On Sunday, August 28, we went to American Players Theatre near Spring Green for a “double-header” of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and “Arcadia,” by Tom Stoppard.

APT’s new production of “King Lear” featured Jonathan Smoots in the title role, and was done modern dress, with some current-era props and effects. Lear’s division of his kingdom is done as an outdoor press-conference, complete with podium and visual aids. Lear’s elder daughters, Goneril (Laura Rook) and Regan (Kelsey Brennan) show up in sleek and stylish outfits modeled on some worn by current real-world princesses. Cordelia (Melisa Pereya), on the other hand, is more girlish and nerdy, a presentation that suits her earnest character.

In this scene, we also meet the Duke of Gloucester (James Ridge), the Duchess of Kent (Greta Oglesby), and Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund (Marcus Truschinski), all of whom will have a sizable role to play in the drama to come.

I did not think the modern setting worked for Lear as well as for some other Shakespeare plays, and in some ways clunked, notably the fight scenes. In an era where assault rifles are common, hand-to-hand combat often takes a back seat for logical reasons. It’s not very credible when unarmed Edgar (Eric Parks), who’s been living rough as “Poor Tom” and who has been portrayed as a playboy rather than a fighter, takes down Goneril’s messenger Oswald (Christopher Sheard), who’s already covering him with a pistol. When Edgar challenges Edmund, their “duel” is a bare-handed wrestling match, unlikely even if portrayed in the mythic Britain of Shakespeare. Giving soldiers modern assault gear and weapons somehow made them more menacing than if they had been outfitted with mail and swords.

On the other hand, some of the role gender-shifting made more feasible by the modern setting worked well. When Kent (Oglesby) is banished by Lear, she renders herself unrecognizable by assuming the clothes, manners, and accent of a working-class black woman. Cristina Panfilio gives the role of Lear’s Fool a female stand-up comedian vibe, and does her songs in an indie-folk style that works well.

While a fine, solid, and affecting performance, I wasn’t totally satisfied with Smoots’ Lear. Lear starts the play as an aged, but vigorous man, and, through the course of events, becomes more aged both physically and mentally, such that, by the end, he dies through a combination of exhaustion and lack of a will to live. We really didn’t see that in this performance, as Lear blusters on nearly unstoppably until the final scene.

The character who really goes through the wringer in this production is Ridge’s Gloucester, who goes from a strong and confident character to a broken man after his blinding. Truschinski, playing a relatively rare villain role, was believable as a man capable of fooling his father and seducing both Goneril and Regan.  Kudos, too, to Ms. Rook and Ms. Brennan who succeeded in giving Goneril and Regan distinctive characters, instead of making them just the two “ugly sisters.” Brennan’s Regan is a wheedler, free with fake smiles and hugs. She makes a good consort for her thuggish husband, Cornwall (Bobby Bowman), whereas Ms. Rook as Goneril freely lets her claws show, compensating for what she sees as the conscience-ridden weakness of her husband, Albany (Cedric Mays).

I didn’t mind the modern costuming—after a while I pretty much ignored it, although there were a couple of inexplicable choices: Although all the other soldiers are in modern dress, including the Duke of Albany, Edmund, as leader of Cornwall’s forces, wears a 19th Century general’s uniform, apparently only so he can have a sword that is used later. Regan, in her last appearance, is given an outfit that is more suited for clubbing at a particularly louche nightspot, rather than visiting a battlefield. Odd.

“Arcadia”

We were glad to see that APT was doing Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” which is a favorite of ours. It is a dauntingly intricate play, not only to stage, with its intersecting character sets from 1809 and the “present day,” but intellectually and linguistically as well.  The director’s notes remark that the play includes: “Lord Byron, Sir Issac Newton, love, the Second law of Thermodynamics, grouse, Chaos Theory, the history of landscape gardening, Time’s Arrow, fractals and iterated algorithms, and the Classical and Romantic temperaments. It is a detective story and a story of the ecstatic hunger of wanting to know, well, everything.”

The play in 1809 focuses on Thomasina Coverly (Rebecca Hurd), a mathematically gifted young girl, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Nate Burger). Thomasina is on the verge of mathematical breakthroughs that won’t be rediscovered for 150 years or more. Hodge, on the other hand, is on the verge of being embroiled in a duel over the easy virtue of the wife of his friend, Ezra Chater (Casey Hoekstra).

In the modern day, the Coverly’s stately home has become a sort of informal research center: Valentine Coverly (Steve Haggard), computer scientist, is attempting to codify the estate’s game books in order to derive an algorithm for the breeding cycles of grouse; Hannah Jarvis (Colleen Madden), a writer, is researching the transformation of the estate’s Classical 18th Century landscaping into a 19th Century Romantic design; and egotistical academic Bernard Nightingale (Jim DeVita) descends upon the property in hot pursuit of some possible unknown history of Lord Byron.

The braided stories intertwine fascinatingly. In the 19th Century, we gradually see what actually happened play out, while in the 20th, we see how even the most well-meaning research can take itself down wrong paths.

All of the cast members were absolutely fine, and handled the difficult text with perfect clarity and exquisite timing. Not only is it intellectually challenging, it’s laugh-out-loud funny (and even funnier if you get all the references).

On Saturday, June 25th, we drove over to Spring Green to see the opening night of the production of Oscar Wilde’s play, “An Ideal Husband.” We cannot recommend this performance too highly.

Wilde’s play, about a poor young man who built a brilliant political career on a fortune made by a single act of misfeasance, is very timely today. Sir Robert Chiltern (David Daniel) has a reputation for strict morality and honesty, and a loving wife (Colleen Madden) who keeps him on her pedestal of idealism. Indeed, all he has done in public life so far has adhered to those standards. Therefore, when he is threatened with the exposure of his past, the fall before him is terrible.

This drama is embedded in the type of comedy of manners that Wilde does so well, with an ongoing dialog about the “triviality” of life, society, parties, marriage, and fidelity, which continues oblivious of the desperate choice facing Sir Robert.

His best friend, Lord Goring (Marcus Truschinski), is the person who connects the worlds of the trivial and the serious. While constantly working on his “trivial” image, Goring turns out to be a steadfast friend and the voice of reason. As Wilde’s voice in the play, Goring has some of the most acerbic and witty commentary on society’s foibles, but also shows great heart and compassion.

There was really marvelous acting by all the principals. Daniel as shows us the agony of his situation. Ms. Madden displays the shock and horror Mrs. Chiltern feels when she finds out about her husband’s indiscretion like getting a punch in the stomach. Tracy Michele Arnold as Mrs. Cheveley has an edgy delivery that reminds one of a younger Dowager Duchess of Grantham. Jade Payton (as Mabel Chiltern), Greta Oglesby (Lady Markby), Cristina Panfilio (Lady Basildon), and Jennifer Latimore (Mrs. Marchmont), as the women of society were devastatingly funny discoursing on their amusements and their discontents.

The costumes were frankly amazing. The women’s party and day outfits were particularly spectacular, but Lord Goring’s orchidaceous suits were close behind. (Tall, slim, and elegant, Mr. Truschinski cuts a figure that Wilde would have envied--.) And, there were nice subtleties, such as the relatively conservative colors and cuts worn by the puritanical Mrs. Chiltern.
The minimal set backdrop was handsome and worked well, augmented by the period furniture and elegant flower arrangements.
On Saturday evening, May 14th, we went to the Walker’s Point Center for the Performing Arts to see “A Disappearing”, the Midwest premier of a new play by Milwaukee playwright Mark Wyss, who also produced. (Mark is also my next-door neighbor, and he and his wife Sandra, who designed the sets for the show, have worked on a number of the same productions I have in the past.)

“A Disappearing” was originally presented in a shorter form at the Albuquerque short play festival in 2014, where it won “Audience Favorite”. This was the first showing of the expanded version.

The play opens as lights come up on the kitchen of Alan and Claire, a suburban couple (Ryan H. Nelson and Michelle White). It’s evident a child’s birthday party is in progress from the cake, hats, and presents on the table. Alan, Claire, and “The Great Marvin” enter, with an argument already in progress. Marvin (Luke Summers) is the magician Claire hired to entertain at their son’s party. Marvin has evidently succeeded in making a heckling child, Tommy, disappear, to general consternation, since he has no idea how he did it, or how, or if, the child can be returned. He may have gone “where lost socks go,” as Marvin speculates.

A tumultuous debate ensues as Alan and Claire try to get their minds around what has happened and wonder what to do. Marvin is alternately appalled and delighted by his new-found power. After a wide-ranging and hilarious discussion, which includes the possible monetization of making inconvenient people go away, Alan takes on the duty of phoning Tommy’s parents to deliver the bad news. The act ends as he is on the phone to them.

Then, the audience moved from the “blue box” performance space at the back of the building, to the front room of the Center, representing the living room of Tommy’s parents, Sheila and Rob (Marilou Davido and John McGreal). They are a slightly younger, somewhat more yuppie couple, who are trying to enjoy a bit of “alone time” while Tommy’s at the party. This has marginal success, since Tommy intrudes even without being their, which results in a discussion about their troublesome child, in which Rob wistfully speculates on what life would be like without Tommy. They are just beginning to settle down when the phone rings, and we hear the other side of Alan’s call. This devolves from incredulity through dismay to hysteria as the message sinks in that their only child has indeed disappeared into thin air.

The third act was back in the “blue box,” now Alan and Claire’s living room. Sheila and Rob have arrived, and recriminations fly thick and fast, while possible solutions are thin on the ground. The play works out as a very funny, very black comedy, which dares to ask the question probably hidden in the hearts of most parents when looking at the fruit of their loins in those inevitable unlovely moments, “what if?”

All of the actors did a very fine job with Mr. Wyss’ edgy script. Direction, by Tim Kietzman, made sure the action and dialog was fast and appropriately furious. We found the delivery, especially of the argumentative scenes, to be very believable, and the wording naturalistic.

We had a fine time at “A Disappearing” and enjoyed very much, as did the rest of the audience. “A Disappearing” continues Friday and Saturday, the 20th and 21st. Tickets can be had at

www.adisappearing.eventbrite.com
On Friday evening, April 15th, we went to the Inspiration Studios performance space to see the Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa’s production of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 play, “The Skin of Our Teeth.” I was curious to see it, because it is a famous play in American letters, and won Wilder a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, the play has not aged well, in my opinion.

The play concerns the Antrobus family, who, in the play’s present day, reside in a pleasant residential neighborhood in New Jersey. Mr. Antrobus works in New York—inventing the alphabet, multiplication tables, and the wheel. It soon appears that Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (Robert A. Zimmerman and Joyce Sponcia) are more than 5000 years old. They may or may not be “Adam and Eve”, but they have a son, Cain (now known as “Henry”) (Scott Sorenson), who long ago killed his brother with a thrown stone. Henry, who seems a bit simple-minded, has anger issues and a slingshot, with which he is deadly dangerous. “Henry” has a scar on his forehead that he must keep covered or fear his father’s wrath. Whether Henry/Cain was injured by his brother and lashed out at him, or by his father in punishment is not revealed. They also have a younger daughter, named Gladys (Jordyn Stewart).

The household is completed by their maid of all work, Sabina (Alexis Fielek), pet dinosaur, and a woolly mammoth that Sabina is expected to milk as part of her duties.

Wilder breaks the “fourth wall” repeatedly in this play, beginning early on with Sabina’s monologue, in which she confesses to us she has no idea what the play is about and doesn’t understand a word of it. We are also occasionally reminded that it IS a play, as when the put-upon stage manager (Jessie Barr0 dashes across the stage in response to a “missed” entrance.
The New Jersey of 1949 is a mélange of times. Not only is Antrobus’ seemingly anachronistic work of value, a glacier is threatening New York, and Antrobus takes in refugees who include Moses and Homer.

The first act in particular seems heavily influenced by the “funny papers” and radio comedies of the forties. Antrobus is supposedly a domestic tyrant that all live in fear of, but the shrewish Mrs. Antrobus runs the house. Although Henry and Gladys are over four thousand years old, they are infantilized by their parents treatment and remain eternal children. The “Bickersons”-style dialog between Mr. and Mrs. May have been funny back then, but it just struck me as depressingly abusive. After dishing out expository lumps, the act ends with pointless noisy chaos.

The second act has the plot of a classic sex farce, or would have, if there were actually any sex. The glacier having receded, the Antrobus family is in Atlantic City on holiday, where Antrobus (whose list of inventions now includes beer) has been elected President of the Loyal Order of Mammals. As we have found, Sabina was at one time Antrobus’ second wife, whom he “brought back from the Sabines,” and, for a time exalted over Mrs. Antrobus. However, Antrobus returned to the mother of his children and reduced Sabina to the status of servant. She is scheming to win him back, disguised as “Miss Fairweather,” a beauty pageant winner. Her cynical speech to Antrobus to the effect that most people are straw men and pretend to have emotions although they really don’t, is one of the more biting bits of the play. She’s succeeding in her purpose, too, until the actress flatly refuses to perform the sex scene, resulting in a debate on stage.

After it’s decided to continue as though the scene had gone on, the act ends with a hurricane warning escalating to “end of the world” level, and the Antrobus family takes shelter in a large ship, along with numerous pairs of other mammals, thus bringing the Noah story into the mix. One intriguing character in this act is the boardwalk fortune teller (Scott Stenstrup) who claims to infallibly tell the (usually dire) future from faces, but declares, “if anyone says he can tell you the past, he is a charlatan.”

The third act is the most powerful and effective. It is seven years later, and the world, including New Jersey, has been devastated by war. Sabina, Henry, and Mr. Antrobus have all gone off to fight, with Henry and his father on opposing sides. Peace has been declared at last, and one by one, the fighters return home. Sabina comes first, finding that Mrs. Antrobus and Gladys, who now has a baby, have been living a wretched existence using the basement as a bunker. As Mrs. Antrobus begins preparing the house for her husband’s return (and dragooning Sabina back into her subservient role) Sabina sighs that she actually liked the war.

Enter Henry, weary and hungry, the scarred place on his forehead freshly bloodied. No longer a dullard, Henry/Cain is fully awake, a mature warrior, and angry. They give him food, and he falls asleep. Antrobus (the inventor of gunpowder) enters, drawing his gun. He has a bloody bandage over the same spot on his forehead, his own “mark of Cain.” In the scene that follows, Henry demands that Antrobus kill him. He repudiates his family, wanting no father, no mother, no sister, only wanting to be alone—in death. Antrobus declares that “it’s easier to fight you than live with you. War is a pleasure compared to what faces us now.” Antrobus wavers, until Henry throws himself at Antrobus’ throat. It’s only when the stage manager joins the rest of the cast intervening that we realise that this isn’t in the supposed script—the “actor” playing “Henry” is having a flashback to abuse suffered by him at the hands of his own father.

This was by far the most striking sequence in the play, and an excellent acting job by Scott Sorenson, who made juvenile Henry, warrior Henry, and “actor” Henry three distinct voices.
When things settle down, the play ends where it began, with Sabina preparing the house for Antrobus’ arrival from work, saying to the audience, “this is where you all came in, we have to go on for ages and ages yet. You can all go home, you see, the end of the play isn’t written yet.”
All the actors did a fine job with the material, presenting a lively and energetic production, with some high drama in the third act. The Village Playhouse made very creative use of the limited facilities available at Inspiration Studios, the minimalist set being a frequent choice for this show based on what I’ve looked up. So, it’s kind of a glass-half-full situation—getting a good presentation of a play I didn’t care for. Kudos to the Village Playhouse for their artistic efforts, not so much for choice of vehicle.
Saturday evening, March 5th, we went to see Off the Wall Theatre’s new production of “Hamlet.” Their previous effort, five or so years ago, was a very “blood and thunder” piece. This version was a very pared-down and contemplative approach, which we thought worked very well. The actors were frequently very close to the audience, which was very effective. For his “ to be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet (Jeremy C. Welter) took a chair in the aisle at touching distance from us, and gave the famous speech in a meditative, confiding tone that worked very well. Other actors subtly broke the “fourth wall” as well, with Claudius (Randall Anderson) talking to us, instead of to himself, on the scene beginning “my crime is rank, it stinks to heaven; it hath the primal, eldest curse upon it—a brother’s murder.”

The script was pared down, but extraneous characters were not missed, and all the vital action and iconic dialog was preserved. The playing space was small but flexible, with panels that sometimes became mazelike as entrances and exits crossed. The set decorations and costume elements had a generally Mideastern flavor, which made it a bit more “Hamlet, Prince of Persia” than “Prince of Denmark” but worked to give a “not here, not now” flavor, and may also refer to the fratricidal and internecine strife that afflicts that region today.

Welter as Hamlet was tightly controlled. We the audience see that he is never “mad”, but angry, and his acting out assuages his feelings of aggression as well as unsettling his family and their courtiers. This was a truly fine piece of acting. The other standout role in the play was that of Calynn Klohn as Ophelia. Her childlike build and face help make Hamlet’s abuse of her the more brutal, and, after she’s been literally thrown down by Hamlet, neither Claudius nor Polonious, her father, show any care for her, but leave her lying while they speculate on Hamlet’s state. That she herself joins in worrying about Hamlet shows the extent to which she’s been colonized by her elders. In Ophelia’s “mad scene” Ms. Klohn showed an undercurrent of anger that made her desperation and distraction much more real and affecting.

Marilyn White, as Gertrude, also gave a fine performance as the newly married Queen. One could see that her “newlywed” antics with Claudius would tend to turn Hamlet’s stomach, but also made us wonder if the dead King had been “all that” as a husband, and whether perhaps the royal marriage bed had gone stale.

The principals were well supported by Patrick McCann as Horatio, Max Williamson as Laertes, Erin Eggers as Rosencrantz, and Lawrence J. Lukasavage as Guildenstern.
Director Dale Gutzman reserved the plummy roles of the Ghost, the Player King, and the Gravedigger, for himself, and handled them very well. Doing the Ghost as more of a friendly spirit fit the intimacy of the production, but I was a bit uncertain about having the Ghost actually embrace Hamlet. The fact that the Ghost also gives Hamlet a scarf which he wears through much of the play seemed a bit unusual also, until we see that it is a “macguffin” that other characters seem to recognize.

There were many other fine, subtle, and original touches in this presentation that made it one of the finest Hamlets we have seen.
On Friday night, March 4th, we went to the Helfaer Theater on the Marquette University campus to see the production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” which we greatly enjoyed. This was a fast-paced lively presentation that made the best of the Bard’s slight story about exiles living the bucolic life in the Forest of Arden.

The main characters are Orlando (Michael Nicholas) , the youngest son of a knight, who has been denied both his financial and intellectual due by his greedy eldest brother, Oliver (Michael Young); and Rosalind (Mackenzie Possage), daughter of Duke Senior (Michael Cienfuegos-Baca).
Duke Senior has been overthrown and sent into exile by his “brother” Duke Fredrick (Chloe Hurkes). Orlando has come to Fredrick’s court seeking redress of his grievances against his brother, but finds no help there since his father was a partisan of the exiled Duke and Orlando is therefore on Duke Fredrick’s enemies list. He decides to seek his fortune in the greenwood with Senior and his followers, but not before being smitten with Rosalind.

Paranoid and jealous of Rosalind’s friendship with her own daughter, Celia (Nadja Simmonds), Fredrick banishes Rosalind. Celia, who loves her cousin as a sister, runs away to the forest with her, in the company of the loyal jester, Touchstone (Terry Lee Watkins, Jr.). For safety in travelling, Rosalind decides to adopt the disguise of a young man, “Ganymede.”

This sets up most of the comedy that follows. When the three reach Arden, they find trees festooned with love poems addressed to Rosalind from Orlando. Liking Orlando, Rosalind as Ganymede tests his devotion and determination by declaring that “he” will teach Orlando how to be a lover, by encouraging him to woo “Ganymede” as if Ganymede were his Rosalind, and then critiquing his efforts.

Meanwhile, the disdainful shepherdess, Phoebe (Madeleine Farley) who is loved by the shepherd Sylvius, gets a major but unrequited crush on “Ganymede.”

The intervals between advancements in the love story are taken up with Senior and his followers hunting, singing, and philosophizing. Jaques (Dan Callahan) gave a very relaxed and naturalistic rendering of the famous “seven ages of man” speech, which was punctuated with musical emphases by Amiens (Jake Zelinski).

There was a lot of running, jumping, and larking about appropriate to the story, which added to the joy of it and made it all good fun. All of the actors did well with their parts, and gave us Shakespeare’s dialog with good understanding and sense. This was one of the most musical productions of a Shakespeare play that I recall, with many of the “songs” being actually sung, and well sung. Musicians Kate O’Neill and Jessica Szuminski provided additional musical support, as well as entertaining sound effects for the pastoral scenes.
On Friday evening, February 19th, we went to the Raabe Theatre at Wisconsin Lutheran College to see a performance of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost”.

This was to be an unusual production, the opening of “Shakespeare in Rep,” two performances of three plays over two weekends, the advertisement stated “A company of student actors will work and prepare three comedies of Shakespeare in a manner referred to today as "original practices." Based on the historical condition of the "players" presenting DIFFERENT dramas and comedies DAILY (in "repertory"), some people believe that much more of the show was the creative and technical product of the individual actors than today's practice of director and designer-led cohesively conceptual performances. With very little time for group rehearsals, the performances take on an added intensity and energy resulting in truly unique, one-time events that are not to be missed!”

As expanded upon by Prof. Jay Sierszyn in his introductory remarks, there’s a bit more to it than that. “Original practices Shakespeare” is based on conjecture that, due to the large repertoire described in contemporary writings, and that play appeared often with as much as two months or more between performances, the manner of performance had to have been quite different than that we are used to. As presented here, “original practices” means that there is minimal to no rehearsal, and that the cast appears on stage with “cue scripts” in hand. (Cue scripts are individualized scripts, called “sides” in musical theatre, that contain just the one character’s lines and stage directions, and the cue lines from other characters that call for them.) The argument is that, given six different shows in a week and months between individual shows, the actors couldn’t possibly have learned and remembered all those scripts.

Professor Sierszyn’s production added several variables to this experiment. This was a new play to most, if not all of the actors, which would not likely have been the case in Shakespeare’s day. The actors were recruited anywhere from two weeks to two days before the performance, and had had minimal opportunity to work with each other. Most of the actors knew little of the script other than what was in their “sides”. When you add in that Shakespeare’s actors would have been familiar and comfortable with the vernacular vocabulary, pronunciation, and turns of phrase, whereas some of the cast demonstrably were not, what is left is basically a first-run-through rehearsal with improvised blocking and some costumes. The resultant performance was academically interesting to me as a some-time actor, but I was definitely not convinced that the groundlings of Shakespeare’s day would have paid money to see it.

A case in point occurred when a line or entrance was missed. Since other actor’s didn’t know the script or even the context of the scene they were in, they were stuck until the “book holder” prompted them. In one instance, when the stage manager was distracted by another crew member, the cast got so far off track, missing an entrance and several page of script, that the show had to be stopped, backed up, and started over from the missed spot.

The “original practices” idea does not convince me. OK, suppose you DO have sixty plays in your repertoire. Is it so impossible that anyone could memorize that number of parts? I think not. People in times before easy retrieval of information, or even hand books, could train to feats of memory that we would think prodigious today. If you ran an acting company then, why would you even consider hiring someone that couldn’t do that? Take into account that the same people wouldn’t necessarily have to learn all the largest parts, and there would be lots of small roles more easily learned and parceled out. The “original practices” idea also fails to take into account that, performing in the afternoons, the company has mornings and/or evenings to brush up the play either for that day or the following day. Once you had blocking down, that’s relatively easy to recall, and in my experience helps to make the lines come. Verse structure also helps memory.

That being said, the student actors were game, gave it their cheerful best, and weren’t badly thrown by fluffs and misses. While interesting, I think that this experiment pretty conclusively disproves the “original practices” thesis, at least as practiced here.
Sunday afternoon, December 20th, we went to Inspiration Studios, 1500 S. 73rd St., to see “Santa’s Workshop,” a trio of new short Christmas-themed plays created as part of the Village Playhouse’s Young Person’s Playwriting Project.

The pieces were: “The Christmas Goose,” adapted by Rachel Czestler from “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” by Arthur Conan Doyle; “The Little Match Girl and the Prodigal Son,” adapted by Clayton Mortl from “The Little Match Girl,” by Hans Christian Andersen; and “Five Golden Rehearsals,” an original story by Rachel Czestler. We were interested to see how these worked out, since we had heard some news about the production and knew some of the actors had come on board to fill vacancies at very short notice. We were pleased to see that all of the young actors did very well with their parts, there were no detectable missed lines, and you could not tell that some had had only a week to rehearse.

“The Christmas Goose” was a very effective and compact adaptation of Conan Doyle’s story, which preserved the author’s dialog, containing some very famous Sherlock Holmes aphorisms. This story is one of Holmes’ more purely intellectual exercises, and that is where the fun is, since it is somewhat low on drama or action. Very nice performances by James Sullivan as Holmes, Nicholas Hightdudis as Watson, and Edward Cruz in the dual roles of Sgt. Lewis and Ryder.

“The Little Match Girl and the Prodigal Son,” adds an extensive frame to Andersen’s pathetic tale. The “Prodigal Son” of the title, Casimir, (Nicholas Hightdudis) in the confessional, gradually unfolds his anger, grief, and guilt regarding the death of his sister, Helena (Lusciana Gomez), the “little match girl.” The framing device made the story quite affecting, showing that callousness and shortsightedness are major causes of Helena’s death. That Casimir’s resentments include ethnic tensions between Irish, Polish, and Germanics (The play is set in 19th Century New York.) adds a dimension.

“Five Golden Rehearsals” gives us five vignettes from the rehearsal period of a new Christmas play, as produced by a small community theater group. In the process, the play morphs from a story about a playwright’s’ difficulty in writing a script (reflected by the actual struggles of writers Steven (Mr. Hightdudis) and Katherine (Emmah Gonzalez), to a pageant about unusual Christmas traditions, while the director (Brianna Sullivan) balances scarce resources, the demands of the local “diva” (Kate Warren), and the chorus’ preference for singing “Jingle Bells” ala Elvis. This was the longest play of the show, and quite funny (particularly for those of us with community theater experience--).

Overall, I was quite impressed with the production. Timing and cues were tight, and good use was made of the minimal set, kudos to producer/director Thom Zuehlke. The young cast exhibited impressive skill and ability, notably James Sullivan’s ability to muster four distinct accents (Holmes, Irish priest, Germanic mill owner, “Elvis”), Nicholas Hightdudis’ emotional agonies as the “prodigal son,” matched by Lusciana Gomez’ ecstatic transports as the “match girl,” and Brianna Sullivan’s controlling-but-coping director in “Five Golden Rehearsals.” Of course, there are the issues that one has to expect with a young cast, such as occasional enunciation and elocution problems, but these are things that can be overcome with time, and I would be glad to see any of these actors, or work by the playwrights, on stage again.
On Sunday, December 6th, we went to the Broadway Theatre Center and saw a delightful production of Lerner and Loewe’s musical “My Fair Lady,” as presented by Skylight Music Theatre.

Natalie Ford as Eliza Doolittle was just excellent. Singing fine, dancing perfectly adequate to the rather simple choreography required of the character, but her real strength was in her acting. She is an eloquent physical actor, and her expressive face, combined with her vocal range, gave her Eliza a spirit and fire that I associate more with Judy Garland in her prime than with the frequently more subdued Audrey Hepburn.

Ms. Ford’s force wonderfully crashed against Norman Moses’ immovable object. As Henry Higgins, Moses’ default expression of a slight self-satisfied smile made the Professor an even greater monster of egotism than the classic Rex Harrison grouch version. That Moses’ Higgins seems to think he is above it all makes the disruptions Eliza causes in his comfortable life all the more effective.

Rick Richter as Colonel Pickering was all that the role required: upright, honest, kind, generous, and courteous. He cannot be faulted if he is not as charming as the late Wilfrid Hyde-White—no one could be.

Joel Kopishke had a lot of heavy lifting to do in the role of Alfred P. Doolittle, and handled the part of cheerful reprobate well. I disagree with whomever made the choice to give the character a thick beard, which I think hindered Mr. Kopishke’s ability to mug; Alfred P. Doolittle is a great mugging role, and we missed some of that behind the facial foliage.

The principals were very well supported by Carol Greif as Higgins’ long-suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, and David Flores as the “hairy hound from Budapest,” Zoltan Karpathy. Diane Lane as Mrs. Higgins was marvelously kind, calm, and gracious—in a word everything her son is not. (Which makes me wonder, not for the first time, how Henry grew up to be such a pill. It must have been due to his father’s influence--.)

This also had to be one of the hardest working ensembles in theatre. When we’ve seen London street people, Ascot spectators, Embassy ball attendees, and Higgins’ household staff, it’s rather shocking to see only nine people in addition to the others taking a curtain call.

Stage business, as managed by Director Dorothy Danner was lively and clever, supplemented by enjoyable dancing choreographed by Pam Kreiger. The orchestra, directed by Shari Rhoades, supported the singers well and had excellent tone.

Costume design by Chris March was a major area of interest, in particular the Ascot scene, for which Mr. March provided some amazing outfits, in particular the hats, which nevertheless did not overwhelm the action. That bit of fantasy aside, I was equally impressed by how well the everyday outfits of the street people and servants looked. The Embassy Ball sequence was costumed with grandeur and elegance that was period-appropriate and wisely did not attempt to match the Ascot scene for excess.

The reconfigurable set pieces, especially when decorated with Higgins’ fine furniture, looked very well, and again gave the actors all they needed.

This was my first experience seeing “My Fair Lady” live and I was very glad I went. It is truly one of the classics of musical theatre, and the Skylight did it justice.

Highly recommended. "My Fair Lady" runs through December 27th.
On Sunday, November 8th, we went to Off the Wall Theater for “Grand Guignol,” a program of four short plays inspired by, or adapted from, works performed at the notorious Parisian theatre of horrors during its long run from the 1880’s to the 1960’s.

Producer Dale Gutzman, who also appeared in one of the segments, gave some entertaining historical context as an introduction to each piece.

The first, “Clowning Around,” contains all the elements of a classic Grand Guignol play: it is short, punchy, includes a surprising twist, and a rather grisly special effect (although it must be said that Off the Wall’s effects relied more on sleight-of-hand than grue, and were surprisingly light on gore). It also showed how easily updated some of the stories could be: the play’s opening scene, a man in clown make up painting pictures of clowns, gets an added frisson because the modern audience knows who John Wayne Gacy was.

“The Final Torture,” set in 1901 China during the height of the Boxer Rebellion, is more of a period piece, but one could visualize modern-day situations where the kind of horrid choice forced upon the commander of a besieged French enclave might still reoccur. In this one, the coming “twist” was obvious, but the horror is in the psychological agony that leads up to it.

“The Kiss,” a 1913 piece dealing with a horribly disfigured man confronting the woman responsible for his injury, was perhaps the most chilling piece, as the injured man, Henri, (Max Williamson) plays out his anger toward his former fiancé. Mr. Williamson’s somewhat flattened affect in speaking made his voice a more effective instrument as he transitions from a pitiable invalid to a monster of revenge.

The fourth segment, “Pagliacci,” was freely adapted by Mr. Gutzman after the Leoncavallo verisimo opera plot. For those not familiar, the story concerns a troupe of travelling commedia del’arte actors. The troupe’s Columbine is the beautiful Nedda (Kirstin Roble), wife to Canio (Jeremy C. Welter). Nedda has unwillingly inflamed the desires of the gross clown Tonio (Lawrence K. Lukasavage), and less unwillingly, those of the handsome young Beppe (Patrick McCann), who plays Harlequin in the troupe. However, she has given her heart to Silvio (Henry Hammond), a stalwart stagehand.

Spurned by Nedda, Tonio spies upon her and sees her rendezvous with Silvio, although he does not see Silvio’s face. He rushes to fetch Canio. The two interrupt the liaison, but Silvio flees without being identified. Nedda refuses to give her lover up, despite Canio’s rage.

The troupe has attracted a full house, so the show must go on. Seething, Canio prepares. In his version of the famous Veste la giubba (“Put on your costume”) aria, Canio struggles with himself, asking, how can he go on when he is so tortured. “Are you not a man?” he asks. The reply is, “No, you are an actor, and the audience has paid to see you play.”

The play is an infidelity farce wherein Columbine is cuckolding “Pagliacci” (Canio) with Harlequin. Canio is barely holding himself in check when Tonio recognizes Silvio in the audience by his voice. In the resulting melee, Canio knifes Silvio and Beppe, strangles Nedda, and stalks out of the theatre declaring, “I am justice!” Tonio, left on stage cries, “The play is over!”

The real tension in this segment came at the crisis, when Nedda and Beppe appeal to the audience for help. We, as an audience, know we ought not interfere, but one does wonder how much one ought to interact--. As it was, the audience did nothing, we only watched, as the horrified audience members do in the opera.

In his director’s notes, Mr. Gutzman allows that the plots are slight and shallow. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be a vehicle for some very good acting, with James Feeley in “Clowning Around” and Mr. Welter in “Pagliacci” being particularly good, in addition to the aforementioned Mr. Williamson. Jocelyn Ridgely, in “The Kiss” was a good match for Williamson.

And of course, the plays are violent: in ninety minutes of theatre, we had seven stabbings (eight if you count impaling a man’s arm with a hatpin), two strangulations, and a vitriol-throwing, all of which were relatively tastefully done. And, we observed, most of the victims “had it coming,” following the sense of justice of the melodrama that was Grand Guignol’s forbear.

We enjoyed this performance. There was horror, but not too much horror to be likable.
On Sunday evening, September 27th, we went to Off the Wall Theatre to see their production of "Tartuffe." We were particularly interested in this show, since the script was adapted by producer/director Dale Gutzman, and we had been very favorably impressed by his work on last season's "Odyssey". Not a direct translation, Mr. Gutzman had used as source material some of the better regarded English translations, and then recast the story into rhyming couplets,the form originally used by the author, Moliere.

We found the script as presented very clever and engaging, with the rhyme scheme being very well done, with few strained rhymes. When well delivered, the couplet form was not obtrusive and did not distract from the enjoyment of the play.

In Moliere's play, a well-off business man, Orgon (Randall Anderson), falls under the influence of self-anointed holy man, Tartuffe (David Flores). Orgon (whose name in French means "pigeon") subjects his family to all manner of puritanical austerities dictated by Tartuffe, while behind his back, the preacher allows himself every kind of gross indulgence of the flesh, including thinking lustful thoughts of both Orgon's daughter, Mariane (Brittni Hesse), and his wife, Elmire (Jacqueline Roush).

Anderson's Orgon appears to be a stereotypical buttoned-up Republican type, so its a bit surprising that he falls for Flores' street-preacher, who is crude, unwashed,and unkempt. But, as we find, it is a profound emptiness in Orgon's spiritual life that opens him to Tartuffe's manipulations. Eventually, Elmire and her brother, Cleonte (Jeremey C. Welter) succeed in exposing Tartuffe's hypocrisy, which leads to still more trouble for the family.

It takes only a little updating to bring the issues raised by the play into sharp focus, being as these days, issues of separation of church and state, public morality, self-righteousness, and "selfish-righteousness" are current topics.

The play was very funny, edgy, and we enjoyed it. My major criticism would be in the characterization of Tartuffe, who's such a gross slob it's hard to credit Orgon's enrapturement, even given his spiritual void. I find it more effective when Tartuffe is a Jekyll-Hyde character, able to shift from sanctimonious censor to drooling beast and back in the space of a breath. Since the portrayal is much of a piece with the action and script, I would guess that this is as much due to Mr. Gutzman's imagining of the character as to Mr. Flores' acting, choosing to play the character broadly and make the most of Orgon's foolishness.

Also, it must be admitted that not all the actors were equally skillful handling the verse. The principals, Anderson, Flores, Roush, and especially Marilyn White as the clear-eyed maid, Dorine, were naturalistic, and ably avoided the pitfall of becoming "sing song" or letting the rhyme and rhythm become too pronounced. Not all the supporting cast were as able, but that is one of the hazards of choosing to perform a rhymed piece.
On Saturday, September 12th at Spring Green, we saw an excellent and memorable production of William Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

One of the noteworthy additions to this production was the wordless prologue, depicting the wedding of Othello and Desdemona as a beautiful tribal ceremony performed by Othello’s people. (Digression: it had never occurred to me to wonder whom the pair were married BY. I’d always assumed vaguely that Othello as a “Moor” was from a Muslim background, but his remarks to Desdemona in the last act, “I would not kill thy unprepared soul” do indicate that he is a Christian by that time.)

The play proper begins with Iago’s “I hate the Moor” speech, in which James Ridge shows us his take on the character. By contrast with James DeVita’s Iago, blunt and resentful, this Iago is edgy, eaten up with his jealousy of Othello. Yes, the play is about jealousy, but it is Iago’s jealousy that is the main driver, not the jealousy Othello is coached into by him. Iago is jealous of Othello’s rank and reputation, believes he may have committed adultery with Emilia, and is jealous of Othello’s preferment of Cassio.

Chike Johnson is a fine Othello, a man of powerful passions. He loves passionately, hates passionately, is passionately possessive and jealous when lead to it. His straightforwardness makes him easy for Iago to baffle, since he suspects no wrong motives on his own.
Laura Rook as Desdemona gives us a young woman who is sprightly and willful. We get the impression that she has heretofore twisted her father (Brabantio, Brian Mani) around her finger, and is puzzled and hurt when he rejects her marriage. That she assumes her charm will win over Othello on the subject of Cassio’s rehabilitation plays directly into Iago’s hands.
Colleen Madden plays a properly feisty and bawdy Emilia, in the last act denouncing Othello’s crime and Iago’s treachery with a fine rage. If the theatre had had rafters, they would have shaken.

The other major roles were well filled with Marcus Truschinski as the foolish Roderigo, and Nate Burger as trusting Cassio, both of whom also fall victim to Iago’s masterly manipulations.
Costumes by Matthew LeFebvre were handsome and evocative, and the minimal set, distinguished by its water feature which was cleverly used, worked well for the staging.
Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” is one of my favorite plays, and this year’s production took full advantage of the many opportunities for over-the-top foolery.

The production was updated to Edwardian times, which worked well, and gave the designers some interesting options with costume and set, although I do not think the inhabitants of Windsor (then or now) would be flattered at being compared to American television’s “Mayberry”, as in the director’s notes. An interesting dimension was added by musical numbers which sounded like period music-hall songs.

Brian Mani plays Sir John Falstaff as a decorated veteran of colonial campaigns, wearing a Boer-War era khaki uniform, and accompanied by his raggle-taggle bad men Bardolph (Wigasi Brant), Nym (Chike Johnson), and Pistol (Jeb Burris). (The men’s broad-brimmed hats, Colt pistols, and Bowie knives give kind of an American West vibe, like Rough Riders gone to the bad--.) Mani’s beard and makeup resemble the late Orson Welles in his age, had he played Falstaff as an old man, and Mani’s characterization, sometimes pompous, sometimes threatening, and sometimes pathetic, was always spot on.

Falstaff, ever self-deluding about his charms, casts eyes both lecherous and covetous on two wives of wealthy commoners, Alice Ford (Deborah Staples) and Margaret Page (Colleen Madden) whose wiles are more than up to the task of making a fool of Falstaff, while initially hiding the goings-on from their respective husbands.

James Ridge, as the easy-going Page, has little to do but be amiable, except when plotting against his wife to marry their daughter to the man of his choice (Robert R. Doyle, the diffident Slender). On the other hand, David Daniel, as Ford, has a major bit of scene-chewing to do as the husband “possessed of a fine devil of jealously,” and takes full advantage of the opportunity.

Although Falstaff is the star, Daniel’s Ford dominates the scenes he is in, whether laughing, crying, and grimacing in his solo rants as “Master Brook,” or in destroying his own house hunting for Falstaff. I have often heard the somewhat vulgar phrase “going apeshit,” but never seen it done on stage until now. When Ford, having emptied the buck-basket fruitlessly searching for Falstaff, sits in it, rocks, and literally screams with rage and frustration, it was truly primal. The audience roared its appreciation.

The supporting cast was also excellent. I give full marks to Tim Gittings for his Welsh accent and delivery as Sir Hugh, the parson, even though American audiences don’t find Welshmen as easily funny as comic Frenchmen like Dr. Caius (Jonathan Smoots). Sarah Day was a lively and youthful Mistress Quickly, and gave a very good rendition of a song as well. Eric Parks, playing the aptly named Peter Simple, gave a charming dimension to the character by hugging everyone he meets, no matter whom. I was so very glad that the Theatre took a stab at actually presenting Hugh and Caius’ revenge prank on the Host of the Garter (Chris Klopatek), which is often cut, although the duel scene that sets it up is always left in--.

The climax in Windsor Forest was very nicely done, with period-appropriate disguises, effective lights, and a major musical number when the ‘fairies’ discover Falstaff.

This was a thoroughly delightful evening at the theatre, and has our highest recommendation.
Saturday, August 1st, we went to American Players Theatre for a “double-header.”
We were very interested to see American Players take on the Joseph Hanreddy-J.R. Sullivan adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, which we had also seen done by the Milwaukee Rep. APT made the play their own, and did a marvelous job with it.

The set was very spare, with only some chairs and one desk/piano serving to delineate all the locations, with some of the action spreading off into the gardens at the sides of the stage. Costuming was referential rather than strictly accurate, but generally attractive and supported the story more than detracting. (I do, however, seriously envy Darcy’s long blue riding coat--.)

Kelsey Brennan, as Elizabeth Bennet, alternatively crashed against and withdrew from Mr. Darcy (Marcus Truschinski) like the surf battering a promontory. Tall, handsome, and as rigid in his carriage as in his principles, Truschinski was the perfect Darcy, his face a frowning cliff that was a marvelous setting against which Elizabeth’s emotional rises and falls play out. (I had to wonder if Mr. Truschinski needs to have his face massaged after the play, since he has to frown through two hours and fifty-nine minutes of a three-hour show--.)

Of course, Sarah Day was the only choice for Mrs. Bennett, and played the shallow and foolish matron with such unaffected energy that she remains loveable, and it is understood why her daughters and husband stick by her. James Ridge as the long-suffering Mr. Bennett showed us his sardonic humor with more of an edge than some we have seen, which contrasts nicely with Day’s Mrs.

Standout performances among the supporting cast included Chris Klopatek (reviewed herein as Bertie Wooster at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre) as unctuous Mr. Collins, Melisia Pereya as a wonderfully bratty Lydia Bennett, and Tracy Michelle Arnold, who gave her Lady Catherine de Bourgh a nice physical edginess. The other Bennett girls were well represented, with Laura Rook quite fine as the saintly Jane, Aidaa Peerzada pouting well as Kitty, and Elyse Edelman getting off a number of good humorous interjections as the bookish Mary.
It really was a delightful show, and made even the fact that we ended up in the one section that had full sun all afternoon bearable.
Saturday, May 2nd, we went to the Studio Theater at the Broadway Theatre Center to see “Lettice and Lovage,” by Peter Shaffer.

In this comedy, the protagonist, “Lettice” (pronounced“lettuce”), played by Laura Gordon, is a woman of a certain age beginning second career as a docent/tour guide, after having managed her mother’s Shakespearian theatre troupe for many years. Working for Britain’s National Trust, she is assigned to “Fustian Hall,” the country’s dullest stately home. In reaction to audience boredom, she begins to embroider the house’s bald narrative, until it becomes a veritable tapestry of historical improbability.

A surprise inspection by her supervisor, Lotte Schoen (Carrie Hitchcock) results in Lettice being given the sack, but not before she makes her impassioned case for injecting a bit of theatre into the dullness of life. This eventually leads to an unlikely friendship striking up between the flamboyant Lettice and strait-laced Lotte, which leads both to some harrowing adventures in home theatricals, and the sharing of deeply hidden secrets.

How it all works out is quite hilarious, and we found it tube a charming little play. The story belongs to the two ladies, and both Gordon, the current grande dame of the Milwaukee theatre scene, and Hitchcock are wonderfully good. They are ably supported by Bryce Lord as Lettice’s baffled solicitor, and a supporting cast of minor bureaucrats and house tourists.
Given the back-to-back titles of West Allis’ Players’ fall and spring murder mysteries, “The Cupcake Killer,” followed by “Death By Chocolate,” one might begin to suspect there was some kind of conspiracy in place to encourage dieting. Although deadly treats are a common theme, each confection was quite different.

“Death By Chocolate,” by Craig Sudaro, is a pure comedy, beginning with the down-but-not-out detective, “Nick Noir” (played by Rick Loos), working from an “office” which is a desk parked in an alley behind a friend’s restaurant. Nick is about ready to pack the detective gig in, over the objections of his fiercely loyal secretary, Selma (Ashlee Hosbach), when the call comes in to take over investigating the “Death By Chocolate” murder, a case that has the police baffled.

The remainder of the play takes place at the “Precious Perks Coffee Shop,” the scene of the crime. Run by two sisters who had been separated at birth and recently reunited, “Coco” and “Bonbon Purvis” (Vicky Heckman and Christi Kavanaugh), “Death By Chocolate” is the café’s most popular drink, now notorious for having been the means for delivering an exotic poison to a customer.

When another one of the café’s habitués drops dead of the same cause, and all the police are tied up at a major event, Nick sees his chance and doggedly pursues the investigation, aided by Selma in a variety of disguises.

Players Lily Sullivan, Scott Dyer, Scott Fudali, Cory Klein, Eileen Dyer, and Beth Kern fill out the cast of more-or-less suspicious characters.

Characterizations were generally solid for broad comedy, with Mr. Loos doing a lot of the work as the embattled detective, and Ms. Hosbach has some of the funniest bits as the woman who works in miserable conditions for no money, because she loves romance-impaired Nick.

Although there was a lot to like in this show, I came away ultimately unsatisfied, due, I think to the timing. In a “noir detective” script the dialog has to “crackle.” There weren’t any dead spots or missed lines that I noticed, but the energy was just not quite there.

All in all, an enjoyable afternoon at the theatre, but I wanted a bit more.
On Saturday evening, April 4th, we went to see Off the Wall Theatre's new production, "Odyssey: A Warrior's Journey Home." The play is freely adapted from Homer's "Odyssey," but is generally true to the incidents of the story, while gaining strength by deepening the human dimension.

Claudio Parrone, Jr. plays Odysseus, and it is a heroic role in all respects, not just in the length of the role, being on stage for most of the two hours' performance, but in the number and subtlety of the emotions required. The play begins with a framing device, with the troupe of actors discussing why they should stage this now ancient story, Parrone's character, not convinced, nevertheless throws himself into the role of Odysseus.

The action proper begins with Odysseus washed up on a beach and succored by the Princess Nausicaa (Alejandra Gonzalez), who is fascinated by the brooding and manly castaway. He tells his story in flashback to her and her father, King Alcinous (Tairre Christopherson), relating his misadventures with a piratical raid on Ismaros in the land of the Cicones, with the Lotus-eaters, and with the Cyclops. He describes the wrecking of his fleet when Aeolus' bag of wind is opened, and the encounter with Circe, and his other adventures and catastrophes until being released from the island of Calypso, whence he has most recently come. Alcinous decides to assist Odysseus get home, and provides him with a ship, a crew, and many gifts.

The latter part of the play deals with Odysseus' homecoming, his revealing himself to his son and loyal followers, and the plan to rid Ithaca of the vicious band of suitors for Penelope's hand.

It would seem difficult to present such an epic story in Off the Wall's small space (not for nothing do we refer to it as the "Hole in the Wall Theatre," but the creativity of the actors and producers rose to the challenge. Clever low-tech effects enhanced the action, such as enshrouding the battle with the Cicones in swathes of red netting, which implied a red mist of blood over the field. There were a couple of curious choices, such as making Polyphemus the Cyclops a Japanese ogre (played with great glee by Derek Lobacz). Most of the cast members played numerous roles, a necessity used to advantage in having Jacqueline Roush play Penelope, Circe, and Calypso, which underscores Odysseus' lament, when breaking free of Calypso's power, that "I see all women as Penelope."

The human element of the stories is continually turned uppermost. Odysseus struggles under the weight of many burdens. The deaths of his men, many due to his own arrogance or bad judgement; the long separation from home and family; and not least, the burden of his own reputation. Odysseus the Hero, the twisted man, the liar, haunts Odysseus the man, threatening to overshadow him, and causing even Odysseus to doubt which parts of his story are true.

Once Odysseus has vanquished the suitors, he must confront Penelope, who is upset and shattered by the realization that the man who has come home is not the young husband whose memory she has cherished and clung to for twenty long and lonely years. The play ends uneasily as they realize they must learn to know and love one another again--or not.

Dale Gutzman and John Angelos, in their adaptation, have put together a script that abridges the epic story into a manageable play, but does it with powerful dialog and evocative action. The cast traded roles with alacrity and made excellent use of costume and prop pieces that were mainly referential rather than substantial. There was very fine acting by all concerned, in particular Mr. Parrone, Ms. Roush, and Marann Curtis in the pivotal role of Athene, Odysseus' patron goddess.

Off the Wall continues to take chances and challenge the audience, which, in this case, resulted in a very enjoyable evening at the theater.
On Sunday, March 1st, I went to the Inspiration Studios performance space on S. 73rd Street, which has become the home base for Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa, to see a set of six one-act plays by David Ives, under the collective title of “All in the Timing.”

These plays are all quite short, running as little as five minutes, but are wonderfully funny and clever, with much witty language and playful use of time. A case in point was the first piece, “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread.” The composer (Todd Herdt) enters a baker’s shop. One of the customers (Patricia Wikenhauser) present says words to the effect of “Isn’t that Philip Glass?” Another (Christina Schauer) replies, “I think it is.” The baker (Adeola Giwa) says, “May I help you, sir?” Glass replies, “Yes, I need a loaf of bread, please.” Baker: “Just one moment.” First woman: “It’s time now.” Second woman: “Yes, let’s go.” Baker: “Do you know that woman, sir?” Then, the cast begins to riff on the elements of the short exchange in the style of Glass’ music, with repetitions and reordering of the words: “ Isn’t that, isn’t that, isn’t that, isn’t that,” “Think it is, think it is, think it is,” reformulating the phrases to get declarations such as “Philip Glass is a loaf of bread.” The changes continue, accompanied by rhythmic movement, until a second set of themes is introduced, and the variations begin again.

“Variations on the Death of Trotsky” was equally surreal in a different way. The scene begins with Leon Trotsky (Paul Pfannenstiel) sitting at his desk writing. It isn’t immediately obvious that he apparently has a mountain climber’s ice axe embedded in the top of his head. Trotsky’s wife (Ms. Wikenhauser) enters reading an encyclopedia (or, in this production, Wikipedia on a tablet) dated the year of the performance (i.e., Trotsky’s future), and reads out the entry describing the attack on Trotsky on August 20, 1940, and his death the following day. Trotsky asks what day is it, and she tells him, August 21st. Trotsky replies that it must be a hoax, since he is not dead. She points out that he does, in fact, appear to have an axe in his head. Trotsky examines himself in the mirror, agrees, and falls over dead. At a bell, the scene resets, and plays through variations in which Trotsky discusses his murder, and even calls in the assassin and grills him as to his motives. This sounds more macabre than it is, and is also very funny.

“The Universal Language” was a very cute play, in which a shy young woman afflicted with a stutter (Ms. Schauer) tries learning the “Unamunda,” which she hopes will help her overcome her stuttering. The language is a parody, full of cultural references: The affirmative word is Ding! (with exclamation point). The word for “English” is “jonklees” (John Cleese), and so forth. A lot of this segment’s humor comes from these jokes and the fact that you can indeed (mostly) understand the instructor (Mr. Giwa).

“Words, Words, Words,” was a very clever play on the myth that an infinite number of monkeys, given infinite time and typewriters would eventually by chance produce the works of Shakespeare. In this case, we see the experiment from the viewpoint of three chimpanzees, Swift (Herdt), Milton (Rolando Kahn), and Kafka (Schauer), who engage in an existential debate about their lives, what is Shakespeare anyway, how will they know it if they see it, and does it matter to the experiment.

In “Sure Thing,” a man (John McGreal) and woman (Robyn Beckley) meet in a coffee shop, and, using the same “reset” device as in “Trotsky”, work through seemingly all the iterations of ways the encounter can go wrong before finally agreeing on a date at the movies.
The last play, “The Philadelphia,” reminds one of a “Twilight Zone” episode. Mark (Kahn) meets his friend Al (Pfannensteil) in a café, in a bad mood because he’s been thwarted at every turn this morning, not only did his newsstand not have the New York Times, the vendor denied it existed, and so forth. Al tells Mark he is stuck in a “Philadelphia,” a state in which it is impossible to get anything you ask for directly. Al, on the other hand, is blissful, because he is experiencing a “Los Angeles” in which life is beautiful no matter what happens. He coaches Mark on how to get along, but, when the waitress brings him the wrong order, Al realizes with horror he has caught “Philadelphia” from Mark and rushes out. Using Al’s guidelines, Mark manages to order a meal and to chat up the waitress (Ms. Beckley), who confides that she has been “stuck in a Cleveland” all her life.

The plays were done against a minimalist background cleverly decorated with a theme of clocks. All the actors did excellent work with the very difficult scripts, which require precise timing, and must have been hard to memorize, especially given that much of it isn’t in standard English, and that there are lots of variations on a similar theme that would be easy to get lost in. Director Mark Wyss did a really excellent job of putting this show together.
On Friday, April 11th, we went to see the West Allis Players’ production of “Madam’s Been Murdered, Tea Will Be Late,” a mystery farce by Pat Cook, author of the “Harry Monday” hard-boiled detective spoofs, some of which have also been performed by West Allis in the past.

In this play, Cook takes on the Agatha Christie style country house murder. “Houndstooth Manor” has seen better days, and is serving as a guest house. “Lady Fenster” (Mary Beth Topf) shares the house with her sister, Miss Mary (who is never seen), four servants, and long-time tenant Major Armbrewster (Cory Klein). New guests include a nervous teacher suffering from post-traumatic stress, a American couple who are not what they seem, and Lady Fenster’s nephew, Bobby (Scott Fudali), who’s already got one murder charge hanging over his head. This doesn’t stop the neighbor and local femme fatale, Katie Balfour (Lillian E. Wells) from setting her cap for him. When Miss Mary is found dead, the doctor (Bill Kaiser) and Inspector Milo (Rick Loos) are added to the mix. Oh, yes, and there may or may not be the ghost of “Sir Jeffrey,” the ancestor, who, in a nod to “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” broke his neck on the Moor while fleeing from creditors.

The servants have important roles in the play. Epsworth, the acerbic butler, has quite a good role. The night we saw it, director Michael Jablonski had to substitute on short notice, but did very well even acting with a script in his hand. He made all his blocking and delivered his lines with excellent timing and expression. Kerry J. Moriarty was good as Madge, the long-suffering and plain-speaking maid, Paul Sullivan as MacDonald, the gardener who gets dragged into the investigation, and Donna McMaster as the cook had a very nice grief-stricken lament on the death of “Miss Mary,” which ends abruptly when she realizes that she may be a suspect in the murder by poison.

There were nice comic turns by Michelle Miller as “Matilda Trent”, the traumatized teacher who turns out to be a fair hand with a fencing foil, and Mr. Klein as the boring blowhard Armbrewster, who is a classic “Colonel Blimp” character.

All the actors did fine jobs. Comic timing and delivery were dead on, and characterization quite good, although, as many of the characters have something to hide, it may be hard to tell what is an intentional lapse and what not.

The Players production staff put up a nice looking set, and costumes were quite good. Lighting cues were right on, and there was a very good sound design for effects.

My quibble with the production is the play itself. Although it is funny, and the convoluted plot mostly tight, a lot of the humor is cheap and facile. Author of (according to his web site) 144 plays including one-acts, “mellerdramas,” and “Whodunnit Murder Mysteries,” the writing is sometimes sloppy to the point of being confusing. A case in point is names and forms of address (on which I admit I may be somewhat of a crank--). The mistress of the house is “Lady Fenster,” which would imply that she’s either heir to a title in her own right, or the widow of the lord of the manor, no husband being in sight. Her younger sister is usually referred to as “Miss Mary,” whose last name, given in one of the cheap joke lines, we learn is Tyler, which would reinforce “Fenster” being a title, and the family name being Tyler. (Just as, in “Downton Abbey,” the Earldom is “Grantham,” but the family name is “Crawley”.) However, when her murder is discovered, Epsworth, delivering the title line, refers to Miss Mary as “Madam”—something a proper butler would never do.

THEN, we learn that Lady Fenster isn’t the eldest child. Her older brother, who owns the estate, is away in America. He’s never referred to by any title, although by rights he would be “Lord Fenster,” or “Sir Whateverhisnameis” if the title’s a baronetcy. Adding to the confusion, nephew Bobby, who is the son of the absent brother and heir apparent, has the last name “Totter.”

I know, most of this goes right over the audience’s head, but what irritates me is that it could all be fixed with a few edits. If the title is a baronetcy, then the absent brother is “Sir X Totter,” “Lady Fenster” becomes “Miss Totter,” and “Miss Mary” remains Miss Mary. If the brother’s actually a baron, earl, or marquis, then he’s “Lord Fenster,” and the sisters have the courtesy titles of “Lady X,” and “Lady Mary”. The Totter/Tyler dichotomy is fixed by throwing out the “Mary Tyler Moor” joke, as one less groaner wouldn’t have been missed.

Quibbles aside, it was a fun evening, and it’s good to go out and root for the “home team.”
I gather that the reasons this play is called "An Iliad," rather than "THE Iliad," may include the following: 1. As the Poet tells us, this is one performance out of many; 2. It is one translation or interpretation of the classic story out of many; 3. It is one war story, out of many war stories, out of many wars-which may be all the same story.

James DeVita appears as "The Poet," (as he is referred to-he never gives himself a name or a title) who is a Flying Dutchman/Wandering Jew/Ancient Mariner type of character, apparently cursed over centuries to reappear and tell his tale of war anew each time a new war breaks out, and each time hoping it will be the last time.

The Rep's Powerhouse stage set was convincingly designed to look as though the building were bomb-damaged. Although some power was still on, light fixtures and wiring dangled, the floor had ragged holes, and one side was a heap of rubble.

The back door bursts open, letting in a flood of daylight, silhouetting the Poet, dressed in mismatched fatigues and clutching the archetypal refugee's suitcase. After he has cautiously entered, assessing whether or not this is shelter, the door slams closed and locks. At this point he discovers us, the audience, and knows that the show must, once again, go on.

This is neither a dry, nor a complete reading of Homer's Iliad. The Poet roughs in the setting and the action, making editorial comments, and giving context. Instead of the "catalog of ships," at one point he gives us a catalog of wars, listing more than a hundred beginning with the ancient Greeks, and ending, ". . . Syria, --Ukraine."

However, the story comes most to life when he enacts scenes from the epic such as the confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles. We see Patroclus succumb to bloodlust, when, disguised in Achilles' armor, he routs the Trojans. We are appalled by Hector's unaccustomed brutality in slaying Patroclus. We experience Achilles' rage and guilt at Patroclus' death, his pitiless killing of Hector, and vengeful desecration of the Trojan's body. We hear the grief of Hecuba and Andromache at the death of son and husband.

Redoing these old stories, is when well done, a fine thing, as it brings them back to life and vigor. I didn't quite "weep for Hecuba," but tears came to my eyes.

The other performer in the show is Alica Storin, "The Muse." Ms. Storin is a cellist, and accompanies the Poet on her instrument. The score not only provides emotional support for the story, it also comments on the Poet's commentary, sometimes encouraging, and sometimes reproving him. The Muse appears, vision-like, and adds an eloquent vocabulary of gesture to the dialog of voice and music.

DeVita as the Poet gives a muscular performance, using all the space of the stage, enacting entire battles in his own self.

At last, after he has declined to tell us the grisly details of the sack of Troy, the door opens. The Poet grabs his bag and escapes. The door closes, the stage goes dark.

This was a very powerful and very affecting performance, very much a "tour de force" for DeVita, and we enjoyed it very much.

"An Iliad" continues through March 23rd. A video "trailer" is here: http://vimeo.com/88264011

"An Iliad," adapted from Robert Fagles' translation of Homer, by Lisa Peterson and Dennis O'Hare, directed by john Langs.

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