Chad Bauman’s column on criticism and a response from a theater critic

Chad Bauman, the smart and experienced Managing Director of the Milwaukee Rep, writes a monthly column for American Theatre magazine. In the latest issue he was asked to look at the state of theatrical criticism in this country. You can read his very thoughtful and incisive column here.http://www.americantheatre.org/2017/11/28/tastemaking-in-a-post-newspaper-world/

But there is also a response, my response, crafted after over 50 years in the field of journalism. Mine won’t be nearly as detailed or researched as his, but I think it makes some points worth considering.

Mr. Bauman relies heavily on the advent of technology and the changes wrought in the getting the word out about the work of a particular theater company and the weakening of reliance of theater criticism. And nobody would disagree.

He wrote:

“In a recent survey sent to our single ticket buyers at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, we asked patrons what drove their purchasing decisions, and their responses mirrored my own hotel searches. First and foremost, patrons must be interested in the subject matter or premise of the play. Next, they check with friends and family to get recommendations, and then consider the ticket price. Only after all that do patrons report that a professional review will influence their purchasing decision. Just a decade ago, I ran a similar market study while at Arena Stage, with patrons reporting that the primary purchasing decision rested on the review of the Washington Post. So what’s happened in the intervening years?”

All you have to do is look at, as he does, the incredible shrinking role of newspapers in the United States today. Let me offer some context, however.

When I started in newspapers we used hot type, articles were written and marked up on paper and then hand carried to the layout floor before being sent to the printers.

Then came computers, and everyone wailed how it was going to ruin journalism. I remember those first classes that were supposed to teach us how to use the new technology.

Now we have the Internet and smartphones and laptops and social media. Newspapers have been decimated. But, and this is an important but, journalism has survived.

All we have here is a sea change in the types of delivery of news and feature stories and all the other stuff that has made newspapers vital to life. The tenets of journalism haven’t changed.

A theater critic is not an artist. A theater critic is a journalist. No different, really, than any other journalist.

Think, if you will, of a political columnist working for, say, The New York Times or Washington Post, both newspapers that are thriving.

The columnist watches events then tries to figure out the truth of them,measured against a standard defined by the columnist by experience and time. Then the columnist writes her opinion of those events.

So, too, with the theater critic.

Ben Brantley, for more than two decades the chief theater critic for The Times, is arguably the most influential critic in the world. He is also a sort-of friend and when I began to review plays, he gave me 10 pieces of advice. Numbers 1 and 10 were the same.

“Never forget who you are writing for,” he said. “It is for the people who go, or may go, to see plays.”

An arts critic, no matter what the subject, treats her work as an individual thing. A sportswriter tries to represent all the fans. A critic represents nobody but herself. Hopefully, a serious critic has some standards for success against which any production is measured.

But a real critic cares almost nothing about any reaction to a review.

I have been involved in any number of controversial journalism endeavors over the years and have never – ever – been overly concerned about how readers or subjects react to something I’ve done.

If an egregious error has been made, I’m good with talking about it. But other than that, the review is out there, it’s what I think, and a reader can choose to believe it or not.

I have heard athletes say that they never read stories about their team. I have heard actors say they never read reviews. I think both of those reactions are silly. If you are devoted to your craft,  you want as much input as possible, and it’s up to you to determine if it has anything of value.

One of the big differences between covering a sports team and a play, of course, is that with a score, you can determine which team wins and which team loses. Impossible in the theater.

Every time I walk into a theater I hope it’s going to be a play that knocks my socks off. I have things that I think are important to a play, and the biggest is that I want to get moved – to laugh, to cry, to think, to fear, to feel something.

When that doesn’t happen, I can’t be positive about any production. When it does, there is a glow to a review.

I think Mr. Bauman raises a number of good points, especially in the way theater companies have changed their outreach to audiences and potential audiences.

But good journalism isn’t going away anytime soon. There will always be a place for serious theater criticism, it’s just that you won’t get ink stains on your fingers when you read it.

 

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First Stage weaves holiday magic for every age with “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

The Schulz cast serenades at the end of “the spectacular A Charlie Brown Christmas” at First Stage

You could close your eyes and just listen and you’d know how wonderful and amazing the moment was.

A dozen young actors stepped back to reveal a jeweled Christmas Tree, bright with sparkling ornaments and bright lights.

Hundreds of little voices whooshed through the theater.

“Ooooooooh!”

And that one sound captured all of the magic and warmth of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the First Stage holiday spectacular that opened over the weekend at the Todd Wehr Theatre.”

Every other theater in town that’s staging a holiday play is going to have to go some in order to outdo this Jeff Frank directed production for a play with the Christmas spirit, an egalitarian pledge to diversity, a warmth like a simmering winter fire and the kind of smiles that can only grace the faces of both infants and grandparents.

With two adults on the stage with 13 young actors and a seriously good pack of designers and support staff this simple story captures the imagination and delivers a touching and fun-filled 90 minutes for the entire family.

Everybody knows the Charles Schulz created Charlie Brown cast,. This musical was first mounted as a television special in 1965. Like the famed Mr. Rogers, this story is a timeless one and First Stage milks the story for all it’s worth.

Charlie Brown (a cute and devout sixth-grader, Zachary Church) is depressed over the materialism of Christmas. His friend Lucy the self-centered (Ivy Broder) decides that Charlie can fix his attitude by directing the annual school Christmas play.

He’s never directed a play but gamely takes on the task. Part of his job is to find a Christmas tree for the pageant. He and Linus (John Aebly) search amid a forest of glittering displays (great scenic design by Martin McClendon), but is not swayed by any of the selection. Finally he finds a small branch, stuck into a wooden base, and it strikes his heart as the tree they need. Of course, his choice is met with derision by the cast.

You’ll have to see the play in order to get the resolution to this controversial choice, but suffice it to say that chills and getting choked up are in store for everyone.

There are only two adults in the cast, and each deserves special mention.

Matt Daniels plays Snoopy with a style and substance that delivered perpetual giggles and laughs from the audience. It’s a performance that connects with children and their adults.

A dozen years ago I did “Merchant of Venice” at Milwaukee Shakespeare (at a time I was following my doomed dream of being an actor). I vividly remember watching Mr. Daniels. He never made a move that didn’t have a reason. Nothing idle. To this day I think he understands and practices stage movement at a level other actors could well study.

Three years ago he dazzled as a dog in “Chesapeake” at In Tandem and now he’s re-done his Snoopy and seems to have the whole dog thing down cold. Could a cat or zebra or even a giraffe be next?

And then there is Jack Forbes Wilson who always seems to fill an empty space in my heart.

One of the secrets to staging a great play is to put Mr. Wilson on a stage with a piano. From his “Grey Gardens” four seasons ago with Off the Wall, to Liberace” at The Rep three seasons ago,to The Rep’s “Souvenir” this season, he creates absolute magic. He has an unmatched stage presence and combines delightful piano with equally delightful acting to be a unique actor in Milwaukee.

Here is guides his cast of kids through several musical moments and a closing medley of Christmas carols with a joy that lights his face and is contagious for everyone in the theater.

As I said, if you are a theater in Milwaukee that wants to stage a holiday play, go see this production at First Stage and put your arms around the way you feel when it ends.

That’s how we all should feel during the holiday season.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” runs through December 31 at First Stage.

Production credits: Director, Jeff Frank; Music Director, Jack Ford Wilson; Choreographer, Chris Feiereisen; Scenic Designer, Martin McClendon; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Sound Designer, Matt Whitmore; Calling Stage Manager, Melissa L. Wanke; Rehearsal Stage Manager, Carrie Taylor, Assistant Stage Manager, Julia Xiong; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.

Chamber’s “Miracle” is nothing but a stale holiday trifle

Raeleen McMillion, Greta WohlrabeJosh Krause and Kat Wodtke, the Noack Family.

A holiday offering at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre is a little like the fruitcake that your unmarried aunt insists on giving you each Christmas.

You imagine that all those ingredients would make something great, but in the end it is merely a trifle.

In the case of “Miracle on South Division Street” almost all the ingredients are there.

Four very good actors, led by the always remarkable Raeleen McMillion, , an almost unbelievably realistic and evocative set design by Stephen Hudson-Mairet and props master Meghan Savagian, creative and diligent direction from C. Michael Wright.

You’d think that given that lineup you were in for a very special evening.

Instead I walked away with a slight smile on my face and a hope for something with more…something.

The play, by Tom Dudzik is nothing more than a frothy kind of stand-up routine wrapped around a fanciful story. Everything led up to one one-liner after another. And like most routines, some one-liners were funny while others fell flat.

The story concerns the Noack family – Polish  and staunchly Catholic – from Buffalo, NY. There’s Clara (Ms. McMillion), daughters Ruth (Kat Wodtke), Beverly (Greta Wohlrabe) and Jimmy (Josh Krause).

Clara’s late father, a barber, had a vision once of the Virgin Mary. It was such a profound vision that he built a 12-foot statue of her in front of the house, a statue that has become a shrine of sorts with tourists and neighbors dropping coins in while make a wish for an answer to their prayers.

But that’s not the real story, which has been uncovered by Ruth. She’s called a Christmas Eve family meeting to reveal the true story and the changes she’s making.

I don’t want to give anything away, but the real story is full of genuine heart and romance and spirit. The story leading up to the reveal is plebeian in content. There are wildly concocted surprises but they all are just a backdrop to yet another funny line.

Two of the actors in the play carry the thing above and beyond the  the material they had to work with.

Ms. Wodtke is turning into a powerful and intelligent actor in her recent appearances on Milwaukee’s stages. She captures the conflict within Kate and the determination to resolve that conflict through the truth, no matter how much it hurts. She is an actor who clearly proves an unshakable belief in “The Truth Shall Set You Free.”

As Beverly, the versatile and perceptive Ms. Wohlrabe, demonstrates that she has not fallen far as a fruit of her blue collar tree. On her way to a bowling match (on Christmas Eve no less) she wears her track suit and her winter hat with an aplomb that is in stark contrast to the tension of her sister.

Mr. Krause is easily the least movable character in the play. He just goes around his life, steadily and carefully. He, though, also harbors a secret, one that is easily guessed at before he reveals it.

One of the surprises in the play is the performance of Ms. McMillion. She is an accomplished actor with an impressive body of work, but here she is unable to turn her Clara into anything more than cartoon stereotype of a Polish joke. Part of it may were  lapses in the crisp timing comedy needs and it may well have been an unease with her lines.

This was the holiday offering by Chamber and any holiday offering needs to leave an audience feeling warm and fuzzy.  The only real fuzz in this one is the hazy wonder about how what ought to be a good show turned out so ordinary.

“Miracle on South Division Street” runs through Dec. 17 at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

Production credits: Director, C.Michael Wright; Scenic Designer, Stephen Hudson-Mairet; Costume Designer, Debra Krajec; Lighting Designer, Alan Piotrowicz; Sound Designer, Terrance Barrett; Properties Master, Meghan Savagian; Dialect Coach, Tyne Turner; Production Stage Manager, Judy Martel; Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.

The sun comes out, every night, in Skylight’s “Annie”

There is this thing about Molly Rhode and Skylight  Music Theatre and a piece of musical theater that has been seen by just about everyone in the theater loving community.

The thing is “sure,” as in sure thing.

Ms. Rhode directs and choreographs the current production of “Annie,” the 40-year old classic that opened at Skylight last weekend. And just like the same roles she filled in “The Sound of Music” for Skylight five years ago, she has created a production with new insight and emotional tugs that I’ve never seen before.

The Ms. Rhode hallmark is that she finds something newish, something that has its own weight and serves the telling of the story. So, too, with this production.

Ask just about anyone about the music in “Annie” and you’ll get “Tomorrow” first and then possibly “Hard Knock Life.” Certainly great songs written by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin. The two songs were bookends to the story, one about the difficulty of daily life and the other about the bright hope for tomorrow.

But Rhode found a couple of other songs that proved to be starring moments in the show.

The first was “Easy Street,” the showcase for the evil in America. With Carrie Hitchcock as Miss Hannigan and Matt Crowle as the ever-scheming Rooster and the always delightful Samantha Sostarich in a trio that had all the antagonism and mystery that every criminal enterprise needs.  It was a crucial reminder for the audience that it wasn’t all sunshine and balloons in the world of Annie.

The second number, and the one that brought the most spontaneous standing ovation all night, was “Fully Dressed,” sung and danced and acted by the seven orphans (the Light cast that I saw Saturday night) who used to live with Annie. It’s a reminder that despite the depression that grips the entire country, you are never fully dressed without a smile.

Rhode’s work is possible with a team of designers and actors who can live up to here high and demanding standards.

I’ve heard it said that if you’ve got an Annie then you are home free for this show. Eloise Field played Annie in the cast I saw (the role of her and the orphans are double cast) and she had all the earnestness and determination that Annie needs. In addition she’s got a rustic voice that gets the high notes, the low notes and all those in between.

Her joys and her worries were clear and full of emotion and she was a real treasure as she made sure this show has a great Annie.

But she is not alone as a stellar supporting cast rises to the occasion.

As Miss Hannigan, Ms. Hitchcock has all the whacky and wild and booze-fueled behavior that Carol Burnett made so famous in the 1982 movie. She was like a Phyllis Diller on speed and steroids.

The lovely Diane Lane provided the serenity that was the hallmark of the retinue of Daddy Warbucks. She was gorgeous in her blue gown and she, as always, sang like an angel.

And then there was Andrew Varela as the billionaire Warbucks.

Mr. Varela was last seen at Skylight as the maddened Sweeney Todd, a role that is a vicious as you might expect from a barber who murders people. His Sweeney was as magical as any I’ve seen.

Then he comes along to Warbucks, who couldn’t be further away from the barber. Here he is flustered easily by the little girl who has come into his life and his gradual warmth to her is perfectly paced. His a commanding presence on the stage with his voice and acting chops, but he understands that any play rides on the shoulders of many and is a gracious sharer of the stage. 

As he made his decision to adopt Annie, he sings the most tender song in the show. They waltz together, her tiny feet on top of his shoes, a nod to every father who has ever danced with his small daughter.

“The world was my oyster
But where was the pearl?
Who’d dream I would find it
In one little girl
Yes, something was missin
But dreams can come true
That something is
No one but you.”

Skylight is now back to the wonderful, high-level standards for musical theater, and nothing could be more evident of that than the sets designed and lit by Peter Dean Beck. The sheer variety of settings and the elaborate and detailed design were a show all by themselves.

The holiday season is on our doorstep and Skylight has already extended the planned run of this show until December 27. It’s a perfect show for the entire family and I wouldn’t miss it.

Production credits. Director and Choreographer, Molly Rhode; Music Director, Bill Busch; Lighting and Scenic Designer, Peter Dean Beck; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Sound Designer, Zack Berinstein; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna.

Pickering moving and powerful as “Secret Mask” hits home at Next Act

Sometimes – only occasionally – we get a chance to step into an area of rarefied air, a place where perfection lives and the world seems to bask in the glow of a magnificent light.

Exhibit One – James Pickering at “The Secret Mask” at Next Act Theatre.

Part of this is the demands of the role created by playwright Rick Chafe. But a bigger part is the way Pickering roared into the role with the strength, serenity and majesty of a lion the king of a pride.

Artistic Director David Cecsarini has a lengthy history of bringing unseen and powerful plays to Next Act, and Mask is no exception.

Mr. Pickering plays Ernie, a 70-something man who has suffered an aphasia  stroke.

The American Stroke Association describes it this way.

“Aphasia does not affect intelligence. Stroke survivors remain mentally alert, even though their speech may be jumbled, fragmented or impossible to understand. Some survivors continue to have trouble speaking, like getting the words out”,trouble finding words, problems understanding what others say, problems with reading, writing or math or an inability to process long words and infrequently used words.”

Ernie is working with Mae (Tami Workentin), a speech pathologist when his son George (Drew Parker) arrives to visit with the father he hasn’t seen since Ernie walked out 40 years ago.

That the two men are virtual strangers is complicated by the disabling of any kind of meaningful conversation between the two. Mae is an optimist, full of praise over the most minimal of progress for Ernie. George is Angry and hopeless over the seemingly disconnected reality where Ernie is stuck.

The first meeting between the three is a harbinger of what’s to come.

Mae: That’s a good day’s work, Ernie.  I bet you’re tired.

Ernie:  Yep.

Mae:  He needs lots of rest, so I’d suggest just a couple of minutes.

 Your son’s here now, Ernie. Everything’s going to be fine. You and George can go over to the lunchroom and have a short visit—

George:  Can I talk to you a minute?

Mae:   —and then I’ll send someone to get you. (to George) I have to see another client right away, but I can set up some time with you this afternoon—

George:   Just—seriously. Is this it?

Mae: No no, it’s only been three days since the stroke.

George: He can’t put two words together.

Mae: It’s a lot to take in, I know, but he’s going to improve.

George:Just roughly—is he going to be able to answer an intelligent question any time soon?

Mae:  I can’t say how quickly, but I can almost promise you’ll see progress.

Have you spoken with the social worker yet, Mrs. Barrett?

George:  She can’t see me until three, I could really stand to be filled in right now.

Mae: Let’s sit down right after you’re finished with Mrs. Barrett. She’ll give you the whole overview of what’s ahead. The team who will be working with your dad, some of the timelines you might expect, the changes you need to be getting ready for—

George: No.

Mae: I’m with your dad again at ten o’clock tomorrow. Why don’t you come sit in with us and I’ll clear some time after.

George:I had no idea he’d be like this.Mae: I’m sorry to be so rushed. This can be overwhelming. The most important thing is he needs you and you’re here for him now.

George: …. No.

Mae: I’m going to get an orderly to take your father back to his room.

I think you really need to have a chat with Mrs. Barrett. Okay?

George: Just—have her call me.

George has come to Vancouver on business and he is obviously throw for a loss by his father and unwilling or unable to step up to the plate. There is nobody else in Ernie’s life and George is determined to remain reluctant to do much. He harbors a palpable resentment of the man who left him and his mother 40 years ago.

The play is a journey taken by father and son that moves haltingly forward with a series of setbacks as they move. The journey is further complicated b y another father-son relationship, the one between George and the unseen Reese, 15-years-old and a hostile rebel to his father.

George faces unexpected and profound disappointments and crises during the two hours of this play, but finds, much to his surprise, solace in the fractured relationship with his father.

Mr. Pickering delivers a performance that must rank near the top of his storied career. He captures everything there is to capture about Ernie. He’s funny and confused and angry and sad and charming – oh, is he charming.  It’s a performance of such subtlety that I didn’t realize how glorious it was until the curtain call.

Mr. Parker is new to Next Act and shows displays a range of emotions and purpose with skills. It’s not easy to be a character who an audience dislikes at one point and then loves with abandon at another. But Mr. Parker is clearly up to the task.

Ms. Workentin, one of the most reliable actors in Milwaukee, not only plays the speech pathologist but also creates several minor roles as a restaurant server, a nursing home hustler, a fishing buddy of Ernie’s, a bank teller and  a lawyer. She has remarkable versatility and creates different characters with only minor touches that only an experienced and talented actor can deliver.

Despite all the skills from director Edward Morgan and the other designers and actors, this is a play that belongs to Mr. Pickering. He is an actor who has a clarity of understanding that all things must be in service to the story and is generous to all who share a stage and a seat in the audience.

His ability to marvel seems to never wane.

“The Secret Mask” runs through December 10 at Next Act Theatre.

Production credits: Director, Edward Morgan; Scenic Design, Rick Rasmussen; Lighting Design, Aaron Sherkow; Costume Design, Dana Brzezinski; Sound Design, David Cecsarini; Properties Design, Heidi Slater & Shannon Sloan Spice; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly.

Your tummy twists into knots in The Rep’s “Holmes and Watson”

Mystery upon mystery at The Rep’s “Holmes and Watson”

The single question is really a series of questions.

Was it him or him or him or him or him or him or him or him or….even her or her?

Or, as Hamlet would say about these 10 people, “to be or not to be, that is the question.”

Welcome to the world of “Holmes and Watson,” the new play by the brilliant Jeffrey Hatcher that opened Friday night at the Quadracci Powerhouse at The Milwaukee Rep.

Seven actors, led by two legends of Wisconsin theater, put 10 characters on a sparse stage augmented by a scaffold-stairs and the marvelous projections of Mike tutaj, in a mystery that is the ultimate challenge for those of us who want to “figure it out.”

Everybody knows Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The sleuths from the mind of Arthur Conan Doyle appeared in 5 6 short stories and four novels and has been portrayed in television and films more than any detective duo in history.

Hatcher has created a play that not only tells a story but tells it the way Doyle – or Holmes _- would tell it, full of mystery, surprises, twist, turns and even a little bit of shock. Sometimes a tense murder mystery is just the thing to get your heart pumping, and this one does the job.

Here’s the deal.

Holmes has died in a mysterious confrontation with the devilish Moriarty, the leader of a gang who has fought the detective to death at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. The grieved Watson (Norman Moses) is certain the two fighters have fallen to their death in the water.

But Wait!!

Watson receives a letter from Dr. Evans (Mark Corkins) that there are three patients in his asylum off the coast of Scotland, all of whom claim to be Sherlock Holmes. The only way to find out which one is really the famed detective is for Watson to travel to the asylum and see each of the three, and making the final judgement and solve this dilemma.

That is dilemma number one.

What follows that takes more than all your fingers and toes to count. Moment by moment, things change and what you thought a mere moment ago turns out to be something else entirely. And as you hopelessly look at the person sitting next to your for help you will only a find a play with a look just as perplexed as yours.

Director Joseph Hanreddy has taken Mr. Hatcher’s play and squeezed every tiny bit of surprise from the structure, and then some. Integrating the inventive work of a group of designers into a production that is the whole thing from the earliest moment. A clap of thunder with a flash of light opens and the mournful wail of a violin closes as the lights slowly dim to black.

Mr. Moses, long one of Milwaukee’s favorites, finds a depth in Watson unrevealed in most iterations. Normally you see Watson as a buttoned-up accessory to Holmes. Moses reveals him to be both a dedicated aide-de-camp but also a sleuth with his own special brand of detecting, featuring more emotion that Holmes ever showed.

He sets the tone for the next 80 minutes with his open.

“Of  the  many  unforeseen  outcomes  of  the  tragedy  that  befell Sherlock  Holmes  at  the  Falls  of  Reichenbach,  surely  the  most frustrating  fell  under  the  category  of  ‘False  Sightings.’ As Holmes’  body  had  not  been  retrieved,  it  was  relatively  simple for  any  number  of  frauds,  fakes  and  charlatans  to  come forward  and  lay  claim  to  his  identity.                                         Naturally  the  task fell  to  me  to  disprove  the  many  impersonators  who  made  their presence  known. Off  I  would  go,  by  train,  by  boat,  by  horse and  carriage,  each  time  to  be  disappointed,  as  I  knew  each time  I  would  be.”Until  today. A  telegram  arrived.

(holds  up  a  TELEGRAM)

“Dr.  Watson,  I  write  to  inform  you  of  a  mystery. I  have  in my  care  three  men,  each  of  whom  claims  to  be  the  late  Mr. Sherlock  Holmes.     It  is  imperative  that  this  matter  be  sorted out  at  once  and  in  the  deepest  secrecy. A  compartment  has been  reserved  for  you  on  the  Scotsman  leaving  Kings  Cross, connecting  at  Edinburgh  to  Starkhaven,  then  via  ferry  to  the asylum.”

Mr. Corkins, another local favorite, infuses the reserved Dr. Evans with an air of mystery that only heightens the tension. He is a man who is engaged in medical treatment but very clearly has some kind of evil lurking inside.

His performance is reminiscent of his powerful turn as Gideon Kroeg, a brutal South African interrogator in “Burying the Bones” at In Tandem  four years ago.

Mr. Hatcher and Mr. Hanreddy have avoided one of the minor dangers in bringing a Holmes & Watson to the live stage.

Part of the overwhelming joy of reading these mysteries is the ability to turn back a page so that the reader remains . When the twists get a little confusing, you just go back and re-read what you need to.

On the stage, you can’t go back, but through simplification and subtle repetition, Mr. Hatcher and Mr. Hanreddy have made sure that getting confused about the plot is a burden not faced by the audience.

There is no chance that I’m going to reveal any of the countless little mysteries or the big mystery that, like thriller, is revealed in the end.

Suffice it to say that the challenge, friends, is to see if any of you can actually figure out what’s going on.

Boooooo!!!

Program Notes

In any mystery the mood plays a big part of the story. And the mood makers here do spectacular work.

Scenic Designer Bill Clarke has created a visual backdrop that is full of surprise both bold and subtle. A single chair and table make up the set. But upstage is a scaffold-like set of stairs with a  door in the middle  that slides open when needed for more chills. There are stairs to a door leading to the rest of the asylum and a door that leads to the kitchen In the middle of the stage is a lattice trapdoor from which the patients enter. Powerful.

The biggest challenge for costume designer Karin Simonson Kopischke was what to do with the three patients. She created three different looks that made sure no mental patient ever got confused with another. The style of Patient 2 was especially powerful.

Mike Tutja worked wonders with his projections. We saw a roiling sea, a calm ferry ride, a train and a tempest of a waterfall, all specific and all atmospheric.

Ad finally, the sound design of Bob Milburn and Michael Bodeen had elements of shock, dismay and mood. The sound of three unseen cells being opened sent chills down my spine while the sudden clap of thunder made me sit up in my seat.

“Holmes and Watson” runs through December 17 at The Milwaukee Rep

Production credits: Director Joseph Hanreddy; Scenic Designer,Bill Clarke; Costume Designer, Karin Simonson Kopischke; Lighting Designer, Michael Chybowski; Sound Designer, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; Projection Designer, Mike Tutaj; Fight/Stunt Director, Ben Kahre; Dialect Coach  Clare Arena Haden; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Sarah Deming-Henes; Production photographer, Michael Brosilow.

 

Good Sex! Bad Sex! Charles Isherwood! Phony Awards!

Sex!

Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s get to the point.

Watching and seeing and talking about sex is just about everywhere in our world. And the world of live theater is no exception, although sex and intimacy on stage has always proved problematic for the world of theater.

This season we have seen two examples of sex and intimacy on stages in Milwaukee and nothing could be more dramatically different than the two shows. And examining them shines a light on how theater deals with these scenes. And it also kind of points to how damaging a sense of political correctness can be to the world of theater.

The first example is the production of “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune,” staged in September at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre under the direction of Mary MacDonald Kerr. The show featured Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning as a couple of misfits who hook up. There was plenty of intimacy and even some nudity.

Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning at Chamber Theatre

And the scenes resounded with genuine emotion, especially for anyone who is even moderately familiar with real sexual activity. There was some touching, some awkwardness, a little humor and some real satisfaction, all the stuff that normally accompanies sex.

It was on the stage but it seemed like the real stuff.

The contrasting production was “Sex With Strangers,” staged in October by Renaissance Theaterworks, under the direction of Mallory Metoxen. The show contained a number of sexually charged scenes between Marti Gobel and Nick Narcisi – the older woman, younger man dynamic.

Nick Narcisi and Marti Gobel star inb Sex with Strangers.

Renaissance hired accomplished  fight choreographer Christopher Elst as the intimacy choreographer” and also got help from Tonia Sina, the founder and President of Intimacy Directors International.

The idea behind this concept is to strictly choreograph intimate moments, much as fights are choreographed. The whole thing was born of the best of intentions – avoiding the kind of sexual harassment or romantic entanglements that happen in the theater world.

“Keeping actors safe” has become a byword and a rallying cry, and it’s a worthy sentiment and goal. Just as productions are careful not to let an actor be burned by a light, crushed by a piece of scenery or cut during a swordfight, actors should be safe when they kiss or rub or have sex with each other.

The problem arose, in the Renaissance production, when it became apparent that the sexual contact was boring. It was like watching two manikins be put through their caressing paces.

Ms. Gobel is a passionate actor, full of emotional skills. Mr. Narcisi, although new tome, is most likely equally able, so this is not their fault.

And I don’t think the fault lies with Mr. Elst.

Ms. Metoxen is a brilliant young director but part of the task of a director is to recognize what happens on the stage through the eyes of the audience. I’d be willing to bet that she saw that these scenes of passion were missing something – passion – but was burdened by the political correctness of intimacy choreography.

I’m not saying that intimacy choreography should not be part of a production. But I am saying that it’s harder than it looks and unless it’s done well, the audience becomes lost amid passion that is vacant of any heat.

Bogus Awards

I am a firm believer that theater, especially regional theater, is not a competitive sport, yet lots of people still think that awards are an important element and an indicator of the vibrancy of a local theater scene.

One of the awards programs is sponsored by Broadway World, a weekly theater roundup site that has a main edition and then a local one for 130 regions in the country. There is usually some interesting stuff on the site, including reviews by such luminaries by the brilliant Charles Isherwood, who got sacked by the New York Times for no apparent reason.

Broadway World is now sending out emails and other promotions of the voting for the Broadway World annual local awards. They have released the results so far. A glance through the nominees clearly shows how phony this whole thing is.

Let’s take a look at the “Best Actor in a Play” category.

Running away with the voting is Adam Qutaishat, (All In Productions) followed closely by Zach Sharrock (Lake County Playhouse) and Mark Neufang (SummerStage of Delafield).

I don’t know the top three – all young community theater actors –  but they are crushing seven Equity actors, all of who could be ranked as world class performers with years of training and experience behind them. The seven are Anthony Crivello (The Rep), James Ridge (APT), Jim DeVita (APT), Di’Monte Henning (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre), Matt Zambrano (The Rep), Marcus Truschinski (APT) and Reese Madigan (Next Act.

Take a look at the Best Actress in a Play voting results.

Beth Perry (Waukesha Civic Theatre), Cathy Marshall (Sunset Playhouse) and Ruth Arnell (Waukesha Civic Theatre) are running away with it. They are beating a dozen highly trained and experienced women. Marcee Doherty-Elst (Renaissance) Susan Varela (MCT), Carrie Hitchcock (Next Act), Kelly Doherty (Next Act), Linda Stephens (The Rep), Hollis Resnik (The Rep), Kelsey Brennan (APT), Karen Estrada (Next Act) and Janie Brookshire).

Don’t even get me started on the “Best Play” category features “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar at The Rep, trailing productions from Waukesha Civic, Sunset, SummerStage, Luminous, and All In productions. Disgraced, by the way, won The Pulitzer Prize.

I don’t mean to demean any of the people in these categories, but they are illustrative of the perils of trying to do this in a place like Milwaukee or Wisconsin. These awards are obviously not based on any kind of merit, but rather which organization can get its fans out to vote.

It’s silly to try and have a theater awards show in Milwaukee, mainly because it’s virtually impossible to get a panel of judges who could make informed decisions. Generally, people who go to play in Milwaukee go to one, or maybe two, theaters. You can’t possibly get a vote that means anything from people who don’t see all (or even most) of the nominees.

I’d like to see organizations that want to have awards work harder to generate support and additional funding for local theater organizations. That would mean a hell of a lot more than some award that doesn’t mean anything.

 

Rep’s Murder for Two is just…well…murder

We are going through a time of almost unbearable misery on a number of fronts in this country – Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Kim Jong Un, the Green Bay Packers.

The question of where, oh where can we turn for relief from all this stress, is an easy one to answer.

“Murder for Two” at the Milwaukee Rep is, without a doubt, the remedy for any stress that you might feel in your life. It’s the perfect cure for what ails you, except for the side effect of laughter while trying to drive home. Take an Uber.

This 100 minute journey into the more than slightly-skewed minds of Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair is the kind of silly trip that college students might have taken when they dropped acid, back when college students actually took acid.

The Stackner Cabaret opening night leapt to their feet at the conclusion of opening night’s performance, a stunning surprise because I could hardly believe people had the energy to jump up after the almost constant laughter from the first joke to the final note. This show is exhausting to watch.

This is musical theater with all the music, all the theater and all the huge number of characters any murder mystery needs.

Here’s the story.

Legendary mystery writer Arthur Whitney arrives home for a surprise birthday party. The only surprise greeting him is a bullet to the forehead, killing him. Uh, oh!

Marcus Moscowicz, a police officer with a pounding desire to advance to the rank of detective, arrives to solve the crown. Assisting him in this perplexing task are his assistant Lou, the Chief of police and, tangentially) his former partner Vanessa, who had to leave the force after chopping up her entire family.

The list of suspects is long and varied.

Dahlia Whitney, the victim’s loopy widow,

Murray and Barb Flandon, the Whitneys’ bickering neighbors,

Steph Whitney, an overeager grad student,.

Barette Lewis, a self-incriminating ballerina. Dr. Griff, a friendly local psychiatrist.

Timmy, Yonkers and Skid, members of antiquated 12 boys’ choir hired for the party.

Henry Vivaldi, a fireman.

By the way, Kinosian plays the part of all the suspects.

Kinosian grew up in Wauwatosa and took advantage of the open enrollment policy in Milwaukee to go to the MPS High School of the Arts.

Four years ago he and Blair put together this whacky musical and it has gone on to productions and awards all over the world. Lest you think this froth is just froth, be mindful that it’s been nominated for a bunch of honors including Drama Desk and Jefferson award programs.

At the Stacker he teams with Matt Edmonds who is the perfect straight man to the unstraight Kinosian. This is like watching today’s version of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis when they were in their prime.

The first clue (for the audience) to what kind of show this is comes when Edmonds begins to survey the scene and with perfect timing says “watch the body” the precise second Kinosian does the famed Jerry Lewis trip over the body.

Both of these artists play the piano, sometimes separately and other times together but this is no Ferrante and Teicher or dueling pianos. This is frantic accompaniment for a series of lyrics that cause everything from groans to titters to bellylaughs.

JC Clementz, who left The Rep a year ago to become the casting director at Steppenwolf, returned to direct this show. And watching him was a great indication of how wonderful this whole evening is. Despite having seen each of these jokes dozens of times during the rehearsal process, Clements still managed hearty laughter at so many of the moments.

Edmonds is an accomplished Chicago actor who plays the buttoned up but frustrated detective with a mixture of confidence, doubt, lust and aversion. His obvious lust for Barette Lewis is one of the highlights of the production.

Kinosians performance must be seen to be believed.

Costume changes are so minimal they almost don’t exist. He puts on a pair of black glasses and occasionally a boa, but the rest of it is done with a body that seems made of Play-Doh. He moves and turns up and down and all around, a Hokey Pokey of movement, all of which was wonderfully choreographed by Kelley Faulkner. This is not a guy you want to play Twister with.

Finally, like any good mystery story, the crime is solved. The temptation, of course, is to breath a sigh of relief. But….nobody knows who stole the ice cream or whether Marcus and Steph will become an item.

You’ll have to find out for  yourself what I’m talking about.

Murder for Two runs through Jan. 14.

Production credits: Director JC Clementz, Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer Regina Garcia; Costume Designer Misti Bradford; Lighting Designer, Lee Fiskness; Sound Designer, Megan Henninger; Movement Director Kelley Faulkner; Casting Director Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Richelle Harrington Calin; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.