Here is an interesting paradox in our age of great irony. Most people will tell you they find absurdity all around them -- in politics, entertainment and cultural conflict.
We have the Octomom, the Balloon Boy dad and Joe the Plumber traveling to Israel to pronounce his opinions on the Middle East. But despite the viral irrationality that permeates the news, theater of the absurd is a stage genre that is surprisingly out of style.
The writers who defined the category -- Ionesco, Genet, Beckett and Pinter -- are dead, and Edward Albee has moved more to realism in his late career. Christopher Durang is the only major contemporary playwright who is a consistent practitioner of the absurd.
For Milwaukee to be a big league professional theater town, audiences must be offered occasional tastes of the seriously ridiculous. Next Act Theatre has reached back 20 years to the Canadian comedy "7 Stories," which launched the writing career of one of that country's most popular dramatists, Morris Panych, and the result is a well-executed example of absurdism on stage.
The theme is classic for the genre. An existentialist search for meaning in life is at the core of "7 Stories," and the futility of that inquiry has led an anonymous male in conservative business attire, simply called The Man, to a building's ledge seven floors above ground. The fellow bears a striking resemblance to the faceless, dark suited men in bowler hats painted by the surrealist artist Magritte.
The Man doesn't possess the wild-eyed desperation of a suicidal jumper, and maybe that is why the other characters in "7 Stories" don't question his presence on the narrow shelf. They throw open windows that overlook the ledge, offering us brief glimpses into their bizarre, self-involved lives that are no less crazed than The Man's.
Tami Workentin and Doug Jarecki immediately set the tone as a raucous and brawling couple who cheat on their spouses only to fight. The two actors play the middle aged man and woman with such earthy gusto, they launch the play on its loopy trajectory.
Among the other denizens of the seventh floor who randomly pop their heads out of windows are a wildly paranoid psychiatrist, an actor about to mix his theatrical skills with real life to marry a wealthy woman, and a party host who hates having company. Director David Cecsarini put the characters in the window frames -- not The Man -- in clownish white face, an appropriate touch, and he didn't allow performances to boil over the top. However, some of the bits are overly long.
Mark Ulrich plays The Man with a perfect pitch of understated bafflement, and Debra Babich and Robert W.C. Kennedy join Workentin and Jarecki in convincingly playing multiple roles.
This is a play and production that does not fit easily into most theatergoers' comfort zone, but don't let that discourage you from seeing "7 Stories." Consider it an opportunity to expand your theater palate.
The Next Act production runs through Dec. 13.
Melody Top remembered
It has been 23 years since the Melody Top took its final bow on Milwaukee's northwest side, but the summer stock theater remains a fond memory for many musical fans. A boatload of stars, from Martha Raye and Betty White to Tommy Tune and Bert Parks, performed at the Top. Anthony Rapp, who will be in Milwaukee next week starring in a touring production of "Rent" at the Marcus Center, played the title role in a production of "Oliver!" on the circular stage in 1984.
Milwaukee graphic designer Dan Pagel recently launched a tribute Web site that pays homage to the Melody Top. A devoted musical theater enthusiast, Pagel is a Skylight Opera Theatre subscriber, and he catches most of the national tours that stop at the Marcus Center.
"I established the Melody Top site for two reasons," he told me this week. "One, I believe summer stock theater was an important part of American entertainment history. Just like vaudeville, burlesque, nightclubs and cabaret, it is almost dead and forgotten. But the worldwide web is an ideal place to bring summer stock back to life.
"Two, I want the younger generation of theatergoers to know that musical theater is more than just 'The Lion King,' "Wicked' and 'Mamma Mia!' Classic shows from Broadway, with true stars performing them, can be just as exciting as the latest hits from New York."
Odds and ends
Lyricist Fred Ebb died five years ago, but we are about to get a new Kander & Ebb musical. New York's off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre will open in March "The Scottsboro Boys," one of the final collaborations between Ebb and his longtime composer partner John Kander. The two are responsible for such hits as "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman." ... David Thompson wrote the book for the new musical, and Susan Stroman will choreograph and direct. Stroman's involvement must mean that a transfer of the production to Broadway is anticipated. ... The show is about a famous Alabama criminal court case involving nine black teenagers accused of raping two young white women in 1931. Legal reverberations from the case continued as late as 1977. ... Andrew Lloyd Webber, who underwent prostate cancer surgery this fall, was re-admitted to a London hospital this week for treatment of a chronic post-operative infection. A statement on his Web site reported that doctors are confident the surgery eliminated the cancer. ... British theater and film director Sam Mendes is reportedly working on a new stage musical based on "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." "Hairspray's" Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are writing the music and lyrics. The creative team is aiming for a mid-2011 opening in London.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.