2012 Year in Review: Theater
Post by Christian Neuhaus on 12/27/2012 12:00pm
Here is a summation of the plays in and around Madison that I saw in 2012, as well as productions I was involved with as a performer.
One of the events this year was a fundraiser in which people performed roles they aren’t normally associated with, and great performances from unexpected sources is something that applied to several of the productions I experienced. Something else notable about this year was how the past kept coming up in interesting ways: from zombies coming back one year later and lurching toward New York, to seeing a beloved children’s book character represented on stage.
January – March
The first production I saw in 2012 was Mercury Players Theatre’s Talking Out of School, a collection of 13 new plays by Wisconsin teachers. Strollers Theatre provided entertainment with Black Comedy, a farce in which the characters have to move in the dark for most of the play — darkness being represented by a fully lit stage, and light being represented by onstage darkness. It featured my favorite pratfall of the year: Mikey Anderson falling off a landing and bouncing his head off a chaise lounge on the way to the ground. Forward Theatre Company provided humor in a more thoughtful vein with A Thousand Words, by Madison playwright Gwendolyn Rice.
Colleen Burns Benefit Theatre brought Twelve Angry Men and a superb ensemble to Fitchburg’s Marquis Ballroom. Madison Theatre Guild’s staged reading of local writer Nick Schweitzer’s play “Returning Home,” about the experience of military veterans, began with a thoroughly charming performance by Tom Haig and Sarah Whelan of a long-time married couple in the one-act play “I’m Herbert.”
University Theatre offered an impressive production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Particularly notable for me were Trevon Jackson’s powerful performance as the fervid Levee and the estimable costumes and sets that are a consistent feature of UT productions — set design for this production was by William F. Moser, costume design by Katie Gray.
I've long been a fan of radio drama so I was pleased to see the debut of 9XM Players, a troupe associated with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Old Time Radio Drama. Their first show was a staging of Lux Radio Theater's 1939 production of It Happened One Night in Overture Center's Playhouse, and I enjoyed seeing Liz Angle in the Claudette Colbert role. Youth theater company 608 Productions debuted in the Overture of Stoughton, Stoughton Opera House, with The Importance of Being Earnest.
Back at the Bartell Theatre, in OUT!Cast Theatre and Mercury’s production of As Bees in Honey Drown, Stephanie Monday gave a marrrvelous, lamb performance as the soigné deceiver Alexa Vere De Vere. The checkerboard stage of As Bees in Honey Drown hosted the inaugural performance of Are We Delicious? (videos available here), in which Craig Johnson’s “Terror at the Terror House” gave me not just a fantastic role to play but a catchphrase. Are We Delicious? got me more involved in theater than I had been since my senior year of high school and reminded me just how cool theater friends are, so from a personal standpoint its debut was one the year’s most significant local arts events.
The March Are We Delicious? also had two of my favorite lines of the year — both of them about nunchuks. Rachel Jenkins-Bledsoe with “And so, Cathy Conestoga learned that vengeance ain’t always from the barrel of a gun, or the chuck of a nun” in “Buttes” by Doug Reed, and Craig Johnson with “For the time being, I was a PI. A PI named Hank Hammer. A PI named Hank Hammer with nunchucks. And no matter how you slice it, that's a pretty kick-ass piece of pie,” in Matthew A. Schrader’s “Hammer vs. Saw.”
April – June
StageQ’s This Beautiful City was an intriguing “docu-musical” about the mix of faith perspectives in Colorado Springs around the time of the Ted Haggard scandal. At Broom Street Theater, Rob Matsushita’s 900 used the frame of a call to a phone sex operator to create an unusual and fascinating love story.
Mercury’s dark comedy Becky Shaw showcased the talents of an outstanding cast. I was particularly intrigued by Casey Sean Grimm’s transformation into a character who, as I said at the time, has a shrapnel grenade where his heart should be. Are We Delicious? came back for a May performance that featured 50 percent returning writer-performers and 50 percent newcomers: a ratio that future shows would preserve.
Forward Theater Company presented a staged reading of Sam White’s Oatesland, a drama with supernatural overtones set at a U.S. Army outpost in the Antarctic. Christopher Younggren’s Tracks at Broom Street Theater was a cycle of two plays that challenged the mind and moved the heart.
After a one-year absence, Mercury’s Blitz — in which plays are conceived, written, rehearsed, and performed within 24 hours — returned to the Bartell. Writers this year had the challenge of incorporating surf punk band Venus in Furs into their plays. The “best of show” honor went to Sarah Luedtke and Matthew A. Schrader for their Elizabethan crime drama spoof “Turkish Rondo,” which was the name of the wrongfully-accused protagonist. The band members were minstrels who accompanied the protagonist and delivered a sultry guitar riff and “Turkish Rondo” whenever he said his name.
July – September
The third annual Bartell Theatre Awards ceremony was July 14. I was one of the writers for the ceremony and performed an ongoing bit called “Journal of a Critic.” (Sample line: "Maybe I should just do letter grades for story and acting. Isn’t that all people want out of these?") University Theatre went old school with Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. The first time I saw that work was in a production by Saint Croix Valley Summer Theater in my hometown, an organization that was vital in developing my appreciation of seeing plays. Madison Shakespeare Company debuted with a production of Julius Caesar at Breese Stevens Field.
Madison Performance Collective and OUT!Cast brought Love, Death, Brains, a retooled version of Sarah Mucek’s and Meghan Rose’s Z-Town: The Zombie Musical, to the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival following a Madison appearance. At the Brink Lounge, The Bricks Theatre presented an evening of biographical storytelling by ten women in That’s What She Said: Welcome to My Life.
On the outdoor theater of Alley Stage in Mineral Point I saw Steve Martin’s intellectually nimble comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile. At Overture Center’s Playhouse, Four Seasons Theatre presented A Little Night Music, a wonderful production of a musically and emotionally rich story.
Original plays by local writers constitute a large part of Broom Street Theater’s season but in August, Greg Harris directed an intriguing Broom Street production of a script by an out-of-town playwright: Pericles by William Shakespeare. Broom Street’s stage was also the location for a fundraiser by Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre: Wrong for the Part. It was a concept similar to Music Theatre of Madison’s Miscast, comprising scenes and monologues by performers who would never actually be cast in the roles they were playing. My contribution was based on a classic novel about a boy’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad experiences over a 24-hour period.
Strollers Theatre got personal and political with the period drama Paragon Springs. Are We Delicious? returned with “September Silence.” Doug Reed, Rob Matsushita, and I had participated in three Blitz Smackdowns together but this was the first time we had acted in a production. I fought a duel with Doug in Autumn Shiley’s “The Unnecessary Room of Mr. Hoffman” and appeared in Rob’s (mostly) silent comedy “The Nancy Reagan Nursery Heist.” Forward Theater Company’s 44 Plays for 44 Presidents had a theatrically rigorous imagination in director Jennifer Uphoff Gray’s staging and in the set and props designed by Charles J. Trieloff II.
October – December
Music Theatre of Madison produced a staged reading of the new musical Panic, about Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre of the Air’s infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Mercury produced “local-theatre hero” Doug Reed’s McCarthyite, woman-in-a-treehouse political satire The Opiate of the Missus, a play I saw in one-act form in 2009 when it was done by Actor’s Factory.
Charlotte A. Cavatica made as powerful an impression on me as a fictional character could when I was young, and I was pleased to see Karen Moeller bring her to life in CTM’s Charlotte’s Web and hear one of the greatest sentiments ever written: “Do you want a friend, Wilbur? I’ll be a friend to you.”
I saw the Are We Delicious? Halloween show and participated in the Are We Delicious? Bartell Benefit. Broom Street Theater brought me back to the past with Tales for Another Millennium. Madison Theatre Guild’s staged reading of Marcia Jablonski’s “The Great Jimmie Boyle” also featured a performance of “Fire in the Basement” and Tom Haig’s first appearance as an actor on the Bartell’s Drury Stage — a stage that he helped create.
The last theatrical performance I saw of 2012 was That’s What She Said: A Holiday Affair, a second evening of storytelling from The Bricks Theatre. It took place December 19, the night that snow storm Draco began and two days before the end of human history supposedly predicted by the Mayans. If the last joke I ever heard on Earth was from Ernestine Vanderlin’s reminiscences of Christmas in Chicago — “Does this bus go to the Loop?” / “No, it goes beep-beep” — that would have been just fine. (It works better as a spoken joke than a written one.)
2012 is the seventh year I’ve written a theater year in review for dane101.com. The last 12 months had less of me writing about theater and more of me being involved directly in creating theater, and I expect my focus will continue to move toward being a creator rather than a chronicler.
In a different online conversation, when I discussed the Journal of the Critic bit at the Barties I said “I don't think of myself as a critic — I'm a guy who sees a higher-than-average number of plays and tells the Internet about the ones he's most enthusiastic about.” I’m glad that dane101.com founders Kristian Knutsen and Jesse Russell gave me that opportunity, especially for performances that would otherwise receive no coverage, and have appreciated Jesse’s editorial indulgence with respect to my fondness for parenthetical phrases and other stylistic eccentricities. I hope I’ve provided a useful and maybe even a little entertaining record of a talented theater community.
Christian Neuhaus is a writer whose comic short plays have been produced by local theater groups. You've Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery!, a play he wrote with Dane101 contributor Rick Stemm, sold out its world-premiere run in Madison, was part of the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival, and was voted Favorite Theater Production in Isthmus's 2011-2012 Madison's Favorites poll. In March 2011 his comic retelling of the Sherlock Holmes story "The Red-Headed League" was among the plays in Novel Ideas, performed by Actor's Factory. In March 2012 Christian was part of the first performance of Are We Delicious?, where the ensemble develops a set of eight short plays within a single week.