All posts by jgrygny

The Ugly Truth

Photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

The Milwaukee Rep’s new production of Animal Farm opens with a pantomime: the players, dressed in filthy jumpsuits, laboriously drag a prop beef carcass across the stage. Theatrically (if improbably, considering the laws of physics) they flip it over their heads and onto a stainless steel gurney. Offstage it’s wheeled, and they head back for another one, This repeats a few times, to the sound of harsh industrial music, until a supervisor appears and tosses a simulated slab of meat on the floor. The players pounce on it, ripping it to pieces, and devour it greedily. This—workers desperately struggling for a tiny portion of their labor’s product—neatly encapsulates Marxism in one image, and provides the springboard for George Orwell’s extended metaphor of the descent of the Soviet State from revolutionary idealism to brutal dictatorship. His book achieved great success in the US, even becoming part of many school’s reading lists; an Aesop’s fable about the evils of communism (of course, it’s just about communism. Of course). Often mislabeled an allegory, Animal Farm is the bluntest of satires; it’s no more an allegory than the elephant and donkey of political cartoons. This production particularly, under the direction of May Adrales, is as subtle as a steel bolt to the skull.

It is really unfair to compare this Animal Farm to the one performed a few years back by the imaginative Quasimondo Physical Theatre, which was held in an actual barn, with charmingly rendered life-sized animal puppets. Orwell’s story gets whatever fun there is to be had from the amusing reduction of Stalin’s regime to barnyard politics. This  relentlessly literal production,  on the other hand, has little patience for fable: the actors carry abstract metal emblems of their particular animals. They are barely playing animals at all, but rather certain types of human characters. Moreover, following the artistic dictum that corruption is best depicted by making everything look as rotten as possible, the setting is a dismal abattoir, with cracked concrete floor and stark tile walls skewed in uncomfortable geometries.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Adrales wanted to convey “cruel and harsh labor conditions,” “soulless industrial and immigrant farms,” and “images of poverty, homelessness and extreme hunger.” So doing, she expands the frame of the narrative to encompass capitalism, be it multinational corporations exploiting  third world workers, national leaders chanting “jobs, jobs, jobs,” while siphoning off geysers of cash to billionaires, or even our own local piglets, making life harder while slurping money from the teats of their wealthy donors. All this is very clear. But since there is no real suspense or dramatic tension, the play becomes a grim, masochistic ritual. Well-executed movement sections, rhythmic and ceremonial, also create the sense of the retelling of a cultural myth. When the play reaches its depth of horror— the public execution of prisoners held on trumped up ideological crimes— it pulls the punch,  acting out the brutal murders upon cute stuffed toys. And though many in the audience might be grateful for this little mercy, it’s still quite disturbing.

The production really shines in the actors’ warm-hearted performances of their poor, put-upon human beasts. Stephanie Weeks and Deborah Staples  play workhorses who really want to believe that their leaders have their interests in mind, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Jonathan Gillard Daly, as a wise old donkey, represents the lumpen intellectual who, though powerless, sees exactly what’s going on, while Melvin Abston show us the fear that lurks behind the despot’s bravado. Tiffany Rachelle Stewart gracefully embodies the role of a filly who abandons the commune for the promise of sugar cubes and pretty ribbons; in her second role she runs away with the show, channeling every fork-tongued official spokesperson we’ve seen over the years, straight-facedly reciting the most shameful affronts to reason, logic and common sense, and getting away with it. Such gross absurdities would be funny if they weren’t so awful: ha ha, comrade. In this way, Animal Farm shows the cynical tactics of despotic con artists effectively back-footing potential opposition with a steamy haze of lies, threats, and empty rhetoric. Ian Wooldridge’s efficient adaptation condenses much of the book’s extraneous action, but leaves a few niggling plot holes unfilled.

Overall, this production makes its sobering statement clearly and powerfully: above all, that the only thing more outrageous than the lies that leaders tell is that others continue to follow them. It’s at the least a lesson from history that things will not get better by themselves, and a warning to those who fight for equality, lest they become the evil they rebel against. Maybe the only true ray of cheer in this nasty little fable will be found when it stops being so true.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents

Animal Farm

based on the novel by George Orwell

Adapted by Ian Woodridge

Directed by Mary Adrales

playing through February 11

The Dark Side of Normal

Off the Wall Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

Social conservatives dream of it; avant-garde artists mock it; scholars find it “problematic:” the normal.  For the holiday season, Off the Wall Theater has gone in an interesting direction, mounting a very competent production of that warhorse of community theater, Arsenic and Old Lace, which is all about what is what definitely isn’t normal. Like a whole subset of American comedies, including  You Can’t Take It with You, Auntie Mame,  Bell, Book and Candle, and A Thousand Clowns, the show clashes oddballs against conventional society to draw comic sparks. And after a year of the digital clown show that passes for the news these days, it’s nice to be able to sink into a silly period comedy. But as with anything from director Dale Gutzman, the show wields a sting—even if this one is pretty gentle.

Joseph Kesselring’s 1939 script hits all the marks of a screwball farce: a smart, affectionate couple, a cast of odd but lovable characters, and a plot that gets progressively more unhinged until it suddenly resolves, just in time for the curtain. As the couple in question, Brittany Meister and Mark Neufang do a fine job channeling Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, her smart confidence playing off his febrile anxiety. But Neufang’s Mortimer Brewster has a problem: as he puts it “Insanity runs in my family—it practically gallops.” Larry Lucasavage seems harmless enough as Uncle Teddy, who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, and the two sweet little old aunties, Abby and Martha, seem like neighborhood saints—until they display a penchant for poisoning lonely bachelors with elderberry wine, that is. And burying them in the cellar. In these roles, Marilyn White and Michelle Waide steal the show, obviously having a wonderful time proudly explaining just how they “helped” 12 old men to a decent burial among caring friends (and really, what more could you ask?).

Gutzman plays Jonathan Brewster, a bona fide psycho killer, who returns to the ladies’ house on the lam, with a shady plastic surgeon in tow—played by Robert Zimmerman (with surprising warmth, considering that Peter Lorre played the part in Frank Capra’s 1944 film adaptation). Rather than delivering these characters as the straightforward villains of the piece, though, Gutzman skews goofy, making them as much buffoonish as sinister. Meanwhile, the ever-versatile Jeremy Welter appears in four different roles, variously disguised in outlandish makeup and campy characterizations. With its vintage narrative style and a naturalistic set by David Roper, showing a comfortable 40s middle-class parlor, the show is as cozy as an old pair of slippers; just right for detoxing from the season’s enforced obligations of religion, family, and commerce.

But one of Gutzman’s recurring themes is the hypocrisy of so-called “decent society.” By turning the villains into clowns, he points, like the silent Spirit of Christmas Future, a bony finger at our collective tombstone.  It makes perfect sense that the subversive Capra should choose this play for his escapist wartime comedy. Though ostensibly a farce, Arsenic and Old Lace can’t entirely evade it’s none-too-subtle symbolism.  Can it be accidental that the ethically-addled Brewster clan arrived in North America with the pilgrims? As the French historian Michel Foucault pointed out, what society deems normal is actively constructed by institutional authorities: the church, the medical establishment, and the police. These institutions, which are all represented in this short play, create —by violence, if necessary—the invisible walls that delineate the normal from the deviant, the criminal, and the diseased. We hold our small talk over the bones of the innocent murdered.

Merry Christmas, right? But does this mean that good manners are necessarily hypocritical? Not at all. If anything, the world’s violent history would seem to recommend being even kinder to one another. And yet, this light comedy rests on the always-useful-to-remember premise that one may smile and smile and still be a villain.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

Arsenic and Old Lace
by Joseph Kesselring

playing through December 31



A Leviathan Nightmare

Photography by Andy Walsh

It is not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters, but vigilant and insomniac rationality.                     Giles Deluze

by Jeff Grygny

Genre fiction is the culture’s subconscious; beneath the recycled tropes, plots and characters, we can sense the unspoken anxieties and drives of our collective dreaming. This can certainly be said of The Depths, a tightly-focused study in claustrophobia and paranoia that is currently on offer by Quasimondo Physical Theatre. With the economical storytelling of the graphic novels that it strongly resembles, playwright/director Andrew Parchman delivers an entertaining, if chilly, Kubrickian satire of neoliberal technocracy.

We discover Lilith Hooper, a willing subject in a high-tech experiment fronted by a giant corporation with interests in undersea operations. In the interests of maximizing their labor force, she is dosed with a drug called “Ink,” that enables her to remain fully functional 24 hours a day. To make the study even more intense, she’s been submersed in a high-tech diving suit, seven miles below sea level, solo, for almost a month.  We see her performing banal and repetitive tasks, supported only by a spotty audio link with a remote mothership, regular visitations by a robotic drone that siphons off her bodily wastes, and an incredibly chirpy AI assistant—whom she’s come to loathe. The only novelty comes from her occasional encounters with deep-sea fauna.

Photography by Andy Walsh.

A visual artist and extraordinarily gifted sculptor, Parchman approaches his tale from a design perspective, fashioning spare, monochromatic compositions like ink-wash illustrations. His elegant puppet creations express kinetic intelligence and character. Behind a stage-wide fabric scrim that diffuses light sources into little nebulas and blurs details to a fuzzy video-like quality. Figures  materialize out of velvety darkness, hovering  like unmoored Freudian imagoes: playful fish, the boxy submersible drone, an adorable sea slug, a terrifying face-hugging squid-creature, and a giant angler fish whose first appearance is an epiphany of human smallness in the face of the unknown. This is a show about bodies, not faces: all the performers are encased in skin-tight fabric that covers every inch of flesh; all we see of Hesper Juhnke’s Lilith is a mask-like strip of eyes behind a transparent visor.

Photography by Andy Walsh.

The extremely limber cast becomes the scenery as well as the characters. In varied, athletic movement, created by Parchman with the ensemble, they sometimes seem to fuse together as a single organism, or float Juhnke’s body around to simulate weightlessness. She holds the action admirably, nearly always onstage, and even though her face is concealed, she projects a strong character of determination and courage. Effective voice acting by the ensemble succeeds in the genre task of not throwing us out of the narrative. Interestingly, the visuals have the most power when they seem like a film projected on the fabric screen, when we forget that the action is taking place in actual 3D space, animated by living bodies.

Within his austere palette, Parchman ranges from goofy humor to cosmic horror. Everything has the sterile, institutional mood so familiar to fans of anime such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell—not unlike the modern workplace, where petty routines and insipid cheer mask covert agendas. As Lilith begins to depart from corporate protocol, she experiences anomalies that are first annoying, then disturbing, then finally becoming a sanity-threatening vortex.

We’re left to decide for ourselves whether she succumbs to a high-tech rapture of the deep or is the subject of far more fantastic designs. Either way, The Depths paints a creepy picture of technological over-reach and late-stage capitalism; an acerbic warning that, as we are more and more drawn into the virtual worlds of social media and computer games, it’s still a survival skill to be able to tell reality from delusion.

Quasimondo Physical Theatre presents
The Depths
written and directed by Andrew Parchman

playing through December 10th

Danceworks Studio Theatre, 1661 N. Water St.



The Real Sherlock Holmes

Photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

“When you have eliminated the impossible,” goes Sherlock Holmes’ famous aphorism, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Sounds simple enough—but when we confront the blooming chaos of life, sorting out all the possibilities (as Doctor Watson often found) is less like subtraction and more like fractal geometry, wherein a simple operation repeatedly performed generates baroque patterns of dizzying complexity.

Holmes and Watson, now in production at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre,  begins with a straightforward process of elimination: choose the real Sherlock Holmes out of three possible claimants. But it quickly goes fractal, like one of M. C. Escher’s space-bending engravings, where we feel lost in the borderlands between truth, lies, fiction, and the fictions we tell ourselves about other people, even— perhaps especially— our dearest friends. The question “Who is the real Sherlock Holmes?” takes on almost metaphysical dimensions.

M.C. Escher “Relativity”

This is only the second production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play, but in this crisp, elegant production, it already seems destined to a place in the highest ranks of Sherlock Holmes adaptations. The moment you step off the ferry that transports Doctor John Watson to the ominous island sanatorium, you enter a hall of mirrors where appearances flaunt themselves as truth from every angle, only to be contradicted by other equally plausible claims. The mystery sets its teeth into you and never loosens its grip for the play’s entire 80 minute running time. As in the best of the genre, you match wits with the detective, trying to be a sharp as Holmes would be, noticing every small detail that might be the key to the puzzle. Aided immensely by the actors’ craft, the designers’ atmosphere, and the clockwork direction of Joseph Hanreddy, you’re doing headwork every minute, and the time flies by. It’s almost a pity there’s no intermission, as the lobby would without a doubt be buzzing with hypotheses.

This review will respect the playwright’s feeling that “It’s more fun not to know anything when the curtain rises.” Suffice to say, then, that the inmates tell different stories of the same event, which all seem equally credible and suspicious— complicated by the fact the Watson has made so many of Holmes’ adventures public record, making it easy for impostors (but how accurate are Watson’s stories, eh?). Not to mention that there are certain oddities and inconsistencies in almost every character’s words and/or actions. And when events reach out to the world beyond the island, things really get complicated. The plot’s construction  can only be called masterful, and steeped in Holmesian lore—which is what you’d expect from an Edgar-winning writer who’s previously penned two Holmes stories for stage and screen.

Hatcher’s latest offering is, you might say, in the vein of British showrunner Steven Moffat’s Sherlock and Doctor Who: having thoroughly digested the canon and hungry for something fresh, opening with dazzling cleverness, following up with seemingly insoluble puzzles and bold dramatic gestures (appropriate to the claustrophobic setting), then quickly wrapping things up without over-much attention to the picky details. It’s a splashy, showy approach, well in the mood of today’s entertainment preferences—and that’s not a bad thing. There might be enough information for the astute viewer to solve the puzzle—but you don’t have to. The great pleasure of Holmes and Watson is to be led into an inescapable maze, encounter heroes, villains, and victims, and then to be safely escorted out again.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

The impeccable cast delivers the content-heavy script with unstuffy precision. Though the Rep brings in top talent from around the country, it’s nice to see two local actors hold their own in the leading roles: Norman Moses, as Watson, brings a touch of theatrical flair to the solemn proceedings, while Mark Corkins, as the head doctor of the asylum, manages to always seem like he knows secrets he’s not letting us in on. The three actors playing the inmates give strong, distinct characterizations with shades of pathos and sizable portions of humor, all orchestrated by Hanreddy with economical use of each moment. Bill Clarke’s set is grand and austere, enlivened by projected images of sea travel by Mike Tutaj. When we see the monochrome waves rolling over the walls, we’re immediately transported to another place and time. Sound designers Rob Milburn and Michale Bodeen create another character in the well-timed punctuation of clanging doors, reverberating bangs, and the clicks of keys in locks.

Sherlock Holmes is a 20th Century archetype: the man of pure reason. His sagas of crime and justice reflect the deep structure of the modern world—which is why he continues to fascinate us. Holmes and Watson is an admirable addition to the mythos. But more importantly, it’s a ripping good story. And if the outcome seems a tad improbable—well, it was the only possible solution.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents

Holmes and Watson
by Jeffrey Hatcher
directed by Joseph Hanreddy

playing through December 17

Dances With Squirrels: The Performance Ecology Project

photo: Quasimondo Physical Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

When I think back on The Performance Ecology Project, performed outdoors in the campfire circle at the Urban Ecology Center Riverside, I recall something like a green kaleidoscope: ever-changing figures in motion; people, animals, stories and poetry set to haunting music as the fading October daylight mixes with firelight against a leafy autumn backdrop, swirling and juxtaposing to create a complex weave, like the flavors of an artisanal meal.

It’s odd that my memories should be so impressionistic—considering that I created the project, crafted its script, and was there at all the rehearsals (not to mention playing ad hoc stage manager and lighting guy). But the show was the product of many minds: from the performers’ field notes and sketches, to the cornucopian artistry of director Brian Rott, to the voices of the many creatures whom the cast encountered over the course of five Sunday mornings immersing themselves in the urban wildspace of the Rotary Centennial Arboretum.  It became so much more than I had imagined—like a miraculous tree sprouting inside an alchemist’s flask.

Quasimondo Physical Theatre

The experiment was to see if somatic practices could enhance our ability to empathize with non-human life. This is not quite as flaky as it sounds; the sciences of animal intelligence and emotions have really taken off in the last decade, and biologists who might once have dismissed any such talk as naive anthropomorphism are now studying the tangible effects that animal experience has in the world. Our performer’s mission was straightforward enough: after taking a class in yoga, mindfulness, dance improvisation, tai chi, and theater games to ground them in the present moment, they ventured into the park on solo explorations: seeking some living thing to “interview;” to literally look into, listen to, and try to discern it’s unique voice (neurological research has found that such contemplative practices can alter our brain activity, letting us attend more to present sensations than to plans and schemes). The performers created performance sketches from their experiences, and also kept field journals, from which material the script was assembled. The goal: to explore a different relationship between human beings and the larger biosphere upon which we literally depend for life, though it’s too often forgotten in the midst of our tech-ridden days.

The show started with the cast leading the audience on little expeditions of their own, to get a taste of the process. The audience got into the spirit of the wild by howling like wolves, after which they gathered in either the campfire circle in a woodsy nook of the arboretum, or in the lodge-like second floor space of the Urban Ecology Center.  Rott’s company, Quasimondo Physical Theatre, co-produced the show, and like all Quasimondo works, the performance was a composition of movement,  music and spoken word, linked not by narrative but in a thematic montage of free-association logic, organized around the narrative structure of the fieldwork plus the personal journeys of the participants. There were allusions to the different somatic practices, to wandering in the woods and encounters with various living things, along with vignettes created out of Rott’s fertile imagination, plus episodes from the history of the universe culled from Italo Calvino’s humorous short story collection Cosmicomics. Incidental music, both sprightly and haunting, was composed and performed by Ben Yela on an open-tuned acoustic guitar, while multi-instrumental percussionist Jahmes Finlayson supplied a virtuosic flow of background effects from his table of exotic instruments from bull-roarers to bird whistles.

photo by Jeff Grygny

The players represent exceptional strength in physical theater: Yela and dancer Jessi Miller are Quasimondo regulars, while spoken word poet Kavon Cortez Jones has performed with that company; Sarah Best and Hesper Juhnke have theater education and devised theater backgrounds;  JJ Gatesman is a Shakespearean actor and fight choreographer. This depth and range of talents and skills produced a tight, complex show that would daunt many conventional actors to attempt. The ensemble showed great good-humored commitment, whether they were embodying squirrels, portraying spiders, interpreting the body language of flowers, and impersonating single-celled organisms or hydrogen atoms.

photo by Jeff Grygny

Some vignettes convey the childlike wonder of a goofy science cartoon; they were taken from sources that support the radical notion that humans not only don’t have a monopoly on sentience, but that some kind of feeling might actually permeate the cosmos to the atomic scale. This idea has gained currency under the names “the new animism” and “object-oriented ontology,” but can be found as long ago as in prehistoric cultures and as recently as 20th century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism”—not exactly child’s play.

There’s a lot going on all the time; the performers, speaking candidly about their fieldwork experience, demonstrate a wide variety of styles of relating to the wilderness, creating unspoken conversations of subtle complexity. Sarah Best fully embraces her mission: though her enthusiastic “hope to connect” initially seems rebuffed by the busy creatures she meets, she finds solace in the rain; later she finds a “tiny city” in a fungus-grown leaf, and she feels “like a predator” while spying on an unsuspecting lady duck. Hesper Juhnke similarly embraces the experiment: after a humorously mosquito-ridden meditation session, she deploys crystalline precision in her examination of a tiny flying insect hovering at eye level. Later, she has a semi-romantic encounter with a sapling. “Will you dance with me little tree,” she sings. “Feel the wind in your hair, I mean, leaves . . . We can take it slow.” Her comic embodiment of a hoarding squirrel comes from intent observation; equal parts intelligence and empathy.

By way of contrast, Gatesman and Jones seem to remain outside of nature looking in. Gatesman adopts the attitude of an explorer, scaling fallen trees and investigating empty spiderwebs, while Jones finds in nature a congenial setting for his poetic musings, but declines to engage with any actual living being. Ben Yela speaks of his existential anxiety in his wanderings: “It’s just life and death, life and death,”  he rants—but then he finds a sense of wonder in discovering a plant he’s never seen before: “What the hell are you?”  Jessi Miller is the social philosopher of the group, expressing deep ruminations in gestures and facial expressions. She becomes a growing tree, greedily grabbing resources: “You want water? MY water!” Later she delivers a mysterious soliloquy that conveys alienation; and then becomes the supervisor of the first road, satirizing the idea that destroying nature is serious, grown-up business: “Cut ‘em down, boys, they’re all the same.” Similar themes pervade the ensemble dance Miller choreographed: a shimmering flux of kinetic movements and images that explore humans and nature, power and dominion. After this section, the show still has humor, but it’s more pointed, darker in tone.

In a ritual gesture, the performers paint white tribal designs on each other’s faces while telling about their interviews with living things. They relate their mixed feelings about their observations: the litter, the intrusions of humans and technology, not to mention the unromantic experience of actual natural processes. Insects and animals, they realize, still have to hustle: it’s not always pretty and it’s not always fair. “This place is wild,” Miller says, “but it is not free. These trees are like pets, like an indoor-outdoor cat.”

Quasimondo Physical Theatre

Gatesman’s comic detective interrogates birds and flowers. He accidentally picks Best’s personified flower: she reacts tearfully. “There were things I wanted to do!” In the classic Oedipus trope of the investigator being the culprit, Gatesman turns on Juhnke’s squirrel and reveals himself as a predator. The cast howls from the offstage darkness, then stalks the audience on all fours, growling warily. The show ends on a ceremonial note, constructing a shape-shifting effigy out of branches, while leaves are tossed on the fire as an image of autumnal transformation. In keeping with the season, they acknowledge death and life as inseparable faces of each other.

Jeff Grygny

There’s no question that humans are the top predators on this earth, and that our activities are terrible for other life forms. But environmentalists make poor progress when they just talk about how bad humans are. Performance ecology tries a different tack: if we learn to care a bit more about even one little life form, we might care more about the impact our actions have on the whole planet.

The Performance Ecology Project begins as the somewhat cartoonish adventures of six actors who go into the woods to do yoga and create a show about six actors who go into the woods and do yoga. There’s nothing terribly exotic or earth-shattering in their first-hand impressions of leaves, bugs and flowers. But to take the everyday and make it strange and new is the provenance of art, especially the avant-garde; through Brian Rott’s inspired staging, the performers’ energetic charm, and the novelty of the show’s premise, the hour passes quickly and absorbingly. Not every moment fully works, but everything serves a purpose.

A well-made play is sometimes compared to a clockwork, each gear serving it’s specific function. This show is more like an organism—or the many different life forms in an ecosystem. That interconnectedness, including the interplay of varied voices and perspectives, gives this lighthearted essay a haunting feeling of mysterious depth. And somehow, through all the human filters, you might sense the stirring voices of numerous little lives, hurrying to get ready for winter—just like us.

Listen to Susan Bence’s  interview with Brian Rott and Jeff Grygny on WUWM’s Lake Effect

Read Megan Leonard’s review in the Shepherd Express

Read Mike Fischer’s review in the Journal Sentinel

Lunatics, Lovers, and Poets

photo by Off The Wall Theatre

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

                                                William Shakespeare

So use your imagination;
Just take this motto for your theme,
And soon you will dance
On the road to sweet romance,
And ev’ry day will be a dream! 

                                              Cole Porter

 by Jeff Grygny

Shakespeare fatigue: any frequent theatergoer knows it. What’s going to make this production different from the last nineteen ones I’ve seen? Is there anything new to be discovered in these theatrical relics?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the most often-produced of all the Stratford scrivener’s plays, is especially susceptible. But in Off the Wall Theatre’s latest offering, director Dale Gutzman, like a master alchemist, is never afraid to blend exotic theatrical ingredients to come up with something fresh and revealing. His elegant, witty interpretation is spare compared to American Player’s lavish production; while, unlike Optimist Theater’s hippie-inflected show of a few years back, it doesn’t flinch from the play’s darker aspects. This is no family-friendly fairy show; neither does it wallow in darkness. It’s as mature, wise, sensitive, and a touch world-weary, as Shakespeare reveals himself to have been.

Gutzman deploys a potent threefold strategy in his assault on theatrical ennui: he begins by flaunting purism, brings up an array of irreverent devices, and follows through with that most subtle of tactics: sincerity. The show is so spot-on with its interweaving of Cole Porter songs into the 16th-century script, it’s kind of amazing we’ve never seen it done before. Porter and Shakespeare are clearly brothers in their clear-eyed romanticism, playful gravity, and jackdaw-like ability to subsume any shiny object into their project—which in Porter’s case, includes Shakespeare himself. The songs, clearly delivered by a cast with good voices and a serviceable pre-recorded piano, had some of the audience (annoyingly) humming along. From rather obscure numbers like the opening “Use Your Imagination,” to much-loved classics like “In the Still of the Night,” “Be a Clown,” and “Let’s Misbehave,” it’s like getting whipped cream on top of an already-rich dessert; yet they always seem to belong right where they are, just when the familiar story was starting to get a bit snoozy. When David Flores, as an unusually-dignified Puck,  sings about all the legendary women he’s wooed in “They Couldn’t Compare to You,” it’s impossible to imagine the song coming from any other Shakespeare character.

Irreverence follows quickly on: from Puck’s tee-shirt that proudly proclaims “FAIRY,” to Jeremy Welter’s clueless hipster Bottom consulting Siri for the phase of the moon, the wily director punctures our expectations with regular spitballs out of left field, to wake us up to what’s actually happening. The minimalist set—plain walls framing an enormous bed—sets the action in the nighttime realm of intimacy, sex, and dreaming, as do the players’ pajama-like costumes and a giant full moon, painted and illuminated by technical wizard David Roper. Helium balloons on strings create a festive, surreal enchanted woods.

The cast is so well-balanced, it’s hard to pinpoint a standout performance, but the three lead actresses all have strong presences: Liz Mistele and Alicia Rice are equally dippy in their own way, but they play off each other’s style, Mistele’s smugness escalating into hilarious rage against Rice’s hysterical accusations. Max Williamson and Jake Konrath as the girls’ suitors are plausibly dim-witted and manly. By the time they reach act two’s epic pillow fight, with the lovers stripped down to their underwear, the show achieves escape velocity into the stratosphere of screwball comedy.

Off the Wall Theatre

All the flash and dazzle is glittering decoration on what is underneath quite a melancholy reading of the play. Ben George’s Theseus begins the play with his captive bride tied to a bed, and despite Laura Monagle’s cool self-possession as Hippolyta and Titania, her characters never get the upper hand to the story’s powerful male characters. William Molitor’s Egeus is a terrifying monster as he demands his daughter pay for her disobedience with her life, and this tension is never fully resolved. Oberon manipulates his queen like a sexual predator by proxy. In all these tensions—which are intrinsic to the play—Gutzman directs his actors to natural, un-histrionic deliveries that actually bring out the poetry much more clearly. You might find yourself thinking: “Oh, I never knew that was in this show.” The play-within-a-play put on by the “hard-handed men of Athens,” is usually performed as “so bad it’s good” farce, but—despite the popping balloon falsies and butt-kissing gags—this Pyramus and Thisbe actually looks like a play being put on by unsophisticated workers doing the best they can; Jim Strange’s dying Thisbe is surprisingly affecting.

Off the Wall Theatre

This Midsummer Night’s Dream proves that we can keep going back to great plays again and again, and always find something new, something that echoes with and nourishes the elemental in our lives. Can love in fact conquer all? In our dreams, perhaps it can.

Off The Wall Theatre presents

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – The Musical
by William Shakespeare
Music by Cole Porter
assembled and directed by Dale Gutzman
Musical Direction by Donna Kummer
Technical Direction by David Roper

Playing through October 27

Murder Most Cool: MCT’s “Deathtrap” is the hip thing

photo by Paul Ruffolo

by Jeff Grygny

Opening night of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Deathtrap was quite glamorous, particularly for a forty-year-old play. Director Michael Cotey, one of the founders of the late, great Youngblood Theater, was in the lobby of the Cabot Theater in his signature flame-orange pants, meeting and greeting alongside MCT Artistic Director C. Michael Wright. The crowd, including many of the brightest luminaries of local theater, buzzed with anticipation.  It was pleasantly disorienting to hear the strains of classic rock chugging through the neo-baroque confines of the Cabot: all the pre-show music had the theme of crime and retribution—very popular in the late 70’s, when the play started its record-setting Broadway run. After an upbeat welcome from Wright, the lights dimmed, the plush curtain opened, and we entered Deathtrap.

Everyone loves a good murder.  Dating back to the myth of Oedipus, philosophers have found in murder stories traces of the paradox of human consciousness (Who did it? could the guilty party possibly be . . . us?). From Poe through penny dreadfuls to classy PBS series, the whodunit has grown into a minor industry. Small wonder, then, that someone should contemplate killing for a share of the profits. Deathtrap is a devilishly clever extended riff on the tropes of the genre, with so many twists and feints, even the characters ask themselves “wouldn’t this be great on the stage?” If you’ve never seen the show, or the film adaptation with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, this  series of shocking reveals will bring pleasantly ghastly gasps aplenty. Whatever you do, DO NOT READ THE WIKIPEDIA PAGE!!! And if you already know the play’s secrets—well, then, you are an accessory to murder, and you better not sing until your fellow playgoers are too.

The play has taut suspense, surprise developments, and laughs in just the right places—just like the script for a play called Deathtrap, that Sydney Bruhl, a successful playwright of murder mysteries, gets in the mail from a former student. Fretting over his writer’s block and tired of living off his wife Myra’s family fortune, Bruhl jokingly— or so it seems—begins to speculate just how easy it would be to invite the young writer over, do him in, and claim the surefire script as his own. And the game is afoot.

MCT offers a lavish-looking production full of strong performers; as Sydney, Bill Watson is slightly larger than life; funny, over-dramatic (of course) and oddly likable, even when he’s doing really awful things; Susan Spencer is sympathetic and credible as his loving wife.  Di’Monte Henning, as the young writer, brings poise and good humor, gaining in power as the plot (and the blood) congeals. Mary Kababik and David Sapiro round out the cast in a comic roles; Kababik’s silly European psychic and Sapiro’s Wonder Bread attorney both win plenty of well-deserved laughs, while supporting the play’s “gotcha” mode.

The technical details are splendidly executed: Scenic Designer Arnel Sancianco’s single-room set, dressed up as a barn refurbished into a spacious writer’s studio,  offers abundant eye candy, with scores of deadly-looking weaponry, artfully arranged on red baize like the decor of a Klingon cocktail lounge. Grover Holloway’s sound design tightens the suspense in an admirably minimalist way. Director Cotey keeps things moving with his characteristic sensitivity to rhythm, adding touches of expressive flair, but holding true to the play’s primary mission: to entertain.

We may not learn much about the mysteries of consciousness from Deathtrap, but as an instrument for generating lurid thrills, from “uh-oh” to “holy crap,” it’s a perfect summer romp.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents

by Ira Levin
Playing through August 27
Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre,
158 N. Broadway
Tickets: 414-291-7800 |

Home, Weird Home: “Coraline the Musical”

Photographs by Daniel Pronley

by Jeff Grygny

Near the beginning of Coraline, the Musical, the little girl of the title is exploring the grounds around the old house that her work-at-home parents have rented a flat in. She finds an old. covered-up well; a pebble dropped between the boards reveals that it’s very deep indeed. This is obviously Chekhov’s well; you know full well (sorry) that somebody or something is going to go down it before the play is over. But in this solidly-plotted yet pleasingly rambling tale, it’s also an metaphor for the bottomless depths our everyday world reveals when we look at it from just a slightly different angle.

The current presentation by Bad Example Productions substitutes quirky songs for the spectacle of the 2009 stop-action film, (which was also based on Neal Gaiman’s novella). The well-chosen cast of fine players fully realizes the oddly endearing characters of this “modern fairy tale” with the evident joy of artists given permission to stretch their skills beyond the limits of naturalism. Though its clever little ditties are standard musical-comedy fare, the whole show is distinctly avant-garde flavored: the imagery is surrealist, while the music includes both a plinky child’s piano and an upright piano modified a la John Cage, on which Music Director Donna Kummer creates weird timbres rarely heard in musical theater. This is one curiously hip kids’ show.

Playwrights Stephin Merritt and David Greenspan quickly sketch out young Coraline’s life and character: neglected by her logged-in parents, her very limitations give her freedom to explore he hazy margins of things: her weird neighbors, the stray cat that prowls the yard, and especially the old wooden door that stands locked in the middle of their flat—all hint at a mysterious underside shadowing the normal world. Madeline McNichols plays the title role with earnest charm, grace, and the requisite pluck, holding the show together with seeming effortlessness. As with traditional fairy tales, complex psychology isn’t the point; these characters are one or at most two-dimensional. But the actors have a blast with their traits, essentially turning themselves into life-sized puppets.

Zachary Dean, with a surprisingly solid soprano voice, stands out as an dotty retired actress. She and her co-thespian, played by Tess Masias sing a nostalgic tribute to the glories of the old English stage. Josh Perkins, who brings demented energy to his role as a Russian mouse trainer, has also created some wonderful puppets of the spirits of dead children, worked by the ensemble with sensitivity and pathos. Slinking around the set as a vagrant cat, Rob Schreiner perfectly captures the feline mystique; his brief tussle with a jumbo yarn ball is a highlight.

As Coraline’s “Other Father,” the spectral construct of a malign spirit, Edward Lupella manages to be creepy, funny, and sad all at the same time. He is so convincingly blank, the laughs he gets might be infused with discomfort. But the show truly belongs to Kendal Yorkey, who commands our attention in as the “Other Mother,” in truth a demon called “the beldam.” In an extraordinary performance that’s a little too spot-on to be anything but sinister, Yorkey delivers some amazing vocal work in her climactic song, adding another touch of the experimental with haunting ululations that are briefly reminiscent of the great Meredith Monk. Director David Kaye adopts a storytelling style that leaves a lot to our imagination: players pop in and out of scenes to reconfigure large gray blocks, and a few words can signify a shift into another dimension.  Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s  classic minimalist film Stalker, mundane settings can stand for metaphysical realities. And Kaye gives his actors liberty to range freely, creating a certain slackness of focus that contributes to the dreamlike atmosphere. Sound design by David A. Robins adds greatly to the uncanny mood.

Traditional fairytales come from the oral traditions of an agrarian age; in Coraline, Gaiman has created a fable of individuation. For a nascent self, there can be nothing more tempting— and dangerous— than a smothering love that threatens to destroy identity. “Other Mother” wants Coraline to surrender her own perceptions, to see the world through enforced buttonhole eyes.  The play hints strongly that art, on the other hand—like the goofy neighbors who are all in show business—offers us a different kind of aperture: a magic stone that lets us see past appearances to the truth of things—which might not be that easy to see, even though it’s right in front of us.

Bad Example Productions presents

Coraline, the Musical

by Stephin Merritt and David Greenspan
based on the novella by Neal Gaiman

Playing through August 13

Tenth Street Theatre

Thursday through Saturday, 7:30; Sundays 2:00

“This show is for all ages but parents should be aware some scenes may be frightening for younger audience members.”

Bad King: Voices Found stages an obscure classic

Voices Found Repertory

by Jeff Grygny

The Victorians supposedly loved Shakespeare’s King John for its opportunity to indulge in the “royalty porn” of lavish pageantry. But the current production by Voices Found Repertory strips pageantry down to a chunky chair and a coronet, and it’s easy to see why the play is seldom produced anymore: the plot is heavy with political intrigue and improbable reversals, while light in psychological insight and the dazzling poetics of old Billy’s more famous works. Yet, in the hands of this earnest young company, the play seems fresh, its cynicism quite in tune with the daily news, and what it lacks in subtlety it makes up in carnivalesque disorder. With honest, committed performances and some cheeky stylistic flourishes, this production is a lot more fun than you’d ever expect an obscure 500 year old play to be.

John Plantagenet (“John soft-sword” to his subjects) is commonly regarded as a terrible king. This play shows us quite a different King John that the one we might have heard about: there’s nothing about the Sheriff of Nottingham or the Magna Charta, and only glancing reference to the great failure that gave him the mocking nickname “Lack-land:” he gave away the rich English territory of Normandy to the French King Philip as the price of preserving his rule (after John, English royalty for the first time had to actually live in England). The John we see is vain, superficial, conniving, and not too bright. He doesn’t sport a blond comb-over—but we get the idea why we’re seeing this show now.

This historical saga lurches through nonstop sudden changes that must have been even harder to live through than they are to follow: fights suddenly break out and are just as suddenly broken off; war is declared, then peace is brokered; the enemies team up, then they’re at war again. All this instability stems from John’s incompetent rule: at one point he orders a minion to murder a boy prince, then later rails against that same minion, yelling basically “why didn’t you stop me?” The henchman, moved by conscience, spares the prince, but the boy dies anyway in an unaccounted act of self-defenestration. King John is full of such “Shakespearean weirdness” —things that any student playwright would be made to edit out in the final draft—but give it the carnivalesque disorder of a Tarantino movie. The company—college students fueled by passion for their art—may not capture every nuance of the text, but they make up for it with intelligence and clarity. And it’s fascinating to see how the themes of the more famous plays— revenge, power, self-deception, violence, and bastardy— echo in this one.

Director Jake Russell Thompson keeps things moving along cinematically, adding touches of telling nonverbal business that keep the characters grounded in truth, with grace notes and irreverent flourishes that bring the play to life—like when the king pulls out a smart phone to play the theme music for his speeches. In the title role, Brandon Judah dominates the stage as a smirking narcissist, not devoid of charisma, who can’t get rid of that nagging feeling that he’s faking it. He’s a big baby in a crown. In these days of cross-gender casting we often see young women trying to convince us they’re old-time warriors; the evidently female Jeremy Labelle nails it. Towering over most of the other players, with blackened eye and primitive tattoos, her Faulconbridge is the sort who’s only happy when skulls are cracking—the very type who is drawn into the orbit of dictators.

Thanks to some very helpful program notes, we can mostly follow the overly-complicated relationships. Not every player achieves the diction we need to understand them; there are a few botched lines here and there, and a bit of sound and fury. But for the most part the performances have great integrity, clarity, and directness, adhering to their self-imposed challenge  “to take off fancy tricks, stop “acting,” and get to the truth of the text.” One of the most effective scenes, when John’s minion tells the boy that he must brutally lose his eyes, is delivered by Nick Hurtgen and Graham Billings in a near monotone hush. As the prince’s mother, Brittany Ann Meister shows both iron resolve and a deep emotional reservoir. Sarah Zapiain portrays a meddlesome papal legate as a hunched homunculus with a curious fascination for cupcakes. And Brandon Haut shows perhaps the most development as Louis the Dauphin, growing from a blushing groom to a brooding Hamlet-like avenger.

In the end, King John might not amount to much more than an antique political cartoon—but it’s so full of intrigue and juicy melodrama that, told with a blend of seriousness and irreverence by this dedicated journeyman company, it’s a consistently entertaining one, with parallels to our current state that are unmistakable to anyone who is willing to see them. It goes to show that politics under poor leadership becomes a royal clusterbleep —even back in Merrie Old England.

Voices Found Repertory presents

The Life and Death of King John
by William Shakespeare

playing through July 22

at the Arcade Theater in The Underground Collaborative
161 W. Wisconsin Ave., Lower Level

Tickets at

Sweet Nothing: Shakespeare goes Downtown

Optimist Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

“Man is a giddy thing,’ says Benedick near the end of Much Ado About Nothing, to explain his sudden reversal from committed bachelor to avid groom. There could be no better way, perhaps, to sum up the play, in which characters jump to conclusions based on slender evidence contrary to their hearts, and let themselves be easily manipulated both for good and ill. It’s fashionable these days to note that the “nothing” of the title is a pun: being a near homophone for “noting”, an Elizabethan slang for “overhearing.” Much of the play’s confusion comes from things overheard; an interesting comparison to today’s social media chambers of reflections.

In Optimist Theatre’s current offering of  “Free Shakespeare in the Park,” now playing at its new location in the spacious and comfortable Peck Pavilion, Much Ado About Nothing is a stylish, accessible, and well-crafted production, with clear action and many lovely moments, ornamented with sparkling performances from gold-standard actors. Shakespeare newcomers might miss out on some of the wordplay, but they will always understand the relationships. Director Tom Reed, under the motto “Shakespeare for the People,” concentrates on minimizing the distance between the characters and the audience. He’s shifted the setting from Renaissance Italy to what appears to be Hawaii shortly after World War II, thus preserving both the patriarchal military culture (though the soldiers are all in civilian dress) and the frolicsome peacetime mood of the original. Palm trees, leis, slide guitar, and hula dancing all add up to a playful party atmosphere.

The ever-fraught struggles between woman and men provide the meat for this comic dish; Shakespeare’s attitude, never simple, could maybe best be characterized by the phrase “Hey nonny nonny.” It’s the Elizabethan equivalent of “la dee da” —and also the refrain of the play’s signature song, “Sigh No More,” which gently counsels women to take a humorous attitude to men’s perennial tendency to be jerks. This mood is most evident in the banter between Benedick and Beatrice, who, ably delivered by Todd Denning and Kelly Faulkner, seem quite aware of the high stakes of their verbal thrusts and parries—the  rhetorical equivalent of dueling atop a parapet. The formidably-bearded Denning gives Benedick a twinkling clownishness, notably when he’s slinking around the margins of the stage like a Warner Brothers cartoon character. Faulkner’s proudly trousered Beatrice shows a keener edge, especially in her “Oh, that I were a man” speech. When she finally embraces love, you can sense the many facets of her complex feelings. Plus, she pulls off the show’s most genuine comic moment with her dismayed reaction to her friends’ flaunting her private love poem.

Splendid performances overall highlight the show: we could wish for no more charming a couple than Di’Monte Henning and Candace Thomas as Claudio and Hero—though we wish the play gave them a bit more time together. Kat Wodke, as the maidservant Margaret, whom we are told (though we don’t actually see it) inadvertently participates in the deception that  ruins her mistress’ wedding,  pops up as a clear and resolute voice, while Emmitt Morgans delivers two strongly-defined characters as both the scheming Borachio and a problem-solving priest. Milwaukee Rep regulars will recognize two other familiar faces: Jonathan Wainwright gives the villainous Don John a surly charisma, channeling a bit of the edginess of Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Though we don’t know exactly what his beef with Claudio is, we can taste every acrid note of its emotional flavor. And James Pickering struts amusingly as the malapropic constable Dogberry. As pompous as he is self-deluded, with a sheriff’s star decorating his hat and a chestful of medals, he might well remind Milwaukeeans of a certain infamous local lawman.

Optimist Theatre

Through the indefatigable efforts of Ron and Susan Scott Fry, Shakespeare in the Park has a dandy new venue; music director Paul Therrien provides a musical setting full of island cadences; and choreographer Gennesee Spridco incorporates hula moves into a delightful group dance. On preview night, some of the actors had to struggle with the ambient sounds of traffic, motorcycles, and an intrusive HVAC duct inconveniently near the right side of the stage; happily, aided by clear diction and good amplification, they ultimately won the contest.

And as night surrounded us, this little world of an officer’s island estate with its witty, silly denizens began to assume the outlines of reality. The most precious actor’s art is to make us care; with these fine artists’ help, we cared—enough to laugh, perhaps to sigh—and then go out into the world with “hey nonny nonny” in our hearts.

Optimist’s Shakespeare in the Park presents
Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare

Running through July 22
Peck Pavilion of the Marcus Center for the Arts

All performances are free