By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Dec 22, 2011 at 1:00 PM

About six years ago I played the Prince of Aaragon in a spectacular production of the "Merchant of Venice" at Milwaukee Shakespeare.

Two nights before opening I was walking through the theater when I noticed that two seats had already been blocked off. I asked who those seats were being saved for.

Chris Abele and his wife, came the reply.

I found out quickly that Abele, one of the founders of Milwaukee Shakespeare, was the main funding source for the company and also was a major contributor and member of the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.

He was such a big deal in Milwaukee Shakespeare that when he withdrew his funding because of a bad stock market, the company folded the same day they were notified.

Now move forward a half dozen years, and the man who loved Shakespeare is now the County Executive and he has announced he will veto a little bitty program that tries using Shakespeare to help some juvenile offenders get on the right track.

Talk about irony. As the Bard either said or should have said: "Irony, thy name be a politician indebted to contrarians."

I talked to Abele this week and he admitted that there was some irony here.

"I guess you could look at it that way," he said. "But my support for Shakespeare was my money or the foundation's money. This is your money."

This wasn't really much of a program. It would pair a juvenile offender with an instructor from the UWM theater program, which has enjoyed a reputation as a world class school, and they'd work on Shakespeare.

Eventually they'd stage one of the plays. The idea, of course, is that if you show these kids something as moving and important as Shakespeare, it might help them move away from a life of crime.

And the whole thing was going to cost $65,000. The County Executive's office probably throws away $65,000 in wasted paper each year. This is what they call pocket change. Abele, though points out, "it's your pocket change."

There was an avalanche of high profile criticism, led by Sheriff David Clarke, who is probably going to run against Abele in a couple of years. He was aided by a roaring crescendo from conservative talk radio hosts who could barely contain their gleeful disgust over the idea. I had to wonder if any of these guys had ever even seen a Shakespearean play.

And I wonder what Clarke might say about his D.O.T.S. program that runs almost a million dollars a year and has almost no research or results to back it up. It's commonly referred to as the sheriff's boot camp.

I don't think Abele caved to critical chorus. One good way to look at this is it's proof that Abele is very, very serious about getting the county's financial house in order. When he pays attention to a $65,000 allocation for something that is dear to his heart, it shows that this is a man who is living up to his word.

It's not like this idea is some crazy untested notion. Programs that use theater and music and art to help kids deal with some emotional issues and behavior problems have been around for decades, with lots of evidence that they work.

Young kids who get involved in the criminal justice system aren't hardened crooks yet. There is still a chance to turn their lives around. And if anything has a chance to do it, we really ought to try.

The idea of this program might work here in Milwaukee. And it might not.

I'm pretty sure Abele would approve a trial run of this program if they came back next year with a well-thought-out, detailed plan. By the way, that's not something that actors are especially good at.

But when it costs $100,000 to keep one kid incarcerated in a state institution for one year, that $65,000 seems like a bargain if it will work. it's at least worth a try. Give it two years. If it doesn't work, "Off with its head."

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.