Making His Mark: Lasting Impressions of Mark Clements Shows at Milwaukee Rep

“I’ve wanted to live and work in America since I was ten years old,” Mark Clements told me during a 2013 interview. “On visits here, I felt as though I belonged and had found a home.”

Mark has certainly made himself at home in Milwaukee during his past decade here as Artistic Director of Milwaukee Repertory Theater. During his tenure, Milwaukee Rep has staged nearly 120 shows; Mark has directed 22 of them.

True to his own status as an immigrant, many Mark-directed shows – from Death of a Salesman in his first year to West Side Story in the upcoming season – have wrestled with the nature of the American dream and what it means to be an American.

In exploring that question through his own work and other Rep plays staged under his leadership, Mark has consistently focused on who gets excluded from the American feast – and why. Much of that work has been new, reflecting Mark’s robust commitment – expressed as early as our first interview a decade ago – to new plays and play development.

Most famously, some of Milwaukee Rep’s best work since Mark became Rep Artistic Director has been done through musicals – many of which Mark has directed – on a Quadracci Powerhouse stage where no musical had ever previously been performed.

I’ve seen every one of Mark’s Rep productions; as the longtime chief drama critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I also reviewed most of them. Here’s my ten favorites.

A scene from Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2013/14 Season production of Ragtime. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

1. Ragtime (2013):
When it opened Mark’s fourth season, Ragtime was the largest and most expensive show Milwaukee Rep had ever staged. What made Mark’s production so great was that it somehow simultaneously managed to play small, ensuring that we didn’t lose sight of the many individuals in this larger-than-life story. Yes: we saw the sweep of history. But Mark never let us forget that we the people make that history, as we continually strive to form a more perfect union.

Everything about this production clicked. Who can forget choreographer Stephen Mear’s breathtaking opening sequence, as three distinct groups of Americans jostle for position? Or Alexander B. Tecoma’s colorful, historically textured costuming? Or music director Dan Kazemi’s outstanding orchestration? Or Todd Edward Ivins’ set, looking like Penn Station and reflecting our never-ending journeys in pursuit of dreams we never achieve?

As cast members “movingly sing to a different beat in a new time,” I wrote in my review, “they also give shape and sound to the sweet music we might make together.” I can still hear it today. I will hear it all my life.

Lee E. Ernst (foreground) and J.R. Yancher (background) in Act 2 of Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2012/13 Season production of Clybourne Park. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

2. Clybourne Park (2013):
Mark’s bracing production of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park made clear that everyone’s a little bit racist – including all those white liberals who imagine they’re too woke to be prejudiced. It’s never been easy to talk honestly in this country about race; in the six-plus years since this excellent production played the Powerhouse, it’s become even harder. We’re so busy being right and laughing at our neighbors that we’ve forgotten how to laugh at ourselves.

There was laughter aplenty in this production, because Mark intuitively grasped the squirmy discomfort Norris’ humor provokes in audience members – and then mined it for all that it’s worth. In my review, I praised Mark’s “all-star cast” for channeling an “A-plus play,” in a production that’s sure to remain on my list of Mark’s top ten, even when he’s been at Milwaukee Rep for twice as long.

Bill Geisslinger, Aubyn Heglie, Jordan Baker, Zach Fifer in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2018/19 Season production Things I Know To Be True. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

3. Things I Know To Be True (2019):
Mark book-ended his first decade at Milwaukee Rep with two terrific works by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell. Mark’s first Rep season featured Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues, a formally ambitious piece suggesting that our quest for sexual and personal liberation frequently confirms how mired we are in cliché.

This past Rep season brought us a variation on this theme through Bovell’s Things I Know To Be True, in which aging parents and their four children each continually discover that life never goes quite as planned. What we each get instead is a heaping helping of heartbreak, with plenty left over for loved ones we inevitably hurt and disappoint, as our quests to escape who we are nevertheless bring us back to who we always were – and back to the families that played such a large role in making us that way.

Kevin Vortmann and Sarah Litzsinger Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2011/12 Season production of Next to Normal. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

4. Next to Normal (2011):
Talk about countercyclical programming! Just in time for the 2011 holidays, Mark unwrapped his second Quadracci Powerhouse musical: what I described in my review as an “emotionally wrenching production” of Next to Normal. Led by Sarah Litzinger as a beleaguered mother battling severe mental illness, Mark’s Next to Normal didn’t just chronicle how a loving family therefore comes undone. He also connected the dots between that family and the rest of us, in a world where the very concept of “normal” is often suspect.

I loved this production so much that I went back to see it again on my own nickel, late in the run; what I’d seen on opening night had only deepened and improved. Mark’s Next to Normal struck a delicate balance between the show’s frequently manic energy and its quiet, more textured look at characters struggling to find that magical somewhere: a place where there’s “peace and quiet and open air.” Mark’s work has always been characterized by extraordinary empathy. This production may be the most empathetic of them all.

Nathaniel Stampley, Michael J. Farina and cast in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2016/17 Season production of Man of La Mancha. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

5. Man of La Mancha (2016):
Man of La Mancha is often pigeonholed as outdated and romantic. Led by Nathanial Stampley as the knight who dreams impossible dreams, Mark’s production boldly turned this assessment on its head. It’s the cynical naysayers who come to seem outdated; it’s the intrepid idealists who seem most prepared to embrace the future. Stampley drove the point home by treating Milwaukee Rep audience as the knight’s fellow prisoners, all of whom he desperately needed to convince. He convinced me; by night’s end, I was ready to tilt at windmills.

Mark Jacoby and Zoë Sophia Garcia in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2018/19 Season World Premiere production of One House Over. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

6. One House Over (2018):
I opened my review of this Catherine Trieschmann play about immigration in America by calling it the “best of the ten world premieres” at Milwaukee Rep during Mark’s tenure. I wholeheartedly stand by that assessment as I reflect on a play that’s not only tackling this country’s hottest and most divisive issue, but doing so with humor and grace while refusing to preach.

Mark and his artistic team actively worked with Trieschmann while she was in residence here to shape her initial draft into an improved end product. They succeeded, splendidly. And as I noted in my review, “that script is made stronger in this premiere production by Clements’ strong directing and cast.”

Trisha Jeffrey, Nova Y. Payton, Dan’yelle Williamson in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2015/16 Season production of Dreamgirls. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

7. Dreamgirls (2015):
During a conversation before a rehearsal for Dreamgirls, Mark suggested that “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” – first of Effie White’s three big songs as the protagonist in Dreamgirls – “is maybe one of the best songs in musical theater ever written.”

As sung by Nova Y. Payton, it’s certainly one of the best-sung songs ever heard in a Quadracci Powerhouse performance (and yes, I’m including everything in that amazing Janis Joplin special event that closed Milwaukee Rep’s third season). Supernova blew the roof off the Powerhouse, during a night that offered audiences more sheer entertainment than any mainstage musical in the Clements era.

But Mark gave us more. While many productions of Dreamgirls are reduced to shapeless jukebox musicals, Mark and choreographer Stephen Mear gave Milwaukee Rep production a coherent narrative through line – and a sobering reminder of how little has changed in the way racial and sexual stereotypes play on, in a country where the song remains the same.

Kelsey Brennan in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2016/17 Season production of The Glass Menagerie. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

8. The Glass Menagerie (2017):
Mark once told me that Menagerie is his favorite Williams play, and it showed in his smart and compassionate take at Milwaukee Rep – coming 19 years after a British production that he counts among the best shows he’s ever done.

This Menagerie featured another great performance from Chicago-based legend Hollis Resnik, who gave us the most sympathetic portrait of Amanda I’ve seen – without ever sugarcoating all the ways this matriarch’s suffocating behavior drives Tom to leave.

Philip Witcomb’s controversial set – many hated it, but I loved it – transformed the Wingfield tenement into a dark and smoky glass box suggesting Laura’s menagerie, a miniature theater and a cage. Witcomb’s set was a reminder that we only ever see through darkened glass, as we try to make sense of the confining domestic dramas that play out in our families and shape the people we become.

Cast of Milwaukee Repertory Theater's 2010/11 Season production of Cabaret. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

9. Cabaret (2010):
During our very first interview a decade ago, Mark told me that “I want to do a lot of new things.” Mark’s production of Cabaret – the show that inaugurated his tenure as Milwaukee Rep’s Artistic Director – was both new and gutsy. It was the first-ever musical to be staged in the Quadracci Powerhouse; noting the challenges of the space, many sceptics wondered whether it would also be the last.

Mark proved them wrong, with an ageless musical that’s increasingly relevant to the way we live now. From Emcee Lee E. Ernst’s symbolic opening descent on a chandelier to the show’s final, chilling image of where that descent would lead, Mark’s Cabaret served notice that many of his shows would not only entertain, but also challenge us to think hard about the relationship between art and politics.

Aided and abetted by Music Director Dan Kazemi and Michael Pink’s choreography, Mark’s Cabaret also made clear that musicals at Milwaukee Rep were here to stay. “The idea of musicals in the Powerhouse has caught hold,” Mark told me during an interview in 2013. “It’s no longer a question of are you going to do one, but when.”

(front L – R, back L – R) Lee E. Ernst and Reese Madigan; Laura Gordon and Gerard Neugent in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2010/11 Quadracci Powerhouse production of Death of a Salesman. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

10. Death of a Salesman (2011):
Even as he championed new work, Mark served notice as early as his first season that he would also make room for the classics – with special attention being paid to American classics (I can’t wait until he tackles Inge and O’Neill – just saying). More than 80 percent of Milwaukee Rep productions he’s directed have featured American plays, and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was among the first.

Mark’s cast included a large share of Rep favorites: Lee E. Ernst and Laura Gordon as Willy and Linda; Reese Madigan and Gerard Neugent as their two sons; and Mark Corkins, Jonathan Gillard Daly and Deborah Staples in supporting roles. With its solitary dormer and the hint of a roofline suspended in space, Todd Rosenthal’s set underscored the disconnect between Willy’s fantasies of castles in the air and a fragmented house that never truly becomes a home.

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.