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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Oct. 24, 2014

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Theatre Gigante retools a Shakespearean classic with "My Dear Othello."
Theatre Gigante retools a Shakespearean classic with "My Dear Othello."

Gigante's "My Dear Othello" is a spare, to the point production of a classic

Betrayal, revenge, a little more betrayal, a little more revenge, then even more revenge and a white lace handkerchief.

That’s about all you have to know about "My Dear Othello," the Theatre Gigante production opening tonight at the Kenilworth Studio 508 Theater.

The Moor of Venice is one of the greatest tragedies written by Shakespeare, and this reworking by Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson is no less a tragic, although the journey to that ending is shorter, simpler and far less complex.

The production combines the passions and emotions of the original play with an almost Kabuki-like style, with all the poses and freezes so common in the Japanese theatrical form. The only thing missing is the pounds of makeup worn by your average Kabuki dancer.

Kralj and Anderson are widely known for their blend of dance and theater, with the former's training as a dancer creating a theatrical experience that is unique in Milwaukee. The company staged a striking production of "Midsummer in Midwinter" last season, their take on another Shakespeare stalwart "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

I saw the preview performance of "My Dear Othello," and it was striking how strong this story is when it’s stripped down from all the extras, both people and subplots.

This is a story easy to follow. Othello marries Desdemona. His aide Iago, hurt by being passed over for a promotion, engineers a fanciful tale of Desdemona’s infidelity. Iago, the personification of the classic schemer, drafts his wife Emilia, who is also Desdemona’s handmaiden, to help create the tale of cheating.

And it all revolves around that white lace handkerchief. Othello gives it to Desdemona. Iago tells his wife to get it, and she does and gives it to Iago who then plants it in the room of Cassio, knowing that Othello will discover it and be convinced his wife has cheated on him. And, like any great tragedy, it ends with death.

This is not a linear production with a beginning, a middle and an end. Some of the t…

Peter Volpe (from left to right), Jenni Bank, David Danholt, Wayne Tigges and Alwyn Mellor rehearse for the Florentine's upcoming production of "The Flying Dutc
Peter Volpe (from left to right), Jenni Bank, David Danholt, Wayne Tigges and Alwyn Mellor rehearse for the Florentine's upcoming production of "The Flying Dutc (Photo: Danielle Chaviano)

Florentine's "Flying Dutchman" is a chance to hear opera at its very best

It was just a rehearsal – no costumes, no set, no orchestra, no chorus, no plush seats, no lights on stage. As a matter of fact, there was no stage at all, just a piano. And the whole thing was in German.

In spite of all of those things that weren’t there, the thing that was there was a fascinating story and some amazing voices that told the story with such romance and strength that I followed the whole thing from my folding chair. I knew that there was a captain of a ship and that he sold his daughter’s hand for a treasure of silver to a mysterious stranger. I knew that the daughter and the stranger met, separated by distance before moving together, step by halting step toward their first tender and hesitant kiss.

This was Milwaukee’s gem, The Florentine Opera, and a staging rehearsal for "The Flying Dutchman," the Wagner opera that runs for two nights – Saturday, Oct. 25 and Monday Oct. 27 – at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Milwaukee’s own Paula Suozzi is directing, another step in her seemingly unstoppable climb into the ranks of major opera directors in this country. She directs at the famed Metropolitan Opera next month.

She watched rehearsal closely as the singers and Maestro Joseph Rescigno went through was was obviously a difficult piece to perform. Rescigno is clearly the master of all he surveys, and the passion he has for the music is stunningly obvious.

I’ve always thought that there are any number of hidden cultural gems in Milwaukee that deserve to have a light shone on them. I think the Milwaukee Ballet is one. I now add the Florentine to that list.

The company is 81 years old, one of the oldest continuously operating regional opera companies in the country. There is history here, much of it memorable.

One of the best stories comes from the year 1965, when "Samson and Delilah" was being staged. At the last moment, famous tenor Richard Cassilly withdrew to go to Europe where he built an enviable career. Artistic dir…

Cassandra Bissell and Reese Madigan star in "Amelia."
Cassandra Bissell and Reese Madigan star in "Amelia."

Renaissance creates absolute magic with Civil War-based "Amelia"

From "Romeo and Juliet" to "Love Story," the tale of youngsters who fall in love, only to see death and a search for meaning in it all is so often told that it seems to have become almost a cliche of itself.

But when that story gets mixed with history and put into the warm, smart and incredibly talented hands of a small coterie of very creative people, the story takes on a new meaning and creates the kind of theatrical magic that comes only on occasion.

That’s what happened when "Amelia" opened at Renaissance Theaterworks Saturday night.

To say that it was an evening of magic is to sell it short. It was the kind of production that gave hope to the heart, joy to the soul and a sorrow leavened by admiration and wonder. Under the careful and open-hearted direction of Laura Gordon, this tale is set on fire in the cauldron of the Civil War, burnished by the foolish journey of an unstoppable woman and extinguished by the anguish of being left behind with only memories and pride to carry you through the rest of your life.

Cassandra Bissell plays the title character, a woman of brains who runs her father’s dairy farm. She is determined to live her life on her own terms and won’t compromise just to get a man or to play the game of trying to get a man.

Reese Madigan plays Ethan, the man who wins her heart. He also plays countless other characters including both of her parents; Marie, a contemporary so-called friend who is tasteless in her desires for Ethan; a variety of both southern and northern soldiers; and Samuel, a black slave who helps Amelia in her journey.

After marrying, the war breaks out, and Ethan volunteers for what he promises will be just 90 days worth of fighting. Two and a half years later, the letters from Ethan have stopped, sending Amelia out on a perilous journey to find her husband.

It is a tortured journey as she chases rumor after rumor, report after report, mythical sightings and foes who vastly outnumber her allies. So many obstacles, bo…

Max Pink, Katherine Pollnow, Elizabeth Robbins, Matthias Wong and Max Zupke (left to right) star in "Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars."
Max Pink, Katherine Pollnow, Elizabeth Robbins, Matthias Wong and Max Zupke (left to right) star in "Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars." (Photo: Paul Ruffolo)

First Stage's "Sherlock" shines a bright light in the theatrical sky

Most of the time when a play opens, it’s easy to figure out who the star is – usually an actor with a major part. Sometimes, the star can be something else, like a director or a composer or a costume designer.

Rarely would anybody pick a lighting designer as the star, unless they see the wonderful production of "Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars" that opened the season for First Stage.

The lighting by Jason Fassl is so spectacular that it seems to tell the complex story of this band of young detectives all by itself. Through any number of scene changes and different actions, Fassl has created a panorama of light and effects that are stunning in how they evoke emotion and surprise.

One moments stands out so starkly that you could almost hear the audience gasp when they saw it.

Wiggins, one of the Irregulars played with aplomb and skill by Max Pink, gets into a fight with his crime lord father played by Todd Denning. Think back to Roy Rogers or Arnold Schwarzenegger and those fights they had on top of moving locomotives. That’s where this fight took place, and the lighting was so spectacular that it really looked like they were on top of a moving train. You had to pinch yourself to realize this was taking place in a theater.

Fassl is one of the busiest lighting designers in the country, and it’s easy to see why he is so in demand. He has a love for the theater, a clear understanding of the story and an inventive capacity to create lights that help the story move along.

"Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars" is a world premiere, written by well-known playwright Eric Coble based on a series of graphic novels by Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood. The story begins with the death of Sherlock Holmes and the decision by a gang of young people to take up the battle, using their varied skills to be the detectives who can take up the task of replacing Holmes.

It's a classic detective story with villains, cops, mistaken identities, subterfuge, heroic…