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Sister Sue and Mavis

Commentary: Explore Wild Nights at Renaissance Theaterworks

Emily Dickinson, a great American writer, wrote her poem Wild Nights alone, late at night in her bedroom from her Amherst, Massachusetts home. Dickinson lived there with her family her entire life, a garden outside and a desk lamp by which she held her pen in hand on the inside. Renaissance Theaterworks allows an audience into Dickinson’s private life when the company presents The Belle of Amherst written by William Luce. The one woman interpretation portrayed with sublime affection by Jenny Wanasek under the sensitive direction of the company’s Co-Artistic Director Suzan Fete.

While the play reminisces Dickinson’s life at her family estate, Luce’s script offers insight into an individual artistic process. Dickinson was a woman ahead of her time and only published under her given name after her death where until then the world remained unaware of her literary genius. Similar fates were the blight of Van Gogh and Gauguin, also artists ahead of their time. To date, artists in the 19th or 21st century would be considered fortunate to make their sustaining incomes and achieve great success while they were living.

As for Dickinson, women were rarely allowed to be educated, much less published during this era. Perseverance and the passion to keep writing made her life meaningful while keeping company with her family and nature. Dickinson’s odds against her achieving success even though she was prolific were far greater than for her male contemporaries who were experimenting with American poetry such as Walt Whitman.Wild Nights 

Wild Nights, a torrid love poem Dickinson wrote to a man she considered the love of her life late one night illustrates the intense passion this women expressed in her writing, and for her writing, that would have been deemed intolerable and perhaps immoral at the time. Women were barely allowed to have any real emotions, often treated like older children to be seen and unheard, much less express these mature feelings. The poem to this day remains several condensed lines of exquisite metaphor. While Dickinson’s emotions remained unreturned for more than 20 years except in letters, when he died Emily then replied as the play says, “What the heart wants, it wants, and after that, it doesn’t care."

In the play, Wanasek graciously illuminates these snippets from Dickinson’s life like the lamp illuminated Dickinson’s midnight writing at her desk. Audiences glimpse the multi faceted side of the artist and the artistic process. While Dickinson wrote over 1500 poems, exquisite poems on mortality, nature and death, the symbols of her artistic process became her white dress and reclusive personality, perhaps to submerge the secretive writing that became her sustenance and life’s work.

Another woman artist Stephanie Trenchard, who shows her work in the Historic Third Ward at Tory Follliard Gallery, explores Dickinson’s biography through glass sculpture. Trenchard’s artistic process explores the lives of numerous artists, Matisse, Magritte, O’Keefe and Woolf to name a few in art and literature, encasing their artifacts and icons of these lives in blown, painted and sand cast glass.

Trechard explored Dickenson’s emotions from her writing life in a glass sculpture Wild Nights that recreates the poet’s lamp, the lamp by which she wrote. The female figure Dickinson floats in her white dress and perhaps symbolizes the flame in her lamp,  the flame of her love, her passion burning, waiting to be set free. The artist went even further to etch the poem Wild Nights on the lamp’s glass hurricane shade in Emily’s own handwriting.

In another Dickinson sculpture titled Sister Sue and Mavis, Trenchard explores Emily's relationship with Susan and Mavis, two women in Dickinson’s life because of her brother Austin. These were the women who helped publish Dickinson after her death along with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a publisher she had corresponded with. Each of these people catapulted Dickinson into the literature immortality she considered in her poetry to the bodily mortality everyone eventually faces.

Renaissance Theaterworks had sponsored there own versions of Wild Nights for the past 21 years, also illustrated by the fact that The Belle of Amherst was the first play Fete directed 20 years ago. While demonstrating their own passion for the theater, and supporting woman in all aspects of the theater world, they have achieved success in their lifetime as do the woman they represent. Their audiences respect another artistic process with each production, the very private workings of great theater in every genre, produced by woman, unfortunately currently still underrepresented in the film and theater professions.

While women were also underrepresented in literature during her day, Emily Dickinson appeared well behaved with her outside countenance, while inside her creative expression was filled with Wild Nights, a poetic voice the 21st century still reveres, although people might have considered her less well behaved in her day. An old adage believes, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” Renaissance Theaterworks belies that adage, generally well behaved even if thinking innovation and quietly initiating their own creative history in Milwaukee. 

Explore the complexities of the creative life through the portrayal of Emily Dickinson in the play The Belle of Amherst and continue with Renaissance Theaterwork’s 2013-2014 season. Whether performance artist, visual artist or writer, exploring the artistic process of others may light a lamp for one to illuminate their own creativity. Special evenings throughout this year under the theme of Word Play invite the community to learn more about this process, Renaissance Theaterworks and the women they support. Evenings dedicated to those artists who display their passion on Wild Nights for the benefit of all those waiting to uncover an artistic element to life. 

For further information on Renaissance Theaterworks and the season ahead in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center or Word Play events, please click the link to the left. Stephanie Trenchard's work can be viewed at Tory Folliard Gallery just down the street from the Broadway Theatre Center.  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 imaginative 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 performance'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 moment, an individual, an entire life, a country, however long and difficult that 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.



Commentary: Educate Yourself at Renaissance Theaterworks

What can be so powerful about an education, formal or otherwise? Willy Russell’s 1980 British play Educating Ritaprovides 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 very 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 divorced 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




While Renaissance Theaterworks celebrates their 20th anniversary this entire season, two productions with ties to their company ran simultaneously this fall. While Irena’s Vow played in the Nancy Kendall Theater at Cardinal Stritch University for a special artistic collaboration, a selection from the company’s own season Enfrascada continues at the Broadway Theatre Center through November 11. Each production relates the valuable theme of what might define being a “wise woman.” 

The first production Irena’s Vow became an artistic collaboration between Cardinal Stritch University’s Theater Department and the Renaissance Theaterworks staff. Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director Susan Fete directed the Stritch production adapted from a true story with the company’s Producing Director Julie Swenson bringing Irena to life. The play presents a harrowing vision of an 18-year old Catholic Polish girl who becomes intertwined with the Nazis during World War II. Based on a true story, Irena displays wise judgment in saving 12 young Jewish people while putting her own life in dangerous circumstances.

Irena suffered at the Nazi’s hands numerous times during the war despite her young age. After she became the housekeeper of a prominent German officer, she fed and hid the Jews. When Irena knew these workers might be discovered, she moved them to a safer place.  When the German officer discovered his trusted servant Irena was hiding Jewish workers in his house, she became his mistress to save them. Swenson captures Irena with an believable innocence that underscores her precocious maturity and thoughtful wisdom.

Irena’s wisdom might be best illustrated when one of the Jewish couples discover they are expecting a child.  While the 11 captives voted to ask Irena to find the medical equipment to terminate the pregnancy, Irena’s better judgment tells her to ask what this Jewish woman really desired. She wanted to keep her baby, which the remaining 11 were afraid would endanger their own lives. Irena chooses to save a life, save this baby as a sign of future hope. 

Early on the story, Irena experiences a German soldier murdering a Jewish baby and mother right on the street before her terrorized eyes, a scene she constantly remembered. Irena vows to only save lives instead of destroying them. Her self-sacrifice enabled everyone’s escape when she wisely plans for their safety after her German employer was moved to another location, with the tiny newborn infant and the family saved first. A wise woman placed under duress in each complicated, new situation.

In RTW’s second production Enfrascada, the play features four Latina women to highlight the company’s Diversity Series featuring Yadira Correa, Karen Estrada, Annie Henk, Yunuen Pardo and Rána Roman. Each of their characters represent a contemporary woman from playwright Tanya Saracho’s life (a Co-founder of Chicago’s Teatro Luna in 2000) similar to the three Señoras prominent in the play who solve the problems these four women face. A Señora or “wise woman” as she is still called, has enlightened the Latina culture for decades. At one wekend performance, one of these marvelous “healers” that the cast was familiar with traveled from Chicago and was available to RTW audience members for consultation this past weekend. 

This Señora also spoke by translation at an event held after the Sunday performance, a most interesting discussion that interspersed the cast members discussing there distinct place in Latin American culture, which included someone of Latin American heritage yet having little ability to speak Spanish because the woman was raised as a first generation American. This situation appeared in Saracho's play when one of the characters needs a translator to speak to the Señora for assistance, to explain her crisis. 

However, the lovely woman speaking to the audience about her life as a Señora stated she had known of her healing gifts since she was a child, almost from when she was in the womb. A transformative experience when she was six years old frightened her at this tender age, although over time she began to see and use her gifts “wisely.” Several actresses from the production use a Señora regularly, this wise woman becoming an intimate part of people’s lives, and the Señora knew Saracho, they were friends and learned from each other, as women do.  

Wise women support other women. Similar to Irena saving the Jewish workers and a baby’s life, together with these characters from Saracho’s play that stand by their friend in distress, encourage her to use their Señoras who assist as both a counselors and healers, attempting to smooth a life crisis for their friend. The play reinforces the fact Renaissance Theaterworks has consistently supported new and established women actors, directors, playwrights and theater technicians to make a significant impact in Milwaukee and Midwest Theater.

This includes the company’s present Administrative Assistant, Mallory Mextoxen, a former Stritch University graduate, who was asked to be an assistant director several times in the past, including working with Fete for Irena’s Vow. Because of this encouragement and experience, the city might see her name as a “Director” next season for one of the many theater companies Milwaukee enjoys, in the footsteps of Laura Gordon or Mary McDonald Kerr.   

Wise decisions such as these ensure the community will enjoy the privilege of another professional and talented woman’s gifts, and many more in the future. This month Renaissance Theaterworks sends out letters for its 2012 Costume Campaign, an annual fundraiser to keep their actors dressed and ready for the stage in 2013. Be a supportive theater enthusiast and assist these unbelievably gifted professionals who have the courage and perseverance for 20 years to produce exceptional theatre through the voices of wise women in Milwaukee.

Renaissance Theaterworks presents Enfrascada at the Broadway Theatre Center in the Studio Theatre through November 11. Donations to the 2012 Costume Campaign can be made by contacting the Theater Company. For further information, please call 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan



Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith returns to Milwaukee at Renaissance Theaterworks in a enthralling production ofHonour. This 1995 award winning play from the Melbourne based playwright follows in the footsteps of the Milwaukee Rep’s selection of last season’s Bombshells. Each play focuses distinctly on women at different stages in their lives. While Honour may discuss the dissolution of a 32-year-old marriage in crisis, the play also speaks to the generational roles women encounter and organic truths. 

Milwaukee favorite Laura Gordon debuts at Renaissance playing the title character, Honor, an award winning poet who succumbs to living for her husband, Gus, and daughter, Sophie. American Players Theatre actor Brain Mani addresses Gus, acclaimed as one of the ten top thinkers in the country, a renowned journalist. Who in a very short time falls head over heals for the brilliant career woman, Claudia, although half his age.

Claudia, delightfully intelligent if unaware of her own motives and played by newcomer Greta Wohlrabe, flatters and seduces Gus because of a deep psychological hunger in her heart. Yet, Claudia admires Gus’ wife Honor, for her own gifted writing accomplished before Honor was married. The irrepressible actor Karen Estrada comes to the stage as Sophie, a daughter immersing herself in her parent’s security while failing to meet their expectations as a college student, lost in her father’s intellectual success.

Murray-Smith’s play, much more than a two-hour evening revisiting long-term marriage, reveals greater depths. And presents the premise that it might be better to be individually responsible for the care and feeding of one’s own personal growth over a lifetime. No one person can rely or depend on another to do this for them as they mature. When this happens, and one submerges a life into another’s, as Honor does with Gus and Sophie, or Sophie in her parents, or Gus very quickly into Claudia’s, that person and the surrounding people can psychologically struggle and may fail, too.   

This premise reflects the timeless cycles in nature. Observed every year over centuries. Stop watering or exposing a plant to light, and it dies. Stop watering or nurturing a human body or soul, and it falters and may eventually die, too. Over water or giving too much light, and a plant dies as well. Most individuals only relate these truths to an organism or physical body, yet is applies to relationships, human minds and their spirits.

Without exposing all the surprising dialogue and events in the Renaissance performance of Honour, each character eventually needs to take responsibility for their own watering and care, including the failure or success that follows. Other people in a person’s life, especially those dear and surrounding another, may certainly accompany, advise, care for, encourage, enjoy, love, support, sympathize and watch over them without either criticizing, ignoring, living through them, patronizing or smothering another. This applies whether a mother to her children, partner to partner, spouse to spouse, child to parent or friend to friend. Perhaps even colleague to colleague.

While previous historical decades may have placed a completely sacrificial role onto the woman in life or relationships/marriage that was then seen as a man’s innate privilege to accept, contemporary women may wish to reverse/revise this status quo to equally destroy love’s delicate balance. One could be called to commit in bringing out each person’s best self with every relationship. An individual can only do this when they are at an optimal personal health, taking care of themselves. Not self-absorbed but through the thought of loving other persons as they ultimately would themselves. A delicate balance in love that could also be unreturned. 

Observing these ideas through the characters inhabiting the multi-layered play Honour, the play speaks to each character abandoning their own nurturing that leaves them vulnerable along with the people they love. They become distressed, other than whom they were meant to be. Until adversity strikes, and then suddenly some blossom into a fragile seedling and expose a personal honour that accompanies coping with adversity. Unfortunately, the play may comment on a sad, social affliction: adversity or tragedy can spur personal growth, rising from dead ground (metaphorical and real) like a plant that may come back to life when suddenly watered by someone or something else. Like nature, new life rises from the hard, unmoving soil only with courage, determination and tender care if and when possible. Other times it is lost and finds another path.   

Perhaps those in the audience will respect that important principle: to ignore personal health and growth could ultimately lead to certain failure in other areas of life. A complex configuration portrayed in Murray-Smith’s play. Only individuals emotionally centered and somewhat insightful themselves can effectively transplant growth and love to others around them. Watch another individual carefully bloom into their own beautiful, flowering spirits, whether children, friends, partners or spouses, while they continue to do so as well. The laws in nature and human beings will prove this timeless truth. Venture into Honour’s world turned upside down and muse over this thought provoking play. Be intelligently and thoroughly entertained by Renaissance Theaterworks.

Renaissance Theaterworks presents Honour at the Broadway Theatre Center through April 15. For tickets or information call; 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan


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