By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jan 14, 2010 at 9:01 AM
Unable to find a single redeeming virtue in winter, I am approaching the time of year when I go in search of hope. A very early spring, with an ETA of say, March 1, crosses my mind. Of course, I quickly recover my senses and remind myself that this is Wisconsin, and May 1 qualifies as an early spring here.

The start of baseball spring training in February is an annual occurrence that briefly spikes my spirits, and then I remember that a Brewers opening day was once snowed out at the old County Stadium. I'm too morose to hunt for the first robin or crocus, but I brighten my mood with thoughts of that old friend who has been with me through thick and thin for 30 years. Theater.

The second half of the 2009-10 season still awaits us, and in Milwaukee there are always promising productions on the horizon. So let's take a look ahead through Memorial Day and choose some shows to eagerly anticipate.

I hasten to point out that I am not pre-judging productions. These are not predictions of excellence and should not be considered reviews. I am simply saying that these shows have the potential to be interesting.

We need look only to Friday to spot the first production, Renaissance Theaterworks' "Blackbird," written by Scottish playwright David Harrower. First staged in 2005 at the famed Edinburgh International Festival and subsequently produced in London, New York and regional theaters around the U.S., the intense drama elicits strong responses from audiences. The play observes a meeting between a middle-aged man and a twentysomething woman 15 years after they had a sexual relationship.

The Renaissance staging, which runs through Feb. 7, features American Players Theatre actors Brian Mani and Carrie Coon.

Intensity seems to be a theme in Milwaukee theater this month. The fledgling Youngblood Theatre Company will open Adam Rapp's graphic story of erotic fixation, "Red Light Winter," Jan. 21 at the Alchemist Theatre in Bay View.

The play began at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2005, and it was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Expect to see a lot of skin. The Youngblood production runs through Feb. 6.

Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman likes to explore jagged edge topics, and the Next Act Theatre staging of his "Purgatorio" co-stars David Cecsarini and Angela Iannone. If you've seen much theater here in the last 20 years, you know that Iannone simply breathes with intensity.

"Purgatorio" is Dorfman's contemporary mashup of "Medea" and Dante's "Divine Comedy." A man and a woman are alone in a stark room, and they may be patient and doctor, prisoner and interrogator, or perhaps accused and judge.

Big issues are analyzed as the drama plays out. The show is being offered from Jan. 29 to Feb. 21.

Neil Haven is the best comic playwright to come out of Wisconsin in more than 25 years. Up to this point in his young career, his comedies are not profound but they are undeniably funny. That is the good news behind In Tandem Theatre Company's decision to stage Haven's "Stuck," a tale about an agoraphobic hotel elevator operator and her accidental involvement with some extra-marital hanky panky.

A strong cast of local actors -- Alison Mary Forbes, Karen Estrada, Libby Amato, Doug Jarecki and Nicholas Harazin -- has been recruited, and the show will mark the Milwaukee debut of Madison's Leia Espericueta, who is currently shining there in Forward Theater Company's marvelous production of "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them." Look for "Stuck" Feb. 26 to March 14.

"Radio Golf" is the final work in the late August Wilson's peerless 10-play cycle about African-American life in the 20th century. It is set in 1997.

Wilson wrote in epic proportions, and his plays are almost always staged in large theaters. The Milwaukee Rep is going to mount "Radio Golf" in its 200-seat Stiemke Theater, an intriguing choice that offers the possibility of seeing and hearing the work in a subtly different way.

Although some of my theater friends don't agree, I believe Wilson is America's greatest playwright, and no opportunity to see his work should be missed. "Radio Golf" opens March 5 and continues through March 28.

A terrific national touring company of "Rent" featuring three of the original cast members played the Marcus Center Thanksgiving week, but I am betting that the Skylight Opera Theatre's staging of the musical will have its own delicious rewards.

I've already heard two of the Skylight leads, Julia Black and Tommy Hahn, sing numbers from the show, and they are clearly ready for prime time. The production will run from May 21 to June 20.

So there we have it, a lot to anticipate, and I already feel better.

Combat Theatre Turns 10

The group with the funny name, Bunny Gumbo Productions, offers a remarkably unusual product, Combat Theatre, and this weekend marks its 10th anniversary. To celebrate, another edition of Combat Theatre, the 20th, will be held Friday and Saturday at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, 325 W. Walnut St.

Here is the Combat Theatre recipe. Eight playwrights, eight directors and 30 actors take eight original scripts from initial concept to performance in 24 hours. Because it's so much fun, the process begins anew immediately following the end of the first night's show. Play topics, circumstances, settings, directors and actors are randomly plucked from hats.

Each piece is about 15 minutes in length. The writers usually pull all-nighters.

During the past 10 years, 372 new plays have been created and presented. Randy Rehberg is the most prolific playwright, authoring 36 separate pieces. He has written for each edition of "Combat Theatre."

Katie Cummings has directed the most plays, 23, and Robert W.C. Kennedy holds the record for acting in the most plays. The exact number is a trivia question that will be posed at this coming weekend's Combat Theatre.

What's it like to be an actor in a play that has been written and rehearsed in just 24 hours? Paul Helm tells us: "Imagine, if you will, a frightened actor, wearing nothing but a grown-up diaper, portraying a sumo wrestler aboard the Mayflower, standing in front of hundreds of people, and he forgets his line. Completely forgets."

Helm reports some ad lib grunting and an impromptu piggyback ride with another actor got him out of the dilemma.

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.