Playwright/Director Aaron Kopec fuses a couple of different genres together with the latest in his long-running October "Halloween show" tradition. Punk is Dead is a largely two-person drama that grafts horror and drama together in a story of punk metropolitan madness late in the 20th century.
The set is a tiny, little apartment in Manhattan crammed with well-worn artifacts. Various bits and pieces previously seen in the Alchemist bar have been collided together into a space that feels very lived-in. Scenic Designer Evan Crain covers the walls in scrawls in and around the edges of the clutter.
Liz Mistele plays Don— a fading punk rocker who is struggling to find meaning at the end of an era. She plays at a dive bar somewhere on the edge of obscurity. She is an addict who can’t find what she’s looking for on a bleary stage and she can’t find what she’s looking in chemical insight either. So she's lost.
Natasha Mortazavi is dizzyingly sensual as Don’s lover Stoli— A striking nocturnal figure who is suffering from anterograde amnesia. Unable to form any new memories, she is a phantom locked in a past which is becoming more and more dreamlike as the present bleeds into the future.
The interaction between Dona and Stoli is very dark. It’s a very mutually abusive relationship but one that is still somehow mutually beneficial for the both of them. There is the weight of a tremendous amount of negativity weighing over both of them. They’re both battling demons that are much bigger than anything that could possibly fit on stage. Mistele and Mortazavi do a good job of keeping the dynamic between the two characters interesting without letting up on the restless darkness that they are both totally immersed in.
Relax: there ARE moments of levity. Michael Christopher plays an acquaintance who accidentally stumbles into the lives of the two women. Christopher reacts with comically wide-eyed bewilderment to everything going on between the two women. He really just wants to get to work, but he has fallen into a particularly bad moment for the two lovers.
Michael Christopher also plays into one of the more casually innovative moments in the production. Live theatre can appeal to the senses in a way nothing else can. It can be really difficult to embrace the full potential of theatre beyond the confines of most scripts. It’s difficult to engage in the full sensuality of a show without making it feel weird and gimmicky. Occasionally it works. Occasionally you’ll get a live production that appeals to the senses in a way that no other form of drama could. There might be a scent of perfume or cigarettes. Maybe actors are eating actual food in character. Or maybe Randall T. Anderson is relating to an audience the story behind a drink they’re about to have. (I still love his Bartender show.) In this case Kopec has managed to find a rather clever way to deliver part of a story sound alone. With all the lights briefly out, all that’s going on in the play is manifest directly through sound. The lights come up moments later. It’s not exactly clear what happened on the dark, but we have some idea based on the way Christopher is reacting to Mortazavi. It’s a really clever bit of storytelling that amplifies the mystery of what’s going on.
Kopec’s put together a really interesting story that hits countless themes that he had explored in the past: the nature of art and reality, dominance and submission, death and rebellion and so on. Real accomplishment here seems to be how seamlessly the supernatural is fused with an earthbound, street-level reality. There is substantial amount of ambiguity as to the true nature of Stoli. She might be afflicted with something very mundane. It could be simple madness. It might be a madness that’s shared by Don or something altogether more sinister. It doesn’t really seem to matter. This is a story primarily about two people and their story is more important than the particulars of what they have been before in the past and what they are now as individuals. It’s a character-driven story, so the specifics of the supernatural are irrelevant.
Mistele plays a compelling kind of self-destruction. She plays a character who has been over the edge so many times that it’s difficult to tell where solid ground is for her. She is contrasted against the earthbound ghost Stoli who is very passive-aggressively dominant and sometimes speaks in some of the more compelling poetry in the script. She’s a very simple mystery who commands forcefully with a calm and confident voice. There’s a lot going on in the scene between her and Christopher that rests somewhere way below the surface. As seen in the scene, Mortazavi plays something very sinister and disturbing the feels casually sweet on the surface.
As a whole, the script feels lost somewhere between Bram Stoker and William S. Burroughs, which is exactly where it needs to be in order to do what is so good at doing. It’s that interpersonal kind of high-gravity psychological/existential horror. There's a gritty everyday horror about it all. Maybe the worst thing that might happen for everyone is...nothing: an endless repetition of the horror of being trapped in an infinite cycle with no way out. And maybe there’s a way out if Stoli and Don can open-up to it in the right way.
It’s a worthy addition to everything else that Kopek has stayed at the Alchemist. Strip back all the labels and reach right into the horror of everyday life as seen in an appealingly punk rearview. It might be his most accomplished yet.
Alchemist Theatre’s Punk is Dead runs through Oct. 27 on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit The Alchemist Theatre online.
The overpowering idea of “Art” will kill art every time. The biggest barrier to most people’s appreciation of opera is that it’s opera. It’s way too formal and dense. You sit down and dive into some big, impenetrable thing with lots of moving pieces which probably wouldn’t even be in English even if you could under stand them. Relax: Opera On Tap-Wisconsin is hoping to demystify opera. You don’t have to go to some huge performing arts space. You can go to a bar or a coffee shop or something. Sit down. Have a drink. Listen to some opera. It’s no big deal. Granted: someone probably IS going to die, but it’s not a matter of life and death. It’s only music, passion and emotion in a cozy space.
Born in New York, Opera On Tap has a number of chapters that have popped-up all over the country. This week Opera On Tap-Wisconsin brings the lofty art of high-class narrative vocals to intimate spaces. It’s a fun, informal encounter with tenors, sopranos and tragedy amidst drinks and light conversation. Anodyne’s space on Bruce Street serves as an excellent location.
The air at Anodyne is infused with the rich aroma of coffee with just a hint of several classy beers on tap. This week Small Stage opera comes to hardwood floors and cream city brick courtesy of Passion in Pigskin—a romantic American football opera.
The show, which runs for two performances, opened last night. There are two 45-minute halves separated by an intermission. The first half is a “crazy love”-themed gig set. Songs from opera, musical and more are gentle introduction to the evening hosted by Opera On Tap Wisconsin Co-Founder and talented vocalist Julianne Perkins. Women sing songs of crazy love with operatic passion accompanied by Elizabeth Biermann on keyboard. Delicate emotion cascades through a spacious space of brick and board. No artificial amplification here. There’s a warm, acoustic embrace of simple sound rushing through all the open space. There’s a love of love pouring out in striking operatic clarity. The casual informality of the evening allows every singer her own distinct personality. Every one gives her own distinctive voice to the early evening before the space is handed over to the charming hands of Michael Lydon and Ellen Mandel who are in town from New York for the show.
Lydon and Mandel’s jazzy moods and dazzlingly simple melodies serve simple, universal themes which lead-in to the 45-minute opera composed by Lydon and Mandel. The two close-out the first half and ease things into intermission.
The show returns from break with Passion In Pigskin: a primal and viscerally minimalist love triangle between two pro football linemen and a cheerleader. Costuming is simple. The set consists of a couch and a few odd elements here and there. Austin Bare and David Guzman play Billy and Eddie--two linemen dating two cheerleaders. Dana Vetter is sweet as Eddie’s girlfriend Mary Jo. She’s shy around him. Vetter’s good with delicate characterization, but she’s given a chance to be more direct in expressing herself with fellow cheerleader Betty. Erin Sura plays Billy’s girlfriend Betty with playful aggression that serves as a nice contrast to the love triangle at the center of the drama.
Eddie loves football. Billy love Mary Jo. Billy gets injured. Eddie suggests that she take care Billy to help him through the injury. Things get complicated.
Of course...since this is a drama between three people, it doesn’t get as complicated as opera often does. And with only a 45 -minute lifespan, the plot has to be very aggressive to get where it’s going. And where it’s going is very operatic. This may be the story of two mere lineman and the woman they both love, but the conflict quickly escalates and elevates two normal guys into gods at each other’s throats. Very intense stuff. Director Josh Perkins (who also plays the head coach in the show) points the momentum in the right direction and lets the intensity of the drama do its thing.
There is one more performance of Passion in Pigskin with Opera On Tap-Wisconsin. Tonight’s (Oct. 12th) show starts at 7:30 pm at Anodyne Coffee Roasting Company on 224. W. Bruce St. For more information, visit the show’s page on Facebook.
An operatic jam band rests between the Mystery an History sections of the Boswell Book Company after hours. They’re performing a musical response to Dana Spiotta’s novel Eat the Document. Spiotta’s there reading passages from the book amidst music inspired by it. Outside it’s a damp and chilly night on the East Side. If life was more like poetry, this would happen all the time. Monique Ross would hang out under "History" with her cello as Jack Forbes Wilson rested beneath "Mystery" on a keyboard. Eva Nimmer would hang out under "True Crime" with a kazoo jamming along with everyone else while Jill Anna Ponasik looked on near "Cloak and Dagger" not far from whatever author happened to wander into the bookstore that night. And this should just be a casual night at an indie bookstore after hours between Mystery and History, but it’s not. It’s a performance of the limited-run Milwaukee Opera Theatre show Antiology.
Fragments of narrative spoken by the author hang in the air in the darkened shop as the band performs music composed by John Glover and Kelley Rourke that blend into a show also featuring stylish operatic interpretations of Baby Boomer pop tunes including songs by The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and Procol Harum (among others.)
Spiotta’s Eat The Document echoes through an evening of playfully classy boomer pop operatic feelings. The novel is about idealism and passion in the underground movement of the ‘70s resonating into the ‘90s. Some of that narrative is captured directly in the music. There opening night Spiotta seemed stiffly East Coast...her words were initially brittle and formal against the smooth backdrop of the music as they stretched out towards some sort of reflectively reflexive approximation of insight. To be fair, an author isn’t always the best person to read his or her own work and Spiotta DID fly all the way out to Milwaukee the day of the performance. Fatigue and general travel disorientation may have been a factor. That being said, it would be any author’s dream to read their work with this kind of casual orchestral back-up (because it's just...so cool.) It’s a shame Spiotta was only able to warm to it for a few moments of genuine fusion opening night. (That's all I'm saying.)
The single brightest spot in Spiotta’s otherwise stiff and largely academic reading happened right after she cut-in from the end of a beautiful articulation of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Jack Forbes Wilson was right there in the center of the band as the central focal point of it all. He's got this totally natural and organic emotional warmth about him that has no difficulty harnessing an entire audience to sing Bob Dylan with honesty that doesn't harbor the slightest shred of irony. It’s one of Dylan’s most recognizable tunes. There we are opening night. The song begins and Wilson invites everyone in the room to sing along. There’s this dazzlingly haunting connection flowing through audience and performers alike. It’s the kind of a melodic unity I’ve only occasionally felt in small, little open mics in bars and cafes in various snuggeries in and out of out-of-the-way corners of town. Wilson has such a warm presence. Dylan’s music gently electrifies everything. And just as the song fades out, Spiotta slides up and falls into the rhythm of the performance with a very genuinely heartfelt bit of narrative.
So there's a lot of Boomer pop. This is no jukebox musical, though. The operatic end of things lives quite vividly in a couple of pieces written by Glover and Rourke. My favorite has to be the anti-commercialist “Nicknames Are For for Friends.” It has a transcendentally haunting existential American dread about it. There’s a refrain that reverberates through the audience in singalong. I can honestly say that I’ve probably never expected to hear a room full of people in unison softly singing lyrics that include phrase “bottled soft drinks.” I could give context, but you really have to be there to experience it. Gives me chills just thinking about it.
So I didn’t like the book. Try as I might have, I couldn’t manage to get into the source material here. There are things being said in her work that are worth saying, but they don’t seem all that compelling or original to me. I realize that Spiotta’s Eat the Document won awards and everything, but to me it feels like a copy of a copy of a copy that’s echoing harmlessly into its own dazed postmodernism. Kind of reminds me of something Greil Marcus once said that keeps bumping into a passage from Chuck Palahniuk in the hazy firmament of my memory. To me it’s not terribly compelling, but I understand the appeal. Glover and Rourke have taken it and done something beautiful with it, though. Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Antiology is a treasure. There’s such a lovely communal spiffiness binding it together that makes one long for the world to stop being so goddamned stiff. There’s too much conflict. The world needs to knock it off. The world needs to give up, give-in and be more poetic.
(And Jack Forbes Wilson needs to lead more singalongs. I mean it. As a culture and as a race of feeling, caring beings, we need more singalongs with Jack Forbes Wilson. I’m not even kidding.)
Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s staging of Antiology runs through Oct. 12 at Boswell Book Company on 2559 N. Downer Ave. (There are still a couple of performances left!) For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.
The West Allis Players is one of those local community theatre groups that has been around forever. Next year they celebrate their 50th anniversary season. Granted, they haven’t been around as long as the Bay Players, but any theatre company that’s been around for more than a couple of decades in Milwaukee is kind of historic. After over a decade of covering theatre in Milwaukee, I finally had a chance to see a show with the venerable company. This month they are staging a production of Tennessee Williams’ A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Like so many other high school stages in town, the theatre at West Allis Central is huge and cavernous. Since a staging of a classic 20th century drama doesn’t exactly draw-in the kind of crowds it should, there’s plenty of space in the first few rows to make the stage seem relatively small. There’s a gentle hush of all those empty seats that really amplifies the loneliness of Williams’ classic drama.
The play opens in that vast family estate in Mississippi. Nicholas Callan Haubner limps along on the crutch of Brick Pollitt. He’s big, silent and brooding. Avidalis Howard plays the shadow of his lover interest--Maggie the Cat. Howard treads delicately through Maggie’s restless southern lilt as she tries to engage in some sort of conversation with Brick. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a production of the drama. I’d forgotten just how much of the early drama weighs so heavily on Maggie. She’s delivering nearly ALL of the background and setting up nearly all of the drama and she’s doing it almost entirely by herself. Howard does a really good job of relaying the stresses of the lonely estate in a steady rhythm of a monologue that Maggie is really hoping to turn into a dialogue with the inert Brick.
Haubner conscientiously leans through Brick’s brooding silences. There’s no attempt here to express too much in silence. In the early going, Haubner lets Brick come to rest into him onstage as Howard wields Maggie’s frustrations in speech, driving a solid line of expository thought through the drama’s opening scene. The dynamic between Haubner and Howard has a very organic, lived-in quality about it. She tenderly prods him in a direction of action in three long, slow scenes that migrate across the uncomfortably vastness of a stage made uncomfortably small by silence and shadow.
Gene Schuldt has a gruff, casual intensity about him in the role of patriarch Big Daddy. Schuldt doesn’t command authority so much as allow it to be in the space he’s occupying. This approach serves the character quite well. Play the role with too much force or power and it undermines the more vulnerable side of a character who finds himself at the end of his life. The explosive anger that might other wise erupt out of Big Daddy in conversation with his son or his wife slides into the dialogue with a stern weariness. This allows for a sharply idiosyncratic relationship between himself and the silent mass of Haubner as Brick. There are some interesting things going on in and around the edges of the ensemble, but this production is at its best between Brick, Big Daddy and Maggie. And since so much of the drama rests on their interactions, this is a largely satisfying production.
There are three acts. There’s an intermission between each act. The space around everything both physically and temporally allows the drama to settle-in with a slow rumble. That slow increase of pressure is something that Tennessee Williams mercilessly brilliant with. Director Katherine Beeson has done a respectable job of bringing Williams’ slow, steady tension to the stage.
The West Allis Players’ production of A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs through Oct. 14 at West Allis Central High School on 8516 W. Lincoln Avenue. For ticket reservations and more, visit West Allis Players online.
Dana Spiotta’s 2006 coming-of-age novel Eat the Document is a complex story of idealism in the face of adversity. The same characters are seen during the underground movement of the 1970s that echoed into consequences of the same movement in the 1990s. It’s a tale of two eras as told through the fiction of a third. Mary Whitaker is a revolutionary in the ’70s alongside her partner Bobby DeSoto. Years later, he’s calling himself, "Nash" and running a leftist bookstore called Prairie Fire. The subtle complexities in a bisected stereo of historical fiction resonate through the small stage opera Antiology, which makes its way to Boswell Book Company this month courtesy of a workshop production with Milwaukee Opera Theatre. Librettist Kelley Rourke and Milwaukee Opera Theatre Producing Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik took some time out to answer a few questions about the show for The Small Stage.
What was the inspiration behind using EAT THE DOCUMENT as the basis for an operatic work?
Kelley Rourke: I think opera is at its most powerful when it allows us to explore what is behind and beyond the words, something that can only be expressed in music. [Composer] John [Glover] and I were really struck by the specificity and complexity of Dana’s characters as they wrestled with how to respond to the world they live in.
The space at Boswell Book is very cozy. Were other spaces considered? How did you make the decision to stage the show there?
Kelly Rourke: The material we’re workshopping features Nash, a character who runs a bookstore. When Jill Anna mentioned the possibility of collaborating with a local independent bookseller, we were thrilled.
It has to be a daunting process to distill a 290-page novel into a single production, but THIS novel is an exhaustive journey through the 1970s and the 1990s. How closely does the libretto follow the structure and format of the novel?
Kelley Rourke: John and I are at the very early stages of making the opera, which means we are talking a lot about structure and format, but we haven’t finalized anything yet. We’ve also had the opportunity to spend some time with Dana, and it’s been hugely helpful to hear more about her inspirations and ideas for the characters and scenes.
In these early stages of our process, this project with Milwaukee Opera Theater gives us the opportunity to try out some material for Nash, played by Andrew Wilkowske, and to begin to understand what his character sounds like. To fill out the evening, we’ve put together a band that will cover some of the pop songs that are important to characters in the book. The music of the 70s and 90s is a huge part of the story, and while we don’t plan to directly quote any of the songs in the actual opera, our hope is to evoke the sounds of the times through some characteristic textures and harmonies.
In addition to all of the administrative responsibilities, Jill, you're also onstage for this one. Do you find yourself relating to the show on a dual level as Artistic Director and performer?
Jill Anna Ponasik: I find producing and performing to be two completely, utterly, absolutely different activities, and so I go to great lengths to avoid doing both at the same time.
But…I adore this team, I feel like challenging myself to feel that performer fear again, and we need the additional voice to fill out the harmonies on a few of the songs. Plus, we’re trying to create an intensely informal event here, and what’s less formal than having the person selling tickets hop on stage to sing a tune?
You're doing very specific percussion here. While going into rehearsals for this show, do you find yourself relating to spoons differently in your daily life outside of rehearsal?
Jill Anna Ponasik: Shhh. I didn’t even tell the composer I planned to bring spoons. That’s supposed to be a surprise.
Milwaukee Opera Theare’s workshop staging of Antiology runs October 10 - 12 at the Boswell Book Company on 2559 N. Downer Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.
People can be crazy and irrational both in and out of love. There’s a colossal stubbornness in any individual that can make meaningful connection of any kind absurdly difficult. The fact that we manage to muddle along in life in love in spite of all of this lies at the center of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar. Next Act Theatre opens its 2018-19 theatre season with a production of the comedic drama featuring a quartet of talented Milwaukee theatre veterans.
Set in rural Ireland, the play opens as a father and son muse on the passing of an old neighbor. James Pickering carries a whimsically playful apathy about him as the father...a man named Tony who is convinced that he hasn’t long to live. He fully accepts his impending death. It might as well casually written on a calendar somewhere. He has very defined ideas on how things will be handled after his death and he will not be moved. With Pickering’s charm, the character’s obstinance never comes across as cold. There’s a certainty about his performance that suggests a great depth worn from walking the same patch of land for many, many decades.
David Cecsarini puts in an earthy performance as his son Anthony--a man working the land who keeps largely to himself. There’s some suggestion that Anthony might be suffering from a quiet bit of madness that his father keeps talking about. Cescarini does a brilliant job of playing caution against something far deeper in his psyche that he terrified to bring to the surface. It’s a very cleverly layered performance that casts some remarkable complexity into a character who could easily otherwise come across as being nothing more than socially inert.
Carrie Hitchcock puts in a performance that is similarly layered in complexity. She’s playing the neighbor widow Aoife with a great warmth and stillness. Hitchcock’s thoughtful posture is highlighted by the very studied movements of a woman significantly older than she. Like Tony, she’s perfectly well ready for her own end and seems whimsically contented with the end of it all for her. Hitchcock plays at restful wit and wisdom. When it becomes apparent that Tony might not leave the farm to his son Anthony, Aoife casts some light into matters that prove to be quite complicated. There may be some question of what will happen to Tony’s land, but Aoife is absolutely certain that HER farm will go to her daughter Rosemary.
Deborah Staples plays Rosemary--the patient woman living next door who stubbornly holds to ownership of small scraps of a potential future. We first see her meeting with Anthony. She’s smoking. He’s not. She’s trying to get him to open up to her. He keeps his distance without being rude. We sense a connection between them throughout the drama. As Anthony has much going on within his psyche, far more of the connection between the two characters is reflected in delicate shades of Staples' performance. Staples cleverly draws attention Rosemary's faith that she and Anthony possess an intimacy not echoed in the minimal time they have spent together over the years. Staples brings this subtlety to the stage while holding fast to the character’s great emotional strength.
There’s a light and uplifting humor gliding around the gravity of the drama. Shanley’s extreme cleverness in the balance between wit and depression is expertly crafted here. A script like this is great. In the hands of an experienced cast that have worked together many times before in the past...it’s absolutely brilliant. Accomplished actor/director Edward Morgan puts it all together with a soft touch that allows shadowy and subtle moments to vividly hold together.
It all happens on another beautiful Rick Rasmussen set. The rolling hills of Ireland are seen off in the distance. Lighting designer Aaron Sherkow smartly illuminates the background, giving it great volume that plays strange games with its relatively small physical size. (There’s a statement somewhere in there that echoes the overall theme of the play itself.) The earthbound foreground bears the well-worn, lived-in feel of a place that has served as a couple of different homes that rest across a road from each other somewhere in rural Ireland.
Next Act Theatre’s production of Outside Mullingar runs through Oct. 21 on 255 South Water Street. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act online.
Brutal anger and resentment resonate through subterranean downtown as Shakespeare’s brutal Titus Andronicus descends into the Underground Collaborative. Voices Found Repertory lashes into one of Shakespeare’s most aggressive dramas with a delicate balance of drama and brutality.
Young Maya Danks exudes honor and nobility in the title role. She wields respectable gravity as a returning Roman hero who has returned having defeated the Goths in battle. When offered rulership over Rome, passing the crown instead to Saturnine. Kyle Connor makes a striking contrast against Danks. Connor plays nauseating privilege with smartly hollow poise, carrying himself with a dignified pomposity befitting someone with all the posture of nobility but few of its virtues.
Robin Lewis wears cold emotionless detachment in the role of the fallen queen of the Goths who is chosen to rule Rome alongside Saturnine as his wife. She and her sons plot revenge against Titus and the ugly violence, dismemberment and death commence.
The intimate stage of the Arcade Theatre in the Underground Collaborative has the ability to bring the ugliness of bloody revenge uncomfortably close to the audience. Director Hannah Kubiak doesn’t shy away from the horror of it all, but she isn’t exactly embracing the delicious grotesqueness of it all. There’s just enough of it there to enhance the drama without distracting from it.
Alexis Furseth is right in the heart of that drama as Titus’ daughter Lavinia. Furseth takes the character through quite a journey...playing it cool and confident as the play opens, then terrified after being the victim of rape and dismemberment before finally landing on desperation as she tries to communicate the identity of her attackers without the benefit of hands or a tongue. Furseth has such compelling attraction in the role. Her performance makes one wonder why Shakespeare didn’t make Lavinia the center of the story. Her inspiring struggle is much more compelling than all of the grim revenge that the drama where so much of the rest of the script focuses on. Of course, victims of rape stepping forward and naming their accusers have added resonance with the emergence of the Me Too era. Furseth’s transformation over the course of the play is inspiring even if the play spends far more time telling other ends of the story.
Teddi Jules Gardener has a strong leading male quality about him in the role of Shakespeare’s triumphant hero Lucius--son of Titus. Gardner’s valiance as a man of honor looking for revenge hangs quite proudly around the center of the drama. Also serving with great, heroic poise on the side of Titus is the magnetic Jessica Trznadel as Titus’ brother Marcus. Trznadel carries herself with a steadfast grace and poise in poetry as one of the honorable ones.
As with any production of Shakespeare, some of the most striking performances slide in around the corners of the central plot. Of particular note here is Brittany Faye Byrnes as the treacherous Moore named Aaron. Aaron is kind of a marginal character in the plot, but Byrnes makes quite an impression--gliding through the poetry of villainy as deft as a perfectly balanced razor. She and Furseth cast some dazzling light into the corners of a satisfying production.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of Titus Andronicus runs through Oct. 7th at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Voices Found Online. Tonight they have a special hangout-with-the-cast fundraiser at MobCraft which looks like a lot of fun. They'll be there after tonight's show from 10 pm to midnight.
Writing is weird. A short while back three of us had a chance to stand around talking about it. This was made possible by a generous donation to The Small Stage.
It’s kind of a departure from a blog strictly about theatre.
My first officially donor-sponsored blog comes courtesy of Boozy Bard's A Christmas Carol: RAW. The drunken Dickens goes on a 5-show tour of local venues Nov, 23-Dec. 21.
The money donated for this entry has helped fund a lot of other coverage for local theatre in this blog, so I’m more than happy to stand around in a room with a couple of other writers talking about writing Here we are:
Aaron Kopec is the artistic director at The Alchemist Theatre where he strives to provide fun and exciting entertainment. He occasionally writes, sometimes directs, often builds sets, intermittently designs lights and audio, and most often repairs leaks and other ailments of the wonderful old building that houses The Alchemist. His past works are all listed at the theatre website under "past shows." He is proud of all of them for one reason or another but mostly for all of the spectacularly talented people he's gotten to work closely with and the amazing audiences who have kept the doors open for over 11 years. www.thealchemisttheatre.com
Jacob Woelfel is an unpublished author currently querying one of a few finished manuscripts. He's written for The Variety Hour Happy Hour, Sketch 22, and PARTY!, and he's assisted in editing Pepper's Ghost and PUNK IS DEAD! at The Alchemist Theatre.
Russ Bickerstaff (that’s me)--I'm a theatre critic and writer of short fictions. (I also recently picked-up work as a comic book critic. Weird.) I live in the south side's Crisol Community with my wife and two daughters. My short fictions have appeared in over 30 different publications including Hypertext Magazine, Pulp Metal Magazine, Sein und Werden, and Theme of Absence.
Trust Me: There's an Audio Recording
It was the middle of the day. There was a street festival not far from where the three of us had gathered. It was a casual mood conversation. It's been captured on audio...and I seem to remember that a lot of it made sense, but the audio file that I recorded it on is a bit surly. It refuses to be edited. I intend on getting it uploaded to this entry once I've had a chance to edit it. In order to do so, I'm going to need a scalpel, two paperclips and a nuclear accelerator...or I don't know...maybe just the right audio editing software.
Anyway there we stood: three guys talking about writing for a couple of hours...then went to work asking each other questions via email about...writing...these are those questions.
Questions From Me to Aaron:
ME: A lot of people would envy your ability to work on something from conception to completion. You work on a lot of other elements for a show beyond the script. Do you ever find that other elements of production inform on and mutate a script the you may be working on?
AARON: I'm usually lucky enough to know at least a few people that are interested in a role that i'm talking or thinking about early enough that I can write for specific actors and sometimes discuss how they would want to play a character and try to incorporate ideas that they might have.
ME: You've done some incredibly elaborate plot structures for the stage in the past. I would imagine there have been scenes and ideas that have had to get cut here and there. What's that process like? Have there been any notable scraps of ideas that you're waiting for the right opportunity to use or does the scriptwriting all fuse itself into what you're working on for any individual show?
AARON: Sometimes scripts get nearly completed and maybe even to the point of some "per-production" before being "scrapped" or before it evolves into something else.
A few years back the NYC Trilogy was a combo of things that had been disassembled from a possible "throughout the building" production and reshaped into three "for the stage" shows.
ME: So many anti-heroes in your work. Dracula. H.H. Holmes. uhh...Andy Warhol. Unless I'm forgetting something, I don't ever recall any totally altruistic heroes in your work. What's your particular fascination with darker characters?
AARON: Because every character is just me?
I don't really know if I have a good, actual answer for that without therapy.
I think we all love a good antihero. A good villain that we can, maybe unfortunately, relate to. And when those characters manage to find moments of redemption of bits of beauty, that may feel even more hopeful than a heartwarming, feel-good production full of characters that we all want to be friends with.
Questions From Jacob to Aaron:
JACOB: After a show has ended and you think of your characters, do you visualize them as the actors who played them? When you see the actors, do they remind you of the characters?
AARON: Some, certainly. In some ways David Sapiro will always be "Eddie Valentine" and April Paul will always be "Izzy" from "Another Tale of Eddie."
Liz Whitford has played countless roles here but she will always be a bit more "Margarite" from "Faust" because I still use the notebook her character wrote her daily journal in full of love notes about "Johnathon" who was played by Grace DeWolf.
JACOB: You've always had a great handle on dialogue. I remember you once telling me that you prefer to dance around what characters are really trying to say. Tell me a little bit about how you go about doing this. Is it something you plan for? Or is it something that happens organically?
AARON: I TRY to write how we actually speak while also paying attention to rhythms.
This means that I write dialogue rather poorly, actually.
Lots of fragmented sentences and phrases that begin half-way through a thought combined with long-winded speeches.
But I really think that is how most folks talk and how conversations actually happen. Lots of interjections and interruptions before someone just plows though a story wrapped around some central core of what is being discussed.
JACOB: Do you tend to write with a message in mind? Many of your plays seem to have a clear point. If so, when do you discover that message? Is it something you find halfway through? Or is it something you know right away? If it is—how much does that message affect the decisions of your characters?
AARON: Seems to me that if you try to stay true to characters and let them live, a message, so to speak, will just naturally emerge.
For me it is important that the message doesn't get crammed down anyone's throats. Medicine in the mashed potatoes. And I also try to stay aware of creating a bit of a "pop rock song" with my shows so that they are maybe just open enough to interpretation that you can find what you need in them.
Yeah, there are specific thoughts in mind that come from specific events or ideas that are very real to me, but you don't need to know what they are. You, as the audience, have probably had similar events or ideas that you can relate to it.
Questions From Aaron to Jacob:
AARON: I think it's interesting to know how you find resources to "bounce ideas off of." Other writers who are starting out and have novels in them.... can you share some of the online resources that you've discovered where folks can share and interact and get decent feedback?
JACOB: There's many communities on Reddit if you look hard enough. I won't recommend a specific one because your results will vary depending on what you're working on and what kind of feedback you're looking for. Discord voice and chat channels work in a more immediate way for feedback, but again there are so many communities it's hard to recommend just one. It's like any other resource, even within these communities, you have to find the people who have the input you find most helpful. And those aside, the most important resource is everyone you know—and people you don't know. If your pitch can hold the attention of a complete stranger who has no idea who you are or what you're doing, it's probably an idea worth your time.
AARON: You have given me some really great writing advice... things that built my confidence and helped structure things in ways I've not considered before. Again, to writers who are "finding their way" is there any "advice" that you'd offer to them that isn't the cliche' "just write?" If someone feels that they have a "novel length story" in them.... what would you tell them to consider? It's such a big journey.
JACOB: It's tough to give a single answer that applies to everyone. For me, learning about basic structure helped a lot. Scene structure in particular was big, and character motivations were bigger. Most scenes are going to be carried by a character and what they want or need. If it's just a bunch of stuff happening, it's hard to get invested or care. I wish I'd known that before I wrote an entire novel where the main character didn't really want anything. People would ask, "what is your book about?" And I would have no answer. It was about a bunch of stuff happening to a guy because I thought it would be cool. So my answer would usually be some rambling word soup of events that I thought stood out, but really it wasn't about anything. Please note, it can be done. Look at American Gods. Shadow is just sort of a wanderer, and it works. There's always going to be exceptions, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take the time to understand the rules.
As for a novel-length idea and how to tackle it, if you haven't written something novel length before, I would absolutely recommend working on some shorter stories first. Get into the habit of finishing things. Start small, something you can complete in a sitting. Then do something a little bigger, something that might take two days. Do it again, and again, until you're completing pieces with ease. "But Jacob, I only want to write this novel." You can do that. Each short story can be part of it. Think of it as exploratory writing. I've got dozens of short stories within the worlds of my books. Some of them make it in. Most don't. But they were all worth doing in building what the eventual story would become. Again, please note that you can jump right into writing an entire novel having written nothing else. It's possible, but I wouldn't recommend it.
AARON: Same final question I asked Russ.... as someone who considers every word and understands pacing and the silliness of bravado... favorite "guilty pleasure rock song?"
JACOB: REO Speedwagon's Roll with the Changes.
Questions From Me to Jacob
ME: Longer works of fiction can become kind of a lens through which you see the world. How does it feel to have an intimate connection with these very involved worlds you're writing...worlds that few others have been able to be exposed to?
JACOB: I hadn't thought much about this before. I think, above all, it's a little intoxicating. The longer I work on something, the more real it becomes. Sure, it's all made-up nonsense, but it's made-up nonsense I live with, and until I've moved on to that next giant project, it never goes away. In times when I'm most active, it's easy to lose days. It's like going somewhere else, so no matter where I am or what I'm doing, I'm stuck with these characters. It can happen with shorter works, too, but it rarely outlasts the story. As if that isn't real enough, having a small group of interested readers to bounce ideas off of amplifies that effect. Even if it's only three or four people, being able to talk about all of these characters and what they're doing, what they will do—there's nothing else like it.
ME: There are those who make...lots of money writing novels. The really successful novels. It can be really strange to see what the mass public turns into a best-seller. Which author's/novels' widespread success do you find most perplexing?
JACOB: Tough question. I swear I'm not weaseling out when I tell you there aren't any. Don't get me wrong, I dislike loads of novels. You couldn't pay me to read a lot of what's out there, but I still get why these authors are successful. Sure, it's not always clear. Fifty Shades of Grey is bad, but the appeal is obvious. Twilight, too. These authors know their audience and they write/promote accordingly. From what I can tell, a lot of being a successful author has little to do with how good of a writer you are. There's probably countless masterpieces out there that'll never see publication because a great writer gave up. The industry is brutal and unforgiving. You have to convince the gatekeepers you're worth it. That takes time and a ton of rejection. Most importantly, it takes something they think they can sell. I hate that I feel this way, but I haven't seen anything to indicate otherwise.
ME: I find that the more elaborate unfinished stuff tends to hang out around the corners of my consciousness while I'm not working on it. What has your experience been like having characters, characters' relationships and whole worlds on hold while you hold down a day job and the rest of your life?
JACOB: I got a little into this with the first question. They don't go away. If anything, they're hanging out, waiting for me to finish that phone call. Whenever my mind wanders, good chance I'm thinking about them and what they're doing. If I want to write but can't, I'll often think of where they were when I last stopped. What would they do in this situation? Where are they going? What do they want? Is that still clear? Wait, how am I home already? I drove this whole way?
You get the idea.
Questions From Aaron to Me:
AARON: With the whole "where do ideas come from" discussion... I know that having helped raise two souls that some stories come from childhood wonder that is now part of your life with two little ones. Do you have any stories that were inspired by the wee ones?
ME: Yes. When kids’ vocabularies are only starting to download, they’ve got a really interesting relationship with the language that has inspired stories here and there.
There’s one in particular, though...when they were babies, my sister-in-law gifted them a little yellow hand-made plush gnome that I created a whole backstory for. The Strawberry Banana Gnome ended-up being the central character of “Fruiternal Quest”: a brief piece that was published by Raven Warren Studios a while back...in an anthology called Winning! A Guide to Games That Never Were. It’s still available in paperback for $6 on Amazon.
AARON: Unrelated to your "writing" but a big part of who you are for this community... as someone who reviews a LOT of theatre, do you ever get the "bug" to write scripts?
ME: I find myself thinking in dialogue between characters frequently enough that I’ve written a few scripts. MANY years ago I had a few shorts staged in a few Milwaukee shorts programs. There’s a longer one-act that I’ve written that I still think would be fun to stage...a fictional conversation between artists Steve Ditko and Eric Stanton in a tiny, little artist’s studio in midtown Manhattan in 1962.
AARON: We touched on ridiculous pop songs and "Bon Jovi" in our talk as well as "guilty pleasures." I'd be curious to hear any "guilty pleasure songs" that you can't help but turning up when they come on.
ME: There is no pleasure that is not guilty.
I don’t actually listen to the radio, though. Occasionally a song or an ad jingle from 10 or more years ago that I never really paid much attention to will be rolling around in my head. I’ll track it down and play it to death. It’s kind of like the ear-worm version of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD...these things come back...overplayed pop songs I never really paid attention to by Def Leppard or Nirvana or Blues Traveler or Bowling for Soup or whatever. I look them up and listen to them a few times so that they can die again. (And believe me...they WANT to die.) So I help play them out by doing a search on YouTube and letting them fade out.
Questions From Jacob to Me:
JACOB: As someone who writes 1000 words daily on something brand new, how different is your process when you decide to tackle a novel? Could you go into depth about what that process looks like?
ME: When your favorite tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Typically it all starts somewhere around 1,000 words. From there it might be edited down to something far shorter or expanded into something longer. Occasionally a few ideas from the past stick together in weird ways and I’ll set them aside to go through the narrative fusion needed to turn them into something bigger, but I can’t think of any longer work that I’ve ever started that hasn’t originated as something shorter and evolved into a longer piece. The shorter works are where inspiration interfaces with text for the first time. Those longer works are more of a process of editing and expanding.
JACOB: Of all the pieces you've written—which is a ton—which one stands out as the work you love most? Which do you dislike most?
ME: I’ve written over 1,000 pieces. Honestly it’s all a big, incomprehensible garble in my rearview. The one that sticks out at me that I keep meaning to expand into a larger work is TOUPEE FOR OUR SINS: THE JOURNEY OF THE HELL TOUPEE. The discarded hair of a misshapen demon wanders the earth sucking souls through the balding scalps of 7 sinners in 7 chapters based on the 7 deadly sins. I’d submitted it as a short story to a few different publications who all turned it down. (I know. I know: imagine that...) It’s just such a weird idea and such a weird departure from so much of the rest of what I write that I find it appealing. As far as my least favorite...uh...there are so many that I’ve forgotten about. My least favorite is probably forgotten lurking around somewhere filed away with all of the rest of them.
JACOB: What is the medium you're most comfortable writing within and why? I ask because it seems to me you're well rounded, writing articles, short stories, novels, poetry, and everything in-between. Additionally, how do you choose which medium fits bet for each story?
ME: Free writing is the most comfortable. When an idle keyboard is casually hanging out in front of a blank word processing window it could be anything. Start writing it and it starts to get defined into form and genre and then...there are all kinds of expectations that start to filter-in. I’m most comfortable before the weight of expectations starts to descend on the emerging text.
Of course, with a review or an assigned piece for publication there isn't the luxury of ambiguity, but there's still that hazy headspace early on where I'm just writing reactions into a journal prior to deciding where the finalized review is going to be and THAT'S a bit more comfortable than the rest of it.
Aaron's next play is Punk Is Dead. It opens Oct. 11 at the Alchemist.
This blog has been generously sponsored by Boozy Bard’s A Christmas Carol Raw. The show arrives at the cozy subterranean theatre at the Brumder Mansion Bed and Breakfast November 23rd. That's the start of a 5-show tour that runs through December 21st. Click the banner below for tour dates, locations and more.
Director Ray Jivoff brings a beloved classic to the stage of the Cabot Theatre as The Skylight presents a staging of the musical Pippin. Actors onstage play actors in a troupe telling the tale of the son of king Charlemagne lends style, intimacy and charm to a relatively large stage.
In the carefully rendered informality of it all, Jivoff and company make a big stage seem small by embracing its immensity. With Pippin, they've made a show that's just big enough to be small. It’s kind of a strange paradoxical dichotomy. The musical came out of an early ’70s where there was radical commercial experimentation even in the mainstream arts. The style is so very specific to the era, which always makes it kind of weird to see this sort of thing brought the stage again. So many people remember it from high school. It was originally developed as a show for students at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s perfect for that sort of production. Coming of age. Loss of innocence. Trying to find one’s place in the world. These themes are right at home in a university or high school setting. Brought onto a bigger stage, the show has an opportunity to play on some of the show’s more abstract, existentialist themes that deal with the nature of messy life-versus-tidy narrative.
Jivoff and company do a good job of playing on the more universal notions with a circus-like atmosphere cast against a bare stage. As Pippin, Lucas Pastrana is radiant enough to capture attention and hold it amidst all of the war and sex and love and responsibility that plague the character. Even with every spotlight cast on him, Pastrama seems like a nice guy. This is always a lot more difficult than anyone gives it credit for being. Pastama’s niceness goes a long way toward lending the overall production some warmth and bringing emotional immediacy to a bare stage that could otherwise feel cavernous.
True to the original inspiration of the show the stage is pretty empty. Scenic Designer Keith Pitts has been allowed to get strikingly clever with the minimalism. We get steamer trunks that are rather creatively used for various set pieces. One in particular falls out into a beautiful picture frame that is positively surreal. Steamer trunks aside, we get lots of scaffolding and folding chairs and things of that nature.
Kärin Simonson Kopischke’s costuming is fun as well. Knights wear the shining shoulder padding that appears to be pulled straight out of the NFL. Patterns and designs are ornate enough to give a sense of place on a largely empty stage without being so overpowering that they stifle the choreography. (And there really is one hell of a lot of that.) The Skylight puts together a sharply distinctive visual end of the world of Pippin. Really nice production design. Jason Fassl brings it all together with a lighting design that brings the warmth and emotional immediacy of the show even as far back as the balcony.
And then...there’s the music. Having been from a very specific end of a very specific generation, musicals of the late ’60s and early ’70s feel to me like the natural default position for a stage musical. Stephen Schwartz’s music for this show always felt very nondescript to my ear. The distinct style of Broadway music from this era feels like so much musical wallpaper to me. Jivoff and the Skylight have managed to make this feel fresh and emotionally engaging in spite of this, so I can only imagine how good this feels to someone who truly loves the era. Part of the success lies in overall presentation. Part of it also has to do with the fact that there are some really talented people even in around of the edges of the production.
I’m drawn to the edges of everything with people I’ve seen on smaller stages. It’s nice to see Stephanie Staszak in a big musical like this...particularly where there’s a lot of very precise choreography. She’s good for that. Becky Cofta is capable of delivering an irresistible and irresistibly comic sensuality to the stage even from a great distance. Here she is having a lot of fun with that and that fun transfers to the audience quite well.
Closer to the center of the stage we have Todd Denning as Charlemagne himself. Denning hauls in quite a bit of stage presence to develop a kind of gravity that the role requires. It turns out Denning isn’t only a very intense Shakespearian actor. The guy can sing. As always, he’s got a very sharp wit, too. The character of his scheming wife Fastrada feels a weak. To her great credit, Catherine Hausman reaches into the role and pries personality from the jaws of dullness. Natalia Ford lends humanity, compassion and patience to the role of Pippin’s love interest Catherine. In the center of it all is Crystal Drake as the Leading Player hosting the show. She’s got a classy precision about her that she has that mix of charisma and steely, cold showmanship that the role really thrives on. She carries it all with an emotional center. There’s a great depth about it. A great sense of power and intensity the rests at the heart of the show.
The Skylight’s production of Pippin runs through Oct. 7 at the Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center. For ticket reservations and more, visit the Skylight Music Theatre online.
It’s About Love
J.J. Gatesman’s romantic stage drama The Beauty of Psyche is about many things. There is danger and sacrifice. Nearly every character is in WAY over his or her head for one reason or another. There's real drama in that. More than anything, though, it’s about love. Staged the Underground Collaborative for one more weekend, Gatesman’s adaptation of the classic story of Eros and Psyche gazes into love from many different angles.
In the role of Psyche, Abigail Stein plays a woman who must fall in love with a voice and a silhouette. What’s worse: the woman she’s playing has been taken captive by a monster. So there’s a whole...Beauty and the Beast/Stockholm Syndrome thing going on between the God Eros and the mortal Psyche that the script has to overcome in order to ultimately deliver a very compelling romance.
We get a brief introduction by the intoxicatingly excited Kellie Wambold in the role of Pan. Aside from that, a crucial early stage of the play requires that Stein play romantic lead to a shadow cast across a sheet and the voice resonating from it. (That’s Eros as played by Josh Decker.) There’s novelty in the set-up between a divine silhouette and a woman that’s interesting to watch, but it must be incredibly daunting for an actor to try to convincingly fall in love with the shadow of her captor.
Stein deftly renders the title in her performance. There’s an earthy, organic beauty about her...clever expressiveness in her face and her voice that connects the audience to romantic love with a god. So she doesn't seem at all like a victim even though it's essentially what defines her early on in the story. So Stein is beautiful and a prisoner without being a victim. Stein’s able to do this without a hint of exaggeration, which is as a huge accomplishment for her, Decker AND Gatesman.
Romance is incredibly difficult to bring across onstage. Love is complicated enough without having to worry about blocking and lighting and all those things that make the stage an unnatural place. Gatesman finds the perfect pacing to keep an interaction between god and mortal believably moving into greater and greater intimacy. It feels totally natural when she finally tears down the sheet and embraces him.
Decker does quite a job as well. He’s playing a god who is totally burdened with his own divinity. He feels real romantic love for the first time, but he has NO idea how to deal with it. This is a god dealing with emotions of and for a mortal...so he’s GOING to come across a bit beastly. There are all kinds of direction this could be taken in that would distract from the essence of the romance. To his credit, Decker holds steady and allows the moment to render itself around him...which is exactly the way a divine god would likely handle a situation like this, so it feels really, really believable.
Sympathy for the Antagonist
Audrey Thompson-Wallace plays Eros’ mother--listed in the program as “Rose.” She love her son and knows that he is falling for a mortal. She wants to spare him the heartache of falling in love with something so fleeting, so she tries to keep him from her. When we first see her, there’s an icy cold superiority about her, but Thompson-Wallace radiates warmth beneath the brutality. Gatesman allows Rose and Eros mother and son time that heartbreakingly renders the maternal love that is forced against her son’s romantic love of a mortal. Again--Gatesman does a really good job with the overall pacing here, allowing Eros and Rose just enough time onstage to firmly establish the conflict between Rose and Psyche. She's not domineering. She's caring. She's also cold. (Nobody's perfect.)
And There’s Other Love
Eros and Psyche get separated. In order for Psyche to reunite with him, she must embark on a quest for a few things. The impossible feats that she’s engaging in aren’t really the focus of the story, so they don’t get a whole lot of time onstage...what’s important here is that she learns to find the love of friendship with Pan and her ants. (It’s hard to explain...just see the show. It’s cool. Trust me.) Wambold is whimsically exasperating as Pan...so the real challenge for Psyche is to find a way to relate to her in order to collect what she needs to reconnect with the god she loves.
So we have romantic love, maternal love...love for companions. There’s also real love for storytelling going on here. It’s a show in a basement that’s been lovingly crafted for very, very small audiences. There’s a deep intimacy here that seems to be embracing love itself from a cozy, little basement downtown. Romance isn’t done nearly enough on the small stage, but The Beauty of Psyche goes beyond romance. It’s a play about love. Gatesman and company do a really good job of bringing that love out of the shadows and into the hearts of anyone interested in showing-up.
A Fool’s Enigma’s The Beauty of Psyche closes this weekend at the Underground Collaborative. There are just two performances left: Sep. 14th (Friday) and Sep 15th (Saturday.) For ticket reservations and more, visit the show’s page on Eventbrite.