“During this past year and half of paralysis,” wrote cultural critic Carina Chocano in a July essay, “it could seem as if the future were on hold . . . Perhaps, for some of us, last year felt like a pause. But there was no pause. There never is.”
All of which Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements drove home during a wide-ranging September conversation about Milwaukee Rep’s upcoming 2021/22 Season.
Many of the productions in Milwaukee Rep’s 11-play season – supplemented by the return of Milwaukee favorite Lee E. Ernst as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol as well as the latest edition of Rep Lab – track what Clements had programmed for the cancelled 2020/21 Season. But both Milwaukee Rep’s originally programmed plays and some more recent additions are bound to land differently now.
Take Titanic: The Musical, which Clements rightly claims is composer and lyricist Maury Yeston’s “masterpiece,” thanks to “music that’s glorious and stories that are compelling.” As Clements archly noted, this great musical isn’t the “load of Celine Dion songs and a version of the movie” that many people think it is.
Titanic was always going to play as “a metaphor for American society,” imagining itself to be “the greatest and biggest and best in the world, fueled by unsustainable hubris,” Clements said.
But in the wake of the pandemic, this musical’s focus on class conflict and needlessly lost lives takes on new resonance. Ditto the many affecting goodbyes, in a show that cuts that big boat down to size through numerous scenes showcasing two individuals – making it ideal for the sort of intimate presentation which has become a hallmark of Clements’ legendary Milwaukee Rep musicals.
But after the past 18 months, Clements is also now more attuned to this musical’s focus on love and redemption. Hope and survival. How, in the words of cultural critic Rebecca Solnit, we might learn to come together, building paradise out of hell.
“My mom, who doesn’t know the musical, asked me ‘why on earth would you want to do Titanic?,” Clements said, with a wry smile. “‘When people come back to the theater, they’re going to want something cheerful to look at.’ I told her, ‘just wait until you see it.’”
Although it doesn’t open until next April, Clements noted that Titanic is already one of Milwaukee Rep’s best-selling 2021/22 shows. Odds are that its successor in the Quadracci Powerhouse – Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which runs from May 31 to July 1, 2022 – eventually will be, too.
Ludwig’s spirited and fun adaptation isn’t nearly as dark or philosophical as the sometimes ponderous Kenneth Branagh film; I’ll risk sacrilege by suggesting that it’s also more lively and ultimately more successful than Dame Agatha’s sometimes flat and talky original.
“Ken knows how to take a crazy subject and ground it, which can be hard to pull off,” Clements said.
As with Titanic, Murder on the Orient Express features life on the move aboard an especially luxurious mode of transportation, churning through its surroundings without a care for the outside world until unexpectedly grinding to a halt as life catches up with luxury.
The ensuing crises allow us to see how people respond – and, specifically, when and how they come together, in either conflict or collaboration – as they grapple with how to move forward and move on. In both shows, women – initially underestimated and misunderstood – play an integral role in imagining the remade communities that might emerge from the wreckage.
Communities of Women
Clements readily admits that strong women and the communities they forge are integral to Milwaukee Rep’s 2021/22 Season. “It’s conscious,” he said, “and it’s also reflected in the directors and creative teams we’ve chosen.”
The last show to play the Quadracci Powerhouse before the pandemic was Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, featuring a cast of five women banding together while civil war rages around them in Liberia.
The lone show to play the Powerhouse in the interval preceding this season was Alexis J Roston’s tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.
And the show opening the Powerhouse in early November is Robert Harling’s justly beloved Steel Magnolias, in which six women from three generations gather in a Louisiana beauty shop. They consistently stare down hardship and disappointment, challenging each other to be their best selves while proving up what one of them (Truvy) says early in the play: “We enjoy being nice to one another.”
“There is no such thing as natural beauty,” Truvy instructs a new beauty shop employee. “Do not scrimp on anything,” she continues, “to make every woman as beautiful as she can be.”
One of scores of casually tossed one-liners in Harling’s script, Truvy’s lesson is also the key to this entire play, in which each of these women resolutely makes the best of heartaches and hardships they stoically accept while forging a better and more beautiful world.
Done right, I once suggested in reviewing a production of this play, Steel Magnolias conjures the ghosts of Inge and Chekhov. I stand by that assessment.
“It’s a really good, exceptionally well written play that’s filled with heart as well as humor,” Clements said, noting that “it’s been on our list for ages.”
This old standard has a lot in common with one of two world premieres in this Milwaukee Rep season by acclaimed playwright Dael Orlandersmith, whose work has previously been featured at Milwaukee Rep in a memorable 2011 production of Yellowman and a 2018 production of Until the Flood.
As with Steel Magnolias, the world premiere of Orlandersmith’s New Age next March in the Stiemke Studio features a community of women – Black and white and ranging in age from 18 to 80 – trying to define themselves rather than letting men define them.
The play’s four poetic, gorgeously interwoven voices remind me of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, in which each distinct monologue sheds a unique light on one person, containing multitudes and refusing to be bound by confining stereotypes that reduce complex and conflicted women to caricatures.
“Dael was coming up on milestone birthday and wanted to write about women aging,” Clements said. “She wanted to write about all that women put themselves through in organizing their lives around the approbation of men. The result is a really strong play.”
Orlandersmith’s second Milwaukee Rep production this season – a joint world premiere with West Virginia’s prestigious Contemporary American Theater Festival – is Antonio’s Song / I was Dreaming of a Son, co-written with Antonio Edwards Suarez and telling the story of Suarez’s rough New York childhood and ensuing challenges as a father.
Directed by Clements, Antonio’s Song will showcase Suarez himself in a Stiemke Studio production opening in January.
“He’s fantastic,” Clements said of Suarez, whom he directed in the pre-pandemic production at CATF. “He has such charisma. People who saw him perform in West Virginia couldn’t stop talking about him. And the fact that it’s his own story lends his performance a genuine authenticity.”
Much as Orlandersmith’s New Age pushes against what it means to be a woman, Antonio’s Song challenges hidebound assumptions regarding how to be a man, by conveying the lonely, alienating, and ultimately exhausting fear involved in trying to be macho.
“Stop tryin to be what you think everybody wants you to be,” a friend tells him. “Just be you” – even if this means loving art and ballet – and thereby risking jeers from insecure men for whom such activities don’t compute.
The first woman to play professional baseball endured similar jeers for shattering gendered norms about baseball. Lydia R. Diamond captures her pathbreaking story in Toni Stone, opening in the Quadracci Powerhouse in January under the direction of Tinashe Kajese-Bolden.
Harassed by some of her teammates and assumed to be a lesbian by others, paid less by her team’s owner because she is a woman and pressured by her husband to give up the game she loves, Toni accepts being labeled “an odd duck” as long as she’s allowed to “reach,” as an infielder and as a person, to “do things you never thought you would.” Toni is alternately funny and moving; so is Diamond’s play.
One could say the same for Shakespeare’s gender-bending As You Like It, in which the Bard’s greatest heroine dresses as a man to score a few points about what it’s like for a woman living and loving in a man’s world. Rosalind’s story is sure to reach entirely new audiences when it arrives in Milwaukee next February accompanied by two dozen Beatles songs, in an adaptation by Daryl Cloran, Artistic Director of Citadel Theatre in Edmonton.
When Cloran’s Beatles-inflected As You Like It made its debut during Vancouver’s 2018 Bard on the Beach festival, it was repeatedly extended and shattered attendance records. During an ensuing Manitoba production, the reviewer for the CBC described Cloran’s union between the Beatles and the Bard as “such a fitting match that you wonder why it hasn’t been done before.”
Variations on a Theme: The Stackner Season
Not to be outdone, Milwaukee Reps’ 2021/22 Stackner Cabaret Season similarly showcases strong women. First up is Matt Zembrowski’s Dad’s Season Tickets; loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, it’s a musical featuring the conflicts between three sisters angling for their Dad’s affection – and his Packer’s season tickets – during the Packer’s march toward the Super Bowl in late 1996.
Although football bores me silly, I flat-out loved Zembrowski’s show when I saw the world premiere production at Door County’s Northern Sky Theater two years ago. “Matt’s show has a lot going for it,” Clements said. “It’s a musical and it has the Packers and it’s fun. People understand that.”
In appealing to both football fans and musicals geeks, Dad’s simultaneously suggests that all of us would do better to find common ground, despite our differences. Even (gasp!) when that means finding things to like about a Vikings fan. It’s currently Milwaukee Rep’s hottest selling show; several early performances are already sold out.
Like this opening show, the Stackner’s final 2021/22 offering similarly celebrates tenacious women willing to fight for their rights.
Well, one woman in particular, as Angela Ingersoll Gets Happy singing Judy Garland. “Even as a little girl, I was like, she’s a queen,” Ingersoll once said of her long love affair with Garland. “She’s not taking any nonsense from anybody.”
“She’s just really incredible,” Clements said of Ingersoll. “She sounds just like Garland,” he added, speaking on a topic he knows a bit about, having directed Milwaukee Rep’s moving 2014 production of End of the Rainbow, about the final weeks of Garland’s life.
Between these Stackner bookends and rounding out the Stackner season will be the world premiere production of Piano Men in January and My Way, a tribute to Frank Sinatra (with Kelley Faulkner making her directorial debut), in March.
Brainchild of Clements, he characterizes the first as a “pure cabaret show,” in which two sometimes dueling piano players responding to audience requests will create on-the-spot medleys. Each night’s show will therefore be unique.
The Sinatra tribute will bring four strangers (who Clements promises will also be “killer actor-musicians”) together in the night to channel what one of them claims is “the single greatest interpreter of American popular song.”
Finding the Joy
Clements makes no apologies for the fact that shows like Piano Men and My Way are, in his words, “pure entertainment.”
“Entertainment has become such a dirty word in our industry,” he noted, sounding a theme we’ve been discussing (and vigorously debating) for more than a decade. “That’s why I like the Stackner. When we get it right, it’s joyous. People love it. They just want the world to wash over them, with some great singers.”
Clements firmly believes that even the meatiest of Milwaukee Rep shows ought to also be entertaining; otherwise, what’s the point? He’s in the business of making art while simultaneously keeping a business afloat. A business which, he proudly points out, paid its people throughout the pandemic.
“You can be entertained as well as educated and stimulated,” he insisted, toward the close of our conversation. “And in this particular moment, you can do both while also creating redemptive drama.
That’s a jag I’ve been on for a while, now,” he continued. “It doesn’t mean sugaring the pill. There’s plenty of heartache in this season’s shows. But there’s also hope.”
And really, what’s wrong with that?
Shakespeare created the intoxicating Rosalind you’ll meet in Milwaukee Rep’s As You Like It shortly after losing his son in a plague; her joy is all the more meaningful because it’s painfully clear that she’s preternaturally aware of all the darkness lurking at the edge of town.
We don’t need art to remind us that such darkness is there; we’ve lived it – are still living it – every harrowing day since last March. We’ve received plenty of lessons on dying. What theater can offer – what Clements is determined to offer – are lessons on living.
“A lot of people die in Titanic,” he acknowledged. “But it’s ultimately a story about survival. Yes, there are victims. But there are also survivors. That’s the power of that story. That’s the power of every story.”
“More and more often,” wrote Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller (1936), “there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed.” “It is as if,” he continued, “something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences” and recognize what we share.
Clements has always intuitively understood what Benjamin meant, but he may have never programmed a Milwaukee Rep season that more fully conveys it.
During Clements storied tenure, Milwaukee Rep has announced flashier or more ambitious seasons. But I can’t think of a single Clements season that’s been more fully mindful and respectful of its audience, even as it also challenges them to grow into their best and most fully realized selves.
“We in the theater have this great privilege and opportunity to tell stories that resonate now,” Clements had told me last February, just over one month before Milwaukee Rep was forced to close its doors.
I’d like to think those words mean even more to Clements today than they clearly meant to him back then; in the wake of Covid’s devastation and George Floyd’s murder, they certainly land much harder with me.
As embodied in this upcoming Milwaukee Rep season, those words have never rung more true in reflecting the way we live. What we need. And what Milwaukee Rep can offer, as we learn all over again what it means to connect with each other in the dark.
A Milwaukee-based writer and dramaturg, Mike Fischer wrote theater and book reviews for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for fifteen years, serving as chief theater critic from 2009-18. A member of the Advisory Company of Artists for Forward Theater Company in Madison, he also co-hosts Theater Forward, a bimonthly podcast. You can reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.