A fine mist fills the interior of Calvary Presbyterian Church for the evening’s performance of Utterance. Milwaukee Opera Theatre gracefully slides a soothing presence into the beautiful interior of the red brick church across the street and paces down from the central library on Wisconsin Avenue. On my way in, I’m handed a program and told to sit in the labyrinth. There is the murmur of a tidy, voluminous opening night crowd gathered into a circle beneath the high ceiling. It’s a piece on ancient prophecies. Childbirth is seen as eternal burning in the heart of ancient compositions that freshly cascade into contemporary aesthetics in a grand space. The work of 16th century composer Orlande de Lassus mixes with that of his modern counterpart Amanda Schoofs in a brief evening’s beauty.
The performers enter in around the edges of the central circle. They’re wearing black with jangled shocks of white highlights. Bare feet tread the wooden floors in somber movements that seem to respect some kind of sacred ritual from long before any kind of organized religion. They seem to be there to vocally conjure some distant moody, saturnine world or plane of existence with the aid of cleverly crafted photonics which move through the mists courtesy of AntiShadows.
The vocals are sung in graceful intensity with clean, crisp movements around the central hub of performance space. Loving embraces occasionally pass between performers. There’s more than song, light and color filtering through the the moment accompanied by subtle clicks and hums of mist machines at the edges of the church. There’s a strangely elegant alchemy of movement and ritual. A large vessel is presented. Performers take turns laying down a circle of a large-grained white powder. In slow, steady movements an ensō closes around the vocalists. There’s a grand depth of abstract meaning at the heart of it all that transcends any sort of constructed meaning, reaching right into the heart of raw human instinct.
In walks a woman dressed entirely in white with black stripes. The blindfold she’s wearing is black. The ritual continues with a two performers dutifully transferring a thick white cream or milk from vessel to vessel until the moment arrives to consume it. Deep emotions connect through light, sound, movement and motion.
There’s a symbolic foundation here of prophecies and oracles and things that are tied into the ancient myths which feed into the larger tapestry of storytelling that goes back to the dawn of time, but none of that matters in the substance of the moment. The abstraction of form and grace in a grand space has a powerful resonance that goes beyond any one story. Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Utterance is one of those rare trips to the raw, primordial essence of life that engages on a level well beyond logic and linear thought.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Utterance runs for three more performances: Oct. 30 and 31st at 8:00 p.m. and Oct. 31st at 5:30 p.m. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets online. All shows take place at Calvary Presbyterian Church on 628 N. 10th St, Milwaukee.
Heavy, complex interpersonal drama can be rendered in profound detail on the small stage. One of the more intricate dramatic scripts of the 20th century is brought to the stage as Milwaukee Entertainment Group welcomes audiences into the basement of the classy Brumder Mansion for Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Director Mark Neufang brings together a cleverly-articulated cast for a very intimate evening’s get-together with four characters from the early 1960s. The period of the piece is brought to the stage in vivid style thanks to the natural atmosphere of a distinguished, old mansion and very crisp set and costuming by Amanda J. Hull.
Amy Hansmann is wearily restless as Martha. She’s just. returned home for a late night with her husband and a couple of guests. Hansmann’s careful calculations in the role are tempered by Martha’s thirst for alcohol and the dizzy chaos social stimulation. She’s caught between a pair of people she hardly knows and the husband she knows all too well from what has likely been years and years of merciless intellectual sparring. Hansmann’s cageyness as Martha does a great deal to anchor an intriguing depth into her relationship with George.
Martha’s husband George is a bewilderingly complex person with profoundly sophisticated dialogue. There are countless ways to deliver George to the stage and so very, very few of them work. Thankfully, Bryant Mason carries some kind of genius with him onstage in the role of George. Every line seems animated and illuminated from multiple angles. George has designed a dizzyingly deep intellectual world to inhabit. Mason has clearly given a great deal of thought to bringing George’s complexity to the stage. The fact that Mason brings it across with such an organic intellectual gravity is impressive. As with everywhere else in the cast, George's complexity doesn't seem at all forced.
Martha and George welcome Nick and Honey for a few late night drinks. Martha, George, Nick and Honey all inhabit the same university. Martha and George are middle-aged. Honey and Nick are just beginning down the path that Martha and George have been inhabiting for decades.
Cara Johnston channels a timid presence to the stage in the role of Honey. Looking like the perfect early 1960s wallflower, the alcohol brings out a more candid side of her as the play progresses. Johnston speaks a great deal more with incredibly thought-out body language and facial expressions than Albee allows her with actual dialogue. The intimacy of the stage allows Johnston’s physicality to be incredibly subtle without any need for amplification at all. A great deal can be read into her postures and movements in such a cozy, little space.
In the role of Nick, Matt Specht has a similarly profound transformation in the course of the play. A very poised, professional presence in a colleague’s home gradually disintegrates over the course of the drama as George and Martha needle Nick and Honey into a state of volatility. The physicality of Specht’s performance pleasantly collides onstage under the direction of Christopher Elst, who is responsible for the production’s Intimacy Design. Physical romance onstage can be so very, very difficult to bring across with any kind of believability on the small stage. Under. Elst’s direction Specht and Hansmann manage a very believable kind of intimacy onstage which amplifies the complexity of everything else that takes place onstage.
The drama has a great depth to it. It's a descent into emotional/intellectual hell on so many levels. It's really just four people, but it really feels like a powerful journey into the nature of human connection. It's a full evening. Get in at 7:30 pm. Get out after 10 pm. There are a couple of intermissions. Grab a couple of drinks and sit back--it's going to be a deep, intimate night with a couple of couples.
Milwaukee Entertainment Group’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through Nov. 2nd at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 West Wisconsin Avenue. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Entertainment Group online.
Sam Shepard’s God of Hell is a cozy, cuddly punch in the face from a stranger. It’s not terribly sophisticated or subtle, but it’s not without its charm either. The stranger in question isn’t Sam Shepard. The acclaimed playwright has written some of the most striking drama of the past 50 years or so. God of Hell doesn’t live up to his best work, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not provocative on some level. The darkly comic drama provokes thought through percussion. The stranger metaphorically punching audiences in the face here isn’t Shepard, though. The stranger is someone that Shepard ushers onstage to take over the lives of a wife, a husband and an acquaintance of his on a small dairy farm in rural Wisconsin. Directed by Jaimelyn Gray, the drama is a twisted, little fugue of political allegory featuring a really fun cast. The Constructivists stage an intimate production of the drama beneath downtown Milwaukee in the Underground Collaborative.
The stranger in question is played by Matthew Huebsch. The stranger’s name is Welch, but by the time we find that out, it’s already too late. Like any stranger, he’s familiar. He’s a clean-cut guy. He wears a suit with a little US flag pin on it. He’s carrying an attache case. Huebsch is the soulless customer service face of the U.S.--kind of charming cross between a soft-spoken Clark Gregg and the sinister patriotism of Mr. Freedom who casually walks into a mundane rural domestic setting and assumes total ownership of it. There’s real menace in Huebsch that’s cleverly hidden behind a shiny, clean smile.
Cheryl Roloff plays Emma--a rural midwesterner with a deep Wisconsin accent who waters plants not far from the floor on which she was born. She’s never lived anywhere else. She’s never had any reason to do so. Roloff lends Emma the powerful inner strength of someone who has never really had to use it. She tries her best to assert herself in the presence of the stranger, but she’s so completely out of her element trying to exude authority that he doesn’t even seem to notice.
Robert W.C. Kennedy summons a quiet strength to the role of Emma’s husband Frank. He’s a fiercely independent man who might have fallen in love with the quiet simplicity of a small dairy farm a bit more than he’d fallen in love with Emma. Kennedy’s silent formidability serves as a powerful dramatic anchor that conjures dynamic dramatic tension between the residents of the home and its interlopers.
Matthew Scales is an appealingly uneasy energy onstage in the role of Haynes--an old friend/acquaintance of Frank’s who is staying at his home as a guest for a few days. Haynes suffers from a rather dangerous condition which reveals itself whenever he comes into contact with another person. Sitting there with heavy sweat on his brow even in calm moments, Scales feels like a bomb ready to go off at any moment, which adds a clever fourth dimension to the dramatic quartet that Shepard assembles onstage.
In the course of the play’s 90-ish intermission-less minutes onstage, things gradually get more and more surreal. Set and costume designer Sarah Harris’ overwhelmingly mundane rural Wisconsin set firmly establishes the domestic realism of the play from the moment it begins. The smell of burning bacon early-on in the play adds another layer of realism.
The main problem with the script is that increasingly strange and disturbing revelations aren’t accompanied by an increasing sophistication in the plot. From beginning to end, The God of Hell is one long, continuous, congenially brutal punch in the face. So it feels a little weird. As provocative as it is, it doesn’t exactly lend itself to very deep thoughts on the nature of the U.S. or the gradually encroaching nature of fascism that has been continuing to bleed-in around the edges of the U.S. government.
The God of Hell doesn’t need to be deep political allegory, but it’s kind of missing an opportunity in not doing so. Without a great deal of sophistication, the drama plays out like a domestic horror story told with an impressively blunt political hammer. The horror is very, very strong in this one. As horror, impressively compelling. It may lack a whole lot of depth, but The God of Hell dazzling works as a dark subterranean horror show in the lead-up to Halloween in the midst of presidential impeachment investigations on the precipice of a very important presidential election. Director Jaimelyn Gray does an excellent job in bringing a drama to the Underground Collaborative which may be the PERFECT horror for its time and place.
The Constructivists’ production of God of Hell runs through Oct. 12 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit the Constructivists online.
Everything’s up to date in Oklahoma! The classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical feels fresh and cozy in a production that manages to have the emotional immediacy of a studio theater production even in a 360-seat proscenium theatre modeled after and 18th century European opera house. Director Jill Anna Ponasik does some very interesting things with both casting and staging in a surprisingly enjoyable production of a show that’s been around for over 80 years. A diverse cast and a clever use of stage space make for a fun trip to a happy, little musical dream that still holds considerable appeal.
Scenic Artists Catherine Lottes and Nerissa Eichinger have done very sharp work under Scenic/Lighting Designer Peter Dean Beck in a space that feels very big in a very small way (that’s also very big.) The orchestra sits onstage in the background in a set-up the fits into the overall feel of an old-timey pre-statehood Oklahoma. (The unmistakable presences of percussionist Michael “Ding” Lorenz asserts itself in a variety of different bits of folsky old-timey-ness including a deftly-hung set of cast-iron-looking pans.) The large musical ensemble set-up right onstage is reminiscent of shows that Ponasik has done with Milwaukee Opera Theatre. It’s a warm, welcoming environment that gives musicians a place that’s every bit as prominent as the space that the actors perform in, allowing for a greater sense of community in and within every element of the production.
A set-up that welcomes musicians onstage with performers is particularly quaint for a small-town Oklahoma feel, but what about the space? Well...there’s quite a vertical space in that old 18th century-style proscenium. The sky above the action feels positively overwhelming next to the cozily cluttered, little social ensemble onstage. Peter Dean Beck’s lighting makes big use of all that vertical space to make Oklahoma seem like a wide-open space brimming with possibility while keeping the sparse social space of the old, rural west suitably small. In a small town, everyone knows everyone else. It’s a small, talented ensemble that occupies the space. It’s small but it’s big. (In a small way that’s also big.)
Ponasik works with a very talented cast to develop every single character in the ensemble. The small, intimate stage feel of the production amplifies a sense of uniqueness in everyone inhabiting the musical. Those sitting close enough to the stage will see a very sophisticated social community dynamic. Thanks to Ponasik and a very talented cast, every character seems interesting enough to hold the center of the stage. One pictures even minor characters going about mundane daily tasks like hanging laundry or working the farm or working the ranch singing as they do so with Lorenz and company in the background constantly providing musical accompaniment.
Central characters like Curly (played by the charismatic Lucas Pastrana) and Laurey Williams (a stunningly heartfelt Brittani Moore) makes a prominent appearance in the center of the story, but I found my attention drawn around the edges. Ethan D. Brittingham’s comic precision as the traveling peddler Ali Hakim lends laughs to even the slightest lines. Hannah Esch is a formidable presence (force of nature really) as Ado Annie.
In a remarkably clever bit of staging, Dance Captain Stephanie Staszak plays the traditionally male role of cowhand Slim. She’s right there with the rest of the guys. Staszak plays it very cool and charming as a very assertive woman with earthbound grace in a line of work traditionally limited only to men. Rather than try to make her play the role as a man, Ponasik and Staszak let Slim glide out naturally from the actress’ genuinely pleasant stage presence. It’s a very cool decision. Choreographer James Zager gives Staszak and the talented Christal Wagner (who plays Gertie Cummings) some particularly graceful moments of dance in and amidst the action of a very, very enjoyable trip to dreamy musical antiquity.
The Skylight’s production of Oklahoma! runs through Oct. 13th at the Broadway Theatre Center on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800 or visit The Skylight online.