Tag Archives: Constructivists

Oconomowoc End Times Singalong

Photo by Christal Wagner Photography

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Constructivists present

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

Created by Andrew Hobgood and Joe Lino

playing through April 6


or call 414.858.6874

The end of the modern world, or: The Cat’s Meow

photo by Testaduro Media, LLC

by Jeff Grygny

Everyone must envy cats at least a little. Their animal grace, insouciant self-centeredness and power of surrendering completely to relaxation makes them plausible role models for humans in these fraught times.

We can’t totally envy Wink, the title character of Jen Silverman’s surreal tragicomedy currently in a well-mounted and heartful production by The Constructivists. The catastrophe that strikes Wink initiates the action of the play, which is so full of surprising turns that to describe them would be to commit unforgivable spoilers. Suffice it to say that the feline plays a catalytic role in the lives of all three non-animal characters. The contrast between human and animal, and the dire consequences of alienating our animal nature, provides the flesh and gristle of the play’s themes. Eerily creepy and wryly humorous, Wink is a perfect show for the Halloween season.

Sofie and Gregor are ordinary modern people of a slightly earlier time: he works in an office, she does housework at home. They are modern in that they have no animal grace, no insouciant selfishness, and no power to surrender completely to relaxation.    

At first it seems like the play is going to be a quirky domestic comedy. Director Jaimelyn Gray has coached her actors’ opening scenes towards a cartoonish delivery that mirrors the characters’ strangeness to themselves. In fact, this is not a realistic play at all– rather, it stages a dreamworld that seems to be trying to tell us. . . something, if we could just break the code. As the couple, Rebekah Farr and Ekene Ikegwuani show us two deeply unhappy people, whose secret depth is revealed only in their separate sessions with a therapist, Doctor Frans, played with clueless sincerity by Matthew Scales. His staggeringly bad advice—with repeated emphatic instructions to take their feelings and “Slam them down,” show him as a minor priest in the modern ideology of service to the status quo. When each of them confesses urges to commit unspeakable violence, Frans dismisses them, telling them that their duty is to just go back to their jobs.

As the fourth character, Jaime Jastrab gives us the uncanny essence of a vengeful domestic pet (or maybe its ghost?) and, in later scenes, gives Frans instructions on getting in touch with his animal nature, which are ludicrously basic, yet seem to come as revelations to the  feckless expert. These scenes, like “self help from a cat,” make up the warm heart of the play, and are most illuminating as to the playwright’s possible alliegance. But they are soon followed by apocalyptic episodes of Sofie and Gregor’s metamorphoses from modern people into uncanny beings whose intentions come from a place of the mysterious, irrational roots of human nature. Soon the Ikea-furnished living room is littered with the wreckage of civilized life, as the couple descend into primitive and far from socially sanctioned behavior.

This ground has been tread before, in plays as diverse as “The Zoo Story,” and “Equus.”  But Silverman skins this cat in a new way. She doesn’t romanticize mental illness, nor does she really even seem to be interested in clinical case studies. If anything, the play is a winking red light warning us of what can happen when we subsume our animal needs to serve what society tells us we should be. Maybe, with his new-found insights, Frans will be able to integrate human and animal natures, and help Sofie and Gregor claw their way back to humanity. Maybe he will join them in their dangerous fantasies. That would be another story.

In the meantime, when we wonder how so many people throughout the world can rebel against expert authority, deny science, become prey to demagogues who appeal to their lowest instincts, why people can commit mass shootings, or what could compel someone don horns and animal skins in a futile coup attempt, we could reflect on this story, and how the modern way of life subtly mutilates us all.

The Constructivists present


by Jen Silverman

Directed by Jaimelyn Gray

Set and Costume Design by Sarah Harris

 Set Construction by Les Zarzecki

Lighting Design by Ellie Rabinowitz

playing through November 6

This production contains adult subject matter. Viewer discretion strongly advised.



Sexual Perversity in Cyberspace

Christal Wagner Photography

by Jeff Grygny

Have you ever longed for a place where you could be your real self, free of society’s rules and  definitions of who you’re supposed to be? Welcome to The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s amazing, frighteningly smart play (whose three-week run was sadly cut short by the pangolin plague). And while we might have all kinds of fantasies of freedom from rules, Haley digs into what exactly that might mean—in the process uncovering a whole worm’s nest of squirming quandaries involving our bodies, our identities, and our technology.

If there is a single word for this play, it has two syllables: the first is “mind” and the second rhymes with “luck.” Haley has written for the techno-creepy TV series Dark Mirror, and it’s evident, both in the story’s subject matter and in the efficient movement of character and narrative that consistently shows, but doesn’t tell, its themes. There are so many ideas here, you might have had the repeated sensation of your brain ballooning into space with each gobsmacking realization, right up to the surprisingly poignant final scene.

Director Jaimelyn Gray conducts a skilled cast in a tight, disciplined chamber piece, exquisitely paced and rich with contradictory emotions laid out for our delectation. Mr. Sims (nod to the online role-play game clearly intended), is the “host” of a very exclusive corner of ‘The Nether,” a sensory-immersive virtual world where you can appear as any avatar you can imagine. This place is a tidy reproduction of a Victorian manor, its “clients” strictly regulated to conform to the dress and manners of the time. It’s charming—but why are there so many children, and why are they so friendly and complaisant? And what is that bloody axe doing in the bedroom?

The plot unfolds like a procedural, shuttling between the Nether and an interrogation room of the Nether’s regulatory division. As an agent investigating Sims, Maya Danks is like a charged coiled wire; a dangerous and powerful foil for Sims, as played with righteous authority by Robert W.C. Kennedy. Their intellectual thrust-and-riposte provides much of the play’s electricity. Within the Nether, where Sims goes by the handle “Papa,” we meet one of his girls, a complicated entity called Iris, in a fearless, subtle performance by Rebekah Farr.

This chilling scenario plays out so many problems surrounding digital media, it could be the basis for a college course on the ethics of technology: game addiction, catfishing, porn, escapism, alienation, the dilemmas of regulating online behavior. Beyond that, what is identity anyway, if it can become unmoored from flesh? Reality in this indeterminate future world does not seem to be a very nice place; characters fleetingly express their nostalgia for trees, and there’s reference to the practice of  “fading:” hooking up your body to life support and vanishing entirely into virtual reality.

The Nether poses hard problems, but ultimately, like all good dystopian fiction, it asks us to think about the world we’re headed to. Is reality so unappealing that so many people are desperate to get away from it?

The Constructivists present

The Nether

by Jennifer Haley

Alas, this production is now closed