Domestic Terror

photo by Christal Wagner

by Jeff Grygny

“You didn’t think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you?”

The title of The Constructivists’ latest production conjures the image of a crowned, horned figure,  marshaling demonic hordes in a computer-game battle for the soul of the world. The play itself is closer to our everyday lives—and consequently much scarier. The sense of metaphysical struggle in The God of Hell is keenly present, though expressed in a different set of metaphors. And since it’s Sam Shepard writing, the battle takes place in a farmhouse in rural Wisconsin.

Once upon a time, Frank and Emma live in isolation; he’s devoted to his heifers; she, to her sprawling collection of houseplants. They live comfortably, if not blissfully. But when Frank invites an old buddy, a fellow named Hayes, to stay in their basement, it exposes their peaceful lives to sinister powers they could never have imagined: in a day, their sleepy dream turns into a nightmare. Shepard’s poetic style is as short on plot details as it is heavy on allusion. Without ever telling us the exact nature of the work Hayes is fleeing from, or the agency he worked for, the story sends out tendrils of association, like a surrealist painting outgrowing its frame, to include agribusiness, neoliberalism, globalization, the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, right-wing fanaticism, the Rocky Flats Plutonium facility, the military-industrial complex, political torture, conspiracy theories, corruption, contagion, and the Biblical fall of Adam and Eve. The “god” of the title is the Roman ruler of the underworld, whose name is shared with the most poisonous radioactive element used in nuclear bombs—but it can be no coincidence that he was also the god of wealth, hence “plutocracy.” Shepard wrote this little fable in response to the Iraq war, the recent revelations from Abu Graib, and, as he put it, “republican fascism,”  but the dynamics it describes certainly live on today, though in different forms.

It would be hard to imagine a fuller realization of the play than this one, masterfully executed by director Jaimelyn Gray and her team of talented artists. As Emma and Frank, Cheryl Roloff and Robert W.C. Kennedy don’t strain to become icons of innocence (though the dome-pated Kennedy does rather resemble the stern farmer from American Gothic).  Roloff could be nearly anybody’s gentle-hearted aunt. As Hayes, Matthew Scales is vaguely scholarly and foreign, with a hint of danger about him; not just simple danger: X-files level danger. What have they been doing in that secret facility in Colorado? But the show really belongs to Matthew Huebsch as the government factotum Welch. From creepily cheery to full-out Nazi, his can-do patriotism and twisted Orwellian logic soon bend everyone out of true. With his wide jawline and a fanatical glitter in his eyes, Huebsch is like Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad character in the flesh.

From it’s mildly farcical beginning, the action soon strikes a sinister note, and the tension never lets up, building to a terrifying, over-the-top Walpurgisnacht climax. The lovingly-crafted set is possibly the most professional-looking ever to grace the stage of the Underground Collaborative. There is even a live stove on which Emma burns bacon; the wafting aroma somehow becomes yet another apt metaphor. The play wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without the attention to detail that the production crew brings.

These days it’s easy to feel that life in America was wonderful just before today’s political headaches. But The God of Hell reminds us that our current plight was a long time in the making. Who are the Trumph enthusiasts if not the people who chanted “USA!” while Bush’s invasion blasted an entire country to rubble so that Cheney’s petroleum cronies could profit richly? Who are the ones kenneling immigrant children but the ones who ran the black ops torture sites? Those people should have been held to account; instead, they were given convenient passes out of a misguided sense of preserving domestic tranquility. But Shepard shows us what can happen once ordinary men and women—neither good nor evil, but simply human—let the devil get his foot in the door. By doing this play now, the Constructivists are sounding a timely alarm. Who will answer it? And what holy relic can we find that will break the devil’s power?

The Constructivists present

The God of Hell

by Sam Shepard

playing through October 12

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Love in the time of the big scam

Robert Powell Photography

by Jeff Grygny

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law

                   “The Goose and the Common” (18th century protest song)

Back when Thomas Jefferson’s parents were kids making moony-eyes at each other, English playwright John Gay mashed up some current news. An infamous highwayman, a famously crooked prime minister, and a basket of popular songs, and voila! Musical comedy was born:  The Beggar’s Opera, with its dashing antihero Macheath (a.k.a. Mack the Knife, thanks to Bertolt Brecht, who adapted the play into his own The Threepenny Opera). In a remounting of an earlier production, Theatre Gigante seeks to honor the play’s long and complex history, its themes, and its structure, while also bringing it up to date. That’s quite a job, but the writing/producing duo Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson make it look easy. Chopping and slicing theatrical elements like dramaturgical sushi chefs, they produce a show that’s idea-rich and pleasantly disorienting, with strange combinations of flavors from sweet romance to bitter irony.

Gay framed his musical in a story about a playwright putting on a show; in this version, a modern husband and wife team are struggling to keep their small theater company afloat in the stormy sea of economic recession and scant funding. As the story gets underway, the fence becomes a government official in bed with the firms he’s supposed to be regulating, Macheath becomes a sleazy Milken-like trader, and so on. (One of the show’s funniest gags comes when a character tries to explain the concept of a “tranche” in pantomime.)  But the costumes and settings retain hints of the Eighteenth Century, while the music hearkens back to both light opera and a whiff of Kurt Weil’s acerbic dissonance. The players all give slyly ironic spins to their performances, acknowledging us looking at them—perhaps in keeping with Brecht’s famous “alienation effect,” which dictated that the audience should not become absorbed in the story. (Brecht also advocated the audience smoking during the play; he thought it would encourage analytical distance. But nobody encouraged us to light up during this show—probably for the best.)  

Painted cut-out figures by Carri Skoczek manage to average out the look of George Grosz’s Weimar Berlin grotesques with Hogarth’s satirical Eighteenth-century caricatures. Another of director Kralj’s alienating tactics: perhaps in response to criticisms of the play’s female characters, she has made many of them literally two dimensional. The ingenue Polly, and three prostitutes, are played by actors wielding cardboard cut-outs. The songs, composed by area musician Dan Dance, hearken back to the romantic love songs of bygone days, and they sound fantastic under the skilled music direction of Ruben Piirainen. But the performance undercuts any romanticism they might have had. They rather convey the sardonic mood of innocence betrayed, self-dealing openly embraced, and charisma as just another asset in the game of greed.

It’s nice to see a good mixture of seasoned and up-and-coming players on this stage. Youngster Ben Yela is a surprisingly likeable crooked bureaucrat, while his conniving wife is played by veteran singer Leslie Fitzwater, whose deep understanding of the musical genre lets her play with the conventions of performance with great gusto. Steven Koehler brings his professional experience to the role of Macheath, adding a hint of desperation to the character’s sleazy charisma. A.J. Magoon (is that really a name?), carrying Polly’s cutout, delivers her lines, songs, and dances with just a hint of a smirk, but otherwise plays his ingenue role with perfect seriousness. And Rick Pendzich takes enormous glee in making his in-story parts a silly as possible; connoisseurs of cartoon snores will not be disappointed.

Robert Powell Photography

With its references to collateralized debt obligations and Bernie Madoff, the script is more pertinent to the America of ten years ago (a time that seems almost like a golden age compared with today’s garbage fire). But in at least one way the landscape is unchanged: slick hucksters still gin the rules for their own profit. It just reminds us how little we have learned in the past decade—or the past two centuries, for that matter. The scam never ends. Even the most sympathetic characters, the theater couple (who, just by coincidence happen to resemble Anderson and Kralj) face their own moral dilemma in the form of a foundation that offers substantial grant support in exchange for sacrificing some artistic freedom—the eternal problem of “selling out.” If all big money is tainted by predatory capitalism, how is the artist to pay the bills and still claim integrity? The world makes beggars of us all.

This Beggars Opera doesn’t pretend to solve that quandary. But the closing number, beautifully sung by the whole cast, out of character and gathered around the piano, seems to say: “We’re all in this together. It’s a dirty world—but at least we have each other.”

Theatre Gigante presents

The Beggar’s Opera
based on the original by John Gay
written and adapted by Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson

playing through October 12

Puppets of Evil

photo by Andy Walsh

The scenario is cribbed straight from a first person action game, or a “B” thriller of the ilk of Predator: a band of mercenaries on an undefined nocturnal mission, tricked out in high-tech gear, in the remote depths of a forest in Russia. It’s a premise guaranteed to trigger a Pavlovian adrenaline gush in all genre junkies. Out of a few standard tropes—a shadowy corporation, a dangerous performance-enhancing drug, a magical MacGuffin, unsettling apparitions that might be supernatural or the product of a mind under stress— playwright/director Andrew Parchman has crafted The Feast, a fantasy drama around philosophical questions that nest deep in the mythology of modern times: what is the nature of power, and what are its true costs?

Joe Riggenbach portrays the platoon leader, Craven, as almost machine-like in his pursuit of the job. He clashes with black ops specialist Raimi, played with athletic grace by Alex Roy. Roy also choreographed the spectacular concluding fight sequence between Raimi and Craven, which far surpasses most stage combat in both naturalism and martial arts “wow” moments. We’d like to see more like this in the future, please! Craven attempts to murder Raimi with a dose of the psychoactive drug “ink,” but Raini escapes into the wild, where he encounters an inhuman entity in the form of a sinister, if garrulous, luminous floating larva-like creature, that, Mephistopheles-like, offers him great power—for a price, of course.

photo by Andy Walsh

Parchman hits all the right narrative beats: setting up the story, sketching out characters in quick strokes, providing comic relief by Will Hughes, as a not-quite-ready-for-the-big-time soldier of fortune, and Brian Rott, in a rare naturalistic performance as a Russian fugitive. The rest of the players have just enough individuality as to not seem like stereotypes. The puppet creatures, by Parchman again and Jeff Holub, are high-grade nightmare fuel, particularly the giant bipedal insect that stalks the stage while calmly discoursing on the difference between love and power. A techno soundtrack sets an exciting computer-game vibe. Over-long scene breaks cut into the forward momentum a bit, but the elements are all present for a gripping philosophical thriller.

The word “myth” is often used today to contrast false irrational belief with scientific truth (“Trust Data, not Lore”). But myths can also be repositories of a culture’s foundational wisdom, encoded in the language of symbols. Pop culture keeps coming back to the same tropes again and again, like a massive disembodied computer crunching on the dilemmas that our culture has yet to resolve: questions about technology, identity, community, and value. Things that science can’t address, like, how can we live as authentic human beings when our strings are constantly being pulled by economic and technological forces beyond our control? Perhaps that’s why the show ends with a terrifying question.

The Feast thoroughly and entertainingly manifests this mythic dimension of the sci-fi/ action genre. The atmosphere, humor, creepy puppets, and the boss battle at the end, are altogether well worth the price of the show.

Quasimondo Physical Theatre presents

The Feast

written and directed by Andrew Parchman

playing through October 5

Loony Tunes for the people!

by Jeff Grygny

For the second production of their inaugural season at Saint Kate’s Arts Hotel, the ARCo Ensemble is bringing the rarely-produced (at least in Milwaukee) farce They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! by the Nobel Prize-winning satirist Dario Fo, whose absurdist comedies are as celebrated by leftists as they are hated, banned and persecuted by tyrants and fat cats throughout the globe; Fo was indeed once banned from the United States during the Reagan years. Working in a country with a millennium-long history of crazy despots, from Nero to Silvio Berlusconi, Fo is an expert in the absurdities of everyday life under a system that only makes sense for the people at the top. (Could it help us make sense of life under our current leadership? Hmmm, discuss!)

Far from being the righteous recitation of iniquities you might expect from a subversive play, They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! is an anarchistic riot, a two-act journey from relative normality into surreal flaming lunacy. The play’s original title is Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga!, which might lose a little in translation, just as the satire doesn’t map perfectly to the American idiom— any more than you could perfectly transfer Monty Python and The Holy Grail to, say, Ohio— and director Dr. Nancy Kresin doesn’t strain to make it do so. But the play’s topic of class oppression, combined with it’s bizarre, free-association humor, pack a potent punch, whatever the setting. As the situations get more and more deranged, the characters morph from recognizable working-class types into veritable wacky inflatable tube men (and women), pumped up with laughing gas, in a conga line of alternating hysteria and collapse.

The players bring a fresh, spontaneous feel to the action; they often seem to be riffing in the moment. As a conservative factory worker named Giovanni, Seth K. Hale simmers with dangerous testosterone. Whether transforming convincingly into a pantomime bull or rooster or gingerly sampling the canned pet food his wife left for him (it’s pretty good!), he embraces the crazy in an all-in bear hug. When his affable co-worker Luigi, played with understated charisma by Tim Gutknecht, shows up, the laughs kick into overdrive: the two skilled clowns leave no fruits unsqueezed for their delicious comedy-juice.

Their counterparts, Emily Elliot and Rachel Meldman, as their respective spouses Antonia and Margherita, are like an unnatrual fusion of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza with Lucy and Ethel. All of the the confusion stems from Antonia’s propensity for making up ever more extravagant lies to conceal her grocery store shoplifting spree, which was motivated by yet another outrageous price hike. Antonia’s genius for confabulation includes fake pregnancies, belly-binding, baby transplants, and miraculous interventions by imaginary saints. The versatile J J Gatesman joins the misadventures in four different roles, from a left-wing sympathizing cop to a weirdly hissing one-armed undertaker. It all makes for a show that’s energetic, subversive, and hilarious in equal measures.

If it’s radical to show how predatory capitalism makes clowns of us all, then They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! is a radical play—but one that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders would heartily endorse. It’s interesting to see how Fo’s 1974 message has played out, here at the turn of the twenty-first century. Both Berlusconi’s Italy and Trumpf’s USA suggest that many of the disenfranchised masses would just as soon embrace the big lie as stand together and fight the power. (I would love to see Fo’s 2003 play The Two-Headed Anomaly, which showed Vladimir Putin’s brain being transplanted into Berlusconi’s head.) Clearly our current crop of comedians has failed to rise to the occasion. Where is our Dario Fo?

ARCo Ensemble presents

They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!

by Dario Fo

playing through October 26

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Art is a Superpower: A Report from the Fringe, Saturday, August 24, 2019

Warped Dance Company on the plaza (all photos by Jeff Grygny)

by Jeff Grygny

A fringe can be ornamental, like the yellow stuff around a flag, or it can keep something from fraying, like a Persian rug. It can be disreputable, like a city’s outlying regions, or essential, like the filigreed cilia of jellyfish, with their protective venom and food-gathering tendrils.  Fringe art can perform any and all of these functions, from decorative to life-sustaining. Denizen of boundaries and edges, fringe art can alert us to dangers and possibilities that might escape those who live in the comfortable center. But it’s also a lot of fun, as the Fourth Milwaukee Fringe Festival amply demonstrates. We have festivals for food, motorcycles, music and cheese—why not for the kind of performing arts that, as John Schneider, co-founder and Artistic Producer, put it, we aren’t likely to see in most local venues.

Always in motion: John Schneider opens the festival

Does “avant-garde” even mean anything anymore? Once the domain of grim-faced youngsters rebelling against their bourgeoisie parents, its once-revolutionary techniques have been assimilated into mainstream advertising, pop music, even corporate culture. Anyway, there were no black-clad anarchist types evident on the festival’s first day:  the staff was clean-cut and friendly, the program was well-and thoughtfully arranged, and though there were no crowds comparable to the fishing and boating show, there was a steady stream of fair goers hanging out on the Riverwalk, dancing to live salsa and reggae, and shuttling back and forth between the two main venues of Vogel Hall and the Todd Weir Theater in the building formerly know as “the PAC,”  to sample some of the thirty acts that had been jury-selected from an applicant pool of over fifty artists and companies. Nothing like the 2000 acts of the three-week Edinburgh Fringe from which it gets its name, but on the other hand, we weren’t forced into many agonizing choices. With a general pass and a bit of determination, you could see almost everything.

Matt Kemple, co-founder and Operations Manager, runs a tight ship

The broad range of the festival’s offerings was notable from the start. You could listen to Bob Balderson crooning the tunes of Harry Warren, composer of such classics a “Chattanooga Choo Coo” and “Jeepers Creepers,” or you could see Dasha Kelly Hamilton’s entertaining, and meticulously-researched history of the United States from the perspective of  baking—with a generous dollop of identity politics folded in. Take-away quote: “White male privilege is the high-fructose corn syrup of the American recipe.” The cutest moment happened when Hamilton had to drag one of her onstage bakers away from her mixing bowl to take a bow. Then (if you skipped out on the free cake, darn it), you could rush over to the Todd Weir in time to see Don Russell’s exquisite sketch of a cross-dressing street clown who performs David Bowie songs while reflecting on the vagaries of commerce and art: “vice and verse.”

Ziggy the Clown

Outside the theaters, Voices Found Repertory company brought their “A” game to a well-composed selection of scenes from their last season: mostly Shakespeare, with a bit of Oedipus Rex and A.J. McGoon playing a lad bedeviled by his potty-mouthed hand puppet. Even fighting the sounds of the clanging drawbridge, the young actors performed with clarity and genuine feeling. The Mad Rogues gave a less dignified take on England’s bard, with a “scavenger hunt” in which you were given the first line of a famous scene, with a choice of several following lines. Even if you guessed wrong, the players read the scene, leading to such delicious mash-ups as Ophelia arguing with Lady Macbeth, or Hamlet telling Kate from Taming of the Shrew to get her to a nunnery.

Voices Found Repertory Company
A.J. McGoon in “Hand to God”
Some of the Mad Rogues

Then there was dance—lots of it. Water Street Dance gave a full recital of lyrical pieces that explored space, form, and emotion, including a heart-tearing spoken word piece illuminated by a breathtaking solo breakdancer (a program would have been very welcome so that you knew the artist’s names), and a fierce ensemble of athletic young women moving in strong sculptural compositions. Neville Dance Theatre out of New York offered a spectacular piece using portable lights manipulated by the dancers, showing off bodies in harsh relief, casting huge black silhouettes, and creating crowds of moving overlapping shadows.

Water Street Dance Milwaukee
Neville Dance Theatre

Dance is music made flesh, but it can tax the attention span of people unversed in the vocabulary of movement. You had to skip “spacejunk dance” if you wanted to to cross over to hear Theatre Gigante’s Mark Anderson investigate the meaning of life, relationships, and religion in philosophical monologues, delivering Zen-like aphorisms like “Are you a what, a who is, or whatever? And who taught you to drive?” “It’s not answers I’m looking for,” he said, perfectly expressing the Socratic spirit, “I’m looking for better questions.”

Mark Anderson of Theatre Gigante

The festival organizers kindly scheduled a little breathing time here, to get a bite or relax to the live music. Then it was on to one of the day’s most unforgettable events: Chicago’s Tyler Anthony Smith’s campy take on Lady Macbeth—oh my! We knew the Scottish queen went mad, but this b**** is cray cray! Smith reduced the crowd to helpless laughter with his sub-subtextual body language and therapy-session patter, mercilessly dissecting Lady M as an unfulfilled suburban housewife whose cable tv talk show gives her the platform for an unutterably depraved and very public emotional meltdown.

“Out, Damn Spot!” with Tyler Anthony Smith
Selena Milewski in “Tread Lightly”

Tread Lightly is a virtuosic physical theater piece created by Selena Milewski and Karl Baumann in which the duo balances ingenously on varied arrangements of giant truck tires (you could smell the rubber). The performance begins playfully, but turns into a warning about the poisonous effects of plastic on the living world—a message delivered so bluntly as to stick in your gut like bottle caps in an albatross’ belly. Saturday’s festival closed with an anarchic satire on Shakespeare by the Angry Young Men, performed by a crew of raunchy muppets. (Isn’t it curious that the the most influential artist of the day was a 400-year-dead playwright?)

MCs Don Russell and Kelley Coffey

In feudal Japan, Noh artists claimed that their plays invoked the gods to protect the land from invaders. For centuries in Europe, art was dedicated to the glory of God. Today people argue that art is good for a city’s bottom line. But more than any of these, art is just good for human life. The power of art is to make meaning; to embody a culture’s deepest values and pass them to following generations. Much modern art concerns itself with critiquing, questioning, showing how meaning disappears when broken down. But humans are inveterate meaning-making animals: despite the modern drive to deconstruct narrative, we will always be creating new stories, new narratives that embody our dreams and aspirations. As long as there are relationships, there will be stories.

Good art puts us in touch with something greater than ourselves: the ever-changing mesh of relationships that go all the way down to our chromosomes and all the way up to the stars. There’s nothing mystical about it—or it’s absolutely mystical, if you want to see it that way. It’s art’s super-power: to refresh our senses and show us the world anew. So cheers for the Fringe Festival: it makes life better!

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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

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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.

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

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

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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

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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

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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

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