Charisma and Catharsis

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Mark Frohna

The Gospel at Colonus, Lee Breuer’s gospel opera, is currently playing in a wondrous production by Skylight Music Theater. It’s a complicated show: unfolding what it’s all about takes some explaining and a bit of theater history. But ultimately, like any opera, it’s all about the feelings.

In Aristotle’s classic work The Poetics, that great explainer of everything set out six components of tragedy, using Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as his exemplar. Among these six is “song and dance.” Now, nobody really knows how song and dance figured into the performance of Greek tragedies. We do know that they were highly stylized, chanted and sung, and were powerfully moving. Some even say that opera was inspired by Aristotle’s account of Greek tragedy (which would explain why everyone in opera is so sad). Lee Breuer was among the prominent American experimental directors of the 80s; his postmodernism rejected Aristotle’s categories of plot, character, and climactic action to focus on playfulness, mixing genres, spectacle, and the immediacy of performance. So Breuer chose to highlight the ritual and performance aspects of Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus, by staging it as a Gospel service. And as we can see, Gospel music is, like opera, a sophisticated art form, full of codes and conventions, encompassing a vast variety of modes and styles. But quite unlike opera, which was produced by the efflux of aristocracy, Gospel was born from the collective genius of a downtrodden people.

Sophocles’ play is not conventionally dramatic: having put out his eyes and in exile from his native city, Oedipus is a ruined old blind man looking for the place that was prophesied for him to find his final rest. He finds it, some of his family drops in, and—he dies, albeit in a mysterious and god-touched manner. That’s the plot. (An excellent, more detailed synopsis of the action, written by theater critic Mike Fischer, is in an audience guide available in the lobby; it’s a very helpful guide.)

Now for the feelings: Aristotle’s most famous idea about theater was catharsis: the emotional cleansing brought about by the vicarious pity and fear felt by the audience of the tragedy. This was always rather an abstract concept for me— until I was lucky enough to see Breuer’s 1987 production of Gospel at the Guthrie Theater, with Morgan Freeman as the Preacher, all Five Blind Boys of Alabama as Oedipus, and a choir of 30 high-powered singers, dressed to the nines. They had been performing the show for several years, both on and off Broadway, and they knew exactly how to shake an audience like a puppy tosses a stuffed toy. Suddenly, catharsis was no concept;  it was a sheer carnal event: a deep-tissue massage of the heart brought on by the emotional power of the singing; a transfer of feeling directly from the performers’ souls to the bodies of the audience, through the medium of rhythmically pulsing vibrations of air. This was the singular magic of live performance—a phenomenon we sometimes call charisma, from a Greek word for “gift.”

With a considerably smaller cast, this Skylight production is as down-to-earth as its aspirations toward salvation are lofty. It’s like a neighborhood church service rather than some mythic revival set in heaven. Under the stage direction of Sheri Williams Pannell and the music direction of Christie Chiles Twillie, the cast of gifted and richly experienced local performers bring their own personal and spiritual concerns to the story of a bygone age, translated into the language of a living ceremonial tradition. That the choir is one of the show’s greatest assets becomes clear towards the end, when two of them step up to give scorching solos. Another treasure is Byron Jones, who plays Oedipus. His stylized performance of blind frailty masks a voice of intense controlled power that anchors the entire show. Tasha McCoy and Raven Dockery bring dignity and integrity to their roles as Oedipus’ daughters (and sisters) while looking fabulous in costumes by Amy Horst.

Oedipus is one of the most complex characters in Western literature, with theorists from Freud onward weighing in with interpretations. Typically he models the paradox of Western Man: seeking to solve the world’s problems, he discovers that he is in fact the cause of them. He represents the curse of self-awareness, the animal passions that lurk beneath our rational exterior, and the shame and guilt associated with hubris, blinding pride. In The Gospel at Colonus, he appears Christlike, both in his suffering and in his capacity as a scapegoat, standing in for any one of us (for who among us is without sin?) As tenderly mourned by his family and allies, he could be any of our beloved elders, for whom the last blessing of life is release. He could be us in our final hours. But in the setting of a Black Pentecostal service, it’s irresistible to see a poignant tribute to those arguably among the last to be recognized in our culture: elder black men, buffeted their entire lives by historical forces beyond their control. It’s a fine and sacred thing to honor them.

Truly, though, you could also say that the ensemble is the protagonist of this show: they support one another with raised hands and exclamations of “Yes,” and “Amen.” They step in to voice characters; they generously co-create the stage-world of this ceremonial saga. Those who have not grown up in such a tradition might feel a little like voyeurs peeping through the church window on a very private communal ritual. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all felt free to call out “Amen,” or to raise a hand when we feel the spirit touching our heart?

Skylight Music Theater presents

The Gospel at Colonus
Conceived and adapted by Lee Bruer
Music composed by Bob Telson

playing through January 26

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Curses Foiled Again

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

If one were to presume that Jill Anna Ponasik were an airy sylph, composed of sunlight and butterflies, one need look no further for evidence than the shows she directs: everything she touches is infused with light-heartedness and joy. This is certainly the case with Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse currently showing in an innovative production by Skylight Music Theatre in collaboration with Milwaukee Opera Theatre. In Ponasik’s hands, its themes of betrayal, madness, and miscellaneous perfidy become a Fractured Fairy Tale; a musical romp limned in the pen-strokes of Edward Gorey.

Gilbert and Sullivan clearly intended the show as a burlesque of gothic romance: the plot is improbable and helplessly baroque; the characters are paper-thin; the dialog continually winks at the audience. The score, while it can claim nothing as catchy as “Tit Willow,” is still recognizably on-brand; the songs are plentiful, and none of them wear out their welcome. And such is the ingenuity of the director, and the sheer enthusiasm of the talented singer/actors; the production is mounted with such daring yet seemingly effortless inventiveness, with the artists reveling in the free play of their talents, that the show is a continuous delight.

Ponasik and Music Director Tim Rebers have audaciously chosen to eliminate the orchestra, and confer its parts on a chorus of doughty bridesmaids, who gleefully doo-wop their way through the entire accompaniment, with the exception of a few idiosyncratic instruments. And it works amazingly well. The vintage score suddenly appears fresh to our ears, giving it a fascinatingly contemporary feeling. What’s more, Choreographer James Zader has set the songs to movement that not only provides both witty sight gags and clarifying business, but somehow rises out of the very structure of the music, giving it temporo-spatial form. We see the music as well as hear it, with actions that illuminate the lyrics. For example, when Diane Lane, as Mad Margaret, courageously mugs her way through “Cheerily carols the lark,” the kneeling bridesmaids pass long-stemmed roses down the line for her to peevishly collect, until at length a withered blossom, and finally a potted plant, illustrate the trajectory of a failed romance.

The lovely-voiced Susie Robinson is enchanting in the role of Rose Maybud, a young lady who lives by the book of etiquette; Doug Clemons is  the very model of an English gentleman too shy to court her. They share a scene in which their shadows cleverly enact what they are too demure to express. As a rough-hewn sailor named Dick who competes for Rose’s hand, Adam Qutaishat suavely voices the promptings of his heart as a Gauloise-puffing Frenchman. Shayne Steliga makes a powerful entrance as the cursed Baron of Ruddigore, strumming a black guitar (his singing holds more than a hint of rock and roll); and the chorus of bridesmaids seem equally thrilled whomever Rose happens to be marrying that day. Edward Lupella, who, as the only bearded bridesmaid, brings the base line, must be commended for the grace of his girlish cavorting.

photo by Mark Frohna

The first act passes like a dream from which one wakes laughing. For Act Two, which has sometimes been said to lose momentum, they bring out the comic opera equivalent of heavy guns. There is a devilish feat of projection conjured by video wizard Nathan Shuerer, in which the entire line of the Murgatroyds, played by Rebers in a variety of period get-ups that recall The Black Adder, grimace out of picture frames like the animated portraits at Hogwarts. Then, there’s a bit of mildly misogynistic humor at the expense of poor Mags, followed by a silly patter song that comments on the silliness of patter songs (and might be lifted from The Pirates of Penzance) culminating in three verses rapidly delivered at once. And then—hey presto! the show is done. It seems that ancient curses can be thwarted simply by an expedient bit of Gilbertian parsing of the curse’s language.

In her program note, Ponasik praises Skylight Theatre for its long history of putting on “fearless and fun” productions. Ruddigore raises the ante on both counts. Queen Victoria Herself would certainly be most amused. In these perilous times, a light heart can be a precious thing indeed.

Skylight Music Theatre
in collaboration with Milwaukee Opera Theatre

Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse

Book by W.S. Gilbert
Music by Arthur Sullivan

Playing through January 19

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Theater in the Wild: the discoveries of 2019

by Jeff Grygny

Don Russell in “Ziggy the Clown” at the Fourth Milwaukee Fringe Festival

Nobody could credibly claim that 2019 was the best year ever. If anything, it’s never felt more like we were dancing on the brink. In all the end-of-decade ruminations, this paragraph from New York Magazine’s Helen Shaw comes closest to my personal reason for loving that strange endeavor we call “theater:”

What if we thought of theater as big wilderness corridors, cutting through all the polite, useful, domesticated stuff that makes up most of life? What if we stopped trying to tell people what not to do in the theater? What if we just abandoned all talk of how silly it is to spend time there instead of at a protest? Ecologically, we already know that we need wilderness so the world can breathe. Purposelessness is itself a kind of sacred purpose. A theater is a place for chaos, thievery, destruction, misrule, recklessness, imagination, adventure, courage, provocation, and possibility. Throw your MFAs into a bonfire! Forget the rules! The wilderness has always been the place for wild beasts—but also hermits on their pillars. Don’t despair if you don’t find an obvious mission there. Go back into the wild. It’s where saints go to study.

With that in mind, here are my recollections of Milwaukee’s edgiest, most feral productions in 2019.

From last to first: there was Voices Found Repertory’s outsider delight, Henry V,

Mrs.Wrights, Jenni Reinke’s tour de force of dance theater by Quasimondo Theatre,

Milwaukee Opera Theater’s feminist/gnostic ceremony Utterance, Ancient Prophesies/Modern Revelations,

Andrew Parchman’s Twilight Zone thriller The Feast at Quasimondo Theater’s Arthaus.

Call Me Ishmael, The always-wild Dale Gutzman’s impossible adaptation of Moby Dick,

JJ Gatesman’s fearless experiment in the ineffable, Machina Persona, by Cooperative Performance,

The joyfully revelatory Carmina Burana by Milwaukee Opera Theatre,

And All 100 Fires, Donna Oblongata’s unforgettable journey into the sould of an insurgent.

A recap of the year wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the indefatigable work of the Fourth Milwaukee Fringe Festival,

And the sad demise of Bay View’s lovably funky preserve of theatrical wildness, The Alchemist Theatre.

These artistic adventurers, and other like them, keep venturing into the unknown and bringing back discoveries more essential than industry blockbusters or social media sensation. They are the music-makers and the dreamers of dreams. Wherever the next decade takes us, may they never cease from their explorations!

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.

I <3 Henry : ) : ) : ) : ) : )

Lily Shea Photography

by Jeff Grygny

Owre kynge went forth to Normandy,
With grace and myght of chyvalry;
Ther God for hym wrought mervlusly,
Wherfore Englonde may calle and cry,
Deo gratias anglia, redde pro victoria.

                        The Agincourt Carol (15th Century)  

“O, for a muse of fire” speaks the chorus at the opening of Henry V, now playing in a lively, full-hearted production by Voices Found Repertory. And, whether by the magical inspiration of some Graeco-Roman demigoddess or not, this young troupe is certainly ablaze. Coming in at a brisk 90 minutes, their stripped-down version crackles like a holiday bonfire: playful yet sincere, and delivered with ebullient theatrical flair. It’s more fun than you ever thought Shakespeare could be.

Lily Shea Photography

Despite having the famous “we band of brothers” speech, Henry V is rarely performed in the States, much less in Milwaukee. The play’s blend of dynastic politics and flagrant monarchic propaganda never seemed to resonate much with American companies.The historic battle of Agincourt was bloody in the extreme (as Medieval battles tended to be) and was arguably an invasion. But Voices Found has been working with the Shakespearean corpus for several years, and this is perhaps their most polished production yet, and they make the play their own. Dragging four centuries of dusty commentary into the trash folder, they focus on the drama, action, and comedy: ditching the moral dilemmas and weighty dynastic politics of, say, the Timothee Chalamet version, and embracing instead the rousing adventure tale, with underdog heroes, high stakes, and hot rivalries, in all the bright colors and heightened emotions of a comic book. It’s as if the makers of history were all in their 20s, playing war like it was a round of Fortnight. English patriots would love it.

Like their last season’s Macbeth, the show is set in a post-apocalyptic future: A soldier might carry a crowbar or claw hammer rather than a sword; one character’s gigantic battle maul would be instantly recognizable to any player of the Fallout franchise. A set by Michael Cienfuegos Baca and costumes by Hannah Kubiak carry out the concept elegantly and economically. But the setting serves rather to free up the storytelling than to weigh it down with conceptual baggage. Director Alec Lachman takes an irreverent approach, adding hilarious grace notes, like having the French court constantly smoking cigarettes. With loving attention to detail, and fully committing to their play-world, the actors create moments that—as in all good theater, and especially in good Shakespeare—wordlessly reveal relationships and psychology. The battle scenes are like cosplay fighting, but no less exciting for that,  because by this time we have been thoroughly charmed into willingly suspending our disbelief.

Lily Shea Photography

We can see from the beginning that this is an ensemble show, when the whole cast powerfully delivers the chorus’ speech, trading sentences, phrases, and single words,  in turn and in unison. With one of the strongest casts that Voices Found has ever assembled, everyone has clearly contributed to creating the vivid moments of the performance, and their joy in performing makes the text sing like an instrument in the hands of a musician in the groove. Most of the actors play double roles, and they all bring full-blooded commitment, but certain characters stand out. Caroline Norton would never be menacing on the battlefield, but with a painted-on beard, she makes for a wonderfully scurrilous and feisty soldier. With his rumbling voice and the carriage of a marine, Thomas Sebald would indeed be someone you’d want fighting on your side, while, whimsically cast as “Alice,” the Princess’ companion, he adds hilarity to a scene performed entirely in French, with a few mangled English words. Caroline Fossum plays said Princess with such poise and charm that we instantly fall in love with her; Rebekah Farr makes for an effectively pissy Dauphin, while A.J. Magoon plays the French King quite straight, but creates a delightful Kabuki-like stylization for the doddering Archbishop of Canterbury.

Lily Shea Photography

Naturally, the actor playing Henry grounds the play. As this untried ruler, inspirational speaker, canny diplomat and ad hoc tough guy, Jake Thompson gives the ensemble a solid center, with a unique combination of careful thought and irrepressible charisma. You can see Henry working hard to make being a king look easy. He wears a smiley-face medallion, as if to remind himself that his job is to present unshakable optimism; his speeches are low-key, often with a carefully-enunciated “but” separating long chains of verbiage. It’s a winning performance that makes us hungry to see the other two plays featuring Prince Hal.

Yet there are no real good guys or bad guys here; just doughty underdogs and overconfident antagonists. Henry sees an opportunity and goes for it, in the classic heroic fashion. The moment when he learns the magnitude of his victory is as powerful as one could wish. If this show has a theme— beyond just being an exciting yarn— it is to show how much a leader can accomplish by convincing their followers that anything is possible.

With this production, Voices Found, along with the recently-founded Aura Theatre Collective, have raised the bar for the performance of Shakespeare in Milwaukee. You owe it to yourself: go see this show!

Voices Found Repertory presents

Henry V

by William Shakespeare

playing through December 15

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Telling Her Story: “Measure for Measure”

Photo by Max Anderer

O, it is excellent 
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous 
To use it like a giant.
                                    Isabella (Measure for Measure)

by Jeff Grygny

For their inaugural production, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the Aura Theatre Collective lays their cards on the table right away. Black and white photos of women who have experienced sexual assault line the way to our seats. The first thing we see onstage is a dancer of an unconventional body type, decked  in spandex, leather, and bits of chiffon, fearlessly going through a strip club dance routine. The icy looks she shoots into the audience make it clear: she doesn’t give a damn what you think; no male fantasies will be entertained here. After this confrontational opening, Director Jaimelyn Gray surprises us again with a soberly thought-out, well-acted interpretation of a play commonly regarded as full of difficulties.

Measure for Measure isn’t performed often, and it’s easy to see why. A “problem play,” about law and justice, it combines elements of fairy tale, melodrama, dirty joke, and legal thriller. The characters keep doing things that make you go “What?” right up to the strangely unsatisfying ending. But  these difficulties harbor swirling questions that allow for many possible readings. For Gray, it’s a full-voiced condemnation of the sexual coercion of women by powerful men. And it works beautifully, both as message and as theater. By putting the spotlight on a woman’s experience of harassment in a social order that explicitly regards her as property, prize, and chattel, this production brings the plot and characters into focus while channeling the passion of a very hot contemporary issue. And making it’s vehicle a 400 year old play effortlessly underscores the depth and historical weight of the problem.

The production design hovers in a timeless realm between the Renaissance and the future, in a severe palette of black and red. Posey Knight’s frame-like set design creates spacial volume while recalling the Globe Theater’s entrances and exits. Sound designer Jake Thompson creates a mood of contemporary urgency without resorting to musical bombast. The Irish Cultural Center’s “Hallamor,” a former church, has challenging acoustics: unless the performers deliver their lines clearly and directly into the audience, their longer speeches tend to dissolve into aural mush. This is a great pity, as the actors clearly understand what they’re saying. But, as in any good production, their nonverbal cues convey most of the information we need about character, feelings, and relationships that we need to follow the action—which, as the intrigue progresses, really pulls us in. There are advantages to doing a seldom-produced play—not everyone knows what will happen next!

As Duke Vincentio, who tests his counselor by giving him complete authority and then lurking incognito, Randall Anderson gives as strong a performance as he’s given in his long career on local stages. Dignified and sympathetic, his character combines Sherlock Holmes, Machiavelli, Perry Mason, and Santa Claus, busily orchestrating ingenious fixes to various desperate problems. As the hypocritical counselor Angelo, who condemns a young man to death for fornication because he made his fiancée pregnant before they were married, Timothy Barnes shows ruthless intelligence along with a degree of self-awareness, chastising himself for lusting after the condemned man’s sister (and a novice nun, even). Yet Angelo’s qualms don’t stop him from offering a heinous bargain: her brother’s life in exchange for her virginity. Nor—like many a contemporary abuser— does he show any remorse when his perfidy is revealed. Logan Milway takes the comic role of a garrulous bro and runs with it: there is no Elizabethan innuendo that he can’t find a contemporary illustrative gesture for. And as Isabella, the brilliant, poised young woman who finds herself Angelo’s victim, Laker Thrasher (is that really a name?) embodies the emotional maelstrom that a self-possessed person can suffer when they become the object of predatory manipulation.

The performance ends with a shocking gesture that makes its point like a relationship-ending slap, leaving as bad an aftertaste as the play’s many expressions of a culture in which all authority is given to a small number of unaccountable powerful men. Did Shakespeare rise above his time? Another reading might cast the relationship between Isabella and Vincentio in a very different light. But Gray’s staging reveals that, without changing a line, Shakespeare can be seen as sympathetic to the plight of the women of his time, even if expressing himself through ambiguity. At least until a female Shakespeare appears, we can still be intrigued, provoked, and thrilled by such smart, passionate interpretations of the Shakespeare we have.

Aura Theatre Collective presents

Measure for Measure

by William Shakespeare

directed by Jaimelyn Gray

playing through November 24

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Dancing about History

photos by Andy Walsh

by Jeff Grygny

Anyone slightly familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright—arguably Wisconsin’s most influential native-born artist—has heard that he was a difficult man. Those who know a bit more, or even have visited Taliesin, his estate near Spring Green, may know that he had three wives and a mistress over the course of his turbulent personal life (he was evidently better at courtship than at marriage). In Mrs. Wrights, a solo dance theater work currently in production by Quasimondo Physical Theatre, creator/performer Jenni Reinke focuses on those women: their stories, their personalities, and the culture of their times. We don’t learn anything about Frank’s work— which is fine, as their lives are quite compelling, boldly rendered in the mixed media of dance, spoken and recorded text, music, and a distinctive style of visual poetry that is robust enough to express lyrical, tragic, and humorous passages with emotional complexity and choreographic richness.

Reinke created this work as her MFA dance final project and has performed it at several different venues and festivals. The time she’s spent clearly shows: the performance is as finely-shaped and textured as the the simple but beautiful props she uses to tell her stories. This latest iteration takes place in the elegant space of the Charles Allis Art Library. Atmospheric lighting and carefully-curated musical selections convey a wide range of moods and historical contexts, from a folk tune to old-timey jazz to a delightful rap based on the “Feminist Futurist Manifesto,” delivered in the persona of Wright’s second wife, the morphine-addicted sculptor Maude Miriam Noel. Ingenious costume changes create more visual variety, and Reinke often casts articles of clothing in multiple roles: a hat becomes a pot to catch dripping water; an elegant overcoat becomes a synecdoche for Frank at every stage of his life, whether folded up and rocked like an infant or laid out on the floor like a corpse. In one witty sequence, Reinke plays out the beginning of Martha Borthwick’s affair with Wright, with one arm in the coatsleeve making seductive advances while the other arm coyly fends them off. Similarly, a rocking chair is a cradle for one of Catherine Tobin’s six children with Wright; later, as he spends more and more time away, it becomes her cage.

Over the sixty minutes of this long-form dance piece, Reinke covers the lives of five women, spanning a period of nearly a century. She avoids the trap of most biographical theater; though a few voice-overs place the action in time and locale, Reinke focuses on telling moments that crystallize lives, personalities and crisis points. One tasteful yet harrowing sequence relates the incredibly horrible deaths of Wright’s entire family at the hands of a deranged servant, after which Reinke briefly portrays the grieving architect himself.

The narrative sequences frame what can be considered the piece’s primary focus: the extended dances in the modern vernacular that portrays each of the six characters. Reinke could pass for a Modigliani model, an attribute that she uses to great advantage, manifesting a broad palette of shifting moods and gestural feeling tones. Having exhaustively researched each character, she dances with every part of her body, from forehead to toes, distilling each persona into movements which, while deeply personal, express meanings and emotions that elude simple speech. Perhaps in these shapes and staccato rhythms, we can discern, as if by some subtle sense, the mutual influence of these women and Wright’s designs. Like holograms, each part contains the whole. But dance is not a medium for cultural history or art theory, however much the show is charged with both. Those not fluent in the language of dance might be confounded by these sequences, while still being capable of admiring the wave-patterns on the holograms’ surface.

Despite it’s being as semiotically rich as a Christmas fruitcake, with its surreal imagery, tremendous visual flair, emotional authenticity and welcome touches of humor, Mrs. Wrights is a very accessible tour de force of the highest artistic integrity.

Quasimondo Physical Theatre


Mrs. Wrights

created and performed by Jenni Reinke

playing through November 16

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Mysteries of spirit and flesh

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

“The sound of the voice and the music is like a visual landscape. It’s not something you can put on a table and mathematically tear apart and have it make sense.” 
                                                                                                            Michael Stipe

According to the historian Plutarch, in the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE, by the way), sailors heard a voice across the sea crying “Great Pan is dead.” This strange story has often been interpreted as the pagan world acknowledging the beginning of a new epoch: the death of Pan (eros) means the end of nature’s rule on earth and the dawn of the spiritual age of Christ (logos). Similarly, The Sibylline Prophesies, depicting the voices of seers predicting the virgin birth of Jesus, were popular during the first centuries of the Christian era; they gave the new religion the authority of pagan wisdom. Now, two thousand years later, an extraordinary performance brings eros and logos into a reverent, if sometimes fraught, conversation.

In Utterance, Ancient Prophesies/Modern Revelations, Milwaukee Opera Theatre embarks on another of their inspired collaborations; this time with the vocal ensemble Aperi Animam (whose name means “open your soul’), and Cadance Collective, consisting of two musicians and a dancer. Together, in the cavernous space of Calvary Episcopalian Church, they perform a wondrously ritualistic juxtaposition of Orlande de Lassus’ Renaissance-era setting of the Sibylline Prophecies with Eternal Burning, a contemporary work commissioned for the occasion from local composer/poet Amanda Schoofs.

As gorgeously delivered by Aperi Animam under the music direction of Daniel Koplitz, de Lassus’ songs in praise of the Holy Virgin Mary carry our hearts soaring into the nighttime heavens in the spirit of the best sacred music. Voices and phrases resound and overlap like the celestial singing of myriad angels. Schoofs’ settings of short poems sometimes echo the same notes of yearning, but they also incorporate modern dissonances and raw, breathy sounds; they seem more the productions of bodies of bone and blood than the exhalations of supernatural beings. Her texts, like the prophecies, sanctify motherhood, but there the similarity ends: Schoofs draws deeply on her own experience of pregnancy and birth to chronicle the soul-wrenching experience of life creating life in all its intense, contradictory emotions. The self become many as her body performs mysteries of creation that far predate our rational intellects, sounding the primeval, erotic roots of animal life. There are no literal representations of pregnancy, birth, or infants. Rather, we witness a tenebrous ceremony that partakes of the gestures of the Christian Mass, imagery of Gnosticism and alchemy, psychodrama, and the trappings of a particularly theatrical goth band.

A fine haze gives body to a space framed by tall Gothic-arched windows and empty but for circles of chairs open to the four directions. High-tech lighting by local genius Antishadows sculpts the atmosphere into volumes that shift, change hue, and project abstract shapes in austere stately rhythms to create a wide variety of moods. Black-clad figures emerge from the surrounding darkness, carrying books. Their clothing is adorned with rags bearing esoteric emblems. There is great variety in body shape, hairstyle choices, and gender coding, but they all look determinedly goth, with liberal use of black eyeliner. The Cadance Collective weaves in and out of the circle, carrying their flute and cello; Christina Wagner, the dancer, makes her entrance as the sole performer in white, but her angular movements suggest nothing like the classic Virgin’s serenity. Symbolic actions unfold in a measured pace: the drawing of a circle on the floor with rice poured from a seemingly inexhaustible vase; a milky fluid transferred back and forth between two cups; vestments donned. Three performers representing “the trinity of female identity” interact with each other and the chorus in scenes that seem laden with narratives we can feel more than follow with our intellects. We are like like initiates in some secret cult, washed over in music both earthy and divine.

photo by Mark Frohna

An elegant program booklet helpfully gives us the texts of all the songs, with titles that obliquely hint at their meanings. Schoofs’ lyrics are vivid with bodily imagery: burning, breath, flesh, lungs, voice, “milk, filth, and blood.”  The phrase “Feel everything” occurs twice, and a section called “A Revelation” has only three lines:

With flesh
All things
Have beauty

The performance alternates between modern and Renaissance songs, enacting an unspoken dialog between their very different worlds, the sense of which will be different for each hearer. While one voice struggles to “feel everything,” the other celebrates the miracle of the incarnation. The tension between earth and heaven, immanence and transcendence, is almost palpable. After two millennia of trying to ascend to the sky, the animal body here pulses in all its carnality. And this is not the sublimated eros of Botticelli; this eros is wild, fierce, burning, and dangerous—like the great god Pan, full of ecstasy, derangement, and wisdom. Stage director Danny Brylow’s constant circling centripetal and centrifugal movements, exchanges and transformations, are like symbolic enactments of the most primeval of all rites: the dance of chromosomes and cells within the womb’s magic gestatory circle. These actions materialize and sacralize the space where personal experience meets impersonal biology in the theater of embodied experience.

This mystery play, which, like the ancient rites of Eleusis, reveals cosmic truths to its initiates, played its last performance—rather fittingly—on Halloween night. Complex, daring, exquisite in conception and impeccable in execution, it was a rare gift to our performing arts community. Those who witnessed it will not soon forget it.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre
in collaboration with Aperi Animam and Cadance Collective

Utterance: Ancient Prophesies/Modern Revelations

October 29 – 31

Making History: “Hamilton” plays Milwaukee

Elijah Malcomb, Joseph Morales, Kyle Scatliffe, Fergie L. Philippe and Company-HAMILTON National Tour (c) Joan Marcus 2018

by Jeff Grygny

In a 2015 interview for Vogue magazine,  Lin-Manuel Miranda said that when he first thought of writing Hamilton, he googled “Alexander Hamilton hip hop musical” to see if anyone had already done it. For anyone else, that uninspiring face on the ten dollar bill would seem an unlikely pairing with the beats we hear rattling the glass of many a smoky-windowed vehicle on the streets nowadays. But thus works the mind of genius: to think a crazy idea is worth spending six years on—and turning out to be spectacularly right. Having picked up Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography of Hamilton, Miranda saw himself in the bastard son of the Caribbean, orphaned and destitute at 13, whose writing eloquence earned him a scholarship to New York City and a meteoric career to the top of the country he helped create. Now, after wheelbarrows full awards and a run on Broadway that you needed several portraits of Benjamin Franklin to afford. But could it really be all that?

The production has wended its way at last to the city that will host the 2020 Democratic Convention. Ladies and gentlemen: you can for once believe the hype. Even as a touring show (which evidently is contractually obligated to replicate the Broadway experience in every detail), Hamilton is a nonstop theatrical rush that grabs you by the collar in its opening number, and dazzles you with its seamless union of music, words, movement and stagecraft, tossing out one stunning theatrical moment after another. It’s like being regularly and repeatedly struck by lightning. No wonder people pay big bucks to see it.

Miranda has populated his lyrics incredibly densely with story, context, feelings, and meanings, in wonderfully mischievous and evocative ways (rhyming “Britain” with “shittin” for instance). But though the words often wash over you faster than the brain can take them in, you somehow get the crucial information you need to follow even the abstruse machinations of post-revolutionary politics. Couching debates as rap battles, or setting the rules of dueling to verse, Miranda crafts dramatic poetry as rich as Homer’s, but in contemporary language — a feat that has been the holy grail of playwrights ever since the modern age began. Great narrative poetry expands in the mind to create virtual realities of images and feelings; in Hamilton, we see how Shakespeare would be writing today: with music and a beat. That beat drives the play like the pulse of the title character’s irresistible ambition. And he is a tragic hero. His spectacular success leads to a converse self-implosion, due to that most American of mistakes: not balancing life and work. This tragic flaw leads indirectly to scandal, his fateful duel, and to Aaron Burr’s claim to infamy.

Refined by literally jillions of performances, the production is a perfectly-running machine. The stage is in constant motion, yet even with 26 athletic bodies cavorting at once, Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography highlights the key actions, clarifying the story while embodying the vibrant animal energy of a country being born. Director Thomas Kail and lighting designer Howell Binkley use a revolving stage and rock-concert lighting as limbs of the score, creating dreamlike visions and dazzling climaxes that Wagner could only wish for.

Any one of the touring cast would be a star in this town: these are dedicated professionals, and we are in good hands with them. In the unenviable job of filling Miranda’s shoes, Joseph Morales carries himself with understated humility that contrasts well with Hamilton’s insatiable drive and fierce commitment. Erin Clemons brings calm grace and a bell-like voice to the character of Eliza Hamilton, a role that history has given her little to work with. Warren Egypt Franklin has boisterous energy in dual roles as Lafayette and Jefferson; the latter portrayed as a pompous popinjay (which seems about right, given his recent fall in reputation).  Marcus Choi brings heart to the role of the “Father of Our Country,” without ever really stepping outside the gilded picture frame; while in the to-die-for character role as America’s least popular monarch, Neil Haskell laces George III’s  numbers with petulant sneers. Nik Walker clearly relishes playing the complex character of Aaron Burr, the colonial aristocrat who advises young Alexander to “talk less, smile more,” and to hide his hand until it’s clear which side is winning.

The Hamilton/Burr relation sets up one of the show’s most potent themes; one that is, remarkably, conveyed almost entirely by subtext. That the nation’s founders should be played by performers of color, singing and dancing in a distinctively African-American musical idiom, is the opposite of a coincidence here. The song “My Shot” makes Miranda’s identification with this poor immigrant’s drive and talent absolutely clear, and, as delivered by this cast with fierce passion, the implications are enough to send any white supremacists in the house running screaming for the exits. “Immigrants, we get the job done,” proclaims another character. Hamilton, an American Musical reiterates the Obama-era aspiration that this is where anyone can make it, given heart, talent, and a level playing field, while it brilliantly makes democracy feel exciting in a way that it hasn’t seemed in decades. One gesture says it: the way the men in the cast flourish their Colonial coat-tails like banners—the motion captures the bravado of a visionary time, when the old order was ablaze, with a new world rising from its burnt foundations.

The real Hamilton was far from populist; his opinions have often bolstered conservative arguments for keeping power in the hands of the elite. But Miranda has fashioned a new myth, one that vibrates with the aspirations of any minority: not to wait for change, like Burr, but to plunge forward and make your own world.

Artistically, Hamilton is a magnificent trailblazing achievement, showing the robust energy and narrative richness of the “hip-hopera” as an accessible musical form. We hope to live long enough to see Shakespeare, Aeschylus, and newer, yet-undreamed stories getting similarly creative treatments. Ideologically, the show hews uncomfortably close to the neoliberal embrace of meritocratic identity politics; as if the system is just fine, as long as it is accessible to anyone with the right stuff regardless of race, ethnicity or gender orientation. Brothers and sisters: the system is not fine. Between the transglobal plutocracy and ecological catastrophe, succeeding under this world order is like getting a comfier room on the Titanic.

Or maybe we’ll tear it down and raise something better. (If we do, it would be nice to have people like Hamilton on our side.)

However that may be, Hamilton makes making history look both understandable and fun. And that is why the movie adaptation must be made, like, five years ago, so that its message can quicken pulses throughout the globe—especially those who don’t have the Benjamins for the ticket. Your move, Mr. Miranda, sir!

Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman
and The Public Theater

book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

playing through November 17th

Domestic Terror

photo by Christal Wagner

by Jeff Grygny

“You didn’t think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you?”

The title of The Constructivists’ latest production conjures the image of a crowned, horned figure,  marshaling demonic hordes in a computer-game battle for the soul of the world. The play itself is closer to our everyday lives—and consequently much scarier. The sense of metaphysical struggle in The God of Hell is keenly present, though expressed in a different set of metaphors. And since it’s Sam Shepard writing, the battle takes place in a farmhouse in rural Wisconsin.

Once upon a time, Frank and Emma live in isolation; he’s devoted to his heifers; she, to her sprawling collection of houseplants. They live comfortably, if not blissfully. But when Frank invites an old buddy, a fellow named Hayes, to stay in their basement, it exposes their peaceful lives to sinister powers they could never have imagined: in a day, their sleepy dream turns into a nightmare. Shepard’s poetic style is as short on plot details as it is heavy on allusion. Without ever telling us the exact nature of the work Hayes is fleeing from, or the agency he worked for, the story sends out tendrils of association, like a surrealist painting outgrowing its frame, to include agribusiness, neoliberalism, globalization, the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, right-wing fanaticism, the Rocky Flats Plutonium facility, the military-industrial complex, political torture, conspiracy theories, corruption, contagion, and the Biblical fall of Adam and Eve. The “god” of the title is the Roman ruler of the underworld, whose name is shared with the most poisonous radioactive element used in nuclear bombs—but it can be no coincidence that he was also the god of wealth, hence “plutocracy.” Shepard wrote this little fable in response to the Iraq war, the recent revelations from Abu Graib, and, as he put it, “republican fascism,”  but the dynamics it describes certainly live on today, though in different forms.

It would be hard to imagine a fuller realization of the play than this one, masterfully executed by director Jaimelyn Gray and her team of talented artists. As Emma and Frank, Cheryl Roloff and Robert W.C. Kennedy don’t strain to become icons of innocence (though the dome-pated Kennedy does rather resemble the stern farmer from American Gothic).  Roloff could be nearly anybody’s gentle-hearted aunt. As Hayes, Matthew Scales is vaguely scholarly and foreign, with a hint of danger about him; not just simple danger: X-files level danger. What have they been doing in that secret facility in Colorado? But the show really belongs to Matthew Huebsch as the government factotum Welch. From creepily cheery to full-out Nazi, his can-do patriotism and twisted Orwellian logic soon bend everyone out of true. With his wide jawline and a fanatical glitter in his eyes, Huebsch is like Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad character in the flesh.

From it’s mildly farcical beginning, the action soon strikes a sinister note, and the tension never lets up, building to a terrifying, over-the-top Walpurgisnacht climax. The lovingly-crafted set is possibly the most professional-looking ever to grace the stage of the Underground Collaborative. There is even a live stove on which Emma burns bacon; the wafting aroma somehow becomes yet another apt metaphor. The play wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without the attention to detail that the production crew brings.

These days it’s easy to feel that life in America was wonderful just before today’s political headaches. But The God of Hell reminds us that our current plight was a long time in the making. Who are the Trumph enthusiasts if not the people who chanted “USA!” while Bush’s invasion blasted an entire country to rubble so that Cheney’s petroleum cronies could profit richly? Who are the ones kenneling immigrant children but the ones who ran the black ops torture sites? Those people should have been held to account; instead, they were given convenient passes out of a misguided sense of preserving domestic tranquility. But Shepard shows us what can happen once ordinary men and women—neither good nor evil, but simply human—let the devil get his foot in the door. By doing this play now, the Constructivists are sounding a timely alarm. Who will answer it? And what holy relic can we find that will break the devil’s power?

The Constructivists present

The God of Hell

by Sam Shepard

playing through October 12

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Love in the time of the big scam

Robert Powell Photography

by Jeff Grygny

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law

                   “The Goose and the Common” (18th century protest song)

Back when Thomas Jefferson’s parents were kids making moony-eyes at each other, English playwright John Gay mashed up some current news. An infamous highwayman, a famously crooked prime minister, and a basket of popular songs, and voila! Musical comedy was born:  The Beggar’s Opera, with its dashing antihero Macheath (a.k.a. Mack the Knife, thanks to Bertolt Brecht, who adapted the play into his own The Threepenny Opera). In a remounting of an earlier production, Theatre Gigante seeks to honor the play’s long and complex history, its themes, and its structure, while also bringing it up to date. That’s quite a job, but the writing/producing duo Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson make it look easy. Chopping and slicing theatrical elements like dramaturgical sushi chefs, they produce a show that’s idea-rich and pleasantly disorienting, with strange combinations of flavors from sweet romance to bitter irony.

Gay framed his musical in a story about a playwright putting on a show; in this version, a modern husband and wife team are struggling to keep their small theater company afloat in the stormy sea of economic recession and scant funding. As the story gets underway, the fence becomes a government official in bed with the firms he’s supposed to be regulating, Macheath becomes a sleazy Milken-like trader, and so on. (One of the show’s funniest gags comes when a character tries to explain the concept of a “tranche” in pantomime.)  But the costumes and settings retain hints of the Eighteenth Century, while the music hearkens back to both light opera and a whiff of Kurt Weil’s acerbic dissonance. The players all give slyly ironic spins to their performances, acknowledging us looking at them—perhaps in keeping with Brecht’s famous “alienation effect,” which dictated that the audience should not become absorbed in the story. (Brecht also advocated the audience smoking during the play; he thought it would encourage analytical distance. But nobody encouraged us to light up during this show—probably for the best.)  

Painted cut-out figures by Carri Skoczek manage to average out the look of George Grosz’s Weimar Berlin grotesques with Hogarth’s satirical Eighteenth-century caricatures. Another of director Kralj’s alienating tactics: perhaps in response to criticisms of the play’s female characters, she has made many of them literally two dimensional. The ingenue Polly, and three prostitutes, are played by actors wielding cardboard cut-outs. The songs, composed by area musician Dan Dance, hearken back to the romantic love songs of bygone days, and they sound fantastic under the skilled music direction of Ruben Piirainen. But the performance undercuts any romanticism they might have had. They rather convey the sardonic mood of innocence betrayed, self-dealing openly embraced, and charisma as just another asset in the game of greed.

It’s nice to see a good mixture of seasoned and up-and-coming players on this stage. Youngster Ben Yela is a surprisingly likeable crooked bureaucrat, while his conniving wife is played by veteran singer Leslie Fitzwater, whose deep understanding of the musical genre lets her play with the conventions of performance with great gusto. Steven Koehler brings his professional experience to the role of Macheath, adding a hint of desperation to the character’s sleazy charisma. A.J. Magoon (is that really a name?), carrying Polly’s cutout, delivers her lines, songs, and dances with just a hint of a smirk, but otherwise plays his ingenue role with perfect seriousness. And Rick Pendzich takes enormous glee in making his in-story parts a silly as possible; connoisseurs of cartoon snores will not be disappointed.

Robert Powell Photography

With its references to collateralized debt obligations and Bernie Madoff, the script is more pertinent to the America of ten years ago (a time that seems almost like a golden age compared with today’s garbage fire). But in at least one way the landscape is unchanged: slick hucksters still gin the rules for their own profit. It just reminds us how little we have learned in the past decade—or the past two centuries, for that matter. The scam never ends. Even the most sympathetic characters, the theater couple (who, just by coincidence happen to resemble Anderson and Kralj) face their own moral dilemma in the form of a foundation that offers substantial grant support in exchange for sacrificing some artistic freedom—the eternal problem of “selling out.” If all big money is tainted by predatory capitalism, how is the artist to pay the bills and still claim integrity? The world makes beggars of us all.

This Beggars Opera doesn’t pretend to solve that quandary. But the closing number, beautifully sung by the whole cast, out of character and gathered around the piano, seems to say: “We’re all in this together. It’s a dirty world—but at least we have each other.”

Theatre Gigante presents

The Beggar’s Opera
based on the original by John Gay
written and adapted by Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson

playing through October 12