
He plays the tiniest member of the criminal entourage that is pursuing the shows heroine. The man has moves. His bio says that he recently had a ten year hiatus from the stage. I don't recall ever seeing him on stage. There's a slickly soulful precision about his movements and motions on stage. The damn thing is one thing. The physical comedy is another. But to build on each other really well and his performance. What's really cool about this is that he seem to know exactly how much he can get away with on stage without upstaging all the rest of the action. It's almost as fun to watch what he's not doing as it is to watch what he's actually doing.
Oh So Many, Many Habits
Costume designer Joanne Cunningham didn’t have much to work with for some of the costuming here. There are habits onstage. Lots of them. I mean...wow...I don’t recall ever seeing this many habits on one stage at one time. Its...weird...but at least the play allows for a little bit of flash with glitzy accents for the big musical numbers. But still..wow...that’s a whole lot of habit onstage. You kinda know you’re going into that if you’re seeing a staging of Sister Act, but you’re not really ready for the full effect until you’re actually there seeing them all onstage.
The Sunset Playhouse's production of Sister Act runs through Nov. 5 at the Furlan Auditorium on 800 Elm Grove Road. For more information, call 262-782-4430 or visit the Sunset Playhouse online. A complete review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.
Large blocks of color contrast against fog and shadow. There's excellent use of silhouettes. Occasionally very striking dramatic moments are held which contrast quite well against some really satisfying comedy. It’s a comic horror about an artificial haunted house taking place in an actual haunted house, but that’s an awful way to describe it. This is Aaron Kopec’s return to a Halloween show for October at the Alchemist Theatre.
David Sapiro and Nate Press play a playwright and a techie staging haunted theatrics in a genuinely haunted house. It's no surprise that Pepper’s Ghost turns out to be a lot of fun. Aaron Kopec has been doing original horror shows in October for years now. He's had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. So the quality and the fun aren't a surprise. What is a surprise is exactly where the fun lies.
The Shell Game Hero Thing
You don't really know who the hero will be until the end of the story. It's a horror movie device that actually works quite well here. In big Hollywood films it quite often comes off as kind of a cheap punchline in the end. In Pepper’s Ghost, Kopec uses the device in kind of a clever way. Relatively early on he sets up heroic qualities in nearly every character in the ensemble. We know that there is something sinister going on here. The big hero could be anyone. (Even the Nathan Danzer character I didn’t get to mention at all in my print review of the show.) Danzer makes for a delightful tortured hero bound to a haunted house. Real traditional charisma from a real traditional horror hero. The big hero in the end cold be him or it could be someone else. We don't know what exactly what it is or exactly who is going to rectify it.
The Goldthwait Factor
Nate Press does a really good Bobcat Goldthwait impression. He’s a talented actor. I would imagine, though, the Goldthwait’s not a skill he gets to use all that often. Here that impression is just one more detail in a script populated by fun, little gimmicky details including a really satisfying reference to the 2003 film Lost in Translation. Like that reference, the Goldthwait is just one more throwaway joke. The beauty of writing an original script with a specific cast in mind is that it allows the production to be responsive to the cast. Makes for a fun show. The Goldthwait’s it precisely the sort of thing that Kopec has been doing so well for so many years.
The Dual Kopec Theory
The story touches on themes of reality versus artifice on stage in a nightmare fantasy that may actually be a reality. Kopec never really fully flashes these out. There IS some real depth to some of what's being explored in the deeper intellectual and of the dialogue. Rather than dwell on that, Kopec keeps it light for the most part. There's actually a pretty even mix of drama and comedy combined with a few genuine scares.
There are parallels between the playwright in the story and the playwright played by Sapiro. Kopec makes numerous jokes at his own expense. There are references the previous Halloween shows. Interestingly enough, and there seems to be kind of a binary echo of two different sides of Kopec's personality. Sapiro's playwright seems to play to Kopec’s deeper, more critical intellectual side. The techie played by Nate Press seems to play to Kopec's lighter more physical and impetuous side. One imagines the script being written with this in mind. As both a techie and a playwright one imagines Kopec splitting himself apart and imagining how the two separate sides of him would interact with this premise that he’s established for the play.
Of course...if one takes this line of though too far, one begin to wonder whether or not ALL of the characters are just different aspects of Kopec and . . . it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is really just a fun trip to the theatre on an October evening.
The Alchemist Theatre’s Pepper’s Ghost runs through Oct. 28 at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 S Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Alchemist online. A comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.
The basement of the Brumder Mansion plays host to love and witchcraft this month as Milwaukee Entertainment Group presents BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE. Best known for the 1958 film adaptation starring Kim Novak, Jimmy Stewart and Jack Lemmon, it’s a cozy romantic drama nestled into the basement of the Brumder this month starring Libby Amato, Randal Anderson and Michael Keiley . Co-director Amanda J. Hull took the time to answer a few questions for today’s Small Stage.
The Brumder Mansion is a remarkably intimate space. Perfect for a romantic comedy with a bit of magic. Was there any specific inspiration behind choosing BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE for this particular October?
These are difficult times for humanity, every time we allow ourselves to get settled into some semblance of normalcy we seem to be thrown a terrible curve, and life has been getting very heavy to hold. Instead of something scary or gory, we wanted to bring back some light, love and humor to everyone’s Halloween season. That said, it is a still a Halloween show about witches, magic spells, mischief, revenge and love and it is chalk full of all kinds of magic! The actors themselves create most of the magic on stage with their incredible acting and chemistry, but they also have the help of many ambient and very effective sound effects, period and theme appropriate music and magically moody lighting.
The cozy stage in the basement of the Brumder has a very well-defined boundaries. Productions occasionally include space offstage. How are you using the space this time around?
We have a lot of fun utilizing our existing space and imaginatively recreating where each area leads in every production. The stage area has moved around frequently to include the house, the bar area, the love seat nook and even the upstairs lobby and main staircase. This time we are contained in the subterranean theatre, using the stage itself as the boundary of the 1950’s NYC Apartment. We have added a dressing on the back wall to imply the existence of a shaded window facing a busy New York street in the Murray Hill district. Tom creatively added a light down stage left to let in moonlight through a high window for dreamy transition lighting. The existing stage door acts as the main entrance to the home, and our hallway/wall façade leads to Gillian’s bedroom area. We have turned the bathroom into the kitchen/back entrance where the cat Pyewacket is “put out” and his handler Brittany Curran cares for Gus, our feline actor.
One of the problems I find myself having with the story is the fact that the witch is loses her power once she falls in love. Prior to that, there's a lot of sinister manipulation that centers around a woman's obsession with a man. Gillian's a strong character, but she's weak for this one man. Not very liberated. It feels very dated. You can't change the script, but there are ways to adjust how things play out dramatically. Has there been an attempt to gain more of an overall equal footing between Shep and Gillian in your production?
A typical dilemma in many period pieces is that in order to find happiness a woman has to make a sacrifice, blech. The real message should be that love takes compromise from each person. We are flawed, but capable of change when moved by another. Shep is a seemingly boring man, who forewent love in his younger years in pursuit of a career, and in midlife was drawn in by a younger, typically appealing, manipulative woman, and he is so ready for marriage that he overlooks her flaws. Gillian genuinely likes him and knows that woman’s flaws and not totally unselfishly, tries to save Shep from her. We are lead to believe by the writing that he would not have been happy with her even if magic hadn’t intervened. Gill is an independent, modern woman/witch who has always felt that something was missing and connects to a glimmer of something in Shep. She hasn’t had human emotions since childhood and her life has been a non-stop, whirlwind search for anything that will fulfill her. She longs for a little of the mundane, some stability and comfort, and tries to get it by enchanting Shep to love her. Though she may have been wrong to interfere in someone’s fate, underneath it all there are good reasons for both to do what they do. The fact that everyone is capable of love and that we find it in unlikely ways is the real message here, and I’m hoping that is clear enough that the loss of her magic isn’t the focus. They each gain something greater in finding each other. The road there is very bumpy but you’ll have to see the show to find out how and why!
It looks like a great cast for the show. I think this may be the second or third time that Randall T. Anderson has played a role for the stage made popular by Jimmy Stewart on the screen. Libby Amato has a great vulnerability onstage that will make for an interesting character arc. What has it been like doing character work with the actors for the show?
Working with this cast has been an absolute joy. They are all intuitive, naturally hilarious actors who are able to find the humor in the most mundane moments and also truly feel the sadness, which dips into our comedy at moments, very suddenly. Our real challenge was to find the contrast between their base characters and what they would be like with magical or other interference. Not only are these actors trying to take on another persona, they then have to be that person in love under a spell, angry out of a spell, drunk but intelligent and coherent, excited with no emotion and then upset without too much emotion. They interact with each other on stage very differently scene to scene based on what circumstances are at hand. It could be very confusing but they were each up for the challenge and their characters have become very defined and specific throughout the play.
This show also features the talents of Gus TT Doherty. I’ve never seen him onstage before. The promo pics for the show seem really intense, though. I could believe that he’s a magical witch’s familiar spirit who is hundreds of years old. It must be kind of difficult to work with a cat, though. The movie had used something like 12 cats to play the role. Here you’re relying on just the one.
Gus TT Doherty is a consummate professional and a delight to work with. He is also one of the sweetest, most cuddly cats we’ve ever met and has won the hearts of all cast and crew. He loves to be pet and held and luckily for us Libby is the only one who handles him on stage and she is pretty much a Cat Whisperer. Once she gets him in her arms it only takes seconds for him to melt and purr. It’s a great combo, I think they have the best chemistry on stage! We also have the delightful Brittany Curran keeping him company with toys and treats back stage. He is the only member of the cast with his own dressing room and assistant. Just in case, we do have a back up prop cat, but I very much doubt that we will need it. Knock on wood!
Milwaukee Entertainment Group’s production of Bell, Book and Candle runs Oct. 13 -31 at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit MEG online.
Back to School with In Tandem
The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s All The Great Books (abridged) debuted 15 years ago. Since then, the light and breezy sketch comedy script has been produced by many, many other theatre groups. In Tandem Theatre brings it to the stage once more as it presents the fun, little raggedy roll through spoofery of fine literature in its cozy space downtown not far from the historic main branch of the Milwaukee Public Library.
The literary spoof sketches area arranged around the format of a whirlwind remedial high school literature class not more than a few hours before graduation. Director Chris Flieller has done a really clever job of helping to foster a feeling of the standard, generic American high school feel about the production. The “class” is set in a high school gymnasium. Designer Rick Graham’s set vividly references an old public high school gym.
The floorboards have been painstakingly painted onto the floor of the theatre. There’s a basketball hoop. A facade over one of the walls gives it a solid brick visual treatment. A few letters on the sign on the girl’s locker room have been modified to spell out something distinctly different. Sit in the front row and there’s a well-worn, lived-in public school atmosphere. It’s actually kind of disorienting because the space is so clearly a theatre set and yet so strongly reminiscent of a classic high school gym.
The first character onstage ratchets-up the vividly scholastic feel of the atmosphere. Doug Jarecki is brilliantly comic as the Coach. The public high school gym coach is such a heavily-worn comic stereotype that it can come across as...stultifying if it’s taken to an extreme. Jarecki exudes a kind of casual confidence as Coach. Jarecki is playing Coach as a character and not a stereotype. In the process he’s making a sketch comedy archetype ALOT more funny than it has any right to be. There are precise gestures, postures and phrases that feel remarkably authentic in Rasmussen’s set. Kathy Smith’s precise execution in Coach’s costuming adds to the insidiously sneaky atmosphere of public school.
Ryan Schabach is the next to enter. He’s playing a passionate and passionately awkward drama professor. Chris Goode rounds out the class as a semi-vacuous student teacher. Jarecki, Schabach and Goode are solidly comic together as they barrel through some of history’s most canonized literature. The feel of an RSC script is there from the rapid-fire modulation of the comedy to the disparate array of different props and scraps of costuming.
By the time all the actors are onstage and the audience has risen for the Pledge of Allegiance, the full realization of the atmosphere is positively chilling. It’s weird thinking about how vividl the atmosphere sets-in with such simple background. You’re in a performance space in the back of a church next to the highway, but you might as well be in any high school gym in the country. It kind of makes sense that a public school atmosphere would be so easy to emulate...it’s so simple and utilitarian and so...completely unlike any other American atmosphere.
The spirit of the script remains pretty strong 15 years after it debuted. Some of the pop cultural references feel hopelessly dated, but the cast makes it fun. Weird references, offbeat jokes and rapid-fire pop comedy have proliferated A LOT over the course of the past 15 years. It’s been a decade and a half and an RSC script starts to feel like retro comedy. The constellation of punchlines make the show feel a bit like a period piece where the period is only 15 years ago. It’s weird and pleasantly disorienting. Boomer/older X-er jokes play like comfort comedy in the post-modern world of a million different late night news satire shows and a restless roll of “funny” memes on the social media that lurks in everyone’s pockets. Humor has gotten so impossibly complicated that it’s actually kind of refreshing to hear someone earnestly deliver a humble Gilligan’s Island reference. In the midst of a strikingly vivid public school atmosphere this comedy feels like home.
In Tandem Theatre’s production of All The Great Books (abridged) runs through Oct. 29 at the In Tandem Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit In Tandem online.
For the production, In Tandem is partnering with Literacy Services of Wisconsin. They are collecting books for all reading levels. Please consider bringing along a few books and donating when you attend. The importance of their mission cannot be overstated.
A Drama of Perspective
The universe is old. Our understanding of it isn’t. Astronomy is the toddler constantly trying to impress the universe by telling it exactly how big it really is. Last week I saw a play set in the 16th century in which European academics were dealing with the idea that Earth might not be the center of the universe. Last night I saw a play set in the 20th century in which American academics were dealing with the idea that ours might not be the only galaxy in the universe. Like David Davalos’ Wittenberg (running through the 14th with Windfall Theatre) Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky juxtaposes the concerns of a few people against larger intellectual issues that dwarf all comprehension. Next Act Theatre’s production of the drama captures the intensity of one group of people measured against the whole of the universe one star at a time.
Deborah Staples plays Henrietta Swan Leavitt--an astronomer who did work with Cepheid stars which was used to prove that there are other galaxies in the universe. As could be expected of any woman making any kind of important advances in the early 20th century, Leavitt had to deal with institutionalized sexism. It’s a fascinating and inspiring story of someone searching for truth. Staples is suitably heroic in the role. She admirably renders Leavitt’s intellectual passion. The script offers-up the opportunity to deliver a social awkwardness to the stage as well she admirably does so without amplification. It’s a very respectful treatment of a historical figure who deserves a tremendous amount of respect.
Carrie Hitchcock plays Annie Jump Cannon. Cannon is a scientific giant in her own right. She developed the stellar spectral classification system that isn’t named after her. Hitchcock has a firm pragmatism about her in the role. In other hands it might come across as cold and domineering, but with Hitchcock it’s swooningly charismatic.
Kelly Doherty is brings her characteristically sharp and nuanced grasp of comedy and drama to the role of Williamina Fleming. Fleming was a pioneering astronomer from Scotland working with Cannon and Leavitt who helped catalogue thousands of stars. Doherty deftly wields an earthy Scottish wit tempered against sharply-realized dramatic characterization. A character who could have come across as comic relief is as firmly anchored in depth and complexity as the rest of the cast.
Karen Estrada plays contrast to the astronomers in the role of a midwestern housewife who only happens to be Leavitt’s sister. There’s a striking warmth about Estrada in the role that impressively solves the problem of contrasting the world of early 20th century astronomy against the rest of society searching for meaning elsewhere.
Reese Madigan is quite capable in the role of Henrietta Leavitt’s love interest Peter Shaw. He’s an awkward middle-management type who grows to appreciate the work of the astronomers in the course of the events of the play.
The interpersonal dramas between the characters are solidly played against history and the vastness of the universe as stars are catalogued on glass photographic plates from a massive telescope. Next Act brings the earthbound realities of early 20th century astronomy into a cozy, little studio theatre space. Early 20th century furniture exists in a space with photographic projections of a skies and starscapes. Director David Cecsarini brings it all together quite well in a thoroughly enjoyable, little drama for early Autumn in a comfortable space just outside of a downtown near a big lake in the northern hemisphere of a planet third from a yellow dwarf star spinning around in a spiral galaxy...one of 125 billon in the observable universe.
Next Act’s production of Silent Sky runs through Oct. 22 at the Next Act’s space on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act online.
Angry Young Men Ltd. has been staging productions of Night of the Living Dead Puppet Show for years. It’s a scene-for-scene parody/re-creation of George Romero’s classic 1968 horror film staged entirely with puppets. The show has been staged a number of different places over the years. This year the group celebrates the show’s tenth anniversary with a staging of the now classic puppet show at the Next Act Theatre space at month’s end. In honor of the show’s ten years, some of the Angry Young Men answer a few questions about the history of the show for today’s Small Stage.
Answering questions are the show’s creator Bill Olson, longtime Angry Young Men Steve Cooke and Josh Perkins. Also joining-in is David Kaye, who is relatively new to the cast of the show.
Zombie puppets as a concept seems surprisingly obvious and insanely clever. I don’t ever recall reading anywhere specifically where the idea came from to do a complete scene-for-scene staging of Night of the Living Dead might have come from. Where did you get the idea?
Back in 2007, there was a small local Horror Convention called "It Came From Lake Michigan.” They focused on regionally-made Horror films. This was its second year, and they wanted to offer something unique to add to the film screenings and Dealers' Room. I had a friend who has assisting with their marketing, and she suggested that a puppeteer friend (me) could create a horror-themed puppet show. Wayne Clingman, the festival's Director, told me I could have free reign to do whatever I wanted, and they would set aside a space for us.
Truth be told, I had only done large Festival Puppets at that point. (The Green Man at Locust St Days for a couple years with Michael Pettit, and a few things with Milwaukee Public Theatre) I had never built any puppets on my own, nor had I written anything puppet-specific. My work was cut out for me. I knew I wanted something familiar to any horror-minded audience, but I wanted something visceral & bloody. 'Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" were out, since they belong to big corporations (and I didn't want to get sued); "Frankenstein" or "Dracula" were out for not being bloody enough.
I had recently been to a showing of "Night of the Living Dead 3D" (remake with Sid Haig) at the Times Cinema for the Friday Night Freak Show. Man, this version of the movie was awful. I had always loved the original '68 Romero masterpiece. It had been the first "scary movie" that actually scared me. I thought I could do a better remake than what I was seeing onscreen.
Then it hit me. Due to a mistake while changing the title from "Night of Anubis" to "Night of the Living Dead", the original filmmakers had neglected to place the copyright notice on the title card of the film. This wound up, somehow, making the movie Public Domain. Here was a popular, even cult, film with all the bloodshed and monsters I could ever hope to have!
I edited it for time, and added jokes.
Josh Perkins: ...when Bill approached me (we had previously met in the UWM Theatre program and worked together on various theatre projects) about this opportunity. I believe his exact words were "Zombie Puppet Show. Are you in?" I believe my exact response was "[BLEEP] yeah!" I've never looked back since. After all the work we put into that first show that we did in the basement of the Tommy Thomson Center and after that very first audience cheered, we all looked at each other and knew that we had to do it again. We couldn't just let that one show be the end of it.
I was lucky enough to be in the audience back in either the first or second year, when the performed the show at the now defunct MOCT. I missed it the next few years, but there were things that stuck in my head (heads being blown off and the audience being showered with mini candy bars springs to mind). Because of that, I will always have a perverse fondness for those early years as an audience member. However, since I have worked with AYM, it has always been at the Oriental Theatre. In some ways, it's not an ideal location for a show like this. However, being in a movie palace with that sense of history always felt oddly appropriate since we are reinterpreting such a classic horror film.
Over the years, Angry Young Men has done THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD PUPPET SHOW in a whole bunch of different locations. What has your favorite venue been for the show thus far?
The Oriental Theater. We've been there for the majority of this first decade, and they've been great to us all this time. It's a beautiful old theater, and it's always a thrill and a treat to load in and take it over. It's really been like a home to us.
My parents had their first date at the Oriental, back in the early 60's. When we first performed there in 2010, I had them in the audience. That first year in that space, the house was packed up to the balconies. My folks were able to look around and see what that first date had wrought, lol...
Although not a venue, per se, I've loved performing this show at horror conventions. Particularly the first Con-Tamination in St Louis in 2011. That year they had invited as many of the actors from the original movie as they could. Taking our bows and seeing Kyra Schon (who played little Karen Cooper in the original), in the front row, weeping tears of joy, and many of the other actors giving us a standing ovation, is something that stays with me.
Josh Perkins: Ye gods that's tough. There was It Came From Lake Michigan, there was Bucketworks, there was ZombieConX, there was Moct, there was Contamination in St Louis, there was that time with Soulstice at the Marian Center Auditorium (may it rest in peaces), then The Oriental and even once at the UW-Fond du Lac theatre stage. If I HAD to pick...I think the time with Soulstice at the Marian Center would be near the top if not THE top of my list. Mostly because we paired our gory zombie puppet show with Soulstice's kid's theatre program STArS (Soulstice Theatre Arts Students) program. Act 1 was the STArS class performing the skits and songs they had learned that year along with some of the adult teachers. That show is where Joon, our person-in-a-monster-suit-puppet, was born! Then, after the cuteness of Act 1, we unleashed our zany puppet horror on the crowd of mostly parents and aunts/uncles and grandparents of the STArs students. They had no idea what to expect. It had to of been one of the most un-prepared audiences we ever performed for. I can't thank Char, the founder and Artistic Director at the time of Soulstice, for going along with that crazy idea.
How has the show evolved over the course of the decade that you’ve been staging it?
Rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding. That first year was pretty raw; there were no set pieces, many of the props were painted foam core, even the majority of the zombies were paper mache. We've since built successive generations of character and zombie puppets. We've rebuilt props, and re-rebuilt them when they wear out. With each zombie comes an opportunity for a new "gag"; Will it be a limb that gets torn off, or a wound that spurts blood?
We've also added jokes, and streamlined jokes every year during the rehearsal process. We'll update a reference if we feel it's needed, or find a new take on an old gag. This production is pretty organic, it's meant to evolve. It doesn't hurt that we have over a dozen very creative & very weird people focused on it at any particular time.
Josh Perkins: Like a zombie that's been soaking at the bottom of a well for ten years, we pride ourselves in our ability to mold our show into the times and space in which we are performing. Each year when October approaches we have all basically taken at least a few months off from thinking about the details of the script so it's like approaching a good friend with new stories to tell, new laughs to share, even new losses to mourn.
As Bill said, when we first did this...Except for one puppeteer holding a card board door, we had no set.
Even over my somewhat limited involvement, the show has evolved quite a bit. Jokes and quips worked into the show have been updated to be more timely references (a conservative talk radio host talking about Benghazi a few years ago was relevant and funny, now it's more of a sad what might have been sense of ennui, given our current political climate). The first year I was involved was also when they integrated video and animation for the first time. It's pretty amazing seeing the audience react to that when they often don't know what to expect at all.
One thing that changes every year as well are the other acts on the bill. Sometimes it's other musicians or performers, or it can be sketches and songs by the puppets themselves. I actually spent much of yesterday in the studio recording a new song for this years show. Billy Ray and Josh asked me to write an ear worm... and that stupid thing won't get out of my head, so I feel I owe the audience an apology in advance.
Performing a play allows one an interesting relationship with the play that one simply cannot get from the seats. I would imagine that years and years of performing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD must give you an interesting relationship with Romero’s original film. What’s it like for you to sit down and watch a film that you know so well?
It's still an incredibly powerful film. The claustrophobia and conflict still resonate today. Although George Romero is primarily thought of as "The Zombie Guy", the message of his "Dead" films is that the most dangerous monsters are each other. If the people in that farmhouse could have worked together (and if Tommy was able to pump gas), most of them might have lived.
Alternately, since I made a point to use as much of the original dialogue as possible when writing our version, watching the movie can be an exercise in "Set-up, but no Punch Line." I wind up giggling through most of the thing.
Josh Perkins: I like to think of all Romero's Dead series to be our Old Testament. It's the canon that we share, the history on whose shoulders we stand. I also consider watching zombie movies in general to be a part of the research that goes into being a Zombiteer. There are a LOT of zombie movies out there. Many of them are horrible movies and NOT in a funny way. Then there are the gems, the ones that surprise you in that it's a Good Movie that also has zombies in it! That's what I aspire for our show, that it's a Good Show that happens to have zombie puppets in it!
I love it even more. It reminds me time and again what made it such a classic. Sure there are some things that don't work great (that fake hand... my God is that bad) but even things that might not have been ideal add to charm of it. The sheriff's terrible acting and his assertion that they are "all messed up" makes me howl with laughter. What's even more wonderful, is there are parts I still find genuinely frightening. I am a coward, so that's not always hard to do, but Romero did great work.
Puppets...even kinda nondescript ones designed to be in the background of a show...gain their own personalities over time. The zombies themselves aren’t really supposed to have individual personalities, but I would imagine individual ones have started to show some kind of individual identity. How is your relationship with the puppets themselves?
All of the Zombie Puppets have names. Some were created to evoke specific zombie characters ("Krishna" and "Burny" are from Dawn of the Dead, "Big Daddy" from Land of the Dead), others were developed for specific gags ("Eyeball", "Clownie", and "Mailman"), and others just wound up getting named based on looks. ("Car Crash", "Grannie", "Mullet", "Bloody Thatcher") Different Zombiteers have different puppets they prefer to perform with.
We've used our human characters as bit players in other skits and videos. They generally are cast close to their characters from the movie. For instance, the Harry Cooper puppet gets cast as a conservative blowhard and The Brink Hunt puppet is cast as an anchorperson in other news spoofs.
Once we started developing the puppets we've been using for Full Frontal Puppetry, we've really been able to develop those personalities. It's been a real adventure creating characters "out of whole cloth", as it were.
Fun Fact: We've tried to make our zombie puppets out of softer fleece than the human puppets. It makes them more cuddly than the people. I'm not sure that there's a message there, or if just how things worked out.
Josh Perkins: Murray Gauntman was the first puppet that Angry Young Men LTD ever built, our first Zombie Puppet that was the first zombie seen in the show. He didn't gain a personality until we were asked to be a part of ZombieconX. In addition to doing our show during the convention they gave us a booth so we could tell people about our show and AYM ltd in general. We don't remember who came up with the idea but we soon settled on NEEDING to have a Zombie Kissing Booth as a part of our booth. The first day Bill and I were driving to the convention I was tired and hungry and a bit scared, I had no idea what I was going to do! As an actor I'm most comfortable when I'm PREPARED so I was freaking out a bit inside in not having a plan. We got to the space, I sat down, Bill wandered off to schmooze with all the horror movie folks he was geeking out about, and I put on the Gauntman. And just started talking, through the puppet, to anyone that happened to walk by. I had no plan, no idea where I was going to go, but our beloved Murray Gauntman, The Director Puppet, was born that day. I was able to interact with people, through Murray, in a way my shy self could NEVER do. His entire goal was to get people to kiss him (for a buck!)...and somehow it worked. I found his voice, his abrasive personality, his love of bad jokes.
My relationship to the puppets is very different than most of the troupe. I was a later addition, and never built any of the puppets and don't have any that are specifically mine, so that can add some distance. However, I got to know them when I brought Angry Young Men on to record a TV show for Milwaukee PBS a few years back. They had enough fun to bring me on and make me part of this crazy and delightful time. The puppets I am most excited to see integrated into this years show are the three ghost children from Coraline. Josh custom built them for that show, but they will be part of some of the other sketches this year (including one I contributed). I can't wait to see what everyone else came up with and what new surprises await. We start rehearsal tomorrow, and even have brought back some former performers plus have at least one brand new performer. The show is a living creature at this point, and I can't wait to see what it has become for this year.
I seem to remember a rumor that author Harlan Ellison really loved a staging of the show that you’d done at a convention somewhere. Did you ever get any kind of a reaction George Romero himself?
Actually, Unca Harlan never saw us perform. We did get to meet him at Madcon in 2010 (Which, in retrospect, was kind of a Banner Year for Angry Young Men). I had managed to get us a couple free passes in return for showing puppet videos (Zombie and otherwise) for the folks who weren't able to get a ticket for that evening's banquet, and interacting with the crowd. However, I was able to shake his hand and thank him for all the swell stories. He even soul-kissed Murray Gauntman, our Director Puppet. (The only other celebrity that ever did that was adult Film Legend Seka, but that's another story...)
He later called us "Enormously engaging and witty".
We sadly never were able to perform for George Romero. However, John Russo, who co-wrote the original movie gave us his own blessing to keep doing what we're doing. That's pretty much the reaction as a whole from the original cast of Romero's "Dead Trilogy"; like we're doing the Lord's Own Work.
Josh Perkins: Harlan Ellison is pretty famous for his temper. Bill and I were at our little booth outside the hall where Harlan was giving his keynote address. Afterword he went to his booth where everyone lined up to get his autograph or buy his new book or just talk. At one point someone did something to make him mad, I think it was by bringing a bunch of old books that they didn't buy at that convention and asking him to sign them all. Something like that. It Set Him Off. He went on an ANGRY tirade about pretty much everything he didn't like at the time, he was stomping up and down the hallway through and past all the people that were waiting in line to meet him. This went on for at least 5 minutes but it felt like an eternity. Murray Gauntman was watching him calmly the entire time (even though MY insides were hoping beyond hope that he wouldn't direct his tirade at me). His vitriol finally seemed to end with one last snarky bit of wit and he turned to stomp back to his booth. He stomped right past our little table when, completely unplanned on my part, Murray loudly exclaimed "I Think I'm In Love!" Harlan turned directly to Murray and cried out "You're damn right you are!", put his arms around Murray's head and kissed him deeply. Every bit of all the thick layers of tension in that hallway transmogrified INSTANTLY in uproarious laughter. Harlan smiled and went back to his booth with a bit of a bounce in his step and was quite nice to the rest of the people in his line. Puppets can do things that humans cannot.
...We did the show at the one and only Milwaukee horror festival, Zombie Con X. (I say one and only because they only did it the one year.)...one of their celebrity guests was Joe Pilato, the famed Captain Rhodes from Day of the Dead. Somewhere on the internet, there is a video of Mr Pilato saying very nice things about our show, which he did see...The thing I recall about Mr Pilato speaking during our talk-back was that we had, "Captured the essence of the fable", in his words. High praise indeed.
This 10th anniversary of the show has found its way to the Next Act Theatre space...probably one of the best studio theatre spaces for performers. Have you and the puppets had a chance to work in the space yet?
I was able to perform there a few years back with Lumpy the Golem Boy as part of the "Blue Hawaii Spectacular". It's a great space, and we're going to have a lot of fun utilizing every part of it. This is a great opportunity to really amp EVERYTHING up a notch.
Oh crap, we're doing WHAT? AH! Time to get to work!
I’m looking forward to the show. I hope to be able to make it myself this time around. I’m considering the idea of bringing my oldest daughter this time around.
We've gotten into the habit of calling the show "PG-13". For Puppet Gore, and an adolescent sense of humor. We're Kid-Friendly, if not necessarily Kid-Safe. We've had children as young as 4 watch the show with no reported nightmares. Then there's adults who have trouble handling the gore and dark themes. As a parent, you know what your child can-or-can't handle. Look forward to seeing you there.
Angry Young Men’s The Night of the Living Dead Puppet Show runs Oct. 26 - 28 at the next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act Online. For a look at the puppets, visit AYM on YouTube.
Those interested in helping fund the show can look into donating to the project via its Indiegogo campaign.
Where do 300 words go? The cast for Windfall Theatre’s staging of Wittenberg consists of four people. 4 people and one story in 300 words...ugh...anyway... here’s what didn’t make it into my review of David Davalos’ comedy set on the campus of a 16th century german university populated by some legendary characters.
Davalos’ decision to make Dr. Faustus into a kind of an irreverent tenured rockstar at the university is clever. The man who made a pact with the devil is kind of like the first heavy metal guy. Bo Johnson fits the roll quite well with long, grey hair and a musician’s look about him onstage. (In addition to be ing a seasoned actor, he’s in the local band Random Maxx.) Johnson has a really sharp grasp of the script the extends into clever comic instincts when delivering some of Davalos’ more subtle humor.
Martin Luther as Dark, Brooding Intellectual Superhero
Emmitt Morgans plays the legendary Martin Luther as a very charismatically heroic character. Davalos casts the character a something of a dark and tortured superhero. Luther is altruistically searching for a truth beyond a church that would steal money from its members in the form of indulgences. Morgans has a lithe charisma in the role that almost feels like it could lean over in the direction of an action hero. There’s no sense of higher-than-thou authority that so often plagues dramatic representations of holy men. It’s a really cool approach to the character being instigated by Davalos and executed by Morgans.
Hamlet Before Hamlet
Kyle Conner is a traditional Hamlet occasionally stumbling upon some of Shakespeare’s greatest lines in the school year leading-up to the events described in Shakespeare’s play. His studying with Copernicus in Poland prior to the events of this play is kind of a stroke of genius on the part of the playwright. Very cool stuff here. It’s one of the most seriosu roles in the play and it would easily get lost in all the comedy were it not for Conner’s overwhelmingly sympathetic performance here.
Jocelyn Ridgely Should Get More Work--She's Really Good
I’ve only sen her show-up around the edges of plays occasionally since I first saw her in a show with the late Bialystock and Bloom half a lifetime ago, but every time I see Jocelyn Ridgely in a show I kind of wish she could show-up in everything. She plays a series of roles here listed as being The Eternal Feminine. Yes, she plays a central figure for Faustus and the angelic mother of a certain legendary carpenter talking to Hamlet in a vision, but my favorite Ridgely in this show was a server at a bar. There’s a casual cleverness to her characterization of a casual 15th century working girl who is being taken advantage of by the church just like everybody else. It’s strikingly casual earthbound cleverness that she’s delivering here and it’s a great deal of fun around the edges of the show.
Windfall Theatre’s production of Wittenberg runs through Oct. 14 at Village Church Arts on 130 E. Juneau Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit windfalltheatre.com. My concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.