At the mythic dawn of civilization, problems like plagues or
family tensions were easy to resolve: you just found a goat, blamed everything
on it, threw it off a cliff, and everyone felt better. The same principle
(minus the goat) played out in Oedipus Rex,
one of the foundations of Western drama, wherein the protagonist, searching for
the guilty party, discovers that it is himself (he doesn’t take this information well).
Now Henrik Ibsen is regarded as one of the fathers of
theatrical realism, but he often laced his everyday dramas with mythic themes. An Enemy of the People— which is
currently playing in a gigantified adaptation by Theatre Gigante as Enemy of the People—is Ibsen’s satirical
study of small town scapegoating. First published in 1882, it is perhaps to
nobody’s surprise, completely relevant today. You can sum up the entire play in
Upton Sinclair’s pithy epigram: “It is difficult to get a man to understand
something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
In a way, director/adapter Isabelle Kralj takes the theme
back to its origins in Greek tragedy, adding stylized movement, songs, and the
direct-address delivery often favored in Theatre Gigante’s work. Jettisoning Ibsen’s
five acts with their complexities of character and relationships, this is
essentially a zippy 80-minute-long political cartoon.
The actors, dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts, with abstract blocking and nameless characters, have really little more to do than hit their marks and speak their lines clearly and with conviction, and this they do very effectively: Emmitt Morgans, playing a whistle-blowing doctor, travels the journey from a civic-minded authority to a shunned outcast, at first modestly gratified to be doing his community some good, and gradually becoming more and more frustrated, putting up a good fight, and finally, in defeat, becoming a bitter self-righteous loner. His final words: “The strongest man is the one who stands alone.” could terrifyingly apply to any number of modern rebels, and it’s sobering to see him end up there. As his nemesis, the town’s crooked, venal mayor, David Flores is too classy to go full-on Trump, though nobody can hear this character’s truth-twisting rhetoric without thinking of our con man-in-chief. Ben Yela, as a troubadour/chorus, adds welcome emotional variety with his musicianship and acting skills, commenting on the action while rendering passable impressions of several well-known singer-songwriters. Local tunesmith Jason Powell contributes a handful of tossed-off ditties, each one riffing on its chosen theme. His opening motet to water, for example, goes in part:
Two parts hydrogen
One part oxygen
Water is all.
The play’s very relevance to so many current issues, from poisoned water to global climate change—and the floods of denials from those responsible—has the side effect of draining the show of almost any dramatic tension. We have seen this story so many times before, we know exactly what’s going to happen the minute the mayor rejects the doctor’s proposal to site the town’s new health spa upstream of the factory on the grounds that it would be too expensive. We are left contemplating an all-too familiar tale played out in a novel and entertainingly straightforward way. Some may find it cathartic, others merely depressing. But, like Ibsen’s original, Enemy of the People lets nobody off the hook, pointing out, in the nicest way possible, the hypocrisy of caring for others only to the extent that it doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice anything ourselves. And in the final defiant speech by the doctor, it shows the dangerous energies that we play with when we rush to find someone else to blame.
In the migration seasons we see all kinds of non-native birds that are just stopping for a quick nosh on their way to something better. For quite a few years now, a random selection of Milwaukeeans have had the magical luck of spotting writer/performer/puppeteer and underground wandervogel Donna Oblongata on one of her periodic low-flying tours of the nation. She plays in rough offbeat venues, and publicity is largely by word of mouth or the digital equivalent, but her rambling, whimsical, one-night-only shows are priceless happenings.
This year it was All 100 Fires in a bare room upstairs from Company Brewing. As this year she performs solo, the show is less elaborate than her past DIY spectaculars, which might have scenes taking place in puppet stages, dioramas, or hand-painted scrolls. And, in tune with this peculiarly fraught moment in American culture, it features a darker, less whimiscal mood than in previous years. But these things don’t keep it from being inventive, brimming with compassion, and monstrously funny. Oblongata shows herself to be more than capable of holding the stage. With a stuffed crotch and a crepe hair beard, she plays the nameless leader of a down-and-out revolutionary army, greeting us as the latest bunch of recruits to be trained in a regime of survivalism and shambolic machismo. Speaking in an indefinable accent, she could be from anyplace in the world where political ends are pursued at the ends of semi-automatic rifles. Modeling toughness as best she can, she lays down the rules, issues death threats, leads team-building exercises, dis- and re-assembles an actual AK-47, and—with the flourish of a grotesque sight gag that’s likely to be forever burned on our unfortunate retinas—demonstrates how to make gunpowder out of human urine (“I get the sulfur from the Home Depot”). These lessons in the manly art of revolution take on even more charge when you learn that they contain direct quotes from Ted Kaczynski, Che Guevara, and Jim Jones.
Oblongata’s stories generally collage several seemingly random elements whose common thread is evocatively revealed in the telling; often her protagonists are loners: artists and scientists pursuing eccentric visions. Here, she paints a blurry picture of the insurgent’s life in cryptic but telling details: the loss of her comrades, the senseless time spent roaming over an illegible landscape, how she comes to keep her brother’s eyeballs in a cardboard box, and how, when the war is won, we will all have streets and schools named after us—though we probably won’t be around to see it.
This bathetic saga is juxtaposed with the life and work of John James Audubon, a feckless character in his own right, often broke and unemployed, who shot and killed hundreds of wild birds in the course of creating his masterpiece. From time to time the action breaks for Oblongata to manipulate a series of bird puppets: a great auk, a flock of starlings. We learn the strange story of how the starling was brought to North America (blame Shakespeare), and varied other ways in which human beings have manhandled the natural world. What does guerilla warfare have to do with displaced wildlife? That’s a question we are left to ponder, as themes swirl and flutter around us, right up to the shattering conclusion, which mashes tragedy against long-odds hope.
Few people will see Oblongata’s work in the grand scheme of things. But like the exquisite gestures of Quixote or Cyrano De Bergerac, the world is a more beautiful and noble place because of it.
Do you find the jargon of finance boring and impenetrable? That’s exactly what investment people want—at least, according to Robert Merkin, the dark sorcerer of Wall Street in Ayad Akhtar’s Junk, now playing in a handsome production by Milwaukee Repertory Theater. But even if your eyes glaze over whenever someone tries to explain what “bonds” are, this show is . . . exciting. That’s right: “finance” and “exciting” —two words you’d only expect to find together in a sales pitch. And you can easily imagine Shakespeare’s audiences sitting just as intensely rapt for his history plays, which for them were current events. Junk is no ordinary drama: it’s a creation myth, a saga of how the world we live in was made.
And made it was: the loss of American industry to cheap labor abroad; the financialization of the world economy; the excesses of Wall Street, and the mind-boggling concentration of wealth into a few privileged hands, all began (as left-wing economists tell us) in the 1980’s, when New Deal protections were allowed to lapse and deregulation opened the door to (as right-wing economists tell us), the most dynamic, innovative economy in history. Whether you like it or not, the ideas flogged by the likes of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School— that the only purpose of business is to generate profits for shareholders—came of age in this era. The character Merkin is based on the true story of Michael Milken, the “Junk Bond King,” who personified the rapaciousness and greed of the new investor class, who made it their mission to use borrowed money to buy out established family companies and systematically gut them, leaving thousands jobless or without pensions. Politicians on both sides of the aisle embraced them, explicitly or not; they all took their money. It’s hard to imagine a story with more impact on our lives.
Akhtar skillfully crafts a tale where the characters’ emotional stakes are clear and pressing He focuses the drama on one incident: Merkin’s hostile takeover of a multi-generational steel company, the kind where everything in the town is named after them. Like Shakespeare, Akhtar divides his crowd of players into factions: the lean and hungry pirates and their henchmen; the aristocratic steel magnate and his team; the investors and factotums, and the legal authorities investigating them. (It’s especially cheering to see, among the first-rate cast, many familiar local talents.)
James Ridge suggests a Lear-like pathos in the beleaguered chief executive faced with losing his family legacy; Jonathan Wainwright brings his patented sneer to the role of a sinister stock fixer; Brian Mani captures the confidence and bluster of an investor who sees that Merkin and company will destroy his world, while Justin Rivera shows the overweening ambition of a minor player whom Merkin, Mephistopheles-like, manipulates by appealing to his avarice. In one scene they sit together in a Los Angeles penthouse, city lights glittering below, speculating on how much money it would take to buy the entire city. Gregory Linington plays the enigmatic Merkin to perfection: is he just an effective snake charmer, or does he believe his own hype about changing the world for the better? Does he really want to help excluded Jews and Latinos take over from the casually racist WASP elite, or is that just part of his chain-yanking patter? The most intriguing relationship is between him and Rachel Sledd as his wife Amy, a financial genius in her own right, who seems to genuinely believe in his transforming mission and supports him in his moments of doubt. The Macbeths come readily to mind, though there’s also a gnome-like trace trace of Shylock in Merkin’s sanctification of the bond, and there’s a touch of Richard III in his single-minded machinations. “Don’t bother with facts,” he tells an adoring crowd. “You’ve got to make people feel.” The powers that be have learned this lesson well.
Director Mark Clements keeps the narrative juggernaut grinding forward with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. His decision to run the show without intermission keeps the tension building; the dense, idea-heavy script is a mental workout, but you never find your mind wandering the entire two hours. The Rep’s characteristically high production values add welcome elements of spectacle: Todd Edward Ivins’ monumental gray-faceted set could represent office towers, or enormous stacks of virtual wealth, or the Escher-like labyrinths of Merkin’s schemes. Video projections by Jared Mezzochi spectacularly deliver the glamour of business being done at high risk and high stakes, to the effectively chilly drones and pulses of Lindsay Jones’ electronic score.
As in life, there is no happy ending. Everyone—from the shareholders, to the company’s employees, to the politician, to the hapless journalist, to Merkin himself—everyone goes for the money in lieu of any ideal, obligation, or purpose. “It was like they were founding a new religion,” the journalist/narrator tells us. But in the end, they all went for the money. It’s a powerful, gut-wrenching conclusion. And it’s the world we live in now.
On December 23 2018, this message appeared in the inboxes of the Alchemist Theatre’s mailing list:
“It is with mixed emotions
that we share with you that tonight’s closing night of Alchemist Theatre’s “The
Bartender: Another Round” has been The Alchemist Theatre’s final closing night.
Twelve years of theatre supported by “average folks” taking a chance on
live theatre and entertainment.
Twelve years of hard working actors, crew members, family and support staff
pouring their hearts and hard work into this space.
Thank you to EVERYONE who was a part of this experiment and experience.”
“We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.”
“The Alchemist Theatre, like all theatres, are 90% simply setting up a lightening rod and working on keeping it standing through countless thunderstorms. The energy comes from elsewhere. You can’t advertise for it. You can’t audition for it. Sometimes, that lightening rod simply attracts the right mix of energy. Erica and I simply worked at keeping that lighting rod tied to the top of the building with chewing gum and bailing wire for 12 years. YOU were all were the lightening. YOU were all the energy. As we close this venue, we ask you all to keep up the spark. Keep up the energy.”
“Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT’S
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.”
“Thank you all so much for being part of our ANYTHING. -Erica Case & Aaron Kopec”
The Alchemist Theater was like your old high school friend: smart, weird, talented, unpretentious, familiar, rough, opinionated, and always up for a good time. It was (hard to put it in the past tense) my favorite theater space; cozy and with the best damn decor in Milwaukee, thanks to proprietor Aaron Kopec’s esoteric tastes and master design skills. The bar was dressed up like a Golden Age Hollywood set combining Casablanca, The Bride of Frankenstein, and the Batcave, featuring a bust of Shakespeare that flips back to reveal the panic button. The stairway down to the dark chilly bathrooms was gloriously covered in murals of Dantean angels, demons, and scenes from the New York punk scene that Kopec found so compelling—probably because it appealed to his uncompromising DIY spirit—that he wrote a whole cycle of verse-dramas about it.
Then there were the shows produced by the Alchemist. Of course their interactive Halloween spectaculars were much admired and virtually miraculous, considering the tiny budgets that must have been involved. Kopec created entire worlds through which the audience could wander. In Faust: An Evening at the Mephisto Theater, you could walk down a turn-of-the -century cobblestone street, sit in a movie theater while a scene unfolded against F. W. Murnau’s silent classic, visit an opium den, or stumble into an odd metaphysical dimension where Mephistopheles was having a family spat with her daddy. Closing Night provided immersive environments with light and sound cleverly triggered by motion sensors in a mileau of deepening Lovecraftian horror. Kopec’s hyper-detailed sets always gave the audience plenty to look at, often with sly visual jokes and easter eggs.
Open to anyone with the ability to pay modest rent, it was “amateur” and “community” theater in the best senses of both words. You could go to the Alchemist for shows by rising talents, novices with a vision, and anything in between: from Jason Powell’s early forays into comic book musicals to a cross-dressed futuristic Romeo and Juliet (the men wore kilts) to trashy amusements like Cannibal! the Musical and sci-fi spoofs like Invader? I Hardly Knew Her.
The Alchemist embraced genres as the bubbling commons of our cultural subconscious they are. But you could also find the lefty punks of Insurgent Theater, memorably producing Ben Turk’s Marxist screed Paint the Town and Peter Wood’s experiments in Beckettian formalism.
Nor did the Alchemists shy away from high-brow fare when the fancy struck them. Director Leda Hoffman’s King Lear remains the most lucid production of the fabulously difficult play that I can remember ever seeing. With Kopec’s set design, Ionesco’s The Chairs became a dystopian spectacle, and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter a postmodern fairy tale.
Their production of Whose Afraid of Viginia Woolf was as good as anything I’ve seen on any stage in this city. Mamet’s gritty realism was always a favorite—you could see the venerable James Pickering perform in Life in the Theater, and not one but two versions of Sexual Perversity in Chicago. And then there was that time when the theater got in trouble with the cranky Mamet for producing Oleanna with the title character played as “gender fluid.” (Mamet’s lawyers won that battle and the show was canceled—boo, David Mamet!) As a playwright, Kopec is Milwaukee’s answer to Alfred Hitchcock; his offbeat and darkly comic horror plays on Jack the Ripper, H. H . Holmes, and Dracula were memorable for their pulpy dips into the psychology of darkness, while his period drama Help Wanted explored office politics and sadomasochism.
His punk era dramas, set in what we might as well call the last real counterculture America has had, slithered with 80s New York’s seedy glamor. Sometimes the drama would overpower the story to flood directly into street poetry, musing on life, love, and the disparity between authenticity and commerce. As the co-proprietor of a struggling off-the-map theater with no wealthy donors or corporate sponsorship, but only the support of its public, that last theme must have been particularly poignant. To run a theater so boldly and committedly, on the thinnest of financial edges, for twelve years, earns Kopec and Case serious credit for both brains, chutzpah, and something that’s as much praised as it is hard to find— authenticity. The Alchemists really did find the philosopher’s stone: they routinely turned junk into gold.
But nothing lasts forever, especially funky storefront theaters. The writing was on the proverbial wall. Kopec’s creative output has dwindled for the past couple of years; a major issue with the theater’s infrastructure and personal setbacks were further blows, and so the decision was made.
Kinnickinnic Avenue just got two shades less dark and three degrees less cool. Farewell, amigos. You will be missed.
Give me one last chance And I’m gonna make you sing Give me half a chance To ride on the waves that you bring
You’re honey child to a swarm of bees Gonna blow right through you like a breeze Give me one last dance We’ll slide down the surface of things
You’re the real thing Yeah the real thing You’re the real thing Even better than the real thing
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
I MUST PLAY THEIR GAME OF NOT SEEING I SEE THE GAME
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.
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.
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
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