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Theater RED, In Tandem Theatre, The Prison Where I Live

His unbridled vanity flowing through his wavy mane, Edwin Booth (Jared McDaris) paces his backstage dressing chamber running his lines for his next performance of Richard III, a routine piece in his repertory. His motivation, not quite as strong as his ambition we find out later, can’t drown out his reflections on his life clanging in the back of his mind. Booth’s tortured faculties lament his past, present and future, interrupting his rehearsal frequently and pitifully.

The woefully state of Booth’s id, ushered to peril by the ghosts of his infamous brother John Wilkes Booth (Corey Jefferson Hagen) and his first wife and muse Molly (Andrea Burkholder) further pestered by his misfortunate second wife Mary Vickers Booth (Marcee Daugherty-Elst), eventually gets jolted by an encounter with deranged eccentric Mark Gray… Esq.

Focused Conversation

Angela Iannone brings us The Prison Where I Live, another well thought out drama centered on internationally renowned actor Edwin Booth. Innone, a cardinal in the cult of Edwin Booth, delivers a extremely well-sourced two-act that runs like a live-action profile piece, chalked full of historically relevant contextual references and subtle wordplay found in all brilliant dialog. The Prison Where I Live follows Iannone’s 2015 debut original work Seeds of Banquo which depicted Booth at the pinnacle of his acting prowess. In The Prison Where I Live we see Booth at a lower moment in his trajectory.

Booth a Gilded Age a-list thespian that featured on the highest profile stages around the US and Great Britain, mostly delivering performances of Shakespeare’s canon, known when in his element for his unflappable if not stilted persona. Booth appears here as fragile and more weathered than what we knew of his public image, we find out his looks have good reason. Iannone’s work here squeezes tension out of this natural contrast incumbent to celebrities, brought to bear when confronted with the fanatical appearance of Mark Gray (Brandon Haut). Gray entwines Booth’s attention with his own uninvited interpolations of Booth’s character and ambitions, which culminates to a flash point between the two that usually happens when fame meets obsessed stranger.

Big Stage Quality in Quaint Spaces

As the infamous Wilkes Booth, Hagen gives an inspired and spirited portrayal of a buoyant and bulldozing grifter. Booth’s second wife comes to life through Daugherty-Elst’s notable ability to fill out weak and hard-to-like characters. McDaris has the difficult task of portraying Edwin Booth as a complex and vulnerable personality, convincing the audience of both. Haut’s play as Mark Gray steals the show as he exudes the cold cunning of an unshakable sociopath.

The Prison Where I Live continued Theater Red’s success producing high-quality independent theatre for Milwaukee’s small stages and closed The Prison Where I Live September 9 with a afternoon matinee at In Tandem Theatre.

Well-deserve production credits go to Leah Dueno (Costume Design), Alan Piotrowicz (Lighting and Sound Design), Christopher Elst (Scenic Design and Stage Management), and Eric Welch (Hair and Makeup Design).

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Untitled Productions, Marcee Doherty Elst, I’ll Eat You Last

photo credit: Crystal Wagner

She eventually took over Zsa Zsa Gabor’s L.A. mansion, a descent ceiling for an Hollywood talent agent from upstate New York. She transplanted to the Bronx after a her dad’s suicide, which she now sees as cliche through her jaded and glassy veneer smudged from years of swimming in the movie biz’s soupy waters. Her proudest score was Barbra Streisand, who she met in her early expeditions into NYC’s hungry belly looking for fame.

In her silk caftan robe, Sue Mengers flippantly credits Halston with the axiom “if you don’t have something bad to say about someone, just sit next to me.” We find out dishing dirt on the major Hollywood players was not just her favorite past time, but an priceless skill in the post-golden film era.

She’s flamboyant, dramatic and damn near maniacally crude. In a snobbish, in-crowd kind of way, Mengers gabs bombastic references to a few dozen famous movies and the actors in her fold when she had the hot hand. Despite her mettle, we catch her when her luck ran out twice as quick as it took to make. She recants old glories, while awaiting a call from Streisand that may never come.

Theatre Red June 28-50

photo credit: Crystal Wagner

Sue talks a blue streak about getting Gene Hackman the lead in the French Connection over an A- to C-list of actors including Paul Newman, a washed up Jackie Gleason and Charles Bronson. Of how she got Faye Dunaway Chinatown. And how she got Streisand many successful projects, although Streisand was known to turn down gimmes like Cabaret for inexplicable movies like The Main Event (which by the way Sue likened to cross-dressing).

Doing it for the sake of the deal, when Sue finally got Streisand to take a movie she didn’t want, All Night Long, it bombed. A bad project turned into a scandalous Hollywood gossip feeding frenzy, now Richard Dreyfus won’t even come to Sue’s parties, announcing his absence by surprise telephone RSVP. It was the last of Sue as Streisand’s agent. Delightfully insufferable, by the time she’s done with us Sue makes it worth our while, bestowing us with her sacred five rules of being a successful agent that ironically betrayed her in the end.

illeatyou

Film/Theater Buff Crack

I’ll Eat You Last, written by John Logan and directed by Eric Welch, pays tribute to Sue Mengers’s personality and escapades with  shticks, healthy sprinkles of potty mouth, and snooty sarcasm packed into a juicy one-sided conversation. Thoroughly entertaining, Marcee Doherty-Elst delivers the monologue like a running faucet, dressed in aforementioned caftan, starch straight middle-parted blonde hair, oversized gaudy 70’s eyeglasses, and wicked horrifying makeup-job jabbing at Mengers’s heyday.

I’ll Eat You Last was co-produced by recently launched Untitled Productions and Theater RED and has one more curtain at the Kimpton Journeyman on Chicago Street in the Third Ward at 3:00p this afternoon. It’s hot, why not daydrink in fashion and in  a/c before you hit the rest of your summer fun.

The production crew that brought I’ll Eat You Last to stage deserve hi-fives, Antishadows (lighting design), Joe Picchetti (props design), Allison Kasprovich (stage manager).

 

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.

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.