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

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

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


by William Shakespeare

playing through August 19

for a complete list of remaining performances, go to:

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–juliet1.html

American Gods

photo by T. Charles Erickson

It’s an old song

It’s a sad song

We sing it anyway

            Hermes, Hadestown

by Jeff Grygny

There’s no three-headed dog, no ferryman on the Styx. But make no mistake, Hadestown is the real thing: its creator, the supernaturally gifted Anaïs Mitchell, has obviously lived, dreamed, and traveled in the myths of Orpheus and Persephone, and she’s distilled their essence into a fable that speaks to parts of us that we might not have even known we have. It’s no wonder this raucous, rowdy, and deeply moving show won eight Tony awards and played on Broadway for over a thousand performances. Now it’s come here, in a touring production currently playing at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Mitchell sets her cosmic opera in a fairy-tale America, somewhere in the South, perhaps New Orleans. It’s a mythic, honky-tonk landscape reminiscent of Max Fleischer cartoons or Cohen Brothers movies. It doesn’t sound like highly processed Broadway Entertainment Product; it’s musical vocabulary is old-timey, with  jazz, folk, and Cajun flavors. You wouldn’t be surprised to see Tom Waits slouching in the corner. The remarkable orchestration by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose deploys strange combinations of fiddle, cello, accordion, glockenspiel, and double bass, ably led by Eric Kang on stand-up piano, to create uncanny harmonies and haunting dissonances that echo a universe in constant precarity and go straight to our hearts, like the magical chords of Renaissance magic.

And like the first true opera, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the show is entirely sung. It tells its story through feelings—and those feelings are mighty. There’s no back story for Orpheus and Eurydice, and no need for any. He’s a struggling singer/songwriter with a vision of restoring the world through art; she’s a young woman down on her luck who catches his eye. The capable touring cast performs with professionalism and flashes of brilliance. Hannah Whitley communicates Eurydice’s hardscrabble biography with her body language.  J. Antonio Rodriguez, with a falsetto like struck crystal, makes us believe that Orpheus can charm love even into the king of death.

Maria-Christina Oliveras brings abundant sass to her role as party girl/nature goddess Persephone (she’s the one they sing about when they sing “she’s comin’ around the mountain”). Nathan Lee Graham plays Hermes, the prince of magicians and salesman, with great panache, and, playing Hades, Matthew Patrick Quinn’s intimidating basso voice rumbles itself right into your chest. As the Fates, feared by both men and gods, Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano, and Nyla Watson play their own instruments, making a sinister chorus of the sisters who know everything and smile as you go to your doom.

photo by T. Charles Erickson

The production glitters with all the technical arts of Broadway, including a revolving stage that’s very effectively incorporated into the choreography. The rock-concert lighting, underscoring every dramatic beat and mood shift, seems designed to make sure that even the drowsiest patron stays awake.

In this 19th century myth, the underworld is a factory town. While Persephone is up in the land of sunlight, the brooding Hades mines coal and forges steel; he builds engines and generators, and surrounds his realm with a great wall, convincing his slaves that it’s for their own security. Persephone is less than impressed: “it ‘aint natural.” she sings. When Orpheus arrives to help Eurydice break her desperate contract, he becomes something of a union organizer for the dead souls condemned to endlessly stoking Hades’ furnaces. It’s a powerful metaphor for the degrading effects of industrial capitalism, both on the natural world and on the human heart.

Orpheus’s songs awaken the spirit of love—but in the end he can’t defeat the Fates. Unlike Monteverdi, Mitchell leaves the tragic ending of the original myth intact. But she’s kind enough to let us down gently, and, after the curtain call, the players sing a final song as they raise their wineglasses in a salute to the eternal artist, seeing a vision of a world of love, and brought low by the cruelty of The Way Things Are, only to try again and again. Who knows—maybe next time will be different.

Broadway Across America presents


Music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell

playing through May 7

The Bard in Lockdown

Thomas Dekker 1625 credit: Sheila Terry//Science Photo Library

And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies

King Lear

by Jeff Grygny

Who are the invisible people? They’re the ones we never see because we never look at them. The housekeepers, the janitors, the panhandlers. Invisibility is one of the many themes in Bill Cain’s lively Elizabethan fantasy Gods Spies, which is currently receiving its world premiere at Next Act Theater as part of the World Premiere Wisconsin initiative.

Cain seems obsessed with Shakespeare’s later plays. His Equivocation dealt with the complex political intrigue behind the writing of Macbeth. The Last White Man scrutinized Hamlet through the lens of identity politics. Now, in God’ Spies, Cain processes the complex feelings around our recent collective experience of pandemic and loss, along with a few other things, including: the patriarchy, fundamentalist hypocrisy, inequality, dispossession, and the creative process— all in the setting of a London brothel. And he takes time to fill it with good-natured gags about Scottish accents, Shakespeare’s terrible penmanship, male cluelessness, and a certain village with a very long name.

King Lear has often been considered the greatest play ever written. The product of a master dramatist at the height of his powers, it takes on an even longer list of interwoven themes, in a story that might be a fairy tale but has also been adapted into modern settings, and, in Shakespeare’s way, remains surprising, even shocking, and unfathomably rich to this day. In God’s Spies, we meet the playwright in the middle of his work, suddenly trapped in a house where doxies bring their clients after their theater “dates.” He enters in full plague gear, as the town has just broken out, interrupting an argument between  local strumpet Ruth, and her reluctant patron, a Scots lawyer named Edgar, who curses the hour he set foot in a theater and lost his soul to the lusts of the flesh. As none of them are allowed to leave, Shakespeare (“Shax,” as he’s called here, because of the odd way he writes his name), continues his project. It turns out the Ruth is very canny about the theater, having seen every play multiple times whilst on the job, while Edgar has beautiful handwriting, and the three shut-ins gradually become collaborators.

photo by Ross Zentner

Writing doesn’t generally make the most compelling theater, and Cain finds many ingenious ways to draw us in to scenes of a man sitting at a table with pen and paper. So we have dramatic enactments, arguments, revelations, an impromptu ear-piercing, and eroticism—including an incident of casual bisexuality that comes out of nowhere and quickly goes back there. Director David Cecsarini keeps the action moving with Ruth’s compulsive cleaning—a detail that’s quite familiar to us after our own recent plague. Mark Ulrich, obviously having great fun with the role of  Shax, lights up the stage with a full-bodied characterization, bringing good-natured intelligence, charisma, and an endearing quirkiness that reminds us of certain brilliant theater artists we have known, with the facial ticks and grimaces of a mind so quick that it can’t help but escape the body in little electric jolts.

photo by Ross Zentner

As Edgar, Zach Thomas Woods shows a vulnerable, confused young man behind a burr thick enough to stand a spoon up in. And Eva Nimmer brings grace and humanity to a role that’s heavily weighted with thematic importance: as a prostitute, she’s the lowest of the low, but like Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s sister,” she’s just as insightful and talented as Will, while also a practical genius at surviving; a resourceful provider, a healer, and the unrecognized hero who saves King Lear for posterity. But don’t expect her to play the games of the stereotypical trollop; she is very much a clear-headed businesswoman. Just as Lear recognizes the poor and destitute among his subjects, so Shax comes to understand the value of ” invisible” people like Ruth.

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this. 

King Lear Act 3 scene 4

One figure conspicuously absent in the play is Lear himself. Kings are not in vogue these days, to put it mildly. While so many literary classics are being “interrogated” by contemporary critics, Bill Cain seems intent on making sure these plays remain fresh, alive, and relevant. He leans right into the controversy. Best of all, he’s not reverent: his meditations aren’t dour theses, but borderline farces with escalatingly improbable developments that veer close to campiness. And this is all for the better. God’s Spies is a feast for Shakespeare buffs, and greatly entertaining for everyone else.I can’t wait for him to venture into the ideological mine field that is The Tempest next.  

Next Act Theater presents

God’s Spies

by Bill Cain

playing through May 21

The Mass Global Goodbye

Photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

We never learn her name; she’s called “The Detective.” She wanders, bemused, amid piles of grey cardboard banker boxes littered with household detritus, including an antique telephone, a hand-cranked Victrola, and an ancient typewriter, enshrined like holy relics of the Industrial Revolution. “I didn’t always live like this,” she confesses. Thus begins Tidy, a brand-new play by Kristin Idaszak, in a production by Renaissance Theaterworks, produced as part of the World Premiere Wisconsin initiative. We’ll spend the next eighty-five minutes in this room with The Detective in a state of mounting unease, as the play gradually veers, as if pulled by implacable geologic forces, from contemplative musings into the realms of conspiracy, dystopia, and apocalypse.

Idaszak deftly spins a dense web of genres: social satire, hard-boiled mystery, domestic drama, memory play, psychological thriller, even a touch of prop comedy. The surreal setting is reminiscent of Beckett’s Theatre of the Absurd,. The play’s scientific/political themes echo the novels of J.G. Ballard, while its steady drip of sinister revelations might be out of a film by M. Night Shyamalan. Our protagonist is simply trying to clear her apartment of clutter, using the principle of feeling whether a possession sparks joy, and if not, thanking it and saying goodbye. As she goes along, reminiscing over the various tchotchkes she and her wife have collected, we learn that her wife—coincidentally named “Joy”— is a geologist who specializes in mass extinctions, and that her research is for some reason both classified and gives her certain privileges. We learn about the six mass extinctions in Earth’s history, with the last being the Anthropocene, which we are living in now.

The Detective’s most poignant memories come from her childhood on her parent’s farm, where she named all the trees on the land and loved especially one grand tree. When we hear of month-long tornadoes, of abandoned buildings and relocation centers, of how meat and vegetables have been replaced by synthetic food, it becomes apparent that this world of “next year” is very different from ours. This is a very effective way to tell a big story in the most cramped of settings, and if it seems a bit didactic at times, it still leaves us greatly unsettled— which is most certainly the playwright’s intent.

Director Elizabeth Margolius and an inspired crew of artists work hard to vary the tones and rhythms of what is basically a long monologue. Cassandra Bissell brings great warmth, humor, and pathos to a character slowly recognizing just how bad a situation she’s in. As she goes about her tidying mission, her “thank you”s begin to turn into “I’m sorry”s as she realizes just how much she has to let go. (This is especially heartbreaking for those of us who can still remember a world with more butterflies, temperate seasons, and open land.)

photo by Ross Zentner

Special praise is due to the design team who created this dreamscape: Scenic Designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and Lighting Designer Noele Stollmack, who realize a dynamic sculptural environment that becomes a second character; also Christopher Kriz’s sound design, that sensitively captures the range of emotional tones, from elegiac to menacing, and Yeaji Kim’s video projections, that wash over the stage like memories, plus a stunning final image that overpoweringly conveys the sense of a world split open to reveal an awesome and terrible reality. (Most of these artists, along with the Director and Playwright, are based in Chicago—make of that what you will.)

Generally, contemporary artists seem to struggle with our ecological crisis. Scientific data and creative expression don’t often exactly sing together, and the modern ideal of art is to interrogate and deconstruct, rather than to offer answers. Idaszak leaves The Detective’s fate ambiguous. We’re not even sure if her world is real or a paranoiac fantasy. By so doing, the Playwright plays both to people who accept climate science and those who feel it’s overblown or all a conspiracy. But whether or not this play will convince any climate skeptics, it’s an effective warning: a flashing red light signifying that, as Greta Thunberg urged us, we really must “change everything” about the way we live. This is a great place to start.

Personally, I’d like to imagine that The Detective is reunited with her Joy, who arrives to take her out of her materialist cocoon to a refuge where people are beginning the great adventure of creating a culture that works, not to conquer nature, but to cooperate with it. Now that would be something to see.

Renaissance Theaterworks presents


 by Kristin Idaszak

playing through April 16

If you’d like to contribute to international climate change activism, you could visit

For an innovative approach to bringing the performing arts to our relationship with the natural world, see:  

Adventures in the Deep World: A Report on The Performance Ecology Project

The Roads of Genius

photo by Ross Zentner

Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without Improvement are the roads of genius.

William Blake (ca 1790)

by Jeff Grygny

A sleepy liberal arts college is rocked by scandal; the two professors involved—by some departmental quirk, they are both scholars of the Eighteenth Century poet William Blake—use their final lectures to explain, if not justify, their shocking act. So opens There is a Happiness That Morning Is, Mickle Maher’s fabulously rich comedy of poetry currently playing at Next Act Theatre. English literature has rarely seemed so rambunctiously sexy, riotously funny, and radically essential.

But this is no satire of academic speech. Their transgression is far more earthy and primal than a misuse of pronouns or offending some ethnic identity— though there is perhaps a sly rejoinder here to puritanism of all kinds. And though the play consists entirely of dazzling flights of the spoken word, it isn’t a play about language. It’s the play of language itself, playing about what language is itself about: life and how we live it. In a dizzying high wire act of verbal virtuosity, Maher stretches, teases, jumbles and juggles words and ideas in unstrained iambic couplets that sound sometimes like Shakespeare, sometimes like rap, sometimes like Doctor Seuss, and sometimes just like people talking. Speech is the star player: the supple instrument of human consciousness exploring the cosmos.

Mickle Maher is no ordinary playwright. A co-founder of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck, his playful dramas defy categorization or easy synopsis, though they often engage literary classics: a group of superheroes on a submarine phone bank raising funds for an emergency production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Spirits to Enforce); Doctor Faustus on his last evening on earth, explaining his life, while Mephistopheles sits silently waiting for midnight (An Apology).

But then, William Blake is no ordinary poet either. Artist, visionary, and mystic, he self-published his illustrated writings and was regarded by his contemporaries as a whimsical eccentric, yet he led the way for the blooming of the English Romantic Movement. A stupendously original thinker, he divided  human life into the stages of “innocence,” a time of childlike wonder,  “experience,” the inevitable grinding down of the world, and, for the lucky, “organized innocence,” where joy and knowledge reunite in true wisdom.  

Neil Brookshire brings a rumpled enthusiasm to his role of Bernard. In his lecture on Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” he glows like a cherub in the epiphanic aftermath of his subversive act. His discourse on the absolute joy of morning, beyond mood or happenstance, is perhaps the cheeriest opening speech of any play in all of literature. But if he seems transfigured by his experience, the exact same experience has been a spiritual catastrophe for his partner Ellen, played with spiky intelligence by Cassandra Bissel, Discussing Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose,” she mercilessly dissects the meaning of the “invisible worm” with its “dark secret love.” And she spares no foul words for the college Dean, who has demanded their joint public apology.

Just when you might begin to feel swamped by the floods of brilliant verbiage, Maher throws in cascading developments so unexpected, so outrageous and yet so insanely appropriate, you can only roar with laughter as the events unfold with what we can only call poetic justice. Director Mary Macdonald Kerr wisely stays out of the way and lets her actors bring these two people’s minds and souls to vivid life, while Scenic Designer Lisa Schlenker has brought a beautiful painted tribute to Blake’s illuminated texts into the lecture hall setting.

“It is difficult to get the news from poems,”  wrote William Carlos Williams, “though men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” There isn’t much news either in There Is A Happiness That Morning Is. But at a time when the news all seems to be bad, there is something here that could very possibly nourish and sustain you through the dim days of old winter, and beyond.  

Next Act Theatre presents

There is a Happiness That Morning Is

by Mickle Maher

playing through March 19

This Rough Magic

photo by Alexis Furseth

by Jeff Grygny

The great director Peter Brook wrote that there were four classes of theater: The deadly, the holy, the rough, and the immediate. Voices Found Repertory’s delightful interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is far from deadly, and it isn’t really holy as such. At first you might think it’s rough theater, then, which Brook calls plays that are short on budget, often performed by amateurs who stumble upon brilliance through sincerity and sheer luck. The first scene, where the mage Prospero creates the titular storm, wrecking a ship loaded with his old enemies, seems to be just actors running around yelling incomprehensibly. It’s soon clear that this isn’t ineptitude on the players’ part, but a fair rendition of an actual disaster in progress.

The Tempest, the last play that Shakespeare wrote, has everything that we love in Shakespeare: The magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the romance of Romeo and Juliet, the farce of Twelfth Night, the treachery of the histories, and the supernatural creepiness of Macbeth. All this and a message of renunciation and forgiveness, coupled with the spectacle of a court masque and a metaphysics of illusion. It’s truly a tour-de-force of the playwright’s art.

It’s so gratifying, then, to see a new generation of artists bringing their own fresh sensibility to this cultural treasure. Director Alex Metalsky, a hobbit-like fellow with a broad smile and a Hagrid-esque mass of hair, has very clear ideas about where he wants this show to go, and he largely succeeds. These ideas include audience engagement, naturalistic delivery, emotional truth, lots of humor, and some very stylized theatrical flourishes. He’s stripped the 20-character play to just five performers, who rush on and offstage to make slight changes to costume and personae. He distributes the role of Ariel, Prospero’s familiar spirit, into four players, one evidently for each of the four elements of Renaissance magic. Far from coming off as contrived, this gambit accentuates the fluid, mercurial nature of the shape-shifting spirit. The magical pageant, often omitted from productions of the play, here becomes a wonderfully downscale affair, with ukulele, a goddess in drag, and even an improbably successful hip-hop break. You really haven’t lived until you’ve heard Shakespearean verse in rap, and it works so well it’s amazing more people don’t do it.

photo by Alexis Furseth

Each player gets their own opportunity to shine: Chloe Attalla brings the sincerity and confidence of a teenager to the role of Miranda with effortless grace: her scenes with Grace Berendt as Prince Ferdinand capture something of the aching vulnerability of first love; Berendt also embodies the brittle, self-centered scheming of Prospero’s wicked brother, and shares a very funny display of classic clowning with Hannah Kubiak as a pair of drunken servants. Cory Fitzsimmons shows us the wounded creature behind Caliban’s monstrous appearance, and rocks both a fanciful headpiece and oversized sunglasses as the goddess Ceres, while William Molitor performs Prospero’s crisis of forgiveness with utter credibility.

Somehow, there’s something in twenty-first century pop culture that suits Shakespeare incredibly well. You heard it here first folks: a pastiche of pop tropes and styles skillfully blended with musicality, cartoonishness, melodrama, and moments of heartwarming honesty, mixed in with the flavors of contemporary attitudes, summons up these antique plays into vivid, rude good health. After this Tempest, you feel enriched, enlivened, and like life is worth living– which is not a bad thing to get from a work of art.

Voices Found has been in operation for seven years now. And though the personnel may change, they continue to let young artists try out their chops on classics of world theater. They reminds us that, though Shakespeare is centuries old, he yet offers a brave new world to each generation.

Voices Found Repertory


The Tempest

by William Shakespeare

playing through February 19