Tom Strini
State of the Milwaukee Arts

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre strategizes to make a mark on our theater world. "A Thousand Clowns" opens Friday.

By - Aug 6th, 2012 05:37 pm



The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, maintaining its recent practice, will get a little jump on the other companies around town by opening its season in August. A Thousand Clowns, Herb Gardner’s 1960s comedy, will preview Thursday and open Friday at the Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center.

The Skylight Music Theatre, of course, owns both the theater and the building, which also houses MCT’s office. The close relationship between MCT and the Skylight goes back decades. It will change ever so slightly in 2012-13. MCT’s expired five-year lease called for three shows on the Cabot main stage and two in the 99-seat Studio Theatre. Those numbers will reverse.

C. Michael Wright and Kirsten Mulvey. MCT photo.

C. Michael Wright and Kirsten Mulvey. MCT photo.


Logo artwork for Collected Stories.

Kirsten Mulvey, managing director, and artistic director C. Michael Wright said that this subtle but telling move serves the company in a number of ways.

First, producing in the black box is a little cheaper, and Chamber Theatre is coming off a couple of very tough years.

“We’re on a recovery path,” Mulvey said. “We were committed to those big Cabot shows, and it’s taken us a while to react to the new normal.”

MCT ended 2011-12 with an $11,000 operating loss on an $800,000 budget, down from a previous $900,000. On the other hand, the company raised $90,000 to establish an endowment.

Actress Ruth Schudson and actor/director Montgomery Davis founded MCT in 1975. Davis’ big personality and expertise with the plays of George Bernard Shaw to a large extent defined the company until he retired in 2004. Wright, who took over in 2005, has spent a lot of that time pondering how to carve a niche and create a clear identity for MCT post-Davis.

He’s made a number of moves to address that issue, and the emphasis on the Studio Theatre is one of them.

“The Studio more represents who we are,” Wright said. “But we’ll still bookend the season with bigger shows in the Cabot.”

“We’ve partnered with the Skylight and with Renaissance (Theaterworks) to improve seating and amenities in the Studio,” Mulvey said. “New chairs will be in place. We pack the Studio, and people love the vibe of a full house.”



“Under the Lintel” art.

Truth be told, MCT has rarely filled the 358-seat Cabot. But they should do well there with A Thousand Clowns and, April 11-28, Jeeves in Bloom.

They had quite a hit with  Jeeves Intervenes in 2010. The principals who made that production so hilarious — director Tami Workentin, Matt Daniels as Jeeves (the world’s coolest and more resourceful butler) and Chris Klotapek as Bertie (the world’s most befuddled master) — will be back. Margaret Raether, who adapted Intervenes from several P.G. Wodehouse stories, did the same for Bloom. Jeeves, by the way, is a perfect fit for the sort of arch, literate comedy at which MCT has always excelled.

Wright has sought to revive American plays that were in vogue around mid-century but have fallen into neglect. Herb Gardner’s 1962  A Thousand Clowns, which Jonathan West is directing, fits the bill. The strategy both expresses Wright’s taste and is a conscious effort to sharpen MCT’s identity. No one else around here is doing it.

“I love the contemporary classics,” Wright said. “Thousand Clowns was big, and there was a great movie (1965) with Jason Robards, but you don’t see it much anymore. It’s a comedy with layers and weight.

The issue in the play is whether eccentric, unemployed uncle Murray Burns has any business raising his genius 12-year-old nephew.

“It examines what it means to be a family,” Wright said.

Uncle Murray, in his wry way, is a rebel. “Rebels” is the theme of MCT’s 2o12-13 season  — even Jeeves is a little subversive, in a Figaro sort of way.

In Broken and Entered, the first of the three Studio shows, two white brothers in their 30s move back in their late parents’ house after the neighborhood has turned mostly African-American. They reinvent themselves as burglars and steal luxury items from upscale suburbanites. One of them falls for a wealthy black woman intent on gentrifying the neighborhood.


Logo art for “Jeeves in Bloom.”

Madison’s Kurt McGinnis Brown wrote the play, which runs Sept. 27-Oct. 14. Susan Fete will direct Marti Gobel, Andrew Edwin Voss and Jonathan Wainwright in its premiere. Chamber Theatre developed the piece with Brown, partly in staged public readings in 2009-10, with the same actors.

These staged readings have become part of MCT’s identity, too. Wright wants the company known as the one that especially nurtures Wisconsin playwrights and local actors. The readings have found a public, too.

“When a play’s read, you can almost tell whether it will be a hit,” Mulvey said. “It’s like test-marketing. Sometimes, the talkback starts and you see the playwright taking notes.”

The next staged reading on the Montgomery Davis Play Development Series will be at the Skylight Bar on Sept. 17, with James Fletcher’s More Losers.  MCT also advances the art with a Young Playwrights Festival, which allows high-school age writers to see their scripts come to life; the next one is March 12-24. For several years, the company put on both the festival and a major collaborative production with an area university, but henceforth they will alternate these these activities annually.

MCT and Forward Theater, of Madison, are partners in staging Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories (Nov. 21-Dec. 16). The production will move to Madison on Jan. 17. Wright will direct and Sarah Day and Laura Frye will act this tale of two writers, in which protegee overtakes her mentor.

“A Jewish woman with roots in Detroit takes on a younger woman from a WASP background,” Wright said. “It’s a character study, of how they change over six years. She teaches her that ‘a writer is a scavenger.’ Then the younger writer starts to draw on Jewish traditions.  The play raises questions about who owns stories, who owns art. There’s a lot of pain in the play, but it’s also very funny.”

James Ridge, a luminary of American Players Theatre, will star in the company’s quirkiest play of the season, Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel (Feb. 21-Mar. 13). Wright will direct. One day at work, a Dutch librarian finds a travel book in the return bin 113 years overdue. He becomes obsessed with finding the identity of the miscreant library patron and travels the world to pursue the investigation. The conceit of the play is that the librarian has booked a theater in order to present his findings to what he imagines to be a public breathless with anticipation.

“It’s a mystical journey for him,” Wright said. “He has a blackboard, a suitcase full of evidence. He has a slide projector.”

“It’s about what people do to leave their mark on the world, so someone knows they were in it,” Mulvey said.

“Kilroy was here,” said Wright.

Previously on State of the Milwaukee Arts: Milwaukee Ballet, Skylight Music Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Florentine Opera.







Categories: A/C Feature 3, Theater

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