Pickering moving and powerful as “Secret Mask” hits home at Next Act

Sometimes – only occasionally – we get a chance to step into an area of rarefied air, a place where perfection lives and the world seems to bask in the glow of a magnificent light.

Exhibit One – James Pickering at “The Secret Mask” at Next Act Theatre.

Part of this is the demands of the role created by playwright Rick Chafe. But a bigger part is the way Pickering roared into the role with the strength, serenity and majesty of a lion the king of a pride.

Artistic Director David Cecsarini has a lengthy history of bringing unseen and powerful plays to Next Act, and Mask is no exception.

Mr. Pickering plays Ernie, a 70-something man who has suffered an aphasia  stroke.

The American Stroke Association describes it this way.

“Aphasia does not affect intelligence. Stroke survivors remain mentally alert, even though their speech may be jumbled, fragmented or impossible to understand. Some survivors continue to have trouble speaking, like getting the words out”,trouble finding words, problems understanding what others say, problems with reading, writing or math or an inability to process long words and infrequently used words.”

Ernie is working with Mae (Tami Workentin), a speech pathologist when his son George (Drew Parker) arrives to visit with the father he hasn’t seen since Ernie walked out 40 years ago.

That the two men are virtual strangers is complicated by the disabling of any kind of meaningful conversation between the two. Mae is an optimist, full of praise over the most minimal of progress for Ernie. George is Angry and hopeless over the seemingly disconnected reality where Ernie is stuck.

The first meeting between the three is a harbinger of what’s to come.

Mae: That’s a good day’s work, Ernie.  I bet you’re tired.

Ernie:  Yep.

Mae:  He needs lots of rest, so I’d suggest just a couple of minutes.

 Your son’s here now, Ernie. Everything’s going to be fine. You and George can go over to the lunchroom and have a short visit—

George:  Can I talk to you a minute?

Mae:   —and then I’ll send someone to get you. (to George) I have to see another client right away, but I can set up some time with you this afternoon—

George:   Just—seriously. Is this it?

Mae: No no, it’s only been three days since the stroke.

George: He can’t put two words together.

Mae: It’s a lot to take in, I know, but he’s going to improve.

George:Just roughly—is he going to be able to answer an intelligent question any time soon?

Mae:  I can’t say how quickly, but I can almost promise you’ll see progress.

Have you spoken with the social worker yet, Mrs. Barrett?

George:  She can’t see me until three, I could really stand to be filled in right now.

Mae: Let’s sit down right after you’re finished with Mrs. Barrett. She’ll give you the whole overview of what’s ahead. The team who will be working with your dad, some of the timelines you might expect, the changes you need to be getting ready for—

George: No.

Mae: I’m with your dad again at ten o’clock tomorrow. Why don’t you come sit in with us and I’ll clear some time after.

George:I had no idea he’d be like this.Mae: I’m sorry to be so rushed. This can be overwhelming. The most important thing is he needs you and you’re here for him now.

George: …. No.

Mae: I’m going to get an orderly to take your father back to his room.

I think you really need to have a chat with Mrs. Barrett. Okay?

George: Just—have her call me.

George has come to Vancouver on business and he is obviously throw for a loss by his father and unwilling or unable to step up to the plate. There is nobody else in Ernie’s life and George is determined to remain reluctant to do much. He harbors a palpable resentment of the man who left him and his mother 40 years ago.

The play is a journey taken by father and son that moves haltingly forward with a series of setbacks as they move. The journey is further complicated b y another father-son relationship, the one between George and the unseen Reese, 15-years-old and a hostile rebel to his father.

George faces unexpected and profound disappointments and crises during the two hours of this play, but finds, much to his surprise, solace in the fractured relationship with his father.

Mr. Pickering delivers a performance that must rank near the top of his storied career. He captures everything there is to capture about Ernie. He’s funny and confused and angry and sad and charming – oh, is he charming.  It’s a performance of such subtlety that I didn’t realize how glorious it was until the curtain call.

Mr. Parker is new to Next Act and shows displays a range of emotions and purpose with skills. It’s not easy to be a character who an audience dislikes at one point and then loves with abandon at another. But Mr. Parker is clearly up to the task.

Ms. Workentin, one of the most reliable actors in Milwaukee, not only plays the speech pathologist but also creates several minor roles as a restaurant server, a nursing home hustler, a fishing buddy of Ernie’s, a bank teller and  a lawyer. She has remarkable versatility and creates different characters with only minor touches that only an experienced and talented actor can deliver.

Despite all the skills from director Edward Morgan and the other designers and actors, this is a play that belongs to Mr. Pickering. He is an actor who has a clarity of understanding that all things must be in service to the story and is generous to all who share a stage and a seat in the audience.

His ability to marvel seems to never wane.

“The Secret Mask” runs through December 10 at Next Act Theatre.

Production credits: Director, Edward Morgan; Scenic Design, Rick Rasmussen; Lighting Design, Aaron Sherkow; Costume Design, Dana Brzezinski; Sound Design, David Cecsarini; Properties Design, Heidi Slater & Shannon Sloan Spice; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly.

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.


American Players Theatre announces exciting schedule for next season

SPRING GREEN, WIS: American Players Theatre (APT) is excited to announce its 39th summer season, which will run June 9 to October 14, 2018. In APT’s flagship outdoor amphitheater, William Shakespeare will bookend the Hill season with As You Like It and Measure for Measure. Also playing on the Hill: Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday, George Farquhar’s restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer and George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House.

The 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre will host: Exit the King by Eugéne Ionesco, Blood Knot by Athol Fugard and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (a play featuring prisoners putting on a production of The Recruiting Officer). The 2018 shoulder season opening in November will feature John Morogiello’s Engaging Shaw.

 In advance of the 2017 season, APT launched an $8 million capital campaign, titled The Next Great Stage campaign, to rebuild the Hill Theatre stage, lobby and backstage area. As of the close of the season, APT is thrilled to announce that the $8 million fundraising goal has been met, and the construction project is fully funded.

Artistic Director Brenda DeVita said, “We are so grateful to every single person who helped us build our beautiful new stage. The past 12 months have been absolutely wild, and this summer we were able to produce plays that would just not have been possible for us in the past. The flexibility it gives us – the creativity it inspires – can only continue to make the experience richer for our patrons and our artists. The plan for 2018 is to take what we’ve learned and hand it over to a group of directors who, for the most part, didn’t direct on the Hill last season. And, you know, just see what new magic they come up with. I can’t wait see where their vision takes us, and I can’t wait to direct on the Hill for the first time myself.”

The 2018 season schedule will be available in early January. Tickets will go on sale to returning patrons on March 5 at 7:00 am online at americanplayers.org, and at 10:00 am via the APT Box Office by phone at 608-588-2361.

The 2018 Season, June 9 – October 14, 2018



As You Like It By William Shakespeare

Directed by James Bohnen

Two of Shakespeare’s favorite devices – cross-dressing and running away to the woods– meet in glorious fashion in As You Like It. Rosalind and Celia are best friends and cousins. But when Celia’s father, the Duke, begins to see Rosalind as a threat to his daughter’s future prosperity, the two women don disguises (with Rosalind pretending to be a boy named Ganymede) and head to the Forest of Arden before Rosalind can be banished. Meanwhile, Orlando, a young gentleman who had previously fallen in love with Rosalind, is similarly threatened by his own brother and also flees to the Forest. There, he meets “Ganymede,” who promises to teach him how to woo Rosalind. All that plus a band of merry woods-dwelling misfits make for a great Shakespearean comedy.

Featuring: Tracy Michelle Arnold as Jaques, Melisa Pereyra as Rosalind and Marcus Truschinski as Touchstone.

Born Yesterday By Garson Kanin

Directed by Brenda DeVita

Shady businessman Harry Brock heads to Washington with his ex-showgirl girlfriend Billie Dawn in an attempt to shift the law to his side. When Brock decides that Billie is too unrefined to mix with the DC political set, he hires journalist Paul Verrall to make her appear more intelligent. But a little education can go a long way, and Billie may be smarter than her “friends” give her credit for. A hilarious and timely send up of politics and perceptions.

Featuring: David Daniel as Harry Brock and Colleen Madden as Billie Dawn.

The Recruiting Officer Written by George Farquhar

Directed by William Brown

Scoundrels are put on notice and women (literally) wear the pants in this uproarious restoration comedy. Recruiting officers travel from port to port wooing men into service at sea, and women into their beds. Two such men, Worthy and Plume, land in Shrewsbury each in love with a woman who lives there. Worthy has asked Melinda to be his mistress – an offer that she declined. Meanwhile, Plume is in love with Melinda’s cousin Silvia. But Silvia, grieving her brother’s recent death, disguises herself as a man to get away for a while, throwing everyone’s plans into comedic chaos.

Featuring: Kelsey Brennan as Silvia, Nate Burger as Plume and Marcus Truschinski as Brazen.

Heartbreak House Written by George Bernard Shaw

Adapted by Aaron Posner Directed by Aaron Posner

Sweet Ellie Dunn has been invited to a party along with her father and fiancé at the home of the eccentric Captain Shotover, where he lives with his bohemian daughter Hesione and her husband Hector. But it soon comes to light that Ellie has eyes for another man. Surprises hit one after the other, when it turns out Ellie’s “true love” is not who he appeared to be, Shotover’s other daughter, Ariadne, shows up at the party after a 23-year absence, and the evening is peppered with burglars and bomb scares. A rich Shavian comedy about human folly and the charming and self-absorbed gentry.

Featuring: Tracy Michelle Arnold as Hesione, Jim DeVita as Hector and Colleen Madden as Ariadne.

Measure for Measure Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Risa Brainin

The city of Vienna is rife with vice, and good Duke Vincentio wants to put a stop to it. So in hopes that a new leader will change the people’s wicked ways, he steps down and appoints his trusted minister Angelo to rule in his place. But as Angelo assumes control of the city, his hunger for power grows, and he reinstates strict morality laws with deadly penalties. Claudio, the first to feel the bite of these laws, calls upon his sister Isabella, an aspiring nun, to help prove his innocence. But when Isabella approaches Angelo and appeals to his better nature, she finds he doesn’t have one, and must choose between her brother and her virtue.


Featuring: Melisa Pereyra as Isabella and Marcus Truschinski as Angelo. 


Blood Knot By Athol Fugard

Directed by Ron OJ Parson

Two brothers live a quiet, strained existence in a tiny house in apartheid South Africa. Morris, who has very fair skin, and has in the past passed as white, has recently returned to Port Elizabeth and is living with his brother Zachariah, who works long, painful hours as a sentry at the gate of a whites-only park. Despite Morris’ constant presence, Zach is lonely for the company of a woman, so Morris suggests he find a pen pal. When it turns out Zach’s pen pal is a white woman, the brothers’ desperation exposes the complex angles of their relationship in this powerful play by the man who wrote The Island (produced at APT in 2015) and Exits and Entrances (at APT in 2010).

Featuring: Jim DeVita as Morris and Gavin Lawrence as Zachariah.


Exit the King By Eugène Ionesco

Translated by Neil Armfield & Geoffrey Rush

Directed by Kenneth Albers

An absurdist masterpiece in the Touchstone Theatre. A fading ruler at the helm of a world in decline, King Berenger is having some trouble accepting his fate. His first wife, Marguerite, is intent on forcing him to face his mortality, while his second wife, Marie, wants to shield him from the bad news. All the while an eccentric mix of servants weigh in from the sidelines, with varying degrees of helpfulness. A very funny and deeply moving look at the end of it all.

Featuring: James Ridge as King Berenger.


Our Country’s Good By Timberlake Wertenbaker

Adapted from the novel “The Playmaker” by Thomas Keneally

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli

A group of soldiers and criminals have been sent to Australia as part of a recently created penal colony. The conditions are bad all around, as food is scarce for both jailor and jailed, and the punishment for theft is dire. To raise morale (and in hopes of being noticed by the governor), Lieutenant Ralph Clark decides to stage a production of

Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer, cast with inmates. But Ralph has his hands full with this group of actors, who are sometimes loveable, sometimes unscrupulous, and always perfectly human. Offering funny and candid conversations about incarceration, sex and the redemptive power of art, this play pairs particularly well with The Recruiting Officer. Note: contains strong language and adult themes.

Featuring: Kelsey Brennan and Nate Burger (roles TBA).

Opening in November

Engaging Shaw By John Morogiello

With excerpts from Bernard Shaw

Directed by David Frank

George Bernard Shaw is well known for his writing, wit and commitment to social justice. But in his time, he was also known for being an unrepentant philanderer. His aversion to marriage was so strong that he clung to it even in the face of the clever and charismatic Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who is clearly more than a match for him.

Urged on by their friends Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the two would-be lovers trade witty barbs as they form a close friendship. The question at the center of this charming romantic comedy is whether or not they’ll ever admit how close that friendship is.

Featuring: Colleen Madden as Charlotte Payne-Townshend and James Ridge as George Bernard Shaw.


For more information, visit www.americanplayers.org