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

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The Woody Allen comedy "God" is no laughing matter at Soulstice

Comedy is hard to make come alive on a stage, and the comedy of Woody Allen can be especially difficult. You can’t pigeonhole the man who many believe, as do I, is a genius filmmaker.

He is widely praised for his films, he is a curiosity for his sometimes bizarre personal life and he is a test for anyone to either reanalyze or make come alive.

And it has proved very difficult for the cast at Soulstice Theatre to get a handle on Allen’s play "God," which opened Friday night.

This may well be a very funny play, somewhere. But the one I saw Friday night left me almost totally without so much as a grin, much less an outright laugh.

The story of this play is odd. Two ancient Greeks – Hepatitis, a playwright, and Diabetes, an actor – are searching for an ending to a play that is going to be in a contest.

From there, the play wanders through an unconnected series of scenes and events. This is a very complex play, difficult to understand and hard to appreciate. Some people think it’s Allen’s take on the big questions of life, including the meaning of God.

A play like this needs precision from a director and from the cast. That precision was significantly missing Friday night.

The play was dotted with references to Milwaukee, with things like Cudahy, St. Francis, Ma Fischer’s, Jo-Cat’s and Wisconsin Avenue drizzled throughout the production, an obvious attempt to rip laughs out of an audience. To me, they were cheap and sophomoric.

Stephanie Graham, making her directorial debut with this play, got virtually no help from the cast.

The two main characters, Hepatitis played by Tim Kietzman and Diabetes, played by Joe Dolan, gave new meaning to the word "overacting."

Both of them monopolized the early part of this play, and the main thing that struck me was how unconnected to anything their arms were. Both men were guilty.

No matter what the script had them say, no matter where they were standing, every line seemed to be accompanied by two arms, stre…

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Cassandra Bissell and Phillip Sletteland star in Renaissance Theaterworks' "The Understudy."
Cassandra Bissell and Phillip Sletteland star in Renaissance Theaterworks' "The Understudy." (Photo: Ross Zentner)

Renaissance's behind the scenes comedy "The Understudy" is a riot

For over half a century, I have been in and around the world of live theater, as an actor, critic, spectator and lover.

And in all those five decades, I can honestly say I have never met anyone quite like the three characters in "The Understudy," the Theresa Rebeck ode to the sacred life of live theater that opened Saturday night at Renaissance Theaterworks.

There are three characters in this play.

Jake, an action movie star who makes a lot of money in Hollywood but is doing a Broadway play because he hungers for something other than shoot-em-ups.

Harry, a true serious actor in every sense of the word. He has been hired to be an understudy to Jake. He says he’s pure, and he hates everything Jake stands for.

Roxanne, the stage manager, is a directed and forceful character, willing to use all manner of tricks to keep her actors in line. She is also the woman Harry left at the altar two weeks before their wedding six years earlier. He just left and never said a word. To say she is holding a grudge is a severe understatement.

There have been many plays written about the theater. Plays like "Noises Off," "Moon Over Buffalo," "45 Seconds from Broadway" and "A Chorus Line." In all of those plays, the characters seem like overblown and exaggerated stereotypes, not part of the reality of the theater world.

Rebeck seems determined to add to those plays by chronicling the joys and sorrows of a life in the theater. First, she wrote a dark comedy called "The Scene." Then came "The Understudy." Those were followed by "Smash," the dismal NBC television series that bore absolutely no resemblance to honest life in the theater.

Maybe it’s because being in the theater is such a unique experience that Rebeck has created characters who are outlandish in their exaggeration. I don’t know anyone in the theater like these people. But since most of your audience is not working in the world of theater, perhaps that exaggeration is necessary to make a point.  

But we are talkin…

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The cast of First Stage's production of "A Midnight Cry," which opened Friday night.
The cast of First Stage's production of "A Midnight Cry," which opened Friday night. (Photo: Lindsey Abendschein)

First Stage's "A Midnight Cry" is an explosive powerhouse

The late Nelson Mandela talked frequently of the two sides of being a prisoner, or as he so often said, a slave stuck in a jail.

He said there were emotions almost painfully in conflict with each other. One was the absolute destitute resignation and acceptance of your prison life. The other was the constant bubble of hope for freedom and a life which has been all but forgotten.

Rarely do you see that conflict more clearly expressed than in "A Midnight Cry," the James DeVita play that opened over the weekend at First Stage Children’s Theater.

The slogan of First Stage, and it is much more than just a slogan dreamed up by some marketing committee, is "Transforming Lives Through Theater."

This play is an example of just how important and powerful those words are to First Stage.

"A Midnight Cry" tells the story of Lida, a young slave in Missouri and her journey to freedom along the Underground Railroad which took her through Milwaukee on her way to Canada.

It’s an emotionally packed packed story, filled with all the horror of slavery, pain, being sold away from your family, whippings and desperate avoidance of the man with the gun and whip.

First Stage recommends this play only for children who are over 8 years old, and it’s because of those horrors.

When Lida, played with exquisite grace by Malkia Stampley, stands facing the audience which her bare back providing the target. We hold our breath in anticipation. And surely, Todd Denning, playing the white farm hand Jessup, uses a crack whip to create blistering sound in the space of the theater.

He is far enough back so there’s no danger that he will actually whip Stampley, but the way that whip cracks and her body cringes is enough to make an audience gasp and squirm in their seats in discomfort.

"My soul wants something new," Stampley sings after the whipping. She doesn’t know precisely what it is, but she knows that "people talk like freedom is like a city you can go to."

At the encouragement of h…

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Thomas J. Cox and Hollis Resnik star in "End of the Rainbow," now showing at the Milwaukee Rep.
Thomas J. Cox and Hollis Resnik star in "End of the Rainbow," now showing at the Milwaukee Rep. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Rep's "End of the Rainbow" is a magical evening

There is one brief moment when we stop wondering, and we see Judy Garland in all she ever was during "End of the Rainbow," which opened Friday night at the Milwaukee Rep.

We have already seen the drug-addled Garland, and we’ve seen the petulance and haughty grandeur that were such an integral part of her persona. And we’ve heard her sing.

During a London cabaret performance, she sings "The Trolley Song." And when actress Hollis Resnik gets to a "clang, clang, clang went the trolley" line, she turns to the side and gives it a little bit of choo-choo with her arms, legs and heart, looking like a train.

The moment is exquisite and reflects the soaring majesty that made Garland what some people call the greatest American entertainer, ever.

I don’t know about that, but whoever is ahead of Garland in the lore of show business can certainly smell her hot on their heels for first place.

The play, by Peter Quilter, is a no-holds-barred slice of the last major gig of Garland’s career, a concert series at the Talk of the Town cabaret in London. Just months after that series, she died of a drug overdose.

The last two men in Garland’s life, which was filled with men, were Mickey Deans, the much younger man who was to become her fifth husband, and Anthony, her pianist.

The show, under the tender direction of Mark Clements, artistic director at the Rep, gives us the full-on Judy Garland, and my reactions were all over the map, just like her life.

I was appalled and fascinated by her deep and abiding affection and addiction for artificial stimulant. Uppers, downers and alcohol all fueled her life. I was thrilled by her onstage magic.

Garland never met a tabloid she didn’t love, and the turbulence of her life and career made for a great reading treat for the millions who adored her.

But while her public persona spun out of control like the bouncing balls in a lottery drawing, her private life was full of both confidence and fear.

"When was it ever about what I…

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