All posts by jgrygny

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

A board and passion: “aLL wRoNG”

photo credit: Joëlle Worm

by Jeff Grygny

The sage Confucius allegedly said “I am the luckiest of men; whenever I’m wrong, I have many kind friends who will quickly let me know.” (It must take a sage to be at once so humble, humorous, and clear.) As a concept, “wrong” is vast;  it covers everything from a mistake in arithmetic to the flawed human condition.  aLL wRoNG is the title of latest original work presented by Cooperative Performance. It’s a testament to the artistic ambitions of co-directors Posey Knight, Kirk Thomsen, and Joëlle Worm, that not only do they endeavor to present the topic in eighty minutes, but they do it in an esoteric theater form called “tréteau.” Whether it’s due to the virtues of the form, or the creator’s artistry, or both, the show is remarkably lucid and engaging: with varied, interesting movements and rhythms, it creates distinct emotional narratives that, like poetry, communicate more than their literal meanings.

The tréteau form minimizes theater, eliminating props, costumes and scenery, restricting the players to a surface the size of a standard sheet of plywood. Economy, imagination, and full use of the actor’s bodies are the goals, to produce a stripped-down, eminently sustainable performance. The three tréteaus in aLL wRoNG riff on the theme of wrongness, more etudes than definitions, and more theatrical than your standard dance performance. Set to a score of energetic, feeling-rich music, the limber, game performers stuff themselves into cramped rectangles to play out interconnected vignettes in various degrees of abstraction.

Posy Knight’s piece opens the theme with scenes from family life, showing how authority figures constantly criticize little girls, imposing a kind of paranoia about making mistakes. Large men athletically swing a young dancer through the air, building the theme through repetition and variation like a musical composition, culminating in minor tragedy.

The tréteau directed by Kirk Thompson is more overtly theatrical, though nonlinear. A collage of episodes play out in a seriocomic mood with drill-team precision. Here, the sense of “wrong” extends to the world in general, as the characters seek, but never quite get, satisfaction.

The final piece by Joëlle Worm has four parts: first, a woman’s every gesture is “corrected” by a judgmental group; then a man symbolically brutalizes a woman to the sound of a plaintive Hebrew prayer; next a crowd of people packs into the cramped rectangle, roiling and rolling in uncomfortable unrest while we hear the sounds of a railroad train moving down tracks. Finally,  leaving the confined space, they enact a finale of liberation, with reaching, striving gestures conveying feelings of triumphant release. And even though an interpretive dance based on the holocaust might sound like a dicey notion on many levels, Worm’s sculptural choreography and tasteful restraint gives a sense of warm detachment, like the figures carved on a monumental frieze, and the piece serves as a fitting finale for the evening.

One might reasonably ask whether these finely-executed pieces really do explore “making mistakes and failing over and over” as advertised, or the tangential but somewhat easier theme of being judged wrong by others. Which would make you…right? Is it possible to get “wrong” wrong?  However that may be, aLL wRoNG is a thoughtful, deeply-felt and thoroughly entertaining theatrical experience that proves how much you can accomplish with passion and a sheet of plywood.  And it sounds a marvelously hopeful note at a time when so much in the world seems “all wrong.”

Cooperative Performance presents


devised and directed by Joëlle Worm, Kirk Thomsen, & Posy Knight

“This performance will be in multiple venues with different start times.”

May 4th, 7:30pm at Best Place, 901 W Juneau Avenue

May 5th/7:30pm at Charles Allis, 801 N. Prospect Avenue

Tickets $15.00

The Art of Survival: Luminous Theatre’s “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play”

photography by Jason Fassl

by Jeff Grygny

If by chance you’re reading this review to decide whether or not this show is worth hunting for an obscure industrial lot on Fratney Street, to sit outside by a campfire and then huddle in an unheated warehouse for two hours—just stop reading and go see the show: it will probably be the most unforgettable, meaningful, and downright gob-smacking work of theater you’ve seen in many a year.

It’s not that Mr. Burns a post-electric play is especially controversial, topical, edgy, or avant-garde. The questions it raises won’t appear on the news; they won’t be discussed by pundits. But it will make you think and feel things that normally only haunt your midnight ruminations, or (if you’re very lucky) your rambling heart-to-heart chats with your closest and brightest buddies. With a first-rate cast under the impeccable direction of Leda Hoffman, it’s by turns hilarious and terrifying, quietly gut-wrenching, outrageously visionary and fabulously entertaining.

The events of the play are so unexpected, yet with such random internal logic, that to reveal them would only tarnish your sense of amazement. But it’s safe to say that the play begins not long after some horrendous mass-Chernobyl-like catastrophe has crashed the power grid, emptied out half the cities on the Eastern seaboard, collapsed all government, and reduced civilization to tiny bands of strangers huddled around open fires, treating any newcomers as deadly threats. Hysteria and grief are never more than heartbeats away. In this fraught setting, without any kind of media, they beat back despair by telling one another stories of their favorite TV shows. The stranded group we see has discovered that the cynical humor of The Simpsons—in particular one classic episode that parodies Cape Fear—makes them laugh uncontrollably.  Playwright Anne Washburn’s conveys this entire scenario plausibly and economically, with minimum exposition.

photography by Jason Fassl

The next scene skips forward a few years, with the remnants of civilization scraping together a post-electric way of life. Washburn skillfully shows how people yearn for the old world, their fantasies dwelling on consumer luxuries. Troupes of traveling players make their living recreating old TV shows and singing medleys of cheesy pop songs. We witness such a troupe in rehearsal—with all the messy collaboration and squabbling over artistic differences familiar to all theater folk.

photography by Jason Fassl

The hallucinatory third act shows this same culture a generation later, and the less said about it the better. Suffice that it transforms the Cape Fear episode of The Simpsons into a foundational masterwork of the new civilization, blending Greek tragedy, grand opera, melodrama, and ritual into a stunning coup de theatre, realized as fully as you could wish, complete with original songs, executed with heart and panache.

Hoffman has successfully melded her cast into an organic ensemble. Kelly Doherty convinces us that her character is just barely holding it together; James Carrington is perfect as the guy who deals with grief by making people laugh; Dylan Bolin’s a capella rendition of “Three Little Maids From School” is a big hit, while Nick Narcisi’s gun-toting survivalist blossoms into a chorus boy. Rachael Zeintek transfigures Bart Simpson from a smart-ass brat into a wounded culture hero, and Erika Wade makes an adorable Marge Simpson. But nothing prepares us for the extraordinary appearance of Jordan Gwiazdowksi as the titular Mr. Burns. This rubber-limbed actor leaves no scenery unchewed in a wondrous, over the top interpretation of the living embodiment of deadly radiation, blending every campy villain from Captain Hook to Hannibal Lecter into one deliciously toxic cocktail.

photography by Jason Fassl

The industrial atmosphere of the darkened warehouse contributes tremendously to the apocalyptic mood, with commercial detritus and shadowy vehicles lurking in darkness lit only by battery-powered lanterns and votive candles. Jason Fassl’s lighting brings just the right amount of spectacle, along with imaginative, well-crafted costumes by Andrea Bouck and Leslie Vaglia. Music Director James Kaplan blends the players into flawless harmonies, and provides perfect accompaniment to the grand finale. It can get a bit chilly in the warehouse, depending on the weather, so if you’re not gifted with natural insulation, long johns and/or a cozy blanket are good ideas. And you don’t have to be a big fan of The Simpsons or Cape Fear to appreciate the play—but it will add a steady stream of knowing snickers to your experience.

Ever since the scientific revolution, art has been commonly depicted as the frivolous sister to the “hard” disciplines of science, engineering, and business. Mr. Burns, a post-electric play recapitulates the evolution of theater, from literal campfire story to full-blown extravaganza. And more than any play in recent memory, it demonstrates—vividly, powerfully, poignantly— just how crucial art can be for carving meaning out of our strange and precarious existence, giving us reason to keep going, even in the face of the unthinkable catastrophes that can happen when big brother makes a bloody mess of things.

Don’t miss it.

Luminous Theatre Company presents
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play
by Anne Washburn
score by Michael Friedman, lyrics by Anne Washburn

directed by Leda Hoffman

Friday April 28 – 7:30pm
Saturday April 29 – 7:30pm
Sunday April 30 – 7:30pm
Monday May 1 – 7:30pm

Friday May 5 – 7:30pm
Saturday May 6 – 7:30pm
Sunday May 7 – 7:30pm
Monday May 8 – 7:30pm

The Goat Palace The Goat Palace
3740 N. Fratney Street

“Act 1 takes place outdoors around bonfire before the performance moves inside to an unheated warehouse. Dress warmly!”

“Performances are Pay-What-You-Can.  Donations are accepted at the door.”

Ghosts in the Machine: Umbrella Group’s “Macbeth”

Umbrella Group Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

Over its four hundred year history, Shakespeare’s  “Scottish Play” has appeared in countless guises, from highland regalia to Orson Wells’ voodoo version, from Imperial Japan to modernist abstraction. If well-performed, it remains as gripping a story of criminal ambition, metaphysical mystery, and bloody revenge as any action movie or psychological thriller. This recent production by Umbrella Group Theatre seems designed to test just how stripped down the play can get without losing it’s essential power: Director Bo Johnson has reduced the cast to four, the running time to 90 minutes in Todd Denning’s adaptation, and the stage to roughly the size of a spacious breakfast nook.

Ah, but this stage is like no other: it’s called MARVL, and it lurks in the basement of Marquette University’s grand temple of engineering. A shallow alcove with smooth gray walls and floor, it’s rimmed with tiny sparkling laser projectors that can cast theoretically anything a designer can imagine, that viewers wearing special glasses can see in three dimensions. The theatrical potential for the notoriously cursed Macbeth, with its bevy of ghosts, spirits and apparitions that lower-tech productions often leave to the imagination, is obvious. There’s also the risk of ending up looking like a corny computer game.

The graphic solutions developed by MARVL designer Chris Larkee are both literal and uncanny: the “dagger of the mind” is a claymore-sized graphic that seems to hover in space and rotates its handle toward Macbeth’s hand on cue. The weird sisters, clad in medieval schmatas, appear as translucent specters with disembodied voices that nevertheless synch up with their mouth’s movements. Banquo’s  ghost, splotched in digital gore and vibrating disturbingly in a way no living body could,  floats weightlessly over the CG banquet table, The projected scenery creates the illusion of vast impersonal architecture like de Chirico landscapes; the phrase “corridors of power” comes to mind— the design supports the play’s depiction of politics as a chilly calculus free of human obligations.

Umbrella Group Theatre

Fascinating as it is, all this technical sorcery would be but a gimmick without performances by skilled, dedicated players. The four performers cast rise admirably to the challenges of this demanding production. One might have wished for a little more breathing room around certain moments, but Johnson and company, wary of letting the energy leak away, keep things moving at a high clip.   The overall effect is of a Macbeth that has been compressed for transmission, like a message in a digital bottle.

Umbrella Group Theatre

Even so, they miraculously preserve both the human drama and the play’s medieval ethos. In the title role, Todd Denning is high-strung and edgy, betraying a base insecurity that makes his transition from loyal lord to murderous tyrant believable. Libby Amato as Lady Macbeth is constantly making vertiginous emotional switchbacks, while conveying the vulnerability that ultimately can’t handle the consequences of her ambition. Allie Babich brings manly grit to her roles of Banquo and Malcolm the future king, while Rick Pendzich show’s both Macduff’s steely side and his human grief. They all flip back and forth between characterizations and costumes; only masterful actors could juggle such a multitude of characters without muddling the story. The climactic face-off between Macbeth and Macduff, punctuated by the clang of actual steel shortswords, brings all the play’s murky doubts to a definitive and exciting resolution.

Umbrella Group’s Macbeth magically captures the ancient story’s scope and drive, condensing it into a dense and artificial package. This is theater as information: detached from matter, conveyed by actor’s bodies floating in cyberspace. When Shakespeare is performed for the first time in space—whether in an orbiting station or as part of a long interplanetary journey— this is how it will be done: with minimal space, maximum humanity, and vast imagination.

Dealing with the Devil: Acacia Theatre shows a courageous path

photos by Laura Heise

by Jeff Grygny

It’s so easy to be uncomfortable around difference. “They” don’t look like us; their speech is strange; they don’t respect our ways. It’s all too human to think that our own beloved family, our clan, our tribe, is the best. And when history and conflicting needs get involved, things can go very badly, as evident in ethnic violence all over the world: we can begin to see “them” as less than human—even demonic.

Best of Enemies, a play adapted by Mark Saint Germain from a book by Osha Gray Davidson, and now being offered by Acacia Theatre Company, tells a remarkable story about people who did the unexpected: they saw beyond their prejudices to make friends with the other. And if the story didn’t actually happen, we’d never believe it. This gripping, respectful drama plays out the improbable friendship that evolved between two actual angry people: a black rights activist and a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

The events upon which the story is based took place in Durham North Carolina in 1971, when a union-sponsored  program to discuss local schools brought together C.P. Ellis, the “Grand Cyclops” of the local Klan, and fiery activist Ann Atwater, who are invited to co-chair a “charrette:” a 10 day workshop to poll citizens on problems and vote on solutions. In the play, Ellis shows his hand immediately: in an address to his Klan brothers he relishes the recent assassination of “Martin Lucifer Coon.”  Yes, the show faces offensive speech head-on; the first scenes are so raw, in fact, that we’re very grateful for the jazz interludes of young  musician Kwasi Stampley’s electric guitar, like sonic prayers cooling the heated atmosphere with the holy spirit of soothing peace.

In the role of Ellis, Ryan Schaufler captures the voice and mannerisms of the classic redneck, but his immovable bigotry is posed against the irresistible force of Lori Woodall as Ann Atwater, whose prickly humor seems quite authentic—and is often hilarious.  As the agent of their unlikely alliance, an organizer sent to conduct the charrette, Derrion Brown displays a hundred-dollar grin and an optimism that borders on angelic: when Ellis opens the first meeting with a noxious bigoted rant, Brown’s character rubs his hands together and exclaims “This is great—people are speaking their minds!”  Rounding out the cast is Elaine Wyler as Ellis’s long-suffering but still-loving wife, in a grounded, sympathetic characterization.

The play is written in short vignettes, playing out like panels of a daily comic strip—a format that suits well the dramatization of history, focusing on key incidents while keeping the story moving. Giving the play a distinct visual style are three large screens on which designer Dan Hummel projects a rotating series of black-and-white documentary photographs of the Civil Rights era: from crude posters reading “No coloreds, No dogs” to shots of protesters, hands linked in song, to group shots of happy white supremacists. Most disturbing are the images of fresh-faced white kids proudly displaying hateful messages (as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, “they have to be taught to hate and fear”). These constant powerful images can be distracting, but they also contribute constant powerful reminders of the historical context, the stakes involved, and the multitudes of real lives whose struggles these four characters enact. A dedicated chorus provides the show with incidental voices, adds to the sense of communities in motion, and supplies a couple of rousing gospel songs. All these production elements enrich and add dimensions to a script that could easily stand on its own.

photos by Laura Heise

Under the sensitive direction of Erin Eggers, each scene has its particular tone and rhythm, from the tense early confrontations, to wry humor as the organizer tries to cajole the enemies to sit at the same table; to a kind of physical comedy as the two warily work on a task together, leading to drama and intimacy as Ellis’ family problems begin to chip away at his certainty. Shunned by his Klan bothers for working with “them,” and defeated in the charrette’s outcome, he makes a pathetic confession: “My time with the Klan was the best days of my life.” They gave him community, security, validation. Shaufler lets us feel every bit of Ellis’ anguish as he’s forced to create a new identity. As in life, Ellis eventually becomes a union officer, even being elected spokesman for a predominantly black union. There, he offers the play’s most pointed advice: in a moment worthy of Bernie Sanders, he tells them “As long as we’re fighting against each other, the rich people can go ahead and do whatever they want.”

Best of Enemies is not just a powerful drama: it’s a demonstration of what is humanly possible, even in our own fragmented era. “Identities” (the current fashionable term for our various cultural allegiances) are written in flesh, not graven in stone. Given the right circumstances, hardened prejudices and rigid thought-patterns can soften and give way to real communication between people. We can realize that we are all human— if we have the courage, compassion , and wisdom to listen to each other. The heroes of this play show us a way out, no matter where we start from.

Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis in 2002 (photo by Grant Halverson)

Acacia Theatre Company presents
Best of Enemies
by Mark Saint Germain
Based on the book The Best of Enemies by Osha Gray Davidson

Playing through March 26

Concordia University
Todd Wehr Auditorium
12800 North Lake Shore Drive, Mequon

Tickets $16 for adults
$13 for seniors, full-time students, and full-time clergy

(414) 744-5995