2021 finds its end with a nice mix of shows...many of which are alternatives to more traditional holiday fare. A few of which have already opened. (Next Act’s current show is a great deal of fun.) Here’s a look at some of what’s coming-up.
Playwright Rick Bingen presents a staged reading of his new play Steal the Theatre
Dec. 2 and 5. Bingen directs a talented cast in the story of a London pub, Shakespeare-themed libations, and time travel – a recipe for an unprecedented adventure for a lost and forlorn Olivia.” The reading takes place at Sunstone Studios on 127 E. Wells St. For more information, visit Sunstone online.
Veteran Milwaukee theatre talent Karl Miller is working on a production of the 1963 Broadway musical She Loves Me. Set in a Hungarian perfume shop in the 1930s, a couple of shop clerks try to track down the identity of those who have been sending them love letters. The show runs Dec. 2 - 19 at the Sunset’s Furlan Auditorium on 700 Wall St in Elm Grove. For more information, visit Sunset online.
Sadly, the 1998 death of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard continues to be painfully topical over a quarter century after the brutal murder occurred. This month First Stage presents a staging of the dramatic exploration of the murder and the small town in which it took place. The Laramie Project is directed by Elyse Edelman. It runs Dec. 3 - 12 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on 325 West Walnut St.
The Ring Theatre Company presents a retelling of O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi just in time for the holidays. The production is set in 1945 in a small radio station in Milwaukee as WWII ends amidst Christmas carols and vintage jingles for local businesses. The show runs Dec. 16 - 23 at Sunstone Studios on 127 E. Wells St. For more information, visit Sunstone online.
The third show to open-up at Sunstone this month might be the one show I'm looking forward to more than any of the rest of them. It's an R-rated late-night holiday comedy called. Who's Holiday! The 2017 comedy stars Samantha Sostarich as Cindy Lou Who all grown-up and living in a trailer park. It's a one-woman show. Sostarich has fun comic energy that should fill the intimate stage quite well for a late night show. The show runs Dec. 17th, 18th and 23rd. All shows are at 10 pm. For more information, visit Sunstone online.
Next Act Theatre enters the holidays with appealingly non-holiday counter programming as it presents playwright Michael Hollinger’s Cold War spy spoof Red Herring. A very engaging Mary MacDonald Kerr plays longtime detective Maggie Pelletier, who is investigating a Russian spy ring. Dylan Bolin makes a charismatic appearance as Maggie’s love interest and fellow detective Frank Keller. Frank is looking to get Maggie to commit to him, but she’s not going to feel comfortable with the arrangement until after she is able to bring-in the Russian spies. Maggie’s status as the central character in the detective story makes an appealing alternative to the traditional male-dominated hard boiled detective drama.
The uneasy romance between Frank and Maggie is paralleled in the script by a mirror romance between young lovers played by Eva Nimmer and Zach Thomas Woods. Nimmer is charmingly conflicted as Lynn McCarthy--daughter of the infamous senator from Wisconsin who led the search of phantom communists in the 1950s. The good news? Her boyfriend just proposed to her. The bad news? He’s a Russian spy. Woods’ relatable idealism as a Russian spy helps balance-out the politics of the ensemble. Villains and heroes alike are shown in a sympathetic light that glides gracefully into the light comedy of the story.
Bo Johnson and Kelly Doherty round out the cast as a beleaguered Russian spy named Andrei Borchevsky and his love interest--a woman looking to guide him into further espionage activity. Johnson is as clever with his meekly reluctant Russian wisdom as Doherty is with her earthly, jaded cynicism. Doherty is brilliant with the fast-paced deadpan Dashiell Hammett wit. She also makes an endearingly comic appearance as Lynn’s mother--the housewife of Joe McCarthy. The exaggerated placidity of her deep Wisconsin accent adds to the local flavor of the show considerably.
Kerr is firmly ensconced in the role of Maggie. Every other actor in the ensemble plays a variety of other characters that all manage to make a fun impression on the production. Bolin is fun as a harried priest taking two different confessions at once. Nimmer makes an appealing counterpoint to the sweetness of Lynn McCarthy as a bitter clerk who is forced to deal with marriage licenses. Woods is fun as a droll Republican coroner eagerly awaiting the election of Eisenhower. Johnson plays a few different roles...none more subtly impressive than that of a covered corpse in the morgue. It’s a hell of a challenge to lie there doing nothing and look convincingly dead...even beneath a sheet like that. Johnson has a great stage presence. The fact that he was able to suppress it and just lie there is actually really, really cool.
Set Designer Rick Rasmussen has ingeniously put together a set that would feel perfectly at home in the cover of an old pulp detective novel. He maximizes the space in a way that allows for stylish bits of set to work in a variety of different settings. In places it feels like on old movie poster come to life amidst the iconic gumshoe detective costuming of Amy Horst. Once again, David Cecsarini smartly brings together an impressive array of talent to vividly realize the potential of a script that could have easily drifted into cheesy cliche. Beyond light comedy and spot-on hard boiled detective cloak and dagger elements, Cecsarini and company develop a deeply enjoyable pair of romances onstage that are deeply satisfying in their own right.
Next Act Theatre’s production of Red Herring runs through December 19th at the Next Act space on 255 S. Water St. For more information, visit Next Act online.
First Stage enters the holidays with a production of the beloved A Charlie Brown Christmas. The impressive Martin McClendon set at the Todd Wehr Theatre brings the ancient comic strip and animated show to life with Jason Orlenko costuming the cleverly pulls flatly rendered mid-20th century comics characters to vivid life.
Director Jeff Frank brings together a very well-articulated mood from the old animated TV special that amplifies the depth of the emotions for the live stage. Music Director Paul Helm fuses the pleasant sentimentality to the beloved scoring of the old Charlie Brown TV specials. The choreography of Chris Feiereisen cleverly takes the overly simplistic 1960s made-for-TV cel animated Peanuts dances and bring a them to comic life onstage. Seeing actual actors dance like awkward animation never gets old.
I saw the show with my kids. (Both are in grade school.) Charles Schultz' work was very old and outdated when I was their age. I was skeptical of the show's appeal to a generation growing-up with weird crafting videos and the offbeat strangeness of LD ShadowLady. Much to my surprise, my kids loved Charlie Brown . Yes: grade schoolers who are very savvy and into very contemporary pop culture from strange corners of YouTube can still find appeal in something from the mega-pop mid 20th century. To them it plays like something out of another world that speaks to ideals that get to the heart of the season. There’s a weird almost avant-garde feeling in shredded plastic bags becoming snowfall onstage. There's a dreamy surrealism in strange visions of J.T. Backes dressed like an anthropomorphized Snoopy in a World War One Ace fighter pilot fugue. It works on levels that don’t have to be explained to kids. They know it’s fun even if they might not know what it is that they’re seeing onstage.
I saw the show with my family on the opening performance with the “Sparky,” children’s cast. (Which rotates with the “Schultz” cast through the run.) Nolan Zellermayer plays the title role of Charlie Brown in a thoughtful sadness. There’s a real sense of fatigue and frustration in his performance as he deals with friends and family who are far too into the commercial end of the holidays. Alice Rivera is casually stunning as little Lucy Van Pelt, who always came across as slightly annoying in the cartoon and comic strip. Rivera grants Lucy a Grace which makes her opinionated confidence that much more appealing than it typically comes across. Schultz's strangely prognosticatory observation on that state of current healthcare system comes across quite whimsically between Zellermayer and Rivera as the money-loving psychiatrist Lucy demands payment up-front from her client Charlie...clearly more concerned about the money than the client who handed it to her.
The show is based on a TV special from 1965. It’s strange to think that Schultz’s lamentations on the commercialization of Christmas would came out of the mid-1960s. Stan Freburg had expressed similar concerns a bit further back in the late 1950s. Schultz’s kids fare may not be a sophisticated or controversial as Freberg’s “Green Christma$,” but it’s always to find serious criticism of capitalism in kids fare. It still feels remarkably resonant decades after it was first broadcast through cathode-ray tubes all over the country on CBS.
First Stage’s production of A Charlie Brown Christmas runs through Dec. 26 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater on 929 N. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit First Stage online.
Theatre Gigante makes a quick, little appearance the weekend before Thanksgiving with a captivating spoken word performance by Artistic co-Director Mark Anderson. Mark’s words are punctuated with thoughtful audio interludes by composer/collaborator Frank Pahl. The intimate East Side studio space on the fifth floor of Kenilworth warms to a deeply engaging show by a very experienced storyteller. The towering, soft-spoken Anderson reaches deeply and casually into an intellectual mood that carries the imagination fluidly through an appealing series of thoughts.
As it opens, he’s waking up into a narrative of a Sunday that could be any some day in the long and winding March of COVID lockdown. Somewhere between the lights and the shadows and the audience, Mark moves through an honest, casual, conversational spoken word performance discussing matters of life, death, writing, thought and so much more.
There is real insight in inspiration and Mark Anderson’s work. Mark’s words search for meaning in everything without pretense. His words gracefully tumble through a pre-deconstructed series of stories. Metaphors and assumptions and amplifications all tumble around playfully onstage. It’s all very carefully composed. Every moment in the winding flow of consciousness has a very specific reason for being there. Mark Anderson is brilliant at delicately scoping our and sculpting silences, shadow and empty spaces in popular consciousness into something memorable.
What could have come across as a restless meandering through thoughts during the COVID pause become something much more than that. Anderson has been thinking about death. As have we all. And while he is working with the same basic understanding and framework the rest of us are, he manages to find those specific spaces and places that make it on perspective vital and insightful from his perspective.
There’s a profoundly social soul to Mark's performance. At times the sheer casualness of the whole experience can seem almost breathtakingly nonchalant. As the show wraps itself up into a kind of beginning, one has the impression of having had a remarkably deep conversation with a deeply feeling and thinking human being. Which is odd considering that he was the only one who had actually been speaking the whole time.
Anderson isn't the only one speaking the whole time. Well...he IS the only one speaking. But there's another guy up there singing. And playing guitar. And percussion. Anderson and Frank Pahl link-up beautifully in places. At one point Anderson is mentioning something about the US and the nature of imperfection (I think) and Paul punctuates it with a wittily flawed performance of the melody from a patriotic tune that jangles and mutates around the edges of the melody. Much like Anderson’s own work, Pahl is capable of breathing through the soulful beauty of his own imperfection. Pahl is playing guitar, percussion and his own voice all at the same time. People do it all the time, but it's still really amazing watching it happen with Pahl's distinct personality behind it.
Anderson and Pahl clearly have it together. The repetition on thoughts of death and ending might seem like kind of a sad place to be looking down the barrel of another holiday season, but Anderson delivers a sense of peace about it that's very reassuring. After all...this IS an expression of thanks. That's the recurring message, which feeds into the end of it all. One goes through so much in the course of one lifetime. Mark Anderson takes a moment onstage to consider it all.
It's a nice moment.
Anderson has performed onstage so much in various roles as various other characters. It's nice to have an opportunity to hang out with Mark Anderson playing "Mark Anderson" for a few fleeting moments on the way in to the holiday season.
Theatre Gigante’s Thanks a Lot! has one more performance today at 2:00 pm at Kenilworth 508 Theatre on the fifth floor of 1925 East Kenilworth Place. For more information, visit Theatre Gigante online.
It's a really fun premise for a comedy: three politically diverse women (who are all attracted to each other in various ways) navigate through a minefield of intellectual and carnal distractions in order to get work done that could actually save the nation from itself.
Voices Found Repertory joins-up with Sunstone Studios this month to present a limited-run of playwright Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming. The farce imagines women of two political extremes brought together by a beautiful force looking to do some good. The three of them are forced together in an attempt to solve all of the problems of the nation in time for a Miss America pageant event that will be taking place in just a few hours.
Samantha Sostarich plays a beauty pageant contestant who aspires to go beyond superficial politics the her social platform segment of the Miss America contest. She figures that the only way to straighten everything out is to totally re-write the constitution. Sure it’s ambitious, but the nation isn’t going to save itself and much has been accomplished under the comedy of extreme pressure in the course of the nation’s history.
Forced into aiding the beauty queen in her quest are a conservative political expert named Pat (Kaylene Howard) and an ultra-progressive blogger named Bianca (Caroline Norton.) Pat and Bianca wake-up in a hotel room together quite uncertain of how they might have ended up there. Pat isn’t wearing pants. Bianca isn’t able to post anything to her blog. Neither of them have their phones. After a quick series of revelations about how they might have come to be where they are, Pat and Bianca are joined by the woman who drugged them in the interest of securing their support.
Gunderson’s script is light, fast-paced political satire. The comedy rolls and ricochets around with transitions between scenes and revelations that can feel pretty drastic. The overall energy of a script like this is very difficult to keep grounded between transitions. The play moves like a dream fugue, so the action can feel pretty disjointed. Director Maggie Marks keeps everything rolling swiftly from moment to moment. Each of the energies onstage is firmly grounded.
Sostarich is beautifully dazzling as the charismatic, super-heroic leader. Howard wields an idealistic gravity about her as the politico looking to make a difference. Norton has deftly subtle comic instincts as the revolutionary disruptor. Marks has fostered a comedic celerity in the cast that allows for a sharpness of wit in subtle shifts of tone and inflection that make for an entertainingly textured comedy.
Political comedy requires rapid-fire embrace of an ever-expanding complexity that Gunderson’s script clearly embraces. The current political climate isn’t perfectly reflected. (The play was originally published in 2015 kind of a lot has happened since then.) It's impossible for any political comedy to be totally up-to-date more than a year after it was written, but the root causes of A LOT of problems are addressed. Issues with US political life echo surprisingly well with striking (and comically depressing) detail for something over half a decade old. Sostarich, Howard and Norton are hip and sophisticated in a farce that is pleasantly enchanted by that strangely persistent phantom of the ever-elusive American dream.
Sunstone Studios and Voices Found Repertory’s production of The Taming runs through November 13th at Sunstone Studios’ space on 127 East Wells St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Sunstone Studios online.
(On a personal note, I've always wondered how much of the political comedy I love comes from simply agreeing with the perspective of the comedy. Honestly...I probably was laughing at this one a bit more than I might...I mean...it feels so good to hear some of these things out loud. A few minor disagreements aside, I'm solidly on Gunderson's side with most of what she's expressing here. Term limits for the US Supreme Court? Yes! Abolish the Electoral College? Yes! She even refers to the Second Amendment as "the militia amendment." Yes! ("How could anyone misinterpret that?") For me Gunderson's script feels a lot like coming home. It's fun.)