The Humanity of APT’s Hamlet

American Players Theatre opened William Shakespeare’s often-produced Hamlet despite Spring Green’s stormy weather at the Up the Hill Theatre this June. A short lived downpour only detained instead of deterred Director John Langs’ masterfully realized performance of this timeless drama opening night for a must see evening at APT.

As acclaimed Langs details in the APT playbill notes, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, above all, merely acts human. Matt Schwader’s nuanced and riveting performance engages the audience because his grief and desire to avenge his father’s death trigger his ever-increasing descent into a horrifying personal chaos instead of an incoherent madness often depicted in other versions.

Hamlet’s chaos almost mirrors that of the woman he supposedly loves, Ophelia. When Ophelia learns her father is ultimately dead, murdered by accident instead of premeditated as Hamlet’s father was, she, too experiences a descent into that break from lucid reality. Langs moves the audience by having Cristina Panfilio’s heart wrenching Ophelia lyrically chant, almost sing, her lines after her father Polonius’ death directly before her drowning.

The audience then views these two characters that might have been achingly in love, married, except for these incomprehensible losses that render Hamlet and Ophelia unable to cope any longer in their royal worlds. Their grief, and then Hamlet’s promise to his father’s ghost that he will redeem the crown of Denmark, motivates the horrific actions preceded by Shakespeare’s eloquent writing of these characters’ musings. .

These musings, including Hamlet's renowned soliloquies, or Hamlet’s words with Ophelia before her father’s murder, acquire heightened meaning on a bare bones stage designed by Takeshi Kata and Andrew Boyce. The scenery appears ancient, yet neo monolithic while magically transforming into the court, a tomb or lush terrain through Lighting Designer Michael A.Peterson’s effects. At a late night hour, the changing lights create larger than life silhouettes of the characters, especially Hamlet and Ophelia, on the set’s backdrop to make their shadows a monumental replica of the actors, and consequently, their emotions.

Staples’ sensual Gertrude played to James DeVita’s at first humorous, powerful Claudius also generates palpable sexual tension. Afterwards, when his crime is discovered, DeVita bemoans his deeds, his desire for ambition, power and love, all equal in his motivation to commit the murder. On his knees, a distraught Claudius humbly asks for forgiveness in repentance while still longing for the ample kisses of the beautiful Gertrude that are generously given on the stage. 

Throughout the performance, Designer Alejo Vietti’s elegant, understated costumes combine lustrous, modern materials into period garments simplified, yet shining, lightweight instead of laden with heavy ornamentation. This concept allows Shakespeare’s characters and their words to illuminate the stage. There are fewer costume changes except for Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, where Staples wears gorgeous gowns the audience can view closely when sitting on the center right aisle of the theater. 

Players also parade up and down theatre's center aisle steps in another vivid scene that will resonate in memory for years, when the actors descend for the burial of the drowned Ophelia. Langs’ cast carries Panfilio on a flat bier hoisted by ropes that are then literally released into “the ground” below stage level to recreate an actual grave site, and the audience grieves in reverence. 

Before this, tiny details such as Ophelia carrying rocks instead of the usual herbs and flowers in one scene directly before her death, when Panfilio crosses her bosom with every rock, placing them next to her kneeling body, breaks the audience’s heart. Tender father-daughter scenes in the first act previous to Ophelia’s lamentations sets up this sorrowful humanity unraveling on stage, a foreshadowing for all Shakespeare’s characters in the script. As the three-hour plus tragedy draws to a close with a compelling duel of swords and words, a deeply moving Laertes, Ophelia’s brother played by Eric Parks, and Hamlet also grieve their multiple losses and seek forgiveness from each other before their last breaths. 

The combination of these theatrical elements, carefully crafted by gifted APT actors that Langs wills into these magnetic performances, including the supporting cast completed by the Milwaukee Rep's long time actor James Pickering, make APT’s Hamlet more than memorable. This play moves quickly under an eventually star-studded night sky, focusing on the magnificent human drama, inevitably fallible characters. Which ultimately mesmerizes the audience into believing neither Hamlet or Ophelia were actually mad, only stricken with unbearable and uncontrollable grief that spirals into multiple losses with tragic results. An evening of human complications where these storied emotions were strewn over the stage and the theatre into a marvelous production. And then enlightens the audience to what can and could happen while attempting to accept the joys or sorrows that accompany the struggles during any one lifetime. 

American Players Theatre present William Shakepeare’s Hamlet at Up the Hill Theatre throughout the 2013 season, so please check the website for schedules, special events and ticket information by clicking the link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan


PORGY AND BESS: A Masterpiece for the Gershwins' and the Skylight

A rare theatrical experience occurred at the Skylight Music Theatre this weekend when after nine years Artistic Director Bill Theisen said good-bye at his last production. The preeminent evening reigned as one pinnacle in the Skylight’s distinguished history because the Gershwins’ masterpiece Porgy and Bess premiered as one of the company’s incomparable performances.

The remarkable 1935 musical The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess was revolutionary in featuring an all African American cast and revering the uniquely American blues, jazz and spirituals that came alive thought South Carolina’s Gullah culture, circa 1920’s. George and Ira Gershwin originally discovered a novel written by DuBose Heyward, and then collaborated with his wife Dorothy, to write the opera based on this true-life character of a recluse who was born with physical defects in a Southern tenement, Catfish Row. 

This character became Porgy, who sings “I Got Plenty of Nothing” in his tiny coastal village, except his gal, his song and his Lord. When a man is killed by a controlling, strung out Crown over a crap game dispute, Porgy invites Crown’s wayward girlfriend Bess, hooked on happy dust, into his home. The unlikely couple, “the beautiful” Bess and “unwhole man" Porgy discover their fulfilling, unique love allows them acceptance andcomfort in this depressed yet spirit filled neighborhood.

A tremendous cast mesmerizes the audience, transfixed to what is being sung on stage every moment. When Clara  (Cecilia Davis) opens the performance singing “Summertime” from atop a balcony, the audience’s spine tingles at this memorable beginning. Then Clara serenely walks down the circular staircase to the stage where Scenic Designer Ken Goldstein’s imaginative backdrop comprised of dilapidated overlapping doorways and shutters frames the performance, to let the characters and story shine. Listening to Jason McKinney’s Porgy or Kearstin Piper Brown’s Bess, especially in their emotional duet Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Love You, Porgy,” lights the Gershwin’s music with a burning fire of American rhythms.   

America’s soul lies in these melodies, plucked from George Gershwin working all summer on an island off America’s Southeastern coast. Where he captured a previously unheralded ethnicity and their several music genres for opera, giving them an uncensored platform with reverence for their musical heritage. The songs rise from the lives of a culture suffering and struggling for survival, even against nature. 

The Skylight’s compelling production resonated partially because Theisen and Musical Director Richard Carseydownsized the musical for the Cabot Theatre. Including reducing the number of live musicians to a bare eight or nine, a miraculous feat alone. This intimate setting allows the audience to experience Catfish Row as if they were bystanders on the street.  While the musical’s Bess is double cast, and Rhea Olivaccé alternates with Brown, well known Milwaukeean Sheri Williams Parnell also served as Assistant Director. She has several standout scenes playing Maria as does Adrienne Danrich's Serena and Anthony P. McClaun's Sporting Life.   

And while Porgy And Bess was penned in the 1930’s, the clothing and names could be changed so this then groundbreaking story of drugs (now perhaps meth instead of happy dust), poverty, violence and the lure of the good life to the marginal cultures might be mined in many contemporary, especially Milwaukee, neighborhoods. In the past year or two, near 32nd and Lloyd, eight fatal shootings included a grocer murdered for $64.00 in his cash register, similar to the murder in the Gershwin’s story after a crap game. 

This is why the Gershwins’ opera transcends a singular culture, a particular neighborhood, and when seen, has the power to make all humanity whole again, similar to when Porgy rises from his cart and walks away to search for Bess at the finale. When McKinney’s grand stature appears to fill the entire stage as he walks off, the dignity to his physical limitatiions and music fills one's spirit with perseverance. The Gullah community’s hearts are similar to many cultures in this world, singing out for comfort, compassion and companionship, to ease the difficulties of everyday life, the pain of loss and sorrow. The Gershwiins’ Porgy and Bess is indeed also a Skylight masterpiece, the beloved music and story essential for every generation. 

The Skylight Music Theatre presents The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Complex through June 9. Season subscriptions are also available for their upcoming 2013-2014 seasonthemed “Revolution.” For information or tickets please call: 414.291.7800 or click the Skylight link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan




Boulevard’s Powerful Living Out Honors Mothers

Rarely has a playwright so clearly captured the concerns of young mothers in contemporary society while delving into the accompanying social issues. Lisa Loomer’s profound depiction of caring for children in the Boulevard Theatre’s current production Living Out moved the audience to tears after mining their laughter. Be sure to see this superb combination of comedy and drama, a culturally significant play that challenges parents and nonparents to rethink their attitudes about child rearing. 

Loomer constructs her script around the lives of two couples. First, two professionals Nancy and Richard Robin, who recently added a daughter named Jenna to their life after moving to “a better house.” Yet, Nancy needs to return to work at a corporate law firm or she “will never make partner.”

Nancy then hires the wife of the other couple, Ana and Bobby Hernandez. Ana must also work to raise money so her 11-year old son can return to America from El Salvador to be with his six year old brother living here, and her legal papers to stay in America are necessary, too. Each mother attempts to adjust to these new jobs and work schedules while raising young children, and Nancy and Ana discover while coming from varied cultural backgrounds they have more commonalities than differences.

Enter Ana’s two Latino friends who also nanny, clean and cook to earn a fair wage from the well to do population, Nancy's two friends. They all coexist in a suburban area set somewhere on the West Coast surrounding Los Angeles. Sitting on a park benches during the play, hilarious but poignant, controversial conversations ensue. When the white-collar community depends on the blue-collar community for everything from dry cleaning to pizza delivery, who is essentially more important? And in the end, while everyone is working to make a decent living, as Richard Robin asks, who is taking care of the children?

In two convincing and emotional performances, Rachel Lewandowski’s Nancy and Marion Araujo’s Ana deftly craft women, mothers who care, mothers with their foibles and supposed neuroses any mother can experience at one moment or all the time. Over the course of the play, the audience wonders who is living out, a term that speaks to the nanny’s place in the house, and who is living in and where, to each husband’s confusion.

Jason Will’s Richard stuffs frustration that grows as Nancy’s law firm becomes all consuming. Nigel Woods’ Bobby suavely woos his Ana when she’s in her house because she's “living out” (or maybe more in?) as the Robin’s caregiver, and he reflects for both husbands, “Why do you always have to have better?” 

Whether this means better air, houses, schools for their children, neighborhoods without crime or simply better lives, one considers what might be worth sacrificing for this better, to pass on to the next generation. Comic cultural references abound to reflect these choices: ADD, gluten free, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Volvos and even Mick Jagger, the aging Rolling Stone himself.

Director Beth Monhollen, whose husband Dan Pugliese generously helped with the music/sound design, develops the perfect balance for Nancy and Ana, two determined, intelligent women and then friends who believe, “I like my work and I love my child.” While Nancy is the lawyer, Ana was a dental student who gave up her schooling because of El Salvador's war when she came to America. Even the quick changes during numerous scenes, simply handled by moving benches, sums up the fast paced course of a mother’s life, moving from car to work place to car to dinner to sexual desserts with far less ease than the theater’s scenery.

Artistic Director Mark Bucher consistently delivers a fascinating selection of plays, and Lisa Loomer's provacative script powerfully portrays these often impossible situations and decisions women confront, and then need to make even though women can be their own worst enemies. Every mother in the audience, when laughing at the sophisticated humor, will have their emotions wrung from their hearts throughout the performance, and most certainly in the final scenes. Boulevard’s Living Out relates a critical and timely message on how hard mother’s work, in and out of the house with little validation. To sympathetically illustrate how essential mothers, and all parents or caregivers are to children’s lives and society’s future. Feel free to shed some tears when walking out the theater door.

Boulevard Theatre presents Lisa Loomer’s Living Out in Bay View through May 12. Be sure to subscribe to the Boulevard’s 28th season or attend their annual fundraiser Verse and Vino on Monday, June 17. Or contribute by participating in the United Performing Arts Fund Ride for the Arts. For information or tickets, please call 414.744.5757 or click the Boulevard link to the left.                by Peggy Sue Dunigan



Freedom’s Light Shines on The Road to Mecca

Candlelight immerses the audience in Renaissance Theaterwork’s latest production, Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca to close their 20th season. The mesmerizing theater lighting coordinated by Rick Graham illuminates one of the most inmaginative sets recently seen on Milwaukee’s intimate stages, courtesy of Scenic Designer Lisa Schlenker, A design that deftly recreates the rural South African home of outsider artist Helen Martins, who created fascinating cement sculptures on her land and mirrored interiors.

The set imagines how Helen Martins, or Miss Helen as she became known, “made magic with glitter and light…a miracle that anyone can make.” She lit her “candles for courage” that continued to give Miss Helen the freedom to make her art. To be unconventional in an oppressive political and religious community so she might live her life into her 70’s even though arthritis and poor eyesight hindered Martin’s later years.

In Fugard’s story set in the 1970’s, Martins lives in the Karoo, a desert region of South Africa when the country is entrenched in their apartheid policy, where certain ethnicities are suffering racial inequality. Feeling the end of her creativity and personal freedom may be near, Martins calls upon her trusted friend Elsa, a young schoolteacher in her 20's. Elsa travels 800 miles from Cape Town for one night only to reconnect with Miss Helen after suffering her own personal indignities and losses, while Martins faces this critical time in her own life.

Enter the pastor of the local church Marius, who tells Elsa that Helen recently turned over one of her precious candles that chases away the darkness and started her house on fire. Also speaking as a concerned friend, Marius hopes to convince Helen to give this all up, her art, her home, her freedom, her Mecca. And so Fugard’s story poetically speaks to keeping the light burning, burning, burning despite aging, misunderstandings and inequality so creativity, friendship and justice will survive.

The candles in Fugard’s deeply poignant play represent what that flaming light, individually and collectively, reflects. How the collective arts light up culture, how the creative process lights up individuals, how friendship lights up life, how the freedom to be treated as human is as necessary to society as light is to seeing the way in darkness. The metaphors of the play's candlelight could be endless.

Director Suzan Fete magnificently directs veteran Linda Stephens as Miss Helen and the impressive newcomer, the Milwaukee Rep intern Bri Sudia playing the brash and sincere Elsa. In the play, Fete and Fugard perfectly capture the dance of  women’s friendships, where people unintentionally hurt each other by the words they sometimes say and then console each other afterwards, ready to trust again. Where the age difference is inconsequential and beautifully portrayed. This dance between Martins and Elsa, Stephens and Sudia,gives the play a constant rhythm. How well Fete would know after forging close friendships through 20 years collaborating with the women at RTW.

Jonathan Gillard Daly gives Marius a righteous concern, and the audience believes he is doing what he thinks best. Daly’s long acting connection to Stephens, in several affectionate scenes, works equally well so that this marvelous threesome also lights up the entire performance.

True freedom brilliantly illuminates a life, a moment, an individual, a country, however long and difficult the road to freedom might be. Martins struggled to be the artist she was, in a town that misunderstood her candles and mirrors, her magic art. She inspired Elsa in her passion to fight against apartheid and to be the unique person she was. Creativity, friendship, individualism and passion could not be snuffed out and South Africa also eventually ended apartheid. Fugard’s moving Mecca glows in these timely themes, and marvelously produced by Renaissance Theaterworks, reiterates what Marius tells Miss Helen as the end of the play, “There is more light in you than all your candles put together.”

Renaissance Theaterworks presents Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through April 28. Community art representing Helen Martin’s marvelous owls with Milwaukee artist katie martin were made so patrons could choose one to take with them after the performance to celebrate creativity and freedom. Support the company by attending their 20th Anniversary Salon Soiree on May 23. For information or tickets, please call 414.291.7800.






What can be so powerful about an education, formal or otherwise? Willy Russell’s 1980 British play Educating Rita provides several answers that resonate in a completely contemporary context.  Renaissance Theaterworks opened the production this weekend under Jenny Wanasek’s masterful direction of Midwest actors Jonathan Smoots (from American Players Theatre) and Cristina Panfilio (who also debuted at American Players Theatre this year), in a compelling evening of theater.

The acting pair recreate a middle aged, Open University Professor named Frank and a married hairdresser who calls herself Rita using disarming affection and humor. While the action occurs in a richly decorated English college library (courtesy of Scenic Designer Steve Barnes) where Rita’s incredibly colorful and hip costumes (designed by Alex Tacoma) shine, this winning combination unfolds a deliciously funny play that rarely appears dated.  There’s so much more to Russell’s themes than the addicted to alcohol Frank attempting to help the working class Rita pass her university exams.

A deep longing in Rita’s young heart (she’s 26) questions her purpose in life instead of merely her social status. She senses there are more choices involved in day-to-day living than how many kinds of ale or brew to enjoy at the local pub. Rita’s exactly right and her friends disapprove of her searching for that “more,” a greater understanding to the human existence and so Rita needs courage to continue. Franks wants to help Rita attain her university degree, jumping through the appropriate protocol, without transforming her unique curiosity into merely “cultured” jargon. 

Perhaps what Rita comes to believe is that education provides opportunities for immense personal choice. When Rita’s husband throws her out of the marriage for avoiding having a baby, Rita knows her education may provide her with more choices than the ones merely expected of her. However, having a university degree and becoming more “educated” only gives an individual a process to make informed choices. An education in itself will never be the measure of personal happiness or success, or provide every answer to life's difficutl questions, yet the searching and process allows anyone on this journey the opportunity to choose and find their way. 

Rita and Frank are on their own search where Panifilio and Smoots portray Russell’s frail and human characters  with poignant, sympathetic clarity allowing each their own dignity. When the audience reaches the last minutes of the play, Renaissance provides the perfect evening to realize the power of educating oneself to choice. Whether one’s situation is desperate or fulfilling, educating oneself to new possibilities is an unfailing challenge Frank and Rita illustrate.

Renaissance Theaterworks illustrates these same possibilities in many of the plays they have produced, including this enchanting production. Twenty years ago these determined women chose to begin a very rare theater company, one run entirely by women. Women who also chose to have babies, chose to be of service. chose to make a difference in the Milwaukee Theater community. Some are married, some are single, some were divo ced and remarried, some have children, others have none, still other members chose another path during this 20 year’s time to pursue other challenges.  

As the company once again faces change with Marie Kohler moving from Co-Artistic Director to Playwright in Residence and Dramaturg, these wonderfully cultured women through their personal and theater voices show individuals the power of educated choice. Choice combined with confronting the changes necessary to endure throughout ordinary life. Lives that chose to make a significant difference from the heart and soul and embody the very essence of the formal and informal education this delightful young woman character exemplifies in the company’s soul-searching Educating Rita.   

Renaissance Theaterworks presents Educating Rita in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through February 10. For further information on the May 9 fundraiser or tickets, please call 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.      by Peggy Sue Dunigan