by Jeff Grygny
It was in the first post-pandemic print issue of the Shepherd Express—an issue that was limited and soon gone—that local director Dale Gutzman announced the closing of Off the Wall Theater, the little storefront theater that could, playing precariously on Wells Street (across from that other theater) for fifteen, maybe twenty years. This is a small but significant tremor in the tectonic plates of Milwaukee theater, and, as Arthur Miller wrote in a different context, “attention should be paid.”
While wandering in a city, the title character of Herman Hesse’s counterculture classic Steppenwolf, stumbles on an obscure door marked:
Not For Everybody
Off the Wall theater was Milwaukee’s magic theater for almost two decades. Under Gutzman’s idiosyncratic direction, a slowly-rotating cast of regulars created entire universes of worlds: Renaissance Italy, Greek myth, Nazi Germany; contemporary Broadway to weird dimensions outside history—in a space the size of a neighborhood tavern. Gutzman’s directorial style was not to everyone’s tastes; he could be autocratic and manipulative in the service of his vision—but man, could he put on a show. His productions at their best united music, stage pictures, and text to create stylistic unities of great integrity. There a few directors with equal mastery of the language and potential of theater.
An actor friend of mine once criticized, in rather rude terms, my high praise for Gutzman’s productions, to which I could only respond that I found them more interesting than most other plays. Having known Gutzman since he was a high school drama teacher creating such improbable shows as a version of Dracula set in Dostoevsky’s medieval Russia, or original musicals based on Flash Gordon and L’Enfants du Paradis, he has always seemed like one of those tortured geniuses long fashionable in artistic circles, from Byron to Grotowski, but who, for better or worse, have been largely superseded by professionalism and modern social mores. He is of a time when art and danger were more closely associated than they are now.
Was it toxic? Maybe. But it was also gloriously bombastic, bigger than life, and wickedly theatrical in ways that seem to have vanished along with the toxicity (though recently he had pivoted to a more understated acting style). Maybe there is something of Plato’s pharmakon in the old-school theatricality that Gutzman embodied: both poison and medicine. However that may be, it’s hard to imagine anything like Off The Wall Theatre happening again.
In lieu of a detailed retrospective, I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate than the best poem on theater I’ve ever read: Delmore Schwartz’s tribute to Shakespeare. It’s a good song to go out on.
The theater is dead: long live theater!
Gold Morning, Sweet Prince
by Delmore Schwartz
What the sad and passionate gay player of Avon avowed
With vivid exactness, eloquent variety, is immense
As the sea is. The sea which neither the humble nor the proud
Can dam, control, or master. No matter what our sense
Of existence or whence we come or where we hope and seek
He knew us all before we were, he knew the strong, the weak,
The silly, the reticent, the pious, the powerful, the experience
Of fortune, sudden fame, extremes reversed, inevitable loss
Whether on land or sea. He knew mortality’s immortality
And essential uncertainty, as he knew the land and sea.
He knew the reality of nobility.
He saw the cowering, towering power of treachery.
He hated the flakes and butterflies of lechery,
And he believed, at times, in truth, hope, loyalty, and charity.
See: he saw what was and what is and what has yet to come to be:
A gentle monarch murdered in helpless sleep.
A girl by Regent Hypocrisy seduced.
A child by Archduke Ambition stabbed and killed.
A loving loyal wife by a husband loyal and brave,
Falsely suspected, by a handkerchief accused,
Stabbed by his love, his innocence, his trust
In the glib cleverness of a self-hating knave.
Look: Ophelia lolls and babbles in the river named Forever,
Never Never Never Never Never.
Cordelia is out of breath and Lear
Has learned at last that flattery is clever
That words are free, sentiment inexpensive, vows
And declarations worthless and priceless: at last he knows
How true love is sometimes speechless, always sincere.
He knows – and knows too late – that love was very near and dear.
Are all hearts and all girls betrayed?
Is love never beyond lust, disgust, and distrust?
See: it is clear: Duncan is in his grave,
While Desdemona weeps beneath the willow tree,
Having been granted little time to weep, pray, or rave:
Is this the truth, the truth which is one, eternal and whole?
Surely the noble, the innocent, the gifted, and the brave
Sometimes – surely, at times – prevail. Yet if one living soul
Is caught by cruelty and killed by trust
Whence is our consolation above or before the grave?
Ripeness is all: the rest is silence. Love
Is all; we are such stuff as love has made us
And our little life, green, ripe, or rotten, is what it is
Because of love accepted, rejected, refused and jilted, faded, raided,
neglected, or betrayed.
Some are defeated, some are mistreated, some are fulfilled, some
come to flower and succeed
In knowing the patience of energy from the dark root to the
And if this were not true, if love were not kind and cruel,
Generous and unjust, heartless and irresistible, painful to the
savant and gentle to the fool,
Fecund and various, wasteful and precarious, lavish, savage, greedy
and tender, begetting the lion and the lamb,
The peacock, the spaniel, the tiger, the lizard, the chicken hawk
and the dove,
All would be nothing much, all would be trivial, nothing would be
enough, love would not be love.
For, as there is no game and no victory when no one loses
So, there is no choice but the choice of love, unless one chooses
Never to love, seeking immunity, discovering nothingness.
This is the only sanctuary, this is the one asylum unless
We hide in a dark ark, and deny, refuse to believe in hope’s
Deny hope’s reality, until hope descends, in the unknown, hidden
and ultimate love,
Crying forever with all the others who are damned and hopeless
that love is not love.
Gold morning, sweet prince, black night has always descended and
has always ended,
Gold morning, prince of Avon, sovereign and king
Of reality, hope, and speech, may all the angels sing
With all the sweetness and all the truth with which you sang of
anything and everything.