All posts by jgrygny

A Fourth State of Opera

Milwaukee Opera Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

 A “lady knight” fights a sorceress for the love of her boyfriend, another knight; A woman brings scandal on herself by sleepwalking into a man’s bedroom; Wotan imprisons his daughter Brunhilde in a ring of fire; a blind princess is cured by someone telling her about vision; a disgruntled wife turns into a man and her husband gives birth to thousands of children, causing an economic crisis. And so on. 

Sooner or later every opera lover must reconcile herself to the blunt fact that the plots of operas are often quite silly. Of course, music and storytelling require very different skill sets. But not only that: most of these convoluted tales of swooning princesses, anguished monarchs, potions, curses, and various enchanted accessories are the products of male artists writing female characters who fulfill their fantasies. Problematic!

You can blame this unhappy state of affairs on the sixth century Frankish king Clovis, who, after the collapse of the Roman empire, instituted the Salic Law, which banned women from inheriting property or titles, and thus laying down the shape of the fairy tale world of opera, and bequeathing Europe—where opera was created as an elite pastime—centuries of rule by (literally) entitled lunks to whose desires (along with their wives and mistresses, no doubt) artists either had to pander, or go back to working in their dad’s dull businesses.

Be that as it may, when the most imaginative and daring stage directors in our fair city, Jill Anna Ponasic and Brian Rott, team up with Chicago-based artist Jeffrey Mossner to tackle opera, you can be sure something amazing will happen. Fully engaging with these works’ silliness and outdated norms, they transform them into a pleasingly disorienting spectacle, playful and feather-light, while showcasing a cast of seven wonderful singers who deliver excerpts from seven of the weirdest operas ever written, from warhorses like the Ring Cycle to oddities like Les Mamelles de Tirésias, based on the first surrealist play.

The game is afoot even before curtain: the audience is cast as guests at a wedding reception for Bluebeard (from Bartók’s opera). Kirk Thomsen, playing the eponymous Duke, is jovial with a vaguely menacing undercurrent as he works the crowd with loose-cannon ad libs. His new bride, Judith, played by the incomparable Jessi Miller, seems a bit uneasy, though. Bluebeard reveals the eight doors of his castle, which we are to explore—except for the last, luridly rendered in red, which we are forbidden to open. This is a very clever premise for a smorgasbord of clips and synopses. The singers remain onstage, as in a recital, standing to perform their dreamlike vignettes. The most delirious moments come with the speed-run through The Love for Three Oranges, in which a prince laughs when a witch accidentally shows her underwear, and she curses him into falling in love with fruit. I’m not making this up: it’s the actual story!

Milwaukee Opera Theatre

All this is illuminated by the sublimely low-tech animations of Anja Notanja Sieger, who manipulates exquisite cut-out figures over an antique overhead projector, using common objects like ribbon, lace, and a colander to create trippy visuals that dance in the border between child’s play and high art, like the work of the great underground film maker and mystic Harry Smith. Sometimes you have no idea what’s happening: you’re just washed in a flood of bizarre imagery and exquisite music. It’s the artiest thing Milwaukee has seen since the pandemic before-time. When Notanja Sieger, Thomsen, and Miller are all hovering over the glowing square of the projector, coordinating their tiny puppets, they seem like magicians, creating reality before our very eyes, or scientists, fusing image, music, and narrative into a plasmic fourth state of matter. And on a purely animal level, something about these moving shadows really works with the opera in this age when we’re so used to watching images on little screens: the wiggling shapes give non-opera buffs something to do with their brains and actually let them hear the music better.

And the music, under the lively direction of Janna Ernst, is gorgeous. Soprano Cecilia Davis brings great feeling to the role of Amina the sleepwalker, and aces the high notes of the Queen of the Night; David Guzmán’s bass voice delivers a powerful Wotan and Sarastro; Kathy Pyeatt’s soprano makes us feel the wonder of Iolante discovering sight for the first time. The whole cast fully commits to the offbeat premise. And as the show goes on, Bluebeard and Judith discuss their relationship, revealing things about their pasts: he’s been married before (eight times, to be honest); she’s had a girlfriend with whom she’s still in contact. This is all delivered in a matter-of-fact tone with a perfect touch of camp, like an avant-garde vaudeville routine.

It’s indescribably refreshing to see something again that’s so truly, daringly experimental, while at the same time utterly playful and unpretentious. This dreamy fusion opens up a liminal space between music and story, between high and low art, and even, perhaps, in the historic war between the sexes. Who knows: maybe Bluebeard and Judith can work things out.

Alas, this production has run it’s one-week course, but we can only hope to witness more collaborations like it.

Milwaukee Opera Theater presents

Impossible Operas

Featuring Music by Handel, Mozart, Bellini, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, , Prokofiev, and Poulenc

Created by Tim Rebers, Brian Rott, Jeffrey Mosser, ​Anja Notanja Sieger and Jill Anna Ponasik

Stage Directors: Jill Anna Ponasik, Jeffrey Mosser, and Brian Rott

Kids These Days

photo by Alexis Furseth

by Jeff Grygny

Voices Found Repertory gives young theater artists the precious opportunity to challenge, and be challenged by, the great works of the past. In their earnest, no-frills production of Romeo and Juliet, currently playing at the Interchange Theater Co-Op, we can see this pas de deux of old and new in action, and it’s the tension that makes the performance engaging.

It’s like a TV show set in a theatrical universe where the social norms are patriarchal, but the Prince is a stern woman in a ball gown, the street toughs crack Elizabethan puns and duel with knives, but everyone displays the body language and emotional registers of 21st Century Americans. First-time director Phillip Steenbekkers has coached his actors to understand exactly what they’re saying and why they’re saying it; to discover the human hearts beating within the 400 year old words, and translate them into characters contemporary audiences will understand. This is how theater should work, isn’t it?  Aside from occasional whisperiness, the casts’ diction is good; Shakespeare’s lines aren’t naturalistic, but they make them sound natural, while creating characters that we can easily relate with. Most impressively, the artists ask deep questions about this most famous of love stories. Plain vanilla boy-girl romance isn’t much in vogue these days: this production looks hard at its two young lovers and comes up with its own answers.

Amber Weissert plays Juliet as a fourteen-year-old, a choice accentuated by her little girl outfit. She accents her frustrations with very relatable adolescent roars. At  the same time, she’s sensitive enough to deliver some of the greatest poetry ever written, and seems enchanted by the words coming to her as she paces on that balcony. Similarly, Max Pink’s Romeo seems to enjoy just being Romeo: he’s an affable presence, perhaps more British cool than Italian fire, but with a fevered imagination that impels him to reckless deeds. The overall effect is to present these two kids as driven more by the idea of being in love than by actual passion, or god forbid, horniness. Instead, this play’s emotional core is in its platonic relationships: Romeos’ friendship with his bros Benvolio and Mercutio; the mutual affection between Juliet and her nurse.

photo by Alexis Furseth

As Juliet’s father, Kyle Conner presents a high-strung control freak prone to rage, but hardly a villain. Liv Mauseth’s Nurse is a fabulous American take on a timeless character: the kind of woman who can go teary with sentiment and then bellow off an order in the next breath; Josh Decker has a great time bringing high goofball energy to the role of  Mercutio, playing with out-there vocal dynamics and antic gesticulations. As the Prince, Faith Klick’s soft voice carries more authority than any angry shouting. And in the role of the classic Shakespearean clown, Hannah Kubiak runs off with many a scene as a buffoonish servant to house Capulet.

In his classic study of courtly love, the scholar Denis De Rougemont suggested that modern attitudes toward romance were forged in a literary cult of medieval troubadours who found mystical transcendence in an overheated (and frankly, not very healthy) tango between sex and death. This isn’t a mood we entertain much today: pop psychology and the zeitgeist warn us not to invest too much emotional energy in just one person. Voices Found’s Romeo and Juliet shows us this modern view of romance. Rather than a passion for the ages, it shows us two self-dramatizing kids whose tragedy amounts to a spontaneous lark gone south. Poetry is gorgeous, but dangerously seductive. Not as grand a vision, perhaps, but certainly in tune with our current mood of reduced expectations.

Voices Found Repertory  presents

Romeo and Juliet

by William Shakespeare

playing through May 28–juliet1.html

American Gods

photo by T. Charles Erickson

It’s an old song

It’s a sad song

We sing it anyway

            Hermes, Hadestown

by Jeff Grygny

There’s no three-headed dog, no ferryman on the Styx. But make no mistake, Hadestown is the real thing: its creator, the supernaturally gifted Anaïs Mitchell, has obviously lived, dreamed, and traveled in the myths of Orpheus and Persephone, and she’s distilled their essence into a fable that speaks to parts of us that we might not have even known we have. It’s no wonder this raucous, rowdy, and deeply moving show won eight Tony awards and played on Broadway for over a thousand performances. Now it’s come here, in a touring production currently playing at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Mitchell sets her cosmic opera in a fairy-tale America, somewhere in the South, perhaps New Orleans. It’s a mythic, honky-tonk landscape reminiscent of Max Fleischer cartoons or Cohen Brothers movies. It doesn’t sound like highly processed Broadway Entertainment Product; it’s musical vocabulary is old-timey, with  jazz, folk, and Cajun flavors. You wouldn’t be surprised to see Tom Waits slouching in the corner. The remarkable orchestration by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose deploys strange combinations of fiddle, cello, accordion, glockenspiel, and double bass, ably led by Eric Kang on stand-up piano, to create uncanny harmonies and haunting dissonances that echo a universe in constant precarity and go straight to our hearts, like the magical chords of Renaissance magic.

And like the first true opera, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the show is entirely sung. It tells its story through feelings—and those feelings are mighty. There’s no back story for Orpheus and Eurydice, and no need for any. He’s a struggling singer/songwriter with a vision of restoring the world through art; she’s a young woman down on her luck who catches his eye. The capable touring cast performs with professionalism and flashes of brilliance. Hannah Whitley communicates Eurydice’s hardscrabble biography with her body language.  J. Antonio Rodriguez, with a falsetto like struck crystal, makes us believe that Orpheus can charm love even into the king of death.

Maria-Christina Oliveras brings abundant sass to her role as party girl/nature goddess Persephone (she’s the one they sing about when they sing “she’s comin’ around the mountain”). Nathan Lee Graham plays Hermes, the prince of magicians and salesman, with great panache, and, playing Hades, Matthew Patrick Quinn’s intimidating basso voice rumbles itself right into your chest. As the Fates, feared by both men and gods, Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano, and Nyla Watson play their own instruments, making a sinister chorus of the sisters who know everything and smile as you go to your doom.

photo by T. Charles Erickson

The production glitters with all the technical arts of Broadway, including a revolving stage that’s very effectively incorporated into the choreography. The rock-concert lighting, underscoring every dramatic beat and mood shift, seems designed to make sure that even the drowsiest patron stays awake.

In this 19th century myth, the underworld is a factory town. While Persephone is up in the land of sunlight, the brooding Hades mines coal and forges steel; he builds engines and generators, and surrounds his realm with a great wall, convincing his slaves that it’s for their own security. Persephone is less than impressed: “it ‘aint natural.” she sings. When Orpheus arrives to help Eurydice break her desperate contract, he becomes something of a union organizer for the dead souls condemned to endlessly stoking Hades’ furnaces. It’s a powerful metaphor for the degrading effects of industrial capitalism, both on the natural world and on the human heart.

Orpheus’s songs awaken the spirit of love—but in the end he can’t defeat the Fates. Unlike Monteverdi, Mitchell leaves the tragic ending of the original myth intact. But she’s kind enough to let us down gently, and, after the curtain call, the players sing a final song as they raise their wineglasses in a salute to the eternal artist, seeing a vision of a world of love, and brought low by the cruelty of The Way Things Are, only to try again and again. Who knows—maybe next time will be different.

Broadway Across America presents


Music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell

playing through May 7

The Bard in Lockdown

Thomas Dekker 1625 credit: Sheila Terry//Science Photo Library

And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies

King Lear

by Jeff Grygny

Who are the invisible people? They’re the ones we never see because we never look at them. The housekeepers, the janitors, the panhandlers. Invisibility is one of the many themes in Bill Cain’s lively Elizabethan fantasy Gods Spies, which is currently receiving its world premiere at Next Act Theater as part of the World Premiere Wisconsin initiative.

Cain seems obsessed with Shakespeare’s later plays. His Equivocation dealt with the complex political intrigue behind the writing of Macbeth. The Last White Man scrutinized Hamlet through the lens of identity politics. Now, in God’ Spies, Cain processes the complex feelings around our recent collective experience of pandemic and loss, along with a few other things, including: the patriarchy, fundamentalist hypocrisy, inequality, dispossession, and the creative process— all in the setting of a London brothel. And he takes time to fill it with good-natured gags about Scottish accents, Shakespeare’s terrible penmanship, male cluelessness, and a certain village with a very long name.

King Lear has often been considered the greatest play ever written. The product of a master dramatist at the height of his powers, it takes on an even longer list of interwoven themes, in a story that might be a fairy tale but has also been adapted into modern settings, and, in Shakespeare’s way, remains surprising, even shocking, and unfathomably rich to this day. In God’s Spies, we meet the playwright in the middle of his work, suddenly trapped in a house where doxies bring their clients after their theater “dates.” He enters in full plague gear, as the town has just broken out, interrupting an argument between  local strumpet Ruth, and her reluctant patron, a Scots lawyer named Edgar, who curses the hour he set foot in a theater and lost his soul to the lusts of the flesh. As none of them are allowed to leave, Shakespeare (“Shax,” as he’s called here, because of the odd way he writes his name), continues his project. It turns out the Ruth is very canny about the theater, having seen every play multiple times whilst on the job, while Edgar has beautiful handwriting, and the three shut-ins gradually become collaborators.

photo by Ross Zentner

Writing doesn’t generally make the most compelling theater, and Cain finds many ingenious ways to draw us in to scenes of a man sitting at a table with pen and paper. So we have dramatic enactments, arguments, revelations, an impromptu ear-piercing, and eroticism—including an incident of casual bisexuality that comes out of nowhere and quickly goes back there. Director David Cecsarini keeps the action moving with Ruth’s compulsive cleaning—a detail that’s quite familiar to us after our own recent plague. Mark Ulrich, obviously having great fun with the role of  Shax, lights up the stage with a full-bodied characterization, bringing good-natured intelligence, charisma, and an endearing quirkiness that reminds us of certain brilliant theater artists we have known, with the facial ticks and grimaces of a mind so quick that it can’t help but escape the body in little electric jolts.

photo by Ross Zentner

As Edgar, Zach Thomas Woods shows a vulnerable, confused young man behind a burr thick enough to stand a spoon up in. And Eva Nimmer brings grace and humanity to a role that’s heavily weighted with thematic importance: as a prostitute, she’s the lowest of the low, but like Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s sister,” she’s just as insightful and talented as Will, while also a practical genius at surviving; a resourceful provider, a healer, and the unrecognized hero who saves King Lear for posterity. But don’t expect her to play the games of the stereotypical trollop; she is very much a clear-headed businesswoman. Just as Lear recognizes the poor and destitute among his subjects, so Shax comes to understand the value of ” invisible” people like Ruth.

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. 

King Lear Act 3 scene 4

One figure conspicuously absent in the play is Lear himself. Kings are not in vogue these days, to put it mildly. While so many literary classics are being “interrogated” by contemporary critics, Bill Cain seems intent on making sure these plays remain fresh, alive, and relevant. He leans right into the controversy. Best of all, he’s not reverent: his meditations aren’t dour theses, but borderline farces with escalatingly improbable developments that veer close to campiness. And this is all for the better. God’s Spies is a feast for Shakespeare buffs, and greatly entertaining for everyone else.I can’t wait for him to venture into the ideological mine field that is The Tempest next.  

Next Act Theater presents

God’s Spies

by Bill Cain

playing through May 21

The Mass Global Goodbye

Photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

We never learn her name; she’s called “The Detective.” She wanders, bemused, amid piles of grey cardboard banker boxes littered with household detritus, including an antique telephone, a hand-cranked Victrola, and an ancient typewriter, enshrined like holy relics of the Industrial Revolution. “I didn’t always live like this,” she confesses. Thus begins Tidy, a brand-new play by Kristin Idaszak, in a production by Renaissance Theaterworks, produced as part of the World Premiere Wisconsin initiative. We’ll spend the next eighty-five minutes in this room with The Detective in a state of mounting unease, as the play gradually veers, as if pulled by implacable geologic forces, from contemplative musings into the realms of conspiracy, dystopia, and apocalypse.

Idaszak deftly spins a dense web of genres: social satire, hard-boiled mystery, domestic drama, memory play, psychological thriller, even a touch of prop comedy. The surreal setting is reminiscent of Beckett’s Theatre of the Absurd,. The play’s scientific/political themes echo the novels of J.G. Ballard, while its steady drip of sinister revelations might be out of a film by M. Night Shyamalan. Our protagonist is simply trying to clear her apartment of clutter, using the principle of feeling whether a possession sparks joy, and if not, thanking it and saying goodbye. As she goes along, reminiscing over the various tchotchkes she and her wife have collected, we learn that her wife—coincidentally named “Joy”— is a geologist who specializes in mass extinctions, and that her research is for some reason both classified and gives her certain privileges. We learn about the six mass extinctions in Earth’s history, with the last being the Anthropocene, which we are living in now.

The Detective’s most poignant memories come from her childhood on her parent’s farm, where she named all the trees on the land and loved especially one grand tree. When we hear of month-long tornadoes, of abandoned buildings and relocation centers, of how meat and vegetables have been replaced by synthetic food, it becomes apparent that this world of “next year” is very different from ours. This is a very effective way to tell a big story in the most cramped of settings, and if it seems a bit didactic at times, it still leaves us greatly unsettled— which is most certainly the playwright’s intent.

Director Elizabeth Margolius and an inspired crew of artists work hard to vary the tones and rhythms of what is basically a long monologue. Cassandra Bissell brings great warmth, humor, and pathos to a character slowly recognizing just how bad a situation she’s in. As she goes about her tidying mission, her “thank you”s begin to turn into “I’m sorry”s as she realizes just how much she has to let go. (This is especially heartbreaking for those of us who can still remember a world with more butterflies, temperate seasons, and open land.)

photo by Ross Zentner

Special praise is due to the design team who created this dreamscape: Scenic Designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and Lighting Designer Noele Stollmack, who realize a dynamic sculptural environment that becomes a second character; also Christopher Kriz’s sound design, that sensitively captures the range of emotional tones, from elegiac to menacing, and Yeaji Kim’s video projections, that wash over the stage like memories, plus a stunning final image that overpoweringly conveys the sense of a world split open to reveal an awesome and terrible reality. (Most of these artists, along with the Director and Playwright, are based in Chicago—make of that what you will.)

Generally, contemporary artists seem to struggle with our ecological crisis. Scientific data and creative expression don’t often exactly sing together, and the modern ideal of art is to interrogate and deconstruct, rather than to offer answers. Idaszak leaves The Detective’s fate ambiguous. We’re not even sure if her world is real or a paranoiac fantasy. By so doing, the Playwright plays both to people who accept climate science and those who feel it’s overblown or all a conspiracy. But whether or not this play will convince any climate skeptics, it’s an effective warning: a flashing red light signifying that, as Greta Thunberg urged us, we really must “change everything” about the way we live. This is a great place to start.

Personally, I’d like to imagine that The Detective is reunited with her Joy, who arrives to take her out of her materialist cocoon to a refuge where people are beginning the great adventure of creating a culture that works, not to conquer nature, but to cooperate with it. Now that would be something to see.

Renaissance Theaterworks presents


 by Kristin Idaszak

playing through April 16

If you’d like to contribute to international climate change activism, you could visit

For an innovative approach to bringing the performing arts to our relationship with the natural world, see:  

Adventures in the Deep World: A Report on The Performance Ecology Project

The Roads of Genius

photo by Ross Zentner

Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without Improvement are the roads of genius.

William Blake (ca 1790)

by Jeff Grygny

A sleepy liberal arts college is rocked by scandal; the two professors involved—by some departmental quirk, they are both scholars of the Eighteenth Century poet William Blake—use their final lectures to explain, if not justify, their shocking act. So opens There is a Happiness That Morning Is, Mickle Maher’s fabulously rich comedy of poetry currently playing at Next Act Theatre. English literature has rarely seemed so rambunctiously sexy, riotously funny, and radically essential.

But this is no satire of academic speech. Their transgression is far more earthy and primal than a misuse of pronouns or offending some ethnic identity— though there is perhaps a sly rejoinder here to puritanism of all kinds. And though the play consists entirely of dazzling flights of the spoken word, it isn’t a play about language. It’s the play of language itself, playing about what language is itself about: life and how we live it. In a dizzying high wire act of verbal virtuosity, Maher stretches, teases, jumbles and juggles words and ideas in unstrained iambic couplets that sound sometimes like Shakespeare, sometimes like rap, sometimes like Doctor Seuss, and sometimes just like people talking. Speech is the star player: the supple instrument of human consciousness exploring the cosmos.

Mickle Maher is no ordinary playwright. A co-founder of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck, his playful dramas defy categorization or easy synopsis, though they often engage literary classics: a group of superheroes on a submarine phone bank raising funds for an emergency production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Spirits to Enforce); Doctor Faustus on his last evening on earth, explaining his life, while Mephistopheles sits silently waiting for midnight (An Apology).

But then, William Blake is no ordinary poet either. Artist, visionary, and mystic, he self-published his illustrated writings and was regarded by his contemporaries as a whimsical eccentric, yet he led the way for the blooming of the English Romantic Movement. A stupendously original thinker, he divided  human life into the stages of “innocence,” a time of childlike wonder,  “experience,” the inevitable grinding down of the world, and, for the lucky, “organized innocence,” where joy and knowledge reunite in true wisdom.  

Neil Brookshire brings a rumpled enthusiasm to his role of Bernard. In his lecture on Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” he glows like a cherub in the epiphanic aftermath of his subversive act. His discourse on the absolute joy of morning, beyond mood or happenstance, is perhaps the cheeriest opening speech of any play in all of literature. But if he seems transfigured by his experience, the exact same experience has been a spiritual catastrophe for his partner Ellen, played with spiky intelligence by Cassandra Bissel, Discussing Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose,” she mercilessly dissects the meaning of the “invisible worm” with its “dark secret love.” And she spares no foul words for the college Dean, who has demanded their joint public apology.

Just when you might begin to feel swamped by the floods of brilliant verbiage, Maher throws in cascading developments so unexpected, so outrageous and yet so insanely appropriate, you can only roar with laughter as the events unfold with what we can only call poetic justice. Director Mary Macdonald Kerr wisely stays out of the way and lets her actors bring these two people’s minds and souls to vivid life, while Scenic Designer Lisa Schlenker has brought a beautiful painted tribute to Blake’s illuminated texts into the lecture hall setting.

“It is difficult to get the news from poems,”  wrote William Carlos Williams, “though men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” There isn’t much news either in There Is A Happiness That Morning Is. But at a time when the news all seems to be bad, there is something here that could very possibly nourish and sustain you through the dim days of old winter, and beyond.  

Next Act Theatre presents

There is a Happiness That Morning Is

by Mickle Maher

playing through March 19

This Rough Magic

photo by Alexis Furseth

by Jeff Grygny

The great director Peter Brook wrote that there were four classes of theater: The deadly, the holy, the rough, and the immediate. Voices Found Repertory’s delightful interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is far from deadly, and it isn’t really holy as such. At first you might think it’s rough theater, then, which Brook calls plays that are short on budget, often performed by amateurs who stumble upon brilliance through sincerity and sheer luck. The first scene, where the mage Prospero creates the titular storm, wrecking a ship loaded with his old enemies, seems to be just actors running around yelling incomprehensibly. It’s soon clear that this isn’t ineptitude on the players’ part, but a fair rendition of an actual disaster in progress.

The Tempest, the last play that Shakespeare wrote, has everything that we love in Shakespeare: The magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the romance of Romeo and Juliet, the farce of Twelfth Night, the treachery of the histories, and the supernatural creepiness of Macbeth. All this and a message of renunciation and forgiveness, coupled with the spectacle of a court masque and a metaphysics of illusion. It’s truly a tour-de-force of the playwright’s art.

It’s so gratifying, then, to see a new generation of artists bringing their own fresh sensibility to this cultural treasure. Director Alex Metalsky, a hobbit-like fellow with a broad smile and a Hagrid-esque mass of hair, has very clear ideas about where he wants this show to go, and he largely succeeds. These ideas include audience engagement, naturalistic delivery, emotional truth, lots of humor, and some very stylized theatrical flourishes. He’s stripped the 20-character play to just five performers, who rush on and offstage to make slight changes to costume and personae. He distributes the role of Ariel, Prospero’s familiar spirit, into four players, one evidently for each of the four elements of Renaissance magic. Far from coming off as contrived, this gambit accentuates the fluid, mercurial nature of the shape-shifting spirit. The magical pageant, often omitted from productions of the play, here becomes a wonderfully downscale affair, with ukulele, a goddess in drag, and even an improbably successful hip-hop break. You really haven’t lived until you’ve heard Shakespearean verse in rap, and it works so well it’s amazing more people don’t do it.

photo by Alexis Furseth

Each player gets their own opportunity to shine: Chloe Attalla brings the sincerity and confidence of a teenager to the role of Miranda with effortless grace: her scenes with Grace Berendt as Prince Ferdinand capture something of the aching vulnerability of first love; Berendt also embodies the brittle, self-centered scheming of Prospero’s wicked brother, and shares a very funny display of classic clowning with Hannah Kubiak as a pair of drunken servants. Cory Fitzsimmons shows us the wounded creature behind Caliban’s monstrous appearance, and rocks both a fanciful headpiece and oversized sunglasses as the goddess Ceres, while William Molitor performs Prospero’s crisis of forgiveness with utter credibility.

Somehow, there’s something in twenty-first century pop culture that suits Shakespeare incredibly well. You heard it here first folks: a pastiche of pop tropes and styles skillfully blended with musicality, cartoonishness, melodrama, and moments of heartwarming honesty, mixed in with the flavors of contemporary attitudes, summons up these antique plays into vivid, rude good health. After this Tempest, you feel enriched, enlivened, and like life is worth living– which is not a bad thing to get from a work of art.

Voices Found has been in operation for seven years now. And though the personnel may change, they continue to let young artists try out their chops on classics of world theater. They reminds us that, though Shakespeare is centuries old, he yet offers a brave new world to each generation.

Voices Found Repertory


The Tempest

by William Shakespeare

playing through February 19

Big Mood: Reps “Much Ado” Brings the Fun Back To Theater

photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

“I saw this amazing show! It was romantic, exciting, with great music and dancing, And it was SO funny! I even cried at the end! ” “Really? What was it?” “Shakespeare!” is something nobody says. Until recently that is, when we cracked the code for making Shakespeare work in the twenty-first century: substituting pop songs for the poetry that was the pop music of Shakespeare’s time. Turns out that switching out electric guitars and drum kits for lutes and tabors is the secret ingredient to bringing out all the rich umami goodness of Shakespeare’s plays for contemporary audiences. The Milwaukee Rep’s new production of Much Ado About Nothing reveals the play’s humanity and wit—and what’s more, makes it hip, smart, and tremendously fun to watch. It’s amazing what can happen with a fresh musical approach, some loving attention to the text, and an ensemble of brilliant actors, musicians, and comedians who clearly love what they’re doing. In the skilled hands of Director Laura Braza, the show simply rocks.

Setting the play in Seattle in the 1990s is an intriguing way to explore the play’s military culture: the men are just returning from a victorious war, as G.W. Bush’s Operation Desert Shield had successfully driven Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait (the time seems so innocent in this age of social media and MAGA, doesn’t it?). The historical juxtaposition generates both light and heat, highlighting the parallels between Elizabethan power and America’s boo-ya triumphalism. It’s impressive, too, how Music Director Dan Kazemi enlists the dirty chords of Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots to evoke a powerful mood, concocting a shiny, bombastic, happy-sad, fast-slow-fast theater bomb much befitting Much Ado’s high emotions and world-weary wisdom, that carries us along irresistibly for three hours (including a twenty-minute intermission). The presence of live musicians among the cast adds immeasurably, as always.

Best of all, the production shamelessly embraces the theatricality of Elizabethan theater, shifting from elevated realism to farce to musical theater without dropping a beat. The show opens with rebel girl Beatrice passing a joint with her friends and belting out a Nirvana-esque ballad to self-conscious anomie in a piercing voice that could shatter glass in the balcony. The lyrics were written by Louise Labé, an obscure cross-dressing French poet who died when Shakespeare was around two years old (Her story would have made an interesting note in the show’s play guide, but it’s oddly absent). Later, a delicious party scene, lit like a high-end nightclub, breaks into choreography that seems to burst from the sheer joy of victory, youth, and privilege, like the Platonic ideal of an impossibly cool frat party: many kudos to choreographer Jenn Rose. In an age when art is often supposed to be a vehicle for dispensing what’s good for us, this embrace of pure pleasure feels almost wicked.

photo by Michael Brosilow

So it is with the play’s comedy. Time and again the actors hit the sweet spot between credibility and clowning. Forget the 500 year old puns: Shakespeare is hilarious. Mark Corkins’ Don Pedro is on fire with mirth and camaraderie. The reliable Jonathan Girard Daly brings humanity to what could easily be a generic patriarch. Nate Burger lends pitch perfect sitcom energy to his role of Benedick, all bluster and insecurity: when he and Alex Keiper’s Beatrice meet, their verbal duels glitter. Meanwhile, Keiper fans the coals under a simmering cauldron of rage, no hotter than in her “O that I were a man” speech. As the incompetent marshal Dogberry and his factotum, Michael Doherty and Will Mobley leave no shtick unturned in their folie a deux of utterly unwarranted machismo,  with inspired silliness reminiscent of the old SCTV show. And as a cleric officiating a marriage gone south, Daydra Smith speaks with firm authority while the men are all running around with their bruised honor.

Every era remakes Shakespeare after it’s own concerns: The Victorians took out all the depressing bits; in the 60’s the plays were anti-establishment and existential. Director Braza’s rendering becomes a thorough and very effective feminist treatise. Even more impressively, she doesn’t turn the men into villains, but rather shows how the patriarchal structure of society itself is to blame. Of course, with such strong choices. there are inevitably trade-offs. The character of Benedick loses some of his appealing self-awareness: his line, probably my favorite in all of the plays, “man is a giddy thing,” seems to not have made the cut, as if to underscore that it’s institutional sexism, not human folly, that caused the troubles. Also notably absent is any reference to the most significant development of grunge culture (which, honestly, pretty much was a guy thing): the famous 1999 “Battle of Seattle,” when youth anti-globalization protests spread across the world. Granted, there’s little to do with class struggle in Much Ado. But the world historical event is even missing from the play guide’s 1990s timeline (though we do read there about the second Congo war for some reason). Not terribly shocking perhaps, for a theater beholden to corporate funding.

But peace: I’d happily attend a dozen feminist treatises if they were as fun and pleasurable as this show. And since Braza is the Rep’s current Associate Artistic Director, we can hope for many more good things from her in the future. Hey nonny nonny, everyone! You owe it to yourself to see this play!

Milwaukee Rep presents

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare

playing through February 12, 2023

The True Meaning of Christmas

Photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

The dress rehearsal for  the Saint Ignatius Episcopal Church Christmas pageant begins. Under lurid lighting, a bare room whose grimy walls, hung with scissors, suggests an abattoir. Mary screams over a stuffed lamb; Joseph murders God, shouting “God is dead!” Thus begins the first of The Nativity Variations, a farcical alternative to holiday fare currently playing in a world premiere at The Milwaukee Rep. Artistic Director Mark Clements commissioned prize-winning playwright Catherine Trieschmann to write a play that amazingly kluges together elements of A Christmas Carol, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and maybe a bit of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

At the fictional Saint Ignatius (yes, Episcopalians do honor Catholic saints, I checked. But it’s complicated), the open-minded Father Juan has invited Jules, the head of a local avant-garde theater, to direct the annual Christmas pageant. But the play becomes a battleground in the culture wars when Jules keeps injecting her radical feminism into the performance every time the good Father demands a rewrite. Each of the community players has his or her own challenge: the single mom; the actor who wants to salvage a romance after a breakup; the couple strained by financial difficulties, and the director in denial about her family problems. They all work day jobs and do theater for the love of it: amateurs in the best sense of the word. Mayhem ensues when a naive husband and wife are cast in this offbeat ensemble.

Trieschmann’s clever script is loaded with theater history: she lampoons pretentious experimental theater, gender-bending Shakespeare, and puppets for adults, while affectionately skewering the egos and intra-personal dynamics of community theater. Her broad takedown of artists who impose their ideologies on classic stories, in the process losing the qualities that make them great, had many people in the opening night audience guffawing and cheering.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

As Jules, Sami Ma gives a grounded, sympathetic performance, rather than playing a stereotypical crazy director. Ryan Alvarado neatly contrasts his dual roles as the upbeat, patient Father Juan and a neurotic gym teacher/leading man. Chiké Johnson embodies the guy every community theater depends on: an actor/costumer/puppeteer whose psychological savvy precipitates the company’s turning point. As the straight couple out of their depth, Ann Arvia and Adam LeFevre instantly win the allegiance of most of the audience, and earn the heartiest laughs, while Sadieh Rifai brings attitude and intensity as the put-upon female lead.

Of course, as a never-before performed play, there are a few things that could benefit from a bit of refining. For one, the portrayals of community theater, church, and avant-garde art strain our suspension of disbelief: they present no actual church, community theater, or avant-garde production we know of, but only improbable caricatures. What priest would entrust his parish to such a radical director? How would the elderly couple have been cast, and how would any normal person so passively follow Jules’ bizarre directions without protest? Not to mention that it would be literally impossible for a community theater to come up with three complete sets and costumes for rehearsals, much less have all their lines memorized. Does the action all take place in Jules’ mind? Is it a dream, like Scrooge’s nocturnal visions? And why does Jules announce her interviews with Father Juan as scenes that she herself has scripted? It’s an enigma.

Puzzling over these discrepancies, we can easily lose the comic breeze. As if recognizing this, director Shelley Butler compounds the problem by having the players perform Jules’ scenes in a broad, clownish way—even the people who are supposed to be experienced seem to suddenly forget everything they know about good acting. There is nothing that sears the fragile wings of comedy more than “trying to be funny.” To be fair, there was goodly laughter in the audience on opening night—but there were stony, un-amused faces as well.  Luckily, the encounters between Jules and Father Juan, the working out of the characters’ issues, and the plays’ restorative conclusion, achieve that unforced quality.

On a personal note: one of the saddest losses of the pandemic was the closing of so many local companies who worked on the edges of theater: The Alchemist, Off the Wall, Cooperative Performance, and Quasimondo, to name the most recent—now mostly vanished, and much missed. They labored mightily to create original work with extraordinary intelligence and passion, all while holding down day jobs. When the city’s 500 pound gorilla of a theater pokes fun at small experimental companies, it  feels like punching down—though this was no doubt never the intention. Wouldn’t it be grand if the city’s richest company had offered uplift to its poorest and bravest? Just a thought.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

The Nativity Variations‘ noble aim is to carve out a meeting space between liberal and conservative, if not with faith in the Bible, at least with the timeless hope of peace on Earth and good will towards everyone. By the end of the play, emotions are released, hearts warmed, and the “community” in community theater is affirmed. Has Jules capitulated to censorship? Has she realized that she’s been censoring the Bible all along? Did her heart suddenly grow three sizes? Ah, who cares? It’s Christmas time. Bless us, every one.

The Milwaukee Rep presents

The World Premiere of

The Nativity Variations

by Catherine Treischmann

playing through December 11, 2022

Staying Alive

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

Whether you call them the living dead, zombies, or cannibal corpses, they lumber, groan, and hunger for your sweet, tender flesh. They have haunted the pop imagination ever since George Romero’s B movie classic Night of the Living Dead launched a whole genre of movies, television series, graphic novels, and computer games. Can a low-budget movie rise to the level of grand opera? Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s ever-ready Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik was not afraid to find out. She commissioned Night of the Living Opera, with music by Andrew Dewey and libretto by Josh Perkins, which had a concert reading, appropriately, on Halloween week.

Perkins is formerly of the puppet collective Angry Young Men, who, while being neither all that young anymore and including women (and seemingly not that angry), have performed their kooky Muppet-inspired version of the film for over 15 years in Greater Milwaukeeland. Along with his wife Julianne, who has a recent Masters degree in music performance, he obviously still has the story on his mind, and they were willing to give it the operatic treatment.  

People who might have come to the performance expecting a chorus of, say, “Cervelli Cervelli Deliziosi”  (brains, delicious brains), or an aria consisting of terrified screaming were surprised to see that the new work was presented with nary a wink at the ludicrous conceit. There was only one furtive zombie groan, issued, unless I’m mistaken, from the throat of Shayne Stelige. For the rest, composer Dewey is content to restrict his chorus to tasteful, if sinister, chanting. Now and then a couple of life-sized puppets lurch forward to menace the singers, but in a staged recital like this there is little opportunity for action; those scenes were narrated by Mr. Perkins from the side of the stage. The score, performed by Music Director Anne Van Deusen on keyboard and Kevin Eberle on Double Bass, with Dewey conducting,  conveys a fine sense of unnatural unease, and the libretto accurately recreates the story of the movie, with the important enhancement of the character Barbara, feelingly sung by Elizabeth Blood, who becomes a de facto heroine and sole survivor of the undead onslaught. This gives the story a bit of uplift, in stark contrast to the film’s unrelieved nihilism.

In a world where we face existential perils from every direction, and ideologies that should have died long ago are resurrecting before our very eyes to threaten us, the zombie analogy seems a bit too on the nose. At least Barbara’s journey reminds us of the stoic lesson that, while we can’t always control what happens to us, we can still master our own fears.

The cast did their best to dignify the material, and the exercise is over in an entertaining hour, but one can’t quite shake the feeling of a missed opportunity. The whole point of the movie is to fulfill our prurient desire to see hordes of undead burned, bludgeoned, and shot in the head as they chomp away at the living; to stare into the void with a knowing Nietzschean smirk. Some things are designed to be gloriously, unapologetically trashy: just ask John Waters. A little camp would go a long way towards giving the performance more bite.

Or maybe it was all just a Halloween punk, like serving Spam straight-faced on a doily.  If that was the case, then bravo!  Night of the Living Opera will be presented in a fully staged production in Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s 2023 season. Bring on the zombie chorus!