All posts by jgrygny

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

Michelle Owczarski

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Optimist Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park presents

King Lear
by William Shakespeare

Directed by Lisa Gaye Dixon

playing through July 21st

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

rehearsal photo by Jeff Grygny

By Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brutal Shakespeare: “Macbeth”

photo by Mahdi Gransberry

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

photo by Mahdi Gransberry

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

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

photo by Mahdi Gransberry

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

Voices Found Repertory presents


playing March 30 and 31

Strange Love: “The Tales of Hoffmann”

Photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

Photo by Mark Frohna

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

Photo by Mark Frohna

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

Photo by Mark Frohna

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

Photo by Mark Frohna

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

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

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

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

Cabaret of the Damned

photos by Off the Wall Theatre

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


“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. “

Theodor Adorno

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

photos by Off the Wall Theatre

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

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

photos by Off the Wall Theatre

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

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

Off the Wall Theatre presents

The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus

by Christopher Marlowe

playing through March 18

Off the Wall Theatre

Renaissance Man

photo by Ross Zentner

By Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

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

photo by Ross Zentner

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

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

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

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

Next Act Theatre presents


By Bill Cain

Directed by Michael Cotey

playing through February 25 




A Bug In the System

by Jeff Grygny

What’s the worst thing that could happen to you? Triple that, quadruple that, and you have the predicament of Gregor Samsa, the unfortunate protagonist of Metamorphosis, which has just finished its run as a movement theater performance by Theatre Gigante. Samsa’s already miserable life gets much worse when he discovers that he’s inexplicably become a giant insect. Flawlessly cast and directed with style and a sound concept by Isabel Kralj, this interpretation of Franz Kafka’s story captures the original’s dark humor, existential dread, and heartbreaking sense of humanity and it’s limits.

According to Kralj, she fell in love with the story when she was a teen, and it’s not difficult to find an adolescent sensibility in Gregor, who lives with his parents and has, shall we say, body issues. His hapless, not-quite-innocent family is portrayed by Hannah Klapperich-Mueller, Ron Scott Fry, and Silena Milewski, all in pale makeup and black and white costumes, in a mannered acting style that makes them seem almost like marionettes, or characters in a grim Eastern European cartoon.  Nonetheless, each manages to show a kernel of humanity— as all great puppets do—particularly Milewski as Samsa’s long-suffering sister, who tends to him out of devotion until it all becomes too much. Klapperich-Mueller as their mother does wonders with a pretty undeveloped character. As Gregor, Edwin Olvera delivers a tour-de-force of modern dance. Beginning in a stylized black suit, he distills Samsa’s daily grind into a sequence of movements that accelerate to show a soulless existence, devoid of joy or intimacy. The transformed Olvera wears black trunks in lieu of a corny cockroach suit: his bare flesh presents an abject human being, with grotesque, contorted movements. Olvera’s years with the Pilobolus Dance Company, famous for being inspired by organic forms, could not have prepared him better for this role. It’s impressive how much Olvera communicates non-verbally, from awkwardness with his unwelcome new body to Samsa’s ever-shifting emotional states.

Samsa’s thoughts are voiced equally impressively by Ben Yela. With total imaginative commitment and not a trace of ironic detachment,  he creates another rich channel for expressing his character’s deteriorating psyche. As they sink deeper into inhumanity, Yela subtly adopts an insectoid voice and posture; it’s a brilliant performance from one of the city’s finest young actors. Meanwhile, Kralj’s stagecraft incorporates the strategic abuse of organic materials (apples and milk) to effectively create an appropriately  disgusting environment that’s not too disgusting. Alan Piotrowicz’s constructivist set and lighting further support the show’s aesthetic orientation, while the sound track, which Kralj selected from the work of Slovenian composer Borut Kržišnik, ranges from moody atmospheres to jazzy breaks to avant-garde noise.

The title Metamorphosis is borrowed from Ovid’s classical poem of Greek myth, telling how the gods punished or rewarded mortals by transforming them into various non-human forms. It depicted a world where god, human, and animal exist on a continuum of being in an organic cosmos. Kafka, writing in the age of machines, draws a radically different cosmos, where the laws of science rule in place of the gods, and human fate is governed by the implacable forces of capital. Yet for all its surrealism, Samsa’s predicament is strangely moving for anyone who has had a debilitating injury, or has had to care for an ailing relative, or even had to put down a pet. With clarity and honesty, Metamorphosis gives a knowing nod to all those who can no longer provide value in a transactional world.

Contrary to popular belief, Kafka actually had friends and pastimes, and he apparently participated in the cultural life of his native Bohemia. Yet, like Samsa, he caved in to family pressure, laboring unhappily for years as an insurance salesman; his writings were never published during his short life. With their peculiar blend of dark comedy and surrealism, they have earned him his own personal adjective, and Metamorphosis virtually created the sub-genre that became known as “body horror.” But unlike later practitioners, Kafka brought a sense of the absurd and genuine human feeling to his isolated antiheroes. If the idea of “following your bliss” had been current at the time, Metamorphosis might never have been written—but we would have lost a classic of high modernist alienation.

Theatre Gigante presents

Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

Adapted and Directed by Isabelle Kralj

Music by Borut Kržišnik

January 25 through 28, 2018



γνῶθι σεαυτόν

“Know thyself,”
he Temple of Apollo at Delphi

photo by Voices Found Repertory

by Jeff Grygny

Nobody knows what the first production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex looked like in Third Century BCE Athens, when theater attendance was required by law. But people love to speculate. We know from textual and archeological evidence that the actors wore masks, and that there was rhythmic singing and dance involved, but that’s about it. In a remarkable production of this 2300 year old tragedy, the energetic young company Voices Found Repertory brings together old and new theatrical forms to create an intriguing interpretation full of poetry, mystery, and humanity.

The familiar story— about a monarch who seeks to repair his broken state, oblivious to the fact that he himself is the corrupting cause—  might be relevant to our historical moment, but director Nick Hurtgen is hunting rarer game than obvious political satire. He attempts to bring a human dimension to the myth, while using ritual and movement to sound it’s uncanny depths, where archetypes lurk, their movements forming the substrate of our conscious lives. This is incredibly difficult to do without seeming obscure or pretentious, but these honest, committed actors pull it off with neither shrieking histrionics nor avant-garde floor-rolling.  Hurtgen has created a coherent movement vocabulary and a symbolic structure that overlays the plot and underscores the play’s themes with great integrity. The overall impression is of watching a play from an alien culture. Not all of the ritual gestures are instantly readable, but they clearly mean something, and that, combined with excellent mask-work and genuine performances, means we can connect with the action on a feeling level, even if we can’t put its meaning into words.

The action takes place around an altar, furthering the sense of a ceremony. Each actor wears a unique mask with large eye holes,  with the area around the actor’s eyes darkened, giving them the look of primitive vase paintings. In moments of great drama, some of the characters remove their masks. As in ancient Greek theater, the dialog sections alternate with movement sections, but the latter vary in tempo, mood, and style. Some are explicitly rituals, with characters representing the gods taking part; others reenact flashbacks, such as a rousing fight scene where the enraged Oedipus single-handedly slays King Creon’s entire entourage. An intimate scene between Oedipus and Jocasta has a stylized erotic intimacy,  complicated by Oedipus’ growing suspicion that his queen might be his mother. The actors bring seriousness to their roles; as the title character, Hannah Tähtinen dominates the stage with authority and stature, but underplays Oedipus’s arrogance with an evident desire to reassure the people that she is in control of the situation. The above-mentioned scene with Kim Emer’s Jocasta is subtly and beautifully performed. Jake Russel Thompson brings a hint of fun to the eccentric seer Tiresias, and Hurgen displays fine maskwork as a herdsman brought in as a witness. The chorus uses movement to show mixed feelings, signaling loyalty with their hands, for instance,  while signifying doubt with their masks.

Voices Found Repertory

The play’s darkness and self-doubt have a surprisingly contemporary ring, that might be even more poignant for this company of millennials. One movement section plays out to a bittersweet pop ballad; a fitting mood for someone whose life has been set up for disaster by forces beyond his control. Many philosophers have found in Oedipus an archetype of the modern identity, whose self-possession and fee will are illusions emerging from innumerable circumstances of historic, cultural, and economic forces: selfhood as a rigged game. Existentially, he is a failed hero who couldn’t face the truth— symbolized by putting out his own eyes. The strength of Hurgen’s directorial approach is to simultaneously act out all the play’s dimensions: social, personal, psychological, and ritual. The mysterious actions of the masked gods intimate the deep unknown forces that govern the psyches of even the most powerful men.

On a personal note: the play begins with the chorus chanting several words in Greek. I’m no Greek scholar, but I think I recognized the words for “pity” and “fear,” which happen to be the terms Aristotle used for the proper feelings elicited by tragedy to evoke the famous catharsis, or emotional purification. The theater of Ancient Greece was by all accounts extraordinarily powerful; the only time I’ve experienced anything like it was seeing Lee Breuer’s postmodern Oedipus at Colonnus, where the blind Oedipus was played by the black Gospel group the Five Blind Boys from Alabama, and the chorus was a bleacher-full of gospel singers dressed in colorful robes as if for church. The play’s text was incidental; the power of the singing brought the audience to tears time and again. After the show I felt wrung out, but cleansed.

Voices Found might not be aiming for that level of catharsis, but they have created an original interpretation of one of the foundational texts of Western civilization that displays its complexity and mystery, while making it fresh for a new generation.

Voices Found Repertory presents

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

playing through January 20 at the Underground Collaborative  



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