Fastest Plays of the Year
The annual Rep Lab features an ever-changing festival of 10 plays, some as short as two minutes long.
Think of a Milwaukee Rep tradition, and the show that comes to mind might be A Christmas Carol. But the theater also has a newer tradition – one which, quite unlike its popular holiday show, is never the same twice.
That would be Rep Lab, the innovative short play festival staging its fourth installment this weekend. The festival features 10 one-act plays and is a gift from artistic director Mark Clements, who created it upon his arrival with the company as a way to give the Rep’s talented intern company an opportunity to shine towards the end of a successful season.
The benefits of both Rep Lab and the Intern Company can be seen in the two artistic associates guiding this year’s show: literary coordinator Leda Hoffmann, a 2010-2011 directing intern, and casting and artistic intern company director JC Clementz, a 2011-12 directing intern. Both were involved with Rep Lab as interns and both say it was a great opportunity to show off what they’d learned and connect with professionals who might one day be hiring them.
Rep Lab’s basic format has remained unchanged since it began in 2011: 10 short plays feature the acting interns, including a devised piece assembled by the directing interns during the rehearsal process. What’s changed is the artists helping them behind the scenes, who grow ever more experienced. “We learn every year the kind of things that work and the kind that don’t,” Hoffmann says.
Typically, Rep Lab has a diverse roster of plays, a deliberate decision Clementz says benefits both artists and audience. “You don’t want to have an evening where everything is doom and gloom and depressing. … Mark says the best thing about Rep Lab is if you don’t like a play, it doesn’t matter because 10 minutes later there’s another one.” He and Hoffmann say this year’s mix of plays fit the bill, though she adds that they’ve also shuffled up the lengths, with some plays as short as two minutes and others up to 16 minutes long.
Picking these plays is tougher than you might expect, and they made it even harder on themselves this year, thanks to a low-key, minimally publicized call for scripts that nonetheless dumped thousands of plays onto Hoffmann’s desk. Add in a binder – no, Clementz clarifies – two binders full of plays collected by Hoffman and previous literary coordinators, and it seems overwhelming. But Hoffmann somehow narrowed the new plays down to a manageable 50 or so, which she wove into the binders and brought back to Clementz and this year’s directing interns, Frank Honts and Emily Penick, to read and make the final decisions together.
You might think a festival of largely unknown plays would be a hard sell, but last year’s series was nearly a sell-out. Clementz and Hoffman say patrons are growing increasingly fascinated by the event. “It’s a mini-season in one evening,” Clementz says. “They get excited about that because it’s something you don’t see every day.”
And while the show is for this year’s interns, Hoffmann says there’s a benefit for her and the other former interns working on the production, who are able to measure their growth as artists by Rep Lab seasons. “I’m so glad I’ve had four years of working on these short plays in this system,” she says. “I feel like I can look back at every year as this marker in my life. Like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s when I thought this thing,’ or, ‘I was trying this thing out that I learned as an assistant and now I’m owning it.’ … Every year you look at the selection of plays and the stories you want to tell sort of evolving.”
Rep Lab itself started as an experiment, a way to try something new with talented but underexposed interns. Four years on, it’s long past time to declare the experiment a success.
Rep Lab will run at the Stiemke Studio this weekend (March 28-31) only, with shows at 8 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Monday. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at (414) 224-9490 or the Milwaukee Rep box office.
The story of Romeo and Juliet is the most famous romance of all time, thanks to the play of the same name by a guy named Shakespeare and the numerous successors who have restaged and reshaped it over the centuries. Dale Gutzman takes a crack at it this week, with a production of Romeo & Juliet that brings the action from the streets of Verona to the halls of an Italian retirement home, circa 1960. He and frequent collaborator/muse Marilyn White will portray two senior citizens portraying the famous lovers, surrounded by fellow residents and friends to give Shakespeare’s tale of young love an older, maybe-wiser twist. It’s a production two years in the making by Gutzman, and one that fully embraces the intimate space of their theater, with each evening’s performance only seating 35 guests but providing Italian desserts and beverages for them.
Off the Wall’s production of Romeo & Juliet opens Thursday, March 27 and runs through April 6, with all shows at 7:30 p.m. excepting Sunday matinees at 4:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be ordered online or at (414) 484-8874. Multiple shows are already sold-out, so making reservations early is recommended.
First Stage isn’t one to shy away from important social issues, especially ones of importance to the children and families that comprise the bulk of their audience, so it’s no surprise to see they’ve scheduled a play that tackles bullying in their season. What’s surprising is the nature of the show itself. Crash follows a middle school kid of the same name, a popular football player who is himself a bully to his former friend and neighbor, Penn Webb. But by putting us inside Crash’s mind – literally, with cutaway soliloquys throughout the show – we see the insecurities that fuel that bullying, including Crash’s desire for the attention of his preoccupied father, and when an accident causes his beloved grandfather to have a stroke, it sets in motion a journey of self-discovery. It’s a set-up that promises a nuanced, rewarding tale, and might be able to change some real-life hearts and minds in the process.
Crash opens Friday, March 28, and runs through April 13 at the Todd Wehr Theatre. Tickets range from $12 to $32, and can be purchased on First Stage’s website or at (414) 267-2961.
Skylight Music Theatre: Hydrogen Jukebox, through March 30
ALSO ON STAGE:
Sunset Playhouse: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, through April 6
Fireside: Mary Poppins, through April 20
Milwaukee Rep: Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stackner Cabaret, through May 18