Back in the early 1990s, Neil Simon debuted a play about his days working in TV back in the 1950s. Laughter on the 23rd Floor was a clever tribute to comedy writing that was a precursor for Tina Fey’s beloved, long-running TV sitcom 30 Rock. Simon is best-known for helping to define contemporary comedy with Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Last of the Red Hot Lovers. There’s a clean sense of construction about Simon’s earlier work. The comedy comes from the heart of honest characters with a little bit of craziness thrown-in for comedic effect.
In Laughter, Simon populates an entire comedic ensemble with characters who all have more than a bit of madness within them. As a result, it’s a lot more fun than most of Simon’s comedy. Directed by Edward Morgan, the Next Act production brings together an appealing mixing of talents from various ends of the Milwaukee theatre community to conjure a sense of the whimsically unpredictable that taps a wild comedic energy.
A clean-shaven Zach Thomas Woods plays a young writer named Lucas who has just been hired to work on a very popular variety show on NBC. Woods is a charming emotional center to the play in the role of a young writer Simon based on himself in the era in which he was working on Your Show of Shows. Every character in the writer’s room is based on actual legends of comedy who worked for the show like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar.
Next Act’s David Cecsarini has a charming instability about him in the role of the show’s host Max Prince (based on Caesar.) The role would be a challenge to anyone. The rest of the writers are paid to be funny to make a living. There’s a practicality to their madness. Prince is a paranoid iconoclast who has been driven into a very strange place psychologically as a result of his massive success. Cecsarini finds a way to make a totally shrewd, psychologically scattered psyche seem perfectly natural and totally rational in and within its own frame of reference. Cecsarini is embracing the character’s madness with a very sophisticated understanding of the inner dynamics of the character’s insanity. It’s a deeply engrossing performance.
The rest of the cast features a scattering of some great local comedy talent. Karen Estrada is a very adult presence in the room as Carol--one of the few women who were able to make it in TV writing at the time. Simon’s attempt to deliver some of the challenges of a woman in a man’s world feel a bit weak, but Estrada is able to sell the character’s formidability so well that the character works even through the more cringe-inducing moments of a very successful male writer trying to write from the perspective of a woman who would have had. to be a LOT more clever than he was to be in the same room as him back in the 1950s.
The rest of the ensemble handles itself quite well. Local comedy veteran Dylan Bolin has sharp timing and delivery as a writer who is totally confident that he will be able to get a career rolling in Hollywood. Seth K. Hale carries a crisp wit about him as s clever guy based in part on Carl Reiner. Rick Pendzich is a smart slouch as Milt--a funny guy who would be totally unequipped to handle any serious job for very long. Mohammad N. Elbsat lends an intensity to the comedy as a Russian immigrant who has mastered the nimble perspicacity needed to land the miracle of a TV writing job in America.
Next Act’s production of Laughter on the 23rd Floor runs through Dec. 15 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For more information, visit Next Act online.
Milwaukee comedy institution Broadminded opened its 23rd original sketch comedy show to a packed theatre Friday night. The theme this time around is Cheers. The all-woman sketch comedy group has been around for many years. The familiarity between the “Broads” continues to foster a fun and crazy feel of intimate informality that makes for an exceedingly enjoyable evening’s comedy. The current offering is a nice mix of different comedy moods. Not all of it works, but since this is a Broadminded show, it’s fun even when it’s not terribly funny.
One of the more notable sketches this time around has McGee and and Babl as anchors on “Wed Center.” They’re there to do play-by-play commentary for toasts at a wedding reception. Kingston played an unflappable pro at delivering wedding toasts while LaDisa played a nervous first-timer. (Opening night the warmth of the near sell-out audience generated a cheer for LaDisa after the end of the sketch when the simple act of picking-up fallen index cards from the sketch turned out to be more difficult than it might have been in rehearsal.) The toast motif is echoed in a series of improv bits where the group deliver toasts to...whatever it is that the audience has offered-up for suggestions on slips of paper into a cup before the show. The “Cheers” motif also echoes into a couple of appearances of the Broads as cheerleaders. There’s a bit of clever style in a short that has Babl being followed around by a pair of rental cheerleaders providing high-energy support for everyday activities. Funny stuff.
The generational aspect of the groups’ work feels particularly prominent this time around. Stacy Babl, Anne Graff LaDisa, Melissa Kingston, and Megan McGee are all Gen Xers. Sketches make fun pop cultural reference to the generation throughout the show. The group does a particularly clever mash-up that has the Care Bears act as Queer Eye-style life coaches. Three of the Broads play pseudo-neo-Jungian Care Bear archetypes trying to get a white collar woman in need into find some direction in her life. There’s profound unexpected depth in that sketch that is echoed through some of the other bits. Megan McGee plays a college student wary of the apocalypse on New Year’s Eve of 2000 as roommates. Her concerns for basic survival are contrasted against the much more superficial concerns of Kingston and Stacy Babl as a couple of roommates, which makes for some fun double-tiered comedy that makes reference to millennial style and fashion which is already feeling A LOT older than it should be. (Hard to believe New Year’s Eve 1999/2000 will be 20 years old at the end of next month.)
Some of the weaker moments draw a bit closer to direct homage to the pop culture of the ‘80s from the perspective of children of the ‘80s. It’s comfort comedy for Xers...a mercifully brief bit has Kingston and McGee play aging singers that feels like a fusion between The Golden Girls and SNL’s Sweeney Sisters. There’s an oddly enjoyable bit that plays on the enduring appeal of a show that ran the length of the ‘80s as all of the Broads fall neatly into a characters from the hit sitcom Cheers. Naturally Kingston takes to George Wendt’s Norm while McGee plays to the role of the John Ratzenberger's trivia-spouting Cliff. Anne Graff LaDisa is fun as a hayseed character drawn in the mold of Woody Harrelson’s character...uh...Woody. (Really? His character was named Woody? I forgot about that.) Like the weaker scripting on that show, the sketch is deeply endearing without actually having much of any depth to it.
Some of the more original bits feel particularly clever in Cheers. McGee plays Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a spoof of Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect singing the Carter Family’s “When I’m Gone,” (the cup song,) complete with the rest of the group performing the cups in accompaniment. It’s a sharply-executed bit of comedy.
The show closes with the triumphant return of LaDisa’s Sally Ann character. The precocious, sci-fi-loving high schooler is drawn against Babl as a cheerleader. It’s a fun closing sketch to a fun show.
Broadminded’s Cheers continues through Nov. 23 at the Underground Collaborative at 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit Broadminded online.
The space is very humbling. Built in 1847, the Irish Heritage and Cultural Center was originally a church. This month the stained glass and massive arched ceiling play host to Aura Theatre Collective’s staging of Measure for Measure. A man in a position of authority assaults a woman in no position to tell anyone about it in a story that is sadly as relevant now as it’s ever been.
Timothy J. Barnes summons a towering sense of poise and stature to the role of Angelo. He has been left in a position of authority by the Duke of Vienna. Seated in this authority, the immovable granite of Angelo’s resolve falls upon the shoulders of a young man named Claudio who is charged with the crime of fornication for which he is to be put to death. Jarrod Langwinski clutches a weary fear about him as Claudio. In Langqinski’s hands, Claudio’s frustrations are kept at bay, allowing him to explore a subtle interplay of emotions that would be lost in a more powerful show of desperation.
Informed of Claudio’s predicament, his sister Isabella goes forth to Angelo in order to plead for her brother’s life. Laker Thrasher is fiercely forthright as Isabella: a novice nun who is given the opportunity to save the life of her brother if she will allow Angelo to take her virginity. Thrasher casts an admirably impressive sense of altruism into the soul of Isobel. Far from being a simple, pitiful victim, Thrasher’s performance casts Isabella’s victimhood against the intellectual resilience and emotional fortitude of someone who would have done much better in a better era for women.
Thrasher’s intensity in the role of Isabella is matched by the dramatic gravity of Kira Renkas’ performance as Marianna. Angelo had abandoned his betrothal to Marianna when her dowry was lost to sea. The fact that Marianna would want to be with him anyway is a bit of a problem. Doesn’t she realize that this guy’s a monster? Renkas’ magnetic stage presence imbues Marianna with a kind of power that suggests an inner authority that could easily keep Angelo in check. In silent authority, Renkas wields a kind of influence onstage that Angelo could only aspire to. Marianna is in a position well below Angelo, but under the influence of Renkas, she’s got a righteousness about her that well outweighs his petty cruelty.
Randall T. Anderson is infinitely likable onstage. Anderson’s charm is granted to Duke Vincentio. The Duke has announced his intention to leave the city. He remains in disguise as a friar in the interest of viewing life in the city outside the confines of authority. Shakespeare casts the Duke in a heroic light. Anderson takes to the heroism with an adroit grasp of the character’s cunning. Director Jaimelyn Gray cleverly subverts this, playing with expectations in a staging of Shakespeare’s classic that allows the women in the cast their own kind of authority without compromising the basic structure of the script in any fundamental way. A good portion of this comes from a very talented cast, but Gray has juggled things quite well in a very compelling production.
The rest of the cast includes some great talent. Tom Marks has a very shrewd and focussed energy as Escalus. Logan Milway balances drama with a slicingly clever sense of humor as Claudio’s friend Lucio. Liz Ehrler has a commanding presence onstage as Mistress Overdone--manager of a Viennese brothel. Ehrler opens the show as Overdone in a burlesque act that is promptly shut down by authorities. It’s a fun bit of staging that sets the tone for the rest of the show. It can feel kind of weird seeing Shakespeare in a church. Opening the show with burlesque cuts some of the strange formality that can overpower in a 19th century church.
Aura Theatre Collective’s production of Measure for Measure runs through Nov. 24th at the Irish Heritage and Cultural Center on 2133 W. Wisconsin Avenue. For more information, visit Aura Theatre online.
This month, Theater RED collaborates with Carroll University on a production of Once Upon a Mattress the 1958 musical based on Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Princess and the Pea has seen countless productions over the years. Theater RED’s production is helmed by Artistic Director Eric Welch and stars Marcee Doherty-Elst as Princess Winnifred.
Theatre RED and Carroll took some time to answer a few questions about the production:
This show is being staged at Carroll University in Waukesha. How did the collaboration with Carroll come about?
Professor James Zager, Carroll University (Producing Liaison): Providence. I was scheduled to do a cabaret performance in the Otteson Theatre this Fall and decided to use the more intimate Studio Theatre right around the same time we heard that TheaterRED was looking for a space.
Marcee Doherty-Elst, Theater RED (Producing Director, Princess Winnifred): When Theater RED was looking for a home for ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, we reached out to Carroll University originally because of my prior collaboration with James Zager (Milwaukee Opera Theater and Theater RED’s A CHORUS LINE), who is on faculty there. I quickly got connected to Professor Jennifer Dobby and the rest of the incredible folks there. In talking with them, we learned that their mainstage, the Otteson Theatre, was not being used this fall. Carroll University had a Musical Cabaret slotted for the fall, but Professor Zager wanted that staged in their Studio Theatre, leaving the Otteson vacant. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to move ONCE UPON A MATTRESS in to the beautiful Otteson space and also opened up the possibility of a collaboration with the University, which you know Theater RED loves to do! We have collaborated with other theaters and other colleges/universities in the past and have had wonderful experiences. For ONCE UPON A MATTRESS we have students working alongside professionals in all aspects of the production, onstage and off, and that is really exciting!
I’m also very excited to be collaborating with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and their American Sign Language/English Interpretation Program for our Saturday 11/16 performance (7:30 PM) that will be interpreted by 2 Student Interpreters!
Eric Welch, Theater RED (Director): As we were looking for a venue for this production, Marcee thought it would be a good idea to collaborate with a school again. I’m doing so, I believe this was our first school we contacted and it ended up being a perfect fit, on both ends!
Carroll’s Otteson Theatre is an intimate 150-seat theatre, but the set developed for the show as seen in promo video looks like it’s big enough to fill a much larger space. Is there an equally big feeling for the choreography or is there more of an intimate feel to the way the action of the show inhabits the space?
Justin Gale, Carroll University (Technical Director, Scenic Design): The Otteson is a unique space that comes with its own challenges and opportunities. Yes, it is a relatively small, 150 seat theatre, but it also has a decent amount of vertical space to fill, while allowing for at least a dozen people at once to dance on stage. Eric's vision was based around the idea of a story book, with the necessity to facilitate dancing and physical comedy across the entire stage. My hope, through the design and build techniques, was to accomplish a bit of story book, medieval grandeur, and still leave room for the actors and choreography to take center stage.
Ceci Scalish, Theater RED (Choreographer): I believe the choreography designed balances the marriage between this intimate space and larger than life set. Each choreographed piece defines how big or intimate the stage should feel during teach scene versus the space or set defining such.
Eric Welch, Theater RED (Director): For the choreography, I wanted something fun, funny, and visually stunning. And that’s just what Ceci brought to the table. She has a wonderful way of working with the actors and really showing off their strengths. I can’t say enough kind words about her. We also did make plenty of room on stage to fit all the dancing needs in this show. We definitely planned in advance for that.
Marcee Doherty-Elst, Theater RED (Producing Director, Princess Winnifred): Eric’s vision from the beginning was to create a magical, madrigal, musical comedy celebration and the Otteson Theatre provides so much space to do that! We do have a large cast (17), so that space is definitely welcome! Eric also wanted the audience to feel included in the action and in on the jokes, so with the space he is able to bring some of the action off the stage and into the audience (and beyond – we have to keep some surprises, don’t we?). I think the show balances big production moments with more intimate moments and we are able to use everything the Otteson has to offer us in that way. Justin and the students working on the set have done an outstanding job of realizing Eric’s vision of what he wanted the set to look like, while being able to add some things that really add to the dimension of the action, while still allowing the storytelling of the scenes, song, and dance to take center stage (quite literally). As Eric has done with NINE the musical, he places the emphasis of the show on the storytelling of the actors and has a more intentionally minimal set supporting them. We do, of course, have the majesty of the incredible bed of 20 mattresses – the most important set piece of them all!
Erich Welch is directing Marcee Doherty-Elst as Princess Winnifred in the show. The two of you at the center of Theater RED are also very good friends. What’s the dynamic like working so closely together on this kind of a musical?
Eric Welch, Theater RED (Director): We have got it down to a science now. This will be the third show I’ve directed and directed her in. She is a very close friend and I find it rather easy to direct her because I know her instincts and motives so it’s easy to play and build off of that. I also know what’s she’s capable of, even if she doesn’t!
Marcee Doherty-Elst, Theater RED (Producing Director, Princess Winnifred): This will be the 3rd show that Eric has directed me in (I’LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS and NINE the musical, previously) and also the 3rd where we have worked together behind the scenes (with me as Producing Director). I think on the production side of things, we get better with roles and responsibilities each time and it has become a well-oiled machine by this time! As an Actor, I really enjoy working with Eric as a Director. He has a very clear vision for what he is looking for in the scenes and as an Actor himself, he understands what the challenges and opportunities might be for realizing that vision. He knows me nearly better than almost anyone and it makes it very easy for us to work together as Actor/Director because he can tell what I am trying to do, even if it is not coming through clearly and he knows how to explain things in a way that I will grasp immediately. There’s a great degree of trust in that relationship based on our deep friendship, as well. Eric has always been one of my biggest fans and supporters and he believes in me way more than I ever believe in myself and for that reason, he is able to challenge me in a unique way.
Winnifred is a very strong character who could be brought to the stage with a big heroic approach. The story is a very silly comedy in places. How do the heroic and comedic ends of the show match-up in this production?
Eric Welch, Theater RED (Director): This is a very silly, comedic show but there is still heart in the story and we have definitely tried to angle this show toward female empowerment. This show is about a strong female who doesn’t care what people think of her and really goes for what she wants.
Brianna (Bree) Cullen, Theater RED (Stage Manager): The two go hand in hand in this production. The heroic moments bring out how silly the whole story is while the comedic bits between characters really pushes out who these people are.
Mark Morris, Carroll University (Assistant Stage Manager): Winnifred's strength is balanced on stage with an air of shyness and self-doubt that emboldens our sympathy with her as she navigates the social labyrinth of a swamp-less kingdom. Because she is not like a "typical" princess, she isn't limited by any social restrictions placed on princesses and her lack of manners and outspoken attitude is a refreshing take on a classic fairytale. The real comedy comes from her fervent optimism in the face of every obstacle she encounters and the heroics are found in the inspiration she instills in the other characters suffering under the Queen's rule.
Skylar Campbell, Carroll University (Assistant Stage Manager): I believe the heroic and comedic ends match up in places where the women like Winnifred and Lady Larken "play up" being the helpless damsel in distress. It makes for a funny scene but also is being played up to show the ridiculousness of the "damsel in distress" it's a small way of putting a feminist twist in the show without changing the show completely and continues to make people laugh even with a hidden deeper, more heroic, note.
Marcee Doherty-Elst, Theater RED (Producing Director, Princess Winnifred): Sometimes princesses don’t look or act like princesses! I see Princess Winnifred as a brave character who comes to the rescue of a kingdom in need of new outlook on love, leadership, and life. The best laughs come from intellectual connections and emotional realizations, and Princess Winnifred represents something so different from the conventions of the kingdom and she speaks some important truths. The role of Princess Winnifred has been portrayed by some of the funniest women to ever grace the stage or screen and what I think is most exciting is that there is wide room for interpretation of this character while still playing up the comedic aspects. Winnifred is a very strong character, but I think the fun comes in relaying that strength through comedy. Some of the most important truths we speak, as a society, are conveyed through humor.
“Humor is what happens when we are told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to” (George Saunders, NY Times bestselling author).
ONCE UPON A MATTRESS is surprisingly enduring for a fun, little bit of musical comedy. Where do you think the long-term appeal of the show comes from?
Professor James Zager, Carroll University (Producing Liaison): The retelling of Fairy Tales has always been popular. We love to look at old stories with a new twist that brings out different aspects of the story. This uses the music theatre form to highlight a powerful female not a maiden in distress rescued by a prince.
Marcee Doherty-Elst, Theater RED (Producing Director, Princess Winnifred): I think the long-standing appeal is how funny this show is, even though the tale itself is familiar. And it doesn’t hurt that Carol Burnett has famously portrayed (with great hilarity) both Princess Winnifred and Queen Aggravain! ONCE UPON A MATTRESS is a musical retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Princess and the Pea” and who doesn’t love a good fairy tale? This show will carry you on a wave of wonderful songs, both hilarious and raucous as well as romantic and melodic, as you come along on for the ride on the familiar classic tale of royal courtship and comeuppance with a healthy side helping of side-splitting shenanigans. While the Junior version of this show is done with regularity in theaters, the full-length production has not been done in Milwaukee professionally for quite some time. Eric’s vision really plays up the fairy tale aspects while also infusing the show with a modern, SNL-inspired approach to the comedy in the show and we have a cast of some of the funniest folks in Milwaukee. Chances are you’ll never look at fairy tales the same way again!
Eric actually put this show on the Theater RED radar – he has a love of taking older musicals or musicals that we don’t see done very often and brining a modern interpretation to them, placing them back center stage. He also grew up with this musical and it has a special place in his heart as one of his mom’s favorites. He’s also a huge Carol Burnett fan – in fact, when she was in Milwaukee last we splurged on VIP tickets and we were in the first few rows and he got to ask her a question! She is one of his favorites and there is more than 1 nod to her in the show – you’ll have to come and see for yourself!
What attracted you to the show?
Eric Welch, Theater RED (Director): I was partly brought up with this musical. My mother introduced it to me as it had been a favorite of hers growing up. It’s such a fun fantasy story with great music. I feel like many schools have done this show (the Junior version, as well), but not many professional theaters and I feel that it needs to come back into the limelight. It has such a great message and is so entertaining. People are going to love this show.
Theater RED and Carroll University's production of Once Upon a Mattress runs Nov. 15 -23 at the Otteson Theatre on 238 N. East Ave. in Waukesha. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater RED online.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s unique blend of crime drama, history and music materializes from the ether once more this month for the first live episode of a new trilogy as it presents Cream City Crime Syndicate: Politics & Anarchy. Marcus Beyer returns as golden age radio host Richard Howling of the Howling Radio Hour. The variety show includes music, drama, comedy and the 32nd mayor of Milwaukee as an impressively compelling hero. The ensemble assembled by writer/producer Josh B. Bryan for the first part of the new Cabaret Milwaukee season seems particularly well-developed in this first part of a new trilogy.
Beyer opens the show with a smooth voice straight out of the early days of radio. His cool presence is a remarkably vivid centerpiece to the rest of the variety. The first act he introduces is Cameron Webb. Accompanied by Maggie Deagan, the jazzy soulful singer opens the show with “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” He comes around after intermission for a classy glide through “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” Hayley San Fillippo and Sarah Therese continue to charm in old-timey commercial vocals as the Howling Jinglers, accompanied by Michelle White.
The central drama is written by David Law, who also wrote Cabaret Milwaukee’s Clockwork Man series. It’s a clever fusion between history and crime/suspense drama that frames Mayor Daniel Hoan as the central hero in a political drama with themes which hauntingly echo into current events. Max Williamson plays Hoan as a cool, charismatic figure who heroically steps into a great deal of danger in order to serve the people. Rob Schreiner plays to the rough and tumble action hero archetype as a hard drinking Milwaukee cop who finds himself drawn into the dangerous life of the mayor. Williamson’s heroism as a politician genuinely trying to bring everyone together contrasts well against Schreiner’s gritty selflessly self-destructive action heroism. Without irony Willaimson and Schreiner play to an ideal of public service...those willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. It's a refreshing fantasy.
Also making notable appearances around the edges of the ensemble are a couple of talented guys better known for their work with Shakespeare RAW. Stephen M. Wolterstorff lends both weight and levity to the stage as Hoan’s assistant. Jim Donaldson plays to a more volatile energy in his appearance. The more aggressive darkness of the drama comes in the form of Connor Blankenship as a sinister political figure named Wheeler Bloodgood. He’s accompanied by a couple of ragged accomplices played with a pulpy sense of villainy by Michelle Paura and Nicole Allee.
Though it's clearly drawn for a vintage radio style of entertainment Law’s script highlights aspects of the early days of Hoan that mirror some of what’s going on today. Bryan’s work amplifies that in the world of the variety show beyond the radio play. History has a very frustrating way of repeating itself which comes across much better here than it has in previous outings with Cabaret Milwaukee. As “Mrs. Millie,” seriously funny actress/comedy writer Laura Holterman slices into the frustration of this with a very sharp bit of satire that conjures shadow precursors to Hollywood predators like Harvey Weinstein. Some of the best comedy comes from frustration and there's nothing more frustrating than watching the same mistakes made over and over again throughout history. Holterman, Bryan and Wallsich (who wrote sketches for the Holing Jinglers) cleverly tap into the comedy of that fraustration. Joined by Michelle White as Billie, Holterman discusses US immigration policies of Herbert Hoover which hauntingly echo those of the current administration. With clever precision Holterman and White help to bring together the fusion of comedy and history in a show that glides along quite swiftly from beginning to end.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s Cream City Crime Syndicate: Politics & Anarchy runs through Nov. 22 at the Hotel Astor on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook site.
The Boulevard Theatre hosts an intimate drama of art and the human soul at Plymouth Church this month. Mark Bucher directs a cast of 3 in a concert reading of Stephen Sachs’ Bakersfield Mist. Three actors. Three music stands. One pianist. It’s a very close walk with the nature of truth, beauty and human meaning between two characters.
After a brief introductory moment with Bucher, pianist Donna Kummer sets the mood with gently cheerful piano stroll. The light notes establish a humbly classy emotional warmth for the rest of the show to nestle into. Three actors enter. The piano finishes its walk and the dialogue begins.
David Ferrie establishes the scene through narration. His tone and timing are excellent. Stage directions fit perfectly in and within the rhythm of the dialogue without overpowering the dramatic momentum at pleat between the two characters. Bucher and company maintain a very respectable energy in the reading which cleverly narrows the focus on the dialogue of a script that is very, very passionate at so many turns. There are too many distractions in a full production. Sachs' drama is an impressively nuanced dance between two quite different people who are quite similar at the center. The concert reading allows the delicate nature of that dialogue to become the center of the entire evening.
Carole Herbstreit-Kalinyen is pleasantly gruff as Maude Gurtman—an unemployed woman living in a trailer park in California who has come into possession of a Jackson Pollock painting that she wishes to have authenticated. She’s a hard drinking chain smoker—-not exactly the type of person one might normally expect to be hanging out in a trailer park with a ridiculously valuable Pollock. There’s a deep soul to the character which gradually reveals itself to be every bit as haunted and powerful as the artist who may or may not have painted the work itself. Herbstreit-Kalinyen is at her best in the role in those deeper moments of emotional recklessness...never allowing herself to overplay the intensity and smartly allowing the dialogue to work on its own in the heavier moments of reflection.
David Flores is crisp and precise in the role of Lionel Percy—the expert from New York who has flown all the way out to California to have a look at the painting. Flores’ neat precision in the role is gradually rolled-back in the course of the interaction. Passions of his own are slowly revealed as Maude discusses his past with him and the origins of his love of art and his disgust of inauthenticity. Lionel is given some of the most eloquent whisper of poetry once he’s really allowed to get going on the topic of Pollock. There's a bit of a monologue in there...lines that could have read as one grandiose comic punchline where Lionel finally gives-in to his passion for the art and the artist. Flores doesn't deliver it as a joke, though. He's bringing Lionel's words to the stage like they were the radiantly burning fires in the substance of passion itself. It’s delightfully overwhelming. The interaction that follows allows for deeper connection between the two characters as what at first might have been a casually forgery reveals the possible fingerprint of the artist from a woman who may be more deeply troubled that she appeared at first glance. Truth. Beauty. Comedy. This is a fun and cozy night in the presence of art.
Boulevard Theatre’s concert reading of Bakersfield Mist runs through Nov. 30 at Plymouth Church on 2717 East Hampshire. For more information, visit Boulevard Theatre online.
Murder and suspense inhabit a small stage this month as Off the Wall stages a production of the psychological thriller Stranger in the Attic. Directed by Dale Gutzman from a script by John Kaasik, Stranger in the Attic is a tight, little drama set in the home of a true crime writer. The script is an excellent, little dip into the thriller genre complete with numerous plot twists the rather pleasantly and playfully stretch the bounds of believability. The cast assembled under Gutzman keeps the characters interesting enough to overcome any silliness in the script.
Robert Zimmerman plays an author named Brian. As the play opens, he’s seated there at his ever-present computer working away on something. His wife Dana (Amber Regan) is reading his latest work. He wants to know what she thinks. She’s reluctant to tell him. There’s some concern about his past--his first wife who went missing some time ago. Concerns of the past mix with mysteries of the present as a mysterious stranger named Kendrick (Coltyn Vondeylen) pops by to request that Brian write about a murder that has yet to happen. Kendrick intends to kill Brian’s neighbor.
Not everything in Kaasik's script works perfectly. Some of the dialogue sounds awkward. Structurally, though, it’s quite sound. The plot twists feel quite natural. Anyone familiar with the genre can anticipate what’s going to happen. There aren’t many stray details in the script that don’t feed right back into the plot. It’s a fun night at the theatre the breezes by pretty quickly on a cold autumn night.
Zimmerman and Regan provide suitable emotional depth. Husband and wife seems vulnerable enough to care about. Vondeylen’s approach to the role of the killer is interesting. He’s written to be a cold, calculating sociopath. Vondeylen goes against the grain a bit on this by allowing anger and passion to surface even when it’s not entirely necessary. An emotionally affectless manipulator might have been more chilling as a villain and a bit more on-brand with lead villains in these sorts of suspense thrillers. Vondeylen’s passion in the role allows even the villain to come across with great vulnerability. This compromises the moody integrity of a the genre a bit, but Zimmerman, Regan and Vondeylen have a compelling dynamic that keeps the plot moving along.
The central trio are supported by some interesting figures in the periphery. James Feeley has a brash confidence about him as Brian and Dana’s new neighbor. He’s a cordial man who has seems to have a very disturbing relationship with his wife. (A very compellingly troubled Caitlin Kujawski Compton.) Teddi Gardener rounds out the cast as a steely, precise man who is quickly drawn-into the convoluted revelations of Brian’s life.
Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Stranger in the Attic runs through Nov. 10 on 127 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Off the Wall online.