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

Crazy for Poetry: “The Metromaniacs’” aristocratic farce

photo credit: Windfall Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

In C.S. Lewis’ famous space trilogy, a tiny band of the faithful invokes the angels of the spheres to combat satanic powers. When the angel of Mercury the ruler of speech descends, everyone bursts into great flights of dazzling wordplay. Clearly, David Ives has been communing with angels; there can be no other explanation for his exuberant play The Metromaniacs, now in production by Windfall Theatre. The man must have had supernatural aid in his project of making us laugh uncontrollably for two hours.

A very contemporary adaptation of the play Alexis Piron’s La Metromaine, literally “the poetry-crazed,” (it’s a little older than the Declaration of Independence, just to give some perspective), this script is a linguistic tour de force: a promiscuous coupling of modern slang and classical poetic terminology, containing every minute such delicious turns as “where verse is vice and vice-versa.” Ives captures the verbal acrobatics of very clever people in a fluffy farce depicting the antics of the literary elite, with a delirious plot as ornate as a rococo wedding cake, adding layer upon layer of deceptions, misunderstandings, false identities, and crossed purposes, building and building until even the characters confess themselves at a loss. Plus, he pulls it off in rhymed couplets that never reek of the thesaurus: if the rhymes strain, it’s for comic effect.

The plot would take nearly as long as the play itself to outline. Suffice to say it’s based on an allegedly historic incident in which the philosopher Voltaire fell in love with a lady poet who turned out to be the nomme de plume of one of his rivals—oops! In this play, the wealthy aristocrat Francalou has been writing under the name “Meriadec de Peauduncqville” (say it out loud) whose verses have captivated a young poet named Damis, whom Francalou despises, though he has never met him—at least, not under that name. Meanwhile, Francalou  has penned a play in hopes of rousing his daughter Lucille out of her poetry-induced ennui, with his saucy maidservant Lisette wigged and gowned to look exactly like her.
And they’re off!

Director Carol Zippel has opted towards a cartoonish performance style, as if taking off from the Warner Brother’s Animaniacs, but her actors’ skills are such that when they come off as buffoonish, it’s because they want to (Hannah Klapperich-Mueller’s “sexy mouth” shtick, is worthy of Carol Burnett). For the most part, they successfully walk that tricky line between being funny and trying to be funny. Ben George (who could pass for Voltaire himself) brings a childlike glee to the role of Francalou; Joe Picchetti’s performance of Damis is almost Jim Carrey-like in its animation, adding inspired touches like standing on one leg to extemporize, or dabbing a quill into a special ink-ring he wears for writing on the fly. Susie Decker and Hannah Klapperich-Miller give equally charming, savvy comic performances; the unschooled but canny maid and the mistress lettered but naive. Chris Goode lurks around the corners as a besmitten swain out of his depth, and the whole cast tosses language around like a pro soccer team passing the ball. They make it look easy, and seem to be having a great time doing it.

There—I’ve made it all the way through without using the word “sparkling.” But make no mistake: the play sparkles like a freshly-poured glass of Blanquette de Limoux. And it’s not just because Amelia Strahan has lavished so much glittering brocade and paste gems on her actors that watching them move around is a virtual light show. No, the players seem to have entered an elevated state where love, poetry and intrigue rule as a trinity of mischievous angels.

In our arsenal of weaponry in the ongoing struggle against the darkness, we should never forget the power of a good laugh. But be warned— seeing this play may lead to an uncontrollable desire to speak in rhymed couplets.

Windfall Theatre presents

The Metromaniacs
by David Ives
based on Alexis Piron’s La Metromanie

Playing through March 4
at Village Church Arts 130 East Juneau Avenue

Tickets $20 call 414-332-3963

or visit

Spoils of War: Euripides’ “The Trojan Women”

photo by Off the Wall Theatre

“The greatest enjoyment of a man is to overcome his enemies, drive them before him, snatch what they have, to see the people to whom they are dear with their faces bathed in tears, to ride their horses, to squeeze in his arms their daughters and women.”

Genghis Khan, quoted in the  Fourteenth Century Jami’ al-tawarikh

by Jeff Grygny

News broadcasts from war-blasted regions of the world often bring us the sound of women weeping. It’s an ancient sound, heard whenever men brutalize people, whether for greed, revenge, or addiction to their own adrenaline. There’s always (in the cool military jargon) “collateral damage,” and women have always carried the weight of it.

The Greek tragedy The Trojan Women, currently in production at Off the Wall Theater, is part of one of the oldest war stories in western civilization. Homer’s Illiad glorified war; Euripedes’ view is not so glittering. It’s the un-glamorous aftermath of the sack of Troy: the wives, daughters, and mothers of the fallen aristocracy are captives, waiting to be “allocated” to their new masters as prizes of conquest. It’s not a happy play, to put it mildly. Rolling relentlessly from grief to grief, its bleak story could have come from the pens of Camus or Sartre (who indeed did write a modern adaptation). As a performance, this could have easily become a be a tedious slog through misery. Yet, under director Dale Gutzman’s  skillful orchestration of rhythm and tone, and his expert composition of stage pictures— plus the honest, subtle performances of an excellent cast—the ancient play seems alive and timeless while still retaining its mythic dimensions, like wine made fresh from an ancient recipe. It’s as powerful as it must have been when it was first performed at the City Dionysia play festival in 415 BCE.

Gutzman gives the show a World War II vibe: the noblewomen, vulnerable in black evening gowns, are herded by brutish soldiers in fatigues into a nondescript space that could be an abandoned office building. A single broken chandelier stands for the ruined glory of Troy, while a metal sliding fire door leads, as we later learn, to docks where ships wait to haul their plunder back to Greece. The scene could be from the wrack of Aleppo, or Sarajevo, or Constantinople, Jerusalem, or any of the other countless ravaged cities throughout history At one point the soldiers distribute bottled water to the prisoners, a direct call-out to the “humanitarian aid” given to present-day refugees.

The story plays out elegantly, like a classic film from the silver screen era, occasionally soaring to the dramatic heights of grand opera. Sensitively-chosen recorded music underscores and elevates the spoken poetic text, adapted by Gutzman to sound both lyrical and contemporary. One by one, we see the legendary women meet their destinies. As Hecuba, the queen, who has seen her husband butchered in the street, and who is the mother of the slain Paris and Hector, Marilyn White holds the center in a show without a weak performance. Hecuba is already at rock bottom when the play begins, only to endure blow after blow, first losing her daughter Cassandra, then Andromache, her dead son’s wife, and finally her infant grandson, murdered by the paranoid Greek commanders. “We beat our breasts and tear our hair,” she cries out, “and what good does it do?” White shows us a woman pressed beyond all limits, who finally transcends despair to a kind of negative ecstasy—the closest to redemption a human being can get who has lost everything.

The other actresses give equally terrific interpretations, giving flesh to names whose stories have lived for more than two millennia: as the seer Cassandra, Alicia Rice presents a person who is utterly lost;  at one point she attempts to immolate herself with a can of gasoline. Yet when she is informed that she will be Commander Agamemnon’s prize, she delivers a final dreadful prophesy. As Hector’s widow Andromache, Laura Monagle carries herself with extraordinary dignity, while seeming utterly human in her grief. As the famed Helen, Zoe Schwartz totally rises to the role: the one who inadvertently started it all by happening to be the most beautiful woman in the world. She brings a fascinating mixture of royal glamour and animal cunning, playing her part so well that her aggrieved husband Menelaus, played with hollow machismo by James Strange, relents his vow to kill her on the spot. The dialog where she defends herself to him is electric with tension, mythic resonance, and cold calculation.

Though they ultimately have lost, the women powerfully affect all who come in contact with them.  Randal Anderson portrays a functionary who is finally overcome by his superiors’ cruelty. The chorus of women—Michelle Waide, Sharon Nieman-Koebert, Barbara Zaferos, Barbara Weber, and Sandy Lewis— give the play its sinew: whether wailing in despair, dancing sadly to the old song “After I’m Gone,” played on a radio, rallying behind Hecuba, or finally getting herded off to their new masters, they bring honest, deep reactions to every onstage moment and line of spoken verse. It’s an incredibly rich presentation of a classic tragedy.

The tragedies of refugees have been much in the news of late. The Trojan Women exhorts us to recognize their suffering. This version, while anything but triumphal, shows that human beings, even faced with the worst, still have the power to choose a kind of existential freedom.
Losing can be more beautiful than winning.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

The Trojan Women
by Euripides
in a new version by Dale Gutzman

playing through February 26

tickets available at

She blinded me with science: “Fruition of a Delusion” by Cooperative Performance Milwaukee


photo credit: Sydonia Lucchesi

Sweet is the lore which nature brings;

Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things;
—We murder to dissect. 
                                                                       William Wordsworth

by Jeff Grygny

Rube Goldberg was an early 20th century cartoonist whose absurd contraptions were prime demonstrations of cause and effect: a bowling ball might roll down a chute to ring a bell, to wake a granny in rocking chair who triggers a mousetrap to release a clothes iron swinging on a rope, frightening a goat, and so on—all in pursuit of some mundane task. More recently, the band OK Go has created amazing videos inspired by Goldberg’s creations.  Our childlike delight depends on that single kinetic moment, moving down the chain visibly like a sizzling fuse. It’s the basis of narrative, and you might even say, of science.

Fruition of a Delusion, the latest original performance currently in production by Cooperative Performance Milwaukee, not only features its own Rube Goldberg device, assembled onstage by the cast with theatrical flourish, but its very structure is Goldbergian: an assemblage of elements as diverse as they are incongruous. Not many shows bring together engineering with quotes from Ovid, Wordsworth, and William Blake, with burlesque, hip-thrusting dance moves, anti-nuclear sentiments, environmentalism, feminism, pop-culture snarkiness, quantum entanglement, call-outs to sci-fi classics like Back to The Future, Ghostbusters, and Doctor Who, and a musical palette that includes the Beatles, Queen, and that hipster classic, Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” If you’ve always craved to see the greatest scientists of the twentieth century re-visioned as a fusion of the Powerpuff Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants, this is your chance. It’s such an audacious concept, executed with devil-may-care casualness, it boggles the mind. But a Rube Goldberg machine depends on precision; unfortunately, this wild profusion of elements engage with each other in a messy, scattershot fashion, when they connect at all. Perhaps the best analog for the show’s collage aesthetic is right in front of your face: the internet, that collapses time, space and reason; where lofty thoughts walk side-by-side with adolescent pee jokes: it’s all just ones and zeroes, folks.

Maybe quantum entanglement is to blame. In a non-Newtonian system, there’s no reason to expect one thing to happen at a time: if particles in contact remain entangled when parted, and the universe was all once condensed in a single point, then everything is always connected to everything else; a single-function part is hopelessly simplistic— tyrannical even. Or it might have been co-creators Kelly Coffee and Don Russell’s intention to represent the inner landscape of its teenage protagonist as a blooming buzzing confusion, where science lessons and social media wisecracks coexist with equal weight. The show never references Star Trek: The Next Generation, though it echoes some of its middle-season plots: finding the solution to a technical problem while working out a parallel character problem. Here, it’s engineer Ruby’s quest to devise a sustainable source of energy for the world. In this task she enlists her imaginary scientist friends, who appear in the guise of cartoon characters. By the tone of the dialog, you can judge Ruby to be somewhere between eight and fifteen. It’s always a challenge for adult actors to play children;  Molly Corkins keeps the winsomeness turned up to eleven. The forms of her interlocutors also suggest youthful fantasy: Sarah Ann Mellstrom presents the rumpled physicist Einstein in tight pants, a striped shirt, and leather jacket— possibly to suggest the connection between relativity and the Beatniks? In the role of Marie Curie, Anna Lee Murray sports a pink tutu, and is prone to postures such as lolling on the floor with her feet in the air (something it’s hard to picture her venerable namesake doing). As Atomic Spice (I mean the father of the atom bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer), Selena Milewski brings a punk/goth sensibility,  all in black with heavy eye makeup, while Ben Yela gives visionary engineer Nikola Tesla a clownish fervor. The design process plays fast and loose as various concepts are floated; Eric Sherrer does a straight-man turn as the inventor of the fly swatter, whose duties include slapping ideas down. The real heroes of the show are the house band called “The Fallouts,” rocking an eclectic mix of live accompaniment with full-throated harmonies and great musical humor.

photo credit: Sydonia Lucchesi

The Visualization Lab of Marquette University’s College of Engineering, which collaborated on this project, is in the impressively science-y basement of an impressively science-y glass and steel temple of technology. There, in a gray-walled alcove about the size of a large breakfast nook, projectors create 3D images which we view through polarized glasses. The effects are more nifty than awesome. Forget the holodeck—the graphics are reminiscent of late 90’s Second Life. With all of space and time to sample, the setting mostly consists of a rather drab library. The illusion of space is still impressive, though; bigger on the inside than on the outside.

Fruition of a Delusion highlights the truth that science, at least in its traditional form, works fundamentally differently than art: science takes things apart, looking at one entity or process at a time to understand the universe; art draws on infinite connections: historical and emotional, formal and metaphorical. Traditionally the artist carefully teases out threads of meaning to show patterns in the weave of life. Maybe, by refusing to cut its own Gordian knot, this show performs a different kind of heroism by letting us find our own way.

Cooperative Performance Milwaukee
in collaboration with MARVL
Marquette University’s Opus College of Engineering Visualization Lab
Fruition of a Delusion

Concept by Kelly Coffey
Written and directed by Kelly Coffee and Don Russell

Running through February 25
Marquette University Engineering Hall
1637 W. Wisconsin Ave Room Room 028 (lower level)
Tickets $20

Due to limited seating, pre-ordering tickets is recommended. 3D glasses will be provided”

A Remedy for Despair: Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Sassy Classic

Mark Frohna Photography

by Jeff Grygny

In Herman Hesse’s counterculture favorite Steppenwolf, the suicidal protagonist stumbles on “The Magic Theater,” a hypnogogic mystery rite that transforms the soul through despair to wisdom. On his way he encounters Mozart, one of the Immortals, whose music embodies both the crystalline structure and divine playfulness of the cosmos. Mozart, of course, penned The Magic Flute (along with his less-immortal collaborator Emanuel Schikaneder) as a fantasy on themes of the Masonic order to which they both belonged; such secret societies were key players in the political and philosophical upheavals of the day—arguably the United States was itself founded on the principles of Reason, Wisdom, and Brotherhood that the Masons espoused.

This is only by way of background to the amazingly coincidental  appearance of Zie Magic Flute, a stripped-down and upgraded version of the classic opera now in performance by Milwaukee Opera Theatre at a time when at least half the nation is contemplating the noose.  As if auditioning for the role of The Magic Theatre, this goofy, warm-hearted production is a fine antidote for politically-triggered despond. Produced in collaboration with Quasimondo Physical Theatre and Cadance Collective, it’s a creative dream team, each group dedicated to artistic cross-fertilization and rattling the cages of tradition. Together, they go completely outside the lines of what might be the closest thing Mozart ever made to a coloring book. What’s more, they play in what may be the single most brilliant venue for this opera in the city: the grandly arabesque Tripoli Shrine Center, home of the heirs of the very order Mozart celebrated. There, under a fantastic domed vault, among ornate gilded columns, stands a grand piano, around which the entire piece plays: music is the literal center of the show. Music director Paula Foley Tillen plays barefoot and fearlessly, while Flutist Emma Koi and Cellist Alicia Storin sometimes leave their seats to join in the action swirling all around.

Mark Frohna Photography

Co-directors Jill Anna Ponasik and Brian Rott seem intent on creating a world of joyful play, where problems are easily resolved and love and wisdom conquer, all in the key of Loony Tunes (it’s probably one of the few Mozart productions that features a kazoo in the orchestration). But then, the story of The Magic Flute is silly even by operatic standards; the characters are paper-thin, the plot makes little sense, and the initiation ordeals of Tamino and Papageno would seem puerile to a fraternity. It’s story as music; or music masquerading in the costume of narrative. Schikaneder’s libretto has been loosely rendered into contemporary rhyme by Daniel J. Brylow​, who sets the irreverent mood by including puns, colloquialisms, and even internet slang; at one point the Queen of the Night’s ladies (comically clad as Wagnerian valkyries) serenade Tamino with a chorus of “TTYL.”  There was plenty of appreciative tittering from the opening night audience, but since the staging is in the round, there’s a one in four chance someone will be facing away from you, unfortunately rendering some of Brylow’s witty lyrics unclear. The directors’ decision to leave some of the songs in the original German doesn’t noticeably trouble the narrative flow; it just adds a little Teutonic flavor to the mix.

Quasimondo’s Brian Rott brings his characteristic sense of incongruity to the staging, which delightfully encompasses the balcony that circles the playing space, on which appear riders on horseback, rhythmically trembling tree branches, and a large white dragon. The three helpful spirits, dressed as periwigged aristocrats, wield twirling streamers, plastic birds, and fuzzy puppets to people the show with various creatures. It’s a minimalist strategy that feels surprisingly rich, especially combined with Nikki Maritch’s humorous costumes and lit by electrical wizard Jason Fassl in heraldic hues that turn the Moorish architecture into a glittering jewel box.

Mark Frohna Photography

This abbreviated version expunges many of the original’s 18th-century tropes that the 21st century finds unacceptable: gone are Sarastro’s conniving blackamoor slave and his injunctions never to trust women. Indeed, this show is far from heteronormative, including a girl-on-girl pas de deux during the climactic hymn to love. As Tamino, the charismatic Benjamin Ludwig seems not at all the stereotypical hero: he tempers his ringing tenor with boyish anxiety, and shares the stage generously with his collaborators. Jennifer Hansen and Christal Wagner as Pamima and Papagena display anything but retiring femininity; Wagner, in cat’s-eye glasses and a dress that echoes Bjork’s famous swan costume, skates around the stage like a roller derby queen, while Hansen adds muscularity to her sweet portrayal of the heroine.

Mark Frohna Photography

As the weird bird-man Papageno, Nathan Wesselowski acquits himself admirably with vocal and comic grace, while  Sarah Richardson’s Queen of the Night more than compensates in musicianship what she may lack in stature; her bravura rendition of “Der Hölle Rache,” which won rapturous applause, still gives us time to ponder the paradox that one of the loveliest arias in music is actually an exhortation to murder. Not to worry though; in a wave of mythopoeic revisionism, the Queen is forgiven, not banished. Director Ponasik has given high priest Sarastro a speaking rather than a singing role—which pays off, as we can listen to Mark Corkins majestically intone the lyrics, his solemn delivery somewhat softened by the Shriner’s fez he sports. The twinkle in his eyes makes it all work somehow.

Mark Frohna Photography

The show gains immeasurably from Quasimondo’s spirit-cum-stagehands. Jenni Reinke, Jessi Miller, and Andrew Parchman mostly play in pantomime, though they sometimes sing admirably well alongside the schooled musicians of Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Cadance Collective. As white-clad baroque clowns, they summon whatever miracles the action demands. Miller’s expressions are wonderfully off-beat as she commits herself to the narrative machinations; Reinke whips the serpent’s tail with fine fury; and Parchman’s puppet hippopotamus is as fully-realized a character as any in the show.

Mark Frohna Photography

However lighthearted, Mozart’s vision in The Magic Flute is of a world governed by wisdom and love, overseen by initiates who had faced their weaknesses to become worthy stewards of an enlightened society. Near the end of Steppenwolf, Mozart tells the protagonist “Learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.” Not the easiest advice to follow—but it might help keep your head out of the oven for the next four years.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre
in collaboration with Quasimondo Physical Theatre
and Cadance Collective

Zie Magic Flute

Music by W. A. Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
English Translation by Daniel J. Brylow​
Directed by Jill Anna Ponasik & Brian Rott

Wednesday, January 25 at 7:30 PM,
Friday, January 27 at 7:30 PM,
Saturday, January 28 at 1:00 PM,
Sunday, January 29 at 1:00 PM
Tripoli Shrine Center
3000 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee

$28 General Admission
$18 Student & Artist

Order Online or call 1-800-838-3006

“The Tripoli Shrine Center offers ample free parking adjacent to the venue.”

Night of the dancing germs: the active culture of “Animolocules”

by Jeff Grygny

Photos by Sarah Larson

Germs are awesome. More scientifically called bacteria, protozoa, algae, and fungi, these single-celled beasties shocked the world when they were reported in the 17th Century by a Dutch cloth dealer named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who first saw them in his hand-made microscope. Since then, biologists have made constant discoveries about “little animals,” as van Leeuwenhoek called them. Now we know they’re everywhere, and they don’t just make us sick; they support and bind together the fabric of life on earth, refreshing our atmosphere, nurturing forests through underground networks, and making our digestive systems work. Indeed, our entire bodies swarm with microbiomes, teeming ecosystems of countless invisible critters. I know— eww!

It’s a fascinating topic, but not one that instantly screams out for a interpretative dance. But that’s never stopped Quasimondo Physical Theater before. They’ve fearlessly engaged with difficult texts from Moby Dick to The Kama Sutra with humor, wit, and boundless creativity. They’re the quirkiest, most artistically daring theater company in town, and one of the smartest— if anyone could handle bacteria, they could. Alas, it’s unfortunate that in their latest show,  Animolocules, their tiny subjects prove too slippery to capture.

Quasimondo’s shows are never big on linear narrative: their esthetic preference is to riff on a theme, generating a series of sketches and dances with interweaving story-lines, some continuing characters, and often spectacular unifying visual motifs. Though you’re never quite sure what’s going on, you can usually find some kind of relational thread to follow through the semiotic labyrinth. Here, without an overarching concept, co-directors Jenni Reinke and Brian Rott  try a little of everything, from cheesy high-school science films, complete with bad audio and a nearly-unintelligibly-accented narrator, to patients being diagnosed for ailments we can only guess at, to a girl in a clear plastic bubble menaced by microbial invaders. We see an amoeba the size of a Volkswagen Beetle devour everything in its path,  dancers miming the actions of busy food-gathering protozoa, a seeming DNA clinic where patients are reconfigured to order, and an extremely tall violinist. Puppets by Andrew Parchman and Julia Teeguarden cover the spectrum from a frightening virus with dangly arms and a glowing squid-like carapace, to a long pink parasite that chases people around and wraps around their necks like a boa constrictor, to silly little hand puppets that are as cute as bacteria could be. Musical choices run the gamut from classical to grunge-pop; a lively soundtrack for an active culture.

Photos by Sarah Larson

Unfortunately, Animolocules often leaves us completely lost. Microorganisms don’t follow the rules of interaction out of which theater is normally made. Without having recognizable human emotions to ground us—or at least a casual familiarity with microbiology—we’re likely to find the constant activity more exhausting than exhilarating. For instance, if we don’t remember that van Leeuwenhoek’s instrument was a paddle-like affair you hold to your eye, you might miss what’s going on in Reinke’s warmly comic pantomime. We need a Virgil to guide us through this fantastic voyage.

Photos by Sarah Larson

There are some nice set pieces, as when the ensemble creates a slow-motion car crash complete with flying beverage cup and papers. Some of the dances with strange microbial props attain an abstract beauty, and the more successful vignettes feature relatable human characters. But too often, as when the performers wave their puppet germs around vaguely, we don’t get enough information to appreciate what’s happening. Animolocules is a brave experiment, and part of the adventure of theater is trying something new and seeing what happens. Rott, Reinke, and their collaborators should take some pride in tackling a nearly impossible subject—even if the culture never really grew on us.

Quasimondo Physical Theatre presents
Animolocules (Choreographia Microbiotica)

Playing through December 11th at Danceworks Studios

Everything old is new: the Rep freshens up a holiday chestnut

Photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

The Rep’s A Christmas Carol at the Pabst Theater is a Milwaukee tradition, and it’s easy to understand why. In the glittering, mildly haunted confines of that venerable venue, Charles Dickens’ old story of ghosts and redemption can become enchanting, beloved, timeless, and all the other adjectives marketing people like to trot out for the holidays. But the show presents peculiar problems for a theater company: while a reliable source of much-needed revenue, after forty years of “Bah, humbug!” and “God bless us everyone,” how do you keep it from becoming a tiresome cliché?

If there is any magic in theater, it’s the illusion of the first time; telling a story in such a full and heartfelt way that it seems to be happening right now. Happily, the cast of A Christmas Carol pulls this off with great exuberance and good cheer. That alone would be enough—but there’s more. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements, the show has undergone a total makeover, with brand new scenery, high-tech effects, music, script, and a few other innovations that might raise a traditionalist’s eyebrows. Not everything works; Clements will probably want to do some re-tooling before next year. But overall, in the company’s very professional hands, the story wonderfully summons the glow of good will and generosity that made it great when Dickens first published it more than a century ago.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

If the elaborate stagecraft looks like a million dollars, that’s because it cost that much—as the first-night crowd of Rep bigwigs and wealthy patrons knew better than anyone. They need notfear their investment was wasted. True, the production sometimes feels like one of the fancy gewgaws in of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog: a high-tech amusement for privileged children. But it’s undoubtedly impressive; the storybook walls of Todd Edward Ivins’ set churn like the gears of the Industrial Revolution to reveal scores of city windows glowing over the action below. Scenes open in a bluish light that recalls old photographs of figures in exquisite compositions, just before they come to life. Spirits pop out of walls and the floor, and vanish back there again. Snow falls picturesquely over our heads. True, the Spirit of Christmas Future,  with his (her?) oversized hood and glowing red eyes, does sort of resemble a large Jawa out of Star Wars. But the show is really directed toward children; Marley’s somewhat cartoonish appearance will startle them, but will probably cause fewer nightmares than the grown-up version.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Despite having to work with moving floors and complex technical cues, the cast brings their best game to John Tanner’s musical arrangements that blend atmospheric incidental music with traditional carols, full of feeling without being overly sentimental, all delivered with gusto and in lovely harmonies. It’s hard to overstate Michael Pink’s contribution to the many dances and group movement scenes: the Milwaukee Ballet Director is a master of showing emotional moments through movement; even the stage fog seems to swirl in meaningful patterns. It’s heartbreaking to watch Scrooge address figures from his past, only to realize, with him, that they’re only phantoms.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Jonathan Wainwright is an intriguing choice for the role of Ebenezer Scrooge; in the past he’s played Bob Cratchit, and his youthful, open face seems most un-miserly.  But he’s a shape-shifter who virtually disappears into a secondary role as Charles Dickens, and when he scrooges his face into a misanthopist’s scowl, he’s totally credible. His Scrooge is clearly a wounded soul who’s defensive turning away from human contact has hardened him into the monster he’s become—making him more sympathetic to, say, a younger audience.

A cornucopia of talented players supports Wainwright on his journey. For Dickens, the important thing was not to show characters who are complex and conflicted, but rather as we should be; the actor’s job is to not come off as maudlin. As Scrooge’s nephew, Michael Doherty’s goodwill seems genuine and unforced. Christie Coran and Jessie Hooks bring tremendous charm to the roles of the two women in Scrooge’s life, while Reese Madigan makes for a suitably stalwart Bob Cratchit.

Chike Johnson delivers a rich West Indies version of the Spirit of Christmas present, whose emphatic “all the people” takes on particular resonance. Angela Iannone brings her wit and authority to several parts. Some Rep favorites make the most of tasty minor roles (I want a whole play about Jonathan Smoots’ Old Joe): Jonathan Gillard Daly shakes a plump leg as Fezziwig; Deborah Staples does her best Cate Blanchett-as-Galadriel impression in a dramatic moment as the Spirit of Christmas Past. And if we wince at the off-notes in Tiny Tim’s solo, it’s quite a short song, and little Edward Owczarski makes up for it in sheer cuteness.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

The first act is the more enchanting, taking good time to work its magic. Act Two seems a bit rushed, with the story ending suddenly in exposition. Wainwright’s double role as Dickens is a nice idea, but confusing: the costume changes necessitate lengthy diversions that don’t drive the story, while it’s just weird for the Scrooge we’ve come to like disappears for the curtain call to be replaced by a character we’ve hardly seen. Another innovation whose mileage may vary is Clements’ addition of “Panto” elements This venerable English holiday tradition includes audience participation in the context of slapstick, topical jokes, silly songs, and drag. To transplant just the audience participation part seems jarring—but the youngest members of the audience likely won’t mind at all. Having the characters talk to the audience also prepares us for the show’s biggest departure from tradition: a direct fundraising pitch from the players for the Boys and Girls Club of America. In a way, this makes perfect sense: after all it’s a play about charity—why not let the audience take an active part? On the other hand, framed within the story, and not after the curtain call as would be customary, it could be a major mood-breaker for many people.

Artists throughout history have labored to cajole powerful men to show mercy and kindness to lesser folk. As long as chasms remain in society, shows like A Christmas Carol, with its penetrating look into poverty, tragedy, and cruelty will, alas, remain timely.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents
A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
adapted and Directed by Mark Clements

Playing through December 24th

Skirts and Sabers: “Bonny Anne Bonny” finds unexpected corners in an old genre

photos by Traveling Lemur Productions

by Jeff Grygny

A pirate tale is generally an occasion for swashbuckling, rum, and large sweaty men growling “Yar!” at each other. There’s nary a “yar” to be found in Bonny Anne Bonny, a new play by the prolific Milwaukee writer Liz Shipe. There’s plenty of genre grist, without question: rope-swinging, explosions, swordplay—and rum, of course, used to great comic effect. What’s fascinating about this play, now in its world premiere in a production by Theater Red, is not simply that it features a lady pirate, but that it explores, in fresh and unexpected ways, what that’s about.

Over the past couple of decades , women have stormed (without saying please!) the ship of Western culture: former male bastions of academia, business, and politics have seen a massive influx of XX chromosomes like literally no civilization in history. Lately the invasion seems to have peaked, with music, computer games, science fiction, stand-up comedy—verily, all of pop culture— inundated by a flood of female faces, bodies, and voices. Given the massive backlash among certain people (whom Neanderthals would probably be embarrassed to be seen with), it’s not surprising that, despite their incredible triumphs, some women still feel embattled.  Enter Anne Bonny, the complicated titular protagonist of this play.

We meet Bonny while she’s still the strong right hand of the infamous Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard. With her fearless heart and brilliant tactics, she’s the real reason for his success. But as often happens among pirates, there’s a falling out; due to the boorish behavior of Teach’s men, Bonny boots him overboard, commandeers his ship, sets it afire, and sails it into port. With only her trusty mate, the seasoned buccaneer Mary Read, and Bonny’s feckless husband— a pirate whose fierce reputation comes only from his sex—she sets out to find a ship, a crew, and further fortune and fame. The yarn unfolds in the spirit of old Errol Flynn movies, without the fantasy of later entries like the Jack Sparrow saga.

Shipe’s tautly-rigged script puts us through all the paces of an adventure tale, creating a score of distinct, memorable characters, each with his or her arc and shining moment. There’s humor, romance, song, treachery and all manner of playful hi-jinks. But while there are several spectacular set piece battles (choreographed with loving attention to detail and credibility by director Christopher Elst), Bonny is more likely to win her spoils by boldness and guile than by brute force. The crew she recruits for her new exploit are all women of the town, who—despite having little or no actual pirating experience, and often being physically or emotionally most un-brawny— handily happen to have exactly the skills she needs: a navigator, a demolitions expert, an acrobatic pickpocket. . . and a few nice women, old and young, who, inspired by her freedom and courage, just want to follow her.


In the luxurious comfort of the The Raabe Theatre at Wisconsin Lutheran College, the production reaches a level of professionalism hard to match in the city (just make sure your charts are up to date: road construction makes the theater a tricky goal to reach.) Christopher Kurtz’s impressively solid set design conjures the decks and taverns of the period, and offer the players ample opportunities to clamber, heave-ho, and lay low. A few theatrical suggestion of wind and waves might have better projected the illusion of sailing, though.

Shipe’s detailed world-building offers a treasure chest of tasty characters, and under Elst’s direction the actors have a blast with them, while staying emotionally true to their often larger-than-life personalities. Rae Elizabeth Pare plays Mary Read as the clear-eyed Spock to Alicia Rice’s Kirk-like, “leap don’t look” Anne. They’re clearly best buds, but there’s no hint of Sapphic feelings; the tension between them stems from Anne’s rash decisions, not blighted affections so far as we can tell. Both of them sport blades and pantaloons bravely, and you can quite believe that they have the guts to lead hardened cutthroats in raiding parties. As Bonny’s consort, Zack Thomas Woods plays an excellent male bimbo, swaggering in public, bursting into sea chanteys charmingly, but a “shite pirate” underneath it all. Bryan Quinn’s avuncular sea cook offers us the closest thing we get to Long John Silver’s “arr.”

We have three delightful flavors of villain: James Carrington plays Blackbeard with a nicely-restrained burn; Thomas Seabald gives the Royal Captain just the right amount of smarm to his English gentility. As a hot-hearted Spanish pirate, Sean Duncan seems to be having more fun onstage than any actor should be allowed. But none of them are villains for villainy’s sake: each has his own clear motive (perhaps naturally, the men’s scenes have the strongest genre flavor; they know what’s demanded of them and they deliver it expertly). The actresses have a more challenging task. Bonny’s all-female crew displays a wide spectrum of women, each one interesting enough to have her own play. Particular standouts are Macie Laylan as a street urchin who was apparently raised by feral cats (very good in the rigging), expressing herself with feline movements and little catlike vocalizations; and Drea DeVos as a shy slip of a lass who would like to be called “Iron Jenny.” DeVos takes her supporting role and makes it rich, touchingly showing the glimmer of self-determination in a girl who has been told all her life to keep her place.


The first act ends (without getting into spoilers) with Bonny staging a brilliant victory—but some of her crew is captured, setting the stage for a daring rescue and final reckoning with the villains. But Shipe steers by different constellations: she rips the fabric of the genre wide open to ask some very interesting questions.

We begin to see Bonny’s darker side, but that’s hardly unusual in contemporary hero stories. In the second act tension grows between the Captain and her first mate: Anne becomes cold and withdrawn; “me first” is the pirates’ ultimate law. Of course pirate yarns are a fantasy of freedom: to sail the wild sea, where nobody can tell you what to do (it’s telling that both anarchists and corporate executives have embraced the mythology). The women who follow Anne Bonny all crave freedom; not all of them are ready to face the reality: an insecure, unsettled life full of risk, violence, and the shadow of the gallows. It’s a cruel existence. Anne is a complex enough character to get all this: she’s caught between the glamour of freedom and its lonely reality. By going here, the play becomes more than a “you go, girl!’ empowerment fantasy to become thoughtful look into the ramifications of power. It’s not afraid to say: OK women, you have power; now how are you going to handle it? But legends have their own truth. The idea of freedom is something we wouldn’t want to live without—even if we don’t necessarily want to pay the full price for it.

Stipes deserves major credit for taking her play into these questions. Bonny Anne Bonny offers laughs, thrills, and something to think about. That’s a lot more than you’d expect from a mere pirate story!

Theater Red presents
Bonny Anne Bonny
written by Liz Shipe
directed by Christopher Elst

playing November 3rd through November 12th, 7:30pm
The Raabe Theatre
Wisconsin Lutheran College

“THERE WILL BE NO LATE SEATING, and NO REFUNDS for those who arrive late. Please allow plenty of time for traffic, finding the theatre, and parking.”


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