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Next Act Theatre will stage two plays by Lauren Gunderson in the 2017-18 season. (PHOTO: flickr.com)

Renaissance and Next Act set inventive 2017-18 season schedules

Two of the most inventive and provocative theater companies in Milwaukee – Renaissance Theaterworks and Next Act Theatre – have announced programs for next season chock full of fascinating possibilities.

Both theater companies have distinct and precise missions and the season schedules are dedicated to fulfillment of those missions.

As it enters its 25th season, Renaissance has built a reputation for a steadfast commitment to increasing opportunities for women. The motto of "Theater by Women for Everyone" is evident in the season coming up.

It will kick off with "Sex with Strangers," featuring the talented young director Mallory Metoxen at the helm. The play, starring Marti Gobel and Nick Narcisi, is about a frustrated 40-ish novelist, Olivia, who meets fast-talking, twenty-something, blogger and memoirist Ethan, known more for his sexual prowess than his prose. She worries that she will become just another chapter in his little black book. Their funny and passionate union blurs the lines between rewrites, romance and royalties, proving you can't judge a book by its author. playwright Laura Eason is a also a producer/writer for the Emmy award-winning "House of Cards."

Laura Gordon, a force of theatrical nature in Milwaukee will direct "Russian Transport" by Erika Sheffer. A rowdy Russian immigrant family living and hustling in Brooklyn's underbelly scrambles to get by, stretching limits to try and achieve the American dream. Dark family secrets emerge when their dangerously charming Uncle Boris arrives from Russia. Just after bear hugs and shots of vodka are exchanged, Boris begins exerting a sinister influence on the whole family. The cast features April Paul, Max Pink, Elizabeth Ledo, Reese Madigan and Mark Puchinsky.

The final show of the season, "Top Girls," will be directed by Suzan Fete, one of the company's founders who has a world-class cast to work with, including Allie Babich, Libby Amato, Elyse Edelman, Mary MacDonald Kerr, Carrie Hitchcock, Cassandra Bissel and Grace DeWolff. "Top Girls" by Caryl Churchill is the story of Marlene, promoted to managing director based on merit over her senior male colleagues. She celebrates by hosting a dinner party at a posh restaurant for five legendary women from history, literature and art. Subsequently, these ladies become Marlene's co-workers, clients and relatives, all of whom rejoice in the success and lament the sacrifices required to "have-it-all."

David Cecsarini's Next Act has built a reputation for provocative productions that tap into emotional and intellectual currents in the country.

The season opens with "Silent Sky" by Laura Gunderson, who also wrote the hit play "The Taming," staged by Next Act this season. Cecsarini will direct the show that features Deborah Staples in a return to the stage where she has so often created magic. Gunderson pays tribute to the group of uniquely talented and hard-working women who toiled behind the scenes of early 20th-century astronomy.

The story takes place at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, where grave men peer through their giant telescope. Behind the scenes, Henrietta Leavitt and her female "computer" partners map the distant stars in galaxies beyond our own. Brilliant and determined, Henrietta's work paves the way for modern astronomy, but she struggles for recognition in a man's world. In this magical story of science, history, family and love, a passionate young woman maps her own passage through a society determined to keep her in her place.

Next comes "The Secret Mask" by Canadian playwright Rich Chafe. The production will be a United States premiere, after playing to acclaim in Canada since 2011.

In his quirky and subtle story, author Chafe takes us inside the shifting dynamics of one such family. Almost 40 years after Ernie walked out on the family, his son George is contacted to help the old man cope with the aftermath of a stroke. As Ernie struggles to regain language and memory, George works to overcome his hurt and resentment, caring for a father he never knew. Each man tries to make sense of the past while preparing for their uncertain, newly-entwined future.

This is a quiet tale, rich with humanity, personal challenge and intimate victories. Along the way, Ernie's battle to regain language makes for some humorous moments, some which resonate deeply. As son George learns to understand Ernie's regrets, it becomes a moving parable of prodigal fathers. Milwaukee veteran and treasure-on-stage James Pickering will bring imperfect-but-lovable Ernie to brilliant life on the Next Act stage, assisted by longtime friend and guest director Edward Morgan.

The very talented Michael Cotey returns to Milwaukee to direct a cast of high-powered men, James Ridge, Jonathan Smoots and Cecsarini in "Equivocation" by Bill Cain.

Playwright William Shagspeare is commissioned by Robert Cecil, the most powerful man in England, to write the true historical account of a failed terrorist attempt to kill King James I. But as Shag and his renowned theatrical troupe rehearse the so-called Gunpowder Plot play, they suspect the King's version might be a cover-up. Now Shagspeare, the greatest writer of his, or of any age, must decide whether to write a lie and lose his soul, or speak the truth and risk losing his head. In addition to Shagspeare and his daughter, four other actors play multiple roles, making lightning-quick transformations to unwrap this multi-layered mystery. The language is wonderfully literate without being stuffy and the political intrigue remarkably contemporary.

The season will close when Cecsarini directs another Gunderson play, "I and You," a gem that focuses upon two young people seeking connection. It is charming, witty and, when you least expect it, hits home with clarifying insight into the lives of teens. The revelation in the final minutes of this play will make your heart sing, and break, all at once.

Anthony arrives at his schoolmate Caroline's door bearing waffle fries, Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and an urgent homework assignment. Caroline is sick and hasn't been to school in months. She is as quick and sarcastic as Anthony is quiet and steadfast; both are smart as whips. As these two let down their guard, their seemingly mundane poetry project reveals a much deeper, more profound mystery that has brought them together.

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