Saturday, May 30, 2009

Off The Wall's The Shadowox

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Whether or not it’s actually the case, it feels like there has been more of a concentration of heavy drama this past month than any other single month since the season began last August. In the Milwaukee theatre market, most months there usually tends to be one big drama opening, a few comedies and a few musicals. This month has amped-up the dramatic ratio  with  Windfall’s production of the powerfully surreal Betty’s Summer Vacation, Theatre Gigante’s dramatic dance program Man In A Magic Square, RSVP’s Regrets Only and of course, Soulstice’s Children of A Lesser God. May closes out with Off The Wall Tehatre’s production of Michael Cristofer’s award-winning late 1970’s drama The Shadowbox

Jeremy C. Welter directs a cast of eight in the story of a group of people who have gone to idyllic country cabins to die in a pastoral hospice setting. Of the Wall Theatre’s tiny black box across the street from the Pabst would have difficulty emulating that atmosphere and, to its credit, the production doesn’t try to do so. The set looks very clean and sterile with simple lines and simpler furniture. The single set serves as three different cabin for three different dying characters who never meet. We get three different stories of three different people dying as their loved ones attempt to cope with the fact that they won’t be coming back home.

The patient in the first cottage is Jo (Lawrence Lukasavage.) Joe is being visited by his wife Maggie (Donna Lobacz) and son Stephen (Avi Borouchoff.) Lobacz has some very delicate moments portraying a woman so unwilling to accept her husbands imminent death that she hasn’t told her son about it. Having seen Lukasavage in countless productions overt he course of the past five years, I can honestly say this is one of his best performances in that time. He’s rarely been given the center of the stage, but here he is one of the three central characters—kind of a bold move on Welter’s part . . . and seeing Lukasavage here, I can’t help but wonder why he hasn’t been the lead in more dramas. Not only can he hold the center of the stage remarkably well, he can modulate really powerfully between anger, somberness and sentimentality without coming across as being at all unnatural . . .

The patient in the second cottage is Brian—a young author and reckless intellectual who will be dying decades before his time. He is visited by his ex-wife Beverly (Tamara Martinsek,) who comes across as being very abrasive to his live-in life partner Mark (Nate Press.)  Welter is well nestled in his performance as a tragic intellectual figure, spouting brief snatches of poetry quite effectively. Martinsek is charming as his sexually liberated ex-wife. She actually managed to make a woman who goes through men like toilet paper seem charming .  . .   which is quite an accomplishment, but by far the single most impressive thing about Cottage Two is Press’ performance as Mark. The character comes across quite cold at first ,but after he loosens-up, there’s a conversation between Mark and Beverly that allows him to deliver some of  the plays darker comic lines. Comic lines in 1970’s drama had a certain cadence—a certain rhythm—a certain flavor to them that would be far too easy to fall into. Press’ interface with Cristofer’s text allowed for some really interesting delivery of those comic lines which seems to come out of a really interesting a novel connection with the character.
The third and final cottage is home to an elderly woman named Felicity (Inge Adams) and her adult daughter Agnes (Krisitn Pagekopf.) Adams is suitably idiosyncratic as an aging woman holding on to the final strands of her life. Pagenkopf has an endearing humanity about her in the role of her daughter, but the third cottage feels kind of weak for me. Lacking much direct interaction between the two characters, the third cottage tells the type of story that’s been told better elsewhere. More than any other storyline in Cristofer’s otherwise accomplished script, the story in Cottage Three feels more like it’s there to add to the mood already established by the rest of the play. That being said, it IS a really compelling drama—the kind of thing that this town clearly needs more of. 

Off The Wall Theatre’s production of The Shadowbox runs through June 7th.


Late tonight, I’m going to yet another drama—an indie production of a brand new play at Carte Blanche.

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