Next Act captures the Golden Age of Television Humor with Laughter on the 23rd Floor

The writers room in Laughter on the 23rd Floor






















Golden Age is a phrase thrown around pretty easily. 

The Golden Age of music. The Golden Age of baseball. The Golden Age of Hollywood.

You can argue about the nominations, but there is one Golden Age it’s hard to argue about.

The Golden Age of television comedy was the 1950’s, headlined by Your Show of Shows and the Sid Caesar Hour. 

And Next Act Theatre is paying homage to that golden age with “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” the autobiographical play by Neil Simon. 

As it ought to be, this production under the direction of Edward Morgan, is as filled with as many laughs as anything we are likely to see this season in Milwaukee. 

There are nine characters in this play and in typical Simon fashion, each one has an individual identity and each has moments to shine during the two hours of the show. 

The tale takes place in the writer’s room of a 1953 television variety show. The narrator of the play, Lucas Brickman (Zack Thomas Woods) is the Mr. Simon character, the new kid in a room full of zany creative outcasts. 

The writers in the real room included Mr. Caesar, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin and, perhaps Woody Allen. 

The characters drawn by Mr. Simon provide plenty of material for Mr. Morgan to shepherd his troops through. And the direction in this show is a beautiful example of a director who has the ultimate trust in his actors. 

The story being told is about the conflict between the show and the NBC network that is looking to cut costs. Although there is a sword hanging over their heads, these comic figures realize it’s just another week of trying to come up with something that will make people laugh.

There is roaring humor on the surface of this production: from the Russian emigree , Mohammad N. ElBsat, to the only girl in the room, Karen Estrada, whose pregnancy may well be the highlight of the evening.

The writers revolve around Max Prince (David Cecsarini), with slicked back hair and a demanding presence who challenges and loves the writers who make him look so good. 

Underneath the surface of the funny, however, the brilliance in this play hones in on the serious business of being funny. This is their livelihood and for these smart people there is nothing funny about being funny. The desperation to be humorous and competitiveness to be the king of the hill for a week are very moving.

A final thought concerns Rick Pendzich, who plays Milt. Earlier this season Mr. Pendzich was The Highland Hitman in Unnecessary Farce at Chamber. It was, perhaps, the funniest performance I’ve ever seen in Milwaukee. In this one, Mr. Pendzich outdoes himself and continues to prove that there is nobody in Milwaukee who handles comedy as he does. 

Cast: Lucas, Zack Thomas Woods; Milt, Rick Pendzich; Val Mohammad N. ElBsat; Brian, Dylan Bolin; Kenny, Seth K. Hale; Carol, Karen Estrada; Max Prince, David Cecsarini; Helen, Lindsay Webster; Ira, Adam Qutaishat.

Production credits: Director, Edward Morgan; Scenic Designer, Rick Rasmussen; Liughting Designer, Mike Van Dreser; Costume Designer, Amy Horst; Sound Designer, David Cecsarini; Properties Master, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly.

The Nerd at The Rep is a tasty tonic for our times

Michael Doherty and Andy Nagraj in The Nerd at The Rep. Photo Michael Brosilow.

Here’s the way my Wednesday went.

First of all I had to appear in traffic court to fight a ticket I got at the airport. Got nothing resolved and demanded a jury trial.

Then down in front of my television set to watch 22 of the finest lawmakers in the world ask a series – a long series – of questions about the minutiae of the impeachment effort against Donald J. Trump, who is – shamefully – still the president of the United States. 

Then I changed my clothes and tried to find a matching pair of socks. 

Then I drove to the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and had trouble getting my ticket that would both let me in and let me out of the parking structure.

Then I ordered a sandwich and two soda’s at the bar in the Quadracci Powerhouse that cost me $22.

I was badly, desperately in need of something that might put a smile on my face and proving that Lady Luck will eventually shine, along came The Nerd.

It was nearly 40 years ago that the Larry Shue play had its world premiere at The Rep. Since then it’s been produced thousands of times – Broadway, London’s West End, Division I, II and III colleges, high schools, amateur community theater groups and companies all over the world. 

I was worn out when I sat in my seat. I was semi-grumpy and frustrated with my world and the rest of the world.

But this production, under the sparkling baton of JC Clementz, made me laugh in the simplest way possible. 

A lot of very smart people will argue that The Nerd has a profound relevance to today, that there are deep meanings, that it reflects the search for identity.

I don’t know, maybe they’re right. Obviously they are a lot smarter than I am.

I think The Nerd is so popular because it asks so little from the audience. 

All I had to do was hold on to m Rep soda cup, lean forward, clear my mind of everything that’s wrong in the world, and let a group of actors go to work with a mental massage that proves the funny bone is connected to all the other bones in the body, 

The Nerd is a simple story. The title character, Rick Steadman (Michael Doherty, is an inspector in a chalk factory in Wisconsin. During the Vietnam War he saved the life of Willum Cubbert (Andy Nagraj) who is an architect. Cubbert owed his life to Rick and Rick decides to cash that check and arrives, surprisingly, on Willum’s doorstep, suitcases in hand. 

We throw into this mix a rogue’s gallery of players: Tansy, the wannabe weather girl who Willum loves; Axel, the best friend who is a prissy drama critic; the Waldgrave family – Warnock, a stuffy client of Willum’s, Celia, his neurotic wife, and Thor, their grade school son.

Everybody has their moments with twists and turns that are both easy to see coming and easy to follow once they show up. 

It is absolutely the best easy funny show you can see and the perfect tonic for a world going nuts all around us. If everything were this simple, life would be a lot more fun. 

I walked out of the theater whistling that famous song from Gypsy asks, “May We Entertain You?”

Hell, yeah. 

Caast: Willum Cubbert, Andy Nagraj; Tansy McGinnis, Alex Keiper; Axel Hammond, Jeremy Peter Johnson; Warnock Waldgrave, chris Nixon; Celia Waldgrave, Lillian Castillo; Thor Waldgrave, Damon McCoy; Thor Waldgrave, Charlie Cornell; Rick Steadman, Michael Doheerty. 

Production credits: Director, JC Clementz; Scenic Designer, Arnel V. Sancianco; Costume Designer, Misti Bradford; Lighting Designer, Lee Fiskness; Sound Designer, Pornchanok Kanchanabanca; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager Kate Ocker,

Credibility Challenge Can’t Stop the Laughs at Renaissance

Isabel Quintero and Marti Gobel in The Roommate at Renaissance.

Oscar and Felix.

Perhaps there is no more famous odd couple than the two Neil Simon characters, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, who became roommates and dazzled Broadway and television audiences half a century ago.

Now along comes another odd couple in “The Roommate,” a play written by Jen Silverman and getting a production under the direction of Suzan Fete at Renaissance Theaterworks. 

The play and television series were fluffy situation comedies starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney in the play and Jack Klugman and Jack Lemmon in the television show. The actors carried the show.

The premise was a simple one. Oscar was a slob divorcee who spent his days and nights wrapped up in his sportswriting. Felix was a neat and fastidious nerd who wrote straight news and moved in with Oscar as his marriage crashed on the rocks. 

There was no subtext to Simon’s work. Nothing deep or dark or thoughtful. It was funny fluff, the classic stuff during the heyday of the situation comedy. 

In her reworking of the theme, Silberman has written a slender play full of gags and jokes and laugh out loud humor that is a pleasant 100 minutes but falls well short of anything full of meaning or matching the pre-show claim that this is a show that is a dark comedy about what it takes to reroute your life – and what happens when the wheels come off.

There is a lot of comedy but very little dark, with the exception of a tear-jerking ending that feels manipulative after all this time we spent laughing. 

Sharon (Isabel Quintero) is a 50-ish Iowa housewife, recently divorced and living alone in her Iowa City house. She needs a roommate and one arrives in the person of Robyn (Marti Gobel), also 50-ish, a lesbian refugee from the Bronx. 

For Sharon rap is the Saran she uses to cover leftover casseroles. For Robyn rap is the slam poetry that defines a part of her life. Sharon is white, domestic and frantic. Robyn is black, a vegan and cool, oh so cool.

The earliest moments are the tipoff that this whole thing is going to be an exercise in one joke  after another, held loosely together by the story of how these two become friends. 

Despite the heroic performance by Ms. Gobel, a transcendent actor who can lift a sunken Titanic of a play back to the seas where it can float, this one just never grabbed hold of my heart.

Perhaps the biggest hole in the script was dug by Ms. Quintera who played Sharon as the most neurotic and crazy lady who ever lived among the cornstalks of Iowa. Nobody could possibly be as frenetic and uncomfortable as this Sharon.

Credibility is a critical element of any play, comedy or tragedy. The audience has to believe in the characters on the stage. 

Robyn is believable, Sharon is not. 

A triumph for the script, however, is the fact that even though they jokes are so transparent that you see them coming from a mile away, they still made me – and the rest of the audience – laugh. 

Robyn sits at the kitchen table rolling a joint that she calls medicinal herbs. You can tell that it won’t be long until Sharon tokes and she does, she gets high, and she loves it. It’s very very funny.

Sharon helps move a box into the house, sneaks a look and you just know she’s going to find something surprising. She does and it leads to the next ongoing joke that runs through the final 20 minutes of the play or so.

You know that there is going to be some kind of lesbian thing happening and, indeed, a drunk Sharon plants a kiss right on Robyn’s lips after the two slow dance together. 

And, as you might expect since the play actually has to come to an end sometime, Robyn leaves and we are left with this ending, with the actors apart and obviously begging for tears, or at least a sniffle or two. 

This funny play would have left a much more meaningful impression of Ms. Silverman had stuck to the comedy. When you spend an entire evening smiling and laughing, asking us to choke up for the last three minutes just feels like cheating.

Cast: Sharon, Isabel Quintero; Robyn, Marti Gobel. 

Production credits: Director, Suzan Fete; Stage Manager, Bailey Wegner; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons; Lighting Designer, Sarah Hamilton; Scenic Designer, Madelyn Lee; Co-Props Master, Melissa Centgraf; Co-Props Master, Simone Tegge; Sound Design, Sarah Ramos; Costume Design, Amy Horst; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner.

An Uncle Vanya That Captures Pain and Pleasure


One of the most popular of ethnic stereotypes is that of the morose Russian and in a new production of “Uncle Vanya” we see the full breadth and power of that belief.

Based on several translations of the Chekhov play, Dale Gitzman has adapted the play into a parade of misery and sullen emotional little bombs.

Mr. Gutzman knows as much about staging and theatricality as anyone in this city and he pulls out all the stops in this production. With moments that range from melancholic paralysis to fearsome and tempestuous moments of fierce anger this show is a riveting roller coaster of human frailty.

Mr. Gutzman has assembled a cast led by outstanding and memorable performances from David Flores and Alicia Rice. 

Mr. Flores who has built a full and scintillating resume over decades is Vanya and his vast range is on clear display. He’s bored, sad, joyous, lustful, disappointed, pained, cruel and passionately outraged. His scene with Mr. Gutzman is absolutely chilling and incredibly commanding of attention. 

Ms. Rice is an actor seen far too seldom on city stages. The last time I saw here was as the title character in Bonny Anne Bonny, a Theatre Red co-production with Wisconsin Lutheran College. It was a role that demanded incredible physical ability as well as acting chops. She took a role that was hard to define and gave it a precision that was both thoughtful and defined.

In this one she faced a number of choices as Elena, the  young wife of Mr. Gutzman’s elderly professor. Two men, Vanya and Dr. Astrov (Randall T Anderson) are both in hopefully in love with Elena.

Traditionally actors who have played Elena are tempted by sluttty overacting. The character can easily be an off duty porn actress.

But Ms. Rice achieves a profound balance between a temptress, a bored housewife and a woman who hungers for another life, even though she is uncertain what that life could, and should, be. Her performance is one of the best I’ve ever seen at Off The Wall. 

Jenny Kosek plays Sonya, the daughter of the professor, who is a plain young woman hopelessly and secretly in love with Dr. Astrov. She is painful to watch, suffering both from a harsh self-image and the heartache of her silent love affair. Ms. Kosek wonderful quiet presence on the tiny stage on Wells St. 

That small stage, sandwiched between two sections of seat sections, is one of the issues Mr. Anderson struggles with.

He clearly has a grasp of his character but has a stagnant facial expression, always the same semi-grimace, no matter the emotion. He needs some serious direction on how to convey emotion physically, as well as with his voice. 

Mr. Gutzman has directed a production that is a Chekhov masterpiece about the futilities of life and the inability of these people to  either change their circumstances or cope with the reality of their lives. It’s a story filled with lots of agony mixed with a bit of ecstasy and it’s as thoughtful and visceral as anything I’ve ever seen at Off The Wall.

Cast: Vanya, David Flores; Maria, Christine Horgen; So0nya Jenny Kosek; Professor Alexander, Dale Gutzman; Elena, Alicia Rice; Astrov Randall T. Anderson; Nanny Barbara Weber; Telegin, Larry J. Lukasavage. 

Production credits: Director, Dale Gutzman; Technical Director; David Roper; Lighting, John R. Dolphin and David Roper; Assistant to Mr. Gutzman, Sandy Lewis.

A Love Affair Destined to End in Sorrow at The Rep

Joe Kinosian and Ben Moss are brilliant in 2 Pianos 4 Hands at The Rep

In every love affair there are two undeniable truths. 

One is that a love affair is consuming, passionate and personal.

The second is that the affair will end – either well or badly.

A love affair, with all the warts and joys is on full and robust display  in downtown Milwaukee with the opening of “2 Pianos 4 Hsands” in the Stackner Cabaret at The Rep. 

Like every love affair, this one is full of comic moments, bitter conflicts, challenges and victories and endings that seem almost predestined.

The story is about two piano players, Ted (Joe Kinosian) and Richard (Ben Moss) and their obsessive commitment to the soaring compositions of bach, Beethoven and Mozart, all performed on the 88 keys of the nearest piano.

Like any tale, this one begins with two young Canadian boys enrolled in piano lessons, taught by two characters who specialize in the early days of parental inspired lessons for children.

Anyone who has ever taken any instrument lessons will easily recognize the pathway for each boy. Shouts from parents to keep practicing. Forcing them to keep at it even while wanting to go outside with friends to play hockey.

Threats to ban television for a night if practice doesn’t continue for the half hour. Confusion by the boys as to just what they are supposed to be practicing. The halting and patient instruction from all those early instructors. 

Mr. Kinosian and Mr. Moss play all the characters, ranging from nuns to romantic Italian impressarrios and rigid adjudicators of classical music.  

The boys meet at 10 years old playing in a KIwanis Club competition as pairs, playing the Mozart Sonata for One Piano, Four Hands in D major. After six months of practice Ted chokes and is first unable to play and once he finds the music, unable to get in order to read. It’s a hilarious scene and the audience roared. 

The humor of the first act is leavened by a long bitter scene between Richard and his father, a pianist himself who never achieved the kind of notoriety he thought he deserved. The father is a strict taskmaster who clamps down forcefully on Richard’s reluctance to live out the dreams of his father. 

Before long, as they approach their teenage years, they begin their contact with serious conservatories of music where the boys have their initial experience with demanding teachers who have seemingly impossible standards.

The first act is a setup for the serious pursuit of a career and the fulfillment of the extraordinary promise each boy has shown.  They are focused on careers as artists, a perilous and uncertain future under the best of circumstances. 

And, as expected, the brass ring remains a mirage in the desert for both boys. They let everyone know with a rag-tag piano mashup of “Bennie and the Jets,” “Imagine,” “The Entertainer,” “Chariots of Fire” and “Great Balls of Fire.” It is with the popular songs that we finally get a glimpse of the two boys actually having fun at the piano. 

At the end, both boys give up their dream and accept the fact that they are the “two best piano players in the neighborhood.”

Ths play is almost 25 years old and was written by Ruchard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra. It’s a true story and it’s been wildly successful with productions at over 200 theater companies worldwide.

The Rep production, under the free-wheeling direction of Laura Braza, is perfect for the Stackner. Mr. Kinosian and Mr. Moss are exceedingly talented piano players and actors. They move from character to character and mood to mood with ease, never over playing roles that could easily be caricatures. 

When it’s funny it’s very funny. When it’s tough, it’s very tough. And when it’s sad, the sorrow drips.

One of the most difficult tasks in theater is playing a musician and making that character believable. Mr. Kinosian and Mr. Moss bring the kind of focus that every great musician needs. They don’t just play notes, they understand the dynamics of these compositions and share their gifts with the audience.

This production is careful to capture the kind of catastrophe that can develop when dreams outstrip the realities of life. 

Just like every love affair we’ve ever known. 

Production Credits:? Director, Laura Braza; Music Direction, Joe Kinosian; Scenic Designer, Michelle LIly; Costume Designer, Nicholas Hartman; Lighting Designer, Jared Gooding; Sound Designer, Erin Page; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, David Hartig; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.

Nothing but laughs as Chamber kicks off season with a classic farce

Tim Higgens and Rachel Zientek are stunned by the arrival of Rick Pendzich in Unnecessary Farce at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Photo by Paul Ruffalo

Talk about a perfect confluence of events!

Here we all are in the midst of these trying times. Summer is ending and school is starting. We are being deluged and threatened by a tsunami of electric scooters all over the city. Donald Trump is still president. 

What we need is a good laugh and delivering just what we need is Milwaukee Chamber Theater, kicking off the season with a breathlessly hilarious production of “Unnecessary Farce.”

With a sparkling cast under the direction of Ryan Schabach, the laughs come early and never stop in this production of the play by Paul Williams Smith that’s been produced all over the world. 

You know this is supposed to be fun with the first glance at the set by Martin McClenmdon. It’s two adjacent modest rooms in the Sheboyg-Inn Motel.  Get it?

The lights go down and Eric (Ben Yela) comes into one room in his underwear. Eric makes a call to “the chief,” getting twisted in the phone cord which tangles under his shirt as he dresses. More laughs, and we are on our way. 

Mr. Yela is one of two bumbling cops – Billie, (a once-again brilliant Rachel Zientek) – who have been assigned to eavesdrop on the next room in order to catch the mayor in a $16 million embezzlement scheme. 

Themayor, Jonathan Gillard Daly, is scheduled to meet in the adjacent room with accountant Karen Brown (Amber Smith) and admit the embezzlement. There is a camera in the room and a monitor in the cop’s room and, like any great farce, relationships are at the heart of things.

Eric and Karen, who are part of the trap as a lure to get the mayor to confess,  spent the night together, but nothing happened. The first moments together in the morning are all business before they clinch into passionate kissing. 

Karen: I can’t believe this.
Eric: I know.
Karen: I can’t believe we spent the whole night…
Eric: Talking/
Karen: And talking.
Eric: Aimlessly flirting.
Karen: You weren’t flirting. You gave no indication you were flirting.
Eric: I was talking. For me that is flirting.
Karen: I was unbuttoning my blouse. You didn’t know that was a signal?
Eric: I thought you were warm.
Karen: I was lying on my bed. Unbuttoning my blouse.
Eric: I thought you were sleepy and warm.
Karen: I wanted to…
Eric: Well, I wanted to too.
Karen: Then why didn’t you…
Eric: I didn’t know you wanted to.
Karen: And by the time we….
Eric: Kissed.
Karen: The alarm clock went off and…
Eric: I know.
Karen: We had to stop. We had to get dressed.
Eric: I know.
Karen: Before we ever got undressed. Before we….
Eric: I know.
Karen: GOD!
Eric: Well I guess there’s something to be said for not rushing things.
Karen; Rushing Things? I’m thirty five years old, Eric. I’m an accountant. Who works with other accountants. You’re the first man I’ve met in ten years who didn’t ask me for my number rounded to the nearest integer. And you’re sweet. And you’re sexy. And…God!

The mayor arrives along with his security guard Agent Frank (Tim Higgins) and Mr. Daly delivers the befuddled executive he always does so well. I was reminded of his classic Elwood P. Dowd in The Rep’s “Harvey” five years ago. 

What develops before we know it is a tangled tale of lovers, would be lovers, a Mafia from Scotland (the Clan with a C), panic,  hiding behind doors, getting hit in the face with doors, lost clothes, sexual desire and denial, surprising entanglements, the wife of the mayor (Jenny Wanasek) who has a secret occupation and a Scottish hitman named Todd (Rick Pendzich).

Mr. Pendzich is one of the most accomplished comedic actors in the city and he only enhances his reputation with this one.

Dressed in his kilt and giant plumed cap, he takes evil and turns it into a joyous character who seems to draw laughs every time he opens his mouth. He has a thick Scottish brogue and when anger grips this killer, his brogue mutates into an indecipherable Scottish babble understood by nobody but him.

Ms. Zientek, who is growing before our very eyes, steals much of the show with her confused and confusing cop. Her maneuvering around the hotel room, bound and gagged by Todd, is a prolonged display of brilliant physical comedy.

And she proves she is no slouch in the comedic dialogue department with her rapid fire translation of a rant by Todd, a translation that was so funny and striking that it drew applause from the audience. 

Mr. Schabach is a young director and his work in this, the broadest of comedies, stamps him as one to keep an eye on. 

Chamber is the traditional start of the theater season in Milwaukee and this production has set a high bar for the rest of the year. Match the joy of this one and audiences will be in for a long year of joy and satisfaction. 

Production Credits: Director: Ryan Schabach; Production Stage Manager, Judy Martel; Scenic Designer, Martin McClendon; CostumeDesigner, Aliceson Hackett-Rubel; Lighting Designer, David Gipson; Sound Designer, David Cecsarini; Propmaster, Moira Tracey; Fight Consultant/Intimacy Coordinator; Christopher Elst; Production Manager Colun Gawronski; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion. 

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.


Renaissance Mounts an Exquisite “Photograph 51”

Neil Brookshire, Cassandra Bissell and Josh Krause in “Photograph 51” at Renaissance

Suzanne Fete, the Artistic Director at Renaissance Theaterworks, has stepped out of her administrators chair to direct an exquisite production of “Photograph 51,” the Anna Ziegler Play that is a portrait of genius faced with unreasonable obstacles.

This play, which opened over the weekend, is such a magnificently detailed and perfect production that it is an exemplar of the power of live theater to make you think, feel and both ask and answer questions.

Fete has surrounded the brilliant Cassandra Bissell with five men to tell the story of Rosalind Franklin (Ms. Bissell), the scientist who discovered the key to DNA in 1950’s London, and the five men who surrounded her and, eventually, snapped the credit she so profoundly deserved.

If the” MeToo” movement is about male sexual predators then Dr. Franklin (her co-workers called her Miss Franklin) could well have started a “How About Me?” movement, forcing the male dominated world of science to recognize her massive and long-lasting contributions to the world of scientific knowledge. 

Dr. Franklin, Jewish and a woman came to a largely WASP male Kings College to work on X-ray diffraction studies. She had been promised that she could do her own work but almost immediately found that she was going to be supervised by Dr. Maurice Wilkins (Neil Brookshire).

With that chilled reception we see our first glimpse of the ferocious intransigence of Dr. Franklin. She’ll have none of Dr. Wilkins, professionally or personally.

The play carries us along the path to discovery, a path centered on Dr. Franklin but populated equally by a gang of men who had obvious envy and equally obvious scorn for Ms. Franklin, for her work, for her personality and for her Jewishness.

Beside Dr. Wilkins the gang included Francis Crick (Trevor Rees) and James Watson (Nick Narcisi), a partnership that was also in search for the key to life.

Dr. Franklin was not without her allies, however, as she had a graduate assistant (Josh Krause) and a fanatic admirer from Yale (Joe Picchetti).

But these men were all moons circling the sun that was Dr. Franklin.

Ms. Bissell created a character that was desolate in her isolation and single-minded in her pursuit of her holy grail. She also has a rigid and almost frightening lack of social skill. If categorized, she may well have shown up on the autism spectrum.

Eventually the key to DNA, the helix found in Photograph 51 which was taken by Dr. Franklin, was appropriated by others and earned a Nobel Prize for three men, while Dr. Franklin remained without credit.

It was a pristine example of gender discrimination and a measure that shows how much progress has been made and how much further we have to go.

The five male actors in this production are all solid. Mr. Brookshire is particularly appealing as a scientist who wants to work with Dr. Franklin but is unable to crack her chilling code.

Ms. Bissell is an absolute marvel. She is crisp in manner, careful in style and cautious in her personal life. But most of all she is genuine. From her hobby of hiking in nature to her hopes hidden deep within her soul we know this woman well by the time the 90 minutes (no intermission) is over.

Her speech about these hidden hopes near the end of the show is as moving as you will ever see. I felt my heart open up to her as she laid her longings as bare as she dared.

Renaissance has a committent to woman centered theater and they achieve that goal regularly. But more than they, they have a commitment to tanscendent theater, and with “Photograph 51” they’ve reached that goal as well.

Production credits: Director, Suzan Fete; Assistant Director, Tanya Dhein; Stage Manager, Bailey Wegner; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons; Scenic Designer, Sarah E. Ross; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Props Manager, Heidi Salter; Sound Designer, Matthew Whitmore; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Dialect Coach, Rick Pendzich; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner. 

Akhtar’s “Junk” a complex tale in need of a slower pace at The Rep

Jonathan Wainwright and Gregory Linington in Ayad Ahktar’s “Junk” at The Rep

For all the excitement about the Midwest premiere of playwright Ayad Akhtar’s expansive look at the world of junk bonds and financial voodoo it comes to an end leaving a surprising absence of emotional investment.

Akhtar is the Brookfield native and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who has a massive, and well-deserved, reputation for creating penetrating characters trapped in the world around them.

“Junk” is his sweeping (20 actors) look at the Michael Milken, architect of the high-yield junk bond legerdemain of the 1980’s. It’s Mr. Akhtar’s take on the high flying world of hyper-creative debt accumulation as a way to build wealth.

It was all Go-Go-Go back then and that speed and recklessness may be a little problematic with this production under the direction of Artistic Director Mark Clements.

The story unfolds so fast that there is rarely any time to get to know these characters who end up being mere cutouts of incredibly complex individuals with competing motives and conflicting goals.

The two-hour, intermission free evening unfolds in 48 (by one count) separate scenes, each flowing into the next after a brief blackout, some minor scenic adjustments and new brilliant rear projections (Jared Mezzocchi) on the blocky and brutal set (Todd Edward Ivins).

We meet all the players, from the Milken-inspired Robert Merkin (Gregory Linington) to the specific target of his takeover machination, steel company owner Thomas Everson, Jr. (James Ridge). Also strewn about this massive onslaught of people nobody could love, are all the Iago’s, Desdemona’s and other Shakespearean archetypes you can find in the canon.

The story centers on the efforts of Mr. Merkin to take over a third-generation steel company owned by Mr. Everson. One thing Mr. Akhtar does so very well is to define the sides in this battle.

On one side, of course, is Mr. Merkin and his conspirators, some loyal, some uncertain and some beleaguered.

Then you have the good-hearted financial lion (Brian Mani) who can’t stand what’s happening to the world of high finance where he has long reigned supreme as the white shoes boss of the world. Mr. Mani, a perfect example of the high level of casting and acting in this show, is full of bluster, but manages to be one of the few characters who seem to have more than one dimension. He gives some wonderful shading to the lurid prejudice Mr. Akhtar has given him.

Mr. Ridge heads the third faction here, the target of the takeover. He’s joined by his loyal attorney Matt Daniels and his financial advisor, N’Jameh Camara, who proves to be a mole for for the forces of evil.

We also have the United States Attorney Giuseppi Addesso (Dominic Comperatore) who is drawn from Rudy Giuliani who prosecuted Mr. Milken.

Like any great Shakespeare play this cast of characters is full of good guys, bad guys, traitors, sexual liaison and showdowns at dawn. The difference between Shakespeare and Mr. Akhtar’s play is that Shakespeare gives us something to care about.

When you have a subject as complicated as financial machination in 1985 it seems that it might be best to give the audience time to catch its breath after each new development or reveal.

Tthe frenetic structure of the play and the pace  doesn’t give you time to catch up and figure out who is doing what to who and how they are doing it and who is pulling whose strings. 

At one point Mr. Linington says that trying to explain the world of high finance to the general public just makes people’s eyes glaze over.


Production credits: Director, Mark Clements; Scenic Designer, Todd Edward Ivins; Costume Designer, Theresa Ham; Lighting Designer, Thom Weaver; Original Music and Sound Designer, Lindsay Jones; Projection Designer, Jared Mezzocchi; Production Dramaturg, Deanie Vallone; Voice & Text Coach, Clare Arena Haden; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Laura F. Wendt; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.

Brilliant Matilda from First Stage is an absolute triumph

Reese Bell and the Children of Matilda, The Musical, at First Stage

If there has ever been am on-stage testament to the glories of the theater community in Milwaukee it is now on parade at the Todd Wehr Theatre in the Marcus Center.

Led by a troupe of the most powerless among us, a cast of (dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?) children, First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank has ridden herd on a crowd that is deep in talent, brilliant in choice and enthusiastic in task.

It’s a magnificent production of “Matilda The Musical,” the imported British show that ran on Broadway and represents the first two-hour plus production that First Stage has ever done. I could have stayed for four hours, as could the capacity crowd on opening night.

“Matilda is based on the book by Roald Dahl and tells the story of a child – indeed all children – and the battles against tyranny, cruel punishments, stifled imagination and unjust discipline.

The musical tells the story of young Matilda (Reese Bell on opening night) who lives in a family with her father(Jackson Evans)  an idiot and crooked car salesman, her mother (Molly Rhode), a consummate ditz and her brother (Jonathan Neustifter in the Diligent Cast), a lump on a log.

Matilda retreats from the harsh behavior of her parents – including the fact that her father calls her “son” – by reading books, an activity that sparks horror in the rest of the family.

The story continues to its end, full of escape by children and fighting back by those same children. It’s a story about the power of imagination, creativity and determination.

This is an amazing production for any theater, but especially so for one that built an international reputation as a theater for children.

It has truly become a theater for children and families and nothing better exemplifies that than this production and the talents that went into creating it.

Let’s start behind the scenes where Mr. Frank has assembled an enviable bucket of talent.

Moving a cast of dozens around the small stage is a daunting task by the choreography is sparkling and full of the verve and excitement. Michael Pink, Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Ballet and his wife, Jayne, created a series timeless and energetic dance numbers that were an absolute delight.

Jeff Schaetzke is Director of Artistic Operations at First Stage and a music director of unparallelled skill and achievement. He has directed at every level, from high school to top professional and each and every production is marked with the highest of standards and it’s the case here. This music is not seems simple but is full of complexities clearly translated by Mr. Schaetzke.

Jason Fassl is one of the greatest lighting designers in the country and in this, his 18th year designing for First Stage, he continues to use light as a weapon of mass instruction. You almost have the feeling that a play would be just as effective without dialogue as long is it had the evocative and brilliant lighting by Mr. Fassl.

Spectacular costumes from Arnold Bueso, a set from Brandon Kirkham and amazing sound design from Matt Whitmore added to the joy of this evening.

The cast is, simply, magnificent.

Led by a core of adult equity actors you can see how the young people lift their games so everyone is playing on an equal stage.

Kelly Doherty as the brutal headmistress and Mr. Evans are particularly skilled at capturing the brutality of the adults who damage the lives of the children, are especially glorious.

Elizabeth Telford is the teacher who recognizes and is amazed by the peculiar gifts of Matilda. But she understands that Miss Honey is a character with many layers and she finds each with clarity and passion.

And then there was Reese Bell who played Matilda on the night I saw the play.

Faced with a huge roll with song, dance and dialogue in front of her, this seventh-grader was more than up to the task. From the earliest moments you could feel the heart of the entire audience go out to this little girl and Miss Bell took our hearts of a journey from despair and fright to warmth and joy.

There is nothing in Milwaukee when First Stage is at the top of its game, and this one is even higher than the normal expectations for this marvelous company.

Production credits; Jeff Frank, Director; Michael Pink, Choreographer; Jayne Pink, Choreographer; Jeff Schaetzke, Music Director; Sheri Williams Pannell, Assistant Director; Molly Rhode, Dance Captain; Tyne Turner, Dialect Coach; Brandon Kirkham, Scenic Director; Arnold Bueso, Costume Designer; Jason Fassl Lighting Designer; Matt Whitmore,Sound Designer; Samuel Clein, Music Supervisor; Paul Westfahl, Drums/Percussion; Josh Robinson, Keyboards; Melissa L. Wanke, Stage Manager; Jade Bruno, Assistant Stage Manager; CArrie Johns, Second Assistant Stage Manager.