She had her reasons

photo by Laura Heise

by Jeff Grygny

Nobody could say from the start that Jason, the soldier of fortune, and Medea, the sorceress, were good for each other. Once she helped him steal the golden fleece from her native Colchis, they left a trail of aristocratic corpses all over the ancient world, murdered by her magic for his gain. When he dumped her for a young princess, leaving her with their two children, alone in a foreign country, she, having burned all her bridges, was epically ticked off.

So we find her at the beginning of Euripides’ Medea, which is playing this week in a low-key but potent interpretation by Voices Found Repertory. This young troupe is dedicated to performing the classics of Western drama, and here they have assembled possibly their strongest cast yet, with some of their best regulars plus a few high-powered players making their debut with the company.

We don’t know what Greek tragedies were actually like; we know that many of the speeches were sung, that they used music, dance, and spectacle, and that the performers wore voice-amplifying masks and high cothurni that magnified their height. Under the steady direction of Jennifer Vosters, this production takes a naturalistic and very effective direction. Vosters has adapted the 2500 year old dialog to sound like people actually talk today, and trimmed out all but evocative hints of the poetry to sculpt a spare, 75-minute drama that plays out with all the tension and verisimilitude of a contemporary podcast, with moments of magic and moments of comic relief. The story’s inevitable tragic arc rises to the intensity of today’s version of the battle of the sexes, right down to the tabloid headline: “Scorned mother murders her own children.”  

 The actors deliver subtle, relatable characters: Madeline Wakley, Maura Atwood, and Abigail Stein form a chorus of attendants whose individual voices give us different opinions on the unfolding action. Catalina Ariel, as the household nurse, seems to have a special sympathy for the foreign-born protagonist. When the women help Medea to mix the poison that brings horrible death to her rival, their song and movement conjures the ancient rituals of Greece. Joe Dolan and Kilian Thomas bring welcome notes of lightness, while Bill Molitor plays King Creon like a tough-hearted CEO. Andy Montano shows us Jason’s arrogance and cruelty without descending into caricature.

In the title role, Cara Johnston similarly avoids operatic histrionics, and, while she plays neither a villain nor a madwoman, she brings a larger-than-life quality: you can well believe that she might be a powerful sorceress. Johnston makes it clear that the deed that brings the play to its dreadful conclusion comes, not from rage and hurt alone, but also from an Olympian clarity of justice.

Therese Goode’s sound design deserves mention for subtle atmospheres, evoking emotional tones that could be either ancient and modern, exotic or close at hand; as do Claire Tidwell’s simple, elegant costumes that clarify the characters’ social status.

As for what the story has to say to our times, I can offer nothing more insightful than novelist Rachel Cusk, who wrote a modern update of Medea: For Cusk, “the truthful idea of damage to children” is the heart of the play:

“[T]his is what Medea sees and this is what Euripides sees, and it’s so good that someone sees that it absolutely relies on the institutionalised culture of motherhood to mop up and conceal the essential cynicism of divorce. What happens is: man leaves woman, children are damaged, and woman is expected to continue their lives and her life as a self-sacrificing pretence. The fact of this damage to children is covered up by everybody and Medea doesn’t do that, she won’t do it, she says: ‘These are our children and if you leave me the grounds for their existence are not there anymore.’ They are cancelled, in a way.”

Voices Found has given us a respectful, simple, yet fresh and vital presentation, demonstrating that the classic play still has the power to provoke,  even after two and a half millennia.

Voices Found Repertory presents

Euripides’ Medea

adapted and directed by Jennifer Vosters

playing through December 16

Shouting Theater in a Crowded Firehouse

photo by Quasimondo Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

There are a lot of reasons why Celsius 232, the new play that opened last Friday,  is a momentous event. First, it’s the first full production by Quasimondo Physical Theatre—the most creative and ambitious theater company in town—in a year. Since being unceremoniously booted from their Grand Avenue space by new management (it remains empty to this day), they have been much missed. Next, it marks the debut of their new space, “The Milwaukee Arthaus,” the century-old firehouse in all it’s decrepit grandeur baptized, as it were, with live performance, after a year of tedious but necessary negotiations, permissions, gutting, cleaning, electrifying, and asbestos-removing labor (yes, the firehouse bell still works!). Then, it’s also the first creative collaboration between Quasimondo and Milwaukee’s other creator of original movement-based theater, Cooperative Performance. Finally, the companies have created a show that is entirely appropriate both for the setting and for the crazy-making times we’re living in: a free adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. The metricization of the title clues you that this might not be a straightforward adaptation—and indeed it is not. Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, with its McCarthy-era intellectual panic, fear of truth-erasing totalitarianism, pop-culture know-nothings, coercive media distractions, pharmaceutical dependency and scary artificial intelligence, is relevant to—well, most of what’s going on in America these days.

But this one has clowns.

The two companies have pooled many of their strongest performers, while co-directors Brian Rott and Don Russell bring their respective strengths of movement and textual interpretation to create a performance that tells Bradbury’s fable with poetic richness and many layers of thematic complexity. The Arthaus performs well enough in it’s new life as a theater; it’s hardly the roughest venue the bohemian artists have ever played in. It’s dark, bare—and, on opening night, cold—but neat, and furnished with comfortable seating, affording everyone in the sold-out crowd a good view. The ambience suits the story; Bridget Cookson’s walls of ripped out book pages and functional pegs for the firemen’s gear, creates a sculptural yet functional setting. Meticulously-assembled costumes conjure early 60s sci-fi films. Russell’s sound design, consisting entirely of percussive beats, makes for a brutal, agit-prop mood. Movement sections are punctuated by dialog scenes and aria-like breaks of spoken word prose. The clown makeup is meticulously-wrought and customized to each performer, while Michael Pettit’s mechanical hound puppet, seemingly modeled after the defense department’s four-legged robot experiments, is a glittering, insectoid shard of nightmare fuel.

Most intriguing is the decision to cast the firemen (who in this future world are tasked with burning books, those repositories of corrosive ideas that cause people to question the truth and rightness of The Way Things Are) as clowns. Late in the play, their plastic noses, blink with the red and blue anything-but-funny lights of cop cars. The show’s funniest moment, a high-energy visitation of low-skilled emergency techs, is dark humor indeed, echoing dystopian satire from Kafka to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Fictional hell-worlds, like those flashing noses, are warning signals: the work of artists in their role as mirrors, chroniclers, and coal-mine canaries. The goal is not to cheer us up, leaving the theater with a smile on our lips and a song in our heart; a sick feeling in the gut is more like it. Bradbury said that the aim of stories like this isn’t to predict an evil future, but to prevent one.

In fact, this show, like the book, pushes back against anodyne, junk entertainment—hard. We watch Mildred, the fireman’s wife, nervously overdose on tranquilizers, thus needing the emergency blood change. (“We do ten of these a night!” chirps the unnaturally cheery medtech guy.) Mildred is also addicted to the inane interactive dramas she watches on the wall sized “parlor screens” that are status symbols in this weirdly familiar future. In a sensitive, subtle performance by Ben Ludwig, Mildred is more tragic than villainous, even when she turns her husband in for trying to make her read a book; like many human beings, she is caught between her desire for happiness and a mediated social system that offers only chaff and poison.

Ben Yela, effortlessly carrying the narrative as the fireman Guy Montag, walks the journey from unthinking professional thug awakening to inquisitiveness, catalyzed by an encounter with a free-spirited teen, played with disarming goofiness by Jessi Miller. “Are you happy?” she asks him—and that simple question sets off a chain reaction that puts him at odds with his job, his wife, and the whole world. The fireman clowns are all humanized, each with his or her distinct character as they perform stylized motions of their daily tasks. Only when they are menacing an illicit book-reader do they, in their long coats, oversized boots, and helmets, seem like the impersonal apparatus of the repressive state. The only completely frightening character is Montag’s supervisor Beatty, played with icy precision by Kirk Thomsen. Suspecting Montag of unsanctioned thinking, he questions him about his love for sports with the toxic cheerfulness of the alpha male. Later, he reveals himself to be the truest villain: the one who knows what’s in the books—as he demonstrates by quoting Alexander Pope by memory—but deems that the complexities therein threaten the social order.

photo by Quasimondo Theatre

At one point Yela’s Montag, to prove his bona fides as a book-hating patriot, rips a paperback copy of Fahrenheit 45 in half—which is pretty much what this show does. Now, Ray Bradbury had choice words for people who cut his work for any reason: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” What would he say, then, about the adapters’ choice to essentially rip out the book’s conclusion? Rather than following Montag to his discovery of a community of living books, committed to memorizing the great works of literature, and watching from the countryside as mushroom clouds purify civilization in nuclear fire, Celsius 232 ends with the bummer scene of the clowns taking off their costumes and collapsing into a sobbing mass, literalizing one character’s words to Montag: “Once you begin to think, you might not be happy about what you discover.” It brings to mind the first intellectual martyr, Socrates, who went around questioning everything and ended up being executed as a corrosive element to society. Does thinking really make us miserable and outcast? Is there any middle ground between the need for happiness and the search for truth?

Classical aesthetic theory holds that art should create a unified whole, with tension building to a resolution. In modern times, many artists decided that resolutions were phony at best and oppressive at worst (Bradbury himself was no great fan of modernity). Randall Munroe, genius and creator of the web comic xkcd, commented on this state of affairs in a recent cartoon: “When I was a kid, I just assumed that Jonah dies at the end of The Giver because the book had a medal on the cover and I knew grown-ups liked it when sad things happen at the end for no reason.” Withholding resolution smacks of the Theater of Cruelty. But for better or worse, it shifts the privilege—and the burden— of meaning-making onto us, the audience.

Then there are the clowns. The performers are totally committed to embodying these all-too-human creatures, and casting this dark fable as a clown show opens a door for compassion towards even the most ignorant members of society, yes, even them. In Rott’s style of clowning (there are styles of clowning now? Who knew?), a clown is a human animal, pared down to the childlike, instinctual core—kind of like Homer Simpson. Feeling rather than thinking, they are neither good nor evil, but are capable of doing either. Such unreflective beings are easily manipulated by con artists and despots; easy prey for mindless scams, vulnerable to distraction and likely to overindulge. They get sloppy drunk, are enraged by fake news, scoff at climate change but embrace conspiracy theories, go off on internet rants, drive oversized SUVs, tweet obsessively, shoot selfies, walk around with their faces glued to their smartphone screens, and readily believe that it’s “us” against “them.” They are everything that the traditions of humanism, religions, and tribal customs try to get us to not be. In general, they exhibit the fundamental narcissism that isn’t really that far from any one of us.

In the immortal words of The Firesign Theater: “I think we’re all bozos on this bus.”

Quasimondo Physical Theatre in collaboration with Cooperative Performance present

Celsius 232

playing through December 15

Love, Art, Blood, and Chaos

Alchemist Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

Director and scholar Herbert Blau called the art of theater “blooded thought:” philosophy with a hot pulse. There’s no stage blood in Punk is Dead!, Aaron Kopec’s latest Halloween play at the Alchemist Theatre, but figuratively, it wallows in the stuff. Kopec’s previous Halloween shows have been creepily entertaining, with touches of the supernatural, laced with Kopec’s writerly musings. This play, with it’s claustophobic focus on two unhealthily-entangled characters, is like the absurdist classic Endgame— except instead of Samuel Beckett’s quaint European postwar despair, Kopec offers a post-punk scream of whisky-and-heroin-soaked American hell.

Making his main characters both female rides the current cultural wave and lets the infinite emotional gradients of their love-hate tango glisten like the rainbows in a stagnant oil slick, as they bungee-cord between unspoken yearning and junk-fueled abandon; bitter resentment and domestic violence, with the occasional quiet moment in between. Natasha Mortazavi and Liz Mistele deliver fearless, excruciatingly raw performances. The hour-long first act plays out the dynamics of their relationship, and it’s exhausting: Beckett turned up to eleven.

The production has the usual grungy Alchemist flair: Evan Crain’s set design is intricate and naturalistic with an artsy touch; the music and lighting are virtually their own characters, changing in a heartbeat to suit the ever-shifting moods. Mortazavi plays Stoli, a fallen rich girl who abandoned being her father’s deal-closer, only to inhabit a cluttered shoebox apartment that she rarely leaves. Mistele plays Don, a punk musician who grew up hard in the South; now past her youth; living from gig to gig playing clubs where the kids just don’t get it.  Don drinks whisky out of the bottle and shoots heroin; Stoli seems not to be able to form any new memories.


Playwright Kopec is revisiting many of his favorite themes: the gritty anarchic mileau of the 80s; complex female characters; the conflict between art and commercial culture, and a whiff of the supernatural. Nobody comes out and says that Stoli is an undead blood-drinker; she might just thinks she is as part of her disorder. She does seem to imitate the moves of Max Schreck’s Nosferatu at one point, and late in the play she tells a vague story of how she came to be “not a girl.” In the second act, Don brings a man home, presumably to provide a meal for Stoli, but nothing much seems to come of it. Mostly, they share stories. In Kopec’s distinctive cocktail of trash-talk and literary prose, the stories are vivid and memorable, drawn with a fine sense of detail and ambiguity.

The fun part comes after the show, when you— hopefully over a strong drink, because you’ll need it after the emotional wringer you’ve been through— try to puzzle out what all this blooded thought was thinking about. It is what it is, of course, but—codes of class and status pervade this odd couple. A dead rich girl and an outsider musician, locked together in a careening, if stable, relationship: it’s pretty juicy. Could this be a dark satirical portrait of neoliberal capitalism, seductive but dead, in a love-hate tango with art? The world of oligarchy leeching the life-force of trapped, crazy, addictive enablers ? Discuss!

Don and Stoli form what chaos theory describes as a “robust chaotic system:” a pattern that repeats itself with variations over time, periodically teetering into disorder before it re-establishes the status quo. Evolutionary biologists tell us that those dips into chaos are where mutations and variations come from—it’s an intriguing, even romantic, description of the creative process, venturing into the wild to glean scraps of something unknown. In this reading, Stoli can’t help being what she is: a vampire who, incapable of anything new, has snagged an artist, a chaotic source of creativity, to support her; like the modern world fetishises innovation in the name of “disruption” that keeps it in power.

But nobody can predict what creativity will discover. Do the math: maybe there is hope for something new after all.

Alchemist Theater presents

Punk is Dead!

by Aaron Kopec

playing through October 27

It’s Only Empires Burning: Voices Found Stages a Bloody Classic

Voices Found Repertory

by Jeff Grygny

You don’t see Titus Andronicus much, but it was young Will Shakespeare’s breakout hit; Elizabethan audiences went crazy for the maimed Lavinia writing her rapist’s names with a stick held between her mutilated stumps, and Aaron the Moor pleading for the life of his illegitimate half-breed infant son. With it’s winning blend of politics, intrigue, sex, murder, rape, multiple dismemberments, madness, and human meat pie, the play tops every scene with one more outrageous than the last. It was the Game of Thrones of it’s time.

You can see for yourself what all the fuss was about in this fast-moving, respectful interpretation by Voices Found Repertory, directed by Hannah Kubiak, who resists the pull of melodrama and Shakespearean shoutiness (though some of the men do vent their understandable wrath with animalistic roars). In the title role of the veteran general who makes one spectacularly bad decision after another, Maya Danks brings a cool stoicism that morphs into crazy eyes late in the show. Brittany Faye Byrnes brings a smouldering outsider’s energy to the role of Aaron.

Voices Found Repertory

With a petty, corrupt leader, bitter internal strife, partisan treachery, and the Goth hordes massing at the gates, the fall of Rome can’t be far away. Certainly there could be no possible parallel with the current state of our nation!

Voices Found Repertory presents

Titus Andronicus

by William Shakespeare

playing through October

Punk Chick Comix

by Jeff Grygny

Where can you go for a stylish rendering of Shakespeare’s classic tale of brave young people rebelling against the elitist patriarchy to find true love? Off The Wall Theatre, that’s where. This would be a spoiler—except that director Dale Gutzman pretty much reveals it in his pre-show speech. His program note, a gnomic poem by counterculture psychologist R.D. Laing, gives you another good idea where he’s coming from:


The Taming of the Shrew is not performed much anymore. Just maybe because—oh, because of the rampant misogyny of most of the characters, how Petruchio manhandles, starves, and brainwashes Katherine, who at the end delivers a long speech about how wives must submit to their husbands? Not exactly in the temper of these exquisitely egalitarian times.  Gutzman, with great faith in Shakespeare’s transcendental  humanism, plays against the literal text to find an alternative meaning. Will it satisfy all viewers? Probably not. But at the very least it provides fuel for radical thinking, and a great deal of wicked, farcical fun.

This is a belligerent, antisocial production, raging at the hypocrisy of a society that sells young female flesh to the highest bidder under the sanctimonious pretense of marriage. With a set consisting of expressionistically-angled white walls daubed with crude bloody smears, costumes that evoke a timeless modernity, exaggerated characters, and subversive shtick, it’s Commedia dell’arte by way of underground comics. Add a bleak yet emotionally-rich soundtrack of songs by British “gloom rockers” The Smiths, and the stylistic cocktail is potent, kinetic, disturbing, and often hilarious.

photo by Off the Wall Theatre

The talented cast pulls off this ambitious feat of theatrical courage: a comedy about one of the most sensitive topics of our time. Shakespeare’s creaky episodic narrative technique is definitely showing it’s age— but it, too, is rough, punky, and like a comic strip. And there are enough Italian names to cast another Godfather sequel. The subplot featuring Katherine’s sister Bianca, played with suburban brattiness by Jenny Kosek, could be a farce all on it’s own (and probably was, considering Shakespeare’s habit of scavenging stories).  Two of her suitors disguise themselves as tutors in order to get close to her: Jeremy Welter’ amusingly creepy goth musician and Nathan Danzer’s clueless upper-class twit. Meanwhile, Randall Anderson, as a servant impersonating his high-born master, deftly shows us an underling coming to enjoy the perks of status.

But of course the hot molten center of the play is the perverse relationship between Alicia Rice’s Katherine and Jake Russell’s Petruchio. They are both privileged, obviously damaged, and a couple of very bad kids. When we meet Kate, she’s throwing an epic tantrum, screaming verbal barbs in every direction. Petruchio appears to us at the bad end of a bender—he and his bro-servant enabler Grumio, convincingly played by Max Williamson, vomiting into plastic buckets. Of the two leads, Petruchio seems the more wounded; Russell’s sociopathic actings-out, reeling from exploit to exploit, are sick fun to watch— like a compilation of car crashes on YouTube. Why exactly does he abuse Katherine so badly? He doesn’t seem to know himself, as if it’s the only way he knows how to reach out (the smooch he plants on her with the famous line “Kiss me, Kate,” is unlikely to pass muster with the #MeToo crowd).

It’s up to Kate to recognize a kindred spirit who breaks all the rules of the game, and Rice takes us along on every step of her journey. James Strange brings smarmy dignity to the role of the girls’ exasperated father, while Mark Ninneman and William Molitor earn laughs as a couple more father figures caught up in the multiple deceptions. In the final scene, where the men gather to smoke cigars and make power-displays while the women are sent away, everything comes together: this interpretation is as much about wealth and power as it is about the battle of the sexes. We clearly see a picture of a society that enables selfish, greedy men to distort the souls of everyone around them.

Katherine’s final speech gives Rice her heaviest sub-textual lifting, and each audience member must judge for herself whether or not it works. A cliché ending would show Katherine walking away; Gutzman’s romantic ending is more hopeful, maybe even more emotionally astute: it affirms the possibility of people finding a genuine connection —in spite of the fucked-up world they grew up in.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

The Taming of the Shrew

by William Shakespeare

Directed by Dale Gutzman

playing through October 7

From the Barrio, with Love

Photo  by Michael  Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

Lin-Manuel Miranda. Ever since the space-warpingly successful Hamilton hit Broadway, he’s been the hottest thing in musical theater; we should really give his name as “Lin-Manuel Miranda!” or better still: ¡Lin-Manuel Miranda! For Milwaukeeans curious about this prodigy, but without the means or desire to cough up the equivalent of a luxury car payment for travel and tickets, there have been few good options. Now, Milwaukee Repertory Theater is offering In The Heights, Miranda’s love letter to the Washington Heights neighborhood where he grew up, and the first musical on his path to glory. Of all the theater companies in town, only the Rep has the resources to bring a mostly Hispanic cast of professional singer/dancer/actors to realize the show as completely as they do here. There is some irony in the well-heeled opening night crowd, full of wealthy donors, cheering on a slice-of-life musical about immigrants from the Dominican Republic scraping out a living in Upper Mahnhattan; it’s a little like the Renaissance nobles enjoying pageants of happy shepherds. But the world is full of ironies, and the chilled souls of Wisconsinites have always been enchanted by our neighbors south of the border. However that may be, it’s undeniable that the Rep delivers the goods in every way: Great music, wonderful dancing, moving performances, surprises, laughs, and characters that really do win their way into your heart.

The stories are interwoven around a single street, where a bodega, a beauty shop, a flavored-ice cart, and the local graffiti artist are all fixtures. The issues of these first-generation immigrants— women and men, parents and children, the struggle for money and the yearning to escape to something bigger—are universal. But Miranda’s street-eye view, his empathy for his characters, and his Shakespearean use of language—especially in the rap numbers for which he is justly famous— spin theme, psychology, and dramatic action into a flow of witty wordplay. Together with winning performances, Dan Kazemi’s reliably all-in music direction, and stage direction by May Adrales that weaves the story into a whole fabric, skillfully playing with focus on key moments while encouraging her cast to show subtle relationships and revealing actions, the production pulses with the beating heart of a community; even the unnamed characters bring vitality and distinctive personalities.

Ryan  Alvarado is our charismatic narrator, and master rapper, while Stephanie Gomerez is his saucy heart-throb, and Nicolas Garza his street-smart little brother; Sophia Macías and David  Kaverman soulfully discover each other, while Tony Chiroldes and Karmine Alers bring humor and dignity as a husband and wife chasing the American Dream; Henry  Gainza’s golden voice vends piragua, and the delightful Lillian  Castillo enlivens every scene as the beauty shop owner. Yassmin Alers is radiant, in a down-to-earth way, as the grandmotherly spirit of the tribe. Many of the players have performed this show before, and many remark in their program bios just how meaningful it is to them to be telling “our story.” Their commitment is more than professional, more even than artistic, and it shows.

Miranda is generous to his characters, giving everyone their moment—which accounts for the show’s nearly three-hour playing time. But time passes quickly as the story moves among the assorted domestic dramas: a winning lottery ticket, a dance club showdown, a rap battle, a city-wide blackout that occasions a spontaneous street fiesta. The magic of the show—and what may be most essential to its audiences—is how all the elements, in continuous inter-relation with each other, create a life that is greater than their sum. This mirrors how community is created out of countless little gestures, affections, bonds and shared experiences. In his modern classic The Gift, poet Lewis Hyde describes how many tribal peoples practice a “gift economy:” when someone has wealth, they give it away, incurring prestige and bonds of gratitude. When someone receives a gift, they at some point pass it along to someone else; the point isn’t to accumulate wealth, but to insure that value keeps moving, guaranteeing a flow of prosperity to all members of the society. It is how societies stay vital. In gift economies, relationships are personal and warm— in sharp contrast to the economy of the market, where everyone calculates how much they can get from every transaction, and wealth exists only to hoard (which society would you rather live in?).

If In The Heights is a little like a cartoon, it’s not because the characters are two-dimensional; rather it’s because, as seen through the rosy glow of Miranda’s love, it’s animated—by a vitality that spills beyond the skin, into the air, into the music, into the movement; a vivid picture of what life is like when you live, not as an isolated “me,” but as one of an “us.” Performance is perhaps the most generous of all the arts; this show a wonderful gift to the city.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents

In The Heights

Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes

playing through October 28–Events/201819-Season/In-the-Heights/

A Fabulous Mess

photo by All In Productions

by Jeff Grygny

With Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the upstart company All In Productions proves once more that they can put on a handsome, high-quality, edgy show. This wildly popular rock musical about the East German lounge singer with the unfortunate sex change operation is maybe not for the average Packer fan; but it has been taken into the bosoms (foam rubber and otherwise) of the LGBTQ community and friends, for whom it has become anthemic.

The story of this funny/sad/angry musical mirrors certain aspects of playwright John Cameron Mitchell’s life: the titular chanteuse grow up in East Germany and moves to Grand Junction Colorado (as did Mitchell); her rock star protege is the son of an army commander (as was Mitchell), and her profession (part-time babysitter sidelining as a prostitute) was inspired by a woman who actually babysat young Mitchell when his father was stationed in Germany. The hilariously bitter script plays with philosophy as well: Hedwig sings a story from Plato about how Zeus created love by splitting primeval humanity into two halves, which have been seeking each other ever since. And she names her own “other half” after the Greek word gnosis, which denotes a transcendental experience of truth.

Hedwig is on a misguided quest to complete herself by joining with another. But she finds strength in music even more than from wigs and mascara. After a cathartic climax, it’s not clear exactly what happens; we seem to depart from the fiction of the concert into some sort of meta-theater: the resolution is in the music, not the story. What seems clear at the end, though, is that this tortured, heroic soul has attained her gnosis.

But the show isn’t all myth-making, dirty jokes, and Germanic angst—simply put: it rocks. Music director Paula Foley Tillen and her band blow up the stage with the energy and spirit of the 80’s sounds that inspired Stephen Trask’s score, from pop to punk. It’s a pity that amplification issues sometimes muddy Trask’s wonderful lyrics, but the shifting waves of emotion come across loud and clear, like a queer Beethoven’s rock and roll symphony. In the title role, the incredibly talented Brett Sweeney surely gives one of the essential performances of the season; whether over-sharing with the audience, quivering like Tina Turner, or twitching on the floor like Iggy Pop, Sweeney delivers it all with courage, a powerful voice, and sensitivity to the moment. This Hedwig is especially tragicomic; we are never far from the wounded human being behind the risque asides and heavy makeup.

Director Robbie McGhee has created a plausible little world of the feckless Eurotrash band and their “ internationally-ignored” front person. There is clearly some backstory going on; we don’t really know what it is, but it gives everything a sense of happening in the moment, and makes the band into characters, not just an orchestra. A pair of theatrically-inclined guitarists especially bring their A games to each campy moment.  Lydia Rose Eiche gets her chance to belt a little as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s “husband;” a former drag queen who has been forbidden to queen, lest she upstage the star. (Yes, the drag queen husband is played by a woman in male drag, who later appears in female drag: how’s that for blurring boundaries? Incidentally, for the record: Hedwig is not trangender; Mitchell has clarified that we are to consider her “genderqueer.”) McGhee also adds a few gratuitous but audience-pleasing touches, as when they toss large inflatable gummy bears into the audience to bat around, or a cameo appearance by a life-sized, disgruntled Oompa-Loompa. Designer Lyn Kream has created Hedwig’s fabulous wardrobe, and Mike Van Dreser’s lighting brings a surprising variety of visual moods to the otherwise simple set.

In what has clearly been a labor of love, All In Productions has given this very challenging show as full a realization as you could wish. Even the gods have to smile at that.

All In Productions presents

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Text by John Cameron Mitchell
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask

playing through  September 15

“Parental warning: HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH is rated PG-13.”

Love and Soul: “The Beauty of Psyche”

photo by JJ Gatesman

by Jeff Grygny

The Beauty of Psyche is a retelling of the classic myth of Cupid and Psyche, with a few creative turns. In the original story, the goat god Pan doesn’t help Psyche in her quest to reunite with the god of love; nor is Persephone reigning alone as queen of the underworld, having been abandoned by Hades. This telling dwells on the Beauty and the Beast-like exchanges between a young woman and the magical being who holds her captive (even if to protect her from his mother’s curse). It’s all a bit hazy, as myths tend to be, but writer/director JJ Gatesman has created a mysterious work of feeling-tones and elusive meanings lurking around the corners of understanding. The four players deliver performances of honesty and high spirit, and the show offers considerable visual imagination with very limited means, ingeniously transforming electric lights and simple puppets into vagrant wildlife, butterflies, and helpful ants. An original score by Amanda J Hull and Cole Heinrich  creates a sense of timeless reverie.
A dream of love for the summer’s end.

The Beauty of Psyche
Written and Directected by: Jj Gatesman

playing at the Arcade Theater in the UnderGround Collaborative 6th through September 15th.

Family Ghosts: “The Prison Where I Live”

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

Ghosts have appeared for centuries in theaters as diverse as Elizabethan drama and the Japanese Noh.  Old theaters traditionally have a “ghost light,” a lit bulb on the stage after hours, so that nobody—including restless spirits, presumably—will stumble in the vast, dark space. In The Prison Where I Live, the second in Angela Iannone’s series of plays about Edwin Booth, now playing in a production by Theatre Red, we meet two shades from the great actor’s past: his beloved lost wife, who is silent, and his brother, who won’t shut up.

If ever there was a great subject for historical drama, it’s Booth. A megastar Shakespearean actor-manager at a time when Shakespeare and the Bible were America’s most commonly-read literature; the heir of a famous theatrical family, and an odd genius with many eccentricities, whose natural delivery contrasted with the grandiloquent acting style of his contemporaries. No stranger to personal tragedy, Booth lost one wife to disease, and a child of a second wife to medical malpractice, which left the mother in a fragile mental state.  Oh, and his brother and fellow-actor shot the most revered man of the century, and died, hated and hunted, in a barn set on fire by the soldiers who pursued him. From this historical panoply, Iannone distills a claustrophobic five-person psychodrama: we are trapped with Edwin Booth, essentially in his head, as he grapples with memories, regrets, and artistic paralysis.

We find Booth on tour in Chicago, rehearsing for a performance of Richard II and fending off the badgering attentions of his public, his half-mad wife, and his dead brother. The dialog is phrased in diction that recalls the writing style of the period; Iannone’s intensive archival research shows up in myriad details. For instance, John Wilkes’ spirit (played with uncanny resemblance by a rakish Corey Jefferson Hagen) speaks in a Southern drawl, which must, one assumes, have some basis in the historical record. But so far as his political views and ideologies, or what Edwin thought of them, all we see is the again, presumably documented fact that Edwin forbids the mention of his brother’s name, and—in the play’s most harrowing scene—we learn how, one night alone, he burned John’s mementos (theatrical props and costumes) in a basement furnace.

photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

Jared McDaris plays Booth with the advantages of flowing locks, a tragedian’s resonant basso voice, and a contenance that would look perfectly at home on a fifty dollar bill; in the role of the silent specter of his wife Millie, Andrea Burkholder brings a dancer’s grace. As the plot unfolds, we witness a supernatural intervention of sorts, and a reconciliation of the man with his past, in a moment that some may find uncomfortable, but that carries a psychological truth: sometimes the way to deal with ghosts is to bless them and let them go. If we can pull that off, we’re less likely to stumble in the dark.

Theatre Red  presents

The Prison Where I Live

written and directed by Angela Iannone

playing through September 9


Doc Danger Puts the “Pow” in Empowerment

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

For generations, superhero stories have provided an escape route for lonely kids (and adults too). Now, with their ascendency in big-budget movies, they have become a target of derision from the guardians of culture. But the lowly pop medium actually has a lot in common with that snootiest of art forms, opera: both have larger-than-life characters, melodramatic situations, and stories stripped down to the most archetypal human emotions. In Doc Danger and the Danger Squad, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and playwright/composer Jason Powell send high and low culture out on a play date, and the result is what they do best: a campy comic-opera romp packed with pop culture tropes, with a firmly progressive slant, and a talented cast joyfully giving their all. Verdi it’s not—but it’s a lot more fun.

Powell is no stranger to genre opera; more than his previous work with MOT, Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom, he’s brought welcome narrative sophistication to his fable of the empowering virtue of fantasy. The plot moves nimbly between a pre-teen girl “The Kid,” enchanted by some old pulp comics of her grandfather’s, and the interconnected stories she’s reading—in which she becomes a player—which then, mobius-like, fold back into the real world. Five heroines  confront their respective arch-villains (with wonderful invented characters like “Penny Dreadful” and “The Beetle Queen”). These conflicts form part of a much more sinister plot organized by the arrogant Professor Z. The script is full of winking humor, puns, and easter eggs, while the witty lyrics play with rhythm to create variety. Z’s scheme eventually puts him at the head of an ad agency, where he can dictate public opinion and thus warp reality, “Maybe star in my own reality TV show, and then, who knows, maybe the White House.” Horrible thought! In an intriguing twist on The Wizard of Oz, the “crappy real life” versions of the heroines have vices that are the opposite of their fantasy world virtues. Only the kid (with the aid of a magical McGuffin) can restore them.

Director Jill Anna Ponasik keeps her actors lighthearted but grounded in emotional truth. The action rips along like a rocket-powered flying saucer, with occasional sentimental interludes. Ponasik’s creative team has produced a handsome production that sounds wonderful and never seems low-budget. Even the plastic rocks— the only real scenery—look great. Music director Donna Kummer keeps the tempo at a heart-pumping pace, and not once do you feel that the show needs more instruments than her piano. James Zager’s choreography mostly gives effective movement to mood, music and story. And when the singers are belting their hearts out, under the coruscating lighting of Antishadows lighting company (itself virtually a part of the score) you feel like you’ve been translated into a epic alternate cosmos, without the need for any expensive CGI.

photo by Ross Zentner

The players seem to be having as much fun with their goofy characters as we have watching them. Eric Welch and Ana Gonzalez especially tear into the camp of their villains’ roles. Hannah Esch bring relatable comedy to a song about a sidekick who seems to always take the rough end of the adventure. Young Harper Nevin carries the linchpin role of The Kid with confidence and panache. And as the mysterious detective, The Lady in Black, Rae Elizabeth Paré brings an enigmatic charm. Just one thought: if the villain is using a formidable robot as muscle, might it be appropriate to cast a physically imposing performer rather than the game but un-threatening Melissa Anderson?

Doc Danger and the Danger Squad gives a goofy but sincere defense of fantasy: the Kid’s mom thinks that comic books are trash, but her grad-school sister recognizes their precocious pre-code gender politics. Stories of legendary heroines conquering adversity empower girls to confidently go out and do the same. And really, as little love as the superhero genre gets from critics, it’s popular for a reason: finding a little happiness in this crazy world practically amounts to a superpower. And the power of fantasy to shape our world—for good or evil —is maybe the greatest superpower we have.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre presents

Doc Danger and the Danger Squad

Music, Book, and Lyrics by Jason Powell

Directed by Jill Anna Ponasik

playing through August 30