by Jeff Grygny

It was in the first post-pandemic print issue of the Shepherd Express—an issue that was limited and soon gone—that local director Dale Gutzman announced the closing of Off the Wall Theater, the little storefront theater that could, playing precariously on Wells Street (across from that other theater) for fifteen, maybe twenty years. This is a small but significant tremor in the tectonic plates of Milwaukee theater, and, as Arthur Miller wrote in a different context, “attention should be paid.”

While wandering in a city, the title character of Herman Hesse’s counterculture classic Steppenwolf, stumbles on an obscure door marked:

Magic Theater
Not For Everybody

Off the Wall theater was Milwaukee’s magic theater for almost two decades. Under Gutzman’s idiosyncratic direction, a slowly-rotating cast of regulars created entire universes of worlds: Renaissance Italy, Greek myth, Nazi Germany; contemporary Broadway to weird dimensions outside history—in a space the size of a neighborhood tavern. Gutzman’s directorial style was not to everyone’s tastes; he could be autocratic and manipulative in the service of his vision—but man, could he put on a show. His productions at their best united music, stage pictures, and text to create stylistic unities of great integrity. There a few directors with equal mastery of the language and potential of theater.

Mother Courage, 2011
Cabaret, 2014

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2017

Zombies On Broadway, 2019

An actor friend of mine once criticized, in rather rude terms, my high praise for Gutzman’s productions, to which I could only respond that I found them more interesting than most other plays. Having known Gutzman since he was a high school drama teacher creating such improbable shows as a version of Dracula set in Dostoevsky’s medieval Russia, or original musicals based on Flash Gordon and L’Enfants du Paradis, he has always seemed like one of those tortured geniuses long fashionable in artistic circles, from Byron to Grotowski, but who, for better or worse, have been largely superseded by professionalism and modern social mores. He is of a time when art and danger were more closely associated than they are now.

Was it toxic? Maybe. But it was also gloriously bombastic, bigger than life, and wickedly theatrical in ways that seem to have vanished along with the toxicity (though recently he had pivoted to a more understated acting style). Maybe there is something of Plato’s pharmakon in the old-school theatricality that Gutzman embodied: both poison and medicine. However that may be, it’s hard to imagine anything like Off The Wall Theatre happening again.

In lieu of a detailed retrospective, I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate than the best poem on theater I’ve ever read: Delmore Schwartz’s tribute to Shakespeare. It’s a good song to go out on.
The theater is dead: long live theater!

Gold Morning, Sweet Prince
by Delmore Schwartz

What the sad and passionate gay player of Avon avowed
With vivid exactness, eloquent variety, is immense
As the sea is. The sea which neither the humble nor the proud
Can dam, control, or master. No matter what our sense
Of existence or whence we come or where we hope and seek
He knew us all before we were, he knew the strong, the weak,
The silly, the reticent, the pious, the powerful, the experience
Of fortune, sudden fame, extremes reversed, inevitable loss
Whether on land or sea. He knew mortality’s immortality
And essential uncertainty, as he knew the land and sea.
He knew the reality of nobility.
He saw the cowering, towering power of treachery.
He hated the flakes and butterflies of lechery,
And he believed, at times, in truth, hope, loyalty, and charity.  
See: he saw what was and what is and what has yet to come to be:
A gentle monarch murdered in helpless sleep.
A girl by Regent Hypocrisy seduced.
A child by Archduke Ambition stabbed and killed.
A loving loyal wife by a husband loyal and brave,
Falsely suspected, by a handkerchief accused,
Stabbed by his love, his innocence, his trust
In the glib cleverness of a self-hating knave.

Look: Ophelia lolls and babbles in the river named Forever,
Never Never Never Never Never.
Cordelia is out of breath and Lear
Has learned at last that flattery is clever
That words are free, sentiment inexpensive, vows
And declarations worthless and priceless: at last he knows
How true love is sometimes speechless, always sincere.
He knows – and knows too late – that love was very near and dear.

Are all hearts and all girls betrayed?
Is love never beyond lust, disgust, and distrust?
See: it is clear: Duncan is in his grave,
While Desdemona weeps beneath the willow tree,
Having been granted little time to weep, pray, or rave:
Is this the truth, the truth which is one, eternal and whole?
Surely the noble, the innocent, the gifted, and the brave
Sometimes – surely, at times – prevail. Yet if one living soul
Is caught by cruelty and killed by trust
Whence is our consolation above or before the grave?

Ripeness is all: the rest is silence. Love
Is all; we are such stuff as love has made us
And our little life, green, ripe, or rotten, is what it is
Because of love accepted, rejected, refused and jilted, faded, raided,
  neglected, or betrayed.
Some are defeated, some are mistreated, some are fulfilled, some
  come to flower and succeed
In knowing the patience of energy from the dark root to the
   rounding fruit.
And if this were not true, if love were not kind and cruel,
Generous and unjust, heartless and irresistible, painful to the
  savant and gentle to the fool,
Fecund and various, wasteful and precarious, lavish, savage, greedy
  and tender, begetting the lion and the lamb,
The peacock, the spaniel, the tiger, the lizard, the chicken hawk
  and the dove,
All would be nothing much, all would be trivial, nothing would be
  enough, love would not be love.
For, as there is no game and no victory when no one loses
So, there is no choice but the choice of love, unless one chooses
Never to love, seeking immunity, discovering nothingness.

This is the only sanctuary, this is the one asylum unless
We hide in a dark ark, and deny, refuse to believe in hope’s
Deny hope’s reality, until hope descends, in the unknown, hidden
  and ultimate love,
Crying forever with all the others who are damned and hopeless
  that love is not love.

Gold morning, sweet prince, black night has always descended and
  has always ended,
Gold morning, prince of Avon, sovereign and king
Of reality, hope, and speech, may all the angels sing
With all the sweetness and all the truth with which you sang of
  anything and everything.

The Madwoman of Chaillot, 2018

A new way of breathing

photo by helio-hawk

I’m breathing . . . Are you breathing too? . . . It’s nice, isn’t it?

                                    Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons

(A meditation in a time of no theater)
by Jeff Grygny

Actors, singers, dancers and musicians all need a particularly intimate knowledge of their breath. Like a lot of theater people, I learned how to breathe in acting class. Nobody had ever talked about breathing in any of my prior education, but here I was, in Acting 101, lying on the floor while the instructor was saying “Let your breath come from your diaphragm; feel your stomach rising and falling with your breath. That’s how infants breathe, not the chest breathing we learn later on.”

I’ve been breathing successfully ever since, and belly breathing has served me well. It’s a fine way to calm the tension brought on by the incessantly worrying brain. Neuroscience tells us that our forebrain’s executive functions are always making up stories about potential dangers or opportunities, but that these stories can lead our bodies to generate stress hormones that can alter our heart rate and shut down vital functions like our immune system, making us more vulnerable to disease. A few minutes of good breaths from your belly can help bring you back to a less stressful body and mind. It could possibly save your life, as medical science has learned that breathing exercises can actually help you survive a Covid 19 attack, and even keep you from needing artificial ventilation (which is by all accounts no fun at all).

As I went on in life to study Buddhist meditation, and later a cornucopia of wonderful somatic practices, I learned many variations of good old abdominal breathing. (I recall a Zen monk telling me “We don’t communicate with words, we communicate with our hara.” That’s Japanese for “belly”.) But recently, while I was relaxing by the banks of a wide shimmering river, I found myself breathing in a way I’d never noticed before. It’s simple and even more relaxing than vanilla abdominal breathing (for me at least), so I thought I’d pass it along, in these days while the world is going through its virus-induced metamorphosis.
It goes like this:

Breathe in just a bit deeper than normal; enjoy the stream of air cooling your nasal passages, swirling in your sinus cavities. As the air goes down into your lungs, your relaxed belly rises, your lungs effortlessly inflate, then deflate, in and out, belly rising and falling. Let the inhalation go all the way down to touch a spot deep at the bottom of your belly, somewhere around or below the level of your navel. Once you hit that spot, you can relax your breathing to its natural level, until it’s just the wind moving through your body, gentle and unforced, touching your core like a tender kiss. That’s it. Nice, isn’t it?

Breath has always been connected with spirit, all over the world. In Hebrew, the breath that God breathed into Adam is ruah, the wind. The Greek anima is the wind that literally ani-mates all living things. Yogas prana and the ki of tai chi and martial arts, similarly express wind, breath, and mind all together. Especially in uncertain times, it’s good to take care of your body—that inescapable animal that is not quite “me” but also most intimately “me.” Our breath joins us to the greater world; like the wind, the songs of birds, and the luminous moon and stars, it can inspire (literally “in-breathe”) us to witness a universe far vaster than the tiny circle of space-time we’re currently passing through. Today’s troubles will also pass.
Be well!

            Be thou, Spirit fierce,
            My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

            Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
            Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
            And, by the incantation of this verse,

            Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
            Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
            Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

            The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
            If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

“Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Zephyr – the Greek god of the west wind. Woodcut engraving from the the book “Der Olymp oder die Mythologie der Griechen und Römer (The Olympus or the Mythology of the Greeks and Romans)”, published by A.H. Petiscus in C.F. Amelang’s Verlag, Leipzig (1878, 18th edition)


Sexual Perversity in Cyberspace

Christal Wagner Photography

by Jeff Grygny

Have you ever longed for a place where you could be your real self, free of society’s rules and  definitions of who you’re supposed to be? Welcome to The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s amazing, frighteningly smart play (whose three-week run was sadly cut short by the pangolin plague). And while we might have all kinds of fantasies of freedom from rules, Haley digs into what exactly that might mean—in the process uncovering a whole worm’s nest of squirming quandaries involving our bodies, our identities, and our technology.

If there is a single word for this play, it has two syllables: the first is “mind” and the second rhymes with “luck.” Haley has written for the techno-creepy TV series Dark Mirror, and it’s evident, both in the story’s subject matter and in the efficient movement of character and narrative that consistently shows, but doesn’t tell, its themes. There are so many ideas here, you might have had the repeated sensation of your brain ballooning into space with each gobsmacking realization, right up to the surprisingly poignant final scene.

Director Jaimelyn Gray conducts a skilled cast in a tight, disciplined chamber piece, exquisitely paced and rich with contradictory emotions laid out for our delectation. Mr. Sims (nod to the online role-play game clearly intended), is the “host” of a very exclusive corner of ‘The Nether,” a sensory-immersive virtual world where you can appear as any avatar you can imagine. This place is a tidy reproduction of a Victorian manor, its “clients” strictly regulated to conform to the dress and manners of the time. It’s charming—but why are there so many children, and why are they so friendly and complaisant? And what is that bloody axe doing in the bedroom?

The plot unfolds like a procedural, shuttling between the Nether and an interrogation room of the Nether’s regulatory division. As an agent investigating Sims, Maya Danks is like a charged coiled wire; a dangerous and powerful foil for Sims, as played with righteous authority by Robert W.C. Kennedy. Their intellectual thrust-and-riposte provides much of the play’s electricity. Within the Nether, where Sims goes by the handle “Papa,” we meet one of his girls, a complicated entity called Iris, in a fearless, subtle performance by Rebekah Farr.

This chilling scenario plays out so many problems surrounding digital media, it could be the basis for a college course on the ethics of technology: game addiction, catfishing, porn, escapism, alienation, the dilemmas of regulating online behavior. Beyond that, what is identity anyway, if it can become unmoored from flesh? Reality in this indeterminate future world does not seem to be a very nice place; characters fleetingly express their nostalgia for trees, and there’s reference to the practice of  “fading:” hooking up your body to life support and vanishing entirely into virtual reality.

The Nether poses hard problems, but ultimately, like all good dystopian fiction, it asks us to think about the world we’re headed to. Is reality so unappealing that so many people are desperate to get away from it?

The Constructivists present

The Nether

by Jennifer Haley

Alas, this production is now closed

Strange Attractor: “The Elephant Man” at Voices Found Repertory

photo by Lily Shea Photography

by Jeff Grygny

The anthropologist Victor Turner observed that many societies attribute magical powers to their outcasts. We can see this in the sadhus of India, the holy hermits of Medieval Europe, or the mystique that often surrounds Native Americans. It seems to be a very human tendency to paradoxically assign supernatural status to the very people whom the mainstream rejects.

You can see this phenomenon clearly in The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s play based on the true story of John Merrick, currently in a low-key but potent production by Voices Found Repertory. This plucky band of enterprising theater majors has been toiling away in the basement of the old Plankington Building for several years now, burnishing their skills on Shakespeare and the like, and in the process becoming one of the city’s most vibrant companies, punching way above their weight class. This production, along with their last show Henry V, is easily as good as anything you can see at the Rep—and without the institutional bloat. It’s a clear, skillfully wrought production of a well-made script, and it’s compelling from start to finish.

Director Brandon Haut creates an almost documentary quality with crisp, understated, but authentic-feeling performances from all the players. The presence of a few seasoned actors brings a further sense of realism to the story, which, while taken from the journal of one Doctor Frederick Treves (who worked at a London hospital in the late Nineteenth Century), plays like an incredible work of fiction.

photo by Lily Shea Photography

Treves first encounters Merrick as a carnival exhibit. Intrigued by the man’s extraordinary medical condition, he pays to examine him. The black and white photographs of the actual Merrick that are projected during the play show a hideously distorted body; a massive, irregular head with only one helpless eye to suggest that there might be a human consciousness beneath the mottled, stinking flesh. Zach Ursem rises to this challenging role, not with prosthetic makeup, but with disciplined physicality: he shows Merrick’s abject pathos, but also, once he is taken in by Treves and treated kindly, his gentle inquisitiveness and even flashes of humor. It’s an un-showy, sincere performance that honors both the historical person and the actor who plays him.

As Treves, Thorin Ketelsen perfectly displays the propriety of an educated Victorian man: enlightened, rational, and unreflectively privileged. His decency weighs against the paternalistic conditions he sets for Merrick’s care. To provide social contact—on the premise that only a woman who can conceal her true feelings could interact with the man—he hires a celebrated actress, who, as played wonderfully by Haley Ebinal, proves quite capable of seeing past appearances, becoming Merrick’s truest friend. She engages her social network, and soon Merrick is a celebrity: the great and fashionable parade through his room, leaving expensive gifts for the privilege of speaking with the strange prodigy of nature.  

But this change in fortune begins to raise unsettling questions in Treves’ mind. Merrick is a “surd,” defined as “an incongruity, an inconsistency, a conflict with a context that appears as lawful, orderly experience.” Difference creates order, but a surd destabilizes it. Treves begins to doubt the decency of his actions, his faith, and the validity of the entire Victorian society. In an amazing nightmare scene, he appears himself as a subject to be studied and discussed, in a world where Merrick is the norm.

We can certainly read The Elephant Man as a critique of  privilege in one of it’s most extreme historical forms. But there is something else: you might leave the play feeling a strange elation, a refreshment of the mind and senses, like the catharsis of encountering a great mystery. Does this play let us experience the blessing of the uncanny that in the past informed the Hindu ascetics and the Christian saints? Or have we simply joined the train of thrill-seekers paying to gawk at the freak? This play raises the possibility that they may be variations of the same thing.

If our culture held a sacred place for its outsiders, would we have such difficulties with intolerance and hatred? Is such a thing even possible in a democratic order? Who can say?

Voices Found Repertory presents

The Elephant Man

by Bernard Pomerance

playing through March 15


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The Eyes Have It

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Off the Wall Theatre

“I’m not a good person,” the Artist repeats during The Glance, Dale Gutzman’s new original play currently showing at Off the Wall Theatre. Even for a profession not famous for playing nicely with others, the painter known as Caravaggio was infamous for his brawling, whoring, and generally “strange” behavior. He nevertheless painted almost entirely religious subjects and was adored by the Italian cognoscenti for his work’s brutal sensuality and shocking naturalism. This play is a fictional account of a particularly dangerous period in the artist’s life: it finds him shacked up in a seedy studio in Milan fleeing a murder charge.

Caravaggio’s paintings are famous for their dramatic lighting and theatrical composition. His subjects look at the viewer with a frank, challenging gaze, giving an uncanny sense of contact with an actual breathing person, like a momentary Skype across the centuries. Director Gutzman translates these qualities amazingly well to the stage: at times the action will pause to create painterly tableaux; lighting by David Roper accentuates the actor’s soft flesh with deep shadows. And while the players don’t break the fourth wall, their marvelously subtle acting is all in their eyes. Plus, the audience is seated on both sides of the action, giving us a backdrop of real people  like extras in a scene from the life of Christ. In style, the play, while conveying the feverish qualities of the time, does not seem at all a period piece, but fresh and immediate. A score by Philip Glass lends a contemporary note.

By calling his protagonist “The Artist,” Gutzman clearly wants us to reflect on the artist’s role, as both outcast and true seer. This Caravaggio is an explosive mixture, enclosed in the tight container of the Christian world about to explode into the modern age. Max Williamson plays him as an unhappily caged animal; scowling, pacing, sometimes sulking under a bed sheet. His eyes express the unflinching perception of Rembrandt, or the helpless vision of Van Gogh. They see too much. Randal Anderson brings credibility to the role of an uptight priest ennobled by his love for Caravaggio rent-boy brother, played with warmth by Nathan Danzer. Together with Abigail Fuchs as a refugee from the plague, we see a portrait of intimacy: an impromptu family in a hostile world. Michael Pocaro, as a self-flagellating Cardinal, never descends into stereotypical psycho mode; even when he shows up with bleeding stigmata, he seems more like an amateur baker delighted with a perfect souffle: “the pope is going to be so jealous!” This, oddly, makes him seem even more unhinged.  And though Mark Ninneman’s humble friar is nearly silent, he manages to radiate common decency.

This is a deeply subversive play, whose over-the-top action is counterbalanced by its low-key delivery. Like Caravaggio, Gutzman is a master at dressing people up, posing them theatrically, and showing us wry, ambiguous scenes. Like the painter, he seems compelled to show the truth as it presents itself to his eyes: raw, beautiful, and grotesque—not the edited fictions that enable social existence. Art and religion both concern themselves with the making of meaning; Gutzman, through his artist stand-in, is outraged by institutions that impose meaning by force and manipulation—especially, perhaps, when that meaning is founded on such deep contempt for the human body, with all  its pleasures and sensations, as much Christian theology is. Is Caravaggio really “not a good person,” or is his acting-out simply the collateral damage of an impossible cultural dilemma?

Not everyone will appreciate Gutzman’s undisguised hatred of religion, nor the heavy-handed way in which his characters serve as mouthpieces for his opinions. But for all that, “The Glance” is as strange, lovely and effecting as the art which he so obviously loves.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

The Glance

by Dale Gutzman

playing through March 8


Blind Love

photo by Tom Carr

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats “Ode to a Grecian Urn”

by Jeff Grygny

The myth of Cupid and Psyche is among the strangest, most mysterious tales brought down to us from the ancient world. It reads first like a horror movie, then a love intrigue, then a quest, and finally a spiritual epiphany. The earliest recorded version is in the Roman writer Apuleius’ marvelously titled novel The Golden Ass, which combines urbane cynicism with devotion to the goddess Isis (it’s about a man’s adventures after he is turned into a donkey by an irate witch). Like Isis, Psyche is one of the few female characters in Western mythology to go on a quest; the myth has since mutated into The Beauty and the Beast, which modern audiences know best from the Disney musical: now that’s a story with staying power. The Beauty of Psyche, a charming jewel-box of a play currently in production by the Milwaukee Entertainment Group, gives the old tale a fresh spin, while keeping the dreamlike aura of the original.

Under the direction of playwright JJ Gatesman, the spirited cast delivers brisk storytelling that balances between emotional realism and high fantasy. With actors playing multiple roles, the tiny stage becomes the cosmos, populated by the humans, gods, demigods, and animals of the classical world. In the elegant setting of the Brumder Mansion, with lush costumes, live music directed by Donna Kummer, nifty shadow effects, and a finely-sculpted goat puppet, the overall experience is pleasingly rich—like entering one of the antique books in the mansion’s cabinets.

The play begins with Psyche in captivity, tended by a figure she can only see as a shadow—a creepy scenario, to be sure. In Apuleius’ version, Psyche is a hapless soul, impulsive and always on the brink of giving up. Gatesman’s heroine is a feisty lass who scolds her erstwhile captor, writes songs, and makes her fateful choices deliberately. On the other hand, while the First-Century Cupid is a bad boy, often drunk and unruly, this Eros is genteel and soft-spoken, with few discernible faults, save maybe a dumb naivete. The problem is Eros’ mother, Aphrodite. The Goddess of Love holds a grudge against the lovely Psyche, and, as Greek Goddesses tend to do, sets all kinds of difficult conditions for her survival. Naturally Psyche breaks the rules—not before warming up to her well-meaning jailer—and thus initiates a quest for various hard-to-obtain items of the kind familiar to players of first person video games. (Note: it’s always a good idea to win the sympathy of whatever supernatural beings you come across.) But the heart of the play is in the conversations between Psyche and Eros as they gradually come to understand one another.

photo by Tom Carr

Under Gatesman’s direction, the characters seem to embody different elemental qualities. As Eros, Jake Konrath brings a stillness, as if echoing the heart’s inner depths; Shannon Nettesheim Klein plays Aphrodite like fire and ice, with stylized theatrical gestures. She also plays the mysterious masked Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, as if weighted with the shades of regret (in this version Persephone rules alone, having lost Hades to a fateful accident). Kellie Wambold plays the goat-god Pan with the effervescent whimsy of a babbling stream, accompanied by Paige Bourne as her silent satyr sidekick. And in the role of Psyche, Brittany Curran carries the story admirably, conveying a hero’s persevering resourcefulness and a very human mixture of feelings.

Some philosopher, clearly on the side of the angels, once remarked that one cannot truly see another without loving them. It is a sentiment far from the temper of our contentious times, but one worth at least remembering. It’s at the center of The Beauty of Psyche—which is why it’s a perfect show for a Valentine’s Day evening.

Milwaukee Entertainment Group presents

The Beauty of Psyche

by JJ Gatesman

playing through February 22


Charisma and Catharsis

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Mark Frohna

The Gospel at Colonus, Lee Breuer’s gospel opera, is currently playing in a wondrous production by Skylight Music Theater. It’s a complicated show: unfolding what it’s all about takes some explaining and a bit of theater history. But ultimately, like any opera, it’s all about the feelings.

In Aristotle’s classic work The Poetics, that great explainer of everything set out six components of tragedy, using Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as his exemplar. Among these six is “song and dance.” Now, nobody really knows how song and dance figured into the performance of Greek tragedies. We do know that they were highly stylized, chanted and sung, and were powerfully moving. Some even say that opera was inspired by Aristotle’s account of Greek tragedy (which would explain why everyone in opera is so sad). Lee Breuer was among the prominent American experimental directors of the 80s; his postmodernism rejected Aristotle’s categories of plot, character, and climactic action to focus on playfulness, mixing genres, spectacle, and the immediacy of performance. So Breuer chose to highlight the ritual and performance aspects of Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus, by staging it as a Gospel service. And as we can see, Gospel music is, like opera, a sophisticated art form, full of codes and conventions, encompassing a vast variety of modes and styles. But quite unlike opera, which was produced by the efflux of aristocracy, Gospel was born from the collective genius of a downtrodden people.

Sophocles’ play is not conventionally dramatic: having put out his eyes and in exile from his native city, Oedipus is a ruined old blind man looking for the place that was prophesied for him to find his final rest. He finds it, some of his family drops in, and—he dies, albeit in a mysterious and god-touched manner. That’s the plot. (An excellent, more detailed synopsis of the action, written by theater critic Mike Fischer, is in an audience guide available in the lobby; it’s a very helpful guide.)

Now for the feelings: Aristotle’s most famous idea about theater was catharsis: the emotional cleansing brought about by the vicarious pity and fear felt by the audience of the tragedy. This was always rather an abstract concept for me— until I was lucky enough to see Breuer’s 1987 production of Gospel at the Guthrie Theater, with Morgan Freeman as the Preacher, all Five Blind Boys of Alabama as Oedipus, and a choir of 30 high-powered singers, dressed to the nines. They had been performing the show for several years, both on and off Broadway, and they knew exactly how to shake an audience like a puppy tosses a stuffed toy. Suddenly, catharsis was no concept;  it was a sheer carnal event: a deep-tissue massage of the heart brought on by the emotional power of the singing; a transfer of feeling directly from the performers’ souls to the bodies of the audience, through the medium of rhythmically pulsing vibrations of air. This was the singular magic of live performance—a phenomenon we sometimes call charisma, from a Greek word for “gift.”

With a considerably smaller cast, this Skylight production is as down-to-earth as its aspirations toward salvation are lofty. It’s like a neighborhood church service rather than some mythic revival set in heaven. Under the stage direction of Sheri Williams Pannell and the music direction of Christie Chiles Twillie, the cast of gifted and richly experienced local performers bring their own personal and spiritual concerns to the story of a bygone age, translated into the language of a living ceremonial tradition. That the choir is one of the show’s greatest assets becomes clear towards the end, when two of them step up to give scorching solos. Another treasure is Byron Jones, who plays Oedipus. His stylized performance of blind frailty masks a voice of intense controlled power that anchors the entire show. Tasha McCoy and Raven Dockery bring dignity and integrity to their roles as Oedipus’ daughters (and sisters) while looking fabulous in costumes by Amy Horst.

Oedipus is one of the most complex characters in Western literature, with theorists from Freud onward weighing in with interpretations. Typically he models the paradox of Western Man: seeking to solve the world’s problems, he discovers that he is in fact the cause of them. He represents the curse of self-awareness, the animal passions that lurk beneath our rational exterior, and the shame and guilt associated with hubris, blinding pride. In The Gospel at Colonus, he appears Christlike, both in his suffering and in his capacity as a scapegoat, standing in for any one of us (for who among us is without sin?) As tenderly mourned by his family and allies, he could be any of our beloved elders, for whom the last blessing of life is release. He could be us in our final hours. But in the setting of a Black Pentecostal service, it’s irresistible to see a poignant tribute to those arguably among the last to be recognized in our culture: elder black men, buffeted their entire lives by historical forces beyond their control. It’s a fine and sacred thing to honor them.

Truly, though, you could also say that the ensemble is the protagonist of this show: they support one another with raised hands and exclamations of “Yes,” and “Amen.” They step in to voice characters; they generously co-create the stage-world of this ceremonial saga. Those who have not grown up in such a tradition might feel a little like voyeurs peeping through the church window on a very private communal ritual. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all felt free to call out “Amen,” or to raise a hand when we feel the spirit touching our heart?

Skylight Music Theater presents

The Gospel at Colonus
Conceived and adapted by Lee Bruer
Music composed by Bob Telson

playing through January 26


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Curses Foiled Again

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

If one were to presume that Jill Anna Ponasik were an airy sylph, composed of sunlight and butterflies, one need look no further for evidence than the shows she directs: everything she touches is infused with light-heartedness and joy. This is certainly the case with Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse currently showing in an innovative production by Skylight Music Theatre in collaboration with Milwaukee Opera Theatre. In Ponasik’s hands, its themes of betrayal, madness, and miscellaneous perfidy become a Fractured Fairy Tale; a musical romp limned in the pen-strokes of Edward Gorey.

Gilbert and Sullivan clearly intended the show as a burlesque of gothic romance: the plot is improbable and helplessly baroque; the characters are paper-thin; the dialog continually winks at the audience. The score, while it can claim nothing as catchy as “Tit Willow,” is still recognizably on-brand; the songs are plentiful, and none of them wear out their welcome. And such is the ingenuity of the director, and the sheer enthusiasm of the talented singer/actors; the production is mounted with such daring yet seemingly effortless inventiveness, with the artists reveling in the free play of their talents, that the show is a continuous delight.

Ponasik and Music Director Tim Rebers have audaciously chosen to eliminate the orchestra, and confer its parts on a chorus of doughty bridesmaids, who gleefully doo-wop their way through the entire accompaniment, with the exception of a few idiosyncratic instruments. And it works amazingly well. The vintage score suddenly appears fresh to our ears, giving it a fascinatingly contemporary feeling. What’s more, Choreographer James Zader has set the songs to movement that not only provides both witty sight gags and clarifying business, but somehow rises out of the very structure of the music, giving it temporo-spatial form. We see the music as well as hear it, with actions that illuminate the lyrics. For example, when Diane Lane, as Mad Margaret, courageously mugs her way through “Cheerily carols the lark,” the kneeling bridesmaids pass long-stemmed roses down the line for her to peevishly collect, until at length a withered blossom, and finally a potted plant, illustrate the trajectory of a failed romance.

The lovely-voiced Susie Robinson is enchanting in the role of Rose Maybud, a young lady who lives by the book of etiquette; Doug Clemons is  the very model of an English gentleman too shy to court her. They share a scene in which their shadows cleverly enact what they are too demure to express. As a rough-hewn sailor named Dick who competes for Rose’s hand, Adam Qutaishat suavely voices the promptings of his heart as a Gauloise-puffing Frenchman. Shayne Steliga makes a powerful entrance as the cursed Baron of Ruddigore, strumming a black guitar (his singing holds more than a hint of rock and roll); and the chorus of bridesmaids seem equally thrilled whomever Rose happens to be marrying that day. Edward Lupella, who, as the only bearded bridesmaid, brings the base line, must be commended for the grace of his girlish cavorting.

photo by Mark Frohna

The first act passes like a dream from which one wakes laughing. For Act Two, which has sometimes been said to lose momentum, they bring out the comic opera equivalent of heavy guns. There is a devilish feat of projection conjured by video wizard Nathan Shuerer, in which the entire line of the Murgatroyds, played by Rebers in a variety of period get-ups that recall The Black Adder, grimace out of picture frames like the animated portraits at Hogwarts. Then, there’s a bit of mildly misogynistic humor at the expense of poor Mags, followed by a silly patter song that comments on the silliness of patter songs (and might be lifted from The Pirates of Penzance) culminating in three verses rapidly delivered at once. And then—hey presto! the show is done. It seems that ancient curses can be thwarted simply by an expedient bit of Gilbertian parsing of the curse’s language.

In her program note, Ponasik praises Skylight Theatre for its long history of putting on “fearless and fun” productions. Ruddigore raises the ante on both counts. Queen Victoria Herself would certainly be most amused. In these perilous times, a light heart can be a precious thing indeed.

Skylight Music Theatre
in collaboration with Milwaukee Opera Theatre

Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse

Book by W.S. Gilbert
Music by Arthur Sullivan

Playing through January 19


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Theater in the Wild: the discoveries of 2019

by Jeff Grygny

Don Russell in “Ziggy the Clown” at the Fourth Milwaukee Fringe Festival

Nobody could credibly claim that 2019 was the best year ever. If anything, it’s never felt more like we were dancing on the brink. In all the end-of-decade ruminations, this paragraph from New York Magazine’s Helen Shaw comes closest to my personal reason for loving that strange endeavor we call “theater:”

What if we thought of theater as big wilderness corridors, cutting through all the polite, useful, domesticated stuff that makes up most of life? What if we stopped trying to tell people what not to do in the theater? What if we just abandoned all talk of how silly it is to spend time there instead of at a protest? Ecologically, we already know that we need wilderness so the world can breathe. Purposelessness is itself a kind of sacred purpose. A theater is a place for chaos, thievery, destruction, misrule, recklessness, imagination, adventure, courage, provocation, and possibility. Throw your MFAs into a bonfire! Forget the rules! The wilderness has always been the place for wild beasts—but also hermits on their pillars. Don’t despair if you don’t find an obvious mission there. Go back into the wild. It’s where saints go to study.

With that in mind, here are my recollections of Milwaukee’s edgiest, most feral productions in 2019.

From last to first: there was Voices Found Repertory’s outsider delight, Henry V,

Mrs.Wrights, Jenni Reinke’s tour de force of dance theater by Quasimondo Theatre,

Milwaukee Opera Theater’s feminist/gnostic ceremony Utterance, Ancient Prophesies/Modern Revelations,

Andrew Parchman’s Twilight Zone thriller The Feast at Quasimondo Theater’s Arthaus.

Call Me Ishmael, The always-wild Dale Gutzman’s impossible adaptation of Moby Dick,

JJ Gatesman’s fearless experiment in the ineffable, Machina Persona, by Cooperative Performance,

The joyfully revelatory Carmina Burana by Milwaukee Opera Theatre,

And All 100 Fires, Donna Oblongata’s unforgettable journey into the sould of an insurgent.

A recap of the year wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the indefatigable work of the Fourth Milwaukee Fringe Festival,

And the sad demise of Bay View’s lovably funky preserve of theatrical wildness, The Alchemist Theatre.

These artistic adventurers, and other like them, keep venturing into the unknown and bringing back discoveries more essential than industry blockbusters or social media sensation. They are the music-makers and the dreamers of dreams. Wherever the next decade takes us, may they never cease from their explorations!

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.

I <3 Henry : ) : ) : ) : ) : )

Lily Shea Photography

by Jeff Grygny

Owre kynge went forth to Normandy,
With grace and myght of chyvalry;
Ther God for hym wrought mervlusly,
Wherfore Englonde may calle and cry,
Deo gratias anglia, redde pro victoria.

                        The Agincourt Carol (15th Century)  

“O, for a muse of fire” speaks the chorus at the opening of Henry V, now playing in a lively, full-hearted production by Voices Found Repertory. And, whether by the magical inspiration of some Graeco-Roman demigoddess or not, this young troupe is certainly ablaze. Coming in at a brisk 90 minutes, their stripped-down version crackles like a holiday bonfire: playful yet sincere, and delivered with ebullient theatrical flair. It’s more fun than you ever thought Shakespeare could be.

Lily Shea Photography

Despite having the famous “we band of brothers” speech, Henry V is rarely performed in the States, much less in Milwaukee. The play’s blend of dynastic politics and flagrant monarchic propaganda never seemed to resonate much with American companies.The historic battle of Agincourt was bloody in the extreme (as Medieval battles tended to be) and was arguably an invasion. But Voices Found has been working with the Shakespearean corpus for several years, and this is perhaps their most polished production yet, and they make the play their own. Dragging four centuries of dusty commentary into the trash folder, they focus on the drama, action, and comedy: ditching the moral dilemmas and weighty dynastic politics of, say, the Timothee Chalamet version, and embracing instead the rousing adventure tale, with underdog heroes, high stakes, and hot rivalries, in all the bright colors and heightened emotions of a comic book. It’s as if the makers of history were all in their 20s, playing war like it was a round of Fortnight. English patriots would love it.

Like their last season’s Macbeth, the show is set in a post-apocalyptic future: A soldier might carry a crowbar or claw hammer rather than a sword; one character’s gigantic battle maul would be instantly recognizable to any player of the Fallout franchise. A set by Michael Cienfuegos Baca and costumes by Hannah Kubiak carry out the concept elegantly and economically. But the setting serves rather to free up the storytelling than to weigh it down with conceptual baggage. Director Alec Lachman takes an irreverent approach, adding hilarious grace notes, like having the French court constantly smoking cigarettes. With loving attention to detail, and fully committing to their play-world, the actors create moments that—as in all good theater, and especially in good Shakespeare—wordlessly reveal relationships and psychology. The battle scenes are like cosplay fighting, but no less exciting for that,  because by this time we have been thoroughly charmed into willingly suspending our disbelief.

Lily Shea Photography

We can see from the beginning that this is an ensemble show, when the whole cast powerfully delivers the chorus’ speech, trading sentences, phrases, and single words,  in turn and in unison. With one of the strongest casts that Voices Found has ever assembled, everyone has clearly contributed to creating the vivid moments of the performance, and their joy in performing makes the text sing like an instrument in the hands of a musician in the groove. Most of the actors play double roles, and they all bring full-blooded commitment, but certain characters stand out. Caroline Norton would never be menacing on the battlefield, but with a painted-on beard, she makes for a wonderfully scurrilous and feisty soldier. With his rumbling voice and the carriage of a marine, Thomas Sebald would indeed be someone you’d want fighting on your side, while, whimsically cast as “Alice,” the Princess’ companion, he adds hilarity to a scene performed entirely in French, with a few mangled English words. Caroline Fossum plays said Princess with such poise and charm that we instantly fall in love with her; Rebekah Farr makes for an effectively pissy Dauphin, while A.J. Magoon plays the French King quite straight, but creates a delightful Kabuki-like stylization for the doddering Archbishop of Canterbury.

Lily Shea Photography

Naturally, the actor playing Henry grounds the play. As this untried ruler, inspirational speaker, canny diplomat and ad hoc tough guy, Jake Thompson gives the ensemble a solid center, with a unique combination of careful thought and irrepressible charisma. You can see Henry working hard to make being a king look easy. He wears a smiley-face medallion, as if to remind himself that his job is to present unshakable optimism; his speeches are low-key, often with a carefully-enunciated “but” separating long chains of verbiage. It’s a winning performance that makes us hungry to see the other two plays featuring Prince Hal.

Yet there are no real good guys or bad guys here; just doughty underdogs and overconfident antagonists. Henry sees an opportunity and goes for it, in the classic heroic fashion. The moment when he learns the magnitude of his victory is as powerful as one could wish. If this show has a theme— beyond just being an exciting yarn— it is to show how much a leader can accomplish by convincing their followers that anything is possible.

With this production, Voices Found, along with the recently-founded Aura Theatre Collective, have raised the bar for the performance of Shakespeare in Milwaukee. You owe it to yourself: go see this show!

Voices Found Repertory presents

Henry V

by William Shakespeare

playing through December 15


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