The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time at Lake Country Playhouse!

The Lake Country Players are blessed with an intimate jewel-box theater in downtown Hartland. I probably would never have encountered them if my friend Kimberly Laberge hadn’t invited me out to witness her presentation of Cabaret! You can read my response here. So I have been following them since but haven’t been able to get out to the land of my youth to take in another performance…until now!

And then came that fateful email announcing the run of: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time…the longest title of the season of course made me; curious. But then the intriguing synopsis of the play had me hooked. And I’ll share that with you first:

THE STORY: 15-year-old Christopher has an extraordinary brain: He is exceptional at mathematics but ill-equipped to interpret everyday life. He has never ventured alone beyond the end of his road, he detests being touched, and he distrusts strangers. Now it is 7 minutes after midnight, and Christopher stands beside his neighbor’s dead dog, Wellington, who has been speared with a garden fork. Finding himself under suspicion, Christopher is determined to solve the mystery of who murdered Wellington, and he carefully records each fact of the crime. But his detective work, forbidden by his father, takes him on a thrilling journey that upturns his world.

Yes, that’s exactly what it is…but this will not prepare you for the amazing journey you will be provided by the story nor the amazing theater you about to experience via Director James Baker, Jr. and The Lake Country Players. The play itself is an adaptation for the stage by Simon Stephens from the novel by Mark Haddon. The book itself has been banned a number of times, mostly for harsh language and adult conversations. The LCP recommends their presentation for those 13 and older.

Christopher, Wellington, and a Police Officer: courtesy of the Lake Country Players

Once in our seats, we have a prologue from the director, who gives us a bit of background on the story and the play. This little introduction is very helpful and sets the mood for what we are about to see. And then there’s the proviso that LCP is presenting the script as written which includes the warning about the harsh language…and then the perennial warning to turn off our cell phones.

Our protagonist is Christopher Moore, a young man of incredible math skills and deductive talents but challenged in ways most of us can’t comprehend. He will clearly exhibit his skills and sensitivities throughout the play. We initially find him huddled over Wellington, a dog belonging to the family neighbor, Mrs. Shears. Christopher is clearly distraught and isn’t ready for the journey he is about to embark on when Mrs. Shears finds him in her yard with her dead pet.

Christopher and Siobhan: courtesy of the Lake Country Players

Adam Frontera is Christopher Stone, and he proves to be an accomplished actor in an incredibly challenging role for a young man. He maintains his persona…something our 21st Century audience will label as Asperger’s Syndrome or on the spectrum. But Frontera is able to maintain the gestures, gait, facial expressions, deliberate concentration, and verbal idiosyncrasies and cadence that we tend to identify with similar young people. Really amazing given the number of lines and different actions the scenes require and the fact that Frontera in almost always on stage during the two hour play.

Christopher: courtesy of the Lake Country Players

Frontera brings us along on his journey. He makes sure that we can’t feel anything but empathy for his situation. He works the text to bring out the bits of humor and elicits subtle moments of laughter. And we certainly are made to feel those moments of sadness that bring a tear and then later those moments of accomplishment that bring that other type of tear. I was moved far far beyond my expectations. I hope we see Frontera on stage again soon.

So yes this story is built around Christopher’s point(s) of view. And Director Baker has solidly built a stage world that provides us with that. Besides Frontera, the stage is full of other actors, many of whom play multiple roles in multiple settings. And at times the action can be a little confusing but; welcome to Christopher’s world. But if you get lost, the back wall has a projected label to tell us the setting we are currently experiencing. And there between Baker’s staging and Frontera’s performance, even I began to distrust and question the actions and motives of the adults in the play. Well, except one.

Jen Anderson plays Christopher’s teacher, Siobhan, who seems to be the only adult that he really trusts. And she seems a calming force in his life and provides support and encouragement throughout the play. But sometimes I wasn’t sure if her presence was in real time or Christopher’s memory…but it didn’t matter…it worked for him. Anderson clearly exhibited the empathy that the role required.

Christopher and his parents: courtesy of the Lake Country Players

The other two major characters are Christopher’s parents. There is a disturbed family dynamic here that I am not going to go into but it is a driving force in Christopher’s growth. Zackery Henke is Ed, Christopher’s father and his parental guardian through much of the play. And Leysa Miner is Judy, Christopher’s mother. Their relationship is fraught with issues and their relationships to Christopher are distinctly different and can suddenly change with the situation.

Christopher and Siobhan: courtesy of the Lake Country Players

But back to Wellington. Christopher takes on finding his killer as a ‘project’. And that starts to open doors that many adults would like to keep closed. And then, in what appears to be the first willful action of his own, Christopher continues his investigation despite his father’s direct order to stop and several other adults’ admonitions to listen to his father. But that one willful step leads to another and another until he finds the complete story and discovers the murderer and discovers something of himself. And he finally asks one penultimate question of Siobhan which goes unanswered. And I am still trying to figure out whether her cautious silence and pensive look are a positive or negative reaction.

Most of the cast! : courtesy of the Lake Country Players

This is an incredible play. This is an incredible staging. I didn’t expect to find either when I took my seat in the playhouse. The topics too are difficult but they need to be discussed on stage and Baker and the Lake Country Players should be applauded for taking this on. And audiences should take up the risk and challenge as well and see this play in Hartland.

The play runs through May 26, 2023 at Lake Country Playhouse, 221 East Capitol Drive Hartland, WI, 53029. Click here for more information and ticket availability!

P.S. You might want to bone up on your prime numbers before attending!

First Stage’s Contribution to World Premiere Wisconsin: The Gracious Sisters

The Gracious Sisters is written by Alice Austen and described as a free adaptation of The Eumenides by Aeschylus. And I can’t believe I spelled both of those Greek names correctly the first time without looking them up (thank you Corliss Phillabaum). And the Gracious Sisters is part of the World Premiere Wisconsin event playing across state stages this spring.

Now, back to that free adaptation note. Yes, the story for the most part is true to Aeschylus and there are gods and mortals and murder and mayhem and all of the requisite attributes of a Greek Tragedy. And at first, great I don’t have to worry about ‘spoiler alerts’ because the original story resides pretty much in the public domain. From Aeschylus through Rick Riordan, the Greeks are alive and well. But that free adaptation: how do I work the modern elements into my review without spoiling something. Well fortunately First Stage beat me to it with their very clear and concise story synopsis. So let me quote!

When archaeological intern Alice falls down an ancient Greek rabbit hole, she discovers the aftermath of a violent murder, with the goddesses of vengeance, or “Furies,” chasing down the accused to exact bloody retribution. Athena, the goddess of wisdom (and war), persuades the Furies that the accused should have a fair trial before a jury. When the jury is divided in a split decision, all must come to terms with the balance of a desire for vengeance, and the need for grace.

Angel Rivera, Silver Anderson, Hazel Dye, and Rose Campbell in THE GRACIOUS SISTERS. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

So we take a classic story and bring it forward to the 21st Century for all of us 13 and older to enjoy…with ancient plot and contemporary subtext. Subtext!! Where did I hear that before?

Well, when Alice meets Clytemnestra, she refers to her as a ghost…which appalls Clytemnestra who then screams SPIRIT because “Spirit has subtext”. And subtext indeed but it isn’t exclusive to our wronged ghost, but subtext rules the play, the characters, and the scenes. Subtext links us to the ancient Greeks!

Silver Anderson, Hazel Dye, Rose Campbell, Angel Rivera, and Zachary Nowacek in THE GRACIOUS SISTERS. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Angel Rivera plays our Alice in wonderland, who at first is confused by her new found surroundings, but quickly comes to grip with the characters and situations as she brings her knowledge of Greek mythology to bear…and she puts some of the Greek characters, both mortal and divine, ill at ease by her knowledge of their pasts and futures. Rivera is enchanting here and emphatically plays a character beyond their years. And Alice, by happenstance and misunderstanding, bonds with the Furies who are bedeviling Orestes near to death…and Rivera clearly enjoys the character’s swing from outsider to instigator!

Angel Rivera, John Eash-Scott in THE GRACIOUS SISTERS. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And the Furies are played to the hilt…swirling sprites, threatening goblins, glib orators, determined vigilantes, and a right nice Greek Chorus. Out Furies are Silver Anderson as Tisiphone, Rose Campbell as Alecto, and Hazel Dye as Megaera. These young actors worked tightly as a troupe through their hauntings and dances. The choreography for three free spirits working in unison can get pretty tricky at times. And they make a wonderful chorus and the music here is just right and they bring it to our ears with style (and amazing voices)!

Cast in THE GRACIOUS SISTERS. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And we have two major gods here. Zachary Nowacek brings us a regal and imperial Apollo, sure of his power and of his place in the Greek pantheon. And Terynn Erby-Walker as Athena, reigns over Athens with a certain combination of regal pomp and grace. And she reigned over the final scenes as a statue in her temple as turmoil was breaking out all around her feet. Quite an amazing ability to remain still. But then Erby-Walker came to life and ruled over the fate of Orestes with a clear certainty and vigor. And earlier in the play Erby-Walker also gave us the messenger god, Hermes, with just the right bit of impishness and devotion.

But other than Alice, you could picture these other characters as supporting roles because our central theme is Orestes murder of his mother Clytemnestra. Both mortals, they are essentially play things of the gods but still feel their own agency. Orestes is played by John Eash-Scott, who gives us the full gamut from fearful supplicant to boastful antagonist in just the right amounts and at just the right times. And the ghost, yikes, the spirit of Clytemnestra is Elena Marking. Marking gives us all of the anguish of an unsettled spirit and the bitterness of a wronged spouse and mother. And her hauntings of the periphery provides the right amount of spooky presence until Marking brings Clytemnestra to life in the spoken and ensemble bits.

Terynn Erby-Walker, Hazel Dye, Rose Campbell, Silver Anderson, and Angel Rivera in THE GRACIOUS SISTERS. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And Reiley Fitzsimmons plays two roles…separate…but…related: Pythia, an oracle to Apollo, and Esme, the court reporter during the trial, after her role of oracle has ended. Both characters are mortals and bring some comic relief to the proceedings. And Fitzsimmons last part, as the court reporter, not only brings a bit of humor but feels the closet to a contemporary of the 21st Century other than Alice.

And Austen’s text brings out a few questions about the gods…how did they wield all of that power while being so capricious and contrary in their actions? That might keep me up at night.

The Gracious Sisters is a presentation of The Young Company and it is amazing how effectively they present some pretty serious adult themes and plays. And I think the Gracious Sisters is a fine fine example of that! And director Matt Daniels really brought out superb acting from these young people…in roles that may not be that familiar to them.

One bit of a spoiler maybe, but something I wouldn’t want to miss. Get there a few minutes early…the cast does a silent walk through the stage in costume and character…and you will get a feel for the characters that you are about to meet at curtain!

The Gracious Sisters continues through May 21, 2023 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Theater and is recommended for families with children 13 and older.

Some extra credit reading: The Playbill!

We’re Jammin’ at Bob Marley’s Three Birds At First Stage

And I hope you like jammin’, too!

The First Stage shows are always crazy fun and feature colorful sets and costuming and enthusiastic talented performers. And Three Little Birds is no different and this is maybe my favorite of the season…but that may be a personal bias…since I love Bob Marley’s music.

The focus of the story by Cedella Marley is a young Jamaican lad named Ziggy. And based on his limited life experience, Ziggy is nervous about the dangers he perceives to exist in the big real world outside his home…so he prefers to remain in his home and focus on the weather (one of his fears is hurricanes) and news on his TV. But his mother and friend, Nansi, eventually coax him out into Jamaica!

Cynthia Cobb and Julius Newman in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And unsurprisingly, Ziggy’s best friend is a bird…a very active and happy bird…Dr. Bird, incredibly brought to life on the stage by Ogunde Tremayne. What a treat to watch Dr. Bird aid Ziggy in breaking out of his fears and enter the world. And Tremayne really brings the character to life through his acting and singing and very fluid dancing. I found myself focusing on Dr. Bird rather than Ziggy whenever Tremayne came on stage.

Ogunde Tremayne and Reece Davis in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But despite the reassurances of Ziggy’s mother, Nansi, and Dr. Bird, there is one danger in Jamaica. A Duppy (a spirit from Jamaican folklore) who preys on young people to steal their hair to add to their own wig…believing that they needed new hair to maintain their strength and vigor. An activity that Duppy has been doing for centuries…and as everyone in the play states any number of times…Ziggy has beautiful perfect hair. And Duppy is stalking him but most frequently is frightened away by all of the activity that accompanies Ziggy and his friends. And Duppy is played by James Carrington, who gets just precisely right, the sly nature of Duppy and the humor written into the script around the Duppy and has just the right of sense of threat when he finally catches Ziggy lost and unaware. Another outstanding performance.

 James Carrington in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But Ziggy and Nansi defeat the Duppy through a clue from Ziggy’s mother and Ziggy’s twist on a trick that Nansi played on him earlier. It is a proper and rewarding comeuppance for Duppy and provides a liberation for Ziggy from his earlier dilemma and malaise.

And of course the story is supported and reinforced throughout by the delightful music of Bob Marley…as the cast sings and dances between the various story vignettes. One of the off stage heroes here is choreographer Sonya Thompson whose dance pieces bring the characters to the fore and move the story along…the choreography just adds to the joy in the music.

And a shout out to Costume Designer Kenann Quander who gave us the feel of Jamaica and colors and textures to please the eye…particularly for the three birds from the title and Duppy! And Director Samantha D. Montgomery utilized the thrust stage of the Todd Wehr Theater to maximum effect, moving the actors and set to the best advantage for her story and the engagement of the audience.

Ogunde Tremayne (front) and Maya O’Day-Biddle and Amirah Muhammad in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

As always, First Stage features two casts to provide ample opportunities for their young acting corps. For Three Little Birds, the Jamaican Owls cast includes Reece Davis as Ziggy, Amirah Muhammad as Nansi, and Maya O’Day-Biddle as Tacoomah and the Jamaican Becard cast includes Julius Newman as Ziggy, Amira Harris as Nansi, and Zoe Chambers as Tacoomah. If you want to see who is on stage at any particular performance check the links below.

Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds continues at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater through May 21, 2023. Details and ticket info here: This show is recommended for families with children 3 and older…and has a run time about of 70 minutes that includes a short intermission.

Extra credit readings:

The Playbill with cast and First Stage information!

The Three Little Birds Social Story which explains theater, acting, and the experience at Todd Wehr. A great piece for first time theater goers. And the Enrichment Guide!

Amira Harris (front) and Julius Newman, Cynthia Cobb, and Zoe Chambers in Bob Marley’s THREE LITTLE BIRDS. courtesy of First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.