Spoils of War: Euripides’ “The Trojan Women”

photo by Off the Wall Theatre

“The greatest enjoyment of a man is to overcome his enemies, drive them before him, snatch what they have, to see the people to whom they are dear with their faces bathed in tears, to ride their horses, to squeeze in his arms their daughters and women.”

Genghis Khan, quoted in the  Fourteenth Century Jami’ al-tawarikh

by Jeff Grygny

News broadcasts from war-blasted regions of the world often bring us the sound of women weeping. It’s an ancient sound, heard whenever men brutalize people, whether for greed, revenge, or addiction to their own adrenaline. There’s always (in the cool military jargon) “collateral damage,” and women have always carried the weight of it.

The Greek tragedy The Trojan Women, currently in production at Off the Wall Theater, is part of one of the oldest war stories in western civilization. Homer’s Illiad glorified war; Euripedes’ view is not so glittering. It’s the un-glamorous aftermath of the sack of Troy: the wives, daughters, and mothers of the fallen aristocracy are captives, waiting to be “allocated” to their new masters as prizes of conquest. It’s not a happy play, to put it mildly. Rolling relentlessly from grief to grief, its bleak story could have come from the pens of Camus or Sartre (who indeed did write a modern adaptation). As a performance, this could have easily become a be a tedious slog through misery. Yet, under director Dale Gutzman’s  skillful orchestration of rhythm and tone, and his expert composition of stage pictures— plus the honest, subtle performances of an excellent cast—the ancient play seems alive and timeless while still retaining its mythic dimensions, like wine made fresh from an ancient recipe. It’s as powerful as it must have been when it was first performed at the City Dionysia play festival in 415 BCE.

Gutzman gives the show a World War II vibe: the noblewomen, vulnerable in black evening gowns, are herded by brutish soldiers in fatigues into a nondescript space that could be an abandoned office building. A single broken chandelier stands for the ruined glory of Troy, while a metal sliding fire door leads, as we later learn, to docks where ships wait to haul their plunder back to Greece. The scene could be from the wrack of Aleppo, or Sarajevo, or Constantinople, Jerusalem, or any of the other countless ravaged cities throughout history At one point the soldiers distribute bottled water to the prisoners, a direct call-out to the “humanitarian aid” given to present-day refugees.

The story plays out elegantly, like a classic film from the silver screen era, occasionally soaring to the dramatic heights of grand opera. Sensitively-chosen recorded music underscores and elevates the spoken poetic text, adapted by Gutzman to sound both lyrical and contemporary. One by one, we see the legendary women meet their destinies. As Hecuba, the queen, who has seen her husband butchered in the street, and who is the mother of the slain Paris and Hector, Marilyn White holds the center in a show without a weak performance. Hecuba is already at rock bottom when the play begins, only to endure blow after blow, first losing her daughter Cassandra, then Andromache, her dead son’s wife, and finally her infant grandson, murdered by the paranoid Greek commanders. “We beat our breasts and tear our hair,” she cries out, “and what good does it do?” White shows us a woman pressed beyond all limits, who finally transcends despair to a kind of negative ecstasy—the closest to redemption a human being can get who has lost everything.

The other actresses give equally terrific interpretations, giving flesh to names whose stories have lived for more than two millennia: as the seer Cassandra, Alicia Rice presents a person who is utterly lost;  at one point she attempts to immolate herself with a can of gasoline. Yet when she is informed that she will be Commander Agamemnon’s prize, she delivers a final dreadful prophesy. As Hector’s widow Andromache, Laura Monagle carries herself with extraordinary dignity, while seeming utterly human in her grief. As the famed Helen, Zoe Schwartz totally rises to the role: the one who inadvertently started it all by happening to be the most beautiful woman in the world. She brings a fascinating mixture of royal glamour and animal cunning, playing her part so well that her aggrieved husband Menelaus, played with hollow machismo by James Strange, relents his vow to kill her on the spot. The dialog where she defends herself to him is electric with tension, mythic resonance, and cold calculation.

Though they ultimately have lost, the women powerfully affect all who come in contact with them.  Randal Anderson portrays a functionary who is finally overcome by his superiors’ cruelty. The chorus of women—Michelle Waide, Sharon Nieman-Koebert, Barbara Zaferos, Barbara Weber, and Sandy Lewis— give the play its sinew: whether wailing in despair, dancing sadly to the old song “After I’m Gone,” played on a radio, rallying behind Hecuba, or finally getting herded off to their new masters, they bring honest, deep reactions to every onstage moment and line of spoken verse. It’s an incredibly rich presentation of a classic tragedy.

The tragedies of refugees have been much in the news of late. The Trojan Women exhorts us to recognize their suffering. This version, while anything but triumphal, shows that human beings, even faced with the worst, still have the power to choose a kind of existential freedom.
Losing can be more beautiful than winning.

Off the Wall Theatre presents

The Trojan Women
by Euripides
in a new version by Dale Gutzman

playing through February 26

tickets available at offthewalltheatre.com

She blinded me with science: “Fruition of a Delusion” by Cooperative Performance Milwaukee


photo credit: Sydonia Lucchesi

Sweet is the lore which nature brings;

Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things;
—We murder to dissect. 
                                                                       William Wordsworth

by Jeff Grygny

Rube Goldberg was an early 20th century cartoonist whose absurd contraptions were prime demonstrations of cause and effect: a bowling ball might roll down a chute to ring a bell, to wake a granny in rocking chair who triggers a mousetrap to release a clothes iron swinging on a rope, frightening a goat, and so on—all in pursuit of some mundane task. More recently, the band OK Go has created amazing videos inspired by Goldberg’s creations.  Our childlike delight depends on that single kinetic moment, moving down the chain visibly like a sizzling fuse. It’s the basis of narrative, and you might even say, of science.

Fruition of a Delusion, the latest original performance currently in production by Cooperative Performance Milwaukee, not only features its own Rube Goldberg device, assembled onstage by the cast with theatrical flourish, but its very structure is Goldbergian: an assemblage of elements as diverse as they are incongruous. Not many shows bring together engineering with quotes from Ovid, Wordsworth, and William Blake, with burlesque, hip-thrusting dance moves, anti-nuclear sentiments, environmentalism, feminism, pop-culture snarkiness, quantum entanglement, call-outs to sci-fi classics like Back to The Future, Ghostbusters, and Doctor Who, and a musical palette that includes the Beatles, Queen, and that hipster classic, Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” If you’ve always craved to see the greatest scientists of the twentieth century re-visioned as a fusion of the Powerpuff Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants, this is your chance. It’s such an audacious concept, executed with devil-may-care casualness, it boggles the mind. But a Rube Goldberg machine depends on precision; unfortunately, this wild profusion of elements engage with each other in a messy, scattershot fashion, when they connect at all. Perhaps the best analog for the show’s collage aesthetic is right in front of your face: the internet, that collapses time, space and reason; where lofty thoughts walk side-by-side with adolescent pee jokes: it’s all just ones and zeroes, folks.

Maybe quantum entanglement is to blame. In a non-Newtonian system, there’s no reason to expect one thing to happen at a time: if particles in contact remain entangled when parted, and the universe was all once condensed in a single point, then everything is always connected to everything else; a single-function part is hopelessly simplistic— tyrannical even. Or it might have been co-creators Kelly Coffee and Don Russell’s intention to represent the inner landscape of its teenage protagonist as a blooming buzzing confusion, where science lessons and social media wisecracks coexist with equal weight. The show never references Star Trek: The Next Generation, though it echoes some of its middle-season plots: finding the solution to a technical problem while working out a parallel character problem. Here, it’s engineer Ruby’s quest to devise a sustainable source of energy for the world. In this task she enlists her imaginary scientist friends, who appear in the guise of cartoon characters. By the tone of the dialog, you can judge Ruby to be somewhere between eight and fifteen. It’s always a challenge for adult actors to play children;  Molly Corkins keeps the winsomeness turned up to eleven. The forms of her interlocutors also suggest youthful fantasy: Sarah Ann Mellstrom presents the rumpled physicist Einstein in tight pants, a striped shirt, and leather jacket— possibly to suggest the connection between relativity and the Beatniks? In the role of Marie Curie, Anna Lee Murray sports a pink tutu, and is prone to postures such as lolling on the floor with her feet in the air (something it’s hard to picture her venerable namesake doing). As Atomic Spice (I mean the father of the atom bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer), Selena Milewski brings a punk/goth sensibility,  all in black with heavy eye makeup, while Ben Yela gives visionary engineer Nikola Tesla a clownish fervor. The design process plays fast and loose as various concepts are floated; Eric Sherrer does a straight-man turn as the inventor of the fly swatter, whose duties include slapping ideas down. The real heroes of the show are the house band called “The Fallouts,” rocking an eclectic mix of live accompaniment with full-throated harmonies and great musical humor.

photo credit: Sydonia Lucchesi

The Visualization Lab of Marquette University’s College of Engineering, which collaborated on this project, is in the impressively science-y basement of an impressively science-y glass and steel temple of technology. There, in a gray-walled alcove about the size of a large breakfast nook, projectors create 3D images which we view through polarized glasses. The effects are more nifty than awesome. Forget the holodeck—the graphics are reminiscent of late 90’s Second Life. With all of space and time to sample, the setting mostly consists of a rather drab library. The illusion of space is still impressive, though; bigger on the inside than on the outside.

Fruition of a Delusion highlights the truth that science, at least in its traditional form, works fundamentally differently than art: science takes things apart, looking at one entity or process at a time to understand the universe; art draws on infinite connections: historical and emotional, formal and metaphorical. Traditionally the artist carefully teases out threads of meaning to show patterns in the weave of life. Maybe, by refusing to cut its own Gordian knot, this show performs a different kind of heroism by letting us find our own way.

Cooperative Performance Milwaukee
in collaboration with MARVL
Marquette University’s Opus College of Engineering Visualization Lab
Fruition of a Delusion

Concept by Kelly Coffey
Written and directed by Kelly Coffee and Don Russell

Running through February 25
Marquette University Engineering Hall
1637 W. Wisconsin Ave Room Room 028 (lower level)
Tickets $20

Due to limited seating, pre-ordering tickets is recommended. 3D glasses will be provided”

A Remedy for Despair: Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Sassy Classic

Mark Frohna Photography

by Jeff Grygny

In Herman Hesse’s counterculture favorite Steppenwolf, the suicidal protagonist stumbles on “The Magic Theater,” a hypnogogic mystery rite that transforms the soul through despair to wisdom. On his way he encounters Mozart, one of the Immortals, whose music embodies both the crystalline structure and divine playfulness of the cosmos. Mozart, of course, penned The Magic Flute (along with his less-immortal collaborator Emanuel Schikaneder) as a fantasy on themes of the Masonic order to which they both belonged; such secret societies were key players in the political and philosophical upheavals of the day—arguably the United States was itself founded on the principles of Reason, Wisdom, and Brotherhood that the Masons espoused.

This is only by way of background to the amazingly coincidental  appearance of Zie Magic Flute, a stripped-down and upgraded version of the classic opera now in performance by Milwaukee Opera Theatre at a time when at least half the nation is contemplating the noose.  As if auditioning for the role of The Magic Theatre, this goofy, warm-hearted production is a fine antidote for politically-triggered despond. Produced in collaboration with Quasimondo Physical Theatre and Cadance Collective, it’s a creative dream team, each group dedicated to artistic cross-fertilization and rattling the cages of tradition. Together, they go completely outside the lines of what might be the closest thing Mozart ever made to a coloring book. What’s more, they play in what may be the single most brilliant venue for this opera in the city: the grandly arabesque Tripoli Shrine Center, home of the heirs of the very order Mozart celebrated. There, under a fantastic domed vault, among ornate gilded columns, stands a grand piano, around which the entire piece plays: music is the literal center of the show. Music director Paula Foley Tillen plays barefoot and fearlessly, while Flutist Emma Koi and Cellist Alicia Storin sometimes leave their seats to join in the action swirling all around.

Mark Frohna Photography

Co-directors Jill Anna Ponasik and Brian Rott seem intent on creating a world of joyful play, where problems are easily resolved and love and wisdom conquer, all in the key of Loony Tunes (it’s probably one of the few Mozart productions that features a kazoo in the orchestration). But then, the story of The Magic Flute is silly even by operatic standards; the characters are paper-thin, the plot makes little sense, and the initiation ordeals of Tamino and Papageno would seem puerile to a fraternity. It’s story as music; or music masquerading in the costume of narrative. Schikaneder’s libretto has been loosely rendered into contemporary rhyme by Daniel J. Brylow​, who sets the irreverent mood by including puns, colloquialisms, and even internet slang; at one point the Queen of the Night’s ladies (comically clad as Wagnerian valkyries) serenade Tamino with a chorus of “TTYL.”  There was plenty of appreciative tittering from the opening night audience, but since the staging is in the round, there’s a one in four chance someone will be facing away from you, unfortunately rendering some of Brylow’s witty lyrics unclear. The directors’ decision to leave some of the songs in the original German doesn’t noticeably trouble the narrative flow; it just adds a little Teutonic flavor to the mix.

Quasimondo’s Brian Rott brings his characteristic sense of incongruity to the staging, which delightfully encompasses the balcony that circles the playing space, on which appear riders on horseback, rhythmically trembling tree branches, and a large white dragon. The three helpful spirits, dressed as periwigged aristocrats, wield twirling streamers, plastic birds, and fuzzy puppets to people the show with various creatures. It’s a minimalist strategy that feels surprisingly rich, especially combined with Nikki Maritch’s humorous costumes and lit by electrical wizard Jason Fassl in heraldic hues that turn the Moorish architecture into a glittering jewel box.

Mark Frohna Photography

This abbreviated version expunges many of the original’s 18th-century tropes that the 21st century finds unacceptable: gone are Sarastro’s conniving blackamoor slave and his injunctions never to trust women. Indeed, this show is far from heteronormative, including a girl-on-girl pas de deux during the climactic hymn to love. As Tamino, the charismatic Benjamin Ludwig seems not at all the stereotypical hero: he tempers his ringing tenor with boyish anxiety, and shares the stage generously with his collaborators. Jennifer Hansen and Christal Wagner as Pamima and Papagena display anything but retiring femininity; Wagner, in cat’s-eye glasses and a dress that echoes Bjork’s famous swan costume, skates around the stage like a roller derby queen, while Hansen adds muscularity to her sweet portrayal of the heroine.

Mark Frohna Photography

As the weird bird-man Papageno, Nathan Wesselowski acquits himself admirably with vocal and comic grace, while  Sarah Richardson’s Queen of the Night more than compensates in musicianship what she may lack in stature; her bravura rendition of “Der Hölle Rache,” which won rapturous applause, still gives us time to ponder the paradox that one of the loveliest arias in music is actually an exhortation to murder. Not to worry though; in a wave of mythopoeic revisionism, the Queen is forgiven, not banished. Director Ponasik has given high priest Sarastro a speaking rather than a singing role—which pays off, as we can listen to Mark Corkins majestically intone the lyrics, his solemn delivery somewhat softened by the Shriner’s fez he sports. The twinkle in his eyes makes it all work somehow.

Mark Frohna Photography

The show gains immeasurably from Quasimondo’s spirit-cum-stagehands. Jenni Reinke, Jessi Miller, and Andrew Parchman mostly play in pantomime, though they sometimes sing admirably well alongside the schooled musicians of Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Cadance Collective. As white-clad baroque clowns, they summon whatever miracles the action demands. Miller’s expressions are wonderfully off-beat as she commits herself to the narrative machinations; Reinke whips the serpent’s tail with fine fury; and Parchman’s puppet hippopotamus is as fully-realized a character as any in the show.

Mark Frohna Photography

However lighthearted, Mozart’s vision in The Magic Flute is of a world governed by wisdom and love, overseen by initiates who had faced their weaknesses to become worthy stewards of an enlightened society. Near the end of Steppenwolf, Mozart tells the protagonist “Learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.” Not the easiest advice to follow—but it might help keep your head out of the oven for the next four years.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre
in collaboration with Quasimondo Physical Theatre
and Cadance Collective

Zie Magic Flute

Music by W. A. Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
English Translation by Daniel J. Brylow​
Directed by Jill Anna Ponasik & Brian Rott

Wednesday, January 25 at 7:30 PM,
Friday, January 27 at 7:30 PM,
Saturday, January 28 at 1:00 PM,
Sunday, January 29 at 1:00 PM
Tripoli Shrine Center
3000 W. Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee

$28 General Admission
$18 Student & Artist

Order Online or call 1-800-838-3006

“The Tripoli Shrine Center offers ample free parking adjacent to the venue.”

Night of the dancing germs: the active culture of “Animolocules”

by Jeff Grygny

Photos by Sarah Larson

Germs are awesome. More scientifically called bacteria, protozoa, algae, and fungi, these single-celled beasties shocked the world when they were reported in the 17th Century by a Dutch cloth dealer named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who first saw them in his hand-made microscope. Since then, biologists have made constant discoveries about “little animals,” as van Leeuwenhoek called them. Now we know they’re everywhere, and they don’t just make us sick; they support and bind together the fabric of life on earth, refreshing our atmosphere, nurturing forests through underground networks, and making our digestive systems work. Indeed, our entire bodies swarm with microbiomes, teeming ecosystems of countless invisible critters. I know— eww!

It’s a fascinating topic, but not one that instantly screams out for a interpretative dance. But that’s never stopped Quasimondo Physical Theater before. They’ve fearlessly engaged with difficult texts from Moby Dick to The Kama Sutra with humor, wit, and boundless creativity. They’re the quirkiest, most artistically daring theater company in town, and one of the smartest— if anyone could handle bacteria, they could. Alas, it’s unfortunate that in their latest show,  Animolocules, their tiny subjects prove too slippery to capture.

Quasimondo’s shows are never big on linear narrative: their esthetic preference is to riff on a theme, generating a series of sketches and dances with interweaving story-lines, some continuing characters, and often spectacular unifying visual motifs. Though you’re never quite sure what’s going on, you can usually find some kind of relational thread to follow through the semiotic labyrinth. Here, without an overarching concept, co-directors Jenni Reinke and Brian Rott  try a little of everything, from cheesy high-school science films, complete with bad audio and a nearly-unintelligibly-accented narrator, to patients being diagnosed for ailments we can only guess at, to a girl in a clear plastic bubble menaced by microbial invaders. We see an amoeba the size of a Volkswagen Beetle devour everything in its path,  dancers miming the actions of busy food-gathering protozoa, a seeming DNA clinic where patients are reconfigured to order, and an extremely tall violinist. Puppets by Andrew Parchman and Julia Teeguarden cover the spectrum from a frightening virus with dangly arms and a glowing squid-like carapace, to a long pink parasite that chases people around and wraps around their necks like a boa constrictor, to silly little hand puppets that are as cute as bacteria could be. Musical choices run the gamut from classical to grunge-pop; a lively soundtrack for an active culture.

Photos by Sarah Larson

Unfortunately, Animolocules often leaves us completely lost. Microorganisms don’t follow the rules of interaction out of which theater is normally made. Without having recognizable human emotions to ground us—or at least a casual familiarity with microbiology—we’re likely to find the constant activity more exhausting than exhilarating. For instance, if we don’t remember that van Leeuwenhoek’s instrument was a paddle-like affair you hold to your eye, you might miss what’s going on in Reinke’s warmly comic pantomime. We need a Virgil to guide us through this fantastic voyage.

Photos by Sarah Larson

There are some nice set pieces, as when the ensemble creates a slow-motion car crash complete with flying beverage cup and papers. Some of the dances with strange microbial props attain an abstract beauty, and the more successful vignettes feature relatable human characters. But too often, as when the performers wave their puppet germs around vaguely, we don’t get enough information to appreciate what’s happening. Animolocules is a brave experiment, and part of the adventure of theater is trying something new and seeing what happens. Rott, Reinke, and their collaborators should take some pride in tackling a nearly impossible subject—even if the culture never really grew on us.

Quasimondo Physical Theatre presents
Animolocules (Choreographia Microbiotica)

Playing through December 11th at Danceworks Studios


Everything old is new: the Rep freshens up a holiday chestnut

Photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

The Rep’s A Christmas Carol at the Pabst Theater is a Milwaukee tradition, and it’s easy to understand why. In the glittering, mildly haunted confines of that venerable venue, Charles Dickens’ old story of ghosts and redemption can become enchanting, beloved, timeless, and all the other adjectives marketing people like to trot out for the holidays. But the show presents peculiar problems for a theater company: while a reliable source of much-needed revenue, after forty years of “Bah, humbug!” and “God bless us everyone,” how do you keep it from becoming a tiresome cliché?

If there is any magic in theater, it’s the illusion of the first time; telling a story in such a full and heartfelt way that it seems to be happening right now. Happily, the cast of A Christmas Carol pulls this off with great exuberance and good cheer. That alone would be enough—but there’s more. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements, the show has undergone a total makeover, with brand new scenery, high-tech effects, music, script, and a few other innovations that might raise a traditionalist’s eyebrows. Not everything works; Clements will probably want to do some re-tooling before next year. But overall, in the company’s very professional hands, the story wonderfully summons the glow of good will and generosity that made it great when Dickens first published it more than a century ago.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

If the elaborate stagecraft looks like a million dollars, that’s because it cost that much—as the first-night crowd of Rep bigwigs and wealthy patrons knew better than anyone. They need notfear their investment was wasted. True, the production sometimes feels like one of the fancy gewgaws in of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog: a high-tech amusement for privileged children. But it’s undoubtedly impressive; the storybook walls of Todd Edward Ivins’ set churn like the gears of the Industrial Revolution to reveal scores of city windows glowing over the action below. Scenes open in a bluish light that recalls old photographs of figures in exquisite compositions, just before they come to life. Spirits pop out of walls and the floor, and vanish back there again. Snow falls picturesquely over our heads. True, the Spirit of Christmas Future,  with his (her?) oversized hood and glowing red eyes, does sort of resemble a large Jawa out of Star Wars. But the show is really directed toward children; Marley’s somewhat cartoonish appearance will startle them, but will probably cause fewer nightmares than the grown-up version.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Despite having to work with moving floors and complex technical cues, the cast brings their best game to John Tanner’s musical arrangements that blend atmospheric incidental music with traditional carols, full of feeling without being overly sentimental, all delivered with gusto and in lovely harmonies. It’s hard to overstate Michael Pink’s contribution to the many dances and group movement scenes: the Milwaukee Ballet Director is a master of showing emotional moments through movement; even the stage fog seems to swirl in meaningful patterns. It’s heartbreaking to watch Scrooge address figures from his past, only to realize, with him, that they’re only phantoms.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Jonathan Wainwright is an intriguing choice for the role of Ebenezer Scrooge; in the past he’s played Bob Cratchit, and his youthful, open face seems most un-miserly.  But he’s a shape-shifter who virtually disappears into a secondary role as Charles Dickens, and when he scrooges his face into a misanthopist’s scowl, he’s totally credible. His Scrooge is clearly a wounded soul who’s defensive turning away from human contact has hardened him into the monster he’s become—making him more sympathetic to, say, a younger audience.

A cornucopia of talented players supports Wainwright on his journey. For Dickens, the important thing was not to show characters who are complex and conflicted, but rather as we should be; the actor’s job is to not come off as maudlin. As Scrooge’s nephew, Michael Doherty’s goodwill seems genuine and unforced. Christie Coran and Jessie Hooks bring tremendous charm to the roles of the two women in Scrooge’s life, while Reese Madigan makes for a suitably stalwart Bob Cratchit.

Chike Johnson delivers a rich West Indies version of the Spirit of Christmas present, whose emphatic “all the people” takes on particular resonance. Angela Iannone brings her wit and authority to several parts. Some Rep favorites make the most of tasty minor roles (I want a whole play about Jonathan Smoots’ Old Joe): Jonathan Gillard Daly shakes a plump leg as Fezziwig; Deborah Staples does her best Cate Blanchett-as-Galadriel impression in a dramatic moment as the Spirit of Christmas Past. And if we wince at the off-notes in Tiny Tim’s solo, it’s quite a short song, and little Edward Owczarski makes up for it in sheer cuteness.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

The first act is the more enchanting, taking good time to work its magic. Act Two seems a bit rushed, with the story ending suddenly in exposition. Wainwright’s double role as Dickens is a nice idea, but confusing: the costume changes necessitate lengthy diversions that don’t drive the story, while it’s just weird for the Scrooge we’ve come to like disappears for the curtain call to be replaced by a character we’ve hardly seen. Another innovation whose mileage may vary is Clements’ addition of “Panto” elements This venerable English holiday tradition includes audience participation in the context of slapstick, topical jokes, silly songs, and drag. To transplant just the audience participation part seems jarring—but the youngest members of the audience likely won’t mind at all. Having the characters talk to the audience also prepares us for the show’s biggest departure from tradition: a direct fundraising pitch from the players for the Boys and Girls Club of America. In a way, this makes perfect sense: after all it’s a play about charity—why not let the audience take an active part? On the other hand, framed within the story, and not after the curtain call as would be customary, it could be a major mood-breaker for many people.

Artists throughout history have labored to cajole powerful men to show mercy and kindness to lesser folk. As long as chasms remain in society, shows like A Christmas Carol, with its penetrating look into poverty, tragedy, and cruelty will, alas, remain timely.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents
A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
adapted and Directed by Mark Clements

Playing through December 24th


Skirts and Sabers: “Bonny Anne Bonny” finds unexpected corners in an old genre

photos by Traveling Lemur Productions

by Jeff Grygny

A pirate tale is generally an occasion for swashbuckling, rum, and large sweaty men growling “Yar!” at each other. There’s nary a “yar” to be found in Bonny Anne Bonny, a new play by the prolific Milwaukee writer Liz Shipe. There’s plenty of genre grist, without question: rope-swinging, explosions, swordplay—and rum, of course, used to great comic effect. What’s fascinating about this play, now in its world premiere in a production by Theater Red, is not simply that it features a lady pirate, but that it explores, in fresh and unexpected ways, what that’s about.

Over the past couple of decades , women have stormed (without saying please!) the ship of Western culture: former male bastions of academia, business, and politics have seen a massive influx of XX chromosomes like literally no civilization in history. Lately the invasion seems to have peaked, with music, computer games, science fiction, stand-up comedy—verily, all of pop culture— inundated by a flood of female faces, bodies, and voices. Given the massive backlash among certain people (whom Neanderthals would probably be embarrassed to be seen with), it’s not surprising that, despite their incredible triumphs, some women still feel embattled.  Enter Anne Bonny, the complicated titular protagonist of this play.

We meet Bonny while she’s still the strong right hand of the infamous Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard. With her fearless heart and brilliant tactics, she’s the real reason for his success. But as often happens among pirates, there’s a falling out; due to the boorish behavior of Teach’s men, Bonny boots him overboard, commandeers his ship, sets it afire, and sails it into port. With only her trusty mate, the seasoned buccaneer Mary Read, and Bonny’s feckless husband— a pirate whose fierce reputation comes only from his sex—she sets out to find a ship, a crew, and further fortune and fame. The yarn unfolds in the spirit of old Errol Flynn movies, without the fantasy of later entries like the Jack Sparrow saga.

Shipe’s tautly-rigged script puts us through all the paces of an adventure tale, creating a score of distinct, memorable characters, each with his or her arc and shining moment. There’s humor, romance, song, treachery and all manner of playful hi-jinks. But while there are several spectacular set piece battles (choreographed with loving attention to detail and credibility by director Christopher Elst), Bonny is more likely to win her spoils by boldness and guile than by brute force. The crew she recruits for her new exploit are all women of the town, who—despite having little or no actual pirating experience, and often being physically or emotionally most un-brawny— handily happen to have exactly the skills she needs: a navigator, a demolitions expert, an acrobatic pickpocket. . . and a few nice women, old and young, who, inspired by her freedom and courage, just want to follow her.


In the luxurious comfort of the The Raabe Theatre at Wisconsin Lutheran College, the production reaches a level of professionalism hard to match in the city (just make sure your charts are up to date: road construction makes the theater a tricky goal to reach.) Christopher Kurtz’s impressively solid set design conjures the decks and taverns of the period, and offer the players ample opportunities to clamber, heave-ho, and lay low. A few theatrical suggestion of wind and waves might have better projected the illusion of sailing, though.

Shipe’s detailed world-building offers a treasure chest of tasty characters, and under Elst’s direction the actors have a blast with them, while staying emotionally true to their often larger-than-life personalities. Rae Elizabeth Pare plays Mary Read as the clear-eyed Spock to Alicia Rice’s Kirk-like, “leap don’t look” Anne. They’re clearly best buds, but there’s no hint of Sapphic feelings; the tension between them stems from Anne’s rash decisions, not blighted affections so far as we can tell. Both of them sport blades and pantaloons bravely, and you can quite believe that they have the guts to lead hardened cutthroats in raiding parties. As Bonny’s consort, Zack Thomas Woods plays an excellent male bimbo, swaggering in public, bursting into sea chanteys charmingly, but a “shite pirate” underneath it all. Bryan Quinn’s avuncular sea cook offers us the closest thing we get to Long John Silver’s “arr.”

We have three delightful flavors of villain: James Carrington plays Blackbeard with a nicely-restrained burn; Thomas Seabald gives the Royal Captain just the right amount of smarm to his English gentility. As a hot-hearted Spanish pirate, Sean Duncan seems to be having more fun onstage than any actor should be allowed. But none of them are villains for villainy’s sake: each has his own clear motive (perhaps naturally, the men’s scenes have the strongest genre flavor; they know what’s demanded of them and they deliver it expertly). The actresses have a more challenging task. Bonny’s all-female crew displays a wide spectrum of women, each one interesting enough to have her own play. Particular standouts are Macie Laylan as a street urchin who was apparently raised by feral cats (very good in the rigging), expressing herself with feline movements and little catlike vocalizations; and Drea DeVos as a shy slip of a lass who would like to be called “Iron Jenny.” DeVos takes her supporting role and makes it rich, touchingly showing the glimmer of self-determination in a girl who has been told all her life to keep her place.


The first act ends (without getting into spoilers) with Bonny staging a brilliant victory—but some of her crew is captured, setting the stage for a daring rescue and final reckoning with the villains. But Shipe steers by different constellations: she rips the fabric of the genre wide open to ask some very interesting questions.

We begin to see Bonny’s darker side, but that’s hardly unusual in contemporary hero stories. In the second act tension grows between the Captain and her first mate: Anne becomes cold and withdrawn; “me first” is the pirates’ ultimate law. Of course pirate yarns are a fantasy of freedom: to sail the wild sea, where nobody can tell you what to do (it’s telling that both anarchists and corporate executives have embraced the mythology). The women who follow Anne Bonny all crave freedom; not all of them are ready to face the reality: an insecure, unsettled life full of risk, violence, and the shadow of the gallows. It’s a cruel existence. Anne is a complex enough character to get all this: she’s caught between the glamour of freedom and its lonely reality. By going here, the play becomes more than a “you go, girl!’ empowerment fantasy to become thoughtful look into the ramifications of power. It’s not afraid to say: OK women, you have power; now how are you going to handle it? But legends have their own truth. The idea of freedom is something we wouldn’t want to live without—even if we don’t necessarily want to pay the full price for it.

Stipes deserves major credit for taking her play into these questions. Bonny Anne Bonny offers laughs, thrills, and something to think about. That’s a lot more than you’d expect from a mere pirate story!

Theater Red presents
Bonny Anne Bonny
written by Liz Shipe
directed by Christopher Elst

playing November 3rd through November 12th, 7:30pm
The Raabe Theatre
Wisconsin Lutheran College


“THERE WILL BE NO LATE SEATING, and NO REFUNDS for those who arrive late. Please allow plenty of time for traffic, finding the theatre, and parking.”


Primordial Ooze: “Cambrian” Brings High Abstraction Down To Earth

by Jeff Grygny

photo by Brennen Steines

You didn’t think it would be this intense.

You’re ushered into the white-walled, slightly warm and claustrophobic space of the fifth-floor gallery in the Marshall Building, and you step into another world.  It could be a museum diorama of an alien planet; it could be a disturbed dream. It could be taking place on a glass slide of some gargantuan microscope or a brutalist ballet in a mental asylum. Two human bodies, clad in minimal flesh-tinted garments, lay supine on a mud-smeared square that takes up nearly the entire room. Their exposed skin, too,  is partially crusted with clay. Dozens of fist-sized gray lumps dot  the floor between them. Composer/musician Olivia Valenza’s clarinet samples create a moody soundscape, mixed with a weird spoken-word LP disc which she manipulates on a turntable. The dancers slowly stir. Their movements are blind, searching; there’s no reference to human psychology as they move, heap up, break down, and smear the gray earth over the plastic surface and eventually themselves. We’re necessarily drawn to contemplate the performers’ bodies, the contours of skin over muscle and bone, the creases of knees and elbows, the flexing tendons of phalanges. It’s as de-sensualized as a life-drawing class.

Cambrian, an original work produced by Cooperative Performance Milwaukee, is a 45 minute structured improvisation with two dancers, one musician, and about a hundred pounds of clay. An ambitious animated sculpture by painter Brennen Steines, its success emerges from a fortunate confluence of carefully-defined parameters and virtuosic performances. In concept it recalls a principle introduced by John Cage, who said he didn’t imitate nature, but its method of operation. It’s extremely abstract—and not for everyone. Still, there isn’t very much ecological theater in today’s performance scene: in media dominated by human concerns, there’s little thought for the non-verbal dramas of the natural world. So when a performance comes along that eschews human-centered dramatic concerns to focus on the processes that shape life on earth—it’s news.

The so-called “Cambrian Explosion,” was a period more than 500 million years ago that saw a tremendous efflorescence of biodiversity over the course of some 25 million years. Many of the kinds of life that exist today emerged from the innovations of one-celled critters propelled by whip-like tails. We know about this because the new life-forms left traces in the fossil record as they hunted and nested in the soft Cambrian mud. From this unlikely premise, Steines, has fashioned a conceptually sophisticated performance that echoes key themes of the growing ecological movement called “Biopoetics.”

A painter with “a life-long interest in paleontology and geologic time,” Steines studies painting at UWM and has taken courses in Geology in the Honors College. “I approach painting very sculpturally, and I manipulate materials,” he said in a recent conversation. “I was interested in seeing how my current painting practice could be applied to performance and sound.” As Steines describes it, “The performers manipulate materials onstage to alter their physicality and the environment around them, exploring the evolution of physical form in performance.”

“Maybe it was an esthetic affinity,” he said, “or just a general interest in how the fossil record was a strict documentation of the activity of these animals, so you have pockets, you have trails and burrows from these small creatures, and I thought this was fascinating. The sculptural forms that these creatures created were not due to the intention of making form, they’re created out of a pure will and instinctual activity to live and to survive. That’s the primary interest I have with Cambrian, is how life in essence is a sculptural form and the processes that occur in life create form.”

photo by Brennen Steines

Choreographer Liz Faraglia developed the moves out of extended improvisations by performers Kelly Radermacher and Don Russell, which she then cut and pasted into a loose movement score. The rest depends on the impulse of the moment and the behavior of the clay. The raw elemental quality of the movement recalls Butoh, an avant-garde Japanese dance form, and the improvisational structure of the piece echoes Noh theater, which similarly combined dance, music and narrative to evoke long-dead spirits. The music and the movement seem to chase each other in a nonlinear game of tag. This demands utter commitment from the players; there’s no room for faking it.

We don’t see the characteristic activities of life: eating, reproduction, or competition for resources. “There’s nothing really literal about it,” said Steins. “The performers serve the role of the ghost of life’s activity millions of years ago; not to portray life over history, but rather to translate the action of life over history.”  All seems to take place at a developmental stage when organisms were just beginning to figure out how to join themselves into multi-cellular symbiosis. We seem to be witnessing a process of trial and error, motivated by inchoate urges towards greater complexity. The overall effect of the performance is cumulative, laying down strata of impressions like sedimentary rock: the performer’s disarming vulnerability, the abject look of mud-caked skin, their blank gazes reflecting bare subjectivity devoid of human psychology. We see none of the interpersonal dynamics that constitute conventional theater: nothing suggests the interactions of a man and woman. We see tension, collaboration, clashes of impulse that represent momentary imbalances to be resolved. Their writhing, methodical efforts to solve problems we can only surmise, involving weight, contact, sensation. The sight and sound of clay being squeezed through fingers, smeared over surfaces, thrown to the floor with forceful splats.  Like a musical composition, the 45 minutes pass with an almost symphonic progression. We’re encouraged to move around as when viewing a sculpture; we can angle for a better view— only to find the view has changed when we get there.

As personal and intimate as this experience may be, the piece is grounded in a concept of life uncannily similar to biopoetics. Articulated by biologists Francisco Varela and Andreas Weber, eco-philosopher David Abrams, and even Lynn Margulis, author of the Gaia Hypothesis, biopoetics revolutionizes thinking about life by presupposing that all living things have innate subjectivity, desire, and the power of choice—even at the cellular level. Life is in essence the creation of meaning, and it’s basic expression is aesthetic, be it the splash of a fish or the tint of a rose; all speak what Weber calls “the lingua franca of life.” Cambrian enacts a systems model of life that could apply, fractal-like, at any scale—from the actions of ancient microorganisms to the Cambrian explosion; from humans’ influence on the global environment to you making decisions in your everyday life—it’s all based on your desire, pursuing your personal impulses, with the traces this activity leaves on the world.

Steines was moved by a passage in Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic novel Parable of the Sower: “It’s a destiny we’d better pursue if we hope to be anything other than smooth-skinned dinosaurs—here today, gone tomorrow, our bones mixed with the bones and ashes of our cities, and so what?” “I’m not directly spelling it out,” Steines said, “It’s not a PowerPoint presentation, but rather a springboard for audiences to make their own assumptions and contemplate their own moment in history. A good work of art is inexhaustible—when you look at it there are so many conclusions to be drawn. Maybe not conclusions; maybe questions.”

Cooperative Performance Milwaukee presents
Created and Directed by Brennen Steines
Music composed by Olivia Valenza
Choreography by Liz Faraglia

Playing through November 6
Friday and Saturday: 6:30 and 8
Sunday: 12
Cooperativa Gallery and Studio
207 E Buffalo Street


Pure Imagination: “Dali’s Liquid Ladies” Creates a Surreal World

by Jeff Grygny


“Do you think he’s crazy?” asks the reporter.
“Right now,” Nadia replies, “He’s my boss.”

“He” is Salvador Dali, and she’s one of the models hired to play mermaids in a giant water tank for his exhibit “Dali’s Dream of Venus” at the 1939 World’s Fair (one of them has to pretend to milk a plastic cow). That might be the only actual historical fact in Dali’s Liquid Ladies by Chicago playwright Savanna Reich, which is currently in performance by the “pop-up collective” called Truepenny Theater Company. What we get is as rich and strange as a surrealist painting: a smart, lovely, hilarious performance that takes Dali’s exhibit as the departure point for a journey through dreams, desire, power, art, meaning, and reality itself.

One of the fun things about shows by under-the-radar theater groups is the adventure of finding them: often they perform in unusual spaces where it’s an experience just getting there. There’s also a real risk: you might find young genius in the bud, or equally likely, some half-assed fiasco or pretentious bullshit. With this show, you get the feeling you’re in good hands when you’ve climbed several flights of stairs in the Fortress, a grand industrial building with castle-like pediments, and you see construction-paper fish fastened to the walls, each one inscribed with a different dream. This is also helpful, as the pause lets your heart slow down a little. A couple more flights, and a sign cheerily encourages you “Almost There!” The stairwell goes dark, lit only by a glowing disk on the landing. You hear live music, then burst into somebody’s loft living space. There’s a kitchen, a library; people sit at long tables apparently doing some kind of crafts. A large sign greets you with a playful warning strangely reminiscent of the waiver form from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.


Clearly, this show is a labor of love. Produced by Kat Wodke, who also plays Nadia, and directed with exceptional heart by Tessara Morgan, the show is a complete delight, all the collaborators working to create an organic whole of setting, costumes, music, lighting, and amazing performances. In a spot-on turn as “The Wizard of Painting,” Nick Narcisi nails Dali’s preternatural confidence, arrogance, and vision. He’s cool, off-putting and hilarious, delivering streams of surrealist word salad in a Catalan accent thick enough to spread on crackers (grasshopper” comes out “gray supper”). The three mermaids, played by Keighley Sadler, Molly Corkins, and Kat Wodktke, each have distinct characters and moments. Ben Yela as a lost Nazi is disarmingly naive and also very funny. All the players bring tremendous presence to their performance, taking time to break the fourth wall and reveal themselves, effectively becoming living works of art.


Devotion to art glows in every aspect of the production, from set designer Luke Farley’s painstakingly crafted lobsterphone, to Leslie Vaglica’s costumes, which recall Dali’s 1939 exhibit and sometimes become sculptural special effects, as when the actresses crouch inside sheer fabric cocoons illuminated from within. Don Russell’s MacGyver-like lighting rig uses hardware store tech to create rich and varied moods. Even Morgan’s musical choices conjure a period sense of theatrical weirdness.


Reich’s smart, poetic script hangs a lot of images and ideas on a fairly simple plot: Not satisfied with his work, Dali is keeping his three mermaids virtual captives in the closed exhibit (a situation any actor kept overtime by a crazy director can relate to). He treats them like objects: Ruby has to stand silent and motionless as he attaches live starfish to her nipples and drapes her in seaweed and raw bacon. “Why is the face of a woman more beautiful than the face of a fish?” he rails. “The face of a fish is fantastic!” What’s more, he finds their amorous advances trite and disgusting. Nadia thinks he’s a fake; Ruby tries in vain to get a straight answer from him; Opal simply seems out of her depth. Nor does their mood improve when a cadet from the Hitler Youth Group wanders into the exhibit, mistaking it for the German Pavilion. Intrigued, Dali tells him that it’s a laboratory for discovering the true Aryan spirit. “We’re taking it in a different direction,” he says to the confused Nazi. After experiencing the fleshy embrace of Dali’s human massage chair, the young Fascist flees, but soon returns, beginning a curiously intimate male bonding process with the painter, including a bizarre, if kind of adorable, game of “Truth or Dare” in a makeshift pup tent. None of this improves the ladies’ mood, and like the ecstasy-maddened Bacchantes in the myth of Orpheus, they resolve to murder the famous artist.

Clearly, Reich had a blast writing this play, and the young players bring great heart and imagination to flesh it out. Not only do they fully realize the script, they might, following their own imaginative threads, radically expand upon it. For instance, it’s well-known that Dali was not a very nice man. His fellow artists detested him as a materialistic, self-aggrandizing sell-out, and criticized his support of Fascist regimes. The myth of the “Great Genius” has supported tyrants both great and small. Reich’s play obviously  points to homoerotic, misogynistic aspects of the relationship between Dali and the Lost Nazi as well. Marvelously, this production doesn’t take an easy, doctrinaire path; the ideas are still there, but warmed and humanized. Morgan’s sensitive work with the superb cast discovers something more fluttering and alive.  They show that even if an artist’s singular vision can alienate and confuse people, it can also liberate their own personal visions.

In one telling Dali reveals a spirit racked with fears and conflicting emotions. He’s afraid of mediocrity and afraid people won’t understand him. He’s afraid of grasshoppers, and that he might accidentally step on a fish. He’s afraid that his crowd of admirers might touch him. Though the other players bare their bodies, he shows his naked soul. An artist, gifted or cursed with perceptions unbound by cultural clichés, is a giant eyeball, a living nerve exposed to the universe. And lo and behold: tyrant though he may be, his creativity seems to effect deep transformations on his associates. The seemingly clueless Opal turns herself into a living brush, dripping blue paint over her body to make imprints on a large canvas. Ruby dreams of a Dali who acknowledges and sees her, drawing power in the act. And the inhibited Nazi sheds his uniform to dance fearless and ecstatic, liberated from his rigid ideology.

Morgan writes in her program notes,“Surrealism offers a chance to be whoever you want to be.” It could be the motto for any counterculture, for cosplay, or for identity movements: the Romantic celebration of the individual’s sometimes painful existential task of creating one’s own reality. History is full of terrible instances of geniuses imposing their version of reality on others. But as E.E. Cummings wrote in A Poet’s Advice:

“. . . whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.”

Truepenny Theater Company presents
Dali’s Liquid Ladies
by Savanna Reich
Playing through October 15

at the Fortress (corner of 1st and Pleasant St. in Milwaukee)
Surrealist Funhouse Opens at 7:00
Live Music at 7:30
Show at 8:00
Suggested donation $15-25 (CASH ONLY)
“All are welcome! No one turned away for lack of funds.”


Vanishing Act: “A Life in the Theatre” at The Alchemist

by Jeff Grygny


James Pickering and David Sapiro

“Ephemerous, ephemerous,” the old actor mutters to himself.
Is it the spontaneous utterance of an existential feeling? Or did he want someone to ask him what he meant? The younger actor doesn’t ask— not even if he meant to say “ephemeris” (meaning “an almanac,” which doesn’t make sense) or “ephemeral” (meaning “insubstantial and transient,” which does). Anyway you look at it, the moment illustrates the ambiguity and impermanence of the actor’s art: that of summoning emotions, images and people out of the printed page and into warm, breathing life, repeated perhaps, but nevertheless disappearing, as Prospero said, “into thin air.”

It’s one of many such moments in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre, now playing at Bay View’s Alchemist Theatre. If you heard about Mamet’s ugly clash with the little company, you might be surprised that they dared to put on another of his plays: Mamet boorishly had their production of Oleanna shut down last year by lawyer’s order, because he didn’t approve of its cross-gender casting (where his scripts are concerned, he’s a strict originalist). But Mamet’s punchy masculine rhythms have always struck a chord with The Alchemist’s impresario Aaron Kopec. And anyway, when James Pickering mentions that he’d like to do a certain play at your theater, you’d be an idiot not to do it. Which is exactly how this show came to be. Pickering, a grand old man of Milwaukee theater if there is one, with time and inclination to do a two-man show on one of Milwaukee’s smallest stages, can jolly well just do that if he wants to. For local theater lovers, it’s an event not to be missed.

If a typical Mamet play is like an oil painting, all brash colors and deep shadows, this 1975 script, done at the time of “peak Mamet,” is like a watercolor. His usual macho head-butting is still here, but it’s muted into polite exchanges. What’s unsaid is more important that what’s said in these elliptical, banal, fragmentary conversations. There are the usual unfinished sentences and interruptions, and a bit of good old profanity as the play unfolds in a succession of short scenes that alternate backstage banter with clips from the amusingly wretched plays the two actors play in the course of their professional relationship. We witness offstage gaffes, blown lines, and wardrobe malfunctions—all minor hazards of the trade. It’s quite funny, in the way Larry David brought to Seinfeld and perfected in Curb Your Enthusiasm: brushed with embarrassment and melancholy.

Pickering’s Robert, the seasoned actor, is old school, full of protocol and superstitions. He often seems to be trying to pass something on to the younger actor, John, played by local favorite David Sapiro. But he seems express it only in potted analogies and zen-like aphorisms. Or is he just a mildly pretentious blowhard trying to impress the newbie with artsy mumbo-jumbo?  On the other hand, John—is he really as receptive as he seems? Is he just being polite? Or is he biding his time until he can get something from the old man and move up? Is their seeming friendship real affection? Or simply affected? The play reminds us that actors are professional dissimulators: it’s their job to make the artificial seem authentic.

Director Jill Anna Ponasik heightens this sense, steering her actors towards naturalism: they could be playing themselves, for all we know. This results in a certain flatness—even when “acting” together, there’s little variation in characterization (with the notable exception of an over-the-top funny scene in a life raft, played in ripe English accents). Ponasik’s specialty is directing opera, and she creates a percussive between-scene score as the two men perform a dance dragging trunks, tables and chairs around with much banging and scraping. Impressive as this is, the novelty wears off pretty quickly, only to pique as some telling variation occurs. We see the theatrical season pass, measured in coats put on and taken off, makeup applied and removed, “goodnights” said, phone calls made— which builds up a sense of an actor’s life, layer by layer. In between there are moments of comedy and moments of shame; we wince for John when he flubs an entrance. An onstage meltdown over a missed cue is hilarious, but also heartbreaking, as we see the first rift in their cool but palpable friendship. As John piles up good reviews, Roger becomes more brittle. In one alarming scene he seems to have hurt himself— but is it a real crisis, or just a self-dramatizing attempt to win sympathy? The play gives us no clear answer. The final scene brings real comic pathos when Robert hides in the empty audience eavesdropping on John rehearsing a Shakespearian monolog.

The real play happens between the words. To the intent observer, Pickering and Sapiro create a feedback loop as their performances ambiguously inform and reflect each other, inducing a kind of vertigo, like two facing mirrors. Art is the mirror of life, it’s said. A Life in the Theatre reveals a world of uncertainty, reflecting reflections, and echoing echoes; like words written on water, ephemerous.

If plays are like drinks, this one is fine cognac: strong, smooth, and to be savored.

The Alchemist Theatre presents
A Life in the Theatre
by David Mamet
directed by Jill Anna Ponasik

playing through October 15th


Crazy Old Man: The Rep’s powerful “Man of La Mancha”

by Jeff Grygny

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Photo by Michael Brosilow

If some retired attorney suddenly thought he was a superhero and went out to fight crime dressed like Batman, we’d recommend him for medication. That’s exactly how it is with Man of La Mancha’s Don Quixote, the elderly landowner who decides to be knight-errant. But the 1964 musical makes the old lunatic something more: a stand-in for all our noblest (if unrealistic) ideals, trammeled in the muck of everyday life, yet steadfast to a fault. As delivered by Milwaukee Repertory Theater under Mark Clements’ skillful direction, this Tony-winning Broadway warhorse achieves its full emotional power. This is thanks in no small part to the magnificent voice of Nathaniel Stampley in the title role, as well as music director Dan Kazemi’s passionate interpretation of Mitch Leigh’s rousing score, which blends brassy bombast with the fiery touch of flamenco guitars. The result is tremendously moving; if your eyes don’t tear up a few times during the show you probably also hate Christmas and puppies.

Dale Wasserman’s book is loosely based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes —loosely, as in: it completely inverts Cervantes ruthless send-up of the chivalric romances that were as popular in his time as superheroes are today. In Don Quixote, Cervantes comes off as something like a 17th Century Lars Von Trier: snidely puncturing chivalric pretensions, there’s no quotidian grime he won’t wallow in. The Don Quixote of the novel usually brings chaos in pursuit of his ill-conceived quest, and if he doesn’t end up getting thrashed, his dim sidekick Pancho usually does. In sharp contrast, Wasserman’s book elevates exactly the romantic view that Cervantes scorned. This 60’s era tribute to a misguided battle against evil is especially ironic when you recall that the same year Man of La Mancha opened on Broadway, the United States sent troops into Vietnam for the first time. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is a textbook illustration of “quixotic” —and not in a good way. Even those who passionately battle for social justice are not immune to tilting at windmills. In short, this is a play for anyone with a heightened sense of mission, both as an inspiration and as a warning.

Director Clements keeps the show rolling through moments of high spirits, low comedy, grim anticlimax, and finally a kind of lofty tragedy. The show is set in a Spanish prison where Cervantes is held due to some bureaucratic offense against the Church. Handily, he happens to have a trunk full of theatrical gear, and to save his precious manuscript from the prison latrine, he enlists his cellmates into an impromptu telling of Don Quixote. This works beautifully on Jack Magaw’s monumental prison set, taking on magical atmospheres under Jason Fassl’s ingenious lighting design. Cervantes’ manservant, acting as stage manager, hands out costumes and props, instructing prisoners how to pantomime horses and such, and the story takes off. The sturdy actors throw themselves into clever double characterizations; we see them as prisoners taking roles in Cervantes’s drama—whether willingly, delightedly or grudgingly—then gradually inhabiting their parts as both we and they become absorbed in the tale.

Alvin Crawford brings warmth and humor to the prison boss who accepts the part of a sympathetic innkeeper; Michael Accardo and Michael J. Farrina deliver sparking comic performances as a traveling barber and Quixote’s hapless squire Sancho. As a kindly priest, Jonathan Gillard Daly adds a certain madness of his own, and when he sings De profundis clamo ad te —from the depths I cry to you, Lord—we get a fleeting sense of the show’s existential heart. Matt Daniels as an adversarial nobleman delivers a worthy, if nasty, voice of reason. And if Stampley seems a bit too hearty to represent the emaciated “Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” he brings indispensible authority and commitment; his manic grin when Quixote is knighted is the stunned expression of a man whose dream has finally come true. The role of the tavern whore Aldonza, whom Quixote takes for his ideal lady Dulcinea, is played by Leenya Rideout with uncommon subtlety: we see both a nameless prisoner and the pitiful woman she is enlisted to play gradually allowing herself to take strength from Quixote’s kindness, even though his devotion is delusional. And after the curtain call, fully half of the actors whip out guitars for a delightfully energetic reprise of the title song.

Sure, the lyrics can be a bit hokey and middle of the road. But Man of La Mancha seriously engages Cervantes’ complex play between literature and reality, and the role of poetry in a prosaic world. It gives solace by honoring a vision of goodness, even in the face of disheartening truths. It offers the aged precious dignity, even when failing body and mind puts them into humiliating circumstances. And it tips an ironic hat to the artists, who keep on offering inspiration to a world that often seems to want everything but.

Knight-errantry might be more about ourselves than the people we’re supposedly helping; there’s a murky zone between high ideals and mere grandiosity. Yet even knowing this, there’s  something about Don Quixote that moves us deeply and gives us heart—and that’s probably for the best.

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre presents
Man of La Mancha
book by Dale Wasserman
Music by Rich Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion

playing through October 30


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