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Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012

The 2012 Theater Year in Review

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This year was a remarkably diverse time for theater in Milwaukee. As new companies arose, others became more established and still others continued to define themselves in ways that kept things evolving in a refreshing way.

What can one say about a season that played host to not one, but two different stagings of Avenue Q? Preceding Skylight Music Theatre's thoroughly enjoyable staging of the adult-style puppet musical of Sesame Street was an equally satisfying (if slightly less polished) staging with the Greendale Community Theatre. Of course, no discussion of puppets for adults would be complete without mention of Angry Young Men Ltd., who held a very promising variety show performance at the Soulstice Theatre this past summer. As clever as Jim Henson got, I don't think he would have ever tried a homicidal robot or an unborn fetus as characters.

There were a number of other mutations of childhood that memorably made it to the stage. Free 2B U & Me somehow manifested itself on the Alchemist Theatre stage. Elements of it were positively creepy. In other comic mutations of childhood, Liz Faraglia starred as a child with an adult imaginary friend in the captivating UW-Milwaukee Studio Theatre production of Mr. Marmalade.

The more serious end of the coming-of-age spectrum also had some very, very powerful moments onstage in Milwaukee this past year. In Tandem Theatre's production of The Chosen featured some amazing performers, including Bill Watson as the elder rabbi who must face the evolution of culture through the loss of his son to a less strict form of faith. This was arguably the single best drama of the season.

In a completely different pedagogical exploration of youth, Project Empty Space brought young playwright/actress Grace DeWolff's Outliers to the stage. The story of a man trying to teach a single, exceptional student in an advanced public school course was easily one of the greatest dramas to be staged this season that most Milwaukee theatergoers wouldn't have known about.

Project Empty Space wasn't the only company to see some of its first labors make it to the stage this season. Liz Shipe's Reconstructing Grimm photo project branched out into live theater, raising the curtain on a fully staged show produced for the Brumder Mansion's murder-mystery series. Michael Traynor starred as a dazzlingly sharp Sherlock Holmes in A Most Irregular Tea Party.

Fools For Tragedy
emerged with dynamic deviations from traditional theater works. Their In My Mind's Eye stylishly shattered Hamlet into a range of different pieces. Waiting was a clever reaction to and interaction with Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The audience sat on the stage while the actors pretended to be actors trying to rehearse for a production of Beckett's classic in the theater seats. The Fools' staging of Medea had Amber Smith as a dazzlingly wild-eyed title villain in what just might stand as one of the single best performances of the year (along with Watson’s in The Chosen).

The World's Stage Theatre Company also managed to emerge as a more fully formed affair as it presented The Unseen. Clayton Hamburg starred as a tormented jailer in one of the most interesting indigenous prison dramas to be staged in Milwaukee in the past decade. They also put together a really interesting show titled Project: Working Title, which featured a previously unseen script by Courtney Stirn about a troubled professor who got demoted and suddenly found himself teaching an introductory course.

The more established theater companies in town continued to produce the kind of quality work they have become known for. The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s artistic director, Mark Clements, continued in his vision of developing the reputation of being a premier regional theater company. Talent is drawn in from all over the place to put together really compelling pieces, such as the musical drama Next To Normal and Othello in biker leathers. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre took a considerably different take on its approach, working deeply with some of the more seasoned and established Milwaukee talent to produce Driving Miss Daisy and Tom Stoppard's Heroes, featuring such Milwaukee theater icons as Ruth Schudson, Richard Halverson, Brian Robert Mani and Robert Spencer. At the same time, Milwaukee Chamber continued to develop new and local talent in a series of new-work readings and the annual collaboration with Wisconsin-based university theater programs. This season's collaboration with UW-Whitewater resulted in a surprisingly satisfying production of the classic comedy Bus Stop.

Once again, 2012 ends with a mix of traditional and non-traditional fare. A substantial departure from previous productions of the Rep's, A Christmas Carol joins returning shows A Cudahy Caroler Christmas at In Tandem and Neil Haven's Who Killed Santa? at the Carte Blanche Studios. And Youngblood Theatre Company stages a fresh and captivating socio-political allegory with Steve Yockey's Cartoon.

Russ Bickerstaff is the Shepherd Express’ theater critic.