All posts by jgrygny

Punk Chick Comix

by Jeff Grygny

Where can you go for a stylish rendering of Shakespeare’s classic tale of brave young people rebelling against the elitist patriarchy to find true love? Off The Wall Theatre, that’s where. This would be a spoiler—except that director Dale Gutzman pretty much reveals it in his pre-show speech. His program note, a gnomic poem by counterculture psychologist R.D. Laing, gives you another good idea where he’s coming from:


The Taming of the Shrew is not performed much anymore. Just maybe because—oh, because of the rampant misogyny of most of the characters, how Petruchio manhandles, starves, and brainwashes Katherine, who at the end delivers a long speech about how wives must submit to their husbands? Not exactly in the temper of these exquisitely egalitarian times.  Gutzman, with great faith in Shakespeare’s transcendental  humanism, plays against the literal text to find an alternative meaning. Will it satisfy all viewers? Probably not. But at the very least it provides fuel for radical thinking, and a great deal of wicked, farcical fun.

This is a belligerent, antisocial production, raging at the hypocrisy of a society that sells young female flesh to the highest bidder under the sanctimonious pretense of marriage. With a set consisting of expressionistically-angled white walls daubed with crude bloody smears, costumes that evoke a timeless modernity, exaggerated characters, and subversive shtick, it’s Commedia dell’arte by way of underground comics. Add a bleak yet emotionally-rich soundtrack of songs by British “gloom rockers” The Smiths, and the stylistic cocktail is potent, kinetic, disturbing, and often hilarious.

photo by Off the Wall Theatre

The talented cast pulls off this ambitious feat of theatrical courage: a comedy about one of the most sensitive topics of our time. Shakespeare’s creaky episodic narrative technique is definitely showing it’s age— but it, too, is rough, punky, and like a comic strip. And there are enough Italian names to cast another Godfather sequel. The subplot featuring Katherine’s sister Bianca, played with suburban brattiness by Jenny Kosek, could be a farce all on it’s own (and probably was, considering Shakespeare’s habit of scavenging stories).  Two of her suitors disguise themselves as tutors in order to get close to her: Jeremy Welter’ amusingly creepy goth musician and Nathan Danzer’s clueless upper-class twit. Meanwhile, Randall Anderson, as a servant impersonating his high-born master, deftly shows us an underling coming to enjoy the perks of status.

But of course the hot molten center of the play is the perverse relationship between Alicia Rice’s Katherine and Jake Russell’s Petruchio. They are both privileged, obviously damaged, and a couple of very bad kids. When we meet Kate, she’s throwing an epic tantrum, screaming verbal barbs in every direction. Petruchio appears to us at the bad end of a bender—he and his bro-servant enabler Grumio, convincingly played by Max Williamson, vomiting into plastic buckets. Of the two leads, Petruchio seems the more wounded; Russell’s sociopathic actings-out, reeling from exploit to exploit, are sick fun to watch— like a compilation of car crashes on YouTube. Why exactly does he abuse Katherine so badly? He doesn’t seem to know himself, as if it’s the only way he knows how to reach out (the smooch he plants on her with the famous line “Kiss me, Kate,” is unlikely to pass muster with the #MeToo crowd).

It’s up to Kate to recognize a kindred spirit who breaks all the rules of the game, and Rice takes us along on every step of her journey. James Strange brings smarmy dignity to the role of the girls’ exasperated father, while Mark Ninneman and William Molitor earn laughs as a couple more father figures caught up in the multiple deceptions. In the final scene, where the men gather to smoke cigars and make power-displays while the women are sent away, everything comes together: this interpretation is as much about wealth and power as it is about the battle of the sexes. We clearly see a picture of a society that enables selfish, greedy men to distort the souls of everyone around them.

Katherine’s final speech gives Rice her heaviest sub-textual lifting, and each audience member must judge for herself whether or not it works. A cliché ending would show Katherine walking away; Gutzman’s romantic ending is more hopeful, maybe even more emotionally astute: it affirms the possibility of people finding a genuine connection —in spite of the fucked-up world they grew up in.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

The Taming of the Shrew

by William Shakespeare

Directed by Dale Gutzman

playing through October 7

From the Barrio, with Love

Photo  by Michael  Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

Lin-Manuel Miranda. Ever since the space-warpingly successful Hamilton hit Broadway, he’s been the hottest thing in musical theater; we should really give his name as “Lin-Manuel Miranda!” or better still: ¡Lin-Manuel Miranda! For Milwaukeeans curious about this prodigy, but without the means or desire to cough up the equivalent of a luxury car payment for travel and tickets, there have been few good options. Now, Milwaukee Repertory Theater is offering In The Heights, Miranda’s love letter to the Washington Heights neighborhood where he grew up, and the first musical on his path to glory. Of all the theater companies in town, only the Rep has the resources to bring a mostly Hispanic cast of professional singer/dancer/actors to realize the show as completely as they do here. There is some irony in the well-heeled opening night crowd, full of wealthy donors, cheering on a slice-of-life musical about immigrants from the Dominican Republic scraping out a living in Upper Mahnhattan; it’s a little like the Renaissance nobles enjoying pageants of happy shepherds. But the world is full of ironies, and the chilled souls of Wisconsinites have always been enchanted by our neighbors south of the border. However that may be, it’s undeniable that the Rep delivers the goods in every way: Great music, wonderful dancing, moving performances, surprises, laughs, and characters that really do win their way into your heart.

The stories are interwoven around a single street, where a bodega, a beauty shop, a flavored-ice cart, and the local graffiti artist are all fixtures. The issues of these first-generation immigrants— women and men, parents and children, the struggle for money and the yearning to escape to something bigger—are universal. But Miranda’s street-eye view, his empathy for his characters, and his Shakespearean use of language—especially in the rap numbers for which he is justly famous— spin theme, psychology, and dramatic action into a flow of witty wordplay. Together with winning performances, Dan Kazemi’s reliably all-in music direction, and stage direction by May Adrales that weaves the story into a whole fabric, skillfully playing with focus on key moments while encouraging her cast to show subtle relationships and revealing actions, the production pulses with the beating heart of a community; even the unnamed characters bring vitality and distinctive personalities.

Ryan  Alvarado is our charismatic narrator, and master rapper, while Stephanie Gomerez is his saucy heart-throb, and Nicolas Garza his street-smart little brother; Sophia Macías and David  Kaverman soulfully discover each other, while Tony Chiroldes and Karmine Alers bring humor and dignity as a husband and wife chasing the American Dream; Henry  Gainza’s golden voice vends piragua, and the delightful Lillian  Castillo enlivens every scene as the beauty shop owner. Yassmin Alers is radiant, in a down-to-earth way, as the grandmotherly spirit of the tribe. Many of the players have performed this show before, and many remark in their program bios just how meaningful it is to them to be telling “our story.” Their commitment is more than professional, more even than artistic, and it shows.

Miranda is generous to his characters, giving everyone their moment—which accounts for the show’s nearly three-hour playing time. But time passes quickly as the story moves among the assorted domestic dramas: a winning lottery ticket, a dance club showdown, a rap battle, a city-wide blackout that occasions a spontaneous street fiesta. The magic of the show—and what may be most essential to its audiences—is how all the elements, in continuous inter-relation with each other, create a life that is greater than their sum. This mirrors how community is created out of countless little gestures, affections, bonds and shared experiences. In his modern classic The Gift, poet Lewis Hyde describes how many tribal peoples practice a “gift economy:” when someone has wealth, they give it away, incurring prestige and bonds of gratitude. When someone receives a gift, they at some point pass it along to someone else; the point isn’t to accumulate wealth, but to insure that value keeps moving, guaranteeing a flow of prosperity to all members of the society. It is how societies stay vital. In gift economies, relationships are personal and warm— in sharp contrast to the economy of the market, where everyone calculates how much they can get from every transaction, and wealth exists only to hoard (which society would you rather live in?).

If In The Heights is a little like a cartoon, it’s not because the characters are two-dimensional; rather it’s because, as seen through the rosy glow of Miranda’s love, it’s animated—by a vitality that spills beyond the skin, into the air, into the music, into the movement; a vivid picture of what life is like when you live, not as an isolated “me,” but as one of an “us.” Performance is perhaps the most generous of all the arts; this show a wonderful gift to the city.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents

In The Heights

Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes

playing through October 28–Events/201819-Season/In-the-Heights/

A Fabulous Mess

photo by All In Productions

by Jeff Grygny

With Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the upstart company All In Productions proves once more that they can put on a handsome, high-quality, edgy show. This wildly popular rock musical about the East German lounge singer with the unfortunate sex change operation is maybe not for the average Packer fan; but it has been taken into the bosoms (foam rubber and otherwise) of the LGBTQ community and friends, for whom it has become anthemic.

The story of this funny/sad/angry musical mirrors certain aspects of playwright John Cameron Mitchell’s life: the titular chanteuse grow up in East Germany and moves to Grand Junction Colorado (as did Mitchell); her rock star protege is the son of an army commander (as was Mitchell), and her profession (part-time babysitter sidelining as a prostitute) was inspired by a woman who actually babysat young Mitchell when his father was stationed in Germany. The hilariously bitter script plays with philosophy as well: Hedwig sings a story from Plato about how Zeus created love by splitting primeval humanity into two halves, which have been seeking each other ever since. And she names her own “other half” after the Greek word gnosis, which denotes a transcendental experience of truth.

Hedwig is on a misguided quest to complete herself by joining with another. But she finds strength in music even more than from wigs and mascara. After a cathartic climax, it’s not clear exactly what happens; we seem to depart from the fiction of the concert into some sort of meta-theater: the resolution is in the music, not the story. What seems clear at the end, though, is that this tortured, heroic soul has attained her gnosis.

But the show isn’t all myth-making, dirty jokes, and Germanic angst—simply put: it rocks. Music director Paula Foley Tillen and her band blow up the stage with the energy and spirit of the 80’s sounds that inspired Stephen Trask’s score, from pop to punk. It’s a pity that amplification issues sometimes muddy Trask’s wonderful lyrics, but the shifting waves of emotion come across loud and clear, like a queer Beethoven’s rock and roll symphony. In the title role, the incredibly talented Brett Sweeney surely gives one of the essential performances of the season; whether over-sharing with the audience, quivering like Tina Turner, or twitching on the floor like Iggy Pop, Sweeney delivers it all with courage, a powerful voice, and sensitivity to the moment. This Hedwig is especially tragicomic; we are never far from the wounded human being behind the risque asides and heavy makeup.

Director Robbie McGhee has created a plausible little world of the feckless Eurotrash band and their “ internationally-ignored” front person. There is clearly some backstory going on; we don’t really know what it is, but it gives everything a sense of happening in the moment, and makes the band into characters, not just an orchestra. A pair of theatrically-inclined guitarists especially bring their A games to each campy moment.  Lydia Rose Eiche gets her chance to belt a little as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s “husband;” a former drag queen who has been forbidden to queen, lest she upstage the star. (Yes, the drag queen husband is played by a woman in male drag, who later appears in female drag: how’s that for blurring boundaries? Incidentally, for the record: Hedwig is not trangender; Mitchell has clarified that we are to consider her “genderqueer.”) McGhee also adds a few gratuitous but audience-pleasing touches, as when they toss large inflatable gummy bears into the audience to bat around, or a cameo appearance by a life-sized, disgruntled Oompa-Loompa. Designer Lyn Kream has created Hedwig’s fabulous wardrobe, and Mike Van Dreser’s lighting brings a surprising variety of visual moods to the otherwise simple set.

In what has clearly been a labor of love, All In Productions has given this very challenging show as full a realization as you could wish. Even the gods have to smile at that.

All In Productions presents

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Text by John Cameron Mitchell
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask

playing through  September 15

“Parental warning: HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH is rated PG-13.”

Love and Soul: “The Beauty of Psyche”

photo by JJ Gatesman

by Jeff Grygny

The Beauty of Psyche is a retelling of the classic myth of Cupid and Psyche, with a few creative turns. In the original story, the goat god Pan doesn’t help Psyche in her quest to reunite with the god of love; nor is Persephone reigning alone as queen of the underworld, having been abandoned by Hades. This telling dwells on the Beauty and the Beast-like exchanges between a young woman and the magical being who holds her captive (even if to protect her from his mother’s curse). It’s all a bit hazy, as myths tend to be, but writer/director JJ Gatesman has created a mysterious work of feeling-tones and elusive meanings lurking around the corners of understanding. The four players deliver performances of honesty and high spirit, and the show offers considerable visual imagination with very limited means, ingeniously transforming electric lights and simple puppets into vagrant wildlife, butterflies, and helpful ants. An original score by Amanda J Hull and Cole Heinrich  creates a sense of timeless reverie.
A dream of love for the summer’s end.

The Beauty of Psyche
Written and Directected by: Jj Gatesman

playing at the Arcade Theater in the UnderGround Collaborative 6th through September 15th.

Family Ghosts: “The Prison Where I Live”

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

Ghosts have appeared for centuries in theaters as diverse as Elizabethan drama and the Japanese Noh.  Old theaters traditionally have a “ghost light,” a lit bulb on the stage after hours, so that nobody—including restless spirits, presumably—will stumble in the vast, dark space. In The Prison Where I Live, the second in Angela Iannone’s series of plays about Edwin Booth, now playing in a production by Theatre Red, we meet two shades from the great actor’s past: his beloved lost wife, who is silent, and his brother, who won’t shut up.

If ever there was a great subject for historical drama, it’s Booth. A megastar Shakespearean actor-manager at a time when Shakespeare and the Bible were America’s most commonly-read literature; the heir of a famous theatrical family, and an odd genius with many eccentricities, whose natural delivery contrasted with the grandiloquent acting style of his contemporaries. No stranger to personal tragedy, Booth lost one wife to disease, and a child of a second wife to medical malpractice, which left the mother in a fragile mental state.  Oh, and his brother and fellow-actor shot the most revered man of the century, and died, hated and hunted, in a barn set on fire by the soldiers who pursued him. From this historical panoply, Iannone distills a claustrophobic five-person psychodrama: we are trapped with Edwin Booth, essentially in his head, as he grapples with memories, regrets, and artistic paralysis.

We find Booth on tour in Chicago, rehearsing for a performance of Richard II and fending off the badgering attentions of his public, his half-mad wife, and his dead brother. The dialog is phrased in diction that recalls the writing style of the period; Iannone’s intensive archival research shows up in myriad details. For instance, John Wilkes’ spirit (played with uncanny resemblance by a rakish Corey Jefferson Hagen) speaks in a Southern drawl, which must, one assumes, have some basis in the historical record. But so far as his political views and ideologies, or what Edwin thought of them, all we see is the again, presumably documented fact that Edwin forbids the mention of his brother’s name, and—in the play’s most harrowing scene—we learn how, one night alone, he burned John’s mementos (theatrical props and costumes) in a basement furnace.

photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

Jared McDaris plays Booth with the advantages of flowing locks, a tragedian’s resonant basso voice, and a contenance that would look perfectly at home on a fifty dollar bill; in the role of the silent specter of his wife Millie, Andrea Burkholder brings a dancer’s grace. As the plot unfolds, we witness a supernatural intervention of sorts, and a reconciliation of the man with his past, in a moment that some may find uncomfortable, but that carries a psychological truth: sometimes the way to deal with ghosts is to bless them and let them go. If we can pull that off, we’re less likely to stumble in the dark.

Theatre Red  presents

The Prison Where I Live

written and directed by Angela Iannone

playing through September 9


Doc Danger Puts the “Pow” in Empowerment

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

For generations, superhero stories have provided an escape route for lonely kids (and adults too). Now, with their ascendency in big-budget movies, they have become a target of derision from the guardians of culture. But the lowly pop medium actually has a lot in common with that snootiest of art forms, opera: both have larger-than-life characters, melodramatic situations, and stories stripped down to the most archetypal human emotions. In Doc Danger and the Danger Squad, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and playwright/composer Jason Powell send high and low culture out on a play date, and the result is what they do best: a campy comic-opera romp packed with pop culture tropes, with a firmly progressive slant, and a talented cast joyfully giving their all. Verdi it’s not—but it’s a lot more fun.

Powell is no stranger to genre opera; more than his previous work with MOT, Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom, he’s brought welcome narrative sophistication to his fable of the empowering virtue of fantasy. The plot moves nimbly between a pre-teen girl “The Kid,” enchanted by some old pulp comics of her grandfather’s, and the interconnected stories she’s reading—in which she becomes a player—which then, mobius-like, fold back into the real world. Five heroines  confront their respective arch-villains (with wonderful invented characters like “Penny Dreadful” and “The Beetle Queen”). These conflicts form part of a much more sinister plot organized by the arrogant Professor Z. The script is full of winking humor, puns, and easter eggs, while the witty lyrics play with rhythm to create variety. Z’s scheme eventually puts him at the head of an ad agency, where he can dictate public opinion and thus warp reality, “Maybe star in my own reality TV show, and then, who knows, maybe the White House.” Horrible thought! In an intriguing twist on The Wizard of Oz, the “crappy real life” versions of the heroines have vices that are the opposite of their fantasy world virtues. Only the kid (with the aid of a magical McGuffin) can restore them.

Director Jill Anna Ponasik keeps her actors lighthearted but grounded in emotional truth. The action rips along like a rocket-powered flying saucer, with occasional sentimental interludes. Ponasik’s creative team has produced a handsome production that sounds wonderful and never seems low-budget. Even the plastic rocks— the only real scenery—look great. Music director Donna Kummer keeps the tempo at a heart-pumping pace, and not once do you feel that the show needs more instruments than her piano. James Zager’s choreography mostly gives effective movement to mood, music and story. And when the singers are belting their hearts out, under the coruscating lighting of Antishadows lighting company (itself virtually a part of the score) you feel like you’ve been translated into a epic alternate cosmos, without the need for any expensive CGI.

photo by Ross Zentner

The players seem to be having as much fun with their goofy characters as we have watching them. Eric Welch and Ana Gonzalez especially tear into the camp of their villains’ roles. Hannah Esch bring relatable comedy to a song about a sidekick who seems to always take the rough end of the adventure. Young Harper Nevin carries the linchpin role of The Kid with confidence and panache. And as the mysterious detective, The Lady in Black, Rae Elizabeth Paré brings an enigmatic charm. Just one thought: if the villain is using a formidable robot as muscle, might it be appropriate to cast a physically imposing performer rather than the game but un-threatening Melissa Anderson?

Doc Danger and the Danger Squad gives a goofy but sincere defense of fantasy: the Kid’s mom thinks that comic books are trash, but her grad-school sister recognizes their precocious pre-code gender politics. Stories of legendary heroines conquering adversity empower girls to confidently go out and do the same. And really, as little love as the superhero genre gets from critics, it’s popular for a reason: finding a little happiness in this crazy world practically amounts to a superpower. And the power of fantasy to shape our world—for good or evil —is maybe the greatest superpower we have.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre presents

Doc Danger and the Danger Squad

Music, Book, and Lyrics by Jason Powell

Directed by Jill Anna Ponasik

playing through August 30

The Mystery of the Female Heart

photo by Paul Ruffolo

by Jeff Grygny

For more than a century, Sherlock Holmes has stood as an archetype of empiricism and logic, and his domains have been the manly realms of crime, science, and danger. Canonically, the famous bachelor recognized only the brilliant, equally fictional Irene Adler as “The Woman” who could be his intellectual equal. In Sherlock Holmes and The Case Of The Jersey Lily, playwright Katie Forgette finds a historical figure who could match the great detective in calculating power and force of personality: the noted actress Lillie Langtry, who was born on the island of Jersey off the coast of France, and very much in vogue at the time that Conan Doyle was penning his stories. Equally striking in beauty and charisma, Langtry evidently impressed everyone who met her, from Mark Twain to Theodore Roosevelt, and was rumored to have had a secret affair with the Prince of Wales.

This play sparkles, with a tone approaching fan fiction—affectionate, but not too serious—that will be sheer caviar to anyone even slightly attracted to Victoriana— and it is a tour de force of the writer’s craft, weaving together strands of history and literature into a tapestry of elegance and wit. It hits so many genre targets that Holmesophiles will be repeatedly tempted to squeal in delight (one hopes they will restrain that urge, however; it is a public theater after all, and squealing is most distracting).

Director Marcella Kearns keeps the story focused and propulsive; in a nice touch, the players stay in the action even as they are getting in place during scene changes. Brandon Kirkham’s set design supports the show admirably, arranging graphic images and lovingly-burnished architectural elements to suggest opulence. Set pieces glide in and out like a giant puzzle box, mirroring the mystery’s ever-shifting possibilities. The stately Cabot Theatre only enhances the period mood.

In addition to her goal of providing pleasure—at which she succeeds in abundance— Forgette clearly wants to expand the diversity of the dramatis personae, and she can’t be faulted on her research. Instead of the stereotypical fusty lord with an urgent appeal from Buckingham Palace, Holmes receives the historical person Abdul Karim, a documented friend of Queen Victoria. Professor Moriarty’s associate, a frustrated actress, is based on an actual accomplice of an actual criminal mastermind of the period. The conceit that Holmes and Oscar Wilde were chums, even to the extent of collaborating on some of Wilde’s plays, does not always pass logical muster, but it makes for some highly entertaining moments, as when Holmes impersonates a matronly actress to read the part of Lady Bracknell in an early version of The Importance of Being Forthright.

As Wilde, Rick Pendzich can’t reach the Irishman’s 6 plus foot stature, but he rises to the occasion of delivering some of the most delicious quips ever quipped in the English tongue. Wilde seems to be in the play mostly for decoration (as befits the famed aesthete). Nor does he flaunt his notorious sexuality; apart from a mild foppishness, his only risque remark is when he compares the late-night traffic in Holmes’ flat to Waterloo Station on a Saturday night.

In the role of Lillie  Langtry, Kay Allmand gracefully captures the great beauty’s poise and intelligence: she is the heroine of her own story. Between the star power of Langtree and Wilde, Ryan Schabach’s poor Watson has little to do besides being starstruck and murmuring supportive comments. Brian  J. Gill’s Holmes is appropriately stalwart, restless, and a bit schoolmasterish, but with a great exuberance for the game. As it turns out, Langtry has not been completely forthcoming, leading to a duel of wits as challenging as the one with Professor Moriarty. As Forgette imagines Holmes, he is not a mere thinking machine; he has the emotional sensitivity to divine Langtry’s heart, which lets him solve the mystery, win the day—and alas, to manipulate her, much to his regret.

Formidably incarnated by a lean and shaven-headed Matt Daniels, Moriarty is as serpentine as Lord Voldemort, and as smooth as his enviable velvet coat. It must be said that he is rather easily defeated. A few brutish henchmen would have served him better than the pair of jittery minions he’s stuck with here. Forgette supplies dimension to most of her characters, so it’s strange that Moriarty seems so sketchy. Perhaps she’s saving that story for a sequel? The curtain call hints that it might be so.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily is classy, escapist fun; a necklace fashioned out of borrowed literary gems, and it certainly glitters. You shall be most amused.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily
by Katie Forgette

Directed by Marcella Kearns

Playing through August 26

Tickets: 414-291-7800 |

Chekhov’s Piano:* “Trunk Songs”

Off the Wall Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

Everyone who has lived past life’s midpoint eventually faces a dilemma: to age gracefully, if grumpily, or to defy time and risk looking like a fool (there are other options, but the dilemma presents itself like this). Trunk Songs, an original play written, directed by, and starring Dale Gutzman, gently (and sometimes not so gently) lays the matter bare: along with the aches as your body slowly surrenders to entropy, there is a sense of loss: the world changes, and much that you loved passes away (all things are impermanent, sayeth the Lord Buddha). And to add insult, there’s the feeling that life has gone on merrily without you.

Trunk Songs is a serio-comic rumination on these cheerful themes, in the persons of two songsmiths. More Tin Pan Alley than Lerner and Lowe, they’re a couple of schmoes who, though they never made it really big, have managed to stay in the game by turning out competent if unremarkable ditties for forty years: they have survived. We first meet Murray and Sidney in the middle of a creative drought:  in a scene that plays like Samuel Beckett exploring the passive-aggressive habits of New York Jews, we learn that they have been commissioned to set music to a violent, profanity-ridden script about a serial killer. Some of the most amusing moments come from their assessments of the current state of musical theater. Andrew Lloyd Weber takes a particular drubbing. “Everybody in musicals is angry and depressed now,” Estelle, Murray’s wife, laments. “What ever happened to ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning?’” (Gutzman can’t bring himself to trash his beloved Sondheim—though surely a prime culprit in bringing dark, complex themes to Broadway—even in jest.)

Sidney and Murray wrangle like an old married couple; Sidney is a mensch, if prone to kvetching; Sidney is the kind of homosexual for whom the word “flaming” was invented. Though neither lisping nor mincing, he’s a big, fussy drama queen, more than a little narcissistic, and seemingly oblivious to the messes he leaves in his wake. Into the action springs Athol, the latest in Sidney’s long line of boyfriends who are not half his age; a socially-conscious millennial and a playwright, who just might have written the not-so good play that they are currently not-working on. Athol steps in to patch up a quarrel between the two partners, and through his help, with moral support from Estelle, they push though their writer’s block, and the show goes on!  With songs like “A City in the Grip” and “I’ve Got the Electric Chair Blues,” well, let’s put it this way: West Side Story, it’s not. Sidney drives the drama into crisis by serial-schtupping a string of chorus boys, and…the world turns.

Carl Chadek plays Murray with impeccable timing, and, though prickly and, in Sidney’s phrase “buttoned down,” his heartfelt love for his partner shines through. Gutzman’s Sidney is clearly a (rather brutal) self-parody, which brings a certain raw poignancy to his performance. Carole Herbstreit-Kalinyen is light and comfortable as Eileen, a traditional woman who still loves the old tunes; while as Athol, Jake Russell brings emotional vulnerability to an articulate, confident character.

And when this brief, bittersweet comedy has played its last minor chord, and you step out into the street, a bit older, and perhaps a bit wiser, the air smells fresh and good. Maybe it’s the scent of artistic honesty, that clears the mental palate and lets us face our life again—however many years long it happens to be.

* The title refers to the Russian playwright’s famous observation that if a gun appears in act one, it will be certain to fire before the curtain closes.

Off the Wall Theatre presents
Trunk Songs

 “A very very funny new comedy by Dale Gutzman”

When Fools Rule: Optimist Theatre’s “King Lear”

Michelle Owczarski

by Jeff Grygny

A ruler whose capricious decisions lead a nation into chaos— does that sound familiar?  Shakespeare could not have possibly imagined our nation’s current leadership problem, nor is Optimist Theatre’s current production of King Lear about it, exactly. But old Bill S. was quite familiar with how the pride and ignorance of powerful leaders brings about catastrophe— it’s not exactly not about it either.

King Lear is a monstrous play in the old meaning of the word: wondrously dark and unbearably pessimistic, sometimes very funny and sometimes surreal; its poetry quivers and pulsates, barely able to contain the vast riches of the Renaissance world. It’s about family and power, honesty and lies; deep humanism and existential dread; madness, blindness, and love. It shows us a time when the old feudal loyalties were buckling under the younger generation’s Machiavellian realpolitik. (Today, we have the inverse problem: democratic norms are straining under the assault of those loyal to a win-at-all costs mentality.)

But this show isn’t that King Lear: director Lisa Gaye Dixon unfolds a political view that—only fully stated in the play’s final moments—is breathtaking in its uncompromising vision. At the same time, she clarifies the relationships and motivations of the all-too-human characters to depict a murky landscape of alienation and confusion that is illuminated by flashes of brilliance— thanks greatly to one of the strongest casts to appear in Optimist Theater’s nine years of producing Shakespeare in the Park.

In the title role, James Pickering tones down the charisma he could easily command in favor of a brusque characterization, like a testy CEO accustomed to servility.  It’s fascinating to see how he solves each problem the text presents. Even in his deepest despair he doesn’t play for pathos, and neither his madness nor his new-found humility seem to unmake his basic imperious nature. This is not a Lear who is heartbroken, whose chief folly was to doubt that his daughter loved him: he’s an old man freaking out from his precipitous loss of power. It’s hard to sympathize with such a man.

As Lear’s Fool, Robert Spencer is a delight. It’s easily one of the trickiest roles in Shakespeare’s repertoire. With his elfin mien and the delivery of a professional comedian, Spencer manages to actually be funny—challenging, as few of the Fool’s lines make much sense to modern ears. Another standout (and like Spencer, making his first appearance with Optimist), is Bryce Lord as Lear’s loyal vassal, the banished Kent. Though his “disguise” is less than believable, he portrays dogged, likable integrity. Whether delivering a blistering stream of creative insults or resigning himself to an unjust punishment, he is consistently authentic, never devolving into the shoutiness that often bedevils less experienced Shakespearean actors. Similarly, as Gloucester,  ​Sam White delivers more high points: whether thoughtlessly insulting his illegitimate son or in his cruel torture and abjection, he plays every moment feelingly and credibly.

Jacque Troy as Goneril and David Sapiro as her oily lickspittle Osric clearly have an erotic thing going on, adding a little soap opera spice; while Kat Wodtke and Ryan Cappleman play the sadistic Duke and Duchess of Cornwall with the frightening allure of poisonous snakes. Even Lear’s band of a hundred knights—here delivered by a sturdy half-dozen players—have their moment to shine, in a scene that captures the rowdy fellowship of a frat party. It’s almost the only human warmth in the play, as director Dixon often emphasizes the character’s lack of connection by setting them apart in spacial isolation. Jonathan Wainwright plays the wicked Edmund, not as “wicked,” but with the cold calculation of a Wall Street schemer on his way to the top, while Tom Reed delivers the shape-shifting Edgar with fearless athleticism.

Malkia Stampley, who played a joyous Titania for the Optimists a few years ago, forgoes the standard soft-edged portrayal of Cordelia for a cool integrity. Taking charge with steely resolve, she shows herself to be a far better leader than her father. One of the central themes of this endlessly fertile text is the speaking of one’s truth, regardless of how the hearer might take it. Lisa Gaye Dixon has taken this to heart: she has reworked the end of the play to place Cordelia’s stylized death literally front and center, ending abruptly with Lear’s lines “See, oh see.” The signal couldn’t be clearer if it was sent by semaphore; something like: “the real tragedy is that foolish old men have all the power, when smart, strong young women could run things much better.” Many of Dixon’s other choices (such as her apparent disregard for the manly art of stage combat; the fights look like they were slapped together in ten minutes) make perfect sense in light of this interpretation.

There is an uncredited program note in a page-long, fine-print, bullet-pointed list of “Suggestions for getting the most out of your Shakesperience.” It reads: “Every Shakespeare production you ever see is a ‘cover.’” This intriguing idea is valid: in Victorian times, producers changed the ending so that Cordelia was rescued at the last minute and wedded to Edgar; productions in the 60s were treated as existential theater of the absurd. Just so, this production aligns with the current notion of intersectionality, which treats the disparities of power among races, classes, and genders. Purists might blink, but the folks of Optimist Theatre are doing their best to make the play relevant to our times. That takes a lot of courage.

One respectful suggestion: This company is obviously in love with Shakespeare’s language. It would better serve their mission of connecting with today’s audiences to cut the text more deeply and judiciously, so that the play runs for less than three hours, and the actors aren’t forced into the old  “say the lines as fast as possible with feeling and hope something comes across” trope. With a more focused text, each moment could be it’s own, and there could be much deeper appreciation of what Shakespeare has to say, and the wonderful ways he says it.

That said, with great acting, a firmly-drawn concept, and strong direction, this show will give playgoers plenty to talk about on the ride home.

Optimist Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park presents

King Lear
by William Shakespeare

Directed by Lisa Gaye Dixon

playing through July 21st

The Most Important Play of the Year: “The Madwoman of Chaillot”

rehearsal photo by Jeff Grygny

By Jeff Grygny

Jean Giraudoux knew what it was like to live in dark times. The city of Paris was under occupation by Hitler’s armies when the gentle playwright penned his most famous work, La Folle de Chaillot, which we know as The Madwoman of Chaillot. Though the city of light,  love, and art was silent, bleak, controlled by fascists, he still managed to produce a comedy: a fantasy of remarkable vision and hope. Milwaukee theaters both large and small have produced many fine plays this year, exploring topics profoundly relevant to us as a nation and as individuals. But to me, The Madwoman of Chaillot, soon to be performed by the little storefront company Off The Wall Theatre, presents the most insightful critique of our beknighted modern world, gives us extraordinary advice for getting through dark times, and offers us a saving grace that’s so crazy it just might work.
(Full disclosure, the writer is performing a role in this show).

What is this miraculous world-changing grace? In a word: art. No, really! But I don’t mean that Giraudoux suggests that more paintings, music, and poetry will save the world; the character of the  Countess Aurelia, the “Madwoman of Chaillot,” shows us how we could bring to our lives a poetic sensibility that is radically contrary to the grain of the modern world, and the antidote to the alienation and “anaesthetic” sterility that modernity brings along with its great technical achievements.

Almost as soon as the scientific revolution brought the modern world into being, people began to notice its deep flaws. The English poet William Blake wrote “May God us keep/ From Single Vision and Newton’s sleep!” Wordsworth wrote “We murder to dissect.” In the next century, the historian Max Weber lamented modernity’s “disenchantment of the world,” but allowed that once we have discovered science, we can never go back to antiquated magical ways of life. Feminist philosophers were among the first to point out that scientific reason itself is based on the rather arrogant premise that the mind, through unemotional logic and mathematical measurement, can somehow get outside the universe to observe it “objectively,” as if with the mind of God—which is not really possible for us limited human animals. The cold detatchment of science has been steadily showing itself to be at best a useful fiction, at worst, a kind of false faith: everyone from physicists to neuroscientists is coming to realize that: A, we can never completely separate our understanding from the limitations of our culture and situation; and that, B, our knowledge is never perfect, but bound up with our emotional and embodied relations with our surroundings; and that, C, the universe, from subatomic particles to ecosystems, is so richly entangled with feedback loops that it’s impossible to understand one single thing separate from everything else. Systems philosopher Gregory Bateson referred to this principle as “the pattern that connects.” Like a melody that can only appear when all the notes are heard in relation to each other, the world is not reducible to the sum of its parts.  Quantum entanglement, fractal geometry, microbiology, and ecology show how fantastically complex and interwoven is the skein of reality. The ecological thinker Timothy Morton talks about “weird loops,” and “the mesh,” to refer to how everything is in constant and intimate relation to everything else, which allows for mysterious and unexpected things to happen. In the play, Aurelia says something nearly identical:

Are we ever really alone? Millions of beings, real and illusionary are hovering about us all the time…. Invisible atoms  guide us and lay hands on us and inform us. In the middle of the masquerade called life, they are always with us. The floor creaks, they are dancing a tango. The wind ruffles our hair, they are whispering to us.

Marilyn White as The Countess Aurelia, photo by Off The Wall Theatre

Unfortunately, the modern world has yet to catch up to these ideas. We are dominated by what poet Lewis Hyde calls “the market.” In his remarkable book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, Hyde contrasts the cold and impersonal exchanges of commerce with the richly-feeling and relational “gift economies” of “tribal” and other traditional peoples throughout human history. In gift economies, wealth is passed along, creating relationships of goodwill and gratitude, blessing life with an ever-moving current of vitality. In such cultures, a gift is not just a tchotchke: it carries emotional, aesthetic, social, and spiritual meaning. Exchange creates relationships, obligations, and sustains an ongoing feeling of community. In the market, there is no such wealth; only “value:” how things may be used to create profit. An exchange is over as soon as the money is pocketed; “nothing personal.” Profits are invested, not passed along: the chain of relationship is cut. “Freedom” means the freedom to grow without restraint—the definition of cancer. The market reduces everything to numbers in a ledger: it monetizes our bodies, our attentions, even our passions. It puts up franchises and drive the locals out of business. It drive us into debt, tortures animals in laboratories and factory farms, pumps CO2 into the atmosphere, and dumps plastic into the oceans—and sends us the bill. And it regards this insanity as perfectly sensible and normal. And since, in our age, when multinational corporations and a tiny minority of oligarchs control the economic, political, and cultural institutions of our society, it’s all too easy to internalize the market and forget about the bonds that connect us into communities. In the play, a Ragman (a recycler of discarded clothing!) tells Aurelia nearly the same thing:

Before, when you walked the streets, you knew people. They were you. Differently dressed, different sizes, different colors, different languages…but you knew them. Part of the same human network. But one day, about ten years ago, there on the street, I saw a sight that made my blood freeze. I saw a man who had nothing in common with the rest of us. It was in his eyes. It was like we were objects to be used and tossed aside. We were the means to an end. He was the first. Then every day, I saw more and more.

The neighborhood of Chaillot, with it’s charming, eccentric community, is threatened by an international company that seeks to drill for oil. From the comapny’s perspective, a handful of underemployed artists is of no value compared with the massive profits to be gained by destroying their lives. Since Giraudoux’s play was first performed, this narrative has been picked up in pop culture, from cartoons like Ferngully to blockbusters like Avatar. And just as in these tales, Aurelia rallies her neighbors to resistance.

The market’s ideology of absolute freedom from relationships is at the root of many evils. Slavery, colonialism, racism, sexism, ecological destruction— all come from seeing everything and everyone as mere property: things, not persons.  It’s unfortunately also true that any attempt at liberation— however well-meaning— that keeps the market’s values in place will be like offering upgraded accomodations on the Titanic.  It is very curious that today’s pundits see “the return of tribalism,” as a dangerous destabilizing phenomenon: populist movements around the world rebelling against the elites, who have all the charts and spreadsheets to show the wisdom of “neoliberalism:” a word used to describe the dominance of global corporations in a free-trade, free-market, deregulated world economy. And it gives us pause indeed that many of these populist movements reject liberal values as well. This road could very easily end up in fascism again. But there might also be great opportunity in this global crisis: an opening to restore the old sense of “wealth” from the market’s mere “value.” But this could not be done from the corridors of power: the banks, the governments, the media—they are dominated by the market and it’s sense of free-floating, amoral calculation.

But if different communities could recognize each other as potential relationships rather than competitors in the macroeconomic arena, they could begin an age of true multicultural understanding. This will not be accomplished though facts and statistics, and certainly not by hostile rhetoric and mutual insults, but by reaching out, human to human: offering gifts, forming relationships, making common cause—as it has been done since before the ancient Babylonians scratched the first accounting ledgers on clay tablets. It will not be easy. We can feel so small and powerless against the powers that seek to keep us isolated and divided. But through The Madwoman of Chaillot, Giraudoux shares the benefit of his experience and wisdom to point the way: through the languages of feeling, meaning, and the senses: the languages of art—not the intellectualized art of academicians, or the commodified art of the market, but real art, that touches the heart and moves the soul.

Aurelia lives her life as a work of art, and she makes a gift of it to the world around her. We could start there. Embrace eros— a word the ancient Greeks used to signify all that connects in the world: pleasure, desire, the senses and affections, beauty, bliss—and their counterparts: sorrow, tenderness, awareness of suffering and the messy, complicated chaotic aspects of life. Nourish yourself with beauty. Imbue the world around you with meaning: put on your “Persian earrings;” choose  a lorgnette from your “vast collection;” gaze at yourself in “the polished copper gong that once belonged to the Divine Sarah.” Make relationships with the world around you; practice random acts of kindness; feed gizzards to the neighborhood cat; offer a calla lily to the garbageman. Spread happiness “to the trees and to the dogs who pee on them.” Don’t worry—you’re connected; you can feel it.

Reject the isolation of the market. Give gifts, expecting nothing in return. Accept them as well, then give them away too; keep the exchange moving. When your tribe is strong, find common cause with people from other tribes; only a gathering of tribes can defeat the power of the market, which is why they work so hard to keep us divided. Community is messy, and it’s not always logical: poetry holds it together. Discover the old virtues of community that have existed since before the economy of domination: courtesy, gratitude, dignity, honor, integrity, magnanimity. Respect the codes of other tribes, as they respect yours. We can’t kill all the billionaires, but that’s not our only option. Lock your inner hedge fund manager in the basement with his whats-in-it-for-me, bottom-line blindness, and just see if the flowers don’t burst into bloom, birds fill the sky, and total strangers embrace in the streets. It might sound crazy.
But it’s better than the alternative.

The Madwoman of Chaillot
by Jean Giraudoux
plays at Off The Wall Theatre from June 14 through June 24.

Make a gift of $25 out of the generosity of your heart and see what happens