Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009

Picnic In October

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Three-Week Picnic in Autumn

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opened its second show of the season this past week. Milwaukee Chamber’s production of the 1953 William Inge play Picnic has a charming American mid-century,  domestic feeling about it. R.H. Graham’s set is a simplified, idyllic look at a space between houses somewhere in the middle of the US in the first decade after World War II. All those details you might expect to see on the small rural/semi-suburban houses are conspicuously missing. Much like Inge’s script, Graham’s set has a powerfully developed, very iconic structure that delivers the sweeping drama of an era in clean, simple dramatic strokes. Stephen Roy White’s clean, simple lighting paints the stage in very clearly delineated light and shadow. This is an idealized vision of small town Kansas in 1953. The complexity of life comes across in sweeping dramatic arcs painstakingly presented to the third wall.

Picnic is an ensemble show and Milwaukee Chamber brings the ensemble to the stage with really refreshing flair. I seem to remember an early conversation with show’s director C. Michael Wright when he first became Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. He’d mentioned how much he loved musicals. There’s a real feel of the American musical in the distinctly non-musical shades of drama and comedy. We se tension and conflict drifting around stage in movements and moments that have been elegantly and aesthetically composed by Inge. Wright seems to have a remarkable understanding of how everything needs to move around onstage physically, thematically and emotionally without getting too bogged down in the concerns of any one character. Wright works with an ensemble dynamic really, really well . . .

And then, of course, there’s the ensemble itself. As we see the loves and ambitions of young people play out against the experience of the older generation, Inge’s play absolutely requires an ensemble of dramatically different ages that come across believably in a relatively large performance space. As Milwaukee Chamber’s Picnic is being done in collaboration with the UWM Theatre Department, the casting features some really impressive younger talent currently studying the stage on Milwaukee’s upper east side.

This UWM collaboration is kind of refreshing. A typically well-funded local theatre company would bring in younger talent from elsewhere. True, many of the younger actors here will be moving on to other places after graduation, but there could, theoretically be an interesting crossover here—people going to professional theatre will see how good acting students actually are, potentially bringing the kind of off-campus audience in to see UWM shows that might not normally be interested in seeing shows . . . and it also has the effect of bringing UWM students in to see a professional theatre show they might not otherwise have the desire to see a show downtown.

All of this would be completely irrelevant if the actors in question didn’t put in really, really good performances. They do. Graduating senior Andrew Edwin Voss is compelling as a nomadic, young guy leading a very adventurous, very unexamined life. This is similar to his turn in Youngblood’s Savage In Limbo. It’s a performance similar to that of Karen Estrada in the Renaissance production of Smell of the Kill next door on the smaller stage of the Broadway Theatre Center. Like Estrada in that production, Voss here plays a character who could’ve easily come across as simply stupid. The impression we get from both performance in both productions here is that of people who are actually quite bright—they simply don’t spend that much time thinking about what they’re doing. It’s an interesting dynamic. Also making a really good appearance here from UWM is April Paul as a tomboy girl next door who can never seem to get enough time to herself for a cigarette. The character undergoes a really interesting transformation  . . . and Paul does a brilliant job of showing the profound amount of intelligence hiding just below that character’s dialogue. She’s playing a character with a four year scholarship dangerously close to making mistakes that could mess-up a very promising future. It’s fascinating to watch.

Much of the more established end of the ensemble matches the energy of the younger members of the cast. Emily Vitrano is enjoyable as the attractive older sister of April Paul’s character. The character feels like a bit of a stereotype—the beautiful young woman wondering about the substance beyond the image in the mirror. Vitrano delivers enough subtle emotional intensity to the character to make the role considerably more than a dramatic stereotype. Her romance with Voss’ young drifter is central to the play ,but the oddly idiosyncratic chemistry between a school teacher (Tami Workentin) and a shop owner (Bill Watson) had considerably more personality. Watson and Workentin were extremely enjoyable in a reluctant romance that had a lot more pulse and personality than the young one Inge places more at the center of the stage. A lot of the fault here lies in the script itself. There simply isn’t enough in the interaction between eldest daughter and drifter to keep their interaction interesting. Comparing the two IS a bit disingenuous. The dynamic between eldest daughter and drifter rests somewhere in a dynamic with drifter’s best friend (competently played by Max Hultquist) and several other plot elements. In a play that is so completely defined as a three act ensemble piece, comparing elements of the story like this has a tendency of taking them out of the context that makes them so vivid. Milwaukee Chamber’s Picnic brilliantly delivers the complete picture of Inge’s well-orchestrated ensemble script. 

Milwaukee Chamber’s Picnic
runs through November 1st
A more concise review runs in this week’s Shepherd-Express.

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