All posts by jgrygny

A Glimpse of Eternity

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

The ensemble, clad in blue jeans and black T shirts, barefoot and glittering with gold jewelry, stands in a circle around the grief-struck hero. As the last sunlight filters through the stained glass windows of Calvary Presbyterian Church, ancient instruments play solemn music. One player pours water from a ceramic bowl into their neighbor’s bowl, and so on, until the water has completed its way around. It is a powerful embodiment of shared sorrow.

Thus Orfeo resolves to go to the land of the dead to rescue his lost lover Euridice, in a daringly unconventional performance of L’Orfeo, the world’s first great opera, composed by Claudio Monteverdi and first performed in 1607.  The enterprising folks of Milwaukee Opera Theatre have gathered a consort of Renaissance instrument players, collaborated with local sacred music collective Aperi Animam, and created a new English translation of the Italian libretto. The result is an original and conceptually daring work; a pure aesthetic experience unsullied by the demands of commercial entertainment.

Opera was originally conceived as a re-creation of Greek tragedy as described in Aristotle’s Poetics. L’Orfeo is clearly an early effort in what was later to bloom into the glorious emotional excess of grand opera. Musically, there is only one recognizable “hook,” and though the story involves high tragedy and supernatural adventure, the score consistently rings with the cheery pomp of a baroque court. Director/translator Daniel Brylow stages the opera as an initiation into the mystery of Orpheus. The action is stylized, with the feeling of a ceremony enacting a story that has been re-enacted for countless generations. The singers move with stately steps and slow, symbolic gestures. Their faces are passive masks, revealing only the most universal emotions. It’s like looking at a series of ancient friezes: the Elgin Marbles depicting the blinged-up patrons of a biker bar.

photo by Mark Frohna

As is customary with MOT, some of the characters are gender-switched. Jackie Willis sings the title role of Orfeo (pronouns: he, his) with dignity and subtle feeling, exerting all his musical power to win entry into Pluto’s realm. As Apollo, Nicole McCarty’s voice bursts in like sunlight suddenly flooding a dark room. But this is a staged recital, not musical theater, and music takes precedence over characterization and drama.

There’s deep history behind the the show’s culty vibe (which is similar to MOT’s last collaboration with AA, the goth/gnostic spectacle Utterance).  The figure of Orpheus, the musician with magical powers, has always been connected to mystery religions with secret rites and heterodox metaphysics. Some scholars trace their origins to orgiastic cults of Thrace that involved an obscure deity named Zagreus and predate recorded history. That cult evolved into the bacchanalian worship of Dionysus, where it became associated with Orpheus because of its themes of death and rebirth. Later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the rites were reassigned to the god Apollo and linked to Neoplatonist mystical concepts of reincarnation and immortality. Then, in the Renaissance, after Cosimo de Medici commissioned the first European translations of Plato, Neoplatonism and Greek mythology became all the rage once more, inspiring countless artists, musicians and poets. So yeah, that’s a lot of history. And from that we get L’Orfeo.

The new English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow (which was helpfully projected on the walls to facilitate our understanding),  reveals just how much the libretto invokes Renaissance philosophy. Without getting too deep into the weeds, Neoplatonists taught that the body is the prison of the soul, and through purification and virtue, we can return to our true eternal source in the One beyond the world of change. In this version of the story, Orfeo, just as in the mythic account, turns, sees Euridice, and loses her. But soon after he returns in sorrow to the world of daylight, the god Apollo appears and rewards him with eternal life among the gods, along with Euridice—just as the ancient Orphic cult promised its initiates.

Ritual is one thing for the believer and quite another for the casual audience. At its best, this production illuminates the transcendental metaphysics of its source material and, while it is too stylized to evoke any deep emotional catharsis, it could very conceivably serve as a kind of meditative therapy for the grief that fills our world. But despite all the love and labor that it clearly displays, it begins to feel like a staid church pageant after about the two-hour mark. Nietzsche wrote of the aesthetic struggle between Apollonian rational order and chaotic, visceral Dionysian energy. This L’Orfeo takes Apollo’s side with great integrity—but it’s hard not to wish for just a hint of Thracian revelry to spice the dish.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Aperi Animam present

L’Orfeo

Music by Claudio Monteverdi

Libretto by Alessandro Striggio

English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow

Stage Director: Daniel Brylow

Music Director: Jackie Willis

https://www.milwaukeeoperatheatre.org/

https://www.aperianimam.com/

The End of Hamlet?

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

As the play opens, the lead actor in a prestigious production of Hamlet is throwing a hissy fit. Nothing out of the ordinary there! But in The Last White Man Bill Cain’s provocatively-titled puzzle box of themes and plot twists, which is currently in its world premiere at Next Act Theatre, irony turns on irony like the tormented self-consciousness of the Shakespearean hero. The actor—a Hollywood star with a brand-new Oscar—lays down Yorick’s skull because, just like Hamlet, he is terrified to perform his duty. Thus begins a theater story to top all theater stories, complete with artistic conflicts, backstage intrigue, hot-button politics, psychological suspense—and disco.

It would be totally unfair to reveal any of the details of the Escher-like plot that Cain has constructed, but there’s still a lot to say about this play, which will undoubtedly ruffle a few feathers and start many lively conversations. Cain is a brave man, venturing into one of the culture war’s most radioactive regions: the issues of representation in the arts, and reading the classics through the lens of identity politics. He might incur some folks’ wrath for daring to write the part of Xandri, a Black woman director, though he treats the character respectfully. Then there’s the moment when the understudy, Rafe, asserts that Hamlet should never be played by a Black actor because he’s Danish. When his replacement, the actor named Tigg, protests, he retorts “Can a White actor play Othello?” It turns out (and this isn’t really a spoiler, since it’s in the publicity and program notes that Cain himself believes this) that Xandri’s goal is to direct a production of Hamlet so good that the play will never need to be performed ever again. Acknowledging that the play’s genius contains all of Western civilization, she adds. “And it leads to destruction and death. Always.”

Another risky move on Cain’s part is to require the actors perform at various levels of talent.. As the spoiled, troubled film star, Ken Miller brings the effortless grace that could anchor a blockbuster movie, but his character’s Shakespearean delivery is of the the hit-or-miss “know what you’re saying and talk fast” school that’s murder on the poetry. In the role of Rafe, the understudy who is called in after some unspecified incident takes Charlie out of the picture, Neil Brookshire didn’t have to imagine what the understudy feels like when suddenly thrust onstage: he is himself the understudy for JJ Gatesman, who was recovering from a mild bout with Covid. Brookshire stepped into the role seamlessly, showing both the character’s intense drive to succeed and the actor’s psychological insight—that just might be employed in manipulating the other characters.

As Xandri, Demetria Thomas renders a sympathetic, smart, and grounded persona. And as Tigg, the replacement Hamlet, Brian Gill has the job of playing a consummate artist, spelunking the famous role’s humanity buried in layers of centuries. No pressure! But he acquits himself admirably and honestly. Director David Cecsarini leads his cast of four with economy and a minimum of flash. I rather regretted, though, that the performers, perhaps out of caution to avoid offensive stereotyping, playing a Black woman and two gay men in the 80s, display little of the rich panache of their respective subcultures. The unintended effect of this restraint is to make them all sound more or less like the playwright’s mouthpieces.

So—let’s talk for a minute about Hamlet the play. Is it indeed a theatrical monster, a relic of patriarchal oppression like a Confederate monument, worthy only for the trash heap of history? First off, it’s a very weird play, full of twists and odd angles. Partly this is because Shakespeare adapted it from the Twelfth Century Scandinavian story of Prince Amleth, which is itself full of medieval weirdness, including the prince pretending to be an idiot so that nobody would suspect him of seeking revenge on his uncle. Similar tales appear in Roman literature, also in Finland, Ireland, France, India, and in Arabic sources. This ubiquity has led some scholars to theorize that the story originated in Indo-European culture, which is to say, the people who spread their language from the Early Bronze Age on all across the Western hemisphere. So the story is really really old—and associated with the people formerly known as the “Aryans,” whom we might remember as the Nazis’ so-called “master race.” So that’s a bit of baggage (is this why a cloaked figure in a Bronze Age helmet keeps stalking the stage?).

But there’s more! Hamlet was famously given as a textbook example of Freud’s Oedipus complex, a notorious structure of the masculine subconscious. (If you want to know how deep that rabbit hole goes, google Deleuze and Guattari’s The Anti-Oedipus.) And for a cherry on top, some cognitive scientists have speculated that Hamlet represents an early expression of the emergence of modern consciousness, both as a self-reflective, autonomous self and as a highly conflicted and alienated one. Whew! Maybe the play does contain all of Western civilization. And maybe not in a good way!

One of Shakespeare’s innovations was to disrupt the conventional revenge plot by having the protagonist actually stop and question what he was doing, ultimately coming to the realization that, like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, or a Japanese samurai, he can only do what must be done in the situation he’s in, and be at peace with that. “The readiness is all. Let be.” It’s still the ethos of a warrior culture—but a self-aware one. In a world that’s “out of joint,” sometimes that’s all one can do.

Ross Zentner

The Last White Man is a brand new play, never before produced. So how does it do? It’s certainly not boring— I can’t speak for people less familiar with Hamlet, but for a Shakespeare nerd like me, it’s compelling from beginning to end. Cain’s back-and-forth chronology keeps the suspense going, but I for one left pretty fuzzy as to what exactly happened with Charlie, either because I was inattentive or because it was left ambiguous. Then there is the slight problem of all the characters sounding somewhat the same. And although the economics of theater today demand small casts, I’d have loved to have seen a full-out theater milieu, with Ophelia, Fortinbras, extras, crew, and all the rest. The play’s climactic scene loses credibility because some of the characters’ actions seem jarringly desperate. It might make more sense if we had more a feel of a grand production: restless audience, nervous patrons, critics waiting to pounce, and all that.

But the questions the play raises are powerful. Are we beholden to the judgements of former generations, like old politicians clinging to power beyond their time? Or can we value the riches of the past while letting new generations see them afresh and make them anew? In the end, even Cain seems to show that new perspectives can bring insights to even this hoary classic. And he’ll start some lively discussions. In that regard, The Last White Man works just fine.

By all means, let’s hear new voices telling new stories. But I’m willing to wager that, somehow, Hamlet will survive.

Next Act Theatre presents

The Last White Man

by Bill Cain

Directed by David Cecsarini

playing through May 8

https://nextact.org/shows/the-last-white-man/

Body Knowledge

photo: Peter DiAnton

by Jeff Grygny

As you’re taking your seat in the cozy quarters of Sunstone Studios, Sarah Moore is already onstage, stretching, loosening up, rolling on a yoga ball. A whiteboard reads something like: “I’m just warming up. The show will start soon!” By this simple act, Moore immediately establishes a friendly, informal relationship with the audience of her provocative, compelling, and often quite funny one-woman show, One Universe: she communicates what’s going on while we get accustomed to her powerful, personable physicality.

A puckish, well-muscled woman, old enough to have raised children into adults, Moore is the co-owner of The Pink House, a venerable fixture of Riverwest’s bohemian community, host for yoga, ecstatic dance, and women’s healing. The show is a series of stories and set pieces, most kin maybe to one of Spalding Gray’s gripping autobiographical monologues, but coming from a considerably more grounded place. In the course of the 90 and some minute show, she re-enacts the Big Bang by busting out of a cardboard box, and shows us how she learned to make fire on a year-long (!) nature immersion where almost everything apparently was made from materials at hand (“There were a lot of conflicts’). She teaches us a little song to sing later on; she mixes stories from her life with flights of imagination, as when travels back in time and assumes superpowers to attempt to save her loved ones from violence, only to discover that every trauma began in some earlier trauma. “I’ve been thinking much too small,” she realizes. Not even a superhero can mend this broken world by herself.

Oh yes, and she calmly announces that she’s going to undress, and proceeds to casually stand before us naked, talking about her body in a way that would be brutal if it wasn’t so guileless and matter-of-fact. She accepts and loves herself as she is: a conscious organism living in the cosmos; a woman; a mother; a daughter; a human being—and herself. Second wave feminists made much of the idea of “writing through the body” to counter the arid abstractions of patriarchal discourse. Moore shows us thinking through the body: each vignette seems to flow organically into the next, the connective tissue being her own, unrushed, embodied rhythms. In her climactic dance, which follows a moving tribute to her mother, her strong arms and hands seem to grab and twist space itself, like a sculptor trying to mold the world’s clay closer to the heart’s desire.

There’s no reason at all to think that the persona she presents in One Universe is anything but herself: she’s candid about just about anything you could imagine, frankly and without embarrassment—or self-seriousness—just a kind of earthy, elfin amusement. Still, with her extraordinary charisma and confidence, she does seem like sort of a superhero— someone who shows up in the apocalypse with just the knowledge and skills to save you from disaster. Through years of yoga, dance, motherhood, and contact with nature, she has become so knowledgeable in her body that she seems like a new kind of human, both like and unlike very old ways of being human: an alternative to our modern, conflicted, overthinking selves.

I think Moore’s intention in this tour-de-force is to model a way of being for us in these tremendously challenging times: to embrace both the pain and the joy of living, realizing that they can’t really be separated; to be clear-sighted, present, and unfazed: “fiercely OK.”

Cooperative Performance presents

One Universe

Devised and performed by Sarah Moore

Playing through April 16

https://www.cooperativeperformance.org/home

“Content warning: contains mature content and nudity.”

“COVID-19 policy: A properly-fitting mask and either proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result are required for admittance to ONE UNIVERSE.”

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A Spa for the Soul

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

On the face of it, artist’s block wouldn’t seem to be the most compelling topic for drama. But in the hands of Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Preludes, a musical fantasia based on a crisis in the life of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, feels like what we need in our collective time of stress and long isolation: a wise and gentle path through despair to the vital force that inspires us. There are lots of reasons for putting this show—which plays this week only! — on your must-see list:

  • The appropriately elegant ballroom of the Woman’s Club of Wisconsin, with its high arched proscenium and Romanesque decor, is a very classy venue. Even the chairs have their own uniforms!
  • The impressive bulk and rich timbres of the biggest concert grand piano you’re ever likely to share a room with, ably handed by MOT Music Director Ruben Piirainen sitting in for the melancholy composer.
  • The contemporary stylings of two digital synthesizers, whose blooping, humming tones color the inner world of the artist on his dark journey, washing over you along with the ever-shifting hues of Jim Padovano’s lighting design.
  • The athletic yet nuanced performance of Joe Picchetti as The Artist Known as “Rach,” performing the non-piano parts of the character. Despite being given little to work with but infinite variations on the theme of angst, Picchetti anchors the show in honest, energetic feeling. This is not a depressed Russian composer, it’s a man who is energetically fighting to find his way to the other side.
  • The delightful comic relief of Joel Kopischke, who plays a multitude of famous figures with distinct and diverse qualities: Anton Chekhov (voluble and authentic, bringing his famous gun, and true to the rule, firing it off almost immediately); Tchaikovsky (enthusiastic and handsy); Tolstoy (brilliant and grouchy), and Tsar Nicholas to cap things off.

Natalie Ford brings vibrance and sensitivity to the role of Natalya, Rach’s live-in partner. In one song, she movingly expresses the struggle of people who try to support their loved ones through mental illness. In another speech, she recalls how they fell in love: playing together a four-handed piece by Beethoven. As Nikolay Dahl, the hypnotherapist who treats the composer, Jenny Wanasek brings a calm, gentle presence. Her method is simple. “I thought there would be more sorcery,” Rach says after his first session. But using insight as much as hypnosis, Dahl learns who Rachmaninoff  is, so that when he relives his trauma in trance, she knows just what chords to strike to bring him back into harmony. (The historical Rachmaninoff later dedicated a piano concerto to Dahl).

Molloy offers a curated selection of mostly Rachmaninoff’s works— resonantly delivered by Piirainen on that Cadillac of a piano— many set with original lyrics, along with original songs “suggested by” other Rachmaninoff compositions. The book is packed with evocative imagery: much of the dialog is delivered simultaneously with the music, which, despite the actors being miked,  sometimes leads to an unfortunate struggle to hear both.

Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik brings her usual playful inventiveness to the table, weaving narrative actions and abstract movements alike into the rhythms of the score. The show, which plays rather like a hybrid of opera, musical theatre, and recital, is set in “Rachmaninoff’s Mind,” which relieves the obligation to be literally historical; indeed, Molloy brings his concerns into the present day by dropping little anachronisms into the dialog. It’s not really about Russia; it could give heart to any folks in difficult times, be they Russian, Ukrainian, or American.

Making art isn’t all about the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Like a blossoming lilac, it comes into being of it’s own inner purpose; it effluoresces; it does what it needs to do to move life along. As you sit in the high vaulted space, with the melodies, harmonies, and colors. washing over you it’s like going into a revitalizing trance to connect with something deeper than identity, a place where the travails and the joys of life sound together like the voice of a river whose innumerable plashes merge into a complex chorus singing endlessly about time, the earth, life. It’s like a spa for the soul.

photo by Mark Frohna

Milwaukee Opera Theatre presents

Preludes

Music, Lyrics, Book and Orchestrations by Dave Malloy

playing through April 9

https://www.milwaukeeoperatheatre.org/

Love, Love, Love

photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

It could have begun as a challenge towards the end of a long night of drinking. How many Beatles songs can you make fit into a Shakespeare play? That’s the premise of the delightful new production of As You Like It at the Milwaukee Rep. Brimming with invention and good cheer, and overflowing with affection for its sources, the show seems designed to get us through the gloomy Wisconsin winter and boost our spirits in difficult times.

It’s not such a crazy idea to mix the Beatles and the Bard. The famed director Peter Brook taught that Shakespeare’s language consists of narrative that moves the story, and poetry which should be considered as music. But the poetry that moved Elizabethan audiences often doesn’t speak to us—so why not substitute music that does?  A recent local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Voices Found Repertory brought in pop songs to fine effect. And since As You Like It is all about love, why not wed it with the other most successful artists ever to spring from England’s green and pleasant land, whose favorite word is “love”? We can thank the Canadian director Daryl Cloran for this brilliant yet somehow inevitable idea. The show opened to roaring success in Vancouver, and recently played in Chicago, whence the Rep’s Artistic Director Mark Clemens was able to snag some of the performers, along with Cloran to direct the current production. And lucky us: we get to enjoy it!

Cloran skims off the play’s antiquities to reveals a wise and witty screwball comedy as quirky as anything by Wes Anderson or the Coen Brothers. He directs with a genius for details, filling every moment with little gestures and comic flourishes in the tale of fair Rosalind and her sturdy swain Orlando on their bumpy road to happiness—so many wonderful grace notes, it would be a crime to reveal any of them. Meantime, the evergreen songs of Lennon and McCartney bring the character’s heightened feelings in rock n’ roll beats. People who know the play well will be amazed by the aptness and cleverness of Cloran’s translations; everyone else will just laugh, cheer, and perhaps let their heartstrings tug a little tear of joy now and then.

Set in the exotic land of British Columbia, in the distant long ago of the 1960s, the play opens with an elaborate preamble set in the woolly world of pro wresting (which makes sense, as it is indeed a wrestling match that sets Rosalind and Orlando on their paths). Members of the extremely game band play costumed contestants in a series of pratfalls and clownish clinches. The entertainment value of this will vary with how much you find pro wrestling amusing—but it gives the excuse to drop lots of Beatles references, and sets up the greedy, exploitative world that our characters will soon be propelled out of and into the romantic Forest of Arden.

photo by Michael Brosilow

Each player in the warm, multitalented cast creates a very relatable human being; they move like modern people and when they talk, they sound like people talking, so the comedy flows naturally from a real place. As the girl-buddy duo of Rosalind and Celia, Savannah L. Jackson and Lizzy Brooks share effortless rapport and sister power. Brooks’ facial expressions speak comic volumes; Jackson shows the joys and torments of infatuation, while bringing brio to her musical solos. The incredibly light-footed Justin Gregory Lopez is a powerful yet tender Orlando, while Don Noble as the Duke-in exile channels The Dude in sandals and long gray hair; his hippie inflections seem a bit spot-on, until you realize that he’s actually making some very wise observations.

photo by Michael Brosilow

The show’s two philosopher-clowns, Adam Wesley Brown and Trish Lindstrom, are brilliant contrasts: Brown as the urbanite Touchstone, so out of place in the rustic setting, makes free with adlibs and flawless physical schtick, while Lindstrom, as the melancholy Jaques, tricked out in Andy Warhol drag and Joan Didion’s world-weary clarity, is a miracle of subtle anticomedy. Her renditions of Fool on the Hill and I am the Walrus simply must be seen to be believed.

photo by Michael Brosilow

The onstage musicians all play incidental roles, and while they don’t try to impersonate the Fab Four (except when George Harrison makes a cameo as Hymen, the god of marriage), their general good humored, come-what-may attitude is reminiscent of A Hard Day’s Night. Pam Johnson’s illuminated set wonderfully recalls the sixties, creating a wide palette of colorful energies, and Ben Elliott’s music direction wisely doesn’t imitate the Beatles’ stylings, but hits the iconic touches, as when a trombone suddenly appears in “All You Need Is Love.”

This As You Like It is the most entertaining, richest, most heartfelt  musical I’ve seen at the Rep. And why not keep this fertile mash-up going?  The Rolling Stones’ Macbeth, anyone? How about King Lear with the music of The Doors?  In the words of Jaques: “More, more, I prithee, more.”

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre presents

As You Like It

by William Shakespeare

Adapted and Directed by Daryl Cloran

Conceived by Daryl Cloran and the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival

playing through March 20

https://www.milwaukeerep.com/shows/show/as-you-like-it/

Life on the Edge (or: Don’t Stop Believing)

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

The world can seem like a pretty cold place to a struggling artist. It sure feels that way to Kat, a 40-something avant-garde composer who plays “for a hundred hipsters who only come to show how hip they are.” Her money has run out, her baby is crying, and his skeezy absent dad is giggling on the voicemail with a younger women. Kat is the protagonist of the improbably-titled Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, the offbeat, inspirational musical currently playing at Skylight Music Theatre. In its unflagging determination to give encouragement through impossible difficulties, the show hits like a shot of adrenaline directly to the heart.  

The psychologist Carl Jung taught that archetypal figures appear to us in dreams and visions to assist us on the way to becoming our true selves, a process he called “individuation.” The concept has featured in storytelling from Homer to the Simpsons. This particular iteration fully embraces the digital age: Kat’s visitation by the famed early 20th century adventurer first appears—no kidding!—on her smartphone’s dating app. It’s not the only high tech on tap: A giant screen shows us Kat’s cell phone display, and in her opening number she demonstrates how she uses digital sampling and an electric violin to create intricately layered symphonic compositions, while simultaneously drawing a vivid picture of her life on the edge. Now, maybe there are lots of electric violinists who can sing, act, and perform live sampling—who knows how many young musicians Laurie Anderson has inspired? But it’s hard to imagine anyone better for the role of Kat than Janice Martin, who wears her futuristic instrument like a part of her body and plays it like an extension of her soul. In her opening number, Martin must prove that Kat is a born artist, with no other place in the world than to make music. And this she does, in a tour-de-force display of virtuosity.

Before you can say “mush,” Kat is off on a dreamlike expedition with the Arctic explorer. The versatile Matt Daniels bites into the titular role with the gusto of a starving man relishing his first mouthful of seal blubber—which is to say, he’s bold, dashing, and relentlessly gung-ho in the face of the absolutely horrible mishaps of his two-year voyage to the South Pole, in which his ship is crushed by icebergs, his crew stranded in a polar wasteland,  he travels 800 miles in a rowboat, survives a hurricane, scales a freezing glacier, and, after three years, manages to return home with all 22 of his crewmates. The trials of enduring a global pandemic, wearing as they are, seem pale in comparison. Daniels knows he’s playing, not a real human being, but Kat’s idealized masculine side: strong, tender, supportive, and enchanted by every bit of her— even her Pippi Longstocking pigtails. Not like the failson jerks in her life—whom Daniels also plays in satirical caricatures.

Director Jill Anna Ponasik wisely gives us no intermission (did Shackleton get fifteen minutes to have a drink? I think not.) She brings her usual (and much missed) kinetic imagination to the 90 propulsive minutes, as Martin and Daniels act out Shackleton’s harrowing journey with crates and ropes as props, like kids playing make believe, but with an urgency that gives the fantastical events just the right amount of emotional truth. Every song, from electro-pop to sea chanty, pumps us full of never-say-die optimism. It might have seemed seem a bit much, but after our collective experience of the past two years, it feels like just what we needed, and Ponasik and company know it. Much credit also goes to the design team: Scott Davis’ scenery, Jason Fassl’s lighting, and Patrick W. Lord’s video design transform the Cabot stage into both Kat’s Brooklyn loft and a palpable Arctic tundra, with lots of projections of footage that was, incredibly, shot by one of Shackleton’s own crew.

Some say that what makes a hero is the simple ability to persevere when most folks would have given up. So the next time you curse while digging your car out of the snow in minus 10 wind chill, remember Ernest Shackleton, tossed on 20 foot waves in a rowboat in the freezing ocean hundreds of miles from land. He made it; you probably will too! Be safe!

Skylight Music Theatre presents

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

Book by Joe DiPietro

Lyrics by Val Vigoda

Music by Brendan Milburn

playing through February 6

https://www.skylightmusictheatre.org/upcoming-shows-events/ernest-shackleton-loves-me/

HEALTH & SAFETY PROTOCOLS

“Skylight Music Theatre has joined other Milwaukee performing arts organizations in requiring proof of vaccination or negative Covid test within 72 hours of performance for all audience members ages 12 and up. In addition, Skylight requires audiences to be masked at all times while indoors, regardless of vaccination status. For up-to-date information, please visit www.skylightmusictheatre.org/health.”

Fish Noir

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

“After a week, marriage and fish both start to stink.” This proverb is attributed to absolutely nobody—but its sentiment would agree with most of the love-strangled characters in Michael Hollinger’s tart comedy Red Herring, now playing in a handsome production by Next Act Theatre. The script is an impressive puzzle box of intermeshing plots and motifs. Folks who enjoy complex mysteries and wry reflections on the married state will be well-entertained by this densely-packed spoof.

Hollinger juggles an odd assortment of objects: set during America’s “Red Scare” era and featuring three couples who are all hiding secrets, the play lampoons 50s gender norms and cold war politics, negotiates multiple intrigues, both personal and global, while also exploring the institution of marriage from several perspectives, from dewy-eyed to embittered, all in a dockside setting of commercial fishery. It’s a boatload of material for any troupe to navigate, but the cast of skilled comic actors pulls it off with confidence and honesty. often playing multiple characters.

The youngest of the three couples, soon to enter into wedlock (with a little prenuptial hanky panky) are the improbably-matched daughter of commie-phobic Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, and an idealistic physicist who is planning to pass the secret of the hydrogen bomb to the Russians. Eva Nimmer and Zach Thomas Woods,  in a pitch of lust and high anxiety, sympathetically show us the extremes that people will go for love and principle.

On the other end of the spectrum are Mary MacDonald Kerr and Dylan Bolin as a pair of seasoned cops with heartache in their pasts, gingerly walking the tightrope between the call of duty and the yearning for happiness. Finally, we have a couple who have ridden the merry-go-round of life a few times, played by Kelly Doherty and Bo Johnson, who are both driven by mutual need to ludicrous extremities of deception.

As Detective Maggie Pelletier, MacDonald Kerr is the play’s clear hero, tracking her quarry and her relationship troubles with equal determination, while Nimmer, as the Senator’s daughter, gives a warm portrait of a girl torn between her parents’ hollow values and the man she loves. The two actresses share the play’s funniest moments with Johnson, whose world-weary Russian fisherman brings the comedy of heartbreak to a fulsome peak.

Director David Cecsarini has followed the maxim that humor should come from a real place, not just shallow clowning. He’s crammed the production with so much material—period music, high-definition scenery, and topical film clips— that the show’s comic brew loses some of its froth over its two-and-a half-hour run time (including intermission). Only the hilarious final act achieves full farcical escape velocity. Of course, in the end,  love wins the day, as it does in all good comedies of marriage.

With its quirky twists, meaty characters, and a good-looking, talented cast, Red Herring is a tangy, salty dish as nutritious as a plate of Ma Baensch’s pickled best.

Next Act Theatre presents

Red Herring

by Michael Hollinger

playing through December 19

https://nextact.org/shows/red-herring/

The end of the modern world, or: The Cat’s Meow

photo by Testaduro Media, LLC

by Jeff Grygny

Everyone must envy cats at least a little. Their animal grace, insouciant self-centeredness and power of surrendering completely to relaxation makes them plausible role models for humans in these fraught times.

We can’t totally envy Wink, the title character of Jen Silverman’s surreal tragicomedy currently in a well-mounted and heartful production by The Constructivists. The catastrophe that strikes Wink initiates the action of the play, which is so full of surprising turns that to describe them would be to commit unforgivable spoilers. Suffice it to say that the feline plays a catalytic role in the lives of all three non-animal characters. The contrast between human and animal, and the dire consequences of alienating our animal nature, provides the flesh and gristle of the play’s themes. Eerily creepy and wryly humorous, Wink is a perfect show for the Halloween season.

Sofie and Gregor are ordinary modern people of a slightly earlier time: he works in an office, she does housework at home. They are modern in that they have no animal grace, no insouciant selfishness, and no power to surrender completely to relaxation.    

At first it seems like the play is going to be a quirky domestic comedy. Director Jaimelyn Gray has coached her actors’ opening scenes towards a cartoonish delivery that mirrors the characters’ strangeness to themselves. In fact, this is not a realistic play at all– rather, it stages a dreamworld that seems to be trying to tell us. . . something, if we could just break the code. As the couple, Rebekah Farr and Ekene Ikegwuani show us two deeply unhappy people, whose secret depth is revealed only in their separate sessions with a therapist, Doctor Frans, played with clueless sincerity by Matthew Scales. His staggeringly bad advice—with repeated emphatic instructions to take their feelings and “Slam them down,” show him as a minor priest in the modern ideology of service to the status quo. When each of them confesses urges to commit unspeakable violence, Frans dismisses them, telling them that their duty is to just go back to their jobs.

As the fourth character, Jaime Jastrab gives us the uncanny essence of a vengeful domestic pet (or maybe its ghost?) and, in later scenes, gives Frans instructions on getting in touch with his animal nature, which are ludicrously basic, yet seem to come as revelations to the  feckless expert. These scenes, like “self help from a cat,” make up the warm heart of the play, and are most illuminating as to the playwright’s possible alliegance. But they are soon followed by apocalyptic episodes of Sofie and Gregor’s metamorphoses from modern people into uncanny beings whose intentions come from a place of the mysterious, irrational roots of human nature. Soon the Ikea-furnished living room is littered with the wreckage of civilized life, as the couple descend into primitive and far from socially sanctioned behavior.

This ground has been tread before, in plays as diverse as “The Zoo Story,” and “Equus.”  But Silverman skins this cat in a new way. She doesn’t romanticize mental illness, nor does she really even seem to be interested in clinical case studies. If anything, the play is a winking red light warning us of what can happen when we subsume our animal needs to serve what society tells us we should be. Maybe, with his new-found insights, Frans will be able to integrate human and animal natures, and help Sofie and Gregor claw their way back to humanity. Maybe he will join them in their dangerous fantasies. That would be another story.

In the meantime, when we wonder how so many people throughout the world can rebel against expert authority, deny science, become prey to demagogues who appeal to their lowest instincts, why people can commit mass shootings, or what could compel someone don horns and animal skins in a futile coup attempt, we could reflect on this story, and how the modern way of life subtly mutilates us all.

The Constructivists present

Wink

by Jen Silverman

Directed by Jaimelyn Gray

Set and Costume Design by Sarah Harris

 Set Construction by Les Zarzecki

Lighting Design by Ellie Rabinowitz

playing through November 6

This production contains adult subject matter. Viewer discretion strongly advised.

https://www.theconstructivists.org/productions/2021-22-season/wink-jen-silverman

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Ritual, Diversity, Ecology: An Invitation

Water Ritual, 2021

by Jeff Grygny

When we look at the many crises that face us today, it can feel like we’re trapped in a tug of war over a very scary chasm. We must change as a culture, and yet we can’t even agree on the direction. To solve this dilemma, ritual is not generally the first thing we turn to. And yet it might be just what we need in this historical moment. I suspect that many people might react to this suggestion as if I had recommended treating cancer by donning a mask and shaking a rattle. But the ritual dimension is a central part of the human social experience, and we neglect it at our peril. The modern world has neglected it for more than three centuries—and look where we are.

Scholars have described rituals as social technologies, developed over literally tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution. Anthropologist Roy Rappaport calls ritual “the social act.” Rituals not only play out a culture’s deepest values and meanings: in a sense, they actually create them. When you perform a ritual, you are acting out the world as it should be. You don’t have to “believe” in it (belief is a relatively recent development in the human adventure). Ritual speaks in the language of gesture and feeling—the language of the body—and is performed as part of group solidarity. Its mere performance creates a social reality.

Rituals embody and facilitate relationships of all kinds. They can be as casual as a fist bump, or as elaborate as the ancient Hindu sacrifices which were thought to preserve the cosmic order. Australian Aborigines and Native Americans insist that their ceremonies are essential for maintaining their relationship with the land. Rituals can revolve around anything that carries meaning, from elemental substances to everyday objects. Some useful rituals are: showing respect, giving gifts (and receiving them), telling stories, singing and dancing, displaying meaningful symbols, and sharing food.

Our modern science-driven world reveres detatched, rational thinking to the point that we have forgotten the power of profound performances. If you doubt that performance can be powerful, just consider the placebo effect: many ailments seem to heal spontaneously, just because the proper symbols and rites were displayed, be they drums and spirit rattles or a clinician’s office and prescription bottles. Ritual is literally a confidence game: it gives us confidence that our values are real and work. Think of all the  made-up things that became real, like money or clock time. They’re real because everyone performs them—no belief necessary.

When we seek to end racial injustice, gender injustice, and ecological collapse, we usually turn to institutions: analysing data, formulating policies, passing laws. And if this has not worked, we blame our political enemies. But psychology has revealed that our decision-making processes are as influenced by feeling as much (or more) than by cold calculation. We humans are not disembodied intellects; our actions are based on sympathies and aversions that are powerfully imprinted on our bodies and minds by history and culture.

How could we expect American blacks and whites, queer and straight people, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists to understand each other, much less empathize with each other, when they don’t share the same cultural touchstones? How could we expect people to really make sacrifices for the sake of the planet when our everyday way of life continuously asserts that everything in the world is human property? We human beings don’t actually live our lives based on theories or policies: we live based on what we feel is right, normal, and desirable. Rituals create the feeling of what’s socially right, so that people intuitively act in that way. In the language of pop psychology, ritualizing a difficult “cold cognition” task—say,  recognizing a stereotype, or thinking about the planet—inscribes that work into easier, spontaneous “hot cognition,” so that it feels normal and becomes “second nature.” So, if we want a different world, why not explore how to enact the meanings and values we want to see?

I’m not suggesting that we can solve racism and climate change by singing the right songs. But if we want the kind of culture that is capable of solving these problems—including adopting the right policies, passing the right laws, and using the right technologies—we might (this is my best suggestion) start to look for the right songs to sing—and how and when and with whom to sing them—to create the meanings and values of the culture we want to live in.

Gentlefolks, I propose that our world needs rituals of encounter that respectfully and gracefully acknowledge both our differences and our shared humanity; as well as ceremonies that play out our deep relationship with the hawks, coyotes, oak trees, bees, and all the rest, as co-creators of this wonderful world. And we can’t just take up the rituals of our ancestors. They are of different times and lifeways, they would not make sense to us. We must discover our own.

The best people for this work are probably performing artists, whose art is inherently social. They have the instinctive feel for what works and doesn’t for an audience; fluent in the aesthetic languages of tone, color, and rhythm, they understand how meanings and feelings are meshed in action. It will require a special kind of artist to create authentic rituals: bold explorers and bricoleurs with great empathy and openness, who can apply emotional intelligence across cultures and identities; people with good will, good humor, and a certain humility that might challenge our assumptions about professional expertise and artistic freedom.

To stake our future on something as intangible as ceremony is absurdly hopeful—but then, the fool always did ride shotgun in the ritual universe. To develop practices that diverse people can accept will take much experimentation, much trial and error, and a good bit of time. But I seriously don’t see a good future without some effort of this kind.

Our new ceremonies might look like art or religion or activism. They might look like games, therapy, internet memes, or magic, or all of the above, or something different altogether. But they will be participatory, immersive, meaningful, courageous, and beautiful, because they will spring from our longing for a better way of life. Let’s explore how to perform a new world into reality.

Consider yourself invited to play.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Gustave Dore, 1880

A Midsummer Night’s Karaoke Party

photo by Carlos Montanez

by Jeff Grygny

“Dying is easy,” a famous actor reportedly uttered with his last breath—”comedy is hard.” In the fresh, winsome production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Voices Found Repertory, actor Ben Yela manages both: his buffoon character Bottom performs a tour-de-force of serial deaths that, in its sheer excess of over-the-top commitment, reduced the audience to a crowd of helplessly laughing idiots. This was a comic maraschino cherry on the top of a fluffy dessert of a show, with layers of sincerity and silliness, decorated with imaginative squiggles, and very, very funny.

It’s an excellent way to celebrate what for many will be the first live indoor theater in a long time, with the specter of plague still hovering just a thin patch of fabric away. The audience were all masked, though the performers were not, but vaccination status is checked informally at the door, so the risk seems low enough for the present (pouring a libation to the theater gods now).

Voices Found has been bringing their youthful, kids-put-on-a-show vibe to works of classic theater for several years now, and their shows keep getting stronger and stronger. Director Sarah Zapiain clearly isn’t concerned about doing SHAKESPEARE; she wants to put on a show that’s fun and as accessible to as many people as possible, while still honoring and loving the source. She’s coached her players to bring Gen Z sensibility to the 500 year old script. And it works beautifully. Shakespeare’s lover’s quandaries fit perfectly with the relationship dramas of the TikTok era. The actors tease twenty-first century humor out of the sixteenth-century text and make it look easy. Zapiain skillfully varies the pace, with moments of calm sincerity and quiet hilarity along with utter mayhem. And if the clowning occasionally overpowers the emotional truth— well, anything for a laugh these days, right? But mostly the comedy comes out of characters. situations, and an ingeniously deployed French horn.

photo by Carlos Montanez

The leading players are all strong performers. As Hermia and Helena, Haley Ebinal and Maya Danks carry the first half of the show, each with her distinct blend of charm and silliness; Philip Steenbekkers plays the diffident swain Demetrius with an anything-goes gameness. Grace DeWolff presents a credibly laddish Lysander with a teenager’s bluff facade. On the fairies’ side, Kyle Connors brings a goofball innocence to the role of Puck, while in the dual roles of Theseus and Oberon, Brandon Haut has something of the manners of a put-upon but competent upper manager. And in a production that breezes past the play’s darker aspects, Amber Weissert’s Titania and Hippolyta seem to be concealing more than they show us. Jessica Trznadel’s simple, honest grief for her pretend lover Pyramus is as wonderful in its way as all of Bottom’s grandstanding.

The living-room like Inspiration Studios space doesn’t allow for much in the way of stagecraft;  Puck creates the Athenian forest simply by flipping some black curtains to reveal hanging vines. But the production never feels impoverished. The Elizabethan songs are replaced by aptly-chosen classic hits. Accompanied by a couple of acoustic guitars and the indispensable ukulele, they sing of jealousy (“Jesse’s Girl” and “Jolene”), love (Time after Time”), and magic (“Dancing in the Moonlight.”)  It’s like a Karaoke party, where camaraderie wins out over professional polish. Nothing could be more appropriate for this light, loose show. It’s a wonderful tonic for pandemic fatigue, and a good omen for times to come. Leave a bowl of milk on the porch tonight for the fairies—just in case.

Voices Found Repertory presents

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by William Shakespeare

playing through September 12

http://voicesfoundrep.com/