The Milwaukee Rep’s latest production, the drama "after all the terrible things I do," deals with some of today’s most difficult and challenging modern conversations; ones that as a society we are still working through – or maybe trying to avoid. Yet that’s not what scares the show’s lead actors, Mark Junek and Sophia Skiles, going into the show’s opening.
"We play employees at a bookstore, and it seems as though everyone in the room has actually worked at a bookstore at some point in their life," Junek said. "People are going to look at us and say, ‘They’re not actually shelving books. I don’t buy it.’ Everybody’s worked at bookstores! You can’t fake it."
They may seem like small details, but for Junek and Skiles, those small details will help make or break "after all the terrible things I do," lauded playwright A. Rey Pamatmat’s newest show, which makes its world premiere at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio on Wednesday, Oct. 1 and runs through Nov. 9.
"At the first rehearsal, we were moving books like robots, just moving them to move them," Junek said. "As the weeks have gone by, it’s been like, 'Here are the sections, and here is what we’re actually doing. Oh, I’m receiving! Normally, this would be in the back, but I’m doing it in the front because there’s only two booksellers right now.' You have to really think about how we’re running this business because if you don’t flesh out those details, you’ll know we're just faking it. Plus, as an actor, you want that life to be rich."
It’s a lot of detail for a fairly mundane-sounding premise: A young gay man (Junek) walks into a small bookstore run by a Filipino immigrant mother (Skiles) for a job interview. It’s a seemingly inauspicious premise, but as the show goes along and as the audience spends more time in the bookstore, tensions and past traumas begin to crack under the benign surface. It’s a story of several twists, turns and tense conversations, many of which about difficult topics gay and straight communities are still coping with and working through.
"For me, part of the intrigue was just Rey as a writer," Skiles said. "I think he’s extremely exciting, and for me, the story is so smart in its simplicity. There’s something about it that’s very benign and then as you read it or experience it, it grabs you before you realize it’s happening."
"There’s something in it that I find really accurate about the way I think and feel about my own personal life and the way I see other young men coming of age," Junek added. "It’s accurate in its assessment of the current issues that some young men are, I think, dealing with at this moment. And he’s tapping into something really important and powerful and difficult to talk about."
The show may be about today’s issues – Skiles, for instance, did much research and inspiration from the tragic case of bullied gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi – ones on the tips of many people’s tongues but gone unspoken. Both actors, however, noted that what drew them to "after all the terrible things that I do" was that it is no issue-laiden diatribe.
"The important thing, as artists, is that it’s not about a forum of ideas; it’s about telling a story," Junek said. "It’s really important that, as we rehearse and strengthen the play, it not become a dialogue. It’s not about an interchange about how to identify with and treat gay people in this world. It’s about a story."
"(Theater) can embody these hard to articulate, hard to speak about things that make some of us uncomfortable," Skiles said. "But if you stage a moment and witness it, you can actually finally begin to get into these things."
It’s a show that, according to the two leads, tries to get at the complexity of the issues at hand – the dramatic side as well as the empathetic, human side.
"I think the first thing you have to is navigate with a sense of humor," Junek said. "We try to bring out as much life and joy and humor as there is in the script, which is more than I realized. There’s a balance of all of these heavy things with a kind of joyful humanity, a sense of humor and a sense of silliness. That’s how we’ve gone about creating this world."
Now they just have to make sure the books are organized correctly.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.