Stage Hounds, Voices Found Rep, Theatre Games

A sparsely furnished room gives two guys in suits a place to stand and wait. A rough disposition covers them, the kind of guys you imagine have seen and done most of it anyway. Yet beneath this grimy coating, nervous anticipation seeps through no matter how bad Brutus (Aaron Suggs) and Titus (Glenn Widdicombe) try to hide it. Bill has this effect on people.

Another outcast joins them, a devilishly innocent looking fella. Two more arrive soon after, barely on theatre time. These strangers get familiar really quickly, as the plot of Theatre Games thickens around the characters Pharyne Stephney developed in her debut play.

The theatre director’s daughter, known only as Princess (Alexis Furseth) to this anonymous actor’s guild, waltzes in, to start a dangerous charade of impromptu theatre Bill is ready to see. She too has played a role in her father Bill’s (Greg Ryan) productions before. 

She’s interrupted an intense warm-up that the player’s initiated without direction, theatre games if you will. With malicious banter, they take note of each other’s stage presence and talent, prodding for tenderness in the each others skin to draw blood from; searching for the right pecking order among them. 

Quelling their anticipation, Princess gives them all a script containing only their character’s part. To keep their identities concealed from one another, they must refer to each other by their character names. 

Brutus and Titus have a clear edge. With nothing to prove, they’re willing to deflect and return a few barbs headed towards Othello’s face back at Romeo (Oliver Wolf). Romeo doesn’t relent easily. 

Othello (Jacob Ortiz) shows his erratic and testy persona uncontrollably, not wanting nor accepting that he needs help among this company. The last character MacBeth (Jake Russell Thompson), looks like a rabbit in den of foxes, backed in a corner, wide-eyed, oblivious and skittish. They’ve all come to this theatre to play their role for the money, at the whim and mercy of Bill’s maniacal desires. The problem is nobody ever knows the content of those desires until the curtain has already closed.

Let Us Play

A two-act drawing directly and admittedly from the shallow well of Quentin Tarantino’s film legacy, Theatre Games tells a convoluted story of secrets, lies, manipulation and betrayal that most noticeably references the Tarantino centerpiece Reservoir Dogs. Theatre Game’s premise transposes key character qualities and story structure from Reservoir Dogs, including transposing salutation-plus-color-named characters for famous Shakespeare character names as pseudonyms, and mimicing the famous scenes were the thugs are holed up with each other and dueling wits to figure out who snitched. 

Take a Number

Stephney’s story succeeds most in its departures from Tarantino’s films. The action of Reservoir Dogs revolves around a bank robbery, and the conflicts that arise after the gang botches the job. Central to Theatre Games, the job and role of each of the players is shrouded in a web interpersonal drama between the actors, keeping the audience mostly blind as to what end the hooligans are working towards. In this ambiguity, Stephney weaves a rampantly interesting tale.

Embedded in the stage directions Stephney takes audience members, uninitiated to life behind the third wall, backstage to learn widely held superstitions, courtesies and semblances of how actors get primed for the stage. Stylistically, Russell Thompson, who also directs Theatre Games, does well animating Stephney’s story. 

Stage Work

The play’s blocking and lighting contribute to the composition of the scenes in unexpected ways. Most notably upstage moments (relying on deliberate body language from players not involved in the dialog) get permission to lend to how we understand the story to unfolding. Suggs uses these opportunities naturally without being in the dialog, magnifying dimensions to his character he establishes well with convincing and focused script delivery. 

Going between awkward and brilliant, Ortiz gave a performance reeking wonderfully (purposefully or not) of the constantly exasperated classic performance that Steve Buscemi deliverd as Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs. As Romeo, Wolf puts ample effort into portraying an irascible sociopath, the type of person who looks solid and rational at first glance only. 

Widdicombe and Furseth in their supporting roles offer a steady balance to the production. Burgeoning stand-by of independent theatre, Ryan uses his reliably sturdy persona, rich baritone voice and imposing physicality to make Bill an ominous spectre compelling Theatre Game’s underworld into motion. 

Eric Schmalz (assistant director/producer), Caroline Boettcher (stage manager), Suggs (lighting designer), Furseth (pyschology dramaturg) and Bridget Anderson (dramaturg) worked together behind the scenes to make Theatre Games a show.

Voices Found Repertory Theatre’s production of Theatre Games has a short run with remaining shows Friday, May 5 and Saturday, May 6 at 7:30p and Saturday, May 6 and Sunday, May 7 matinees at 2:00p in the Arcade Theatre in the lower level of the old Grand Avenue Mall.

Rest Off, Jeff Ircink, Strange Bedfellows

I raked the dead grass and leaves out of my backyard shrubs and saw this giant orange tabby jumping over the fence to the next yard. No sooner did I wonder why it bounded so fast from my direction, I smelled the kitty turd. I finished this chore with barely enough time to get moving to a theatre thingy called Strange Bedfellows happening in Bay View. So I’m riding down 794-East with fresh catshit on my shoe. 

I’m blasting a cassette dub of Liquid Pink, super hyped because in seconds I’m going to be crossing the Hoan blasting Liquid Pink just after dusk heading to the Alchemist Theatre, with catshit on my shoe: Milwaukee-Style.

At the Alchemist Theatre, Strange Bedfellows has the ghost light on inviting people into lounge’s dim confines. Jeff Ircink’s multi-format piece screens several independent short films as a prologue to his stage piece titled The Bed

Get Under the Covers

A straight forward endeavor, weaving movement and narration, The Bed takes us through the cycles of life in “time-leap”. The narration contemplates the broad view of human existence relative to the most constant and basic amenity someone can have, their bed. 

Brilliance somehow always finds its way home through simplicity, as less gives more here in the same way it always does. Although the linear path of life gets hammered home in The Bed, each short film that precedes it offers a take on the varied relationships people have with their beds along the way.

The films bring us to top of mind intersections with our beds like sleep or romance. In other less direct ways, some of the film content Ircink selects shows us more unsettling places that beds creep into life where health and comfort are concerned, and sometimes where a physical headboard and mattress don’t apply.

Folded Blankets

When asked about finding films on the subject matter Ircink replied, “It wasn’t easy. I had to look really hard for films specifically about sleep or that a involved beds.” 

Strange Bedfellows also includes a couple of short home movies with Ircink’s family friends and parents, which bring forth instant classic Milwaukee perspectives on life. “I just went and shot the videos. I knew what I was going to get. The one with my dad was during a Packer game,” Ircink shared, “I knew exactly what my mom was going to do and how my dad would react. It was perfect.” 

These video interludes served up the most inadvertently comical moments of the entire piece, stuffed with this certain Milwaukee-style curmudgeonly matter of factness that kids always get a kick out of. Tempered with the poignant reality that Ircink’s family that featured in these videos now trod through their golden years, I’m sure these clips will always provide a memory of how they were.

Make Your Bed

As a production concept, Ircink succeeds in pairing these films together to actually give more relevance and potency to each. With the exception of the film that tells a microdrama subplot in the last year of President Kennedy’s life (which could have stood alone) reveals the boundaries of absurdity that leaders of the free world have to deal with behind the pomp and circumstance.

Strange Bedfellows has a few nice touches that give the production some additional dimension. Wisconsin Public Radio’s Norman Gilliand provides the narration for the stage piece The Bed. Ircink, showing the resourcefulness of an experienced film producer, got Jeff Bridges and George Winston (Lullaby (Sandman)) to lend some of their musical works to the production. Yes, Jeff Bridges has weird and experimental music out called Sleeping Tapes. Ircink also evokes Siegfried Sassoon from extreme obscurity through one of his film choices.

Jeff Ircink’s The Bed is performed by Mike O’Toole, Lauren Hoefle, Amanda Morden, Nolan Zellermayer, Brandon Haut, Emma Kessler, Robert Schreiner, Philip Sliwinski and Kathy Landry.

Jennifer Naida co-produced/co-directed Strange Bedfellows. Technical credits go to Maxwell Huenin (technical manager) and Aaron Koepec (scenic, sound and lighting design), Parket Gayan (video production), and Lisa Quinn, Amanda Marquardt and Naida (costume design).

Strange Bedfellows has double feature shows at 7:00 and 9:00p on the coming Fridays and Saturdays through May 12 and 13 at the Alchemist Theatre in Bay View, Wisconsin.

The production is well sponsored and feature a few in show give aways like Rishi Tea samples and Pop’s Kettle Corn. Attending the show also throws you in a raffle for the fancy Steinhafel’s bed frame used in the performance of The Bed.

Acacia Theatre Company, Best of Enemies

C.P. Ellis (Ryan Schaufler) stands on a lye soap box publicly railing against all ideas suggesting black Americans’ right to liberty, especially education. He’s dressed in his Klu Klux Klan best, a silky white robe with a pointed hood. This is Durham, North Carolina in 1971. Home of Duke University, known earlier in the century as ‘Magic City’, the place that reached racial reconciliation one generation after the civil war.

In opposition to racial integration of public accomodations, Ellis lobs denigrating terms directly associating the entirety of the African-American masses with pestulence, concluding the crux of the matter of integrated schools, “…Next thing you know ni**ers will be sniffing after our daughters’ behinds.” Even in a dramatic context the term stings the ears and rips the flesh.

He’s accompanied by two choruses, on each side of him, also segregated by race, who quickly level mood with a Christian spiritual singing, “…just like a tree that’s planted by the water, I shall not be moved.” The vocalists provide harmonic and comic relief to this well-acted but challenging production.

Hold Fast

Best of Enemies director Erin Nicole Eggers takes on a huge task bringing to life Mark St. Germain’s adaptation of Osha Gray Davidson’s novel. The story chronicles the unlikely real life friendship formed between Ellis and Ann Atwater (Lori Woodall), a spirited black resident of Durham, as the town struggled with legally mandated school desegregation.

Eggers makes some strong choices to ground the play in an evolving yet persistent historical narrative of tense social relations in the US. Three screens suspended upstage catch projected still photographic evidence of America’s ordeals with cultural, religious and mostly racial discrimination. These images cycling through in a random slide show, initially create a bit of discomfort reminding us of how open an blantant discrimination was less than 50 years ago. These images slowly fade into a profound subtext for this play, reinforcing that this story is very much rooted in an unfortunate reality.

Her choice to use ‘historically accurate’ language in the script signifies another place Eggers willingly accepts risk to great affect. We are brought into contact with insults and weaponized literary devices of all types. The open use of these terms force us to confront reality, beyond our personal sensibilities, and how we must reconcile our association with those viewed as similar to us.

Town of Thunder

Ann Atwater enters as a vocal and no nonsense black woman resident of Durham. She’s seen a lot and is ready for change. School desegregation orders have come, however skeptical her ‘right-mind’ makes her that this will make any difference in the state of affairs that keep African-Americans as second class citizens. She knows C.P. Ellis and claims to fear no man in the face of his hate charged racial separatist tirades. They’ve clashed in the past and likely will again.

Unexpectedly, Bill Riddick (Derrion Brown) arrives in town. He’s well-spoken and well-read representative from the US Department of Education. He also happens to be black. He’s come to garner whatever consensus he can to accept the new social arrangements the US government wants to induce.

A Troubled Calm

Eggers through St. Germain’s adaption finds the greatest traction in making this story immediately relevant by tying threads from the old time racist mentality to current conditions. Ellis in a memorable scene, meeting Riddick for the first time, vehemently rebuffs Riddick as a Yankee communist stating, “We don’t want anything the Federal government has to offer, we don’t take anything from anyone.” It sounds eerily familiar to a segment of the political discussion today.

Ellis is a gas station clerk, and son of a mill worker. One is left to wonder if this class consciousness alludes to the benefits many Northern whites enjoyed, in the years winding through the mid 20th century, that bestowed suburban housing and college education through the G.I. Bill, capital investment of the Federal Highway Administration and urban Community Reinvestment all from the Federal government.

Eventually Riddick’s mission gets a break when Atwater and Ellis agree to meet to discuss the integration of the school. In the retribution they both face from their respective communities, here again we are brought to view an extremely consequential element of American racism: its social reenforcement. Ellis’ drawn lot decidly the harsher of the two. In a tumultuous series of acts to follow, Ellis and Atwater dance a strenuous and forbidden dance that crossed the color-line in a way that no one had previously dared to do.

Cast Shines Light

Best of Enemies casts Elaine Wyler as C.P. Ellis’s wife Mary Ellis alongside Schaufler, Woodall and Brown, who all deliver enjoyable and believable performances. Schaufler and Woodall notably nail the unmistakable drawl hanging from Southern speech. Walker matter of factly shows us the disturbing circumstances many Southern women lived under, and their quiet resilience. Brown an upbeat and talented actor, acts his part with a large helping of charisma. It’s a masterful piece of small stage theatre that brings the audience through troubled waters in view of a hopeful future that we can attain if we all take ownership of the trappings of crude ethnocentrism.

The production models diverse casting with major and secondary roles being played by individuals from many racial backgrounds, and maintains gender balance. The chorus was sung by Susie Duecker, Paul Fojut, Lachrisa Grandberry, Andrew Parchman, Ben Parman, Kwasi Stamply, Bailey Steger, Terry Lee Watkins Jr, and Glenn Widdicombe.

Best of Enemies’ final performance was March 26, 2017 at the Todd Wehr Auditorium at the Concordia Mequon Campus.

Anti-Glare, Patti Smith, Horses Anniversary Tour Extended

She punctuated her riff on Van Morrison’s golden-era classic Gloria, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” His version introduced suburbia to shady rock stars. Her version, In Excelsis Deo, the first song in Patti Smith’s long awaited return to Milwaukee, brought the audience to its feet in a standing ovation.

Many a Milwaukeean waited 38 years to hear Patti Smith’s searing voice amplified again. Nearly half of Milwaukee’s populous never had a chance ‘to be there’. The other half, unless transplanted or quite intrepid, waited their entire adult lives to witness this night within the city limits.

Memory’s Hiss

Patti Smith rocks this night in Milwaukee on the same date she met MC5’s “Sonic” Smith in Detroit, on the midwest tour that brought her to Milwaukee for the first time in 1976 (She came back in 1979). Her son, by him, stands in her peripheral vision on guitar.

Patti jokes before launching into a trilogy of songs written about Fred, “We actually didn’t create him on the that day.” March 9 is hence forth proclaimed Patti Smith day in Milwaukee. She took a second mid-show to retrieve the framed Proclamation to prove it. She duly notes Mayor Barrett gave it to her himself, in her mind outclassing NYCs mayor by a mile.

Reprise Revival

On her victory lap of the 40th anniversary tour of Horses, she is reciting the entire album. With two leafs of paper in hand she shows us her gift of song is best understood through her poetry. She’s delivering the prologue to Birdland, recounting a child, a funeral, a farm, long black cars and a shiny red tractor. As she reaches the end of these lines, she lets the first piece of paper fall from her hand.

The second sheet of paper she held floats to the floor, she left it to physics to tell the paper where to land. The first verse rolls into the second, then the refrain, she extolls in the voice of a young child who has lost their father, “…Take-me-up… Open up-the-belly-of-the-ship, the ships light-opening…I’ll go in…” By the third refrain she’s belting, shaking, “I-am-not-human…!”

As her breath is completely used, at 70 her mouth is still wet with saliva and she spits ruthlessly on the stage apron without flinching and rocks out the rest of the song. I’ve been to hundreds of shows and have never witnessed true moxie until this moment. Her natural irreverent performative power, carrying with it the essence of everything that festered No Wave from the burned out, and otherwise deleterious, bowels of downtown NYC, shining.

Old Milwaukee Style

Numerous signage within the Milwaukee Theatre commanded patrons not to record video, audio or still photography of Patti Smith’s performance. Naturally, a few phone screens can be scene flicking mementos.

As the impromptu general admission section forms in front of the first row, a dumbass positions himself right at Patti’s feet and begins egregiously filming with his cell phone. The man is forcefully ushered back to his seat, in the middle section at the 10th row, by a wild haired member of someone’s entourage.

Patti stops the show to drag him, “He’s going to jail… he’ll be in jail looking at all the other cell phones with half-filmed documentaries” keeping the warrior code she vanquishes him completely with something to the effect of ‘nobody’s gonna watch your half-filmed documentary of a show you could have watched yourself but you were too busy on your phone.’

Master Strokes

Unphased by this disruption, she carries on to Free Money, an impassioned anthem weaving a youthful daydream caught in the follies love, ambition and broke-ness. A song that begins as a ballad, erupts into a controlled rage with Patti emphatically singing fortissimo “When you’re dreaming, When you’re dreaming…” trembling, spitting, and possessed.

Possessed. Her intuitive understanding of voice and performative energy, and her sense gravity and urgency to use them, brought me to admire Patti Smith; her ability to say something beyond her ego. Yet she comes off grounded and accessible, grand in her ability to flaunt her flaws humbly.

She’s repeatedly gone to her hands and knees to wipe puddles of brew and water from the stage between songs. Having both chastised and warmly recieved the front section, she flung some beer soaked socks back at them (after someone lamely managed to get their socks off in a sway pit and throw them on stage during Dancing Barefoot). At a later point she goes shoeless, taking off her own black leather riding boots and socks explaining, “I’m pretty messy, only one of us can be messy in here.”

Power of Rememberance

We learn another dimension of her being. Her songs Break it Up and Elegie are tributes to Jim Morrison and Hendrix. Break it Up recounts a dream Smith had about Morrison after his death. He escapes entombment as a marble angle and ascends to the sky.

It’s striking to think Smith knew Morrison and Hendrix’s lives to be so monumental to commemorate them on Horses four or five years after their deaths. We’ll see in 2021, if Lou Reed, Bowie, or Prince stay in our collective pop memory enough for an artist to carve out time for them on an album. I doubt it. Many artist these days are loathe to publicly acknowledge anyone’s artistic influence but their own, even if they’ve stolen their entire persona.

Power of Recall

Smith reminds us the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love has come upon us; a landmark year of national turbulence and hope, receding into despair in 1968. She laments that her generation had potential to bring balance to the world with its vision of a just, harmonious and multicultural society.

She provides this epilogue to her cover of The Who’s My Generation, noting her generation (her birth year to be exact) also gave birth to Trump. She uses her pulpit to call out the rights-and-wrongs of the world.

In this regard, she never sold out, evoking the audience to be mindful with hearts full to defend America, its natural resources, its principles, and our fellow Americans. She called out Standing Rock, our waters and our boarders and told us in song ‘People have the Power’.

In relation to the political cycle, our ‘summer of love’ would’ve been 2015. Society finds itself in a similar position, resisting social progress, and a growing an appetite to deepen our governments role in largely pointless violent global and domestic conflict. At least Nixon had reasonable sensibilities about protecting America’s natural resources. Contemplating and channeling the Summer of Love may be what we need.

The Illusionist

As Patti reached the end of her set list, we were never forced to face the fact that we’ve been watching a person at the age of 70 deliver a masterful and virile performance, having out-classed and outwitted us the entire night.

Her singing voice, what might be more aptly referred to as her instrument, has maintained its rare and unorthodox tuning after all these years.

Her son Jackson and her life long friends Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty were here with her. Her long time bandmates look better than most forty year olds. Still together, they must be doing something right.

After a short break, at the end of the Horses set, they reappear and Kaye has a red solo cup, “What made Milwaukee Famous, made a loser out of me.” They definitely still have fun, and deep down must love this town.

Lean on Us

Smith’s people came out in force, spanning generations like Smith’s music. Burn outs turned yuppie, and burn outs still burned out; dirt punk and tragically hip kids, war veterans; people who have lost their mobility with old age have made a special trip out after dark to see Patti Smith.

Milwaukeeans entering their prime years have done their part recently to honor Smith’s legacy and influence. In 2014, Betty Strigens of Testa Rosa took over Alverno Presents to do Smith Uncovered, a series of retakes on cornerstone Smith songs. Reaching further in the MKE indie art scene artist space Orcanine Abbey’s exhibition Ego vs Rant (also 2014) was in part a tribute to Smith’s contributions to art ethos.

Pay No Mind

Although recently the ‘mainstream’ has finally noted her stature more readily, we could attribute Patti Smith’s relative obscurity to her contemporaries. Ramon, Reed, Warhol sat as giants in the lore of NYC music and art scene.

Even when her music was featured in Natural Born Killers in the mid-1990s (which is how I unwittingly fell in love with Patti Smith), she was omitted from the original soundtrack in favor of other more relevant artists.

I went to my VHS dub of this movie many days after school and the music from the opening sequences always stuck. Searching for this music was part of that life’s phase, I reached for the first time late in the 00’s, of retracing my teenage obsessions. A quest 15 years in the making, brought me to L7 and Patti Smith.

Presumably, the Natural Born Killers producers  purposefully omitted sections of her song Rock N Roll Ni**er. The chorus set the movie up so fittingly, “Outside of society, is where I wanna be…!”

Although conveniently taken out of context in the movie’s opening sequence, when I heard the song from beginning-to-end for the first time I smiled inside. When I learned more about Smith, it was impossible to imagine that a woman speaking from her perspective could earn the type of license needed to speak this word authentically.

Draining the Moat

In the context of the time period, she spoke new meaning, specifically, to a most despicable word. She spoke this meaning in a way that destroyed the mysticism and power of that despicable word in American society.

When Smith was done with it, the word no longer described an inherent inferiority of an entire group of people. It wouldn’t be far fetched that she was honoring Hendrix here too.

What she did in Rock N Roll Ni**r is emblematic of her importance as an rock icon. She’s a performance artist, but half of the time she is making new meaning across a load of flawed social conventions that are reinforced through popular culture (especially music). She deliberately crushes anything that fundamentally serves to reinforce dominance of one group of people over another group, or nature for that matter.

I suspect her Gloria (In Excelsis Deo) is much the same type of glass shattering response to Van Morrison’s Gloria, which is a fun but thinly veiled early attempt to objectify young women as sex objects through music.

She occupies a strange place in music. When seen as a performance artist, critics eyes could easily avert their gaze. A woman with deeply thoughtful commentary and command of language arts might be considered worse than nasty to the mainstream consciousness.

Grace in Torture

Bob Dylan chose Patti Smith to perform in his place at his Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony earlier this year. I’m sure he had his reasons, he’s a master of irony. Half the world probably shuddered as she stumbled through Dylan’s Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.

A truly difficult song, most people probably hear something new every time they listen to it. The pan shots of this black tie event revealed the saddest thing about this audience, their smugly arrogant faces barely looked like they knew who Patti Smith was. They honestly didn’t deserve her presence.


As the show closed and Patti left the stage, a deep appreciation filled the auditorium. We wanted her and were honored by her mystical aura, I saw orange.

Her audience’s screams and applause cued an encore. Smith returns to the stage with a leather cuff on her right wrist and a guitar. She walks in front of the kick drum that had her name and Horses written in white Helvetica on it. She plugs-in to the amp sitting below and cranks it.

She snatches the PACE flag that was hanging in front of the drum kit, beside the Imperial Ethiopian flag, and drapes it over her head as she runs her black leather cuff up the neck of the guitar. She screams through her arm, the amp wailing made-up chords, reverb, distortion to hell.

The guitar’s parts struggle to contain her disturbed technique, you can hear creaking. Then snap, she pries the whammy bar off. She’s bending notes right in front of the amp for maximum noise, ping. The E string pops loose under the strain of her hand, she rips it from the guitar.

One by one she agonizingly severs the strings from the bridge. When none are left she tosses the guitar aside. She exhales, pauses and accepts the audience’s adoration graciously with an outstretched two/handed wave good-bye.
Moments from leaving the audience in a buzz, Patti reappears on stage. She’s shredded a really rad show, ripped a guitar to pieces, and just remembered to pickup her Patti Smith Day Proclamation; the last act to play CDBG’s redefining punk once again under a rainbow moon in Milwaukee.

Patti Smith returned to Milwaukee on March 9, 2017. She handn’t been here since June 6, 1979.

Connoisseur Culture, Most Roastiest, Pilcrow Coffee

Three boards holding dark stain jut perpendicular from the wall, taught and plum square; it’s almost an illusionist’s trick setting table ledges of half-inch thickness this way. Stark white paint covers the walls thoroughly from ceiling to terrazo floor, broken up only by Pilcrow Coffee’s candy red trim wrapping the tasting room like a waist belt. Milwaukee’s newest coffee roaster opened in January on the South end of MLK Drive, with a roast style that follows the decor: modest/mod/craftsman/independent.

Pilcrow Coffee carries its historical thread proudly. What Schlitz Brewery once used as a warehouse, now houses a wholesale coffee roaster. Chicago transplant via MKE ex-urb (the  same place that brings us Southside roaster Hawthorne)  Ryan Hoban explains, “We specialize in single source coffee, which allows us to have a direct relationship with the farms that our beans come from.” This arrangement allows Pilcrow’s coffee to go beyond fair trade to direct trade, allowing farms to capture the fairest price.

Bean Proof

I wait for my Panamanian green roast honey cappuccino. Although it has a tasting room open on the weekends, Pilcrow isn’t a coffee shop, they do wholesale and mobile retail. Pilcrow’s niche follows the high end theory of custom small batch production.

“Our specialty is light roast. When you roast coffee dark it takes a lot from the real taste out of the coffee bean itself.” Ryan turns to a small oven that looks like a chrome stainless pig roaster for your countertop. Roasting green coffee requires the right temperature and a precise amount of time under heat. “With green coffee I’m listening for the right sound of the bean opening, I’m smelling and looking,” Ryan notes plainly.

As a dogged dark roast drip sipper I’m skeptical, especially of cappuccino. At first taste of this brew I’m sold. The espresso gently accepted the honey and Sassy Cow whole milk. Expecting to be singed by light roast’s distinct tangy acidity, I’m soothed by the blend of flavors the same way creme brulee does. It worked exceedily well for this drink. I know how light roast hits the palette, usually bracing, and calling an acquired taste.

Learning the Way

Curious to know how Ryan learned his craft, I point to Milwaukee’s coffee scene that has roasters like Stone Creek which is known for its coffee science and purist leanings toward light roasts. Sacrificing longer evenings at home with his family, Ryan spent about year learning this roasting style from a friend who worked at Ipsento, one Chicago’s few indie coffee roasters. “I learned my roasting methods by doing. I don’t think coffee roasting has to be exclusive or necessarily intellectual,” he offers.

Observing it all, Pilcrow obviously loves the technical part of cupping just as much as Valentine or Stone Creek coffee. Every Pilcrow cupping passes grounds over a scale, has water measured and heated specifically for the preferred preparation method: brewed, pour-over, cold brew, or pressurized.

On a shelf behind the counter stands a three-level glass system that has a vessel with a turn valve leading to a set of spiral tubing that filters into an Erlenmeyer flask. Ryan tells me, “That’s for cold brew. You fill the top with ice water and drip it very slowly through the coffee.” These fellows have cold brew titration system. However hardcore, the focus of Pilcrow’s product remains the bean.

Not Fashion, Coffee

When asked about his roasting philosophy Ryan offers, “We try and let the beans speak for themselves. We are really specific about how we source our coffee.” With such attention to detail one can imagine that Pilcrow might be tempted to make statements about what people should drink.

Ryan easily differentiated Pilcrow by leveling their main purpose on providing buyers with the most refined and custom choices of coffee roast, in opposition to pushing any one type of cupping method or roast style.

The Land, Still Good

Expressing excitement about locating in Milwaukee, Ryan shared that locating in Bronzeville he found the right mix of regulation, price and place. “There are a lot of great things happening in Milwaukee, and on top of that Chicago doesn’t allow sidewalk food carts”

Flanking its entry way, Pilcrow’s display windows show-off two glossy red bikes hitched to golden-stained wood cases equipped with nitro coffee taps. Mobile vending, a practical and essential part of Milwaukee’s local economy, will add nitro coffee to the menu of things to look forward to this summer.

“Our nitro coffee uses pure nitrogen gas, it’s my favorite.” Luckily I don’t feel put-on. Ryan truly digs his nitro brew. I find out why. I pull a sip from a mini-snifter, rich, silky and earthy. It actually tastes like a well-done stout, but it’s coffee. 

If you are still being passive aggressive to your loved ones and coworkers by putting Folger’s or Kirkland coffee on the counter (Pink Banana, 2011), Pilcrow can bring you sweet redemption. Coincidentally, Pilcrow’s neighbor Northern Chocolate is only a few doors up the street. They share a kindred spirit about business hours and adhearance to craft principles. Pilcrow opens its tasting room on Saturdays from roughly 10:00a to 2:00p, 1739 N. MLK Drive, Milwaukee. The core of Pilcrow’s business centers around coffee subscription and office and restaurateur supply.