Traditional folklore doesn’t exactly have a reputation for dispensing valuable lessons about the “real world.” In the modern world, fairy tales are generally synonymous with fanciful magic in simple realms of good and evil. As Winter becomes Spring, First Stage presents a small stage fairy tale for kids 8 years and older that goes beyond overly simplistic good-vs-evil themes to cover a huge range of different issues including the death of a parent, being forced to do things against one’s wishes and even the sometimes ambiguous nature of human morality.
Based in part on Slavic legend, the folk-rock musical Gretel! follows a young girl into the woods to search for the mysterious being known as Baba Yaga. Her mother has passed away and her father has remarried. Now Gretel has to contend with as wicked stepmother and stepsister who force her to do all the work and demand that she steal magic from Baba Yaga in order that they may have food and light. In order to get what she wants, Gretel must work for Baba Yaga, who slowly teaches her magic, forcing Gretel to wonder wether the sinister witch is truly evil or something else altogether. Can she really be that bad if she's sharing her magical knowledge? This isn't some cheery, little Hogwart's with classrooms and teachers and lessons, though. Baba Yaga is a very cunning and demanding mentor who leads Gretel to some pretty shadowy places.
Natalie Ford has wit and wisdom about her in the role of Baba Yaga. There’s a playful darkness about her that seems at once completely honest and completely whimsical. Gretel doesn’t know whether or not to trust her. This could have been terrifying if allowed to develop in a dark direction, but Ford keeps it firmly rooted in a sense of fun and mystery that keeps the mood of the play firmly rooted in drama and solidly removed from realms of nightmare.
Max Mainwood is versatile in a few different supporting roles. He’s a flaky, well-menaing father who trusts his daughter to a new wife he hardly knows. Mainwood also picks up rake and broom in the role of Stepmother and Stepsister as well...effectively selling the idea of a number of other characters with subtle, abstract props and without the benefit of a single costume change.
Ford and Mainwood are joined by a group of kids in one of two different casts. Kids play Gretel herself, a girl, a boy and a cellist. The cellist joins Ford and Mainwood on acoustic instruments that perform some remarkably high-energy folk rock that’s been written specifically for the show.
Scenic Designer Sarah Hunt-Frank has done a brilliant job putting together a very engagingly abstract, little set for the musical. A big, fantasy story featuring moody magic set in the woods might seem ill-suited for the intimacy of a small stage, but Hunt-Frank plays with the wooded imagery in simple, flat planes and cylinders that cleverly calls to the primal aesthetics of a target audience raised with iconic interactive emulations of nature like Minecraft and Roblox. Just to look at it, the simplicity of what Hunt-Frank put together for the stage here would seem a little too quaint to be appealing, but for a generation that’s increasingly interacting in little worlds like this on small glowing screens, it works. Hunt-Franks work here is actually a very, very savvy way to engage kids aesthetically in this kind of cozy, little show.
The iconography is very abstract, but it’s appealing. Stepmother appears onstage as a wooden rake. The stepsister is represented by a wooden broom. The mystical knight of night is a bucket and a sash. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does. And it does so beautifully. (Days after attending the musical, I showed my daughter a picture of a classical wooden rake and we both laughed thinking about the stepmother. It's sharply minimalist design work.) The most appealing, little bit of design work comes in the form of a magical, little boy doll given to Gretel by her late mother. It’s a stylized classical outline of a paper doll-like boy made of fabric. It’s just abstract enough to be cute and just articulate enough to bring a really cool, little emotionally expressive magical character to the small stage. In a show like this, it’s the tiniest things that can make for the biggest magic.
First Stage’s Gretel! runs through March 22nd at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on 325 W. Walnut St. For ticket reservations and more, visit First Stage online.
As February draws to a close, Mad Rogues presents an intimate, little studio staging of Shakespeare’s Othello performed without all the usual props and lighting and sound design and scenic design and costuming. Without any other distractions AT ALL, director Bryant Mason focusses the show on some remarkably stunning acting. A cast of actors approach the material from a very organic place that moves the tragedy briskly across the stage in a deeply satisfying production.
Izaiah A. Ramirez is a warm, articulate presence onstage. There is not menace or malice about him at all. There’s no sense of danger at all about the guy playing Othello in THIS production, which makes the tragedy of his sensitivity all the more crushing. The danger in playing Othello with this much sensitivity lies in the disconnect when the villain Iago awakens suspicion in him. Play Othello too much like a nice guy in the beginning and you run the risk of making the suspicious menace of Othello at the end of the play coming across like a COMPLETELY different character. Ramirez deftly manages an arc that manipulates the joy of emotional sensitivity at the beginning of the play and mutates it under the influence of Iago to the horror of emotional sensitivity at the end of the play. It’s a really refreshingly dynamic take on the character that Ramirez handles perfectly.
There’s great heroism in Caitlyn Nettesheim’s performance as Othello’s wife Desdemona. She’s bravely chosen new romantic love over her family’s old, conditional love. When a confidant and longtime friend of Othello’s stands disgraced, Nettesheim brings out the beauty of Desdemona’s selflessness. When her husband’s sensitivity turns to ill-temper, Nettesheim amplifies that selfless heroism in aiding a newfound friend in his quest to regain the trust of her husband. Nettesheim’s Desdemona is refreshingly inspiring.
Ken Miller's approach to the villain Iago is a pleasant alternative to the political villainy out of the White House and the Senate in the recent months. Contemporary U.S. politics is a theatre of villainy through childish bully brutality. As cleverly as he is written, Iago can sometimes make it to the stage with a menace that feels a bit childish around the edges. Miller plays to the intellect of the character without distraction. Politics for Miller’s Iago aren’t for the pleasure of personal gain...they’re a game. Miller’s Iago might be casually playing with people’s lives or he might be playing a multiplayer online game. All of the obstacles that line his path are problems to be solved for nothing more than the satisfaction of seeing his vision happen...which fits in impressively-well with what Shakespeare put on the page centuries ago.
Marcel Alston is given the unenviable task of playing Othello’s friend Cassio. Shakespeare gives the actor playing Cassio a hell of a lot of ground to cover in a relatively short span of time onstage. Alston breathes the complexity of a full personality around the edges of the dialogue. The script gives Cassio passion, duty, responsibility, irresponsibility, anger a few other things that all have relatively important roles to play in the tragedy. It's a weird scattershot for any actor to try to hit all of that cohesively without a whole lot of fluid time onstage. Alston cleverly strings it all together in a performance that speaks to a depth that might have come from an entirely different play focussed entirely on Cassio.
In my experience, Iago’s wife Emilia doesn’t traditionally make much of an emotional impact on the stage until the end of the play. Brittany F. Byrnes puts together a take on the character that is that much more engaging from the beginning to the end of the play. More than just an unwitting pawn for her husband, Byrnes brings the personal day-to-day life of the character a lived-in presence that makes her lack of suspicion for her husband that much more respectable. Byrnes gives Emilia her own life, so it's understandable that she wouldn't see her own husband's villainy even though it IS the center of all the action in the drama everyone in the audience is actively watching.
Roderigo is another character who often comes across as a witless pawn of Iago. Rather than going against the grain on this, Simon Earle has been allowed to play-up the character’s fragility as comic relief from the darkness lying in the heart of the rest of the play. And rather than amplifying that fragility in an exaggerated clown-like manner befitting the circus or the current Oval Office, Earle brilliantly plays the comedy of the character in impressively subtle sighs and sags that are all delivered with head-spinning precision. Earle is comic relief, but he’s playing it in a way that is carefully calculated not to overpower any other part of the drama.
Reva Fox lends respectable structure to the edges of the ensemble as Desdemona’s father Brabantio. Emmaline Friederichs is suitably seductive as Cassio’s love interest Bianca. Friederichs’ thoughtful sensuality adds a layer of depth to a production that is successful on a great many levels without the benefit of all the other non-acting stuff that can distract from a well-written script.
Mad Rogues’ production of Othello runs through Feb. 22nd, 24th, 27th, 28th and 29th at the Marcus Center or the Performing Arts’ Studio 4A on 929 N. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Mad Rogues online.
Every now and then a touring show rolls through the Marcus Center that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. The big budget shows blast theeir way across the main stage making way too much money and tiny, little touring acts of far greater substance get ignored altogether. Thankfully, there was a respectably sizable crowd at the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall for dancer Jade Solomon’s one-night-only public Milwaukee performance of Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word Nigger. A series of short narrative dances were punctuated in the middle and at the end with a couple of conversations about the nature of the word. The latest performance in Jade Solomon Curtis’ tour was at times deeply moving and disturbingly thought-provoking.
The show opens with delicate movements against a large video projection featuring an aerial shot of wind through tall grasses. There was a serene warmth in the visuals accompanying slow, hopeful music while a snowstorm whipped around in the Milwaukee winter evening outside the venue. The simple summery movements of tall grasses in the background establish the immensity of the backdrop the dancer is working with. It’s a nice place to start in a journey that jolts over into some deeply disturbing territory. The video screen behind Solomon is a large wall of visuals that also act as interstitial extensions on the theme. Some of the visuals are more powerful than others. It's particularly disturbing to see dash-cam footage of cops being overtly racist on a screen that large.
Anatomy of a Moment: Colored on the Wall
Disturbing shock isn’t the sort of thing often played on in small stage theatre. It’s difficult to get an overwhelming visceral jolt to come across in the context of a performance. When it’s carried across with the kind of power Jade Solomon is working with, it can be very powerful stuff.
The second piece on the evening is “Colored on the Wall.” Jade Solomon Curtis appears in a neon green hoodie and baggy shorts of the same color which glow dazzlingly in Reed Nakayama’s cool blue light. Solomon Curtis’ balletic hip-hop dance movements assert themselves with inspiring power and confidence that never quite edges over into aggression or violence. Solomon Curtis glides across the stage with a beautifully graceful dominance amidst techno beats from VIBEHEAVY. Solomon is a beautiful silhouette in radiant green. It's hypnotically gorgeous stuff amidst moody dance music until the boom is lowered in a powerfully visceral emotional gut punch. The dancer hits the ground screaming. The music switches to the upbeat power of the Otis Day and the Knights’ celebratory 1978 cover of “Shout.” The massive video screen backdrop explodes in lightly animated archival photos of blacks hung from trees. The video has the tragic victims from those old photos slowly swaying amidst the upbeat celebration of Otis Day while Solomon screams. The layering of scream, upbeat music and grizzly images from history had me picking my jaw up off the floor. In ten years of going to over 1100 shows, I can scarcely remember a more viscerally jarring moment in a theatre seat. This sort of emotional assault is attempted so rarely and it’s so rarely done well. I’m still getting chills writing about that moment, which will likely haunt me through the rest of the winter.
Jade Solomon dances with a lot of other weighty themes in the course of the program. “A Star Named Nigga,” analyzes the stereotype of hip-hop culture with Solomons’ distinctly precise and passionate balletic fusion. “Under Fire” is an exploration into aggression and self-destruction. The dancer’s passion and intensity are strikingly unflinching.
Direct Discussion in Two Parts
It’s all abstract movement except for the conversations. There’s one in the middle of the program and a more traditional talkback at the end of the show. There’s a kind of fearlessness in holding something that feels like a talkback in the middle of a program...but it’s more than that. Local talent and others including educator Walter Beach III and the show’s sound designer DJ Topspin discuss the word at the heart of the program. Mics are available to the audience to join-in the discussion. It may be obvious that the word is vulgar and oppressive regardless of who speaks it, but there ARE more complex issues that make an open discussion of the word an interesting exercise at times.
The Marcus Center performance of Black Like Me is the last date listed on Jade Solomon’s tour schedule. For more information, visit Jade Solomon Online.
Cabaret Milwaukee makes a classy splash into February with a swinging retro variety show. Cream City Crime Syndicate: Ransom is Relative continues the group’s heroic historical serial about Milwaukee’s Mayor Daniel Hoan in an era of prohibition and organized crime. Cabaret Milwaukee’s mix of music, comedy and hardboiled action drama feels a bit more balanced than it has in the past. The large ensemble brings a diverse and complex retro world to the historic space of the Astor Hotel bar.
Tall, smooth Marcus Beyer plays classically poised radio host Richard Howling. Once again he introduces the show and welcomes the audience back from intermission with the velvety jazz of crooner Cameron Webb, who sings jazzy pop to establish the retro mood of the show.
Written by David Law, the central Ransom is Relative serial that winds through the show is another fun heroic take on history as charismatic Josh Scheibe plays a humble Mayor Daniel Hoan. This episode has Hoan helping his aid Oscar (Stephen Wolterstorff) get his daughter back from kidnappers looking to bring a key and iconic part of Milwaukee’s lakefront into private hands. Rob Schreiner is ruggedly gritty as hardboiled detective hero Jack Walker, who Hoan enlists to get Oscar’s daughter back. Carrie Johns gives a defiant edge to the victim Dotty. Andrea Roedel-Schroeder has engagingly sophisticated power as Dotty’s friend Liv, who is caught-up in the conspiracy. There’s a vulnerability to Liv that Roedel-Schroeder cleverly delivers to the stage. Roedel-Schroeder's a talented addition to the Cabaret Milwaukee ensemble.
Back-up drama and comedy populate the edges of the action in between segments of the central story with Sarah Therese, Rebecca Sue Button and Liz Whitford Helin sing radio ad jingles as vintage ingenues. Between the tunes, they’re dealing with certain issues that continue to be tragically topical today. Laura Holterman and Michelle White continue to provide some of the most appealing provocative supporting material in the show as vintage radio homemaker Mrs. Millie and her thoroughly modern younger sister Billie. On the surface, it’s simply humor, but Holterman and White bring a hell of a lot of interpersonal characterization to the stage with Millie and Billie that strikes on a number of different themes. As with the best stuff in the show’s main serial, Holterman and White’s material cast the past in a light that resonates insightfully into the current world beyond the stage.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s Ransom is Relative continues through Jan. 22 at The Astor Hotel on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Brownpapertickets.com
Adam Bock’s A Small Fire plays out on dual tracks of drama and horror. Like any good drama and most good horror, the underlying power in the journey lies in its tribute to human survival. David Cecsarini directs a small, stellar cast of Milwaukee theatre icons in a very gripping story of a woman who is slowly becoming disconnected from the outside world.
Mary MacDonald Kerr is deeply inspiring as Emily Bridges. Emily has a very strong sense of drive and direction about her. She’s the head of a construction company who deals with a million problems at once. Kerr deftly manages the task of maintaining an appealing and approachable presence in her portrayal of a person who is also very abrasive and totally immersed in work. As Emily, Kerr is, "gruff but lovable." Not many actors can truly pull that off. It’s impressive when it works. It’s particularly impressive here as it is the case that Emily gradually loses her senses over the course of 75 intermission-less minutes. She first loses her sense of smell. Her sense of taste goes with it. Then she loses her sight. Finally she loses he hearing. It’s never really explained what’s going on. Evidently doctors just don’t know. There’s very, very deep horror in that. Kerr sits in a room completely unable to see or hear anyone else in it. She’s had her senses to rely on her whole life. Now they’re gone. It’s difficult to imagine anything more horrifying than that.
Jonathan Smoots plays her husband John. He's a nice guy who works in H.R. Smoots taps-into an endearing empathic energy as a man very much in love with his wife who is challenged to help her in whatever way he can. Smoots finds a valiant middle ground between powerlessness and restless compassion that serves the production well. Smoots’ heroism as John matched Kerr’s as Emily. John’s selflessness also speaks to a vulnerability that Smoots is able to articulate with breathtaking fluidity.
No one seems more struck by John’s devotion to Emily than their daughter Jenny. Emily Vitrano wisely takes elements of compassion from Smoots and elements of driven self-sufficiency in the role of Jenny. There’s a very natural sense of family about the three actors and it has a lot to do with the way Vitrano links them all together. Her mother’s abrasiveness seems to have kept Jenny at a distance her whole life. She’s getting married to a man her mother doesn’t like. She’s concerned that her father’s devotion to her mother is unhealthy. Vitrano treads the delicate border between bitterness and love for her mother in a very sophisticated portrayal of someone trying to move on with her life as her mother’s falls apart.
The family dynamic between Kerr, Smoots and Vitrano is given further definition by Mark Corkins in the role of Emily’s workplace assistant Billy Fontaine. Corkins summons an irresistible workin’ guy charm to the stage dynamic. What appears to be a minor supporting role early-on adds a striking depth to the story as Emily’s condition worsens.
The drama plays out on a minimal stage co-designed by Rick Rasmussen and Cecsarini. It’s a very cleverly thought-out stage design that allows just enough detail to give the impression of Emily’s world as it slowly dissolves around her. Aaron Sherkow’s lighting design and Cescarini’s sound design profoundly punctuate Emily’s sudden losses of sensation with notable impact. It’s delicately finessed. Those moments of loss are never over-rendered with production elements. Bock’s script never leans-into them with a whole lot of dialogue. This is deeply terrifying in its own way. There’s no warning when losses occur...they just happen. The cast does a brilliant job of exploring the emotional impact of those losses.
Next Act’s production of A Small Fire runs through Feb. 23 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act online.
This weekend Seat of Our Pants Readers Theatre and 53212 Presents stage a cozy evening of shorts in a warm corner of Riverwest on a second floor amidst floorboards and Cream City Brick. The six-short program features a cast of four: Posy Knight, Nate Press, Kirk Thomsen, and Tess Rutkowski. L. Mark Flagg directs the program. Flagg and company glide through six quick narratives including the premiere of Jon Kolb’s The Waitress. Seat of Out Pants and 53212 Presents make another strong case for the appeal of the theatrical shorts format that really SHOULD make it to the stage more often. The reader’s theatre format keeps the comedy and drama pleasantly informal.
The program opens with two of Karen Ellison’s Harry and Sam Dialogues. Kirk Thomsen and Nate Press play a couple of guys engaging in casual philosophy and theology. The first takes place in a bar. The second takes place at a baseball diamond. Thomsen and Press have solidly comic bromantic chemistry as a couple of guys who know enough to know exactly how to annoy each other intellectually. Press and Thomsen have a clever grasp of the subtly playful antagonism that runs throughout both dialogues.
Conrad Bishop’s Anniversary is a harrowingly disturbing, little comedy in which Nate Press and Tess Rutkowski play an alarmingly smug couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary. Everything’s perfect but for the small matter of the trash...both real and metaphorical which seems to be piling-up around the edges of everything. It’s a cleverly absurdist short which has deeply disturbing implications as the nature of human connection continues to get increasingly disconnected from an ecosystem that’s rapidly decaying due to human dysfunction. I may be reading A BIT into the implications of this piece, but not by much. And I realize that it’s only a short, but I’d LOVE to see a group like Theatre Gigante or Milwaukee Opera Theatre add additional music and/or dance material to expand this one into something more substantial than a short on a reader’s theatre program. Intentional or not, the deeper allegory of this one is very, very important.
Posy Knight has radiant, comfortingly hypnotic eyes. She wields her unique gaze with a surgeon’s precision in the Beverly Creasey short Auld Lang Syne or, I’ll Bet You Think This Play is About You. Knight plays a cripplingly sensitive person confronting an ex-boyfriend (played by Kirk Thomsen.) Flagg’s reader’s theatre staging has both actors facing the audience as they speak to each other. This produces a really weird and compelling kind of empathy. The audience is thrust into the position of both of the characters in turn in an increasingly surreal alternation between man and woman. It’s an interesting experience, but my focus on it hit a bit of a snag early on. Creasey’s script is quite intricate in its characterization, but there isn’t a huge window of time for characterization in a short. My initial impression was that of a generic obsessive ex-girlfriend stereotype and an equally generic aloof, emotionally distant male stereotype. By the time I was able to overcome this and start accepting the characters as unique individuals, the short was already over.
The final short before the half is a strikingly clever 2-man piece from a number of years ago written by Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! (Search for it on You Tube and you’ll find fuzzy footage of Sagal himself performing the piece with MST3K’s Bill Corbett.) Game Theory features Press and Thomsen as a couple of guys at a corporate leadership-building retreat. They’re playing a simple game: There’s a line between them. Each of the two can win the game if they can convince the other two step across to their side of the line. Press and Thomsen play the comedy well, but I found myself tripping over my own ideas as the script ran its course. The two characters reminded me of like...every sleazy competitive corporate asshole I’ve ever met. Sagal’s script could have been interpreted in a way in which every single line was an attempt to gain leverage over the other whether it was in idle small talk or overt, manipulative coerciveness. The YouTube video mentioned above shows that even Sagal didn’t really have this interpretation of his own script, though...so...clearly this was all in my head. Still would have been fun to see it performed in more of slimy, competitive way.
Press DOES get in touch with his inner douchebag as the boss in the final short of the program: Jon Kolb’s The Waitress. A very captivatingly nuanced Tess Rutkowski plays a scrappy waitress from the other side of the river working at a coffee shop managed by a guy from this side of the river played by Kirk Thomsen. The manager has caught the waitress stealing from the till. Thomsen plays to the thoughtful vulnerability of the manager as Rutkowski renders depth and complexity to a waitress who is cunningly trying to advance her position. The aforementioned Press is suitably slimy as the owner of the business...a man who has vulnerabilities all his own. It’s a complex drama that closes the program on a smartly provocative note.
Seat of Our Pants/53212 Presents’ Winter Shorts runs through Feb. 1 on 731 E. Center St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Brown Paper Tickets.com.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Skylight Music Theatre open the year with a cozy Gilbert & Sullivan show on the small stage at the Broadway Theatre Center. Ruddigore (or The Witch’s Curse) is a quaint, little story of romantic love in collision. The curse the title refers to requires the ruler of a small barony to commit one crime a day or suffer an agonizing death. The rightfully born Baronet has feigned his own death to escape the curse, leveling it on his brother. He has fallen in love. Will there be complications? Absolutely. Will it all get resolved? Without question. Will that resolution involve something weird in the fashion of a Deus Ex Curse Loophole? Well...maybe. (kindasorta)
With no room for an orchestra, the music is delivered by a small choral harmony. The production design is beautiful on the small stage. Scenic elements are projected behind the action with vivid flair by lighting and projection designer Nathan W. Scheuer. It’s a silent movie kind of a feel that even has the opening curtain speech delivered in old-timey title cards. The silent movie feel extends to Molly Mason’s humble, largely black and white costume design and Shen Heckel’s scenic elements which are gracefully whisked across the stage to serve as foreground for Scheuer’s backgrounds. The stylish depth managed between Heckel and Scheuer is kind of dazzling for a studio theatre show.
Doug Clemons charms as Robin Oakapple: a reluctant man bravely cowering in fear of his family curse. He is every bit as bold with his cowardice in love, smitten as he is with romantic feelings for Rose Maybud. Susie Robinson is breathtakingly endearing as Rose, who steadfastly lives her life by a code of etiquette found in a dainty, little book. The bashful, young lover asks his foster-brother Richard to aid him in expressing his feelings for Rose. Things naturally get a little complicated when Richard falls for Rose as well. Adam Qutaishat is the heart of comic instinct in the role of the utterly guileless Richard. An an accordion-laden Karen Estrada brings her own distinctly cunning comic presence to the stage as Robin’s faithful servant Adam.
From music to staging to character and characterization, Ruddigore is positively plush with overwhelming cuteness. The love story is cute. The love rivalry is cute. The subterfuge that threatens to tear that love apart is cute. The lack of a large orchestra is cute. The choral arrangement is cute. The tiny piano played by the onstage conductor is cute. The silent movie-style title cards projected behind the action are cute. A production does NOT get away with this much cuteness without being tediously cloying unless it manages every single element of cuteness and/or adorability with the kind of precision it takes to split an atom at CERN. It’s no surprise that Skylight/Milwaukee Opera Theatre manage precisely this. A production like this is in good hands with directors Jill Anna Ponasik and Catie O’Donnell. The show is populated with a small civilization of simple, little comic elements which playfully bounce across the stage as the music whimsically renders the comic complexity of love and conflicting romances. Without exception every one of these elements seem to be delivered with the kind of precision it would take to shake hands with a neutrino. The fact that it all happens on such an adorably tiny stage makes the production all the more irresistible.
The Skylight and Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s production of Ruddigore (or The Witch’s Curse) runs through Jan. 19 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre on 158 North Broadway. For ticket reservations, visit The Skylight online.
It’s kind of shocking how incredibly complex things can get between two people. Put those two people onstage and have a couple of actors playing them and you’ve got a really compelling drama. Bring those two actors and their two characters into really, really close proximity to an intimate, little audience and you have a captivating night of theatre. Outskirts Theatre Company opens 2020 with all of the above in its production of Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat. Directed by Kelly Goeller, the talented pairing of actors Carrie Gray and Seth K. Hale play a couple ofNew Yorkers dealing with life in the wake of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.
Seth K. Hale plays Ben. Ben is a fugitive from his own life. He was supposed to be at work in the World Trade Center. Instead he was engaging in extramarital intimacy with his boss. Now it’s the next day and he’s missing with a whole bunch of other people. He’s at her apartment. Hasn’t called his wife and kids. Hale gives the crassness of an anti-intellectual a sympathetic depth. His delivery lacks some of the crude bluntness that seems to be written into the dialogue, but a little bit of THAT goes a long way and it would be way too easy to overemphasize that character’s general lack of sophistication.
Carrie Gray plays Ben’s boss Abby. She’s a few years older than him. She’s much more sophisticated. LaBute seems to have given her a great deal more complexity. Abby wants Ben to be open about their relationship with his wife and kids. It would be the honest thing to do, but she doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. She IS having an affair with a guy who works for her and she knows that it’s wrong. LaBute renders Abby in a dizzying level of intellectual and emotional complexity. Gray does a brilliant job of bringing Abby’s complexity to the stage. Given the sophistication of the character and the fact that she’s given just over half of a full 90 minutes onstage, this may be one of the most accomplished dramatic performances I’ve seen onstage in the past few years. This would be a dream role for 40s-ish actress...partially because there aren’t many roles like this for women but partially because it’s an opportunity to unflinchingly play a contemporary character of great depth. Gray is breathtakingly organic as an intellectual who is given pause to consider who she is and who she might be in the fact of national tragedy. Gray lends the character a clever restlessness as she gets lost in simple pleasures and idle humor as she contemplates what just happened in lower Manhattan.
The drama plays out in 90 minutes of realtime. This is the type of theatre I love: two people delving into a really, really deep conversation in a small room on a small stage for 90 minutes and no intermission. It’s a very big conversation for the two of them that drifts in and out of small talk and idle bickering, occasionally delving into some very serious emotional and philosophical ground. LaBute, Goeller, Hale and Gray conjure a portrait of two people searching for identity in the face of tragedy on the precipice of a new millennium.
Outskirts Theatre Company’s production of The Mercy Seat runs through January 12 at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit the event’s Facebook Page.
The last theatre company to debut this year opens a one-weekend production the final days of the decade. Nonsense Theatre Company presents a modest, richly intense staging of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty. Gabriella Ashlin directs a small ensemble in the intimate space of The Retreat on north MLK Dr. Though some of the physicality of the production lacks convincing physical aggression, the complexity of the drama between two couples is vividly conjured to the stage in a promising opening for the new company.
The play opens in a heated argument between Tyler Fridley and Emily Elliott in the roles of Greg and Steph. Steph’s friend Carly told her that Greg said something rude about her. He doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about. Fridley comes across as a jerk as the play opens, but that honestly might have been more a product of my bias than anything. (I have a wife and two daughters. I generally don’t like guys.) LaBute had written the dialogue to be a sophisticated balance of an argument between two people who are about as rational as...most people are. The beauty of LaBute’s script is that it flows cleverly without losing sight of an earthbound dialogue that feels quite natural. This sort of thing can be maddeningly difficult to bring to the stage in a way that FEELS natural. To their credit, Fridley and Elliott not only make the dialogue feel natural, they also manage to make a small commercial space near the offices of the DNR on North MLK feel kind of like somebody’s apartment.
With the addition of a couple of tables and a few minor elements, the stage shifts to represent a factory break room. It is there that the other two characters are introduced. Colin Kovarik plays Greg’s co-worker Kent. (He also worked as sound designer for the show. Subtle atmospheric sound in the background goes a long way toward establishing different locations in a play with almost no substantial scenic elements.) Kent IS an asshole. He makes no attempt to hide this with Greg. Kovarik does as pretty good job of making Kent’s petty villainy seem totally shameless. LaBute does attempt to etch some complexity into Kent, but the guy really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. The physicality of the aggression that breaks out between Kent and Greg isn’t terribly compelling, but it’s really, REALLY difficult to make an open brawl work on a stage as small as the one at The Retreat. Kovarik’s aggression with Fridley may not work all that well, but the seediness of his physicality with Carly is undeniable.
Carly is a security officer at the plant that Greg and Kent work at. She’s also Kent’s wife. Emmaline Friederichs has a sharp and apparent perspicacity about her in the role of Carly. The uniform she’s wearing as security at the factory isn’t very assertive. Friederichs makes-up for this with a poise and presence that asserts itself without being constantly pushy or aggressive. Friederichs lends a sharp sense of authority about her onstage. Friederichs’ adroit awareness as Carly makes her inability to see Kent’s duplicity a bit difficult understand. There’s a scene between Kent and Carly that goes a long way toward explaining this, but LaBute makes it a real challenge by making Kent so very, very irredeemable. Friederichs’ confrontation in the break room with Kovarik is one of the more complex scenes in the entire drama. Friederichs and Kovarik handle that complexity beautifully in a scene which firmly establishes Greg as a nice guy who happens to be very flawed. All personal biases aside, Fridley does a brilliant job of making Greg an appealing and even slightly witty guy. It’s a very complicated 90 minutes or so onstage that makes fo a very enjoyable opening for Nonsense.
Nonsense Theatre Company’s staging of Reasons to Be Pretty runs through December 30th at The Retreat on 2215 N. Martin Luther King Dr. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook page.
Off the Wall Theatre explores the dangers of doing deliberately bad theatre for comic effect in The Great Scrooge Disaster. Written by Off the Wall’s Dale Gutzman, the brief musical comedy misses a few opportunities for clever comedy in favor of inoffensively light humor that misses more often than it hits. Gutzman’s script has cast of Off the Wall regulars playing themselves and characters in a production of A Christmas Carol that has been beset with technical problems and an outbreak of illness. Gutzman goes for the easy humor in a show that might have been a darkly comic exploration of something far deeper.
Gutzman plays himself as a last-minute replacement for the actor playing Scrooge. Gutzman develops a comically confused and bewildered version of himself drifting in and out of dialogue from other plays as he fumbles his way through the early stages of A Christmas Carol. The cast of regulars shifts between frustration with and concerned for Gutzman, who really DOES seem to be crumbling beneath the stress of everything. Gutzman’s acting here is really quite good. (It’s like he wrote the role for himself or something.) Gutzman flounders. A cast is on edge. Regulars like Kristin Pagenkopf and Lawrence J Lukasavage manage a balance between themselves and the actors they’re pretending to be onstage. In subtle moments of silence between lines, the energy seems to be reaching towards a deep, dark comedy on the nature of reality onstage reflecting into itself.
A production of a play about a comically bad play performed by actors playing actors could have been a darkly humorous examination of the very idea of quality. There’s potentially deep humor in watching actors play themselves in a potentially bad play about a bad play satirizing the continued success of the Milwaukee Rep’s annual production. Something like The Great Scrooge Disaster could have worked on multiple levels. A comedy that’s written to be bad might have been brilliant given the right direction. Instead, Gutzman’s humor is cheesy, breezy, superficial comedy that ranges from mild injuries onstage to technical miscues to a door that never seems to open.
The show has a few fun moments that could have been accentuated a bit more. There are some sharp elements of comedy punctuating the show: James Strange has clever comic instincts as an actor reluctant to enter the collapsing production. Caitlin Kujawski Compton has a firm graps of the comedy of Christmas Present who is determined to go through with her scene even if it means occasionally breaking with character in comically poised frustration. Towards the end when both Gutzman AND the actor the had come-in to replace him as Scrooge are both determined to make it through to the end of the show. Gutzman is seen in a long scarf that’s being crocheted as he wears it for no clear reason. Somewhat witty bits like this don’t add-up to a fun show, but they DO suggest a better show could have come out of the overall energy onstage.
The one clearly bright point in the whole production is Gutzman’s choice of music. He’s found some really charming alternatives to the traditional Christmas musical fare that firmly avoids the kind of schmaltzy sentiment so often littering Christmas shows. It may not be perfect, but The Great Scrooge Disaster is definitely an odd, little alternative to bigger live theatre shows this holiday season. Even though I didn’t personally like it that much, I’m really happy this one is almost completely sold out. Even the least appealing live theatre is worth seeing over the big, ugly live performances and big screen offerings this holiday season. It’s nice to know that Gutzman’s energy can sell out so many performances of a show like this before it even opens.
Off the Wall Theatre presents The Great Scrooge Disaster through Dec. 31 at 127 E. Wells St. For more information, visit Off the Wall online.