Tag Archives: Milwaukee Rep

The True Meaning of Christmas

Photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

The dress rehearsal for  the Saint Ignatius Episcopal Church Christmas pageant begins. Under lurid lighting, a bare room whose grimy walls, hung with scissors, suggests an abattoir. Mary screams over a stuffed lamb; Joseph murders God, shouting “God is dead!” Thus begins the first of The Nativity Variations, a farcical alternative to holiday fare currently playing in a world premiere at The Milwaukee Rep. Artistic Director Mark Clements commissioned prize-winning playwright Catherine Trieschmann to write a play that amazingly kluges together elements of A Christmas Carol, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and maybe a bit of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

At the fictional Saint Ignatius (yes, Episcopalians do honor Catholic saints, I checked. But it’s complicated), the open-minded Father Juan has invited Jules, the head of a local avant-garde theater, to direct the annual Christmas pageant. But the play becomes a battleground in the culture wars when Jules keeps injecting her radical feminism into the performance every time the good Father demands a rewrite. Each of the community players has his or her own challenge: the single mom; the actor who wants to salvage a romance after a breakup; the couple strained by financial difficulties, and the director in denial about her family problems. They all work day jobs and do theater for the love of it: amateurs in the best sense of the word. Mayhem ensues when a naive husband and wife are cast in this offbeat ensemble.

Trieschmann’s clever script is loaded with theater history: she lampoons pretentious experimental theater, gender-bending Shakespeare, and puppets for adults, while affectionately skewering the egos and intra-personal dynamics of community theater. Her broad takedown of artists who impose their ideologies on classic stories, in the process losing the qualities that make them great, had many people in the opening night audience guffawing and cheering.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

As Jules, Sami Ma gives a grounded, sympathetic performance, rather than playing a stereotypical crazy director. Ryan Alvarado neatly contrasts his dual roles as the upbeat, patient Father Juan and a neurotic gym teacher/leading man. Chiké Johnson embodies the guy every community theater depends on: an actor/costumer/puppeteer whose psychological savvy precipitates the company’s turning point. As the straight couple out of their depth, Ann Arvia and Adam LeFevre instantly win the allegiance of most of the audience, and earn the heartiest laughs, while Sadieh Rifai brings attitude and intensity as the put-upon female lead.

Of course, as a never-before performed play, there are a few things that could benefit from a bit of refining. For one, the portrayals of community theater, church, and avant-garde art strain our suspension of disbelief: they present no actual church, community theater, or avant-garde production we know of, but only improbable caricatures. What priest would entrust his parish to such a radical director? How would the elderly couple have been cast, and how would any normal person so passively follow Jules’ bizarre directions without protest? Not to mention that it would be literally impossible for a community theater to come up with three complete sets and costumes for rehearsals, much less have all their lines memorized. Does the action all take place in Jules’ mind? Is it a dream, like Scrooge’s nocturnal visions? And why does Jules announce her interviews with Father Juan as scenes that she herself has scripted? It’s an enigma.

Puzzling over these discrepancies, we can easily lose the comic breeze. As if recognizing this, director Shelley Butler compounds the problem by having the players perform Jules’ scenes in a broad, clownish way—even the people who are supposed to be experienced seem to suddenly forget everything they know about good acting. There is nothing that sears the fragile wings of comedy more than “trying to be funny.” To be fair, there was goodly laughter in the audience on opening night—but there were stony, un-amused faces as well.  Luckily, the encounters between Jules and Father Juan, the working out of the characters’ issues, and the plays’ restorative conclusion, achieve that unforced quality.

On a personal note: one of the saddest losses of the pandemic was the closing of so many local companies who worked on the edges of theater: The Alchemist, Off the Wall, Cooperative Performance, and Quasimondo, to name the most recent—now mostly vanished, and much missed. They labored mightily to create original work with extraordinary intelligence and passion, all while holding down day jobs. When the city’s 500 pound gorilla of a theater pokes fun at small experimental companies, it  feels like punching down—though this was no doubt never the intention. Wouldn’t it be grand if the city’s richest company had offered uplift to its poorest and bravest? Just a thought.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

The Nativity Variations‘ noble aim is to carve out a meeting space between liberal and conservative, if not with faith in the Bible, at least with the timeless hope of peace on Earth and good will towards everyone. By the end of the play, emotions are released, hearts warmed, and the “community” in community theater is affirmed. Has Jules capitulated to censorship? Has she realized that she’s been censoring the Bible all along? Did her heart suddenly grow three sizes? Ah, who cares? It’s Christmas time. Bless us, every one.

The Milwaukee Rep presents

The World Premiere of

The Nativity Variations

by Catherine Treischmann

playing through December 11, 2022

https://milwaukeerep.com/shows/show/the-nativity-variations/

Love, Love, Love

photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

It could have begun as a challenge towards the end of a long night of drinking. How many Beatles songs can you make fit into a Shakespeare play? That’s the premise of the delightful new production of As You Like It at the Milwaukee Rep. Brimming with invention and good cheer, and overflowing with affection for its sources, the show seems designed to get us through the gloomy Wisconsin winter and boost our spirits in difficult times.

It’s not such a crazy idea to mix the Beatles and the Bard. The famed director Peter Brook taught that Shakespeare’s language consists of narrative that moves the story, and poetry which should be considered as music. But the poetry that moved Elizabethan audiences often doesn’t speak to us—so why not substitute music that does?  A recent local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Voices Found Repertory brought in pop songs to fine effect. And since As You Like It is all about love, why not wed it with the other most successful artists ever to spring from England’s green and pleasant land, whose favorite word is “love”? We can thank the Canadian director Daryl Cloran for this brilliant yet somehow inevitable idea. The show opened to roaring success in Vancouver, and recently played in Chicago, whence the Rep’s Artistic Director Mark Clemens was able to snag some of the performers, along with Cloran to direct the current production. And lucky us: we get to enjoy it!

Cloran skims off the play’s antiquities to reveals a wise and witty screwball comedy as quirky as anything by Wes Anderson or the Coen Brothers. He directs with a genius for details, filling every moment with little gestures and comic flourishes in the tale of fair Rosalind and her sturdy swain Orlando on their bumpy road to happiness—so many wonderful grace notes, it would be a crime to reveal any of them. Meantime, the evergreen songs of Lennon and McCartney bring the character’s heightened feelings in rock n’ roll beats. People who know the play well will be amazed by the aptness and cleverness of Cloran’s translations; everyone else will just laugh, cheer, and perhaps let their heartstrings tug a little tear of joy now and then.

Set in the exotic land of British Columbia, in the distant long ago of the 1960s, the play opens with an elaborate preamble set in the woolly world of pro wresting (which makes sense, as it is indeed a wrestling match that sets Rosalind and Orlando on their paths). Members of the extremely game band play costumed contestants in a series of pratfalls and clownish clinches. The entertainment value of this will vary with how much you find pro wrestling amusing—but it gives the excuse to drop lots of Beatles references, and sets up the greedy, exploitative world that our characters will soon be propelled out of and into the romantic Forest of Arden.

photo by Michael Brosilow

Each player in the warm, multitalented cast creates a very relatable human being; they move like modern people and when they talk, they sound like people talking, so the comedy flows naturally from a real place. As the girl-buddy duo of Rosalind and Celia, Savannah L. Jackson and Lizzy Brooks share effortless rapport and sister power. Brooks’ facial expressions speak comic volumes; Jackson shows the joys and torments of infatuation, while bringing brio to her musical solos. The incredibly light-footed Justin Gregory Lopez is a powerful yet tender Orlando, while Don Noble as the Duke-in exile channels The Dude in sandals and long gray hair; his hippie inflections seem a bit spot-on, until you realize that he’s actually making some very wise observations.

photo by Michael Brosilow

The show’s two philosopher-clowns, Adam Wesley Brown and Trish Lindstrom, are brilliant contrasts: Brown as the urbanite Touchstone, so out of place in the rustic setting, makes free with adlibs and flawless physical schtick, while Lindstrom, as the melancholy Jaques, tricked out in Andy Warhol drag and Joan Didion’s world-weary clarity, is a miracle of subtle anticomedy. Her renditions of Fool on the Hill and I am the Walrus simply must be seen to be believed.

photo by Michael Brosilow

The onstage musicians all play incidental roles, and while they don’t try to impersonate the Fab Four (except when George Harrison makes a cameo as Hymen, the god of marriage), their general good humored, come-what-may attitude is reminiscent of A Hard Day’s Night. Pam Johnson’s illuminated set wonderfully recalls the sixties, creating a wide palette of colorful energies, and Ben Elliott’s music direction wisely doesn’t imitate the Beatles’ stylings, but hits the iconic touches, as when a trombone suddenly appears in “All You Need Is Love.”

This As You Like It is the most entertaining, richest, most heartfelt  musical I’ve seen at the Rep. And why not keep this fertile mash-up going?  The Rolling Stones’ Macbeth, anyone? How about King Lear with the music of The Doors?  In the words of Jaques: “More, more, I prithee, more.”

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre presents

As You Like It

by William Shakespeare

Adapted and Directed by Daryl Cloran

Conceived by Daryl Cloran and the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival

playing through March 20

https://www.milwaukeerep.com/shows/show/as-you-like-it/