Mariana is having an awful time. Her Miami gallery was all set to exhibit the work of a successful artist when it all went missing. Every single painting was stolen. To make matters worse, her mother has shown-up clearly in need of something. Family drama mixes with beautifully idiosyncratic comedy in Laughs In Spanish. Playwright Alexis Scheer’s cleverly-crafted 90-minute party satisfyingly opens the season for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
Isa Condo-Olvera makes a deeply appealing appearance as Mariana--the coherent center to all of the rest of the chaos which seems to be orbiting around her. Rána Roman summons a strong presence to the stage as Mariana’s mother--a Hollywood actress who looks to get closer to her daughter at a rather difficult point in her life. To make matters a bit more complicated, the only solution to the suddenly empty gallery seems to be employing the paintings of her assistant Carolina (an emotionally dynamic Ashley Oviedo) who happens to be dating a police officer who has boldly put himself in charge of investigating the theft. Arash Fakhrabadi had an earthbound charm as a man who is caught-up around the edges of an extended family in flux.
Director Anna Skidis Vargas keeps the crazy energy of the show moving without ever overwhelming the audience. The offbeat energies of the comedy inhabit a very appealing visual world. Costume Designer Jazmin Aurora Medina does a beautiful job of dressing the contemporary Miami art world against a very clean and bright backdrop by Scenic Designer Em Allen. Emotionally endearing comedy moves through an appealing visual world.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Laughs In Spanish runs through Oct. 8 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Chamber Theatre online.
Before they took the stage, I was having a 3 Sheeps IPA with a cookie that had been handed to me by a time traveling housewife. Venerable all--woman sketch comedy Broadminded is opening it’s show this month with a different act each week. Opening night the opener was Professor Merryweather’s Time-Traveling Improv Show. It’s kind of a high-concept premise for improv: everyone in the group plays someone from a different era. It’s a fun show.
The Broads present another show that comes from a diversity of different angles on a loosely-defined theme. Each one of the four members of the group brings something distinct and unique to a very well-established connection that has built up between them over many, many years. And the comedy itself ranges from deeply satirical historical comedy two light observational humor to some very clever physical comedy that also engages emotionally.
As with any sketch show, some of the humor lands much more impressively than the rest of it. One of the more sophisticated sketches was “Women of the 1890s”--an imagined TV commercial for the opium that women were constantly being prescribed in the era of menotoxins. (Actually that was a concept that was proposed in the 1920s, but...y’know...women have been mistreated by medical science for SUCH a long time....ugh...) As real-life daytime pharmacist Anne Graff LaDisa spoofed about the benefits of opium, Melissa Kingston and Megan McGee engaged in some cleverly nuanced (yet somehow still completely over-the-top) physical comedy. It was a dual-track highbrow-lowbrow sketch that represents some of the groups better work.
Physical comedy engages on a few different levels over the course of the program. Kingston’s “Cell Problems” feels like a catharsis as much as it is a sharply physical, little episodic piece. “Losing My Edge” is an entirely nonverbal comedy bit that reaches a deep emotional level while playing around with delightfully accessible observational humor. Truly heartfelt emotionality salvages a few moments that might otherwise feel superficial. Stacy Babl gets perilously close to very simple and obvious physical comedy with a roll of duct tape, but she turns it out at the ends with an emotionally endearing punchline. Her “Mr. Fixit” sketch runs the risk of engaging in a bit more complexity than might be readily available through sketch miming...but the dynamic between her as husband and Kingston as wife gives the sketch a strong emotional center which effectively sells the sketch.
There’s some somewhat experimental moments in the show as well. The level of detail thrown into a presentation on Pointless charts is pleasantly dizzying and the delicate interplay between generations in a generational quiz show sketch is one of those rare sketches that manages to stick around in the psyche long after the show. Once again...Broadminded continues to show a distinct kind of comedy that’s so very difficult to find anywhere else.
Broadminded’s #Lifehacks continues through September 30th at the Interchange Theatre Co-Op on 628 N.10th St. For more information, visit Broadminded online.
Playwright Aaron Posner casts a Chekhov classic into a Generation X aesthetic with Stupid Fucking Bird. The comedic drama has a 1990’s indie cinema feel about it in a small stage production that comes to inhabit Sunstone Studios this weekend courtesy of Placeholder Players. A remarkably nuanced and textured cast works its way through a contemporary US adaptation of The Seagull with heart, poise and powerful emotion that strives to plunge itself right into the existential heart of theatre.
“Start the Fucking Play.” (Zachary Thomas Woods tells everybody that right at the beginning of the play.) Someone has to say that before the play can start. Opening night it was just about everybody...opening night appeared to be sold-out. It was a deeply engaged crowd for a deeply engaging drama.
Woods plays Con--a struggling contemporary playwright who is trying to change the world. He wants to do art that carves its way into the center of reality to find some sort of truth. He’s falling for the woman he has cast in the center of a piece that he’s written. Mary Grace Seigel plays to a casually playful poise and perfection as the actress Nina, who is actively seeking fame and love from everyone. Seigel lends some depth to the character as she explores a deep emotional vulnerability in seeking the love of the famed author Trig, played with a sense of intellectual passion by Rick Bingen.
Grace Berendt is achingly stunning as Mash--a goth girl in fishnets with a ukulele who feels a powerfully overwhelming darkness about the world. The darkness comes at least partially because of the love she feels for Con, which is destined to be forever unrequited. Berendt’s sweetly beautiful voice dances out across the intimate space of Sunstone Studios as she plays something wistfully dreamy about the futile nature of life. Berendt is irresistible in the role...occupying the edges of the ensemble except for a couple of brief moments. The structure of the play allows Berendt an opportunity to show some deeply moving emotional development as Mash opens-up to the possibilities that are open to her. It’s a profoundly satisfying transformation that is presented without undue amplification around the edges of the ensemble.
Jabril Rilley plays with a charming innocence in the role of Dev--a guy who is understandably in love with Mash. Riley resonates a casual wonder about the world that lends an honest, childlike levity to the production. Rilley balances the innocence against a simple, pragmatic wisdom that Posner is clever enough to give the character. So often an adult of innocent wonder is played-up as an idiot. Posner may have placed a bit of that in the script, but Rilley plays it with such an intellectually adroit energy that Dev feels like a fully-rendered person onstage.
Kim Emmer plays Con’s mom. Bill Molitor plays an old, retired doctor. They’re both given their moments, but Posner hasn’t really been able to engage with them in a way that feels truly connected and integrated with the rest of the cast...and then...they weren’t THAT significant in Chekhov’s original play anyway...so once again the more experienced end of a cast is on the periphery.
Woods’ presence opens and closes the show. He’s got the first and last lines. As Con, he’s well aware that he’s in a play...and there’s a really cool fusion between actor and character in a gorgeously existential angle of one of the better plays to be placed on any stage so far this year. The complexities of love. art and commerce that Chekhov was working with feel kind of interesting in a contemporary US setting...the whole thing feels like a MUCH more complicated mutation of Helen Childress' Reality Bites.)
There are two more performances.
Placeholder Players' staging of Stupid Fucking Bird runs through September 3rd (one weekend only) at Sunstone Studios on 127 E. Wells Street. For more information, visit Sunstone online.
Milwaukee Theatre opens the Autumn with a few moments of very heavy drama punctuating a largely light month of pleasant comedy. From the intimate comedy of Placeholder Players to Shakespearian romantic comedy with Boozy Bard to offbeat laughs with Next Act...it looks like a largely fun and breezy time on local small stages this month. Here’s a look.
Stupid Fucking Bird
Back in 1896, Anton Chekhov wrote The Seagull--a large ensemble drama involving a novelist. About ten years ago, Aaron Posner wrote Stupid Fucking Bird--a contemporary adaptation of the ensemble drama involving a struggling playwright. This September Placeholder Players present a staging of Posner’s play at Sunstone Studios on 127 East Wells Street. The ever-charismatic Zach Thomas Woods plays the playwright in question: a guy named Con. The cast includes quite a bit of talent including Mary Grace Seigel, Rick Bingen and Grace Berendt. The show runs one weekend only: September 1st - 3rd. For more information, visit Sunstone online.
The Boulevard Theatre hosts one more performance of a remarkably thoughtful and nuanced staged reading of Joshua Harmon's Significant Other in the back room of Sugar Maple this month. Director Mark Bucher has put together an impressive cast for the show including Kyle Conner, who also stars as the title character in Richard II with Voices Found Rep. It also features Grace Berendt and Mary Grace Seigel who appear in Stupid Fucking Bird...so it's kind of a cool opportunity to spot a few actors meeting-up for a quick matinee performance after a couple of shows close. Significant Other's single performance takes place on September 9th at 2pm at Sugar Maple on 411 East Lincoln Ave. For more information, visit Facebook.
Love’s Labours’ Lost
Four guys attempt to avoid the company of women in the interest of focussing on their studies. Naturally, they fall for the Princess of France and her ladies. It’s a fun, little premise for a Shakespearian comedy that makes its way to a fun and informal stage by way of Boozy Bard this month. Roles are chosen at random before each performance in a fun comedy environment Sep. 11th - 13th at The Best Place Tavern on 917 W Juneau Ave. For information, visit Boozy Bard’s place on Facebook.
Milwaukee's longest-lived sketch comedy group clearly has enough experience to provide more than a few helpful tips. There's real wisdom that comes from hanging out together onstage for quite a few years. All-Woman comedy group Broadminded continues its relationship with the stage in a series of shows at The Interchange Theatre Co-Op this month. Each show is preceded by an opening act. Broadminded's Lifaehacks runs Sept. 16th - 30th. For more information visit the show's page on Eventrbrite.
Splash Hatch On the E Going Down
Next Act Theatre opens its season this coming month with a contemporary drama. Jada Jackson plays Thyme--a 15 year-old pregnant Harlem girl. She’s an A student who is eco-conscious and coming to terms with a great many things in a world that suffers from environmental racism. Playwright Kia Cothron touches on quite a few different very serious issues with a promising drama that debuted back in the late 1990s. The Next Act production runs Sep. 20th - Oct. 15th on 255 S. Water St. For more information, visit Next Act online.
Laughs in Spanish
Isa Condo-Olvera stars as the owner of a Miami art gallery that has become a crime scene in an offbeat murder comedy that opens the season for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. It’s described as a cross between a Telenovela and a Wes Anderson movie. So in other words...it’s the perfect opening to what appears to be a really impressive season for Milwaukee Chamber. September 22nd - Oct. 8th at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre on 158 N Broadway. For more information, visit Milwaukee Chamber Theatre online.
A Piece of My Heart
Playwright Shirley Lauro explores the lives of women who served in Vietnam from their own perspective in a very gripping emotional drama that I’ve seen a couple of times before. Marquette University Theatre celebrates 100 years with a season that opens with Lauro’s drama. The show runs Sep. 29th - Oct. 8th at the Helfaer Theatre on 1304 W Clybourn St. For more information, visit Marquette University online.
Three Other Sisters
Theatre Gigante closes-out the month with a show that manages to fit so many different moods...a strangely engaging fugue starring Simone Ferro, Isabelle Kralj, and Tori Watson. I’ve seen Gigante do this one once before and it’s a great deal of fun. Sep. 29th - Oct. 1st at Kenilworth 508 Theatre on 1925 E Kenilworth Place. For more information, visit the show’s page online.
It’s been a very, very busy weekend. Milwaukee Fringe Fest lands on the same weekend as Milwaukee Irish Fest and...this year Milwaukee Irish Arts has A LOT going on with the fest in its cozy, little theatre tent overlooking the water. In and amidst three other shows in and around Milwaukee this weekend, I managed to see one of two shorts programs that MIA put together this year.
Tiny Plays 2 is a program directed by Mitch Weindorf. There’s a lot of fascinating existential energy that’s rolling through the program, The program of brief interactions between iconic pairs is punctuated by whimsically strange and hauntingly poetic texts by Mark Cantan. The author suggests a few things that might be going on right now in Ireland as scenic changes are made. It’s a remarkably well-constructed, little theatrical adventure that feels cleverly buried behind all of the singing and dancing and carrying-on that goes on in and amidst the rest of the Fest.
The cast is stellar. Kyle Conner slides into a staggeringly charismatic Irish accent in the role of a man who has been asked to look at a few pictures in Brendan Griffin’s “Naked Photographs of my Mother.” Isaac Brust is emotionally intricate in his end of the comic short. He also makes a memorable appearance in an encounter on a path with an old man near the beginning of the program. Conor also manages a captivatingly nonverbal performance earlier-on in the brief program where he is...opening bills. (It’s a lot more interesting than it sounds. You kind of have to be there...and you should it’s a good program.) Brittany Boeche-Vossler punctuates that nonverbal piece beautifully with a bit of song. There’s a lot of young energy that MIA is bringing to the tent this year, but it’s nice to see some experience on the stage as well. David Ferrie and Kevin Callahan do a delightful, little bit of meaningful small talk in a milking barn in “Unrequited.”
Laura Monagle closes-out the program with a stunning monologue by Dermot Bolger that cuts straight to the heart of the metaphysics of theatre in a way that few scripts ever manage. Monagle is elegantly magnetic in the performance. It’s only then...only when Monagle finishes her deconstruction of everything under the power of Bolger that the weird confluence of different bits of comedy and drama turn into something magical. It’s really quite. exquisite and worth the price of admission to Irish Fest in and of itself, but y’know...there IS so much else going on as well, so it’s worth going anyway.
Milwaukee Irish Arts concludes at the Theatre Pavilion at Irish Fest today, August 20th. Tiny Plays 2 will be performed today at 2pm and 6pm. For more information, visit Milwaukee Irish Arts online.
An actor walks onstage at the beginning of her one-woman show and picks-up a piece of music. She reads the name at the top. She announces that it’s a piece composed by “F. Mendelssohn.” Then she asks, “which one?” This is a good question. The actor is Jennifer Vosters. She’s playing Mendelssohn. Both of them: Fannie and Felix. They were kindred spirits...literal siblings who worked together. As Vosters enters the stage, though, it isn’t entirely clear which one she’s playing. As a part of Milwaukee Fringe Festival, she’s performing the debut of Songs Without Words--a written and performed by Vosters. It’s a deeply engaging biographical narrative about brother and sister who were both great German composers from the early 19th century.
The sheet music that Mendelssohn picks-up at the opening of the drama isn’t alone. There’s a large spread of music elegantly strewn across the floor. A single music stand rests in the center of it all. There’s a piano bench. Vosters wears simple black. There’s a conductor’s baton...and a hell of a lot of drama tied up in many layers of complexity as Vosters works her way through a tightly-woven narrative about two siblings, their lives and their artistic endeavors. It speaks a great deal to those who love classical music, but Vosters speaks to universals in art, life and familial love that make it a one-hour journey anyone can take.
Vosters modulates through moments of triumph, anxiety and uncertainty drawn from the lives of a couple of people who were acclaimed artists of their day. Felix was recognized far more for his accomplishments than Fanny was for hers, but Vosters maintains a very textured approach to the understanding of both composers that respects the complexity of the early 19th century era that they inhabited.
Vosters’ writing occasionally edges into the poetic as brother works to live-up to the potential of both himself AND his sister in an era when she would not have been entirely recognized for her own achievements. Eventually, Fanny DOES receive some recognition for her work and even manages to have a few compositions published. Vosters’ delicate handling of Felix’s feelings at the success of his sister are some of the more meticulously sophisticated moments for Vosters as actor and playwright.
Not every moment lives up to the complexity. of the lives of two composers, but Vosters' charisma holds the drama together even in those rare moments that might feel a bit forced in and around the edges of the narrative. Overall Vosters has crafted a remarkable piece that explores a brother/sister relationship that also examines the challenges all artists face.
Vosters’ Songs Without Words was debuted in a single performance on the Fringe, but she’s planning on doing more work with it. Judging from the reception that she received on her debut, the show would likely do VERY well with the right audiences. It’s an intimate portrayal of brother and sister that reaches very deeply into the nature of art and the core of human experience without skating along the superficial platitudes that so often accompany dramas about artists.
All-in-all...it's very powerful stuff. Someone should get ahold of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Though a larger venue would rob Vosters of some of the immediacy of the drama, it'd be really cool to see Songs Without Words accompanied and punctuate by the MSO performing work by the Mendelssohns. It'd be a hell of a concert. Seriously. Get Vosters in Bradley Symphony Center with the MSO. It'd be breathtaking.
For more information on Songs Without Words, check out Vosters’ Instagram Page for the show. The debut of Vosters’ show was a part of the Milwaukee Fringe Festival, which continues in and around the Marcus Center through Saturday night. For more information, visit the Fringe Fest online.
Patrick Schmitz continues to crunch through the classics with playful spoofery in another one-weekend production. This year’s Schmitz ’n’ Giggles show is a bit story of a classic tragedy as a talented comedy cast sinks it’s teeth into The Comedy of King Lear…Kinda Sorta. Adroit comic veteran Beth Lewinski plays the title role of the doomed king in a briskly moving parade of light humor. Nic Onorato plays with similarly intricate comic energies as.the Earl of Gloucester. His illegitimate son Edmund is given silly scenery-chewing over-the-top evilness by Josh Decker.
The Shakesparody Players do a good job with this one. Notable performances include Jacob Woelfel as the particularly inspired janitor Pete Benson…who in this play happens to be harboring unrequited feelings for Cordelia. She is played with delightfully casual comic energy by Karah Minelli. Becky Cofta plays to a more caddy humor in the role of Cordelia’s sister Regan. Ekta Desai rounds-out the central cast as the actively scheming sister Gonerill. It’s a big ensemble, but the production still manages to play on some humor involving the size of the production. Rachel Seurer and Amarion Herbert play the gradually dwindling group of 100 knights that Lear is given to protect himself as he heads off into the cold, cruel world in self-imposed abdication. Seurer and Herbert are a lot of fun in the margins of the production as the knights and various other roles.
As always, Schmitz veers away from deeper satire in favor of fun, little deviations and mutations on traditional sitcom tropes and gags. Schmitz’s comedy rushes through a high joke-per-minute ratio. With as much shooting by on the stage as there is, there is actually quite a lot of comedy of that just completely fails to hit. It’s really weird to think about this in retrospect as it is the case that so much of it IS funny. I’m not quite certain how the math works out on this, but I mean...even if only one in ten gags is good, it all shoots by so quickly that the show as a whole never really drags.
A lot of what Schmitz is doing with various elements in the script is simply allowing his actors room to play. He’s been working with Lewinski for long enough that he knows he can trust her to make even very, very dull comedy absolutely sparkle. Seurer lends a whole lot of nuanced comic energy to the role of a doctor who really has no business being anywhere near as funny as she is. Schmitz goes for some of the more obvious comedy potential in the script, but Seurer does a grand job of making it work. A painfully over-worked bit of humor involving a chevron-emblazoned shirt and a pair of glasses manages to lend a bit of strangely poignant dramatic weight to the proceedings as Joel Dresang plays the mild-mannered Earl of Kent and his casually heroic alter-ego Caius.
The Comedy of King Lear…Kinda Sorta runs through Saturday, August 12 at the Next Act/Renaissance Theaterworks space on 255 S. Water Street. For more information, visit Schmitz’n’ Giggles online.
The summer of 2023 draws to a close with a lot of Shakespeare: Shakespeare in a bar. Shakespeare being spoofed. Shakespeare in a bar being spoofed by puppets. And then...there's this Mendelssohn thing that sounds kind of amazing too...really looking forward to that!
The Comedy of King Lear (Kinda Sorta)
Local comic guru Patrick Schmitz opens his latest spoof this month as he presents a doubtlessly strange take on the classic tragedy of a man who divides his kingdom up between his three daughters. It’s a really dark drama. Back in the years following the Restoration, they tried to make it a bit cheerier as it was largely considered to be overwhelmingly dark. Ultimately that approach was rejected, but maybe they didn’t go far enough. Maybe they should have gone ahead and just completely re-written it as a comedy. It could work. Schmitz 'n Giggles production runs one weekend only August 10th - 12th at the Next Act/Renaissance Theatre space on 255 S. Water St.
Shakespeare RAW: Hamlet
Boozy Bard performs an irreverent twist on the classic tragedy of an indecisive Emo/Goth Kid as he considers...doing things...Easily one of the best-known of Shakespeare’s plays--it’s a bit of a spoof of itself, so there’s an easy connection between it and the lovingly unprepared improv atmosphere of a Boozy Bard show. Scripts are painstakingly streamlined in advance. Actors are chosen at random to play...random roles. Somehow everything makes sense. It’s a fun approach and an equally fun atmosphere. August 14th - 16th at The Best Place Tavern on 917 W. Juneau Ave.
Songs Without Words
Michael Cotey directs Jennifer Vosters in a solo play about 19th century composer Felix Mendelssohn and his older sister Fanny. Vosters is good in anything, but she’s shown a great amount of appeal and charming gravity in various solo efforts she’s done online several years ago during the whole COVID thing. her Instagram page on the show has been interesting to follow. She’s fun. The show runs for one performance only at 6 pm on August 18th at the Todd Wehr Theatre as a part of Milwaukee Fringe Festival.
Angry Bard: Shakespeare? I Hardly Know Her!
If Vosters’ show isn't your thing, there's inadvertent counter-programming not far from the Todd Wehr, Boozy Bard will be performing a script originally written for...puppets by Angry Young Men, Ltd. It's a free Boozy Bard-style Shakespeare show that they had performed on the Fringe Fest some time ago. This year as a lead-in to the Fringe, they’re doing their Shakespeare comedy thing for free at The Best Place Tavern on 917 W. Juneau Ave. Shakespeare originally written for Puppets at a bar starts at 7:30 pm on August 18th. Then the following day, Angry Young Men help Boozy Bard do for late 19th century Russian theatre what they normally do for Shakespeare (and occasionally Dickens) with Chekhov: Half-Baked! The puppet-assisted spoofery continues at 8 pm on August 19th at the Todd Wehr Theatre as a part of Milwaukee Fringe Festival.
Voices Found Repertory presents a staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy of Richard II set in the 1920s. The talented Hannah Kubiak directs the show. She’s directing a cast of just eight actors in a show that runs only eight performances. The two-hour runtime of the performance should make for a tight, little presentation of the classic drama. August 23rd - September 3rd at Inspiration Studios on 1500 S. 73rd St. in West Allis.
CBS’ The Nanny ran through much of the 1990s. The six-season sitcom had over 140 episodes. A series with that kind of longevity creates an emotional spot in the pop culture consciousness that presents itself in interesting ways. This weekend, Purse String Productions presents a live parody of the series for the small stage of Sunstone Studios. It’s a TV sitcom living and breathing in a space that is simultaneously more. and less intimate than a domestic living room somewhere in the midst of the Bill Clinton era.
It’s a live sitcom...with a twist. The show plays like a fusion between sketch comedy and a drag show. Everyone in the show gets an opportunity onstage alone in drag-style lip-synching in a plot that draws a little bit from a few different episodes of the series including the pilot. In all the show is 90 minutes long, but with the musical numbers there’s actually more like...a couple of episodes’ worth of comedy and some rather well-choreographed extended musical moments.
To her credit, Samantha Sostarich doesn’t go for an overly grating spoof of the iconic Fran Drescher in the role of the nanny named Fran. Anyone looking to do an impression of Drescher will tend to crank-up the grating intensity of the voice. Sostarich takes an approach that embraces the distinctive nasal quirks of Drescher’s Queens-based New York accent. Sostarich is a lot of fun alone onstage in character in a nightclub with a Britney Spears song.
The male lead of Mr. Sheffield is played by Lee Rydzewski, who has been performing primarily as a drag queen. This is his first time performing as a man in over a decade. There’s a clever and clean precision to Lee Rydzewski’s performance that serves the comedy well. Rydzewski’s feels kind of like...meta-drag. He’s usually onstage in drag, so being onstage as a man means is more of a drag for HIM as he’s not usually playing a man. His song comes at the end of the show and plays cleverly on the expectations an audience is going to have for a performer like him. It’s a fun moment.
Brandon Herr plays Mr. Sheffield’s business partner C.C. Babcock. There’s a very engaging and emotionally sharp energy about her that takes some of the edge off of the nastiness of the character.
Parker Cristan applies a very crisp presence to the role of the butler Niles. His charm suits the role well in a way that adds considerably to the ensemble dynamic of the show.
Ceci Rodriguez is great fun in the role of the title character’s best friend from way back. Rodriguez has got remarkably striking comic timing and energy that works well with Samantha Sostarich’s endearing presence.
Corey Richards is an audience favorite in drag as Fran’s mother Sylvia. There’s a charming friction between her Richards and Sostarich as mother and daughter that fits the tone of the sitcom perfectly.
Purse String Productions’ The Nanny: A Fine Parody runs through July 16th at Sunstone Studios on 127 E Wells Street. For more information visit Purse Strings Online.
I was given 300-400 words for a Shepherd-Express preview on the upcoming debut of playwright/director Tim Backes’ coming-of-age drama Embers. Backes was nice enough to take some time out to answer a few questions for me about the show. And since he was SUCH a cool guy about it he had given me a lot more than I could possibly use for that preview...SO...I’m putting the entire thing in as a Q&A for The Small Stage
RUSS: Before we get into it...it occurs to me that I don’t even really know the setting side from a get-together between people who have just returned from college and I’d assumed that it was around a campfire. That’s not actually in any text that I’ve found, though. I guess I must have gotten that idea from the title and the image in the ad...and the fact that it’s being staged in a park. What exactly IS the setting?
TIM BACKES: The play is taking place around an actual live bonfire! We're holding it in Grant Park for the space (audience members are bringing in their own camp chairs), but it is being held around a very cool fire pit at a facility called Wulff Lodge, which is primarily used for scout group retreats.
RUSS: It’s a coming-of-age story is one that’s been explored quite a lot from a lot of different angles. Ensembles of characters are about to graduate from high school or college or they’re all going through one final thing before moving on. EMBERS is a different approach. A group of people meeting for the first time AFTER all of that on their way to the future. Where did the idea come from?
TIM BACKES: When I graduated from college in 2010, it was the height of the recession. I'd been accepted to grad school, but rather than take on the additional debt I opted to move back home with my parents and figure out where to go from there. I spent about a year and a half back home, looking for a "real job" (whatever that means), and hanging out with a lot of my high school friends. It was a really strange time in my life. I felt stuck in between two worlds. Even though I'd only been gone for four years, I suddenly felt out of place, and noticed that even the nature of some of my relationships had changed. I felt a societal pressure to move forward and continue the momentum from college, but couldn't help feeling "stuck" back in my hometown. This play features characters in that same situation. They're back home after four years of college with their old friends again, but nothing's exactly as it used to be.
RUSS: It can be difficult to craft a drama around a group of similar people. It appears as though the entire ensemble here is all the same age from the same background. EMBERS sounds like a very active (sometimes explosive) dynamic. Is there a great diversity of personalities between the characters?
TIM BACKES: Yeah, I think it's fair to say they all have very similar backgrounds. I think that reflects my own upbringing, really--it wasn't until college and after that I really branched out in my relationships. At the same time, I really wanted to avoid writing characters that felt too cliche or trope-ridden. You've got the girl with rich parents who went out of state to an Ivy League school, but you learn that she's actually very self-aware of her privilege, and it's been eating at her. You've got a character who didn't go to school and stayed at home to take care of her ill mother. There's the guy trying desperately to recapture his high school days because he's anxious about embracing the future, and a guy who hasn't yet been able to move past college partying. My goal was to create characters that really felt real and unique from each other, even if they're in a group that feels relatively homogenous (and perhaps familiar, depending on your upbringing).
RUSS: There’s the challenge in an ensemble in making the group seem cohesive too. Make them seem too different from each other and it wouldn’t seem realistic that they would WANT to hang out together for a get-together after college. How are you holding together the connections between everyone?
TIM BACKES: Absolutely. I was very intentional about this as well. There are plenty of references to the "old days," which helps to accentuate the connections that are holding these characters together. There are also a few moments where the plot itself gives way to just general jokes and banter that would feel right at place in a bonfire among old friends. In these moments, the connections among the group become more understandable, but they're countered by awkward silences and brewing conflicts that show just how much some of the people of the group have changed as well.
RUSS: Judging from some of what’s already been written about the show, the cast seems to be pretty close in age to the characters in the ensemble. How familiar are you with the actors that you’re working with?
TIM BACKES: Two of the cast members (Jessica Calteux, Alex Trevithick) are actually former theater students of mine from South Milwaukee High School, so it has been really cool to bring them into a performing environment with other young adults who have studied or are studying theater in college. It's been a great opportunity for them, and a point of pride for me to see them holding their own among some really outstanding performers. Three of the cast members I've worked with through Greendale Community Theatre and invited them to be a part of the show because I knew they'd be fantastic (Alyssa Higley was Jo March in Little Women, Gio Greco was Mary Poppins last summer, Bella Zeimet was in the Poppins ensemble). Daniel Persino was recommended to me by Bella, who was a student with him at UWM, and Matt Gould is an acting student at Parkside who was recommended by Rachael Swartz, who runs UWP's musical theatre program.
RUSS: You’ve had a lot of experience working with big ensembles. How has working on this show been different? I don’t recall you having had a whole lot of experience working on your own shows before. Obviously that’s going to be a more emotionally involved experience for you what with it being a script that you’ve written.
TIM BACKES: You're correct--this is actually the first full-length show of mine I've ever staged. I did write an original virtual production for my high school students during the pandemic. This has been the most unique theatrical experience I've ever been a part of. First, there's the fact that this was indeed my own writing. It was a really scary thing to share my own writing with other people, and I had to get past that vulnerability. The process itself is also unique. We've been rehearsing in my backyard to get used to being outside and working with a fire. I've never been a part of any outdoor production before, but I wrote this play with an outdoor performance in mind. And yes, emotionally, this process has hit me hard. From receiving praise about the script to hearing the words spoken aloud for the first time, and now seeing it all come together for a performance, it's incredibly fulfilling and I'm so grateful. I lost my dad unexpectedly in December and he was a writer himself, and that served as some inspiration for me to get this play finished and out into the world, and the combination of that with the unique experience of seeing your own work come to life has been really powerful. And I've had some really emotionally powerful theatrical experiences (Next to Normal in 2017 with All In Productions comes to mind, as does our SMHS production of Tuck Everlasting on the eve of the pandemic), but I'm not sure I've ever had one that filled me up quite like this.
RUSS: And, of course, working on a script that you’ve written holds open the option of being really dynamic with the script as well. You could change the script in the rehearsal process. Has the script changed at all in the process of putting the show together?
TIM BACKES: Honestly, not as much as I expected. There have been a few small adjustments, but it's mostly stayed as written. What has been really cool is watching my own understanding and perception of some characters or scenes change based on the way the actors have delivered their lines or embodied their characters. Like, I wrote the play, but they've made me think about the characters from different perspectives than I'd initially done, which has been really awesome and unexpected.
Tim Backes’ EMBERS opens tonight and runs one weekend only: July 13 - 15 at Wulff Lodge in South Milwaukee. For mor information, visit the show’s Facebook Events Page.