The 2015-16 theater season in Milwaukee is just underway, and looking ahead, there is the promise of outstanding productions that will stimulate audiences to laugh, think and weep.
It’s an appropriate time to look back at the 2014-15 season that provided so much interesting theater. Milwaukee is fortunate to have so many theater companies, both old favorites and bold new groups. We have a wealth of great theater that is abundant for a city our size.
Having said that, there are some productions that stand out and so I have compiled my list of the 15 best plays that I saw last season. The task of winnowing the list to just 15 is a difficult one and many worthy productions were left off the list. But here it goes.
One of the most surprising things is that the top five plays I saw were all one man or one-woman shows. That’s a rarity but also testimony to outstanding and innovative scripts and performances.
The best play I saw, by far, was "An Iliad" at American Players Theatre with James DeVita. Just fifteen months earlier, DeVita earned raves for doing the same play at the Milwaukee Rep. Instead of the warrior he was in the first production, this one turned DaVita into a professor of history. It was moving and just as powerful as the first one. Only an actor of DeVita’s stature could pull off this amazing double bill.
"The Kreutzer Sonata"
James Pickering is an actor who can match DeVita, and he brings an amazing array of emotion to "The Kreutzer Sonata" staged by Renaissance Theaterworks. The story he tells is of love and jealousy and pleasure and a man and woman in love, told in the cabin on a train bound for somewhere. The music of Colleen Schmitt on piano and Joseph Ketchum on violin almost beome characters of their own in this magnificent production.
The one-woman show that makes my top five features the marvelous actor Marti Gobel in "No Child," produced by the fearless David Cecsarini at Next Act. Gobel plays all 16 characters, ranging from an 80-year-old janitor who acts as a narrator, to a white principal, to a Latina grandmother who just had one of her grandchildren murdered by a gang. And there is a gaggle of students, boys and girls, all minorities, all poor and all disaffected. All Gobel.
Chamber Theatre opened its season with the oft-performed "Master Class," the almost one-woman show about the life of opera singer Maria Callas. This is a role Angela Iannone was born to play, and she reaches new heights, capturing all the moodiness, humor and genius of Callas. Jill Anna Ponasik, who is the artistic director at Milwaukee Opera Theater, directed the production, along with James Zager, and the resulting collaboration creates magic.
Ponasik’s MOT comes in number five with "Lucy," an opera about a monkey. It tells the story of Dr. Maurice Temerlin, who, along with his wife, raised a chimp named Lucy as a child of their own. This experiment in cross-fostering ended after Lucy had been returned to her natural habitat and her remains were found on the island. The opera begins when Temerlin, played, sung, acted and enwrapped by the spectacular Andrew Wilkowske, hears the recording of the report of her death. It kicks him into a journey of memory through the years they lived as a family and the audience into an absolutely mesmerizing production.
"The Good Father"
Artistic Director C. Michael Wright took "The Good Father" by Irish playwright Christian O’Reilly and gave it to real life couple Jonathan Wainwright and Laura Gray. The result was such a magnificent performance by both of them that that I truly believed the entire play could have been performed without words and the story would have been just as clear. It’s a couple’s story full of humor, romance and searing tragedy.
"The Snow Dragon"
In Milwaukee, we are learning that the phrase "leave it to Skylight" means we are about to see something different and very important. That was the case with "The Snow Dragon," a powerful and insightful opera written by Thai Somtow Sucharitkul. It was a captivating production, so important that Skylight took it to Thailand for an overwhelmingly successful run.
"A Streetcar Named Desire"
Tennessee Williams’ "A Streetcar Named Desire" won a Pulitzer Prize nearly 60 years ago. There should be an equal prize for this APT production with Tracy Michelle Arnold as Blanche DuBois, the heart and soul of this story. Blanche is often played bigger than life, but Arnold kept her reins on this one, and the play was unlike any version I’ve ever seen.
The motto of First Stage is "Changing Lives Through Theatre" and never was that more true than with the brilliant production of "Luchadora." With a splendid cast of adults and children and a marvelous set from Sarah Hunt-Frank – all under the direction of Jeff Frank – this play fully realizes the work of playwright Alvaro Saar Rios who teaches playwriting at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Leave it to Dale Gutzman and his puckish cohorts at Off The Wall Theatre to create a compelling version of "Odyssey." It is the work of director Gutzman and John Angelos, a Milwaukee professor of literature. They’ve rewritten the poem, which runs between 400-500 pages, and it cuts like a steak knife into the heart of the story and the price paid by our warriors when we send them into battle.
"The Glass Menagerie"
Angela Iannone hit her second home run of the season with her portrayal of the many levels of Amanda in the "Glass Menagerie" production at In Tandem. Under the brave and creative direction of Mary MacDonald Kerr, a spectacular cast of actors took one of the icons of American theater and stood it on its ear. In the course of that adventure, Kerr made sure that one of the most storied characters in all of this country’s theatrical library developed new and fascinating layers
The curtain rises! Lust! Treachery! Deep Loyalties! Clashes of classes! Fury! Doubt! Cheating! It sounds like Shakespeare, but it really is "Good People," the David Lindsay-Abaire play at Milwaukee Rep. Guided with a slow and steady hand by Kate Buckley, "Good People" is a story of where we all call home, how we either get out or get stranded and how we are generally powerless to do anything about either one. Laura Gordon gives a performance for the ages as the beleaguered Margie.
"Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution"
It hardly matters that Stephen Massicotte’s "Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution" is about the battle between those who believe in evolution and those who believe in creationism. It could just as easily be about abortion, or gun control, or capital punishment. And it takes a fearless theater like Next Act to tackle all of these questions without having the need to wrap things up in a bow and send us all home happy.
The two wicked stepsisters in "Cinderella," which opened the season at Skylight Music Theatre, set its tone early by going bowling, chain smoking cigarettes, slamming down booze straight from the bottle, taking a selfie and waking up in a color-drenched bedroom, hung over and exhausted. Right away you knew this wasn’t Disney’s version of the folk tale but a modern mounting of the opera by Gioachino Rossini. In its recent past, the Skylight has moved almost exclusively into the world of musical theater, consistently producing stellar musicals usually familiar to an audience This was was a clear indication that under the artistic direction of Viswa Subbaraman, opera is back.
"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised)"
A rollicking production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised)," at Chamber Theatre was the funniest play of the season. This madcap sendup of the Bard is predicated, as we are told in the prologue, as "a feat unprecedented in the history of civilization." All of Shakespeare’s 37 plays in under 90 minutes. C. Michael Wright put four classmates from the respected theater program at Whitewater on a stage full of props and turned them loose.
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 OnMilwaukee.com 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.