Friday night, I attended The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s opening of Yasmina Reza’s God Of Carnage. And sadly, in his opening remarks, Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements reminded us that this is the last play in the Rep’s 2022/2023 season. A season that has seemed to end far too hastily.
I think I remembered this right, but mid-play or so, Veronica says: “I don’t have a sense of humor. And I have no intention of acquiring one”! And that is about how I felt as I was walking down the stairs from the Quadracci Theater.
This is a dark, dark, dark, dark comedy. There are four characters here. Two sets of parents who meet to discuss a playground altercation between their sons. What starts as a conversation in an obvious upper middle class home…as strangers begin to get to know each other…and begin to discuss the situation, we get to meet Veronica (Heidi Armbruster) and Michael (Adam Poss) as the parents of the ‘victim’, although that term may be up for review, and Annette (Makha Mthembu) and Alan (Elan Zafir) as the parents of the ‘attacker’, also open to reinterpretation or redefinition during the play.
But everything quickly leaves the tracks and we clearly witness the destruction and abandonment of civility and maybe even the demise of civilization…well certainly at least, social and cultural mores, marriage, personal space, and the shattering of the facade of personal identity. Director Ryan Quinn pushes and pushes the characters until the play lives up to its title, God Of Carnage, yet there are no gods here.
And then it ends. I wasn’t expecting the end when it occurred…but it ends. How could this be the end?
I am not sure what the cast does to unwind each evening after their performances but I can’t imagine the intensity of emotions that they are called upon to present can simply be shrugged off at curtain close. And there is no intermission in which to catch their breath…or ours for that matter.
This play feels particularly contemporary, and I guess that it is. And it feels particularly American of the moment…but it isn’t. God Of Carnage was originally written in French by Yasmina Reza. So we are seeing it in translation…the English translation by playwright Christopher Hampton.
Over the past few decades, as I’ve witnessed the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s presentations of plays from August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, aka Century Cycle, I have reached the conclusion that Wilson is the most important and most significant American playwright of the 20th Century. With a play set in each decade of the 20th Century, most of which occur in Pittsburgh, Wilson shows us how much has changed in America over that one hundred years while how little has changed around race relations and civil rights. Set in 1948, Seven Guitars represents the status of race and hope and poverty and desperation in post war America for its black citizens. And this is a very accurate and direct portrayal. But Wilson’s plays go beyond that and all of us will recognize the humanity in the characters and the longing for love and family and community that Wilson invites us to understand. And there is one other item here as well…how those with mental illness were/are treated in America, particularly if they are people of color.
And those of us who live in mid-size cities in America will probably feel the urban environment that Wilson provides for us in his description of Pittsburgh. And we will certainly recognize the back yard of the probably turn of the 20th Century apartment building so accurately portrayed by scenic designer Shaun Motley and the Rep’s crew.
Seven Guitars opens and closes with his friends and neighbors discussing his funeral…he being blues musician, Floyd ‘Schoolboy’ Barton…with the central play presenting his hopes and dreams, his frustrations, and his untimely death as he works to being a famous and successful blues musician. His desire will be familiar to a great number of us who ran out to buy our first guitar after seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show (which ironically started in 1948). And the music will be very familiar to much of the same cohort who discovered American blues music through the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Animals, John Mayall, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix, But Barton has indeed released a hit record and has a letter from the record company requesting that he record additional tunes!
So, Dimonte Henning, portrays Barton on his return to Pittsburgh from the great recording Mecca of Chicago. He’s here to round up his musician partners, Canewell, an incredible blues harp (harmonica) player, played by Vincent Jordan, always with his harmonica at the ready, and drummer Red Carter, played by Bryant Bentley, who can tap out a rhythm almost anywhere.
But his main goal is to coax his former girlfriend, Vera Dotson, to also accompany him to Chicago…an idea that, Kierra Bunch, as Vera, admirably and strongly resists at first until Barton finally wears her down with his charm and determination.
But there are any number of set backs. Barton spends some time in jail for vagrancy. Despite having a hit record…he hasn’t been paid hit record type royalties. And there are problems getting his electric guitar out of pawn and issues with his would be manager and of course getting everyone to agree with his dream! But he works through the issues and seems set on his way…except the real and an imagined world get in the way…resulting in his death.
The other characters here are Louise, the apparent landlady, and neighborhood anchor played with calm and wisdom by Marsha Estell. Her in trouble niece, Ruby, Saran Bakari, who shows up to stay with Louise for ‘a while’. And Hedley, played by Kevin Brown, another resident of the building who is suffering from tuberculosis and has some mental health issues. All three contribute to the understanding of how race impacts the lives of average Americans in so many negative ways and round out a vibrant neighborhood.
Director Ron OJ Parson, insists on having the characters tell the story front and center and he has done a masterful job here. And it certainly wasn’t easy, given seven major characters, and what seems to me, to be Wilson’s wordiest play (running time is three hours plus an intermission).
And I won’t go into detail, but you will put a glamorous job as stage hand out of your mind as you watch the stage reset during intermission. When you attend you will understand!
During a thirty minute streaming event last evening, Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements announced the Rep’s 2023/2024 season. Here is the recording of Mr. Clements presentation and listed just below are the full descriptions from their press release:
To celebrate our 70th Anniversary Season, an extraordinary milestone, we’ve hand-picked a season of exceptional plays including our first World Premiere musical on the mainstage, beloved literary adaptions, the return of Milwaukee Rep favorites and exciting new works.
Energizing moments, empowering stories, passionate performances – with bold theatrical experiences to captivate the heart and stir the soul. Our 2023/24 Season has something for everyone!
The Quadracci Powerhouse season will open with Run Bambi Run, a new musical about America’s most infamous woman turned American folk hero Lawrencia “Bambi” Bembenek, written by Oscar-winner Eric Simonson (Lombardi) with music by Grammy-nominee Gordon Gano of theViolent Femmes. Following will be the celebrated mystery Dial M for Murder, which inspired Hitchcock’s masterpiece. The new year brings two celebrated adaptations – Louisa May Alcott’s endearing Little Women and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Closing the season will be Nina Simone: Four Women, a play with music recalling events that shifted Simone’s career from artist to activist.
The Stackner Cabaret features four blockbuster shows starting with Country Sunshine: The Legendary Ladies of Nashville With Katie Deal, featuring songs from the Queens of country music and Nuncrackers our favorite nuns return to film their first TV special filled with songs and hijinks. Last seen eight years ago, Guys on Ice returns for a special anniversary production as one of our most popular shows ever, followed by Piano Men 2, a smash hit with audiences, in which no two performances are the same as our dueling pianists take requests live!
The Stiemke Studio features two ground-breaking new works – the World Premiere of Parental Advisory: a breakbeat play from award-winning storyteller Idris Goodwin (HBO’s Def Poetry Jam) and direct from a sold-out Broadway run What the Constitution Means to Me, called “the best and most important new play” by The New York Times.