Saturday, March 5, 2011

Approaching the Last Days With UWM

An early look at UWM Theatre’s staging of THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I’ve been given the opportunity for behind-the-scenes access for UWM’s latest upcoming main stage production. This is the first in a series of blogs . . . 

   

Can You Forgive?

New Yorker Rebecca Holderness has been working with UWM for a number of years now. It’s a bit odd, but every time I have an extended conversation with her, I have the desire to dispel notions that Milwaukee is a conservative small town. We were talking about her upcoming production with UWM . . . evidently there had been some concern about softening some of the harsh language for Milwaukee audiences.

Well . . . I tell her that I’ve rarely seen language softened in town . . . occasionally there’ll be a modern show in the suburbs . . . Elm Grove or some such . . . where people are offended by language. Contemporary audiences in town rarely bat an eye at that sort of thing. Sure, we had people get upset about a recent production of Naked Boys Singing, but there are shows that regularly stage some pretty edgy stuff. Full frontal nudity comes along once every couple of years. Right now, there’s even a production featuring simulated sexual assault. A standard UWM theatre audience is going to be okay with pretty much anything you throw at them.

Then she tells me  a story about problems with a promotional coffee sleeve for the show . . . evidently they tried to get some promotional coffee sleeves printed-up by a local coffee house with the tagline for the show JUDAS—CAN YOU FORGIVE? The coffee house didn’t want to use the line on the sleeves. Then they suggested just putting the title of the play on the sleeves. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The coffee house was concerned about the title and asked if they could possibly change it . . . okay, right, I say  . . . but those are COMMERCIAL concerns. UWM theatre audiences are much more sophisticated than that. A recent Boulevard Theatre production of the play did fairly well without any controversy at all. If anything is going to reaise eyebrows amongst the easily offended the week of March 9th, it’s Theatrical Tendencies’ production of Corpus Christi. A question of forgiveness of Judas is one thing—recasting Jesus as a contemporary gay man in Texas is another matter altogether. Written by playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, The Lst Days of Judas Iscariot is a courtroom drama revolving around a trial for Judas in Purgatory. It juxtaposes the classic New Testament folk tales against a very modern courtroom setting.

A Korean Jesus And Multiple Satans

I sat down with Rebecca Holderness in her office at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts. The production of The Last Days that lies ahead is considerably different than the one I saw on one of the smallest stages in Milwaukee not too long ago. Holderness sculpts a production out of a script and whatever she has access to. Here she’s concerned with trying to teach as well as produce a show, which involves attempting to get acting opportunities for a larger cast than a script might otherwise require. As a result, the role of Satan will be played by three different actors including a woman and a child. Many faces has the devil . . . but this is not the first time Holderness has expended one role into multiple simultaneous actors. She did the same thing to remarkable effect in her production of Dario Fo’s The Accidental Death of An Anarchist. There the title character was played by a team of actors.

In the interest of casting the right actor for Jesus, Holderness chose a Korean student who had the perfect stage presence. In the interest of getting a primal performance, she’s asking the actor to perform the role in his native tongue. An angel with a headset will act as translator for the voice of god. It’s little details like this that make a Holderness show so interesting. The production details sound like a great deal of fun—there are dark comic elements to this show and Holderness seems to be having fun with them . . .

Mad Men Meets Gilliam’s Brazil

It’s kind of a rare experience for an audience member to enter a theatre from a vomitory aisle. Surfacing from the aisle, the 20 foot or more from stage floor to ceiling is kind of overwhelming. And so the regular entrances aren’t going to be used . . . there are two available, but the vom is by far the more impressive of the two. Those entering from the vom will be able to see a huge judge’s bench in the near distance , , , made all the more impressive by all the empty space beyond it visible through the lighting grid. The exact height of the bench: 10 feet. I asked scenic designer Richard H. Graham if there was any haggling over the exact height. No. It had always been ten feet. His inspiration for the set? “Perry Mason,” he says. It’s what we all envision when we think of a courtroom. If you’re of a younger generation not familiar with the courtroom drama, chances are you’re familiar with a Hollywood TV courtroom that’s been designed to look like it.

The overall visual feel of the show will mix a ‘60’s office Mad Men costuming feel with the surreally exaggerated bureaucratic feel of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. A vast sea of file boxes and filing cabinets rests beyond the ominous judge’s bench. Props include old an old rolodex, an old typewriter and an institutional feel of a courtroom that has been around since the dawn of time. There’s a particularly elaborate bit with the bench where a flat screen monitor pops-up from it. One of the characters is present in pre-recorded video. Visually, this sounds like a staggeringly fun production.

The new seating arrangement for the show will limit the UWM Mainstage theatre from over 500 seats to something far more modest. The seating will make the audience feel more like a jury sitting down to hear the case against Judas.

UWM's production of The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot runs March 9th - 13th at the PSOA Mainstage Theatre. For reservations, call 414-229-4308. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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