All posts by jgrygny

The True Meaning of Christmas

Photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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

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

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

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

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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

The Milwaukee Rep presents

The World Premiere of

The Nativity Variations

by Catherine Treischmann

playing through December 11, 2022

https://milwaukeerep.com/shows/show/the-nativity-variations/

Staying Alive

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movin’ on Up

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

Early in the play, one character asks another if they’re in an episode of The Twilight Zone. And for good reason. The situation in which they find themselves is very much like one of Rod Serling’s surreal morality plays—though it could just as easily be the existential classics No Exit or Waiting for Godot. The play is James Ijames’ Kill Move Paradise, now playing in a tight, propulsive production at Next Act Theatre. Ijames won the Pulitzer Prize in Theater for Fat Ham, a comedy that casts Hamlet as an overweight gay Black man living in the American South—and if it’s anything like Kill Move Paradise, it’s a play that manages to be both light and serious, navigating difficult topics with sly allusion rather than analysis, transforming hopelessness into a kind of celebration.  

The characters, all Black men, plummet onto a bare stage on a kind of metal chute on which they periodically and unsuccessfully try to escape like ants trapped in a sink. Convulsing and crying out on arrival in a kind of birth agony, the actors hold nothing back, fearless at their most vulnerable. Over the course of ninety taut minutes, they try to come to grips with where they’ve been and where they’re going, their only guidance the gnomic instructions produced by an old-fashioned computer printer. They explore, argue, rage, grieve, and comment ironically about the silent people who sit watching them. “Are you scared?” they ask the audience several times. Ijames cleverly casts us a sort of supernal witnesses to this limbo state; occasional bursts of blue light make us very visible, and the actors harvest comedy by gently transgressing the fourth wall.

Director Marti Gobel masterfully conducts an organic composition of moments and moods, from animalistic howling to tense extended silences, each movement seeming to expand like a bubble in space-time, growing to full size before popping into the next. The action kaleidoscopically shifts through a variety of vocal and kinetic modes, from naturalistic to lyrical, expressionist to ceremonial, including passages of abstract movement that seem to embody a symbolic dimension.

The four actors give virtuosic performances, vocally, physically, and emotionally. Marques Causey as Issa, the first person we meet suspended in a flash of white light, acts as a kind of master of ceremonies with a grave yet twinkling sense of irony. Grif, a soft boy from a broken family, is delivered feelingly by Ibraheem Farmer, While Dimonte Henning plays Daz, the most volatile arrival, with raw intensity. Joseph Brown Junior plays the last, a boy called Tiny, with confidence and charm. The four men develop a warm sense of brotherhood during the condensed duration of the afterlife. Much is unsaid, communicated in their body language, their choices, and the relationships they create with each other, weaving a complex skein of meaning. At the end, the play takes a spiritual turn, through an improbable juxtaposition of bible verses and sitcom theme songs. Tiny leads everyone in a street game that turns into a mythic adventure/ psychodrama, that becomes an ecstatic ceremony of release, and Issa, it seems, might  be someone we’ve heard a lot about before.

The Black Lives Matter movement was created in 2012 in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. Kill Move Paradise was first presented in Chicago in 2016, four years before the murder of George Floyd by police officers ignited a national movement that inflamed passions and controversy, and whose legacy remains ambiguous to this day. Kill Move Paradise is a theatrical tour-de-force that sidesteps rhetoric to reveal something more essential: the beating hearts of four men in all their humanity. It gives us hope that, as the arts keep exploring diversity, we will keep evolving new ways to connect, relate, and create a new society.

Next Act Theatre presents

Kill Move Paradise

by James Ijames

playing through October 16th

https://nextact.org/

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/