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A Theatrical Feast: Milwaukee Rep’s 2019/20 Season

By Mike Fischer

 

Choosing a good theater season is like planning a successful dinner party: In each case, including multiple perspectives at the table makes for better conversation. Much like an accomplished dinner party host, a visionary artistic director is expert at forging connections between guests – or plays – that may seemingly have little to say to each other.

Bringing such entities together requires pluck, imagination, and an intuitive understanding that for all the ways we’re wonderfully unique, we also have much more in common than we think. The same holds true for the plays in Mark Clements’ 2019/20 Rep Season: plays as different as Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed (about five women enduring the Liberian civil war) and Dan Goggin’s Nunsense (about five women who also happen to be nuns) really do have something to say to each other.

Don’t believe me?

Read on, as I connect some of the dots joining the plays Clements chose for his tenth season with The Rep. I’ll leave aside annual favorites A Christmas Carol (opening in late November) and the tenth edition of the Rep Lab (coming our way in April) to focus on the plays Clements specifically chose for this season.

A World They Never Made

Three of the hardest-hitting plays in the new season – West Side Story, The Niceties, and Eclipsed – underscore the steep price we pay when we focus on all that divides us instead of what we share.

Right from the dramatic opening of West Side Story – when the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks dance their hatred for each other – what’s painfully clear is that these two gangs are more alike than different.

The members of both gangs are hated by the cops. Feel let down by the system. Receive little guidance from adults. Are consumed by the same testosterone-fueled need to prove themselves. And – most important – have moments during which some of them clearly want to reach out to the other side, if they could only figure out how.

Liesl Collazo and Jeffrey Kringer play the roles of Maria and Tony in Milwaukee Rep’s production. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria – one white, one Puerto Rican – try to show them the way, embodying their belief that love trumps hate. Speaking of Tony, Bernardo asks his sister, “couldn’t you see he’s one of them?” “No,” Maria replies. “I saw only him.”

Would that the two characters in Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties could see each other. Opening in late September one week after West Side Story, Burgess’ searing play features two people – a 60-something white professor (Janine) and her 20-something black student (Zoe) – imprisoned by American history and its legacy of racism. Within minutes of sitting down together, Janine and Zoe let the fur fly, sometimes willfully misunderstanding each other.

Kate Levy and Kimber Sprawl in rehearsal for The Niceties

“We’re stuck in a huge rut of unsuccessful conversations where people double down on what they already believe,” Burgess said in a recent interview about her play. “Those conversations are moving us further and further away from each other.”

Can we bridge that divide?

Here’s a tip from Burgess, as you head to The Rep for this must-see piece of theater: “Let them be people,” Burgess urges, speaking of Janine and Zoe. “And resist the temptation to think of only one of them as a mouthpiece for the truth. When it comes to the facts of history, almost everything that both of the women in this play say is right.” Even though they passionately disagree.

There’s also disagreement aplenty among the five women in Gurira’s Eclipsed, opening in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater in March. Four of them – three in their teens, one just slightly older – are sex slaves for an army of rebels in Liberia’s protracted civil war. The fifth, a woman in her forties, is searching for a lost daughter who’s been abducted by the rebels.

As with the characters in West Side Story and The Niceties, the women in Eclipsed – much like the women enduring war in Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, both echoed in Eclipsed – are trapped by their roles and unsure how or whether they can break free.

“Dis is war and I what else I gon do?,” asks Helena, the oldest of the four imprisoned women. Helena doesn’t even know how old she is. She barely even knows who she is – even as the youngest of the four women insists that “we should know who we are.”

Dressing the Part

Although they play in a very different key, the five Little Sisters of Hoboken starring in Nunsense – opening in the Stackner Cabaret in November – are similarly insistent about demonstrating who they are, in ways that go far beyond how they dress.

The Little Sisters are much more than their habits, proving anew that appearances can be deceiving and that all of us are capable of more than the stereotypes through which others define us. First and foremost, the Little Sisters are artists; it’s no accident that when we meet them, they’re staging a variety show.

In their past lives, the Little Sisters were dancers and actors, country music singers and circus performers. Each of them rejects the premise that becoming a nun means ceasing to be an artist. And like all dedicated artists, they refuse to be limited to a single, confining role. “Dancing,” as one of them makes clear, “is the way I pray.”

Nunsense is one of several plays in this Milwaukee Rep season that uses how we dress to explore the relationship between what we seem to be and who we actually are.

That point drives the plot of Karen Zacarías’ oh-so-fun Destiny of Desire, coming to the Quadracci Powerhouse in late April. Riffing on Shakespeare, with his cross-dressing heroines and identical twins, Zacarías serves up “an unapologetic telenovela in two acts.”

Courtesy of a plot with more twists and turns than a Dickens novel, Destiny traces the lives of two girls – one born poor, the other born rich – who were switched at birth. Unaware of their respective origins, the two again trade places, each dressing as the other.

Playing these unaccustomed roles, Victoria and Pilar see and are seen in new ways, allowing them to find their true selves and thereby find love. Their disguises paradoxically help them uncover the truth regarding who they are.

The same goes for the unlikely hero of Matthew Lopez’s spirited and funny The Legend of Georgia McBride, which will warm up our January in the Quadracci Powerhouse. In Lopez’s play, a failing Elvis impersonator named Casey – heterosexual and straight as an arrow – saves his career by becoming a drag queen named Georgia McBride.

“We’re turning you into a girl,” his delightful co-star tells him, later adding that “every man has some femininity. You just gotta know where to look.” Looking hard at oneself, Casey’s co-star insists, helps you “figure out who you are” so that you can get “better at being that person.”

The Liberating Sound of Music

One need not look very hard to see a man’s feminine side in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an iconic rock opera that will be directed by Clements, in a production opening in the Stiemke Studio in January opposite the similarly themed Georgia McBride.

Now living in a Kansas trailer park, Hedwig Robinson was born on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall as a “slip of a girlboy” named Hansel Schmidt. A botched sex-change operation has made Hedwig what this character insists we all are: neither all man nor all woman but rather gender fluid – or, in the words of one of the show’s memorable songs, “more than a woman or a man.”

While paying loud homage to glam rock and punk, Hedwig demonstrates the price we pay when we erect walls – whether in Berlin, in the way we think about gender, or in the way we live our lives – that result in us losing touch with ourselves and growing apart from one another.

Hedwig finds his way home to himself through music, channeling the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. All three tore down walls involving how we think about music and gender. All three suggest that music might set us free.

That’s long been gospel in the Stackner, which closes its four-play season with two shows that offer a call-and-response involving the liberating sound of music in American history.

First up is Kevin Ramsey’s Chasin’ Dem Blues: Untold Story of Paramount Records, which played the Stackner as Grafton City Blues eleven years ago; with Ramsey directing, it opens in the Stackner in January.

Ramsey’s revue tells the unlikely but true story of how the floor above a furniture company in Grafton, Wisconsin became the recording studio for Paramount Records – making Grafton a destination for leading blues artists from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Ma Rainey.

Four performers will sing this song of a uniquely American art form chronicling the story of a people “looking,” in Ramsey’s words, “to leave behind the steel grip of Jim Crow.”

Five days after Chasin’ Dem Blues closes next March, musician extraordinaire, David Lutken opens Hootenanny: The Musicale, a world premiere that will pick up where Lutken left off after organizing informal, late-night hootenanies – think folk music parties – during prior Milwaukee gigs with the Rep.

David M. Lutken. Photo by Stephen Sorokoff.

Lutken’s show will entail an opening set featuring folk music organized around themes such as immigration, trains, love, and civil rights. An ensuing second act will involve the audience, which will be provided with instruments and lyric sheets for a rousing hootenanny, in which the music of the people is sung by the people. Music, Lutken’s show suggests, can sing all of us into a more expansive version of ourselves.

Empowering Performance

Lutken’s infectious faith in a music by and for the people is at the core of Clements’ own belief in theater and his accompanying populist aesthetic.

Through plays included in this upcoming season as well as numerous plays in every one of Clements’ preceding nine Rep seasons, characters paradoxically discover their true selves by playing roles that take them beyond their familiar surroundings. As Tennessee Williams famously suggests early in The Glass Menagerie – a play that Clements dearly loves and has directed twice, including once at The Rep – art allows us to see the reality that appears as illusion and thereafter make it our own.

Which might explain what Clements was doing in West Virginia this summer at the prestigious Contemporary American Theater Festival, where he was directing the first production of Antonio’s Song/ I Was Dreaming of a Son, a collaboration between Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Suarez about Suarez’s life. It will be performed by Suarez come March, in a Stiemke production that Clements will again direct.

Much like West Side Story, Suarez’s story gives us a glimpse of what can go wrong when a poor boy from New York is raised in a culture of gangs and machismo. But unlike the young dancers in West Side Story, Suarez’s story also involves a protagonist who falls in love with dance, allowing him to escape the pressure “to be what you think everybody wants you to be” and instead “just be you.”

Art exercises a similarly positive influence on the two young men at the heart of 2 Pianos 4 Hands, on stage in the Stackner through early November. Unlike young Antonio, Ted and Richard are encouraged to exercise their artistic impulses from an early age; gifted piano players, they’re pushed so hard to hone those skills that they risk losing sight of the joy that music can give. For Ted and Richard, becoming their best selves involves rediscovering why they love music – while overcoming the frequent equation of art with success, money, and fame.

Joe Kinosian and Ben Moss in 2 Pianos 4 Hands

And finally there’s the legendary Larry Shue’s The Nerd, the wildly popular comedy that was born at Milwaukee Rep nearly forty years ago and would seem to exist in a category all its own; its latest visit to Milwaukee Rep begins this November in the Quadracci Powerhouse.

I’ll have more to say about this comic jewel in my next article; for now, I’ll close by suggesting that there’s more in common between this ostensible outlier and the rest of this year’s Rep plays than one might think.

How?

Like so many Rep plays this season, The Nerd is very much about the liberating power of performance; it’s through playacting that Willum, Shue’s beleaguered nice-guy architect, manages to free himself from Rick, Willum’s nerdy and obnoxiously literal houseguest. Theater frees Willum to build a better version of himself. Watching Willum and characters like him find their way, theater will do the same for you at Milwaukee Rep from now until May. I’ll see you there.

Mike Fischer is a Milwaukee-based writer and dramaturg. A theater reviewer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 15 years, he served as the paper’s chief drama critic from 2009-18. He is currently a member of the Advisory Company for Forward Theater in Madison.