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.

Conversations: Chamber Theatre Artistic Director Brent Hazelton

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.

Brilliant Production of “The Christians” restores faith in live theater

David Cecsarini is Pastor Paul in The Christians

Welcome back Next Act!

Welcome back David Cecsarini?

And for God’sSake….WELCOME BACK THEATER!!!!

Mr.Cecsarini, who has never met a social issue he doesn’t like, has created a real piece of enthralling theater in the brilliant production of “The Christians,” the provocative play by Lucas Hnath.

In just over 80 minutes Next Act takes a deep dive into the world of doubt that threatens to overcome a megachurch presided over by Pastor Paul (Mr. Cecsarini).

This is a play about faith, about faith shaken to its very roots and about the fallout when faith is replaced by doubt and that doubt is then replaced by another certainty.

There have been a variety of online productions as theater companies have tried to cope with the pandemic. Some have been better than others.

This production from Next Act has set a high bar that all other companies would do well to attempt to reach. 

With a production filmed at the Gethsemane United Methodist Church in Pewaukee, this is a full-fledged magnetic production that is equally powerful both in medium and in message. 

Timothy Moder is the videographer and editor of this production and he has created a seamless film that is absolutely gripping. There are no zoom boxes here. This is a fully developed film, simply set but full of the complexities that sometimes accompany religious faiths. 

Pastor Paul has built a megachurch and has finally retired the debt required to construct his building. And he announces that fact in a sermon that shocks his congregation as he affirms his disbelief in the concept of hell. He has run contrary to everything his flock believes.

The schism is so great that his associate pastor, Andrew Muwonge, leaves his post, a single mother congregant, Emily Vitrano, wonders if she has been sold a bill of goods, and a church elder, Rick Richter, is sorrowed at the fallout from the sermon.

But it is best left to the pastor’s wife, an always transcendent Marti Gobel, to best explain the fallout from a sermon that has shaken her to her very core. 

In the final scene between the two, she laments her loss, talking about her husband, but she could just as easily be talking about her faith in Christianity. 

“I wish I didn’t.
I wish I didn’t like you,
I wish I didn’t find you so attractive,
I wish I didn’t want you here in bed beside me,
I wish I didn’t think that you’re so smart
and kind
and good,
and I wish I didn’t find you so magnificent.
Because if I didn’t feel all those ways
it would be so easy to —
I’m worried that we won’t be together forever,
and I’m worried that it’ll be my fault,
and God will say — when it comes time to say the things he’ll say —
“Why did you fail him?”
“Why did you let him fall away?”
“Why did you not do everything you could to keep him from falling away?”
And so this is me, doing everything I can do,
but really, I’m afraid to do everything that I could do,
but I know I have to do everything I can do,
because I want to be with you forever.
By staying with you, I am making it easier.
Aren’t I?
It would be harder if I weren’t here.”

Mr. Cecsarini’s cast creates characters that are full of depth and besieged by the tortuous entanglements of doubt. Mr. Muwonge brings he courage of his convictions to the stage and Mr. Richter is believably conflicted about his position on the board.

Ms. Vitrano, who we don’t see on Milwaukee stages enough, captures both the spirit and the power of a young woman, a single mother, suddenly finding all that has held her up beginning to collapse. Her questions are pointed although her reluctance to ask them is powerful.

And Ms. Gobel and Mr. Cescarini, as the power couple, proves once again that putting two great actors on a stage together is a sure fire recipe for magic. 

“The Christians” is running now online and you can get tickets at ww.nextact.org. 

If you love the arts, and who doesn’t, this is a place to start coming back to the world of theater. It’s not live, but it is very much alive.

Production credits: Director Edward Morgan; Videographer/Editor, Timothy Moder; Costume Design, Amy Horst; Properties Manager, Heidi Salter; Music Director, DAvid Bonofiglio; Production Director/Sound Engineer, Michael Van Dreser; Stage Manager Jessica Connelly; Production photos, Timothy Moder.

Cast: Pastor Paul, DAvid Cecsarini; Elizabeth, Marti Gobelm Joshua, Andrew Muwonge; Jenny, Emily Vitrano; Elder Jay, Rick Richter Church choir: Lachrisa Grandberry, Raven Dockery, Rana Roman.

Conversations: Jill Anna Ponasik, producer and 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.

Madison’s Daddy Long Legs a touching and perfect virtual performance

Kevin McAllister
Kailey Boyle

Every theater artist will tell you how difficult it is to create meaningful work in this new, all virtual, environment the pandemic has forced on all of us.

But Madison’s Capital City Theatre, located in the suburb of Middleton, has created an absolutely perfect couple of hours of theater with its production of “Daddy Long Legs” which runs unto Nov. 28 online.

The story of this play, based on the 1912 novel by Jean Webster, it tell the story of an orphan girl named Jerusha Abbott and a mysterious benefactor who sends her to college and to a life filled with both opportunity and success.

The book for the play was written by John Caird with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and Capital City has taken this delightful story and turned it into an enchanting and delightful production full of humor and burgeoning love.

Under the masterful direction of Stephen Amato and music direction of Evan Lange, this two-person cast delivers a performance that is filled with warmth and passion.

As Jerusha, Kailey Boyle has the wide-eyed innocence of a young girl and she easily and gracefully grows into a woman hungry for new experience and brave enough to follow both her heart and her dreams. She is a darling singer who handles a difficult libretto with ease.

Kevin McAllister plays Jervis, the benefactor who gradually finds his cold heart cracked wide open. He combines power with a gentleness that portrays the slow but sure growth in his soul. He also has a great voice and a presence that demands attention.

The entire story is told in the letters that Jerusha is required to write every month, reporting on her activities to Jervis. She has no idea who he really is and he is determined to maintain his anonymity. Each character sings separately and, on occasion, together, a difficult task when shooting a script requiring both players to be in separate locations.

Your can see the hard work that went into making sure the video editing and the performances flowed with the same kind of ease that you would see if this performance were live. Eight years ago, Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre staged one of the original versions of Daddy and it was a winning performance.

But this production by Capital City seems somehow to capture the leisure and inevitability of the this man and this woman toward love with an added bit of seduction. Perhaps it is the very nature of a virtual performance that enhances this story.

It is so interesting watching theater companies struggle to survive by moving from real stages to a virtual world. Some do it with great stress and difficulty. Capital City has seemingly slid into the world with ease and provides an absolutely wonderful heart-filled theatrical experience.

To see “Daddy Long Legs” go to https://capitalcitytheatre.org/.

First Stage Production Shows the Perils of Virtual Programming

Milwaukee’s First Stage theater company is one of the great companies for young people in the world. Artists from all over use the First Stage model when trying to create family friendly theater companies.

As a city, we are lucky to have First Stage around. Their professional productions provide work for a variety of adult artists and for young people beginning their lives in the world of theater. I am always pleased and excited with each each and every production at the Marcus Center.

But the current production of “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” is a vivid example of the difficulties performing plays online. Simply put, this effort falls flat and it’s hard to figure out where the problems reside.

The play, written by Qui Nguyen, was originally intended as an adult comedy-drama about a woman named Agnes Evans whose parents and sister Tilly were killed in an automobile accident. The drama revolves around Agnes playing a Dungeons and Dragons module that Tilly had created.

It had its debut almost 10 years ago in New York and also enjoyed a run at Steppenwolf in Chicago. There is a version of the play intended for young audiences, and this is the one First Stage used. It removes almost all the explicit language and soft-pedals some of the focus on Tilly’s sexuality. It also turns Agnes from a grown woman into a high school cheerleader.

That version has been widely produced around the world, especially at the high school level and it has been successful, but the First Stage production has come up empty.

Directed by Coltyn Giltner, the play is missing the kind of interaction between characters that is at the heart of live theater. Instead of a story that invites the audience in, this is really a flat and unimaginative recitation of lines from a play by characters bound by Zoom boxes and a convoluted story.

One thing clearly obviously missing is any sense that these characters are talking to each other. For some reason, every time a character speaks, that character is looking straight ahead at the camera. The only way that dialogue can seem close to realistic is to have actors look in a designated direction, and the other actor look in the opposite direction.

Otherwise what we are left with is something less than even a staged reading. It is more like a recitation and it left me feeling so empty. The run of “The Quest for Solomon’s Treasure,” written by John MacLay, is coming to an end, but it was head and shoulders above Monster for the kind of communication that is the backbone of any theatrical production.

Let’s hope that First Stage soon gets back on a real stage.