Theater in the Wild: the discoveries of 2019

by Jeff Grygny

Don Russell in “Ziggy the Clown” at the Fourth Milwaukee Fringe Festival

Nobody could credibly claim that 2019 was the best year ever. If anything, it’s never felt more like we were dancing on the brink. In all the end-of-decade ruminations, this paragraph from New York Magazine’s Helen Shaw comes closest to my personal reason for loving that strange endeavor we call “theater:”

What if we thought of theater as big wilderness corridors, cutting through all the polite, useful, domesticated stuff that makes up most of life? What if we stopped trying to tell people what not to do in the theater? What if we just abandoned all talk of how silly it is to spend time there instead of at a protest? Ecologically, we already know that we need wilderness so the world can breathe. Purposelessness is itself a kind of sacred purpose. A theater is a place for chaos, thievery, destruction, misrule, recklessness, imagination, adventure, courage, provocation, and possibility. Throw your MFAs into a bonfire! Forget the rules! The wilderness has always been the place for wild beasts—but also hermits on their pillars. Don’t despair if you don’t find an obvious mission there. Go back into the wild. It’s where saints go to study.

With that in mind, here are my recollections of Milwaukee’s edgiest, most feral productions in 2019.

From last to first: there was Voices Found Repertory’s outsider delight, Henry V,

Mrs.Wrights, Jenni Reinke’s tour de force of dance theater by Quasimondo Theatre,

Milwaukee Opera Theater’s feminist/gnostic ceremony Utterance, Ancient Prophesies/Modern Revelations,

Andrew Parchman’s Twilight Zone thriller The Feast at Quasimondo Theater’s Arthaus.

Call Me Ishmael, The always-wild Dale Gutzman’s impossible adaptation of Moby Dick,

JJ Gatesman’s fearless experiment in the ineffable, Machina Persona, by Cooperative Performance,

The joyfully revelatory Carmina Burana by Milwaukee Opera Theatre,

And All 100 Fires, Donna Oblongata’s unforgettable journey into the sould of an insurgent.

A recap of the year wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the indefatigable work of the Fourth Milwaukee Fringe Festival,

And the sad demise of Bay View’s lovably funky preserve of theatrical wildness, The Alchemist Theatre.

These artistic adventurers, and other like them, keep venturing into the unknown and bringing back discoveries more essential than industry blockbusters or social media sensation. They are the music-makers and the dreamers of dreams. Wherever the next decade takes us, may they never cease from their explorations!

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.