The Gospel of A.R. Gurney
His play, Heresy, calls out America with biblical language. Yet Next Act Theatre promises it’s funny, too.
Next Act Theatre’s new production, Heresy, tackles some heavy topics, essentially everything playwright A.R. Gurney considers wrong with America. But you wouldn’t guess the gravity of the content talking with actors Brian Myers and Doug Jarecki. They banter about the show and what audiences can take away from it, joking that it can’t be those comfy white couches in Next Act’s lobby.
That would certainly be an odd reaction to Heresy, in which a modern-day Christ figure runs into some problems in a security-minded America of the near future. His parents Joe (Michael Pocaro) and Mary (Mary Kababik) learn their son Chris (who is never seen on stage) has been detained by Homeland Security (his speeches condemning popular culture made the higher ups nervous). They consult the prefect Pontius (Drew Brhel) to get more information and try to release him.
It turns out Chris’ roommate and best friend Pedro (Jarecki) is the one who turned him in and even denied knowing Chris. Meanwhile, Pontius’ personal aid, an aspiring writer named Mark (Myers), records the unfolding events with a certain flair. Luckily, he doesn’t have any competition in completing his task, say a few writers named Matthew, Luke, and John.
Gurney, a prolific playwright perhaps best known for The Dining Room, is here waxing biblical to question whether America is on the right path as a nation. According to Myers and Jarecki, the scenes are structured like a mirror for the audience, so they can ask themselves if they contribute to the social chaos in their own lives. Are they wasteful? Inconsiderate? Greedy?
“He’s an equal opportunist at taking shots at different aspects of our culture,” Jarecki says.
“No one is safe in this play,” Myers agrees.
Gurney’s targets include organized religion, corporate culture, consumerism, the pervasiveness of violence—the list goes on— but it’s not all doom and gloom; the play has tender and humorous moments.
“It (shouldn’t) sound like people are going to come to this play and just have a finger wagged at them the whole time,” Myers says. “It’s not only that.”
Since Chris never appears, since his words don’t come directly from him, each character puts extra emphasis on his/her relationship to Chris to give viewers a sense of his personality.
The initial plan was to feature Christmas songs, combining a Christ-like figure and Christmas, but Myers and Jarecki insisted on original music. The former would write the book, the latter the lyrics. “And then a couple of days later, we realized, ‘Oh my God, we’ve gotta create something,’” Jarecki recalls.
They wrote until the first day of rehearsal and finished editing the final version of the music only a few days ago. The result will be a quite original version of Heresy.
Many theater companies lean toward saccharine entertainment during the holiday season, but Myers and Jarecki take pride in knowing Heresy is both substantive and amusing. Jarecki hopes audiences will leave laughing, despite the serious material, and perhaps willing to question their lifestyle choices.
“But we’re serious. They can’t take the couches.”
Opens 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 and runs through Dec. 14 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. Tickets range from $28-38 and are available online or by calling 414-278-0765.
Harvey at the Milwaukee Rep
In the early 1940s, playwright Mary Chase met a woman whose son recently died fighting in World War II, and she wondered when the grief-stricken mother would be able to smile again. That night, she began writing the play, Harvey, with the intention of bringing joy to people struggling with a personal loss. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945 and made the woman who inspired the work laugh when she saw it.
Directed by KJ Sanchez, “Harvey” tells the story of Elwood P. Dowd (Jonathan Daly), a grown man who insists he is friends with an unseen six-foot tall rabbit named Harvey. Embarrassed and terrified, his sister Veta (Deborah Staples) decides to put him in a sanitarium to protect her daughter and herself from the looming social consequences of such talk.
The Milwaukee Rep production is a bit of a dream come true for Daly, who wanted the role for over 30 years. As a bonus, he gets to act alongside Staples, a close colleague who was his student 26 years ago. Staples says the best thing Daly taught her echoes a common theme in this production: being present as a kind, open, generous human being. Elwood always makes time for others and strikes up conversations, even with strangers. He believes it’s better to be “oh so pleasant” than “oh so smart.”
“In this world where we often times are in our smart phones, going from place to place, we often don’t have the time for investing in being present with other people,” Staples says.
To help Daly become accustomed to talking to an invisible character—Harvey is technically a pooka, a mischievous spirit in shape of large animal, often found in Irish folklore—cast members stand in as Harvey during rehearsal. That way, Daly develops an idea of the rabbit’s potential movements and responses, and he can keep up a one-sided conversation for an audience. But the question arises: is Harvey an imaginary character?
“I’m not willing to say that it’s completely imaginary,” Staples says. “That’s probably something you have to decide for yourself.”
Opens 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18 and runs through Dec. 21 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Tickets range from $15-60 and are available online or by calling 414-224-9490.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised]
The title of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s holiday production sounds like the required text for an upper-level college English course; the actual content is far from that. In the comedic show, the cast of four attempts to perform all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays in 99 minutes, complete with live music. Actors Chris Klopatek, Rick Pendzich, Chase Stoeger and Marcus Truschinski are no strangers to the MCT stage or each other; all are alumni of UW-Whitewater’s theater program.
Opens 7:30 p.m. Nov. 20 and runs through Dec. 14 at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Tickets range from $28.50-41.50 and are available online or by calling 414-291-7800.