Friday, April 23, 2010

Spirits To Enforce Reviewed Part One: Accessibly Inaccessible

Another Thoroughly Entertaining Youngblood Theatre Show

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Youngblood Theatre’s Spirits To Enforce opened last night to a near sell-out crowd. The Superhero/Shakespeare drama/comedy fusion piece was received quite well by the audience. Chicago playwright Mickle Maher’s script is easily one of the best I’ve ever seen staged. Spirits To Enforce brilliantly mixes the accessible with the inaccessible in a script so packed with details that it could easily stand-up to numerous trips to the theatre and numerous productions. The Youngblood Theatre production cleverly assembles all those clever little details into an exceedingly entertaining production. Stuff like this so rarely gets produced that it would be kind of tragic if the show wasn’t nearly sold-out every evening.

And in spite of the fact that there was a near-unanimous standing ovation for opening night, it’s safe to say that the play isn’t for everyone. I loved the script for reasons that were pretty specific to me, which is not altogether uncommon for pieces as generally esoteric as Maher’s Spirits To Enforce . . . everyone who likes these types of shows likes them for personal reasons . . .

TELEFUNDRAISING AND THE ARTS

The plot concerns a group of mostly out of costume superheroes who are making calls to raise funds and sell tickets for their upcoming production of Tempest. We, the audience are watching them as they make calls in something sort of like real time. With the studio theatre space being as intimate as it is, the audience enters into an alarmingly authentic call center atmosphere.

I know the call center is authentic because I’ve been there. I’ve done this sort of work. I’ve raised money for the various arts groups . . .out of state places like the Kennedy Center, closer to home, I’d done calls for UPAF (once inadvertently called actor Norman Moses and asked him for a donation . . . ) I’ve sold tickets for the Milwaukee Symphony and the Milwaukee Ballet among others. Youngblood director Michael Cotey has the atmosphere pretty much nailed. The audience walks-in and immediately you see the low-budget office atmosphere of a arts fundraising outfit . . . this happens to be on a superhero group’s submarine, but you still have the cheap phones, the cheap coffee, the cramped conditions . . . 

Evan Crain’s scenic design does a really good job of fusing the call center atmosphere with the dark feel of a contemporary superhero drama . . . the team in question—the Enforcers have a rather clever logo that can be seen on the walls and bits of costuming . . . the team’s initials look like twin fortresses with a dozen tiny, little slits at the top of them—one for each member of the team. 

Eleanor Kingsely’s costume design is subtle enough . . . all dozen members of the tem are dressed pretty comfortably, largely out of costume, but with a few clever details thrown-in here and there. It may not live-up to the truly bizarre fashions found at some of the stranger independent call centers I’ve been to . . . I’ve worked alongside the facially tattooed, the pre-op and post-op transgendered individuals, young conservatives, men who look like old TV news anchors, people who insist on wearing pajamas to work for good luck. (And these were some of the most productive call centers I’d ever worked.) The call center atmosphere of Spirits To Enforce may not have quite that kind of atmosphere, but show’s director Michael Cotey has done a brilliant job of getting together a really, really talented group of people to carry the show’s rather novel call-center feel through a full ninety minutes without intermission.

Theatre is some modification to the traditional atmosphere and prospective audiences may be somewhat relieved to know that though this play has a non-traditional plot structure, it DOES modify the workplace atmosphere quite a bit for the sake of bringing across a story. And though the more sophisticated bits of call center humor are conspicuously absent here, there is quite a bit of humor here that is very specific to telefundraising in general and fundraising for the arts in particular. The brilliant thing that Maher does here in and amidst everything else is . . . he explores the need to ask strangers for money for the performing arts and how truly bizarre that really is . . . what it says about our culture as a whole. In an amidst everything else, Maher explores the nature of arts fundraising at a startling depth. Once one gets beyond the initially strange atmosphere, Spirits To Enforce has quite a bit to say about the innate need for art. It’s very captivating stuff.

Next: Spirits To Enforce Reviewed Part Two: Actors, Shakespeare and Super heroes.

Youngblood Theatre’s Spirits To Enforce runs through May 9th at the Miller & Campbell Costume Service on 907 South First Street.

 

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