By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Oct 15, 2009 at 9:04 AM

When Renaissance Theaterworks was created in the early ‘90s as Milwaukee's first and only women's theater company, the founders emphasized that they welcomed and loved men. Most of the organizers were married, several had sons. There would be no battle of the sexes going on with this group.

It is a good thing the company did not introduce itself to the public with "The Smell of the Kill," the show it opened last Friday. Its credibility would have been destroyed.

OK, that is written with tongue in cheek, just as Michelle Lowe penned her deliciously dark and sly comedy about a trio of affluent women from Chicago's northern suburbs bumping off their husbands when the opportunity unexpectedly arises. Although fickle Broadway audiences didn't support a 2002 production of "Smell," the single-act show has been popular in regional theater, and Renaissance's skillfully executed staging, directed by Reva Fox, demonstrates the reason.

"The Smell of the Kill" is set in an upscale kitchen in Wilmette after the dishes have been cleared from the dining room table at a monthly floating dinner party. The wives of three college roommates have retreated to the granite countertops while their husbands agitate for dessert and practice their golf putting on the other side of the door.

Some friction exists between the women, who are not close, and as they interact, the cracks in their marriages gradually come into focus. An evening that began as a rather tedious social gathering becomes a raucous romp into manslaughter and sisterhood.

Lowe's nearly breathless pacing of her dialog and the cast's ability to speak it with ease are keys to the show's success. If you can't get the rhythm, the comedy loses its juice.

Julie Swenson, playing the most aggrieved wife, sets the tone with an exquisitely wry and bitter performance that serves as the engine for the dialog's swift stride. Karen Estrada proves she is ready for prime time in Milwaukee with a sweet and deftly controlled comic portrait of a dumb brunette. Melinda Pfundstein ably rounds out the wifely trio.

An arm poking through an open door is the most we see of any of the doomed husbands, but we do hear them, courtesy of voices provided by Charles Hanel and Doug Jarecki.

"The Smell of the Kill" continues through Nov. 1.

Speaking of Renaissance Theaterworks, Chicago actress Tanya Saracho, who played the title role in the company's 2008 production of "Fat Pig," is also a playwright, and two of her works, "Our Lady of the Underpass" and "Kita y Fernanda," have been nominated for Jefferson Awards in the best new play category. The Jeffs, as they are called, are the Windy City's equivalent of a Tony. The effervescent Saracho will learn Sunday if she is a winner.

Before each performance of "Bunk Bed Brothers" at the Marcus Center's Vogel Hall, John McGivern welcomes the audience to "a sophisticated evening of sophomoric humor." That describes the show in a nutshell.

Authored by television writers Pat Hazell and Matt Goldman, the confection is a perfect fit for the physical comedy of McGivern and frequent stage collaborator Chris Tarjan. The competent script provides the outline for the two actors to comically riff on their familiar but still funny performing personae. 

In "Brothers," the men play adult siblings who have returned home to attend their ancient grandparents' wedding anniversary party. They are back for a night in the bedroom in which they grew up. 

McGivern's character is a gay magazine writer who with his unseen partner is awaiting the birth of their child, by way of a surrogate mother.Tarjan is a straight and charming slob with a mountain of financial debt from a failed business. The bedroom, which is jammed with 1960s and ‘70s kiddie kitsch, is an important supporting character. The brothers relive moments from their childhoods, often grabbing stuff from shelves and a closet to regress back to being rambunctious rivals.

The show really exists for McGivern and Tarjan to be their highly entertaining selves, and the two performers don't disappoint. They are a team steeped in comic savvy, right down to the scripted onstage gaffes that appear to be genuine. Milwaukee theater veteran Richard Halverson adds a delightfully tart touch as the brothers' dad.

"Bunk Bed Brothers" stumbles only at the end, when it gets mushy with an ill-advised stab at sentimentality. The production runs through Nov. 15.

Milwaukee's stage professionals are getting behind Uprooted Theatre, the city's new African-American theater company that debuted during the summer. Rep artistic director Joe Hanreddy has joined the troupe's board and is talking up the group in the community.

Some of Milwaukee's best known actors will perform in Uprooted's first fund raiser, "Against Type! AKA: Roles I'll Never Play But Could," on the calendar for 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Cool Water Bar and Grill, 2247 E. St. Francis Ave., St. Francis. The concept is folks such as Jim Pickering, Angela Iannone, Chris Flieller, Julie Swenson, Raeleen McMillion and the Uprooted actors will sing songs and deliver monologs that would normally be inappropriate for them.

Tickets are $50 and can be reserved by calling Cool Water at (414) 810-3975.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

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.