Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011

2010/2011 Year In Review: Part Four

A look back at the last theatre years from the edge of August

By Russ Bickerstaff
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With Soulstice Theatre opening the first show of the new season last week, Milwaukee Theatre rolls into New Year's . . . the Milwaukee Theatre year starting in August with the first new shows of the new theatre season and closes at the end of the following July with the last openings of the summer theatre season. Here then is part two of a look back at it all . . .

May 2011

May of 2011 was a very special month for me personally. It’s almost cliché that a theatre critic’s wife would be going into labor while he’s at a show. Nevertheless it happened. I’d gotten the text message from my wife while I was only  a few blocks away from the hospital at UWM’s Kennilworth building seeing Theatre Gigante’s tribute to to dance legends Isadora & Nijinsky. The story of the lives of two legendary artists in retrospect played as an interesting prelude to the life of my daughter Amalia. It was the final performance of UWM Professor of Dance Ed Burgess, who passed away shortly after the show closed.

There was a LOT of great drama going on this past may. UWM Theatre’s Senior capstone dramas Heroin-e and Raw Youth were enthralling—another instance of drama played-out onstage for far too few. Really good performances from a group of really talented acting students . . .

UWM Theatre graduates Michael Cotey and Rich Gillard brought a dauntingly complex and agonizingly comic fugue of poetry to a found space in the Pritzlaff Building as it staged—say it with me: An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening. In a painstakingly textured performance, Cotey offered the audience a chance to have a beer with Faustus—a guy who has a few issues and the worst roommate in the history of the world. Another hit for a consistently good theatre company with a consistently inconsistent calendar of performances. (Youngblood has two more open in August, run concurrently and then . . . well . . . let’s just say they’ve been looking at A LOT of scripts.)

And then there were the musicals . . . the three BEST musical dramas of the season all opened in really, really close proximity to each other. In April, In Tandem staged a heartbreakingly gripping drama—the best musical romance to make it to stages this past year—as it staged Thrill Me—The Lepold and Loeb Story. Adam Estes and Joe Fransee worked with music director David Bonofiglio and In Tandem’s Chris Flieller to render a musical drama so intensely organic that the music seemed to flow naturally from the passion of the moment and that almost NEVER truly happens in musical theatre. Normally, people burst into song as part of the format of a musical and the audience lends the production the emotional credibility to carry it off . . . here the audience wasn’t really doing any work on that . . . the songs flowed so naturally from the action.

From a tow-person musical to an opera “for baritone, empty chair, string quartet and piano,” Windfall Theatre’s staging of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Green Sneakers was a deep and deeply intimate look at loss and emotional grace. Larry Birkett brought just the right emotional weight to it.

And it would be impossible to talk about May without mentioning The Skylight Opera Theatre’s big closer The Adding Machine. A surrealist allegory executed by some amazing performers in top form . . . (Ray Jivoff played Mr. Zero perfectly) and more so than any other musical I’d seen this side of Cannibal, I loved the music in this show. It had a very progressive feel to it the bled into progressive poetry. If this isn’t the future fashion of musicals, it IS at least the direction I would like to see them going in.

 

 

 

 

JUNE 2011

 

After a month like May, June sort of hung out in the shadows. There were some kind of ambitious productions that ended up being kind of uneven for one reason or another. There was a lot to recommend Carte Blanche’s Titus and  Alchemist Theatre’s Fool For Love, but there was just as  much keeping either show from being completely satisfying. Pink Banana Theatre’s shorts show Higher Education had a couple of absolutely brilliant pieces (including a really touching performance by Beth Lewinski) but it didn’t have the kind of wild energy previous Banana shorts shows have had. Optimist Theatre’s second Shakespeare in the Park program found decent acting around the edges of the ensemble, making this particular Twelfth Night more about what’s going on outside the center of the ensemble.

The single best production of the month was a low-key staging of Conor McPherson’s The Good Thief. A simple Theatre Gigante show gave a small table in the corner of Paddy’s Pub to Malcolm Tulip in the role of a Irishman who had engaged in unsavory activities. Nothing fancy here, just a good story told well in a cozy, out of the way location.

 

JULY 2011

The theatre year ended with a few really good performances running a pretty wide stylistic spectrum. One of my favorites of the year for sheer experimentation, Peter J. Woods’ Standingstillorworse ran Independence Day Weekend at the Borg Ward. Sitting through as much as I do in a year, its really refreshing to see someone try new was to go about stage narrative—and if that happens to include art noise that would make most people cringe, well—that’s why that type of show isn’t for everybody. A profoundly refreshing experience, though.

Bad Example’s production of Cannibal: The Musical was refreshing in a completely different way. Honestly, musical theatre takes itself way too seriously—even when its trying to make fun of itself. Cannibal was a sharply clever spoof on the sweepingly melodramatic unearned emotionality of so many musicals. It was executed with a crazy kind of passion that stood as more of a commercially viable flipside to the type of energy that Woods delivered onstage earlier that month.

And time will tell, because it’s only been a few weeks, but Michael Traynor’s performance in Greendale Community Theatre’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels feels like one of the coolest I’ve seen in a very long time. He played the older, more adept con artist here and he played it with a nearly surreal level of poise. There was a brilliant emotional symmetry to it. And he’s good with the comedy too.

Scoundrels would’ve been a nice way to close the year, but I still had to see the touring production of Jersey Boys at the Marcus Center . . . not my favorite show, no . . . but the VERY last show of the year made-up for it with a beautiful kind of otherworldly kind of symmetry as Soulstice Theatre closed its season with the first production of Seussical to be staged in the 2011/2012 season. (The next one makes it back to First  Stage early next month.) 

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