All posts by jgrygny

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


Brutal Shakespeare: “Macbeth”

photo by Mahdi Gransberry

by Jeff Grygny

In the climactic fight scene of Voices Found Repertory’s fast-moving Macbeth, the title character is huddling behind his plywood shield while his enemy ferociously hammers it with his sword, the force causing him to drop the shield (a move familiar to anyone who’s played a sword-based computer game). It’s a dynamic metaphor for the moment when the murderous king realizes that his overweening confidence was based on equivocal prophesies. It also says a lot about director Alec Lachman’s intentions. This is a Macbeth for the generation of digital entertainment, when a moment of tedium can be remedied by a single click. The show surges relentlessly forward in episodes like video clips, with tightly-choreographed scene changes. There’s no time to be bored, and it’s always clear what’s going on. Lachman has cut the text to the bone: the Thane of Fife plots his way to power, a rebellion is mounted, and the tyrant is defeated in a brisk 90 minutes—intermission included. It could keep the most attention-challenged viewer entertained, with a solid concept and a cast that, if not totally in command of Shakespearean diction, displays the commitment and physical energy needed to bring the story to life.

The post-apocalyptic setting is a standard trope now, especially in YA culture; maybe it’s the best representation of civilization’s spiritual landscape under global capitalism: a brutal struggle to make the most of the ruined remains of luckier, if foolish, forebears. This blasted Scotland is economically represented by junk-plastered walls ornamented with radiation symbols, and graffitied occult glyphs and slogans like “Blood will have blood.” Even the royalty have mismatched furniture, and drink their toasts from antique tin cans. It’s a fair match for the lawless violence of early medieval times, and we accept it without question. Interestingly, the weird sisters are explained in a program note as a Bacchae-like “Cult of Hecate,” who imbibe hallucinogens and seek to destabilize the warlord’s rule. Their rituals incorporate vivid movement and eerie choral speaking. The witches seem to relish their anarchic roles, whipping through the cauldron scene with feverish urgency.

photo by Mahdi Gransberry

Michael Cienfuegos-Baca brings his burly physique and formidable beard to the lead role, wavering between naked ambition and pusillanimous doubt; he could be any one of history’s strongmen. He’s at his best when showing us Macbeth’s bestial side, his eyes becoming black holes into the soul of a predator.  As Lady M, Alexis Furseth is all chill poise, until she starts chewing the scenery (understandable. perhaps, for a character whose historical model was named “Gruoch.”) Together, they capture the dynamic of the beauty and the beast who scale their way to the top (not like anyone we know in the White House, definitely).

Brittany Ann Meister, as the sturdy Banquo and also as Lady MacDuff, seems alone resistant to the madness of the times. And in the normally characterless role of Lennox, Hannah Kubiak shows great spirit and intelligence. It would be wonderful to see these fine actresses play some of Shakespeare’s delightful heroines, like Rosalind, Viola, or Portia. In a play full of larger-than life emotions, it’s nice to see Thom Cauley’s authentic grief at MacDuff’s loss of his family. It’s also nice to see these young artists hit notes that often escape other actors, such as when Sara Zapiain’s drunken doorkeeper uses her line “Pray you remember the Porter” to solicit a tip; or Lady M’s singsong “The Thane of Fife had a Wife.” Such moments show the thought and care they put into their interpretations.

photo by Mahdi Gransberry

As usual, Voices Found Repertory has taken a time-worn classic and made it their own. Purists might wince at how they run over Shakespeare’s verse in combat boots, but what the show lacks in poetry, it gains in narrative pace and excitement. The brutal world they portray can’t afford the luxury of poetry.

Voices Found Repertory presents


playing March 30 and 31

Strange Love: “The Tales of Hoffmann”

Photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

The agony of frustrated love isn’t as popular a theme of art these days as it was in the 19th Century, but it’s probably still a thing. Love—and losing it—gnaws at the heart of The Tales of Hoffmann, now playing in a newly translated, nipped, and tucked interpretation by Skylight Music Theatre working in collaboration with the ever-game Milwaukee Opera Theatre. But this weird opera, based on the even weirder stories of E. T. A. Hoffman, takes love as the starting point for journeys into a twilight world where science and magic dance with specters from the subconscious mind of the early modern age.

Hoffman’s proto-surrealistic imagery of eyeballs, mirrors, doubles, mechanical girls, and dark sorcerers has been analyzed down to the atomic level by such theorists as the post-Freudian semiotician Jaques Lacan, to rattle the foundations of our commonsense notions of self and reality. You won’t sense much of that bottomless abyss in this production— but director Jill Anna Ponasik and her creative team have embraced the weirdness to create a wild ride that does everything short of throwing Mardi Gras beads around your neck to show you a good time. While there’s much to please opera lovers here, it also succeeds in not making non-fans want to run for the exits. It’s an opera with the over-the-top theatrics of a rock concert, and a party vibe that Lady Gaga would love.

The show is a total theatrical work: words, music, acting, costumes, scenery and lighting all contributing to the stylish spectacle. Librettist Michael Carré has trimmed the show from three hours to two with two fifteen-minute intermissions; the framing story has been abridged, and long recitatives condensed to spoken dialog. The English translation is accessible and for the most part very understandable as sung. And they tacked on a happier ending. Music director Kerry Bieneman has moved the heavens to condense the score from full orchestra to a very interesting and satisfying two pianos, a harp, and a multi-percussionist, which, combined with the wonderful voices of the dozen or so singers, creates a rich, full sound that, except for the harp, which sometimes seems overpowered, never leaves you wanting more. A top-hatted Michael “Ding” Lorenz roves over a platform above the stage playing everything from kettledrums to noisemakers, creating moods from dreamy to nightmarish; his vibraphone is particularly haunting.

Photo by Mark Frohna

This is opera, so the plot makes little sense, and the characters are one-dimensional. Why are the evil magicians intent on wrecking Hoffman’s love life? Who knows? Story and character are servants to the nonlinear logic of music. Maybe that’s why Lisa Anne Schlenker’s impressive set design, spectacularly illuminated by Jason Fassl, incorporates a stage-spanning piano harp and a giant cello scroll, while movable set pieces kluge musical instruments with steampunk machines. Sonya Berlovitz’s costumes are a feast for the eyes, and sometimes further the story, as when glittery masks stand for the mirror into which Hoffman loses his soul.

Photo by Mark Frohna

Ponasik makes one particularly  interesting choice: to replace the “dark father “bass-baritone villains with the same sopranos who played Hoffman’s erstwhile lovers in other acts. This brings a whiff of #metoo to the proceedings, without getting too picky about the details. It also makes for a fabulous trio in one of the most uncanny scenes, when the sorcerer Dapertutto summons the ghost of Antonia’s mother in order to get her to sing (which, as she is consumptive, will kill her). In a nifty bit of stage magic, the ghost appears to be inside an upright piano, though how exactly they accomplished this is a mystery. Might this gender-swap have altered the story’s Freudian calculus, making possible the happy ending where Hofffman’s faithful muse (his feminine psyche?) persuades him to channel his grief into creativity?  Hurrah!

Photo by Mark Frohna

From Jean Broekhuizen’s goof on divas in her humorous introduction song, it’s clear that these skilled artists aren’t taking themselves too seriously. As befits an opéra-comique,the acting  is often broad and cartoonish. Choreographer James Zager, who has worked with MOT before, does a marvelous job getting the singers to perform with their entire bodies, eliciting quirky and energetic character movements, like Cecilia Davis’ doll-like stiffness, and Brett Sweeney’s star turn as a frisky servant that is a little comic gem. This is as much movement theater as it is opera, tastily combining 19th-century melodrama, Spongebob Squarepants, and the Marx Brothers.

Photo by Mark Frohna

John Kaneklides plays the hapless poet Hoffmann like any angsty hipster artist with odd hair. The acts mostly conclude with him collapsing on the floor in Romantic despair (as one does). He rather creepily falls in love with Davis’s Olympia while she is apparently unconscious, then pursues her despite it being obvious to all that she’s a wind-up robot. Ah, love. Davis also wins the “best evil laugh” prize in a second role as the wicked Doctor Miracle; a sinister shaman out of a Neal Gaiman story. While Ariana Douglas, with crepe hair eyebrows as the “eyeball-maker” Coppelius, comes off as a bit like a kid in a Halloween costume, she utterly rules with subtlety and charm in the role of the courtesan Giulietta, showing how, with vulnerability and ambiguity, a woman can lead a man to unwise actions.

Though a light, fun entertainment, The Tales of Hoffmann exhibits unexpected depths. Not only does this production re-tune the dusty  classic for contemporary tastes, it has great fun doing it. Brava!

Skylight Music Theatre
in association with Milwaukee Opera Theatre
The Tales of Hoffmann
composed by Jacques Offenbach

Playing through March 29
at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre

Cabaret of the Damned

photos by Off the Wall Theatre

“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.”


“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. “

Theodor Adorno

by Jeff Grygny

Christopher Marlowe was aiming to create a blockbuster when he adapted the German legend of Faust for the Elizabethan stage. He brought classical allusions for the educated set, dirty jokes and slapstick for the masses, and the horripilating thrill of demonology, slathered in poetry and plenteous piety to appease the skittish churchmen. The play has been produced in countless ways (a Milwaukee Rep production decades ago was based for some reason on Eskimo imagery). But no one to my knowledge has set it in Nazi Germany, inspired by Thomas Mann’s novel of the era and Visconti’s famous film of fascist society The Damned. No one, that is, but Off the Wall Theatre’s Dale Gutzman, Milwaukee’s homegrown master bricoleur. On his shoebox stage, with a cast of dedicated volunteers, Gutzman creates a pocket cosmos, with its own internal grammar and a vocabulary of actions, music, and images. Imagine what he’d do with the resources of, say, the Rep. And yet his independence frees him to offer fare that would never make it to the mainstream stage in this city. In his hands The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus becomes an edgy, transgressive freak show; as potent as absinthe on the rocks with a psychedelic mushroom garnish.

It’s strange that nobody else has set the play as a fascist fable, since it works uncannily well; Faustus’ assistant is even named Wagner! The show stays true to Marlowe’s text,  but origamis it with interpolated  scenes and characters into an intense exploration of fascism as a spiritual puzzle: how could educated, cultured people come to support the vulgarity, superstition and industrialized horror of the holocaust?  Hitler’s rise becomes the backdrop to Faustus’s story, told by cleverly referencing our common knowledge of history. Faustus, as played by Jeremy Welter, is a mousy academic who isn’t satisfied with legitimate knowledge. His ambition to become superhuman leads him to meet with a pair of sleazy magicians who—like Nazi recruiters—are ever so solicitous while appealing to his fantasies.

photos by Off the Wall Theatre

The play proceeds in a succession of images, surreal, sexy and grotesque, often all at once. Faustus’ assistant, played as a brutal skinhead by Max Williamson, sexually bullies a young boy, who later dons the swastika armband and gets Hitler’s autograph in his own personal copy of Mein Kamph. Nathan Danzer plays a seductive devil as a cross-dressed femme fatale, quite overpowering his virtuous counterpart, played by Barbara Weber in white. Period songs, including  “Du, du liegst mir im Herzen” and “Falling in Love Again” embellish and comment ironically on the action, and of course there’s plenty of bombastic Wagner music. Even the ensemble contributes to a dreamlike mood, moving slowly and deliberately as if in a ritual: under totalitarian rule, they must be most scrupulous in everything they say and do.

And just as rational people wonder what can be the appeal of that nonsense, we wonder how Faustus can fall into so transparent a trap. James Strange’s Mephistopheles captures the tortured soul of the fallen angel; Mohammed N. Elbsat as a friendly rabbi tries in vain to dissuade Faustus from his diabolical purpose, but is captured and meets a predictably grisly end. When Lucifer and Beelzebub appear as affable businessmen, they offer Faustus a vision of the Seven Deadly sins as a parade of concentration camp inmates, and supernatural intrusions are delivered in the cheesy style of a neighborhood haunted house. Faustus’ magical escapades are embarrassingly childish— whether slamming a pie in the face of the bucktoothed Pope or performing cheap parlor magic for the Fürer. Helen of Troy, pimped by Mephistopheles, doesn’t even try to conceal her contempt for him. You could say that Faustus was damned by toxic masculinity: the perverse will to power. At the end of the play Marlowe collides with Becket, as Welter’s final speech is delivered in voiceover, while he, nearly catatonic, is dressed as a ludicrous Hitler/clown. It’s a shattering moment: damnation as paralysis.

photos by Off the Wall Theatre

In The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus, Dale Gutzman does what he can be relied upon to do: creating a shattered mirror of our own world.  It brilliantly embodies what drama theorist Herbert Blau called  “blooded thought:” an analysis that can’t be reduced to dry words alone.

In Marlowe’s time, devils were very real: they were said to have appeared on stage when the play was performed, driving men mad. Today we need no supernatural agents to do the job.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus

by Christopher Marlowe

playing through March 18

Off the Wall Theatre

Renaissance Man

photo by Ross Zentner

By Jeff Grygny

There’s a telling moment in the first scene of Equivocation, currently playing at Next Act Theater: Richard Burbage, the actor/manager of the King’s Men, the company that Shakespeare writes for, is pulling on his boots after a rehearsal of King Lear, a play which they mockingly describe as “an experimental work where the king runs around in his underwear.” Burbage give his boot a tug and a decisive “zip” sounds in the theater. That moment—no oversight, we can be sure— proclaims exactly where this show is coming from: though it’s set in the Sixteenth Century, it’s very much about today.

Nobody calls anyone “thou,” or “my lord;” there’s none of the elaborate ceremony of aristocracy that was part power display, and part religious ritual. Playwright Bill Cain isn’t interested in those things. He shows Shakespeare (or “Shagspeare,” as he’s called here, apparently a contemporary spelling) as what he manifestly was: a brilliant writer working for a prestigious and profitable theater company. If it was today, he’d be writing series for Netflix, and Mark Ulrich plays him as such, with an ironic manner and a nasal twang. He’s a professional—but first and foremost, he’s an artist.

Cain, who, as a founder of the Boston Shakespeare Company, is steeped in Shakespeare’s work and scholarship, attempts almost hubristically to reproduce in modern sensibility the genetic structure, let’s say, of a Shakespeare play. Cain creates a plot as complex as a Renaissance fencing diagram, with story lines that echo and mirror each other, supporting a webwork of themes all strung together with wordplay that dances in lapidary phrases, hinting at more than they say. It’s a rare play that makes you want to sit down and read the script so you can catch the implications of what everyone’s saying. Equivocation is like that. Heavy? A bit. So we can thank the gods of theater that Cain wraps his story around human passions that anyone can understand: a political/psychological thriller and family drama full of strong sympathetic characters and lifted up with generous helpings of comedy (often wryly directed at Shakespeare’s flaws as a playwright) and an uncanny relevance to current events.

If any director can pull off this Mount Everest of a play, with its sophisticated language and whiplash changes of tone, it’s Michael Cotey, who has proven himself adept both with serio-comedy and dramatic rhythm. Cotey leads his actors in a style that’s often quite farcical— which can sometimes feel like you’re looking at a cartoon composed of aphorisms, or a stained glass window with a few comic panes. The King’s Men come off as a Renaissance Rat Pack. Cotey, who staged this play at Northwestern University not long ago, throws in some wonderful bits of stagecraft, such as when manuscript pages shower down over “Shag” while he tosses off a script that will later be known as Macbeth; or giving us a graphic lesson in the exact meaning of “drawn and quartered.” When the players re-enact scenes from one of the plays, they do it in a vivid “you are there” style that uses sound and lighting effects to re-create the excitement that must have attended their first performances.

photo by Ross Zentner

It’s even more impressive that the whole thing is performed by only six actors playing multiple roles, often switching characters mid-scene. David Cecsarini gives Ulrich a fine foil as Sir Robert Cecil, a king-maker, and master of intrigue who summons the writer to produce a piece of propaganda to immortalize the king’s triumph over the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot. Cecil seems like a typical irritable administrator—until he starts torturing someone (and we begin to realize exactly what a Bill of Rights is for). Josh Krause is a hoot as King James, a literally entitled frat boy with a Scottish accent, while Eva Nimmer brings heart to her role as Shakespeare’s neglected daughter Judith,  acting as something of a chorus to share keen insights into her father’s work, and her own rather dim outlook on the theater and life in general. Jonathan Smoots is extraordinary as Father Henry Garnett, the Jesuit priest who was accused of inciting the Catholic-led plot against England’s Protestant king (the play also makes you want to run to Google and look up the history). Smoots is low-key, subtle, and seemingly unguarded: if anyone in the play understands life, it’s he (Cain is himself a Jesuit priest. Coincidence? Not likely). We see Garnett brilliantly defend himself in a trial scene, after which he reveals to Shakespeare the secret of equivocation: to respond, not to the question asked, but to the hidden question behind it.

If there’s anything missing in this frighteningly intelligent play, it’s the part of Shakespeare that’s rooted in the Renaissance. Brilliant as Cain’s language is, it’s literary in an abstract, modern sense, rather than sensually poetic. In Shakespeare’s world, everything was connected in a great chain of being where lions, heliotropes, topazes, and the sun all resonated with the same angelic frequency, as did all human virtues and weaknesses. To be modern is to not inhabit that cosmos—of which the Globe Theatre itself was but a microcosm. It must also be said that the characters show little variation in voice—unlike Shakespeare, who could evoke a whole life’s history in three lines.

But what Equivocation misses in lyricism, it makes up in the fierce light it shines on our times. It’s hard to hear of Cecil’s attempt to spin a phony narrative without thinking of this week’s headlines. You can see the current president in James’ narcissistic monarch; but even more so the damnable equivocations of the “war on terror” and “enhanced interrogation,” which likely helped inspire this play, which was first performed in 2009.

A play of ideas that’s also massively entertaining, Equivocation strips centuries of dust from Shakespeare, giving urgency to works that might seem like antiques to many people, while at the same time showing how a master artist can walk the razor’s edge between integrity and survival in perilous times. It’s a problem that many artists are struggling with these days. They could do worse than to see this show.

Next Act Theatre presents


By Bill Cain

Directed by Michael Cotey

playing through February 25