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.
This month, Voices Found Repertory presents an engaging staging of Shakespeare’s history Henry V. Under the direction of Alec Lachman, the faced-paced intermission-less production breezes briskly through in the form of an intimate, little pop action drama. The deeper dramatic elements shoot by with a rather large ensemble in a very, very cozy space beneath Wisconsin Avenue. What it lacks in Shakespeare’s evenly-weighted exploration of the nature of war it more than makes up for in sweeping action and resonant emotional energy.
Heroes and Villains
Like so many of Shakespeare’s scripts, Henry V has a complex constellation of elements that can be accentuated in various ways to make for pretty drastically different stagings. The production at Door Shakespeare this past summer went for an even-handed approach which featured French and British sides of the war in relatively equal light. Voices Found takes the villainy of the French found in the script and amplifies it in a slickly cool pulpy sort of a style. The villains all smoke and glide across the stage. The heroes are scrappy fighters. Even the Jake Thompson’s King Henry looks tousled and ruggedly disheveled. Thomsen’s charm (which is usually pretty impressive) reaches a kind of unassumingly overwhelming halo of coolness as a man who fate has chosen to fight the French. With the heavier end of the drama compromised by the pacing, the weightiness of Thomsen’s delivery of the classic St. Crispin’s Day Speech feels a bit casual. (To me that speech is a bit like the Hamlet’s soliloquy: really, really beautiful but absolutely impossible for any actor to do justice to. It’s so impossibly delicate that it would shatter across even the most graceful tongue.)
The French Thing
There’s a very stylishly stark contrast between the French and the British. Nowhere is this more evident than the mercurial switch made by Caroline Norton, who plays the scruffy, old Brit named Pistol and the gracious noble Queen Isabel of France.
French villains smoke, but there are heroes here too. While Alexis Furseth glides around in style with classy, sardonic shade as Montjoy and others slide around in sinister pomposity, Caroline Fossum and Thomas Sebald make an impressively noble appearance as princess Catharine and um...her lady in Waiting Alice. Alice is a guy here...Sebald is a very tall and imposing figure who carries around an intimidatingly massive semi-improvised melee weapon. So Alice here is a bodyguard who happens to speak both English and French . Traditionally the scene between Catharine and her Lady In Waiting has a completely different weight and context about it as Alice gives the princess a lesson in English that is performed almost entirely in French. Fossum and Sebald make the tender comedy of the scene glide with a sharply nuanced dynamic.
The romance that blossoms between Catharine and Henry at the end of the play is very, very difficult. The two have almost no time onstage to develop a chemistry. Thanks to a brilliantly-executed Catharine/Alice moment earlier on in the play, the Fossum is given more than enough of a chance to make a beautiful impact as a princess before launching into a romantic moment with Henry, who has a charm that is deftly wielded by Thompson. Oddly enough for an action drama, Thompson and Fossum’s romance here is one of the most compelling I can remember seeing on the small stage all year.
That’s Us: The Action
Whether onstage or onscreen, action is something that an audience has to work on. We know no one is actually in danger. We complete what the fight choreographers have developed. Fight Choreographer Connor Blankenship has done a remarkable job of developing many, many layers of action on a stage that is essentially the corner of a room in a basement. He’s making something the size of a large closet feel like it has the depth of an entire stretch of battlefield. The ensemble does a very sharp job of bringing it to the small stage. It’s such a small space that if one pair of combatants were to bump into another pair could easily create a cascade effect that would feel a bit like a cue ball breaking up a billiard balls on green felt. The fight scenes in this production have a depth to them that’s a lot of fun to watch. Blankenship himself actually looks really cool onstage. He’s got a powerful voice in the role of Exeter that feels reminiscent of screen actor Clancy Brown. With grey hair, beard and right eyepatch accompanying various other elements of his costuming, Blankenship’s Duke of Exeter seems to have (inadvertently or not) drawn inspiration from Wolfman and Perez’s pop fictional mercenary Slade Wilson. Intentional or not, the badass antiheroic look of Exeter lends texture to the production that is echoed in a ragtag visual aesthetic. Melee with archaic weapons includes rags, scarves and welding goggles. The action here is very stylish.
Sometimes It’s the Subtle Things
The small stage can draw a tremendous amount of impact from subtle juxtapositions. Rebekah Farr has great instincts in the role of the French aggressor Louis, Duke of Guyenne, the dauphin. The character is a comically petty braggart. There’s a moment when Farr takes a moment to play her deliberately distasteful on a very visceral level. She’s found smoking a cigarette and eating a bag of Cheetos® at the same time. It’s the cheapest special effect imaginable, but even though the cigarette isn’t lit and even though we’re not actually tasting the Cheetos, there’s a very distinct visceral appeal to sent, taste and tactile sensations that adds a great deal of distastefulness to Farr’s dauphin. I love little elements like that in a production.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of Henry V runs through Dec. 16th at The Underground Collaborative. For ticket reservations and more, visit Voices Found Online.
Back in the early 1990s, Neil Simon debuted a play about his days working in TV back in the 1950s. Laughter on the 23rd Floor was a clever tribute to comedy writing that was a precursor for Tina Fey’s beloved, long-running TV sitcom 30 Rock. Simon is best-known for helping to define contemporary comedy with Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Last of the Red Hot Lovers. There’s a clean sense of construction about Simon’s earlier work. The comedy comes from the heart of honest characters with a little bit of craziness thrown-in for comedic effect.
In Laughter, Simon populates an entire comedic ensemble with characters who all have more than a bit of madness within them. As a result, it’s a lot more fun than most of Simon’s comedy. Directed by Edward Morgan, the Next Act production brings together an appealing mixing of talents from various ends of the Milwaukee theatre community to conjure a sense of the whimsically unpredictable that taps a wild comedic energy.
A clean-shaven Zach Thomas Woods plays a young writer named Lucas who has just been hired to work on a very popular variety show on NBC. Woods is a charming emotional center to the play in the role of a young writer Simon based on himself in the era in which he was working on Your Show of Shows. Every character in the writer’s room is based on actual legends of comedy who worked for the show like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar.
Next Act’s David Cecsarini has a charming instability about him in the role of the show’s host Max Prince (based on Caesar.) The role would be a challenge to anyone. The rest of the writers are paid to be funny to make a living. There’s a practicality to their madness. Prince is a paranoid iconoclast who has been driven into a very strange place psychologically as a result of his massive success. Cecsarini finds a way to make a totally shrewd, psychologically scattered psyche seem perfectly natural and totally rational in and within its own frame of reference. Cecsarini is embracing the character’s madness with a very sophisticated understanding of the inner dynamics of the character’s insanity. It’s a deeply engrossing performance.
The rest of the cast features a scattering of some great local comedy talent. Karen Estrada is a very adult presence in the room as Carol--one of the few women who were able to make it in TV writing at the time. Simon’s attempt to deliver some of the challenges of a woman in a man’s world feel a bit weak, but Estrada is able to sell the character’s formidability so well that the character works even through the more cringe-inducing moments of a very successful male writer trying to write from the perspective of a woman who would have had. to be a LOT more clever than he was to be in the same room as him back in the 1950s.
The rest of the ensemble handles itself quite well. Local comedy veteran Dylan Bolin has sharp timing and delivery as a writer who is totally confident that he will be able to get a career rolling in Hollywood. Seth K. Hale carries a crisp wit about him as s clever guy based in part on Carl Reiner. Rick Pendzich is a smart slouch as Milt--a funny guy who would be totally unequipped to handle any serious job for very long. Mohammad N. Elbsat lends an intensity to the comedy as a Russian immigrant who has mastered the nimble perspicacity needed to land the miracle of a TV writing job in America.
Next Act’s production of Laughter on the 23rd Floor runs through Dec. 15 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For more information, visit Next Act online.
Milwaukee comedy institution Broadminded opened its 23rd original sketch comedy show to a packed theatre Friday night. The theme this time around is Cheers. The all-woman sketch comedy group has been around for many years. The familiarity between the “Broads” continues to foster a fun and crazy feel of intimate informality that makes for an exceedingly enjoyable evening’s comedy. The current offering is a nice mix of different comedy moods. Not all of it works, but since this is a Broadminded show, it’s fun even when it’s not terribly funny.
One of the more notable sketches this time around has McGee and and Babl as anchors on “Wed Center.” They’re there to do play-by-play commentary for toasts at a wedding reception. Kingston played an unflappable pro at delivering wedding toasts while LaDisa played a nervous first-timer. (Opening night the warmth of the near sell-out audience generated a cheer for LaDisa after the end of the sketch when the simple act of picking-up fallen index cards from the sketch turned out to be more difficult than it might have been in rehearsal.) The toast motif is echoed in a series of improv bits where the group deliver toasts to...whatever it is that the audience has offered-up for suggestions on slips of paper into a cup before the show. The “Cheers” motif also echoes into a couple of appearances of the Broads as cheerleaders. There’s a bit of clever style in a short that has Babl being followed around by a pair of rental cheerleaders providing high-energy support for everyday activities. Funny stuff.
The generational aspect of the groups’ work feels particularly prominent this time around. Stacy Babl, Anne Graff LaDisa, Melissa Kingston, and Megan McGee are all Gen Xers. Sketches make fun pop cultural reference to the generation throughout the show. The group does a particularly clever mash-up that has the Care Bears act as Queer Eye-style life coaches. Three of the Broads play pseudo-neo-Jungian Care Bear archetypes trying to get a white collar woman in need into find some direction in her life. There’s profound unexpected depth in that sketch that is echoed through some of the other bits. Megan McGee plays a college student wary of the apocalypse on New Year’s Eve of 2000 as roommates. Her concerns for basic survival are contrasted against the much more superficial concerns of Kingston and Stacy Babl as a couple of roommates, which makes for some fun double-tiered comedy that makes reference to millennial style and fashion which is already feeling A LOT older than it should be. (Hard to believe New Year’s Eve 1999/2000 will be 20 years old at the end of next month.)
Some of the weaker moments draw a bit closer to direct homage to the pop culture of the ‘80s from the perspective of children of the ‘80s. It’s comfort comedy for Xers...a mercifully brief bit has Kingston and McGee play aging singers that feels like a fusion between The Golden Girls and SNL’s Sweeney Sisters. There’s an oddly enjoyable bit that plays on the enduring appeal of a show that ran the length of the ‘80s as all of the Broads fall neatly into a characters from the hit sitcom Cheers. Naturally Kingston takes to George Wendt’s Norm while McGee plays to the role of the John Ratzenberger's trivia-spouting Cliff. Anne Graff LaDisa is fun as a hayseed character drawn in the mold of Woody Harrelson’s character...uh...Woody. (Really? His character was named Woody? I forgot about that.) Like the weaker scripting on that show, the sketch is deeply endearing without actually having much of any depth to it.
Some of the more original bits feel particularly clever in Cheers. McGee plays Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a spoof of Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect singing the Carter Family’s “When I’m Gone,” (the cup song,) complete with the rest of the group performing the cups in accompaniment. It’s a sharply-executed bit of comedy.
The show closes with the triumphant return of LaDisa’s Sally Ann character. The precocious, sci-fi-loving high schooler is drawn against Babl as a cheerleader. It’s a fun closing sketch to a fun show.
Broadminded’s Cheers continues through Nov. 23 at the Underground Collaborative at 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit Broadminded online.