The Milwaukee Reps Dial M for Murder

The twisty tricky, very British, murder mystery, Dial M for Murder is currently playing on the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse main stage. But it’s not a whodunnit…we know exactly whodunnit…but will it be the perfect crime? The real question is how will you keep track of all of the plot twists, turns, and snags without your GPS…and when will the authorities finally figure it all out? And spoiler alert, everyone here has a secret!

The entire action in the play occurs in the living room of a married couple, the Wendices. And it is a marriage of convenience for both of them as you will see. Margo Wendice needs a handsome and ambitious husband, while Tony Wendice needs his wife’s fortune to pursue his expensive tastes. A match made in heaven? Well until things start to unwind and some secrets come to light.

Tony and Margo photo courtesy of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Amanda Drinkall brings us a very believable and lively Margot who seems the perfect match for Tony. But yes, she has a secret and it proves to be her undoing…as a very jealous Tony plots his revenge. Marcus Truschinski revels in bringing us the very smarmy, devious and quick witted Tony who thinks he’s going to pull of the perfect murder. Marcus never lets us see him sweat!

Maxine and Margot photo courtesy of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Lipica Shah is Maxine Hadley, also quick witted but deep deep logical thinker who has carefully thought out all of the reasons for murder and all of the methods of accomplishing one…well because she is a mystery writer herself and is on a need to know basis with the subject. Lipica has an emotional side too and it makes its presence known at times. Her relationship with Tony and Margot? Well she may have been the love interest of each of them it seems, certainly of Margot, but it gets complicated.

Tony and Capt Legate photo courtesy of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

And one character with the biggest secrets is Captain Legate…lots and lots of secrets…that Tony quietly ferrets out. Alex Weisman plays the Captain as a bit of street tough and a ne’er do well staying on the down low. Tony uses Legate’s secrets to gain control but Alex doesn’t get much stage time, and I’ll let you guess why!

The Inspector, Tony, and Margot photo courtesy of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

And finally we have Jonathan Wainwright playing Inspector Hubbard, a close to the chest rather inscrutable detective that we love from British mystery drama. And he eventually comes round to the truth by plays end but not without considerable help and prodding from Maxine.

Yes it’s a murder mystery but it is great fun! Director Laura Braza has assembled a great cast and leads them through the story without giving away whats to come and without losing the tempo and movement in the story. Very insightful direction!

Dial M for Murder was written by Frederick Knott and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher. You may have encountered the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock in your cinema wanderings.

Squeeze this one in between your holiday play plans, you won’t be sorry. Dial M for Murder runs through December 17th, 2023. Additional information and tickets can be found HERE.

Extra Credit Reading: Program and Play Guide

Maxine and Margot photo courtesy of Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Milwaukee Rep’s World Premiere Rock Musical: Run Bambi Run

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater opened their main stage season in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater with their World Premiere of their Rock Musical: Run Bambi Run. For many of you, this will ring a bell. And yes, it is a musical developed around the dramatic events in the life of Milwaukee’s Lawrencia Bembenek, particularly her conviction in the murder of her husband’s ex-wife, the turmoil around the case, the facts and fictions, the various men in her life, and her eventual escape from prison and capture in Canada.

This all started back in 2012 when the Rep’s Artistic Director, Mark Clements, engaged playwright, Eric Simonson, to write the book for a new original musical for the Milwaukee Rep. Simonson suggested the Bembenek story and he and Clements dug into the story. But they needed some help along the way and enlisted Gordon Gano, singer/songwriter from Milwaukee’s Violent Femmes, to write the lyrics and songs for the musical. So, under the direction of Mark Clements…we now have…the World Premiere of Run Bambi Run.

Erika Olson and cast. Photographer Michael Brosilow. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

The cast and ensemble are quite an active bunch. Everyone seems to play two or more instruments…guitars, bass guitars, accordions, drums, flutes, clarinet, cornet, trombone, violin, viola, string bass, and I am missing something here…oh yes three different types of ukulele. Plus keyboards and drums on the risers at the back of the state! So all of this provides ALL of the music during the performance. And all of this happens while dancing like dervishes and singing rock songs at 11. So, hats off to Dan Kazemi for his musical direction, Jenn Rose, Choreographer, and Stage Manager Kimberly Carolus for making sense of all of this and keeping the flow moving!!

Ripped from the headlines! And it looks like the headlines are the wallpaper each side of the proscenium and back stage wall! And it is a key part of the real star of the show…the set! Anchored in a period bar with appropriately aged red and yellowed linoleum covering the entire stage including the thrust out to the audience, Scenic Designer Scott Davis gets it real. Now the bar, ostensibly the Tracks, is represented with an old time wooden bar, high back bar stools, the aforementioned linoleum and newspapers, and stage left and stage right, a pile of musical gear cases and TVs that are used as props, exposition (on TVs), and podiums for the actors, and add flexibility to the action. Of course the linoleum floor provides the ensemble plenty of space to work their magic though out the evening.

But why is the set the star? Well Davis has to present different aspects of the Bembenek story without having to remove the bar accoutrements. So one of the hardest working ensemble casts also earn their stage hand cards by the constant trading off of instruments…but also pulling on, pushing off, assembling, discarding…from back stage, down the ramps, from corners unseen…the huge variety of tables, chairs, cells, wall, beds, etc…to move the action from bar to apartment to park to police station to jail cell to apartment to home to courtroom and back…over and over and over again. Wow!

left to right: John Carlin, Tommy Hahn, Erika Olson, Matt Daniels, Douglas Goodhart. Photographer Michael Brosilow. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

But where would Run Bambi Run be without Bambi. I think the Rep found the ideal actor of the role in Erika Olson. Once we were past the big opening number and Olson could settle into the character, we got a focused and determined woman who set out to achieve a number of lofty goals…some as an idealistic young woman…and others later thrust upon her. But Olson gave us a sense of person hood and energy and intention…even when Bambi sometimes made poor choices. And Olson certainly has the voice and vocal range needed to convey the message exhibited in Gano’s music and lyrics. As I said, we have the ideal actor for the role…and Olson left us no doubt about who Lawrencia is in this musical…we get the sense of a whole real person. Olson’s achievement left many of the other characters seem like caricatures.

In the last scene, Bembenek states rather sadly: ” it’s not right, it’s just not right”. To which a narrator from the ensemble adds, so is this a comedy? or is this a tragedy? or just a travesty?

My solid vote is : Travesty

ensemble cast. Photographer Michael Brosilow. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Run Bambi Run continues through October 22, 2023. More information and tickets can be found here!

Extra Credit Reading: Program and Playguide.

The Milwaukee Rep’s God Of Carnage

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.

left to right: Adam Poss. Heidi Armbruster, Makha Mthembu, and Elan Zafir. photo by Michael Brosilow and courtesy of The Milwaukee Repertory 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.

left to right: Makha Mthembu, Elan Zafir, Heidi Armbruster (in rear) and Adam Poss. photo by Michael Brosilow and courtesy of The Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

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?

left to right: Adam Poss and Elan Zafir. photo by Michael Brosilow and courtesy of The Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

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.

God Of Carnage runs at the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater from now through May 14, 2023. Ticket information and additional details can be found here.

Extra Credit Readings:

The God of Carnage Program: I would recommend the note from Mark Clements.

And the Playguide: there are a number of key articles here that you might want to read before attending the show.

left to right: Heidi Armbruster, Makha Mthembu, Elan Zafir, and Adam Poss. photo by Michael Brosilow and courtesy of The Milwaukee Repertory Theater.