All posts by jgrygny

“Every tree has it’s own energy”

by Jeff Grygny

It was a curious scene for a snowless week before Christmas in Wisconsin: some two dozen people, masked, distanced, and bundled up for warmth, stood spread out in a wooded glade in Havenwoods State Park, with their eyes closed. “Notice all your senses,” coached dancer Jenni Reinke. “Notice the sounds around you, the feeling of the air, the feelings of your body. Now open your eyes, and look as if you were looking for the first time. Notice what you’re seeing.”

The event was a “Winter Mindfulness Walk” organized by Reinke, a Lead Artist with ArtWorks for Milwaukee’s Environmental Arts Program. In collaboration with partners from Northwest Side Community Development Corporation, Century City Triangle Neighborhood Association, and Friends of Lincoln Park, Reinke is leading nine teen interns in engaging the community through environmentally themed placemaking activities and public art projects.

Reinke is well-qualified to lead this kind of adventure: she is a dancer with Wild Space Dance Company, which makes site-specific work both indoors and outdoors; she performed in Daniel Burkholder’s “Scenic Route,” a recital that played in all four seasons at Riverside Park. She is a lecturer of yoga and meditation in the Sport & Recreation Department at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and teaches inter-generational multidisciplinary art-making with Danceworks. Last spring, she led a movement program for The Performance Ecology Project, which explores how to deepen the relationship between humans and the natural world.   Reinke’s goal today was twofold: to “get people into their bodies through gentle experiences that invite internal and external sensory awareness,” and to create connections through collaborative activities.    

Havenwoods, the only State Forest in the City of Milwaukee, has a long and checkered past. The site went from wetland to farms, to a farm staffed by prisoners, to a military prison, to an Ajax missile base, and finally, thanks to a Federal restoration project in the 70s, back to wetlands. Its paths lead through dense woods and open prairie, skirting marshes and ponds.  On this day, the land seemed to be dreaming under its thick blanket of buff-colored grass, presenting monochrome scenes in subtle shades of gray and brown like Chinese ink brush paintings. Only a stray string of geese and a few birds stirred in the bones of the land, its vitality slumbering deep in the secret places of winter.

It speaks of our curious times, and our great pandemic hunger for space and community, that so many folks responded to Reinke’s invitation, even on a chilly overcast Saturday afternoon. Along with ArtWorks interns, board and staff, there were people from Northwest Side CDC, Friends of Lincoln Park, Nearby Nature, Sierra Club Great Waters Group, Villard Avenue Business Improvement District, plus nearby residents, plus a few friends and neighbors, all happy to get out of the house and under the soft open sky.

We began by saying hello to the forest with a bow inspired by Japanese custom, led by Jeff Grygny of the Performance Ecology Project. Then, crossing the threshold of the woods, we were invited into silence to help us be present to the moment (though at several points people were invited to share a few words about their experience). Brown leaves crunched underfoot like dry paper; pale light filtered through a spidery canopy of naked branches; the network of some sleeping giant’s nervous system. Facing a space of rough grey columns of varied widths and angles, Reinke encouraged us to discover the ever-shifting corridors and doorways created when we move through and between them. Finding a particular tree, she invited us to touch the corrugated bark, then to explore the trees as our dance partners, sharing our weight with them, leaning, pulling, embracing, feeling the confident solidity of their deep-rooted bodies with our own flesh and bone.

The air was brisk, but completely still; not even the skeletons of prairie flowers stirred in any breeze as Reinke led us into different environments at a gentle, contemplative pace. Some people remained in silence, others chatted companionably as we moved from place to place. A meadow of swirling matted grass offered a maze of winding paths to explore. An  expansive field gave the opportunity to feel tiny under the spacious sky. In a giant shallow bowl of tall grass, spiny prairie plants, and feathery shrubs, all circled by a ring of forest, the city was totally out of sight. Here, Reinke led a group improvisation inspired by the flocking of birds, following the leader in a succession of spontaneous movements. Finally, returning to our starting point, we offered gestures of thanks and farewell, first to the land, and then to the group.

It was very moving to witness these gracious nonverbal thanks, and then to hear what people had to say about their experience in a brief talkback. One man reported that, though he had worked with trees all his life, he had never experienced them in this way before. A woman voiced her delight in playing with fallen leaves as she had when she was a child. “Every tree has it’s own energy,” observed a teen with bright chartreuse hair. Many people expressed gratitude for being able to connect with nature in this way. And some made meaning out of their experience. “My attention went to the tree that’s broken,” one woman said. “Even though it’s broken, it’s still strong.”

photo by William Plautz

As the group happily dispersed to the parking lot, I felt gratitude for everyone’s gracious and patient participation, and for Reinke’s initiative in bringing us out on this unlikely day to experience the warmth of community, both with the land and among each other. Taking the time to interact with nature in a contemplative, sensory, and playful way not only grants us the well-known physical and mental health benefits of immersion in nature; it enacts a relationship that goes beyond environmental slogans: it creates connections that are at the same time embodied, emotional and ecological. Performing these kinds of practices, we can fulfill founding ecologist Aldo Leopold’s injunction to recognize the land, not as property, but as “a community to which we belong.”

Jenni Reinke can be reached at

Theater for shut-ins

Liz Norton in Skylight Sings: A Holiday Special
Photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

Have you noticed how the pandemic has really limited the opportunities to see live theater around town? I sure have! And while many resourceful companies have moved mountains to make their creativity and talent accessible online, I’m one of those Luddites who regard watching theater on your computer with the same enthusiasm as looking at pictures of food.

But hey, pictures of food can be very beautiful, and—because theater is a supremely generous medium—we can still get nourishment from the efforts of our brave and resourceful actors, singers, and musicians, even if it doesn’t come with the sweat, body heat, and atmospheric vibrations of performance in the flesh. Skylight Music Theater is offering two diversions designed to float us away from the troubles of our times. And since , with any luck, not one, but two noxious plagues will be visible in the world’s rear view mirror in the foreseeable future, a little socially-distanced indulgence is certainly appropriate.

Being Earnest

Being Earnest sets the story of Oscar Wilde’s classic Edwardian farce in the swinging sixties of mods, Carnaby Street fashion, and the British Invasion (with nary a thought of Brexit!). Recorded from their homes by a doughty troupe of talented young singer/actors, the production uses clever video magic to bring the players into virtual interaction.

Tickets are $25 and available at

Skylight Sings: A Holiday Special takes us to the grand but friendly confines of the Cabot Theater, where a sumptuous smorgasbord of local talent delivers an eclectic menu of holiday songs— along with some that may have never been thought of as holiday songs. Kevin James Sievert performs “Love is an Open Door” from Disney’s Frozen; the wonderful Samantha Sostarich sings “A Hard Candy Christmas” from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and the list goes on and on, including such local favorites as Raven Dockery, Kelly Doherty, Ray Jivoff, and the fabulous belter Liz Norton. Ryan Cappleman dances with his dog, Dolly. There’s a Hanukah song, and a Kwanzaa song, too. There is also apparently a man in a bunny suit smoking a cigar. Why? Watch to find out!

Tickets are $20 and available at

Being Earnest runs thru December 31, 2020
A Holiday Special runs through January 10, 2021

Looking closely helps: Wild Space performs “Under the Freeway”

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

For those of us addicted to live performance, this has been a season of withdrawal. No matter how lovingly produced virtual theater might be, the flat screen just can’t equal the warm, breathing in-person event. So it was that, driven by a certain thirst, we recently had an entirely new experience: watching a dance concert through a car windshield (I recommend the shotgun seat for the most unobstructed view).

Long accustomed to on-site performance, Debra Loewen’s Wild Space Dance Company has been one of the few groups in town to brave the outdoors and organize dances in parking lots The third of such offerings,  “Under the Freeway,” played last week for several performances. The very circumstances of the event dictated their own form and drama, and even created a role for the audience: we herded our cars into specific configurations under the on-ramp to the Hoan bridge, marshaled by baton-wielding dancers, like an alien ritual in which two-legged masked beings command giant metal and glass wheeled creatures.

Illuminated by the bright eye-beams of docile vehicles, two groups of dancers, some thirty yards apart from each other, performed 20-minute routines under the soaring concrete columns, accompanied by soundtracks that had been downloaded and played on personal phones. No two cars could witness exactly the same show. Then the cars were deftly shepherded to change positions, and we saw the same choreography from the opposite side.

photo by Mark Frohna

The company’s signature movement style is abstract and body-based, introducing motifs and variations that seem to have been been born out of the dancer’s personal impulses. As the dances develop, we appreciate space, form, tension, contrast, and coordinated movement. From behind your glass shield, you can see one group performing quite close, even occasionally peering at you, and at the same time see the other group as tiny figures in the distance. What is hidden on the first viewing is revealed in the second, and vice versa; your experience accumulates richness as the evening progresses.

photo by Mark Frohna

The scores are eclectic collages of modern, classical, and tango fragments, snatches of spoken word,  musique concrete and passages of silence. At one point a voice quotes avant-garde chance composer John Cage: “Looking closely helps.” Indeed, this style gives the viewer great freedom (and responsibility) for their focus. Whatever theme or narrative there is, the viewer must construct herself. It seemed that the southern performance group had a cool, alienated mood, while the northern side seemed warmer and more communal—aided, no doubt, by the energetic Alisha Jihn, who dances like a burning torch. At the end, as we feebly applauded inside our machines, then followed the leader out of the lot and back into the streets, the performance felt like a perfect microcosm of the strange situation our world is in: brave souls cavorting in bright white light while traffic rolls a hundred feet above, and we huddle in our mobile shells, cut off from community, but sheltering its warmth like a candle being carried across a huge dark room.

The artists of Wild Space are keeping  the flame lit, until such a night comes when we can once again gather around the fire, unmasked.

Parking Lot Performance #3 “Under the Freeway”

by Wild Space Dance Company

Debra Loewen, Artistic Director

Dancers: Ben Follensbee, Alisha Jihn, Molly Kiefer, Jackie Kostichka, Nekea Leon, Molly Mingey, Emily Olson, Jenni Reinke, Yeng Vang-Strath


by Jeff Grygny

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

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

Magic Theater
Not For Everybody

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

Mother Courage, 2011
Cabaret, 2014

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2017

Zombies On Broadway, 2019

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

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

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

Gold Morning, Sweet Prince
by Delmore Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Madwoman of Chaillot, 2018

A new way of breathing

photo by helio-hawk

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

                                    Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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


Sexual Perversity in Cyberspace

Christal Wagner Photography

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Constructivists present

The Nether

by Jennifer Haley

Alas, this production is now closed

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

photo by Lily Shea Photography

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

photo by Lily Shea Photography

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

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

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

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

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

Voices Found Repertory presents

The Elephant Man

by Bernard Pomerance

playing through March 15

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The Eyes Have It

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Off the Wall Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

Off the Wall Theatre presents

The Glance

by Dale Gutzman

playing through March 8

Blind Love

photo by Tom Carr

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

John Keats “Ode to a Grecian Urn”

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

photo by Tom Carr

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

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

Milwaukee Entertainment Group presents

The Beauty of Psyche

by JJ Gatesman

playing through February 22

Charisma and Catharsis

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Mark Frohna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skylight Music Theater presents

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

playing through January 26

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