Quasimondo Stages an Insurrection

by Jeff Grygny

Historical events have inspired many a play, from Henry IV to Hamilton. Thus far, few artists have chosen to make art about what might well be the most momentous events in American history since the Civil War: Donald Trump’s refusal to yield the White House to the legal winner, and his subsequent, no-hold-barred exertions to keep it. Soon, Quasimondo Physical Theatre’s Director Brian Rott will present what might be the first of many theatrical accounts of this strange eventful history. His latest original play Red, White, and Coup is going to be showing at the same time that the Republican party is anointing their Chosen One. And it’s all happening right here in that “terrible city,” that liberal Sodom of the upper Midwest: Milwaukee. Aren’t we lucky?

Larger companies, fearful of  alienating their conservative patrons, might well choose to sidestep such a rich, if perilous, topic. But under Rott’s leadership, Quasimondo has always been the little avant-garde theater that could: their phantasmagorical performances, (based on such impossible source material as computer games, Greek mythology, the work of Salvador Dali, and the Kama Sutra) are legendary. In a recent conversation, Rott articulated the strong need for a counterpoint to the Republican Convention. “In a close election year, it’s important to get out the story.” he said. “Even if most of the audience is liberal, it will drive home the importance.’ So damn the consequences: they’re dramatizing the Senate hearings on the January 6th insurrection (or as some prefer to call it, the “group tour of the capitol”).

Unlike some of Quasimondo’s more fanciful productions, Rott wants to dramatize the facts this time. So, unlike his normal process of devising a show, he wrote the script beforehand, based on six months of research. “I had 110 pages of notes,” he said with a laugh. “I probably shouldn’t have done that.” Focusing on the people who plotted to seize the presidency, he studied records of the Senate hearings, following up by reading interviews and memoirs of people connected with the preparations: both Trump’s inner circle and the people who opposed them. He described the process as “like going down rabbit holes of information. I didn’t really know that there was so much preparation [for the Capitol riot].” For voters who haven’t followed the news closely, it’s a deep dive into the moves and counter-moves in the game of power that’s still taking place on the nation’s stage. Even so, Rott says, “It’s still just the tip of the iceberg of what the [Republican] nominee is responsible for.”

The production will be minimalist, with actors playing over 50 different characters with the help of simple costume pieces. Though the format is like a documentary (with former  Republican Senator Liz Cheney as the narrator), the play will feature many of the famous and not-so-famous names swirling around in the mess: the ex-president, of course, at the center of the action, and also the variety of colorful (and not-so-colorful) players: Mike Pence, Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis, Kenneth Chesebro, and the ever popular Rudy Giuliani. “A handful of the Capitol rioters will be portrayed, and the iconic “Q-Anon shaman” “just might” make an appearance.

It’s all happening in the upper floor of the Arthaus, a former city hall and fire department. It’s up a tall flight of stairs, and regrettably, the building has not yet been upgraded for people with disabilities. But the high-ceilinged room was the former site of community meetings and very probably elections for many decades, so it seems like a resonant place to stage the greatest challenge to the US rule of law in our lifetimes.

So far.

Quasimondo Physical Theatre presents

Red,  White, and Coup

written and directed by Brian Rott

 Saturday, July 13th; Sunday, July 14th; Monday, July 15th

Thursday, July 18th; Friday, July 19th; Saturday, July 20th

Thursday, July 25th; Friday, July 26th; Saturday, July 27th

North Milwaukee Arthaus, 5151 N. 35th St., Milwaukee WI 53209

Note: Performance is on the second floor of an historic building, which is not yet ADA accessible.

WARNING: This production contains MATURE language and content.

*A Talkback with the cast and production team will follow each performance.​

TICKETS

https://www.quasimondo.org/tickets.html

Online: $25; At-the-door: $30; Student: $20

Sex, Voodoo, and Real Estate

Photo credit: K. Synold

by Jeff Grygny

“I am a wild turkey,” she says , and utters a plaintive little gobble, as much to herself as to anyone. This is Sonia, a deeply sad woman in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s delicious, delirious comedy, now neatly delivered by Theatrical Tendencies, Milwaukee’s LGBTQ+ theater company. The title calls back both to Anton Chekhov’s classic play Uncle Vanya, and to a forgettable, raunchy, 1969 film about swinging couples. There’s more of Chekhovian ennui here than bed-hopping, but, since it’s Durang, there are generous helpings of in-jokes for the theater crowd and witty chef’s-kiss gags for all.

When you walk into the cozy space of Inspiration Studios, you know immediately that you’re in good hands: the handsome set by Mark E. Schuster and impeccable musical choices of Aaron J. Robertson speak of taste and craftsmanship. And under Schuster’s confident direction, the actors calibrate their  performances all the way from broad clowning to finely-nuanced feelings. The results are hilarious—and often surprisingly touching.

Half-siblings Vanya and Sonia share a nice country house on a lake. They’ve spent their adult years caring for their parents, and now, like many a Chekhov character, they feel that life has passed them by. Their other sister, Masha, meanwhile, has been supporting them on earnings from her glamorous, three-husband life as a star of stage and screen. When Masha pays an unexpected visit—with a decades-younger boy toy in tow—and announces that she’s selling the house, it triggers a long-simmering family meltdown. Chekhov famously wrote about lost souls searching for meaning in a collapsing world. Many productions treat his plays as solemn marches to entropy. But the good doctor/playwright himself famously called them comedies: portraits of human foibles as warm-hearted as they are clinically precise. Durang sweetens the Chekhovian pot with clever quips, sharp observations, and absurd twists worthy of Monty Python. Because he can.

Even in their quarreling, Mark Neufang and Jillian Smith as the two siblings bring nuance to their expert comic timing. Neufang offers the resigned calm of a gentle soul just trying to have a nice day; while Smith, as the “wild turkey” delivers a master class on the subtleties of feeling. Both of them would be amazing in an actual Chekhov play. Then three cartoon characters come charging into their three dimensional world: Durang is playing the alchemist, mixing stable, volatile, and catalytic substances together to see what happens.

Photo credit: K. Synold

Jaleesa Joy is an utter hoot as their housekeeper Cassandra—a combo of  Greek myth and Mary Poppins—swooping across the stage shrieking dire prophesies, cleansing the vibes with her magic wand, or bending the future with the help of a surprisingly effective voodoo doll. She’s like the fairy of Comedy, making sure that we get the happy ending we require.

Enter Lesley Grider and Kevin J. Gadzalinski as the Hollywood couple from Hell: Masha (a name drop from The Three Sisters) and Spike (from Durang’s imagination). It’s hard to say who’s worse: the self-entitled celebrity or the clueless gold-digging bro. Grider embodies a nightmare avatar of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, while the fearless Gadzalinski’s reverse striptease is a feat for the ages: you can almost smell the Axe body spray. Another catalyst appears in Nina (from The Seagull this time), sweetly portrayed by  Madison Van Allen. A star-struck aspiring actress, Nina worships Masha and befriends Vanya, eventually performing in a little play that he’s written. When Masha enlists everyone as her entourage at a nearby costume party, the sight gags kick into overdrive.

Photo credit: K. Synold

The party’s ugly aftermath collides with Vanya’s play, which is about the end of life on Earth via global warming and an unfortunately-timed asteroid. Vanya catches Spike texting during Nina’s performance as a molecule (you have to be there) and it’s Vanya’s turn to blow up, with a heartfelt elegy for the slower, more connected world he grew up in: a world of phones that you had to dial by hand, stamps you had to lick, and TV shows like Ozzie and Harriet, that might have been stupid, but at least people watched them together. Older members of the audience might find themselves nodding in silent agreement, on the general principle at least. It all ends with a hug, though, and isn’t that the best way for a comedy to end?

You can enjoy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike as a goofy pastiche of Chekhov and old TV sitcoms—in fact, the juxtaposition speaks of the genetic relationship between them. But it also seems like Durang is suggesting that, although being three dimensional isn’t always fun, it’s overall better than being a cartoon. And therein lies our possible redemption. In the word of Cassandra: beware!  

Theatrical Tendencies presents

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

by Christopher Durang

playing through June 23

www.theatricaltendencies.com

Oconomowoc End Times Singalong

Photo by Christal Wagner Photography

by Jeff Grygny

We sign the roster and get our name tags, receive sheet music for “99 Luftballons” —in the original German—and are sorted into our sections: soprano, alto, tenor, et cetera. The room is the archetypal church basement of millions of meetings: bare walls, fluorescent lights, gray metal folding chairs, and that distinctive pebbly floor that looks like it was made to withstand a nuclear blast. “NO FUN” proclaims a large flip chart in magic marker. It could be the setting for any community theater, bible study group, or AA meeting, or but it’s a rehearsal for the Oconomowoc a cappella group; a band of small town citizens who just want to sing, but who will find themselves helpless as their rehearsal devolves into a maelstrom of dysfunction and madness. How could anything good happen in this stark denatured room?

It’s an original production by the risk-inclined The Constructivists, with the complete title A Cappocalypse! Or. . . Oconowocappella’s A Cappella Practice has Been Canceled. This satirical farce was created by the company under the guidance of Andrew Hobgood of Chicago’s New Colony and Actor/Playwright Joe Lino. Over the course of a year, the players created characters with full back stories, relationships, and histories going back generations to create a fleshed-out fictional universe of small town life, where everyone knows everyone. The result is sort of like a hologram: every part contains the whole thing. And so it’s also a cartoonish parody of 21st Century America.

We see a spectrum of mashed-up stereotypes: the abusive micromanaging director from the “loudest voice” school of management; the masochistic follower with short-term memory loss; the buttoned-up nerd; the brash social influencer; the crunchy stoner; the survivalist nutjob. In all the bickering about rules of order and shallowly simmering grudges, “99 Luftballons” is all but forgotten. It’s a nightmare of small group dysfunction, and, in a cringy sort of way, often very funny.

 Under Jaimelyn Gray’s skillful direction, the company is committed and energetic. The action moves along propulsively, and the satire’s sharp teeth find many a tender spot—though they don’t bite too hard. The actors play with great confidence in their concocted world.  Matthew Scales and Andrea Ewald as the Director and “Assistant to the Assistant,” seem locked in a little Beckett play with notes of The Office. Anya Palmer’s social media influencer storms into the rehearsal with cell phone blazing, seemingly in her own little show.

Kellie Wambold gives her conspiracy theorist a feverish intensity, like Peanuts’ Lucy on steroids, creating her own cult in the course of the play. When you live in a world of dirty little secrets, paranoia actually seems sensible, and fearful people will grasp at almost anything that offers meaning. Clayton Mortl’s understated comic timing is the show’s secret spice. And in the role of the local big fish, whose claim to fame is that he appeared on America’s Got Talent, co-playwright Joe Lino’s smile conceals a Machiavellian will to power.

As the rehearsal convulses into Lord of the Flies territory, We’re left contemplating how the world got into it’s current state. The Roman Empire could blame lead in the pipes for its fall. What can we point to? Toxic masculinity? “Wokeism?” The internet? We can yell about them all, but one thing is clear: We’ve got to stop meeting in that church basement.

Heute zieh ich meine Runden
Seh die Welt in Truemmern liegen
Hab’ nen Luftballon gefunden
Denk’ an Dich und lass’ ihn fliegen

The Constructivists present

A Cappelocalypse! Or, Oconowocappella’s A Capella Practice has Been Canceled

Created by Andrew Hobgood and Joe Lino

playing through April 6

www.theconstructivists.org

or call 414.858.6874

The Devil You Say

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

In a little town near London, Elizabeth Sawyer was accused of killing her neighbor with magic, of consorting with the devil (who appeared as a black dog named Tom), and of various other profanities and blasphemies. She was tried and executed as a witch in the reign of King James I in 1621.

Elizabeth’s story inspired a popular play that was performed that same year. Rather surprisingly, It depicted her as a poor, lonely outcast who only takes up witchcraft when she has no alternative. “Tom” was played by an actor—I love to think, in a dog costume. The Witch of Edmonton worked Elizabeth into a narrative web of family drama, murder, infidelity, and a bit of comedy. It was a big hit, kind of like one of today’s streaming miniseries.

And now, 400 years later, Jen Silverman, “one of the most-produced playwrights in the country,” has adapted The Witch of Edmonton into a fascinating new piece, Witch, which is currently playing in an artful production by Renaissance Theaterworks. She’s trimmed the story and shuffled the characters around, but retained the prestige drama combo of family intrigue, wicked satire, metaphysical peril, and even a bit of Harlequin romance, all bundled into a tight, compelling plot that keeps us in a state of pleasant indeterminacy.

Elizabeth herself opens the play. Her hair is gray, but neatly bound. Her dress shows the signs of many launderings. As represented by the formidable Marti Gobel, she radiates warmth, intelligence, and weariness. “I’m not arguing for the end of the world,” she says, “but then again, maybe I am.” And in a gnomic, insinuating speech, she adds “Do I have hope that things can get better?”

Then we meet the devil—or a devil, at any rate. Instead of a talking dog, we have Neil Brookshire, debonair in a good haircut. A traveling salesman, just arrived in town, scouting for prospects. But though his talk is all agreeable—no pressure—his unwavering smile and the dead look in his eyes would raise a real dog’s hackles. He’s skillfully peeling off the defenses of a foppish young man named Cuddy, the son of the local lord. Moving on, he next easily uncovers exactly what Cuddy’s rival would trade for his immortal spark. We notice that, though everyone is in 16th century garb, they’re  talking like modern urbanites, using anachronistic phrases like “full disclosure,” and “cone of silence.” With all the eventual dynastic rivalry and erotic complications, it can feel more like an episode of Succession than The Lady’s Not for Burning. But Silverman’s dialog is witty and fun to hear. When Scratch pays his inevitable visit to the local witch, well, let’s just say it’s not what anyone expected.

photo by Ross Zentner

The acting is all first-rate: along with Gobel and Brookshire, Reese Madigan brings a Lear-like befuddled grandeur to the role of Sir Arthur, mooning over the never-seen painting of his (dead?) wife. (I wish someone would explain his very modern bandana). Joe Picchetti brings fire to the role of the ambitious Frank; Eva Nimmer makes herself visibly invisible as the beleaguered maidservant Winnifred, whom he brutally betrays. And as Cuddy, James Carrington gives one of his best performances ever, with honesty, complexity, and humor.

The production crew brings the script to life wonderfully, each in a slightly different way. Director Suzan Fete’s stage direction is clean and unfussy, with a fine ear for dramatic and comic timing. The costumes by Amy Horst look rich and lived-in, except for Cuddy’s outfits, which are as clashingly queer as his sexuality. Jeffrey D. Kmeic has created a spectacular sculptural ceiling reminiscent of the dried herbs used by village healers (Elizabeth doesn’t mix any potions, though: she’s only a witch by reputation). And Josh Schmidt’s sound design quotes an old festive carol, electronically modified to evoke disquiet.

Historians cite many reasons for the great witch trials that swept Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, including “the little ice age,” a period of global cooling that brought about famines and plagues. Feminist historians have also noted that many people found easy scapegoats for the time’s social unrest in “unruly” and isolated women; a phenomenon Caryl Churchill rigorously explored in her play Vinegar Tom.

In a 2015 interview, Silverman said “I want to write aggressive, highly-structured, darkly comedic plays, often involving women or queer characters, often exploring various facets of identity and legacy and home-coming and institutional violence.” So what drew her to an antique play about a witch and a devil? (Was it the talking dog? Her play Blink features a vengeful ghost cat, so, maybe.)

Or maybe it’s because as an intelligent outcast, Elizabeth can see outside the conventions of her culture, that the endless stupid cycle of drunken lords and scheming brothers struggling for power is just one way of running a society, and one day, maybe, there might be something different. Surely Silverman doesn’t want us to simply conclude that the devil is the patriarchy. But then again, maybe she does.  

 Renaissance Theaterworks presents

Witch

by Jen Silverman

playing through November 12

https://www.r-t-w.com/shows/witch/ttps://www.r-t-w.com/shows/witch/

Earth Sound Magic

photo by Jeff Grygny

by Jeff Grygny

If not for the modest hand-painted sign, the entrance would be easy to miss; it’s just a narrow gap in the wall of brush that borders the manicured grounds of the Lynden Sculpture Gardens. But it leads to a subtle and mysterious journey.

Everyone had come with their own purpose: their own secrets, their struggle, their yearning. The artist had lit tea lights in small glass jars and handed them out with a soft wish to “enjoy the labyrinth.” We enter, solo or in pairs. The sun has just set, and the Earth is slowly putting on her twilight cloak as we walk a short dirt trail, pass under an arch created as if by coincidence with a fallen tree limb, and enter the labyrinth.

photo courtesy of Janna Knapp

It’s not a maze: there are no puzzles to solve; the winding path folds like the curves of a brain, or looping intestines, along a single track that leads to some wooden benches in the center and then back out. Inspired by ancient designs like the pattern on the floor of Chartres Cathedral, it’s a form that’s become increasingly popular as a walking meditation; a journey through a space that’s both physical and psychological. Its paths were carved out of the prairie on a gently-sloping hillside in 2019 by Artist in Residence and Mary Knoll fellowship recipient Jenna Knapp, who has a strong personal connection to the practice of labyrinth walking. Since then, she’s found creative ways to engage people in this lovely work of land art, holding workshops in poetry, paper making, and seed gathering, enlisting volunteers to clear invasive plants and broadcast native seeds.

It’s half wild, like a work of nature: well-trod paths circle around and around, switchbacking to a contemplative rhythm in narrower and narrower arcs. A light breeze teases the nose with the  scents of wild herbs and flowers, green and strangely spicy. As the light fades we become more and more like shadows; little stars moving back and forth, crisscrossing the curved channels with low walls of prairie plants like choreography.

photo by Jeff Grygny

Knapp is committed to art that’s not just beautiful, but helpful. The labyrinth is a living, interactive sculpture. Like Andy Goldsworthy’s constructions, it blurs the boundaries between art and nature. It doesn’t impose its meaning on you; it’s an instrument for making your own meaning. You become the protagonist in a seamless, kaleidoscopic performance that joins art, nature, and psyche, a metaphorical journey in the earth and sky of it’s ever-changing landscape.

The candlelight walk is a coda to another extraordinary performance: a “sound bath” performed by the enigmatic artist Sevan Arabajian, a talented musician who received her craft from a visionary Indian guru known as “Akhilanka of the Temple of Singing Bowls, ” She plays a variety of instruments in a solo recital that takes us on an inner journey of its own, a fusion of the yogic principle of nada, sacred sound, and the avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening.

photo by Jeff Grygny

I’d never been to a concert where the audience lies on yoga mats, wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags until this, but it’s better than chairs for listening when it comes down to it. Under the sheltering branches of one of the grounds’ well-tended trees, the sounds and vibrations of  Arabajian’s bell, drum, chimes, and singing bowls are exquisitely tuned to her audience’s senses. With large fuzzy mallets, she teases uncanny overtones from her large brass gong: eerie, resonant sounds like otherworldly voices.

Sound baths are typically done indoors; the outdoor venue adds yet another dimension to an already rich experience. First, there’s the distant roar of traffic, placing you on a green island in the midst of a great world of machines. It becomes the backdrop for nearer sounds: birds responding to the bell-like tones; crickets singing their late summer songs, a wayward duck, a chorus of crows, the whispers of the wind ruffling the leaves above: the living world becomes part of the concert, and the cool air reminds you that you, too, are a living thing of the earth. Arabajian skillfully brings us out of our trance with a guided meditation that kindles a bonfire in our hearts, which we then carry into the labyrinth in the tangible form of our little candles.

photo by Jeff Grygny

All of this is shamanism, the oldest and original of all art forms—in Brown Deer in the 21st century, imagine!  Or, if you prefer, a multimodal, immersive art form that refreshes the wonder, courage, and joi de vivre that lets us face the world with a full heart. It’s a beautiful way to affirm our relationship with the living world—what ecophilosopher David Abram calls the “greater-than-human world.” All our ancestors enjoyed this relationship, but our modern way of life makes it easy to forget, at great cost to the health of our planet and to our own well-being. Art like Knapp’s prairie labyrinth is crucial for bringing nature back into our culture, and restoring our relationship with the living world.

This is the third year that Knapp and Arabajian have offered their quarterly sound baths and labyrinth walks. Like the best art, their work reminds us that the ordinary things of our lives are actually magical; full of meaning and power. The writer Daniel Quinn holds that the most secret things are secret, not because they are so remote, but because they are so simple and obvious that we usually take them for granted. As Glinda told Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we have to learn them for ourselves. Isn’t that what journeys are for?

Laurie Bembenek, Superstar

photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

The story is irresistible, really: Lawrencia Bembenek, Milwaukee cop, playboy bunny, convicted murderess, escaped felon—and maybe framed? Villain or victim? It has everything: crime, sex, betrayal, corruption . . . it was a big fat slice of Wisconsin sleaze, and it was irresistible to the local press back in the early 1980s too. It just begs for a big trashy musical, doesn’t it? And who better to write the score than Gordon Gano of Milwaukee’s cult band Violent Femmes, whose small-town dysphoric sound won their own fame in the 80s. So, after a decade-long gestation, a show is born: Run Bambi Run, a collaboration by Gano, Milwaukee Rep’s Artistic Director Mark Clements, and acclaimed playwright Eric Simonson of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. The musical is currently playing in it’s world premiere at the Rep.

And what a show it is: a raucous, rowdy panorama of Milwaukee’s seedy side, detailed and razor-satirical as any painting by Breughel or Hogarth, or a comic by R. Crumb. The Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce is not likely to love it; our city looks like a mean, corrupt, and tawdry place from its gutter perspective, which summons a cast of caricatures from the tabloids, sprung to life for our prurient pleasure. Headlines blaze from big screens; timelines flash as the story propels us along Bembeneck’s lurid career with the queasy inevitability of a Greek tragedy: the flawed hero hurtling toward her predestined doom.

But for all the show’s initial teasing of “is she guilty or is she not?,” the book, based on contemporary accounts and later research, unambiguously takes Bembeneck’s side. It tracks us through her entire hapless career: every poor choice in relationships, advice not taken, and imprudent decision, to make a pretty convincing case that, even if she was not set up by her scumbag husband, her faithless best friend, her crooked attorney, and the collective animus of the Milwaukee Police Department—who are definitely not Milwaukee’s finest—she was undoubtedly outplayed in a game that she was underpowered for from the start.

Under Clements’ direction, the show assaults us with bright lights, loud music, and the feverish energy of 12 pumped-up actor/singer/dancer/musicians who play their own instruments excellently while in character—a signature feature of Clements’ musicals—under the brilliant music direction of Dan Kazemi. The music is amped so high that earplugs are available in the lobby (I recommend them for Act 2 especially).

photo by Michael Brosilow

Gano’s score, which sometimes veers into the sung dialog of rock opera, recalls the Femmes’ jangly post-punk intensity: the opening number, set on New Year’s Eve in Tracks tavern, is truthfully entitled “The Seventies Sucked.” Gano dips into other styles: a comic “bad roommate” polka, a sentimental ballad to Kosciusko Park, a leering commercial for Lake Geneva, and a roaring Jerry Lee Lewis showstopper rocked out by Douglas Goodheart as the bouffant-headed attorney Don Eisenberg. Lyrically, Gano follows less Sondheim or Lloyd Webber than Iggy Pop, whose dictum was to stick to words of one syllable. The lyrics’ blunt simplicity complements the monumental stupidity of the show’s milieu, though they often tell us no more than we already know rather than offering any counterpointing perspective.

Does Run Bambi Run critique the grotesque Bembenek circus, or does it partake of it? Two moments cut through the clown show to the emotional truth; curiously, they both feature actress Sarah Gliko, who plays two minor but important characters. One is in the courtroom, when the murdered woman’s son, the only eyewitness to the crime, testifies: Gliko, as his mother, slowly crosses the stage like a Shakespearean ghost, singing “Remember me.” In the other, she plays a reporter interviewing the indefatigable Erika Olson’s 52-year old Bembenek: now free, but weary, sick, and maimed from a bizarre escape attempt. “On a scale from one to ten,” the reporter asks, a bit heartlessly, “how would you rate your life?” Bembenek replies stoically, “I’d give it a two.” A whole life of potential, wasted in bureaucracy and broken promises, divided, subtracted, and summed up into one dreary number. (Note to the producers: during the intermission I met a former Wisconsin attorney who had socialized with Bembenek; he said that she never used the contraction “ain’t.” Despite growing up on the South Side; fancy that.)

But the show can’t leave the audience on such a bummer ending. Rather like another true crime musical it much resembles, Jesus Christ Superstar, it resurrects the 23 year old Laurie for a final rousing number, celebrating her as a hero who never gave up the fight for truth and justice.

photo by Michael Brosilow

I think Run Bambi Run has a great show in it. Given an artful reckoning with its inner contradictions, and a bit of streamlining of its excess bulk, it could go far. Is it really good to have fun with such a fundamentally sad story? Does the show’s carnivalesque approach celebrate its protagonist as a feminist martyr, or does it feed off the gawker mentality that dogged her entire life? This is a more interesting question than whether she “did it” or not. In the end, the viewer must be the judge.

The Milwaukee Rep  presents

Run Bambi Run

A New Rock Musical

Book by Eric Simonson
Music and Lyrics by Gordon Gano
Directed by Mark Clements

playing through October 22

www.MilwaukeeRep.com

Butterfly Monarch

photo by Alexis Furseth

by Jeff Grygny

He holds out his hand, perfectly confident that a glass of wine will instantly be there. His royal purple suit is set off by a glittering yet tasteful crown.He’s vain, preening, and he knows that he’s God’s chosen regent on Earth. He’s Richard II, the King of England: he really does wield absolute power. And he’s fine with that. Unfortunately, his self-esteem is inversely proportional to his governing skills.

It’s understandable why Shakespeare’s history plays, like Richard II, should be so seldom performed (first time in my memory for this one!). They’re full of wordy politics that generally  boil down to squabbles between hereditary rich guys: not exactly themes that raise the modern pulse. But in this honest, stylish, and highly entertaining production by Voices Found Repertory, the play comes alive, and even seems weirdly pertinent for a time when tech billionaires challenge each other to fistfights, and a grifter would-be dictator commands the loyalty of great swaths of a supposed democracy.

Director Hannah Kubiak’s frothy interpretation owes as much to Noel Coward as to Holingshead’s Chronicles. Her choice of a Roaring 20’s setting is inspired: with skillful extra-textual actions and vocalizations, you can feel the “anything goes” giddiness—just before things get all too real. Even Richard’s throne is painted with an art deco peacock. And you’ve probably never seen an over-the-top fight scene set to the Charleston before!

As customary in Voices Found shows, there’s no performance below journeyman level, and every player is crystal clear, in diction as well as in character and motivation. We might not grasp every detail of the feudal machinations, but we always know what’s going on in the relationships. This gives us a precious opportunity to see Shakespeare exploring themes and tropes we know from his more famous plays.

In the title role, Kyle Connor is at the center of it all and  at the top of his game. His Richard foreshadows Lear’s grandiosity, Richard III’s compulsive oversharing, and Hamlet’s self-conscious ponderings, in a high-wire act between comedy of manners and vertiginous political peril. Connor’s Richard winks, glowers and swans about the stage hilariously, often winning laughs just with a well-timed vocal coo. This fabulously histrionic monarch hogs every scene: when learning of a wronged lord’s rebellion, he calls on England’s wildlife and very earth to defend his anointed right (it doesn’t go well); when abdicating to his rival, he stages a little tug of war with the literal crown; then calls for a mirror and shatters his own reflection This is all great stuff: it probably came right out of the Chronicles, but it could just as easily be a Monty Python routine.

photo by Alexis Furseth

While Richard is sucking the oxygen out of every room, Connor is supported by a sturdy cast who do the heavy narrative lifting as his sycophants, rivals, and enemies. Scott Oehme-Sorensen and Stefan Kent do another Pythonesque turn as a pair of gardeners opining about the doings of the high and mighty. Faith Klick gives Richard’s nameless queen a poignant presence, not least in their surprisingly touching farewell. But overall, this is history as farce, and we just can’t look away from the wreckage.

Reportedly, when the Earl of Essex was plotting to depose Queen Elizabeth, he paid Shakespeare’s company to play Richard II to warm the people to the idea of a coup (it didn’t work). Now, in a time when coups and attention-hogging leaders are in the daily headlines, it’s oddly comforting to know that England got itself into such massive messes and managed to come through. But as Richard’s deposal led to the bloody violence of the Wars of the Roses, it’s also a sobering reminder that coups are always a nasty business— and that rule by drama is seriously overrated.

In Richard II, Voices Found gives us the precious opportunity to appreciate the timeliness of a rarely-seen classic, with a fresh and respectful, but not reverential, take that reveals the play as a minor  tragicomic masterpiece and a fascinating peek into the mind of a great playwright.

 Voices Found Repertory presents

Richard II

by William Shakespeare

Playing through September 3

https://www.voicesfoundrep.com/richard-ii.html

The Wicked King and the Witches of Doom

photo by Jeff Grygny

by Jeff Grygny

On a tree-shaded lawn, families and friends are claiming their little domains with lawn chairs and blankets. Some young actors are leading a group of smaller kids in some vigorous activity, including enthusiastically chanting “double double toil and trouble!” Remembering the old theater superstition of never quoting Macbeth n a theater, I’m glad we’re outside, but I knock on a tree trunk just in case. Vendors under canopies sell hot dogs and snacks. If it’s Monday, this must be Havenwoods State Park, and Summit Player’s touring production of the infamous “Scottish Play.”

With the cheeky motto “Junk in your trunk, Shakespeare in ours,” Summit Players have honed their mission—bringing fast-paced, family-friendly summer Shakespeare to Wisconsin public parks— to a fine art. They know what works, and they do it very well. It seems odd at first that the players are wearing shorts and sneakers under their tabards and crowns, but this is Shakespeare with training wheels: art and practicality are inseparable. The actors shout to be heard outside: they don’t use electronic amplification, just like actors in the olde days. With weather and a hundred other distractions to contend with they have to distill their characters down to essences.

photo by Jeff Grygny

As adapted and directed by Maureen Kilmurry, the weird sisters are bouncier than you might expect—but they don’t scare the little ones. The toddlers get a little restless during the interludes about politics and morality. And yet they see the actual play, edited down to a brisk 75 minutes, with it’s rhythms and emotions intact. Everyone else can easily appreciate the themes of ambition, corruption, conspiracy, regret, and just retribution, and apply it to our times, just as Jacobean audiences would in the aftermath of the infamous gunpowder plot.

photo by Jeff Grygny

Monday’s performance gave the oft-unsung understudies a chance to challenge the lead roles. Dylan Thomas played the title role as a small-minded, wavering schemer; quite insecure, as tyrants tend to be. As Lady M, Vivian Romano brought a sense of vulnerability with a hidden edge of steel. In the regular cast, Matthew Torkilsen lends a fine comic aptitude to the role of the drunken porter, while Kaylene Howard as Lady Macduff gives us the most rounded character, with intelligence, tenderness, and pathos. In his dual roles as King Duncan and Macduff, George Lorimer delivers dignity and honesty, and like the other players, the dynamic Caroline Norton deftly draws all of them distinctly. The swordplay, choreographed by Chris Elst with skimpy little daggers, provides audience-safe action, if not spectacle.

The midnight hues and existential poetry of Macbeth don’t readily lend themselves to summer in the park. But Summit Player’s production doesn’t pull it’s punches where it counts: the grown-ups can appreciate the nuances of the play while the kids won’t be bored out of their minds. Both will come away pretty happy, even if they sense there might me more to this Shakespeare stuff. Training wheels might be just the right thing.

Summit Players present

Macbeth

by William Shakespeare

playing through August 19

for a complete list of remaining performances, go to:

https://www.summitplayerstheatre.com/calendar

A Fourth State of Opera

Milwaukee Opera Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

 A “lady knight” fights a sorceress for the love of her boyfriend, another knight; A woman brings scandal on herself by sleepwalking into a man’s bedroom; Wotan imprisons his daughter Brunhilde in a ring of fire; a blind princess is cured by someone telling her about vision; a disgruntled wife turns into a man and her husband gives birth to thousands of children, causing an economic crisis. And so on. 

Sooner or later every opera lover must reconcile herself to the blunt fact that the plots of operas are often quite silly. Of course, music and storytelling require very different skill sets. But not only that: most of these convoluted tales of swooning princesses, anguished monarchs, potions, curses, and various enchanted accessories are the products of male artists writing female characters who fulfill their fantasies. Problematic!

You can blame this unhappy state of affairs on the sixth century Frankish king Clovis, who, after the collapse of the Roman empire, instituted the Salic Law, which banned women from inheriting property or titles, and thus laying down the shape of the fairy tale world of opera, and bequeathing Europe—where opera was created as an elite pastime—centuries of rule by (literally) entitled lunks to whose desires (along with their wives and mistresses, no doubt) artists either had to pander, or go back to working in their dad’s dull businesses.

Be that as it may, when the most imaginative and daring stage directors in our fair city, Jill Anna Ponasic and Brian Rott, team up with Chicago-based artist Jeffrey Mosser to tackle opera, you can be sure something amazing will happen. Fully engaging with these works’ silliness and outdated norms, they transform them into a pleasingly disorienting spectacle, playful and feather-light, while showcasing a cast of seven wonderful singers who deliver excerpts from seven of the weirdest operas ever written, from warhorses like the Ring Cycle to oddities like Les Mamelles de Tirésias, based on the first surrealist play.

The game is afoot even before curtain: the audience is cast as guests at a wedding reception for Bluebeard (from Bartók’s opera). Kirk Thomsen, playing the eponymous Duke, is jovial with a vaguely menacing undercurrent as he works the crowd with loose-cannon ad libs. His new bride, Judith, played by the incomparable Jessi Miller, seems a bit uneasy, though. Bluebeard reveals the eight doors of his castle, which we are to explore—except for the last, luridly rendered in red, which we are forbidden to open. This is a very clever premise for a smorgasbord of clips and synopses. The singers remain onstage, as in a recital, standing to perform their dreamlike vignettes. The most delirious moments come with the speed-run through The Love for Three Oranges, in which a prince laughs when a witch accidentally shows her underwear, and she curses him into falling in love with fruit. I’m not making this up: it’s the actual story!

Milwaukee Opera Theatre

All this is illuminated by the sublimely low-tech animations of Anja Notanja Sieger, who manipulates exquisite cut-out figures over an antique overhead projector, using common objects like ribbon, lace, and a colander to create trippy visuals that dance in the border between child’s play and high art, like the work of the great underground film maker and mystic Harry Smith. Sometimes you have no idea what’s happening: you’re just washed in a flood of bizarre imagery and exquisite music. It’s the artiest thing Milwaukee has seen since the pandemic before-time. When Notanja Sieger, Thomsen, and Miller are all hovering over the glowing square of the projector, coordinating their tiny puppets, they seem like magicians, creating reality before our very eyes, or scientists, fusing image, music, and narrative into a plasmic fourth state of matter. And on a purely animal level, something about these moving shadows really works with the opera in this age when we’re so used to watching images on little screens: the wiggling shapes give non-opera buffs something to do with their brains and actually let them hear the music better.

And the music, under the lively direction of Janna Ernst, is gorgeous. Soprano Cecilia Davis brings great feeling to the role of Amina the sleepwalker, and aces the high notes of the Queen of the Night; David Guzmán’s bass voice delivers a powerful Wotan and Sarastro; Kathy Pyeatt’s soprano makes us feel the wonder of Iolante discovering sight for the first time. The whole cast fully commits to the offbeat premise. And as the show goes on, Bluebeard and Judith discuss their relationship, revealing things about their pasts: he’s been married before (eight times, to be honest); she’s had a girlfriend with whom she’s still in contact. This is all delivered in a matter-of-fact tone with a perfect touch of camp, like an avant-garde vaudeville routine.

It’s indescribably refreshing to see something again that’s so truly, daringly experimental, while at the same time utterly playful and unpretentious. This dreamy fusion opens up a liminal space between music and story, between high and low art, and even, perhaps, in the historic war between the sexes. Who knows: maybe Bluebeard and Judith can work things out.

Alas, this production has run it’s one-week course, but we can only hope to witness more collaborations like it.

Milwaukee Opera Theater presents

Impossible Operas

Featuring Music by Handel, Mozart, Bellini, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, , Prokofiev, and Poulenc

Created by Tim Rebers, Brian Rott, Jeffrey Mosser, ​Anja Notanja Sieger and Jill Anna Ponasik

Stage Directors: Jill Anna Ponasik, Jeffrey Mosser, and Brian Rott

Kids These Days

photo by Alexis Furseth

by Jeff Grygny

Voices Found Repertory gives young theater artists the precious opportunity to challenge, and be challenged by, the great works of the past. In their earnest, no-frills production of Romeo and Juliet, currently playing at the Interchange Theater Co-Op, we can see this pas de deux of old and new in action, and it’s the tension that makes the performance engaging.

It’s like a TV show set in a theatrical universe where the social norms are patriarchal, but the Prince is a stern woman in a ball gown, the street toughs crack Elizabethan puns and duel with knives, but everyone displays the body language and emotional registers of 21st Century Americans. First-time director Phillip Steenbekkers has coached his actors to understand exactly what they’re saying and why they’re saying it; to discover the human hearts beating within the 400 year old words, and translate them into characters contemporary audiences will understand. This is how theater should work, isn’t it?  Aside from occasional whisperiness, the casts’ diction is good; Shakespeare’s lines aren’t naturalistic, but they make them sound natural, while creating characters that we can easily relate with. Most impressively, the artists ask deep questions about this most famous of love stories. Plain vanilla boy-girl romance isn’t much in vogue these days: this production looks hard at its two young lovers and comes up with its own answers.

Amber Weissert plays Juliet as a fourteen-year-old, a choice accentuated by her little girl outfit. She accents her frustrations with very relatable adolescent roars. At  the same time, she’s sensitive enough to deliver some of the greatest poetry ever written, and seems enchanted by the words coming to her as she paces on that balcony. Similarly, Max Pink’s Romeo seems to enjoy just being Romeo: he’s an affable presence, perhaps more British cool than Italian fire, but with a fevered imagination that impels him to reckless deeds. The overall effect is to present these two kids as driven more by the idea of being in love than by actual passion, or god forbid, horniness. Instead, this play’s emotional core is in its platonic relationships: Romeos’ friendship with his bros Benvolio and Mercutio; the mutual affection between Juliet and her nurse.

photo by Alexis Furseth

As Juliet’s father, Kyle Conner presents a high-strung control freak prone to rage, but hardly a villain. Liv Mauseth’s Nurse is a fabulous American take on a timeless character: the kind of woman who can go teary with sentiment and then bellow off an order in the next breath; Josh Decker has a great time bringing high goofball energy to the role of  Mercutio, playing with out-there vocal dynamics and antic gesticulations. As the Prince, Faith Klick’s soft voice carries more authority than any angry shouting. And in the role of the classic Shakespearean clown, Hannah Kubiak runs off with many a scene as a buffoonish servant to house Capulet.

In his classic study of courtly love, the scholar Denis De Rougemont suggested that modern attitudes toward romance were forged in a literary cult of medieval troubadours who found mystical transcendence in an overheated (and frankly, not very healthy) tango between sex and death. This isn’t a mood we entertain much today: pop psychology and the zeitgeist warn us not to invest too much emotional energy in just one person. Voices Found’s Romeo and Juliet shows us this modern view of romance. Rather than a passion for the ages, it shows us two self-dramatizing kids whose tragedy amounts to a spontaneous lark gone south. Poetry is gorgeous, but dangerously seductive. Not as grand a vision, perhaps, but certainly in tune with our current mood of reduced expectations.

Voices Found Repertory  presents

Romeo and Juliet

by William Shakespeare

playing through May 28

https://www.voicesfoundrep.com/romeo–juliet1.html