Maybe there’s some truth in the notion that tough times inspire great art: while 2013 was no great shakes as a year, Milwaukee theater companies— particularly small, independent companies—again proved what a vibrant performance scene we have in Milwaukee. We can’t resist the urge to look back and create a thoroughly biased look at some of the performance years’ most original, surprising, shocking, beautiful, hilarious and and thought-provoking theater moments. 2013 saw a lot of fun, interesting wok: Alchemist’s Lesbian-accented Dracula, Off the Wall’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, Quasimondo’s sociopolitical circus Americlown, and World's Stage’s impressive trilogy of works by the challenging Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. But every now and then a sweet confluence of script, design, and the right actors in the right roles summons up true theatrical magic. These were some of them:
Fawlty Towers by Carte Blanche Stage Company
This staging of three episodes from John Cleese’s classic BBC comedy broke no artistic ground, but succeeded largely through Tony Wood’s spot-on rendition of the perpetually pissed-off Basil and Michelle White as his sarcastic wife Sybil, with James Dragolovich giving us a perfect Manuel. This visit to 80s England was even funnier live than it was on the screen.
Bacchanalia by the Quasimondo
2013 saw the sad decline of Youngblood Theatre (they’ve produced one small show since artistic director Michael Cotey evidently moved on to greater things), but we’ll always have fond memories of their quirky, lyrical shows. Fortunately, Brian Rott’s company rose up to meet our needs for offbeat performance, creating an ambitious season of original group work, sometimes rough but always brimming with ideas. Bacchanalia was their most polished show, turning their industrial performance venue into a miniature Greek amphitheater. This musical romp through Ovid’s Metamorphosis and western philosophy was funny, scary and gorgeous to look at.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch by Smithereen Productions
Definitely one of the best shows of the year, this was the versatile Jordan Gwiazdowski’s farewell to Milwaukee. John Cameron Mitchell’s saga of cosmic love, with its hapless transgendered heroine, got a great live band, some smart musical upgrades, and a wickedly awesome wig to back up Gwiazdowski’s amazing spiritual striptease. Virtually perfect.
King Lear by Alchemist Theater
Another perfect show, with Bo Johnson’s human-scaled Lear and David Flore’s revelatory Fool, everything about his show, from the smartly-edited text , to the sensitive sound design, to Aaron Kopeck’s amazing abstract set, glowed from the inside with sheer love of the play. One could only wish this gang would get together again!
Hamlet by Cooperative Performance Milwaukee
Another new bunch of kids, creating a respectful take on the venerable warhorse in an indoor-outdoor performance at Villa Terrace, this play galloped along on the stunning performance of Catherine Friesen as the melancholy Prince; she made the hoary old role seem fresh. More, please!
Ragtime by the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre
E.L. Doctorow’ epic of American’s tumultuous turn of the last century featured cameo appearance from historical figures like Henry Ford, Harry Houdini and Booker T. Washington. This was the best use yet of the Rep’s heavy financial guns, combining flashy design, a wonderful orchestra, and great performers from out of town. From the jaw-dropping opening number, this show kept on hitting theatrical home runs. Highbrow, socially-responsible art at its very best.
Grey Gardens The Musical at Off the Wall Theatre
This wry, witty, bleak musical, adapted from a documentary of mother and daughter spinsters from Jackie Bouvier-Kennedy’s elite WASP clan, soared on Dale Gutzman’s creative staging and especially Niffer Clark’s outstanding performance as “Old Edie” in her youth and “Young Edie” in her maturity. An unforgettably haunting tragicomedy that no other company in town would attempt—and one of the year’s best.
Closing Night by Alchemist Theatre
The climax of The Alchemist’s year of horror-themed theater, Closing Night was the haunted fun house of your dreams, letting you loose in two floors of interactive rooms that Aaron Kopec and his minions packed with diabolically clever hidden clues, revealed by finding hidden switches, triggering motion sensors or interacting with spirits of the recently murdered. Possibly the most fun you could have in 90 minutes all year.
The 7 Person Chair Pyramid High Wire Act, by the DIY touring company known as Die Vorfüreffekt
It’s kind of unfair to bring this up, since only about 30 people saw it, but it was definitely one of the year’s highlights. Donna Sellinger, (a.k.a. “Donna Oblongata”) is a kind of theatrical Pilgrim: every year for the past few years, she brings a friend or two on a nation-wide tour, in tiny, obscure venues, with amazing shows blending puppetry, projections, song, and lovingly-crafted sets that, like the scripts, collage together whimsical disparate elements to generate a big aesthetic charge. This year’s show, featuring a talking bat, a lonesome Yeti, Charles Darwin, and the Flying Wallendas, was totally enchanting, and one-of a kind.
The news might have been hard to take this year, but our performing artists kept our minds and hearts open with eye-catching, provocative, daring and well-crafted work. Good job, Milwaukee!