This month Cooperative Performance presents the war drama A Piece of My Heart. The Vietnam War is seen through the eyes of the women who served. It’s a compelling look at war from a perspective that doesn’t often get seen. So often war dramas have women serving around the edges of the action. A Piece of My Heart flips this. It’s quite refreshing to see a war drama with a token male. Just one guy in a cast of women in a story that covers one hell of a lot of ground in two hours with one intermission.
A Diverse Ensemble
The scope of the drama is surprisingly wide. The play opens with enlistment and volunteers signing-up to serve in various different ways. Then there’s training, active combat and recreation. We get the end of a tour of duty right before intermission and then...all of the horrors back home after war on the other side of it. It’s a really wide view of the war which manages to feel big and ominous. The impressive thing about this: There are only seven people in the cast and it's a very small performance space.
Tina Nixon is aggressively poised as a career military intelligence officer named Steele. Nixon has a stern strength about her presence which serves as a sturdy backbone for the ensemble. Her formidable energy in the role amplifies her frustration in dealing with the top brass.
Anna Figlesthaler and Nicole Martin play to the heartbreakingly exhausting life of medical support in a war zone. Figlesthaler plays the daughter of a nurse who served in World War II who volunteers for duty in Vietnam and gets more than she’d expected. The depth of Martin’s performance settles-in after intermission when dealing with tragedy at home after the war.
Sheng Lor is given the challenge of one of the most emotionally textured character arcs. At the opening of the drama she signs-up to serve in Hawaii, but gets drawn into Vietnam, where she experiences love, loss and deeper concerns of socio-cultural identity. Lor puts in an amazing performance. Don’t ever recall seeing her before. Hopefully she gets cast in more shows.
Emmaline Friederichs plays a woman from a wealthy family who goes out to serve in the Red Cross. Life in a war quickly toughens her at a price. During service she’s mercilessly precise. In the off-hours, she’s caving-in emotionally. Friederichs carves out quite a dichotomy between the two sides of the character.
In addition to the military and the Red Cross, we get the USO. Ashley Retzlaff plays a country music singer who extensively tours Vietnam. In addition to adding music that sets the mood via acoustic guitar, Retzlaff brings life to a side of the war that adds quite a bit of depth to the drama.
Josh Decker plays ,“The Men.” All of them. There are quite a lot of them in and around the edges of the drama. To his credit, Decker never exaggerates the difference between different characters. He’s able to play a number of different roles without over-rendering each of them in a way that would distract from the women at the center of the drama.
Sweeping War Drama in a Studio
The nation of Vietnam is 127,881 mi². The performance space at the War Memorial is...much smaller than this. Director Abigail Stein has fostered a tempo and intensity that makes the small space feel kind of immense at times. There’s no set and few props. Sound Designer Loren M. Watson’s audio backdrop for the show is minimalist. Stein allows the drama of an intimate space to be about the people caught-up in the drama. Aside from a few images projected in the background and a few sound effects here and there, the strength of A Piece of My Heart largely rests in the energy of the cast, which is well-modulated from beginning to end. Of particular note here is the flurry of activity that we feel in combat as medics get to work. Nixon is the fiery gravity at the center of a storm as Figlesthaler. Martin and Lor rush around amidst the pristine poise of Friederichs tirelessly keeping it all together. At moments like that, the ensemble pleasantly overwhelms.
The Milwaukee County War Memorial Center is the perfect venue for a show about war. A Piece of My Heart is a rare opportunity to see an intimate show in a beautiful space. It’s not often a small-stage show makes it to a piece of architecture that’s as striking as this. The entire space seems to be a tribute to straight lines, right angles an wide, flat expanses. The mid-1950s work by Eero Saarinen seems strange coming from an architect who would go on to design the tulip chair and the Gateway Arch. No subtly elegant simple curves here. Evidently Eero was feeling Brutalism in a very big way when considering the design of a memorial for those who served in the military. Very few curves in the wide, flat space one walks though on the way in to see a show about war. The walk out after the show is pretty breathtaking as well. Emerge from the war drama in the Memorial and there’s the ever-expanding Milwaukee skyline seen from a rather unique perspective. From beginning to end, A Piece of My Heart is remarkably intense.
Cooperative Performance’s production of A Piece of My Heart runs through Apr. 29 at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center on 750 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cooperative Performance online.
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is frighteningly simple in its complexity. With four characters, Shanley dissects a basic question of truth with the kind of emotional precision that reveals the deeper inner complexity of human reality. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre stages a thoroughly satisfying production of the drama this month from the stage of the Broadway Theatre Center.
It’s a Big Place. Lots of Space
It’s hard to miss the immensity of the set. We’re looking at a huge church meant to represent...in a way...all of Catholicism. The Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre is big and spacious without feeling overwhelming the way the larger venues in town do. Scenic Designer Steve Barnes manages to make it look positively immense, though. Huge stretches of empty space are contrasted against massive, ominous stretches of brick which seem to encompass everything. There’s a massive stained glass in the background.
There’s a delicate calculus at work between the cast, the set and all that empty space. It’s difficult to define quite why it works, but director C. Michael Wright has managed to find a way to make the drama of a few people seem every bit as big and powerful as the church itself. The right kind of blocking goes a long way here, but there’s something more at work and it has to do with the dynamic of the ensemble.
Father Brendan Flynn: Balanced Mystery
The Eastern New England accent is a really, really difficult one to nail down. Len too heavily on it and it sounds like you’re doing a weak impersonation of JFK. Lean too faraway from it and it sounds totally indistinct. Dialect Coach Raeleen McMillion and Marcus Truschinski have found the perfect voice for Father Brendan Flynn: a man of authority who is suspected of inappropriate relations with a young boy. There’s a mystery about the character from the moment we see him onstage. Truschinski cleverly delivers the casual day-to-day mystery of Father Flynn. There’s never anything overtly sinister in his interactions.
Truschinski allows the events of the drama to define the mystery within the character rather than attempting to over-render the warmth of his kindness or the coldness of his authority. The first time I saw Doubt, it was with the Rep just over ten years ago. Brian Vaughn played Father Flynn with a nice-guy charisma that was strong enough to wash away much of the mystery. To see Vaughn in the role, you’d just sort of...assume that Flynn didn’t do anything wrong. With Truschinski, there’s a delicate balance in the background of the character that keeps his true nature a truly fascinating mystery.
The Nuns in the Shadows
Colleen Madden and April Paul play Sister Aloysius Beauvier and Sister James-a couple of nuns at the church who suspect Father Flynn of impropriety. Reference to the progression of authority in the Catholic church throughout the play. The chain of authority seems to permeate every breath and heartbeat of the drama. Sister James is a young nun who answers to Sister Aloysius who serves the church far below Father Flynn. None of the three perfectly follow this authority, however. They respect it, but they don’t perfectly conform to it. Each of the three has a different reason for feeling uncomfortable with it, but they must all respect that it’s there. You could imagine this would be a really, really difficult dynamic to bring across onstage given only 90 minutes’ time. C. Michael Wright and company do an excellent job of bringing the specifics of this complexity to the stage in an approach which seems to start with the nuns.
Madden and Paul tread delicately around each other as two different people with two different levels of authority. Madden is sternly courageous as an elder educator determined to prove Flynn’s guilt. As Sister James, April Paul wields a heroic sense of compassion as the younger nun who has a passion for teaching. Both act with the best of intentions. Each acts on these intentions in her own way. The contrast between them draws them together in a search for the truth about what happened between Father Flynn and one of the choirboys.
Malkia Stampley rounds out the cast in a brief but powerful appearance as Mrs. Muller--the mother of the boy Father Flynn is suspected of having been involved in inappropriate relations with. Sister Aloysius invites her in to the office to question her about her son. Things get complicated. Mrs. Muller is a very strong African American woman dealing with life as a marginalized US citizen. (The drama is set in Autumn of 1964 just a few months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted. The ink was still dry. There was a lot of work to be done there still is...) Stampley makes quite an impression. She doesn’t hold much authority, but she is able to respectfully challenge the notions of a very established nun in one of the drama’s most powerful scenes.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Doubt runs though Apr. 29 at the Broadway Theatre Center. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800 or visit Milwaukee Chamber online.
Churchill Drama Returns to the Studio Theatre
Caryl Churchill’s Far Away is probably my favorite contemporary drama. Years ago I saw a production of it onstage at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. Naturally I’m going to jump at the chance to see anything written by her. This month, Renaissance Theaterworks stages Churchill’s 1982 comic drama Top Girls. It’s being staged in the same space I saw Far Away all those years ago. Cassandra Bissell plays an executive Londoner working for an employment agency. Having just been promoted, she celebrates with a dinner party featuring successful, largely forgotten characters from throughout history. After the party, we see her at the office and learn a bit about her past in a story that explores the psyche of an upwardly mobile woman in Thatcher’s England.
A Dream Cast Directed by Fete
Churchill’s all-woman cast allows for a wide range of actresses. Directed by Susan Fete, the cast of the Renaissance production features some of the best actresses from nearly every contemporary generation of Milwaukee theatre. Many of them are present in the opening dinner party. Jenny Wanasek is elegantly charming as the nineteenth-century English explorer Isabella Bird. Mary MacDonald Kerr commands a strikingly casual sense of authority as the a fictitious ninth-century female pope. Rachel Zientek is boldly silent as a a gruff Flemish folk hero named Dull Gret. Grace DeWolff is calmly radiant as Patient Griselda, who shows-up a bit late to the party. (This is probably the biggest departure for any of the established Milwaukee actresses in the play. I don’t ever recall seeing DeWolff play Calmly Radiant before. It’s an energy she handles as deftly as the more active dynamic she always wields so well.) In addition to this there’s the welcome addition of Chicago-based actress Karissa Murrell Myers in the role of 13th century Japanese concubine Lady Nijō. The dinner party casually rolls along in a gorgeously luminescent set by designer Stephen Hudson-Mairet. It’s a deeply-engaging intro. The conversation gradually meanders into the matter of motherhood, which nearly everyone at the party has experienced in a distinctly different way. This sets-up the focus of the drama’s four remaining scenes.
The Other Four Scenes
The strangely fantastic dinner party fades-out in favor of a very earthbound quartet of scenes which focus on a couple of different characters. Cassandra Bissell is Marlene--the incredibly together upwardly mobile Londoner who works for Top Girls Employment Agency. Her story is paired against that of a fearless, young girl named Angie, played with great childlike exuberance by Elyse Edelman. We first see her in the play’s third scene in a back yard blanket fort hanging out with a friend played by DeWolff. The progression from a dinner party in the first scene to an employment agency in the second scene to a couple of girls hanging out in a backyard feels a bit disjointed at first. Edelman and DeWolff are delivering a really interesting interaction between two girls, but it’s hard to settle-into a complex connection between yet another set of characters at the end of the first act. The overall flow of action in the opening act feels off, but each scene is solidly realized.
Things are a bit more focussed on the other side of intermission. Angie has come to visit Marlene at the office. She has come unannounced to witness Marlene on the job. The final scene takes place earlier. Marlene has come to visit her sister (played with a very organic energy by Libby Amato. This is the second time I can remember seeing Amato play a relatively young mother. She’s really, really good with the vaguely fatigued momentum of someone dealing with both work and parenthood. There’s a casually stylish grace and charm with Amato that anyone would love in a mother.)
Insight: It’s A Mix
Churchill is covering socio-political issues of being a woman and being successful that have been so thoroughly examined in so many different contemporary stories that it’s difficult for me to remember whether or not any of it would have even been terribly revelatory even when it debuted in 1981. I saw the play with my successful wife and she felt like she was cringing through a bit of what she has dealt with throughout her career in the financial services industry. This isn't anything new. She's seen it before. She doesn't need to see it here. Churchill’s coverage of a spectrum of different issues in the play seems to range from the painfully obvious to the deeply insightful. Where it's insightful, it's great. Where it's not, Churchill's script drags a bit. Throughout it all, though, there's this amazing cast that breathes such satisfying life into even the dullest moments of the drama.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Top Girls runs through Apr. 29 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations, visit Renaissance Theaterworks online.
Everything Means Something Else.
Lauren Gunderson’s I And You is a fiercely clever, little 90 minutes in a theatre seat. Two people have a conversation. It isn’t just any casual conversation, though. You can’t do casual conversation onstage. For one thing it’d be rude. People pay good money to watch the conversation. But also: you can’t have a casual conversation onstage because everyone is watching. You have to prepare. And if that preparation happens to include this particular script by Lauren Gundrerson, every last sentence is going to have some kind of double or triple meaning. And if it happens to be directed by David Cecsarini, the depth of multiple levels of meaning are going to appealingly drift across the stage in a very organic fashion thanks to the talents of talented actors Christina Panfilio as Caroline and Ibraheem Farmer as Anthony. It’s only 90 minutes or so without intermission, but there’s A LOT to think about here. Very clever stuff.
It’s a Messy Bedroom
Earlier this season, we got to see Jason Fassl decorate a young woman’s bedroom in Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Russian Transit. With I And You, Rick Rasmussen comes-up with the precise look for the bedroom of contemporary shut-in high school student Caroline. There are pictures cluttering the walls including a little shrine to retro-pop king Elvis and quite a lot of her photography. I heard someone in the audience mentioning that it looked as though the entire set could be folded-up into a little box and carried offstage at a moment’s notice. That’s no accident. This is the entire world for one high school senior. Rasmussen does a brilliant job of making it look big without losing track of the fact that it’s a very small space in which Caroline is forced to live. It’s more than just a place where the smoke detector seems to constantly be going-off and the cell reception suddenly seems to have disappeared: it’s the only place where Caroline can live.
When Adults Play Teenagers
About a decade and a half ago I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview with film director Catherine Hardwicke. During this interview, Hardwicke had inadvertently convinced me that the only way to do serious drama about teenagers was by having the teenagers PLAYED by teenagers. (Her indie movie Thirteen had Nikki Reed and Evan Rachel Wood playing 13 year olds while they were in their mid-teens.)
Granted, it IS difficult to get high school actors on a professional show like this. There are child labor laws and things of that nature...not to mention the pressure a show like this would have on a couple of teenagers as they are the only ones in the cast..but...we DO have First Stage here in Milwaukee...and it’s one of the best children’s theatre programs in like...the world. So there’s a part of me that feels like it’s almost disrespectful to try to stage a teenaged drama without using actual teenagers...but here it wasn’t an issue at all. With Next Act's staging of I And You I know I’m watching adults play a couple of high school seniors and...I’m okay with it.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I honestly don’t know exactly what makes actors Cristina Panfilio and Ibraheem Farmer so convincingly adolescent. I don’t know exactly what director David Cecsarini did to make it work but...it works.
It doesn’t hurt that the only two characters in the play are both teenagers. This is their world and the stage has brought it to us, so there’s no contrast between adults and teenagers to muddle things-up.
It doesn’t hurt that both Panfilio and Ibraheem have done a really good job of rendering the specific graces and awkwardnesses of late adolescence with a very close attention to detail and a great respect for early adulthood. They’re not playing down to the roles or exaggerating awkwardness. This is just a couple of people.
It also doesn’t hurt that Lauren Gunderson’s dialogue feels very authentically millennial teen. And it doesn’t hurt that Caroline is actually a really appealing character.
In Caroline, Gunderson has created the type of high school senior you would’ve wanted to hang out with or date. She’s sharp. She’s witty. She’s unobtainable on account of some really misfortunate health. So there’s that darkness that’s so appealing in high school. Okay...so yes: I would have had a HUGE crush on Caroline in high school, but there’s real wit in her dialogue and Panfilio does a brilliant job of delivering very, very clever on-liners that are clever, playful and sharply tactical. Panfilio’s graceful approach to the character makes Caroline one of the more vivid characters I’ve seen in recent years. It’s not real often that I want to hang out with a character after the end of a performance. At the end of this show I want the character of Caroline babysitting my kids. (She’s just that cool.)
It’s nice to see Cloud b Twilight Turtle® getting some work here. Over the years, the luminous, little plushy and his cohorts have been more accustomed to performing light shows on the ceilings of much smaller audiences of much smaller people while making “fear of the dark a thing of the past.” Here Twilight Turtle® plays Turtle...Caroline’s symbolic little, plush friend. Nice to see the plush turtle branching out and doing a little work onstage.
Next Act Theatre’s production of I And You runs through Apr. 29 on 255 S. Water St. For ticket requests and more visit nextact.org or call 414-278-0765. My concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.
There are places where The House of Bernarda Alba is popular enough to be produced every single year. Milwaukee is not one of those places. In over a decade of covering theatre here and over 1,000 plays, I haven’t seen Alba once. I finally had a chance to see Federico García Lorca’s classic drama last night courtesy of a production being staged this month by The Village Playhouse.
Erico Ortiz directs the show. He’s personally translated the script from the original Spanish. It’s clearly been a labor of love for the director who brings together an impressively large cast for an intimate, little staging of a complex family drama set in Spain just prior to the Spanish Civil War. It’s the mid-1930s and women are given a small corner of the world to inhabit. Lorca’s classic focusses-in on those women who resided in open shadows in the margins of an era preceding the rule of the dictator Francisco Franco.
Anne Gorski leads an all-woman cast as the matriarch Bernarda Alba. She is the head of a rather large and relatively wealthy household in the country. Gorski summons the gravity of a conservative authority about her. Gorski’s intensity is not quite the oppressive presence of a tyrant. Gorski is not without her power in the role, but as the drama unfolds, it becomes clear that Alba herself is losing her grip. Mary Lynn Ferwerda carries an almost whimsical sense of authority about her as Bernarda’s longtime maid La Poncia. She’s able to summon much of the familiarity between herself and LaPoncia and the ever-aloof Alba. Ferwerda has charm ans wisdom that lends considerable weight to Gorski’s performance.
The drama begins with a funeral and ends with a death. In the 2.5 hours (0r s0) between these two events, we are immersed in the politics of a group of people who aren’t allowed much freedom. It’s a different prison for each and every one of the characters onstage. Servants can scarcely rest. Non-servants can scarcely do anything but rest...restlessly. The intimacy of the studio theatre stage amplifies the deliciously restless feeling of the drama.
There’s a definite hierarchy rigidly defined in the confines of the household from servants to those they serve. There’s a stratification of age and stature in and within the family that can be a bit difficult to follow. There’s a rigidly-defined spectrum of ages in the cast of characters in the script that isn’t perfectly mirrored in the cast onstage. This isn’t as much of a problem as it might seem at the beginning of the first act. When the restlessness settles-in the drama between characters mix and the hierarchy ultimately falls to an engrossing interpersonal drama. They’re all prisoners here. Age and status fade into the background for a group of people who are forced to share a very small space together.
Though men are completely absent from the cast, their hold on the power is ever-present. There is a handsome, young man who never appears onstage who becomes a matter of contention between some of the sisters. Everyone wants out of the house and he might be a really nice way out for one of them. Bividiana Murguia beautifully plays to the center of this conflict as the youngest daughter Adela in subtle shades that can become casually explosive. His allegiances and affections become a central struggle between nearly everyone in the cast in some way as the drama rushes from funeral to death in three solidly engrossing acts punctuated by a couple of intermissions.
It would doubtlessly be difficult to get an all-latin cast for a show in Milwaukee with a cast of this size. As things settle-in over the course of the drama, the specifics of the Spanish setting fade into the background and ethnicity becomes as minor a detail as age in an interpersonal drama that works very well at its heart. That being said, it’s really, really nice to see a couple of Puerto Rican actresses in the cast. Sandra Hollander has a sparklingly earthbound charisma as a central servant for the household. Miriam Kopec is fairly haunting in and around the edges as the 27-year-old daughter Amelia. Kopec has a very magnetic presence onstage even in idle moments. It would be great to see her appear in more. The distinct Latin accents of Kopec and Hollander might not be absolutely necessary for the heart of the drama, but they’re refreshingly distinctive. Theatre audiences in Milwaukee so rarely get to hear that specific Latin voice. We need more of that voice.
The Village Playhouse’s production of The House of Bernardo Alba runs through April 22nd at Inspiration Studios on 1500 S. 73rd St. in West Allis. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.
The Alchemist Theatre returns to classic David Mamet this month as it presents Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Making her directorial debut, the Alchemist’s Erica Case assembles a really tight, little production of the comedy set in Chicago in the mid-1970s.
The story involves two men and two women living in Chicago. Their lives are seen in brief glimpses that punch their way across the stage for just over one hour without intermission.
Brittany Boeche plays the single most articulate character in the cast--a kindergarten teacher named Joan. There are one or two moments in the play where she expresses some really deep philosophical ideas. They’re mixed-in with quite a lot of intellectual pride that bristle against some of the other characters. Boeche finds a whimsical center to the character that keeps her from coming across as being too aloof. Joan can come across as more than a bit smug and superior, but Boeche finds a way to make it seem appealing anyway. Joan might not be the nicest person, but Boeche has a swimmingly graceful charisma that finds a slightly wild smile that emotionally warms the character’s chillier moments.
Becky Cofta is given the challenge of playing the least verbal character in the story. She’s an aspiring artist named Deborah. We get the feeling that she’s probably much more expressive in her art than she is with words. Far from being completely silent, she’s got her fair share of dialogue, but Cofta’s best moments with the character lie in rendering the character’s physicality. Without a hint of exaggeration we see Deborah fall in and out of love. Very little of her dialogue speaks to exactly what she’s feeling, which allows Cofta a lot of room to render the character free from the often frustrating constraints of Mamet’s dialogue.
David Sapiro is suitably unseemly as a vintage mid-’70s disco douchebag named Bernie Litko. To me, Bernie’s dialogue seems to call for more of a neanderthal/Cro-Magnon-looking blue collar alpha lounge lizard-type. Sapiro’s thin, wiry form brings a distinctly weaselly element to the character that serves the production well. Sapiro has no problem delivering Bernie’s misogyny to the stage in cleverly oblivious comic form, but Sapiro’s real accomplishment here is the faraway look in Bernie’s eyes on those rare moments where he’s wrestling with demons the go beyond the weight of the lies he lives with. There’s a deep inner torture somewhere at the bottom of the character that feeds his seemingly oblivious apathy. Sapiro brings that inner darkness out in some really compelling moments of subtly distant silence.
Chris Goode has quite a journey to complete in the brief, percussive, staccato of Mamet’s plot. He plays Danny--an ostensibly nicely sweet guy who gradually oozes into a nice guy/misogynist fusion who is rapidly losing his will to figure it all out. Goode is great as a genuinely nice guy. He’s a natural with that sort of thing. Those moments when he starts to assert more of a slimy misogyny don’t aways feel perfectly grounded in his portrayal of the rest of the character. There are a few moments that give a dramatic grounding to Danny’s emerging misogyny. Of particular note here is a scene between himself and the two women at their apartment in which we begin to see the dawn of his journey into sliminess.
The Inanimate Characters
There are only four human characters onstage, but the show has plenty of personality coming from various elements of production.
The presentation of the story becomes a character in and of itself. Mamet’s script has four characters drifting through interactions in and amidst each other in a series of very, very brief staccato scenes. Often the ending of a scene serves as its own punchline. Scenic and Lighting designer Aaron Kopec and stage manager Sydonia Lucchesi are remarkably tight with the timing of the scenes. Lights have to fall at just the right time and scenic elements have to be juggled with the just the right kind of efficiency otherwise the show feels like it’s 40-50% set changes.
Case, Kopec and Lucchesi do a great job of keeping everything brisk and fluid on one of the smallest stages in town. There’s some pretty clever use of space here. One single scenic chimerical piece of scenery plays multiple roles as a table, a bar, a dresser and a card catalogue in a library.
A metal filing cabinet has it a bit easier than the multi-purpose chimera...it’s very distinctive mid-1970s look that adds to the personality of the production. It’s rolled out to the center of the stage for a series of scenes between Bernie and Danny at work. It’s the big, silent coworker hanging out with the two guys as they discuss decidedly non-work related stuff in an office somewhere in Chicago in the middle of a decade that's already rapidly rushing off to meet the 1980s..
Alchemist Theatre’s production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago runs through April 14 on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For more information, visit Alchemist Theatre online.
It’s a short, brutal, bloody gutter punk Macbeth. The stage is brick, board and graffiti punctuated by caution tape. Life is short for filth in the absence of wealth. Director Alec Lachman has sliced Shakespeare’s classic tragedy to a very lean, percussive aggression. You’re in at 7:30 and you’re out by 9:13. Let the royalty of big funding handle longer, more elaborate productions. Let the bigger UPAF-borne theater companies handle the fancy decoration of a complete Shakespeare script. Down here on the street life is shorter and more aggressive. Tables get smacked in half by broadswords. People spit blood into the shadows of the basement. Macbeth is ambition and ambition is ugly. Let it look ugly. But not like the ambitious awful orange ovoid in the oval office. This is a street-level ambition and it needs to look as tough as it is.
The first time we see the powerful figure of the king-to-be, he’s carrying a wooden riot shield. Michael Cienfuegos-Baca is playing Macbeth. He's big and wearily aggressive. Physically imposing. He also designed the set. He uneasily rules an alley he made. The actor/designer works for a bank by daylight but here he IS power. His time is short...spurred-on by the prophecy of three witches. (The witches are the one part of the production I didn’t love. They have their moments, but they’re a bit over-the-top. They always are. Never saw a production where they weren’t. Just once I’d like to see them played every bit as cold and emotionless as fate itself. Following tradition, Director Alec Lachman guides the witches into cackling madness. It’s okay. It fits the mood of the piece quite well.)
Hannah Kubiak’s costume design has armor that suggests repurposed road signs. Spears are flagged with tattered yellow caution tape. Thee’s an old gas mask hanging from one of the walls. Smears of makeup seem to cover everything like stylized stains. There’s synth scoring by The Twilight resonating through a decaying alley. The cast drinks from empty tin cans. Receded from its traditional visual trappings, we get an angry clawing of raw ambition. There’s no visual fanciness of wealth onstage, so there’s no royalty-by-blood on the surface in this production. It’s all aggression and physical power. In this atmosphere Alexis Furseth is a badass Lady M. We get the feeling that Lady Macbeth could and would rule the disheveled corner of brick and graffiti all by herself but for the fact that she’s not physically big enough to beat back the competition. Her anger and frustration at Macbeth’s anxious weakness explodes at times. Just before telling him where he can stick his courage, she SLAPS him. She’s not going to take weakness from anyone, let alone her own husband. (She’s so boss...)
That slap is not alone. Lachman’s cut of the script has plenty of percussion. There’s more time for scrambling, scratching villainy than stern-eyed heroism, but thankfully there’s also humor. Sarah Zapiain is my favorite witch in the cast, but she’s also an excellent drunken porter. Zapiain is fun to watch around the corners of the production...always making interesting, little moody movements that add to moments on the edges of the ensemble. She makes a fun appearance as the porter after some murder. She awakens drunken--half-in and half-out of fluffy handcuffs with plenty of mood and attitude that’s perfectly at home with the rest of the show.
The whole thing is animated by a restless homeless madness. The physical trappings of the show make it feel real, but it could also be an extended psychotic fugue for those who have fallen on hard times into some back alley somewhere. That’s really what this kind of ambition is at its heart in the “real world,” though . . . it is an exhibition of ugly, disheveled gutter scratches. Out there beyond the stage in the “real world,” ambition may look decadent, corpulent and Trump-like on the surface, but Lachman and company find the true face of ambition here and it’s not pretty.
Out here on the street in the corner alley in the basement it’s all very brief. Down here with all the trash and detritus and wire mesh fencing next to a derelict stop sign it's all very close. Down here in this subterranean production of Macbeth it’s all close enough to feel the respiration and dizzy energy sweat and heat. Down here talent sweats away at night in late night rehearsals before surfacing into the daylight of day jobs. At night beneath the street downtown, though...this is where it’s real.
Kyle Conner plays Malcolm who takes the throne as the lights fall before the final bows. Conner as Malcolm on his throne make for a powerfully uneasy ending image for the production. He’s won, but there’s no look of triumph on his face. There’s only fear in his eyes. All too quickly it ends but we know...we know it’s never over.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of Macbeth runs through Mar. 31 at The Arcade Theatre in the Underground Collaborative on on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Voices Found Online.
Tales of Hoffmann has a casually epic feel about it. It was the last work of the great composer Jacques Offenbach. (He died a year before it debuted.) It wasn't what one might expect as a final exit for a great artist, though. It wasn’t a big, sweeping magical end of life journey. The story might be seen as a perfectly ordinary evening between a man and his muse as he relates the story of three lost loves. All the same, there's magical emotional weight to it. This month The Milwaukee Opera Theatre and The Skylight invite audiences to a magical evening at the Broadway Theatre Center as they present a production of Hoffman’s three tales.
John Kaneklides is suitably passionate as Hoffmann—a man lost to his loves who must be coaxed into reliving them by his muse—a compassionate host played by the golden-voiced Diane Lane. From a stylishly-detailed set, Hoffmann scratches away searching for some kind of insight until his muse finally conjures a trio of stories out of him.
The first love gracefully cascades into a steampunk mood. Hoffmann falls in love with a clockwork girl named Olympia. She’s played by Cecilia Davis with clever shades of automation breaking through the beauty of creation. There’s a subtle horror of it that Davis delivers brilliantly...sort of a clockwork operatic rendering of the uncanny valley effect that’s great fun between the ticktock woman and the doll she holds. Nathan Wesselowski plays the inventor who designed her. Wesselowski plays the role with deft slices of style from a characteristically sharp sense of humor. Ariana Douglas is clever as the conniving rival inventor who threatens to bring an end to it all.
Josh Robinson (assistant music director), Susan Wiedmeyer (Antonia), Carol Greif (a ghost) and Cecilia Davis (Dr. Miracle) in rehearsal for Skylight Music Theatre’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann in association with Milwaukee Opera Theatre, March 16-29 on the Cabot Theatre stage. PHOTO: MARK FROHNA
With one tale ending poorly, Hoffman is allowed the first of two intermissions before launching into his second story. The clockwork mood of the first story vanishes in favor of a more haunting ghostly feel as the writer speaks of his love for Antonia. Susan Wiedmeyer is longingly spectral as the love interest...she’s in slightly ill-health which threatens to get worse, but she loves to sing, but her father has forbidden it. Edward Lupella summons a very touching paternal concern for Antonia. He’s a violin maker whose wife has died. All singing reminds him of her. There’s a tenuous balance to things that tumbled apart at the touch of the sinister Doctor Miracle, played with delicious menace by Cecilia Davis. Each Of the three stories has it’s one incredible moment of intensity. In this tale, it is divided between a daughter and the ghost of her late mother. There is real magic and how they’re putting it on the stage. The very real image of her mother appears on A piano as the doctor looks on. Mother and daughter saying in that hazy space between death and life.
Ariana Douglas plays with grace as Hoffmann’s final love of the night. She appears after the second intermission to woo Hoffmann at the request of a sorcerer played by Wiedmeyer. Sonya Berlovitz has the costume designer’s dream of working on this show. There are some really beautiful pieces in this production. By far my favorite has to be that of the sorcerer Dapertutto. Asymmetrical top hat. Eyepatch. The look of us stage magician crossing over into vaguely hypnotic kind of black magic. Very cool stuff.
And why does this sorcerer want Hoffmann to be seduced? If Giulietta can enchant Hoffmann, she can capture his reflection for her. In exchange Giulietta gets a shiny valuable. That’s got to be one of the most poetically badass things to steal from someone: their reflection. Any villain can demand someone's soul. It takes a very special kind of sinister to demand someone's reflection. The theme of reflection echoes into the costuming. All the attendees at the little get-together are wearing mirrored domino masks. It's a cleverly stylish amplification of the theme of identity loss in pursuit of passion.
Yes: It's Opera...but on the Other Hand...It's Opera (!)
Opera can be dauntingly long. The prospect of being in a theater for a 2 1/2 hours can give any potential audience pause. What with so much emotion coming out in over such a protracted period of time it can feel over-rendered. Milwaukee Opera Theatre does a really good job of striking a balance between casual approachability and the popular stereotype of opera as over-the-top high art drama. For all practical purposes, Tales of Hoffman is simply the story of a writer coming up with an idea for a new piece. It doesn’t need to be anything more intense than that. However, that act of creation has its own intensity. That casual creation lies the heart of all art which is the center of all existence itsef. So at the same time as it is just a casual talk with them use over a few drinks with someone who is sensitive enough to be quite dramatic about it it’s also reaching into the very soul of life. Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik understands the balance between the casual and the fantastic and delivers that balance to the stage quite well once again.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Skylight Opera Theatre’s production of Tales of Hoffman runs through Mar. 29 at the Cabot Theater in the Broadway Theatre Center. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.
Playwright Deanna Strasse’s Dancing With Hamlet has a very raw and organic emotional connection about it. The family drama makes its world premiere this month in one of the coziest spaces in town: the early 20th century domestic warmth of the Brumder Mansion Bed & Breakfast. A space that once housed a family now serves as home to a family of characters who are dealing with a funeral and a wedding.
Dancing With Hamlet is a contemporary middle-class American sort of thing. A husband and father have died and his divorced wife is getting remarried. Wedding plans have been made and they will go through regardless of the death of the bride’s ex-husband. The three adult children of the wife and her late ex-husband are a bit upset about the whole situation.
There’s a powerful simplicity about the contrast between wedding and mourning that Strasse does a respectable job of rendering. The three adult kids play like the three parts of the Freudian model of the human psyche:
Melody Lopack plays Elvira Flack. She’s the Ego of the play. We see everything more or less through her eyes. She’s a professor of English and she’s learning to cope with the death of her father. Naturally the juxtaposition between death and marriage is going to remind her of Hamlet. The play is punctuated in her mind onstage by bits from Hamlet, but to her credit, Strasse doesn’t try to gouge Shakespeare’s tragedy too far into the heart of the contemporary family drama. Lopack is irresistibly fun in the role on an intellectual level. Lopack says as much in silence as she does in dialogue. In any given moment there are about a half a dozen things that Elvira could be saying. She chooses one of them and the dialogue continues. Lopack surrenders herself so completely to the role that we see Elvira drift between possible responses in silence as thoughts glide across her face.
Cory Jefferson Hagen plays Beau Flack. Of the three siblings, he’s the most grounded and totally together so naturally...he’s the Superego of the play. He’s stable. He has a solidly grounded and realistic perspective on things. And he drinks liquor...just like a real Superego. Being the calm voice of reason in the room would run the risk of coming across as being profoundly dull were it not for the fact that Hagen’s playing the role. He has this almost comically level-headed poise about himself that’s a lot of fun to watch in the role.
Josh Scheibe plays Wilde Flack. He’s the Id. He wants to deal directly with the emotions at the heart of everything that everyone else seems so intent on diverting or pivoting away from in some way. He wants to feel the pain of the loss and really embrace it, but he may love the loss more than he loves the father he lost. So it’s complicated. And so is he. They say he’s named after Oscar Wilde. So he’s got just as much of a sense of the dramatic as Elvira does...only he acts on it. Scheibe cleverly keeps Wilde’s wild in check. The character’s temperament is erratic and emotional, but he’s very methodical in his approach to it all. Scheibe does a really impressive job of delivering the cold calculations of the character without compromising his passions.
Donna Daniels plays matriarch Rosie Flack. She’s excited about her marriage. She’s quite happy. And her longtime husband has just died. Daniels plays the in-your-face mystery about the character with a theatrically casual demeanor. Does she really think she’s starting her life with a man at this stage in her history? Is the wedding about her or is it about her AND her intended husband? Why does she seem to have no response at all to the death of her ex-husband? Clearly she has issues going into this marriage. It is to her great credit that Daniels doesn’t over-render those issues because the center of her personality really rests in her ability to ignore it all and just have a good time. Daniels delivers that beautifully.
And then there are the two who AREN’T related to anyone else by blood...
Emmitt Morgans is delightfully awkward as a cancer research scientist Dr. Tony Simms. A bit of a socially flaccid individual, Simms seems to have followed Rosie around long enough to have stumbled into a wedding where he he just happens to be the groom marrying her. Morgans plays it just a few shades shy of outright silliness, allowing the character just enough emotional center to feel heartbreakingly real throughout the play. There are people like this. There are people who feel like cartoon characters in real life. It can be monumentally difficult to bring that kind of thing to the stage and make it still feel like real life. Strasse and Morgans have done an informally brilliant job of this.
Amanda J. Hull plays the girl next door. Literally. She’s Jean: a receptionist who could have been a hair stylist who just happens to live next door to the family with her mother. She grew-up right next to the three siblings and right along with them. As she’s playing a bit of an outsider, she’s not given a whole lot of depth to explore. The comedy of the character may come in the fact that...even though it’s not her home, she’s actually the only one playing the part of the hostess trying to smooth things over and make them pleasantly sociable throughout the play.
Thankfully, Hull plays half of the single most memorable scene in the entire play. There’s a conversation between her and another. Hull does a clever job of slowly backing into a moment between Jean and one other character and it really IS a heartbreakingly sweet moment that has so tragically little to do with the rest of the play. To say more would be to ruin the moment, which I may well have done simply by bringing it up. With this and so much else, director Carol Zippel has found just the right balance.
Beyond the Freudian family drama there’s real allegory that could be read into the plot as any well-rounded family tends to echo the society that it’s a part of. On one level, Dancing With Hamlet can come across as being profoundly political. Maybe we’re all Melody Lopac carrying around our father’s ashes just trying to make sense of it all in such a strange and strangely familiar world that isn’t quite what we want it to be.
Windfall Theatre’s production of Dancing With Hamlet runs Mar. 15-24 at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations, call 414-332-3963.
Drive around in the vicinity of Madison and you’ll see the name on road signs. Verona, Wisconsin. (A city of 10,000 outside of Madison.) The name of that town always seemed to suggest an interesting location for a Wisconsin-based adaptation of the romantic Shakespeare drama that is famously set in Verona, Italy. The obvious joke makes it to the stage courtesy of writer/funny guy Michael Christopher and Emerald Condor Productions as it stages a fun, little light comedy at the Alchemist Theatre this month. Originally developed for Madison’s Broom Street Theater, the comedy in question is Dick Pix Montana--a spoof of Romeo and Juliet set in contemporary Verona...Wisconsin.
Two Young Lovers Separated by Text
Bryson Langer and Katie Katschke play a pair of young Millennials who fall in love in suburban Wisconsin. Michael Christopher puts the two high school kids through an extended courtroom drama spoof that ultimately results in...social suicide. The heaviness of the original story is made light in a breezy sketch comedy haze that also manages to cast a stern glance in the direction of the law as it pertains to sexting. (I honestly don’t know why I didn’t see that coming given the name of the comedy. The program lists an anonymous “Legal and Procedural Consultant.” For light sketch-like comedy, this show makes a surprisingly sober point about current laws.)
The Humor of ...y'know...the Casual
Bryson Langer is enjoyably affable as the Nice Guy Romeo--a guy named Richard Montana. His penchant for getting interceptions on the football field has earned him the name “Picks.” (So...y’know...Dick “Picks.”) Anyway...Katie Katschke has a nicely appropriate deadpan delivery even for the weakest humor. I love that they’re really casual about the romance. Langer and Katschke have a really nice nonchalance as high school characters who have taken a liking to each other. In a culture raised on social media, everything’s cool. No big deal. It’s just love, y’know?
There are Other People Too
There are some great appearances in and around the edges. Writer Michael Christopher shows-up as the prosecuting attorney. He’s got sharp delivery and a sense of subtlety in places that go a bit beyond the level of standard sketch comedy. Also of note here are Michelle White as a local news anchor, J.J. Burch as the chronically distracted judge and J.J. Gatesman (yes: a TWO J.J. production) as Richard’s good friend Ben Volio.
The Dragging of the Comedy
Shaving the original story into 70 minutes (give or take) and turning it into a courtroom drama keeps the whole thing feeling quite breezy. Some of the comic rhythm is thrown-off a bit as the script features A LOT of scene changes. There are twenty scenes listed in the program. That’s a lot of, “fade to black, move things around, lights rise...and action,” to throw into anything less than 90 minutes and it can feel like it’s dragging in places.
The Comedy of the Comedy
The comedy in Christopher’s script comes primarily from three different places: Shakespeare, Millennial culture and the sweaty basement of sketch comedy.
...I'm Just Saying...
The standard sketch milieu is apparent from the beginning. All other elements aside this IS a courtroom comedy in which a Romeo-like character is standing trial for accidentally posting a sexually explicit picture (intended for Julia) on Instagram. So there are going to be dick jokes and such. Personally I would have liked to see the lowbrow stuff fade into the background in favor of a more determined focus on satire specific to South Central Wisconsin, but there’s some of that there as well.
The Shakespeare Thing
There are quite a few Shakespearian references here. Some of them work quite well. One cannot stage a comedy like this without making some reference to West Side Story...which is handled here by surmising a two-high school “Verona East” and “Verona West” rivalry with Sharks and Jets. Cute. The Jets wear the logo for the NFL team. Julia can be seen wearing a shark snuggie as she texts her Romeo. It’s cute.
The Millennial Thing
Then there’s the whole Millennial end of things. Romeo and Juliet suggests a traditionally tragic romance. Michael Christopher does a good job of comically juxtaposing traditional romance against the realities of contemporary young love. Parents can forbid kids from seeing each other, but in an era of social media, it’s really difficult to keep them away from each other. The two characters might have only seen each other in person a couple of times, but through social media they know each other a lot better than Shakespeare’s lovers did. It’s more of a casual romance.
Key conversations in the course of the play take place over text messaging complete with emojis that pop-up on cards net to the actors. There’s a clever economy to the emoji cards. There’s a clever timing between the cards and the dialogue that amps-up the overall cuteness of the production as a whole. It might not always be as clever as it’s trying to be and not every joke is terribly funny, but there’s a cuteness at the heart of the production that holds it all together quite well.
Emerald Condor Productions’ Dick Pix Montana runs through Mar. 17 at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.