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.

Rep’s “All Nigh Strut” a train to nowhere

The cast of “All Night Strut” at the Stackner Cabaret. Photo by Michael Brosilow

So the conductor walks out on the stage.

“All Aboard,” he shouts. He walks down the aisle, asking for, taking and punching tickets.

Ah, it’s a train ride we are in for at the “All Night Strut,” now running at The Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. Sounds like fun.

As it turns out, however, this is a train to nowhere.

Like a shrub of tumbleweed in a windstorm, this train wanders around, stopping at stations that have almost no logical relationship with the each other.

There is no beginning to this trip, no middle to this trip and no end.

It’s so uninteresting that I didn’t even care that they never explained why we had this train in the first place.

This ultra-thin musical is a paean to the music of the 30’s and 40’s and it’s got a couple of dozen very cool songs, ranging from “I’ll Be Seeing You” to “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “In the Mood” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”

It’s got five talented and versatile performers who can sing, play instruments and even dance a little bit.

But there’s no story here. Each song is almost totally unrelated to any other song as well as seeming to have only a nodding acquaintance with whoever is singing it. Instead we get unconnected and earnest efforts by the entertainers, performances that you might get if they were auditioning for a role in a Broadway musical.

They hold nothing back. It’s all in from the first to last note and no effort at any kind of  f subtlety or even a smattering of dynamics in these musical gems.

This isn’t about telling a story. It’s like somebody tied the talented hands of director JC Clementz behind his back and told him to “make this really sparkle.” And he did, teaming with music director Dan Kazemi to give each song everything in the bag.

It’s tough to say that these five people (Brian Russell Carey, Kelley Faulkner, Nygel D. Rogbinson, Jonathan Spivey and Katherine Thomas) could be boring. But the evening is almost totally without surprise.

You expect the songs to be good songs. You expect the singers to be good singers. You expect them to be able to play all kinds of music. And they meet all the expectations.

But there is no bar set up high for these performers to reach for This whole thing is way too much in their comfort zones. Nobody looks like they are working. They might as well be sitting around in a living room, holding glasses of Pinot Noir and taking turns dazzling each other with their vocal gymnastics.

The Stackner has been home to a whole line of wonderful productions telling stories about Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, John Denver, Tony Bennett and a whole raft of famous divas

The music in “All NIght Strut” can hold up against all the others.

But there is no tale to be told. When it was over I jotted down my overwhelming impression.

Yeah, so what?

First Stage Lives up to it’s reputation with “Nate the Great”

The cast of Nate the Great at First Stage

It’s not a fast slide from “Nate the Great” to Nate the Average or even the Nate Without Any Ideas.

But it happens, much to the surprise of everyone, but nobody was more surprised that Nate himself.

He had built a teenage career by being a deductive detective, taking cases and solving the riddles for his friends and family.

But this latest one (eventually two) has him flummoxed and the story, “Nate the Great” running now at First Stage is a spellbinding  play that brings the audience along the tortured path trying to solve the mystery.

Brilliantly adapted by John Maclay (book and lyrics) and Brett Ryback (music and lyrics) director Niffer Clarke works her musical theater wizardry to craft the kind of show that is perfect for the First Stage audience, kids, adults and anything else. Even your pets would like this one.

Nate (Seth Hoffman) is a teenager with an unbridled lust for pancakes and an equally unbridled confidence in his talents to solve even the most perplexing cases.

His friend Annie (Makayla Davis) has painted a dog, a painting she loves, but it has disappeared. Not lost, but stolen and she asks Nate to take her case.

He does, and what ensues is a step by step search for clues and solutions. Along the way he suspects and then clears friend Rosamond (Emily Harris) who has lost one of her many casts, a cat she calls her Super Hex.

Turn after turn and Nate runs into an empty basket, no answers to found and his spirits drop steadily. His frustration is overwhelming and he’s more discouraged in his abilities than ever before.

I’m not about to reveal what happens, but suffice it to say that with little brother (Cole Sison) and the always magnificent Elyse Edelman (the only adult ) plays everything from Nate’s Mom to Annie’s dog, Fang does an amazing tango with both Nate and Annie.

One of the most remarkable things about First Stage is the challenge facing the cast and the designers. Everything is done to a high level, while combining the need to make a production simple enough for children to follow.

This is a musical, but instead of simple melodies and lyrics, Mr. Ryback has written music that is complex and not the least bit easy to sing.

Ms. Clarke is a veteran of musical theater and brings her sensitivities and sills to bear on a cast that could easily overwhelmed by the challenges. She understands, as well as anyone, the concept of acting and singing that you need to tell a story, and to move it forward.

I have long held a dream to perform in a musical directed by Ms. Clarke. The discovery process for an actor/singer must be the ultimate in creative satisfaction.

Mr. Maclay, who is the Director of Artistic Development at First Stage has taken a great tale and moved it forward steadily, which honesty and free of gimmicks. Two seasons ago he collaborated with Joe Foust to adapt the best Robin Hood I’ve ever seen. Mr. Maclay has an unerring ear for raking the varied and diverse simple and understandable.

Mr. Ryback captures the synthesis of humor and storytelling with the need to make songs a part of something bigger.

First Stage is a remarkable company, perhaps the best family theater company in the country,  It proves, on a daily basis that there is no need to dumb down – or play down – to create magical enchantment for everybody in the family.

“Nate the Great” runs through Nov. 11.

Production credits: Niffer Clarke, Director; Brett Ryback, Music Director; Giana Blazquez, Choreographer; Joanna Iwanicka, Scenic Designer; Lyndsey Kuhlmann, Costume Designer, Jesse Klug, Lighting Designer, Stage Manager, Melissa L Wanke; Assistant Stage Manager, Carrie Johns; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.

A quartet of spectacular actors bring brooding Irish alive at Next Act


Deborah Staples and David Cecsarini in Outisde Mullingar at Next Act

There are many joys in this world, but chief among them is having an opportunity to watch the very best in action.

The thing that often sets them apart is not the big stuff, but the little things.

It’s Yo Yo Ma, tilting his head so he can better hear the notes from his cello. It’s  Tiger Woods in his prime, taking just one more second to check before he strokes a putt. It’s Stephen Colbert that lets you know, if you catch it, that a joke is on the way.

With a cast of masterful actors hewing to equally masterful directions, “Outside MUllingar,” The John Patrick Stanley dark  romantic comedy running at Next Act Theatre, it is such little things that prove striking.

The first example comes early when the brilliant James Pickering, playing a crotchety, aging Irish farmer, prepares to add wood to his potbellied kitchen stove.

Before adding the wood, Mr. Pickering touches the top of the stove with a knuckle, checking the heat. It’s a small thing but oh so telling that we are about to watch masters at work.

Carrie Hitchcock and James Pickering at Outside Mullingar

Set in the rural Irish countryside, Mr. Pickering plays Tony, the widowed farmer who lives with his son, Anthony (David Cecsarini). They have just returned from the funeral for neighbor Christopher Muldoon and are soon joined by his widow Aoife (Carrie Hitchcock), who lives with her daughter Rosemary (Deborah Staples).

The first act is the expected brooding and dark affair. Aofie and Tony discuss their impending deaths, Tony is preparing to leave his world and is determined to keep his son from taking over the farm. “He doesn’t love the earth,” he moans, over and over.

Anthony, for his part, is an unhappy man for reasons yet to be revealed. His relationship with his father is tense and unpleasant, adding to the sullen climate.

Of course this being the Irish, there are moments of high good humor among the melancholy. All three actors have their moments when laughs come easily and often unexpectedly.

Introduced near the end of the first act, Rosemary shows the first glimpses into her relationship with Anthony. Her mother confirms that Rosemary holds a permanent grudge against Anthony stemming from a 30 year old incident when he pushed the six-year-old girl to the ground.

Their farms are separated by a strip of land that Tony sold to Christopher 30 years ago. The land, now owned by Rosemary, requires that Tony go through two gates in order to get from the road to his own home, a fact that gnaws at the old man.

The second act is a tour de force for both Ms. Staples and Mr. Cecsarini, who are real life husband and wife.

Like any good romantic comedy an incredible array of obstacles threaten the journey toward love. He is adamantly reluctant to get involved with her, instead offering to introduce her to his American cousin who is coming to Ireland to find a bride.

Rosemary is aghast at this idea and appalled that he “knocked on my door for your cousin.”

Eventually she plaintively asks “Why didn’t you knock for yourself Anthony?”

As expected, Anthony and Rosemary overcome the odds and thebarriers and end up happily ever after. But it is the journey, directed by Edward Morgan, that is so much fun.

People live and die, argue and love, drink beer and eat stew, shun and embrace – in short a fully Irish thang.

And these four actors are such a special quartet that I could have easily watched another couple of hours of this two-hour journey into the heart. The four of them all delve deep into their characters and bring these four vastly different people fully alive. They do all the big stuff that we expect.

And, they do the little things, that sets them apart from the rest of mere mortals.

Production credits: Director, Edward Morgan; Scenic Design, Rick Rasmussen; Lighting Design,Aaron Sherkow; Costume Design, Dana Brzezinski; Sound Design, Grover Hollway; Properties Design, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Production photographer; Ross Zentner.

“Guards at the Taj” looks at both beauty and duty

Owa’Ais Azeem and Yousof Sultani star in “Guards at the Taj” Photo by Michael Brosilow

It is only with intelligent and perceptive direction that the truth of “Guards At The Taj” can speak plainly to an audience.

It would be easy to get wrapped up in the humor or the horror of the play, currently running at the Stiemke Studio at The Rep. It would be easy to think this is a play about what makes something beautiful and how important is it to daily life.

But under the maestro touch of Brent Hazelton, what we see on this stage is a piercing examination of the concept of duty – duty to others, duty to family and friends, duty to a cause and, ultimately, duty to yourself.

It’s the mid 1600’s and the magnificent Taj Mahal has just been completed – the most beautiful thing on earth. Humayun (Yousof Sultani) and Babur (Owa’Ais Azeem) are two lowly guards, assigned to the dawn shift guarding the palace. They must stand still, not talk and certainly not turn to look at the building.

Rajiv Joseph’s play breaks the plane of duty quickly with a brotherly banter between the two guards, Humayan intent on obedience to the orders, Babur equally intent on disregarding orders in order to indulge his flights of fancy.

The play starts funny, very funny, and Mr. Hazelton has given his two actors an incredible box of tools to work with and each actor  takes full advantage. They quickly draw portraits of who each man is and how abundant their relationship with each other is.

They may be the bottom of the totem pole, but they suffer each other graciously and find both love and delight in their brotherhood.

One of the most charming and mesmerizing parts of this play are the silences. Long and drawn out, Mr. Hazelton lets the silence breathe and even talk to the audience. They are enraptured.

The 85 minutes from places to curtain are a long and tortured slide from the funny guys to two men wracked with pains, both real and imagined. Mr. Hazelton manages this slide with patience and Azeem and Sultani let those silences ride on the wings of both fantasy mixed with harsh reality.

These two actors are scintillating in their passions and powers. Each draws a precise picture of men who enjoy abundant similarity while sharing a wonder at their differences.

This is a powerful play, full of surprise (which I’m reluctant to reveal). As the disillusion grows in a variety of directions for each character, there is an audience sympathy that mixes with the gnarl of painful repulsion.

I have enjoyed Mr. Hazelton’s work for a long time,and his continued growth as a director of amazing talents has been a joy to watch.

About a decade ago, when there was still a foolish thought that I might be an actor, I did a play at Windfall directed by Mr. Hazelton. One rehearsal we spent half an hour talking about a toothpick I used as a minor prop. Half an  hour about a toothpick.

It is that kind of attention to detail that makes him such a power heading a production. He is more than ably assisted here by brilliant scenic design by Scott Davis, evocative lighting by Noele Stollmack, a vibrant sound design by Barry G. Funderburg and creative scenic design by Scott Davis.

That team has combined efforts to create an evening of troubling theater, the kind of thing that makes you smile before it slams into you, demanding that you think about what you just saw on the stage.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre on tap with another unique and promising production

“A new production from MOT holds great promise

It’s a rare occasion that I ever recommend a play without having seen it first.

As they say, rules are made to be broken. So, here we go.

For only three nights, Milwaukee Opera Theatre will stage “Antiology” at the Boswell Bookstore on Downer Avenue on the East Side of Milwaukee. The show opens Wednesday, Oct. 10 and runs through Friday. Just three performances, which has always been one of the only regrets I have for MOT.

Just as the Milwaukee Ballet should have more performances, so, too should MOT since the company delivers some of the most unique and stunning productions seen in any given season in this city.

“Antiology” appears to be another one, especially since the show is the product of the same team that created the highly-acclaimed “Lucy” that had its premiere at MOT four years ago. That show, about a monkey, was one of the very best I saw that season.

This time the music was written by John Glover and the words by Kelley Rourke. The main performers will be the fantastic baritone Andrew Wilkowske and the equally fantastic Jack Forbes Wilson, Milwaukee’s greatest semi-hidden jewel.

The show is based on the novel, “Eat the Document” by Dana Spiotta. The story is about a pair of radicals from the Vietnam Era, and their lives two decades later. Different people and different paths.

Perhaps I’m a little biased because I knew, and even planned, with two of the most famous women anarchists of the Vietnam era, Bernadine Dohrn and Katharine Ann Power.

Jill Anna Ponasik, the ever inventive artistic director at MOT and the artistic associate at Skylight, is the muse behind this production, and so many other memorable productions. For all of her “aw shucks” attitude she is a woman of formidable talents who should have a larger stage for her works (HELLO SKYLIGHT WHICH IS LOOKING FOR A NEW ARTISTIC DIRECTOR)!!!

The production will feature the following instruments: guitar, piano, dulcimer, autoharp, accordion,ukulele, banjolele, harmonica, banjo, washboard, cello, toy piano, metronomes, saxophone, trombone, recorder and spoons.

All those instruments will combine in a jam to the following songs:

Our Prayer: Beach Boys

God Only Knows: Beach Boys

Good Vibrations: Beach Boys

River Song: Denis Wilson

Eight Miles High: The Byrds

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: Bob Dylan

Broken Heart: Skip Spence

Maybe this thing will fall flat on its face, and I’ll be embarrassed by this preview. But I’d bet against it and urge everyone to see this three-performance production.