Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Sensitive ‘Painting Churches' Nobly Presented in Menasha
Theater has a way of taking us to places we ordinarily couldn’t or wouldn’t go.
Take the play “Painting Churches.”
We are in the home of Gardner and Fanny Church, who reside in the Beacon Hill sector of Boston, Massachusetts. Men like Gardner Church live in elite Beacon Hill, he with more than one Pulitzer Prize, presidential recognition and a portrait in the National Gallery. Fanny helped him earn all that by being a clever, strong and loving woman.
Gardner and Fanny are getting on and feeling a pinch of the pocketbook. Fanny notes that Gardner’s latest Pulitzer Prize money didn’t cover the real estate taxes. They are about to downsize.
Coming home to help them move – and accomplish a personal goal – is their daughter, Megs. Megs is a successful visual artist whose calendar includes a breakthrough exhibition in New York City. Megs would like to add one more painting – her parents in a formal portrait. Never mind that portraits are out of fashion, Megs figures she can apply her flair and techniques to make the painting suit a dynamic exhibition. Megs notes the reason to be for many portraits: “The other guy is exposed.”
Boy, are her parents exposed in the course of Megs’ few days with them.
At first, Megs is oblivious to telltale signs that her father is just about around the bend.
This has been a long way to say that “Painting Churches” is a remarkable play. It was first produced in 1983, prior to the phrase Alzheimer’s Disease coming into widespread public consciousness.
The play is now remarkable because of what playwright Tina Howe explored and how she explored it. Tina Howe was ahead of time with “Painting Churches.”
The play is further remarkable in its current production by Attic Chamber Theatre, Inc. A certain nobility is infused in its performance and direction. The result is as good as one could hope for in a community theater production. Everyone is motivated, and performances resonate.
In his program notes, director Berray Billington recalls his mother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s. That kind of awareness fuels a similar sensitivity in the players, who are fully clued into their characters.
Nancy Ernst, Mary Mageria and Gary Zurbuchen are all experienced actors, and all are at a performance peak.
Zurbuchen is Gardner, who is going goofy – forgetting things, peeing his pants, trying to write creatively after that train has left the station. At the same time, Gardner still has glorious flickers. Zurbuchen/Gardner recites sparkling, fecund poetry, and the play is laced with enchanting moments that more than hint what turned his wife, Fanny, on to him over all their years.
Ernst is Fanny, who is loopy in her own way but just eccentric rather than addled. Ernst walks the tightwire of humor/pathos in Fanny, who has watched her beloved Gardner disintegrate to a point where just about all there is left for her is to laugh sometimes. Ernst/Fanny also provides a brand of humorous irony in situations such as this: Fanny admonishes a bit of sloppiness by Gardner with, “You ought to pay more attention to your appearance.” Fanny is standing there with a sweater tossed over her black slip while atop her head is a garish red hat she picked up at a charity shop for 85 cents.
Mary Mageria is Megs, who has been away carving out a respected career. Megs also has made something of a career of being away from her parents, who she visits maybe once a year in part because they have a way of being hurtful. In a large scene, Mageria/Megs delivers an agonized remembrance of her treatment as a child. And yet, Megs is a gifted daughter who wants to do right by her parents with their final portrait. She will paint Gardner and Fanny Church, the Churches – thus the title of the play.
Expressing the Church’s refinement are the set and set pieces in the performance space in Lucia Baehman Theatre of the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley Arts Communication Arts Center. Music that dresses the play also has a luster, and Thursday night a string quartet played classical favorites in the lobby to further enhance the atmosphere.
With seating close at hand on three sides of the performance space, the audience is a fly on the wall to the family’s workings. There is much to see and discover – and take away.
On a personal note, I reviewed this play as presented in 1984 by the professional Peninsula Players Theatre of Door County and found it “a bittersweet, sometimes disturbing, sometimes endearing comedy.” The word “Alzheimer’s” was nowhere in the review because the name was not yet with us. I also wrote, “The story ends warmly, happily – but you know that sequence is but a brief oasis for the family.”
The present production includes a presence in the lobby of the Fox Valley Memory Project as a resource and connecting entity.
The whole of the production of “Painting Churches” by Attic Chamber Theatre, Inc. is an example of how meaningful and enriching theater can be for a community. It is theater of purpose.
Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Laughter/23rd Floor' Thrives on Ba-Da-Boomp Jokes in Menasha
How many jokes can there be about a blinding-white suit?
Or about the name for a Jewish Chinaman?
Or a hypochondriac’s digs about an Irishman’s heritage?
Or how crummy life is in Russia?
How many? I didn’t count in the play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” but there are plenty – among many other verbal gags – for Neil Simon to impress again as he recounts one of his building blocks to fame.
Attic Chamber Theatre Inc.’s cast and director Dee Savides do a crackling good job of fleshing out flashy, bizarre characters of personalities who shaped some of early comedy/variety TV.
And, hitting close to home, the story has abundant gouges of the life and work of the most masterful Red baiters of all, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (D-Wis). McCarthy grew up 10 or so miles away from where the play is being staged, Lucia Baehman Theatre of the Communication Arts Center at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley.
The time of the play is 1953, March to December. Side note: Television started in the area March 17, 1953. Inventor Philo T. Farnsworth, pulled the switch to put WBAY on the air as the first station in the area and second in Wisconsin.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is a memory play in more than one way.
Neil Simon recounts experiences being part of the writing staff for a NBC show (WBAY was CBS) for a way-out-there star. In the play, the star is Max Prince, who is given to running meetings in his boxer shorts, punching holes in walls with a fist and launching into comparisons of his mercurial personality with military greats of history. In real life, the star was Sid Caesar.
The play remembers comedy styles, too. In the entertainment scene, the era of frenetic, goofy burlesque was not long past. The writers in the play’s shows were mostly of the punch-and-run style. Nothing in the writers’ room, it seems, could pass without a ba-da-boomp joke popping up. Like this from the day of the death of Joseph Stalin. Russian-born writer: “Did you hear about Joseph Stalin?” Response: “Don’t tell me, Joe McCarthy put him on the blacklist.” Ba-da-boomp.
The play remembers the time of paranoia about Communism that included the banishment of Hollywood celebrities for alleged activities and affiliations – the notorious “blacklist.”
Amid colorful geysers of jokes and zany situations, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is painted with dark brushstrokes.
The play is hard to believe for all its truly remarkable oddball creative characters, though there still is a feeling that Neil Simon didn’t stretch things too far. Creativity tends to beget strange bedfellows.
Wildest of the bunch is Max Prince, played in full over-the-top glory by Stephen Savides, one of the region’s top-flight actors. Maniacal is apt.
Bolts of quirky energy zap all around – from L. Douglas Bord-Pire as fashion plate Milt, from Robert Ernst as Russian-born (excellently accented) Val, from Shannon Glenn as super-hypochondriac/egotist Ira, from Timothy J. Marsh as chain-smoking Brian, who is always one phone call away from Hollywood fame, from Kristine Glenn as soon-to-be (wisecracking) mom Carol, from Kristine Glenn as the sometimes-voice-of-reason Kenny (Kendra) and from Jehy Thompson as the somewhat dim secretary, Helen.
Aaron Geller isn’t quite as nutty as the others around his character, Lucas, who is narrator and participant and Neil Simon’s re-creation of himself 40 years after the fact. Lucas is something of a young innocent, the way Simon writes himself.
Action takes place in the writers’ room, which is stuffed with photos of stars of times past, a coffee/bakery table, writing tables and chairs with magazines (Newsweek, Life, etc.) that are actual and lend a touch of reality.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” doesn’t merely contain F-bombs, it thrives on them. There’s a running joke between Val and others that plays on Val’s pronunciation of the profanity. He eventually gets it right once – ba-da boomp.
This is another dependable production from Attic Chamber Theatre, Inc. No Joke.
Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Company' has an aura in Menasha
Attic Chamber Theatre
By: Warren Gerds
MENASHA, Wis. - Marriage is a funny thing, as in funny/ha-ha… and funny/peculiar… and funny/baffling. The musical “Company” covers some of that territory from the perspective of an outsider – a 35-year-old bachelor – looking to get in, maybe.
Further, the perspective of “Company” comes by way of Stephen Sondheim, whose sophistication with words and music has a certain Merlin-like magical knack.
The Attic Chamber Theatre community theater production of “Company” that’s playing to July 28 clues into the Sondheim ambiance in a visual way first. The story in the show starts without a word – with how Lucia Baehman Theatre is set up. Attic Chamber Theatre has chosen this space for all its productions. The theater is a black-box space – essentially a blank slate that is adaptable from production to production. For “Company,” this is the layout:
The audience is seated on three sides of the central, spacious performance space. In one corner is a formal piano. This is a musical. The music is live. The scenic backdrop is a silhouette of the New York City skyline. The focal skyscraper is the Chrysler Building. In the four corners of the performance space are raised areas that suggest a living space in an apartment building; some have a framework of windows, and one is a suggestion of a rooftop. From one apartment space, a bridge-like structure reaches to faux brickwork that suggests a tall building. Eventually, the four corner spaces will be populated by couples who will interact with the bachelor. This layout helps action flow. Theater is primarily words and action, but it is space, too.
“Company” is not theater lite or marriage/relationships lite. Director Berray Billington and his creative colleagues and the cast enfold the show’s elevated level of views on life. They’re wrapped into the psychology of it all.
Central is Bobby, first seen on his 35th birthday with all his coupled friends gathered to help him celebrate. Not seen at first are Bobby’s three single female friends. Thirty-five has become a watershed age for Bobby. Perhaps it’s a time to marry?
In this role, Brody Strachan likably explores Bobby’s conundrums with a fullness of characterization. Strachan looks comfortable in the part and its nuances. He sings well, too, with a bit of muscle. That said, “Being Alive” near the end of the show needs another approach for Strachan to get through without seeming spent.
The show has multiple layers – the individual couples; the women, separate; the men, separate; Bobby, alone; Bobby with each couple, separately; Bobby with his three women friends, separately; the women friends together; singing, solo; singing, as an ensemble; singing and dancing, as an ensemble. It’s a lovely stew, essentially about love – or the company folks keep.
The couples are tangy in their own way, and thoughtfully and mostly crisply played. They are, clockwise, from the audience’s left:
+ Sarah/Harry (Pamela Saulnier/Rob Konitzer) – filled with surprises. First, there’s stuff about divorce, and then what does Harry want to do with Bobby?
+ Joanne/Larry (Kelly Riesterer/James Risgaard) – oddities of the rich. Joanne is snotty, and Larry merrily blows it off because he wants the company. By the way, we Midwesterners have a hard time with Joanne’s (stereotyped) myopic New York City state of mind when she says, “I don’t even know where Chicago is.”
+ Amy/Paul (Jo Saindon/John Zhang) – She’s Catholic and flighty, and he’s Jewish and steady. Her wedding-day cold feet is a showcase for a frenetic, rapid-fire sequence that’s a high point in this production.
+ Peter/Susan (Jesse Lockstein/Jenny Hanrahan) – the most regular of the couples. Bobby joins the two in smoking pot, revealing the nature of the husband and wife’s relationship around their individual personalities. It’s an often-comic scene.
All of Bobby’s couple-friends have advice. The men, in general, opt for his bachelor freedom. The women, in general, picture Bobby as a lonely soul who spends his nights staring at the walls of his apartment; if a female friend enters the picture, there is something wrong with her, of course.
Spicing the tale are the women friends:
++ Marta (Stephanie Morelock) – a bit of a free spirit.
++ April (Laura Schlichting) – an airline attendant whose soft landing with Bobby is another highlight scene.
++ Kathy (Analiese Bradshaw) – who had a brush with marrying Bobby, if only he had asked.
One of the fun parts is the three women friends together in a song that assesses their thoughts on Bobby: “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”
This and that:
+++ Stephen Sondheim requires rapid-fire delivery. Sometimes articulation gets lost in this production.
+++ The show’s famous songs, “Company” and “Side by Side by Side,” are delivered with color.
+++ Wireless headsets are used for the cast members’ voices. Some musicals in spaces the size of the Baehman Theatre can get away without amplification, but that wouldn’t work here. “Company” at times has voices coming from many directions, so the sound system balances the voices (not always cleanly, though, on Thursday).
+++ Justin Krueger gets bonus points for setting the pace on piano and helping energized the songs and singers.
+++ Simple props set most scenes. One clever use is of some large (4x4-foot) ottomans. The ottomans are footstools, seats and, when two are put together – voila! – a bed.
Overall, the production is in keeping with the Attic Chamber Theatre consciousness of engaging its audience, with attention to strong production values. And “Company” is entertaining, particularly for couples.
Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Other Desert Cities' heated in Menasha
Attic Chamber Theatre Inc.
By: Warren Gerds
Posted: Jun 29, 2017 07:34 AM CDT
In Palm Springs, California, lives a family of means. Palm Springs has many families of means. This one’s mother was a movie star in her youth along with her sister; they starred in a popular series. The father was a star, too, a manly man in westerns and such; he went into politics and diplomacy. The mother and father speak of Nancy and Ronnie – the Reagans – and are of that circle and conservative leanings. Their children are creative sorts, of sorts. The daughter is a writer – travel magazine type, plus she came out with an accepted novel. The son is the producer of a TV show, a cheesy thing with a retired judge and bizarre litigants; the show is popular. When charting the societal straits, the children lean left. Family gatherings are like verbal gunfights at the O.K. Corral.
“Other Desert Cities” is a play about this family. The way refined community theater Attic Chamber Theatre Inc. sets up the stage is akin to voyeuristic. Perhaps the word is strong, but the impression is the audience is looking in on this family in its private, unguarded looseness. The family is surrounded on four sides by eyes and ears of which the family is unaware. The walls of its house are mere illusions. Thus is theater. The looker-inners can see and hear all. The play is designed to be best with such intimacy, for it gets into family secrets. Attic Chamber Theatre Inc. has a juicy production with a strong cast.
Creative: Playwright – Jon Robin Baitz; director – Michael Ajango; production designer – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; costume designer – Wendy Bauman; props master – Matthew Boerst; stage manager – Rebekah Clark; technical director – Elizabeth Ahles; production run crew – Ashley Hall, Jamie Rose
Cast: Polly – Nancy Ernst; Brooke – Mary Mageria; Trip – Adam Baurain; Lyman – Gary Zurbuchen; Silda – Gayle Grier
Playwright Jon Robin Baitz is incisive. He has to be because the people in his play are smart. They are doers. They have truckloads of foibles, but they are sharp.
The setup is it’s Christmas Eve. In the corner of the well-appointed Wyeth home is a white Christmas tree. The Wyeths are Jewish; Baitz wants us to smile about the irony while understanding a reality about the family.
The catalysts: Brooke Wyeth (Mary Mageria) has come home from the East Coast for the first time in six years. Part of it is the oil-water thing of politics in her family. She’s also been what the family first describes as blue. This has been more than being down in the dumps, it turns out. It is more than her having issues. She has had PROBLEMS, like being institutionalized. At length. Now she’s come home to tell everyone she’s written her second book, and she’s looking for her parents’ blessing. The book revolves around a brother whose tattered clothing and a suicide note were found on a ferry after his name was attached to a bombing that killed someone. The book describes how he took a radical path – drugs, sex, free-form and unwashed lifestyle – as he rejected the ways of his parents. The book will tell the truth about the family, Brooke insists.
There’s plenty of meat here for Christmas dinner, with leftovers until New Year’s.
The actors have plenty to work with and build complex characters, and the acting level is high. Solid all around. Director Michael Ajango helps bring the players to a completeness, a fullness, in their roles.
The play is somewhat about acting, so it’s interesting seeing the players turning the screws to bring tightness to the meaning of that element.
Nancy Ernst is the ice queen mother, very with it. Gary Zurbuchen has the air of ambassadorship, able to maneuver incendiary situations. Mary Mageria is the angst-laden, self-righteously propelled Brooke. Adam Baurain is what-the-hey, common sense son Trip. Gayle Grier lights the stage on fire as the actor-sister noisily drying out from decades of dedicated drinking.
“Other Desert Cities” is a soap opera in wolf’s clothing. There’s a delightful nastiness to it.
Side trip: Years ago, this play would have lit up the sky with public outrage over language and brusque handling of the political stances. Today, the f-bombs and J.C.’s seem a matter of course in this drama. Or maybe people who sniff possible offensive odor in the description stay away. At any rate, nobody angrily stomped out of Wednesday night’s opening performance.
The staging is interesting. The performance space is set up in a square. In one corner, windows are suggested. Otherwise, the viewing is open. The audience sits in three rows of seats on four sides of the stage; maximum seating around 120. The flooring is faux terra cotta tile (very large squares). The furniture speaks style and wealth. In one corner is a bar with a table for four. Sofas and comfy chairs are placed in other sectors. A bean bag seat comes into play. In the corner with the windows is a small fire place, with doorways on each side. In another corner is that Christmas tree.
The performance is highly conscious of the audience being on four sides. Performers continuously are on the move as they speak. There are a lot of impassioned monologues in the script, and they are done on the hoof, so to speak, with the actors speaking from different parts of the performance space.
The production has zing and crackle, and “Other Desert Cities” has a surprise. Interested? You should go.
Neil Simon's the sunshine boys
Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Sunshine Boys' lead crackles in Menasha
by Warren Gerds
MENASHA, Wis. - Seat A-11 is the front row. Stretch your legs, and your feet touch the performing surface. You could place your program on the prop desk at your elbow, but it would not be proper to invade the space of the play. In seat A-11, you virtually are in the room depicted in the play.
I kid the gent sitting next to me as he settles in, “I hope you know your lines. We’re in the show.”
Ha-ha. A funny little joke.
But sometimes life does us one better.
Funnier thing is, Chuck Wegner, the gent, WAS in the show presented by Attic Theatre. Twenty-eight years ago, he had the lead, Willie Clark, a crusty vaudeville performer.
Now he and his wife are catching “The Sunshine Boys” because they attend Attic Theatre performances regularly.
Wednesday’s opening night in Lucia Baehman Theatre in the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley Communications Arts Center was a bit special for other reasons. It was the first performance of the first production for the organization under its revised name, Attic Chamber Theatre. All performances will be in this theater in the three-quarters round and up close and personal.
By intermission, it’s clear that “The Sunshine Boys” is one of Neil Simon’s sharpest-written plays. His love of vaudeville performers oozes through his words. The guys playing the two old, old vaudevillians in the play have picked up on that – especially Dick Furniss as the central character, Willie Clark.
Neil Simon was immersed in showbiz types as a TV writer early in his career. He also had contact with the rat-a-tat, joke-upon-joke, crack-upon-crack vaudevillians as a baton of comedy was passed from the live stage to that of television. In “The Sunshine Boys,” the live, seat-of-your-pants comedians are right there in Willie Clark and his longtime partner/aggravation, Al Lewis (Robert Ernst).
The language of Willie and Al is drollery and spice – deadpan digs and da-da-dump one-liners and only a few vague niceties. Somewhere in their sea of quips, cleverness, real and fake meanness and real and fake spite, along with one-upmanship, is sincerity wearing camo. These are juicy characters for actors to play, and Furniss and Ernst play them well.
Furniss and Ernst even get to play a routine that made Lewis and Clark famous as vaudevillians: A taxman goes to the doctor, and they end up examining each other. And there’s a buxom blonde. The skit is goofy as all get out, but in the play it deliberately crashes in dress rehearsal as the oldtimers’ fangs flash when old pet peeves return.
This reprise performance was to be a huge honor for them. A CBS-TV special is recognizing comedy greats, and Lewis and Clark are to bring back their classic bit for a national audience to savor. Willie Clark’s, nephew, Ben Silverman (Brad Dokken), has worked extremely hard to finesse his irascible uncle into the position where he would accept appearing with Lewis, who he hasn’t spoken to in 11 years.
Willie Lewis is not likable on the surface. Selfish, doddering, forgetful, dismissive, know-it-all-ative. Not nice. Neil Simon and Dick Furniss and director L. Douglas Bord-Pire make Willie Clark likably not likable. They make him a person. Slice him and dice him any way you wish, but Willie Clark is a life. He is a definitive being. And interesting. Neil Simon probably liked him because Willie Clark was of the cloth he could tailor into an interesting story with an outpouring of old-style jokes. Even Willie’s everyday byplay with Ben runs like a vaudeville routine, starting with the front door that practically takes a locksmith to open for all the fussy dead bolts that Willie as to fiddle with to get the door to open each time.
Maybe Willie being a fallible human being is what keeps put-upon nephew Ben Silverman coming back every Wednesday. Ben makes sure Willie has such necessities as food and a copy of Variety (the showbiz bible) – and un-necessities, three cigars. If Willie Clark answers Ben’s kindnesses with wise-acre remarks and brusque behavior, that’s just the way he is. And Ben accepts him. And Ben does all manner of things to make grumbly Willie happy.
It took a bit of time for Wednesday’s performance to hit a rhythm – and there was fudging of lines and the matter of an open zipper and some tech stuff with a TV set that could have worked better – but when the show rolled, it rolled. The reunion of Lewis and Clark was all thrust and parry, give and take, serve and volley, jab to jab, all very deadpan and milked for timing. The thing sizzled.
At intermission, Chuck Wegner tapped his forehead and said, “A lot of the lines are still here” from when he performed the role in the day when Attic Theatre performed at Lawrence University in Appleton. After the performance, he seemed to marvel at Simon (the writer) and Clark (the character) and Furniss (the actor) when he said, “All the lines, all the lines.” He also noted that community theater is a great activity.
Creative: Playwright – Neil Simon; director L. Douglas Bord-Pire; stage manager – Jennifer Steffen; production designer – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; costume design – Wendy Bauman; props master – Matthew Boerst; technical director – Elizabeth Ahels
Cast: Willie Clark – Dick Furniss; Ben Silverman – Brad Dokken; Al Lewis – Robert Ernst; Nurse – Sommer Johnson-Loar; Patient – Kurt Schlieter; Eddie – Tessio Iniguez; Registered Nurse – Amanda Lorge; TV Director – Doug Bord-Pire
Running time: Two hours, five minutes
Remaining performances: 7 p.m. June 8, 9, 10, 13; 2 p.m. June 11
The message of troupe president Berray Billington in the season program is worth passing on because of the changes “that will set us apart.” The list:
+ “1. We are introducing our Chamber theatre concept. We will continue our relationship with UW-Fox Valley, but have moved our performances exclusively into the Lucia Baehman theatre. No seat is more than 30 feet from the stage, which will allow our audience to be closer to the action and hear every word.
+ “2. In the lobby, we introduced new refreshments and hopefully are creating an exciting adult evening of theatre.
+ “3. We continue to find the newest and most exciting shows which engage and challenge our audiences.
+ “4. We will continue to showcase the masters of musical theatre with our Music In The Attic concert series. This October 4th-7th we will present “S’Wonderful: an Evening of Gershwin.”
+ “5. We rolled out the Attic Theatre play reading club in conjunction with local libraries.
+ “6. We will be holding talk backs after our shows, so you can ask questions of our staff and actors.”
NEXT: “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz, June 28-July 8.
THE VENUE: Lucia Baehman Theatre is a 125-seat rectangular space in the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley Communication Arts Center. Lined by black stage curtains on each wall, the space serves as a black-box theater. There are no adornments, and the stage and space are adaptable to whatever a production needs. The adjacent lobby is spacious and includes a ticket office, snack service area, restrooms and spaces for art and photo displays. The center opened in 2009.
THE PEOPLE: Lucia Baehman and her husband, Stan, are longtime supporters of theater in the Fox RiverValley.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
By Kathi Bloy
Playwright Christopher Durang is known for offbeat humor that finds its way into disturbing issues. While today’s audiences probably won’t find “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” truly disturbing, the play delves into a number of social issues, wrapped around sibling relationships.
Definitely funny, the scenes move through serious moments when one almost feels the audience thinking, “I’ve felt like that,” or “Yes, I know what s/he means.”
Vanya, Sonia and Masha were brought up by professor parents who named them after Chekov characters, much to the children’s playground chagrin. When we meet the three, they are all middle-aged or older, and the parents have been gone for several years.
Vanya and Sonia are ably played by veteran actors Fran St. Andre and Nancy Ernst. Having performed in a great variety of roles, each was given opportunities in this play to explore some different ground. Both found the hearts of their characters, working their way into the audience’s hearts as well.
Watching Ernst, an English and public speaking teacher, reinvent herself as the dowdy, forgettable Sonia, who has lost her way in life, was refreshing. Ernst demonstrated an honest wistfulness and sad acceptance that had the audience cheering her one grand, triumphant moment. None of us wanted to be Sonia, but we certainly understood her deep in our souls.
St. Andre was so natural in this part that one would believe him content to live uneventfully in a farmhouse, watching animal life at the pond in the family fields. That is certainly a mark of good acting, as those who know St. Andre would describe him as active, engaged, and greatly interested in events around him.
In stark contrast, Cassandra, the raucous, kaleidoscopic housecleaner, shocks the audience into keen attention the moment she takes the stage. Wonderfully physical, laughing and loud, Stephanie Morelock displays an exuberance foreign and sometimes annoying to the two placid residents of the farmhouse.
Jennifer Koroll plays Masha, the successful, wealthy sibling. Her aloof, almost regal entrance gives way to erratic behavior that reveals a deep-seated lack of confidence. No spoiler alerts here, but the audience will be amazed at the perfect timing of her voice as one scene unfolds. You’ll recognize it when you see the show.
Masha’s self-absorbed, much-younger boyfriend, Spike, juxtaposes her insecurity handsomely. Peter Hargarten brings a robust, athletic performance to the role. His out-there, in-your-face lustiness and extreme physical movements are a bit too much for Vanya and Sonia, and the outspoken Cassandra sees right through him.
Spike’s roving eye is caught, at least momentarily, by Nina, a very young lady visiting in the neighborhood. Samantha Taylor did a nice job as Nina, bringing youthful optimism to the admittedly dreary lives of Vanya and Sonia. We hope she’ll return to the Attic stage soon.
Director Berray Billington has put together a very good production with a cast capable of handling the widely diverse characters. Audiences will appreciate Durang’s realistic look at some of the harsher realities of life, softened with welcome humor.
By Warren Gerd
Some plays come at you – WHOOSH – with unexpected energy and turns. One is “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” starting with that title. All the names end up having meaning for playgoers as jaunty playwright Christopher Durang sweeps through topics ranging from Alzheimer’s and loneliness to vanity and the end of the world – with one of theater’s great rants thrown in.
Attic Theatre Inc. has a comical, charming and lively production running at James Perry Theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley to start its season. The acting and directing are keenly honed.
Creative: Playwright – Christopher Durang; director – Berray Billington; stage manager – Laura Schlichting; production designer – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; sound designer – Dana Mehlhorn; props master – Patrick James; assistant production designer – Alesha Hollatz; technical director – Simone E. Tegge;
Cast: Vanya – Fran St. Andre; Sonia – Nancy Ernst; Cassandra – Stephanie Morelock; Masha – Jennifer Koroll; Spike – Peter Hargarten; Nina – Samantha Taylor
Running time: Two hours, 23 minutes
Remaining performances: 2 p.m. June 12, 7 p.m. June 14-16
Some words of caution: The F-bomb is tossed casually, and one of the characters has a penchant for traipsing in his underpants and flaunting his body. Durang has a way of turning on the electricity.
The play is set in the present in a lodge-type residence in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Hint: Think of Door County and some of the nice digs there, plus the similar atmosphere of arts/intellect and a dusting of celebrity. The residence in this play is up the road from where Dorothy Parker once lived – she being a stellar wit with a sting (something akin to Durang in this play).
Performances hum in this production. Director Berray Billington and the players generate a rhythm; folks know what they’re doing.
In the story, Vanya and Sonia are adoptive brother and sister. They’re coasting along living together in the family home. Their parents are deceased, each after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s that was eased (as best as can be) by the care of Vanya and Sonia. The professorial parents named Vanya and Sonia and their sister, Masha, after playwright Anton Chekhov characters. The catalyst for action is Masha is returning to the homestead. She’s a big movie star with a Cinemascope ego – wide screen and colorful – who has gone through five husbands and now has a lover in tow. That would be Spike, Mr. Underpants.
Durang foreshadows everything because he has an out-there character, Cassandra, who gives warnings with her gift of seeing the future. Everybody should have a fortune-teller housekeeper.
Also drifting on the scene is a youthful neighbor, Nina, representing youth and hope.
Each of the players has nifty sequences, thanks to Durang and his or her ability.
As Vanya and Sonia, Fran St. Andre and Nancy Ernst have an acerbic sibling give and take. Ernst has a wonderful solo scene as Sonia, unattached at age 52 because of dutiful commitments, receives a telephone call from an interested widower. St. Andre’s solo roars with fire as Vanya fumes about all the joys of his youth and common experience that today lay in shards of multichannel viewing, tweeting and texting and disconnecting from one another. It’s an astounding monologue, well played.
As Masha, the STAR, Jennifer Koroll clicks. Koroll’s expressions and manner read like a book: Type A, flashy, self-contained, self-absorbed, headstrong, demanding. Koroll has flourishes and flair.
Another cool role is Cassandra, with Stephanie Morelock applying Jamaican voice rhythms and physical aura. The character sings with impish delights as Cassandra not only sees the future, she changes it with voodoo.
As Spike, Peter Hargarten not only supplies the heat of bare skin but touches of sensuality for Masha and shallowness for the rest of the world. Spike’s a taker, and Hargarten taps into that.
Durang has bizarre elements in this play. Nina, the neighbor, is central in one of them as she enacts the role of a molecule in a play that Vanya has written about the end of the world. Samantha Taylor brings a brightness to this, as she does throughout as a sweet young life.
Before seeing “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” the mind registers ????? about the play. Afterward, it’s “Ahh.” The play is an experience, and Attic Theatre does a fine job of making it so.
Most meaningful part: Realizations of the impact of Alzheimer’s within a family.
Importance of the play: Something wholly dramatic can be told in entertaining and comical ways.
NEXT: “Becky’s New Car,” June 23-26, 28-29
THE VENUE: The 361-seat, two-level James W. Perry Hall features a proscenium (flat-front) stage with a substantial performance area of 36 feet wide by 86 feet deep. Acoustic clouds are part of the ceiling. On the side walls are acoustic panels of copper color that matches the woodwork stain on seat backs and arms and on decorative square and rectangular wood panels. The theater is amply equipped and fairly new. The University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley Communication Arts Center opened in 2009. The adjacent lobby is spacious and includes a ticket office, snack service area, restrooms and spaces for art and photo displays.
THE NAMESAKE: James W. Perry is the former dean and campus executive officer of UWFV.
You may email me at email@example.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV between 6 and 7:30 a.m. Sundays.
Gore Vidal's The Best Man
’Tis the season in America for political hammering and tonging amid the clamor for the office of president, and the Attic Theatre production of “The Best Man” fits right in.
One character’s remark – “I like a circus” – applies to what we’ve been experiencing for, lo, these many months.
The title, “The Best Man,” tells you right off that this play is from the past – 1960. A line makes reference to a women’s place being in the home – an incendiary phrase for many people today. The play drops in many names that have faded from public light. And the style of campaigning today is different. But a good yarn is a good yarn, and playwright Gore Vidal spins a beauty filled with a laundry list of human foibles – and a dusting of attributes involving the larger good.
Director Nancy Ernst has at hand an experienced and committed cast in the leading roles. At moments on opening night Thursday in Perry Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley, the audience was wholly involved in the twists and turns between the leading candidates and the former president who is wearing the mantel of king maker (president maker in this case). This is smart theater.
Creative: Playwright – Gore Vidal; director – Nancy Ernst; stage manager – Nicole Graf; production designer – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; costume coordinator – Berray Billington; sound designer – Dana Melhorn; props master – Patrick James; assistant production designer – Alesha Hollatz; technical director – Simone E. Tegge
Cast: Secretary William Russell – Stephen Savides; Alice Russell – Michelle Kellrooney; Sen. Joseph Cantwell – Peter Tolly; Mabel Cantwell – Rachel Sandlin; President Hockstader – Gary Zurbuchen; Dick Jensen, Russell’s aide – L. Douglas Bord-Pire; Don Blades, Cantwell’s aide – Tim Ernst; Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadage – Kathleen Hannah; Sen. Clyde Carlin – Robert Ernst; Dr. Artinian/Reporter – Keith Duncan; Sheldon Marcus/Reporter – James Frelich; Barbara/Reporter – Ann Caylor
Running Time: Two hours, 32 minutes
Remaining performances: 7 p.m. July 15, 16, 19, 20, 21, 22; 2 p.m. July 17
Gary Zurbuchen is marvelous as former President Hockstader, a Southern, downhome philosopher type. Hockstader’s endorsement will mean the presidential nomination, but first he lets the two candidates dangle a bit and wonder. Zurbuchen finesses Hockstader’s smooth-hick personality. Each candidate is asked, “Do you believe in God?” The reason for asking has an underlying meaning. The character also has a spicy line about his attitude toward sexual scandals by office holders: “I was born on a farm. The lesson of the rooster was not lost on me.”
Stephen Savides and Peter Tolly are strong and thorough as they portray the contenders, each with explosive “goods” on the other. Savides plays former Secretary of State William Russell, who is intelligent, witty, Harvard trained – and sometimes moral. Tolly plays Sen. Joseph Cantwell, who is intelligent, calculating, state college trained/self-made – and cold blooded.
In these three characters, Vidal speaks about the many facets of seeking the office – touching on power, needs and leadership, along with political necessities and ruthlessness. The play is not entirely dated.
Also ably played are other important roles: Michelle Kellrooney as Alice Russell, the philandering William’s wife, who would like to be First Lady; Rachel Sandlin as Mabel Cantwell, the gosh-and-golly martini-loving wife of Joe; and L. Douglas Bord-Pire and Tim Ernst as the hard-working and co-conspiratorial campaign managers of William and Joe, respectively.
The play applies to today and doesn’t apply to today. One line that was a toss-off in 1960 is comical today: “People don’t give a damn about the secretary of state.” Hillary Clinton held that post. There’s talk of the atmosphere being filled with “personalities instead of politics.” Sound familiar?
Names of important figures of the era fill the play. Included are Gen. Eisenhower (Dwight D. Eisenhower, president at the time); Adlai Stevenson (Eisenhower’spresidential election opponent twice); Richard Nixon (before he was president); J. Edgar Hoover (head of the FBI), and Sen. Joseph McCarthy (the Red Scare guy, whose name got the most response Thursday night). Also mentioned are celebrities of the time but no longer, including: Jack Paar (late-night TV king); Walter Winchell (newspaper columnist); Joe Alsop (another columnist); and Henry Luce (publisher of Time and Life magazines). There’s reference to Red China, with which the United States did not have diplomatic relations.
The production does a good job of representing two spacious Sheraton Hotel suites – changing campaign posters and other items when switching from one candidate’s room to the other. Little things in the production would have been unlikely in 1960, such as a ponytail on a male campaign manager and many color photographs in a newspaper.
I had an immediate negative response to the lights in the set. Six wall sconces in the main set, plus another in a hallway, have lights that are so bright that the glare hurt my eyes when watching the actors. It was a challenge to look into those lights for the full play.
That aside, “The Best Man” is an interesting and involving play with a sturdy production. And the play makes the coming Republican and Democratic conventions and election all the more interesting. It is an excellent presidential election year offering.
Becky's New Car
Remember the kid who would make up his or her own rules to games you were playing? One would be Steven Dietz, who grew up and became a playwright. One of his plays is “Becky’s New Car,” a quirky comedy that Attic Theatre community troupe is performing through July 1 in the Lucia Baehman Theatre of the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley.
The production features adept acting. As Becky, Kimberly King is particularly fluid and nimble, and the men who play her husband and grown son (Kris Holly and Adam Baurian, respectively) bring other strengths. The set is intriguing, and the directing by Kyle Conn pulls components together like the laces on the finest of tie shoes.
But those facets don’t make “Becky’s New Car” easy. You need your theater radar tuned to full strength to catch all the important parts – symbolism and such heady stuff – that may not be readily apparent.
The play is funny, smart and an adventure. It imagines what if Becky – or you – could start a whole new life? That new car of the title represents the new life.
Creative: Playwright – Steven Dietz; director – Kyle Conn; stage manager – Katie Marquardt; production designer – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; sound designer – Dana Mehlhorn; props master – Patrick James; assistant production designer – Alesha Hollatz; technical director – Simone E. Tegge
Cast: Rebecca (Becky) Foster – Kimberly King; Joe Foster – Kris Holly; Chris Foster – Adam Baurian; Walter Flood – Tony Salsich; Kenni Flood – Hannah Thompson; Steve – Michael Horowitz; Ginger – Dee Savides
Running time: Two hours, 17 minutes
Remaining performances: 2 p.m. June 26; 7 p.m. June 28, 29, 30, July 1
Back to the rule breaking: Becky can scene-shift at will. Early on, she’s at home and remembers she’s left her cell phone at the office. She orders the lighting person to light the office part of the set, so it seems Becky is there when she goes back to get the phone.
Action starts with Becky speaking with the audience as if the playgoers are in her living room in Seattle. During the course of the play, Becky and others interact with people in the front rows. At one point, three women are invited to form a circle with a cloth so Becky/King can make a clothing change while speaking to the audience.
Becky’s relationships turn complex on a dime. She’s been married almost 30 years to Joe (Holly), a regular guy who is a roofer. They have a son, Chris (Baurian), who is a live-at-home perpetual college student who is given to profundities that fit academic phraseology to everyday behaviors. He knows all, in his mind. Becky has an accountant-type job at an auto dealership that sells top-line cars. One day at the office, a talkative and rich widower, Walter Flood (Tony Salsich), drops in after hours. He’s searching for gifts for his stellar staff. Walter presumes Becky (soon Rebecca to him) is a widow, and Becky can’t get a word in edgewise because Walter speaks so fast. Soon, Walter is on her like jam to toast, thinking She’s The One to replace his beloved deceased. Walter is so rich he buys nine Lexuses (Lexi?), thus earning Becky a new Lexus of her own… and thus setting up the climax much later in this complication-stuffed play.
How does one start a new life? Lie. Or not be up front.
Any number of times, Becky could say she’s married, but she lets that detail slide by and she drifts into a sizzling, flashy fix. If Becky told the truth, we wouldn’t have a play. And we wouldn’t have glimpses into the lives of the phenomenally rich, who include Walter and his neighbor, Ginger (Dee Savides). Walter inherited a fortune and kept it going through the family business of billboards. Ginger inherited a fortune from the lumbering days and spent it all while basically being a useless individual. Now, with no skills, she’s got to get job late in life. Walter’s life includes a fashionable daughter, Kenni (Hannah Thompson), wise in the ways of living with wealth and an impressionable, grieving father. Becky’s life includes a co-worker, Steve (Michael Horowitz), who is dedicated to all things fashionably organic, healthful and for the common good. Steve also is a widower (winds of death blow often in and around this comedy).
The performance space is expansive for the type of play “Becky’s New Car” is. Most action takes place in two locations – forward in the Foster home and in the rear of the space in the auto dealership and the garden area of Walter’s remote home. Becky/King has to do some traveling between the thrust-like forward space and the proscenium space at the rear. Among visuals in the set are the skyline of Seattle (Space Needle included) in the rear and roadway markings on the floor (for when a traveling auto comes into play).
Primarily, the audience is drawn into the life of Becky, and that’s helped a lot by King. She has a voice like a song, plus Becky’s multitude of emotions and thoughts read like a book in King’s expressions and mannerisms. Why Becky does what she does may be hard to decipher, but she’s very well played.
The Lion in Winter
Attic Theatre's 2015 season may be one of its best yet. Audiences will delight in the realism of "The Lion in Winter," the troupe's second offering of the summer.
Set in the 12th century, this dramatic peek into the court of England's King Henry II has enough comedy to keep it from becoming morose.
Sarcasm saturates the dialogue, and intrigue peppers the plot as Henry and his disaffected wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, spar over his adultery (and hers), the foibles of their three sons, and the future of the kingdom. Sibling rivalry rises to new levels when a throne is at stake, and John, Geoffrey and Richard Lionheart make treachery a way of life as they battle for supremacy.
Scott Crane and Nancy Ernst, both veterans of area stages, manage the roles of Henry and Eleanor magnificently. Regal one moment, in the next they fight like "peasants over a scrap," as Henry's mistress, the lovely Alais, puts it.
The daughter of King Louis, she was promised to Prince John and sent to the English court at an early age. While she looks to Eleanor as her "maman," Alais in this play and by many historical accounts, also shares Henry's bed. Rachel Sandlin, who has appeared in other Attic performances, plays Alais beautifully.
Henry and Eleanor's three sons all make their Attic debuts with this show, but none is a newcomer to the stage. Tim Ernst, as the battle-thirsty Richard, has exactly the right build and look for a soldier-prince and carries off the role well. Geoffrey, played by Nick Green, is the nearly invisible middle son, described by his father as more a machine than a human. Slight in build, his mind trumps his brothers' as he plots relentlessly against Henry. Adam Baurain bumbles brilliantly as the youngest, irresponsible and easily intimidated son. All three deliver praiseworthy performances.
Peter Tolly does well as the young King Philip, heir of Louis VII and brother to Alais.
Director Berray Billington should be congratulated on an exceptional production with excellent casting. His decision to do this show "in the round," with audience seating on all four sides, required some creativity in set design. Giving Robin Ostrander a free hand with the set was a good decision.
Using the four corners outside the stage area as entrances, Ostrander designed a chess-board floor, the perfect setting for dialogue describing "a lot of knights" with Alais as the "pawn." Costuming the stage crew in medieval dress made it easy for them to change pieces in semi-darkness without losing the flavor of the 12th-century setting.
Ingenious is the only word to describe the set pieces — large wooden trunks used as seating benches that cleverly hid all the props and made set changes quick and easy. No yawning audience during scene changes here — action on the darkened stage was almost entertaining in itself.
While Ernst does not possess a booming voice and was occasionally difficult to hear, the acting of the whole cast was superb. A few slight stumbles over lines were repaired quickly. One would expect this cast to get better and better as the run goes into its second week.
Billington's direction was just right. His blocking has the cast using every bit of the stage and keeps the audience engaged. This show is a must-see!
Attic director takes new approach to ‘Lion
What: Attic Theatre presents “The Lion in Winter” by James Goldman
When: 7 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, July 14-18; and 2 p.m. July 12
Where: Lucia Baehman Theatre in the Communication Arts Building on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley, 1478 Midway Road, Menasha
Tickets: $16 for adults and $10 for students. Available by calling 920-734-7887 or online at attictheatreinc.com.
Background: “The Lion in Winter” follows Henry, Eleanor and their three sons through intricate political machinations and increasing tensions as they maneuver to determine who the next king will be.
What they are saying: “‘The Lion in Winter’ is my debut with Attic and I am truly honored, humbled and blessed to be part of such an enormous array of talent from my fellow castmates and director,” said Adam Baurain, who plays Prince John. “It has been fun to watch all the elements come together.”
Take-away message: “The Lion in Winter is a play about aging, family and the human need for love, as resonant and relevant to the 21st Century as it would have been to the 12th,” director Berray Billington said. “Times change, but people remain the same. Some of you will notice that we have made some bold choices in our presentation of ‘The Lion in Winter.’ I wanted to present something that was new for Attic, a little bit edgier and not the norm. So I decided to direct the show in the round. Giving the audience a fly-on-the-wall look into the lives of these bigger-then-life historical figures.”
— Compiled by Mara Wegner: 920-993,1000, ext. 255; firstname.lastname@example.org
Father of the Bride
MENASHA, Wis. (WFRV) – Sometimes it’s fun watching other people squirm, in a funny way. That’s the attraction with “Father of the Bride,” being presented by Attic Theatre through June 27 at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley.
Mike Horowitz, playing the father, Mr. Banks, makes watching quite enjoyable. He’s got the part down. That’s apparent early on, when he nails a stare. That stare is one of sudden realization: His little baby girl is getting married, and his/her life flashes before him. Quickly, Mr. Banks discovers his household is out of control as an announced little itsy bitsy tiny wedding for hardly anybody becomes an uncontrollable, wallet-eating virus that grows and grows and GROWS and GROWS to gigantic proportions.
Creative: Playwright – Caroline Francke, based on the novel by Edward Streeter; director – Monty Witt; set designer – Robin Osterander; costume designer – Joyce Coenen; stage manager – Katie Marquardt; lighting designer – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; sound designer – Kurt Schlieter; technical director – Danny Halminiak.
Cast: Mr. Banks – Mike Horowitz; Mrs. Banks – Deborah Oettinger; Kay Banks – Kiana Liesch; Ben Banks – Dalton Zannin; Tommy Banks – Miles Borkowicz; Buckley Dunstan – Amos Huse; Delilah – Gloria Foat; Peggy Swift – Abigail Litjens; Miss Bellamy – Anne Caylor; Mr. Massoula – Ron Lhotte; Joe – Patrick James; Red – Paul Goska; Pete – Tony Salsich; Tim’s Man – Joe Schwaller; Mrs. Pulitzki – Kelly Reisterer; Buzz Taylor – Nikolaus Molchany; Mover 1 – Chris Weis; Mover 2 – Dan Yach.
Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes.
By way of Mike Horowitz, Mr. Banks is a comically tortured soul – voluble, continually suffering and put upon and visited by a long train of What next? Horowitz also looks funny stuffed into Mr. Banks’ too-old, too-too-small formal suit that forces him to waddle around the stage like a penguin in one colorful scene.
A quick thought on the stage: This production uses the full width of the Perry Theatre stage. Wide? The viewing is akin going to a drive-in movie, only live.
A less-quick thought on time: First came the novel by Edward Streeter – 1949. Then came the movie starring Spencer Tracy as the father and Elizabeth Taylor as the bride – 1950 (the year that Attic Theatre started – hoorah!). Then came this adaptation by Caroline Francke – 1951. Attic’s production is played mostly as today, notably in the use of a cell phone for the many phone calls in the story. There are some updated references, such using “Animal House” about a situation. Still in this production is an old name that seems to be beyond compare today – Tommy Manville, who was married 13 times (but try to find many people who know that). Noticeably different today is the story’s live-in maid. While that is mostly something for a bygone era among the upper-middle class, much of “Father of the Bride” applies today for one family after another. Weddings tend to be like the single tuft of crabgrass that becomes a yard full seemingly overnight.
Director Monty Witt has a cast that’s up to the happy task of chasing down the kookiness of this show. Of note are Deborah Oettinger as the hand-patting wife who also helps the Creature of a Wedding grow, Kiana Liesch as the sweet daughter-bride whose promise of SMALL soon becomes LARGE and Ron Lhotte as the caterer whose personality is extra large for all the flitting and fussing.
The play is built on layer upon layer of chaos, and then coasts at the end – nicely. Nicely sentimental