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In Comes Youth, Helene Fischman, In Tandem, The Outgoing Tide

Out Goes the Tide, In Comes Youth

A commentary on The Outgoing Tide, In Tandem Theatre

by Helene Fischman

Several weeks ago, I brought my collective “Draw Write Here!” comprised of both youth and adult artists and writers, to see the In Tandem Theatre production of Bruce Graham’s, The Outgoing Tide. Taking high school students to a play prompts my radar to go up. As every dramatic detail unfolds, I am wondering if they can relate. What they can reap from the themes? In their worlds, driven by technology and social media, are they finding this engaging?

The In Tandem Theatre is a great place to take teenagers because of its size, they can connect to the work here by practically reaching out and touching it. It’s a small, 99-seat studio theatre, so wherever you are seated is right up in its grill – enmeshed in the physical space of the play. You are in the air the actors breathe in an almost uncomfortable intimacy.

The story of The Outgoing Tide is about how a family, rooted in old-world institutions, handles a non-traditional approach to aging and death: Gunner and Peg, a couple in their 70s and their son, Jack. Gunner himself is conscious of the onset of dementia and his mental decline. The dread of his impending helplessness prompts him to devise a plot wherein he stages his own accidental death (throwing himself off his boat mid-sail making it appear as an accident) to activate an insurance windfall for his family. His life insurance policy will provide twice as much for them (his wife, Peg, and son, Jack) in the case of accidental death. This would relieve them of both having to care for him in a tragic state, and with enough funds to care for themselves.

Convenient Untruths

Most reviewers of this play focus on the theme of memory-loss. With my youth-oriented lens, however, more compelling was the internal conflict of Peg’s religious values. Peg manifests the fixins of an old-school, traditional Catholic. As we learn throughout the play, she has betrayed these precepts in secret. So, let’s talk about premarital sex.

We learn that the son, Jack, was conceived out of wedlock. Peg became pregnant and Gunner proposed marriage as a result. The son, Jack, demonstrates shock when he hears this; he is nonplussed, devastated and shamed. His reaction is less about the truth uncovered than about his parent’s dishonesty: because premarital sex was unacceptable in their tight-knit Catholic community. They hid this truth from friends and family. His mother lied, and Jack was pissed.

Our youth today could care less about premarital sex, but this example as metaphor for cover-up? This they can relate to. They are exposed so frequently to the contradictory covers of old conventions. Acceptance of non-traditional families and LGBTQ identity, both of which Peg’s values reject, are central to a revised secularism authored by contemporary youth culture. My young audience stood behind Jack and his consternation at hearing news of his mother’s dishonesty.

Finding a Mold

Ironically, Jack is in the middle of a divorce. While he is questioning his mother about her disguised impropriety, she is questioning his choice to abandon a marriage which was entered into freely. Not entered, that is, out of the necessity of immodest behaviors. The son, although reared in Catholicism, is divorcing his wife because he’s not fulfilled. The difference between his parent’s marriage and his own marriage is a generation, separated by the 1960s and 70s.

In Peg and Gunner’s era, marriage may have contained love but was not as much a love-marriage as a marriage of contract. For them, marriage provided a sharing of resources, economics, maintaining inclusion in community. Jack’s divorce represents the love-marriage borne from the era of “I’m Ok, You’re OK.” Marriage became less a contract and more a pathway to enlightenment, a gateway to real fulfillment and personal growth. From Jack’s generation forward, if marriage falls short of those ideals, divorce is a reasonable option. Millenials don’t care about marriage or divorce, and don’t care about contracts. From single-parenthood to cooperative parenting to not having children at all, their identities are no longer caught up in these choices. Career, freedom, love – this is what’s important. Sounds a lot like the 60s.

While Peg proclaims that her generation held fast to marriage and so should Jack’s, Jack recalls from his childhood that there was a family in the neighborhood that he recalls getting a divorce. When he brings this up to his mother, Peg’s retort is, wryly, that they were Jewish, and so dismisses it as an argument. What the playwright, Bruce Graham, does by adding in that quip, that offhand racist comment, was to add insult to injury: He cracks open the already brittle shell encapsulating this family’s “values.” Peg’s veiled adherence to Catholicism not only covered up the lie of her early conception, but also facilitated maintenance of bigotry and anti-Semitism. Graham astutely addresses that historical legacy of the church as one that has used racism as power and cover-up.

So can we talk about racism and bigotry today? Unfortunately, yes, as we can see by things like the mobilized Alt-right, the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, racist graffiti throughout the country. And our youth don’t have room for this anymore. They have tremendous impatience with, for example, the outdated policy makers of our country who are clinging to an old sense of the American dream which no longer applies.

Seismic Shift

There is a massive youthquake occurring now across not only gun control, but DACA, Black Lives Matter, and #metoo, which demonstrates the change in the way our kids are behaving. Just like Peg, Gunner and Jack’s family, the foundation of our country is cracking. Just as Gunner is losing his memory, our society is teetering with a fundamental uncertainty growing every day.

In Tandem’s production of The Outgoing Tide was meaningful for these kids. They were able to see an older person as change-maker. It was the old man, Gunner, who developed the idea for suicide, even in the midst of his wife’s antiquated path. It was he who was willing to be flexible, to self-sacrifice, to launch into the unknown: traits not typically ascribed to an older generation. At our talkback after the play, my students began to synthesize these ideas and talk about their own understanding of rules, the breaking of rules, and how to adapt to new circumstances.

Human beings live on a continuum; we bring forward the knowledge of those who came before us. Who we are and what we become is not just a consequence of our lifetime but an accumulation of years of collective knowledge, borne of the sweat of our predecessors. What I hope our students gleaned from this experience, above and beyond the direct themes of the play, is that we want them to succeed and grow past us. We want them to take the lessons we’ve learned and create new environments in which to see where we’re going, where we’ve been. We want them to develop insight to make tough decisions about which value systems and traditions are worth holding on to.

On those days when the fight seems insurmountable, I hope they know there are scores of us standing behind them, believing in them, needing them to be the new voice as ours begins to wane, like the outgoing tide.

***

Helene Fischman is a collaborative artist focused on the dynamic interaction of humans with their environment. Currently, Helene is interested in the performance of identity in a cross-disciplinary, collaborative atmosphere. She leads a collective of artists and writers in Milwaukee called “Draw Write Here!” who travel as a group to different sites, and collaboratively illustrate and write in response to their experiences.

Fischman received her BFA in Painting from Boston University, her MS in Education from Cal State East Bay, and her MFA in Intermedia from UW-Milwaukee. She received the honor of the 2018 Puffin Foundation Grant and the 2014 Distinguished Graduate Fellowship at UW-Milwaukee. She has partnered with the In Tandem Theatre, Voyageur Bookshop, Racine Correctional Institute, Jewish Museum Milwaukee, The Battery FactoryMilwaukee Art Museum, and Portland Art Museum, and held several site-specific international artist residencies.

“Draw Write Here!” has four printed quarterly journals; the Summer 2018 edition will be out next season. Visit Helene at www.helenefischman.com and at The Longhand Project on facebook.

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How They Speak, Southern Tour, Sweet Sheiks

A fitting tribute could go something like, ‘Time traveling musical outfit gets knees-a-knocking with woodwin, banjo, tuba, fiddle and a gal that carry a tune, strum a chord, bend a saw and rake the dickens out of a washboard. They go by… Sweet Sheiks.’

Jen Schrank leads this line from the middle with a musical cast from scruffy to dapper and everywhere in between beside her. They rustle through a slew of takes on southern roots jazz and blues music. Sweet Sheiks is Schrank’s second successful project, having founded the three piece roots band Mississippi Sawyer in 2011. Her band mates decorate various ensembles outside of the Sweet Sheiks outfit as well.

via Local Trolley https://vimeo.com/250974812

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

The whole band has musical chops in their own right. Ousia (violin) most notably campaigned with MKE indie cult favorite Ruth B8r Ginsberg. Jazz clarinet wiz Andy Spadafora sits in Dead Man’s Carnival variety show house band among other regular gigs, along with Aiden White (compound washboard, guitar).

Aaron Johnson gigs regularly as a tuba specialist. Garret Burton, formerly of the Thriftones, fingers the banjo deftly and features on vocals. When Sweet Sheiks are really going good former Wisconsin Badger tubist Matt Wallrath gets in the mix as well.

Following the Tennessee River south, Sweet Sheiks are picking up steam as they head to Louisiana, after stopping in Memphis and Birmingham. Sweek Sheiks have a couple shows left on their Southern Tour in Abita Springs at Abita Brewery (January 13) and in New Orleans at Apple Barrel Bar (January 14) before heading back north through Carbondale, IL (January 15).

Sweet Sheiks hopefully resume their regular slot Tuesday nights at the Highbury in February.

Update: Sweet Sheiks will have a monthly gig at the Jazz Estate spring of 2018.

The Slow Simmer, Cream City Theater, Twelve Angry Men


The jury’s foreman and the bailiff have a brief exchange in an empty room furnished with twelve chairs. The bailiff (Ken Meleski) ushers the jurors into the deliberation room, eleven men file in, and the locks the door behind them. Not yet befitting the title of the play, including the foreman (Al Van Lith), twelve men mill around a long conference table preparing to decide the fate of a young man charged with murdering his father.

On the small stage where theatre goers have grown accustom to seeing 5 to 6 players, the image of twelve men on stage at the same time, eleven of whom are are white American (the twelfth of Spanish descent) creates a jarring visual frame, a constant reminder deep subtext contained in this work. Little do they know, they the salt of America, they will be soon drawn out of the veneers of their measured respectability.

Well Preserved

There is no spoiling Twelve Angry Men. Originally a film by Reginald Rose made for television, airing in 1957, eventually reaching the silver screen, playwrights and drama programs regularly adapt the title as a mainstay in theatre’s repertoire of contemporary major works. Commentary in the most explicit form, well weathered and relevant to this day, Rose wrote Twelve Angry Men in a period of great cultural and political conflict in America’s Golden era.

Elvis, Truman, Burroughs, McCarthy, Bogard, Bacall and Reagan and of course Joe McCarthy all simmering in the great American tuna casserole. A sweeping movement of conformity to conservative beliefs and values ushered in through Sen. McCarthy’s political office, polarized America along several societal fault lines that shifted the landscape of American life. Although we don’t readily associate McCarthism with America’s racial narrative, it certainly sat at least as an antecedent to McCarthy’s raging lunacy. Without explicitly stating it, plausibly Rose’s story uses the white-black racial color line within the context of Justice as a metaphor to juxtapose the society’s expression of social conformity with the noble struggle to live the up to principles of the supreme laws of the land.

Urban Blues

A young man’s father has been stabbed to death in his own home, the son the alleged killer. We glean through the jury’s cursory discussion of the case that a teen that lives in a poor neighborhood and has experienced prior run-ins with the law, stands accused. In three minutes a particularly vocal juror uses a series of character assaults, coded and explicit racial stereotypes to remind the other jurors of the certainty of the teen’s guilt. The jurors attempt to confirm the youth’s guilt quickly by vote so that they don’t waste anymore time away from their daily lives, which included going to a baseball game and selling advertising.

Manufacturing Consensus

Needing a unanimous vote, juror (Mack Heath) herds the others into group think, evoking the juror’s white identities and infallible God given discernment of the truth through their common sense understanding of the world. In defiance, a solitary juror (Nicholas Haubner) surely the devil himself, not satisfied that they have fulfilled their civic duty to issue a verdict explicitly based on the merits of the evidence, votes ‘not guilty’. A contentious tug of war of wit and reason ensues, giving the audience an intense and stirring display of rhetorical and persuasion tactics as the jury struggles to find a consensus.

A well-cast and played production, we see that even within cultural contexts presumed monolithic, various personality archetypes and personas contained within exist and collide as a matter of course, vying to determine if the voice of reason or conformity will win out in the eternal battle raging in the human psyche. Tailor made for audiences with an appetite for provocative and unmasked social commentary and an interest in interpersonal communication this production delivers on all three.

Zack Sharrock, Greg Ryan, Erico Ortiz, Bill Hitt, Paul Weir, Doug Smedbron, Gene Schuldt, David Cooklock, and Tom Jozwik round out the cast of Twelve Angry Men.

Directed by Katherine Beeson, Cream City Theatre, brings Twelve Angry Men off the shelf to Milwaukee area audiences through October 29, with performances on October 27 and 28 at 7:30pm and a matinee Sunday the 2th at 2:00pm at the Inspiration Studios performance space in West Allis, 1500 S. 73rd St. If you go 73rd street is closed under construction, however 76th Street gives easy accessed to the space.

 

Acknowledgement: This review originally presumed the race of the teen on trial for murder in Twelve Angry Men as black American. While not explicitly stated in the play’s script, or the intent of Beeson in producing this play, in context of the plot, dialog, and setting there are not many other plausible identities that the teen could have been other than black American.

From the perspective of this review, it should be noted that Twelve Angry Men is a play that gives ample room to question how American society gives consideration to social groups that are in subjugated roles in the social hierarchy. Race has proved to be the most enduring social division by which social acceptance, fair consideration and the right to Justice have been denied to entire groups of Americans by law and practice. Masterfully, and rightfully so Rose leaves clear cues in the dialog that the black-white color line is on display that we may judge ourselves by how the least regarded among us is treated.

Cruising Tuesdays, Cactus Club, Date Stuff


Date Stuff’s drummer (Abby Black) was all geeked about being in Milwaukee so she could nab some Spotted Cow for the trip back to Chi-town. Part of the gag was that she could actually tell everybody since she had a mic. Drummers never have mics. 

Her band mate Karla Bernasconi seared her for it, “You bought 24 spotted cows” evoking absurdity of the literal image. She’d hate to admit it but nobody can get more Sconnie than someone who’s last name has ‘-Sconi’ in it.

Stop being my Favorite

A punchy bad-ass nerd duo, Date Stuff hammers out some wildly arranged spasmodic indie pop. Bernasconi sometimes laces these riffs with painfully restrained breathy vocals, always recognizable in conservative indie pop tunes. Her skittish and unorthodox guitar work gives her voice the ultimate playmate, which shifts quickly to well-placed matter-of-fact belting. Black mercurially codes her drumming in ever-morphing time signatures, giving the lead harmonies something fun and choppy to surf on.


They released a demo winter 2017, and everyone who hears it probably can barely wait for more. Self-muted and unassuming, Date Stuff gave Cactus Club goers a bigger serving of dizzying and whimsical material, just what you need but wouldn’t expect for Tuesday night show.

Date Stuff’s self-titled 2 song demo is on bandcamp if you were wondering.

Ides of the Amazon, Theater RED, Wayward Women

photo: Traveling Lemur Productions


A couple of German fellows, err a Swiss military officer Cordelius (Timothy Rebers) and his bond  Julian (Zach Thomas Woods) have found themselves washed ashore in the Amazon. They over-shot their destination by a couple thousand miles and have somehow lived to tell the tale. 

These salty dogs blather guarded thanks for their landing, and soon encounter a qypsy who warn of the wayward ways of this land. The gypsy plainly notes that Julian and Cordelius’ manhood is not entitled any birthright here, and certainly that two unaccompanied men traveling alone would face retribution quickly. Women and their wiles rule the Amazon.

Ladies in the Raw

The Amazonians are not the waif-like damsels of post-industrial Europe. They forged their own landed gentry, now ruled by the iron glare of Duchess Penti Celia (Alicia Rice), with a hedonistic fervor for sword and might. 

Rough hewn personalities typify the realm of the warrior princesses. Dame Amu (Madeline Wakley) and Dame Grendela (Jennifer Larsen) consumed with pride, glory and booty, feign and posture eagerness to come to blows with anyone closer than two-arms length and less than a mouthful of praises.

photo: Traveling Lemur Productions

Cordelius and Julian shuffle to heed the warning of the local, who swam off leaving them women’s cloths, that one them should disguise as a woman as to give the appearance that the man has a chaperone. Mentally stuck on the Western front and oblivious to the actual dynamics of the jungle, Cordelius insists that Julian play the role of the fairer sex to accentuate his lack of masculinity.

Bathed Every Vein in Swich Liquor

When the Swissmen encounter the ladies of the land, mayhem ensues as contrasting societal conventions around sex and gender collide. 

Swashbuckling Grendela and Amu quickly pounce to capture Cordelius’ fresh meat from what they think are Julian’s puny thighs. They bombard Cordelius with a combination of feminine bravado and an onslaught of thinly veiled and raunchy sexual advances. 

photo: Traveling Lemur Productions

Although Grendela and Amu nearly to come to blows over Cordelius, who would oridnarily have no choice but to be temporarily betrothed to whoever proved the stronger dame, Cordelius clumsily shakes Amu’s court turning his loin toward Squire Aquiline (LeAnna Vance).

Smiling Teeth

Meanwhile Julian struggles to keep up his facade, a bit out of place coming-off as woman with no mettle. Even the least among these huntresses has the primal instinct to sniff out the faintest hint of testosterone. A skillful strategy might bring Cordelius into better fortune. 

As Grendela and Amu’s feud escalates, the Duchess repeatedly intervenes through her diplomatic arbiter Magistress Dotara (Reva Fox) and eventually with her muscle Derimacheia (Niko King) and Thermodosa (Abigail King). 

photo: Traveling Lemur Productions

As Cordelius awkwardly wriggles away from Amu’s advances, Aquiline squirms and curdles at Cordelius’ bumbling courting ritual that leads him through ‘bushes’ and into the ‘olive groves’. Squire Pinne (Brittany Curran) brings unexpected relief to this mess with her talents and cunning. Only the arrival of Switzer (Bryan Quinn) disentangle the petty whims ensnaring everyone in this lush outdoor humidor. 

Punctuating the Plot

A period piece, Christopher Elst’s Wayward Women deftly adapts Jared McDaris’ take on several Shakespeare works, most notably Twelfth Night and As You Like It, turning the primary premise on its head with respect to gender roles, making men the powerless objects of desire of women. 

The play bends a ton of realities that no theatre goer should expect to be upheld within the style and genre of this production. Some of the inconsistencies present arise deliberately and absurdly, in setting the play in the Amazon, the time period roughly the 1920’s, and with scenes taking place in what looks like a lounge in upper Manhattan and not in shadow of the vast rain forests surrounding Brazilia, and the players dressed accordingly. 

A well written piece, McDaris stacks Wayward Women with layers and layers of Shakespeare’s rhetorical and literary devices into quip, flesh tearing, low-brown and thoroughly entertaining dialog. 

Grant that this is a “players’ play”, with so many briskly delivered antiquated references and inside humor (which you should expect from any Elizabethan Comedy) causal theatre goers will have their mind spun like a yarn ball. However, the overall levity of the play allows you to be at least carried along with the visual cues offered by the cast with and punctuation of cheeky humor with timely gestures ans vocal intonations.

A Tidy Game of Tug-o-War

A well acted play, Alicia Rice imprints herself once again as an intense and commanding presence onstage as the Duchess. Woods and Larsen hold one end of the story’s drama with classic over-the-top performances, having Wakley and Rebers play more measured roles. Fox, Curran and Vance, and briefy Quinn, give needed grounding to the production with solid accompanying roles.

Production and technical credits go to Marcee Doherty-Elst (Producer, Props), Julia Xiong (Stage Manager), Evan Crain (Scenic Design), Aaron Kopec (Lighting), Katlyn Rogers (Costume), Eric Welch (Hair and Makeup).

Theater RED bodaciously brings these players to the stage for Wayward Women’s final weekend of curtain calls Thursday July 20 through Saturday July 21 at Alchemist Theatre in Bay View. All show times 7:30p and definitely worth arriving early to suck up some of the ambiance.