The last theatre company to debut this year opens a one-weekend production the final days of the decade. Nonsense Theatre Company presents a modest, richly intense staging of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty. Gabriella Ashlin directs a small ensemble in the intimate space of The Retreat on north MLK Dr. Though some of the physicality of the production lacks convincing physical aggression, the complexity of the drama between two couples is vividly conjured to the stage in a promising opening for the new company.
The play opens in a heated argument between Tyler Fridley and Emily Elliott in the roles of Greg and Steph. Steph’s friend Carly told her that Greg said something rude about her. He doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about. Fridley comes across as a jerk as the play opens, but that honestly might have been more a product of my bias than anything. (I have a wife and two daughters. I generally don’t like guys.) LaBute had written the dialogue to be a sophisticated balance of an argument between two people who are about as rational as...most people are. The beauty of LaBute’s script is that it flows cleverly without losing sight of an earthbound dialogue that feels quite natural. This sort of thing can be maddeningly difficult to bring to the stage in a way that FEELS natural. To their credit, Fridley and Elliott not only make the dialogue feel natural, they also manage to make a small commercial space near the offices of the DNR on North MLK feel kind of like somebody’s apartment.
With the addition of a couple of tables and a few minor elements, the stage shifts to represent a factory break room. It is there that the other two characters are introduced. Colin Kovarik plays Greg’s co-worker Kent. (He also worked as sound designer for the show. Subtle atmospheric sound in the background goes a long way toward establishing different locations in a play with almost no substantial scenic elements.) Kent IS an asshole. He makes no attempt to hide this with Greg. Kovarik does as pretty good job of making Kent’s petty villainy seem totally shameless. LaBute does attempt to etch some complexity into Kent, but the guy really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. The physicality of the aggression that breaks out between Kent and Greg isn’t terribly compelling, but it’s really, REALLY difficult to make an open brawl work on a stage as small as the one at The Retreat. Kovarik’s aggression with Fridley may not work all that well, but the seediness of his physicality with Carly is undeniable.
Carly is a security officer at the plant that Greg and Kent work at. She’s also Kent’s wife. Emmaline Friederichs has a sharp and apparent perspicacity about her in the role of Carly. The uniform she’s wearing as security at the factory isn’t very assertive. Friederichs makes-up for this with a poise and presence that asserts itself without being constantly pushy or aggressive. Friederichs lends a sharp sense of authority about her onstage. Friederichs’ adroit awareness as Carly makes her inability to see Kent’s duplicity a bit difficult understand. There’s a scene between Kent and Carly that goes a long way toward explaining this, but LaBute makes it a real challenge by making Kent so very, very irredeemable. Friederichs’ confrontation in the break room with Kovarik is one of the more complex scenes in the entire drama. Friederichs and Kovarik handle that complexity beautifully in a scene which firmly establishes Greg as a nice guy who happens to be very flawed. All personal biases aside, Fridley does a brilliant job of making Greg an appealing and even slightly witty guy. It’s a very complicated 90 minutes or so onstage that makes fo a very enjoyable opening for Nonsense.
Nonsense Theatre Company’s staging of Reasons to Be Pretty runs through December 30th at The Retreat on 2215 N. Martin Luther King Dr. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page.
Off the Wall Theatre explores the dangers of doing deliberately bad theatre for comic effect in The Great Scrooge Disaster. Written by Off the Wall’s Dale Gutzman, the brief musical comedy misses a few opportunities for clever comedy in favor of inoffensively light humor that misses more often than it hits. Gutzman’s script has cast of Off the Wall regulars playing themselves and characters in a production of A Christmas Carol that has been beset with technical problems and an outbreak of illness. Gutzman goes for the easy humor in a show that might have been a darkly comic exploration of something far deeper.
Gutzman plays himself as a last-minute replacement for the actor playing Scrooge. Gutzman develops a comically confused and bewildered version of himself drifting in and out of dialogue from other plays as he fumbles his way through the early stages of A Christmas Carol. The cast of regulars shifts between frustration with and concerned for Gutzman, who really DOES seem to be crumbling beneath the stress of everything. Gutzman’s acting here is really quite good. (It’s like he wrote the role for himself or something.) Gutzman flounders. A cast is on edge. Regulars like Kristin Pagenkopf and Lawrence J Lukasavage manage a balance between themselves and the actors they’re pretending to be onstage. In subtle moments of silence between lines, the energy seems to be reaching towards a deep, dark comedy on the nature of reality onstage reflecting into itself.
A production of a play about a comically bad play performed by actors playing actors could have been a darkly humorous examination of the very idea of quality. There’s potentially deep humor in watching actors play themselves in a potentially bad play about a bad play satirizing the continued success of the Milwaukee Rep’s annual production. Something like The Great Scrooge Disaster could have worked on multiple levels. A comedy that’s written to be bad might have been brilliant given the right direction. Instead, Gutzman’s humor is cheesy, breezy, superficial comedy that ranges from mild injuries onstage to technical miscues to a door that never seems to open.
The show has a few fun moments that could have been accentuated a bit more. There are some sharp elements of comedy punctuating the show: James Strange has clever comic instincts as an actor reluctant to enter the collapsing production. Caitlin Kujawski Compton has a firm graps of the comedy of Christmas Present who is determined to go through with her scene even if it means occasionally breaking with character in comically poised frustration. Towards the end when both Gutzman AND the actor the had come-in to replace him as Scrooge are both determined to make it through to the end of the show. Gutzman is seen in a long scarf that’s being crocheted as he wears it for no clear reason. Somewhat witty bits like this don’t add-up to a fun show, but they DO suggest a better show could have come out of the overall energy onstage.
The one clearly bright point in the whole production is Gutzman’s choice of music. He’s found some really charming alternatives to the traditional Christmas musical fare that firmly avoids the kind of schmaltzy sentiment so often littering Christmas shows. It may not be perfect, but The Great Scrooge Disaster is definitely an odd, little alternative to bigger live theatre shows this holiday season. Even though I didn’t personally like it that much, I’m really happy this one is almost completely sold out. Even the least appealing live theatre is worth seeing over the big, ugly live performances and big screen offerings this holiday season. It’s nice to know that Gutzman’s energy can sell out so many performances of a show like this before it even opens.
Off the Wall Theatre presents The Great Scrooge Disaster through Dec. 31 at 127 E. Wells St. For more information, visit Off the Wall online.
This month, Voices Found Repertory presents an engaging staging of Shakespeare’s history Henry V. Under the direction of Alec Lachman, the faced-paced intermission-less production breezes briskly through in the form of an intimate, little pop action drama. The deeper dramatic elements shoot by with a rather large ensemble in a very, very cozy space beneath Wisconsin Avenue. What it lacks in Shakespeare’s evenly-weighted exploration of the nature of war it more than makes up for in sweeping action and resonant emotional energy.
Heroes and Villains
Like so many of Shakespeare’s scripts, Henry V has a complex constellation of elements that can be accentuated in various ways to make for pretty drastically different stagings. The production at Door Shakespeare this past summer went for an even-handed approach which featured French and British sides of the war in relatively equal light. Voices Found takes the villainy of the French found in the script and amplifies it in a slickly cool pulpy sort of a style. The villains all smoke and glide across the stage. The heroes are scrappy fighters. Even the Jake Thompson’s King Henry looks tousled and ruggedly disheveled. Thomsen’s charm (which is usually pretty impressive) reaches a kind of unassumingly overwhelming halo of coolness as a man who fate has chosen to fight the French. With the heavier end of the drama compromised by the pacing, the weightiness of Thomsen’s delivery of the classic St. Crispin’s Day Speech feels a bit casual. (To me that speech is a bit like the Hamlet’s soliloquy: really, really beautiful but absolutely impossible for any actor to do justice to. It’s so impossibly delicate that it would shatter across even the most graceful tongue.)
The French Thing
There’s a very stylishly stark contrast between the French and the British. Nowhere is this more evident than the mercurial switch made by Caroline Norton, who plays the scruffy, old Brit named Pistol and the gracious noble Queen Isabel of France.
French villains smoke, but there are heroes here too. While Alexis Furseth glides around in style with classy, sardonic shade as Montjoy and others slide around in sinister pomposity, Caroline Fossum and Thomas Sebald make an impressively noble appearance as princess Catharine and um...her lady in Waiting Alice. Alice is a guy here...Sebald is a very tall and imposing figure who carries around an intimidatingly massive semi-improvised melee weapon. So Alice here is a bodyguard who happens to speak both English and French . Traditionally the scene between Catharine and her Lady In Waiting has a completely different weight and context about it as Alice gives the princess a lesson in English that is performed almost entirely in French. Fossum and Sebald make the tender comedy of the scene glide with a sharply nuanced dynamic.
The romance that blossoms between Catharine and Henry at the end of the play is very, very difficult. The two have almost no time onstage to develop a chemistry. Thanks to a brilliantly-executed Catharine/Alice moment earlier on in the play, the Fossum is given more than enough of a chance to make a beautiful impact as a princess before launching into a romantic moment with Henry, who has a charm that is deftly wielded by Thompson. Oddly enough for an action drama, Thompson and Fossum’s romance here is one of the most compelling I can remember seeing on the small stage all year.
That’s Us: The Action
Whether onstage or onscreen, action is something that an audience has to work on. We know no one is actually in danger. We complete what the fight choreographers have developed. Fight Choreographer Connor Blankenship has done a remarkable job of developing many, many layers of action on a stage that is essentially the corner of a room in a basement. He’s making something the size of a large closet feel like it has the depth of an entire stretch of battlefield. The ensemble does a very sharp job of bringing it to the small stage. It’s such a small space that if one pair of combatants were to bump into another pair could easily create a cascade effect that would feel a bit like a cue ball breaking up a billiard balls on green felt. The fight scenes in this production have a depth to them that’s a lot of fun to watch. Blankenship himself actually looks really cool onstage. He’s got a powerful voice in the role of Exeter that feels reminiscent of screen actor Clancy Brown. With grey hair, beard and right eyepatch accompanying various other elements of his costuming, Blankenship’s Duke of Exeter seems to have (inadvertently or not) drawn inspiration from Wolfman and Perez’s pop fictional mercenary Slade Wilson. Intentional or not, the badass antiheroic look of Exeter lends texture to the production that is echoed in a ragtag visual aesthetic. Melee with archaic weapons includes rags, scarves and welding goggles. The action here is very stylish.
Sometimes It’s the Subtle Things
The small stage can draw a tremendous amount of impact from subtle juxtapositions. Rebekah Farr has great instincts in the role of the French aggressor Louis, Duke of Guyenne, the dauphin. The character is a comically petty braggart. There’s a moment when Farr takes a moment to play her deliberately distasteful on a very visceral level. She’s found smoking a cigarette and eating a bag of Cheetos® at the same time. It’s the cheapest special effect imaginable, but even though the cigarette isn’t lit and even though we’re not actually tasting the Cheetos, there’s a very distinct visceral appeal to sent, taste and tactile sensations that adds a great deal of distastefulness to Farr’s dauphin. I love little elements like that in a production.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of Henry V runs through Dec. 16th at The Underground Collaborative. For ticket reservations and more, visit Voices Found Online.