Given how many full productions of established material make it to the stage in a given year, the opportunity to see an intimate staged reading of something new. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity in my schedule this past weekend to see local playwright
Given how many full productions of established material make it to the stage in a given year, the opportunity to see an intimate staged reading of something new. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity in my schedule this past weekend to see local playwright Matthew Konkel’s In Celebration of the Oblique onstage in the basement of the Brumder. The one night only reading was directed by Grace DeWolff for a group of local theatre people. Billed as a love story between a cannibal and a vegan, the weird existential romantic comedy feels right at home in one of the smallest stages in Milwaukee.
Vegetarian actress Abigail Stein played a woman suffering from an inability to digest anything that didn’t come from a a human body. With the aid of a very delicately-written script, Stein brought a degree of humanity to a woman trying to navigate the difficult morality of her own diet. Stein has a compelling sense of humanity about her that makes the role feel strikingly compassionate.
Kyle Conner has developed considerably as an actor over the recent past. Here he’s playing a man who is passionately vegan. Conner plays the socially crippling passion of a vegetarian activist with clever nuance. Conner’s sense of humor allows comedy to glide out onto the stage in a range that includes everything from a subtle whisper to far more aggressive volumes. There was a particularly clever bit of subtle comedy as he shared the stage for a moment alone with Chris Goode.
Chris Goode played a man lost in the torpor of his own apathy. A janitor at a medical college, he’s a friend of the young cannibal woman who provides her with the only food that she can eat. Goode added a level of curiosity to the apathy that makes the character truly interesting. When paired onstage in relative silence, the two conjured laughter with their presence alone. A lot of the success of that one moment of silence had to do with how well-defined all of the characters in Konkel’s script.
Casey Van Dam had an opportunity to play the single most interesting character in the entire script--a secular humanist street preacher who addresses the audience directly on a number of different occasions. Van Dam has a very engaging charm that amplified the character’s theatrically German accent. Van Dam played the role somewhere in between Hitler, Einstein (and...I don’t know...Dr. Ruth?) as a very aggressively curious mystery inhabiting the edges of the script until he rises to prominence midway through the play.
Zach Sharrock rounded out the cast as a classic Sam Spade-style gumshoe detective trying to solve the murder of the preacher. His role seems minor until things get REALLY weird at the end of the play.
It’s a very clever script with a variety of characters along the edges of humanity. The strange chemistry of these characters works quite well...but the real fun of seeing a script like this in its infancy lies in all the imperfection. There’s a very deep philosophical energy at the heart of the script which devolves all too often into Philosophy 101-style conversations. They sound perfectly natural in the context of the play, but directly talking about themes covered in the script feels incredibly tedious on all those occasions it pops up. Except for Van Dam’s street preacher. (Everything sounds A LOT more important when spoken with an engaged German accent.)
On the whole, it’s a really great script. There are contemporary playwrights who have been acclaimed who haven’t written anywhere near this good....even WITH the Philosophy 101 moments. Milwaukee needs to celebrate its local playwrights. Stuff like Oblique needs to get staged much more often if Milwaukee is to have an active voice in the national theater. There’s real talent here. This staged reading was further proof of this.
When it’s not hosting special, little events like the reading of In Celebration of the Oblique, the Brumder Mansion’s intimate stage is host to the Milwaukee Entertainment Group. For more information.