Have a Very Horrific Valentine’s
Quasimondo theater turns to H.P. Lovecraft for its mysterious new show, Love and Cthulhu.
The dark, twisted H.P. Lovecraft mythos doesn’t seem like a fertile ground for romance. His tales of otherworldly beings and godlike creatures are much better remembered as the origins for a new breed of horror fiction, one that has shaped much of 20th century writing in the genre.
The Quasimondo is just the sort of company that would find something for Valentine’s Day in his works, though. The company has staked a claim in the city as a venue for experimental, built-from-the-ground-up theater works, so the haunting, amorphous works of Lovecraft seem like a good fit. Details are slim on exactly where director Brian Rott and the company’s looking to take the story – not a surprise for The Quasimondo, which is occasionally still tweaking and updating shows all the way up to opening night. What’s oozed out about the story is a mysterious cult, a chthonic university (chthonic refers to spirits of the underworld) and a protagonist in search of mystifying artifacts – in short, just the sort of thing any romantic adventure, Lovecraftian or otherwise, should traffic in. As for the “love” part, well perhaps that’s part of the surprise here.
Love and Cthulhu opens Friday, Feb. 14 and runs through March 1, with most performances at 8 p.m. at the Milwaukee Fortress. Tickets are $15, $12 for students, and can be purchased online.
With Screwball Love, Theatre Gigante has a slightly more traditional take on Valentine’s Day – although it’s anything but exclusively traditional. The event, hosted by Leslie Fitzwater at Kenilworth Studio 508, features songs, music and dialogue about love in all its forms. So you’ll get some everyday, normal, sweet love stories. And you’ll also get stories about love that are strange, boring, ridiculous, zany and anything in between. That’s not all; Fitzwater will be joined in her efforts by a lovely team of local performers: Bo Johnson, Isabelle Kralj, Mark Anderson, Alissa Rhode, Tim Karth and Rip Tenor. Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors and $15 for students, and can be purchased online or at (800) 838-3006.
REVIEW: The Whipping Man at the Milwaukee Rep
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A Confederate soldier stumbles into his family home with a bullet wound in his right leg. The patriarch of the formerly enslaved family serving him nearly shoots him, and the young slave who was his childhood companion nearly scares him to death returning from scavenging the abandoned houses nearby. And the punchline: they’re all Jewish.
Punchline isn’t quite the right word for The Whipping Man, though – more like gut punch, as the actors assembled by the Milwaukee Rep deliver blow after blow in this gripping back and forth on the Stiemke Studio stage.
Written by Matthew Lopez, the play takes place on the Passover immediately following General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, when the elder Simon (James Craven) decides to host their seder with the help of John (Ro Boddie), a young ex-slave he helped raise from childhood and Caleb DeLeon (Josh Landay), their wounded former owner.
From there, things get complicated, and some of those discoveries can feel a bit soapy, with the major exception being related to the whereabouts of Simon’s absent wife and daughter, a heartbreaking twist that colors the whole second act. But director Brent Hazelton has assembled a cast that supersedes the clichéd pitfalls littering the script. Boddie, Craven and Landay are among the most expressive actors I’ve seen on a Rep stage, each plumbing individual depths of anguish while never feeling one-note.
The play requires a dazzling range of physicality, most notably in the role of Caleb, whose leg is amputated in a striking, stylized sequence that is grotesquely unwatchable and yet unbelievably captivating (with credit due to make-up artist Lara Dalbey, for one of the grossest stage effects I’ve seen in a while). Stage trickery gives him a very convincing half-leg, but it’s Landay who sells the amputation, both with visceral agony at the slightest bump to his stump and his limited motion around the stage.
Boddie practically runs about the stage in comparison, often simply to mock his crippled counterpart, and his intensity makes him a pleasure to watch on stage, as does his penchant for increasingly elaborate stolen clothing. And while Simon is seemingly too old for such movement around the stage, he too explodes in the play, startling the audience when his placid, faithful demeanor is shattered.
All this could be possible to pull off without the family being Jewish, but this is where Lopez earns redemption for his clichéd plot twists. It’s an element that fundamentally changes the story from a simple tale of changed power dynamics in the immediate antebellum South to an exploration on the contradictions and hypocrisies inherent in a religious system that celebrates freedom from enslavement yet still was a part of the Southern slaveholding culture. Lopez gets lots of milage from the dramatic irony – especially during the jubilant seder itself, an emotional blend of traditional Jewish orthodoxy and African-American spirituality – and it makes the production feel more well-rounded than it otherwise might.
Completing the atmosphere is Scott Davis’ set, a moody, shadowy ruin of the DeLeon’s former front hall that thrusts into the Stiemke space (the first show there to do so in some time, by my recollection). Like the relationships between the characters living in it, the war has torn it apart, and its candlelit space is a haunting image that itself feels like a character – one more malevolent, and ready and willing to destroy them.
The Whipping Man runs through March 16 at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at (414) 224-9490 or online.
CLOSING THIS WEEK:
Boulevard Theatre: Shooting Star, through Feb. 16
Off the Wall Theatre: Glengarry Glen Ross, through Feb. 16
ALSO ON STAGE:
Alchemist Theatre: The Chairs, through Feb. 22
Next Act: Race, through Feb. 23
Skylight: In the Heights, through Feb. 23
Fireside Theatre: Solid Gold ‘60s, through Feb. 23
First Stage: The Cat in the Hat, Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, through March 2
Milwaukee Rep: Woody Sez, Stackner Cabaret, through March 9; The Whipping Man, Stiemke Studio, through March 16