March 14th, 2016

Tea at the Schuster Mansion

On Saturday afternoon, March 5th, we went with other members of the Milwaukee Steampunk Society to the Schuster Mansion Bed and Breakfast in Milwaukee, for “High Tea”. In this context, “High Tea” means a tea that is a meal rather than just a refreshment. “Afternoon tea,” sometimes “low tea,” or just “tea” accompanies the beverage only with sweets such as scones.
The Schuster Tea is technically a “full tea,” which includes savories (little sandwiches, which most people think of as being part of afternoon tea), scones, and sweets; whereas in British parlance “high tea” is a working man’s dinner that includes hot dishes.

Quibbling aside, the Schuster Mansion’s tea was very nice, and served us adequately for dinner, since we were running off to the theatre directly from there. The “February-March-April” menu (it changes quarterly--) consisted of cucumber and chive sandwiches, ham and radish sandwiches, and “tuna kitties”, which were tuna salad on dark rye bread which had been cut out in cat shapes. The scones were rosemary and cheddar, and the pastries included cream puffs with hazelnut cream; “compote bloom”, a small fruit tart; and “Raspberry Pavlovos” (sic), which is a typo for pavlova, a meringue with fruit.

All the foods were well prepared and delicious. We had the option to sample seven flavors of tea, which were all premium teas from Harney & Sons. I tried “Tower of London,” a black tea with bergamot (basically Earl Grey) but flavored with honey also, and “Valentine”, a flavored black tea with rose and chocolate. Georgie had “Paris”, a black tea with lemon bergamot, black currant, vanilla and caramel, and the “Peaches and Ginger” black tea. The teas were very pleasant, tending to be a bit lighter on the flavoring elements than some other brands.

The hostess, who dressed for the occasion, handled all the serving for twenty, no light task, but also gave an entertaining talk covering the history of tea, the history of the house, and a preview of her fall talk on Victorian attitudes toward death, which contained both fact and fable.
This was a very pleasant afternoon’s outing, with very good company as well.

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Off the Wall Theatre, “Hamlet”

Saturday evening, March 5th, we went to see Off the Wall Theatre’s new production of “Hamlet.” Their previous effort, five or so years ago, was a very “blood and thunder” piece. This version was a very pared-down and contemplative approach, which we thought worked very well. The actors were frequently very close to the audience, which was very effective. For his “ to be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet (Jeremy C. Welter) took a chair in the aisle at touching distance from us, and gave the famous speech in a meditative, confiding tone that worked very well. Other actors subtly broke the “fourth wall” as well, with Claudius (Randall Anderson) talking to us, instead of to himself, on the scene beginning “my crime is rank, it stinks to heaven; it hath the primal, eldest curse upon it—a brother’s murder.”

The script was pared down, but extraneous characters were not missed, and all the vital action and iconic dialog was preserved. The playing space was small but flexible, with panels that sometimes became mazelike as entrances and exits crossed. The set decorations and costume elements had a generally Mideastern flavor, which made it a bit more “Hamlet, Prince of Persia” than “Prince of Denmark” but worked to give a “not here, not now” flavor, and may also refer to the fratricidal and internecine strife that afflicts that region today.

Welter as Hamlet was tightly controlled. We the audience see that he is never “mad”, but angry, and his acting out assuages his feelings of aggression as well as unsettling his family and their courtiers. This was a truly fine piece of acting. The other standout role in the play was that of Calynn Klohn as Ophelia. Her childlike build and face help make Hamlet’s abuse of her the more brutal, and, after she’s been literally thrown down by Hamlet, neither Claudius nor Polonious, her father, show any care for her, but leave her lying while they speculate on Hamlet’s state. That she herself joins in worrying about Hamlet shows the extent to which she’s been colonized by her elders. In Ophelia’s “mad scene” Ms. Klohn showed an undercurrent of anger that made her desperation and distraction much more real and affecting.

Marilyn White, as Gertrude, also gave a fine performance as the newly married Queen. One could see that her “newlywed” antics with Claudius would tend to turn Hamlet’s stomach, but also made us wonder if the dead King had been “all that” as a husband, and whether perhaps the royal marriage bed had gone stale.

The principals were well supported by Patrick McCann as Horatio, Max Williamson as Laertes, Erin Eggers as Rosencrantz, and Lawrence J. Lukasavage as Guildenstern.
Director Dale Gutzman reserved the plummy roles of the Ghost, the Player King, and the Gravedigger, for himself, and handled them very well. Doing the Ghost as more of a friendly spirit fit the intimacy of the production, but I was a bit uncertain about having the Ghost actually embrace Hamlet. The fact that the Ghost also gives Hamlet a scarf which he wears through much of the play seemed a bit unusual also, until we see that it is a “macguffin” that other characters seem to recognize.

There were many other fine, subtle, and original touches in this presentation that made it one of the finest Hamlets we have seen.

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