Surprise is the Story in Chamber’s Brilliant Production of “Lintel”

Elyse Edelman in “Underneath the Lintel” at Chamber Theatre

There is perhaps nothing in the world quite like a surprise. 

They come in all forms and in all manner, but the one thing that a great surprise has is that it makes you smile.

A surprise is different from a shock. Surprise is gentle and slow while a shock has all the subtlety of a hard slap across your face.

The reason that surprise has become the subject today is that the Glen Berger play, “Underneath the Lintel” has opened at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and it is a story that makes you appreciate how important a surprise can be in a life. 

The play is the story of a Dutch librarian (Elyse Edelman) whose task is to pick up the books left in the overnight box, check them back in, and levy fines for those that are overdue.

One box contains a copy of a Baedeker’s travel guide that had been checked out 113 years ago. Ms. Edelman is incredibly surprised by this ancient return and that surprise stimulates her into following a mysterious trail to find the answers to the questions surrounding this remarkable event.

This librarian, trapped in an unremarkable and mundane life, seizes on a deeply hidden and surprising curiosity to begin a journey that seduces the audience into joining her no matter where this trail leads.

And what a trail it is.

Using a flimsy excuse to her boss, she empties her meager bank account and takes off in search of…something. She faces one question as she sets out – who took this book out and how did it come back 113 years later. 

But as she moves from clue to clue and place to place, she finds the questions piling up and the answers remaining ever more elusive. 

From present day London her journey takes her back to the days of Christ and the tale of the Wandering Jew, the man who stood under his lintel as Christ passed by, asking for aid, but being denied. That denial, of course, cursed the Jew to a life of wandering the earth, unfulfilled. 

Brent Hazelton, the Artistic Director at Chamber, directed this production with a gentle hand that placed unlimited faith in Ms. Edelman, an actor of immense endowment. It takes immense courage and intelligence for a director to pull back and allow an actor in his charge to take off under her own wings and fly unburdened by second-guessing. Mr. Hazelton eloquently displays both that courage and intelligence.

As for Ms. Edelman, there are few words left unused to describe the thrall in which she always enwraps a story, a character and, most importantly, an audience. There is nothing that is too much for her, whether it be silly humor or searing drama. 

With the librarian, she creates a character with well defined layers. On one hand she is  dumpy and perpetually trapped in a vise of the ordinary. On the other hand she is passionate and dedicated to an unquenchable thirst that is a surprise, both to her and to all of  us watching this happen. 

This production is almost a perfect play for our time. For over a year we have all been trapped by an external force that seemed like a straightjacket. It has made us as lonely and sad as, say, a spinster Dutch librarian. 

As this play eloquently shows, all we need is the same thing that freed her from her bonds – a stunning surprise.

“Underneath the Lintel runs through May 2 and tickets are available at https://www.milwaukeechambertheatre.org.

Production credits: Director, Brent Hazelton; Stage Manager, Monique Barthel; Composer and Sound Designer, Josh Schmidt; Scenic Properties and Projection Designer, Madelyn Yee; Costume Designer, Austin Winter; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack. 

There is perhaps nothing in the world quite like a surprise. 

They come in all forms and in all manner, but the one thing that a great surprise has is that it makes you smile.

A surprise is different from a shock. Surprise is gentle and slow while a shock has all the subtlety of a hard slap across your face.

The reason that surprise has become the subject today is that the Glen Berger play, “Underneath the Lintel” has opened at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and it is a story that makes you appreciate how important a surprise can be in a life. 

The play is the story of a Dutch librarian (Elyse Edelman) whose task is to pick up the books left in the overnight box, check them back in, and levy fines for those that are overdue.

One box contains a copy of a Baedeker’s travel guide that had been checked out 113 years ago. Ms. Edelman is incredibly surprised by this ancient return and that surprise stimulates her into following a mysterious trail to find the answers to the questions surrounding this remarkable event.

This librarian, trapped in an unremarkable and mundane life, seizes on a deeply hidden and surprising curiosity to begin a journey that seduces the audience into joining her no matter where this trail leads.

And what a trail it is.

Using a flimsy excuse to her boss, she empties her meager bank account and takes off in search of…something. She faces one question as she sets out – who took this book out and how did it come back 113 years later. 

But as she moves from clue to clue and place to place, she finds the questions piling up and the answers remaining ever more elusive. 

From present day London her journey takes her back to the days of Christ and the tale of the Wandering Jew, the man who stood under his lintel as Christ passed by, asking for aid, but being denied. That denial, of course, cursed the Jew to a life of wandering the earth, unfulfilled. 

Brent Hazelton, the Artistic Director at Chamber, directed this production with a gentle hand that placed unlimited faith in Ms. Edelman, an actor of immense endowment. It takes immense courage and intelligence for a director to pull back and allow an actor in his charge to take off under her own wings and fly unburdened by second-guessing. Mr. Hazelton eloquently displays both that courage and intelligence.

As for Ms. Edelman, there are few words left unused to describe the thrall in which she always enwraps a story, a character and, most importantly, an audience. There is nothing that is too much for her, whether it be silly humor or searing drama. 

With the librarian, she creates a character with well defined layers. On one hand she is  dumpy and perpetually trapped in a vise of the ordinary. On the other hand she is passionate and dedicated to an unquenchable thirst that is a surprise, both to her and to all of  us watching this happen. 

This production is almost a perfect play for our time. For over a year we have all been trapped by an external force that seemed like a straightjacket. It has made us as lonely and sad as, say, a spinster Dutch librarian. 

As this play eloquently shows, all we need is the same thing that freed her from her bonds – a stunning surprise.

“Underneath the Lintel runs through May 2 and tickets are available at https://www.milwaukeechambertheatre.org.

Production credits: Director, Brent Hazelton; Stage Manager, Monique Barthel; Composer and Sound Designer, Josh Schmidt; Scenic Properties and Projection Designer, Madelyn Yee; Costume Designer, Austin Winter; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack. 

Marti Gobel holds master class in Renaissance’s “Neat”

The ladies are on a roll and there’s no stopping them.

With “Neat,” the Charlayne Woodword play just that opened at Renaissance Theaterworks, we are once again treated to a one-woman play that is just as thrilling as it is important.

“Neat” stars Marti Gobel in yet another towering performance that sets a standard in MIlwaukee that is virtually unmatched. This show follows on the theheels of the opening of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s “The Way She Spoke,” starring Michelle Lopez-Rios. So we now have two glorious one-woman shows playing at the same time.

And the thrills aren’t over yet. Seven years ago Chamber staged “Under the Lintel” with James Ridge playing the role of the Dutch librarian. Chamber is about to stage the play again, this time with the brilliant Elyse Edelman in the role, under the direction of Brent Hazelton. I can hardly wait.

But enough about the parade of wonderful women. Let’s get back to “Neat.”

Ms.Woodard wrote this autobiographical piece in the 90’s. It tells the story of her growth and the ties between her and her developmentally disabled aunt, called Neat.

The story opens with a touching and emotional tale of Neat as an infant. She is accidentally poisoned by a grandmother who is illiterate and unable to tell the difference between medicinal bottles. Neat is turned away at a white hospital, and by the time they arrive at a black hospital, the brain damage has been done. And she will forever be marked by this racism. 

With dozens of characters encountered on her journey, Ms.Gobel weaves a fascinating tapestry of the passage of a young girl in Savannah, GA, to being a grown up. From her little girl to her school days, settled into a Jewish community and school in Albany, NY, we watch the people and events that shaped Ms. Woodard’s life.

There are heart wrenching moments in this well-told tale, and moments of high humor, like when she becomes the high school boy, Charlie Bowman, who has all the right moves and decides to make Charlayne his high school girlfriend. 

We travel along as this girl also tracks her changes through her relationship with Neat. In the early going she is delighted in her aunt, but is put off later as she grows and Neat arrives to take up residence. 

Under the direction of Suzanne Fete, Ms. Gobel conducts a master class in acting. There is not a moment that is too much,nor a moment that is too little. She clearly understands how this story needs to be told and he gifts that understanding to the audience. 

“Neat” runs through April 11 and tickets are available at www.r-t-w.com

Production credits: Director, Suzanne Fete; Stage Manager, BaileyWegner; Technical Director, Tony Lyons; Lighting Designer Noelle Stollmack; Scenic Designer, Lisa Schlenker; Sound Designer, Chris Guse; CostumeDesigner, Amy Horst; Choreographer and Movement Director, Jayne Pink;Studio Gear Production Services, Kimberlee Beegs.

A Troubling and Powerful Production at Chamber Theatre

Michelle Lopez-Rios in “The Way SheSpoke” at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

The moment arrived so suddenly and vividly that it made me catch my breath.

Michelle Lopez-Rios turns into a grieving father and for two minutes he rails at his government for not helping to find his daughter who has been missing for over 4,000 days.

Her entire speech is in Spanish and I don’t speak a word of Spanish.

But I understood exactly what she said and it’s that ability of Ms. Lopez-Rios to slide fully into the skin of a man torn by his grief that marks the strength of “The Way She Spoke,” the Isaac Gomez play that just opened at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. 

This is a troubling play about a troubling true story – the steady and unfathomable murder of women over three decades in Juarez, the Mexican town just across the border from El Paso, the Texas home of Mr. Gomez.

It’s a play about the journey of a playwright to Juarez for research for a play he is writing. 

The setup has Mr. Gomez, accompanied by a friend who lives in Juarez, Blanca, embarking on a journey that is increasingly chilling in its discovery of the breadth and depth of this ongoing horror.

During the 80 minutes of this show Ms. Lopez-Rios slides between a stunning variety of characters, both herself as an actor reading the play of a friend, Mr. Gomez, and the playwright.

She also is a mother who has lost her daughter, the father, a murderer full of macho and, perhaps most horrifyingly,  a man surrounded by friends who calls Blanca out in the most profane ways as she stands at the counter of a small convenience store.

This production is a striking demonstration of the most sensitive kind of direction you could imagine.  The temptations for Lisa Portes when handed this olay, are many.

It would have been easy to use a wide variety of theatrical elements to hang heavily over this play, using lights and sound and images to enhance the structure of the play. 

But she wisely understood that in this particular case, less is more. Keep it simple and it is that simplicity that allows for the unstoppable pathway to the heart-stopping end. 

All of the surrounding elements, lights, sound, brilliant projections by Stephen Hudson-Mairet and costumes are, at their most obvious, only atmospheric. They are gentle arms that surround the body of the production, the center that is Ms.Lopez-Rios.

Doing a one woman play is a challenging task for both an audience and the actor who is performing. Ms. Lopez-Rios is marvelous in both her grasp of different characters and her dedication to the core of this horrible story. Watching her descent into the grasp of this butchery is both moving and mesmerizing which is exactly what it’s like watching this production. 

The Way She Spoke runs through April 11 and tickets are available at www.milwaukeechambertheatre. Org. 

Production credits: Additional voices: Amy Cruz,Liz Mary Hernandez; Stage manager, Briana J. Fahey; Production designer, JulieAhlgrim; Scenic and projection designer, Stephen Hudson-Mairet; Costume designer, Jasmin Aurora Medina; Lighting designer, Ellie Rabinowitz; Composer and sound designer, Christie Chiles Twillie; Production photographer, Paul Ruffalo; Videography and Editing, Studio Gear, Kimberly Beggs, LoganAllen, Derek Buggles.

Moving and Powerful “The Island” at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Sherrick Robinson and DiMonte Henning in The Island at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

One of the most moving moments in the discussion of race that I’ve ever seen is five years old. It was in the summer of 2015 when Barack Obama spoke at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the black preacher killed in a massacre at a church in Charleston, S.C.

Obama was strong and unequivocal when he talked about race. Toward the end of the eulogy he paused.

And with a plaintive and halting voice, he began to sing “Amazing Grace.” All alone. Just a president and a song and his belief. And before too long, the congregation joined in and the organist found the key the president was singing in and added that sound to the song.

At the end, he read the name of each victim followed by the phrase “found that grace.”

He might well have added the names of John and Winston, the two characters in the Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona play “The Island” that is running at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

The play takes place on an island, clearly Robben Island, the South African prison where Nelson Mandela was held along with many other black leaders who had fallen under the brutal thumb of apartheid.

For three years John and Winston have been cellmates. And like brave men everywhere, they have created a mix of fun and games to help them retain their sanity that is threatened every moment by the  callous and inhumane treatment by the guards.

They make up telephone calls to their homes. They toy with each other. And they plan on performing “Antigone” at the prison talent show. DiMonte Henning plays Winston and Sherrick Robinson plays John and we are greeted to them even before the play starts

 The two prisoners, under the watchful and threatening eyes of guards, each has a wheelbarrow and shovel, filling five heavy bags of sand.. They load the sand and then simultaneously walk around to the other side of the circle and unload it. Over and over and over. It is mind numbing work as well as a body breaking task.The pang of this task is amplified by the beat of sounds designed by Peter Goode. The audience moves to the edge of their seat, waiting for the axe to fall. 

Upon being returned to their cell, they are handcuffed together and forced to run in circles, ever faster and faster, spurred on by the shrill boatswain’s whistle of the guards.

But these two men have found solace, especially in the turbulent production of Sophacles’ Antigone. The play is about two brothers on opposite sides of a battle. They both die. The one who defended the state is buried with full honor. The other is forced into ignominy. Antigone, sister to both, buries her scandaled brother and is forced to stand trial for her offenses against the state. She pleads guilty but adds mitigating circumstances which is an eloquent speech of the need and courage of protests against injustice.

It is a not so subtle challenge from this play that raises the question of belief in a principle being more powerful than anything else. It was why these two men are in prison. It is why they have grown to be brothers.

In the end, it is honor that wins the day. John has his sentence commuted and is expected to be released in three months. He is both joyous but sentimental about this split. It’s as if we were married, he tells John.

The wait for his release is such a difficult period for both men. For them to say goodbye to each other and to their oppression is almost impossible to grasp. “Time passes so slowly when you’ve got something to wait for,” John says.

Some see this play in light of the current events of today with the insidious and frequent shooting and killing of black men, often by police, and the defenses offered by the state.

But it is also, I think, about much more than that. It sheds a light, not just on physical violence, but by the seemingly endless injustice we see day after day, year after year, against the black men who live in America. The protests against that injustice sometimes takes the form or behavior that runs against the norms of society but remains understandable as the only way to have a voice be heard.

That voice, is the voice of John and of Winston, two black men, suffering under the massive rock of public oppression, but finding ways to still stand tall. Johnson and Banks give powerful performances of almost incredible physicality combined with nuanced intellect.

“The Island” continues through March 28 as a virtual experience that is very well done and fels like being in the heatre. Information and ticckts are available at milwaukeechangertheatre.org

Breathtaking Rep Production Brings Live Theater Back

Forget Pfizer and Moderna. Forget the FDA and Warp Speed.

Under the gentle guidance of Mark Clements, The Rep has delivered a vaccine that protects against an exhausted spirit, a lonely heart and lingering fear about what lies on the road ahead.

Thanks to a spectacular combination of brilliance, “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol”  has reminded all of us why we love live theater and why it is so important in the life of a city.

The thrill of live theater is in being no longer alone. Sharing space and experience for two hours out of your life. Being a participant in what happens on the stage. Becoming part of a story.

In his 10 years as The Rep’s Artistic Director, Mr. Clements has created many memorable productions that rival anything you could see in Chicago, Los Angeles or, yes, even on Broadway.

But this may well be his crowning achievement so far.

Since March theater companies have struggled to survive, to practice their art, to deliver. I have seen any number of “virtual” productions which had varying degrees of success. 

But this….this breathtaking event…sets a standard that calptures life on a high wire and there is no danger of falling. 

This is a one actor play with Milwaukee favorite Lee E. Ernst playing Marley, Scrooge and a dozen or so other roles. He is accompanied by Dan Kazemi who is the Foley artist. Named after a sound effects artist, Jack Foley, the task is to provide the sounds. 

And what sounds they are. Pages turning, coins in a pocket rattling, chains rattling as well, thunder, lightning, wind and dozens of other sounds that often fill out the pantomime on the stage.

Chicago playwright Tom Mula wrote “Marley” and it’s the story of The Christmas Carol told through the eyes of Jacob Marley. Marley is dead and in hell for the life he lived on earth. But, like all good Charles Dickens works, Marley is faced with a task that will take him back to London and find him tethered to an assistant who guides his redemption.

Mr. Clements, as he always does, assembled a cast of designers who created settings, costumes, lights and sounds. And then he partnered with Chicago’s HMS Media, a company that specializes in creating online versions of live productions,

HMS has an enviable record of work, including a number of Emmy awards. And the company brought out all its big guns for this production. 

As the play moved through its paces, I struggled to come up with a word for what it was. Not a movie. Not a television show. After a good night’s sleep, I finally got it.

This was live theater. Mr. Clements staged a play, the same way he has staged plays throughout his distinguished career.

The medium may have been different, but the play was as real as it could be. 

How real, you ask?

My wife and I watched it on my computer, sitting at my desk in my office.

When it came to an end, we both stood up and applauded. 

Cast: Lee E. Ernst
Dan Kazemi

Production credits: Director, Mark Clements; Scenic Designer, Arnold Bueso; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tacoma; Sound Designer, Andre J. Pleuss; Dialect Coach, Gale Childs Daly; Production Associates, Kimberly Carolus, Becca Lindsey; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow. “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” streams through Dec. 24. Tickets are available at www.milwaukeerep.com.

Conversations: Tracy Michelle Arnold and Marcus Truschinski, actors at American Players Theatre

Milwaukee and Wisconsin are home to dozens and dozens of wonderful theater artists, some who appear on stage and others who work behind the scenes.

Each of them has a set of skills and experiences that bring so much enjoyment into our lives. These conversations are designed to get to know them a little better and get to know about those things that make their work so memorable.

Conversations: David Bonofiglio, music director

Milwaukee and Wisconsin are home to dozens and dozens of wonderful theater artists, some who appear on stage and others who work behind the scenes.

Each of them has a set of skills and experiences that bring so much enjoyment into our lives. These conversations are designed to get to know them a little better and get to know about those things that make their work so memorable.

Virtual Reality is a Virtual Distraction in Renaissance’s “Belonging

At its very essence, theater is about words.

Someone writes words. Someone says the words. And someone hears the words.

If the words aren’t there, not much can be done to salvage a play. 

And an important thing to remember about words is that you don’t want to let anything get in the way of those words.

All this by way of discussing a trio of short plays unveiled by Renaissance Theaterworks. The plays, all by playwrights of color, were groups under the heading “Belonging.” As Renaissance says in the press release:  All three of these visually stunning theatrical gems attempt to  define “Who Belongs?”

The answer, unfortunately, is that none of what Renaissance has put forward belongs anywhere except out of sight and out of mind. The problems with this disjointed production stem not from the words.

But the production of these three plays shows how difficult it is to try and create a virtual world that enhances the human experience. 

Renaissance has for over a quarter of a century provided woman focused theater that is as high class as any company in town. Their production of “The Ballad of Emmitt Till” several years ago still ranks as one of the best plays I’ve ever seen in Milwaukee. 

Virtual Reality is an effect that uses projected environments to generate realistic images as well as other sensations that place the user in this virtual environment. 

According to the credits for these three plays, a company known as The Outer Loop Theater Experience is responsible for the virtual realities in these three plays.

Let’s start at the top with “The Winged Man” by José Rivera.This is the story of a young Latina who finds herself pregnant by a winged man who either is or isn’t a figment of her imagination.

The virtual reality is so phony that it totally distracts from whatever message the play may have. The play opens with a shot that could be from a drone as it sails over mountains and fields to finally end up in a cave where the girl and the winged man are. It is so preposterous looking that I was immediately put off and disinterested in what was coming.

At one point the scene had the girl sitting in a tree – again virtually – and it looked like a video game designed by a second grade class that was just learning how to code.

The wonkiness of the virtual reality caused all movement to be jittery and unrealistic that there was no hope of catching on to the magical reality of Mr. Rivera’s play.

The second play was “Poof” by the acclaimed Lynne Nottage, the only woman to have won two Pulitzer prizes for her work. The story focuses on a woman – a victim of abuse – whose husband spontaneously explodes into a pile of ashes during an argument. 

The problems here had less to do with a virtual reality and more to do with actual reality.There was a pile of ashes on the kitchen table that didn’t look like a pile of ashes until somebody said it was a pile of ashes. It looked like nothing more than one of those speaker phones that are the centerpiece of office conference room tables. 

There is a gem of something worthwhile in Ms. Nottage’s play and the cast made grand attempts to catch the gem. But like movies, acting for a screen needs to be subtle and dialed back from the level you need in live theater. The  message did not get through. 

The final play was “All of Everything” by Alayna Jacqueline.

This was the perfect example of how amateur virtual reality can absolutely ruin professional real reality (if there is such a phrase).

The story featured two of the best actors in Wisconsin, Malkia Stampley and Chike Johnson. They are husband and wife and in this short production they play a young couple. The story follows them as they discuss their dreams for growing old together and the benchmarks that come along, children, weddings, new jobs, etc.

All of this story is told under the subtle threat of impending violence against a young black man by police.

It’s a powerful story, but is so cheapened by virtual reality tricks that I felt cheated out of the impact this story should have had.

Ms. Jacqueline’s story would have been told much more powerfully if Mr. Johnson and Ms. Stampley was seated on stools, side by side, with a black backdrop and just talked to the camera. 

I have immense admiration for Renaissance trying to highlight the works of populations underserved in the world of theater. I just wish they had dialed back to gimmicks and stuck with the words.

After all, words are the essence of theater.