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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Stark Steinbeck

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Thestage was the scene of mass commotion: people rushed about; platforms moved around; Lenny killed Curly’s wife. Amid the flurry of it all, in a most pleasant voice, director Rebecca Holderness told me that everything was going well with just more than a week until opening night for the UW-Milwaukee Department of Theatre’s production of Of Mice and Men.

Oddly, I could’ve sworn she said something about having an actual fire onstage and including a living, breathing dog in the production. A dog ate Steinbeck’s first manuscript of Of Mice and Men, so including an actual canine in a stage adaptation of the classic novel might seem ill-advised, but Holderness has the kind of reassuring presence that leaves little doubt that she knows exactly what she’s doing.

Holderness has worked with universities all over the country, in addition to doing regular commercial work. She owns a strong sense of vision that has made for some of the most striking collegiate theater to hit Milwaukee stages in the past few years. Of Mice and Men is her third show in three seasons with UW-Milwaukee. Her 2006 production of From These Green Heights featured actors who were dramatically suspended over the stage in harnesses—a feature that hadn’t been used in any previous versions of the play. The following year, she directed a stage adaptation of Einstein’s Dreams, which used a script written for her theater company in New York several years ago.

With Of Mice and Men, Holderness is tackling a dangerously iconic piece of American literature. Bearing in mind that most audiences will be familiar with the material from high school, Holderness says she put a great deal of thought into how to stage Steinbeck’s classic in a way that brings everyone back in touch with the passion, anguish and brutality that inspired the novel. She describes the visual feel of the production as “stark.” The props and costuming are all quite naturalistic, and the stage is relatively bare, save for a small number of wheeled, wooden platforms and a few other schematic elements. The visual reality of the Great Depression filters in through photographs of the era taken from the Morris Fromkin Memorial Collection in UWM’s library. The production’s soundscape will feature contemporary music. Despite the frenzy on the nearby stage, Holderness seems confident as we talk about the upcoming production. She says she hopes that the show jars audiences just enough to draw them into a story that seems to have been ruined by high school English classes all over the country.

UWM Department of Theatre’s production of Of Mice and Men opened Feb. 26 and runs through March 2.