Entries in C. MIchael Wright (4)



Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Art: A Whiter Shade of Pale

Set against a backdrop of what might be a monumental Piet Mondrian painting and primary colors…blue, red and yellow…Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s season opening production Art resonates with modern abstraction in its design and themes. Even the pale Barcelona chairs designed by Mies van der Rohe flank the stark, white leather sofa front and center on the Cabot Theatre Stage. And speak to a sophistication that echoes the ideas on contemporary art and friendship French playwright Yasmina Reza’s award winning script addresses.

First produced in Paris during the mid 1990’s, Reza’s Art places three old friends, Marc, (Brian Mani), Serge (C. Michael Wright), and Ivan (Tom Klubertanz), in one of their classically fashionable apartments. Serge, a well to do dermatologist, recently purchased a “white” painting for an absurd amount of money, which infuriates his best friend Marc. However, the cultural renegade Ivan places himself between the two warring friends and the resulting backlash from Serge making such an expensive decision without consulting Marc.

While the three friends argue over the artist's importance, an 'Andrios' painting, even to what color the canvas might be, for there are numerous shades of white, they all struggle with what ties, experiences and feelings, bind them together. Because very similar to the diagonal lines dividing the white background in the Andrios painting, the three friends, like the three musketeers, are divided by what emotions the painting unleashes in each of them. Which can be equally absurd and conflicting.

Director Tyler Merchant adds a strident, hyper-realistic quality to the production, a play without any intermission, perhaps to generate more tension between the three men on the set. So do the flashing lights designed by Jason Fassl which gently stobe between the changing action against Scenic Designer Keith Pitt’s Mondrian inspired back wall. Theatrical techniques reinforcing how the serenity in these three men’s lives was definitively disturbed by the painting and then consequently each other.

Mani and Wright demonstrate their astute acting abilities by letting the audience visibly wrestle with these character's emotions. Perhaps the French might be more philosophical and less rigorously argumentative in regard to these dilemmas while being equally as passionate. Klubertanz acutely develops the play's humor with a genuine neurosis, his Ivan less debonair than Marc and Serge. Ivan has his own problems to contend with, an upcoming wedding, correct wording on invitations, and a life working with mundane stationery. His frustration daringly expressed in an exhilarating tirade about the minute details that complicate a wedding.

Throughout this almost two-hour play, art and friendship can be observed as the very idea of abstract expressionism. Where what a person feels can be more significant than what one sees, especially in a painting. The emotions are more critical to acceptance than the colors or lines drawn on the canvas, and how one discovers the words to open up those ambiguous sentiments to another person when describing art or a friendship. Whether the painting is indeed white-white, white shit as Marc believes, or that indefinable whiter shade of pale, the color matters less than what Marc, Serge and Ivan “sense” about the painting. Which comes to the forefront at the script’s conclusion when they process what actually binds the three of them together as human beings. 

The final scene in Reza’s play closes by questioning what “art,” a painting, evokes in the collective soul, what that is worth, culturally and moentarily, and then how this pales in comparison to the friendships these men have forged over 15 years. Because then the value of art rest in how the audience and these three men understand their humanity more fully. Perhaps another French philosopher and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupery said this more succinctly when he wrote, “Words are the source of misunderstanding…Eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”

This August, Milwaukee audiences should indeed look keenly, observe with open eyes and heart MCT’s intriguing production of Art.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents Art at the Broadway Theatre Center in the Cabot Theatre through August 25. Several special events are planned, so for information or tickets, please call: 414.291.7800 or click the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre link to the left.    by Peggy Sue Dunigan




Playwright Glen Berger’s script conjures a multitude of questions in his play Underneath the Lintel that draws from historical legends and mythology. Written in 2001, the one character drama produced by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre relies considerably on the acting genius of James Ridge, a 16-year veteran imported from Spring Green’s American Players Theatre. His portrayal of a Dutch Librarian searching for a person who would return a traveler’s guide in deplorable condition 113 years overdue will visibly move the audience when he leaves the stage 90 plus minutes after they sit down.

Luckily for Chamber Theatre audiences, Ridge deftly handles the nuances to the this bereft Librarian’s persona, who since losing the love of his life spends all his time stamping books returned in the library’s night slot. Without sitting to rest for the entire performance and no intermission, Ridge mysteriously follows the clues he uncovers in the overdue book over centuries and continents through his knowledge of reference materials. As the audience eventually discovers, The Librarian then unknowingly follows the path of what is known as the Errant, Eternal or Wandering Jew.

Art, drama, literature and music retell these wanderer stories through the eyes of various cultures and Berger intertwines this history with his mix of quirky humor befitting a Dutch librarian trapped in his small town. Poignant moments reflecting questions that have haunted humanity drift through the dialogue that also reawakens curiosity in the audience.

Initially, Ridge’s quest appears ludicrous, and the audience needs to sit back and enjoy the preliminary storytelling. Before Berger and Ridge fully confront what “underneath the lintel” eventually means and the subsequent journey. For those unacquainted with this tale, transcendence waits, when the audience fully comprehends everything that can happen underneath the lintel.

Which perhaps begins when the Jewish nation first painted their lintels with blood so the angel of death would spare them from an Egyptian Pharaoh’s captivity and destructive curse. This became the Jewish Passover, a precursor to the wandering Jew legend, which supposedly occurred during Holy Week.

Ridge carries the audience and the weight of the wandering Jew’s journey by using numbered evidence to prove this person may actually exist. The only concern The Librarian faces could be if he proves this legend as true, then must God truly exist as well? Which opens a whole Pandora’s box of existential mysteries: Why is each person here? What is love? And what constitutes one person's existence in a short span on earth? 

These questions only subtly reflect the themes in Berger’s play, carried out on a lonely auditorium stage, where a chalkboard, humble desk, dilapidated suitcase and slide projector are effectively interchanged. Chamber Theatre’s compelling Underneath the Lintel may be appreciated on multiple levels. Even if only to marvel at Ridge's perfromance, again directed by C. Michael Wright, to attain this command of the stage. His ability to captivate the audience in this highly intellectual but humorous play reveals another one of drama’s reflection on “everyman," pertinent to each person sitting in the audience.

While Underneath the Lintel applies few answers to the questions the play poses, the script is well worth revisiting. In a flight of fancy at the final scene, the constantly in motion Librarian and an effervescent, masterful Ridge dance off the stage. When The Librarian believes life needs to be cherished when one discovers those moments to “revel in mirth and beauty.”

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents Underneath the Lintel ias part of the "Exploring Jewish Voices" series n the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through March 17. The company also presents a staged reading of Plaza Hotel Ballroom by Alice Austen on Monday, March 4, 7:30 p.m in the Skylight Bar & Bistro. There annual Young Playwrights Festival happens the weekend of March 21-24. For further information and tickets, please call: 414. 291.7800 or click the link to the left.      by Peggy Sue Dunigan



When family or friends tell a story, whether in confidence or jest, whose story does this become when the words enter the wider world? When words go forth through the lips, Facebook or twitter does this suddenly place the stories into public domain?

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre explores these interesting questions in their current production Collecting Stories. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Donald Marqulies based his award winning play on an actual legal case from 1993. When novelist David Leavitt drew “inspiration” and material from a British author’s autobiography. The writer, Stephen Spender, eventually won an out of court settlement where Leavitt’s original books were then destroyed.

Marqulies recreates this scenario with more at stake than “collected and recycled stories," or publishing rights.  In a period of time covering six years, acclaimed author Ruth Steiner accepts a student in her class, Lisa Morrison, to work as her personal assistant. Over this time, Steiner helps develop Morrison’s talent as a successful writer. The pair also assumes a surrogate mother/daughter relationship, so when Lisa appropriates several of Ruth’s most intimate stories, Ruth feels betrayed and bereaved.

American Players Theatre actor Sarah Day illuminates the cranky and quirky Steiner, a Jewish woman who lives partially in the past glory of Manhatten’s Greenwich Village during the neighborhood’s heyday in the first half of the 20th century. She has built an artistically renowned career, yet longs for her youth and “more” from her lonely writing life.

As Morrison, Laura Frye carefully evolves into a writer who discovers her literary footing by worshipping Steiner, clinging to every word she utters. Ultimately mourning the loss of the main woman in her life after writing her new novel, Morrison claims she has only attempted to honor Steiner's personhood and help define her life from an alternate perspective.

These circumstances become pertinent dilemmas to be discussed. In an age where authors write autobiographies while “inventing” their lives and New York Times Newspaper reporters fictionalize facts for articles, how can a reader decipher the truth or what to believe and is this important for fiction?

Multiple websites and individuals claim sentences, paragraphs and stories from the internet without permission or acknowledging copyrights, freely appropriating information as people once downloaded music and movies from the world web. Where does “collecting information, stories and songs” begin and end?

The advice Steiner gives to Morrison appears highly relevant, great wisdom for those who write. However, if these two women really loved each other as the script portrays, something surely would have been mentioned before these final actions. While the Leavitt/Spender legal case involved two less invested individuals, Margulies’s captivating play leaves sparse redemption for two friends who supposedly respected each other as the play describes, perhaps to heighten the play’s concluding scenes.   

Decide the answers to these questions by investing in Day and Frye who recreate a stunning Steiner and Morrison under C. Michael Wright’s accomplished direction. The definition of "intellectual property" remains a continually disturbing dilemma, similar to telling stories to friends, in real sentences with words or written on Facebook. There can be consequences to these actions, and in a less face to face world, people become bolder in what they write on walls and then take away without any remorse. Perhaps everyone needs to be more sensitive of what can be put into public space as MCT’s Collected Stories so powerfully illustrates.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents Collected Stories at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre through December 16. For further programming in coordination with the company’s “Exploring Jewish Voices” and the play's collaboration with Madison’s Forward Theater Company, the production moves to the Overture Center beginning January 16. For further information on programming or tickets, please call  414.291.7800 or click the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan 




A rare, valuable nugget of French culture travels to the Broadway Theatre Center stage in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s (MCT) holiday production Heroes. On opening night, the acting performances of Richard Halverson, Daniel Mooney and Robert Spencer were a priceless treasure in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the 2003 Paris produced play that was nominated for four Moliere awards, Le Vent des Peupliers, or The Wind in the Poplars.

The Wind in the Poplars was first written by Gerard Sibleyras, which also won British playwright Stoppard the Laurence Olivier Best New Comedy Award. Stoppard magically captures the European flair for witty conversation while three World War veterans Gustave (Richard Halverson), Henri (Robert Spencer), and Philippe (Daniel Mooney) reflect on their past and present lives.

Set in France on a sunny back terrace at a Veteran’s home in August 1959, the trio ruminates about the beauty in a grove of poplar trees, seen high on a hill off in the horizon. This may refer to those grand landmarks in the French countryside that the Impressionist artist Claude Monet immortalized in his 1891 series of oil paintings. These elegant, stately poplars represent as Monet eloquently stated, “Nature [that] is greatness, power and immortality.” 

When the three men plan a campaign to reach that hill of poplar trees and traces of insanity ensue, the veterans appear to be striving for these qualities that Monet so beautifully illustrated. Henri, Gustave and Philippe suffer varying degrees of physical and mental capabilities, given in sacrifice to their country, which complicates completing their plans. This includes their faithful compatriot, a cement dog weighing 200 pounds that Philippe thinks occasionally moves by itself. Sitting and planning their escape strategy, the veteran trio decorated with numerous medals for their military heroics and now forgotten by society, ultimately finds the reclusive hospital their final refuge. 

The three friends also remind the audience of Alexandre Dumas when adapting his 1844 tale of The Three Musketeers. His inseparable friends, similar to Henri, Gustave and Philippe, recall the adage “All for one and one for all.” Even when these three friends who call themselves “the two crocks and one crack pot who mount a campaign,” they are unable to function without one other. Camaraderie, memories and belonging to flawed yet meaningful friendships permeate the dry humor in Stoppard’s lyrical script. Discovering these nuances throughout the evening without elaborating on them here in words will be a distinct pleasure for anyone in the audience. 

Halverson, Mooney and Spencer absolutely shine in this powerful although charming character study in how society may abandon its real heroes. Contemporary culture places acclaim on celebrity instead of dedicated service. Credit to Director C. Michael Wright in finding the sublime tempo for this very European paced scenario that reminds the audience to honor any unsung heroes they might personally know. One will remember the play’s poetic ending long after leaving the theater. Take a journey to the French countryside this December to see MCT’s mesmerizing Heroes and three very wondrous, golden actors performing on stage again. 

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents Tom Stoppard’s adaption the play Heroes through December 18. For information or tickets call: 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan