Tag Archives: Next Act Theatre

The Bard in Lockdown

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

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

King Lear

by Jeff Grygny

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

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

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

photo by Ross Zentner

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

photo by Ross Zentner

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

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

King Lear Act 3 scene 4

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

Next Act Theater presents

God’s Spies

by Bill Cain

playing through May 21


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


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


Fish Noir

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

“After a week, marriage and fish both start to stink.” This proverb is attributed to absolutely nobody—but its sentiment would agree with most of the love-strangled characters in Michael Hollinger’s tart comedy Red Herring, now playing in a handsome production by Next Act Theatre. The script is an impressive puzzle box of intermeshing plots and motifs. Folks who enjoy complex mysteries and wry reflections on the married state will be well-entertained by this densely-packed spoof.

Hollinger juggles an odd assortment of objects: set during America’s “Red Scare” era and featuring three couples who are all hiding secrets, the play lampoons 50s gender norms and cold war politics, negotiates multiple intrigues, both personal and global, while also exploring the institution of marriage from several perspectives, from dewy-eyed to embittered, all in a dockside setting of commercial fishery. It’s a boatload of material for any troupe to navigate, but the cast of skilled comic actors pulls it off with confidence and honesty. often playing multiple characters.

The youngest of the three couples, soon to enter into wedlock (with a little prenuptial hanky panky) are the improbably-matched daughter of commie-phobic Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, and an idealistic physicist who is planning to pass the secret of the hydrogen bomb to the Russians. Eva Nimmer and Zach Thomas Woods,  in a pitch of lust and high anxiety, sympathetically show us the extremes that people will go for love and principle.

On the other end of the spectrum are Mary MacDonald Kerr and Dylan Bolin as a pair of seasoned cops with heartache in their pasts, gingerly walking the tightrope between the call of duty and the yearning for happiness. Finally, we have a couple who have ridden the merry-go-round of life a few times, played by Kelly Doherty and Bo Johnson, who are both driven by mutual need to ludicrous extremities of deception.

As Detective Maggie Pelletier, MacDonald Kerr is the play’s clear hero, tracking her quarry and her relationship troubles with equal determination, while Nimmer, as the Senator’s daughter, gives a warm portrait of a girl torn between her parents’ hollow values and the man she loves. The two actresses share the play’s funniest moments with Johnson, whose world-weary Russian fisherman brings the comedy of heartbreak to a fulsome peak.

Director David Cecsarini has followed the maxim that humor should come from a real place, not just shallow clowning. He’s crammed the production with so much material—period music, high-definition scenery, and topical film clips— that the show’s comic brew loses some of its froth over its two-and-a half-hour run time (including intermission). Only the hilarious final act achieves full farcical escape velocity. Of course, in the end,  love wins the day, as it does in all good comedies of marriage.

With its quirky twists, meaty characters, and a good-looking, talented cast, Red Herring is a tangy, salty dish as nutritious as a plate of Ma Baensch’s pickled best.

Next Act Theatre presents

Red Herring

by Michael Hollinger

playing through December 19