Fool’s Luck

photo by Paul Ruffolo

by Jeff Grygny

Humor is born from humble beginnings: a man sits down to eat his lunch, and it turns into a fiasco of dribbling mustard, a wobbly table, a buzzing fly, and a hungry mongrel. Whether ending in a sad trombone or a satisfied “ahhh,” comedy comforts us by showing that chaos happens to everybody—not just us. It takes great skill and a light touch to make this work onstage, and in Unnecessary Farce, currently playing at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, playwright Paul Slade Smith charts the course from order to chaos and back again in a masterful display of the comedian’s craft. Under the expert direction of Ryan Schabach, a fearless crew of gifted funnypeople delivers the perfect remedy for mid-2019 gloom.

Shabach and his team have labored mightily to transfer the play’s generic setting to the “magical” land of Sheboygan, including the dialect, which Shabach describes in a whimsical program note as “a veritable melting pot of Canadian tonality, dairy farmer shorthand and a hint of that repetitious vowel we love so much from our fellow Illinois brethren who have bought up all the good lake front property”. We know in the opening scene that the action takes place before the digital age when Ben Yela, as a novice detective, buttons his shirt over a telephone  cord. He and his equally-rookie partner have been assigned to a simple surveillance operation which, thanks to their (lets say) “unprofessional conduct,” soon becomes more tangled than one of those springy old cords.

The plot—a farrago about embezzled city funds and a preposterous “Scottish mafia”—is mere pretext for a ton of inspired physical humor. The players use everything in their limited environment for comic effect: clothes are discarded and put on, beds repeatedly rumpled and straightened as the characters vainly try to recover their shredding sense of control. In this world, the people we trust to uphold order are the most prone to distraction, while the seemingly clueless are actually the sharpest nails in the barrel. And, as this is a bedroom farce, the course is soon derailed by the character’s lusty impulses: fully two thirds of them appear in various states of undress before the play is over.

photo by Paul Ruffolo

The actors wring maximum laughs from their loony predicaments, while holding to the essential emotional truthfulness that keeps the play from sinking into cheap clowning. All the same, they clearly love being clowns: the show is lit up with a kind of joy in executing one well-played gag after another. As the shy detective, the cherub-faced Yela runs through his paces with seeming effortlessness and the kind of charisma we associate with classic leading men. Rachael Zientek, as his claustrophobic partner, is as adorable as a kitten in a police cap. Amber Smith, in the role of an out-of-her-depths accountant, displays comic contortions as she is force to bluff her way through ever-stickier situations, while Rick Pendzich combines menace with silliness as a hit man who can only do his job after playing the bagpipes in full highland regalia. His efforts to make his heavy burr intelligible brought some of the evening’s heartiest guffaws.

When we leave a good comedy, our steps feel lighter, as if we ourselves have miraculously stumbled our way through calamity to victory and true love. Such stories are like medicine; when the world looks so little like what we hoped it would, to see that things can, at least in fiction, work out for the best, despite our imperfections—or even because of them. Comedy and Eros are as essential to life as pathos and realism, no? With this in mind, “Don’t Stop Believing” is the absolutely perfect song to play during the show’s intermission.

We can thank Artistic Director C. Michael Wright for making this delightful piece of fluff the lighthearted choice of his outgoing season.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents

Unnecessary Farce

by Paul Slade Smith

playing through August 25

http://www.milwaukeechambertheatre.com/performance/2019-2020/unnecessary-farce.aspx

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Agents Provocateurs: ARCo debuts with a subversive blast

ARCo Ensemble (rehearsal photo)

“We are the music-makers and we are the dreamers of dreams”
                                     William Wordsworth (by way of Willy Wonka)

by Jeff Grygny

Saint Kate, the “Arts Hotel” that suddenly popped up in the former Intercontinental building like a midnight mushroom, is now open for business and the curious are welcome to take a peep as well. While the spanking new venue might still be finding its footing, the first impression is of an elegant modern space with high-end sculpture, painting, and photography everywhere proudly in view and playfully peeking out of odd corners—like a closet with a stepladder which you can climb to put your head in a box containing a tiny gallery, or the restaurant secreted away behind a pivoting bookcase. The staff is pretty and courteous, the spaces neither overcrowded nor creepily empty, and the patrons seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s the only place I can recall ever having left a show with a tote bag containing a little bottle of signature champagne. Can the high-concept Arts Hotel make it in the home of Brewers and Brats? Gimmick or no, it gives the town a little class, it’s a lot of fun, and I hope it sticks around.

Not to mention that it has its own resident theater company (a fact that has created quite a buzz in the performing arts community). This, the ARCo Ensemble, makes its opening statement with America Hurrah, a set of three one-act plays by the 60s avant-garde playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie. It’s a choice that reveals a lot about who the company is and what they aspire to be. Under the direction of Dr. Nancy Kresin, a “Transformative Theatre Maven,” the troupe of young professional actors has been rehearsing, training, and developing an ensemble since May. Their efforts have paid off in their tight, athletic performances, seamlessly transforming from character to character, forming score and scenic elements with their voices and bodies. All three plays are briskly-paced, in a style more like clowning than naturalism, and never boring. And though we might often laugh, we might also be left with a gut-wrenching feeling of the existential void.

In the first piece, Interview, van Itallie treats text as music. The players’ constant choreographed movement adds to the choral fugue of overlapping and mutually-enforcing themes that explore the alienation and dehumanization of modern American culture, the hypocrisy of politicians and clergy, and, of course, the anti-war sentiment that is so characteristic of its time. Alas, every one of these themes seems as pertinent to today’s America as they did nearly half a century ago.

After a 15-minute scene change, during which we can listen to beloved counterculture classics from the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Velvet Underground, the next piece, TV, recalls the absurdist banality of Eugene Ionesco. Susie Duecker, JJ Gatesman, and Ian Tully amusingly play out the office politics of media professionals as control-room workers who are utterly disengaged from the vapid programming that the rest of the ensemble acts out behind them. Another scene change, and in the final play, Motel, theater verges on performance art, with a Beckett-like recorded monologue by an innkeeper rambling on about her room while a pair of weirdly-masked dancers systematically trashes the place to shambles. It’s all very entertaining, and the 60’s style anti-establishment sentiments range from satirical to tragically moving. What, really, have we learned since then?

ARCo Ensemble (rehearsal photo)

The plays seem cannily chosen for the venue: highbrow yet entertaining; accessible, yet slyly revolutionary. But the choice points to a paradox in the very concept of an arts hotel. One of the chief values of contemporary art is to get us to question our assumptions: to make us uncomfortable, in so many words. But the raison d’etre of the hotel industry is to make its guests comfortable. How can hotel art be both service-oriented and prestige art? Is there a way to square this circle?

Here’s a crazy idea: for the last century, art has tried to accommodate the model of science: analyzing, questioning, breaking down, deconstructing, and problematizing society. But one of the greatest powers of art is in making meaning, and meaning comes from feelings, not intellect; relationships, not reductive components. Ironically, this analytic tendency of art, whether modern or postmodern, has surrendered art’s meaning-making power to commercial and political interests that can be least trusted to use it for the common good. What if, instead of modeling itself on physics, art embraced biology as its inspiration? Living systems are all about interconnections: symbiosis, ecologies, evolution, metamorphosis, emergence—the functioning of sense qualities and feelings that generate value and meaning for all living things. “Bio-art” would be dedicated to exploring the pulsing, sensuous world that is the special provenance of the arts; not just deconstructing and critiquing, but synthesizing, bringing contraries together in alchemical experiments that could become the crucibles for the culture of the future. Just a thought.

In America Hurrah—especially Motel, with its performative deconstruction of the idea of comfort—the ARCo Ensemble has thrown down their gauntlet, effectively clearing the ground of our expectations for safe, comfortable theater. The program vision statement proclaims their goals as transformation: “Deconstructing the old,” and “Birthing the new.” As one who finds naturalistic talky dramas limited and generally dull, I look forward to seeing where they go next.

ARCo
at Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel
presents
America Hurrah
by Jean-Claude van Itallie

playing  July 31, August 1, 7, 8, 16, 17, 23, and 24 at 8:00

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/arco-presents-america-hurrah-tickets-63889460095

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Chain of Fools: “Comedy of Errors” Whips it Good

photo by Michelle Owczarski

by Jeff Grygny

Imagine a time when wealth and status rule society, when the patriarchy is largely unchallenged, and when gold chains are considered stylish menswear. Ah yes, we’re talking about the 80s, that epoch of electropop and trickle-down economics.

It’s a canny choice of setting for The Comedy of Errors, Optimist Theatre’s tenth anniversary production of Free Shakespeare in the Park. Co-Directors M L Cogar and Ron Scot Fry create a world that’s close enough to us to be relatable, yet with the scent of Elizabethan mores. The result is as fun as the pop beats that provide its soundtrack, from Cindy Lauper through Devo to George Michael. The rest of the design fits the mood of silliness careening into farce. Costumes by Christy Seibers resemble clown-inflected period wear (what’s the deal with the stuffed bird on the merchant’s hat?), while the set, by the gifted Posy Knight, recalls 80s pastel Lego-block postmodernism while also suggesting an Italian Renaissance city-state. It’s a happy confluence of play, concept, design, and the directors’ facility with commedia-style antics that gives us an evening of frothy, feel-good entertainment. Which is exactly what Shakespeare was aiming for when he literally doubled down on an ancient Roman comedy by adding a second set of identical twins. And if random chance is the source of all the play’s confusion, it also brings everyone together for a joyful resolution.

The story, such as it is, exploits every possible combinations of mistaken identity, and it’s hard to imagine anyone taking it much further. Shakespeare mines farce from showing perfectly reasonable people acting on perfectly reasonable but incorrect assumptions. This goes a surprisingly long way when performed by team of talented performers who are young (many new to Shakespeare In The Park), full of energy, cute, and skilled with comedy that’s cartoonish, but with the undercurrent of genuine emotion that makes it meaningful, not mere buffoonery. Thorin Ketelsen registers many stages of confusion as a strange woman insists that she is his wife; Libby Amato as the woman in question registers genuine hurt from her “husband’s” diffidence.

Cole Conrad and Rebekah Farr, as the twin servants, equally feel the consequences of their employer’s contradictory instructions. An inordinate amount of plot hangs on the disposition of a bespoke gold chain, and when Connor Blankenship, badgered, bound and beaten, roars “THE CHAIN,” you know exactly where he’s coming from. The subplot of one twin being attracted to the other’s sister-in-law plays in a more realistic key, with Katherine Norman capturing the woman’s mixed feelings in a gamut of facial and physical expressions. (You have to give Shakespeare credit: all of her sisterly advice about wives being obedient turns out to be utterly wrong.) The wonderful Robert Spencer makes all-too-brief appearances in dual roles as a lusty kitchen wench and a dotty exorcist, while James Pickering is reliably powerful as the bereaved father.

photo by Michelle Owczarski

The Peck Pavilion is a challenging venue, with traffic roar and jangling drawbridges threatening to overwhelm the dialog at any moment. A lively, urbane comedy can rise above it all far better than heavy fare like last year’s King Lear: with the help of the robust sound system, we could make out almost everything that was said. Even though the play runs two-and-a-half hours including intermission, the subplots with the courtesan and kitchen wench still seem underdeveloped, while a talky prologue has some lovely turns of phrase but is largely lost in the urban din. But these are minor quibbles. The enthusiastic Friday night crowd responded to the farce with laughs and cheers.

Summer is a time for parties. Milwaukee is a party town. The Comedy of Errors is a party play, and the actors are down with the party. So if music be the food of fun—party on!

Shakespeare in the Park presents

The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare

playing through July 13

https://www.optimisttheatre.org/comedyoferrors.html

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She sings, she dances—she’s dead: “Zombies on Broadway”

Off the Wall Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

So, a washed-up celebrity gets reanimated by a shady operator. Underlings rush madly to cover for their drooling, flesh-eating boss as chaos spirals towards doom. Does this sound at all familiar? No, it’s actually the plot of Zombies on Broadway, a new musical comedy now playing at Off the Wall Theatre. Impresario Dale Gutzman, who wrote the book and lyrics, returns to one of his favorite playgrounds: corny B films, just in time to ride the backwash of The Walking Dead and the coattails of Jim Jarmuschs’ new spoof The Dead Don’t Die. This show is an intentionally bad movie with it’s own sarcastic running commentary; a dark existential comedy perfect for summer fun in these days of national strum und drang. There isn’t a serious bone in this musical’s decaying body, and nothing escapes its campy ridicule. Show biz egos, gay panic, backstage rivalry, sexual harassment, dementia, cannibalism and God him(or her)self—it’s all gristle for Gutzman’s satirical meat grinder. Of all Off the Wall shows, this might be the off-the-walliest.

We know immediately what to expect when aging diva Dottie Lotrine (pause for canned laughter) sings the opening number, a jaunty ditty delivered in the timbre of a parrot choking on a cracker: “The Show Goes On Until Your Dead” —and then drops dead. The desperate and none-too-bright producers call on the expertise of none other than Carl Denham, the genius who shipped King Kong in to devastate downtown Manhattan. Denham, it seems has learned the secret of turning corpses into zombies from the witch doctors of Skull Island, and before you can say “Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga and McCormack,” she’s back, if not quite ready for Broadway. Workmanlike music and lyrics by Gutzman and Chris Holoyda (creator of the legendary Lobotomy: The Musical!) keep the show moving from sight gag to double entendre to comic misunderstanding while giving various characters their soul-baring moments in the spotlight. It’s irresistible to read the show as a metaphor for The Current Administration (after all Denham is a seedy, Bannon-like fixer who let a giant gorilla loose in America). But there are too many loose ends to make the analogy fit; the playwright admits that the show has “absolutely no redeeming qualities.”  

But if you come for the zombies, you stay for the performances, which the players carry off with surprising dedication and panache. Larry Lukasavage plays a sleazy investor with silken menace; Teddi Gardner is suitably feckless as a dance captain named Dick (the name that launched a thousand snickers). Mark Neufang brings pitch-perfect poise to the role of a gay supporting actor, and as the star-crossed star Dottie, Michelle Wade gamely grimaces and groans with the best of them. Jenny Kosek commits to her innocent ingenue character with a hint of a wink, and Gutzman chews scenery, chants mumbo-jumbo, and brings a pathos worthy of an Arthur Miller character to the part of Denham.

Only Off the Wall Theatre has the guts to stage such a perfectly tasteless spectacle—and those guts are on prominent display before the carnage is over. As an audience member was overheard saying after Friday’s show: “We went somewhere.”

Off The Wall Theatre presents

Zombies On Broadway

Music by Chris Holoyda

Book and Lyrics by Dale Gutzman

playing through June 30

https://www.offthewallmke.com/zombies-on-broadway.html#/

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The Gender Wars: Old School

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

Few people will be shocked to hear that the relations between women and men excite powerful passions of all kinds. Indeed, such passions are key forces in the social storms that swirl throughout the early twenty-first-century world. So it seems quite bold for Skylight Music Theater to put on  Kiss Me Kate, a show that was not considered controversial when, say, Joe Biden was a kid, but might stir strong feelings today, with its inspiration in Shakespeare’s arguably misogynistic (and equally rarely produced) The Taming of the Shrew. You could say that the current cultural climate is just too darn hot for these shows. As Biden could assure Cole Porter, these days anything does emphatically not go. 

It would be worthwhile just to see a fine production of a classic show from “the golden age of Broadway musicals,” especially in the lighthearted spirit with which director Ray Jivoff imbues it. But it’s fascinating to see how the show holds up seventy years after it first opened, in a world almost inconceivably different from Porter’s, who grew up when the Model T was still new on the road. The answer is: pretty darn well.

Though Petruchio’s abuse of Katherine still raises hackles (as it always has, evidently). Kiss Me Kate uniquely creates a sort of cultural time tunnel: Elizabethan mores at one end and this production on the other, with post-war screwball comedy in the middle. It’s to our contemporary musical theater industry what the cotton gin is to high-tech fabrics: rather primitive in comparison, and you can see all the gears moving, but it has the authentic charm of an art form that was still trying to figure itself out.  It cobbles together elements from comic opera, like the schmaltzy “Wunderbar” (does anyone else remember that the melody was once used in a radio jingle for a Wisconsin cheese?), with vaudevillian entr’actes like the patter-y “We Open in Venice” and “Brush up your Shakespeare.” The dated weirdness of ”Tom Dick and Harry” with its peculiar (maybe suggestive?) chorus of  “Dick, dick, dick/ A dicka dick” shares the stage with the smoky sophistication of classics like “Why Can’t You Behave.” It’s easy to see why the show ran for over a thousand performances in New York.

photo by Ross Zentner

Jivoff brings the world of the stage to vivid life with countless little interactions between the players, and it’s all delivered with affection and panache by a crack company of singer/actor/dancers to restore the freshness and innocence of escapist entertainment. As the leading lady, Rana Roman renders a show-stopping “I Hate Men,” flinging prop salamis into the wings with venomous relish. As a gold-digger who finds every opportunity to flaunt her assets, Kaylee Annable delivers an equally rousing “Always True to You in My Fashion.” Doug Jarecki and Kelly Doherty flash sparking comic chops as a pair of unusually dignified mobsters; Jonathan Gillard Daly offers a cartoonish caricature of a MacArthur-like military bigwig, and Joe Capstick takes the Gene Kelly prize for his staircase gymnastics in “Too Darn Hot.” Jivoff’s direction makes every song it’s own little play; this is more entertainment for your money than most three other shows in town put together.

photo by Ross Zentner

The battle of the sexes plays out mostly between Roman’s character and her ex-husband, a philandering egomaniac leading man played impeccably by Andrew Varela, whose spot-on characterization is matched only by his crystal-shattering tenor. Together, they hit every beat of the couple’s Punch-and-Judy verbal sparring. But when they sing together, recalling happier days, their voices soar: how could they not reunite when they sound so good together? In the end, Roman does sing Kate’s embarrassingly servile speech about women submitting to their husbands, but she does so with soft strength and dignity—and it’s Petruchio who kneels.

photo by Ross Zentner

So—does this theatrical fossil offer any insights for our current state of strife between the sexes? Maybe only this romantic one: that men and women are better together than apart, and that love is more important than winning the war.

Skylight Music Theatre presents

Kiss Me Kate

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Sam and Bella Spewack

playing through June 16

http://www.skylightmusictheatre.org/shows-events/on-stage/kiss-me-kate

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The Hunt for the Great White Metaphor

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Off The Wall Theatre

Moby Dick is an immense book, a metaphysical doorstop of a novel. It’s not just an adventure story about whaling, though it certainly is that, too. Herman Melville was there, recording the emotional, economic, and spiritual implications of this world-shattering changes as America was feverishly inventing the modern era of itself. Dale Gutzman, in his program notes for Call Me Ishmael, his adaptation of Melville’s epic of madness on the vasty deep, admits up front that the novel is impossible to stage. So what is this play? What we see is a stylish, sometimes funny, sometimes monotonous, often brilliant cinematic dream that touches on ideas about religion, power, nature, race, culture, and man’s futile efforts to control the world, to name the most obvious. It may be the closest thing to pure philosophy ever performed on a Milwaukee stage.

The literary theorist Jacques Derrida coined the phrase “white mythology” for the tendency of powerful elites to claim that their rule is natural and really the only way things could possibly be, commanded by the inarguable word of a deity whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. Moby Dick had refuted white mythology more than a century earlier: all it takes is a little crack in the sacred order to let chaos come pouring in. Melville painted a picture of what music critic Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America,” based on first-hand experience: the harsh Puritanism, the capitalist exploitation, the patriarchal hierarchy, and the strange society of men, slamming against the immensity of nature with hubristic fury.

How in heaven do you stage such a monster? Gutzman gives us fragments of the story, like an art film or collage (hence the show’s subtitle “a hallucination”) with its own theatrical vocabulary. Black walls and clothing, pale faces lit by bright flashlights, spotlights and lanterns create the mood of an antique engraving; wood, rope, and yards of raw fabric create the whaler’s world, a light-and-shadow realm of Protestant theology and can-do capitalism. As in the novel, we see the story through the eyes of an innocent youth. Jake Russell plays Ishmael with all the trepidation, eagerness, and wonder of an introspective soul. His first encounter with the wild world comes in the form of his bed-mate in the port side inn, an islander named Queegqueg, played with fine bemused stoicism by Nathan Danzer, whose broad, tattoo-covered chest and back are the show’s most impressive special effects. Their relationship becomes the emotional center of the play: an openly romantic same-sex couple in an all-male society that operates far from civilization’s norms. In this version, the Pequod becomes a kind of gay utopia, its cramped sweaty spaces recall the aesthetics of a twentieth-century leather bar. Ishmael spends his spare time jotting his meditations in a notebook, pondering life, the sea, and Queegqueg’s tattoos, which represent for him a primordial writing containing mysteries that the printed lines of the Bible can’t possibly convey.

The play hews closely to the book’s narrative, unfolding in painterly tableaux, meditative moments, and exciting action scenes. Sometimes the stage seethes with movement as the players pantomime the actions of sea-craft and the hunt. The whalers go to their work with the gusto of professional athletes, especially Teddi Gardener as an exuberant harpooner and Jim Feeley as an old salt who relishes no land-bound life. Only the first mate, played by the low-key Mohammed ElBsat, shows misgivings about their voyage. James Strange plays the role of Ahab with more wounded pathos than Old Testament rage, but there is still the atmosphere of doom, the sickening sense that no one is in charge—or worse, that the authority, be it captain or God, is mad, and the ship/universe careens forth by no rules that reason can comprehend. It’s a feeling quite familiar to many Americans these days, don’t you think?  Yet there is a strange stasis at the center of this play: from Ishmael’s musings, to the well-worn plot, to Russell’s moody cello soundscape. Not even some hearty shanties composed and performed by Shayne Steliga and Tom Koehn, can dispel the emptiness at the heart of this maritime melodrama.

photo by Off The Wall Theatre

As the Pequod careens further into Ahab’s monomania, the style of the play shifts into something like performance art, or a Tarkovsky film, where mundane objects take on uncanny meanings. A string of Christmas lights becomes Saint Elmo’s fire; a storm is signaled by a mere utterance. The simplicity of the stagecraft is as if to shrug at the impossibility of the task; even with the budget  of Broadway, would any plastic whale or high-definition projection bring us closer to the novel’s sublime inconceivable? The inevitable failure is cooked into the attempt; as Queegqueg and Ahab make futile stabs at a painted eye simply rendered a large piece of cloth, they seem like puppets, no more capable of killing the great white whale than Melville’s book can be adequately staged. Maybe unconvincing theater is all we can ever muster in our attempts to conquer savage being.

We could see Call Me Ishmael as a rite of passage. People like Queegqueg became adults by being ritually isolated in a dark, closed space where they were symbolically devoured by a terrifying monster, then reborn as mature members of the tribe. Perhaps the most important mystery of the modern tribe is this: all our certainties are written on water. Nowadays we don’t believe in rites or cosmic monsters. All we have to explain the world is science; and art, to lead us out of our cultural trance and bring us face-to-face with the unknowable universe.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

Call Me Ishmael

adapted by Dale Gutzman from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

playing through April 28

www.offthewallmke.com

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A Message From Terezin

photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

by Jeff Grygny

In an old joke, the prison camp commander addresses the prisoners: “I have good news,” he says. “Today you will all change underwear. Now you change with you, you change with you. . . “ Dark humor is one way we have of dealing with intolerable situations. It is a sign that our spirit, however abused, hasn’t yet been broken. The Last Cyclist, now playing at Cardinal Stritch University in a collaboration between the theater department and a couple of cultural organizations, gives us a rare opportunity to see, as through an old-time stereoscope, blurry but powerful images of how life was for Jews during the Holocaust.

This account comes to us handed down in the form of a comic play that was written by cabaret artist Karel Švenk in the Terezin ghetto, basically a place where Czech Jews were held in miserable conditions on their way to Auschwitz. It was also a Nazi propaganda site, used to show how humanely the Jews were treated, so they were allowed to have lectures, concerts and plays, all performed by captives. Švenk’s play is a Kafka-like satire, depicting the Nazis as escapees from a lunatic asylum who are deluded into thinking that bicyclists are the cause of all their problems. Therefore, they go around harassing cyclists, finding out who is descended from a cyclist, detaining them, and eventually shipping all the cyclists or anyone who has been accused of being a cyclist to a place called “Horror Island.”

In an brief expository prologue, we learn of the grim conditions in Terezin. Then, we the audience become prisoners who have crowded into an attic to watch a rehearsal of the play. Though the script was reconstructed from memory by a surviving actress twenty years after the fact, then still later reworked into its present form by playwright Naomi Patz, the play retains the flavor of popular comedy of the last century—think Laurel and Hardy or W. C. Fields. There are stock characters, like the naive grocer and the con artist, and hoary routines, like the man hiding in the wardrobe, the humorous courtship, and the wacky courtroom scene. But the comedy cliches serve a deeper purpose and play with much darker undertones.  We even see Terezin itself in Horror Island, where the commander brusquely forces the prisoners to act happy for Red Cross inspectors. “Sing loud so they can hear you from a distance,“ he commands them after handing them a propaganda song. But when his back is turned, they change the lyrics to express their true feelings for the camp. The Last Cyclist is that song.

The play was never actually performed (the ghetto authorities decided it was too inflammatory), but the rehearsal audiences were said to have roared with laughter. But even though many of the bits are quite funny, there was not much laughter during Saturday night’s performance. How could there be?  We can only imagine what those people went through; our duty is to witness. The actors, under the direction of Mark Boergers, have a complicated job: to play ordinary men and women in a dreadful situation, mostly non-actors, performing in a comedy that burlesques their captors and expresses the terrible and surreal irony of their condition. It’s a difficult needle to thread, and  Boergers preserves the script’s vaudevillian tone and pace while subtly hinting at the layers of feeling beneath the clowning. The decision to forgo the ethnic mannerisms and speech patterns of European Jews inevitably loses some of the inimitable quality of Jewish humor; the multi-racial and gender-blind casting aims at universality, as if to say: “this could be any of us.”

photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

Many of the student and professional actors of the cast rise to the challenge of playing so many levels at once.  Joel Kopischke, who carries the story as an everyman grocer, brings a strained desperation to his comic grimaces and gestures, as if he could singlehandedly fight off despair. Marcee Doherty-Elst shows her character losing herself in the role of the grandiose leader of the anti-cyclist movement. Monty Kane plays a cynical opportunist with fine physicality, showing us how hard he works to ingratiate himself with the lunatics in charge, while seeming to hardly believe his own shtick. Others take a more low-key approach: Laura Monagle’s romantic lead actress never really forgets the deaths she’s witnessed; Leslie Fitzwater brings moving authenticity to the role of a decent woman realizing that she is at the mercy of unprincipled madmen.

Boergers lets us applaud the comedy, but then the players step forward to acknowledge the people they’ve played. Each actor places a costume piece on the stage and speaks the first name of a long-dead prisoner. The house lights go up. The audience sits for a moment, some dabbing their eyes. Then we leave the auditorium in silence, as we should.

Some of the political targets of this satire are long dead and forgotten, but we can still recognize their types. It’s hard to say who is worse: the madmen who persecute the innocent or the cynical sane people who let them take power. We have been warned — again.

Cardinal Stritch University Performing Arts
In collaboration with The Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center
and The Harry and Rose Samson Jewish Community Center

presents

The Last Cyclist

by Naomi Patz

playing through April 14

https://www.stritch.edu/Events/Theater-Performance-The-Last-Cyclist

The Power of Babble: “Machina Persona”

photo by Lily Shea Photography

by Jeff Grygny

Aristotle wrote that people of different ages enjoy different genres of performance. Elderly people, he wrote, like epic poetry best. Mature people prefer tragedy. And children would much rather watch a puppet show. Machina Persona, the currently-playing original performance by the Cooperative Performance collective, sits comfortably in the last category (or we might say “cartoon,” since Aristotle knew nothing of animation.) This play is an excursion into a dimension of extreme whimsy: emphatically animated, there is so much action, so many shrieking entrances and exits, so much interplay between its archetypal characters, all gesticulating and chattering in a made-up language, that the experience is much like watching one of George Melies’ silent movies: you may not know what exactly is happening, but there’s sure a lot of it! And as all the characters are dressed in lovingly-detailed Steampunk outfits, you may feel at first that you have stumbled into a group home for asphasic cosplayers.

Amidst the Commedia del Arte  pratfalls and lazzi-like antics, characters begin to emerge. They are titled by their function, like “The Pilot,” “The Engineer,” and “The Stowaway,” but they also have their invented names, which we begin to recognize. Eventually, we begin to follow the action more clearly, often leading to some chortle-raising non-verbal humor. The players are so charismatic and gosh-darn cute, it’s hard not to get caught up in their dramas, obscure though they might be. There is a large, multi-faceted vehicle which they occasionally mount and try to fly on– maybe they’re shipwrecked travelers from an alien world? But though many things happen, their interactions communicate the most. These clownish characters, all feelings, tend towards obsessive manias and are easily offended. But they can also be patient and empathetic with each other, and ultimately they play together pretty nicely. When they whip out a guitar, a mandolin, a ukulele and a Capoeira bow to play a bouncy tune (which we are encouraged to accompany on provided percussion instruments), it suddenly strikes us that these are actual people with some pretty impressive talents on display.

photo by Lily Shea Photography

According to director JJ Gatesman, the action is set in “The Brain.” Gatesman began his composition by interviewing people who have experienced difficulties with communication, including a trauma victim, a person with Downs syndrome, and a “bird handler.” From these personal experiences, he and his all-in performers improvised characters and incidents that, while not representing any one person, suggest windows onto their experience. Presenting this material filtered through several layers of interpretation gives the show a sense of truthfulness; even if we can’t always follow the story, we know there is a story. Thanks to the actors’ seriousness and intensity, the emotional verities come across loud and clear. As if by accident, Machina Persona becomes a demonstration of what it means to be in a community: often complicated, usually messy, with many different agendas and needs, but optimistic that through fair-mindedness and goodwill, we can somehow muddle through. It is a refreshingly sunny perspective for our cynical times.

By all means bring your toddlers to this 70-minute fable. Don’t be put off by the rough appearance of the yet-to be-finished Arthaus—they’ll be delighted, as will anybody who can still see the world with the eyes of innocence. (Just bring a blanket, the unheated space can be chilly, even on a spring night.)

Cooperative Performance presents

Machina Persona

conceived and directed by JJ Gatesman

https://www.cooperativeperformance.org/

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The Turning of the Wheel: “Carmina Burana”

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

In a typically witty moment in Skylight Music Theater’s Carmina Burana, a few sheets of paper flutter down from the great height of the Cabot Theater’s ceiling. Reading their messages, some of the characters react with joy; others with dismay. More and more papers fall; soon the stage is full of people scrambling and reacting in very individual ways. This mysterious moment is but one of the show’s many fragmentary stories; it showcases the lucidity of the singers’ and dancers’ acting skills and their seamless ensemble work. It also demonstrates Director Jill Anna Ponasik’s genius for pulling evocative action from both texts and performers.

Carmina Burana is organized around the theme of Fortune’s wheel: the unavoidable uncertainty that is life’s only certainty; we are always winning or losing, rising up or on our way down, at the whim of Lady Luck. Every element of this fabulous production contributes to the sense of cyclical change, from Lisa Schlenker’s set with its curved ramps, dominated by a lunar disc which lighting designer Jason Fassl washes with subtly-changing moods and projections of “magical images” and lapidary text; to Shima Orans’ elegant costumes, conjuring a timeless modernity and encompassing a wide range of social classes; to music director Janna Ernst’s choice of arrangement, with an amazing six percussionists beating out the abruptly altering rhythms of Carl Orff’s score. Dani Kuepper’s choreography, while occasionally hyperactive, enlivens the space and successfully comments on the music’s many moods, while gracefully folding the non-dancers into the movement.

photo by Ross Zentner

Ponasik gives the transitions a pleasing, organic flow, bringing a painterly sense of composition, space, and contrast, along with a musician’s feel for rhythms and a dramatist’s sense of action. Together, the Skylight’s singers, plus four vocalists from the Chant Claire Chamber Choir, along with seven dancers from the Danceworks Performance Company and a number of impossibly adorable child performers—artists of a wide variety of ages and physical types—create a microcosm of the world with its many joys, griefs, conflicts, and relationships. From the first group vignette of a spring picnic interrupted by rain, the production paints a panorama of great humanity and the profound beauty of everyday life. Overall, the show is rich, deeply felt, and as much a joy to behold as it looks like it was to create.

The “Carmina Burana” manuscript

Just as Medieval scribes would wipe out old parchments and write over them, so Carmina Burana shows dizzying layers of meanings, each overwriting the last, but with traces of each still visible. The original lyrics were probably written by “Golliards” —wandering bards conventionally portrayed as unemployed college graduates who, forced to perform entertaining songs for a living, wrote laddish odes to drinking, gambling and love. The compilation of many authors’ work was given its title, “Songs of Beuern,” by a nineteenth-century scholar, based on name of the Bavarian monastery where he found the manuscript. A century later, modern composer Carl Orff fell in love with the songs’ poignant, often ironic tone, and condensed them into his musical setting, intending it to be a sort of gesamkunstwerk—a total theatrical spectacle combining music, text, dance, art, and metaphysical profundity a la Wagner. Now we have the production presently playing in the Cabot Theater, radically erased and overwritten again to suit twenty-first-century sensibilities.

There is certainly nothing laddish about this production. One thing we conspicuously don’t see is any representation of the boy/girl romance that was a mainstay of the earlier texts. As if on a mission to cleanse classical music of its patriarchal taint, Ponasik has steeped her show in feminist values, creating scenes which, while charming, dramatic, and personal, are unlikely to have occurred to any Golliard. She expands the meaning of “love” to include a wide spectrum of gynocentric concerns: the lament of a lover waiting for his mistress becomes a mother’s patient longing for her unborn child; we see an entire baby shower materialize, as guests literally shower the expectant mom with presents. Cute little girls smile before a mirror asking “am I pretty?” followed by a matronly woman asking the same question. A seduction song becomes a brutal pas-de-deux in which a woman strenuously resists submitting to a would-be lover’s insistent demands. Another enigmatic duet shows two women in a tense and unrequited encounter, which seems to end with one’s death. And it’s hard to know exactly what to make of a tavern scene in which a glitter-clad person of indeterminate gender tries to hand out potatoes, which are spurned by the crowd in favor of fast food fries. As the supertitle reads: “Left is right, up is down. Therefore I drink.” It might be hard to find a phrase that more succinctly captures the mood of our times.

As new meanings overwrite old ones, things are gained and things are lost; the wheel of fortune keeps turning.

Skylight Music Theater

in collaboration with Milwaukee Opera Theatre
Chant Claire Chamber Choir
and Danceworks Performance Company

presents

Carmina Burana

playing through March 31

http://www.skylightmusictheatre.org/shows-events/on-stage/carmina-burana

Want to get updates every time a new review is posted? Send an email to playonmke@gmail.com or visit the SUBSCRIBE page

Whatever gets you through the night


Small Craft Warnings at Off the Wall Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

Tennessee Williams is surely one of our most lyrical chroniclers of emotional messes; he arranges them so skillfully that, like one of Robert Rauschenberg’s combine sculptures, what would normally repel us becomes strangely beautiful: art out of trash. So it is in Small Craft Warnings currently manifesting in a modest but infinitely compassionate production at Off the Wall Theatre, where Williams unfolds the inner lives of a handful of losers into illuminated renderings of humanity. Anyone who cares about theater—or about life, even—will find the play deeply rewarding.

At the fag-end of America, butted up against the vast Pacific and the Mexican wilderness, Monk’s Place is the kind of tavern where everyone knows your name—but not necessarily in a good way. Its patrons live on the fringe of the economy: modern nomads, except for Monk, the titular proprietor, whose upstairs apartment beckons like a mythical dream of home. The others live like animals: in a tiny room over the game arcade; or in a wheeled trailer; or scraping by paycheck to paycheck; or crashing on (or sharing) a variety of extra beds. One of them is literally on a cross-country solo bicycle trip: the rootless isolation of America made plain. They exhibit a peculiarly Williamsian absence of personal boundaries: not so much friends as enmeshed with one another in great co-dependent clusterfucks, frequently devolving into screaming scuffles but rarely into actual violence. Neither cultured nor very educated— I hate to say it, but in this day and age they might well be avid admirers of you-know-who.

In this late play, Williams offers little in the way of plot or structure, but much bar-room philosophizing. Embracing the dramatic principle of  “drink, drugs, and delirium,” to rise above everyday speech, he does little more than give his dead-end characters a snootful and then stand them up to deliver monologues that express in greater or lesser detail the essence of their beings. As presented by a director and cast that bring their whole hearts to the task, it’s compelling to see. Director Dale Gutzman has coached his players into remarkably sensitive realizations of their characters. As they stand before us telling their stories, we can see their raw humanity in their eyes. There really isn’t an actor who doesn’t inhabit their role fully and truthfully: Robert Hirschi’s barkeep oversees his clients’ dramas with tender compassion, never judging them even when they fail mightily. Mike Pocaro is thoroughly credible as a cynical doctor, a smart man fallen on hard times. Both Nathan Danzer as a sad sack loser and Max Williamson as a brutish gigolo named Bill show us the lost boys within their men’s bodies. Conversely, Jenny Kosek somehow lets us see that her pathetic character’s helplessness is actually a canny survival skill; while as Leona, the big-mouthed, big-hearted, judgemental mother hen of this odd little chicken shack, Marilyn White creates an outsized persona that we miss when she’s gone, even as we sigh with relief when she leaves the stage.

Williams treats his sexuality with particular frankness, particularly in the characters of a temporary couple who happen to be passing through. James Strange’s speech as Quentin, a jaded Hollywood writer, burns us with the depth of his self-loathing and regret; Jake Russell as his momentary fling brings an unspoiled innocence that we fear for. Many of the other characters also place themselves in relation to the gay world; Leona explains how she loves being gay men’s female ally; Bill the gigolo plans to lure Quentin into the men’s room and roll him later; Monk explains the difficulties of running a gay bar: it leads to police raids, needing bribes and mafia protection. But ultimately, every character is an outcast of sorts; Williams’ outsider status lets him see the living hearts beating within people we might ordinarily swerve to avoid.

In his program notes, Gutzman writes “This play is about what it means to be ‘HUMAN!’” For this playwright, it especially means facing up to our own abject state: in the end we are each of us alone, vulnerable, full of yearning, a “poor forked naked animal,” set loose in the great ocean of the universe to navigate as best we can; to find happiness—if not forever, at least for tonight.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

Small Craft Warnings
by Tennessee Williams

playing through March 3

https://www.offthewallmke.com/