There are only a few days left to go in 2018. Local comedy outfit Mojo Dojo finds a bit more room in the year for a little improv holiday stage stuffer. The Santa Diaries makes a few appearances the last few days of this month along with opening improv group The Shindig. The double bill of comedy played to a packed house at Urban Harvest Brewing Company.
The Shindig is a group of four improv comics doing improv games. There are two men. There are two women. It’s light. It’s fun. At the end of a brief selection of improv games, the audience votes on their favorite performer. It’s a breezy intro to the main improv event. A nice set-up for a slightly higher-concept bit of long-form improv.
A dapperly bearded Eric Koconis introduces The Santa Diaries. The premise? He’s a thin, trim dashing Santa Claus who spends the offseason engaging in...espionage. He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He’s shaken but not stirred. It’s a clever springboard for long-form improv featuring some of the most seasoned improv comics in Milwaukee.
In character, Koconis asks for a single suggestion from the audience: some event from history that super-spy Santa might have had a hand in. To me this seems like a minefield. Lots of room for falling into some obscure part of history that might not actually be all that rich with comic potential, but these ARE some of the most experience improv comics in town and...they know what they’re doing. Opening night the suggestion was: the invention of the wheel. Koconis and company climbed back roughly 5,000 years (give or take) into pre-history.
To their credit, the group didn’t fall to any cheesy Flintstone references. Vince Figueroa opened as a man struggling to come up with the right gift for his wife. He was a man...only capable of giving rocks. Lee Rowley fell into the role of his son--a perfectly normal student from the stone age...who just happened to have casual knowledge of the world from a modern perspective. This turned out to be kind of a fun juxtaposition against Beth Lewinsky as his teacher...a small-cave instructor responsible for a class of one without much to teach. (Liv Shircel was charming as her assistant, who also served as co-captain for the one-student caveschool’s Rockball team...which ended up being kind of a big subplot.) Rowley, Figueroa and Lewinsky are great together.
The dynamic between the three central talents is a lot of fun to watch. Figueroa cleverly stalked appropriately sharp bits of comedy about a caveman living in an era before any kind of morality. Rowley played a fish out of water as a perfectly normal modern high schooler way ahead of his time for the stone age. As teacher, Lewinsky did an impressive job of assembling an appropriately comic intellectual understanding of the world as seen through a pre-historic perspective. I love to see Lewinsky in scripted comedy on those relatively rare occasions that she makes an appearance. Her improv skills have a great depth that I wish I had the opportunity to see a bit more often. The dynamic between Figueroa, Rowley and Lewinsky was periodically enhanced by appearances of Koconis in character trying to nudge primitive humanity in the direction of one of the single most important inventions ever. Could he pry the young student away from the particularly brutal scholastic sport of rockball long enough to get him involved in the whole business of the wheel? Well...no. Who really invented the wheel? Having failed at more subtle hints, Santa had no choice but to do it himself. (Nice gift.)
Mojo Dojo and Eric Koconis’ The Santa Diaries and The (Holiday) Shindig continues through Dec. 29 at Urban Harvest Brewing Company on 1024-1028 South 5th Street. For more information, visit Mojo Dojo online.
This year, Off the Wall Theatre opens a holiday show just a dozen days before the 25th. Cole & Noël is a pleasant contrast to the group’s long-running variety/sketch comedy-style Holiday Punch shows. It’s a 2-hour tribute to Cole Porter and Noël Coward featuring a breezy mix of tunes by both songwriters. Off the Wall’s Dale Gutzman plays the late Noël. Jeremy Welter plays the ghost of Cole. They are joined by a bursting ensemble of Off the Wall regulars including seasoned veterans and those who have only recently been introduced to one of Milwaukee’s smallest stages. There’s a rich pool of talent in cast of over a dozen performers ranging from the seasoned talents of Gladys Chmiel to the fresh-faced energy of Ava Danzer.
The traditional holiday show with Off the Wall in years past has had an enjoyably scattered energy about it. The mixture of music and sketches and such is kind of charming, but it can feel a bit like the show is reaching for too many different things at once. Cole & Noel has a much smoother, more elegant feel about it. By focussing on only the works and lives of two different songwriters, Gutzman and company give Cole & Noël a solidly coherent emotional center that makes for a nice couple of hours in a tiny space. Everything about the show feels safe, comfortable and cozy. It’s a perfect fit for a a relatively calm, snowless late December in Milwaukee.
Gutzman and Welter play contrasting musical legends. There’s a witty animosity between the two of them that helps carry along the energy of the show quite nicely from beginning to end. Porter and Coward have come down from heaven to do a little holiday show. The overall premise is fine. Having Gutzman and Welter play a couple of old legends kind of gets in the way, though. One would be hard pressed to find any actor to live-up to Porter and Coward’s statures. It might have been better to have Gutzman and Welter simply appear onstage as themselves, each relaying a glowing appreciation for Porter or Coward without attempting to actually portray them. Gutzman and Welter are fine by themselves. Can’t this just be a small party honoring the work of two greats? Do they have to actually show-up as well? Is it really any of their business that people are still loving their music decades after they’re gone? Shouldn’t they just be getting on with whatever it is dead songwriters do? Seriously though: attempting to channel the spirits of legends only hampers the fun...but it's only a minor detail because this show IS fun.
There’s impressive talent in the ensemble. Liz Norton provides a powerful voice to a number of songs including Porter’s classic “Anything Goes.” Jake Russell makes another charismatic appearance onstage. His rather deft lyrical tango with Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love,” is a casual high point of the show. The sharply lyrical side of the evening is balanced-out by some clever sensuality. Caitlin Kujawski Compton delivers a playful sensuality dancing around Porter’s “But In the Morning, No!”
One again it’s remarkable just how much Gutzman and company are able to cram into a space that’s not much bigger than a small corner of the lobby of the Tenth Street Theatre. Choreographer Kristin Pagenkopf has had a great deal of experience working in the space. Pagenkopf makes the tiny space seem spacious with very tightly precise choreography. This is a tiny, little show, but it feels like a big, sprawling party in the shadow of bigger theatre at the end of a year. This is easily one of the best holiday shows Off the Wall has ever done.
Off the Wall Theatre’s Cole & Noël runs through Dec. 31st at Off the Wall’s space on 127 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more visit Off the Wall online or call 414-484-8874.
Milwaukee Entertainment Group presents a whimsically classy, little holiday show this month as it presents Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play. The 108 year-old Brumder Mansion radiates warmth in a Lance Arthur Smith adaptation of the classic 1947 Lux Radio Hour broadcast of the classic holiday tale with added musical songs and arrangements by Jon Lorenz.
Co-Directors Tom Marks and Amanda J. Hull have come to know the tiny subterranean stage at the Brumder quite well over the course of many, many shows. The cozy space serves as a tiny live studio audience for an old-timey radio-style adaptation of the 1947 film.
Connor Blankenship plays announcer and host of the show as well as a diverse variety of other roles in a variety of accents and attitudes. Mialdo is a relative newcomer to the local stage having arrived from Louisville. His substantial charisma brings the diverse elements of the show together in a tone and timbre that feels very authentic to 1940s radio. Hayley San Fillippo also lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings. She’s appeared in old-timey radio style shows with Cabaret Milwaukee and at the Brumder last September in Matthew Konkel’s Jake Revolver--VCR Repairman. Fillippo has extensive experience with this kind of show and a great nonchalant talent for it. Contemporary old-timey radio feels that much more authentic with her in the cast. Matthew Ecclestone also makes a familiar appearance at the Brumder having made memorable appearances in Liz Shipe’s Sherlock Holmes series. Here he appealingly swaggers through a couple of roles around the edges of the central plot.
Dapper James P. Iaquinta has a robust dramatic dynamic in the role of Kris Kringle--a department store Santa who believes himself to be the real thing. He runs into some difficulty proving his identity to others--particularly a pragmatic, little girl named Susan Walker. To their credit, Marks and Hull have elected to cast a pair of alternating child actresses as Susan. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of casting a girl in the role of the girl. On a small stage it’s really difficult for an adult actor to convincingly portray a normal kid...let alone one who is as pragmatically precocious as Susan. Milwaukee has some really great kids’ theatre training programs. It’s great to see kid actresses Ellie Christian and Aven Spahn have an opportunity with this kind of classic.
Kira Walters has a sweet June Cleaver-like presence as Susan’s mother Doris, who works in the office for Macy’s. Like her daughter, she’s reluctant to accept Kringle as Santa, but chance and circumstance gradually convince her of the magic of Christmas.
Musical theatre talent Travis Cheever rounds out the cast as Doris’ love interest...a lawyer looking to help Kringle prove his identity in court.
Milwaukee Entertainment Group’s production of Miracle On 34th Street:A Live Musical Radio Play runs through Dec. 22 at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 West Wisconsin Avenue. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Entertainment Group online.
Just west of the river on Wisconsin Avenue people were piling onto busses to go and tour Christmas lights as others piled into a flashy touring holiday show at the Riverside. It felt slickly subversive to slide between the shadows of it all and into the basement of a nearby mall where an AMAZING actress pretended to kill a few people on a small stage in a tragedy that debuted on the other side of the world well over 2000 ago. This is the mother of all alternatives to holiday fare. THIS is Greek tragedy.
Euripides’ Medea has held up well over 2000 years since it first debuted to mixed reviews. The ancient tale of revenge has all kinds of echoes in to the modern world. Director Jennifer Vosters brings a very vividly visceral production of the ancient tragedy to the stage of the Underground Collaborative’s Arcade Theatre in a Voices Found Repertory production. Vosters’ adaptation for the stage is a harrowingly tight 75 minutes without intermission. It’s a short, brutal staging that announces itself immediately and wastes little time in reaching its bloody conclusion.
The story gives the actress playing Medea very little time to establish herself. As the tragedy begins, she’s already met with the happiest moments of her life. Her life has come and gone and now all that’s left is the demolition at the end. Her husband has wronged her and abandoned her and her children. He’s taken another wife. All that’s left is revenge. She’s quite open about it. She lets chorus and audience alike know what she’s going to do. Then she does it. There really isn’t much mystery here. It’s very straightforward stuff. It’s a challenge for any actress.
Cara Johnston skillfully casts a stylish sense of mystery into the character. She radiates a hauntingly hypnotic intensity that bleeds a deeper enigma into the existential substance of revenge. It couldn’t be more obvious to the audience what Medea is doing. Johnston’s starkly psychological portrayal of the character invites unavoidable questions about the type of people who seek bloody revenge. Vosters frames the story as a drama of oppression. Medea has been selfless and sacrificed much, but those she have taken pains for would cast her aside and so she seeks revenge.
Madeline Wakley, Maura Atwood and Abigail Stein are a chorus of three. Initially, they are giddy about the prospects of punishing those who have wronged Medea. When the full weight of revenge reveals itself, they are horrified and powerless to stop her. Placing a Greek chorus in the intimacy of a small stage allows each actress to have a distinctly different personality without subverting the overall unity of the chorus. Like so much else about the production, it’s a delicate balance that’s handled quite well.
Catalina Ariel draws quite a bit of intensity as Medea’s nurse, who is called on to aid Medea in her task. In a role that could have read flat and superficial around the edges of the action, Ariel conjures the wise stage presence of an expert in early medicines. She’s not given a whole lot of space to develop a fully-realized character, but Ariel has a precision about her that adds atmosphere to the world that Vosters and company bring to the stage.
Andy Montano is given the unenviable task of playing heroic asshole Jason. He’s largely played as a villain in the script, but Montano is carefully to show the full complexity of a man who is a towering hero in a male-dominated society. There’s no sense of menace here. He’s just inconsiderate in ays. he doesn’t understand. His best scenes draw him against Johnston in a complex dialogue that Jason is far too lost in himself to truly understand.
Joe Dolan makes a witty appearance in the role of Aegeus...the itinerant King of Athens who vows to give Medea protection if she can make it to his kingdom under her own power. There’s nothing intrinsically funny about Aegeus, but Dolan has a cunning sense of humor that lends the character enough authority and wisdom to tease a bit of clever humor into the character’s brief appearance onstage. It’s one of several sharp bits of personality that make for a memorable trip to the Underground Collaborative.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of Medea runs through Dec. 16 at the The Arcade Theatre at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket requests and more, visit Voices Found Online.
Milwaukee playwright Neil Haven’s Who Killed Santa? reaches its 10th anniversary this month. The dark, silly murder mystery comedy makes its way to the LVL Events stage in Walker’s Point this holiday season. Once again Santa, Mrs. Claus, a police detective from the North Pole, the Tooth Fairy and a whole bunch of puppets find themselves at an ill-fated holiday party that is beset by multiple homicides.
Bo Johnson returns once again as the four non-puppet characters. He’s as sharp as ever with the light, pleasantly superficial comedy. Fellow WKS? veteran Nate Press also makes a return appearance once again as the loveably dim-witted Frosty the Snowman. Press continues to be immensely enjoyable in the role.
Grace DeWolff has developed a clever sense of characterization with the puppet of Tiny Tim. DeWolff has a really good Dickensian cockney accent and a suitably appealing voice for the adorable, little cripple. As appealing as this is, it’s DeWolff’s articulation and subtle emotion with the puppet that really makes for an endearing performance. Of particular note are scenes between her and Chastity the Little Drummer Girl. Tiny Tim has a crush on Chastity. With fuzzy puppet fingers nervously tapping on a tabletop and subtly shy motions and movement, Tim’s anxiety is irresistible.
This time around Kendall Yorkey plays Chastity the Little Drummer Girl. She brings a remarkably powerful singing voice to a role that has her singing lead on a Neil Haven parody of “Lady Marmalade“ among other bits. (It's infectious. Really. I’ve seen the show enough over the years that “Lady Marmalade” actually sounds like a Christmas song to me.) Yorkey brings a bit of the pop diva to a sexually suggestive puppet. (I know: it’s kinda weird) The character makes a lot of aesthetic sense with a singing voice as strong as Yorkey’s.
It’s also nice to see Tawnie Thompson in anything, but it’s especially cool to see her here as an edgy, drunken Rudolph. Puppet-maker Dan Katula based the puppet after the old wholesome Rankin and Bass image of the character. The visual of this cheery, little 1960s stop-motion reindeer hero drinking and getting violent makes for fun comedy. Thompson has a grasp of the physicality of the puppet that makes the drunkenness and the violence all the more palpable. She brings out the physical aggression quite vividly.
JJ Gatesman takes on the role of The Little Drummer Boy. The character is all grown-up and looking very metal. The character’s connection with Tiny Tim is that much more palpable in this particular incarnation of the show. There’s a physical connection between the two characters that enhances an already vivid reality for the puppets this year. Katula’s ten year old puppets have always had the great physical potential. This year they seem that much more vivid than they have in the past thanks to a little bit closer attention to the puppeteering.
The LVL Events space is very comfortable. The layout of the place balances the intimacy of the stage against a very spacious area beyond the stage. There’s a bar and a place where attendees might take pictures beneath a giant “Who Killed Santa?” logo. It’s a really classy space for a show as irreverent as Haven’s irrepressible holiday spoof.
Neil Haven’s Who Killed Santa? runs through December 30th at LVL Events (on the second floor of LVL Dance) on 801 S. 2nd St. For ticket reservations, visit Who Killed Santa Online.
In Tandem Theater assembles a solid evening of entertainment with its latest. Merry Chris-Mess it is a cute program of sketches and songs and other assorted bits of spoofery that runs over 2 hours with intermission.
It’s always really refreshing to see a show like this put together. There's so much new material.Not everything is perfect, but maintains enough charm to keep the fun rolling from beginning to end.
Much of the show was written by local funnyman Anthony Wood. The mind behind A Cudahy Caroler Christmas generates a few moments of genuine cleverness in in the midst of humor that ranges from a very, very silly to reasonably deep. Sometimes things feel drawn-out a little bit longer than they should be. Wood doesn’t always know exactly where to end a sketch. The worst offender on length is a bit featuring a sharply funny Emmitt Morgans as an elf leading a meeting of a labor union of Arctic elves who work for Santa was clever, but it the joke is exhausted a few minutes before the end of the sketch.
Some sketches just don’t feel at home in a holiday show. There’s a hardboiled noir parody featuring dashing Sean Duncan as a doggy detective looking for a ball for a poodle femme fatale played by a cleverly comic Jocelyn Ridgely. It’s fun, but it doesn’t exactly fit into the holiday motif, interrupting the flow of things a bit. At least it’s fun, though. There is a somewhat tedious sketch with a couple of guys on a desert island that probably could’ve been omitted all together.
More often than not, Wood does manage to do some really interesting stuff. Of particular note is one of Wood’s darker fits of humor. The stylish “Secret Santa” spoofs the Johnny Rivers song “Secret Agent Man.” Santa is envisioned as a shadowy figure who gives gifts to good kids and executes the naughty ones. It’s darkly funny stuff that manages a tastefully disturbing edge. Even a little bit darker and the comedy would tumble into something very sinister.
Wood returns to his single most successful show with a couple of new musical Christmas parodies by the Cudahy Carolers including the deliciously heartwarming “Oh Come Let’s Have Some Fish Fry.” It’s always nice to see Chris Flieller back onstage as Stasch Zielinski from Cudahy.
The bulk of the program features Zach Thomas Woods doing a respectable Jimmy Stewart impression as George Bailey in a spoof of It’s A Wonderful Life. Capra’s film is such an institution. It’s been spoofed so many times. Aspects of Wood’s particular take on the spoof have appeared elsewhere before. It would be almost impossible to find a truly fresh approach to spoofing the classic. Anthony Wood’s satirical edge might feel a bit weak in the short but the ensemble does a really good job of delivering it with respectably heavy humor.
Zach Thomas Woods brings a charmingly massive stage presence to the central role of a comically twisted George Bailey. Liz Shipe manages to sneak in some subtle bits of comedy in the role of Bailey’s brother. Recent Marquette graduate Anna Otto is also given a rather cleverly comic role in the spoof as the silent, unflappably austere assistant to a grossly flatulent villain Old Man Potter (played by a suitably evil Chris Flieller.) The rest of the ensemble really comes together quite well in the single best part of the evening. Had the It’s a Wonderful Life sketch been just a little bit longer, it could have edged-out a few of the less accomplished sketches, for a more enjoyable show overall. It might have been a bit less of an evening, though. Even in a market somewhat saturated with comedy, an uneven evening of silly sketches is still rare enough to make a festive holiday comedy variety show well worth attending.
In Tandem Theatre’s Merry Chris-Mess runs through Jan. 6th at the Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit In Tandem online.