May 17th, 2016

Spaces and Traces 2016, Historic Water Tower Neighborhood

On Saturday morning, May 14th, we went on the annual Historic Milwaukee “Spaces and Traces” tour of homes, which this year was in the “Historic Water Tower Neighborhood.” This area of the city is on the north side along the lakeshore, and, for purposes of this tour, was bounded on the north by East Hartford Avenue, and on the south by East Windsor Place.

We began the tour at the Joseph and Charlotte Friend house on N. Hackett Ave., which was a handsome and spacious 1896 Queen Anne style home, and continued to the Emmons E. Chapin house on N. Summit, also a Queen Anne built in 1894, and the John F. Dahlman “Investment” house, a Federal revival, also on Summit. (For these tours, the houses are designated by the names of the original owners/residents. The current owners remain anonymous for privacy’s sake.)

We then went up to the north edge of the tour area and got to see one of the real jewels of the tour, the Orrin W. and Harriet H. Robertson house on North Lake Drive. If you know Milwaukee, you know that North Lake Drive is one of the most prestigious addresses, and the site of many fine homes. The Robertson house is such a one.

The house was built in 1912 after the Robertsons had toured France, and designed by noted Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler after the Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau at the Robertson’s request. Built between 1518 and 1527, this château is considered one of the foremost examples of early French renaissance architecture.

Although for about twenty years from the 1960’s to the 1980’s the house belongs to various orders of nuns and used as a retreat, the house has been carefully restored and furnished with thematically appropriate pieces. A striking feature of the design is the corner turrets, which give the house a very fairy-tale air. The side facing the lake has a very clear view out to the horizon across a long lawn stretching to the bluff edge.

Next, we visited the W.B Rubin Duplex on N. Summit Ave. This 1911 Prairie Style building is about as different from the Robertson house as can be, with its modernistic flat roof and rectangular lines. Now a condominium, the two units have been decorated in different styles by the respective owners, but both in ways congenial to the building. The first floor in particular was furnished with Prairie-style furniture. The upper unit had combined the original flat with the third-floor servant’s quarters, which were used as a very spacious and ultra-modern master suite.
After that, we went down to the south end of the tour area to see the Elizabeth Black house, which shows influences of French Provincial design. Built in 1926 for the then elderly spinster, the house incorporates an elevator, which is still functional. This is also one of the first houses in Milwaukee I have seen that boasts a purpose-built wine cellar (although it was not likely noted as that on the Prohibition-Era blueprints). The rooms we were allowed to see were spacious and beautiful.

Our final stop was the “tavern room” of the Becker-Fitch house on E Back Bay Street, another property overlooking the lake. This room, designed and decorated to look like a rustic Irish pub, was added to the 1895 home in 1923, as a “den”. It has a separate entrance down the drive to the back, and was well situated for “discreet” entertaining.

This year’s tour was particularly good, and we enjoyed it (despite the unseasonably chilly weather).

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A Disappearing

On Saturday evening, May 14th, we went to the Walker’s Point Center for the Performing Arts to see “A Disappearing”, the Midwest premier of a new play by Milwaukee playwright Mark Wyss, who also produced. (Mark is also my next-door neighbor, and he and his wife Sandra, who designed the sets for the show, have worked on a number of the same productions I have in the past.)

“A Disappearing” was originally presented in a shorter form at the Albuquerque short play festival in 2014, where it won “Audience Favorite”. This was the first showing of the expanded version.

The play opens as lights come up on the kitchen of Alan and Claire, a suburban couple (Ryan H. Nelson and Michelle White). It’s evident a child’s birthday party is in progress from the cake, hats, and presents on the table. Alan, Claire, and “The Great Marvin” enter, with an argument already in progress. Marvin (Luke Summers) is the magician Claire hired to entertain at their son’s party. Marvin has evidently succeeded in making a heckling child, Tommy, disappear, to general consternation, since he has no idea how he did it, or how, or if, the child can be returned. He may have gone “where lost socks go,” as Marvin speculates.

A tumultuous debate ensues as Alan and Claire try to get their minds around what has happened and wonder what to do. Marvin is alternately appalled and delighted by his new-found power. After a wide-ranging and hilarious discussion, which includes the possible monetization of making inconvenient people go away, Alan takes on the duty of phoning Tommy’s parents to deliver the bad news. The act ends as he is on the phone to them.

Then, the audience moved from the “blue box” performance space at the back of the building, to the front room of the Center, representing the living room of Tommy’s parents, Sheila and Rob (Marilou Davido and John McGreal). They are a slightly younger, somewhat more yuppie couple, who are trying to enjoy a bit of “alone time” while Tommy’s at the party. This has marginal success, since Tommy intrudes even without being their, which results in a discussion about their troublesome child, in which Rob wistfully speculates on what life would be like without Tommy. They are just beginning to settle down when the phone rings, and we hear the other side of Alan’s call. This devolves from incredulity through dismay to hysteria as the message sinks in that their only child has indeed disappeared into thin air.

The third act was back in the “blue box,” now Alan and Claire’s living room. Sheila and Rob have arrived, and recriminations fly thick and fast, while possible solutions are thin on the ground. The play works out as a very funny, very black comedy, which dares to ask the question probably hidden in the hearts of most parents when looking at the fruit of their loins in those inevitable unlovely moments, “what if?”

All of the actors did a very fine job with Mr. Wyss’ edgy script. Direction, by Tim Kietzman, made sure the action and dialog was fast and appropriately furious. We found the delivery, especially of the argumentative scenes, to be very believable, and the wording naturalistic.

We had a fine time at “A Disappearing” and enjoyed very much, as did the rest of the audience. “A Disappearing” continues Friday and Saturday, the 20th and 21st. Tickets can be had at

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Florentine Opera, “Die Fledermaus”

On Sunday afternoon, May 15th, we went to the Marcus Center for a very beautiful and enjoyable production of Johann Strauss’ operetta, “Die Fledermaus.” There was an attractive set, on loan from the Virginia Opera, consisting of enormous paintings of lush nudes at the sides, and a gigantic Bacchanal at the back, indicative of the decadent times. (The originals were painted by Viennese artist Hans Makart, very famous in his day.) No expense seemed to have been spared on the gorgeous costumes, especially those worn by Inna Dukach as Rosalinde.

The various singers seemed to have great fun with the elaborate practical joke/revenge plot initiated against Eisenstein (Corey McKern) by Dr. Falke (Jonathan Beyer), which involves luring Eisenstein to a party under false pretenses while he supposed to be reporting to jail for having kicked a tax collector.

At the party, Eisenstein makes trouble for himself by flirting with his masked wife, who’s there because her would-be lover Alfred (John Pickle), has been arrested and taken to jail in Eisenstein’s place.

The plot all works out with great good humor, and a healthy addition of local references and inside jokes. Alfred is advised by jailer Frosch (William Theisen) to call “Gruber Law Offices” when he asks for a lawyer: Alfred, a singer whose voice Rosalinde finds ravishing, sings snatches of Tosca, Turandot, and, in the jail cell, “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen.” Eisenstein gets in on the fun, crooning “I’m Going to Maxime’s” (from The Merry Widow, by Strauss’ competitor Franz Lehar) on the way to the party.

Mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider in the role of “Prince Orlofsky” presented the character as an homage to the late musician Prince, sporting his trademark hairdo, and wispy mustache and facial hair. She also had a good repertoire of rock-star poses and gestures down. Jamie-Rose Guarrine was very funny as the truant chambermaid, Adele.

All the cast and the chorus sang wonderfully well, and were well supported by the orchestra under the direction of Maestro Joseph Rescigno. It was a lovely afternoon at the opera.
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