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The Rote and the Writer, Alchemist Theatre, True West

Austin (Jason Will) has stolen away to the desert to have a stand-off with his typewriter, struggling to coax his next screenplay on to the blank leafs rolling through its paper carriage. He’s somewhere deep in the Southwest, house-sitting while his mother is on vacation. Even if his writing becomes more of a plow, he at least relishes the quiet.

Austin sits, sips coffee, and concentrates. Kimmer (Mitch Weindorf), a small-time Hollywood producer, will visit him soon to tour Austin’s story before it’s translated to film. Unexpectedly, Austin’s estranged brother Lee (David Sapiro) appears at the door like a dust storm, with barely a knock. Just how straight laced is Austin?

Lee holds himself up as the cracked mirror so we can better perceive the distorted angles and dark crevices of Austin’s family life. As Lee makes himself at home, rustling through his mothers drawers and cabinets, helping himself to Austin’s cheap brew while emitting a constant chatter, unconcerned with Austin’s concentration. You soon wonder if it’s actually Lee that is surprised to see Austin.

Like Rolling Stone

Lee, covered in a physical grime and unkempt, has the charm of a successful rug salesman. Lee launches into Austin, extracting his pity with persistent narrative of his troubles and guilt-trudging laments about Austin’s disregard for their alcoholic father. Wearing thin, and against his better judgment, Austin soon relents to Lee’s presumptuous ask to borrow his car. Austin just wants to be rid of his brother for a few hours and hopefully long enough to do business with Kimmer before Lee returns. Austin had offered Lee money, which Lee venomously refused. It slowly becomes clear what Lee really wants. In my head I begin to hear Bob Dylan sing, “… Once upon a time you dressed so fine, You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you ?…”

The Cat, The Yarn

Director Nicole Eggers takes few chances in developing her adaptation of Sam Shepard’s True West, beside empowering highly capable players Jason Will and David Sapiro to inhabit the verbose roles required to bring True West to life. Will convincingly portrays a tightly wound, Ivy League college grad, that predictably lacks an edge, coming unhinged relatively easily when enough pressure is applied. Sapiro, appeared challenged initially with playing Lee, however immersed himself deeper into character as the play worn on, exuding cringe-worthy qualities needed to give Lee the proper dimension. I found Sapiro’s performance particularly intriguing for this reason, as first impressions are nearly impossible to reverse, especially on stage.

Subtle metaphors worked there way into the production, through Eggers vision for the play. In one standout scene, Lee has conveniently returned to Austin in the middle of Austin’s meeting with Kimmer. Lee is carrying a t.v. and places it on the kitchen counter facing the audience. From that point forward, Lee and Austin are mostly opposite each other with the t.v. visually separating them.

During these scenes, Lee harps on his hard-living and surviving hand-to-mouth in the desert, while Austin meekly squirms for the safety of his measured intellect. The presence of the t.v. challenges the audience to determine who belongs on what side of the tube. Eventually, through his charisma and cunning, Lee is able to wiggle into the professional relationship Austin has established with Kimmer. As the action falls, Austin and Lee’s orientation to the television prop at key moments flip, then eventually become interchangeable.

And Dylan sings,

…You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely But you know you only used to get juiced in it

And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it

You said you’d never compromise With the mystery tramp, but know you realize He’s not selling any alibis

As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes

And say do you want to make a deal?…

True West disguises itself as drama filled with didactic episodes, but really a melodramatic psychological thriller (okay Im being melodramatic) might describe the play better. It hits you when Lee and Austin’s Mom (Deborah Clifton) arrives home early. Her ironic and underwhelming reaction to the aftermath of Lee and Austin’s prolonged interaction adds to the bizarre ordeal. A rare production that builds momentum, Eggers’ rendition of True West gathers your attention with each passing scene, rolling out humor, irony, conflict and degeneracy contained in Shepard’s story all the way to the curtain.

True West opened January 16th, and has weekend runs at the Alchemist Theatre through January 31, 2015 with all-show times starting at 7:30p.

Radiant, Jazz Estate, Sidewalk Chalk

Expecting the same old dusky jams you can count on at the Jazz Estate, I stepped to that night more for the dim ambiance than the music. Though the music is always a big  plus. I get the per usuals and the main act is preparing to go on. Then this trumpet leans on the silence.

It blows the cob webs off of everyone with a slow tenor drawl. Hi hat taps in the snare, and rim shot. A melodic line is sung-spoken by Maggie Vagle, keys trickling notes around her words,’I have seen the break of day, rising glistening, Im transfixing…’ It’s an exquisite lead in for Rico Sisney to begin his reminiscent verse about a person he knew.

Sidewalk Chalk, Vibrate

Sidewalk Chalk marked a high-point late in 2014 for sneakily good shows, a feat pulled easily by a such an obviously good band of musicians. Based in Chicago, Sidewalk Chalk touts a vintage brass section featuring a Trumpet (Sam Trump) and Trombone (David Ben-Porat), that build on the foundations set by urban R&B electric Bass (Garrett McGinn) and drums (Tyler Berg), and a hip deck of Keys (Charlie Coffeen). Sidewalk chalk has all the parts needed to steer an a all-terrain course through music’s soulful parts.

Their second album, Leaves, prepares to bud late in February and they treated the crowd a Jazz Estate to an early sampler. Sidewalk Chalk has a ton of moxie to go with their stage presence, striking the right balance of justified confidence needed in the urban fusion genre. Most of all they are a lot fun.

Sidewalk Chalk, Them Us

Sidewalk Chalk weaves in and out of dreamy and contemplative pieces, and go quickly from sentimentality to good times. When they get introspective you have a musical pal to accompany you on your daily laments and social tithing. At their upbeat best, they will give you perfect soundtrack to do something uplifting. Sidewak Chalk’s sophomore album leaves drops February 25.

Jaems Murphy, Etherium Ensemble, Circle A Cafe

14 1108 LT

Quickly becoming a transcendent figure in the Milwaukee music scene, Jaems Murphy’s latest project, Etherium Ensemble, claws at a certain sonic purity that will draw him notoriety that is likely unsought. Adhering thoughtful progressive rock to ambient jazz, soul and neo-soul sub genres, Etherium Ensemble took the floor for an November performance at Circle A Cafe in Riverwest.

Bestowing an uplifting and reflective set of compositions, Etherium Ensemble is a sextet containing guitar (Murphy), bass (Bob Schabb) trumpet (Brett Westfahl), drums (Demetrus Ford), vocalist (Keshena Armon), and vibraphone (Michael Neumeyer), all possessing extensive expressive proclivities.

Etherium Ensemble, Circle A from Local Trolley on Vimeo.

The word that most comes to mind if I were to describe Etherium Ensemble is authentic; authentic in their intent, authentic in their commitment, and authentic in their desire to pay tribute to the all voices that contribute to Milwaukee’s creative spirit.

About that vibraphone, until Etherium Ensemble, this element is one that I have yet to see incorporated in a Milwaukee act. Mike Neumeyer does Roy Ayers proud (one of the definitive American Jazz Vibes composers), working his way end-to-end on the chimed instrument clutching two felted mallets. In the sound-scape of Etherium Ensemble, the vibes venerably takes the place of keyboard, and expands that role to offer warmer tones to the range of notes that section usually imparts.

Etherium Ensemble part 2, Circle-A-Cafe from Local Trolley on Vimeo.

Jaems Murphy also headlines Vedic Eden, a amorphous project leaning on alternative rock foundations. Vedic Eden was recently included in a blog post from The Examiner announcing “11 acts you may not be paying attention to…”. Go ahead and throw Etherium Ensemble on that list, and to give Jaems Murphy two spots in 2015.

Grotesque Couture, Quasimondo Physical Theatre, Buboes

Buboes Quasi

An old worn monsieur hobbles forward, eccentric and slightly obsessive, gathering refuse of interest along his way. The lines in his face trace a life of difficulty, all the same to him.

Fitting of late medieval times, a woman nurses a babe coarsely, holding it by the neck to her bosom. She meets an unseen demise, her babe still clutching. A miscreant duo collects the fallen maiden leaving the babe behind, yet another castaway. Prodding along, the long-suffering worn monsieur comes upon the orphaned babe and gathers it up, to his surprise it suckles him. He carries it off, like the rest of his belongings cluttered but well-kept.

Folly’s Upheaval

It’s dark, and the proverbial queen’s stark white face defies this fact amidst Buboe’s setting. Her face cuddled by black contrast, glowers over the stage. She has ruby red glossed and penciled lips set to pucker, her face set stone. The queen’s courtier and hunchback servant amble to their own beat, wavering, at once beheld to the queen and their own impulsiveness. The French countryside’s ‘bouffons’ scuttle around her feet, trying harder and harder to lose any purpose they might have. The queen clearly feels her grip of control slipping.

A Mystic appears keeping company with the provincial Cardinal. The Mystic walks with death following in his foots steps, the Cardinal’s comforting and pristine presence precedes false hope, two sides of the same coin. Stricken with a mysterious affliction, some locals froth visibly at the mouth, others are dying, carted off by the barrel full. Who’s dying from what is hard to tell.

Return of the Product

Shrouded in room for interpretation, a valiant rebel comes forth from a mysterious origins. The pestilence is running rampant, the stunning rebel aided by well-intentioned towns people roots out an unexpected villainy, only to be thwarted by the town miscreants who are now virtually seething ghouls. At least, that’s what I saw.

An Elegant Calamity

True to form, director Brian Rott summons unparallelled imaginative energy to give theater goers a show requiring some effort to wrap your head around. A period piece straddling medieval and renaissance France, Buboes stirs a deeply recessed portion of your consciousness.

Daring you to rely nearly exclusively on visual comprehension, Buboes elicits silent film era notions of gesture and movement, and in a more contemporary and immediate sense draws directly from the theatre tradition of Jacques Lecoq. Each of the players engage the Buboes subject matter as heavily with their eyes as they do with their bodies. Jenni Reinke in her role as the rebel, presents the epitome this technique, piercing the audience with her facial tonality, conveying a troubled detachment.

Body Work

In supporting roles Ben Yela and Posy Knight similarly fill their characters with a deliberate and studied portrayals of the ‘miscreant’ and the ‘provincial queen’, melding expression and movement creating intriguing physical compositions. Giving shape to one of the queen’s court, Jessi Miller toddles about as a nimble humpback, startling with her transformation from physical ineptness to spry agility.

You might think Kirk Thomsen has the rickets in real life, given his embodiment of limb discomfort. In concert with supporting roles from Andrew Parchman (Mystic), Emma Kate (Courtier), Kristopher Xavier (Miscreant), and Raven McCaw (Cardinal), these affects lets Buboes exact an ounce of intrigue from your flesh and lance that abscess blocking the natural flow of your imagination. On par, the Quasimondo team throws in dashes of prop illusions, action scenes, and puppets to complete the magic that surrounds their performances.

Buboes is technically sound with credit to Jessi Miller (Assistant Director), Jeff Achterberg (Technical Director), Posy Knight (Set and Scenic Design), Michael Pettit (Puppet Design), Ben Yela (Lighting Design), Raven McCaw and Sarah Seefeldt (Costume Design), and Kirk Thomsen and Kristoffer Xavier (Production and Stage Management).

Buboes’ remaining runs are Saturday December 6,8, 12,and 13 at 8p, with Sunday matinees December 7 and 14 at 2pm. Quasimondo Milwaukee Physical Theatre is housed by Milwaukee Public Theatre, which has turned a former big box retail space into a cove of dramatic creation in Studio G across from the TJ Maxx in Grand Avenue Mall.

No Doze, Suicide Sleep, Alchemist Theatre

He has that tortured look on his face. Rick (Joshua Devitt) sits up from his bed in the middle of night, intimately bothered. The rowdy neighbors give him plenty of reason to fix his face to glare at nothing in particular. The bass is pounding from a sound system next door, and he wonders how he got to this place. At least somebody is having a good time, but he doesn’t care.

In desperation, Rick reaches inside a raggedy moving box. Out comes his hand with a prescription bottle, from which he frantically dumps a mega capsule. A NyQuil chaser follows quickly, all he wants is some sleep and he finally gets it, but for how long?

A Dream Inferred

Interrupted by reminiscent premonitions, Rick’s sleep repeatedly has invaders. Here comes Jimmy (Tim Palecek), affable and doting he shows plenty of concern for Rick’s introspection. Despite his intentions, Jimmy is mostly another nuisance to peace and quiet. As soon as you think he has gone, he reappears with an imaginative take on an an absurd scenario perpetuated by the degenerate scene around Rick’s stank hole apartment.

Rick has a girlfriend. Jimmy pins most of Rick’s distress on her. Lynn (Liz Witford), an ambitious psychology student, wants the best for her and her boyfriend Rick. She wants him so bad all to herself. She does everything she can to help him, including syphoning off some perscription tabs to remedy his inability to sleep.

Rick returns repeatedly to his bottles of relief. His self-meds seem to work well to assist him stall on figuring out what to do with his life. Possibly too well? Rick’s periods of REM become less restfull and full of idiations of his father’s untimely death, his friend Jimmy’s inifinite dude-wisdom, or himself, or his free-flower paramour Sarah (Sammich Ditloff), a mysterious dreamgirl (Kelsey Witford), or an ill-fated moment involving his everything, Lynn.

Short-Form Theater

Suicide Sleeps’ Director Charles Sommers and writer/producer Aaron Kopec, tucked this mentally stimulating live drama into a 40-minute pocket that clipped along fluidly, without a beat wasted, leaving much of the apprenhension theatre goers have about long productions with lulliby scenes stranded in the back of your mind. In spite of the short run time, you still feel your admission is well spent.

A cast of faces familiar to Alchemist productions has a heavy hand in accomplishing this. Each player fills their role with relatable and interesting personal quirks and nuiances. Palecek is overly believable as the bar fly that everyone has known at one point in their life. Devitt, as Rick, is the middle-american kid torn between his family’s values and expectations and his want to chase waterfalls. Witford perfectly fills the body of the highly composed, put together and contriving all-american girl etched into Lynn’s character. Ditloff, playing Sarah, courts and wins believability’s hand in all her scenes as an uber hip girl from the depths of cool-dom.

Where many of Milwaukee’s theatre troops continue to encroach on the realm between stage and auidience, Suicide Sleep stays refreshingly distant from the audience, nearly replacing the ‘third wall’ with an 160 inch LCD screen. The show actually plays like an episode of a television series, a concept that has room to run.

Suicide Sleep is on the Alchemist channel as a double feature with shows starting at 7:20 and 9:00p on October 23, 24, 25, and 30th at the Alchemist Theatre in Bay View.