Episode 1 of Dave Begel on Theater (audio version)

The first one hit the air. Me and Bonnie North talking theater. The first of a lengthy contribution to WUWM, bringing news and reviews to the listening audience. You can listen to Episode One here. http://wuwm.com/post/thursday-lake-effect-young-farmers-mke-wisconsin-theater-wooldridge-brothers


“Cyrano” at APT filled with the pathos and joy of the man from Bergerac

James Ridge and Laura Rook


Casey Hoekstra and James Ridge

The two parallels between a pair of men of nobility, passion and courage are too profound and clear to ignore.

Cyrano and Quixote.

Cyrano came from Bergerac,, a small French town and Don Quixote came from La Mancha, a town located on a plateau in central Spain.

The two men, of course, are the heroes in two plays. “The Man of La Mancha” a musical based on the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

Cyrano is the hero of the play, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” first performed in 1897 and now splendidly onstage in a a new adaptation by James DeVita at American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

For Quixote it was an impossible dream and an impossible love that draped his shoulders and his lance. For Cyrano, it is an impossible love that fuels his foil and his heart.

Quixote was strained by the devils in his mind, the imagined warriors he confronted. Cyrano’s curse is his nose and he assuages his guilt over his deformity with the mentality and activity of a fierce warrior.

The biggest difference between these two battlers is that Quixote is a man of action while Cyrano is a man of words. It is the poetry of life that courses through Cyrano and Mr. DeVita, who directed this production, clearly understands the power of words and the precious nature of thought and emotion.

In one of the greatest performances of his distinguished career, James Ridge takes a tight grip on his Cyrano from the earliest moments and maintains it through all the trials and triumphs until his painful and sorrow-filled death at the end of the play.

Every school child who takes an English class is familiar with this tale of this unrequited love and the loneliness that goes with it.

Cyrano is cursed with his nose and with his powerful and abiding love for his cousin, Roxanne (Laura Rook). She, however, loves another, Christian (Danny Martinez) a soldier in the guard regiment led by Cyrano himself. That love is sparked by just a shared glance, but grows from the poetry floated to Roxanne in both speech and letter. The words capture her heart and little does she know that her Christian is a fraud, unable to summon even a spot of poetry and relying on the good grace of Cyrano to compose the words that he would say to Roxanne if he only had the chance to admit his love.

As Quixote had his Sancho Panza, so, too does Cyrano have his LeBret (Chiké Johnson) to whom Cyrano finally admits his quandary.

“Whom I love? Come, think a little ― then look at me.
The hope of being loved is ever bereft me
By this thing of mine, this length of nose
Which precedes me everywhere I go
By a quarter of an hour…
Yet I may love. And whom? Whom should I love?
Why, fate would have it be no other way ―
The loveliest of the lovely, of course,
The most delicate, most beautiful she that breathes;
He who has seen her smile has known perfection.”

Cyrano meets Roxanne may well be as romantic a  comedy as “When Harry Met Sally.”Hidden among the laughs are the souls, faiths and insecurities laid bare for all to see.

Mr. Ridge stretches to almost unbearable length to find the humor and pathos inside Cyrano. Whether he is in duel or foiling a fatuous actor (a riotous Brian Mani), Mr. Ridge drapes Cyrano in fun and frolic.

But when he pines for his Roxanne he is a tragic and miserable man, bound by his distorted self-image. My heart broke each time he let his mind wander to what could have been and what should have been.

There is nothing quite like APT on a warm summer night and there is nothing quite like “Cyrano de Bergerac,” a story about everything important in this world, heart and emotion, love and honor, reason and hopes and honesty and faith.

Production credits:  Director, James DeVita; Voice and Text Coach, Eva Brenneman; Scenic Design, MathewJ. LeFebvre; Costume Design, Nathan Stuber; Lighting Design; Michael A. Peterson; Sound Design & Original Music, Sarah Pickett; Movement Director, Jessica Lanius; Fight Director, Kevin Asselin; Assistant Fight Director , Andrew Rathegeber; Stage Manager, Evelyn Matten; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.

A Disappointing “Much Ado” from Optimist

Todd Denning, Michael Stebbins and Di’Monte Henning

There are so many wonderful things that define William Shakespeare and his work.

History, high drama, inventive and  beautiful language.

His works are not, however, a Marx Brothers comedy or a Three Stooges outing.

This simple lesson is  germane in the aftermath of the disappointing and overly-caffeinated opening of “Much Ado About Nothing,” the eighth free Shakespeare effort of Optimist Theatre.

This play, written 400 years ago, is one of the most frequently performed works of Shakespeare and it has a proud and distinguished history. The sorrow is that the Optimist production, under the direction of Tom Reed, goes for some kind of slapstick approach that does disservice to the script and to the audience.

It’s almost as if the company, which should be lauded for its annual effort to bring Shakespeare to the people free of charge, tried to do something so different that the heart and soul of the play was lost.

The story of the play is a familiar one.

Beatrice (Kelley Faulkner) and Benedick (Todd Denning) are one couple headed (as everyone knows) to a joyful union. The other couple is Claudio (Di’Monte Henning) and Hero (Candace Thomas).

Strewn through the play are the warrior prince Don Pedro (Michael Stebbins), his illegitimate brother Don John (Jonathan Wainwright), Hero’s father Leonato (David Flores) and assorted other scamps and scoundrels.

The themes of mistaken identities and gossip that is heard, acted upon and eventually debunked, are common themes in Shakespeare’s work.

The joy and strength of any Shakespearean comedy is unlike our definition of comedy. In his day a comedy didn’t have to be funny all the time, it just needed to have a happy ending to qualify.

Many scholars have written extensively about what we see in a comedy by Shakespeare. One thing stands out above all. The comedy comes from situations rather than characters. It is issues and themes that draw in an audience, not the antics of a clown.

And Reed has crafted a production that changes characters from sensitive people with depth and dimension into cardboard cutouts at a circus.

The list of offenses is a long one and is broken only occasionally.

Todd Denning and Kelley Faulkner

Let’s start with Denning, a gifted actor with a wide range of skills. Here he is reduced to a mugging his way through his determination to never marry until he decides that Beatrice is just right for him. And Faulkner manages to find little of the vibrant personality of Beatrice and none of the self-consciousness mixed with determination that this lady has.

This is a couple where sparks need to fly but there was almost no chemistry between them.

Candace Thomas and Di’Monte Henning

Thomas and Henning, the other lovers, each miss their mark by a mile. Thomas moves from the shy and stunted girl to the violently angry maiden without any seeming reason.  Henning couldn’t find any of the humanity in Claudio who wasn’t just a scoundrel but was just a kid trying to play in the big leagues.

And Stebbins, who you might expect to have the kind of fire that a conquering Prince would have, instead provides the kind of wooden cutout that served only to confuse.

The entire evening was so off the charts that actually figuring out what was supposed to be going on became an awful exercise in futility.


Emmitt Morgans and Jonathan Wainwright

There were, to be sure some bright spots . Flores delivers his usual solid performance and James Pickering’s Dogberry was an example to all the young actors in the cast of what you can do with training, experience and talent. Wainwright has the kind of presence on a stage that  is a strong addition to any production.

I have great admiration for Optimist and the people who work so hard to keep it going. They’ve moved from a courtyard at Alverno to the splendor of Kadish Park and are now at the Peck Pavilion at the Marcus Center. It’s a great space and I hope that the company can live up to this platform.

I’m not about to tell them how to produce plays, but I do think that getting some other eyes to lead the way might be a good idea. I would say the same thing about any company, including the big theaters in town.

Having artistic directors direct every performance is not doing any favors either to the material or the audience. Plays benefit profoundly from new ideas and interpretations.

I hope that Optimist gets through this run, which lasts through July 22 and comes back next year with the kind of power inherent in Shakespeare.

Production credits: Director, Tom Reed; Co-Director and Dramaturg: ML Cogar; Production Stage Manager, Rebekah Heusel; Set Design and Production Manager, Ron Scot Fry; Sound Designer, Megan B. Menninger; Lighting Designer, Colin Gawronski; Costume Designer, Christy Seibers; Composer and Musician, Paul Terrien; Props Mistress, Tania Taylor; choreographer, Gennesee Spridco; Stitcher, Amber Jackson; Wardrobe, Katy Lane; Stage Management Apprentice; Desiree Stypinski; Assistant Sound Designer, Melissa Nilles.

Reviews from Me and Mike Fischer – APT’s “Maids”, “Cyrano”, “Unexpected Man”

My review of The Maids at APT


Mike Fischer’s review of “The Unexpected Man” at APT


Mike Fischer’s review of “The Maids” at APT


Mike Fischer’s review of “Cyrano de Bergerac” at APT


The complexity of “The Maids” lands at APT in splendid fashion

Andrea San Miguel and Melissa Pereyra

When a play is in need of rescue, there is only one way to do it, and director Ana Cristina (Gigi) Buffington accomplishes the feat thanks to a ferocious trio of actors who pull a complicated play into the world of emotional plunder.

“The Maids” by Jean Genet is a complex exercise in a constantly distorted reality. It’s hard to follow, much less, understand what’s happening on the Touchstone Stage at American Players Theatre.

But three actors, Andrea San Miguel, Melissa Pereyra and Rebecca Hurd deliver such exquisite and gripping performances that the pathway to comprehension is paved with diamonds and gold.

Genet, a Frenchman who was a colleague of Jean Paul Satre, Pablo Picasso and playwright Jean Cocteau, was a passionate disrupter and “The Maids” is an incognito ode on the horrors of a society torn by class discord.

Andrea San Miguel

The story features two housemaids, Solange (Ms. San Miguel) and Claire (Ms. Pereyra) who work in the household of Madame (Ms. Hurd).

Solange and Claire are full of hatred and resentment of Madame and engage in intricate role playing, in which they exchange roles, one the boss, the other the servant. The brutality of these exchanges between the two women is in stark contrast to the mystery of strategic placement of two pair of Christian Louboutin red-soled black patent leather high heels. The shoes are strikingly separated at angles on the stage and we know they are going to be worn, but the viciousness and theatricality of these two women raises the suspense on just who is who and who is going to wear the shoes.

Melissa Pereyra and Andrea San Miguel

Make no mistake about this, while the audience grapples to make decisions on these two characters, the clarity soon becomes obvious that the line between life and theater is a thin one, indeed.

Alternating between virulent sadism and masochism, the two maids switch roles with nary a misstep and bitterly protest when the other has deviated from the proscribed staging of this charade.

The painful portrait of Madame is drawn with a viper-like fine point pen and the pain of being assigned to the lower class is pitiful.

But there is no pity in these portrayals. Sorrow and love for these two are impossible as they hatch their long desired plan to kill Madame and free themselves from their yoke. They have planned the assassination for a long time but each is aware that the time for talk is past and the time for action is at hand.

At the height of the performance Claire reprises the letters she wrote that sent Madame’s lover to prison and  demands that Solange disperse all doubt and prepare for what is inevitable.

“Say it! Go on, name it! The ceremony? Besides, we’ve no time to start a discussion now.  She’ll be hack, hack, back! But, Solange, this time we’ve got her. I envy you; I wish I could have seen the expression on her face when she heard about her lover’s arrest. For once in my life, I did a good job. You’ve got to admit it. if it weren’t for me, if it hadn’t ,been for my anonymous letter, you’d have missed a pretty sight: the lover hand-cuffed and Madame in tears. It’s enough to kill her. This morning she could hardly stand up.”

Melissa Pereyra and Rebecca Hurd

The tortured trail of this exercise in violent grief is made safe for an audience by the distinguished performances of these three actors.

Ms. San Miguel, who delights as Lucien in the current production of “A Flea in Her Ear,”  here creates a gravity that makes Solange the anchor in this relationship. She is a gifted physical actor and uses her body and movement as a clarion call of understanding. There is no mistaking what Solange is thinking.

The final monologue of Solange is a piece of such powered pain that life seems to stop as it goes on and on and on.

Ms. Pereyra, who stars at Hermia in in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”greets the audience clad in a flimsy slip and exaggerates the sexiness of Madame. She is an actor of incredible range, from a distinguished impersonator of Madame to a beleaguered sister to Solange.

Ms. Hurd casts a spell of such dimension that it demands not only skill but a rare kind of sensitivity.  She is painfully funny and full of the kind of exaggerated measure that provides a stunning framework for her two maids.

“The Maids” is a difficult play and a challenging work, for actors, designers and an audience. The great good fortune is that everybody who worked on this production is up to the task.

Production credits: Director: Ana Cristina Buffington; Voice and Text Coach, Eva Breneman; Costume Design, Devon Painter; Scenic Design, Yu Shibagaki; Lighting Design, Jaymi Lee Smith; Sound Design & Original Music; Victoria Deiorio; Fight Director, Brian Byrnes; Stage Manager, Carrie Taylor; Production photographer, Liz Lauren.