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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, April 25, 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, stretched out to the side, palms up. No matter what else was going on. It was almost as if their arms had a life of their own, independent of anything else.

While Kietzman and Dolan set a low bar, the rest of the cast was unable to climb over it. From a totally incredulous Jewish girl from West Allis, played by Liz Getschow, to a manic Trichinosis played by Max Williamson, the entire cast seemed like a parade of cardboard cutouts.

Any good comedy demands several things. But among those things, perhaps the most important of all, is that the actors have to flesh out the characters who we have some visceral reaction to them. We have to feel something.

Allen’s play, now almost 40 years old, was written and is most often performed as a one-act. Friday night, for some reason, it was split in two with a 15 minute intermission. That was the bad news. The good news is that everyone came back after the intermission.

Soulstice is capable of putting on seriously good plays. "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" was a marvelously funny and touching play. "The Memory of Water" was well worth the trip to the theater as well.

But this play missed the mark by a mile. Perhaps a part of the problem is the play itself. To say that Allen wrote a murky story is an understatement.

But it’s not an impossible play. It’s been done over the past 40 years, and if you read reviews, it’s been done well.  

Midway through the first act, an actor sitting as an audience member, stands up, calling the play "stupid" and he runs out of the theater.

He may well have been the wisest man in the place.

"God" runs Jan. 24 through Feb. 8 at Soulstice Theatre. For more information on tickets, go to their website.

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