All posts by jgrygny

Primordial Ooze: “Cambrian” Brings High Abstraction Down To Earth

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Brennen Steines

You didn’t think it would be this intense.

You’re ushered into the white-walled, slightly warm and claustrophobic space of the fifth-floor gallery in the Marshall Building, and you step into another world.  It could be a museum diorama of an alien planet; it could be a disturbed dream. It could be taking place on a glass slide of some gargantuan microscope or a brutalist ballet in a mental asylum. Two human bodies, clad in minimal flesh-tinted garments, lay supine on a mud-smeared square that takes up nearly the entire room. Their exposed skin, too,  is partially crusted with clay. Dozens of fist-sized gray lumps dot  the floor between them. Composer/musician Olivia Valenza’s clarinet samples create a moody soundscape, mixed with a weird spoken-word LP disc which she manipulates on a turntable. The dancers slowly stir. Their movements are blind, searching; there’s no reference to human psychology as they move, heap up, break down, and smear the gray earth over the plastic surface and eventually themselves. We’re necessarily drawn to contemplate the performers’ bodies, the contours of skin over muscle and bone, the creases of knees and elbows, the flexing tendons of phalanges. It’s as de-sensualized as a life-drawing class.

Cambrian, an original work produced by Cooperative Performance Milwaukee, is a 45 minute structured improvisation with two dancers, one musician, and about a hundred pounds of clay. An ambitious animated sculpture by painter Brennen Steines, its success emerges from a fortunate confluence of carefully-defined parameters and virtuosic performances. In concept it recalls a principle introduced by John Cage, who said he didn’t imitate nature, but its method of operation. It’s extremely abstract—and not for everyone. Still, there isn’t very much ecological theater in today’s performance scene: in media dominated by human concerns, there’s little thought for the non-verbal dramas of the natural world. So when a performance comes along that eschews human-centered dramatic concerns to focus on the processes that shape life on earth—it’s news.

The so-called “Cambrian Explosion,” was a period more than 500 million years ago that saw a tremendous efflorescence of biodiversity over the course of some 25 million years. Many of the kinds of life that exist today emerged from the innovations of one-celled critters propelled by whip-like tails. We know about this because the new life-forms left traces in the fossil record as they hunted and nested in the soft Cambrian mud. From this unlikely premise, Steines, has fashioned a conceptually sophisticated performance that echoes key themes of the growing ecological movement called “Biopoetics.”

A painter with “a life-long interest in paleontology and geologic time,” Steines studies painting at UWM and has taken courses in Geology in the Honors College. “I approach painting very sculpturally, and I manipulate materials,” he said in a recent conversation. “I was interested in seeing how my current painting practice could be applied to performance and sound.” As Steines describes it, “The performers manipulate materials onstage to alter their physicality and the environment around them, exploring the evolution of physical form in performance.”

“Maybe it was an esthetic affinity,” he said, “or just a general interest in how the fossil record was a strict documentation of the activity of these animals, so you have pockets, you have trails and burrows from these small creatures, and I thought this was fascinating. The sculptural forms that these creatures created were not due to the intention of making form, they’re created out of a pure will and instinctual activity to live and to survive. That’s the primary interest I have with Cambrian, is how life in essence is a sculptural form and the processes that occur in life create form.”

photo by Brennen Steines

Choreographer Liz Faraglia developed the moves out of extended improvisations by performers Kelly Radermacher and Don Russell, which she then cut and pasted into a loose movement score. The rest depends on the impulse of the moment and the behavior of the clay. The raw elemental quality of the movement recalls Butoh, an avant-garde Japanese dance form, and the improvisational structure of the piece echoes Noh theater, which similarly combined dance, music and narrative to evoke long-dead spirits. The music and the movement seem to chase each other in a nonlinear game of tag. This demands utter commitment from the players; there’s no room for faking it.

We don’t see the characteristic activities of life: eating, reproduction, or competition for resources. “There’s nothing really literal about it,” said Steins. “The performers serve the role of the ghost of life’s activity millions of years ago; not to portray life over history, but rather to translate the action of life over history.”  All seems to take place at a developmental stage when organisms were just beginning to figure out how to join themselves into multi-cellular symbiosis. We seem to be witnessing a process of trial and error, motivated by inchoate urges towards greater complexity. The overall effect of the performance is cumulative, laying down strata of impressions like sedimentary rock: the performer’s disarming vulnerability, the abject look of mud-caked skin, their blank gazes reflecting bare subjectivity devoid of human psychology. We see none of the interpersonal dynamics that constitute conventional theater: nothing suggests the interactions of a man and woman. We see tension, collaboration, clashes of impulse that represent momentary imbalances to be resolved. Their writhing, methodical efforts to solve problems we can only surmise, involving weight, contact, sensation. The sight and sound of clay being squeezed through fingers, smeared over surfaces, thrown to the floor with forceful splats.  Like a musical composition, the 45 minutes pass with an almost symphonic progression. We’re encouraged to move around as when viewing a sculpture; we can angle for a better view— only to find the view has changed when we get there.

As personal and intimate as this experience may be, the piece is grounded in a concept of life uncannily similar to biopoetics. Articulated by biologists Francisco Varela and Andreas Weber, eco-philosopher David Abrams, and even Lynn Margulis, author of the Gaia Hypothesis, biopoetics revolutionizes thinking about life by presupposing that all living things have innate subjectivity, desire, and the power of choice—even at the cellular level. Life is in essence the creation of meaning, and it’s basic expression is aesthetic, be it the splash of a fish or the tint of a rose; all speak what Weber calls “the lingua franca of life.” Cambrian enacts a systems model of life that could apply, fractal-like, at any scale—from the actions of ancient microorganisms to the Cambrian explosion; from humans’ influence on the global environment to you making decisions in your everyday life—it’s all based on your desire, pursuing your personal impulses, with the traces this activity leaves on the world.

Steines was moved by a passage in Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic novel Parable of the Sower: “It’s a destiny we’d better pursue if we hope to be anything other than smooth-skinned dinosaurs—here today, gone tomorrow, our bones mixed with the bones and ashes of our cities, and so what?” “I’m not directly spelling it out,” Steines said, “It’s not a PowerPoint presentation, but rather a springboard for audiences to make their own assumptions and contemplate their own moment in history. A good work of art is inexhaustible—when you look at it there are so many conclusions to be drawn. Maybe not conclusions; maybe questions.”

Cooperative Performance Milwaukee presents
Created and Directed by Brennen Steines
Music composed by Olivia Valenza
Choreography by Liz Faraglia

Playing through November 6
Friday and Saturday: 6:30 and 8
Sunday: 12
Cooperativa Gallery and Studio
207 E Buffalo Street

Pure Imagination: “Dali’s Liquid Ladies” Creates a Surreal World

by Jeff Grygny


“Do you think he’s crazy?” asks the reporter.
“Right now,” Nadia replies, “He’s my boss.”

“He” is Salvador Dali, and she’s one of the models hired to play mermaids in a giant water tank for his exhibit “Dali’s Dream of Venus” at the 1939 World’s Fair (one of them has to pretend to milk a plastic cow). That might be the only actual historical fact in Dali’s Liquid Ladies by Chicago playwright Savanna Reich, which is currently in performance by the “pop-up collective” called Truepenny Theater Company. What we get is as rich and strange as a surrealist painting: a smart, lovely, hilarious performance that takes Dali’s exhibit as the departure point for a journey through dreams, desire, power, art, meaning, and reality itself.

One of the fun things about shows by under-the-radar theater groups is the adventure of finding them: often they perform in unusual spaces where it’s an experience just getting there. There’s also a real risk: you might find young genius in the bud, or equally likely, some half-assed fiasco or pretentious bullshit. With this show, you get the feeling you’re in good hands when you’ve climbed several flights of stairs in the Fortress, a grand industrial building with castle-like pediments, and you see construction-paper fish fastened to the walls, each one inscribed with a different dream. This is also helpful, as the pause lets your heart slow down a little. A couple more flights, and a sign cheerily encourages you “Almost There!” The stairwell goes dark, lit only by a glowing disk on the landing. You hear live music, then burst into somebody’s loft living space. There’s a kitchen, a library; people sit at long tables apparently doing some kind of crafts. A large sign greets you with a playful warning strangely reminiscent of the waiver form from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.


Clearly, this show is a labor of love. Produced by Kat Wodke, who also plays Nadia, and directed with exceptional heart by Tessara Morgan, the show is a complete delight, all the collaborators working to create an organic whole of setting, costumes, music, lighting, and amazing performances. In a spot-on turn as “The Wizard of Painting,” Nick Narcisi nails Dali’s preternatural confidence, arrogance, and vision. He’s cool, off-putting and hilarious, delivering streams of surrealist word salad in a Catalan accent thick enough to spread on crackers (grasshopper” comes out “gray supper”). The three mermaids, played by Keighley Sadler, Molly Corkins, and Kat Wodktke, each have distinct characters and moments. Ben Yela as a lost Nazi is disarmingly naive and also very funny. All the players bring tremendous presence to their performance, taking time to break the fourth wall and reveal themselves, effectively becoming living works of art.


Devotion to art glows in every aspect of the production, from set designer Luke Farley’s painstakingly crafted lobsterphone, to Leslie Vaglica’s costumes, which recall Dali’s 1939 exhibit and sometimes become sculptural special effects, as when the actresses crouch inside sheer fabric cocoons illuminated from within. Don Russell’s MacGyver-like lighting rig uses hardware store tech to create rich and varied moods. Even Morgan’s musical choices conjure a period sense of theatrical weirdness.


Reich’s smart, poetic script hangs a lot of images and ideas on a fairly simple plot: Not satisfied with his work, Dali is keeping his three mermaids virtual captives in the closed exhibit (a situation any actor kept overtime by a crazy director can relate to). He treats them like objects: Ruby has to stand silent and motionless as he attaches live starfish to her nipples and drapes her in seaweed and raw bacon. “Why is the face of a woman more beautiful than the face of a fish?” he rails. “The face of a fish is fantastic!” What’s more, he finds their amorous advances trite and disgusting. Nadia thinks he’s a fake; Ruby tries in vain to get a straight answer from him; Opal simply seems out of her depth. Nor does their mood improve when a cadet from the Hitler Youth Group wanders into the exhibit, mistaking it for the German Pavilion. Intrigued, Dali tells him that it’s a laboratory for discovering the true Aryan spirit. “We’re taking it in a different direction,” he says to the confused Nazi. After experiencing the fleshy embrace of Dali’s human massage chair, the young Fascist flees, but soon returns, beginning a curiously intimate male bonding process with the painter, including a bizarre, if kind of adorable, game of “Truth or Dare” in a makeshift pup tent. None of this improves the ladies’ mood, and like the ecstasy-maddened Bacchantes in the myth of Orpheus, they resolve to murder the famous artist.

Clearly, Reich had a blast writing this play, and the young players bring great heart and imagination to flesh it out. Not only do they fully realize the script, they might, following their own imaginative threads, radically expand upon it. For instance, it’s well-known that Dali was not a very nice man. His fellow artists detested him as a materialistic, self-aggrandizing sell-out, and criticized his support of Fascist regimes. The myth of the “Great Genius” has supported tyrants both great and small. Reich’s play obviously  points to homoerotic, misogynistic aspects of the relationship between Dali and the Lost Nazi as well. Marvelously, this production doesn’t take an easy, doctrinaire path; the ideas are still there, but warmed and humanized. Morgan’s sensitive work with the superb cast discovers something more fluttering and alive.  They show that even if an artist’s singular vision can alienate and confuse people, it can also liberate their own personal visions.

In one telling Dali reveals a spirit racked with fears and conflicting emotions. He’s afraid of mediocrity and afraid people won’t understand him. He’s afraid of grasshoppers, and that he might accidentally step on a fish. He’s afraid that his crowd of admirers might touch him. Though the other players bare their bodies, he shows his naked soul. An artist, gifted or cursed with perceptions unbound by cultural clichés, is a giant eyeball, a living nerve exposed to the universe. And lo and behold: tyrant though he may be, his creativity seems to effect deep transformations on his associates. The seemingly clueless Opal turns herself into a living brush, dripping blue paint over her body to make imprints on a large canvas. Ruby dreams of a Dali who acknowledges and sees her, drawing power in the act. And the inhibited Nazi sheds his uniform to dance fearless and ecstatic, liberated from his rigid ideology.

Morgan writes in her program notes,“Surrealism offers a chance to be whoever you want to be.” It could be the motto for any counterculture, for cosplay, or for identity movements: the Romantic celebration of the individual’s sometimes painful existential task of creating one’s own reality. History is full of terrible instances of geniuses imposing their version of reality on others. But as E.E. Cummings wrote in A Poet’s Advice:

“. . . whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.”

Truepenny Theater Company presents
Dali’s Liquid Ladies
by Savanna Reich
Playing through October 15

at the Fortress (corner of 1st and Pleasant St. in Milwaukee)
Surrealist Funhouse Opens at 7:00
Live Music at 7:30
Show at 8:00
Suggested donation $15-25 (CASH ONLY)
“All are welcome! No one turned away for lack of funds.”


Vanishing Act: “A Life in the Theatre” at The Alchemist

by Jeff Grygny


James Pickering and David Sapiro

“Ephemerous, ephemerous,” the old actor mutters to himself.
Is it the spontaneous utterance of an existential feeling? Or did he want someone to ask him what he meant? The younger actor doesn’t ask— not even if he meant to say “ephemeris” (meaning “an almanac,” which doesn’t make sense) or “ephemeral” (meaning “insubstantial and transient,” which does). Anyway you look at it, the moment illustrates the ambiguity and impermanence of the actor’s art: that of summoning emotions, images and people out of the printed page and into warm, breathing life, repeated perhaps, but nevertheless disappearing, as Prospero said, “into thin air.”

It’s one of many such moments in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre, now playing at Bay View’s Alchemist Theatre. If you heard about Mamet’s ugly clash with the little company, you might be surprised that they dared to put on another of his plays: Mamet boorishly had their production of Oleanna shut down last year by lawyer’s order, because he didn’t approve of its cross-gender casting (where his scripts are concerned, he’s a strict originalist). But Mamet’s punchy masculine rhythms have always struck a chord with The Alchemist’s impresario Aaron Kopec. And anyway, when James Pickering mentions that he’d like to do a certain play at your theater, you’d be an idiot not to do it. Which is exactly how this show came to be. Pickering, a grand old man of Milwaukee theater if there is one, with time and inclination to do a two-man show on one of Milwaukee’s smallest stages, can jolly well just do that if he wants to. For local theater lovers, it’s an event not to be missed.

If a typical Mamet play is like an oil painting, all brash colors and deep shadows, this 1975 script, done at the time of “peak Mamet,” is like a watercolor. His usual macho head-butting is still here, but it’s muted into polite exchanges. What’s unsaid is more important that what’s said in these elliptical, banal, fragmentary conversations. There are the usual unfinished sentences and interruptions, and a bit of good old profanity as the play unfolds in a succession of short scenes that alternate backstage banter with clips from the amusingly wretched plays the two actors play in the course of their professional relationship. We witness offstage gaffes, blown lines, and wardrobe malfunctions—all minor hazards of the trade. It’s quite funny, in the way Larry David brought to Seinfeld and perfected in Curb Your Enthusiasm: brushed with embarrassment and melancholy.

Pickering’s Robert, the seasoned actor, is old school, full of protocol and superstitions. He often seems to be trying to pass something on to the younger actor, John, played by local favorite David Sapiro. But he seems express it only in potted analogies and zen-like aphorisms. Or is he just a mildly pretentious blowhard trying to impress the newbie with artsy mumbo-jumbo?  On the other hand, John—is he really as receptive as he seems? Is he just being polite? Or is he biding his time until he can get something from the old man and move up? Is their seeming friendship real affection? Or simply affected? The play reminds us that actors are professional dissimulators: it’s their job to make the artificial seem authentic.

Director Jill Anna Ponasik heightens this sense, steering her actors towards naturalism: they could be playing themselves, for all we know. This results in a certain flatness—even when “acting” together, there’s little variation in characterization (with the notable exception of an over-the-top funny scene in a life raft, played in ripe English accents). Ponasik’s specialty is directing opera, and she creates a percussive between-scene score as the two men perform a dance dragging trunks, tables and chairs around with much banging and scraping. Impressive as this is, the novelty wears off pretty quickly, only to pique as some telling variation occurs. We see the theatrical season pass, measured in coats put on and taken off, makeup applied and removed, “goodnights” said, phone calls made— which builds up a sense of an actor’s life, layer by layer. In between there are moments of comedy and moments of shame; we wince for John when he flubs an entrance. An onstage meltdown over a missed cue is hilarious, but also heartbreaking, as we see the first rift in their cool but palpable friendship. As John piles up good reviews, Roger becomes more brittle. In one alarming scene he seems to have hurt himself— but is it a real crisis, or just a self-dramatizing attempt to win sympathy? The play gives us no clear answer. The final scene brings real comic pathos when Robert hides in the empty audience eavesdropping on John rehearsing a Shakespearian monolog.

The real play happens between the words. To the intent observer, Pickering and Sapiro create a feedback loop as their performances ambiguously inform and reflect each other, inducing a kind of vertigo, like two facing mirrors. Art is the mirror of life, it’s said. A Life in the Theatre reveals a world of uncertainty, reflecting reflections, and echoing echoes; like words written on water, ephemerous.

If plays are like drinks, this one is fine cognac: strong, smooth, and to be savored.

The Alchemist Theatre presents
A Life in the Theatre
by David Mamet
directed by Jill Anna Ponasik

playing through October 15th

Crazy Old Man: The Rep’s powerful “Man of La Mancha”

by Jeff Grygny

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Photo by Michael Brosilow

If some retired attorney suddenly thought he was a superhero and went out to fight crime dressed like Batman, we’d recommend him for medication. That’s exactly how it is with Man of La Mancha’s Don Quixote, the elderly landowner who decides to be knight-errant. But the 1964 musical makes the old lunatic something more: a stand-in for all our noblest (if unrealistic) ideals, trammeled in the muck of everyday life, yet steadfast to a fault. As delivered by Milwaukee Repertory Theater under Mark Clements’ skillful direction, this Tony-winning Broadway warhorse achieves its full emotional power. This is thanks in no small part to the magnificent voice of Nathaniel Stampley in the title role, as well as music director Dan Kazemi’s passionate interpretation of Mitch Leigh’s rousing score, which blends brassy bombast with the fiery touch of flamenco guitars. The result is tremendously moving; if your eyes don’t tear up a few times during the show you probably also hate Christmas and puppies.

Dale Wasserman’s book is loosely based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes —loosely, as in: it completely inverts Cervantes ruthless send-up of the chivalric romances that were as popular in his time as superheroes are today. In Don Quixote, Cervantes comes off as something like a 17th Century Lars Von Trier: snidely puncturing chivalric pretensions, there’s no quotidian grime he won’t wallow in. The Don Quixote of the novel usually brings chaos in pursuit of his ill-conceived quest, and if he doesn’t end up getting thrashed, his dim sidekick Pancho usually does. In sharp contrast, Wasserman’s book elevates exactly the romantic view that Cervantes scorned. This 60’s era tribute to a misguided battle against evil is especially ironic when you recall that the same year Man of La Mancha opened on Broadway, the United States sent troops into Vietnam for the first time. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is a textbook illustration of “quixotic” —and not in a good way. Even those who passionately battle for social justice are not immune to tilting at windmills. In short, this is a play for anyone with a heightened sense of mission, both as an inspiration and as a warning.

Director Clements keeps the show rolling through moments of high spirits, low comedy, grim anticlimax, and finally a kind of lofty tragedy. The show is set in a Spanish prison where Cervantes is held due to some bureaucratic offense against the Church. Handily, he happens to have a trunk full of theatrical gear, and to save his precious manuscript from the prison latrine, he enlists his cellmates into an impromptu telling of Don Quixote. This works beautifully on Jack Magaw’s monumental prison set, taking on magical atmospheres under Jason Fassl’s ingenious lighting design. Cervantes’ manservant, acting as stage manager, hands out costumes and props, instructing prisoners how to pantomime horses and such, and the story takes off. The sturdy actors throw themselves into clever double characterizations; we see them as prisoners taking roles in Cervantes’s drama—whether willingly, delightedly or grudgingly—then gradually inhabiting their parts as both we and they become absorbed in the tale.

Alvin Crawford brings warmth and humor to the prison boss who accepts the part of a sympathetic innkeeper; Michael Accardo and Michael J. Farrina deliver sparking comic performances as a traveling barber and Quixote’s hapless squire Sancho. As a kindly priest, Jonathan Gillard Daly adds a certain madness of his own, and when he sings De profundis clamo ad te —from the depths I cry to you, Lord—we get a fleeting sense of the show’s existential heart. Matt Daniels as an adversarial nobleman delivers a worthy, if nasty, voice of reason. And if Stampley seems a bit too hearty to represent the emaciated “Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” he brings indispensible authority and commitment; his manic grin when Quixote is knighted is the stunned expression of a man whose dream has finally come true. The role of the tavern whore Aldonza, whom Quixote takes for his ideal lady Dulcinea, is played by Leenya Rideout with uncommon subtlety: we see both a nameless prisoner and the pitiful woman she is enlisted to play gradually allowing herself to take strength from Quixote’s kindness, even though his devotion is delusional. And after the curtain call, fully half of the actors whip out guitars for a delightfully energetic reprise of the title song.

Sure, the lyrics can be a bit hokey and middle of the road. But Man of La Mancha seriously engages Cervantes’ complex play between literature and reality, and the role of poetry in a prosaic world. It gives solace by honoring a vision of goodness, even in the face of disheartening truths. It offers the aged precious dignity, even when failing body and mind puts them into humiliating circumstances. And it tips an ironic hat to the artists, who keep on offering inspiration to a world that often seems to want everything but.

Knight-errantry might be more about ourselves than the people we’re supposedly helping; there’s a murky zone between high ideals and mere grandiosity. Yet even knowing this, there’s  something about Don Quixote that moves us deeply and gives us heart—and that’s probably for the best.

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre presents
Man of La Mancha
book by Dale Wasserman
Music by Rich Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion

playing through October 30