What the Constitution Means to Me @MKERep

We are all aware of the Milwaukee Repertory’s strength on their main stage with big cast dramas and popular musicals. But I tend to look forward to their offerings in the black box Stiemke Studio hidden away under the grand staircase. The Stiemke brings us edgy dramas, divine comedies, serious contemporary content, and alternative forms of presentation. The Rep’s current Stiemke offering, What the Constitution Means to Me, lives at the nexus of all of those strengths.

Jessie Fisher photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

Our protagonist, Heidi, steps out front and introduces herself and starts to present us with the backstory of the play. As a teenager she was driven to excel at speaking at American Legion Halls on the US Constitution as part of their oratorical contest in order to win college scholarships. This is a bit autobiographical and the original role was played by Heidi Schreck in many early productions of the play.

Here in Milwaukee, Heidi is played by Jessie Fisher who owns the role and this viewer is completely convinced that Fisher is Heidi and actually lived these experiences. And Fisher moves smoothly from the fifteen year old Heidi to the adult Heidi and brings out all of the questioning and doubts that life presents and how our society and the Constitution have helped or hindered Americans over the centuries.

Jessie Fisher and Will Mobley (center stage) photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

In opposition to Heidi early on is a strict and seemingly no-nonsense legionnaire played by Will Mobley. The legionnaire is responsible for timing the contestants and keeping them on track and laying out the ground rules for the contestants and the audience. As the story continues, Heidi again breaks theater tradition and introduces the legionnaire as her long time friend Danny who she has recruited to play the part since she trusts him.

Late in the play, the scene shifts from play and exposition to a debate on wither the United States should retain or replace the US Constitution. This requires Danny to reprise his role as timekeeper and rule keeper for the debate. And it also requires a third character, the debater. This role is filled in rotation by three actors from First Stage’s training programs: Maria (Rose) Campbell, Hazel Dye, and Maya O’Day-Biddle. The evening performance I attended was graced with an amazing performance by Rose Campbell.

Will Mobley and Maria (Rose) Campbell (center stage) photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

Director Laura Braza scores some gold stars here for making this play run so incredibly smoothly and incredibly realistically…it is hard to tell that we aren’t listening to a friend or neighbor relate their life experience.

So, besides the drama and humor surrounding the events in the play, there is a fair amount of history and discussion on culture and politics. And you will learn about any number of prominent Americans and hear snippets of their own speeches and commentary, and you will get some in-depth analysis of the 9th, 13th, and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

The play runs without intermission and the Rep says about an hour and forty minutes. The night I was there, I think it was closer to two hours. It continues at the Stiemke through March 17, 2024 and you can find ticket information and more details here.

Extra credit reading: Program and Play Guide and the US Constitution

Jessie Fisher and Will Mobley photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

article © 2024 The New World Digs

Lake Country Players Presents Tommy Lee Johnston’s Geezers! Remarkable!!

Geezers. Just reading the title of Tommy Lee Johnston’s play brings a quick smile to the lips and the expectation of a farce around aging boomers. Now, while there are some pretty good gags and laugh out loud jokes here, this is a very human and socially relevant drama.

Ray, Neil (seated) and Kate. Photo courtesy of the Lake Country Playhouse

So what is it exactly? Well it’s a very poignant play set in a retirement home. And it is a coming of age drama. But not the usual type that just came to your mind. Instead we experience the growth of Jack, a socially inept young man of 27 as he ventures out on his own. But there is also the personal growth and awareness in middle-aged Gina who is the head nurse at the home. And finally a new openness, acceptance, and truth around their own lives comes to the residents we get to visit here.

First we meet Jack, portrayed by Danny Polaski, as he interviews for a job that he has already been given by the unseen administrator of the home. The fact that he is being interviewed for a job that he already has is very confusing to him and he reaches a near catatonic state trying to understand the situation as the head nurse, Gina, asks him questions. At first he would seem entirely unfit for the job…with no resume and no prior work experience…but then, having cared for his own mother until her recent passing he might have the right tool set to work with the home’s various residents. Here Gina is played as a very patient and seemingly in command manager by Becca Richards. That isn’t necessarily always the case. And although she wants Jack to start immediately, she allows him to delay another day. He is to replace a much loved employee who left under a cloud.

Jack, Emily, and Gina. Photo courtesy of the Lake Country Playhouse

We now move on the Jack’s first day on the job and Polaski gives us a clear picture of a Jack having a difficult time coping with his new situation. But he clearly wants to do a good job. We also are introduced to the other principal characters at work here, Emily, played by Diane Kallas, who has dementia and is happy to watch television, any television, as long as it has commercials that she can sing along with. And then we meet the two resident curmudgeons, Ray, played by Paul Wier, and Neil, played by Bob Hurd. These two gentlemen play a mean and hurtful prank on Jack. Egging them on is the self-centered, retired actress, Kate, who is at first, a charming and playful character provided by Paula Nordwig.

Given his social discomfort, it is surprising that Jack returns for a second day after his hazing on day one. I am not sure whether it is the need for the job, fear of a new ostracizing from Gina and crew, a responsibility for/to Gina, or a sense of moral duty to his late mother who enjoyed her time working here.

Jack and Gina. Photo courtesy of the Lake Country Playhouse

In conversation, the residents find out that Jack is a writer and has written two plays. Kate of course is curious and demands an opportunity to read them. After convincing Jack to share them, she and Neil provide a critique and find them incredibly derivative. Then a plan is hatched for Jack to interview the various residents of the home…they all have original, unique, and personal stories to tell and can provide plenty of new material for his writing efforts. Jack is incredibly hesitant at first but as Neil and Ray explain, she won’t take no for an answer so he is essentially already committed.

Neil, Jack, and Kate. Photo courtesy of the Lake Country Playhouse

And this is where we start to feel the growth in all of our characters. Polaski’s Jack develops as an individual and has a growing empathy for the residents, but he never completely loses his fear and unease. And Gina recognizes that Jack is also having a positive effect on the residents…even apparently reaching inside Emily’s fog from time to time. Jack eventually starts to revel in his role as listener and story keeper.

The play is presented as two acts, each over just an hour long. The first is setting up the characters and relationships, while the second brings us the growth and release we didn’t initially expect. But instead of traditional ‘scenes’, the action unfolds in short vignettes separated by black outs and musical interludes of 1950s and 1960s pop hits. Someone was singing/humming along during these…it wasn’t me…but I wanted to!

The audience will shed some tears here and feel a tightness in their throats as the stories are quietly told. And the story telling takes on clever plot changes…as the contemporary characters start their stories, a transition occurs, and Jack moves cross stage and interacts with a young, age appropriate for the story being told, version of the character. And here the seamless shift is effected by Mikael Hager as Young Neil, Max Levine as Young Ray, and Amy Wickland as Young Kate.

Emily’s story is something different and comes to us from the visits of Jenny, played by Angie Rodenkirch, who is trying to break through to Emily…and in some ways is able to do just that. Kallas gives us an emphatic Emily, providing rousing sing-alongs with the TV and occasionally some very lucid interjections into the conversations going on in the room.

Jack and Gina. Photo courtesy of the Lake Country Playhouse

It seems remarkable that the Lake Country Players are able to find and present edgy plays like this and make them entirely their own. Of course the perfect casting and flawless staging designed by director Nancy Hurd has a lot to with the success. And Hurd also is responsible for the spot on costuming as well…including a very jaunty beret ala a contemporary Joni Mitchell look for Emily.

The play continues through February 11th, 2024 at the Lake Country Playhouse in Hartland WI. It was sold out for the matinee that I attended this past Sunday so don’t dawdle in ordering tickets. Information and tickets are available here:

article © 2024 The New World Digs

Milwaukee Rep’s Guys On Ice: Waiting For Godot In Snowmobile Suits.

This past arctic week aside, the current state of winter in Wisconsin has seen unusually warm temperatures and local lakes that have remained unfrozen later into the season than normal. So ice fisher folk have been restrained in celebrating their seasonal sport. If you are one of these…or more likely someone like me who grew up in a rural area that crowded around a prominent lake and watched in awe and wonder as shanties blossomed across the ice…well, get your mojo back with some tickets to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Guys On Ice, order a Leinies and settle in for fun, merriment, and amazement in the Stackner Cabaret!

How ’bout dem Packers?

Guys On Ice is a rollicking comedy and musical about everything that is good…and bad…about ice fishing culture in the upper Midwest, with an abundant dash of Packer mania thrown in. If you have ever lived in Wisconsin or environs, you will find plenty to love here and may see something of yourself or your community here as well.

Steve M Koehler as Lloyd and Doug Mancheski as Marvin. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

Marvin and Lloyd are long time friends, fishing buddies, and Door County denizens who are off for a day of ice fishing in Marvin’s shanty somewhere out in Green Bay. Marvin is played by Doug Mancheski who represents a north woods ice fisherman to a T and may have actually had hands on experience from what he brings to his portrayal of Marvin. But then his over the top mimicry of the Las Vegas Elvis, his ‘fluid’ dance moves, and his impeccable singing voice are highlights here.

Lloyd is the calmer cool head although as the story unfolds that should come as something of a surprise. Lloyd is played by Steve M Koehler, a tall impressive actor with a voice to match. But he humors Marvin’s dreams and plans and shares his own incredible voice to the songs at hand. His beer can tossing skills are to be admired as well.

Lloyd, Ernie (Dan Klarer) and Marvin. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

Where else are you going to find a musical paean to snow mobile suits?

Surprisingly, Guys On Ice isn’t all fun and games. There is a fair amount of angst and reflection on life, love, and human existence. Both men have problems around their personal lives and love interests that eventually find tentative resolutions.

And then there’s the irrepressible Dan Klarer as Ernie, Ernie the moocher, as Lloyd and Marvin describe him on a number of occasions. And Ernie lives up to the name…but he also contributes to the hijinks and humor that Guys On Ice is noted for.

Ernie, Lloyd, and Marvin Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

And it is suggested that when you die and go to ice fishing heaven, that maybe you have to spend a few days in Algoma first. And all apologies to Algoma.

Guys On Ice is written by Fred Alley and has amused audiences for years hither and yon. At the Rep, James Kaplan does the music and Jeffrey Herbst is the director and choreographer.

And Godot? Spoiler alert! Marvin has been in contact with a TV fishing show host who Marvin is expecting to visit Lloyd and himself at the shanty. One of the reasons he invited Lloyd along on this particular day. Great songs and great humor results in the anticipation…but it never happens.

And the Bears still suck!

Guys On Ice runs through March 17th, 2024 at the Stackner Cabaret. More information and ticket ordering here!

article © 2024 The New World Digs