‘Once upon a time’ used to draw readers into prose insatiably, thankfully, that just won’t do anymore. Young playwrights like Eric Theis take a different route. A native of Wisconsin’s thumb-pit region, Theis traveled and lived his share of the States, settling in the-now-a-days-oft-mentioned Riverwest neighborhood for 5 years. Having had it with the place, referred to as New Brunswick by a friend of mine from New Jersey, Theis made his way to Madison, WI. Before leaving the bitter-sweetness of his experiences in Milwaukee behind, Theis etched a tale of two ‘hoods in his original work Riverwest: A Rhapsody! Yes, exclamation point Rhapsody!, not just ‘rhapsody’. Yes, musical Rhapsody!, with singing. Yes, exclamation point, musical Rhapsody, with singing about a neighborhood in Milwaukee, performed in Madison.
I saw the play last Sunday and before I give due, let me begin by reiterating Riverwest: A Rhapsody! is an original musical play about a neighborhood in Milwaukee. David S. Ward filmed Major League in Milwaukee, Milwaukee inspired Kentucky Fried Movie (I made that up, fine, not really), and the Fonz has a bronze statue down by the river… but has there been…? No there hasn’t so you can stop racking your brain about it. These sort of efforts make Milwaukee shine (on Madison), and not on account of solar panels on five houses within the City limits.
In My Neighborhood
The play centers on Audrey (Sabra Katz-Wise), a witty and gritty twenty something processing her loss of naivety living life in an urban neighborhood on the fly. Bryan (Collin Erickson) and Dre (Odari McWhorter) revolve around Audrey juxtaposed as focal characters with opposing modus operandi, both with their own crosses to bear. Tensions surface when Bryan and Dre’s differing ideologies collide. The unsubstantiated love triangle the three players form infuses a significant-other versus paramour layer to the underlying drama.
Older supporting characters Clyde (Chuck Mielke) and Lois (Betsy Wood) lend balance to the extremes found in the struggles we witness Audrey, Bryan and Dre encounter in the throws of their youth. Introducing a third dimension, Thies incorporates a common enemy into the story with which the youth must deal. The portrayals of conceivable actions, clear contradictions, conventional wisdom and no-win situations, do not let the audience’s conclusions go here, nor there, very far without challenge from the action in the next scene.
Complexity in the interplay of character types tweaks the audience’s expectations. The story craftily escapes traditional theatre’s four walls, decorating them with great performances of song. Theis’ work, rooted with intent to promote social justice, displays strength in taking on big social justice issues such as how does one escape terrible life circumstances with limited resources and maintain their dignity? How does one authentically advocate for justice and avoid Radical Chic? Where does one’s commitment to causes end and self-righteousness begin? How can you truly empathize with others’ experiences in a society with deliberate and institutionalized social structures that predetermine status and privileges based on phenotypical qualities beyond one’s control?
The resolutions presented at the conclusion of Riverwest: A Rhapsody! to a degree play into social fantasies and preconceived notions. However, since fictional works carry no requirement to transform accepted realities (and if only a tad “campy” at times) good stories and innovative dramatic presentation, with quality performances from actors, are well worth the extreme value offered by Broom Street Theater’s price of admission.
The issues of injustice Riverwest: A Rhapsody! deliberately tries to address are unfortunately over shadowed by the current political climate in Wisconsin. Even so, Theis’ work ties quickly to disenfranchised peoples’ fight for rights, from all walks of life. At the performance I attended, Theis offered a talk-back with the actors as an added bonus for those, like my-self, who enjoy idea sharing.