All posts by jgrygny

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 When we hear of month-long tornadoes, of abandoned buildings and relocation centers, of how meat and vegetables have been replaced by synthetic food, it becomes apparent that this world of “next year” is very different from ours.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

Big Mood: Reps “Much Ado” Brings the Fun Back To Theater

photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

“I saw this amazing show! It was romantic, exciting, with great music and dancing, And it was SO funny! I even cried at the end! ” “Really? What was it?” “Shakespeare!” is something nobody says. Until recently that is, when we cracked the code for making Shakespeare work in the twenty-first century: substituting pop songs for the poetry that was the pop music of Shakespeare’s time. Turns out that switching out electric guitars and drum kits for lutes and tabors is the secret ingredient to bringing out all the rich umami goodness of Shakespeare’s plays for contemporary audiences. The Milwaukee Rep’s new production of Much Ado About Nothing reveals the play’s humanity and wit—and what’s more, makes it hip, smart, and tremendously fun to watch. It’s amazing what can happen with a fresh musical approach, some loving attention to the text, and an ensemble of brilliant actors, musicians, and comedians who clearly love what they’re doing. In the skilled hands of Director Laura Braza, the show simply rocks.

Setting the play in Seattle in the 1990s is an intriguing way to explore the play’s military culture: the men are just returning from a victorious war, as G.W. Bush’s Operation Desert Shield had successfully driven Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait (the time seems so innocent in this age of social media and MAGA, doesn’t it?). The historical juxtaposition generates both light and heat, highlighting the parallels between Elizabethan power and America’s boo-ya triumphalism. It’s impressive, too, how Music Director Dan Kazemi enlists the dirty chords of Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots to evoke a powerful mood, concocting a shiny, bombastic, happy-sad, fast-slow-fast theater bomb much befitting Much Ado’s high emotions and world-weary wisdom, that carries us along irresistibly for three hours (including a twenty-minute intermission). The presence of live musicians among the cast adds immeasurably, as always.

Best of all, the production shamelessly embraces the theatricality of Elizabethan theater, shifting from elevated realism to farce to musical theater without dropping a beat. The show opens with rebel girl Beatrice passing a joint with her friends and belting out a Nirvana-esque ballad to self-conscious anomie in a piercing voice that could shatter glass in the balcony. The lyrics were written by Louise Labé, an obscure cross-dressing French poet who died when Shakespeare was around two years old (Her story would have made an interesting note in the show’s play guide, but it’s oddly absent). Later, a delicious party scene, lit like a high-end nightclub, breaks into choreography that seems to burst from the sheer joy of victory, youth, and privilege, like the Platonic ideal of an impossibly cool frat party: many kudos to choreographer Jenn Rose. In an age when art is often supposed to be a vehicle for dispensing what’s good for us, this embrace of pure pleasure feels almost wicked.

photo by Michael Brosilow

So it is with the play’s comedy. Time and again the actors hit the sweet spot between credibility and clowning. Forget the 500 year old puns: Shakespeare is hilarious. Mark Corkins’ Don Pedro is on fire with mirth and camaraderie. The reliable Jonathan Girard Daly brings humanity to what could easily be a generic patriarch. Nate Burger lends pitch perfect sitcom energy to his role of Benedick, all bluster and insecurity: when he and Alex Keiper’s Beatrice meet, their verbal duels glitter. Meanwhile, Keiper fans the coals under a simmering cauldron of rage, no hotter than in her “O that I were a man” speech. As the incompetent marshal Dogberry and his factotum, Michael Doherty and Will Mobley leave no shtick unturned in their folie a deux of utterly unwarranted machismo,  with inspired silliness reminiscent of the old SCTV show. And as a cleric officiating a marriage gone south, Daydra Smith speaks with firm authority while the men are all running around with their bruised honor.

Every era remakes Shakespeare after it’s own concerns: The Victorians took out all the depressing bits; in the 60’s the plays were anti-establishment and existential. Director Braza’s rendering becomes a thorough and very effective feminist treatise. Even more impressively, she doesn’t turn the men into villains, but rather shows how the patriarchal structure of society itself is to blame. Of course, with such strong choices. there are inevitably trade-offs. The character of Benedick loses some of his appealing self-awareness: his line, probably my favorite in all of the plays, “man is a giddy thing,” seems to not have made the cut, as if to underscore that it’s institutional sexism, not human folly, that caused the troubles. Also notably absent is any reference to the most significant development of grunge culture (which, honestly, pretty much was a guy thing): the famous 1999 “Battle of Seattle,” when youth anti-globalization protests spread across the world. Granted, there’s little to do with class struggle in Much Ado. But the world historical event is even missing from the play guide’s 1990s timeline (though we do read there about the second Congo war for some reason). Not terribly shocking perhaps, for a theater beholden to corporate funding.

But peace: I’d happily attend a dozen feminist treatises if they were as fun and pleasurable as this show. And since Braza is the Rep’s current Associate Artistic Director, we can hope for many more good things from her in the future. Hey nonny nonny, everyone! You owe it to yourself to see this play!

Milwaukee Rep presents

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare

playing through February 12, 2023

The True Meaning of Christmas

Photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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

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

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

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

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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

The Milwaukee Rep presents

The World Premiere of

The Nativity Variations

by Catherine Treischmann

playing through December 11, 2022

Staying Alive

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

Whether you call them the living dead, zombies, or cannibal corpses, they lumber, groan, and hunger for your sweet, tender flesh. They have haunted the pop imagination ever since George Romero’s B movie classic Night of the Living Dead launched a whole genre of movies, television series, graphic novels, and computer games. Can a low-budget movie rise to the level of grand opera? Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s ever-ready Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik was not afraid to find out. She commissioned Night of the Living Opera, with music by Andrew Dewey and libretto by Josh Perkins, which had a concert reading, appropriately, on Halloween week.

Perkins is formerly of the puppet collective Angry Young Men, who, while being neither all that young anymore and including women (and seemingly not that angry), have performed their kooky Muppet-inspired version of the film for over 15 years in Greater Milwaukeeland. Along with his wife Julianne, who has a recent Masters degree in music performance, he obviously still has the story on his mind, and they were willing to give it the operatic treatment.  

People who might have come to the performance expecting a chorus of, say, “Cervelli Cervelli Deliziosi”  (brains, delicious brains), or an aria consisting of terrified screaming were surprised to see that the new work was presented with nary a wink at the ludicrous conceit. There was only one furtive zombie groan, issued, unless I’m mistaken, from the throat of Shayne Stelige. For the rest, composer Dewey is content to restrict his chorus to tasteful, if sinister, chanting. Now and then a couple of life-sized puppets lurch forward to menace the singers, but in a staged recital like this there is little opportunity for action; those scenes were narrated by Mr. Perkins from the side of the stage. The score, performed by Music Director Anne Van Deusen on keyboard and Kevin Eberle on Double Bass, with Dewey conducting,  conveys a fine sense of unnatural unease, and the libretto accurately recreates the story of the movie, with the important enhancement of the character Barbara, feelingly sung by Elizabeth Blood, who becomes a de facto heroine and sole survivor of the undead onslaught. This gives the story a bit of uplift, in stark contrast to the film’s unrelieved nihilism.

In a world where we face existential perils from every direction, and ideologies that should have died long ago are resurrecting before our very eyes to threaten us, the zombie analogy seems a bit too on the nose. At least Barbara’s journey reminds us of the stoic lesson that, while we can’t always control what happens to us, we can still master our own fears.

The cast did their best to dignify the material, and the exercise is over in an entertaining hour, but one can’t quite shake the feeling of a missed opportunity. The whole point of the movie is to fulfill our prurient desire to see hordes of undead burned, bludgeoned, and shot in the head as they chomp away at the living; to stare into the void with a knowing Nietzschean smirk. Some things are designed to be gloriously, unapologetically trashy: just ask John Waters. A little camp would go a long way towards giving the performance more bite.

Or maybe it was all just a Halloween punk, like serving Spam straight-faced on a doily.  If that was the case, then bravo!  Night of the Living Opera will be presented in a fully staged production in Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s 2023 season. Bring on the zombie chorus!

Movin’ on Up

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

Early in the play, one character asks another if they’re in an episode of The Twilight Zone. And for good reason. The situation in which they find themselves is very much like one of Rod Serling’s surreal morality plays—though it could just as easily be the existential classics No Exit or Waiting for Godot. The play is James Ijames’ Kill Move Paradise, now playing in a tight, propulsive production at Next Act Theatre. Ijames won the Pulitzer Prize in Theater for Fat Ham, a comedy that casts Hamlet as an overweight gay Black man living in the American South—and if it’s anything like Kill Move Paradise, it’s a play that manages to be both light and serious, navigating difficult topics with sly allusion rather than analysis, transforming hopelessness into a kind of celebration.  

The characters, all Black men, plummet onto a bare stage on a kind of metal chute on which they periodically and unsuccessfully try to escape like ants trapped in a sink. Convulsing and crying out on arrival in a kind of birth agony, the actors hold nothing back, fearless at their most vulnerable. Over the course of ninety taut minutes, they try to come to grips with where they’ve been and where they’re going, their only guidance the gnomic instructions produced by an old-fashioned computer printer. They explore, argue, rage, grieve, and comment ironically about the silent people who sit watching them. “Are you scared?” they ask the audience several times. Ijames cleverly casts us a sort of supernal witnesses to this limbo state; occasional bursts of blue light make us very visible, and the actors harvest comedy by gently transgressing the fourth wall.

Director Marti Gobel masterfully conducts an organic composition of moments and moods, from animalistic howling to tense extended silences, each movement seeming to expand like a bubble in space-time, growing to full size before popping into the next. The action kaleidoscopically shifts through a variety of vocal and kinetic modes, from naturalistic to lyrical, expressionist to ceremonial, including passages of abstract movement that seem to embody a symbolic dimension.

The four actors give virtuosic performances, vocally, physically, and emotionally. Marques Causey as Issa, the first person we meet suspended in a flash of white light, acts as a kind of master of ceremonies with a grave yet twinkling sense of irony. Grif, a soft boy from a broken family, is delivered feelingly by Ibraheem Farmer, While Dimonte Henning plays Daz, the most volatile arrival, with raw intensity. Joseph Brown Junior plays the last, a boy called Tiny, with confidence and charm. The four men develop a warm sense of brotherhood during the condensed duration of the afterlife. Much is unsaid, communicated in their body language, their choices, and the relationships they create with each other, weaving a complex skein of meaning. At the end, the play takes a spiritual turn, through an improbable juxtaposition of bible verses and sitcom theme songs. Tiny leads everyone in a street game that turns into a mythic adventure/ psychodrama, that becomes an ecstatic ceremony of release, and Issa, it seems, might  be someone we’ve heard a lot about before.

The Black Lives Matter movement was created in 2012 in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. Kill Move Paradise was first presented in Chicago in 2016, four years before the murder of George Floyd by police officers ignited a national movement that inflamed passions and controversy, and whose legacy remains ambiguous to this day. Kill Move Paradise is a theatrical tour-de-force that sidesteps rhetoric to reveal something more essential: the beating hearts of four men in all their humanity. It gives us hope that, as the arts keep exploring diversity, we will keep evolving new ways to connect, relate, and create a new society.

Next Act Theatre presents

Kill Move Paradise

by James Ijames

playing through October 16th

A Glimpse of Eternity

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

The ensemble, clad in blue jeans and black T shirts, barefoot and glittering with gold jewelry, stands in a circle around the grief-struck hero. As the last sunlight filters through the stained glass windows of Calvary Presbyterian Church, ancient instruments play solemn music. One player pours water from a ceramic bowl into their neighbor’s bowl, and so on, until the water has completed its way around. It is a powerful embodiment of shared sorrow.

Thus Orfeo resolves to go to the land of the dead to rescue his lost lover Euridice, in a daringly unconventional performance of L’Orfeo, the world’s first great opera, composed by Claudio Monteverdi and first performed in 1607.  The enterprising folks of Milwaukee Opera Theatre have gathered a consort of Renaissance instrument players, collaborated with local sacred music collective Aperi Animam, and created a new English translation of the Italian libretto. The result is an original and conceptually daring work; a pure aesthetic experience unsullied by the demands of commercial entertainment.

Opera was originally conceived as a re-creation of Greek tragedy as described in Aristotle’s Poetics. L’Orfeo is clearly an early effort in what was later to bloom into the glorious emotional excess of grand opera. Musically, there is only one recognizable “hook,” and though the story involves high tragedy and supernatural adventure, the score consistently rings with the cheery pomp of a baroque court. Director/translator Daniel Brylow stages the opera as an initiation into the mystery of Orpheus. The action is stylized, with the feeling of a ceremony enacting a story that has been re-enacted for countless generations. The singers move with stately steps and slow, symbolic gestures. Their faces are passive masks, revealing only the most universal emotions. It’s like looking at a series of ancient friezes: the Elgin Marbles depicting the blinged-up patrons of a biker bar.

photo by Mark Frohna

As is customary with MOT, some of the characters are gender-switched. Jackie Willis sings the title role of Orfeo (pronouns: he, his) with dignity and subtle feeling, exerting all his musical power to win entry into Pluto’s realm. As Apollo, Nicole McCarty’s voice bursts in like sunlight suddenly flooding a dark room. But this is a staged recital, not musical theater, and music takes precedence over characterization and drama.

There’s deep history behind the the show’s culty vibe (which is similar to MOT’s last collaboration with AA, the goth/gnostic spectacle Utterance).  The figure of Orpheus, the musician with magical powers, has always been connected to mystery religions with secret rites and heterodox metaphysics. Some scholars trace their origins to orgiastic cults of Thrace that involved an obscure deity named Zagreus and predate recorded history. That cult evolved into the bacchanalian worship of Dionysus, where it became associated with Orpheus because of its themes of death and rebirth. Later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the rites were reassigned to the god Apollo and linked to Neoplatonist mystical concepts of reincarnation and immortality. Then, in the Renaissance, after Cosimo de Medici commissioned the first European translations of Plato, Neoplatonism and Greek mythology became all the rage once more, inspiring countless artists, musicians and poets. So yeah, that’s a lot of history. And from that we get L’Orfeo.

The new English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow (which was helpfully projected on the walls to facilitate our understanding),  reveals just how much the libretto invokes Renaissance philosophy. Without getting too deep into the weeds, Neoplatonists taught that the body is the prison of the soul, and through purification and virtue, we can return to our true eternal source in the One beyond the world of change. In this version of the story, Orfeo, just as in the mythic account, turns, sees Euridice, and loses her. But soon after he returns in sorrow to the world of daylight, the god Apollo appears and rewards him with eternal life among the gods, along with Euridice—just as the ancient Orphic cult promised its initiates.

Ritual is one thing for the believer and quite another for the casual audience. At its best, this production illuminates the transcendental metaphysics of its source material and, while it is too stylized to evoke any deep emotional catharsis, it could very conceivably serve as a kind of meditative therapy for the grief that fills our world. But despite all the love and labor that it clearly displays, it begins to feel like a staid church pageant after about the two-hour mark. Nietzsche wrote of the aesthetic struggle between Apollonian rational order and chaotic, visceral Dionysian energy. This L’Orfeo takes Apollo’s side with great integrity—but it’s hard not to wish for just a hint of Thracian revelry to spice the dish.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Aperi Animam present


Music by Claudio Monteverdi

Libretto by Alessandro Striggio

English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow

Stage Director: Daniel Brylow

Music Director: Jackie Willis

The End of Hamlet?

photo by Ross Zentner

by Jeff Grygny

As the play opens, the lead actor in a prestigious production of Hamlet is throwing a hissy fit. Nothing out of the ordinary there! But in The Last White Man Bill Cain’s provocatively-titled puzzle box of themes and plot twists, which is currently in its world premiere at Next Act Theatre, irony turns on irony like the tormented self-consciousness of the Shakespearean hero. The actor—a Hollywood star with a brand-new Oscar—lays down Yorick’s skull because, just like Hamlet, he is terrified to perform his duty. Thus begins a theater story to top all theater stories, complete with artistic conflicts, backstage intrigue, hot-button politics, psychological suspense—and disco.

It would be totally unfair to reveal any of the details of the Escher-like plot that Cain has constructed, but there’s still a lot to say about this play, which will undoubtedly ruffle a few feathers and start many lively conversations. Cain is a brave man, venturing into one of the culture war’s most radioactive regions: the issues of representation in the arts, and reading the classics through the lens of identity politics. He might incur some folks’ wrath for daring to write the part of Xandri, a Black woman director, though he treats the character respectfully. Then there’s the moment when the understudy, Rafe, asserts that Hamlet should never be played by a Black actor because he’s Danish. When his replacement, the actor named Tigg, protests, he retorts “Can a White actor play Othello?” It turns out (and this isn’t really a spoiler, since it’s in the publicity and program notes that Cain himself believes this) that Xandri’s goal is to direct a production of Hamlet so good that the play will never need to be performed ever again. Acknowledging that the play’s genius contains all of Western civilization, she adds. “And it leads to destruction and death. Always.”

Another risky move on Cain’s part is to require the actors perform at various levels of talent.. As the spoiled, troubled film star, Ken Miller brings the effortless grace that could anchor a blockbuster movie, but his character’s Shakespearean delivery is of the the hit-or-miss “know what you’re saying and talk fast” school that’s murder on the poetry. In the role of Rafe, the understudy who is called in after some unspecified incident takes Charlie out of the picture, Neil Brookshire didn’t have to imagine what the understudy feels like when suddenly thrust onstage: he is himself the understudy for JJ Gatesman, who was recovering from a mild bout with Covid. Brookshire stepped into the role seamlessly, showing both the character’s intense drive to succeed and the actor’s psychological insight—that just might be employed in manipulating the other characters.

As Xandri, Demetria Thomas renders a sympathetic, smart, and grounded persona. And as Tigg, the replacement Hamlet, Brian Gill has the job of playing a consummate artist, spelunking the famous role’s humanity buried in layers of centuries. No pressure! But he acquits himself admirably and honestly. Director David Cecsarini leads his cast of four with economy and a minimum of flash. I rather regretted, though, that the performers, perhaps out of caution to avoid offensive stereotyping, playing a Black woman and two gay men in the 80s, display little of the rich panache of their respective subcultures. The unintended effect of this restraint is to make them all sound more or less like the playwright’s mouthpieces.

So—let’s talk for a minute about Hamlet the play. Is it indeed a theatrical monster, a relic of patriarchal oppression like a Confederate monument, worthy only for the trash heap of history? First off, it’s a very weird play, full of twists and odd angles. Partly this is because Shakespeare adapted it from the Twelfth Century Scandinavian story of Prince Amleth, which is itself full of medieval weirdness, including the prince pretending to be an idiot so that nobody would suspect him of seeking revenge on his uncle. Similar tales appear in Roman literature, also in Finland, Ireland, France, India, and in Arabic sources. This ubiquity has led some scholars to theorize that the story originated in Indo-European culture, which is to say, the people who spread their language from the Early Bronze Age on all across the Western hemisphere. So the story is really really old—and associated with the people formerly known as the “Aryans,” whom we might remember as the Nazis’ so-called “master race.” So that’s a bit of baggage (is this why a cloaked figure in a Bronze Age helmet keeps stalking the stage?).

But there’s more! Hamlet was famously given as a textbook example of Freud’s Oedipus complex, a notorious structure of the masculine subconscious. (If you want to know how deep that rabbit hole goes, google Deleuze and Guattari’s The Anti-Oedipus.) And for a cherry on top, some cognitive scientists have speculated that Hamlet represents an early expression of the emergence of modern consciousness, both as a self-reflective, autonomous self and as a highly conflicted and alienated one. Whew! Maybe the play does contain all of Western civilization. And maybe not in a good way!

One of Shakespeare’s innovations was to disrupt the conventional revenge plot by having the protagonist actually stop and question what he was doing, ultimately coming to the realization that, like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, or a Japanese samurai, he can only do what must be done in the situation he’s in, and be at peace with that. “The readiness is all. Let be.” It’s still the ethos of a warrior culture—but a self-aware one. In a world that’s “out of joint,” sometimes that’s all one can do.

Ross Zentner

The Last White Man is a brand new play, never before produced. So how does it do? It’s certainly not boring— I can’t speak for people less familiar with Hamlet, but for a Shakespeare nerd like me, it’s compelling from beginning to end. Cain’s back-and-forth chronology keeps the suspense going, but I for one left pretty fuzzy as to what exactly happened with Charlie, either because I was inattentive or because it was left ambiguous. Then there is the slight problem of all the characters sounding somewhat the same. And although the economics of theater today demand small casts, I’d have loved to have seen a full-out theater milieu, with Ophelia, Fortinbras, extras, crew, and all the rest. The play’s climactic scene loses credibility because some of the characters’ actions seem jarringly desperate. It might make more sense if we had more a feel of a grand production: restless audience, nervous patrons, critics waiting to pounce, and all that.

But the questions the play raises are powerful. Are we beholden to the judgements of former generations, like old politicians clinging to power beyond their time? Or can we value the riches of the past while letting new generations see them afresh and make them anew? In the end, even Cain seems to show that new perspectives can bring insights to even this hoary classic. And he’ll start some lively discussions. In that regard, The Last White Man works just fine.

By all means, let’s hear new voices telling new stories. But I’m willing to wager that, somehow, Hamlet will survive.

Next Act Theatre presents

The Last White Man

by Bill Cain

Directed by David Cecsarini

playing through May 8

Body Knowledge

photo: Peter DiAnton

by Jeff Grygny

As you’re taking your seat in the cozy quarters of Sunstone Studios, Sarah Moore is already onstage, stretching, loosening up, rolling on a yoga ball. A whiteboard reads something like: “I’m just warming up. The show will start soon!” By this simple act, Moore immediately establishes a friendly, informal relationship with the audience of her provocative, compelling, and often quite funny one-woman show, One Universe: she communicates what’s going on while we get accustomed to her powerful, personable physicality.

A puckish, well-muscled woman, old enough to have raised children into adults, Moore is the co-owner of The Pink House, a venerable fixture of Riverwest’s bohemian community, host for yoga, ecstatic dance, and women’s healing. The show is a series of stories and set pieces, most kin maybe to one of Spalding Gray’s gripping autobiographical monologues, but coming from a considerably more grounded place. In the course of the 90 and some minute show, she re-enacts the Big Bang by busting out of a cardboard box, and shows us how she learned to make fire on a year-long (!) nature immersion where almost everything apparently was made from materials at hand (“There were a lot of conflicts’). She teaches us a little song to sing later on; she mixes stories from her life with flights of imagination, as when travels back in time and assumes superpowers to attempt to save her loved ones from violence, only to discover that every trauma began in some earlier trauma. “I’ve been thinking much too small,” she realizes. Not even a superhero can mend this broken world by herself.

Oh yes, and she calmly announces that she’s going to undress, and proceeds to casually stand before us naked, talking about her body in a way that would be brutal if it wasn’t so guileless and matter-of-fact. She accepts and loves herself as she is: a conscious organism living in the cosmos; a woman; a mother; a daughter; a human being—and herself. Second wave feminists made much of the idea of “writing through the body” to counter the arid abstractions of patriarchal discourse. Moore shows us thinking through the body: each vignette seems to flow organically into the next, the connective tissue being her own, unrushed, embodied rhythms. In her climactic dance, which follows a moving tribute to her mother, her strong arms and hands seem to grab and twist space itself, like a sculptor trying to mold the world’s clay closer to the heart’s desire.

There’s no reason at all to think that the persona she presents in One Universe is anything but herself: she’s candid about just about anything you could imagine, frankly and without embarrassment—or self-seriousness—just a kind of earthy, elfin amusement. Still, with her extraordinary charisma and confidence, she does seem like sort of a superhero— someone who shows up in the apocalypse with just the knowledge and skills to save you from disaster. Through years of yoga, dance, motherhood, and contact with nature, she has become so knowledgeable in her body that she seems like a new kind of human, both like and unlike very old ways of being human: an alternative to our modern, conflicted, overthinking selves.

I think Moore’s intention in this tour-de-force is to model a way of being for us in these tremendously challenging times: to embrace both the pain and the joy of living, realizing that they can’t really be separated; to be clear-sighted, present, and unfazed: “fiercely OK.”

Cooperative Performance presents

One Universe

Devised and performed by Sarah Moore

Playing through April 16

“Content warning: contains mature content and nudity.”

“COVID-19 policy: A properly-fitting mask and either proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result are required for admittance to ONE UNIVERSE.”

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