Patrick Schmitz turns a lovingly satirical eye towards Shakespeare once more this weekend with his production of The Comedy of Macbeth...Kinda Sorta. The breezy evening of comedy has heart, passion and even a little serious drama mixed in and amidst the spoofery for a roundly enjoyable trip to a fun, little studio theatre space by the highway. A talented cast works with a few props and costuming elements and a few moments of dramatic scoring in the intimate space of the In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theatre for a single weekend’s run.
Schmitz’s script follows an abbreviated form of Shakespeare’s tragedy more or less exactly . . . and that means establishing the mood with the three witches at the top of Act One. Witch-based comedy for Macbeth could go in a lot of directions. Schmitz decides to bring the mysterious women down-to-earth as a trio of sisters making the best of a...weird...situation. Their father was a goat and everyone looks at them funny. Laura Holterman plays comically reluctant witch to the more motivated Stacy Pawlowski and Liv Shircel. The interpersonal dynamic between the three of them is echoed throughout the ensemble in nearly every scene. There’s a real emotional heart to the center of even the silliest, most superficial punchlines, which has grown to be something of a Schmitz trademark over the years.
Beth Lewinsky and Robby McGhee play to the center of the heart of it all as Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. The two towering dramatic characters are given the same casual, earthbound comic treatment as everyone else. Here Schmitz seems to be drawing pretty deftly casual observational moments from his own marriage. It’s all too easy to get lost in the epic-level ambition and malevolence. It’s nice to see Macbeth and Lady M treated as more of a standard married couple. Lewinsky and McGhee have been working together in Milwaukee comedy for long enough over the years that there’s a genuine familiarity between the two of them that adds considerable depth. Lewinsky is allowed a whole range of emotions to work with from love to caring and concern to genuine joy...all of it shining through the set-ups and punchlines that are all delivered to the stage with admirable soul and precision.
Other local comedy veterans in the cast include Tim Higgins as a nuanced Macduff who has the opportunity to play to a number of different comically awkward moments and Kris Puddicombe as an old man cut from the original script who mentions something about a seahorse that everyone keeps talking about. (A recurring joke with a visual gag at the end of the show. Oddly enough one of the few visual gags in a show with a modest budget.)
There may not have been much of a budget, (it’s something that they joke about) but there WAS enough to pay for little Scottish flags which seem to be up more or less everywhere. The one other bit of Scottish flavor in the production comes in from a couple of very, very heavy Scottish accents from Nicolo Onoroto and Rich Laguna as the Scottish noblemen Ross and Angus. The two actors render the spirit of the masses to the stage with clever comic instincts.
My favorite bit of characterization around the edges of the production had Hayley San Fillippo and Josh Decker as a couple of Guards and (later on) a couple of hired Murderers with real hopes, dreams and aspirations beyond their day jobs. The guards are aspiring screenwriters. The Murderers really want to get their rock band back together. We see the ambitions at the center of the comedy echoed in those two characters playing those four characters. San Fillippo and Decker are extremely cute. They give their little quartet of characters some genuine charm to round-out the play.
(And...uh...oh yeah: Marcus Beyer plays Banquo. He’s cool, too. As charismatic as ever. There’s a romantic thing between him and one of the witches. It’s funny.)
Once again, Schmitz puts together a fun Shakespeare spoof. With all the Shakespeare that goes on over the course of a summer, it’s nice to end it with one of these. Thanks again Patrick.
Schmitz ’n Giggles The Comedy of Macbeth...Kinda Sorta runs through Aug. 11 at the Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N, Tenth St. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.
The darkened Alchemist Theatre bar is that much darker this month courtesy of the dark show onstage next door: Emerald Condor’s modern ragtime horror The Flesh Trade. The big premiere of the show last night was sold-out. A full crowd packed into the intimate space to see Kendall Yorkey struggle to get out of the tiny old western town of Tombstone in a sinister comedy of surprising depth.
Scenic Designer Aaron Kopec establishes a tight, little atmosphere for the western horror. The stage is populated with elements which lock-in the feel of a turn-of-the-century brothel. Showtime comes near and there are a few hoots from the audience as the three dancers take their places in full burlesque costume. The music starts. Honey (Kendall Yorkey), Sugar (Ami Majeskie) and Candy (Katie Katschke) launch into the opening number: “One Horse Town. It’s easily one of the catchiest tunes in the show.
(As it is a world premiere with songs no one has ever heard before, it’s a cool bit of promotion that Emerald Condor is providing some of the original score on Bandcamp.)
Yes: It’s A Horror Musical
So it’s a musical horror comedy. Yorkey plays a dancer named Honey who wants to get out of town. (That’s her singing lead on “One Horse Town.”) If he’s going to be able to escape, she’s going to need to provide human meat for a sinister survivor of the Donner Party. (Nick Firer is great here--he knows how to play a pulpy, homicidal villain without chewing the goddamned scenery all to hell. Most villainous Hollywood actors are paid much more to do much, much worse.)
So okay so it’s a horror musical. There are cute, little references to other musical horror shows. The brothel where the girls do their thing is on Fleet Street: a nice tip of the hat to a certain murderous musical barber from the other side of the Atlantic. One of the nicest guys in the show is names Seymour. This isn’t any little shop, though and they aren’t looking to feed a hungry plant: The villain is forcing Honey to provide human meat for himself and his associates. Seymour just might end up on the menu...with much of the rest of the cast. (It’s a small town on the small stage and the Donner Party has a rather large appetite.)
It’s A Lot Deeper Than Six Feet, Though
There’s a kind of genius to Michael Christopher’s show--a show he wrote, directed and composed the music for. This is the first ever production of a musical that I would LOVE to see get take off into a million other productions all over the country.
On one level, it’s just a ghoulish, sexy little horror comedy with cheery ragtime that’s been bent into the darkness...but it’s got a depth that sneaks-up on you like the grave and pulls you under.
Christopher plays with allegory in the show...hell: even the titles an allegorical play on words. This is a grungy small-stage version of Hollywood’s cinematic old west. Honey and her colleagues Candy and Sugar are the lowest end of the socio-economical ladder. They’re single women. They can’t vote. They’re in a stigmatized profession so no one’s going to believe anything they say. It’s an amplified look at life on the bottom of the heap. In modern terms this is like...99% of the population, though. We are ALL Candy and Sugar and Honey...all desperately trying to escape the oppression of a system that only really rewards the people who already have everything.
In addition to largely playing the Donner Party, the guys in the cast play a middle class that can only pry on those (sometimes literally) beneath them. It’s an ugly, ugly world that Christopher renders here, but there IS a kind of beauty to it. And maybe all we can do is try so desperately to claw our way out of the filth. And in this respect, The Flesh Trade is oddly inspirational. Honey is a survivor--a horror ant-hero who casually drinks strychnine because it’s what she grew-up drinking. I don’t want to give it all away, but the allegorical symbolism gets pretty thick if you really want to go swimming in it at the bar after the show.
Beauty Is Filth. Filth Is Beauty
Christopher and company have found something really deep and beautiful in that which is generally considered to be lightly trashy culture. There’s belching. There’s pole dancing. (Seems a bit anachronistic, but Christopher gives a nice, little history lesson via a dialogue between Honey and Candy. A quick check on wikipedia corroborates. Yes: there WAS pole dancing in the old west.)
Some of the best songs in the show make reference to bestiality, cannibalism and menstruation. Christopher keeps hammering into vulgar imagery throughout the dialogue. In over 100 shows in over a decade, I’ve never once heard a reference made to a merkin. Thanks to The Flesh Trade, I’m sure I’ve heard at least a dozen such references...
We all identify with this, though. We’re all searching for beauty while swimming through the vulgarity of modern society, right? Or maybe we’re looking for beauty IN that vulgarity. Christopher identifies this and uses it as the central force animating it all. In our own ways, we are all trying to claw our way out of the filth of a little town called Tombstone. And like Honey, we might have to do a lot of ugly things in order to reach the beauty beyond Tombstone.
Emerald Condor’s production of The Flesh Trade runs through Aug. 18 at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit www.thealchemisttheatre.com. A concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.
Milwaukee funny guy Patrick Schmitz has been involved in a lot over the years. Easily one of the most influential guys in Milwaukee comedy, Schmitz has been instrumental in a number of long-running projects that have been continuing for a number of years including pressurized sketch comedy show Sketch-22 and the long-running Milwaukee Comedy Festival. Schmitz’ latest long-running project (uhh...yeah...that actually sounds right...wow...) is the Shakesparody series in which Schmitz and a group of Milwaukee comedy types do an extended parody of a single Shakespeare show. This coming August, Schmitz brings together Robby McGhee and Beth Lewinski as a doomed King of Scots and his wife as the Shakesparody Players present The Comedy of Macbeth (kinda sorta). Schmitz took some time to answer a few questions about the upcoming show with The Small Stage
The series is growing. This is the next in an ever-expanding series of Shakespeare spoofs that you've written. Why did it take so long to get to MACBETH?
The plan was to present Macbeth as the third Shakes-parody in the summer of 2017 but I felt the script wasn't ready and so I finished writing the Othello parody and put it up last summer instead. The Macbeth...kinda sorta script was completely rewritten and once I had a reading of it this winter, it felt ready to go.
By now you've likely worked out a routine for working on these scripts. What's the process like for you?
The process in writing these scripts is homework, homework, homework. I read the original scripts, discuss certain elements of the shows with Shakespeare fans, watch videos on youtube, and write the script one scene at a time in the order of the original. The process of putting up the shows is to contact people who I feel would be good fits for the roles, we rehearse at the UC and put the shows up in August.
Even Shakespeare spoofery that is as generally well-crafted as THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (ABRIDGED) can feel a bit stale while it's being performed. With all the repeating themes and patterns found in Shakespeare, how do you keep work on each show fresh and interesting for you?
In order to keep the jokes feeling fresh I truly explore the characters in each show and try to get a strong grasp on their objectives and feelings and emotions and then embellish or juxtapose what I feel makes for a strong comedic twist. Whether that's making Romeo a big cry baby or Hamlet perhaps not as smart as we all think he is, or Macbeth losing his mind even more than he really does in the original (if that's possible). Each of Shakespeare's plays are different which makes writing the parodies also different each time.
Here you've got a great pairing for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth Beth Lewinski and Robby McGhee are a couple of the most talented and seasoend local comedy talents. In addition to this, you've known them for like...a million years or something (give or take.) This can be a blessing and a cruse at the same time. What's it like working with people you've worked with for so long?
Working with Robby and Beth is 100% a blessing. All my cast members have a great balance of adding to the script and knowing when to fully trust the writing throughout rehearsals. I do my best with having a thick filter with who I bring on board for my projects, whether it's Sketch 22, a Shakesparody Show, or improv - the most important question I need answered is "can this person work well with others?" Robby and Beth (and the entire cast) have been great since day one of each production.
Lewinski and McGhee have shown talent for depth and long-term imrpov. A completed script for one of these shows is MUCH longer than a traditional bit of sketch comedy. This gives you the opportunity to develop a depth of characterization that Lewinski and McGhee would be excellent at rendering for the stage. Are you diving into deeper socio-political satire here or are you lurking around the surface of the text for 90 minutes of light comedy?
Political Satire is something I'm not comfortable putting out there. It's just not where my passion is with putting up shows. I enjoy and respect people on TV and even in Milwaukee who explore politics, but I've always seen my shows leaning more into escapism because that's what theatre has always been for me - a break from the real world.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like every time you do one of these shows it only runs for one weekend. Is there any specific reason for this?
I run the show only one weekend because...I really don't know. Maybe because summer vacation for me only lasts for so long and with doing three shows throughout the school year and then one or two in the summer - one weekend per show is enough.
The Comedy of Macbeth...kinda sorta runs Aug. 9-11 at the Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.
A Concise Reality In Script
One of the things I love about theatre is the elegantly intricate simplicity of it all. You’re seeing a whole reality live out its entire lifespan onstage in about 2 hours or more. Everything’s there and then it’s gone until they set-up for the next show. Another, slightly different reality lives for an entirely different group of people and the show continues its run.
The Children’s Hour was evidently an exercise in this for playwright Lillian Hellman. In the early 1930s, she was reading scripts for MGM when she met hardboiled mystery writer Dashiell Hammett and promptly fell in love with the guy. She had been unsuccessful in writing a play with American literary critic Louis Kronenberger. Hammett suggested that she write something based in fact. He had been read about an incident in Scotland in 1810 in which a student named Jane Cumming accused her schoolmistresses, Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, of having an affair. Students were rapidly pulled out of the school and the teachers were ruined.
Hellman transplanted the story to America and got to work...essentially teaching herself to write a play by following the events of an actual real-life drama. Hellman got a meeting with a Broaq\dway producer who read over Hellman’s sixth draft of the play. He liked it. It was produced. (The first play she’d ever written no less.) Writer Paddy Chayefsky considered it to be one of the most carefully-crafted pieces ever written. He learned play structure by copying the entire script by hand. It really is marvelously constructed. Hellman weaves complexity in a way that makes it really easy to digest without appearing to be to oversimplified. It’s a tiny, little reality which speaks to very big issues which echo out into today.
A Tiny Reality Beneath Wisconsin Avenue
This month, The Outskirts Theatre Company stages a production of that tight, little drama about big things. The delicious, little dichotomy between a tidy, tiny little two-hour drama about lies, desires and subterfuge resonates really, really well on one of the smallest stages in town in the basement of the Brumder Mansion.
The Brumder has a great presence for a drama set in a boarding school in the early 20th century. Set & Props Coordinator Robert Sharon has brought together a few remarkably concise spaces for the action to play-out on. The subterranean stage at the Brumder can feel like a shoebox, but Sharon and company really make it feel a lot more open than it actually is with a few clever tricks here and there.
It’s quite difficult to hide much of anything in a space that small. I found myself sitting in the front row right next to a desk at which one of the teachers worked. Sit right there and you’re conversationally close to the character. Samantha Paige goes about the daily work of co-managing a boarding school little aware that it’s all going to come crashing down around her...and it all feels so natural. We get a feeling for something below the surface in her performance...things that she’s going to have to come to terms with. Paige does an excellent job of delivering on that without amplifying it too much. Paige has great finesse in such a small space.
Prior to this moment, Brittany Boeche is wryly comic as a retired actress teaching the students. Director Dylan K. Sladky has done a remarkable job of fostering a restless primary school classroom without a single student at a desk. They’re all sitting around a chair and a number of girls in uniform fidget about. It’s very vivid. . . at least partially because a number of students are played by actual school kids. A casual stroll through the program reveals a cast of students who are actual students. Ellie Boyce is starting 8th grade next year. KyLee Hennes is a junior. Katrina Liberman is a sophomore. Youth is very, very difficult to fake on the small stage. A cast that includes actual students in and around the edges does a lot to sell the atmosphere even if the more prominent characters are played talented actresses with a bit more experience like t he sweetly innocent Anna Lee Murray and the sweetly sinister Ashley Retzlaff.
Sadly Still Quite Relevant
Without giving too much away, Hellman chose for a darker ending than history did in Scotland. Things didn’t end well for Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, but they were much worse for Hellman’s protagonists. The play itself was subject to some controversy due to its subject matter. I would imagine there’s that lingering concern of corrupting youth with anything that isn’t heterosexual.
Presumably its perfectly okay for people to do whatever sinful thing they want when the doors are closed, but children need to be kept from such things. It’s sad that this is still considered scandalous or sinful in some circles. Earlier this month the House Appropriations Committee passed an amendment that could allow adoption agencies to refuse gay couples based on their moral or religious beliefs. (...ugh...) Society seems to be moving forward towards acceptance even if those in power aren’t. The tragedy of the drama of The Children’s Hour may feel barbaric to modern audiences. It’s been over 80 years since the drama debuted. We’ve still got a long way to go.
Outskirts Theatre’s production of The Children’s Hour runs through Jul. 29 at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations, visit outskirtstheatre.org/tickets. A concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.
That’s a Lot of Money
Shrek The Musical is a bit of a strange creature. The musical is based on an animated film which is based on a book that is relatively unknown next to everything else that is...Shrek. The 30-page children’s book from 1990 got turned into a big-budget animated film in 2001 that grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide before making it off to home video, ultimately immortalized as a rather large and monolithic multi-media franchise. A David Lindsey-Abaire musical was staged on Broadway. At the time it opened in 2008, it was one of the most expensive musicals of all time. It cost $25 million just to open the thing. Variety noted that the size of the production was something that had to be overcome, referring to “the busy visuals and gargantuan set-pieces.” This is scarcely the sort of thing that truly embraces live theatre.
That’s More Like It
Ten years later, a much more modest production opens locally thanks to The Greendale Community Theatre. The scenic design is actually cleverly minimalist. Just a few movable pieces here and there. Lynn Ludwig’s vibrant costuming goes a long way towards amplifying the live actors who are the heart and soul of live theatre. Yes, there is a really massive dragon puppet and a cute, little foam gingerbread man, but the comedic presence Laura MCDonald as Gigny and the total diva stature of Raven Dockery as the singing voice of a massive dragon are the true appeal of both those characters. A smaller-budget production has the opportunity to focus the show that much more on the actual actors.
But...He Doesn’t SOUND Scottish
No. No he doesn’t. But he doesn't have to. Benjamin Tajnai has a robust, earthy presence onstage. But he’s not doing a whole lot to try to adopt the Scottish accent of film version of the character. And I don’t really think it matters. (The movie had the character's accent as Scottish, but it might well have been Canadian.) In a 2007 interview with The Telegraph, actor Mike Meyers talked about coming up with the voice of the character:
"It took a few times for me to get the voice right. I first tried it in a sort of Canadian accent, but it just didn't connect, and, because fairytales are a European thing and ogres are more earthy, the Scottish accent just felt right."
Such is the sort of thing a voice actor has to deal with. Being live and present onstage, Tajnai has so much more to work with in carving out characterization. Physically he’s a very imposing figure. The guy’s huge...so the earthiness comes natural. And there isn’t all that rubbery 2001 CGI animation to have to overcome either...it’s all very organic and right there onstage. No edits. No camera angles. No Smashmouth. (At least not in the production.) It’s all very natural. Just an audience, an ogre and a rather large cast that’s telling a story.
Greendale Community Theatre’s production of Shrek: The Musical runs through Jul. 29 at the Henry Ross Auditorium on 6801 Southway. For ticket reservations, call 414-817-7600 or visit greendaletheatre.org. My comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.
Mel Brooks' The Prodcuers is weird. I had the occasion to contemplate this once more as I had been set up to review the Sunset Playhouse production of the show this past weekend. The idea of a couple of Broadway producers looking to get rich by developing an epic failure is a really clever one. It that had been appealing to me since I first saw the original film on a local indie TV station as a kid. And what with all of the movies that have been brought to the stage over the years and musical format, it seem like a natural fit for this stage. But at the same time it felt kind of strange.
A big commercial Broadway musical that spoofed big commerce on Broadway really IS the sort of thing but it’s making fun of. A big portion of what makes this so successful in a place like Elm Grove and not, say, the Marcus Center (or anywhere else a Broadway show would tour) is the fact that the Sunset Playhouse’s Furlan Auditorium is a relatively small stage where more of a textured feel to it. The audience is closer to the detail and so there's more personality in each detail present. Granted, the Furlan is one of the largest small stages in town. But for a big, over-the-top Broadway-style show, a space like the one that the Sunset Playhouse is working with in Elm Grove is relatively cozy.
Thanks to director Tommy Lueck, the Sunset Playhouse production only embraces the strange irony of creating a big, over-the-top musical in an effort to, among other things, make fun of big over the top musicals. I’ve seen a number of production of the show and I know that they don’t always manage that. And it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Lueck had company or going right that previous productions haven’t been able to manage.
The most interesting thing about the production is the fact that there are such a range of different talent levels on stage. It’s such a range of different types of performers all assuming different roles which may or may not fit perfectly into the type of thing they’re best at. And what you’ll get this with just about every production of any kind, bigger budgets allow for more of a uniformity and the overall feel of a show. The diversity of what is present on stage in Elm Grove makes the size of the cast that much more impressive. It’s not a whole lot of soulless faces and legs and arms and things. You tend to get that in the touring Broadway production. Everybody looks identical. It’s disturbing. And not in a good way that’s necessarily intended.
With a small, relatively intimate large stage the Sunset Playhouse is able to play-up individualities between different characters and different actors in a way that makes the large panorama of everything and present on stage that much more impressive. True to Brooks' cinematic style, there’s a lot of throwaway visual gags and in the musical. In any larger, more polished production all of those details feel washed out in all the glossy uniformity. With the level of texture that Lueck is able to work with here, we get a greater level of accent and in the midst every element of the cast. And yes, that is going to include some imperfections here or there. But that naturalistic imperfection is the type of thing that makes the smaller stages so intense.
All of this provides clarity to tragedy of the over-priced touring Broadway show. So much money is being pumped into touring Broadway shows. They can come to town and they can pretend that what they're doing is live theatre. And in that sense it is. It’s not live the way this is. It’s not live the way Lueck and company manage in Elm Grove with The Producers.
Sunset Playhouse’s staging of The Producers runs through Aug. 5 at the Furlan Auditorium on 700 Wall Street in Elm Grove. For ticket reservations, call 262-782-4430 or visit www.sunsetplayhouse.com. A comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.
The Underground Collaborative plays host to an interesting stage exploration into the works of Edgar Allen Poe. A version of The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe debuted in 2007 with Virginia’s Endstation Theatre Company. The adaptation renders various first-person narratives from the works of Poe as characters in a psych ward. Company of Strangers brings a modification of the adaptation into the basement of the Grand Avenue Mall this month as it presents a tightly-unraveled, little staging of the show that runs roughly 1 hour and 15 minutes.
The Mood As You Enter
Walk into the space as the entire cast is there. Onstage and off. Milling about. There’s a twitchy restlessness about them all. They’re pacing and crawling around and muttering to themselves. It’s a very slow metabolism about the place. Listless madness flows in and around a very moody atmosphere. The mood coats the tiny basement space. In an atmosphere like that, everyone seems a little crazy. Even people not directly involved in the production: the girl behind the bar, the rest of the audience, the person you came there with...everyone is suffering from demons of some sort.
It’s a diverse cast we meet as we enter. Mary Chuy clings to a baby doll she cradles in her arms. Later-on her maternalism fractures with “A Dream Within A Dream,” which ends the show. Esther Obain reaches out to the graffiti on the wall to embrace it. Later-on she performs the poem “Dreams,” with compelling passion. Rebecca Janny seems somewhat obsessed with the whitenesses of teeth, so it’s no surprise that she’s bringing Poe’s short story "Berenice" to the stage. Sarah Ann Mellström (always a captivating addition to an ensemble like this) slides across the stage in strangely compelling sensitivities. She taps here and there with fingers across various surfaces searching for no earthly percussion. She speaks through Poe’s “Alone,” with memories of childhood. Her hands later find a drum to tap out the rhythm of “The Telltale Heart,” as performed with cleverly aesthetic modulation by Race Rohde.
The modulation isn’t always strong, though...Poe performed as madness doesn’t have the kind of variety the would make for a very dramatically textured show. To their credit, the cast doesn’t try to reach into a garish spectrum of different mentally ill affectations. It all feels very well-grounded. And since the runtime of the show is only just over an hour, the mood is carried quite well and is never given enough time to feel stale.
The Concept Works
Atmosphere aside, on a fundamental level The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe is a recitation of Poe. Pure and simple. The rest of what’s going on in and around the edges cast it all in an interesting light but at its heart, this is a high-concept reading of Poe’s work. And it works. Each character in the cast represents almost a kind of psychotic personification of a different piece. So much of Poe’s fiction and narrative poetry is written from a first-person perspective. There are in-depth descriptions of each character in the program. Some of them are incredibly in-depth. Little 200 to 400-word sketches and analyses that inform on the performance. It would really amplify the experience to get-in early enough to read about the characters as they’re milling about prior to the show. Each of the 12 stories are analyzed and represented by characters in the cast. Between the text and the performance, there’s an opportunity for a really deep analysis of the text for those willing to really dive into it.
So...When are We Again?
The show imagines the Poe-based criminal psychotics all sharing space in the same Victorian-style psych ward with all of the restlessness that goes along with it. The costuming (which features contemporary scrubs and patient ID bands) and set design (which has the back walls covered in graffiti) suggest an altogether more contemporary setting. This feels a bit weird. Psychopharmacology has transformed contemporary mental institutions. It’s a much more static and dreamy space thanks to the wonders of modern medicine. (I remember a psych professor at UWM telling the story of visiting just such a place when psychotropic medications were first being introduced. He asked a nurse working the ward if the medicines really worked. She pointed at the curtains. She said that you could never keep the curtains on the windows before. With the drugs it wasn’t a problem. Things were so much more sedate than they had been.)
So it’s a bit disturbing to have a Victorian psych ward atmosphere in a modern psych ward atmosphere. Brian Lorenzo Pena plays a very charismatic Doctor who is described as being on “a quest for knowledge to the point of idolatry.” This would suggest a willingness to try out non-chemical forms of therapy even in those who could potentially hurt themselves (or anyone visiting in the audience within the context of the play.)
The nontraditional therapy angle on the character of the Doctor suggests a possible meta-story going on in which the characters aren’t reciting the narratives as personal experiences, but in actuality are being given different texts from Poe to identify with as a form of therapy being performed for the audience. And then maybe there’s enough around the edges of the introduction to suggest that the “Secretery” played by Julia Marsan is the REAL clinician here and she’s merely allowing one more psychotic the opportunity for therapy by way of allowing him to act as Doctor.
Company of Strangers has developed an explicit enough environment to form a moody backbone for Poe’s work. What an audience decides that it is will likely be something they bring-in with them. It's ambiguous enough to invite fun, little speculations and analyses long after the show has ended.
This Poe is a search for meaning along the fringes of mental health. It’s not meant to be a true exploration of mental illness any more than Poe’s work was. It’s a metaphysical descent into madness from which interesting insights might arise. Once again Company of Strangers presents a brief, thought-provoking evening of simple theatre on an intimate stage.
Company of Strangers’ production of The Tell-Tale Heart and the Mind of Poe runs through Jul. 21 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Company of Strangers online.
Here's a promo video for the show:
I’m from Appleton, Wisconsin. So is big-name Hollywood actor Willem Dafoe. He moved Appleton to Milwaukee to study acting at UWM...and then went out to New York to win an Academy Award and then become the Green Goblin. Milwaukee is a transitional market. Our talent pool feeds terminal markets like LA and New York...where good talent goes...to die.
Seriously though: there are talented actors are leaving town every year. As the title of the horror film says...y’know...”Sometimes They Come Back,” but there’s always more talent leaving town than coming back in any given year.
Fresh Faces for Shakespeare
In light of the talent drain, it’s always fun to stumble across a cast list for a show featuring a whole bunch of names I haven’t heard of yet. See young actors while they're making early appearances and you'll have that much more time to hang out with them from a theatre seat before they leave town. Young talent can sometimes be found huddling together in tiny, little productions on small stages in some of the more pleasant margins of the city. Such is the case with Original Practices Milwaukee’s production of As You Like It on the East Side this coming weekend. Nearly half of the actors in the show are almost completely new to me.
Hey: I know THESE people
Even the names I recognize in the cast list look relatively fresh. By far the most recognizable name in the cast is Zach Woods, who has worked with Kohl’s Wild Theater, the Skylight, First Stage and has featured rather prominently at the Brumder...this guy gets around. He should. He’s a charismatic talent onstage. Also appearing in the cast are Bryant Mason and James Sevens: a couple of guys of reasonably advanced experience. It’s nice to see Jim Donaldson listed in a show as well. He’s great for light Shakespearian comedy--a genuinely funny guy with some of the most distinctive facial hair I’ve ever seen on an actual human being.
And then there are relatively new actors
The other 3/7 of the cast is a complete unknown to me and it makes me wish I could make the show (which runs this weekend only.) No idea what to expect here.
I may well have seen Jordyn Stewart onstage with my kids during a Kohl’s Wild Theatre performance not too long ago. She’s also a teaching artist at Lake Country Playhouse and performed in Bliss (or Emily Post is Dead!) last December for Renaissance Theaterworks “Groundworks” emerging artists’ series. (She’ll be appearing in the July 12th performance of As You Like It.)
Megan Orcholski is a PhD student at UWM who directed the weird alt-sitcom short Roommates that appeared in Cooperative Performances’ shorts festival earlier this summer, but I don’t believe I have ever seen her onstage. (She’ll be appearing in the July 14th performance of As You Like It.)
And this is the first time I’ve ever seen the name Paige Bourne, but in my defense, she looks young enough to have been in kindergarten when I started reviewing theatre. So I believe I can be forgiven for not having seen her onstage before. These three shiny, new actors are a big reason I regret that I am unlikely to be able to attend the show.
(I went to three shows last week. I’m going to three shows next week. There’s no way around other obligations this week. I will, however, be hanging out with Edgar Allen Poe in the Company of Strangers under Wisconsin Avenue on Friday the 13th. Look for a review of THAT show on Saturday morning.)
It’s First Folio Style So It’s Fun
It’s going to be an intimate show. When Shakespeare gets close, it can be fun. Here they’re performing the light comedy of As You Like It in a first folio style that engages the audience that is so very close to all of the action onstage. Women will disguise themselves as men. Identities will be mistaken. Love will be complicated and convoluted. And everything will work out in the end. Not a bad evening’s entertainment for a weekend in July.
Two Performance. Two Venues
The first performance will be on July 12th at 6:30 p.m. at the Villa Terrace Museum on 2220 N Terrace Ave. It’s a gorgeous space for Shakespeare. (I’ve seen his work there before.) There’s a very classy and classical feel about the space that pairs well with the poetic dialogue.
Then the show closes with its second performance on a Saturday, July 14th matinee at 3:30 p.m. a couple of days and 0.8 miles from when and where it opened. Its a second and final performance is at a second museum: the Charles Allis on 1801 N. Prospect Avenue.
Tickets are $10 each and available at the door before the performance. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page.
A Time of Division
Door Shakespeare pieces together an interesting fusion this summer with a distinctly American staging of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Set during in Wisconsin during the American Civil War, the story of two rivals being brought together in love makes a fascinating reflection on an era of bloody division between the North and the South as seen through the eyes of an audience that is much more familiar with the intellectual division between the left and the right in the contemporary political landscape.
USA by Way of Shakespeare
I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a production so completely wrapped-up in the visual trapping of US patriotism before. It’s actually kind of refreshing to see something this completely immersed in star spangled red, white and blue. Costume Designer Misti Bradford and Scenic Designer Jody Sekas give the production a very stylized and iconic Civil War/Civil War-era America for the intimate outdoor stage. There’s some really overpowering stars and stripes imagery saturating the stage during the play’s masquerade scene. The ball is sharply choreographed by Isabelle Kralj, (who is no stranger to choreographing on an intimate stage in her work with Theatre Gigante.) Everyone is decked-out in red, white and blue domino masks for the scene. It’s all very visually striking, but not all of the show’s impact comes from bright primary colors. There are earth tones too...this IS Shakespeare quite firmly planted in Northeastern Wisconsin.
The premise is that soldiers from the Civil War are returning to Wisconsin...Door County Wisconsin from the battlefield. And so there’s a really interesting stylistic fusion between the setting of the play and the quaint rural rustic feel of small-town Door County. (That authentic small town feel is still there in places if you look for it in the shadow of overwhelming gravity of garish Door County tourism.)
Old Friends Onstage
The show is a pleasant throwback to Joseph Hanreddy-era Milwaukee Rep. Hanreddy directs the show with longtime Milwaukee Rep resident actress Deborah Staples playing a world-weary Beatrice. Powerful Milwaukee theater icon Mark Corkins plays Don Pedro--a man among others who conspires to bring Beatrice to love with her romantic rival Benedick...played by Staples’ husband and Next Act Producing Artistic Director David Cecsarini. It’s really fun to see the husband and wife onstage together as Benedick and Beatrice.
It’s a show in Door County, but so much of it feels like a Milwaukee theater party on a small stage in the woods in Door County. James Carrington lends an authority of conscience to the role of Father Francis, who works to uncover a conspiracy against two lovers. Milwaukee theater veteran Carrie Hitchcock lends character to the edges of the production as Ursula and the Sexton.
Of course, this IS Shakespeare and there is A LOT going on in and around the edges of the show. Todd Denning has a purity about him as Leonato, who stands wronged by accusations made against his daughter Hero. The distinctive silent expressiveness of Elyse Edelman can do amazing things for any peripheral role in Shakespeare. Here the subtle mix of emotion that fades in and out of her countenance lends power to the drama of Hero. Also making a very memorable appearance in the periphery of the action is Drew Shirley, who seems to be channeling an interesting mix of midwestern moods for a very refreshingly comic turn as the night constable Dogberry. In a performance that feels reminiscent of a young Bill Murray, Shirley plays a Dogberry funny enough to hold the attention of even my pre-school-aged daughter whenever he made it to the stage.
Door Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing run in rotation with The Comedy of Errors through August 18th at Björklunden Lodge on 590 Boynton Lane in Baileys Harbor. For ticket requests, call 920-839-1500 or visit doorshakespeare.com. My concise, comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.
Come Into the Cool
Come in from one of the hottest weekends of the year in Milwaukee. Slide in through the elegant revolving door and you’re there in a stylish, little boutique hotel managed by Kimpton: a San Fransisco-based company. Feels very classy as you walk-up a few stairs and around the corner to a spacious, well-lit area that serves as the performance space. Outside it’s hot and uncomfortable. Inside it’s lavish, luxurious and sumptuously air conditioned. The stylish comfort is actually kind of disorienting at first: is this the Third Ward or San Fransisco? You may not know quite where you are, but you’ll know you’re cool, which is a perfect way to walk into I’ll Eat You Last. The one-weekend-only show staring Marcee Doherty-Elst is an Untitled Productions/Theater RED affair with a couple of performances left this weekend.
Here’s Your Pack of Cigarettes: Go Have a Drink
It’s probably one of the coolest theatre programs I’ve ever been given: an empty prop pack of cigarettes filled with “bio cards” in the form of business cards. The VIP package includes a business card that gets you a free drink at the high-end bar on your way in. You’re actually paying for your drink with a business card, which just seems so...Hollywood. (Very cool.) The play is about Sue Mengers: a chain-smoking Hollywood agent who really made a name for herself in the ‘70s. A prop cigarette pack filled with business cards sets the mood perfectly. Since this is Wisconsin, I order a Brandy Old Fashioned and head out to sit down in a very comfortable chair right next to the stage.
A Big Kind of Intimacy
The furniture in the space has a big, wide feel about it. The stage has a big, wide feel about it. There’s a couch onstage the looks like it could be a bed. The lighting deities at Antishadows LLC have lit a space that feels positively decadent. Pick-up a complimentary gourmet popcorn on your way to whatever seat you happened to feel drawn to and let the show wash over you. Sit down and you sink into a surprisingly luxurious 70 minute show without intermission.
Oddly Inspirational: Marcee Doherty-Elst as Sue Mengers
Motivational speakers don’t generally lounge around smoking cigarettes while waiting for a call from Barbara Streisand. Maybe they should. I’ll Eat You Last goes a long way on a couch.
Marcee Doherty-Elst glides out of a corner of the room and onto a couch onstage. She’s tanned and relaxed while easily commanding all the attention in the biggest little small stage in the Third Ward this weekend.
Doherty-Elst plays a Hollywood Agent. She plays a very specific Hollywood agent: Sue Mengers. Mengers represented Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Cher, Joan Collins, Burt Reynolds, and Nick Nolte (among others.) She’s got stories to tell about her life. She was an immigrant who taught herself to speak English with Hollywood movies...movies she wanted to place at the center of her life. Discovering that acting wasn’t right for her, she decided to become an agent.
She’s telling very specific stories. And though she is speaking the stories while smoking on a couch, the stories are all very graceful, motivational and nearly universal. In I’ll Eat You Last, Hollywood agent Sue Mengers is more than a figure out of history...she’s an archetype. She’s that totally confident woman who is mercilessly persistent when she’s not just being...merciless. She's doing a lot of name-dropping. People familiar with the era will be a bit more in synch with the show than others. In the role, Doherty-Elst wields a universality that transcends that trivia, though. Give her 70 minutes and she'll give you someone who doesn't really exist anymore, but probably should.
There’s real heart and personality to the character, which ends up being a really classy blend of Sue Mengers, Marcee Doherty-Elst, playwright John Logan and that one person everyone wishes they had in their corner. There’s a genuine warmth about Doehrty-Elst in the role...a personality just precisely big enough to fill the room without feeling too overpowering. It’s a light show of refreshing depth that Doherty-Elst swims through with great grace while sitting on a couch in the Historic Third Ward.
Untitled Productions and Theater RED's staging of the I'll Eat You Last runs through July 1st at the Journeyman Hotel on 310 East Chicago St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater RED online.