February 25th, 2016

The Renowned Players of the Wisconsin Lutheran College Department of Theatre, “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

On Friday evening, February 19th, we went to the Raabe Theatre at Wisconsin Lutheran College to see a performance of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost”.

This was to be an unusual production, the opening of “Shakespeare in Rep,” two performances of three plays over two weekends, the advertisement stated “A company of student actors will work and prepare three comedies of Shakespeare in a manner referred to today as "original practices." Based on the historical condition of the "players" presenting DIFFERENT dramas and comedies DAILY (in "repertory"), some people believe that much more of the show was the creative and technical product of the individual actors than today's practice of director and designer-led cohesively conceptual performances. With very little time for group rehearsals, the performances take on an added intensity and energy resulting in truly unique, one-time events that are not to be missed!”

As expanded upon by Prof. Jay Sierszyn in his introductory remarks, there’s a bit more to it than that. “Original practices Shakespeare” is based on conjecture that, due to the large repertoire described in contemporary writings, and that play appeared often with as much as two months or more between performances, the manner of performance had to have been quite different than that we are used to. As presented here, “original practices” means that there is minimal to no rehearsal, and that the cast appears on stage with “cue scripts” in hand. (Cue scripts are individualized scripts, called “sides” in musical theatre, that contain just the one character’s lines and stage directions, and the cue lines from other characters that call for them.) The argument is that, given six different shows in a week and months between individual shows, the actors couldn’t possibly have learned and remembered all those scripts.

Professor Sierszyn’s production added several variables to this experiment. This was a new play to most, if not all of the actors, which would not likely have been the case in Shakespeare’s day. The actors were recruited anywhere from two weeks to two days before the performance, and had had minimal opportunity to work with each other. Most of the actors knew little of the script other than what was in their “sides”. When you add in that Shakespeare’s actors would have been familiar and comfortable with the vernacular vocabulary, pronunciation, and turns of phrase, whereas some of the cast demonstrably were not, what is left is basically a first-run-through rehearsal with improvised blocking and some costumes. The resultant performance was academically interesting to me as a some-time actor, but I was definitely not convinced that the groundlings of Shakespeare’s day would have paid money to see it.

A case in point occurred when a line or entrance was missed. Since other actor’s didn’t know the script or even the context of the scene they were in, they were stuck until the “book holder” prompted them. In one instance, when the stage manager was distracted by another crew member, the cast got so far off track, missing an entrance and several page of script, that the show had to be stopped, backed up, and started over from the missed spot.

The “original practices” idea does not convince me. OK, suppose you DO have sixty plays in your repertoire. Is it so impossible that anyone could memorize that number of parts? I think not. People in times before easy retrieval of information, or even hand books, could train to feats of memory that we would think prodigious today. If you ran an acting company then, why would you even consider hiring someone that couldn’t do that? Take into account that the same people wouldn’t necessarily have to learn all the largest parts, and there would be lots of small roles more easily learned and parceled out. The “original practices” idea also fails to take into account that, performing in the afternoons, the company has mornings and/or evenings to brush up the play either for that day or the following day. Once you had blocking down, that’s relatively easy to recall, and in my experience helps to make the lines come. Verse structure also helps memory.

That being said, the student actors were game, gave it their cheerful best, and weren’t badly thrown by fluffs and misses. While interesting, I think that this experiment pretty conclusively disproves the “original practices” thesis, at least as practiced here.

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Milwaukee Ballet, “Dorian Gray”

On Sunday afternoon, February 21, we went to the Pabst Theater to see the Milwaukee Ballet’s new production, “Dorian Gray,” adapted from the story “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” by Oscar Wilde. This is a new story ballet by Michael Pink, set to music by his frequent collaborator, Phillip Feeney.

Unusually for a ballet, the piece incorporates a spoken word narration, delivered by the piece’s arguable villain, Lord Henry Wotton (James Zager), which helps to transition the story from Wilde’s heavily intellectual original into the realm of dance and movement.
The production is updated to the 1920’s, which works well. In the opening, we see people at their diversions: chiefly drinking, dancing, and flirting. We first see Dorian Gray (Timothy O’Donnell) posing for the portrait painted by Basil Hallward (Alexandre Ferreira), while Lord Henry stands by. Praising the portrait, Lord Henry flatters Gray, telling him “the world belongs to you—at least for one season.” This injection of spiritual venom brings Gray to make the fatal wish—to exchange his soul for eternal youth.

Lord Henry takes Gray to a party of his set, who fawn on Gray as though he were a Roman Emperor, or Pharaoh. A golden halo of light surrounds him.

Acting a proper Mephistopheles to Gray’s Faustus, Lord Henry leads Gray to the young actress, Sybil Vane (Nicole Teague), and paves the way for him to meet her. The two fall in love, an affair which ends when Gray brings Hallward and Lord Henry to see her perform. Having the three men in the front row breaks Sybil’s concentration, and she is heckled off stage. Lord Henry delivers the judgment: without her acting genius, she is “nothing.” The following day, Lord Henry reads out from the paper that her body has been found in the river. Her death is ruled a “misadventure,” but Gray is stricken with guilt.

Lord Henry takes Gray to yet another party. Providing Gray with a box of hashish pastilles (or something similar). Gray performs an Unholy Communion, distributing the drugs to openly worshipful partygoers, again bathed in golden light.

As the second act begins, fifteen years have passed. We see the people from the beginning of the first act, now sunk deeper into their individual debaucheries: more gluttonous, self-absorbed, perverted, violent, and even murderous. Gray appears, looking exactly as we last saw him, haunting his dust-cloth shrouded rooms like a ghost.

Lord Henry and Basil Hallward visit. Basil, who loves Dorian, is tortured by his behavior. Lord Henry gets Gray to reveal the portrait to Basil, who is struck with horror. Gray then kills Basil to keep his secret.

Lord Henry takes Gray to a ‘tea dance’ hosted by the Duchess of Monmouth (Susan Gartell), who comes on strongly to him. They go to bed together but are interrupted when Gray is haunted by the vision of Sybil.

Lord Henry counsels Gray that the memory of old sins can only be wiped out by new ones. Gray ends up in an opium den, but Sybil haunts his drug-dreams as well. Sybil’s vengeful brother, James (Garrett Glassman) also intrudes into the dream, which becomes reality, when James attacks Gray intending to take revenge for Sybil’s death.

James backs off in confusion when Lord Henry comes to Gray’s rescue, urging him to look at Gray’s youthful face, declaring that Gray couldn’t possibly be the same man that destroyed Sybil. Once Gray has escaped, Lord Henry taunts James with having been fooled, since Gray has sold his soul for eternal youth. Again hunting Gray, James breaks the line at a shooting party, and is killed by a hunter’s shot.

Being the cause of a second “accidental” death drives Gray into another paroxysm of guilt. Lord Henry tries to distract him with his perfection and what he could do in the future. Despairing at the prospect of an eternal life of horror and degradation, Gray attacks the portrait, and falls dead.

Given the nature of the story, there aren’t a lot of set-piece dances or lengthy ensemble numbers. The dancing that there is, is powerful and effective. Gray’s solo dances of grief and guilt are very athletic and quite dazzling. Dorian and Sybil’s “love duet” is dissonantly echoed in their breakup, with Sybil trying to recreate the prior moment while Dorian tries to push her away. Gray interacts with the frame of the never-seen portrait, making it clear that it is a trap.
There are also some nice moments for the long-time followers of the ballet. The play that Sybil Vane appears in is “Romeo and Juliet,” and the actors’ dancing alludes to Pink’s “Romeo and Juliet” ballet, especially the Knight’s Dance. (Also, Marc Petrocci dances “Mercutio” in both productions--.) When Sybil Vane reappears after her death, her initial movements hark back to the appearance of the murdered villagers in the recent “Giselle,” letting us know that she is indeed a ghost.

The simple setting, consisting mostly of translucent swags of drapery and a doorway that serves multiple purposes, was enlivened by the wonderfully evocative light plot so that the set pieces changed color and solidity as the lighting changed to follow the story. The costuming was both mostly period appropriate and evocative of character. Dorian Gray’s shiny silver satin suit also took on coloration from his surroundings. (Mirrors and reflections are a continuing theme in the production.)

The score by Mr. Feeney did not tend to have memorable tunes, but was very listenable, evocative, and effective as music to dance to. Conductor Pasquale Laurino lead the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra with skill and power.

We were very happy to have seen and enjoyed this new, unique, and exciting ballet.

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Milwaukee Public Museum, “Ultimate Dinosaurs”

On Tuesday, February 23rd, we went to the Milwaukee Public Museum to see the new travelling exhibit, “Ultimate Dinosaurs.”

Curated by the Royal Ontario Museum, “Ultimate Dinosaurs” is an up-to-date exhibition that focuses on dinosaur specimens excavated in the Southern Hemisphere; South America, Africa, and Madagascar, many of which are quite different from the geographically separated Northern Hemisphere tyrannosaurs and ceratopsians we tend to be familiar with.

This is a heavily interactive exhibit, with lots of computer graphic augmentations, including VR “cameras” you can point at the skeletons on display and view reconstructions of how the fully fleshed saurians might have looked.

The show includes fifteen fully articulated and very impressive casts of dinosaur skeletons, prepared from some of the most complete fossils ever discovered. Included is the Giganotosaurus, the south’s equivalent of the Tyrannosaurus, but sporting large functional hand-claws in addition to its mouthful of slashing teeth. Also included is a single vertebra from the spine of a Titanosaurus, which currently holds the record for largest land animal ever. The vertebra is easily five feet tall, bigger than most dinosaurs’ skulls.

Other specimens include Amargasaurus, distinctive for its large neck spines that measured up to 1.6 feet long, giving the animal a long frill along the length of its body; Cryolophosaurus, the first dinosaur named from Antarctica, Majungasaurus, the largest predatory dinosaur that lived in Madagascar, and the tongue-tangling Futalognksaurus, a giant long-necked sauropod (shown in computer video, as it would be too large to fit in the building--).
The exhibition also includes a number of video displays depicting the geological changes due to continental drift and glaciations from the time of the dinosaurs to the present day, and projecting into the future.

This was a really fascinating exhibit and well worth seeing if you are interested in dinosaurs at all. It is running through early May,

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Dining at c.1880.

On February evening, the 23rd, we went to c.1880. c.1880 has been very well reviewed locally, and, the day after I had made the reservations, the chef was nominated for the Midwest James Beard Award, so we were looking forward to a meal there with great anticipation. We were not disappointed.

The building, at 1100 South 1st Street, is a very nicely remodeled Milwaukee corner tavern building. You enter into an attractive bar area. The dining room proper is a cozy back room, lined with banquette-style seating around the walls. Illumination is provided by Edison-style electric bulbs, and there is a fireplace full of candles. I thought that the rustic tables didn’t quite go with the rest of the décor, but they served their purpose of keeping your food off the floor perfectly well.

Service was friendly, prompt, and informative. This latter is an important feature, since a typical menu entry for an entree looks like this:

Apparently, the menu doesn’t go into details of preparation, since preparations of the same basic ingredients may change from day to day.

We started with an order of foie gras. C.1880’s foie gras is very mild and pleasantly flavored, and served with a cranberry garnish that worked well. It was served with a couple of toasted rounds of brioche, which were particularly delicious.

For dinners, I ordered the DUCK CASSOULET ANDOUILLE/ELEPHANT BEAN/BACON, which consisted of a large bowl containing two large slabs of rare duck breast, resting on a bed of the “elephant beans,” which were large white beans, each about the size of a quarter, which had been pickled or dressed with vinegar. Slices of Andouille sausage, which appeared to have been grilled, bacon, and other vegetables such as finely diced carrot, made up the rest of the dish. The server applied a warm duck jus to the bowl upon bringing it to the table. This was all quite delicious. The one annoyance with the dish was, literally, the dish. The unnecessarily deep bowl made using one’s knife to cut up the duck awkward, particularly given the low seat.

Georgie had the RABBIT SPATZLE/SAVOY/HORSERADISH, which was a very nice boneless ‘loin’ of rabbit, served on a bed of tasty spätzle, with a lightly flavored horseradish sauce that was tangy, but not at all overwhelming. The “savoy” in the listing was a leaf of the cabbage that had been flash fried in some way so that it was crisp, but still green, and very interesting. This was all excellent, also.

For wines, I had a glass of an excellent Pinot Noir, as recommended. Georgie felt like having a rosé, which went very nicely with the delicately flavored rabbit.

The dessert menu looked very tempting, but we were going to a gathering after dinner where dessert would be served, so we decided to save that for next time. There will definitely be a next time.

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