Entries in Next Act Theatre (6)


Groucho Charms Audiences at Next Act Theatre

“What shape is the world?” Groucho Marx asks of his brother Chico, who then responds: “It’s better with a brother like you.”  Milwaukee will better shape their holiday season with a trip to Next Act Theatre’s endearing production of Groucho: A Life in Revue that opened last weekend. The multi-faceted comedic ability of five Jewish boys brought up in a New York tenement relates a poignant tale of Marx brotherly love despite their family’s personality differences and life’s inevitable difficulties. 

Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son from his first marriage, and Robert Fisher wrote the books, lyrics and music in the 1986 production to critical acclaim. The script delivers the lives of the Marx Brothers, using their given nicknames, Chico, Gummo, Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo, that spans decades and includes highlights from their careers. While Groucho sustained a successful career in his later years through the television medium on You Bet Your Life, the brothers made their names in more than ten classic movies during the 1930’s and 40’s, years when people needed to laugh.

In this production, only three brothers, Groucho (Norman Moses), Chico (David Cecsariini) and Harpo (Chris Klopatek) were portrayed, along with their various women friends who influence their lives. A stunning Alexandra Bonesho easily rotates these roles. One exquisite scene places Bonesho dressed as a harp, a delightfully choreographed number, where Harpo pulls her strings (tied from arm to ankle) with loving affection.

Moses radiates Groucho’s innate, insulting humor with casual affection. The actor knows Julius “Groucho” Marx intimately, having mastered the icon numerous times in Milwaukee theaters, his musical skills front and center when singing   “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady.” When paired alongside Cecsarini playing the likeable but often less responsible, women loving Chico, the two make brotherhood seem imminently possible despite very disparate temperaments.

Klopatek’s Harpo adds significantly to the upbeat ambiance on the small Next Act Stage, wandering into the audience to position his playful antics with certain members. One can only be obliged to smile, and wonder has there ever been another wordless comedian quite like Harpo? Only by remembering the routines of Marcel Marceau, a mime that worked under the framework of another skill set. Also feature into the evening’s mix Music Director Jack Forbes Wilson, who continually mines the magic on the keyboard, especially in a wild piano duet with Chico.

Pam Kriger directs this well composed cast, including great cameos by Chase Stoeger, with a delicate hand, plumbing the family connections and classic comedy routines from the Marx brother’s past. Demonstrating the perseverance the Marx brothers faced, while often facing discrimination because of their Jewish heritage. Perhaps as Groucho believed, “There is a fine line between sadness and comedy.”

Groucho: A Life in Revue might be the perfect end of year theater, sometimes laugh out loud funny in spite of the dated humor with sincere underpinnings to how family can save family. That a disagreement rarely matters over a lifetime and brother to brother, or sister to brother, sibling rivalry can be put aside, because one would truly miss each other when they finally separated. How similar to Groucho and his own brothers!  

Perhaps this delightful play can help someone see their brother through fresh eyes, with humor instead of criticism, even if only within their family. Whether in poverty or wealth, enjoying Groucho for one night can imply, “the shape of the world can indeed be better with a brother like you.” Perhaps, this might be an imperfect world, yet infinitely livable when shared with family. Too nostalgic for any audience? Never. Only appreciate Next Act’s impeccably charming production that places the irascible Groucho in his rightful theatrical perspective to earn a place in the audience’s heart.

Next Act Theatre presents Groucho: A Life in Revue at the company’s theater home located on 255 South Water Street through December 8. Also watch for their other holiday selection, a reprise of last year’s “It’s A Wonderful Life Live Radio Show” beginning December 12 through January 5. For further information or tickets, please call 414.278.0765 or click the link to the left (www.nextact.org).                by Peggy Sue Dunigan



McGivern & Moses Haunt Next Act Theatre’s Irma Vep

In a special seasonal presentation, Next Act Theatre presents two beloved Milwaukee veterans---John McGivern and Norman Moses---in Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep, a penny dreadful.” The 1984 play reprises the company’s production from about five years ago with male actors in drag. Because as Ludlam writes in his script, “Any man who dresses up as a woman can’t be all bad.”

And what an understatement! McGivern and Moses each play four roles, men and women, while Matt Zembrowski sits above the audience barely seen, accompanying the performance with his melodramatic organ music to add to the eerie and campy mood, a nod to black and white film noir.  

Ludlam’s “Irma Vep,” and the strange “mystery” surrounding her death, references famous cliches, choice bits and pieces from multiple literature, movie or theater genres mixed together to make a nutty fruit cake to go with the tea the characters take when performing on this very classy set. Scenic Designer Rick Rasmussen allows for all the special effects in the richly detailed drawing room and split second costume changes courtesy of Marsha Kuligowski under David Cecsarini’s direction and sound design.

The loosely based “mystery” concerns the head of Britian’s Mandacrest Estate, Lord Edgar (Moses), whose first wife Lady Irma Vep suddenly died, and afterwards, Edgar leaves his estate under the care of his housekeeper Jane (Moses) .When Lord Edgar remarries to bring Lady Enid (McGivern) back to his home, the how and who and why’s, exactly what happened at the time of Irma Vep’s death, twists and turns the humorous story into a whirlwind adventure.  

During the first act, this leads Lord Edgar and his trusted guide Balthazar (McGivern) to an Egyptian tomb, with the audience playing the relics and artifacts hidden inside. A fabulous gilded mummy case holds the Princess Per Amri, (a great, sexy version of McGivern) who was brought to life when Edgar recites a chant. After the intermission, the mystery deepens to the audience’s delight.  

McGivern and Moses will certainly have this award winning play perfected, tightened throughout the run. Comedy, costumes and sound were fine tuned on Friday's opening night with only the slightest timing lags. Who would notice when watching the actors’ facial expressions and over the top gestures recreating these characters from an entertaining past?

Revel in the ridiculous at Next Act’s “Irma Vep.,” Enjoy pure folly for an evening of marvelous fun. Be sure to sit in the center section, or as close as possible, to catch every flick of McGivern’s long hair, or glint in Moses’s eyes. The madcap McGivern and Moses will chase away Milwaukee’s cold spring nights for a haunting evening of laughter to solve the comic mystery of Irma Vep.

Next Act Theatre presents Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep a penny dreadful” at the 255 South Water Street through May 26.  For further information or tickets, please call 414.278.0765 or click the Next Act link to the left.    by Peggy Sue Dunigan





The word “grace” conjures many definitions and scenarios taken from the legal system, the lovelorn and then religious jargon and law. Playwright Craig Wright holds a Masters of Divinity degree from United Theological Seminary, which definitively influences his award nominated play recently produced on Broadway he titled Grace. To close the subscription season, Next Act Theatre stages the production for what Artistic and Sound Director, and then Director, David Cecsarini names, “Theater with a bite.”

Cecsarini carefully directs a compelling and talented cast of four---Libby Amato, John Kishline, Rick Pendzich and Jonathan Wainwright---in a complex drama that converges in one space an exterminator, a genius IT professional with a devastating injury, an attractive and lonely wife and her over expectant husband trying to make a living in hotel management. The husband bases his business plans on advice from Christian financial advisors instead of perhaps God’s actual spiritual principles, all in the name of grace. And the play's questions infer in certain characters’ experiences if there is or why there is any God at all.

In Wright’s story, Steve (Pendzich) and Sara (Amato) move to Florida and pursue their dream of hotel development after “planting seeds of a financial harvest” and then scoring 14 million from an unseen and unspoken to business partner. Steve prefers the name Crossroads Hotels, a chain of hotels perfectly attuned to the “Christian”, in Wright's interesting nod to some of the business plans that commercial religion proposes.

Next door in the couple’s apartment complex lives Sam (Wainwright), a depressed NASA scientist who streams data between time and space, from the heavens, and recently lost his fiancé in a tragic accident that leaves his face disfigured. Enter the philosophical holocaust survivor, Karl (Kishline), an older man who now exterminates the hundreds of bugs, even terminates, that infest Florida buildings and houses. Steve in his enthusiasm for his new-found investment riches often “witnesses” to Karl and Sam, trying to convince them to believe in God.

How actual grace and the word’s meaning unfolds for each character throughout the performance will fascinate the audience. Hotel plans may come and go, hope grasped for a moment and then pulled from reach numerous times in the performance as Amato creates a believing, innocent wife who eventually determines her own spiritual direction in the course of the play. Pendzich and Wainwright provide the compelling counterpoints as Kishline’s cameo appearances rivet the audience’s attention when he steps on the sparse stage. Rick Rasmussen’s white wicker furniture cools off the Florida heat on this ghostly pale living room set.

While the ending may resolve these various issues perhaps too easily and expectedly, the audience may think otherwise. What anyone with any religious beliefs may be capable of when faced with difficult circumstances underscores this definition of what true grace requires from a person.  And asks the audience to construct their own meaning to grace and what they believe about God.

Tragically and unfortunately, Next Act’s Grace uncovers timely contemporary context as famed Christian pastor Rick Warren’s 27-year old son recently committed suicide that causes heartbreak, similar to circumstances in the  play and imparts even deeper meaning, importance to the production. Discover this powerful play and then vow to determine genuine grace in one’s own life.

Next Act Theatre presents Grace through April 28 in their new theater at 255 South Water Street. For information or tickets, please call414.278.0765 or click the Next Act link to the left.       by Peggy Sue Dunigan




A sensual and surreal evening arrives at Next Act Theatre in their first production for 2013 titled The Clockmaker. This mystical play presents Heinrich Mann as a son who inherits his father’s clock shop in some bygone era, although Mann believes he will forever be a failure to his father's artistic legacy. When a woman in need named Frieda walks through his shop door one rainy afternoon to have a very important timepiece repaired, this one moment in time changes the course of the couple’s lives.

The dimension of time literally rearranges the following scenes throughout Stephen Massicotte’s intriguing play directed by Mary McDonald Kerr. Audiences need some patience in the first half so they can fully appreciate the unusual staging of the action. The rearrangement of unknown places and time reflects a nonlinear storytelling and changes at the playwright’s whim. Only afterwards, in the final scenes, will the audience actually realize what has supposedly occurred. 

Somehow Massicotte’s (author of the company’s 2009 Mary’s Wedding) coherently pieces this haunting love story written with a fairy tale sensibility while using sparse poetic dialogue that holds the audience's attention. Massicotte delves into the sensuality of fragrance, the smell of bread and rain and you, which Mann and Frieda represent. Drew Brehl and Molly Rhode characterize Mann and Frieda by displaying delightful innocent charm through these insecure personas. 

Richard Halverson appears to play “an inquisitor” as Monsieur Pierre and gives the audience an actor who will eternally (to rephrase the play’s language) be welcome on a Milwaukee stage. Dan Katula’s Aldolphus adds an impressive turn as Frieda’s destructive husband, who tires to the thwart the kind affection between Mann and Frieda.

Without revealing too much of the mystery in this production, The Clockmaker entertains on several visual and intellectual levels. Rick Graham’s scenic design, Jason Fassl’s lighting and Aria Thornton’s simple costumes add to the performance’s unique enchantment. While one wishes the pace moved slightly quicker (a one hour, forty minutes without intermission), the deliberate delivery and direction allows the surprise ending to fascinate the audience even more.

At the end of the evening, the audience might remember that when one person desires to make a difference, even in only one person’s life, they can by showing love and reap magnificent rewards. How wonderful to see this proven in McDonald Kerr’s and Rhode’s personal careers, professionals who have enriched Milwaukee theater as actors, choreographers and directors as distinctive women in the theatre, a pleasure to continually see develop over the years The entire cast in Next Act's appealing The Clockmaker defines how passion for one’s career or a particular person transforms events and time for good even into eternity.

Next Act Theatre at 255 South Water Street presents The Clockmaker through February 24. For information or tickets, please call 414.278.0765 or click the Next Act link to the left to visit the company’s website.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan




An audience listens to a conversation by two people discussing a book while sitting on a park bench. Eavesdropping on their relationship propelled by their chance meeting after 34 years. Thus begins the story playwright Richard Lyons Conlon wrote in the world premiere production of one time, which is currently playing at Next Act Theatre.

This award winning and albeit emerging playwright workshopped the play for Chicago Dramatists before it was noticed by Next Act Artistic Director David Cecsarini. When the first readings were being staged for the Milwaukee run, Conlon was close enough to assist in finalizing the script with Cecsarini, also director for the production. Actors Linda Stephens who plays Sonia and Jonathan Gillard Daly, her charming companion Mason, assisted with several small revisions to fine tune the script. Their substantial experience was critical and Cecsarini explains, “This is a minimalist play where you know little about the characters. So there’s a lot to fill in.”

“You don’t find that in the theatre much anymore,” Stephens continued at an after show talk back. “Where the audience brings their imagination to the play, to fill in the blanks.” The audience’s imagination will wander through these two silver haired characters’ lives with anticipation. Sonia and Mason, now in their sixties, were friends at one time who might have been more to one another if they had been in different places in their younger lives. Although they inch closer back to each other sitting on the park bench telling stories that begin with “One time I…"

So this fragile romance becomes reborn with the audience learning bits and pieces to the characters’ relationships, details that appear inconsequential although are essential. The non-linear storytelling allows for certain stories to be mentioned in Act I and finished during Act II to focus on the intimacy between Sonia and Mason. When everyone rediscovers love through this mystery of past and then present time. 

Stephens and Daly carry their charisma with a deep affection for each other and their characters, these superb Milwaukee actors a distinct pleasure to watch on stage. Daly represents the boyish desires hidden within every man of any age. Sonia captures that winsome although doubtful longing to be desirable every woman struggles with. Even when silver hair glistens on this pair of heads similar to moonshine.

With a few twists and turns to the events Sonia and Mason revisit, the play bewitches the audience until the very end. Their likeable and delightful flawed characters only wish what every human indeed longs for, to love and be loved, a chance to be forever young like the teenager once left behind. The once again familiar emotions able to be resurrected when an unexpected opportunity appears. 

No one in the audience will be left behind when eavesdropping on the heart wrenching stories Sonia and Mason confide to each other, wondering who will remember the exact moments.  Each character's temper flares and then subsides, which when enacted within this minimal set matches the play’s structure and maximizes the storytelling. Bring one’s imagination to fill in the details for this one time. Add personal experiences and memories to the conversations that enrich this enticing conclusion to Next Act’s season. Which leaves one eagerly waiting for the fall's 2012-2013 season. 

Next Act Theatre presents the world premiere of one time through April 29. A pay as you can performance happens on Tuesday, April 24, at 7:30 pm. Subscriptions can be purchased for the 2012-2013 season or be sure to attend their fundraiser Bravo, Next Act 2012 on Thursday, May 17. For further information, reservations or tickets please call:414.278.7780 or click the link to the left.