ARCo Ensemble returns to the warmth of the small stage at St. Kate Arts Hotel this month with a pair of shows which continue to deliver dynamic, deeply intellectually engaging stuff to the stuff to intimate, little audiences.
The open show of the evening is Dario Fo’s Marxist political farce They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! The story features a couple of couples mirroring classical I Love Lucy-style sitcom characters as they are caught-up in a defiant theft protest against rising grocery prices. The farce has a heady edge to it that almost seems like a culinary tale about events which are likely to become increasingly real off the stage if the current power structure continues to hoard money at the top of the socioeconomic ladder.
Emily Elliott is boldly fierce as Antonia—-one of the women caught-up in rising tensions at a grocery store. As the play owns she has brought home hefty loads of groceries that she couldn’t possibly hope to afford. Uncertain of how to explain the windfall of groceries to her staunchly law-abiding husband, Antonia confides in her closest friend Margherita (Rachel Meldman.) Meldman has cleverly subtle comic instincts in the role, often delivering clever punchlines as afterthoughts in a voice just barely above a whisper. Things get suitably Lucy-esque with between Elliott and Meldman with the added appeal of generous amounts of political satire.
One of the great things about ARCo is that it IS an ensemble. Actors that work together extensively on multiple projects develop a familiarity that is well-suited to characters who have known each other for years. Elliott and Meldman have a delicious comic chemistry that amplifies the stylish strangeness of the lies they’re telling Antonia’s husband and others who get mixed-up in the cover-up.
Seth K. Hale provides added anarchic depth in the role of Antonia’s husband Giovanni. Hale is allowed to be the one character in the play who openly acknowledges that he’s onstage in a play throughout the performance. Constantly breaking the fourth wall as he does, Giovanni runs the risk of oncoming across with a bit of an annoying repetition, but Hale has a very organic approach to the comedy that fluidly fuses with the rest of the weirdly wild energy of the performance. Hale’s charismatic charm serves as a bridge from the weird mutated sitcom of the script to larger allegory that rests at the heart of the story.
The rapport between Elliott and Meldman is mirrored in the rapport between the husbands as played by Hale and Tim Gutknecht work together with cunning comedy as Giovanni and Luigi. Gutknecht has developed a very complex and textured personality as a politically progressive guy who occasionally (somewhat reluctantly) follows Giovanni’s lead in breaking the fourth wall. J.J. Gatesman rounds out the cast as a series of characters who all look a LOT like “Actor J.J. Gatesman” as Giovanni is quick to point out every time. It’s a really clever approach to a very fun political satirical sitcom success for ARCo and Director Dr. Nancy Kresin.
ARCo’s staging of They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! runs through October 26 at The Arc Theatre at St. Kate Arts Hotel on 139 E Kilbourn Ave. For ticket reservations, visit the show's page on Eventrbrite.
Horror is an extremely popular genre. The genre has universal appeal in TV and movies and novels and video games, Since the passing of the Alchemist Theatre, the horror's absence is deeply felt on the Milwaukee theatre stage. ARConaut J.J. Gatesman fills the local horror void in the weeks leading-into this Halloween season with the late night shorts program Cyclops: The Monsterpiece. The multi-faceted nature of Monsterhood is explored from a variety of different live performance angles including dance, abstract drama, light comedy and more in a concise, little program that starts around 10:30 pm and ends before midnight.
Given the often hit-or-miss nature of a short program is kind of surprising how little fails to connect in Cyclops. The playground scenes which begin and end the program feel a bit weak as adults play kids playing with monsters. (It's really, really difficult to nail adults-as-kids for ANY group of actors.) The rest of the program works exceedingly well. There's some great stuff in here. The PTSD Dance in Act I features some very graceful unspoken drama between Gatesman and Susie Duecker. There’s a delightfully cyclical nightmare of a short near the end of the second act that has Seth K. Hale caught in loop in a short called Sleep Demon.
The great challenge of horror is to play with an audience’s expectations. A horror show is naturally going to have an audience emotionally on-guard. Lull an audience into a sense of safety and an ensemble can lower the trap when the horror reveals itself. Gatesman and company do this in some particularly clever ways. The lightly comic Monster Menagerie sketch comedy-style bit hosted by Tim Gutknecht and Rachel Meldman ends up cycling into some pretty dark territory before it shuffles off into the short that ends Act I with the most vicious monster of all: the human child.
Some of the work is impressively experimental. Of particular note: a spoken word piece called Soundscape in which a voice from the darkened stage spoke words designed to crawl inside the heads of the audience. (I believe it was Emmaline Friederichs' voice but I don't know...it was kind of dark in there at the time and we were all directed to look closely at our hands.) Techniques used in the monologue (perhaps inadvertently) echoed shadowy aspects of hypnotic induction and ASMR. Enter into a piece like Soundscape in the right frame of mind. Be willing to take it where the voice leads and the effect becomes deliciously creepy. The best shorts on the program challenge those entering the theatre with a willingness to be truly vulnerable to it.
There's no gore here. This isn't cheap haunted house stuff that stops at the cruder aspects of the central nervous system. There’s a depth to Cyclops even when it’s being light and silly on the surface. At the top of Act III, Hale leads a couple of cast members in a cheerfully whimsical little folk tune called “Godzilla Is a Killer,” which outlines a basic classic Godzilla plot with a particularly dark update on the traditional anti-nuclear weapon allegory of the original film. It's a very disturbing thought that prances out of the lyrics and yet the dominant tone is a cheery one embracing the giant lizard as hero. Like the best bits on the program, it's weirdly disturbing in kind of an unexpected way that crawls into the background of imagination and clings creepily in the subconscious. That tune lingers in my mind along as I write this with a vague suspicion of my own right hand and what might be behind me as invoked by Soundscape. This is a truly enjoyable program of brief late night horror on a small stage with considerable depth that clings through the night long after the final applause.
Cyclops: A Monsterpiece runs through October 26 at The Arc Theatre at St. Kate Arts Hotel on 139 E Kilbourn Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit the show's page on Eventbrite.