2019-20 Theater Season Full of Promise and Excitement

The first production of the year for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre is the traditional start to the season in Milwaukee, and it’s just a couple of weeks away with the promise of some exciting developments.

Chamber will open with the frequently produced farce, “Unnecessary Farce,” by Paul Slade Smith. Complete with twisted identities and a total of eight doors, the play has gotten rave reviews around the world.

Anytime you have cast that includes Jonathan Gillard Daly, Jenny Wanasek and Rick Pendizch you know you are in for an evening of fun.

The play marks the start of the final season of the renowned C. Michael Wright who is retiring after 15 years as Artistic Director. Wright has an enviable record and he’ll be replaced by Brent Hazelton, the talented former Associate Artistic Director at The Rep.

Close on the heels of Chamber’s opening will be the American classic, “West Side Story” directed by The Rep’s Artistic Director Mark Clements. When he sinks his teeth into one of these classic musicals (see Man of La Mancha in 2016) Mr. Clements can deliver theatrical magic. 

It’s kind of like a perfect trifecta – a beloved show, the season opener and Mr. Clements and his musical mastery. They could run this for six months and never have an empty seat. 

There have been a number of off-season changes and developments that are going to have an impact on the season.

Perhaps the biggest news was the closing of In Tandem, the 21-year labor of love for Chris and Jane Fleiller who rana company in a lovely spot on Tenth Street. They produced memorable works like as good a “Glass Menagerie” I’ve ever seen and a take on “The Fantasticks” that was a joy to behold. 

The couple got tired, I’m sure, of the constant struggle for financial survival that is common to all small theater companies. But, as they say, when one door closes …etc.

Mrs. Fleiller has landed at David Cecsarini’s Next Act Theatre as the development director. Her expertise in the non-profit sector will be a boon to Next Act.

Mr. Cecsarini’s welcome mat has also lured the women from Renaissance Theaterworks, who are moving from their home at the Broadway Theater Center to Next Act, not this season, but the next. 

The two companies stress that they are not combining artistic tasks but just space. These are two of the most exciting and adventurous theater companies in this city and I’d be willing to bet that synergies will develop between the two that will provide even more thrills on Water St. 

The other big news is that Skylight Music Theater has hired Michael Unger as the new Artistic Director, replacing the retiring Ray Jivoff. 

Mr. Unger has an impressive resume as a director and associate artistic director at The York Theatre Company in New York. He has also created an enviable record as an educator and has a deep belief in the ability of the arts to help heal communities. 

He has done admirable work in Newton, CT, the site of the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook. He is the Producing Artistic Director of NewArts in Newtown, Conn., which he started with a local father in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. NewArts brings the children of Newtown together with Broadway professionals to present high-level performing arts productions as a way to build confidence, foster creativity, and give children tools for their future. 

Mr. Unger has an avowed affection for helping to nurture new and underperformed works, and it’s likely that he will exercise that viewpoint when he takes the helm at Skylight.

It might do well to remember the tenure of Viswa Subbarraman who spent four years directing the Skylight and walking a tightrope between the traditional musicals that the audience had come to expect and love, and cutting edge new and underperformed works. The lack of enjoyment from part of the audience and the board  of the second part of the philosophy led, in part, to his departure from Milwaukee. 

There is a fine line between critical acclaim and audience approval at times and hopefully Mr. Unger will be able to navigate that with ease.

Finally, when you look at the planned shows for the season it’s amazing how rich the panorama of choices will be. Having said that, there are a few shows that are already getting highlighted on my calendar. 

The parade is led by the Renaissance staging of the Samuel Beckett play, “Happy Days.” The production, directed by the brilliant Marie Kohler will feature two of the most brilliant actors in Milwaukee, Laura Gordon and Todd Denning. The role of Winnie has been described as Hamlet for women and a summit role to any actor’s career and I can hardly wait to see Ms. Gordon in this one. 

Adam Bock wrote a great play, “A Small Fire,” and Mr. Cecesarini will direct a powerhouse cast of Mary Macdonald Kerr, Jonathan Smoots and a returning Emily Vitrano, at Next Act. This is a searing look at a woman on the edge and the relationships that surround her. 

The Rep may have West Side Story but Skylight opens with the classic,  “Oklahoma.” And then comes “Newsies” which will be directed by the always inventive Molly Rhode with costumes from the always creative Jason Orlenko. 

Mr. Wright, who has been at the helm of Chamber for 15 years, is going out with a bang. Beside the first show of “Unnecessary Farce,” the company will stage the troubling “Fires in the Mirror” With Marti Gobel and Elyse Edelman playing a total of 26 roles. Ms. Gobel teamed with Angela Iannone for “Twilight Los Angeles,” a similar play also by Anna Deveare Smith, three years ago and this outing should be riveting. 

And Chamber also brings back the always delightful Jeeves series with Matt Daniels reprising his performance in “Jeeves at Sea.” Beside Mr. Daniels the cast features Chris Klopatek, Josh Krause, Diane Lane, Michael Stebbins and the return, after a year in Asia, of Kathryn Haausman, one of the most delightful young actors in the city.

I’m also looking forward to First Stage’s staging of “The Wings of Mariposa,” written by Alvar Saar Rios, the brilliant playwright from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. His play “Luchadora” has been one of the best at First Stage in recent years and this bilingual outing holds great promise. 

One company is missing and every year Milwaukee Opera Theater stages something that takes my breath away. The company doesn’t list its season, so I’ll just be patient.

That’s a brief look at the coming season that opens Aug. 10. It’s a season full of promise of both outstanding performances and some surprises that make the Milwaukee theater scene the special place it is.


A Kiss Me Kate with sizzle at Skylight

When I grow up, or come back in another life,  I want to be Andrew Varela.

Mr. Varela is really handsome, really sexy, a really wonderful actor and a really wonderful singer.

Mr. Varela’s wife is Susan Spencer who is really beautiful, really sexy,  a really wonderful actor and a really wonderful singer

Finally, Mr. Varela’s current playmate is Rona Roman who is really beautiful, really sexy,  a really wonderful actor anda really wonderful singer.

See a pattern here?

You will, certainly, if you see “Kiss Me Kate” running at Skylight Music Theatre. You’ll be treated to almost three hours (there is a 20 minute intermission) of clever writing, some great songs and performances that are full of moments of sophisticated comedy that could only be delivered by Cole Porter who wrote this over five decades ago.

“Kate” is a look at Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” through a kaleidoscope in the clutches of a merry band of singers, dancers and actors, all under the spirited directorial guidance of Ray Jivoff, the the superlative Artistic Director who is retiring from Skylight after the run of “Kate.”

The story is familiar.

It’s about a theater troupe that is staging “Shrew” in a small theater in Baltimore. This is a show that will certainly never make its way to Brioadway.

Fred (Mr. Varela) and Lili (Ms. Roman) are the two leads, Petruchio and Katharine. In real life they are ex-husband and wife, both torn and connected by a tempestuous sizzle. From the earliest moments, the audience knows that these two belong together despite the fury of their constant personal Armageddon.

They engage in adjoining dressing rooms and the action is a parallel to what happens when they get on stage as Shakespeare’s two characters who are decidedly toxic in a world where the Me Too movement has such a profound impact on our lives.

Petruchio wants Kate but she is not the least bit interested. He pounds her with starvation and psychological bullying that are staged, thankfully, with good humor. Kate eventually responds with a beat down of her own.

The riotous beatdown she delivers to Petruchio and his respondent paddling of her bottom, were perfectly staged by fight director Christopher Elst. It’s a difficult task but one that was grippingly realistic and funny.

Mr. Varela and Ms. Roman are a stunning couple on the Cabot stage. The roller coaster of their relationship is the kind of magic that makes live theater such a glorious experience. They are sultry alone and absolutely sizzling together.

The remainder of the cast is uniformly solid, with singing and dancing that surround the two stars with bright moments shared by just about everyone on the stage.

Two of Milwaukee’s finest comedic actors, Doug Jarecki and Kelly Doherty, pair up for a couple of the funniest gangsters you will ever see. Along with the always gifted Jonathan Gillard Daly in two roles, they lead with a level of performance that helps carry the whole show.

For 30 years, Mr. Jivoff has been a part of Skylight and has always brought a puckish frolic to performing, directing and administering. The Milwaukee theater community will be poorer without his constant presence but it would come as no surprise to see him make an occasional appearance onstage.

In his own typical fashion, he is going out with a bang with this production of “Kate.”

Production credits: Stage Director, Ray Jivoff; Music Director, Kurt Cowling; Choreographer, Amy Brinkman; Scenic Designer, Robert Little; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Lighting Designer, Craig Zemsky; Sound Designer, Adam, Seaman; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Ross Zentner.

“Trains” a brilliant August Wilson production at The Rep

“Two Trains Running” at The Rep captures all that August Wilson has to say.

A big part of the charm of the works of August Wilson is how very ordinary his characters are, and that’s never been more true than in “Two Trains Running,” running at The Rep now.

Set in a diner in The Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh – home for the powerful Pittsburgh Cycle – Trains grabs hold of a universal black experience and shakes it until all the leaves and fruits from this particular tree fall to the ground.

The ambitious ten-play Cycle traces the black experience through ten decades, telling the stories not with the soaring language and emotional punch of the black power movement but rather with a look deep into the soul of black people told through ordinary, everyday ambitions and  frustrations.

Memphis (Raymond Anthony Thomas)runs a diner that used to be a hectic hub for neighborhood sustenance and gossip. But the building Memphis owns is slated for demolition to pave the way for reimagined “development” guided by the city. His quarrel with the city involves how much the city is offering for the building and how much Memphis thinks it’s really worth.

The focus on money, desired and promised, runs through the play.

Sterling (Chiké Johnson) is just released from the penitentiary after serving five years for robbing a bank. He need a job and money, to live and to gamble with, hoping for the easy win and the big promise.

West (Doug Brown) is the funeral director has lots of money and is continually scheming to get more. He’s got seven Cadillacs and a flourishing business and is trying to buy the dinner with a cut-rate offer.

Wolf (Jefferson A. Russell) is a numbers runner who uses the diner as his office, complete with pay phone where he takes orders from the hopeful who are playing the lottery.

Then there is Holloway (Michael Anthony Williams) a neighborhood wise man, who has the key to getting wishes filled (the unseen Aunt Audrey) and who comments/explains/approves/disapproves on both motivations and actions of neighborhood. Holloway is the holder of the Aunt Audrey secret and acts as her off-site agent.

Throw into this mess the daily visit from Hambone (Frank Britton) driven almost insane by his nine and a half year search for a ham he thinks a storekeeper owes him fo painting a fence. “He won’t give me my ham,” wails Hambone, over and over. He’s made his pitch every day for nine and a half years and is as regular as the clock ticking inexorably on the wall.

Reigning over this testosterone charged gathering is Risa (Malkia Stampley) a complicated waitress/cook at the diner who is torn by debilitating doubt and bolstered by unbridled confidence all at the same time.

Mr. Wilson’s play is full of monologues from each of the characters, speeches that define the indefinable hopes that live deep in their souls.

West guards his money. Memphis wants money for his building. Holloway needs money to play the numbers. West handles the money. Sterling wants quick money, the easy way.

If you are beginning to sense a theme here, congratulations. It’s a theme.

Risa is the most interesting and oddly balanced character in the play.

She has cut her legs, disfiguring them, as a barrier to unwanted attention from men. She maintains a perfectly satisfied life of solo control over her life and has pledged her fear and determination to avoid all men.

But Ms. Stampley has created a well-rounded Risa and we suspect that there are layers underneath that all that solemnity.

Like most of Mr. wilson’s works, this one relies on the interchange between members of the ensemble. There are no stars or leading actors here. There are seven skilled and brilliant actors flourishing under the direction of Timothy Douglas.

The Rep has staged six of the plays in Mr. Wilson’s American Century Cycle and it’s a fervent hope that the other four will soon find spots on the schedule. The Milwaukee company his a dedicated commitment to diversity in programming and a commitment to Mr. Wilson would fit well in that mission.

Production credits: Director, Timothy Douglas; Scenic Designer, Tony Cisek; Costume Designer, kara Harmon; Lighting Designer, Michael Gilliam; Composer/Sound Designer, Matthew M. Nelson; New York Casting, Stephanie Klapper, CSA; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager Kimberly Carolus’ Production Photographer, Mikki Schaffner.

Just an ordinary family at the heart of extraordinary Next Act Production

The Cain Family at Next Act’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible

Many productions in the theater ask that an audience sit back, relax and enjoy what is about to transpire on the stage before them.

And then there are the rare plays that demand that you sit forward in  your seat and pay close attention.

They are not simple. They take work.

That’s the new play at Next Act Theatre, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, written by Jesuit priest Bill Cain.

The conceit of the play is that the Bible is not a book of rules but, rather, the story of a family. This family – the Cain family –  is introduced by the youngest son, Bill, who is a priest. If it sounds like this is autobiographical, it should. Almost at the beginning, Bill tells the audience that a writer – any writer – should “write what he knows.”

And Cain the playwright knows his stuff on this one, and is unabashed sharing the joys, sorrows and truths and lies of his family life. But unlike so many “family” dramas, this one is not chock full of explosive crises.

This one is about how very extraordinary the ordinary can be if you face it with honesty, courage and a little bit of humor.

Bill (Jack Dwyer) returns to his home in Syracuse to care for his ailing and widowed mother Mary (Carrie Hitchcock) who calmly facing the fact that her life is coming to an end.

Told in fragments that jump around from time to time and place to place, the story unfolds slowly, dragging you into the aura of this very normal family. The aura is full of so many things that strike a familiar chord.

Children worrying about how to care for their parents. Love between siblings, tempered by occasional jealousies. Longing for a mate gone far too early. Memories of times good and times bad.  Some tears and some smiles, sometimes in the same moment. And, even with all the people who float in and out, at the heart the four individuals who make up this family.

This production, directed by David Cecsarini, rests on the shoulders of four actors and this could well be a master class.

Mr. Dwyer is new to Next Act and he has the smooth little brother part down cold. He’s careful and gentle with his mother despite the challenges she presents. There are moments when he is a grudging caregiver but in his heart he knows that duty calls and he’s going to answer.

Ms. Hitchcock brings an intense focus to Mary, creating a woman who misses her past but who faces both her present and future with a kind of peaceful aplomb that combined resignation, hope and inevitability. Her variety of faces, moods and movements are unmatched.

Jonathan Wainwright as the older brother is a presence with a steely outside shielding an uncertain and complex heart and mind. Mr. Wainwright, whos acting career continues to grow to heights, has a brilliance about him that allows him to range from an enticing Scrooge to a troubled Mercutio to a sensitive Tim in The Good Father. A production with Mr. Wainwright always delivers everything that an audience could wish for.

And finally, there is Norman Moses as Mary’s husband, Pete.

Mr. Moses has a range as broad as any actor in Wisconsin and that range is on full and vibrant display here.

Not only is he Pete, but he is a physical therapist, a doctor, a nurse, a friend named Paulette and a couple of other characters.

When he plays a woman, there is no impersonation attempt. Instead a fick of a wrist and a cock of a head is more than enough to know that this man has suddenly switched gender right in front of our eyes. Mr. Moses is the kind of actor I could watch every single night of the year and always be both surprised as I fall in love with yet another character.

Over he six years since Bible premiered there have been subtle criticisms of the depth of the autobiographical nature of Cain’s play.

There may have been some caution in other productions, but under the wise and brilliant direction of Mr. Cecsarini, this one is an evening well spent, as long as you are willing to give in to the moment.

Production credits: Director, David Cecsarini; Scenic Design, Rick Graham; Lighting Design, Noele Stollmack; Costume Design, Amy Horst; Sound Design, David Cecsarini; Properties Design, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Production Photos, Ross Zentner.

Renaissance weaves magic in Annie Jump

Reese J Parish and Rachael Zientek in Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven

Two girls walk into a bar, one is a 13-year old science genius the other one, your typical Valley Girl,  is also a “ visual manifestation of a mindful of an intergalactic super computer built and maintained by a collection of the most advanced intelligent species in the universe.”

If it sounds like one of those familiar “walks into a bar” jokes, forget it.

In truth it is the setup for Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven, a Brink Festival winner by Reina Hardy getting a world premiere treatment at Renaissance Theaterworks.

Ms. Hardy is a young prolific Chicago playwright who is known for the themes of magical phantasmagorica in her works, and Annie fills that bill. It’s a play that is slightly uneven but full of some wonder, fantasy and a lot of laughs.

Reese J Parish plays Annie, a 13 year old science whiz who lives in Strawberry, Kansas

“I’m Annie Jump, and this whole story is about me.

I’m thirteen years old, I’m about to go to high school in the fall, and I’ve lived in Strawberry, Kansas for most of my life. My mom is from Chicago, but she’s dead now. I don’t miss her at all. I’m not mean or anything, I just don’t remember.

It’s not easy being a teenage science genius in a small town, especially when your dad believes in aliens. I try to take comfort in the thought that, even if he was totally and completely normal, no-one would like me anyway.

I mean, I have a 185 IQ, I got a perfect score on the SATs- last year, I put a hard boiled egg into orbit. Do you think there’s anything I could do to prevent Peter Stockholm and his cronies from stealing my gym shorts, besides being totally and completely someone other than me? Didn’t think so.”

Into Annie’s life comes self-described sophomore computer nerd KJ (Jarrod Langwinski) who is alternately infatuated with and intimidated by  Annie. She wastes no time or effort putting him in his place and he slinks off.

Moments after Annie introduces herself to the audience she is joined, as if from a puff of smoke, by a woman with a shockingly glorious mop of curly hair, wearing a frilly summer dress and a smile that says “I know a heck of a lot more than you’ll ever know.”

It’s Althea, played by a once-again spectacular Rachael Zientek, who turns this obvious outer space mystery into a classic Valley Girl complete with OMG’s, run on sentences and that kind of whine that either makes you smile or makes your skin crawl.

Althea tries to convince a skeptical Annie that she is truly from another world and that Annie has been designated as “the chosen one” who will hold close all the knowledge in the world.

It’s a cute story but has some drag in it, primarily because of the complexities of the number of stories being told, of the questions that need to be answered.

Is Annie’s dad crazy? Is Althea really from outer space? Is Annie going to move to Chicago? Are her grandparents going to sue her dad again trying to gain custody of Annie? Is the faxed promise of an alien landing in Hamlin’s real or a prank? And will KJ apologize if it’s a prank? Will Annie move to Chicago? Will Annie and KJ grow closer and cooperate? Is Annie’s dad going to die?

The play, under the humorous direction of the always-brilliant Pam Kriger, moves along at a good pace, especially in the scenes between Annie and Althea but it seems to drag when it drops into an exploration of other issues.

Having said that, it’s only 75 minutes long and the overwhelming majority of those minutes are full of laughs, magical mystery  and fascination.

Production credits: Director, Pam Kriger; Technical Director Anthony Lyons; Scenic and Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Props Master, Jordan Stanek; Sound Design & Original Composition, Josh Schmidt; Costume Design, Misti Bradford; Motion Design, John Fischer; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner.

The American story gets spectacular Johnny Cash treatment at The Rep

A huge slice of musical Americana is on full and stunning display in the intimate confines of the Stackner Cabaret at The Rep.

It’s “Ring of Fire,” a remounting of the 2013 hit show staged at the Stackner, but this time with a more powerful, skilled and emotionally moving cast.

A musical tribute to the long road to becoming an icon for Johnny Cash, warts and all, who lived a life that fit the Vince Lombardi quote of “it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down. What matters is how many times you get back up.”

Right now there is no better way to spend two hours as part of “Ring of Fire” which at turn will make you laugh, think and cry.

This cast of five actors/musicians is one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. They all seem to take turns playing all of the instruments that are on this sate, including guitar, banjo, ukelele, bass, harp, autoharp, drums and even spoons and tin cups.

The sheer brilliance of these musicians takes your breath away as they combine to take you on this particularly American journey. The five performers are Alex Keiper, James David Larson, Kent M. Lewis, Corbin Mayer and Paul Wyatt.

Mr. Lewis is the centerpiece as the Johnny Cash at the height and end of his career. Mr. Corbin takes center stage as the young Mr. Cash and Ms. Keiper fashions a gloriously delightful June Carter Cash.

Mr. Lewis has both the gravitas and the sarcastic humor that marked so much of Mr. Cash’s music. His work is not an impression, but it’s evocative of one of the most distinctly unique voices in country music.

He perfectly captures the playfulness in “Five Feet High and Rising,” the story of a flood of the cotton fields where the Cash family was raised and from which a guitar was the oar that rowed Mr. Cash out of a drowning flood of poverty.

He smoothly switches to the bitter weight of “Man in Black,” a very personal song that eloquently defines Mr. Cash’s view of the world around him. Mr. Wyatt is mesmerizing both in his focused communication with the audience and the personal interplay with the other members of the cast.

A perfect example of the kind of man Mr. Wyatt portrayed can be seen in the video below of the final performance of Mr. Cash which took place at a large wooden structure near Hiltons, VA., the center of life for the famed Carter family.

The final live performance of Johnny Cash, Sept. 13, 2003, two months before he died at 71.

Mr. Lewis did not deliver the only memorable performance from this extraordinary production that bore the distinct gracious touch of Rep Associate Artist, director and music director, Dan Kazemi. Mr. Kazemi regularly brings his brilliance to Rep musicals.

Mr. Larson is incredibly moving with “Delia’s Gone,” as song Mr. Cash recorded after looking for another murder song to follow his famous “Folsom Prison Blues” with the line, I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”

The most emotional night came from Mr. Mayer performing a stripped down “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Written by a y oung and broke Kris Kristofferson is often seen as Mr. Cash’s confession of his drug and alcohol use. However, the song was the brainchild of Mr. Kristofferson and only recorded after he landed a helicopter on Mr. Cash’s lawn and forced a demo tape into his hand. Sunday Morning was one of the songs on the tape the other was “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Mr. Kazemi understands that the centerpiece of this production needs to be the music and he let’s that happen, with a bare bones story filling in the gaps around the music.

And it’s the music that carries the audience along on the wings of a true American hero and invites the audience along for the ride.

Production credits: Director and Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer, Michelle Lily; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tacoma; Lighting Designer, Aimee Hanyzewski; Sound Designer, Barry G. Funderburg; Choreographer, Stephanie Card; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Richelle Harrington Calin.

Important and Spectacular “Carmina Burana” at Skylight

Here’s how cool it is to go to the theater.

I had just finished watching a production that had no story, unusual sounds, not a syllable of dialogue, dozens of characters all without names and sung in a foreign language or two that I don’t speak and it lasted just seconds over an hour.

And I found myself absolutely in love with the whole thing and while the production is complex, the Why I loved it is simple.

Everybody on the stage let me know that what they were doing was important, with a capital I.

The event was opening night of “Carmina Burana” at Skylight Music Theatre.

Before arriving – totally unfamiliar with this thing – I discovered it was written in the middle of the last century by Carl Orff, who called it a composition of “secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung with instruments and magical images.”

I couldn’t even figure out what that meant.

But leave it to the fertile and sometimes freaky mind of Jill Anna Ponasik to take something like Burana and turn it onto its head and offer it up on a solid golf plate for even a commoner like me to enjoy.

Ms. Ponasik runs the Milwaukee Opera Company  and is an Associate Artistic Director at Skylight. She is the woman who has brought us dazzling and memorable productions about a monkey, a cracked version of “The Mikado,” another no dialogue piece based on a life of a woman adventurer nobody has ever heard of an a story about friendship that was performed in a bookstore.

Let us make no mistake about “Carmina Burana.” Although there was plenty of help, most notably from Music Director Janna Ernst and Choreographer Dani Kuepper, this was the brainchild of Ms. Ponasik.

And Thank God.

This production is a seductive assault on your senses.

The music comes from two pianos six percussionists under the exquisite baton of Benjamin Bedroske, the Chant Claire Chamber Choir which added its voices from the top boxes of the intimate Cabot Theatre.

Ms. Kuepper brought along a handful of friends from Danceworks, where she is the Artistic Director, all dressed in shade sf grey, except for a momentary slide into a slinky red dress for Danceworks veteran the freshly shorn Cristal Wagner. Ms. Wagner danced a deductive pas de deux with tattooed tenor Tim Rebers, who sang while she danced.

And then there were the singers.

Ms. Ernst and Assistant Music Director Maggie Rebers (the two pianists as well) took this cast of musical marvels to places that seemed almost heavenly.

Ranging from veteran baritone Bob Balderson to a five young performers, the took the stage as ensembles of various combinations and as soloists to deliver dramatic, comedic and mysterious songs that were always gripping.

There were magical moments, including “Once I Swam in Lakes,” featuring one of my all time favorite Milwaukee singers, Nathan Wesselowski. Plus the fact that his talented young daughter, Lorelei was in the same show with her dad, was extra special.

The score might have been translated into English, but they wisely decided not to bother, but to let the power of the music and the voices carry the day.

Sets by Lisa Schlenker were simple and the always magical lighting by Jason Fassl was a performance all by itself.

The only concession to an audience like me, who had no idea what was going on, was a giant orb on a black curtain that was lit with occasional phrases – “I Feel Pretty – and images, a field of daisies.

It has to be mentioned that I have seen dozens and dozens of show at the Cabot over the years and can’t remember ever seeing an audience in such rapt attention. There was nary a fidget or murmur during the entire 65 minutes. And when it ended, the standing ovation was not out of duty – as is so often the case – but out of a shared respect, affection and love for “Carmina Burana,” whatever it was.

Pretty cool. Pretty damn cool.

Production credits: Stage Director, Jill Anna Ponasik; Music Director, Janna Ernst; Choreographer, Dani Kuepper; Scenic Designer, Lisa Schlenker; Costume designer, Shima Orans; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Conductor, Benjamin Bedroske; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Ross Zentner.

Rep Extraordinary in Searing Family Drama

The drama of a family in crisis at The rep in Things I Know to Be True

The truest form of magic in the theater happens when talents combine to take the ordinary and turn it into the extraordinary.

Mark Clements and his band of smart and creative warriors have fashioned an extraordinary evening with the production of “Things I KNow To Be True,” by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell.

The very ordinary fabric of daily life is the mise-en-scéne for a family of six facing a non-stop series of perfectly ordinary crises ranging from a teenage broken heart all the way to a son struggling with gender identity.

The evening starts innocently enough, with the teenager, Rosie (Aubin Heglie) telling the story of her youthful hike through Europe and her falling in love with a Spanish libertine who takes her to bed for three straight days before leaving and breaking her heart.

Alone on the stage she regales us with the kind of rapture reserved for the young. And then comes the morning when she finds herself alone, her money and other stuff stolen and a strange woman smoking a cigarette who tells her to leave this apartment.

I walk through the streets of Berlin. I feel small. I feel like I’m 12 years old, I feel ridiculous. I want to cry but I won’t. Well I do, a little. But not as much as I want to. I want my dad. I want my Mom. I want my brothers and my sister. I want to hear them laugh and argue and fight and tease me. But I can’t think of them much because if I do my chest will explode. I feel like I’m going to literally fall to pieces. That my arms are going to drop off and then my legs and my head. And so to stop myself coming apart I make a list of all the things I know…. I mean actually know for certain to be true and the really frightening thing is…. It’s a very short list. I don’t know much at all. But I know that in the house where I grew up things are the same as when I left and they always will be.

And I know that I have to go home.”

Home is the backyard in the house her family has lived in for 30 years. Waiting for and surprised by her arrival are her dad Bob (Bill Geisslinger) ), mom Fran (Jordan Baker), sister Pip (Kelley Faulkner) and two brothers Mark (Kevin Kantor)and Ben (Zach Fifer).

Each member of the family is a distinct individual, but all are bound by a desire to love and be loved.

Fran is overbearing and unafraid of conflict and especially demanding of her oldest daughter. Bob is the understanding parent, welcoming peace and satisfaction.

Each child brings a different trouble into that backyard over the course of a year.

It starts with Pip, wife and mother, who is about to leave her husband. She denies there’s another man, but Fran knows better. Pip has respect and affection for Steve, but she isn’t in love with him. That makes no difference to Fran, who is calls her daughter “a fucking princess.”

The life tremors for the girls pass, to be replaced by a backyard visit from Mark who arrives in the middle of a gloomy hurricane of emotional conflict. He’s here to break the news to his parents, the news that after years of sorrow he has decided to become a woman.

Parental reaction is, as you might expect, one of shock and wonder, a search inside for the answer to how in the world this could happen. Of course, answers are hard to find, buried deep inside the historical dynamics of the Price family.

Finally there is a visit from Ben, the  youngest brother who lives a fancy life in direct comparison with and disapproval of Bob, a reluctantly retired auto worker.

Ben arriving torn apart, confesses to stealing $200,000 at work and frightened that investigators are closing in. Fran wants to help but Bob is adamant about his boy paying for what he’s done. He is beside himself with disgust at Ben.

“You know the difference between right and wrong. You couldn’t have grown up in this house without knowing that.”

Mr. Clements, the Artistic Director at The Rep, has carved an enviable reputation for staging and directing big shows, musicals. This is a little show and he proves that he is a marvelously patient director. He gives his actors space and time that allows them to create fully realized people, each suffering personal devils.

He has also turned to Chicago choreographer Julia Rhoads to create  gorgeous moments when the actors move in a kind of free flowing Kabuki dance, five moving behind one speaking. It’s a moving and glorious touch that solidifies the constant backbone of this story.

Mr. Clements demands a lot of his actors and this cast is clearly up to the task. The acting is remarkable, from start to finish. A special word must be us4ed for Ms. Faulkner.

I’ve seen her any number of times and never have I seen her grab hold of a role with such vigor and deliver such a nuanced performance. She sets a high bar, one reached and matched by all of her castmates.

“Things” is a play that is full of humor, providing necessary breathing moments from the intensity of the ongoing drama of family life. It combines to take ordinary lives to extraordinary height.

Production Credits: Director, Mark Clements, Stage Movement Director, Julia Rhoads; Scenic Designer, Scott Davis; Costume Designer, Rachel Laritz; Lighting Designer, Jesse Klug; Original Music and Sound Designer, Joe Cerqua; Voice and Text Coach, Eva Breneman; Dramaturg, Brent Hazelton; Casting Director Frank Honts; Stage  Manager, Rebekah, Heusel; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.

Scantily Developed Script Dooms “Strange Snow” at Chamber Theater

A decade after the Vietnam War ended, playwright Stephen Metcalfe tried to tackle the plight of veterans from that war and the difficulties they had adjusting to life outside while battling the demons bubbling beneath the surface for so many of them.

Unfortunately, what he came up with in “Strange Snow,” is a superficial, hard to believe two hours that opened over the weekend at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

This show, under the direction of C. Michael Wright, is nothing more than a live version of an afternoon soap opera – shallow characters, incredible relationship development and vague points to be made.

And it’s really a shame because the cast of three very good actors and  Mr. Wright and his design team all perform with admiration.

The problem is the play itself.

The play concerns two veterans, Davey (Marques Causey) and Megs (Ken T. Williams) along with Davey’s sister Martha (Krystal Drake).

Davey and Megs served in Vietnam together but haven’t seen each other in the post-war period until they meet, by chance in a parking lot. For Megs, it’s a chance for an important reunion and he convinces Davey to celebrate on the opening day of the fishing season.

He arrives before dawn, pounding on the front door while shouting for Davey to wake up. The door eventually is opened, by Martha, complete with a five-iron ready to take a full swing at Megs.

We’re okay, so far, but from that point on the play sinks into one imagination-stretching episode to another.

Let’s see if we can simplify this whole thing.

Megs is a garage mechanic who is boisterous and blunt, the most outlandish guy in the room. He is clearly desperate for some kind of human companionship and is firmly convinced that he and Davey can rekindle the camaraderie they had in their army unit.

Davey, on the other hand, wears his misery on his sleeve. His drinking is out of control and fueled by his anger and disappointment in what life has given him. He lives in the same house as his sister, a house given to them by a mother who deserted them to move to Florida (for a reason unknown).

Then there is Martha, the spinster schoolteacher who disapproves of her brother and his ignoble ways. She is lonely, angry and frightened of life.

In the span of one day here’s what happens.

Megs arrives. He convinced Martha he’s really a fairly nice guy. Davey wakes up. He doesn’t want to hang with Megs and certainly doesn’t want to go fishing. But Megs wins out, getting Martha to drink a breakfast beer and join the two guys in a quest for trout that they’ll have for dinner. They leave and then return, troutless. Martha and Megs look to grow a little friendlier. Davey and Megs get into a simmering and then blistering fight about their Vietnam days and the memory of the unseen (and killed) Bobby, who was a huge Boston Red Sox fan. Davey ends up leaving and Megs and Martha head upstairs (at her suggestion) to the bedroom.


And let the head shaking begin.Is this a war story (Megs and Davey), a love story (Megs and Martha) or a ghost story (Megs, Davey and Bobby)? The answer to that question is either all of the above or none of the above.

Part of the problem her is that Mr. Metcalfe has tried to put way too much into one day. There is no time for the play to breathe or to develop at a pace that provides for something more than superficial glimpses at these three characters. They might really be interesting people but this production doesn’t allow for seeing if they are.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Causey have distinguished resumes in Milwaukee theater and they live up to their experience and billing despite not having much to really work with. Ms. Drake, less experienced yet memorable for her Leading Player role in Skylight’s “Pippin” is an actor worth watching as she progresses.

But even these three actors aren’t enough to lift this play out of the threadbare and cliched script.

”Strange Snow” is either an idea in search of a play or a play in search of an idea and neither one makes for a fully engaging night at the theater.

Production credits: Director, C. Michael Wright; Stage Manager, Veronica Zahn; Scenic Designer, Keith Pitts; Costume Designer, Jazmin Aurora Medina; Lighting Designer, Sarah Hamilton; Sound Designer, Kristan Wilborg; Production Manager, Brandy Kline; Propmaster, Meghan Savagian; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.


Powerful “Blood at the Root” dazzles at Next Act

The tree at the heart of “Blood at the Root” at Next Act

Six high school kids – black and white –  in a tiny school in a tiny town down south and an innocent moment that spirals into a race war leaving victims strewn all over the place.

And all because of a tree.

But what a tree.

A magnificent tree. A huge and storied tree. A tree with a name. A tree with roots as thick as sewer pipes. A tree with limbs as thick as your leg.

It is this tree, named Old Devoted, that is at the heart of “Blood at the Root,” the powerful play by Dominique Morisseau getting an exhilarating run at Next Act Theatre.

If there was ever a time for this play, it is now and if there was ever a place for it, it is Milwaukee.This is a city with its collective head in the sand because of our inability to talk about racial inequity in any meaningful way.

In this production, daringly directed by Marti Gobel, we see – as we have through history – that it is often out of the mouth of babes that the greatest wisdom comes.

This play  has its birth in a t12-year old true story that took place in Jena, Louisiana. Six black teenagers were convicted of beating a white student. That beating was the culmination of a series of events at the high school that began with the tree – a whites-only loitering spot at the school. Once a black student sat under the tree hangman’s nooses showed up on the limbs of the tree and the racial unrest started its rolling boil.

“Blood at the Root” is a story told in spoken word, dance, rap, song and visual power. And nothing is more powerful than the tree, born in the mind of Jason Fassl, the eminent lighting designer who also designed the set for this production.

Mr. Fassl, who has carried productions with high lighting genius, has created a play all by himself with his tree. To stand a look at it, watch how it settles and rises and reaches, is to know the story being told and to know it viscerally.
Ms. Gobel has given her six actors a detailed and intelligent pathway to tell this story and all six are wonderful individually and brilliant as an ensemble.  Each student, three boys, three girls, three whites, three blacks, has a moment in the sun. It is moving to watch the way these six children ask the hard questions. And it’s equally moving to see them come up with easy answers in some cases and no answers at all in others.  The are unencumbered by the weight of life, but you can see them standing on the precipice of pain where real life intrudes on the idyllic life of a child.

Perhaps none of the children grabs hold of the issues with more perception that Colin, a closeted gay white quarterback who has just transferred into the school. Played by Casey Hoekstra, Colin struggles with the events if the past couple of days. It’s a transfixing speech.

It was like some shit out of a Civil Rights documentary. Like the kind they be showin’ in class. And most of the folks be fallin’ half asleep. Seen this one kid in third period start droolin’ on the desk when we was watchin’ this one – Eyes on the Prize it called. Real interest.in’ to me, but guessin’ not to most everbody else. I interested cuz it’s nice to know what done happened before I showed up somewhere. Nice to know how !hangs used to be and that thangs as they is now come from somethin’. It all got roots. Way somebody choose not to sit next to somebody in the lunchroom-  got roots. Way_ somebody got problems with the flag somebody else wear on they t-shirt – got roots. Way some people talk the way they talk, or hang out with who they hang out with, or love who they love, or hate who they hate – all got roots. It feel halfway comfortin’ knowin’ it ain’t just start with us. That it been this way. That somebody’s been plantin’ these awful feelins in the soil somewhere. Long before we came along and started pulling up crops. We been digestin’ this same stuff, grown in this same soil, and ain’t even know it. So I like seein’ stuff like that.. .byes on the Prize… documentaries on the,Civil Rights Movement. When that happened today at school.. .when those students went and stood under that great oak tree… O1′ Devoted they call it. .. Look like some kinda protest. Look like somethin’ like from another time. From a Civil Rights Time. And it got me thinkin’ …what kinda crop is the folks after us gonna dig up? Is it still gonna be from this same ol’ soil? Or is we ever gonna plant somethin’ new…”

Ms. Gobel has a clear grasp of the power in this play and never lets it get preachy or pontifical. She knows that children can show the way to a tomorrow that might be a much better place for them to live than the one they are forced to live in now.

She is a brilliant director and this reminds me of her work on “The Brothers Size” that she directed a year ago for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Both shows are socially powerful and Ms. Gobel once again lets them soar into the highest branches of the magic tree.

One Note:

MIke Fischer made his debut as a dramaturge in this production. For 15 years he was the theater critic for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was also a top flight Milwaukee attorney.

He has now moved into the world of theater as a part of it, not just an observer.

Mr. Fischer is a brilliant man and it will be a thrill to watch him move into this world. The theater world in Milwaukee will be richer with his contributions and I wish him well and thank him for all he does.

Cast: Raylynn, Chantae Miller; Toria, Grace DeWolff’ Asha, April Paul; Justin, Ibraheem Farmer; Colin, Casey Hoekstra; De’Andre, Justin Lee.

Production credits: Director, Marti Gobel; Costume Designer, Marti Gobel; Scenic and Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Properties Designer, Heidi Salter; Sound Designer, David Cecsarini ; Composer, Kemet Gobel; Choreographer, Alicia Rice; Dramaturg, Mike Fischer; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Production photographer, Ross Zentner.