The Milwaukee Rep will launch its next main stage season in September with a production of Stephen Sondheim's eccentric musical "Assassins," but tomorrow night a much smaller and sparer staging of the show opens only a few blocks from the Rep's Baker Theater Complex.
Windfall Theatre closes its 19th season with its chamber production of the musical about the men and women who have attempted, sometimes successfully, to kill an American president. Staging Sondheim comes more naturally to the small troupe, which over the years has mounted concert versions and full productions of the composer's works.
The company has a special affinity for Sondheim, producing his high profile ("A Little Night Music," "Sunday in the Park with George") and lesser known ("Anyone Can Whistle," "Merrily We Roll Along") shows. It has been the subject of a story in The Sondheim Review, a national magazine that is published quarterly. The Rep is a Sondheim rookie.
Of course, Windfall and the Rep are radically different organizations that offer audiences extremely different experiences. But they share some connections.
Windfall was founded by director Shawn Gulyas and actors Carol Zippel and Larry Birkett, who met while they were Rep interns. They liked working together, and launched their company on the proceeds of a tax refund check – a windfall. Other Rep interns have subsequently acted with the company, and Rep associate artistic director Brent Hazleton directed a production a few years ago.
With 40 Milwaukee premieres to its credit, Windfall has been an important contributor to the richness and diversity of local theater. Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Heidi Chronicles," David Mamet's "Boston Marriage," Craig Lucas' "The Dying Gaul" and the William Finn musical "A New Brain" are among the shows that made their Milwaukee debuts thanks to Windfall.
The company has also shown a willingness to explore the peculiar and the abstract, and it has staged world premieres of works from local writers.
All of this has been done in an unusual venue, the unconventional sanctuary of the Village Church, at Juneau and Edison. A rectangular room with no permanent altar, it can be configured any way Windfall desires. Fifty to 75 chairs are set out for the audience, the number depending on a show's requirements.
"The space is very quirky, but I love it," producing director Zippel recently said. She is directing "Assassins."
"It has great acoustics. It's a very live room. Being in the church has been a tremendous gift to us. The rent is very reasonable."
Seven people, including actors, directors and stage managers, are in Windfall's core ensemble, and the troupe brings in others as needed. Milwaukee theater veterans Ben George, Karl Miller and Tamara Martinsek are among those who have been added for "Assassins."
The show is accompanied by a piano, flute and snare drum.
"'Assassins' has always intrigued me," Zippel said. "You get an understanding of these historical figures as people. You understand their brokenness. It is chilling."
Youngblood's New Show
The most compelling scene in Youngblood Theatre Company's new production of "Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" is the first. A teenage temptress is trying to lure a boy from the virtual reality of online gaming to the actual reality of her.
Sexy girl versus geeky boy. Megan Kaminsky and Evan Koepnick play it well, with adolescent uneasiness and sharp comic timing.
But the production becomes fuzzy in subsequent scenes, and that's a problem. The script is about the blurring of realities. Nothing wrong with that.
The issue here is lack of clarity in acting and directing. Youngblood's usual professional sheen is not evident.
Los Angeles dramatist Jennifer Haley took an established literary theme, the soul-sucking wasteland of American suburban life, and gave it a 21st century twist. Teenagers in a subdivision are addicted to an online horror video game.
Using satellite photos and GPS technology, they can precisely replicate their own neighborhood. Zombies are involved.
Conjuring a faint whiff of Columbine, the play blends satire with drama. Attempting to separate the real from the game is a big part of the audience's fun.
That requires a sure hand and a deft touch from the director and actors. Those qualities are missing here.
"Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" is being staged in the basement of Miller and Campbell Costume Services, 907 S. 1st St.
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.