‘A Rock Sails By’ Commands The Stage At Lake Country Playhouse!

This is the end of the season play that you must see. Now to paraphrase a line from mid-play, it is ok to get lost sometimes…which is how you will feel as this drama unfolds in front of you. And, yes, it is ok…now a quote…shut up and eat the damn donuts! If that doesn’t pique your interest, you need to get lost sometimes!

A Rock Sails By is a relatively new play by Sean Grennan and the world premeire was presented by the Peninsula Players in Door County WI in 2023. And once again the Lake Country Players recognized the value in a new play and despite the complex story grabbed a hold and brought it to life. Director James Baker, Jr. assembled an amazing cast here who embody these realistic contemporary characters and coached them through the tough and endearing scenes that too many of us have to face.

Todd Herdt as Jason Harper and Sandra Baker-Renick as Dr. Lynn Cummings. Photo courtesy of James Baker, Jr at Lake Country Players.

The facade so to speak is the appearance of an interstellar object that actually ‘invaded’ our solar system in 2017. It was called Oumuamua, which is Hawaiian, roughly ‘first distant messenger’. And from there Grennan weaves two stories that intertwine around the life and loves of fictional astrophysicist, Dr. Lynn Cummings!

At first, Sandra Baker-Renick presents us with a very self confident Dr. Cummings who seems bemused listening to a phone message from a gentle but perplexed male voice who is obviously her husband. And then she starts to replay it but hides it when her daughter Olive arrives on the scene. That may seem odd but I recognized it immediately. The voice on the phone belongs to Dr. Cummings late husband and she is relishing in one of the few physical manifestations left to her of their life together. Baker-Renick immediately puts us in place to empathize with Dr. Cummings over her grief now and eventually the other events that put a cloud over her life. And the question, Are You All Right, and response, I’m Fine, takes on multiple meanings.

Sydney Faris as Haley and Sandra Baker-Renick as Dr. Lynn Cummings. Photo courtesy of James Baker, Jr at Lake Country Players.

And the arrival of Oumuamua, puts some ideas in the head of Jason Harper on breaking a story about, well who knows what. But the space rock isn’t behaving in the same way as intra-solar system comets or meteors, and there are visions of E.T.s and little green men dancing in his head. And despite claiming he is a journalist, he quickly succumbs to his editor’s request for a click bait article…and pesters Dr. Cummings, the local expert in astrophysics, for an interview until she relents in exchange for donuts. And she has a little fun with him at first but he goes away with facts and information but little that will give him that blockbuster story. So he fudges a bit and manipulates the facts a bit and achieves his goal but at great cost to Dr. Cummings. He later apologizes…but! Jason Harper as played by Todd Herdt, although not quite smarmy, certainly plays Harper as a self-interested and self-motivated amoral persona despite his protestations of ethical journalism. And Herdt certainly rings true to a very gullible Harper as Olive and Dr. Cummings play a bit of a trick on him. And when invited along to visit an observatory to view Oumuamua, he still can’t let go of the dream of alien contact instead of just accepting…it’s just a rock.

Sydney Faris plays Haley, Dr. Cummings assistant and Faris immediately presents us with a harried and almost out of control young woman. I immediately wondered how this persona became the assistant to such an accomplished and revered professor. And then the story unfolds and she is carrying a very heavy weight…loyalty to Dr. Cummings, responsibility to the doctor’s students, and responsibility to the greater university itself.

Where does so much angst come from in what would seem to be a light and whimsical play? Well it lies in the, Are You All Right, questions as we experience Dr. Cummings freeze up and zone out a bit any number of times. Most of the other characters have seen it and students have reported it to Haley and then she in turn reported it to the chancellor. And there in lies the rub. With the sensational and untrue news item running around the internet about Oumuamua with misused quotes from Dr. Cummings, the chancellor uses the story to cover his decision to put Dr. Cummings on leave for her health issues. At first you might think that she is still in mourning but we’ve been to the doctor with her…and she is in early stage dementia…a diagnosis that rocks her world. But Dr. Cummings first response is to contact Harper to try to get him to retract his story and she too uses donuts to lure him to a meeting.

side note: despite innumerable sighs and suggestions from Dr. Cummings that the why of the donuts being so good is a mystery, Harper never thinks that there might be a ‘story here’! Or am I just projecting?

And then at the observatory, The Messenger arrives. Goo, in a sudden and eerie and almost menacing entrance appears to Dr. Cummings just as Oumuamua reaches its nearest point to earth. In a bright white suit and a glaring spotlight, Goo struggles with their surroundings and a foreign language. We get lost here. Is The Messenger an alien life form or a space traveling robot or an angel from heaven or an early manifestation of Dr. Cummings impending onset of dementia. We will never quite know but Dr. Cummings seems to find her answer.

Goo as The Messenger and Sandra Baker-Renick as Dr. Lynn Cummings. Photo courtesy of James Baker, Jr at Lake Country Players.

And let’s not forget Olive Cummings as played by A. Schultz. Olive is a devoted and loving daughter not always unlike her mother. When she suggests moving home, her mother objects saying they would be tired of each other and at odds the first day. Maybe so. But Olive, as portrayed by Schultz seems a bit more comfortable with her emotions and life outside of academia and the audience immediately took a shine to her. But the two certainly share the same sense of humor as they tease Harper, and Schultz obviously relishes that bit of playfulness. And she is the one who convinces us that it is ok to get lost.

This play is heavily reliant on dialogue and minimal sets…so Director Baker and Light and Sound Tech, Breanne Brennan have pulled together their own little universe in LCP’s black box theater, with background videos of space, cosmic debris, and lawns and paths across university quads on projected backgrounds, all augmented with space music or bird/cricket sounds to put us in the proper scene and locale. It works really well.

I probably have said too much about the play and the plot, but I think that you should really see this…for Sean Grennan’s story and James Baker Jr and his cast’s story telling!

A Rock Sails By is running through May 24, 2024 at the Lake Country Playhouse in downtown Hartland WI. More information and tickets are available here.

Escape From Peligro Island, A Create Your Own Adventure Play @ First Stage!

Those of you who have followed my comments on the offerings from Milwaukee’s First Stage Youth Theater know that many of their presentations feature alternating casts. So your experience may differ from mine in significant ways.

But with Escape From Peligro Island, First Stage and Playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer have designed a unique experience into the script for each and every audience. You are guaranteed a different experience to mine. And how do they accomplish that? Well at significant plot points, the audience is offered alternative choices and they get to vote on which path to travel…so each audience member receives a Card Of Destiny as you enter the theater and you can vote for your preferred alternative by holding up your card, showing the Pink side or the Green side. And the cast heads off in the selected direction! So from one performance to the next, you will never get the same show. Escape From Peligro Island is a thing of wonder and adventure! Awesome.

And yes, Escape From Peligro Island, does feature two casts, The Destiny Cast and The Chance cast. The two casts share two adult actors, Matt Daniels and Shammen McCune who play multiple roles and I am guessing those roles differ depending on the election of the audience.

Charlie Cornell as Callaway Brown foreground and Matt Daniels, Photo Courtesy of First Stage, Paul Ruffolo photographer.

The initial story will be basically the same…the one named character is Callaway Brown…and Callaway remains a constant throughout but it is his adventures that we are determining. Almost immediately, while traveling from his mother’s home to visit his father many miles away, Callaway experiences a weirdo in the airport’s waiting area who proves to be an eerie enigma who quickly runs off leaving Callaway with a mysterious box and the wrong airplane ticket…and we make our first decision and launch poor Callaway off on his big adventure.

Now, I can’t actually give the story away because it will travel hither and yon depending on you…but Kruckemeyer must be the eternal youth of legend as Escape From Peligro Island finds all of the cute sayings of youth, pulls great puns out of midair, and presents a myriad of adventures out of our childhood dreams. It sounds so easy and childlike but it is an amazingly complex construction.

One constant feature of First Stage presentations are short talk backs (question and answer periods) after the play where the cast takes turns fielding questions from the youngsters in the audience. Now, one very astute audience member asked the cast how they managed to learn all of the different parts and keep them straight. Yes, indeed, that too was at the forefront of my thoughts as the play came to an end. The cast said it was from four weeks of rehearsal and lots of practice.

Now I don’t know the precise answer exactly, but I am certain it was through some sort of sorcery employed by director Jeff Frank. Besides the variant story lines and two adult actors plus Callaway Brown, there are five other youth actors who work as narrators and vote tabulators and any number of characters dependent on the path being taken. I would have a hard time keeping track of that in my head much less imparting it to twelve different actors. And then to support the action, Scenic Designer Kristin Ellert did a marvelous job providing modular set pieces that too played multiple roles and then there were a few that remained unused…apparently waiting their turn in a parallel universe.

Photo Courtesy of First Stage, Paul Ruffolo photographer.

But oh, wait. There are a number of small puppets or dolls that help us tell the story…I can’t explain exactly what they do or how they are employed because that might spoil some of the story…but the are cute as the dickens…and a clever clever means of advancing the story and supporting the action! Thank you Adriana Hollenbeck!! And First Stage has always set a very high bar when it comes to bright and engaging costuming that contributes to the story telling…and Jazmin Aurora Medina has done an outstanding job here…particularly with the various costumes for Matt Daniels various roles. And Lighting Designer Tim Thistleton also brings his A game with bringing the adventures on Peligro Island to life with the limited palette available at the Goodman.

And there’s a THEME SONG!

I was lucky to get to see this on opening weekend…and it was a very well attended show. And I think a lot of theatergoers will revisit so they can experience another pass into adventure. So don’t put off planning your visit. Escape From Peligro Island runs through June 2, 2024. It is being presented at First Stage’s black box theater in the round, the Goodman Mainstage Hall, at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center! Suggested ages: 5 to adult!t oh

Click HERE for tickets and more information!

And Extra Credit Reading: Playbill with a listing of both casts! and Enrichment Guide

Nina Simone: Four Women. Gospel to Jazz to Protest to Anthem @MKERep

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Nina Simone: Four Women bridges the divide between drama, musical, cabaret, and social commentary using songs that run the gamut from the titles description, gospel, jazz, protest, and finally anthem. Many of these songs were written or co-written by Nina Simone.

left to right: Gabrielle Lott-Rogers, Brittney Mack, Alexis J Roston, Toni Martin and Matthew Harris at the piano. Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Nina Simone: Four Women the play is built from the concept that Simone incorporated in her song, Four Women. She provides us with four characters who represent in some ways, the stereotypes and in others, the realities of life for Black women in America in the mid-1960s. The four women in the song and the play are Aunt Sarah, a servant, to Sephronia, a light skinned young woman, to Sweet Thing, a street tough prostitute, to Peaches, a version of Simone herself.

The play opens in Simone’s studio where she is angry and grieving after the murder of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. She is determined to write a serious and definitive protest song about those events and civil rights. But she is struggling as she moves from looking at her sheets of music and lyrics to picking out notes on her grand piano. And as time elapses during the play she moves her desire from writing a protest song to creating an Anthem. But along the way she feels and hears the explosions from Birmingham in her mind and the other characters eventually seem to appear out of these episodes.

Alexis J Roston Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Alexis J. Roston is an appropriately angry and determined Nina Simone as she struggles with her composition, and my goodness, can she sing! And she very effectively plays off of the other characters as they appear…changing from anger to indignation to empathy and back again. And actively pointing out that they are in truth, all in this together.

Her first interruption is Aunt Sarah in a maid’s outfit and obviously Simone’s maid. But Auntie’s interruption isn’t well received and their views on how to react to events and how to participate in the civil rights movement are in some opposition. Gabrielle Lott-Rogers gives us the calm contained Auntie who at times seems to tease Simone’s efforts at an anthem…and Lott-Rogers too is an amazing songstress here.

right to left: Gabrielle Lott-Rogers, and Toni Martin. Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Toni Martin makes the scene as Sephronia, a light skinned Black woman who feels trapped between two cultures. But she is active in Doctor King’s Civil Rights movement and proud to be a participant. And she encourages the other women, particularly Simone to get involved. There is a bit of banter here about Simone’s position in life as a successful entertainer. But Simone insists her best course is to write and record her anthem. Both women are clearly sure of their positions…and Martin gives us a clear picture of a young energized activist.

And finally we have Sweet Thing, a street tough, knife carrying, prostitute, ready to take whatever advantage she can of her position. Brittney Mack has the proper cat like menace to bring the character to life on the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Stage.

And finally we experience the song, Four Women, with all four actresses bringing their personas to the tune until it finally explodes with Simone as Peaches. But scrolling back, we realize all four of these characters came from the mind of Nina Simone to populate her anthem. A timely telling and an exquisite interpretation from Director Malkia Stampley.

Alexis J Roston and Matthew Harris. Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

And thank heaven for Mathew Harris who plays Sam Wayman who plays Simone’s grand piano so all of these wonderful actors can entertain us with their songs.

Nina Simone: Four Women continues at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse throught May 12, 2024. Additional information and ticket ordering here~

And Extra Credit Reading: The Program and The Playbill!