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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

American Players Theatre actor and writer James DeVita brings his autobiographical one-man show to Milwaukee next spring. (PHOTO: Carissa Dixon)

Peeking at the new theater season


Back in the olden days, when I wrote theater criticism for a newspaper, about this time of year my editors would ask me to look ahead into a new professional theater season and pick the most interesting shows on the horizon. I was initially uncomfortable with the request, fearing my readers would consider a mention of a specific production an endorsement long before I saw it.

I didn't want theater companies or audiences to think I was pre-judging shows, or walking into a theater with a pre-existing bias. But in conversations with readers I came to know that many people saved my pre-season columns for the entire stage year to remind them when productions of particular note or importance were about to open. That service to theater-goers convinced me a look ahead at the theatrical menu for the next nine months is a good thing.

So here we go again, with a new season. Remember, I am not predicting a production will be great or a hit. I'm simply saying, this looks interesting.

Renaissance Theaterworks is batting 1.000 in my pre-season analysis, with all three of its full productions worthy of special attention. "Reasons to be Pretty" (Oct. 1-24) is another Neil LaBute drama about the connection between physical attractiveness, ego strength and self-worth in our culture.

The piece startles with what may be the longest and most explosive opening rant in theater history, but unlike many of LaBute's works, "Reasons to be Pretty" contains hope. You'll be thinking and talking about this play days after seeing it.

"Crumbs From the Table of Joy" (Jan. 14-Feb. 6, 2011) is a memory play about an African-American family from the deep south moving to Brooklyn a few years after the end of World War II. The piece was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Lynn Nottage, a gifted playwright, and Milwaukee's new African-American stage company, Uprooted Theatre, is collaborating on the production.

"In Acting Shakespeare" (March 25-April 17, 2011) sounds like a dry treatise on classical acting, but it is quite the opposite. American Players Theatre actor James DeVita's autobiographical one-man show is about how a commercial fisherman from Long Island became a superlative theater artist in Spring Green.

The piece was a huge hit in the APT's indoor theater last summer. DeVita wrote it, he performs it, and "In Acting Shakespeare" is immensely entertaining.

Mark Clements is about to launch his first season as artistic director at the Milwaukee Rep, and that makes every production the company mounts the object of great interest. We haven't had a new person leading the Rep's creative side in nearly two decades.

Clements' bold decision to begin his tenure and the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater season with Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret" (Sept. 17-Oct. 24) establishes his local directing debut as the stage event of the year. It is the first time the Rep has mounted a full Broadway-style musical.

Milwaukee audiences will be one step closer to seeing the entire August Wilson 10-play cycle of the 20th Century African-American experience when the Rep stages "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (March 4-27, 2011). It will be a co-production with the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

The Rep is shaking up the familiar musical revue programing in its Stackner Cabaret with shows that feature more narrative. The American premiere of "Laurel and Hardy" (Sept. 26-Nov. 14), written by the late Scottish dramatist Tom McGrath, will star Gerard Neugent and Skylight Opera Theatre artistic director Bill Theisen as the comic duo. The piece is a play that includes some of Laurel and Hardy's classic routines.

Jack Forbes Wilson will portray the title character in "Liberace!" (Nov. 21-Jan. 16), a new theatrical biography being written by Rep artistic associate Brent Hazleton, and
Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" goes hip-hop in a rap version titled "Bomb -- Itty of Errors" (March 20-May 8, 2011). The Stackner will also be the venue for a show about country music star Hank Williams, titled "Nobody Lonesome for Me" (Jan. 23-March 13, 2011).

Mequon composer Josh Schmidt grew up as a musician hanging around the Skylight Opera Theatre, and now he is a rising national star in musical theater. It is fitting that the Skylight will stage his first national hit, "Adding Machine" (May 20-June 12, 2011) this season. Based on Elmer Rice's 1923 play "The Adding Machine," the musical won a boatload of awards in Chicago and New York.

The Windy City song writing team of Paul Libman and Dave Hudson has created a string of clever hits for the American Folklore Theatre in Door County. One of them, "Main-Travelled Roads" (Oct. 15-31) won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater in 2007, and now it is being produced by the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. The piece is based on a collection of rural short stories published in 1891 by Wisconsin native Hamlin Garland.

Melanie Marnich is an award-winning American dramatist whose plays have been staged by such major companies as the Public Theatre in New York, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and the Royal Court Theatre in London, but her work has not been seen by Milwaukee audiences. That will change next spring when Next Act Theatre mounts "A Sleeping Country" (March 25-April 17, 2011) in its temporary home at the Tenth Street Theatre. The comedy, which will feature Angela Iannone, is about a woman who suffers from the worst insomnia in the world.

Every theater company on the planet seems to be trying to make a buck off of the festive feelings of the Christmas holidays. In Tandem Theatre introduced a show new to Milwaukee, "Scrooge in Rouge," last season, and it was a wacky winner. Comically riffing off of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," it was smart, clever and naughty.

The good news is that In Tandem is reviving "Scrooge in Rouge" (Dec. 3-31). May you have an irreverent Christmas!

Looking westward, I am eagerly anticipating a couple of shows out in the state. Madison's impressive Forward Theater Company will open its second season with the Wisconsin premiere of Sarah Ruhl's elegant comedy "In the Next Room or the vibrator play" (Nov. 4-21). The play, which received a Broadway production last year, is about a young doctor, his wife and the unusual way physicians treated women diagnosed with "hysteria" in the late 19th century.

Since 1980 the American Players Theatre has been synonymous with summer. This year, the company is rolling out a Christmas show, a new musical adaptation of the O. Henry short story "The Gift of the Magi" (Nov. 26-Dec. 19) with a script written by James DeVita and the music composed by Josh Schmidt. The production will be in the 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre, but company officials promise the APT's glorious woods will be twinkling with holiday decorations.

The Lady Elgin Sails Again

The wooden-hulled sidewheel steamship Lady Elgin, loaded with Milwaukeeans returning to the city from Chicago, sank in Lake Michigan in the middle of the night, resulting in the largest loss of life in open waters in Great Lakes history. More than 400 persons died. The 150th anniversary of the tragedy is Sept. 8, and the world premiere of the play "A Rising Wind: The Lady Elgin Story" will open here that night.

The Best Place Tavern, in the Pabst Brewery complex at 901 W. Juneau Ave., is appropriately the venue for the show, because the saloon building was standing when the Elgin sank. Sections of the Best Place Tavern date back to 1858.

Milwaukee theater artists John Kishline and Ed Morgan co-wrote "A Rising Wind," which is a series of interlocking monologues. Kishline will act in the production with Jonathan Wainwright, Georgina McKee, Pete Woods and Sherrick Robinson. Morgan is directing, and a new entity, Damned Theatre, is the producer.

The Elgin's sinking occurred a year before the start of the Civil War, when Wisconsin politics was embroiled in a hot controversy over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Many on the ship had gone to Chicago to hear Stephen A Douglas, Lincoln's opponent in the 1860 presidential election, speak. "A Rising Wind" weaves that into the story of the shipwreck.

"It's halfway between pure entertainment and an informational production," Kishline recently said. "It's a snapshot of the psyche of Wisconsin on the verge of the Civil War."

"A Rising Wind" will be presented at 8 p.m. Sept. 8-11. There is no admission charge, but a $10 donation is suggested.

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