Make me care at the theater
Every time you go to the theater you have a right to ask, why should I care? Stories and characters must earn your interest. Better yet, they should engage you, form a bond.
Two plays currently receiving productions in Milwaukee raise this issue for drastically different reasons.
Next Act Theatre has opened its handsome and comfortable new 150-seat theater in the Fifth Ward with a documentary play, "The Exonerated." Wife and husband writing team Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen used court records, news media reports and interviews to fashion a dramatic piece about six real persons wrongly convicted of crimes and sentenced to death before ultimately being vindicated. The stage script was adapted for a subsequent TV movie.
Ten actors flesh out the half dozen stories, which are told in overlapping narratives. Spouses, prosecuting and defense attorneys, cops and a conniving career criminal join the principal characters on stage.
As theater, "The Exonerated" is rather flat and unexceptional. The writers chose to have the five men and one woman who escaped death row present their cases in a low key, conversational style that addresses the audience. The theatricality is minimal and the writing is rather prosaic.
But "The Exonerated" has a vivid point of view that buries the play's artistic shortcomings for the self-selecting segment of citizenry that regularly goes to theater. The American justice system is sometimes the injustice system.
Your race is a significant factor in determining whether you will be accused and convicted of a crime you did not commit. Police and prosecutors aren't always focused on putting the truly guilty behind bars. Any unlucky schmuck will do.
The message is powerful, and while it is not a surprising revelation for anyone familiar with the way justice is applied in some places, it reaches audiences. It gives them a strong reason to care.
Next Act's production offers an example of solid ensemble acting. Led by Alfred H. Wilson, Ethan Henry and Olivia Dawson, the cast includes James Pickering, Jonathan Wainwright, Tami Workentin, Bo Johnson, Lee Palmer, Rick Richter and Lisa Golda. Some of the actors play multiple roles.
"Mrs. Mannerly," a character-driven comedy being given a lively production by In Tandem Theatre Company, is a very different situation. It never demonstrates why we should care.
The two-actor piece was written by Jeffrey Hatcher, a veteran Minneapolis playwright from whom we expect better than this. "Mrs. Mannerly" is a semi-autobiographical memory play of a 9-year-old boy in rough and tumble Steubenville, Ohio taking an etiquette class from a stuffy schoolmarm-ish older woman.
The humor consistently misfires. Mucous jokes rarely appeal to adult audiences. The tale teases us with hints that there is something juicy to reveal about the teacher but it doesn't deliver the goods.
This chapter in dramatist Hatcher's young life most likely has meaning for him, but it doesn't for us, and the level of levity – boys' locker room – is tinged with a trace of bad taste.
"Mrs. Mannerly" does offer its two actors a huge opportunity to display their physical acting chops, and the In Tandem cast shines. While the script isn't funny, Chris Flieller is as he plays multiple juvenile roles and serves as the show's adult narrator.
Physical humor is a quality we have never seen before from veteran actress Jacque Troy, and we now know we have been missing something quite delightful.
Kudos to designer Scott Wirtz-Olsen for his highly evocative YMCA rumpus room set.
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