Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009

Welcoming Mark Clements

Straight Lines and Right Angles At A Rep Inaugural Party

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The exterior architecture at the Harley Museum (and much of what I’d seen in select places inside) is dominated by straight lines and right angles. This is a bit odd considering the company’s image is so defined by beautiful curves and skews. I was there last night for my first of two events of the evening—a formal welcome party for Mark Clements: the new Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Rep.

Last night was an unusually big night in Milwaukee theatre. Two and a half hours after the party, there the Milwaukee end of the local end of the big worldwide, multi-theatre Laramie Project was set to open on the Upper East Side, so I cautioned myself about settling in too much. I arrived at the reception hall (a large, pleasantly boxy affair overlooking the river) at the same time as a towering gentleman from another publication. We briefly talked about the Packers as the room filled-up with actors and theatre administration types. What started off as a relatively sparse crowd quickly became a very, very large room filled with local theatre professionals.

Actors Offstage

By far the most recognizable faces in the crowd ended up being local actors. Turn a corner and there’s Deborah Staples: Hi. There I am clearly labeled with press affiliation: Hi. There’s Amy Geyser now in development with Milwaukee Chamber Theatre: Hi. And there’s Travis Knight just back from Spring Green where he was working with the American Players Theatre: Hi. And that’s when I get into some really interesting conversation. I was interested to get Knight’s take on Hansberry-Sands’ production of What Would Jesus Do? He hadn't seen it. It came and went while he was in Spring Green. Knight and a group of other actors recently started the Uprooted Theatre Company--Milwaukee's latest African-American theatre company. My experience seeing a really edgy controversial look at sexulaity and AIDS in the African-American community in the midst of a tense crowd at the Marcus Center was one of the most interesting experiences I've had so far this season. Knight and I discussed some pretty heavy stuff involving theatre, social consciousness and race relations in Milwaukee . . . and then Tyler Perry for some reason.

Knight and company have just announced future shows for Uprooted—most notably there’s a fundraiser for Uprooted’s new season coming-up on Sunday, October 18th . Against Type! AKA: Roles I’ll Never Play, But Could runs one night only at Cool Water Bar & Grill on 2247 East Saint Francis Avenue in St. Francis. I haven’t been able to track down a curtain time online (and I forgot to ask Knight when I saw him.) The venue’s number is (414) 810-3975 or email Uprooted at uprooted.mke@gmail.com for more info. 

Meeting The New Guy

Knight suggested we talk over coffee (a good idea) as I was shuffled off to meet Mark Clements—the new Artistic Director of the Rep—the reason everybody was there. He seemed nice enough--very approachable. The guy’s had so many questioned thrown at him in the past feew days that I didn’t have the heart to do so myself. They’ve had Clements running through a really heavy promotion/greeting schedule and the whole thing’s been very well orchestrated. I’ve read the pieces in other publications and they all say the same thing in slightly different ways—the most recent having been culled from an interview with the guy just hours before last night’s event. He’s holding up remarkably well considering he’s being aggressively fawned-over and forced to answer the same questions over and over. If he can make it through the next month or so, the job itself should be relatively easy in comparison.

James Pickering--An Aside

And then I turned around and there was Rep resident actor James Pickering. He said hello and shook my hand. Never saw the guy offstage before. Something hit me in our brief interaction that should've been pretty obvious in retrospect: the man has a really powerful build. It’s not something you notice onstage, but the guy’s got huge hands—meat hooks. He's got a crushing grip. He’s also got a really powerful presence. Yes, I remember his memorable turn in the male human lead of a Rep production of Albee’s Seascape and countless other roles, but myself and a large portion of Milwaukee have known him for years as Scrooge from the Rep’s annual Christmas Carol. He returns to the role again this year . . . and this year he and the Rep will be sort of indirectly competing with a big-budget Robert Zemeckis film version of the classic story. Even with huge crowds coming-in from all over southeastern Wisconsin to see James Pickering in the role of Scrooge at the Pabst Theatre, more people in the area this holiday season will be exposed to a rubbery, CGI Jim Carey in the role at any of a dozen local multiplex screens. This is tragic. Pickering gives the character in earthy strength not found in any of the popular screen portrayals. Pickering’s so much more than Milwaukee’s annual Scrooge, but until I shook his hand, it didn’t occur to me how unique Pickering's Scrooge really is . . .

The Formal Stuff

And then if I recall correctly, Pickering introduced Clements to local actor Dan Mooney and I shuffled off to find myself talking to someone who does corporate fundraising for the Rep. Evidently he’s from New York and quite happy to be in Milwaukee. That’s kind of a refreshing perspective. He had kind words for the Shepherd-Express, which was nice considering we’ve had kind things to say about the Rep on more than a few occasions.

I was about to leave when there was an announcement from a lectern. The evening was switching gears. People talked about the new Artistic Director with their backs to the river. With a rather nice view in the background, this was kind of a pleasant way to present what was essentially a largely empty inaugural celebration. The whole event had the general feel of the type of fabricated formal event one might expect to announce a new presidential administration . . . and in a way it was. But I couldn’t help but get the feeling that this was a little bit too far removed from the stage. It was pleasant and everything, but I had the overriding feeling that I simply wasn’t getting any work done. It was nice to welcome Clements to Milwaukee and I'm really glad I had the chance to go. I hope he does great things. But it was getting late and I had to be off to the Upper East Side. 

NEXT: Youngblood, the Tectonic Theatre Project and the Laramie Project Ten Years Later.

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