Tag Archives: Jill Anna Ponasik

‘Agnes of God’ is a glorious triumph for Renaissance Theaterworks

The setup of Agnes of God looks like your typical “angel on one shoulder, devil on the other” story. The play opens with a Mother Superior introducing herself to a psychiatrist. Each is prepared to wrestle for the soul of a young nun accused of murdering the baby she secretly carried and gave birth to, and each seems primed to unveil the other as an enemy in disguise. 

Renaissance Theaterworks has taken a complex, challenging work and taken it to the next level, with director Suzan Fete giving three of Milwaukee’s most talented actresses all the tools they need to make this a battle to remember.

From their first appearances, the women of Agnes of God intrigue us with the mysteries they hold. Dr. Martha Livingston (Laura Gordon) begins with the first of several monologues, playwright John Pielmeier’s method of transitioning from scene to scene and getting inside Martha’s head. Next, we meet Sister Miriam Ruth (Flora Coker), Agnes’ mentor and Mother Superior, whose dry, very un-nun humor is only the first of many surprises she’ll reveal. And then there’s Agnes (Rána Roman), a 21-year-old postulant who is innocent of the world outside her convent. Hidden away in her mother’s home until age 17, she’s subject to visions and she hears voices. She sings with a rapturously beautiful voice that she says is not hers but that of a mysterious “Lady.”

Appointed by the court to serve as a neutral party and decide if the young Agnes is fit to stand trial for the murder of her child, Martha is anything but objective. She is swayed first by lingering hatred for the Catholic Church due to the events of her past. But she quickly becomes entranced by the mystery of Agnes’ story, letting it carry her far from her original mission. Martha loses herself in Agnes’ story and pulls us in with her. Gordon’s magnetic, commanding stage presence keeps us (like Martha) from realizing the dangers of going in so deep until it’s too late.

Coker’s Miriam, on the other hand, can be almost repulsive at times, as our perception of her shifts with Martha’s discoveries. There’s never a doubt in our minds that this nun loves and wants to protect her young charge, but her methods occasionally seem manipulative — even as we partially agree with them. Miriam’s goal throughout the play is to protect Agnes, but Pielmeier’s script and Fete’s presentation deftly manipulate our inclination to side with the seemingly enlightened Martha. Our insights into her mind to trick us into ignoring the red flags she raises.

Roman may have the hardest role, for Agnes is never all she seems. She is ignorant but insightful; pure of soul but tortured as well. Roman walks the line and makes it look easy. Equally effortless-appearing are the songs she sings throughout the production, a cappella hymns and chants delivered with a clarion voice. It should be no surprise that her singing is so stellar. Roman has proven her vocal skills repeatedly in such local productions as In the Heights and Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The School Girls of Doom. And music director Jill Anna Ponasik is one of the city’s finest directors, musical or otherwise.

One of the greatest strengths about Renaissance Theaterworks is its commitment to brilliant, bold choices in design, as well as in play selection and casting. Returning designer Anthony Lyon’s set for this production is perhaps the best example I’ve seen yet. Two chairs, a small bench, and some end tables sit upon plain white flooring, which at the back curves upward into a sloped wall disguising a stairwell — the perfect backdrop for the action on stage. The pièce de résistance comes at the very end of the play — but that’s a visual too perfect to reveal in advance.

RTW’s Agnes of God is an inspired production. Whether or not it’s divinely inspired — well, go see the play and get back to me.

On stage

Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Agnes of God runs through Feb. 14 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets are $38 with student and senior discounts available. Visit r-t-w.com or call 414-291-7800 to order.

‘Master Class’

Maria Callas is a legend, both for her outstanding prowess as an opera soprano and her infamously temperamental personality. In Master Class, playwright Terence McNally captures both, depicting Callas as she instructs a class of prospective singers and reflects upon her life. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre brings Angela Iannone back in the role she first performed in 1999. MCT has partnered with directors Jill Anna Ponasik and James Zager of Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Carroll University for this powerful opening to the group’s 40th-anniversary season.

At the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets range from $15 to $40. Phone 414-291-7800 or go to milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

Aug. 8–24


To learn about MORE upcoming events – follow us on FACEBOOK and TWITTER or check out our full calendar of events at www.WisconsinGazette.com

Operatic super power returns to Milwaukee Opera Theatre

There’s only one superhero-slash-opera singer out there, and her origin story is set in Milwaukee. 

And so is her triumphant return, as Milwaukee Opera Theatre revives its acclaimed operetta Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom, an original work that artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik commissioned Jason Powell to write in 2009. The two crossed paths in an Alchemist Theatre production of Powell’s sci-fi comedy Invader? I Hardly Know Her! Ponasik performed in the production, and the two hit it off so well that she asked him to write MOT’s first full-length production.

Powell says the two threw around different ideas, but his interest in comics eventually determined the choice. At the time, Powell was not only a fan of comics but also a blogger on the subject.

Since Powell’s knowledge of opera was limited to Gilbert and Sullivan, he says half-jokingly, Fortuna is laced with lyrical and melodic allusions to their work. A very successful staged reading led to a 2012 production at the Alchemist that slowly built into a series of sell-out performances. The production was so well received, in fact, that the theater added a Sunday night show that sold out within four hours of its announcement.

The story of Fortuna unfolds in Anyville, a city recently cleansed of all crime thanks to the superhero Fortuna (Samantha Sostrich). Her special super-hero power is her ability to manipulate time.

But, alas, her efforts are torn asunder by the sudden appearance of a very British supervillain (Nathan Wesselowski) and his three schoolgirl assistants (Katy Johnson, Lisa Buchmeier and Rana Roman). She must draft a local citizen, Joe (Jonathan Stewart), to be her sidekick, despite his lack of superpowers.

Ponasik and Powell say they’ve been fortunate to have their entire cast (including Melissa Kelly Cardamone as Joe’s girlfriend Elizabeth and Diane Lane as Narrator) return for the Fortuna revival. They’ve enjoyed the opportunity to polish a few of the original production’s rougher scenes. Ponasik says she brought Christopher Elst back to improve some of the fight scenes, for example. And cast members are trying out new ways to finesse their performances, she adds.

The May performances at Alchemist Theatre are not the first in which the cast has reunited to recreate the magic. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, MOT brought the cast together last year to produce a complete studio recording of Fortuna. The album has served as something of a promotion for the upcoming Fortuna revival, according to Ponasik.

Ponasik is counting on the people who’ve told her how much they want to see Fortuna return or how much they regret missing it the first time to help make the revival a success. The show, she adds, has wide appeal, drawing in opera buffs, comic lovers and average Joes and Joannes.

“I haven’t hardly met anyone who didn’t like it,” she says. 

Universal likability is a superpower that no performance company should turn down.