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Off Wells, Alchemist Theatre, Life in the Theatre

I look back towards the doorway as I sit down. A trapezoid of light, thin, sharp and elongated, extends from the entrance, slicing the darkness that engulfs the lounge area facing the bar. In the middle of the day, the Alchemist Theatre amazingly devoid of light, defies the presumptive illuminating qualities of daytime. Drama lives in this space.

In the comfy chairs facing me, and on the plush velvet wall bench next to me, sit Jill Anna Ponasik who is sporting an irreverent pair of translucent blue acetate framed glasses and a blue t-shirt of similar tone, and Dave Sapiro the Alchemist’s utility knife-like resident ensemble lead. A casually dressed bearded gentleman exudes a presence, impatiently jittering a bit. I’m pretty sure his name is Jim. Given his demeanor I presume him at the point of belligerently exiting middle age. Aaron Koepec, the Alchemist’s Artistic Director, also joins us slightly disheveled, a customary appearance betraying his attentiveness.

I stopped down to hear a little bit about Aaron Koepec’s latest production, a rendition of Mamet’s Life in the Theatre. He lured Jill Anna into directing this piece. As the Producing Artistic Director for Milwaukee Opera Theatre, She’s accustomed to directing operas. 

Ponasik, not a stranger to the Alchemist Theatre, had a small role in the now cult-classic Alchemist production Invader! I hardly knew her an original doosie written and directed by Jason Powell back in 2009 (suddenly loud red alarm buzzers started ringing in my imagination). She produced another collaboration at the Alchemist with Powell in 2012 entitled Fortuna Time Bender vs School Sister of DoomWith Life in the Theatre, Ponasik takes on a stage piece for the first time.

Back Stops and the Inkwell of Love

“The story of Life in the Theatre could have taken place last week or in [19]42,” Ponasik offers, “It’s a drama centered on the Society of Theatre, however the central theme is really about the tensions between older generations and youth, which is a topic that spans time immemorial.”

The man I am remembering as Jim, chimes in to give a little more context to this work in the canon of Mamet. “This is the follow-up to Mamet’s first work American Buffalo, which was a smashing success. It’s written like a love letter to theatre. You might describe American Buffalo as a catcher’s mitt, Life in the Theatre would be a lace doily.”

From Understudy to the Grave

The play knits a 26 act dialog between stage-ripened actor Robert and fresh face John. Dave Sapiro who portrays John adds, “The young actor confronts the realities of ambition, and the presumption of having to be ruthless to make it.” Giving a little more away Ponasik offers, “Amidst the drama, there is a healthy dose of comedy in the story, absurdity often ensues.”

As the conversation winds through the thoughts of the ensemble, Jim becomes introspective “After 450 performances of Scrooge from [19]99 to 2012 Robert’s character is definitely within my reach.” Wait what? Nearly a decade and a half in The Rep’s production of the A Christmas Carol?

There in front of me, plain as homemade yogurt, James Pickering’s name is printed on the playbill. No wonder that name sounded so familiar. I glance again at “Jim”, who is looking like that guy at Outpost that might guilt you into buying reusable shopping bags, with beard, wire rim glasses and no top hat or long coat, just looks like a regular guy.

“There is a tension in the play of one actor facing constant pressure of living up to the standard and not stumbling, against the other actor’s drive to make the most of his chances to succeed,” Pickering has been here before.

By the Looks of It

When asked of the aesthetics of the play, Ponasik sardonically drawls, “Well we knew weren’t going to do an opera.” Turning slightly to Aaron she continued, “This is where Aaron will usually tell you he doesn’t like designing for other director’s shows. We went with the idea that the set would be an environment that the play could take place in.”

Koepec avoids complete encryption, “The play is staged as a memory.” Succinctly Pickering concludes, “We are riffing on the idea that [Rob and John], it’s one consciousness. The play will draw on the concept of [memory as] a tunnel.”

Wondering if there are clear artistic tensions that play out between the old guard and new guard, as an example I reference this months New Yorker which observes Improv as having become modern acting, rather than remaining just a technique. The Alchemist, long a haven for Improv comedians and some damn good ones, has successfully co-mingled a variety of stage acting techniques during its lifespan.

The question draws the ire of Sapiro, “Everything on stage isn’t valid all the time, but Method taken to the extreme is very questionable as well. That Jared Leto crap with Suicide Squad was unforgivable.” It’s safe to say the small stage can have a purist embrace too.

Ponasik shares that Life in the Theatre takes place mostly behind the scenes of the theatre in the play. “I’ve seen performances of Shakespeare in New York at the Globe Theatre where the actors are in the dressing room in every scene. It created an intriguing perspective shift for the audience.” Pickering tells it eagerly, “Viewing batting practice can be very entertaining.”

This is a huge playbill for a space that maybe sits 50. James Pickering is legend in the making that you won’t see in this intimate of performance very often. David Sapiro isn’t too shabby either. As for Jill Anna Ponasik, we know she can do opera, but can she do Alchemist Theatre? The Alchemist Theatre opens Life in the Theatre September 30, 2016 at 7:30pm, tickets are $29.



Lost to Time, Frank’s European Sausage

At least 8 people stood in a loose single file facing the empty deli display refrigerator underneath Frank’s European Sausage grocery counter, barely enough room to keep the doorway clear. The store’s shelves, stained polyurethane coated wood bolted to glossy cast iron railing (the kind of railing over which smoked sausages hung) barely hold anything but some pickled vegetables and whole peppercorns. Frank’s store, in the ground and spiced meat business for over forty years, smells only of made-to-order fresh polish sausages that Frank himself personally runs from his mechanical meat stuffer on his last day of walk-in business.

As people wait inside, eventually grabbing their orders that humbly fill plastic supermarket bags, more patrons amble through the door immediately take their place. One guy in his forties says he’s been coming to Frank’s since he was 12. You can feel the  sense of duty in people drawn to visit Frank’s, as the news of its closing spread through social media, like those would to a wake of a distant and respected friend.

New World

Located mid-block just north of Becher on Muskego, Frank’s long-time home is now a predominately Latino neighborhood, just minutes from the Valley and industrial lands of West Allis along Miller Parkway. Opening in 1973, this establishment provided a taste of the old country for descendants of Polish and other East European immigrants. Even today, a young woman asks her husband something in a heavy Eastern block accent, a reminder that most everyone in this country arrived here from another land.

More than a few people have asked about the Hungarian hot sausage, after entering and not seeing anything in the refrigerator case. I had the hot Hungarian on a previous occasion. When cooked, the Hungarian made a red oily stew from the paprika blend seasoning it. Not surprised when an senior woman came in and marched right to up to the counter, calling for the Hungarian. Hearing the house had none but fresh Polish, she turned around and went back out the door as purposefully as she came.

Sturdy, Stalwart

There’s a quintessential familiarness of a bygone Milwaukee here. Regular working-class people with a matter-of-fact folksiness that takes itself less-serious enough to strike up a conversation, or to give a common courtesy nod to a stranger. I remember coming across these people occasionally growing up here, although I never got South of the viaduct until after I was eighteen.

Savor this Page

Frank’s will be lost to time, an obscure draw to an area that will never have a traditional specialty sausage grocer again. He is a testament to that cultural ethic that pervades some residents of Milwaukee that no matter how much their neighborhood changes they won’t leave their home.

Frank Jakubczak has tried to shut his doors before, however his customers have never let him leave. Amazingly, the History Channel featured him in a segment of their Meat America series circa 2012. Well deserved recognition, although I’m certain the stream customers on his closing day were much more gratifying.

Wisconsin Foodie did a segment on Franks’s European Sausage you can check out get a feel for the experience.

Alley Bomb, Stacey Williams-Ng, Black Cat Alley 2016

The alley-side wall of the Oriental Theatre has probably had everything sprayed on it except aerosol paint. That all will change later this fall when a handful of hand-picked muralists will get a shot at bombing that famed back way as a part of the Black Cat Alley street fest.

BCA kicked-off in July, when famed street artist MTO got first dibs lighting up a prime spot on the East. An frog, with a penchant for anachronism, rocking a spray-cap top hat and a mustache climbs out of hole in upper floor of the cleaners Kenilworth and Prospect.

BCA teamed up with the Eastside BID to close out summer in Milwaukee out with a week of outdoor art events starting September 10 and climaxing with a street fest the 17th and 18th on Kenilworth. When it’s done artists enlisted by BCA will have coated Milwaukee with more much needed public art. Stacey Williams-Ng didn’t know it when she set out that she wasn’t gonna let MKE be out done by West Allis.

Local Trolley: How did you get involved with Black Cat?

Stacey Williams-Ng :My friend Tim Decker, who’s an instructor at UWM Kenilworth, struck up a conversation with me one day a couple years ago about using art to revitalize that alley. He was concerned about it being a dangerous area for students to walk through at night. One thing led to another, and the idea for a mural festival was born. We started talking to the community leaders and making the case for street art, and named it “Black Cat Alley” in an homage to the UWM mascot, the panther.

LT: Yeah them kids better be careful trying to sneak in the movies. Whatever the reason, anything to get some street art going. Black Cat is it about Street Art, what is it that makes street art such a unique addition to the landscape of urban areas?

SWN: Who ever said that the only thing we should see in the urban landscape should be either bare walls, or marketing messages? When you’re in the city, it’s a blessing to have your eyes rest on something that’s not trying to sell you anything: it’s there to make you think, or to smile.

LT: Where is Milwaukee on the spectrum of urban areas that embrace street art?

SWN: Great question. We have some really iconic cultural murals here, created and kept safe by communities all around Milwaukee. The Reynaldo Hernandez piece on North Avenue, for example, is over 30 years old. And there are many examples similar to that. However, Milwaukee has not yet embraced street art as a movement at the scale that other cities have. Just one trip to Chicago’s Wabash corridor, or to Denver’s River North district, or to Miami or Brooklyn or L.A. or Baltimore would open anyone’s eyes as to the tremendous impact that street art can have on a city. Our team wants to see that happen in Milwaukee.

LT: Definitely Reynaldo is a legend. We can thank him for the Mural of Peace on the Esperanza Unida building. Ammar Nsoroma is another unsung  artist and muralist in Milwaukee. He did the Middle Passage mural that stood on Wisconsin Black Historical Society for ages. Then you got the new schoolers like Fred Kaems, J Bird and Chacho Lopez.

The slate BCA pulled together is solid too. Brandon Minga has been paying dues for a little bit now. Tia Richardson is phenomenal. I bought a sketch book from her at craft fair that she bound. I can’t wait to see what all the artists come with.

What are some of the most exciting parts about Black Cat Alley fest?

SWN: Am I allowed to say, “everything”? I guess my favorite thing is having out-of-town artists come in and intermingle their ideas with local artists. We are putting them all together in one space to share their own voices and uplift and teach one another. And then we’re inviting everyone else to the party to see what they create.

LT: Parting thought shout outs!?

SWN: I’d like to shout out to our local Milwaukee artists who will be participating, and whose entries were chosen by our esteemed jury: John Kowalczyk, Jenny Jo Kristan, Brandon Minga, Jeff Redmon, Tia Richardson, Adam Stoner, Ian McGibbon and Renee Martinez. We can’t wait to see what they have in store for our alley!

BCA street fest begins September 17, 2016 will also feature visiting artists CERA and Bunnie Reis.

No Telling, Cadaver Conspiracy, The Documents to Prove It

The album cover says it all. A dreadful collage speckled with images of Bukowski, Castro, Rasputin (or some other ghastly East European literary intellect), plastered atop visages of the Crypt Keeper, wolf-man, They Live! human impostors, random Charles Bronson-esque explosions, Freddy Kruger with no hat, super official authorities in post-Industrial era hazmat suits, the Gilman and lord knows what other obscure pop and historical references. Are these ‘The Documents to Prove It?


If The Documents to Prove It’s cover art rose out of a cut-up indie cult nightmare, Cadaver Conspiracy’s audio content never woke from a fish, raw salad, and rap zine mash-up dream; a reality hard to touch but worth seeking.

Cadaver Conspiracy keeps a pulse on the cold vein of post-golden era hip-hop in this post-everything music era. Cadaver Conspiracy roots its tracks in sparsely layered kit drum loops densely covered by ellusive samples, maintaining a crate-carrying ethos while expanding to live vocals and instrumentation.

The Art of Snippet

What Cadaver Conspiracy really expands on is the legacy left by Prince Paul and Dan the Automator, the modern founders audio mashups. Who can forget that duo snidely ripping Chris Elliot’s voice proclaiming “I’m going to be a male model.” Handsome Boy Modeling School peppered their projects with various misplaced audio snippets to give their music production an amusing and semi-coherent story line.


Cadaver Conspiracy takes this technique in their own direction, piecing together broadcast media out-takes and interviews, to deliver a scalding and dim commentary on the absurdity filling certain corners of social life and political discussion in America set to original beats. Strangely prophetic, Cadaver Conspiracy nails the Pokemon Go craze, wacko religious right, and Harry Potter backlash. A nice dose of random verbal nonsense gets mixed in to ease the tension.

Cadaver Conspiracy’s The Documents to Prove it is available as a pay-what-you can download on Bandcamp.

Wild Styllions, West Allis, Wall Art Mural

With 1,500 square feet of commissioned public art, West Allis’s City government shamelessly gave Milwaukee’s stodgy and rear retentive lineage of public officials a zinger. This working-class armpit to a first-class City mustered the political will (with Mayor Dan Devine out-front, gasp!) to support local fine art professionals by actually paying artists to complete a piece of legitimate visual art for public consumption: a MURAL. Ohhh. A scarily damn-near graffiti mural.

1 stallis mural

We got plenty of these, 84 St and W. National

Artist Lindsay Marx teamed up with long-time collaborator Mark David Gray and Fred Kaems to weave imaginative symbolism and Stallion heritage into a stylish and inspiring master-level work. Marx decribes this piece as having “…a nostalgia for homemade pies on window sills, children reading and references honey bees, who are major pollinators for the crops we see at our tables. These ideas, tied together with bold colors and unique shapes, enliven this segment of National Ave.”

Local Trolley exchanged a few extra words with Marx on her instant classic artwork.

Local Trolley: How did the design come together?

Lindsay Marx: I started an evolution around a few themes and then tabled it with the city to see if they were drawn towards any certain design.  After more evolution on an agreed upon direction, we came to an agreement on the proposed final design.

LT: Spoken like a true artist.What kind of media was used?

LM: We used spray paint and exterior latex paint.

LT: What do you make of some people/public officials’ opposition to viewing murals as fine art? Murals are like fancy paint jobs for buildings. Not to get caught up on the term ‘fine art’, let’s say what do you make of the opposition to the view that generally murals aren’t suitable for public view especially in Milwaukee. In Milwaukee it’s basically like we tolerate the ones that have been around since our parents were teenagers, but the public officials in this town aren’t dying to commission murals.

LM: It’s art.  I wonder if they would consider it applied art?  I don’t think we should feel the need to define murals as fine art but they certainly can be.  Murals can be both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating.

LT: As an artist how do you reconcile the poser or cross over factor of a studio artist making a foray into a medium that has most of its contemporary roots in guerrilla and anti-establishment art movements….?

LM: We’re professional artists and you have to respect that everyone is coming from a different story and do things for different reasons. No doubt, I’m a yearling when it comes to public art applications and that’s why I surrounded myself with a team I can learn from and what better way to learn than through mentors and experience?  Together we cranked out a mural I think we’re all proud of.

In terms of this being a city sanctioned project, I think it’s imperative that we find ways to team up when we can.  The roots of street art do not define where it can go. I think it’s better to build bridges which will ideally create more opportunities and, in turn, will beg for higher caliber work.

LT: How underrated is aerosol?

LM: Depends on who you ask…I’d say it’s one of, if not the go-to media for creating murals and graffiti; it’s even coverage of most any texture, crisp, clean lines, and quick application.  On the other hand, coming from an art school background I would say it’s an overlooked and underrated media.  I knew so little about it’s magical powers prior to the mural and now it’s my new favorite medium for big projects.

LT: What you and your collaborators have done is extraordinarily imaginative and colorful. Your artistic vision and aesthetic translates quite well from canvas to mural. This piece has a chance to be iconic.

3 stallis mural

Murals have such a major role in the civic space in other countries in every corner of the globe it’s disappointing that mural art is not more accepted in Milwaukee. Place accept murals in some cases even when they are controversial. The documentary Art of Conflict demonstrated this pretty well. The doc looks at the muralists in Northern Ireland during the height of IRA conflict in the 1980’s.

4 stallis mural

Even though the murals during that time depicted intimidating and violent images, when things deescalated the locals thought enough of the artists, and the art form, to just revise them with toned down images. Maybe someday we will get to the point of recognizing public art in a more widespread way, whatever the pretense or lack of pretense may be.

5 stallis mural

Later this summer in September, Black Cat Alley festival comes to Milwaukee, a superb opportunity to show how important incorporating visual art in the civic space is to a city’s vibrancy. Props to Alderman Nik Kovak for being a part of an innocuous push to take art to the streets.

Lindsay Marx‘s mural is on S. 83rd and W. National Street in West Allis.