Moving and frightening “Until The Flood” at the Rep

Dael Orlandersmith in “Until The Flood” at The Rep

Dael Orlandersmith most likely didn’t set out to do it,  but she has written one scary play if you were a white person sitting at The Rep opening night when her “Until The Flood” opened in the Stiemke Studio.

Her one-woman play grasps the a four-year old tale of small Missouri town by the neck and shakes it until the fallout drapes like a shroud of memory.


Who doesn’t remember the town where an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. The exact facts of the encounter will forever remain clouded by uncertainty and unreliability of information. What we know for sure is that Wilson fired his gun eight times, Brown ended up dead in the middle of the street.

The shooting sparked protests the following day, days and days of protests that streamed into the living rooms of America. Violence, anger, looting fires, hand -eldrocks and bottles and thrown at police who took on the spectre of an occupying army. It was an unruly and frightening and reignited a national debate a quarter century after the beating by Los Angeles police of a black man Rodney King, made us begin to talk and think about how cops treated black men,

Playwright Anna Deavere Smith wrote a play about that incident using dialogue actually gleaned word for word from interviews with Angelinos, both white and black. David Cecsarini directed a searing and incandescent production of “Twilight: Los Angeles” two years ago.

“Until the Flood” is no less  incandescent and may well be even more searing.

Ms. Orlandersmith, who plays eight different characters, created composite characters, ranging from two 17-year old black boys to a 75-year old white retired cop.

There are no subtleties in this play, as quiet as it is. It hits you smack in the forehead, right from the get-go.

It opens with a 71-year old retired teacher named Louis Hemphill. She recounts some of the moments in here life when she came face-to-face with bigotry. And she explains the sundown laws in Ferguson.

“Those laws,” she says, “said that if you were a Jew or black you couldn’t be out after sundown. It was ‘Don’t let the sun go down on you nigger.’”

Ms. Orlandersmith, along with her long-time collaborator, director Neel Keller, keep the pressure on for just over an hour. One after another, the people of Ferguson take the stage with just a minor costume or prop switch.

From Louisa we move to Rusty, the retired cop who has justified the shooting, based on his experience. “When someone has nothing to lose, you’ve gotta use your gun,” he says.

And then comes Hassan, the 17-year old who is “fly” and “flows”through his street life. He tells the tale of being pulled over when the driver of the car he was in was going just a “little bit fast.” They were confronted by police.

“This motherfucker was hungry to shoot a nigger,” he said, sounding sad, angry and scared, all at once.

The genius and importance of this play sneaks up on you. At the start it seems almost polemic. But in truth it’s full of insight. Some of the racial stereotypes are striking, but there is some truth in why a stereotype becomes a stereotype.

There is wisdom as well, some we can all use. The wisdom of the barber, who is the subject of interviews by a couple of “green girls” from Northwestern who want to write a story exposing the exploitation of the black men.

“I own this shop,”  says Reuben Little. “I own this building. I know you want us to be victims. But I’m no victim.”

There is also one of the most frightening moments you’ll ever see on a stage, when white electrician Doug Smith shows up.

He explains his background in a drunken and abusive family, and how he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He’s a success, in his mind, with a wife, a house, and two boys, 4 and 5.

He is full of rage for the “niggers” and the “black bastards” and the “apes” and even “kikes.” He tells the story when he and his youngest son were coming out of a store, and the boy was pushed by a black youth.

He orders his son to go “hit that nigger back.” But the boy, shaking, tells his dad, “I don’t even know what a nigger is.”

Paul, a high school junior who lives in the same project as Michael Brown (“it looks like a prison) and who is going to college to study art history, talks eloquently of his struggle to resist the temptations and pressures of life on the streets of Ferguson.

“Please God,” he says. “Let me get out.”

He means physically, emotionally and, most of all, still alive.

PRODUCTION CREDITS: Director, Neel Keller; Scenic Designer, Takeshi Kata; Costume Designer, Kay Voyce; Lighting Designer, Mary Louise-Geiger; Sound Design/Original Music, Justin Ellington; Video/Projection Designer, Nicholas Hussong; Stage Manager, Sarah Deming-Henes; Production Photos, Michael Brosilow.

Second Act:Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee’s rich diversity.”

That’s the mission statement of The Rep, and this play fits into it like magic. The Rep takes this whole thing of helping a larger community very seriously.

They hold an Act II small group discussion session after the performance, designed to continue conversations stimulated by the play. It’s an admirable attempt.

However, most these discussion and research projects, like the city’s “Blueprint for Peace,” never get to the individuals responsible for the violence in our community. Until that happens, all the discussion groups and blueprints are likely doomed to have little impact.


Rep’s “Black Pearl Sings” – not enough singing and too much talking and talking and talking

Driven by an obvious desire to cover all the bases – and even create new bases – playwright Frank Higgins has created two distinct and troubled characters who live in parallel universes.

And each character gets equal depression-era weight with troubles in “Black Pearl Sings,” the latest production at The Rep’s Stackner Cabaret.

One character is Susannah, a white woman who works for the Library of Congress and is traveling the country recording songs from the past that might be lost to history.

Her latest discovery is Alberta Johnson a black woman imprisoned for 10 years in Texas for “cutting the pecker off” an abusive male partner.

Susannah accidentally hears Alberta (nicknamed Pearl) singing and persuades her to sing some of the “old songs” and is amazed at both the power and beauty of Pearl’s voice. The battle to get Pearl, dressed in prison stripes with a ball and chain around her leg, ensues, a battle that obviously will end successfully with Pearl singing her head off like a combination of Beyonce, Pearl Bailey, and Marian Anderson.

Both of these women have enough problems to fill the most complex soap opera on afternoon television.

For Pearl she is in prison, worries about her daughter in Houston sho seems to have disappeared, is covered in a leech from working in a swamp, is suspicious of white people and is torn from her childhood home on an island in South Carolina.Along the way she is exploited, finds her daughter who dies on the way home as she gives birth to a baby girl (who just before death is named Pearl) and is willing to don a prison uniform for her performances.

Susannah has her own devils. She has been victimized by a powerful man who took credit for one of her discoveries, she has disowned her family for some unknown reason, she is forced to succumb to a former flame (married at that) to get something she wants and she is consumed by her scheme to use Pearl to get a job at Harvard.

There is a basis in truth for Higgins’ play.

In the 1930’s John Lomax from the Library of Congress discovered guitar player Lead Belly in prison. Lomax got him out of prison and toured the country with him, playing a white second fiddle to one of the greatest blues artists ever.

But Higgins has filled his play with so much stuff that it runs two and a half hours with a series of disjointed scenes moving us along Pearl’s journey from prison to performing in front of white liberal university audiences.

Two great actors, Colleen Madden and Lynette DuPree, and the wonderful direction of Leda Hoffman would lead you to expect an evening of rousing entertainment.

But that’s not what happened.

Ms. Madden, a member of the company at American Players Theatre, is one of the best in the state of Wisconsin. She is an absolute genius on a stage but is saddled here with a script that is so multi-dimensional that it’s hard to make sense of many of her moments.

Ms. DuPree is a force on stage, complete with the kind of askance glance that says a thousand words and a clear and warm voice.

But they aren’t enough to bring this thing off.

First of all, there isn’t nearly enough singing. This play is long on time-filling dialogue and short on songs. It is music, after all, that Susannah is searching for and less talk more music might make this production more enthralling.

In addition, this is another one of those Stackner productions that seems bent more on educating the audience than entertaining it. Three seasons ago “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” played at The Stackner and it was like a sophomore class in the history of banjo music.

If you want to write a play about the mystery of the evolution of music from the deep south, you better include a lot of music.

And you better look for surprises. “Black Pearl Sings” was transparent, with almost everything that happened fully expected and almost trite.

Kind of like your average soap opera.

Production Credits: Director Leda Hoffmann; Music director, Abdul Hamid royal; Scenic Designer, Courtney O’Neill; Costume Designer, Lauren T. Roark. Lighting Designer, Aimee Hanyzewski; Sound Designer, Erin Paige; Movement Director, Desiree Cocroft; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Audra Kuchling; Production Photos, Michael Brosilow.

Clements’ “Christmas Carol” a a magnificent tale of suspense

Jonathan Wainwright as Scrooge and Jonathan Smoots as Marley’s Ghost

Stephen King meet Mark Clements.

Clements, the Artistic Director of The Rep, channels the famed horror story writer in year two of the staging of his adaptation of  “A Christmas Carol” which opened Friday night at the Pabst Theater.

In this, the 42nd annual Rep production of the Charles Dickens story, Clements has transformed what was a production seeking to find its feet into a spectacular story, full of horrors and suspense that gave free rein Jonathan Wainwright to create an Ebenezer Scrooge with a depth and slow conversion that is at the heart of the journey.

Mr. Clements vividly demonstrates in this production that he has a penetrating look into what a play needs to carry and deliver all the power it can.

Perhaps the most glaring difficulty in the first staging of this production was that, despite being surrounded and supported by unmatched sets and costumes, the conversion of Scrooge from nasty and cruel miser to a Christmas angel happend to quickly.

This year the agonizing journey of Mr. Wainwright seemed endless as he was faced with vivid echoes of his past, from young boy to young man to aging skinflint. The suspense in the audience was palpable.

Clements has turned this warm-hearted transformational tale into a suspense story where everybody knows the ending but warmly embraces the expedition to get there.

This in large measure is the work of the three Ghosts (of Past, Present and Future), who take Scrooge on this safari through a land of dreams.

Deborah Staples is up first as she takes control and freezes Scrooge in her embrace to visit the things that turned him into the monster he now is.

From a young boy who won’t visit a friend for Christmas out of fear of the wrath of his father to a young man (Christopher Peltier) in love with the ravishing Belle (Arya Daire) but unable to overcome his social awkwardness to pursue her.

Ms. Staples is an absolute mesmerizing presence, capturing the almost vicious determination and delight in exposing to Scrooge, the horrors of his early behavior in life. She seems to float across the stage with an occasional  plea to the audience for permission and encouragement to continue ravishing Scrooge with a memory of his own life.

Next up is Ghost of Christmas Present with the Todd Denning clad in a lush green with white trim and a beard and curl of hair. Mr. Denning’s ghost it full of humor as he guides Scrooge through his life, including the decisive scene of the holiday dinner with the family of Bob Cratchit (Reese Madigan).

Mr. Wainwright is fearfully horrified after coming face to face with Tiny Tim and wonders if the child will survive. It is the first and most graphic of the metamorphosis of Scrooge from tyrant to a man filled with the warmth of humanity.

Finally the Ghost of Christmas Future (Brade Bradshaw) drives the final stake into the cold, cold heart of Scrooge. In a Darth Vader costume, complete with shining bright red eyes,  Mr. Bradshaw is silent as he directs Scrooge to what is on the painful horizon if he doesn’t change his ways.

The disintegration of Scrooge has come first circle and the Mr. Wainwright’s collapse is like a Christmas gift for all of us in the audience. It was wrapped in a brown paper bag of rapicious greed and now the ribbon is off, the Scotch tape has been torn and the paper is teetering on the edge of disappearance.

This adaptation by Mr. Clements has become a fascinatingly layered mounting of this classic, with added details and depth and backstory of nephews, friends, employees and others who have dipped into Scrooge’s life.

Mr. Wainwright made his debut as Scrooge last year and seemed a little overwhelmed by the scope of the role. This year he has become the full owner of Scrooge, finding the cloistered and bound presence of this miser before exulting in the freedom and joys of his holiday committment.

He has become an actor of prodigious skills and they are all on full and vibrant display here.

Mr. Clements has reworked his adaptation into what will become a classic for Milwaukee Christmas seasons to come. It is assuredly time to recognize that there is a wisdom in “leaving well enough alone.” His Christmas Carol is now well enough to leave alone.

“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 24 at The Rep.

Production credits: Director, Mark Clements; Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer, Todd Edward Ivins; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tecoma; Lighting Designer, Jeff Nellis; Sound Designer, Barry G. Funderburg; Original Music Score, John Tanner; Stage Movement Director, Michael Pink; Production Dramaturg, Brent Hazelton; Dialect Coach, Jayne Pink; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Make-up/Hair/Wig Designer, Lara Leigh Dalbey; Associate Director, Leda Hoffmann; Stage Manager, Rebecca Lindsey; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.  

Chad Bauman’s column on criticism and a response from a theater critic

Chad Bauman, the smart and experienced Managing Director of the Milwaukee Rep, writes a monthly column for American Theatre magazine. In the latest issue he was asked to look at the state of theatrical criticism in this country. You can read his very thoughtful and incisive column here.

But there is also a response, my response, crafted after over 50 years in the field of journalism. Mine won’t be nearly as detailed or researched as his, but I think it makes some points worth considering.

Mr. Bauman relies heavily on the advent of technology and the changes wrought in the getting the word out about the work of a particular theater company and the weakening of reliance of theater criticism. And nobody would disagree.

He wrote:

“In a recent survey sent to our single ticket buyers at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, we asked patrons what drove their purchasing decisions, and their responses mirrored my own hotel searches. First and foremost, patrons must be interested in the subject matter or premise of the play. Next, they check with friends and family to get recommendations, and then consider the ticket price. Only after all that do patrons report that a professional review will influence their purchasing decision. Just a decade ago, I ran a similar market study while at Arena Stage, with patrons reporting that the primary purchasing decision rested on the review of the Washington Post. So what’s happened in the intervening years?”

All you have to do is look at, as he does, the incredible shrinking role of newspapers in the United States today. Let me offer some context, however.

When I started in newspapers we used hot type, articles were written and marked up on paper and then hand carried to the layout floor before being sent to the printers.

Then came computers, and everyone wailed how it was going to ruin journalism. I remember those first classes that were supposed to teach us how to use the new technology.

Now we have the Internet and smartphones and laptops and social media. Newspapers have been decimated. But, and this is an important but, journalism has survived.

All we have here is a sea change in the types of delivery of news and feature stories and all the other stuff that has made newspapers vital to life. The tenets of journalism haven’t changed.

A theater critic is not an artist. A theater critic is a journalist. No different, really, than any other journalist.

Think, if you will, of a political columnist working for, say, The New York Times or Washington Post, both newspapers that are thriving.

The columnist watches events then tries to figure out the truth of them,measured against a standard defined by the columnist by experience and time. Then the columnist writes her opinion of those events.

So, too, with the theater critic.

Ben Brantley, for more than two decades the chief theater critic for The Times, is arguably the most influential critic in the world. He is also a sort-of friend and when I began to review plays, he gave me 10 pieces of advice. Numbers 1 and 10 were the same.

“Never forget who you are writing for,” he said. “It is for the people who go, or may go, to see plays.”

An arts critic, no matter what the subject, treats her work as an individual thing. A sportswriter tries to represent all the fans. A critic represents nobody but herself. Hopefully, a serious critic has some standards for success against which any production is measured.

But a real critic cares almost nothing about any reaction to a review.

I have been involved in any number of controversial journalism endeavors over the years and have never – ever – been overly concerned about how readers or subjects react to something I’ve done.

If an egregious error has been made, I’m good with talking about it. But other than that, the review is out there, it’s what I think, and a reader can choose to believe it or not.

I have heard athletes say that they never read stories about their team. I have heard actors say they never read reviews. I think both of those reactions are silly. If you are devoted to your craft,  you want as much input as possible, and it’s up to you to determine if it has anything of value.

One of the big differences between covering a sports team and a play, of course, is that with a score, you can determine which team wins and which team loses. Impossible in the theater.

Every time I walk into a theater I hope it’s going to be a play that knocks my socks off. I have things that I think are important to a play, and the biggest is that I want to get moved – to laugh, to cry, to think, to fear, to feel something.

When that doesn’t happen, I can’t be positive about any production. When it does, there is a glow to a review.

I think Mr. Bauman raises a number of good points, especially in the way theater companies have changed their outreach to audiences and potential audiences.

But good journalism isn’t going away anytime soon. There will always be a place for serious theater criticism, it’s just that you won’t get ink stains on your fingers when you read it.


Your tummy twists into knots in The Rep’s “Holmes and Watson”

Mystery upon mystery at The Rep’s “Holmes and Watson”

The single question is really a series of questions.

Was it him or him or him or him or him or him or him or him or….even her or her?

Or, as Hamlet would say about these 10 people, “to be or not to be, that is the question.”

Welcome to the world of “Holmes and Watson,” the new play by the brilliant Jeffrey Hatcher that opened Friday night at the Quadracci Powerhouse at The Milwaukee Rep.

Seven actors, led by two legends of Wisconsin theater, put 10 characters on a sparse stage augmented by a scaffold-stairs and the marvelous projections of Mike tutaj, in a mystery that is the ultimate challenge for those of us who want to “figure it out.”

Everybody knows Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The sleuths from the mind of Arthur Conan Doyle appeared in 5 6 short stories and four novels and has been portrayed in television and films more than any detective duo in history.

Hatcher has created a play that not only tells a story but tells it the way Doyle – or Holmes _- would tell it, full of mystery, surprises, twist, turns and even a little bit of shock. Sometimes a tense murder mystery is just the thing to get your heart pumping, and this one does the job.

Here’s the deal.

Holmes has died in a mysterious confrontation with the devilish Moriarty, the leader of a gang who has fought the detective to death at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. The grieved Watson (Norman Moses) is certain the two fighters have fallen to their death in the water.

But Wait!!

Watson receives a letter from Dr. Evans (Mark Corkins) that there are three patients in his asylum off the coast of Scotland, all of whom claim to be Sherlock Holmes. The only way to find out which one is really the famed detective is for Watson to travel to the asylum and see each of the three, and making the final judgement and solve this dilemma.

That is dilemma number one.

What follows that takes more than all your fingers and toes to count. Moment by moment, things change and what you thought a mere moment ago turns out to be something else entirely. And as you hopelessly look at the person sitting next to your for help you will only a find a play with a look just as perplexed as yours.

Director Joseph Hanreddy has taken Mr. Hatcher’s play and squeezed every tiny bit of surprise from the structure, and then some. Integrating the inventive work of a group of designers into a production that is the whole thing from the earliest moment. A clap of thunder with a flash of light opens and the mournful wail of a violin closes as the lights slowly dim to black.

Mr. Moses, long one of Milwaukee’s favorites, finds a depth in Watson unrevealed in most iterations. Normally you see Watson as a buttoned-up accessory to Holmes. Moses reveals him to be both a dedicated aide-de-camp but also a sleuth with his own special brand of detecting, featuring more emotion that Holmes ever showed.

He sets the tone for the next 80 minutes with his open.

“Of  the  many  unforeseen  outcomes  of  the  tragedy  that  befell Sherlock  Holmes  at  the  Falls  of  Reichenbach,  surely  the  most frustrating  fell  under  the  category  of  ‘False  Sightings.’ As Holmes’  body  had  not  been  retrieved,  it  was  relatively  simple for  any  number  of  frauds,  fakes  and  charlatans  to  come forward  and  lay  claim  to  his  identity.                                         Naturally  the  task fell  to  me  to  disprove  the  many  impersonators  who  made  their presence  known. Off  I  would  go,  by  train,  by  boat,  by  horse and  carriage,  each  time  to  be  disappointed,  as  I  knew  each time  I  would  be.”Until  today. A  telegram  arrived.

(holds  up  a  TELEGRAM)

“Dr.  Watson,  I  write  to  inform  you  of  a  mystery. I  have  in my  care  three  men,  each  of  whom  claims  to  be  the  late  Mr. Sherlock  Holmes.     It  is  imperative  that  this  matter  be  sorted out  at  once  and  in  the  deepest  secrecy. A  compartment  has been  reserved  for  you  on  the  Scotsman  leaving  Kings  Cross, connecting  at  Edinburgh  to  Starkhaven,  then  via  ferry  to  the asylum.”

Mr. Corkins, another local favorite, infuses the reserved Dr. Evans with an air of mystery that only heightens the tension. He is a man who is engaged in medical treatment but very clearly has some kind of evil lurking inside.

His performance is reminiscent of his powerful turn as Gideon Kroeg, a brutal South African interrogator in “Burying the Bones” at In Tandem  four years ago.

Mr. Hatcher and Mr. Hanreddy have avoided one of the minor dangers in bringing a Holmes & Watson to the live stage.

Part of the overwhelming joy of reading these mysteries is the ability to turn back a page so that the reader remains . When the twists get a little confusing, you just go back and re-read what you need to.

On the stage, you can’t go back, but through simplification and subtle repetition, Mr. Hatcher and Mr. Hanreddy have made sure that getting confused about the plot is a burden not faced by the audience.

There is no chance that I’m going to reveal any of the countless little mysteries or the big mystery that, like thriller, is revealed in the end.

Suffice it to say that the challenge, friends, is to see if any of you can actually figure out what’s going on.


Program Notes

In any mystery the mood plays a big part of the story. And the mood makers here do spectacular work.

Scenic Designer Bill Clarke has created a visual backdrop that is full of surprise both bold and subtle. A single chair and table make up the set. But upstage is a scaffold-like set of stairs with a  door in the middle  that slides open when needed for more chills. There are stairs to a door leading to the rest of the asylum and a door that leads to the kitchen In the middle of the stage is a lattice trapdoor from which the patients enter. Powerful.

The biggest challenge for costume designer Karin Simonson Kopischke was what to do with the three patients. She created three different looks that made sure no mental patient ever got confused with another. The style of Patient 2 was especially powerful.

Mike Tutja worked wonders with his projections. We saw a roiling sea, a calm ferry ride, a train and a tempest of a waterfall, all specific and all atmospheric.

Ad finally, the sound design of Bob Milburn and Michael Bodeen had elements of shock, dismay and mood. The sound of three unseen cells being opened sent chills down my spine while the sudden clap of thunder made me sit up in my seat.

“Holmes and Watson” runs through December 17 at The Milwaukee Rep

Production credits: Director Joseph Hanreddy; Scenic Designer,Bill Clarke; Costume Designer, Karin Simonson Kopischke; Lighting Designer, Michael Chybowski; Sound Designer, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; Projection Designer, Mike Tutaj; Fight/Stunt Director, Ben Kahre; Dialect Coach  Clare Arena Haden; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Sarah Deming-Henes; Production photographer, Michael Brosilow.