All posts by jgrygny

Telling Her Story: “Measure for Measure”

Photo by Max Anderer

O, it is excellent 
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous 
To use it like a giant.
                                    Isabella (Measure for Measure)

by Jeff Grygny

For their inaugural production, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the Aura Theatre Collective lays their cards on the table right away. Black and white photos of women who have experienced sexual assault line the way to our seats. The first thing we see onstage is a dancer of an unconventional body type, decked  in spandex, leather, and bits of chiffon, fearlessly going through a strip club dance routine. The icy looks she shoots into the audience make it clear: she doesn’t give a damn what you think; no male fantasies will be entertained here. After this confrontational opening, Director Jaimelyn Gray surprises us again with a soberly thought-out, well-acted interpretation of a play commonly regarded as full of difficulties.

Measure for Measure isn’t performed often, and it’s easy to see why. A “problem play,” about law and justice, it combines elements of fairy tale, melodrama, dirty joke, and legal thriller. The characters keep doing things that make you go “What?” right up to the strangely unsatisfying ending. But  these difficulties harbor swirling questions that allow for many possible readings. For Gray, it’s a full-voiced condemnation of the sexual coercion of women by powerful men. And it works beautifully, both as message and as theater. By putting the spotlight on a woman’s experience of harassment in a social order that explicitly regards her as property, prize, and chattel, this production brings the plot and characters into focus while channeling the passion of a very hot contemporary issue. And making it’s vehicle a 400 year old play effortlessly underscores the depth and historical weight of the problem.

The production design hovers in a timeless realm between the Renaissance and the future, in a severe palette of black and red. Posey Knight’s frame-like set design creates spacial volume while recalling the Globe Theater’s entrances and exits. Sound designer Jake Thompson creates a mood of contemporary urgency without resorting to musical bombast. The Irish Cultural Center’s “Hallamor,” a former church, has challenging acoustics: unless the performers deliver their lines clearly and directly into the audience, their longer speeches tend to dissolve into aural mush. This is a great pity, as the actors clearly understand what they’re saying. But, as in any good production, their nonverbal cues convey most of the information we need about character, feelings, and relationships that we need to follow the action—which, as the intrigue progresses, really pulls us in. There are advantages to doing a seldom-produced play—not everyone knows what will happen next!

As Duke Vincentio, who tests his counselor by giving him complete authority and then lurking incognito, Randall Anderson gives as strong a performance as he’s given in his long career on local stages. Dignified and sympathetic, his character combines Sherlock Holmes, Machiavelli, Perry Mason, and Santa Claus, busily orchestrating ingenious fixes to various desperate problems. As the hypocritical counselor Angelo, who condemns a young man to death for fornication because he made his fiancée pregnant before they were married, Timothy Barnes shows ruthless intelligence along with a degree of self-awareness, chastising himself for lusting after the condemned man’s sister (and a novice nun, even). Yet Angelo’s qualms don’t stop him from offering a heinous bargain: her brother’s life in exchange for her virginity. Nor—like many a contemporary abuser— does he show any remorse when his perfidy is revealed. Logan Milway takes the comic role of a garrulous bro and runs with it: there is no Elizabethan innuendo that he can’t find a contemporary illustrative gesture for. And as Isabella, the brilliant, poised young woman who finds herself Angelo’s victim, Laker Thrasher (is that really a name?) embodies the emotional maelstrom that a self-possessed person can suffer when they become the object of predatory manipulation.

The performance ends with a shocking gesture that makes its point like a relationship-ending slap, leaving as bad an aftertaste as the play’s many expressions of a culture in which all authority is given to a small number of unaccountable powerful men. Did Shakespeare rise above his time? Another reading might cast the relationship between Isabella and Vincentio in a very different light. But Gray’s staging reveals that, without changing a line, Shakespeare can be seen as sympathetic to the plight of the women of his time, even if expressing himself through ambiguity. At least until a female Shakespeare appears, we can still be intrigued, provoked, and thrilled by such smart, passionate interpretations of the Shakespeare we have.

Aura Theatre Collective presents

Measure for Measure

by William Shakespeare

directed by Jaimelyn Gray

playing through November 24

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Dancing about History

photos by Andy Walsh

by Jeff Grygny

Anyone slightly familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright—arguably Wisconsin’s most influential native-born artist—has heard that he was a difficult man. Those who know a bit more, or even have visited Taliesin, his estate near Spring Green, may know that he had three wives and a mistress over the course of his turbulent personal life (he was evidently better at courtship than at marriage). In Mrs. Wrights, a solo dance theater work currently in production by Quasimondo Physical Theatre, creator/performer Jenni Reinke focuses on those women: their stories, their personalities, and the culture of their times. We don’t learn anything about Frank’s work— which is fine, as their lives are quite compelling, boldly rendered in the mixed media of dance, spoken and recorded text, music, and a distinctive style of visual poetry that is robust enough to express lyrical, tragic, and humorous passages with emotional complexity and choreographic richness.

Reinke created this work as her MFA dance final project and has performed it at several different venues and festivals. The time she’s spent clearly shows: the performance is as finely-shaped and textured as the the simple but beautiful props she uses to tell her stories. This latest iteration takes place in the elegant space of the Charles Allis Art Library. Atmospheric lighting and carefully-curated musical selections convey a wide range of moods and historical contexts, from a folk tune to old-timey jazz to a delightful rap based on the “Feminist Futurist Manifesto,” delivered in the persona of Wright’s second wife, the morphine-addicted sculptor Maude Miriam Noel. Ingenious costume changes create more visual variety, and Reinke often casts articles of clothing in multiple roles: a hat becomes a pot to catch dripping water; an elegant overcoat becomes a synecdoche for Frank at every stage of his life, whether folded up and rocked like an infant or laid out on the floor like a corpse. In one witty sequence, Reinke plays out the beginning of Martha Borthwick’s affair with Wright, with one arm in the coatsleeve making seductive advances while the other arm coyly fends them off. Similarly, a rocking chair is a cradle for one of Catherine Tobin’s six children with Wright; later, as he spends more and more time away, it becomes her cage.

Over the sixty minutes of this long-form dance piece, Reinke covers the lives of five women, spanning a period of nearly a century. She avoids the trap of most biographical theater; though a few voice-overs place the action in time and locale, Reinke focuses on telling moments that crystallize lives, personalities and crisis points. One tasteful yet harrowing sequence relates the incredibly horrible deaths of Wright’s entire family at the hands of a deranged servant, after which Reinke briefly portrays the grieving architect himself.

The narrative sequences frame what can be considered the piece’s primary focus: the extended dances in the modern vernacular that portrays each of the six characters. Reinke could pass for a Modigliani model, an attribute that she uses to great advantage, manifesting a broad palette of shifting moods and gestural feeling tones. Having exhaustively researched each character, she dances with every part of her body, from forehead to toes, distilling each persona into movements which, while deeply personal, express meanings and emotions that elude simple speech. Perhaps in these shapes and staccato rhythms, we can discern, as if by some subtle sense, the mutual influence of these women and Wright’s designs. Like holograms, each part contains the whole. But dance is not a medium for cultural history or art theory, however much the show is charged with both. Those not fluent in the language of dance might be confounded by these sequences, while still being capable of admiring the wave-patterns on the holograms’ surface.

Despite it’s being as semiotically rich as a Christmas fruitcake, with its surreal imagery, tremendous visual flair, emotional authenticity and welcome touches of humor, Mrs. Wrights is a very accessible tour de force of the highest artistic integrity.

Quasimondo Physical Theatre


Mrs. Wrights

created and performed by Jenni Reinke

playing through November 16

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Mysteries of spirit and flesh

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

“The sound of the voice and the music is like a visual landscape. It’s not something you can put on a table and mathematically tear apart and have it make sense.” 
                                                                                                            Michael Stipe

According to the historian Plutarch, in the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE, by the way), sailors heard a voice across the sea crying “Great Pan is dead.” This strange story has often been interpreted as the pagan world acknowledging the beginning of a new epoch: the death of Pan (eros) means the end of nature’s rule on earth and the dawn of the spiritual age of Christ (logos). Similarly, The Sibylline Prophesies, depicting the voices of seers predicting the virgin birth of Jesus, were popular during the first centuries of the Christian era; they gave the new religion the authority of pagan wisdom. Now, two thousand years later, an extraordinary performance brings eros and logos into a reverent, if sometimes fraught, conversation.

In Utterance, Ancient Prophesies/Modern Revelations, Milwaukee Opera Theatre embarks on another of their inspired collaborations; this time with the vocal ensemble Aperi Animam (whose name means “open your soul’), and Cadance Collective, consisting of two musicians and a dancer. Together, in the cavernous space of Calvary Episcopalian Church, they perform a wondrously ritualistic juxtaposition of Orlande de Lassus’ Renaissance-era setting of the Sibylline Prophecies with Eternal Burning, a contemporary work commissioned for the occasion from local composer/poet Amanda Schoofs.

As gorgeously delivered by Aperi Animam under the music direction of Daniel Koplitz, de Lassus’ songs in praise of the Holy Virgin Mary carry our hearts soaring into the nighttime heavens in the spirit of the best sacred music. Voices and phrases resound and overlap like the celestial singing of myriad angels. Schoofs’ settings of short poems sometimes echo the same notes of yearning, but they also incorporate modern dissonances and raw, breathy sounds; they seem more the productions of bodies of bone and blood than the exhalations of supernatural beings. Her texts, like the prophecies, sanctify motherhood, but there the similarity ends: Schoofs draws deeply on her own experience of pregnancy and birth to chronicle the soul-wrenching experience of life creating life in all its intense, contradictory emotions. The self become many as her body performs mysteries of creation that far predate our rational intellects, sounding the primeval, erotic roots of animal life. There are no literal representations of pregnancy, birth, or infants. Rather, we witness a tenebrous ceremony that partakes of the gestures of the Christian Mass, imagery of Gnosticism and alchemy, psychodrama, and the trappings of a particularly theatrical goth band.

A fine haze gives body to a space framed by tall Gothic-arched windows and empty but for circles of chairs open to the four directions. High-tech lighting by local genius Antishadows sculpts the atmosphere into volumes that shift, change hue, and project abstract shapes in austere stately rhythms to create a wide variety of moods. Black-clad figures emerge from the surrounding darkness, carrying books. Their clothing is adorned with rags bearing esoteric emblems. There is great variety in body shape, hairstyle choices, and gender coding, but they all look determinedly goth, with liberal use of black eyeliner. The Cadance Collective weaves in and out of the circle, carrying their flute and cello; Christina Wagner, the dancer, makes her entrance as the sole performer in white, but her angular movements suggest nothing like the classic Virgin’s serenity. Symbolic actions unfold in a measured pace: the drawing of a circle on the floor with rice poured from a seemingly inexhaustible vase; a milky fluid transferred back and forth between two cups; vestments donned. Three performers representing “the trinity of female identity” interact with each other and the chorus in scenes that seem laden with narratives we can feel more than follow with our intellects. We are like like initiates in some secret cult, washed over in music both earthy and divine.

photo by Mark Frohna

An elegant program booklet helpfully gives us the texts of all the songs, with titles that obliquely hint at their meanings. Schoofs’ lyrics are vivid with bodily imagery: burning, breath, flesh, lungs, voice, “milk, filth, and blood.”  The phrase “Feel everything” occurs twice, and a section called “A Revelation” has only three lines:

With flesh
All things
Have beauty

The performance alternates between modern and Renaissance songs, enacting an unspoken dialog between their very different worlds, the sense of which will be different for each hearer. While one voice struggles to “feel everything,” the other celebrates the miracle of the incarnation. The tension between earth and heaven, immanence and transcendence, is almost palpable. After two millennia of trying to ascend to the sky, the animal body here pulses in all its carnality. And this is not the sublimated eros of Botticelli; this eros is wild, fierce, burning, and dangerous—like the great god Pan, full of ecstasy, derangement, and wisdom. Stage director Danny Brylow’s constant circling centripetal and centrifugal movements, exchanges and transformations, are like symbolic enactments of the most primeval of all rites: the dance of chromosomes and cells within the womb’s magic gestatory circle. These actions materialize and sacralize the space where personal experience meets impersonal biology in the theater of embodied experience.

This mystery play, which, like the ancient rites of Eleusis, reveals cosmic truths to its initiates, played its last performance—rather fittingly—on Halloween night. Complex, daring, exquisite in conception and impeccable in execution, it was a rare gift to our performing arts community. Those who witnessed it will not soon forget it.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre
in collaboration with Aperi Animam and Cadance Collective

Utterance: Ancient Prophesies/Modern Revelations

October 29 – 31

Making History: “Hamilton” plays Milwaukee

Elijah Malcomb, Joseph Morales, Kyle Scatliffe, Fergie L. Philippe and Company-HAMILTON National Tour (c) Joan Marcus 2018

by Jeff Grygny

In a 2015 interview for Vogue magazine,  Lin-Manuel Miranda said that when he first thought of writing Hamilton, he googled “Alexander Hamilton hip hop musical” to see if anyone had already done it. For anyone else, that uninspiring face on the ten dollar bill would seem an unlikely pairing with the beats we hear rattling the glass of many a smoky-windowed vehicle on the streets nowadays. But thus works the mind of genius: to think a crazy idea is worth spending six years on—and turning out to be spectacularly right. Having picked up Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography of Hamilton, Miranda saw himself in the bastard son of the Caribbean, orphaned and destitute at 13, whose writing eloquence earned him a scholarship to New York City and a meteoric career to the top of the country he helped create. Now, after wheelbarrows full awards and a run on Broadway that you needed several portraits of Benjamin Franklin to afford. But could it really be all that?

The production has wended its way at last to the city that will host the 2020 Democratic Convention. Ladies and gentlemen: you can for once believe the hype. Even as a touring show (which evidently is contractually obligated to replicate the Broadway experience in every detail), Hamilton is a nonstop theatrical rush that grabs you by the collar in its opening number, and dazzles you with its seamless union of music, words, movement and stagecraft, tossing out one stunning theatrical moment after another. It’s like being regularly and repeatedly struck by lightning. No wonder people pay big bucks to see it.

Miranda has populated his lyrics incredibly densely with story, context, feelings, and meanings, in wonderfully mischievous and evocative ways (rhyming “Britain” with “shittin” for instance). But though the words often wash over you faster than the brain can take them in, you somehow get the crucial information you need to follow even the abstruse machinations of post-revolutionary politics. Couching debates as rap battles, or setting the rules of dueling to verse, Miranda crafts dramatic poetry as rich as Homer’s, but in contemporary language — a feat that has been the holy grail of playwrights ever since the modern age began. Great narrative poetry expands in the mind to create virtual realities of images and feelings; in Hamilton, we see how Shakespeare would be writing today: with music and a beat. That beat drives the play like the pulse of the title character’s irresistible ambition. And he is a tragic hero. His spectacular success leads to a converse self-implosion, due to that most American of mistakes: not balancing life and work. This tragic flaw leads indirectly to scandal, his fateful duel, and to Aaron Burr’s claim to infamy.

Refined by literally jillions of performances, the production is a perfectly-running machine. The stage is in constant motion, yet even with 26 athletic bodies cavorting at once, Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography highlights the key actions, clarifying the story while embodying the vibrant animal energy of a country being born. Director Thomas Kail and lighting designer Howell Binkley use a revolving stage and rock-concert lighting as limbs of the score, creating dreamlike visions and dazzling climaxes that Wagner could only wish for.

Any one of the touring cast would be a star in this town: these are dedicated professionals, and we are in good hands with them. In the unenviable job of filling Miranda’s shoes, Joseph Morales carries himself with understated humility that contrasts well with Hamilton’s insatiable drive and fierce commitment. Erin Clemons brings calm grace and a bell-like voice to the character of Eliza Hamilton, a role that history has given her little to work with. Warren Egypt Franklin has boisterous energy in dual roles as Lafayette and Jefferson; the latter portrayed as a pompous popinjay (which seems about right, given his recent fall in reputation).  Marcus Choi brings heart to the role of the “Father of Our Country,” without ever really stepping outside the gilded picture frame; while in the to-die-for character role as America’s least popular monarch, Neil Haskell laces George III’s  numbers with petulant sneers. Nik Walker clearly relishes playing the complex character of Aaron Burr, the colonial aristocrat who advises young Alexander to “talk less, smile more,” and to hide his hand until it’s clear which side is winning.

The Hamilton/Burr relation sets up one of the show’s most potent themes; one that is, remarkably, conveyed almost entirely by subtext. That the nation’s founders should be played by performers of color, singing and dancing in a distinctively African-American musical idiom, is the opposite of a coincidence here. The song “My Shot” makes Miranda’s identification with this poor immigrant’s drive and talent absolutely clear, and, as delivered by this cast with fierce passion, the implications are enough to send any white supremacists in the house running screaming for the exits. “Immigrants, we get the job done,” proclaims another character. Hamilton, an American Musical reiterates the Obama-era aspiration that this is where anyone can make it, given heart, talent, and a level playing field, while it brilliantly makes democracy feel exciting in a way that it hasn’t seemed in decades. One gesture says it: the way the men in the cast flourish their Colonial coat-tails like banners—the motion captures the bravado of a visionary time, when the old order was ablaze, with a new world rising from its burnt foundations.

The real Hamilton was far from populist; his opinions have often bolstered conservative arguments for keeping power in the hands of the elite. But Miranda has fashioned a new myth, one that vibrates with the aspirations of any minority: not to wait for change, like Burr, but to plunge forward and make your own world.

Artistically, Hamilton is a magnificent trailblazing achievement, showing the robust energy and narrative richness of the “hip-hopera” as an accessible musical form. We hope to live long enough to see Shakespeare, Aeschylus, and newer, yet-undreamed stories getting similarly creative treatments. Ideologically, the show hews uncomfortably close to the neoliberal embrace of meritocratic identity politics; as if the system is just fine, as long as it is accessible to anyone with the right stuff regardless of race, ethnicity or gender orientation. Brothers and sisters: the system is not fine. Between the transglobal plutocracy and ecological catastrophe, succeeding under this world order is like getting a comfier room on the Titanic.

Or maybe we’ll tear it down and raise something better. (If we do, it would be nice to have people like Hamilton on our side.)

However that may be, Hamilton makes making history look both understandable and fun. And that is why the movie adaptation must be made, like, five years ago, so that its message can quicken pulses throughout the globe—especially those who don’t have the Benjamins for the ticket. Your move, Mr. Miranda, sir!

Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman
and The Public Theater

book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

playing through November 17th

Domestic Terror

photo by Christal Wagner

by Jeff Grygny

“You didn’t think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you?”

The title of The Constructivists’ latest production conjures the image of a crowned, horned figure,  marshaling demonic hordes in a computer-game battle for the soul of the world. The play itself is closer to our everyday lives—and consequently much scarier. The sense of metaphysical struggle in The God of Hell is keenly present, though expressed in a different set of metaphors. And since it’s Sam Shepard writing, the battle takes place in a farmhouse in rural Wisconsin.

Once upon a time, Frank and Emma live in isolation; he’s devoted to his heifers; she, to her sprawling collection of houseplants. They live comfortably, if not blissfully. But when Frank invites an old buddy, a fellow named Hayes, to stay in their basement, it exposes their peaceful lives to sinister powers they could never have imagined: in a day, their sleepy dream turns into a nightmare. Shepard’s poetic style is as short on plot details as it is heavy on allusion. Without ever telling us the exact nature of the work Hayes is fleeing from, or the agency he worked for, the story sends out tendrils of association, like a surrealist painting outgrowing its frame, to include agribusiness, neoliberalism, globalization, the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, right-wing fanaticism, the Rocky Flats Plutonium facility, the military-industrial complex, political torture, conspiracy theories, corruption, contagion, and the Biblical fall of Adam and Eve. The “god” of the title is the Roman ruler of the underworld, whose name is shared with the most poisonous radioactive element used in nuclear bombs—but it can be no coincidence that he was also the god of wealth, hence “plutocracy.” Shepard wrote this little fable in response to the Iraq war, the recent revelations from Abu Graib, and, as he put it, “republican fascism,”  but the dynamics it describes certainly live on today, though in different forms.

It would be hard to imagine a fuller realization of the play than this one, masterfully executed by director Jaimelyn Gray and her team of talented artists. As Emma and Frank, Cheryl Roloff and Robert W.C. Kennedy don’t strain to become icons of innocence (though the dome-pated Kennedy does rather resemble the stern farmer from American Gothic).  Roloff could be nearly anybody’s gentle-hearted aunt. As Hayes, Matthew Scales is vaguely scholarly and foreign, with a hint of danger about him; not just simple danger: X-files level danger. What have they been doing in that secret facility in Colorado? But the show really belongs to Matthew Huebsch as the government factotum Welch. From creepily cheery to full-out Nazi, his can-do patriotism and twisted Orwellian logic soon bend everyone out of true. With his wide jawline and a fanatical glitter in his eyes, Huebsch is like Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad character in the flesh.

From it’s mildly farcical beginning, the action soon strikes a sinister note, and the tension never lets up, building to a terrifying, over-the-top Walpurgisnacht climax. The lovingly-crafted set is possibly the most professional-looking ever to grace the stage of the Underground Collaborative. There is even a live stove on which Emma burns bacon; the wafting aroma somehow becomes yet another apt metaphor. The play wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without the attention to detail that the production crew brings.

These days it’s easy to feel that life in America was wonderful just before today’s political headaches. But The God of Hell reminds us that our current plight was a long time in the making. Who are the Trumph enthusiasts if not the people who chanted “USA!” while Bush’s invasion blasted an entire country to rubble so that Cheney’s petroleum cronies could profit richly? Who are the ones kenneling immigrant children but the ones who ran the black ops torture sites? Those people should have been held to account; instead, they were given convenient passes out of a misguided sense of preserving domestic tranquility. But Shepard shows us what can happen once ordinary men and women—neither good nor evil, but simply human—let the devil get his foot in the door. By doing this play now, the Constructivists are sounding a timely alarm. Who will answer it? And what holy relic can we find that will break the devil’s power?

The Constructivists present

The God of Hell

by Sam Shepard

playing through October 12

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Love in the time of the big scam

Robert Powell Photography

by Jeff Grygny

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law

                   “The Goose and the Common” (18th century protest song)

Back when Thomas Jefferson’s parents were kids making moony-eyes at each other, English playwright John Gay mashed up some current news. An infamous highwayman, a famously crooked prime minister, and a basket of popular songs, and voila! Musical comedy was born:  The Beggar’s Opera, with its dashing antihero Macheath (a.k.a. Mack the Knife, thanks to Bertolt Brecht, who adapted the play into his own The Threepenny Opera). In a remounting of an earlier production, Theatre Gigante seeks to honor the play’s long and complex history, its themes, and its structure, while also bringing it up to date. That’s quite a job, but the writing/producing duo Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson make it look easy. Chopping and slicing theatrical elements like dramaturgical sushi chefs, they produce a show that’s idea-rich and pleasantly disorienting, with strange combinations of flavors from sweet romance to bitter irony.

Gay framed his musical in a story about a playwright putting on a show; in this version, a modern husband and wife team are struggling to keep their small theater company afloat in the stormy sea of economic recession and scant funding. As the story gets underway, the fence becomes a government official in bed with the firms he’s supposed to be regulating, Macheath becomes a sleazy Milken-like trader, and so on. (One of the show’s funniest gags comes when a character tries to explain the concept of a “tranche” in pantomime.)  But the costumes and settings retain hints of the Eighteenth Century, while the music hearkens back to both light opera and a whiff of Kurt Weil’s acerbic dissonance. The players all give slyly ironic spins to their performances, acknowledging us looking at them—perhaps in keeping with Brecht’s famous “alienation effect,” which dictated that the audience should not become absorbed in the story. (Brecht also advocated the audience smoking during the play; he thought it would encourage analytical distance. But nobody encouraged us to light up during this show—probably for the best.)  

Painted cut-out figures by Carri Skoczek manage to average out the look of George Grosz’s Weimar Berlin grotesques with Hogarth’s satirical Eighteenth-century caricatures. Another of director Kralj’s alienating tactics: perhaps in response to criticisms of the play’s female characters, she has made many of them literally two dimensional. The ingenue Polly, and three prostitutes, are played by actors wielding cardboard cut-outs. The songs, composed by area musician Dan Dance, hearken back to the romantic love songs of bygone days, and they sound fantastic under the skilled music direction of Ruben Piirainen. But the performance undercuts any romanticism they might have had. They rather convey the sardonic mood of innocence betrayed, self-dealing openly embraced, and charisma as just another asset in the game of greed.

It’s nice to see a good mixture of seasoned and up-and-coming players on this stage. Youngster Ben Yela is a surprisingly likeable crooked bureaucrat, while his conniving wife is played by veteran singer Leslie Fitzwater, whose deep understanding of the musical genre lets her play with the conventions of performance with great gusto. Steven Koehler brings his professional experience to the role of Macheath, adding a hint of desperation to the character’s sleazy charisma. A.J. Magoon (is that really a name?), carrying Polly’s cutout, delivers her lines, songs, and dances with just a hint of a smirk, but otherwise plays his ingenue role with perfect seriousness. And Rick Pendzich takes enormous glee in making his in-story parts a silly as possible; connoisseurs of cartoon snores will not be disappointed.

Robert Powell Photography

With its references to collateralized debt obligations and Bernie Madoff, the script is more pertinent to the America of ten years ago (a time that seems almost like a golden age compared with today’s garbage fire). But in at least one way the landscape is unchanged: slick hucksters still gin the rules for their own profit. It just reminds us how little we have learned in the past decade—or the past two centuries, for that matter. The scam never ends. Even the most sympathetic characters, the theater couple (who, just by coincidence happen to resemble Anderson and Kralj) face their own moral dilemma in the form of a foundation that offers substantial grant support in exchange for sacrificing some artistic freedom—the eternal problem of “selling out.” If all big money is tainted by predatory capitalism, how is the artist to pay the bills and still claim integrity? The world makes beggars of us all.

This Beggars Opera doesn’t pretend to solve that quandary. But the closing number, beautifully sung by the whole cast, out of character and gathered around the piano, seems to say: “We’re all in this together. It’s a dirty world—but at least we have each other.”

Theatre Gigante presents

The Beggar’s Opera
based on the original by John Gay
written and adapted by Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson

playing through October 12

Puppets of Evil

photo by Andy Walsh

The scenario is cribbed straight from a first person action game, or a “B” thriller of the ilk of Predator: a band of mercenaries on an undefined nocturnal mission, tricked out in high-tech gear, in the remote depths of a forest in Russia. It’s a premise guaranteed to trigger a Pavlovian adrenaline gush in all genre junkies. Out of a few standard tropes—a shadowy corporation, a dangerous performance-enhancing drug, a magical MacGuffin, unsettling apparitions that might be supernatural or the product of a mind under stress— playwright/director Andrew Parchman has crafted The Feast, a fantasy drama around philosophical questions that nest deep in the mythology of modern times: what is the nature of power, and what are its true costs?

Joe Riggenbach portrays the platoon leader, Craven, as almost machine-like in his pursuit of the job. He clashes with black ops specialist Raimi, played with athletic grace by Alex Roy. Roy also choreographed the spectacular concluding fight sequence between Raimi and Craven, which far surpasses most stage combat in both naturalism and martial arts “wow” moments. We’d like to see more like this in the future, please! Craven attempts to murder Raimi with a dose of the psychoactive drug “ink,” but Raini escapes into the wild, where he encounters an inhuman entity in the form of a sinister, if garrulous, luminous floating larva-like creature, that, Mephistopheles-like, offers him great power—for a price, of course.

photo by Andy Walsh

Parchman hits all the right narrative beats: setting up the story, sketching out characters in quick strokes, providing comic relief by Will Hughes, as a not-quite-ready-for-the-big-time soldier of fortune, and Brian Rott, in a rare naturalistic performance as a Russian fugitive. The rest of the players have just enough individuality as to not seem like stereotypes. The puppet creatures, by Parchman again and Jeff Holub, are high-grade nightmare fuel, particularly the giant bipedal insect that stalks the stage while calmly discoursing on the difference between love and power. A techno soundtrack sets an exciting computer-game vibe. Over-long scene breaks cut into the forward momentum a bit, but the elements are all present for a gripping philosophical thriller.

The word “myth” is often used today to contrast false irrational belief with scientific truth (“Trust Data, not Lore”). But myths can also be repositories of a culture’s foundational wisdom, encoded in the language of symbols. Pop culture keeps coming back to the same tropes again and again, like a massive disembodied computer crunching on the dilemmas that our culture has yet to resolve: questions about technology, identity, community, and value. Things that science can’t address, like, how can we live as authentic human beings when our strings are constantly being pulled by economic and technological forces beyond our control? Perhaps that’s why the show ends with a terrifying question.

The Feast thoroughly and entertainingly manifests this mythic dimension of the sci-fi/ action genre. The atmosphere, humor, creepy puppets, and the boss battle at the end, are altogether well worth the price of the show.

Quasimondo Physical Theatre presents

The Feast

written and directed by Andrew Parchman

playing through October 5

Loony Tunes for the people!

by Jeff Grygny

For the second production of their inaugural season at Saint Kate’s Arts Hotel, the ARCo Ensemble is bringing the rarely-produced (at least in Milwaukee) farce They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! by the Nobel Prize-winning satirist Dario Fo, whose absurdist comedies are as celebrated by leftists as they are hated, banned and persecuted by tyrants and fat cats throughout the globe; Fo was indeed once banned from the United States during the Reagan years. Working in a country with a millennium-long history of crazy despots, from Nero to Silvio Berlusconi, Fo is an expert in the absurdities of everyday life under a system that only makes sense for the people at the top. (Could it help us make sense of life under our current leadership? Hmmm, discuss!)

Far from being the righteous recitation of iniquities you might expect from a subversive play, They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! is an anarchistic riot, a two-act journey from relative normality into surreal flaming lunacy. The play’s original title is Non Si Paga! Non Si Paga!, which might lose a little in translation, just as the satire doesn’t map perfectly to the American idiom— any more than you could perfectly transfer Monty Python and The Holy Grail to, say, Ohio— and director Dr. Nancy Kresin doesn’t strain to make it do so. But the play’s topic of class oppression, combined with it’s bizarre, free-association humor, pack a potent punch, whatever the setting. As the situations get more and more deranged, the characters morph from recognizable working-class types into veritable wacky inflatable tube men (and women), pumped up with laughing gas, in a conga line of alternating hysteria and collapse.

The players bring a fresh, spontaneous feel to the action; they often seem to be riffing in the moment. As a conservative factory worker named Giovanni, Seth K. Hale simmers with dangerous testosterone. Whether transforming convincingly into a pantomime bull or rooster or gingerly sampling the canned pet food his wife left for him (it’s pretty good!), he embraces the crazy in an all-in bear hug. When his affable co-worker Luigi, played with understated charisma by Tim Gutknecht, shows up, the laughs kick into overdrive: the two skilled clowns leave no fruits unsqueezed for their delicious comedy-juice.

Their counterparts, Emily Elliot and Rachel Meldman, as their respective spouses Antonia and Margherita, are like an unnatrual fusion of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza with Lucy and Ethel. All of the the confusion stems from Antonia’s propensity for making up ever more extravagant lies to conceal her grocery store shoplifting spree, which was motivated by yet another outrageous price hike. Antonia’s genius for confabulation includes fake pregnancies, belly-binding, baby transplants, and miraculous interventions by imaginary saints. The versatile J J Gatesman joins the misadventures in four different roles, from a left-wing sympathizing cop to a weirdly hissing one-armed undertaker. It all makes for a show that’s energetic, subversive, and hilarious in equal measures.

If it’s radical to show how predatory capitalism makes clowns of us all, then They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! is a radical play—but one that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders would heartily endorse. It’s interesting to see how Fo’s 1974 message has played out, here at the turn of the twenty-first century. Both Berlusconi’s Italy and Trumpf’s USA suggest that many of the disenfranchised masses would just as soon embrace the big lie as stand together and fight the power. (I would love to see Fo’s 2003 play The Two-Headed Anomaly, which showed Vladimir Putin’s brain being transplanted into Berlusconi’s head.) Clearly our current crop of comedians has failed to rise to the occasion. Where is our Dario Fo?

ARCo Ensemble presents

They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!

by Dario Fo

playing through October 26

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Art is a Superpower: A Report from the Fringe, Saturday, August 24, 2019

Warped Dance Company on the plaza (all photos by Jeff Grygny)

by Jeff Grygny

A fringe can be ornamental, like the yellow stuff around a flag, or it can keep something from fraying, like a Persian rug. It can be disreputable, like a city’s outlying regions, or essential, like the filigreed cilia of jellyfish, with their protective venom and food-gathering tendrils.  Fringe art can perform any and all of these functions, from decorative to life-sustaining. Denizen of boundaries and edges, fringe art can alert us to dangers and possibilities that might escape those who live in the comfortable center. But it’s also a lot of fun, as the Fourth Milwaukee Fringe Festival amply demonstrates. We have festivals for food, motorcycles, music and cheese—why not for the kind of performing arts that, as John Schneider, co-founder and Artistic Producer, put it, we aren’t likely to see in most local venues.

Always in motion: John Schneider opens the festival

Does “avant-garde” even mean anything anymore? Once the domain of grim-faced youngsters rebelling against their bourgeoisie parents, its once-revolutionary techniques have been assimilated into mainstream advertising, pop music, even corporate culture. Anyway, there were no black-clad anarchist types evident on the festival’s first day:  the staff was clean-cut and friendly, the program was well-and thoughtfully arranged, and though there were no crowds comparable to the fishing and boating show, there was a steady stream of fair goers hanging out on the Riverwalk, dancing to live salsa and reggae, and shuttling back and forth between the two main venues of Vogel Hall and the Todd Weir Theater in the building formerly know as “the PAC,”  to sample some of the thirty acts that had been jury-selected from an applicant pool of over fifty artists and companies. Nothing like the 2000 acts of the three-week Edinburgh Fringe from which it gets its name, but on the other hand, we weren’t forced into many agonizing choices. With a general pass and a bit of determination, you could see almost everything.

Matt Kemple, co-founder and Operations Manager, runs a tight ship

The broad range of the festival’s offerings was notable from the start. You could listen to Bob Balderson crooning the tunes of Harry Warren, composer of such classics a “Chattanooga Choo Coo” and “Jeepers Creepers,” or you could see Dasha Kelly Hamilton’s entertaining, and meticulously-researched history of the United States from the perspective of  baking—with a generous dollop of identity politics folded in. Take-away quote: “White male privilege is the high-fructose corn syrup of the American recipe.” The cutest moment happened when Hamilton had to drag one of her onstage bakers away from her mixing bowl to take a bow. Then (if you skipped out on the free cake, darn it), you could rush over to the Todd Weir in time to see Don Russell’s exquisite sketch of a cross-dressing street clown who performs David Bowie songs while reflecting on the vagaries of commerce and art: “vice and verse.”

Ziggy the Clown

Outside the theaters, Voices Found Repertory company brought their “A” game to a well-composed selection of scenes from their last season: mostly Shakespeare, with a bit of Oedipus Rex and A.J. McGoon playing a lad bedeviled by his potty-mouthed hand puppet. Even fighting the sounds of the clanging drawbridge, the young actors performed with clarity and genuine feeling. The Mad Rogues gave a less dignified take on England’s bard, with a “scavenger hunt” in which you were given the first line of a famous scene, with a choice of several following lines. Even if you guessed wrong, the players read the scene, leading to such delicious mash-ups as Ophelia arguing with Lady Macbeth, or Hamlet telling Kate from Taming of the Shrew to get her to a nunnery.

Voices Found Repertory Company
A.J. McGoon in “Hand to God”
Some of the Mad Rogues

Then there was dance—lots of it. Water Street Dance gave a full recital of lyrical pieces that explored space, form, and emotion, including a heart-tearing spoken word piece illuminated by a breathtaking solo breakdancer (a program would have been very welcome so that you knew the artist’s names), and a fierce ensemble of athletic young women moving in strong sculptural compositions. Neville Dance Theatre out of New York offered a spectacular piece using portable lights manipulated by the dancers, showing off bodies in harsh relief, casting huge black silhouettes, and creating crowds of moving overlapping shadows.

Water Street Dance Milwaukee
Neville Dance Theatre

Dance is music made flesh, but it can tax the attention span of people unversed in the vocabulary of movement. You had to skip “spacejunk dance” if you wanted to to cross over to hear Theatre Gigante’s Mark Anderson investigate the meaning of life, relationships, and religion in philosophical monologues, delivering Zen-like aphorisms like “Are you a what, a who is, or whatever? And who taught you to drive?” “It’s not answers I’m looking for,” he said, perfectly expressing the Socratic spirit, “I’m looking for better questions.”

Mark Anderson of Theatre Gigante

The festival organizers kindly scheduled a little breathing time here, to get a bite or relax to the live music. Then it was on to one of the day’s most unforgettable events: Chicago’s Tyler Anthony Smith’s campy take on Lady Macbeth—oh my! We knew the Scottish queen went mad, but this b**** is cray cray! Smith reduced the crowd to helpless laughter with his sub-subtextual body language and therapy-session patter, mercilessly dissecting Lady M as an unfulfilled suburban housewife whose cable tv talk show gives her the platform for an unutterably depraved and very public emotional meltdown.

“Out, Damn Spot!” with Tyler Anthony Smith
Selena Milewski in “Tread Lightly”

Tread Lightly is a virtuosic physical theater piece created by Selena Milewski and Karl Baumann in which the duo balances ingenously on varied arrangements of giant truck tires (you could smell the rubber). The performance begins playfully, but turns into a warning about the poisonous effects of plastic on the living world—a message delivered so bluntly as to stick in your gut like bottle caps in an albatross’ belly. Saturday’s festival closed with an anarchic satire on Shakespeare by the Angry Young Men, performed by a crew of raunchy muppets. (Isn’t it curious that the the most influential artist of the day was a 400-year-dead playwright?)

MCs Don Russell and Kelley Coffey

In feudal Japan, Noh artists claimed that their plays invoked the gods to protect the land from invaders. For centuries in Europe, art was dedicated to the glory of God. Today people argue that art is good for a city’s bottom line. But more than any of these, art is just good for human life. The power of art is to make meaning; to embody a culture’s deepest values and pass them to following generations. Much modern art concerns itself with critiquing, questioning, showing how meaning disappears when broken down. But humans are inveterate meaning-making animals: despite the modern drive to deconstruct narrative, we will always be creating new stories, new narratives that embody our dreams and aspirations. As long as there are relationships, there will be stories.

Good art puts us in touch with something greater than ourselves: the ever-changing mesh of relationships that go all the way down to our chromosomes and all the way up to the stars. There’s nothing mystical about it—or it’s absolutely mystical, if you want to see it that way. It’s art’s super-power: to refresh our senses and show us the world anew. So cheers for the Fringe Festival: it makes life better!

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Fool’s Luck

photo by Paul Ruffolo

by Jeff Grygny

Humor is born from humble beginnings: a man sits down to eat his lunch, and it turns into a fiasco of dribbling mustard, a wobbly table, a buzzing fly, and a hungry mongrel. Whether ending in a sad trombone or a satisfied “ahhh,” comedy comforts us by showing that chaos happens to everybody—not just us. It takes great skill and a light touch to make this work onstage, and in Unnecessary Farce, currently playing at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, playwright Paul Slade Smith charts the course from order to chaos and back again in a masterful display of the comedian’s craft. Under the expert direction of Ryan Schabach, a fearless crew of gifted funnypeople delivers the perfect remedy for mid-2019 gloom.

Shabach and his team have labored mightily to transfer the play’s generic setting to the “magical” land of Sheboygan, including the dialect, which Shabach describes in a whimsical program note as “a veritable melting pot of Canadian tonality, dairy farmer shorthand and a hint of that repetitious vowel we love so much from our fellow Illinois brethren who have bought up all the good lake front property”. We know in the opening scene that the action takes place before the digital age when Ben Yela, as a novice detective, buttons his shirt over a telephone  cord. He and his equally-rookie partner have been assigned to a simple surveillance operation which, thanks to their (lets say) “unprofessional conduct,” soon becomes more tangled than one of those springy old cords.

The plot—a farrago about embezzled city funds and a preposterous “Scottish mafia”—is mere pretext for a ton of inspired physical humor. The players use everything in their limited environment for comic effect: clothes are discarded and put on, beds repeatedly rumpled and straightened as the characters vainly try to recover their shredding sense of control. In this world, the people we trust to uphold order are the most prone to distraction, while the seemingly clueless are actually the sharpest nails in the barrel. And, as this is a bedroom farce, the course is soon derailed by the character’s lusty impulses: fully two thirds of them appear in various states of undress before the play is over.

photo by Paul Ruffolo

The actors wring maximum laughs from their loony predicaments, while holding to the essential emotional truthfulness that keeps the play from sinking into cheap clowning. All the same, they clearly love being clowns: the show is lit up with a kind of joy in executing one well-played gag after another. As the shy detective, the cherub-faced Yela runs through his paces with seeming effortlessness and the kind of charisma we associate with classic leading men. Rachael Zientek, as his claustrophobic partner, is as adorable as a kitten in a police cap. Amber Smith, in the role of an out-of-her-depths accountant, displays comic contortions as she is force to bluff her way through ever-stickier situations, while Rick Pendzich combines menace with silliness as a hit man who can only do his job after playing the bagpipes in full highland regalia. His efforts to make his heavy burr intelligible brought some of the evening’s heartiest guffaws.

When we leave a good comedy, our steps feel lighter, as if we ourselves have miraculously stumbled our way through calamity to victory and true love. Such stories are like medicine; when the world looks so little like what we hoped it would, to see that things can, at least in fiction, work out for the best, despite our imperfections—or even because of them. Comedy and Eros are as essential to life as pathos and realism, no? With this in mind, “Don’t Stop Believing” is the absolutely perfect song to play during the show’s intermission.

We can thank Artistic Director C. Michael Wright for making this delightful piece of fluff the lighthearted choice of his outgoing season.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents

Unnecessary Farce

by Paul Slade Smith

playing through August 25

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