Andrew Varela leads outstanding cast through a fantastic “Fantasticks”

Keegan Siebken and Susan Wiedmeyer in The Fantasticks. Photo by Mark Frohna

In the fall of 1965 I was stationed at a Navy base on Treasure Island, a man made tiny piece of land at one end of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge.

I was going to be there for six to seven months and so, I settled in to get to know San Francisco. After a couple weeks of bars and nightclubs, I stopped at the USO to see what they had to offer.

They had two tickets, every night, to a play called “The Fantasticks.”

I had acted in some plays before the Navy and my mom was also a community theater actor. I took one of the tickets and took a famous cable car  to a tiny theater in Ghirardelli Square at the famed Fisherman’s Wharf.

I loved the play beyond all common sense. So, I went back, and back and

back again. My best guess is that I saw the play at least three times a week for five and a half months. Some weeks I saw it five or six nights in a row. I couldn’t get enough.

Best guess is I saw it over 100 times. And as life moved on I continued to go. I saw it about a dozen times at the Sullivan Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. I saw it at a couple of colleges and a few community theaters. I guess I’ve seen in about a dozen times, at least, in various Milwaukee theaters.

I saw it again opening night at In Tandem Theatre and I can one thing for sure.

In all of those productions, from New York to  San Francisco and dozens of places in between I have never, ever seen an El Gallo like Andrew Varela in an impeccable and delicious production that ends In Tandem’s 20th anniversary season.

Everybody knows the story of Fantasticks.

Luisa(Susan Wiedmeyer) and Matt (Keegan Siebken)  are in love. Their fathers, Hucklebee (Matt Daniels) and Bellamy (Chris Flieller) are at war with each other. Shenanigans arrive, accompanied by the aging actor Henry (Robert Spencer) and his supporting castmate Mortimer (Austin Dorman). Add in the onstage stage manager Mute (Mary McClellan) and you have a cast of high-powered actors who find ways to round out these characters I know so well.

Let’s start with Mr. Varela who acts as both the narrator and the suave swindler El Gallo.

He is very handsome and with his black slacks, red shirt and black vest cuts a dashing figure on stage. But it is voice and acting ability that make this El Gallo one to remember.

His baritone fills the theater at times almost climbing into a tenor range, and he can sing in a hush without losing a iota of power and clarity. He also creates a character who is menacing and gentle, serious and funny and disingenuous and frank all at the same time.

The Fantasticks is a show that rises and falls on the shoulders of El Gallo and with this performance the entire production soars like I’ve rarely seen.

He opens the show with the classic “Try to Remember” and it’s the first realization that this is going to be something special. Mr. Varela understands the importance of the lyrics in a song and he sings the words, with full meaning. He doesn’t find the need to phony the song up with pyrotechnics. He knows full well that it’s better when you “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

The rest of this cast is, simply put, amazing.

As the two young people Mr. Siebken and Ms. Wiedmeyer are perfect. He is worldly as only a young man can be and she is a dreamer whose fantasy for her life seems to be just over the hill. He has a pleasant tenor, easily capturing the youthful assuredness to go with her lovely soprano. Ms. Wiedmeyer can really sing and your heart goes out to her with each stretch for the dream of the moment.

As the two fathers, Mr. Daniels and Mr. Flieller, both veterans in Milwaukee, have a chance to exercise their overwhelming chops for both physical and vocal comedy.,  The interesting thing is that often the two fathers are played as virtual cardboard cutouts, but in this production those men are fully developed into fathers that everyone can relate to.

Mr. Spencer, who played Matt 54 years ago Off-Broadway, makes it a complete circle with the ancient Henry, the gypsy actor who takes his falling-apart act on the road, wherever he can get an audience of at least one person. He gives this character more humor and bits of hijink than I’ve ever seen.

As his slavish aide de camp, Mr. Dorman makes the most of his memorable scene where he displays his perfect art of dying on the stage. The tension of waiting for him to actually perish is palpable.

Ms. McLellan plays Mute with great good humor and spirit. She is leaving Milwaukee soon and we theater fans will be poorer for her family’s move.

Jane Flieller directed this production with an eye toward dedication to the script. Over the years I’ve seen productions of this show with a cast in the nude, a cast blindfolded and a cast doing every song just as spoken word. Ms. Flieller is wonderfully honest with her direction  and creates opportunities for the actors to do what they do best.

The music is provided by harpist Mary Keppeler and Josh Robinson, who plays keyboards and served as Music Director for the show. He is building an impressive resume for music direction in this city. He gets the absolute best out of his singers with no gimmicks present.

This is obviously a show that I love but it’s been rare that I’ve enjoyed one as much as I did this one. As the theater season winds down, you don’t want to miss this show.

If you’ve seen it before, go. If not, go.

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“Songs for a New World” an absolute stunner from All In Productions

Indalecio de Jesus Valentin, Laura McDonald, Jamie Mercado and Patrick Jones in AIP production.

It’s safe to say that there is no other Milwaukee theater company that would stage “Songs for a New World,” the quirky play that launched the career of Jason Robert Brown in 1995.

It’s an unusual play, written for four singers and 16 songs with no dialogue. There is not story to be told. And not many people in Milwaukee have ever heard about it.

But stage it they did and the no-longer kids of All In Productions have created an evening of both theater and music that is clearly unrivaled this theater season.

AIP (this company has earned the right to just go by letters – ala American Players Theater) opened its fourth season the same way they opened their initial season.

That one was

In 2014 the company lit up the theater sky with a magical production of Mr. Brown’s “The Last Five Years.”Since then the company has had some sterling efforts and a few that were less than sterling.

But with “Songs” there is a confluence of factors that create an evening  unlike anything you are likely to see this season, or any other season.

Let’s start with the setting in Redeemer Lutheran Church on Wisconsin Avenue. It’s a spectacular structure, built in 1915 of masonry, brick and dark wood, with a ceiling shaped and constructed like the bottom of a sailing ship, a nod to the immigrant population in the congregation and Milwaukee.

The altar was three white stone steps with a simple wood podium on each side and behind those steps, a five piece band led by keyboardist Tom Reifenberg, who was the music director for the show.

The next thing to hit you is the lighting by Jim Padovano, spilling onto the band and gently moving around the stage, always maintaining a focus on the actors/singers.

And then there are the four cast members and those 16 songs.

This is not your usual musical theater event. These are 16, seemingly disconnected songs. Songs about a Spanish ship captain, a woman crying for attention from her husband, a nervous young girl about to move in with her boyfriend, a man and woman reuniting in friendship and maybe more, Mrs. Claus who has grown tired of the abuse from her mate, and others.

But once things get going, a theme does emerge, one that grips like a vice.

It’s about decisions that come up in life. Do you stay the course, be pushed around, push back, do you run or stand and fight? These are life questions and the songs are a lovely examination of those moments.

It starts with the lovely, tender and fierce Jamie Mercado (Woman 1), alone on the altar. She is soon joined by Man 2 (Patrick Jones).

WOMAN 1:

A new world calls across the ocean
A new world calls across the sky
A new world whispers in the shadows
Time to fly, time to fly

MAN 2:

It’s about one moment
The moment before it all becomes clear
And in that one moment
You start to believe there’s nothing to fear
It’s about one second
And just when you’re on the verge of success
The sky starts to change
And the wind starts to blow
And oh, you’re suddenly a stranger
There’s no explaining where you stand
And oh, you didn’t know
That you sometimes have to go
?Round an unexpected bend
And the road will end
In a new world

WOMAN 1:

A new world calls for me to follow
A new world waits for my reply
A new world holds me to a promise
Standing by, standing by

Each of the other two actors also appear in the first song, Laura McDonald (Woman 2) and Indalecio de Jesus Valentin (Man 1 and perhaps the best name of any actor working in Milwaukee).

The second number if Mr. Valentin as a Spanish sailing captain, praying for strength for himself and the welfare of the men and women he will carry to the New World.

Then comes Ms. McDonald hanging from the front of one podium, a woman who has stepped out onto the ledge of her high level apartment in an attempt to get some attention from her n neglectful husband.

And so it goes.

It’s hard to overstate the wonderful details of this production steered by Director Tim Backes who has a delicate touch for a delicate show. Even with a few swound level difficulties on opening night, he has crafted something that is much more than a song, much more than a play much more than a simple story.

The four players all have their own strengths which Backes gives space for flourish.

Mr. Valentin is a brooding heartthrob who has a ringing tenor that climbs to the rafters of the church. When he feels pain, we feel it with him.

Mr. Jones is the everyman who has a wide range of acting abilities. He can be as tender and as tough as anyone I’ve seen on a stage recently.

Ms. Mercado is the waif of the show, mixing doubt and determination into a series of songs that give full range to her lilting soprano.

And then there is Ms. McDonald, both a lover and a beleaguered Mrs. Claus, sick and tired of her Santa. She is a great singer and reminds me of the spectacular Diane Lane, Milwaukee’s best comic singer and actor.  She absolutely kills the song as Ms. Claus, milking everything there is in a very clever song.

The song and her performance are so funny, I want to give readers and chance to read all the lyrics.

Everything about this production is further evidence of the maturity of this company that doesn’t talk about doing edgy productions, but just does them in an outstanding manner.

This is a show not to be missed.

Production credits: Director, Tim Backes; Music Director, Tom Reifenberg; Assistant Music Director, Allison Bekolay; Choreographer, Stephanie Staszak; Assistant Director, Adam Qutaishat; Costume Designer, Molly Mason; Technical Director/Lighting Designer, Jim Padovano; Stage Manager, Allison Kasprovich; Production Manager, Beth Lewinski; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna.

Orchestra: Keyboard, Tom Reifenberg; Keyboard 2, Alison Bekolay; Guitar, Liz Parsons; Bass, David Wickert; Drums, Bob Troemel.

And, as promised, the lyrics to Surabaya-Santa

WOMAN 2:

I was just seventeen
When you rode into town
Just a girl full of fantasies and longing

I saw you
I knew I had to be with you

Then you looked in my eyes
And you asked me my name
And I trembled before you like a baby
Then gently I kissed you
Who could resist you?
You took my heart and soul

And before I had a chance to take control
We retired to your palace on the Pole
Where we only had ourselves
And the reindeer and the elves
And a lot of things we never said
About the life I could have led
If I had had the sense to stay away

But here we are Nick
And so Nick
I know it’s time for you to go Nick
I know by now I’ll never claim you for my own
I’ve been resigned to spend my Christmases alone

And so au revoir Nick
It’s grand Nick
I don’t pretend to understand Nick
I saw you look at Blitzen long and lovingly
The way you used to look at me

I have sat twenty years
In this drafty retreat
As the latest in the line of Mrs. Clauses
I’ve sat here
And wondered what you want from me

But you sit by yoursel
On the couch in the den
And you watch “Miracle on 34th Street”
You get sad and dreamy
Can’t even see me
Won’t even say, “Hello!”

Now you tell me that it’s time for you to go
Ha!
Sling your sack upon your back and “Ho, ho, ho!”
Ha!
And what matters most of all
Is to sit inside some mall
And you never think of me
While I am pining by the tree
But never mind
I will survive
While you are gone

I set you free, Nick
Goodbye, Nick
Go ride your reindeer through the sky, Nick
I don’t suppose you’ll ever want me by your side
I know you now
You want a plaything, not a bride
So on your way, Nick
Shalom, Nick
Don’t feel the need to hurry home, Nick
Should I want comfort in the cold and bitter storm
I’ve got the elves to keep me warm

Oh, oh, Nick, I didn’t mean it. I’m just going crazy all cooped up in here! Oh, Nick, I mean, come on, I’m not even German.
Please take me with you. Please! I’m your wife damn it. Isn’t there one ounce of human decency buried beneath all those layers
of fat? You disgust me! Oh yes, It’s so easy to judge, isn’t it? Deciding who’s naughty and who’s nice? Well, who died and
left you God, Mr. Claus? Hmph.

But never mind, Nick
Okay, Nick
I hate to keep you from your sleigh, Nick
When you return I will be many miles away
I’ll have my lawyer call your lawyer
New Years Day

 

 

That’s all from me, Nick
Gain way, Nick
I’ll miss you less than I can say, Nick
Have fun with all the little boys along the route
I’ll get the mansion and the factory to boot
I will not wait until the snow beneath me thaw
I will escape
Your Santa claws!!

 

Power of Faith Shaken in Chamber’s “Doubt”

Colleen Madden and Marcus Truschinski in “Doubt” at Milwaukee Chamber theater

Accusation vs. Denial. Truth vs. Falsehood. Joy vs. Sorrow. Red state vs. Blue state. Offense vs. Defense.

I pledge, until death!

Those bitterest of rivalries are at the heart of “Doubt:A Parable,” the John Patrick Shanley Pulitzer Prize winning play opened over the weekend at Milwaukee Chamber theater.

On the surface Shanley’s searing drama is a tale of a Roman Catholic school administration  torn apart by a priest accused of sexual misconduct with a young boy and a savvy nun determined to expose him.

But today, 14 years after it was written, it has become much more relevant and meaningful than it was when it ran on Broadway.  

In this time of “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” the world of accusation has taken on the mantle of righteous virtue while the burden of denial is often matched by the virulence of the charge. What we have, in some cases at least, is an equal outrageousness that, as the battle escalates, becomes ever more intrenched and intractable by the parties.

“Doubt” is the story of St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, a school presided over by Sister Aloysius (Colleen Madden) , a non-nonsense latecomer to the faith of both her black habit and unshakable committment to her way of doing things.

In a conference with a teacher, Sister James (April Paul), Sister Aloysius asks about a new boy in school, 12-year old Donald Muller, the first black boy in at St. Nicholas.  She is concerned that he not be placed in a difficult position. She asks Sister James whether anyone has bullied the boy and the sister replies that nobody has because Donald has a “protector” in Father Flynn.

Sister Aloysius: What have you seen?
Sister James: I don’t know.
Sister Aloysius: What have you seen?
Sister James: He tood Donald to the rectory.
Sister Aloysius: What for?
Sister James: A talk.
Sister Aloysius: Alone?
Sister James: Yes.
Sister Aloysius: When
Sister James: A week ago.
Sister Aloysius: Why didn’t you tell me
Sister James: I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. It never came into my mind…that he…that there could be anything wrong.
Sister Aloysius: Of all the children, Donald muller. I suppose it makes sense.
Sister James: How does it make sense?
Sister Aloysius: He’s isolated. The little sheep lagging behind. This is the one the wolf goes for.

And so it begins. The rumor. The gossip. The circumstance. The conviction. The claim. The machinations and lies. The confrontation. The aghast denial. The pursuit of one version of the truth.

Flynn is horrified at the accusation. He’s outraged, defensive and immediately asserts his canonical rights over a mere nun in a convent. His denial only fuels the pursuit of blame for Sister Aloysius. Sister James is a bystander, torn and tossed by the waves of uncertainty, of doubt.

The curse of doubt eventually is the envelope that shrouds both sides and that doubt proves as debilitating as the passionate adherence to one half of the argument.

This play, directed by C. Michael Wright, is graced with a powerhouse cast that creates a pace that becomes ever more frantic.

Ms. Madden and Mr. Truschinski, both core company members at American Players Theatre, clearly appreciate the value of style and restraint. She is fully in grip of the worldly yet cloistered woman, in touch with both reality and her fantasies.

Mr. Truschinski continues his growth into an actor of incredible breadth and skill. Each time I see him on a stage he shows his remarkable ability to dig deep beneath the surface of a character to find things that make his people fully realized.

Ms. Paul is both certain of her love for teaching and children and unresolved about both the guidance of Sister Aloysius and her pursuit of guilt.

Malkia Stampley does a small turn as Donald Muller’s mother, called to the principal’s office to discuss the suspicions of Father flynn. Ms. Stampley is the trigger for this production to shift into high gear and her seething anger mixed with her unshaken loyalty to her child are a catalyst for the inevitable collision.

Mr. Wright has smartly allowed this production to roam into places Mr. Shanley never intended and his crucial understanding makes for a night when doubt is proven to cause more pain than resolution.

Production Credits: Director: C. Michael Wright; Stage Manager, Judy Martel; Scenic Designer, Steve Barnes; Costume Designer, Kim Instenes; Lighting Designer, David Gipson; Sound Designer, Victoria Delorio; Propmaster, Madelyn Yee; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.

Ordinary Life is Extraordinary at Rep’s “Our Town”

DiMonte Henning and Cher Desiree Alvarez in “Our Town at The Rep.

It happens in barely a blink of an eye.

The Rep turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, the common to the sublime and the routine into the rare in the spectacular “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s penetrating exam of life in the middle lane.

From the earliest moments on a stage, primarily empty save for an erratic stack of chairs and several wooden porches perched atop a string of steps, the song “Something’s Coming” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” ran through my mind.

“Will it be, yes it will
Maybe just by holding still
It’ll be there
Come on, something
Come on in
Don’t be shy
Meet a guy
Pull up a chair
The air is humming
And something great is coming”

Mr. Wilder won a Pulitzer Prize for this remarkable little play in 1938 and in his notes Director Brent Hazelton remarks about the popular belief that not a day has gone by that this play is not being produced somewhere on earth.

And who could doubt it, as it is such a simple play to produce, with big casts, a minimal set and virtually no physical drama. It’s people talking

It is just like life.

And that realism is the thing that slowly wraps its arms around you and gives you a hug and promises warmth and comfort for a couple of hours.

Everything gets underway when the Stage Manager (an impeccable Laura Gordon) enters and pulls a street light off the stage, returns and graces all of us with her glorious and honest smile.

There is no fourth wall here. It is just her and all of us.

This play is called “Our Town.It was written  by Thornton Wilder; It’s directed by Brent Hazelton. The name of the town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire., just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes. The First Act shows a day in our town. The day is May 7, 1901. The titne is just before dawn . The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mountain. The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go doesn’t it?”

As we collectively nod our heads to answer her question we are off and strolling through Wilder’s humane and delicate look at the circle of life.”

In three acts we go from birth to life to death and all the little things that make up all of it. For Wilder life is a series of moments, decisions we make – big and small – that carve the pathway to where we are going.

The main characters in this story are two families,  Doctor Gibbs (Chiké Johnson), his wife (Elizabeth Ledo) and their teenage son George (DiMonte Hening and Mr. Webb (Matt Zambrano), his wife (R´åna Roman) and their daughter Emily (Cher Desiree Alvarez).

Dr. Gibbs is of the overworked town doctor whose wife wants him to take some time off as she runs the family with a well structured routine. Mr. Webb runs the town newspaper and is a keen observer of life in Grover’s Corners.”

Each of the characters in this play have their moments during the courtship of both George and Emily and how normal and natural it seems, despite small misgivings from family and shaky uncertainties by the two lovers.

It’s left to Mrs. Gibbs to sum up the entire normalcy of both the impending wedding and, perhaps the constant of life in her town.

“Yes, people are meant to go through life two by two. ‘Tain’t natural to be lonesome.”

For all it’s superficial simplicity, “Our Town” is a complex show to stage.

Hazelton, and his designers and actors, tackle all of those complexities with aplomb and a remarkable creative spirit that shows in every detail on display. Like life itself, it’s the little things that make this production so special, like the Foley effects of sound designer Barry G. Funderburg that gave us the squeak of a door and the patter of rain on the roof. 

The director found the dark corners of our world, corners that we hide in the simple avoidance of life. Just talk about the mundane and none of these characters ever has to face a reality far harsher than anyone is willing to recognize.

Ms. Gordon is a spectacular actor and she is joined on this stage by a panorama of stars from Wisconsin who have all taken on small roles in service of the play – James PIckering, Carrie Hitchcock, Jonathan Smoots, Jonathan Wainwright and a heartbreaking James Ridge as the town’s drunken choir director.

Mr. Wilder wrote this play that asks  all of us to examine our own lives for the little things we do that make the big things keep their distance. It’s a marvelous achievement that Hazelton and The Rep have staged marvelously.

PRODUCTION CREDITS: Director, Brent Hazelton; Scenic Designer, Scott Davis; Costume Designer, Rachel Laritz; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Sound Designer, Barry G. Funderburg; Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Casting Director Frank Honts; Stage Manager Kimberly Carolus.

 

Troubled teens try to talk Milwaukee into a good place at First Stage

Emily Harris, Jeffrey-Thomas Snow, Kai Liebenstein and Isaih Martin in Antarctica, WI. (Photo by Paul Ruffalo)

Theater companies like The Rep and First Stage have, over the recent years, developed a laudable commitment to sparking meaningful discussion about the city around them.

I am full of admiration for the leadership of those companies for their efforts and their allocation of resources, not just words, to helping solve at least some of the problems facing Milwaukee. They believe, as do I, that art can lead this world to a better place.

The latest entrant into this panorama of relevant and significant productions is “Antarctica, WI,” a play commissioned by First Stage and written by the famed playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer.

The play he came up with and the production from First Stage goes to the many  issues that plague this community. Itś about racism and homophobia, depression, suspicious relationships with police, poverty, generational gaps all set against the rude transition of their baseball field from a vacant lot to a not vacant lot. That transition is a metaphor for the diminishing number of possibilities and opportunities for young people who live in the central city.

Director Malkia Stampley and her team of designers and a wonderful cast of seven kids and four adults mke a wonderful attempt to have teenagers explain their hopes for themselves and their communities and, in a larger sense, for the city they call home.

Mr. Kruckemeyer spent hours and hours talking with and interviewing school children, reaching into the deeper places and souls of those children. What he came up with is something that those of us who have lived here for a long time already know – solutions are a complex matter.

As a terrific Emily Harris, one of a very talented – as well as diverse –  cast of actors, says, “the outrageous is not just one thing. It’s a lot of things.”

This is a wonderful opportunity for young people to see a play that speaks their language. I can’t imagine any failure to have a meaningful discussion after a family or a bunch of friends sees this show. Seeing this play is a demanding invitation to discussion. For everybody.

But the one problem I have with Mr. Kruckmeyerś play is the same problem I have with the historic efforts at bringing the races together in Milwaukee.

Too much talk. Not enough action.

There a couple of telling lines in the play that reflect the desire to have a smooth transition to peace.

One of the kids says ¨we have to act smart, but calm because that’s what changes things.¨

And a black cop who lives in the neighborhood says, ¨itś okay to be angry but not to act angry.¨

Ms. Stampley is one of the most talented and committed artists in this city. Her familial, civic and artistic roots run deep and she shares a profound faith that the arts can heal.

For almost a half a century I have been witness to, and participant in, a myriad of efforts to improve  Milwaukee. I have led discussion groups, staged extensive public hearings into a variety of initiatives and gone deep into good and bad neighborhoods, looking for answers.

And, after that half century, all we are left with is talk, talk and more talk.

In Mr. Kruckmeyer’s play he gives each of the kids a speech to explain what it is that is putting the pressure on them. I’d rather see what it is than have them just talk about it.

Many of the initiatives that might actually make a difference in our city have also died despite all of the good will and the good words.

The problem, I am convinced, is that it is the people of good will who keep coming up with, and trying to sell, programs and initiatives that might actually make a difference. To put it in blunt, and perhaps inaccurate terms, nobody talks to the “bad” people who are at the heart of the dysfunctional systems and neighborhoods. It’s always the “good and smart” people who think they know best.

I don’t know this for certain, but I guess that Kruckmeyer was steered to the “good schools” for his discussions with kids. He didn’t go hang out on street corners and wait for drug dealers or gangbangers to drive by.

I’m not privy to the process, but I bet it went something like this.

First Stage called some schools, mostly likely schools they were familiar with. They explained what they wanted to do. The principals, or someone at the school, chose a half dozen kids. Nobody picked the kid who disrupted class every day. The kid who was angry. The kid who got suspended over other week. Nobody called the “bad” kid.

There are, of course, no “bad kids.” There is only bad behavior.

But this idea of just calming things down and talking it out goes against the history of social change in this city and country.

Going back to the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War to Open Housing in Milwaukee, nothing happened until there was violence, or at least the threat of violence.

The Black Panthers armed themselves and patrolled the streets of Oakland to protect against police violence. Thousands of “peaceniks” roared through the streets, blew up buildings and ended a war.

And here at home, Father James Groppi formed the “Milwaukee Commandos” to protect marchers who were demonstrating for equal housing in the city.

I think the same thing needs to happen in Milwaukee. Negotiations and meetings and church lectures have not, and will not work.

I’m not saying that we need to have death, but we certainly need something much more than talking.

Perhaps, as Ms. Stampley and Mr. Kruckmeyer suggest, it will be the children who will lead us.

First Stage has a motto, “Transferring Lives Through Theater.” It’s not just words for them either. They put their money where their mouth is.

Let’s hope that kids doing art can, indeed, transform lives.

 

 

Important and Relevant “Top Girls” opens at Renaissance

Cassandra Bissell and Elyse Edelman in Top Girls

Women as the victims of men!

Donald Trump. Harvey Weinstein. Matt Lauer. Garrison Keillor.

The list of men accused of some form of harassment (mainly sexual) has trust women into a brave movement, “Me Too,” standing up to the victimization from powerful men.

That framework makes “Top Girls” by the brilliant Caryl Churchill even more relevant as it runs at Renaissance Theaterworks and running through the end of April.

Make no mistake about it, this play is not easy to sit through, with a complex cast of characters and a timeline that moves in a seemingly backward direction.

After seeing the sparkling production opening night and then reading the play, my recommendation is that rather than trying to make sense of who is who, it’s better to just listen to the words – to what one woman says to another.

Director Suzan Fete has a very difficult play to stage, but she has an abundance of very special tools, a cast of seven actors who bring experience, sensitivity and intelligence to their jobs – many of the actors playing more than one character.

The seven women who make up this cast are Libby Amato, Cassandra Bissell, Grace DeWolff, Elyse Edelman, Mary MacDonald Kerr, Karissa Murrell Meyers, Jenny Wanasek and Rachael Zientek.

The play opens with a fantasy sequence, a celebration lunch hosted by Marlene (Ms. Bissell) who has just been appointed managing director of the employment firm (Top Girls) where she has worked for years.

Here are the imagined guests at this celebration as taken from the script:

Isabella Bumn, (Ms. Wanasek) lived from 1831 to 1904 in Edinburgh and travelled extensively between the ages of 40 and 70.  

Lady NIJO (Ms. Murrell Myers), born in 1258 and was a Japanese emperor’s courtesan and later a Buddhist nun who travelled on foot through Japan.

Gret (Ms. Zientek)  is the subject of a Brueghel painting “Dulle Oriel” in which a woman in an apron and armour leads a crowd of women charging through hell and fighting devils.

Pope John (Ms. MacDonald Kerr) was disguised as a man and is believed to have been Pope between 854 and 856.

Patient Griselda (Ms. Wolff) is the obedient wife whose story is told by Chaucer in “The Clerk’s Tale” of the Canterbury Tales.

The lunch sets the theme for all of the story, six women, each with different stories, each having battled through men and been hurt by them, each competing with the others to have their story be the most important, vivid and memorable.

Watching the action on the stage, with women talking over each other, with small groups all talking at the same time,  my mind spun trying to follow the action. It’s clear that sisterhood is not always about equality as these women are just as capable of competition as men. 

Mary MacDonald Kerr as Pope John in Top Girls

The stories, though are riveting for a brutish truth relieved by some of the funniest dialogue you’ll ever hear.  Ms. MacDonald Kerr’s story of being a gender faking Pope, taking a chamberlain as a lover, getting pregnant, delivering a baby during a papal parade and being stoned to death rushed the audience with laugh after laugh after laugh.

I thought I was getting fatter, but then I was eating more and sitting about, the life of a Pope is quite luxurious. I don’t think I’d spoken to a woman since I was twelve. The chamberlain was the one who realized I was a woman. I didn’t want to pay attention. It was better to do nothing. JOAN. I didn’t know of course that it was near the time. It was Rogation Day, there was always a proces­sion. I was on the horse dressed in my robes and a cross was carried in front of me, and all the cardinals were following, and all the clergy of Rome, and a huge crowd of people./ We set off from St Peter’s to go to St John’s. I had felt a slight pain earlier, I thought it was something I’d eaten, and then it came back, and came back more often. I thought when this is over I’ll go to bed There were still long gaps when I felt perfectly all right and I didn’t want to attract attention to myself and spoil the ceremony. Then I suddenly realized what it must be. I had to last out till I could get home and hide. Then something changed, my breath started to catch, I couldn’t plan things properly any more. We were in a little street that goes between St Clement’s and the Colosseum, and I just had to get off the horse and sit down for a minute. Great waves of pressure were going through my body, I heard sounds like a cow lowing, they came out of my mouth. Far away I heard people screaming, “The Pope is ill, thope is dying.” And the baby just slid out onto the road. One of the cardinals said, “The Antichrist!” and fell over in a faint.  Then they took me by the feet and dragged me out of town and stoned me to death.”

Ms. MacDonald Kerr who has created magic on Milwaukee stages does it again, with her mitre wobbling on her head and her papal gowns aflow. It’s one of the funniest moments I’ve seen all season.

The opening scene sets the stage with a kind of confusion that left me breathless, but the real power came barreling on with the introduction of Marlene’s sister Joyce (Ms. Amato) and Angie (Ms. Edelman), the slow and dysfunctional daughter of Joyce.

There are surprises with these three and the final scene between the two sisters, one worldwise and the other world weary, has a force and brutal passion that made me hope for a merciless ending.

“Top Girls” is not an easy play to watch and it requires concentration, but it is everything a great play should be, smart, passionate and oh so relevant to the world we live in.

PRODUCTION CREDITS:  Director, Suzan Fete; Assistant Director, Ashlee Elder; Stage Manager, Veronica Zahn; Assistant Stage Manager, Bailey Wegner; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons; Scenic Designer, Stephen Hudson-Mairet; Projection and Assistant Scenic Design, Julie Algrim; Lighting Designer, Sarah Hamilton; Props Designer, Madelyn Yee; Costume Designer, Amy Horst; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Assistant Dialect Coach, Rick Pendzich; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner.

 

Gunderson Play at Next Act is Too Much Like an After School Special

Ibraheem Farmer and Cristina Panfilio in “I and You “at Next Act

The story of the boy from one neighborhood and the girl from another has long been the fodder for movies and plays and television shows.

Go back to “Cinderella” or, indeed, “Dirty Dancing” and you can see the attraction of the tales of young love developing from the most unexpected places.

That’s the problem with the play “I and You” by respected playwright Lauren Gunderson that is getting a great production at Next Act Theatre.

For 88 minutes of this 90ish minute play you might well be wondering to yourself what is so special about this play, which is among a raft of stories written by Gunderson. Since 2001 she has written 20 plays and is said to be the most produced living American playwright.

Next Act opened its season with her “Silent Sky,” a brilliant and and riveting production that examined the battle for women to participate and be successful in a man’s world.

The power and importance of that play is the polar opposite of “I and You” that seem to be an almost artificial confluence of polar opposites.

You have two high school seniors, Caroline (Cristina Panfilio) and Anthony (Ibraheem Farmer).

He’s black, loves poetry and Coltrane, plays basketball is worried about his grades and lives with a comforting nuclear family. She’s white, never reads poetry, loves Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, is stuck in her bedroom waiting for a liver transplant that may save her life, takes classes remotely and has a helicopter mother and a recently moved out father.

Anthony, previously unknown to Caroline, shows up surprisingly in her bedroom, complete with a kindergarten-like poster to accompany a report on Walt Whitman and his “Leaves of Grass.”  He has been paired with Caroline to do the report, which comes as a shock to her. Her mother has sent him to her daughter’s room as the report, and the accompanying poster exhibit, need to be turned in the next day.

He is met with a mixture of fear and anger and disgust when he just shows up in her room. Caroline hints and the volcano that lurks beneath her surface. Her explosions are met with both calm and exasperation by Anthony.

From then on it’s a series of little steps that bring them closer together.

Anthony: “Why are you so impossible?”

Caroline: “Because impossible makes a shitty life fun.”

Then…

Anthony: “How do you hate poetry?”

Caroline: “With verve.”

Then…

Anthony (reading from poem): This the touch of my lips to yours, this the murmur of yearning.”

Caroline: (She sinks into thought and has the first shudder of her own yearning and erotic spasm).

Then….

Caroline: Rules 1 through 4500. “Don’t be nice to me.”

Then….

Anthony: “I can’t pity you. I don’t even know you.”

Any good play develops its own sense of momentum, and this one is no exception. But instead of momentum covering new grounds this one seems to be running on a treadmill. It’s very funny in parts, but the humor seems almost like a series of disconnected jokes rather than something that moves the story along.

There are no “Oh, my God” moments in the first 88 minutes. Instead the initial schism between these two dwindles until that moment she gives him a peck on the check and he pauses before returning the kiss right on the lips.

Once we recover from the manipulation of this kiss, Ms. Gunderson throws a wicked curveball at us. But this is really a hanging curve destined to be hit for a home run by anyone who has paid attention through the previous 88 minutes.

Ms. Panifilio leads a heroic effort to try and rescue the play from the Disney produced after school special on the CW network.

She is a member of the Acting Company at American Players and has become one of my favorite actors in the state. Her turn last summer as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was one of those memorable performances you wish you could see over and over again.

Here she finds a range of emotion and expression that runs from the extreme of elation over “Great Balls of Fire,” complete with wild dance and air piano to a collapse on her bed in pain when she overdoes it. She is an actor of both great skill, character depth and attractiveness that it’s hard to take my eyes off her.

Mr. Farmer is burdened by the fact that he looks years younger than Ms. Panfilio. It’s hard to grasp that they are both high school seniors. No disrespect to Ms. Panfilion  here but her experience on stage shows.

Mr. Farmer has attraction to match but he doesn’t seem to have much depth until the near end of the play, and then he’s saddled with a script that seems more like a marathon binging of “The Young and the Restless” on a weekday afternoon than it does surprising and meaningful tale of kids being something more than kids.

While this play may have pretense to an ineffable search for connection between people it is more of a sentimental slog through an hour and a half of two kids who are only a little bit as interesting or surprising as  a couple as they are as individuals.

Production Credits: Director, David Cecsarini; Scenic Design, Rick Rasmussen; Lighting Design, Mike Van Dreser; Costume Design, Lyndsey Kuhlmann; Sound Design, David Cecsarini; Properties Design, Heidi Salter and Shannon Sloan-Spice; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Production Photos, Ross E. Zentner.