Tag Archives: onstage

Actor Julian Sands reveals a Harold Pinter both tender and terrifying in his one-man ‘Celebration’

British dramatist, screenwriter, director and actor Harold Pinter was one of the foremost playwrights of the late 20th century. The Nobel Prize laureate was known for his “comedies of menace,” works characterized by their acerbic, almost brutal wit and thinly veiled and often direct political criticisms. 

But Pinter also was a tender poet, as well as an avid supporter of the English game of cricket, the language of which often found its way into his literary works. Actor Julian Sands has made it one of his missions to introduce audiences to this alternative side of Pinter’s creative genius.

A Celebration of Harold Pinter, Sands’ one-man homage to the late literary giant, arrives at the Wisconsin Union Theatre on the UW-Madison campus on Feb. 19. 

Pinter’s poetry and plays stand side by side in the one-man show, directed by actor John Malkovich. Sands’ own personal experiences with the dramatist, who died of cancer in 2008, provide insight into the playwright and his works.

“There is a sort of universality that comes when great playwrights observe and present the human condition,” Sands says. “It’s true of Mamet, Chekov and Tennessee Williams and I think its true of Harold Pinter.”

In fact, it was Pinter who tapped Sands, known for his theater, film and television work, to perform in a prototype of the current show. By then the actor already was quite familiar with Pinter’s work.

“My initial exposure to Pinter as a playwright was during my high school studies in England in the 1970s,” says Sands. “I was astonished by his use of language, character and landscape. There was something so ‘other’ about his writing compared to what we had been studying, and I spent a lot of time seeing his plays that were in production.”

As an actor, Sands became even more familiar with Pinter’s work. He even appeared in an appropriately creepy 1987 ABC TV version of Pinter’s The Room, directed by Robert Altman, which also featured Donald Pleasence and Linda Hunt.

“I was thrilled when I was asked to do the film,” the actor says. “I coincidentally played the character of Mr. Sands and Annie Lennox (of the pop group Eurythmics) played Mrs. Sands.”

The Celebration show’s origins go back to 2005, when Pinter was asked to give a recital of some of his poems at a London fundraiser. The writer already was suffering from throat cancer, which impaired his speaking voice, and he asked Sands to do the reading.

Pinter served as director of what Sands describes as “a remarkable master class” in the playwright/poet’s work. Pinter, Sands says, was almost like a conductor in his direction of the actor’s interpretation of his pieces.

“The general tuning up of my skills by Harold was like being back in drama school,” Sands remembers. “It was so profound and meaningful that everything I have done since was informed by these sessions with Harold.”

The public reading was a success and Sands repeated it in Los Angeles. He also produced CDs for friends who couldn’t attend, including Malkovich, whom Sands met on the set of the 1984 film The Killing Fields.

Malkovich specialized in Pinter when he studied theater at Illinois State University in Normal. He also directed several Pinter plays when he was affiliated with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and worked with Pinter on a BBC production of the author’s play Old Times. The veteran actor and director knew Sands’ reading was a formal theater piece in the making and the pair began working to broaden the show into its current format.

Over the next few years, Sands and Malkovich collaborated between acting and directing assignments and Celebration took shape. The first formal performance took place in 2011 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then ran for 50 performances off-Broadway at New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre.

According to Sands — who will come to Madison from Brussels where he is filming The Toy Gun, a gritty, dark comedy for director Marco Serafini — Celebration remains an ever-evolving entity.

“It is above all an entertainment, rather than a dry or academic piece of theater,” Sands says. “But this is Harold Pinter, so fasten your seatbelts.”

The lure of Pinter has as much to do with his language as it does dramatic situations, both of which mirror reality more than they do theatricality, Sands says. The dialogue in Pinter plays reflects what is said and what goes unsaid as an effort to realistically further the story.

“Harold had an ear and an understanding of the silences, pauses and interrupted utterances that make up the most human dialogue, as opposed to well-made sentences that were written and crafted by well-educated middle class people,” Sands says. “It has a musical component that is emotionally and intellectually interesting, and the way he was able to set down exchanges between people was real, which is so interesting to an actor.”

Pinter plays also reflect the often acerbic and controversial nature of the writer. Pinter was a left-leaning intellectual who, in 1948 London, refused British military conscription as a conscientious objector. He was involved in nuclear disarmament efforts and the anti-apartheid movement. He was a vocal critic of the Gulf wars, calling British Prime Minister Tony Blair “a deluded idiot” and comparing the George W. Bush administration to Nazi Germany.

“I am sure he would have very active thoughts about the political landscape today and would not shy away from expressing them,” Sands says. “He would likely be despairing of many things going on today, but I’d like to think he’d retain some hope that reason and humanity would prevail.”

While Pinter’s political persona was very public, his poetry, less well-known, revealed a quieter, more personal side. His love poems to second wife Antonia Fraser are particularly touching, Sands says.

“When I first read these love poems, I couldn’t believe that Harold could be as romantic, as passionate, as deeply felt to the love of his life,” Sands says. “We’re used to his anger, disdain and despair. We could anticipate that, but I could not have anticipated the sweetness and tenderness of the love poems. My favorites from among his poems are included in the performance.”

Pinter’s tender poems will be mixed with some of his less tender play excerpts, obituaries and Sands’ reminiscences.

One does not have to be a Pinter scholar to enjoy the evening, Sands says, just possess an interest in what the power of language can accomplish in the hands of a master of the art.

“Harold’s work holds up a galvanizing mirror to our own lives,” Sands says. “My encounter with the material leaves me both humble and inspired when I leave the stage. That’s what I hope the audience takes away too, as well as having a good time and being well-entertained.”


A Celebration of Harold Pinter, featuring actor Julian Sands, will be performed at 8 p.m. Feb. 19 at the Wisconsin Union Theatre, 800 Langdon St., Madison. Tickets range from $10 to $40. Visit union.wisc.edu or call 608-265-2787.

Locally grown baritone gets villainous in ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Some performing artists find their career path through trial and error, but operatic baritone Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek knows exactly when and where he decided to become a professional singer.

The Milwaukee-born Smith-Kotlarek, who was raised in Neenah, was a voice student at UW-Madison when he saw Madison Opera’s 2007 production of Puccini’s La Boheme. He already knew music would be a part of his life, but when tenor Dinyar Vania, playing Rodolpho, began a particular aria in Act II, it struck a chord with the college senior.

“There is a scene in which Rodolpho tells Mimi how much he loves her and how difficult it will be to leave her,” Smith-Kotlarek remembers. “Puccini’s music hit a high note and the orchestra swelled up underneath to create an incredibly intense moment. I thought, ‘I want to sing like that!’”

Since that time, Smith-Kotlarek has pursued a career in vocal performance that has spanned both opera and musical theater. The 29-year-old singer/actor may have hit his stride this season as the villain Gaston in the current national touring production of Beauty and the Beast. The traveling Broadway show opens at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton for a five-show run Dec. 18-20, then goes to Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts Jan. 13-17 (a different cast not including Smith-Kotlarek will visit Milwaukee in March).

Smith-Kotlarek, who played John Wilkes Booth in Four Seasons Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in Madison this past December, will once again get to test his mettle as the villainous suitor of the Beauty and ultimately battle the Beast for her hand. But this is Disney and true love triumphs, much to Gaston’s dismay, all in the name of an evening of entertaining theater.

“When you include the animated film version, Beauty and the Beast has been around for 24 years and it already has its own traditions,” Smith-Kotlarek says. “That’s long enough to establish a full set of audience expectations.”

Until the fateful performance of La Boheme, Smith-Kotlarek had no specific expectations for his career. But he did develop quite a few interests along the way, following multiple musical threads that matured with time and training.

Smith-Kotlarek began taking Suzuki piano lessons at age 7, but at age 10, he switched to guitar, eventually joining a punk band in middle school. By high school, his tastes had tamed and he became more interested in what he calls “the singer-y, songwriter type of stuff.”

While still in high school, he started taking voice lessons and studying jazz guitar at Appleton’s Lawrence University. Arriving at UW-Madison in 2004, he pursued a degree in vocal performance and music, working with a variety of professors, including baritone Paul Rowe and legendary jazz bassist Richard Davis.

“I had a number of realizations while studying with (Davis),” Smith-Kotlarek says. ”He played with everyone from Miles Davis to Leonard Bernstein. His career always fascinated me and he inspired me a lot.”

In addition to singing, Smith-Kotlarek continued his work as a jazz guitarist, fronting a group called Simply Put that played in various Madison-area clubs. The combo’s momentary brush with fame came in 2007 when it was hired to open for a then-relatively unknown presidential candidate named Barack Obama, who visited Madison while on the campaign trail.

“I got to play some of my original songs,” the musician remembers. “I also ran the sound board for the group.”

He also sang with the University of Wisconsin Opera and in the chorus for the Madison Opera, which helped confirm his musical interests. He decided to immerse himself in opera at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, which netted him his first major role as Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

While at IU, Smith-Kotlarek studied with his professor and fellow baritone Timothy Noble, whom he credits with talking him into auditioning for the role of Gaston. Noble, he notes, also is a jazz fan.

After receiving his master’s degree, Smith-Kotlarek was chosen as one of 12 vocalists to attend the Opera Institute, part of Boston University’s School of Fine Arts. It was at BU that the singer first performed the role of Booth in a university production of Assassins.

BU also allowed Smith-Kotlarek to meet and work with Jake Heggie, composer of the opera Dead Man Walking, a Terrence McNally adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s book about death row convicts. The singer would eventually perform the opera’s lead role, murderer Joseph De Rocher.

“Jake gave me a real feel for his work and even gave me a small mentorship in opera,” says Smith-Kotlarek, who most recently performed the part in 2014 at Chicago’s DePaul University. “I loved that role.”

The baritone’s 6’4” athletic frame made him a good physical fit for the DeRocher part, just as it has for the part of Gaston. However, he’s added a little more muscle to that frame to support what he describes as Gaston’s athleticism.

“I am not necessarily the size of Gaston, so that required some gym time for me, not to mention an adjustment to his arrogance and misogynist point of view,” Smith-Kotlarek says.

The main thing the various roles, performances and higher education have taught Smith-Kotlarek is how to function as part of a team when it comes to putting on a show as complex as Beauty and the Beast. It’s not a lesson that all performers learn right out of school, but one he believes to be invaluable for a performer’s success.

“The show’s creative team had developed specific and useful ways of mounting each performance, and it’s nice just to walk in, get your blocking and know that if you follow instructions, things will look good,” Smith-Kotlarek explains. “But there is still room to put yourself into the character, which is expected. And for a performer, that’s the best of both worlds.”


Beauty and the Beast will appear Dec. 18-20 at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, 400 W. College Ave., Appleton. Tickets start at $50 and can be ordered at 920-730-3760 or foxcitiespac.org. The show returns to Madison Jan. 13 to 17 at Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St. Tickets range from $45 to $100 and can be ordered at 608-258-4141 or overturecenter.org.

The Sets List | Heart, Madison Music Foundry Student Showcase, Big Snow Show X, ‘The Music of Queen’ with the MSO, Wintersong


8 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Riverside Theater, Milwaukee. $50 to $85. pabsttheater.org. 

The idea that women can rock as hard as any man owes quite a debt to the sisters of Heart. Ann and Nancy Wilson took over the charts in the ‘70s with hits like “Crazy on You,” “Magic Man” and “Barracuda.” They’re Rock and Roll Hall of Famers now, and they can still command a stage like few others touring today.

Madison Music Foundry Student Showcase

11 a.m. Dec. 12 at High Noon Saloon, Madison. $3 (suggested donation). high-noon.com

They may be kids, but the six rock bands tuning up for this showcase aren’t untested. They’re the product of the Madison Music Foundry, a nonprofit that’s spent the last 15 years cultivating student rock bands. One of their recent success stories will join them at the event — rock band Take The King, graduates of last year’s program, who will be celebrating the release of their new album that day.

Big Snow Show X 

7:30 p.m. Dec. 10 and Dec. 11 at The Rave, Milwaukee. $40, $50 VIP. therave.com.

This year’s three-day Big Snow Show event already has one date entirely booked (sorry, Panic! at the Disco fans), but tickets are still available for the first two nights of the event. Kicking things off are Big Snow Show veterans Weezer (above), bringing along fellow indie rockers Glass Animals, X-Ambassadors and BØRNS for a show Thursday night. Friday will feature newer additions to the scene as headliners: Of Monsters and Men, whose folk-infused alternative rock will be preceded by Cold War Kids and Meg Myers.

‘The Music of Queen’ with the MSO

8 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Riverside Theater, Milwaukee. $38, $46. pabsttheater.org.

Queen was already symphonic enough when its music was being performed by four rock ’n’ rollers. Add an actual orchestra, and it soars. Conductor/arranger Brent Havens and Windborne Music will present a selection of the quartet’s greatest hits, performed with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — a perfect early Christmas present, if you’re looking for one.


8 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Barrymore Theatre, Madison. $20 day of show, $18 advance or with food donation. wintersongmadison.com.

Local folk musician Anna Vogelzang (above) has spent the past three years gathering artists from across Madison and southwestern Wisconsin for Wintersong, a benefit show supporting Second Harvest Foodbank. This year will be no different, with artists including Phox and Faux Faun coming out to help raise money to feed thousands of families in the region. 

Broadway’s new ‘Spring Awakening’ opens its arms to all

Little can contain the new, electrifying version of “Spring Awakening” now on Broadway.  

Actors use their faces, mouths and hands to communicate. Projections offer song lyrics and dialogue. Performers run through the theater aisles, even occupying a box seat. Musicians roam the stage with their instruments. At one point, incense fills the theater.

The nonprofit Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, which brought Broadway the triumphant “Big River” in 2003, has done it again with Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s rock musical — making inclusionary, astonishingly alive work.

“Spring Awakening,” which opened Sunday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, mixes hearing and deaf performers with elegant ease, adding new depth to a show about the dangers of failing to communicate.

Deaf actors communicate to the hearing audience by relying on colleagues elsewhere onstage to provide their spoken dialogue and singing voice, like alter egos. Hearing actors use American Sign Language — evocative and beautiful onstage — to communicate with deaf audience members. In this theater, no one is excluded.

The result is an exhilarating and fluid hybrid of song, word, dance and sign — and a sheer triumph for director Michael Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff. The songs sit seamlessly in the show, often as brightly lit fantasy sequences that snap back into the grim narrative.

“Spring Awakening” focuses most prominently on three youngsters — Melchoir, the defiant but popular and handsome rebel (played by Austin McKenzie); Wendla, the shy young woman determined to learn about sex (acted by Sandra Mae Frank, voiced by Katie Boeck); and Moritz, done in by the repressive society around him (played by Daniel N. Durant, voiced by Alex Boniello).

There are also wonderful featured performances by Krysta Rodriguez, who was in the 2006 original, and Ali Stroker, the first actor who uses a wheelchair to make it to Broadway. The overly strict adults are played pitch perfectly by Camryn Manheim, Marlee Matlin, Patrick Page and Russell Harvard.

Set in provincial 19th-century Germany, it tells the story of a group of teenagers trying to come to terms with life and their own sexuality. The language is coarse and plot points include premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, autoerotism, sadomasochism and incest.

Ben Stanton’s achingly gloomy lighting that includes silhouettes, long beams and shadows, and Dane Laffrey’s scaffolding-and-ladders scenic design both work well. The use of a mirror and a blackboard are sublime.

But Laffrey’s adherence to the boys dressed in knee britches gives the show an AC/DC vibe. With classrooms in turmoil and evil teachers being monstrous, it sometimes feels like “Spring Awakening” is what the poor kids from “Matilda” can look forward to in a few years.

Many of the songs — including “Mamma Who Bore Me” and “The Bitch of Living” — haven’t lost their vitality and there is simple elegance when cast members hold each other tight to become a tree or leap around with tiny flashlights attached to their fingers to perform “The Mirror-Blue Night” (perhaps inspired by the lyric “flip on a switch”)

If anything, the brilliant staging reveals chips and holes in the book and lyrics, which simply don’t measure up to the ingeniousness of the new show itself. (“My junk is you” is one lyric that hasn’t aged well.) The slapdash nature of the happy ending after so much gloom also feels overly forced.

But those aren’t knocks on Deaf West’s ingenuity. Sign language unlocks so much in the dialogue and emotion that you might wish more shows follow its example. It has awakened “Spring Awakening.”

On the Web…


‘Rumore’ places refugees’ plight center stage

Turn on the news on any given night of the week and the struggles of the Syrian refuges stare back at you. They are individuals clinging to a hope for survival by crossing the Mediterranean. 

It’s a story that seems far away, a world removed from Milwaukee. Theater Gigante hopes to change that.

On Oct. 1, the company will present the local premiere of Rumore di Acque, a play that puts the struggles of Mediterranean-crossing refugees center stage. 

Written by Marco Martinelli, Rumore di Acque (“Noise in the Waters”) is set against a beautiful Mediterranean backdrop, telling a story that is anything but. The piece illuminates the tragedy of African immigrants who have been found at sea, trying to escape war, hunger and all sorts of terror in their own countries. In the past 20 years, over 20,000 refugees have drowned trying to escape.

Co-artistic director Isabelle Kralj says Martinelli’s piece neither glorifies nor fictionalizes its events. Rather, it draws on true accounts collected by him and collaborator Ermanna Montanari. “This piece is powerful because it takes all the numbers that are thrown at us in the media and humanizes (them),” Kralj says. “It personalizes the story and gives a face to the tragedy that we are seeing in the news on a daily basis.”

Rumore di Acque has previously been performed in Chicago and New York, following the world premiere in Ravenna, Italy, in 2010. New to this production is a score written by composer and accordionist Guy Klucevsek. 

“The music Guy has written for us is very accessible and beautiful. It makes you feel emotions without forcing you,” says co-artistic director Mark Anderson in a recent interview. “The music is tonal while still being avant-garde. It is contemporary but has elements of a truly classical sound as well,” added Kralj.

Original performer Alessandro Renda will be performing the work in the original Italian, with Thomas Simpson (a professor of Italian at Northwestern University in Chicago) translating the words live into English. The partnership will allow the show to move back and forth between Italian and English seamlessly, Kralj says. 

This unique and powerful production provides several opportunities for collaboration, which Gigante is pursuing as part of its mission. Renda will teach acting classes at UWM and in local high schools. Talkbacks will give audiences a chance to ask questions. And following the completion of the show, the cast will record Klucevsek’s original score for performance use overseas. “We are so excited about the reception of Guy’s score and really thrilled that it will be used for future performances. It’s a truly beautiful score,” says Kralj.

The subject matter may seem difficult at times, but it is not as far away from home as the location may seem — Kralj is living proof. “My parents were immigrants,” she explains. “They didn’t have to go through what these individuals in the Mediterranean are facing, but it was hard. A lot of the emotions discussed in this show hit home. This is a powerful work that will resonate with everyone.”


Rumore di Acque will run Oct. 1-4 at UWM’s Kenilworth Studio 508, 1925 E. Kenilworth Place, Milwaukee. Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors, $15 for students. Visit theatregigante.org to order.

The Sets List: Joan Armatrading, Brandi Carlile, Shania Twain, Blitzen Trapper, Glass Animals

Joan Armatrading

8 p.m. Oct. 6 at UW Union Theatre, Madison. $35, $45, $55 or $100, with student tickets for $25.

We have good news and bad news about Joan Armatrading’s latest tour, passing through Madison this fall. Let’s start with the downer: The award-winning, prolific British musician has announced that this will be her final major tour, after more than 40 years on the road. On the other hand, this is also Armatrading’s first-ever “solo” tour — just her, a guitar, a piano and that voice of hers — which is sure to make this farewell to one of music’s greatest singer/songwriters even more poignant. Americana singer/songwriter Kristina Train opens.

Brandi Carlile

8 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Pabst Theater, Milwaukee. $40.

Largely due to troubles booking a headliner for the date, Brandi Carlile opened for The Avett Brothers at Summerfest this year to an unimaginably sparse Marcus Amphitheater crowd. Make it up to her when she takes the Pabst Theater stage on her own terms. Carlile’s here supporting her latest album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, an energetic, sprawling Americana album that cements her reputation as one of the better folk artists recording today. 

Shania Twain

7:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Kohl Center, Madison. $44 to $134. uwbadgers.com.

Shania Twain thought she might never sing again. That’s how damaged her vocal chords were in the mid-to-late ‘00s, weakened by performance and stress and forcing her into early retirement. But careful rehabilitation helped restore the voice that gave us “You’re Still The One,” “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and “Come On Over.” And one Vegas residency later, Twain is back on the road. This tour, her first in more than a decade, is a preemptive strike for her upcoming fifth studio album, planned for sometime in the next year. Gavin DeGraw opens.

Blitzen Trapper

8 p.m. Oct. 6 at Turner Hall Ballroom, Milwaukee. $20, $22 day of show. pabsttheater.org.

You got lucky, Milwaukee. Portland-based country/folk band Blitzen Trapper is coming to Milwaukee on Oct. 6, but their new album, All Across This Land, is dropping on Oct. 2. That means you’ve got a whole weekend to bone up on the alt-country album that the band considers its best yet, and show up Tuesday night just as jazzed about their new material as they are. Don’t disappoint.

Glass Animals

8 p.m. Oct. 6 at the Orpheum Theater, Madison. $25. madisonorpheum.com.

Try not to be intimidated by the fact that Glass Animals frontman David Bayley picked up a degree in neuroscience while his band’s demos took the Internet by storm. Pushing aside your insecurities leaves you wide-open to explore Glass Animals’ experimental, innovative debut, Zaba, a tropical, psychedelic record that promises much from this young band. They’ll make their Madison debut with special guest Hinds.

American Players offers a searing ‘Othello’

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, William Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet. That same ethos is even better demonstrated in his later work Othello, where the Bard weaves a tale of evil intent, with all the expected consequences.

American Players Theatre’s production of Othello, which opened in mid-August at the Spring Green troupe’s Up the Hill theater, pulls no punches. With its racism both overt and covert, Othello falls into the category of Shakespeare‘s plays that are sometimes difficult to watch, a list including the anti-Semitic Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew, rife with unbridled misogyny.

APT’s powerful version of Othello doesn’t shy away from its distasteful elements. But its dramatic accomplishments make it well worth seeing.

The play opens as Othello the Moor (Chiké Johnson), a general in the Venetian army, secretly marries Desdemona (Laura Rook), daughter of Brabantio (Brian Mani), a senator with the Venetian state. The newlyweds are happy, but Brabantio does little to disguise his disgust, literally throwing his daughter at her new husband. 16th-century Venice, it seems, is no liberal society.

Enter Iago (James Ridge), Othello’s ensign, outraged that Othello has passed Iago over to promote Cassio (Nate Burger) as his lieutenant. Operating in partnership with the reluctant Roderigo (Marcus Truschinski), who secretly loves Desdemona, Iago undertakes the machinations that will ultimately lead to Othello’s undoing. 

Director John Langs creates an air of urgency in his production, underscored with an undercurrent of despair. The senators, noblemen and soldiers, including the Duke of Venice (David Daniel), applaud Othello’s military victories, and his minions are obsequious to a fault. But that doesn’t protect the military hero from his ultimate fall. 

In fact, Othello’s power and presumption only contribute to his undoing, a theme that carries over to many of the other lead characters. Iago’s own vanity, colored by his ambitions, drives his near-pathological pursuit of Othello’s demise.

As Othello, Johnson manages his character with charm and bravado, but his descent into distrust, despair and, ultimately, murder under Iago’s influence seems a rather abrupt shift. It’s a fault more attributable to tight dramatic turns in the source material than anything else. In the end, Othello is neither hero nor villain, but rather a tragic pawn in the power plays and social influences of others.

Despite the play’s title, it is Iago who is the dramatic driver of both the concept and action behind the narrative, and Ridge is fully capable of handling the role. His pursuit of Othello is cool, calm and calculating, which makes it all the more unnerving. 

Director Langs draws only a modest distinction between Iago as the “hale fellow, well met” and as the evil conspirator who carefully strategizes Othello’s undoing as if he were solving a puzzle or managing a military campaign. It’s an interpretation that suggests how close we all dance to the edge of sanity and our own capability to operate in a similar fashion. 

Langs’ production also adds a variety of stage business to scenes that could easily have lapsed into mere dialogue. Othello and Iago train with swords while discussing the Moor’s concerns over his wife, first matching movements in warm-up exercises, and then sparing as the conversation becomes more direct. In addition to foreshadowing the swordplay in Act II, the scene, along with others, bring a much needed physicality to the largely intellectual proceedings.

The cast, as a whole, is strong and draws on several accomplished APT veterans in smaller roles, including Colleen Madden (actor Ridges’ wife in real life) as Iago’s wife Emilia, to bring greater depth and breadth to the ensemble. Scenic designer Andrew Boyce’s minimalist set is spartan, ringed by moats of water, and more than proves adequate for Othello’s undoing.

APT tells an engaging tale in which the powers of evil and the vanity of men combine to create a true tragedy. Othello is certainly one of the company’ strongest plays of the season, warning us all that the power of persuasion in unbridled pursuit of ego can lead to deadly consequences.


American Players Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Othello runs through Oct. 3 on the APT campus, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green. For tickets, call 608-588-2361 or visit americanplayers.org.

Summer theater blossoms on Door County stages

Door County is known as a summer destination, a place to get away and embrace tranquility. But for theater lovers — and other vacationers looking to try something new — driving up to the northeastern woods doesn’t mean you’re cutting yourself off from a world of dramatic culture.

Quite the opposite. Door County has its own unique theater community, and June marks curtain up — or whatever’s the equivalent when you’re journeying into the woods to find a stage tucked away as if by magic.

No matter what your tastes, there’s bound to be something you’ll enjoy. The community’s tried and true venues include Peninsula Players, Northern Sky Theater (formerly American Folklore Theater) and Door Shakespeare, and each has a season packed with diverse, enchanting works.

You’ve just got to head north to find them.

Peninsula Players

The Peninsula Players have been in the Door County theater game the longest, celebrating their 80th anniversary this year. 

But artistic director Greg Vinkler isn’t taking the anniversary as an opportunity to do anything more than carry on Peninsula Players’ everyday mission. “In thinking about what kind of season I would do to celebrate (our anniversary),” he says, “I realized that the best way to celebrate such a season was to keep doing what we were doing, which was offer a great variety of shows to our audiences.”

Peninsula Players performs in an all-weather pavilion, located on a former Boy Scout camp along Green Bay that also features wooded gardens and a beer garden and bonfire site overlooking the bay. The company chooses not to perform its shows in repertory, unlike other Door County companies, running each of the five shows in its season consecutively.

When selecting this year’s plays, Vinkler had two important shows to schedule around. One is their first show: A Real Lulu, a world premiere by Paul Slade Smith. Smith, a friend of Vinkler’s, wrote a play called Unnecessary Farce that the company staged several years ago, and Lulu is his follow-up. The play is a comedy about a new governor of Vermont and the slew of well-intentioned advisors who try to mold him into a regular politician against his will.

“(Smith) finally got it to a point where he thought it was ready for production,” Vinkler says. “That was a deciding factor in getting what followed to happen.”

Vinkler will perform in Lulu as an actor, but he’ll direct his other early pick: Outside Mullingar, an Irish romantic comedy by John Patrick Shanley. Vinkler says Peninsula Players performed Shanley’s best-known play, Doubt, several years ago, to great success. Outside Mullingar is a very different play, about members of two families in the midst of a land dispute, but Vinkler knew as soon as he read it he wanted to stage it as well.

From there, the season became a matter of complementing the initial choices. Neither show was a musical, so Vinkler picked one up: Nunsense. Both were comedies, so Vinkler looked for something darker: Dial M for Murder. And while both were funny, he needed something that went beyond funny all the way to silly: the classic farce Lend Me a Tenor.

Boiled down to its essence, it sounds simple. But even with more than two decades’ experience with the company, Vinkler says selecting a season is always a challenge because he’s got to find shows his actors can all be a part of. “The thing I have to think about is that I have to carry a company of actors through the season, so they have to be shows that would accommodate that.”

On his side: a loyal audience. Vinkler says audiences do include new faces, but are frequently filled by visitors who’ve been coming for years, attracted by the ambience the company offers. “It’s unique that, in an evening, an audience member can come picnic in the beer garden, watch the sun set over Green Bay (and) see a show. … It’s quite a nice evening out and a unique experience. I don’t know of very many theaters like it.”

Peninsula Players’ summer season runs from June 16 to Oct. 18, at 4351 Peninsula Players Road, Fish Creek. Its first show of the season, A Real Lulu, runs June 16 to July 5. Tickets range from $36 to $45. Visit peninsulaplayers.com or call 920-868-3287.

Northern Sky Theatre

The big news at Northern Sky Theatre this season is the name itself. It’s the new moniker of the company formerly known as American Folklore Theatre, and artistic director Jeffrey Herbst says it’s long overdue.

“American Folklore Theater wasn’t really describing what we were doing anymore,” he says. “The name change already has started to allow us to have a bigger umbrella.”

What the newly rechristened company is doing nowadays is producing original, homegrown musicals, a big shift from its roots as an off-shoot of the Heritage Ensemble, which collected and performed folk songs with Midwest ties. Herbst, who has been with the company since it became AFT in 1990, says the shift from revues to book musicals has been slowly building over the past few decades, and it was increasingly becoming apparent that the writers and composers they wanted to work with didn’t know what to make of their name.

“(Our writers) wanted to write original shows and they wanted to write them for us,” Herbst says. “But it became a little bit of an issue for me to say ‘write something for American Folklore Theater’ … because they didn’t know exactly what that meant. I didn’t know what it meant.”

Now that they’re officially known as Northern Sky (an allusion to the starry “rooftop” audience members sit beneath at the company’s amphitheater in Peninsula State Park), Herbst and his company can get on with the business of performing the original works they’re known for. This season, they’re pushing themselves harder than ever, premiering two brand-new works in the same season for the first time, alongside last year’s hit Strings Attached, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors featuring ukulele- and banjo-playing twins.

One of the two premieres comes from the usual channels Northern Sky has established in its 25-year existence. Herbst commissioned When Butter Churns to Gold from a playwriting team based in Los Angeles (although, by coincidence, writer Peter Welkin is originally from Wisconsin). After reviewing successive versions and workshopping the piece, he scheduled it for the 2015 season.

It’s a bit of a departure from Northern Sky’s usual fare thanks to Welkin’s experience working for a group called the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville. Welkin wrote Butter in the style the company’s known for: over-the-top melodrama, with black-and-white villains and heroes battling over an orphaned heroine’s family farm and the occasional dose of metatheatrical fourth-wall breaking. “It’s a combination of old-fashioned style with a modern twist,” Herbst says.

No Bones About It, on the other hand, is totally brand-new, commissioned especially for this year. “I had some other things that were in the pipeline … but I looked at what those options were and I didn’t think that I had enough pop,” Herbst says.

He needed a new musical from scratch in less than a year, so he turned to his most reliable team: music and lyrics duo Paul Libman and Dave Hudson, now the company’s most-produced pair with six musicals to their name. Herbst knew he could count on them to come up with something clever, and he got it — a Romeo & Juliet adaptation featuring dueling barbecue dynasties and “char”-crossed lovers.

Those three shows will be performed in repertory throughout the summer, followed by the annual fall show. This year, they’ll bring a classic collaboration between composer James Kaplan and the late AFT co-founder Fred Alley indoors for the first time: Lumberjacks in Love.

That show will be performed at the Door Community Auditorium, but Herbst isn’t sure how much longer that’ll be the case — going forward, he hopes Northern Sky can have a new home as well as a new name. “The lifeblood of this theater company is original works, and original works have to have a place where they can be created,” he says. Renting space is working for now, but sooner or later Northern Sky may need a permanent facility.

For now, it’s enough to just be Northern Sky Theater, even if Herbst says old habits die hard: “I still catch myself, after working here for 25 years, saying AFT sometimes. But most of the time I don’t.”

Northern Sky Theater’s summer season runs in repertory June 11 to Aug. 29 at 10169 Shore Road, Fish Creek. Lumberjacks in Love will run Sept. 4 to Oct. 17 at Door Community Auditorium, 3926 Highway 42. Tickets are $20, $10 for teens, $6 for children 12 and under, with an additional $7 charge for reserved seating. Visit northernskytheater.com or call 920-854-6117.

Door Shakespeare

More than any of Door County’s other theaters, Door Shakespeare is in the process of reinventing itself. That’s due to the ongoing evolution spearheaded by executive director Amy Ludwigsen, currently preparing for her third year of shows at Door County’s Björklunden estate.

When Ludwigsen joined Door Shakes in 2012, after the resignation of founders Suzanne Graff and Jerry Gomes, she joined a company that had been focusing on the comedies of Shakespeare and occasionally other writers. She expanded and contracted the scope simultaneously, deciding to exclusively perform Shakespeare plays for the next few years but introduce the Bard’s romances, tragedies and potentially even histories into the mix, beginning with a double-bill of Macbeth and Love’s Labors Lost her first year. 

“People don’t need to just laugh,” she says. “They can be challenged and entertained at the same time.”

Ludwigsen’s instincts proved right. Her inaugural season was well-received and it’s given her the confidence to go further, bringing in new artists to help the company grow.

One of them is director Leda Hoffmann. Introduced to Door Shakespeare last year, Hoffmann will return this year to direct Romeo & Juliet and The Tempest. 

Ludwigsen says she and Hoffmann determined it was important to stage Romeo & Juliet due to its influence on modern society. “It’s a play that you are going to deal with at some point in your life,” she says. 

The Tempest, then, serves as a counterweight to Romeo & Juliet’s urban setting, beautiful in its depiction of nature. The show’s staging will reflect the beauty of the surrounding woods rather than the stereotypical tropical island — as if Prospero’s isle is only a kayak tour away.

One of Ludwigsen’s earliest artistic decisions at Door Shakes was to make the stage more intimate by centering it around a maple tree on the property and arranging the seating on three sides. This year, with the help of set designer Aaron Kopec, they’ll go further, building their first-ever multi-level set around that tree as a way to integrate it into Björklunden itself. “We’re calling it the Treehouse. … We want people to feel like it has always been there.”

Door Shakespeare originally began as an offshoot project of American Folklore Theater in the mid-90s, and Ludwigsen believes its mission to perform classical theater in Door County remains as relevant as it’s ever been. “These stories are still our stories,” she says.

But it’s important to her that she tells those stories in ways that truly benefit the audience and artists, whether that means casting more diversely and splitting up female roles to allow for more women on stage or simply making it easier for people of all ages to see their shows, by encouraging student groups to attend and hosting family nights where parents and grandparents can bring children to engage with the shows on their levels. “I think it’s going to be a really exciting summer to be in the audience — not just for what you’re watching on stage but for who you’re watching it with.”

Door Shakespeare’s summer season runs in repertory June 30 to Aug. 15 at 7590 Boynton Lane, Bailey’s Harbor. Tickets are $27, $32 for reserved seating, $17 for students and $7 for children under 12. Visit doorshakespeare.com or call 920-839-1500.

The Sets List, February 26, 2015

Ariana Grande 
7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee. $27 to $67. bmoharrisbradleycenter.com.

The mantle of teen pop queen is a lofty one to bear. In 2015, the crown that’s anointed the brows of Britney, Xtina and Miley has been passed along to former Nickelodeon star Ariana Grande. But Grande’s got one thing her predecessors would have killed for: pipes reminiscent of a young Mariah Carey. Whether she will ultimately join the ranks of her foremothers or become this generation’s Jessica Simpson depends as much on how her fickle audience ages up as anything else. For now, enjoy having a nice whistle tone-toting songstress in the public eye once again. Special guests Rixton and Cashmere Cat open.

The Gaslight Anthem
8 p.m. March 12 at the Pabst Theater, Milwaukee. $25. pabsttheater.org.

Sharing the same Jersey roots, it’s no wonder The Gaslight Anthem sounds like a classic Springsteen album. But frontman Brian Fallon isn’t content to just be The Boss Lite. With the band’s latest album Get Hurt, The Gaslight Anthem has shaken up its style, injecting arena rock, folk and pop influences into the heartland sound the members know so well. They’ll be preceded by guests Northcote and The Scandals.

8 p.m. March 1 at The Rave, Milwaukee. $20. therave.com.

It’s hard to figure out how to describe the exact sound of the Kongos brothers, until you look into their recent history. While the four-piece band of brothers may be based out of Phoenix now, they spent their childhoods in South Africa and their biggest hit, “Come With Me Now,” is heavily influenced by the 1990s era genre known as kwaito, characterized by a slowed-down house beat and accordion accompaniment. Sir Sly and Colony House open.

Count This Penny
7:30 p.m. March 6 at Stoughton Opera House, Stoughton. $15. ci.stoughton.wi.us.

Count This Penny doesn’t sound like a Madison band, and they almost weren’t. The city caught a break when married duo Amanda and Allen Rigell relocated from Tennessee to the Midwest and brought their recently formed Appalachian pop act with them. Now a four-piece, Count This Penny is one of the hottest bands in the state, with clear, harmonic tunes reminiscent of the defunct Civil Wars. They’ll play this one last gig before heading down to SXSW — so catch them now while you can still be ahead of the hype.

Gaelic Storm 

8 p.m. March 11 at the Barrymore Theater, Madison. $30. barrymorelive.com.

8 p.m. March 12 at the Meyer Theatre, Green Bay. $30. meyertheatre.org.

8 p.m. March 17 at the Pabst Theatre, Milwaukee. $30. pabsttheatre.org.

When you think of Celtic rock, you think of Gaelic Storm. (Unless you’re a Dropkick Murphys fan, in which case we’re deeply sorry.) The genre-bending band has been touring like mad ever since a cameo in Titanic catapulted them to fame, and 2014 marked the release of Full Irish, a greatest-hits album that collects the best tracks from their past decade. But it’s in performance that the band really shines, so you’re in luck: Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater has been the band’s St. Patrick’s Day home for years, which means they always make sure to drop in at venues elsewhere in Wisconsin, too.

Lily & Madeleine
9 p.m. March 7 at The Frequency, Madison. $10, $12 at door. madisonfrequency.com.

Neither Lily nor Madeleine Jurkiewicz has broken into a third decade of life, yet this sister duo already has two albums to their name and a big fan base in the folk music community. On the latest LP, Fumes, Lily & Madeleine face their approaching adulthood head-on, with ethereal, harmonic vocals that speak of two young women in transition. They’ve vowed to keep their audience happy with an album every year for at least three years, which means their current tour may be the origin point for that third album’s nascent tracks. 

Hugh Jackman talks fish, blood and his new show

Before Hugh Jackman could appear in his current Broadway play, “The River,” he had to learn his lines, dig deep into his character and do something he’s never done before: gut a fish.

His character is a fisherman who in one scene pulls out a real 3-pound sea trout, cuts it open with a fearsome-looking knife, removes the internal organs, chops a fennel bulb, slips lemon slices into the skin and seasons the flesh before popping the dish in a fake oven.

It’s a mesmerizing scene and Jackman — a man who plays a sharp-clawed Wolverine in the movies — seems completely at ease as he unhurriedly prepares the fish like a Food Network veteran.

He wasn’t always so calm.

“I was originally a little nervous about it,” said Jackman over lunch in Manhattan. “I’d never done it before and I knew it had to look like he’d been doing it his whole life.”

So Jackman did what any actor worth his salt does: He consulted chefs and practiced. He originally planned to gut a fish every day for months until it became second nature, but he was told the better route was to gut 40 in a single, fishy session.

He got out his knives and made fish fillets and fish sticks and fish soup. “There are fish cakes still frozen in my freezer,” he said, laughing. “No one’s having fish at my house for a long time.”

The scene comes in the middle of Jez Butterworth’s enigmatic play about love and repetition. Various women from the fisherman’s past enter and leave his remote fishing cabin, warping time and space.

“I think the more poetically you take the piece, and less literally you take the piece, the deeper you go with it,” Jackman said. “Ultimately, I think it’s a play that just spoke to me and my heart. I read it and I was like, ‘Wow. There’s something very true and real and honest about connection, about loss, about the search in life.’ That’s something that I’ve always had.”

Jackman, who plays the pirate Blackbeard in next year’s “Pan” and said he’s close to starring in an original movie musical about P.T. Barnum, threw himself into the new play. He spoke to memory experts and read works by psychotherapist Carl Jung.

To nail the fish dish preparation scene, Jackman also consulted with a master — chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, where he has chosen to eat on this afternoon. But Jackman has turned down the lobster tartine and caramelized foie gras for a more modest lunch of raw avocado, toast, peanut butter and marmalade.

“Perfect,” he said when his plate arrives. “I really love going to a three-star Michelin restaurant and they say, ‘You really must try the marmalade with your peanut butter.’”

“The River,” at Circle in the Square Theatre, has been a sellout, in part to Jackman’s star power. But even with his comfort in front of an audience, the fish-gutting scene didn’t go too smoothly when he first performed it, despite all the practice.

“I’ll admit: The first time I did it, I remember thinking, ‘My heart rate is about 75 beats a minute,’” said Jackman. Things got worse when he cut off the end of his thumb.

“It was not much but it was enough of a cut and it bled the entire play. I didn’t realize it was that bad. I thought it would stop,” he said. He could hear the audience murmur about it. “It was not my finest moment.”

There were pools of Jackman’s blood all over the set and the onstage carpet had to be pulled up and cleaned. “I’m a little slower now but now I’ve really got it. Now I’m really enjoying it,” he said.

He’d better: Jackman is eating fish eight times a week as part of the show. The raw trout he’s prepared is quietly swapped out for a roasted one, prepared for each performance from the nearby Emmett O’Lunney’s Irish Pub.

Jackman, who also washes his hands and kitchen tools in a working water spigot onstage, had wanted to cook his fish each time, but it turns out it’s illegal to have a working oven onstage.

Instead, he now bites into the catered fish at each show — and adores it, insisting it doesn’t get old.

“Actors love that: free food,” he said. “That never leaves you.”