The Hunt for the Great White Metaphor

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Off The Wall Theatre

Moby Dick is an immense book, a metaphysical doorstop of a novel. It’s not just an adventure story about whaling, though it certainly is that, too. Herman Melville was there, recording the emotional, economic, and spiritual implications of this world-shattering changes as America was feverishly inventing the modern era of itself. Dale Gutzman, in his program notes for Call Me Ishmael, his adaptation of Melville’s epic of madness on the vasty deep, admits up front that the novel is impossible to stage. So what is this play? What we see is a stylish, sometimes funny, sometimes monotonous, often brilliant cinematic dream that touches on ideas about religion, power, nature, race, culture, and man’s futile efforts to control the world, to name the most obvious. It may be the closest thing to pure philosophy ever performed on a Milwaukee stage.

The literary theorist Jacques Derrida coined the phrase “white mythology” for the tendency of powerful elites to claim that their rule is natural and really the only way things could possibly be, commanded by the inarguable word of a deity whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. Moby Dick had refuted white mythology more than a century earlier: all it takes is a little crack in the sacred order to let chaos come pouring in. Melville painted a picture of what music critic Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America,” based on first-hand experience: the harsh Puritanism, the capitalist exploitation, the patriarchal hierarchy, and the strange society of men, slamming against the immensity of nature with hubristic fury.

How in heaven do you stage such a monster? Gutzman gives us fragments of the story, like an art film or collage (hence the show’s subtitle “a hallucination”) with its own theatrical vocabulary. Black walls and clothing, pale faces lit by bright flashlights, spotlights and lanterns create the mood of an antique engraving; wood, rope, and yards of raw fabric create the whaler’s world, a light-and-shadow realm of Protestant theology and can-do capitalism. As in the novel, we see the story through the eyes of an innocent youth. Jake Russell plays Ishmael with all the trepidation, eagerness, and wonder of an introspective soul. His first encounter with the wild world comes in the form of his bed-mate in the port side inn, an islander named Queegqueg, played with fine bemused stoicism by Nathan Danzer, whose broad, tattoo-covered chest and back are the show’s most impressive special effects. Their relationship becomes the emotional center of the play: an openly romantic same-sex couple in an all-male society that operates far from civilization’s norms. In this version, the Pequod becomes a kind of gay utopia, its cramped sweaty spaces recall the aesthetics of a twentieth-century leather bar. Ishmael spends his spare time jotting his meditations in a notebook, pondering life, the sea, and Queegqueg’s tattoos, which represent for him a primordial writing containing mysteries that the printed lines of the Bible can’t possibly convey.

The play hews closely to the book’s narrative, unfolding in painterly tableaux, meditative moments, and exciting action scenes. Sometimes the stage seethes with movement as the players pantomime the actions of sea-craft and the hunt. The whalers go to their work with the gusto of professional athletes, especially Teddi Gardener as an exuberant harpooner and Jim Feeley as an old salt who relishes no land-bound life. Only the first mate, played by the low-key Mohammed ElBsat, shows misgivings about their voyage. James Strange plays the role of Ahab with more wounded pathos than Old Testament rage, but there is still the atmosphere of doom, the sickening sense that no one is in charge—or worse, that the authority, be it captain or God, is mad, and the ship/universe careens forth by no rules that reason can comprehend. It’s a feeling quite familiar to many Americans these days, don’t you think?  Yet there is a strange stasis at the center of this play: from Ishmael’s musings, to the well-worn plot, to Russell’s moody cello soundscape. Not even some hearty shanties composed and performed by Shayne Steliga and Tom Koehn, can dispel the emptiness at the heart of this maritime melodrama.

photo by Off The Wall Theatre

As the Pequod careens further into Ahab’s monomania, the style of the play shifts into something like performance art, or a Tarkovsky film, where mundane objects take on uncanny meanings. A string of Christmas lights becomes Saint Elmo’s fire; a storm is signaled by a mere utterance. The simplicity of the stagecraft is as if to shrug at the impossibility of the task; even with the budget  of Broadway, would any plastic whale or high-definition projection bring us closer to the novel’s sublime inconceivable? The inevitable failure is cooked into the attempt; as Queegqueg and Ahab make futile stabs at a painted eye simply rendered a large piece of cloth, they seem like puppets, no more capable of killing the great white whale than Melville’s book can be adequately staged. Maybe unconvincing theater is all we can ever muster in our attempts to conquer savage being.

We could see Call Me Ishmael as a rite of passage. People like Queegqueg became adults by being ritually isolated in a dark, closed space where they were symbolically devoured by a terrifying monster, then reborn as mature members of the tribe. Perhaps the most important mystery of the modern tribe is this: all our certainties are written on water. Nowadays we don’t believe in rites or cosmic monsters. All we have to explain the world is science; and art, to lead us out of our cultural trance and bring us face-to-face with the unknowable universe.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

Call Me Ishmael

adapted by Dale Gutzman from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

playing through April 28

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A Message From Terezin

photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

by Jeff Grygny

In an old joke, the prison camp commander addresses the prisoners: “I have good news,” he says. “Today you will all change underwear. Now you change with you, you change with you. . . “ Dark humor is one way we have of dealing with intolerable situations. It is a sign that our spirit, however abused, hasn’t yet been broken. The Last Cyclist, now playing at Cardinal Stritch University in a collaboration between the theater department and a couple of cultural organizations, gives us a rare opportunity to see, as through an old-time stereoscope, blurry but powerful images of how life was for Jews during the Holocaust.

This account comes to us handed down in the form of a comic play that was written by cabaret artist Karel Švenk in the Terezin ghetto, basically a place where Czech Jews were held in miserable conditions on their way to Auschwitz. It was also a Nazi propaganda site, used to show how humanely the Jews were treated, so they were allowed to have lectures, concerts and plays, all performed by captives. Švenk’s play is a Kafka-like satire, depicting the Nazis as escapees from a lunatic asylum who are deluded into thinking that bicyclists are the cause of all their problems. Therefore, they go around harassing cyclists, finding out who is descended from a cyclist, detaining them, and eventually shipping all the cyclists or anyone who has been accused of being a cyclist to a place called “Horror Island.”

In an brief expository prologue, we learn of the grim conditions in Terezin. Then, we the audience become prisoners who have crowded into an attic to watch a rehearsal of the play. Though the script was reconstructed from memory by a surviving actress twenty years after the fact, then still later reworked into its present form by playwright Naomi Patz, the play retains the flavor of popular comedy of the last century—think Laurel and Hardy or W. C. Fields. There are stock characters, like the naive grocer and the con artist, and hoary routines, like the man hiding in the wardrobe, the humorous courtship, and the wacky courtroom scene. But the comedy cliches serve a deeper purpose and play with much darker undertones.  We even see Terezin itself in Horror Island, where the commander brusquely forces the prisoners to act happy for Red Cross inspectors. “Sing loud so they can hear you from a distance,“ he commands them after handing them a propaganda song. But when his back is turned, they change the lyrics to express their true feelings for the camp. The Last Cyclist is that song.

The play was never actually performed (the ghetto authorities decided it was too inflammatory), but the rehearsal audiences were said to have roared with laughter. But even though many of the bits are quite funny, there was not much laughter during Saturday night’s performance. How could there be?  We can only imagine what those people went through; our duty is to witness. The actors, under the direction of Mark Boergers, have a complicated job: to play ordinary men and women in a dreadful situation, mostly non-actors, performing in a comedy that burlesques their captors and expresses the terrible and surreal irony of their condition. It’s a difficult needle to thread, and  Boergers preserves the script’s vaudevillian tone and pace while subtly hinting at the layers of feeling beneath the clowning. The decision to forgo the ethnic mannerisms and speech patterns of European Jews inevitably loses some of the inimitable quality of Jewish humor; the multi-racial and gender-blind casting aims at universality, as if to say: “this could be any of us.”

photo by Traveling Lemur Productions

Many of the student and professional actors of the cast rise to the challenge of playing so many levels at once.  Joel Kopischke, who carries the story as an everyman grocer, brings a strained desperation to his comic grimaces and gestures, as if he could singlehandedly fight off despair. Marcee Doherty-Elst shows her character losing herself in the role of the grandiose leader of the anti-cyclist movement. Monty Kane plays a cynical opportunist with fine physicality, showing us how hard he works to ingratiate himself with the lunatics in charge, while seeming to hardly believe his own shtick. Others take a more low-key approach: Laura Monagle’s romantic lead actress never really forgets the deaths she’s witnessed; Leslie Fitzwater brings moving authenticity to the role of a decent woman realizing that she is at the mercy of unprincipled madmen.

Boergers lets us applaud the comedy, but then the players step forward to acknowledge the people they’ve played. Each actor places a costume piece on the stage and speaks the first name of a long-dead prisoner. The house lights go up. The audience sits for a moment, some dabbing their eyes. Then we leave the auditorium in silence, as we should.

Some of the political targets of this satire are long dead and forgotten, but we can still recognize their types. It’s hard to say who is worse: the madmen who persecute the innocent or the cynical sane people who let them take power. We have been warned — again.

Cardinal Stritch University Performing Arts
In collaboration with The Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center
and The Harry and Rose Samson Jewish Community Center


The Last Cyclist

by Naomi Patz

playing through April 14

The Power of Babble: “Machina Persona”

photo by Lily Shea Photography

by Jeff Grygny

Aristotle wrote that people of different ages enjoy different genres of performance. Elderly people, he wrote, like epic poetry best. Mature people prefer tragedy. And children would much rather watch a puppet show. Machina Persona, the currently-playing original performance by the Cooperative Performance collective, sits comfortably in the last category (or we might say “cartoon,” since Aristotle knew nothing of animation.) This play is an excursion into a dimension of extreme whimsy: emphatically animated, there is so much action, so many shrieking entrances and exits, so much interplay between its archetypal characters, all gesticulating and chattering in a made-up language, that the experience is much like watching one of George Melies’ silent movies: you may not know what exactly is happening, but there’s sure a lot of it! And as all the characters are dressed in lovingly-detailed Steampunk outfits, you may feel at first that you have stumbled into a group home for asphasic cosplayers.

Amidst the Commedia del Arte  pratfalls and lazzi-like antics, characters begin to emerge. They are titled by their function, like “The Pilot,” “The Engineer,” and “The Stowaway,” but they also have their invented names, which we begin to recognize. Eventually, we begin to follow the action more clearly, often leading to some chortle-raising non-verbal humor. The players are so charismatic and gosh-darn cute, it’s hard not to get caught up in their dramas, obscure though they might be. There is a large, multi-faceted vehicle which they occasionally mount and try to fly on– maybe they’re shipwrecked travelers from an alien world? But though many things happen, their interactions communicate the most. These clownish characters, all feelings, tend towards obsessive manias and are easily offended. But they can also be patient and empathetic with each other, and ultimately they play together pretty nicely. When they whip out a guitar, a mandolin, a ukulele and a Capoeira bow to play a bouncy tune (which we are encouraged to accompany on provided percussion instruments), it suddenly strikes us that these are actual people with some pretty impressive talents on display.

photo by Lily Shea Photography

According to director JJ Gatesman, the action is set in “The Brain.” Gatesman began his composition by interviewing people who have experienced difficulties with communication, including a trauma victim, a person with Downs syndrome, and a “bird handler.” From these personal experiences, he and his all-in performers improvised characters and incidents that, while not representing any one person, suggest windows onto their experience. Presenting this material filtered through several layers of interpretation gives the show a sense of truthfulness; even if we can’t always follow the story, we know there is a story. Thanks to the actors’ seriousness and intensity, the emotional verities come across loud and clear. As if by accident, Machina Persona becomes a demonstration of what it means to be in a community: often complicated, usually messy, with many different agendas and needs, but optimistic that through fair-mindedness and goodwill, we can somehow muddle through. It is a refreshingly sunny perspective for our cynical times.

By all means bring your toddlers to this 70-minute fable. Don’t be put off by the rough appearance of the yet-to be-finished Arthaus—they’ll be delighted, as will anybody who can still see the world with the eyes of innocence. (Just bring a blanket, the unheated space can be chilly, even on a spring night.)

Cooperative Performance presents

Machina Persona

conceived and directed by JJ Gatesman

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The Turning of the Wheel: “Carmina Burana”

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

In a typically witty moment in Skylight Music Theater’s Carmina Burana, a few sheets of paper flutter down from the great height of the Cabot Theater’s ceiling. Reading their messages, some of the characters react with joy; others with dismay. More and more papers fall; soon the stage is full of people scrambling and reacting in very individual ways. This mysterious moment is but one of the show’s many fragmentary stories; it showcases the lucidity of the singers’ and dancers’ acting skills and their seamless ensemble work. It also demonstrates Director Jill Anna Ponasik’s genius for pulling evocative action from both texts and performers.

Carmina Burana is organized around the theme of Fortune’s wheel: the unavoidable uncertainty that is life’s only certainty; we are always winning or losing, rising up or on our way down, at the whim of Lady Luck. Every element of this fabulous production contributes to the sense of cyclical change, from Lisa Schlenker’s set with its curved ramps, dominated by a lunar disc which lighting designer Jason Fassl washes with subtly-changing moods and projections of “magical images” and lapidary text; to Shima Orans’ elegant costumes, conjuring a timeless modernity and encompassing a wide range of social classes; to music director Janna Ernst’s choice of arrangement, with an amazing six percussionists beating out the abruptly altering rhythms of Carl Orff’s score. Dani Kuepper’s choreography, while occasionally hyperactive, enlivens the space and successfully comments on the music’s many moods, while gracefully folding the non-dancers into the movement.

photo by Ross Zentner

Ponasik gives the transitions a pleasing, organic flow, bringing a painterly sense of composition, space, and contrast, along with a musician’s feel for rhythms and a dramatist’s sense of action. Together, the Skylight’s singers, plus four vocalists from the Chant Claire Chamber Choir, along with seven dancers from the Danceworks Performance Company and a number of impossibly adorable child performers—artists of a wide variety of ages and physical types—create a microcosm of the world with its many joys, griefs, conflicts, and relationships. From the first group vignette of a spring picnic interrupted by rain, the production paints a panorama of great humanity and the profound beauty of everyday life. Overall, the show is rich, deeply felt, and as much a joy to behold as it looks like it was to create.

The “Carmina Burana” manuscript

Just as Medieval scribes would wipe out old parchments and write over them, so Carmina Burana shows dizzying layers of meanings, each overwriting the last, but with traces of each still visible. The original lyrics were probably written by “Golliards” —wandering bards conventionally portrayed as unemployed college graduates who, forced to perform entertaining songs for a living, wrote laddish odes to drinking, gambling and love. The compilation of many authors’ work was given its title, “Songs of Beuern,” by a nineteenth-century scholar, based on name of the Bavarian monastery where he found the manuscript. A century later, modern composer Carl Orff fell in love with the songs’ poignant, often ironic tone, and condensed them into his musical setting, intending it to be a sort of gesamkunstwerk—a total theatrical spectacle combining music, text, dance, art, and metaphysical profundity a la Wagner. Now we have the production presently playing in the Cabot Theater, radically erased and overwritten again to suit twenty-first-century sensibilities.

There is certainly nothing laddish about this production. One thing we conspicuously don’t see is any representation of the boy/girl romance that was a mainstay of the earlier texts. As if on a mission to cleanse classical music of its patriarchal taint, Ponasik has steeped her show in feminist values, creating scenes which, while charming, dramatic, and personal, are unlikely to have occurred to any Golliard. She expands the meaning of “love” to include a wide spectrum of gynocentric concerns: the lament of a lover waiting for his mistress becomes a mother’s patient longing for her unborn child; we see an entire baby shower materialize, as guests literally shower the expectant mom with presents. Cute little girls smile before a mirror asking “am I pretty?” followed by a matronly woman asking the same question. A seduction song becomes a brutal pas-de-deux in which a woman strenuously resists submitting to a would-be lover’s insistent demands. Another enigmatic duet shows two women in a tense and unrequited encounter, which seems to end with one’s death. And it’s hard to know exactly what to make of a tavern scene in which a glitter-clad person of indeterminate gender tries to hand out potatoes, which are spurned by the crowd in favor of fast food fries. As the supertitle reads: “Left is right, up is down. Therefore I drink.” It might be hard to find a phrase that more succinctly captures the mood of our times.

As new meanings overwrite old ones, things are gained and things are lost; the wheel of fortune keeps turning.

Skylight Music Theater

in collaboration with Milwaukee Opera Theatre
Chant Claire Chamber Choir
and Danceworks Performance Company


Carmina Burana

playing through March 31

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Whatever gets you through the night

Small Craft Warnings at Off the Wall Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

Tennessee Williams is surely one of our most lyrical chroniclers of emotional messes; he arranges them so skillfully that, like one of Robert Rauschenberg’s combine sculptures, what would normally repel us becomes strangely beautiful: art out of trash. So it is in Small Craft Warnings currently manifesting in a modest but infinitely compassionate production at Off the Wall Theatre, where Williams unfolds the inner lives of a handful of losers into illuminated renderings of humanity. Anyone who cares about theater—or about life, even—will find the play deeply rewarding.

At the fag-end of America, butted up against the vast Pacific and the Mexican wilderness, Monk’s Place is the kind of tavern where everyone knows your name—but not necessarily in a good way. Its patrons live on the fringe of the economy: modern nomads, except for Monk, the titular proprietor, whose upstairs apartment beckons like a mythical dream of home. The others live like animals: in a tiny room over the game arcade; or in a wheeled trailer; or scraping by paycheck to paycheck; or crashing on (or sharing) a variety of extra beds. One of them is literally on a cross-country solo bicycle trip: the rootless isolation of America made plain. They exhibit a peculiarly Williamsian absence of personal boundaries: not so much friends as enmeshed with one another in great co-dependent clusterfucks, frequently devolving into screaming scuffles but rarely into actual violence. Neither cultured nor very educated— I hate to say it, but in this day and age they might well be avid admirers of you-know-who.

In this late play, Williams offers little in the way of plot or structure, but much bar-room philosophizing. Embracing the dramatic principle of  “drink, drugs, and delirium,” to rise above everyday speech, he does little more than give his dead-end characters a snootful and then stand them up to deliver monologues that express in greater or lesser detail the essence of their beings. As presented by a director and cast that bring their whole hearts to the task, it’s compelling to see. Director Dale Gutzman has coached his players into remarkably sensitive realizations of their characters. As they stand before us telling their stories, we can see their raw humanity in their eyes. There really isn’t an actor who doesn’t inhabit their role fully and truthfully: Robert Hirschi’s barkeep oversees his clients’ dramas with tender compassion, never judging them even when they fail mightily. Mike Pocaro is thoroughly credible as a cynical doctor, a smart man fallen on hard times. Both Nathan Danzer as a sad sack loser and Max Williamson as a brutish gigolo named Bill show us the lost boys within their men’s bodies. Conversely, Jenny Kosek somehow lets us see that her pathetic character’s helplessness is actually a canny survival skill; while as Leona, the big-mouthed, big-hearted, judgemental mother hen of this odd little chicken shack, Marilyn White creates an outsized persona that we miss when she’s gone, even as we sigh with relief when she leaves the stage.

Williams treats his sexuality with particular frankness, particularly in the characters of a temporary couple who happen to be passing through. James Strange’s speech as Quentin, a jaded Hollywood writer, burns us with the depth of his self-loathing and regret; Jake Russell as his momentary fling brings an unspoiled innocence that we fear for. Many of the other characters also place themselves in relation to the gay world; Leona explains how she loves being gay men’s female ally; Bill the gigolo plans to lure Quentin into the men’s room and roll him later; Monk explains the difficulties of running a gay bar: it leads to police raids, needing bribes and mafia protection. But ultimately, every character is an outcast of sorts; Williams’ outsider status lets him see the living hearts beating within people we might ordinarily swerve to avoid.

In his program notes, Gutzman writes “This play is about what it means to be ‘HUMAN!’” For this playwright, it especially means facing up to our own abject state: in the end we are each of us alone, vulnerable, full of yearning, a “poor forked naked animal,” set loose in the great ocean of the universe to navigate as best we can; to find happiness—if not forever, at least for tonight.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

Small Craft Warnings
by Tennessee Williams

playing through March 3

Lies, Damned Lies, and the Inconvenient Truth

photo by Robert M. Powell

by Jeff Grygny

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
Bonded covalently
Water is all.

photo by Robert M. Powell

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.

Theatre Gigante Presents

Enemy of the People

inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People

adapted, created and directed by Isabelle Kralj

text written by Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson

playing through February 16

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Rare Bird: “All 100 Fires”

by Jeff Grygny

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.

Homo Financiensis: “Junk” at the Rep

photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

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.)

photo by Michael Brosilow

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.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents


by Ayad Akhtar

playing through February 17

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Dancing on a cliff edge: a personal elegy for the Alchemist Theatre

The Alchemist Bar– trippy!

by Jeff Grygny

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.”

-Arthur O’Shaughnessy

“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
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.”

Shel Silverstein

“Thank you all so much for being part of our ANYTHING.
-Erica Case & Aaron Kopec”

The King of Pop by 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.

Fortuna the Time-Bender vs the Schoolgirls of Doom by Jason Powell
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
I don’t remember the name of this show but it was a hoot

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.

Systems by Peter Wood

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.

King Lear
The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco
The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter

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.

Help Wanted by Aaron Kopec

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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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