The most inventive theater in Milwaukee is happening at a grade school
Forget "The Wizard of Oz." Last year, the kids of Highland Community School performed an original play based on iconic indie director Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man," an impressive and impressively bonkers feat that only seems normal compared to their previous show: a detective story inspired by David Lynch. Yes, THAT David Lynch – the one behind the horrifying dumpster monster and the eerie small-town murder mysteries and the nightmarish surrealism.
So when Barry Weber, the performing arts director at Highland – an MPS-chartered Montessori school in the former MacDowell building on 17th and Highland – calls the school's next play its most experimental one yet, yeah, you pay attention.
"I'm still trying to write shows that, hey, if I was a kid, would I have really loved to do this," said Weber, in the midst of a recent dress rehearsal, wrangling his energetic young actors while also excitedly preaching to them the virtues of "Castlevania II: Simon's Quest."
That NES classic, plus a whole slew of 1980s fantasy RPGs and choose-your-own-adventure stories, form the inspiration for "Quest for the Sacred Orb," which premiered Tuesday night and will hit the stage again Thursday night at 6:30 p.m.
And as with many of those mystical journeys of yore, the story – about two rival tribes, the Forthrack Warriors and the Mages, seeing past their differences and uniting to defeat an ancient resurrected evil – is a delightful deluge of dense mythology, containing a dictionary's worth of made-up names, powers and magical trinkets to remember, ominous evil forces and a whole lot of crazy, playtime-come-to-life fun.
And that's even before the crowd gets involved, as the RPG and choose-your-own-adventure references aren't just for show. Weber's story incorporates multiple fight sequences – located in a flashy "battle-mode" world, scored by roaring glam rock – where characters face off using turn-based combat, with the audience yelling out what attacks to use against their enemy. It's loud and chaotic and sometimes incomprehensible – and, for Weber, exactly the goal.
"I saw a group out of Chicago called the Backroom Shakespeare, and I saw them do 'Midsummer' this summer," Weber recalled. "Their whole thing is that it's serious actors at a bar, and they talk about not turning off your phones, chew as much candy as you want. They want that rowdy experience of theater, and it was one of the greatest things I'd ever seen. They're interacting with the crowd, and the crowd's booing and cheering and guzzling libations. It felt like a pro wrestling event.
"So I thought, because our crowds are so usually loud and fun here, how could we do something that works off of that? So this is the experiment!"
Weber calls the show "the hardest one they've done so far," and watching "Quest for the Sacred Orb," you can tell the difficulty level has been set on Very Hard Mode. The dialogue, with all of the tribes, fantasy jargon and not just one but two potential endings, is no "Our Town," and the amount of scene changes, lighting cues and microphones running on and off the stage could intimidate even the most veteran, "Turn Off The Dark"-hardened Broadway crew. Those are all elements in their control, too; the hardest part of such an interactive show is completely out of their hands, and that's the crowd itself.
"It's really hard, I think, to get an audience into the show without making them feel like they're being put on the spot," Weber admitted. "So my hope and goal is that this comes closer to being seen as a social event, for our kids and our families."
Watching the show Tuesday night, that's exactly what "Quest for the Sacred Orb" hath wrought: a social event of gleeful screaming and cheering and delighted bafflement.
Entering the gym, parents, relatives and intrigued theater-goers are split into their two rival sides, handed their sheet of moves and handed off to the kids for a night of crazily charismatic chaos. Weber did some energetic warming-up to help the audience out at the beginning of the show, but from there it was the giddily excited kids on stage that got their parents and schoolmates shouting and smiling throughout the night.
The crowd lustily booed the show's villain – who responded, like any good WWE heel, with taunting muscle moves and smug growls into the mic. The battles were intense messes of cries, slashes and, by the end, vigorous cheers at a smartly choreographed (and never more timely) ode to teamwork and unity in the face of darkness.
It was an utterly unique atmosphere – a spectacle beyond just kids joyfully playing in worlds inspired by pop culture relics from before their time. In past years, Weber's talked about writing shows with fun roles for all – no cutesy, thankless tree roles made more for shutterbug parents than the kids themselves – and "Quest for the Sacred Orb" follows that tradition. Everyone has a role; everyone gets to do something and be a part of the show.
"I love doing theater," said 12-year-old Aden Neal, who plays the villain, before talking about his love of the fight scenes, discussing how he watched old WWE clips to help prepare for the role and detailing how he hopes to keep acting as he grows up. The rest of the young cast was just as excited, gathering around to talk about the thrill of being on stage – and realizing you actually remember your lines! – digging into the themes of the show and how it marks, as one said, "the experience of a lifetime, to be honest."
And while it came with the kind of struggles you'd expect from a grade-school production – much less one of this level of complexity – they're easily overlooked in the name of witnessing the kids commit so eagerly to a show on stage and excitedly chat about it off stage. At one point during the dress rehearsal, the sacred orb – dropping from the ceiling with the help of a pulley – got stuck, and Weber came to help, with the prop and the young performers.
"I can see the kids, because they still care and want everything to go perfectly," Weber said, "and I've been coaching them about, 'Oh heck, let's just do a show!'"
A show they have done – and created some of the most daring, one-of-a-kind and thrilling theater in the city at that, regardless the age of the performers.
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