• A Walk In The Woods

    A park bench seems innocent enough until you get it on stage. What might casually be seen as an unsuspecting piece of furniture in its aural habitat takes on a whole new personality when it is placed in front of an audience. In Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, a bench is a silent witness to murder; it may as well be an accomplice. In Mark St. Germain’s Ears On A Beatle a park bench bears witness to meetings between FBI agents whose values slowly shift. And in Lee Blessing’s Walk In The Woods, a park bench takes center stage in the impressive space of the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre. The bench in question is Swiss. It sits on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland in the mid-1980s. Scenic Designer R.H.Graham sculpts the ample space of the Cabot’s stage into a grand sylvan setting. The ground is very earthy and organic. The trees are stark vertical lines far in the background and there is a winding path leading off the stage on the left. It is here that two men meet, away from the conference, to hammer out a few agreements involving weapons that could wipe out most of the life on the face of the planet. Peter Reeves plays John Honeyman, an American. Robert Spencer plays the Soviet Andrey Botvinnik. Relying entirely on two actors playing two characters for an entire story can strain any feature-length play. Thankfully, Reeves and Spencer develop a rapport within Graham’s script that is interesting enough to swiftly carry four scenes with relatively few tiresome stretches. At the beginning of the first scene, we are seeing two people who have just met and begun working with each other. They’ve been hired by opposing employers and both want to work out an agreement. Honeyman is a young, lean and bureaucratic man who seems to want to meet success in negotiations for the sake of his own achievement as a professional negotiator. Botvinnik is an older gentleman who has been working away at brokering an arms agreement between the U.S. and the USSR for a number of years. He wants to get to know Honeyman as a human being. Much of the appeal of the play unfolds in the first scene as Botvinnik tries desperately to reach Henyman’s human side so that they can talk like normal human beings. Any appeal that the rest of the play holds resonates from that first scene. Spencer’s charisma here is much the same as it was in the Milwaukee Rep’s production of Tuesdays With Morrie some time ago. Spencer has a gift for portraying wise older man with diligent ethics and complex personalities. Reeves plays the straight man with such ferocity here that his suspicion of Botvinnik is palpable. With Spencer’s precise execution of Honeyman’s smart professionalism, it’s easy to side with his suspicions. Maybe Botvinnik’s efforts to reach a more friendly level of rapport with him are actually an attempt to control him. As the conversations play out, it is […]

  • Ears on a Beatle

    John Lennon mastered the deceptively simple genius of finding his own voice and speaking with it. He spoke it deftly and frequently enough to have made quite a few people uncomfortable over the years and some of these people were in rather prominent positions in the U.S. government. As a result, Lennon was trailed by the FBI for a number of years. Agents were assigned. Reports were written. A stage comedy about this could be done a lot of different ways. With Ears On A Beatle, playwright Mark St. Germain delivers a competent script that mixes some clever bits of comedy with an overall natural sense of drama about two FBI agents assigned to trail John Lennon. Under the direction of frequent Rep actor Jonathan Smoots, Next Act Theater closes its season with an enjoyable production of the hit comedy. St. Germain chose for the play to follow the two FBI agents over an extended period of years. Next Act Producing Artistic Director David Cescarini plays Howard Ballentine, the older, more cynical agent who’s been on the job for a very long time. Ryan Schaubach plays younger, more idealistic FBI agent Daniel McClure, who goes undercover as a young hippie. This sets up a youth/experience theme that sees cynicism slowly change hands between generations as the ‘70s slowly fade-out into the ‘80s with the death of Lennon. The story is painted in fairly broad strokes, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling than a more intricate plot might have been. For the most part, we focus on the two agents and their lives and their interactions with each other. Other characters appear in the production as rendered in dialogue. J. Edgar Hoover is a silent character in the play, making his presence known subtly throughout the story. It was Hoover’s FBI that opened the file on Lennon in the first place. Dialogue ranges from very obvious jokes about the nature of work at the FBI to very, very subtle moments passing between two agents in idle conversation. Lennon himself is evident in so much of the dialogue, but nowhere is he more present than St. Germain’s depiction of the era of which he was a part. Cescarini brings his usual charisma to the role of Agent Ballentine. It’s a sympathetic portrayal of a public servant who just happens to be following around one of the most popular musicians of the 20th century. Cescarini has an impressive presence in any role and his performance here is no exception. His sympathetic portrayal of a practical conservative who comes to an understanding about the man he’s being paid to follow has a great deal of depth to it. Schaubach plays McClure as the nice guy who comes from a proud military family but gets shifted off to the FBI instead. He seems to believe in the idealism of his country, but understands that there’s a moral code that it doesn’t always live up to. His idealism outweighs his patriotism, leaving his personality […]

  • Green Gables

    The Green Gables were perfectly pitched on the set of First Stage Children’s Theater as they opened a musical version of the L.M. Montgomery classic novel Anne of Green Gables this past weekend. The book, music and lyrics, all penned by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman, do both literally and figuratively sing on stage from the first notes of “Have you ever seen such red hair?” Milwaukee’s well-known Richard Carsey was musical director along with Alissa Rhode and together the two skillfully integrated the score into the script. The melodies of the songs “Providential” and “A Dress with Puffy Sleeves” are two of the memorable selections, which were all well executed by the ensemble. Easing the beloved Anne Shirley through her teenage years during the 1900s in music is a formidable task, but both the production and the cast carry her with considerable charm. From the moment 14-year-old Jenna Wolfsohn steps on stage as Anne saying, “Anne looks so much more distinguished with an e,” she creates a character to embrace. As she finds her place among the people of Prince Edward Island in Avonlea, the music underscores her trials, including the death of Matthew in the second act. Her outspoken nature is clearly captured. By combining her talents with veterans Linda Stephens (Marilla Cuthburt) and Michael Duncan (her brother Matthew) a family is created during the performance that remains ever true to the love that abounds when an orphan finds a home. The Gables Cast, many of whom are First Stage Academy Students, includes standout performances by Kendall Iris Yorkey as Diana and Alex Miller as Gilbert. The Academy often jump starts the careers of these young actors, as Alex will be heading off to college auditions to pursue a BFA in musical theater. Corinne Kenwood, as Minnie Mae, was thrilled to be making her First Stage debut. The entire ensemble was an asset to the production as they walked the aisles of the Todd Wehr Theater in chorus or executed clever choreography around the outskirts of the delightful set. Members of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra were the distinguished three-piece orchestra, which accompany this polished presentation. Since “Anne of Green Gables” has just entered public domain, now free from copyrights, several versions are in production around the country, including one currently in New York. This two-hour version, adeptly directed by John Maclay, moves quickly and smoothly, enchanting even the smallest members in the audience. At the end the ensemble sings, “Dreams are made of perfectly happy thoughts, and perfectly happy thoughts do come true.” First Stage’s Green Gables is an evening of dreams come true, especially for those children who dream of stepping on a stage. A perfect way to remember the Anne of Green Gables from childhood. VS Green Gables by First Stage Children’s Theater is presented in the Todd Wehr Theater, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through April 22. Tickets: 414-273-7206.

  • The 2007-2008 Fine Arts Season Preview

    By Russ Bickerstaff and Evan Solochek Having survived the uncertainties of a Milwaukee winter, things settle down as our performing arts groups begin to look forward to next season. As usual, 2007-08 events closest to the present happen to also be the furthest from Milwaukee, as spring pushes performances further away from the theatre district for the summer. West of Madison, The American Players Theatre in Spring Green is one of the most consistently satisfying theatre companies in the state. The outdoor repertory group starts its season this June with a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which may have a difficult time topping Milwaukee Shakespeare’s outstanding production of the same play earlier this season. With a talented APT cast including Michael Gotch and James DeVita, it’s definitely going to be good. Along with the usual Shakespearian bits, the APT will be performing Shaw’s Misalliance and Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana. To the north and east, The American Folklore Theatre in Fish Creek starts its season in June as well with the world premiere of A Cabin With A View. It’s a musical romantic comedy based on E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name, with the AFT’s usual touches of Wisconsin charm. AFT’s season also includes reprisals of two of its biggest hits: Belgians in Heaven and the irrepressible Guys On Ice. Further in the future but closer to home, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opens its season in August with a production of Ron Hutchinson’s comedy Moonlight and Magnolias. The impressive cast of Michael Herold, Marcy Kearns, Daniel Mooney and Gerard Neugent relate the story of those strange hours that passed as the script for Gone With The Wind was written. The Chamber’s season also includes performances of short monologues (with Talking Heads, which opens in October) and a play based on the very, very long Dostoyevsky novel Crime and Punishment. The Boulevard Theatre opens its 2007-2008 season in August with David Mamet’s brilliant dramatic tribute to the art of the sale with Glengarry Glen Ross. The Boulevard’s freshly announced season features some clever choices for its tiny space, including the holocaust drama The Last Letter, a play about Clarence Darrow, a romantic French farce and Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare continues to catch the stage in rather unexpected places as The Milwaukee Ballet’s upcoming season features graceful interpretations of both Hamlet (in November) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (in April). In keeping with the production standards of the Ballet, set and costuming for April’s show should be every bit as impressive as the performance itself. In addition to the familiar standards of the Nutcracker and the annual trip to the Pabst, the Milwaukee Ballet’s season also includes what should prove to be a lavish production of La Bayadere, a sumptuous tale of love and jealousy. And now to raise the curtain on the coming season…. ACACIA THEATRE COMPANY Integrating art and faith, Acacia provides occasion for all to consider their lives in relation to God. Season […]

  • String of Pearls

    Michele Lowe’s String of Pearls follows the title object through 30-years, as it passes from owner to owner to owner. Slowly, the necklace makes its long journey full circle as it leaves its mark on the lives of a large number of characters. Featuring some impressive talent in a small space, Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of the play is an enjoyable collection of dramatic moments. For the most part this is a string of disjointed moments held together by a single prop. The prop itself isn’t always extremely prominent in each of the stories that the play consists of, so it ends up feeling like more of a symbolic gimmick than a character that mixes with the rest of the play. The action onstage is largely spoken directly to the audience, making String of Pearls feel like a collection of monologues that aspires to be a single, cohesive play. It may not quite make it, but there are so many genuinely touching moments here that it hardly seems worth the effort to string them together at all. Renaissance has put together a cast for its production that not only captures attentions and imagination throughout the play’s many stories, it also manages to keep things flowing gracefully enough that each story seems to naturally flow from the one before it. And though we are, for the most part, watching a string of monologues, the actresses here have a strong enough chemistry as a whole to make it feel like they are all interacting with each other in a single story. Each actress holds several roles over the course of the play. None are so pleasantly wide-ranging as those performed by long-time Milwaukee stage actress Mary MacDonald Kerr. The butch, overweight lesbian gravedigger she plays at the end of the show may not fit her physically, but she plays it sympathetically with more than enough heart to make her performance truly engaging. Earlier on, she plays a comically annoying mother of an adult daughter, the comically hip mother of a much younger daughter and more. Kerr stands out in a script that hands many of the fun roles to her with only a smattering of truly heavy drama. While Tracy Michelle Arnold plays a number of roles herself, nowhere is she more memorable than in the role of an Irish funeral home employee who is looking after her aging mother. Arnold plays both high comedy and endearing drama from the subtle, Irish intonations of a woman whom seems to have spent a great deal of time pummeling. She’s brilliantly reserved in the role. So much comes out of so little in her performance here. Making her Renaissance debut in this production, it’s nice to see the American Players Theatre actress on a much smaller local Milwaukee stage. Tammy Workentin and Laura Birmingham round out the cast. Birmingham renders some really powerful moments as a woman looking back over her life at the beginning of the play and perhaps looking forward to new life […]

  • Trudy Blue

    By Jill Gilmer “Can I speak to them?” Ginger Andrews asks, referring to her family as she watches them weep at Ginger’s funeral. She poses the question to a fellow angel who is watching the funeral with her from their heavenly perch. “No,” the other angel replies. “That is what your life was for.” Talk to the people you love while you are still alive. This is the simple yet provocative message of Trudy Blue, a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marcia Norman presented by the Dramatists Theatre. The play is based on Ms. Norman’s personal journey after she learns that she has two months to live. Like Ms. Norman, lead character Ginger Andrews, a novelist, later learns that her doctor’s diagnosis of lung cancer is wrong. Thus, she will have to continue living her dreary life, a fate more devastating to Ginger than the death prediction. The play takes place nearly entirely in Ginger’s mind as she contemplates conversations with her family and with Trudy Blue, a character from one of her novels who also represents Ginger’s alter ego. The play mingles these “real conversations with imaginary people and imaginary conversations with real people” interchangeably, an intriguing technique that is at times confusing to the audience. Despite the erratic effectiveness of this dramatic technique, the play succeeds in illustrating the results that ensue when a writer channels painful thoughts and feelings into fictitious characters and stories instead of sharing them with the people involved. As a series of surprising revelations unfold over the course of the play, the audience witnesses the potential damage to relationships when a person conceals their true persona from the people they love. It’s a dynamic that is likely experienced by introverts and artists of many types. The Dramatists Theatre’s production of Trudy Blue is a commendable adaptation of a difficult story. Unfortunately, its overall impact is diminished by an inexperienced cast, which offers the audience minimal assistance in understanding or caring about the two central characters, Ginger and her alter-ego, Trudy Blue. A tedious first act may lose some audience members while the stage is set for the more compelling second half. This notwithstanding, a play of this complexity is an impressive accomplishment for a theatre company in its second season, operating on a shoe-string budget. (The actors were not paid, and artistic director Marjorie Shoemann also manned the box office and snack bar.)VS Trudy Blue is the second installment in the Dramatists Theatre’s series of plays by Marcia Norman. Each season, the company showcases the work of a single playwright. Trudy Blue runs through Saturday, November 18 at the Marian Center for Non-Profits, 3211 S. Lake Drive. Tickets are $16. For reservations, please call 414-243-9168.