Written in an era long before word processing, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was fairly immense. Though its 206,000 words is fairly common for a modern novel, when the work was written, it doubtlessly felt fairly massive. The whaling epic about a ridiculously large whale conveyed immensity on so many levels from the physical to the abstract and metaphysical. It was a truly ambitious work. This month one of the smallest stages in town tackles a humble adaptation of the work as Off The Wall Theatre presents Call Me Ishmael--Dale Gutzman’s adaptation of the book. The tiny, little stage may not convey the titanic immensity of Melville’s work, but the cast holds the interpersonal drama of the show together quite well, bringing it down to an intimate drama focussing primarily on the passions and concerns of four people.
Director Dale Gutzman and Technical Director David Roper have put together a visceral visual feel for the show. The action of the production swims from one scene tot he next ubder the power of minimal suggestion and clever direction of the eye with little more than sheets and a few props. This proves to have been a good move as any extensive scenic design would have compromised the flow and rhythm of a show which is so closely focussed on the drama of just a few people.
Jake Russell plays the title character here. He’s a young man who wants to see the world. Russell’s wide-eyed wonder in the role serves as an emotional focal point to the show that serves it well against the murky ambition of the rest of the story.
Nathan Danzer is a strong presence onstage in the role of Queequeg--a physically.imposing Polynesian prince of great experience and elegantly simple emotion. The stark simplicity of Dazer’s approach to the character fits well within a briskly-established relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael, which wastes little time in becoming romantic. The romance between the two men resonates on a very personal level that contrasts against the loftier, more intellectual relations between Starbuck and Captain Ahab.
Mohammad N. ElBsat has a somewhat galvanizing energy as ship’s chief mate Mr. Stabuck. He’s acting captain for the early part of the play as the ship’s chief master lurks about in the shadows. ElBsat conjures thoughtful authority in the role that anchors the dramatic energy of the story until Ahab finally makes his appearance.
Towering James Strange plays the obsessive Captain Ahab. Strange’s crisp intensity as the mysterious captain brings a sense of mystery to the production. Standing there on one leg and one ivory stump with an impressive scar across his face, Strange looks a bit like a special effect onstage. The rich authority of his voice launches the production forward into the hunt for the great white whale known as Moby Dick. Strange’s intensity draws the mood of the story over the edge into an ambitious darkness.
Gutzman and company know exactly which direction to point their tiny stage in to chase off after one of the greatest works of English literature. Gutzman’s unique take on the classic is an enjoyable reflection of a great work that doesn’t even come close to approach the towering accomplishment if its source material, but it doesn’t need to. Gutzman’s reflections on passion and ambition fill the tiny space of his theatre quite well. To pursue any more than interpersonal drama would have been folly.
Off The Wall Theatre’s production of Call Me Ishmael runs through April 28th at the tiny, little studio space on 127 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Off The Wall online.
Theatre Gigante closed-out its season with a beautiful, little one-hour, one-evening show last night at St. John’s on the Lake. A spacious room on the ground floor of the retirement community served as a stage for four as the group presented an exceedingly accessible presentation. Writer/performers Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson were joined by the Chicago-based singer/songwriter team of Diane Christiansen and Steve Dawson in a show they called Will We Ever Get There?
The stage is kind of a demanding place. People who are dedicated to hanging out onstage have a tendency to spend a lot of time with each other. People who spend a lot of time together have a tendency to fall in love. Will We Ever Get There? Featured a couple of couples doing material drawn from lives spent together. Kralj and Anderson’s conversational bits alternated with songs sung by Christiansen with Dawson on guitar. Witty linguistic bits wove their way around a casually tender folk.
Will We Ever Get There? is a very clever kind of casual. The four onstage made the mood feel totally natural even though...y’know...they were four people onstage with amplification and everyone watching them. The cleverness about this lies in the natural feel of it all. Whenever a couple of actors play people who have known each other forever, we as an audience know that it’s fake. As social creatures, we’re alarmingly aware of the subtle cues between two people who genuinely HAVE been together forever. Even the best actors can’t totally fake those cues. Familiarity rests in an ineffable constellation of little cues that are difficult to define. Familiarity is tricky onstage. As audience, we notice its absence and let it pass in the interest of engaging in a show. The charm in Will We Ever Get There? lies in watching a couple of people who have genuinely spent a life together being together onstage. It feels like a special kind of perfect to watch Kralj and Anderson together playing playful echoes of themselves onstage.
Whether they’re talking about Chekhov or lost in a car or just gazing at a Warhol, Kralj and Anderson have a kind of graceful stillness about their conversations onstage. Words and phrases are encouraged into multiple meanings by warm silences. They do so much together onstage over the course of a season with Gigante, it’s nice to see them being themselves at the end of it all before the long trek through summer before the next Gigante show. It’s been performed before. It’ll doubtlessly be performed again. Part of the extreme cleverness of Will We Ever Get There? is its adaptability. It could fit itself into and around a variety of different formats. Here it shared space with some rather charismatic folk music.
An old guitarist friend of mine made a distinction between musicians and bards. Musicians play the music they may or may not have written. They could be rich and famous or alone and unknown. Bards, though...bards live the music they perform. Yes, they’re performing music but they might as well be talking. The guitar and melodic lyric are like talking for them. Christiansen and Dawson are bards. They were sent a copy of Kralj and Anderson’s script and they chose songs to perform between each bit of dialogue. One imagines that there was a rather large pool of work to choose from...they chose the stuff they wrote about living together. Relationship stuff. Beautiful stuff.
It was a free performance at a retirement community, but it could have just as easily taken place in a park or a cafe or a teahouse somewhere. It’s so refreshing to see art brought together with such elegantly simple grace. Stripped of all its flashy production, performance can relax and live through people connecting with each other. No greater sophistication. Four people onstage. Sometimes thats all it takes to have a good time at a show.
Theatre Gigante’s 2018-2019 season has closed. For more information on upcoming shows as they are announced, visit Theatre Gigante online. Or visit Theatre Gigante on Facebook.
Early 20th century political satire The Last Cyclist remains tragically prescient decades after it was first written in a Jewish ghetto under the oppression of the Nazis. The staging at Cardinal Stritch this month cleverly reflects the alarmingly persistent truth: those with the right influence a can rise to power by finding an enemy that the public can agree to. A diverse ensemble under the direction of Mark Boergers glides through a tale of ignorance, hatred and cruelty in a dramatic presentation animated by dark humor that reflects current events.The script is written by Naomi Patz based on an original cabaret by Karel Švenk.
The opening of the play firmly anchors the play in history. Inhabitants of the Terezin Ghetto gather for the final dress rehearsal of The Last Cyclist. Scenic Greg Kaye makes impressive use of old wooden chairs, crates and flowing white sheets to invoke the feeling of a dilapidated ghetto. The full breadth of the spacious Nancy Kendall Mainstage Theater is barricaded off by the scenery, giving a kind of thematic immersion in the aesthetic of a walled-off ghetto. Sarah Burger's sound design adds to the atmosphere as the audience files in to the show. There's the sound of a small village pulsing through the theatre. Joel Kopischke plays a humbly heroic figure bringing together people living in awful conditions to perform a narrative that might give them some sense of insight in the squalor of their lives under Nazi oppression.
Kopischke plays a hero of a different kind as the play settles-in. In the play within the play, Kopischke is a grocer who is in love with a woman he finds himself incredibly nervous around. Laura Monagle endearingly plays his love interest in a few remarkably sweet scenes that serve as a central emotional compass for the show.
Villainy enters the picture in the form of a cynical, avaricious figure played with deliciously casual arrogance by Marcee Doherty-Elst. A quick discussion with a few others suggests that bicycle riders might be the source of all the ensemble’s problems—an assertion backed-up by Randall T. Anderson as an equally cynical figure who seeks power and authority of his own. The two central authority figures are backed-up by a host of lunatics. At the center of the lunacy are a couple of playfully mad underlings played with alarming charm by Maggie Marks and Nick Narcisi. The fun playfulness of Marks and Narcisi allows the despicable nature of what they’re doing to feel like in inconsequentially silly game until things start to look dark and foreboding for our hero. Thus is the complexity of totalitarianism brought into strikingly simple clarity for a provocatively concise intermission-less evening at the theatre.
The basic plot of the story is so primal and simplistic that it could echo into nearly any era. All that would be needed here is the demand to build a wall to keep out the cyclists, and The Last Cyclist would be a chillingly contemporary satire on the current administration. Adaptations of The Last Cyclist could be done in every language on the planet on stages all over the world and it would be as pertinent as it is here. (I'd love to see a version of the satire done entirely in Spanish on the US-Mexico Border.) It’s disturbing that something as ugly as institutionalized persecution still feels so relevant. It’s that disgustingly enduring relevance that keeps The Last Cyclist so very, very important.
The Last Cyclist runs through April 14th at Cardinal Stritch on 6801 N. Yates Road. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cardinal Stritch online. The show is presented by Cardinal Stritch University, The Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC) and The Harry and Rose Samson Jewish Community Center.
Cooperative Performance’s all-new original show Machina Persona is an endearingly social dramatic comedy. J.J. Gatesman and company hav developed a cast of six characters who exist in a dreamy, little steampunk community. Each one serves a different archetypal role in the cast...there’s an engineer and a pilot and a scientist and so on.
They’re all working together to develop a flying machine. The cast speaks to each other and (occasionally) the audience in a strange vocabulary that seems to echo English, French, Japanese and a host of other languages. The characters assert themselves in bewilderingly sophisticated social interactions between each other. There’s a central plot around which all of the characters orbit, but primarily this is a chance to hang out with a cleverly-rendered community of characters for less than an hour and a half without intermission. The very human fantasy of another world settles-in for a dazzling, little theatrical fugue. A huge budge isn’t needed for a dreamy theatrical experience. What Gatesman and company deliver here is akin to being dropped in a completely foreign community of heartwarmingly fragile people.
The archetypes represented in the cast are echoes of a tradition going back to commedia dell'arte. What J.J. Gatesman and company deliver here is so intrinsically lovable that it echoes more recent communities of endearingly cute iconic characters like the Smurfs, the Care Bears or the inhabitants of Ninjatown. Here’s a look at the cast of six:
Maura Atwood is The Stowaway--Recognizable by a smile accompanying long, flowing curly red hair. Atwood is irrepressibly happy as a newcomer to the community who hasn’t quite found a way to fit in with everyone else. Her relentlessly cheerful playfulness is a natural match for The Scientist, who is the first to truly befriend her. Atwood is irresistible as a character who brings everyone together on an emotional level.
Maya Danks is The Soldier--Recognizable by her knit cap. A formidable physical presence onstage who also appears to serve as navigator on the airship that the community is working on. More than simply authority, she seems to suffer from shadows that the others aren’t entirely aware of. Danks lends the cast a kind of active backbone without which the rest of the group dynamic isn’t quite as functional. Danks’ balance between capability and vulnerability is impressive.
Rose Grizzell as The Pilot--Recognizable by her leather aviator’s helmet and clockwork foot. As pilot of the flying machine, Grizzell has found a perfect approach to conjuring the bewildering technical end of her character to the stage without sacrificing the character’s deeply beautiful sense of humanity and vulnerability. Grizzell is deeply charming as a character who brings everyone together on a practical level.
Dennis Lewis as The Engineer--Recognizable as the only guy in the cast. Lewis is a strong, steady support to the rest of the cast as the Engineer. He’s an impressively poised figure suffering from the deep fatigue which comes from working on a project as huge as the massive, bulbous flying machine on which the entire community seems to be centered. Lewis brings a steady energy to the heart of the ensemble.
Deborah Oettinger as The Collector--Recognizable by the bird of her hand. The others refer to her as “Magpie” as she has a large collection of mismatched artifacts. Her presence seems to strike everyone else as something of a distraction. Oettinger has constructed a very complicated interior psychology for the character that seems to orbit the central dynamic of the rest of the group--thereby adding an external force to prod the rest of the group in various directions.
Kellie Wambold is The Scientist--Recognizable by her goggles. If I heard correctly, everyone else refers to her as “Bing.” As evidenced by previous appearances in other productions, Wambold has the capacity for overwhelmingly playful energy onstage. Here that’s tempered against the darkness of some sort of trauma that she’s suffering from. The mix of playfulness and vulnerability adds considerable depth to the cast.
Cooperative Performance’s Machina Persona runs through Apr. 20 at the North Milwaukee Arthaus on 5151 N. 35th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cooperative Performance online. My concise, comprehensive review of the show runs in the next Shepherd-Exrpess.
Renaissance Theaterworks brings an immersive original sci-fi drama to the stage this Spring as it presents playwright Reina Hardy’s Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven. A young girl is contacted by an advanced supercomputer Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Evidently she’s been chosen to guide humanity into the stars. The young girl must deal with the ominous nature of her destiny in a complex story refreshingly brought to life by a talented cast on a wistfully dazzling visual space rendered on a projected digitally-rendered backdrop by scenic and lighting designer Jason Fassl.
Some of what is seen on the digital backdrop is positively jaw-dropping. Of particular note here is a tour through the galaxy by way of vast, intergalactic intelligence and impressive Josh Schmidt sound design. It’s not often that science fiction makes it to a local stage. Thanks to Hardy and Renaissance, the genre is ushered to the Broadway Theatre Center with wonder, respect and a great deal of genuine emotion.
Nicolet High School Junior Reese J. Parish stars as Annie Jump--a 13 year-old girl who is dealing with all the complexities of life on the leading edge of the 21st century. She’s a small town girl with great potential. Parish has a sparklingly active energy in the role. Annie is remarkably earthbound playing a very real girl dealing with a very fantastic situation. It’s always impressive when a high school kid can capably take the center of a stage in a prominent production like this. Parish is admirably poised in the role, serving as a very warm emotional center to a fantastic sci-fi story with a very human heart.
Rachael Zientek is dazzlingly charismatic as the super intelligent ETI. Advanced alien intelligence has come in many forms in the history of sci-fi. In the late ‘50s Julius Schwartz envisioned alien intelligence woking alongside intelligent life in the form of green rings. Author Philip K. Dick experienced alien intelligence as a beam of vastly intelligent pink light that shot directly into his brain. Some time after that in the late ’70s, Douglas Adams thought hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings might like to take the form of a pair of lab mice named Frankie and Benjy. Reina Hardy goes for something much more down-to-earth and understandable...she has decided that an advanced alien intelligence might like to appear as a typical American mean girl. This form clearly makes the most sense for an advanced alien intelligence.
The intelligence in question is named Althea and she has really great hair. The clever, little premise of a vastly intelligent E.T.I. In the form of an endlessly bored mean girl is fun, but only as entertaining onstage as the actress in the role. Zientek is great fun as the hyper intelligent mean girl who literally knows everything. (Her reaction to Annie's question about string theory is deliciously adorable.) Zientek has a wise playfulness about her onstage that serves the role well. The underlying humanity of the ETI comes across with a very approachable kind of perfection as Zientek interacts with Annie. She knows with perfect certainty that Annie is just exactly the kind of genius who could take humanity to that next major step in human evolution, but there’s a mystery resting deeper within Althea that Zientek coaxes our of the corners of a very beautiful performance.
Jonathan Gillard Daly is warmly intellectual as Annie’s father Dr. Jump. Daly brings a fearlessly passionate resonance to the production as a very brilliant man suffering from mental illness. Jarrod Langwinski plays to other ends of the dynamic as KJ Urbanik a 14-year-old computer genius who Annie encounters in her journey. Karen Estrada rounds out the ensemble in roles that cast a few different angles of emotionally clever authority to Annie’s world.
Rendering a story involving fate, humanity, super-genius and coming-of-age dramatic elements to the stage all at the same time would be a daunting task for anyone, but director Pam Kriger does an admirable job of finding a balance between the wonder of fantasy and the reality of human emotion in a very satisfying trip to the theatre. Sci-fi isn’t often brought to the stage. A show like this doesn’t come along all that often.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven runs through April 21st in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations and more, visit Renaissance Theaterworks
The Constructivists stage a captivatingly complex meeting between two people to the stage with the Midwest Premiere of Jennifer Lane’s contemporary drama To Fall In Love. Two estranged people learn to connect again on an intimate stage as Madeline Wakley and Matthew Scales intricately deliver the complexities of emotional entanglement in an interaction that lives onstage for a little over 90 uninterrupted minutes.
As the play opens, Matthew Scales is alone and restless onstage in the role of Wyatt. He’s fidgeting about on a set that’s been meticulously detailed by designer Sarah Harris to look like a contemporary furnished apartment lacking any real personality. Harris does such a good job of delivering the painstakingly generic flavor of modern interior design that its lack of personality almost becomes a kind of personality. It’s a neutral ground on which two people meet to discuss matters.
Before long Wakely arrives as Merryn--a woman who is running late. She is there to meet with him over a prepared list of questions. The questions around which the drama are centers are a New York Times list of “36 question yo can ask someone if you want to fall in love. (Or make your love even stronger.)” For the curious, there’s kind of a cool website that can walk any couple through the questions.
Lane’s use of the questions allows for a very rigid structure around which to slowly be introduced to Wyatt and Merryn. Details of Wyatt and Merryn’s relationship gradually develop in a very organic interaction between two people. Even the best actors can have difficulty finding the emotional center between two characters when they’re the only ones onstage for over 90 minutes and no intermission. Director Jaimelyn Gray and Assistant Director Emmaline Friederichs have developed a really natural interaction between the actors in spite of the artificiality of the stage.
Wakely and Scales use just about every corner of Harris’ set. The restlessness keeps the physical energy flowing quite well. The real accomplishment here is that nearly every movement across the stage feels perfectly natural. Tow people moving across the stage in a drama like this can feel like a lot of...blocking...but Wakley and Scales feel very natural moving from one place to the next gradually in the course of the drama.
Wyatt and Merryn have only a limited amount of time and a limited number of questions in which to make any connection they’re going to make. They’ve both been through a lot and it’s made totally clear that this may well be the last chance they have to really make things work. Lane sets it all out very instinctually. Details of the lives of Wyatt and Merryn slowly reveal themselves as the audience bears witness to a deep conversation between two people who know each other quite well. In under two hours, emotions resonate vividly on a cozy underground space in the heart of downtown.
The Constructivists’ production of To Fall In Love runs through April 39 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Avenue. For more information, visit The Constructivists online.
As citizens of a contemporary society dealing with all of the problems of living in a modern age oversaturated with information, we are absolutely crippled by the weight of injustice in the world. It is appallingly easy to do nothing in the face of injustice. Get a group of the most clever people of an era together in one place and one would hope that it would be strikingly easy for them to set aside their differences, recognize injustice and do something about it. It’s not as easy as that, though...a problem which is explored at length in Steven Carl Mccasland’s Little Wars--a drama about a meeting between Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein and Agatha Christie in France in 1940. Bryce Lord directs a production of the drama for the Milwaukee Entertainment Group which is staged this month in the Brumder Mansion.
Maggie Wirth plays a very obstinate and intellectually dominant novelist Gertrude Stein. The play is set in Stein’s home in Paris. As Stein’s partner Alice B. Toklas, Donna Daniels is the sweet hostess balancing out Stein’s bluntness. As the play opens, Stein and Toklas are prepared to receive guests. They are quite unprepared for the number of guests they are about to receive or the drama that is to ensue when they arrive.
Ruth Arnell plays the first to arrive: the American psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner. She’s early. She’s meeting Stein and Toklas on rather important business. Arnell playsthe mysteriousness of Gardiner as something of an enigma in plain sight. Delicate nuances wash over Arnell’s performance as each of the other guests arrive and begin to introduce themselves. Arnell is stirringly heroic as the social conscience of the ensemble. She’s an unknown among literary legends, but her ideals prove her to be a towering figure in her own right.
Cara Johnston cuts a dazzlingly shadowy figure as Dorothy Parker. Johnston plays the acclaimed screenwriter as a ceaselessly aggressive intellect that seems to be constantly pushing to the center of the stage, even when she’s firmly planted in a chair as far back as the stage will allow.
Carrie Gray is inspiringly poised as playwright Lillian Hellman. There’s a crips precision about Gray as she constructs a very actively organic emotional resonance. In order to have achieved the level of success she had, Hellman had to be quite deft with the scalpel of interpersonal politics. Mccasland gives Hellman some of the most complicated internal dynamics in the ensemble. Gray handles these dizzying dynamics with tenaciously tame alacrity.
Victoria Hudziak is handed a challenge of an entirely different kind in playing Agatha Christie. Mccasland gives Christie a Sherlock Holmesian attention to detail that is paired with a clever tactical mind that keeps her from being completely open about all she knows. The challenge here is to play a character who is only pretending not to know A LOT more than she actually knows about a situation. Hudziak handles the intricate layering of Christie’s tactical mind quite well.
Molly Corkins is achingly strong in silent stillness as Stein and Toklas’ domestic aid Bernadette. Her resillience is revealed slowly from around the edges of the plot. As Bernadette, Corkins plays to another end of the same heroism that Arnell is conjuring as Muriel Gardiner. Corkins stands resolutely around the margins of the stage without over-rendering the heroic fortitude of the character, which is quite an accomplishment given the true nature of what she’s portraying.
It’s a really, really impressive cast from a variety of different backgrounds all coming together to play a group of people from a variety of different backgrounds. Rarely does an ensemble feel this well balanced on this many levels. It’s a deeply engaging dramatic experience that comes across as an inspiration to those of us still struggling to find some way out to do something other than injustice in an increasingly bleak world.
Milwaukee Entertainment Group’s production of Little Wars runs through April 6th at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 West Wisconsin Avenue. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Entertainment Group online.
The Last Cyclist is a truly heroic bit of satire. The story of its creation, destruction and eventual resurrection would make a really good subject for a drama. Written and developed as political satire in the early 1940s in a concentration camp established by the SS during World War II, the play was performed for a single dress rehearsal before being banned by a Council of Jewish Elders who were afraid of SS reprisals over a play that was so blatantly anti-Nazi. Years later in the 1960s, a survivor of the concentration camp who had been a part of that first dress rehearsal reconstructed the satire from memory. Next month, Cardinal Stritch University Theatre opens a production of the play directed by Mark Boergers. He took some time out of a doubtlessly busy schedule to answer a few questions about the show.
The Last Cyclist is a triumph of art having survived the Terezin Ghetto in 1944 and eventually reconstituted into its current form. It’s been staged a number of times in recent decades. What was the inspiration behind staging it now?
The true inspiration behind the show at Stritch came from Dan Haumschild, Holocaust Education Fellow at Stritch and HERC, who brought the project to us in October of 2017. It was my first time hearing about the production and at first glance I was skeptical because of the multi-layered complexity of the script and the project. However, the more I learned about what this script actually represents and how it relates to the kinds of societal constructs that lead to events like the Holocaust, I became ever more intrigued by the project. Plays that address the Holocaust in general can be seen as cautionary tales, especially when depicting the horrors of the events. This script does achieve some of that depiction, but it goes further to represent a spirit of art and resilience in the inmates of this particular camp. Their voice is unique, absurd and intellectual and portrays a particularly scathing commentary on the political and social climate of the time. One only has to turn on cable news or the nightly talk shows to see how A. our political and social climate is just as tenuous as ever and B. art still has a unique and important role in commenting on it and affecting change. In the most horrible of situations these artists still had the impulse to create, and that has immense resonance to an audience of any time and place. Those kind of archetypal experiences have always been at the cornerstone of my work, so this project is a challenge I was excited to undertake.
Promotional copy for the show says that, “spectators are invited inside the make-shift rehearsal space to bear witness...” The Nancy Kendall Theater is actually a really nice space. How are you using the stage to make it feel like an unpolished rehearsal space?
That might be a little bit of the magic that I don’t want to reveal in too much specifics. I will say that it was a big discussion about how to make the Kendall fit with our goals for the show. Particularly the mixture between elements depicting the conditions of the holocaust, but also doing homage to the freedom of creativity and imagination in the minds of the actors that created this script. We wanted to find a way to filter our own creativity and artistic process into the physical space of the show to pay tribute to their own limitless artistic dream world.
The Last Cyclist comes from the mid-20th century. However, there are universals in the theme that move well beyond any single era. How specific is the production to any one era? Is there any effort to draw parallels between the script and the modern global political landscape?
In looking at this script, it became clear that we needed to blur the lines between the historical grounding of the show and the satirical chaos of the play-within-a-play. In very early production meetings, Dan Haumschild spoke to the fact that it is a fruitless pursuit to seek to depict the holocaust with any sort of historical accuracy, but the holocaust is not something that can be suitably explained. In talks with the playwright, I also expressed the desire for a diverse cast in both age and cultural background, which she embraced. This stemmed from the fact that my own personal process starts with how stories apply to all humans at all times and then moves more towards the specific. This philosophy both freed us as a team but also restricted us. We took ideas of what the original cast had available to them (bed sheets, discarded household items, bits of wood, items they took with them from their homes when they got arrested) and then sought to move from there to a more intense and artistically free world of imagination. Because of this, I think we find a way to address the archetypal nature of the story without drawing specific parallels to what is going on today. By grounding the show in the universal experience of artistic impression, it necessarily speaks to the fact that this story has resonance far beyond just that of the holocaust.
It’s a rather large ensemble that you’re working with and yet...there isn’t a single actor in the show who isn’t playing more than one character. That sounds like a lot of traffic to juggle as a director. What has it been like working with the cast on the show so far?
It certainly is! I have a large background in Shakespeare so I am used to multiple characters and juggling large ensembles, but this play provides challenges unlike any other. I often find the “play within a play” construct challenging because one wants to pay attention to both the onstage process of humans creating a play and telling the story of artists who are real humans in process- but there is also the actual play and just how committed those “actors playing actors” can be to each of their pursuits. Throw in the fact that this is a very complex, absurd and politically motivated satire and there is a lot for our team to manage. Working with this cast has been glorious. I am so fortunate to have the support of HERC to hire professional actors to work with some of our students, and in creating this ensemble I had the closest eye on who would be able to play together in the room to make sense of the madness. We still have some playing to do, but the environment in the room has been charged with creativity, and the cast has been an organic part of figuring out the motivation and through line of the script. It is in those moments of intense creative collaboration that I feel like we are paying the most specific respect to the original artists who crafted this story under horrific conditions.
The cast mixes established local actors with Cardinal Stritch students. Different productions treat a mixed student/non-student cast for a show in different ways. Some shows place the students along the periphery of an ensemble while others center them right alongside the rest of the cast. How integrated with the rest of the ensemble are they? How collaborative is the process for them?
This is an ensemble show, by nature. We aren’t sure how many actors/artists were involved in the original process and if all of them were there from the beginning to the end. It was the process of rehearsal that they were interested in; spending time to create as resistance to the restriction of the camps. Because of this, our process is as collaborative as possible. I don’t see a line between the students and the professionals. They all auditioned against others to be placed in this show and I expect the same kind of process from everyone in the room. Of course it is a bit startling to all of a sudden welcome so much new energy into our University rehearsal hall, but from my training and experience it is those “squishy” moments when things feel risky and not-so-safe when the real magic comes out.
There’s a stark contrast between surrealist absurdity in the script and the very real politics being explored in the story. Surrealist absurdity always runs the risk of undermining meaningful allegory. How are you handling the balance between surreal absurdity and real world political elements in the production?
That’s a great question- and I can only say I hope I am balancing it well! My inclination is to always find the reality in the scene or the interaction no matter how absurd or surreal it may be. There is motivation to any action. I have released the actors from worrying too much about the political implications of the play. We had amazing resources from HERC and other community organizations to have deep research and also interact with a survivor of the holocaust and hear his story. We were able to discuss the political motivations of the playwrights and what may have been going on in the play. But once we got on our feet I wanted to move away from that and delve into the story itself- to the full 360 degree nature of these characters as created and create a physical and emotional vocabulary for the play. It has been a collaborative process and it feels chaotic at times. I hope that means we are on the right track…..
Cardinal Stritch's production of The Last Cyclist runs April 5th- 14th at the Nancy Kendall Theater on 6801 N Yates Rd. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cardinal Stritch online.
Given the popularity of murder mystery stories, it’s kind of surprising that more small stage theater doesn’t engage in the crime genre. Writer/Director Katherine Beeson illustrates how easy it is to stage a satisfying original murder mystery script for the small stage on a small budget with Is Murder Tax Deductible? It’s a comedic love letter to the mystery genre in two acts with a short intermission. There’s love. There’s murder. There's suspicious activity. There’s a detective actively working to figure it all out. There’s nothing terribly deep or original going on here, but there doesn’t need to be. After all...who doesn’t like a good mystery?
It’s a retro drama set in the offices of a Milwaukee accounting firm in 1951. It’s tax season. Everyone’s a little stressed out. Somebody gets murdered. Scenic designer Scott Fudali’s small set on the stage of Inspiration Studios in West Allis is made to look like an old movie. Everything is black, white and shades of grey right down to magazines, decorations on tables and a US flag in the corner of the office. Beeson’s costuming for the show follows suit with everything following the style of a classic detective noir made for the screen.
Mack Heath is cleverly rumpled as a gruff-looking Detective Phillip Bartholomew. The accounting offices of Dett and Merring have become a murder scene as one of the two partners has been found dead. Someone evidently shot him in the back of the head and Detective Bartholomew has to figure out who it was.
Joanna Langworthy is appealingly astute as the accountants’ secretary Bella Matthews. The one person in charge of knowing just about everything about the business, Bella has a firm knowledge of everything that goes on in the office. So why is it that it comes as such a shock to her that one of her bosses has been murdered?
Bella’s surprise at the sudden death of one of her bosses is as nothing to her surprise when he turns up at the office quite alive with an investigation still going on. There’s a good chance that whoever came to kill him ended up getting the wrong guy. In addition to having designed and built the set, Scott Fudali plays the gentleman in question with suitable vulnerability. The people responsible for the death of his partner just MIGHT pop-in for another visit if they knew they had the wrong person.
But...I’ve already given away too much about the plot. There are others. Rebecca Janey is admirably seedy as the ex-wife of the man who isn’t dead. Al Van Lith plays the fumblingly sleazy guy who owns the building where the office is located. Ed Spencer plays a respectable criminal who runs a Bait & Tackle shop located at Main and Hawley.
In a clever little bit of atmosphere the program features ads for a couple of the fictitious businesses mentioned in the mystery. The show takes place during tax season in 1951. It closes a couple of day before taxes need to be filed for 2018. It’s a cozy, little adventure with a few laughs as the winter draws to a close.
Cream City Theater’s Is Murder Tax Deductible? runs through Mar. 24 at Inspiration Studios on 1500 S. 73rd St in West Allis. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cream City Theater online.
A fat, old, bloated Broadway Phantom perches its opulent girth on the big stage of the Marcus Center this week. Deep on the bowels of that theatre complex in the shadow of Uihlein Hall, there’s something much more primal haunting Rehearsal Hall A. It’s a brutal tribal staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar animated by a primal percussion. Once again Bard & Bourbon glides through a very stylish and aggressively intimate staging of Shakespeare that shrugs off the formality with which the man’s work is so often presented. Director Zachary Thomas Woods grants the political drama a predatory, animalistic energy about it with a very bestial feel about it thanks to the artistic vision of set/costume designer Keighley Sadler, who also plays Cassius.
Keighley Sadler wields a crazy, vertiginous gravity in the role of the lean and hungry Cassius who schemes to dethrone the powerful Julius Caesar. Sandler’s energy in the role is almost hypnotic, occasionally in danger of tipping over the edge of melodrama, but never quite exploding into an over-the-top intensity. She’s moving around in a set she designed wearing costuming she also designed. She knows exactly how far she can push the drama without going over the edge. Cassius is enticingly seductive as animated by Sadler's shadowy radiance.
Bryant Mason is admirably formidable as the even-tempered Brutus. Mason is a monument as the tragic falling hero pulled into ambition by Cassius. Mason and Sadler develop an intricate dynamic of respect and suspicion about them. Mason’s slow and steady momentum plays clever contrast to Sadler’s restless energy. The nobility of Mason’s treachery illuminates the darker end of heroism as good intentions are corrupted into shadowy ambition.
Chris Braunschweig is a bit of an enigma as Caesar. There’s a steadiness in his towering presence that serves the role well. There’s also arrogance peering around the edges of his portrayal that speak to the darker ambitions that power might amplify. Caesar doesn’t have much time to make a direct impression onstage, but Braunschweig manages to make a firm enough impression in his limited time onstage to serve as the central anchor for the drama.
Susie Duecker is the consummate hero as Mark Antony. Duecker shows courage in the face of insurrection as Antony sees his friend Caesar fall and looks to guide the people to revolt against the assassins. Duecker has a deep well of charisma that feels very poised and polished throughout. It contrasts against Mason’s earthy, organic presence. The resulting dynamic for the dueling orations between Mason and Duecker is as deeply conflicting as it should be. Where Mason’s appeal to the people of Rome is an attempt to justify homicide with an appeal to emotion, Duecker’s deftly poised delivery of details feels almost manipulative. Neither character comes across all that well.
Duecker’s beauty and charisma tip the scales in her favor as a contrast against the bestial brutality of nearly everything else Zachary Thomas Woods has cultivated fro the production. The animalistic hissing and barking filling all the empty spaces of the drama make for a very bestial production in the intimate confines of Rehearsal Room A. It’s a very tough and gritty Shakespeare that is all the more animate and engrossing than anything some Phantom could bring-in by trailer to the neighboring stage.
Bard & Bourbon’s production of Julius Caesar (drunk) runs through Mar. 17 at Rehearsal Hall A of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on 929 N. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Bard And Bourbon online.