Tag Archives: Laura Gordon

American Players Theatre’s ‘Ideal Husband’ not always ideal

Combine the wit of Oscar Wilde with a sparkling cast and the taut, measured direction of theatrical veteran Laura Gordon, and one would expect a superlative production.

Yet American Players Theatre’s take of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, which opened to a capacity crowd at the Up-the-Hill Theatre on a steamy and ultimately stormy Saturday night, proved less than ideal — thanks less to the current company than to the cross-purposes of the author himself.

Written in 1895, just prior to Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband focuses on the trials and tribulations of would-be parliamentarian Sir Robert Chiltern (David Daniel), his adoring and unrealistic wife Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Colleen Madden), and the conniving Mrs. Cheveley (Tracy Michelle Arnold), who would have Sir Robert support her unpopular scheme or pay the price of her blackmailing ways.

This is the sort of stuff with which Wilde typically had a great deal of fun plucking at the failings of humankind. But the action toward the end of Act I treads a tad heavily into melodrama, losing its lightness and briefly derailing its comic trajectory.

When the cast returns for Act II, those more familiar Wildean sentiments are restored to the point where the initial conflict is almost forgotten. The resolution notwithstanding, one almost wonders what all the fuss was about. The play is emotionally uneven and confusing when Wilde is not at his best.

The author’s voice and clarity of purpose comes through most strongly in the character of Lord Arthur Goring (Marcus Truschinski), a vain, vapid unemployed man-about-town with all-too-keen insight into the foibles of his fellow fashionable Londoners. Goring is the eternal frustration of his father, the blustering Lord Cavendish (Jonathan Smoots), who would have his son married — if he thought the young man had it in him.

“I don’t know how you stand society,” Cavendish says at one point. “A lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.”

“I love talking about nothing, Father,” Goring replies. “It’s the only thing I know anything about.”

Goring serves as the author’s internal narrator, helping his characters analyze their own shortcomings and loosening the social mores in which they are so tightly bound. His bon mots provide the audience with cleverly phrased analyses that foreshadow many of the play’s resolutions — much-needed, and often a delight to the audience.

APT’s production is made handsome largely by the accomplishments of Mathew J. LeFebvre’s luxurious costumes. (The lady’s hats alone may be worth the price of admission.) Additionally, Takeshi Kata’s sparse but evocative set and Jessica Lanius’ restrained but impressive choreography do much to embellish the decorative purposes of both the era and the stage action.

The cast itself is strong, especially the principals. Smaller roles, including John Pribyl’s butler Phipps and Cristina Panfilio’s delightfully droll Lady Basildon, also are played to perfection, adding a few more delicious flavors to Wilde’s bubbling human stew.

An Ideal Husband once or twice dances dangerously close to becoming a common potboiler, but the author’s wit and APT’s impressive cast always seems to save the play from drowning in its own gravitas. And for a character like Lord Goring, such a misstep would never do.

Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband closes September 24.

Marcus Truschinski (with Cristina Panfilio, left, and Jennifer Latimore) plays Photos: Liz Lauren
Marcus Truschinski (with Cristina Panfilio, left, and Jennifer Latimore) plays Lord Arthur Goring, a vapid man-about-town who serves as Wilde’s internal narrator. Photos: Liz Lauren

‘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.

‘The Mousetrap’

In London’s West End — in the world, in fact — there’s no production that’s run longer than The Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie murder mystery that opened in 1952 and is as famous for its twist ending as its longevity. The play’s largely been locked away in the UK over the last 60-plus years, but a few North American productions have been greenlighted this year, and the Milwaukee Rep’s managed to secure one of them. Local actors Jonathan Gillard Daly and Laura Gordon will lead a talented cast in this tale of unlucky individuals trapped in a blizzard with a murderer.

At 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20 and can be ordered at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

Nov. 20 to Dec. 20

‘Lettice and Lovage’

For lead character Letitia “Lettice” Douffet, being the tour guide of a stuffy old historic building is boring. So she spices up her stories with a little murder and intrigue. No harm done — until her boss shows up. Milwaukee actresses Laura Gordon and Carrie Hitchcock square off in this British comedy by the writer of Equus and Amadeus, closing Renaissance Theaterworks’ 2014-15 season.

At the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets are $36 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or r-t-w.com.

April 10 to May 3

‘Good People’? More like ‘Great People’

There’s a funny contrast at the heart of Good People. Its heroine is Margie, a South Boston mother working paycheck to paycheck who runs out of paychecks. She earns our sympathy almost immediately, with a can-do spirit and relentless drive. But most of us in the audience aren’t Margies. 

At best, we resemble Mike, her former love interest who made it out of Southie, who Margie guilts into inviting her to a party of his wealthy friends. Maybe our bank accounts aren’t as large, or we didn’t originate from the same level of poverty, but it’s safe to say very few, if any, opening night attendees at the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse are in as precarious a financial position as Margie. So when that night turns sour, as all the signs and scenes leading up to it suggest it will, it feels like she’s turned on us, the good people who offered her the kindness of our interest for a single evening — despite the fact that we know, deep down, she’s firmly, firmly in the right.

It’s an unsettling masterstroke, but not the first nor the last. David Lindsay-Abaire’s script is full of class, race and culture clashes, and the Rep’s cast, led by Laura Gordon as Margie, has absolutely no trouble mining them for comedy and pathos alike.

The Rep’s been promoting the show as a star vehicle for Gordon, and it’s well-deserved. They can’t claim credit for having picked her for the role first — she first stepped into Margie’s shoes at Madison’s Forward Theater in 2013 — but giving her a second shot at the character under the direction of Kate Buckley is worth applause in itself.

Margie’s not a woman in a position to make a lot of decisions. Things just happen to her: Guardians for her mentally disabled daughter run late; bosses begrudgingly fire her; landlords threaten to put her on the street. Gordon’s Margie hasn’t stopped believing she can change that, though. She carries herself with the weight of every chain reaction that’s brought her to the present moment, and throws herself at every chance that comes her way, including pursuing Mike (Michael Elich) when she discovers he’s returned to Boston.

What keeps Gordon’s Margie heroic instead of desperate is she’s so damn likable. She lets her old boss sit next to her at bingo; firing her wasn’t his call. She cuts the landlord slack for trying to push her out; her son’s having trouble paying his rent too. She even tries to stick to her script with Mike — “I just need a job” — instead of pulling out her trump card: Her daughter might be his.

Likely to be underrated are Gordon’s co-actors. None of them rises to challenge Margie’s position as the central character (Mike seems written to vie with her, but Elich and Buckley have wisely made him more a foil than a rival viewpoint), and the production is the better for it. Margie’s best friend Jean (Tami Workentin), landlord Dottie (Laura T. Fisher) and ex-boss Stevie (Bernard Balbot) flesh out the world Margie lives in, with local legends told over and over and names of longtime Southies repeated like talismans or warnings. Mike and his wife Kate (Jennifer Latimore) get to paint in a more familiar picture of wealth, easily translatable from Boston to Milwaukee, but they too give it their own particular shadings.

Margie alone with Stevie or Mike is captivating, or expositionally necessary, but the play lights up with three or more players. Workentin gets the best laugh lines, delivered wearing coordinated leopard-print shirts and leg warmers that are a few laughs in and of themselves (many thanks to costume designer Rachel Healy). And when Margie, Mike and Kate are together, Latimore threatens to steal the show, an admirable achievement for the Rep Intern Company actor. She’s alternately a sympathetic ally for Margie scandalized by her husband or an unexpected adversary adamant that her husband’s despicable Southie ex leave their home immediately — but maintains a fierce, calculated demeanor no matter who she’s chastising.

As critical to Good People’s success as any piece of dialogue or scathing glance is Kevin Depinet’s set, one of the best I’ve ever seen at the Powerhouse. Modular and automated, the set is built around a tall pillar with a doorway, which spins to coordinate with sliding-in walls — a kitchen counter here, a long bookshelf there, a bingo hall that drops from the ceiling. In its slick transitions, from grimy bingo hall to opulent homestead and back, it’s a visual reminder of how little choice Margie — or Mike — has had in what scenes their lives are set.

ON STAGE

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Good People runs through Feb. 15 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20 and can be ordered at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com. 

Margie (Laura Gordon, right) visits ex-boyfriend Mike and his wife Kate (Michael Elich and Jennifer Latimore) in the hopes of securing a job.

‘Good People’

OUT ON THE TOWN

This South Boston-set, class-conscious play may have its darker moments, but writer David Lindsay-Abaire’s trademark black comedy twist is what made Good People a hit on Broadway in 2011. Frequent Milwaukee Rep actor Laura Gordon will lead the production as Margie, a native of the neighborhood who’s broke, unemployed and forced to turn to a more successful former boyfriend to save her family from financial ruin. It’s a role that should fit Gordon perfectly — she’s already played it, to great acclaim, at Madison’s Forward Theater in 2013, and there’s no reason to suspect the Rep’s production will go any differently.

At the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20 and can be ordered at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com. 

Jan. 21 to Feb. 15

‘Harvey’s’ charms appear slowly but surely

Harvey has all the ingredients of a great Quadracci Powerhouse holiday show: 

Distinguished script (winning writer Mary Chase a Pulitzer in ’45).

Comedic but not edgy premise (eccentric man has an imaginary best friend; hijinks ensue).

Director who’s worked in the time slot before (KJ Sanchez, late of The Diary of Anne Frank and Noises Off).

Rep stars teaming up in the tradition of the old resident company (Jonathan Gillard Daly, Deborah Staples, James Pickering and Laura Gordon, to name a few).

Despite so much going for it, the production doesn’t find its stride until the second act.

On the surface, there’s nothing too different about the first and second halves of the play. In the former, socialite Veta Louise Simmons (Staples) tries to get her brother Elwood P. Dowd (Daly) committed to a sanatorium after he starts to see a six-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey around the house. She fails due to comic mistiming. And in the latter, she and the facility’s lead psychiatrist Dr. Chumley (Pickering) keep trying to have him committed to the sanatorium and keep comically failing.

It’s the tone, I suspect, that’s at fault. Staples, Daly and Pickering are performing at the level you’d expect of them in the play’s opening scenes, as are Kelley Faulkner, Gabriel Ruiz and Justin Brill as members of the hospital staff. But Sanchez has them taking the play too seriously for an audience to do more than appreciate how well they’re managing.

Veta’s concern that her guests at a dinner party “meet” Harvey is so intense that it makes her seem cruel, not misguided. And while Daly does a marvelous job play-acting Harvey’s presence in the scene, it’s not enough to suggest there’s an explanation for Dowd’s actions that doesn’t make him crazy — when, in fact, part of the premise of the second act is that Dowd might not be crazy at all.

It doesn’t help that the first act feels uncomfortably dated at times. Veta’s concern about Elwood and Harvey is implicitly tied to her concern that her daughter will never have a gentleman come calling, a subplot that’d be tough to swallow even if it wasn’t basically dropped after it’s initially mentioned in favor of a real estate subplot that doesn’t go anywhere either. And the play’s first visit to the sanatorium hinges on a case of mistaken identity that would be cleverer if it didn’t rely on the cringeworthy, misogynistic assumption that the woman displaying emotions is crazy, not the seemingly rational man who came with her.

Both the tonal and temporal dissonance fade away after intermission. Adding in the element of a chase puts Staples and Pickering’s characters into better focus. Sanchez and her cast can lean more heavily on the play’s farcical elements. The play’s second half also marks the first appearance of Veta’s lawyer, played by semi-retired former Rep company member Richard Halverson, a charming addition to the melée.

But what truly makes the difference is the subtle shift in thinking that opens up the possibility that Harvey actually is an invisible friend to Elwood — one attracted to the oddities in his personality that make him lovable with or without a six-foot-tall rabbit at his back.

It’s a great second act that’s worth waiting through a merely good first act to enjoy. Dan Conway’s revolving set, which oscillates between Elwood and Veta’s ornately decorated home and Chumley’s minimalistic white hospital, helps to charm the eye during some of the play’s early rough patches.

On stage

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Harvey runs through Dec. 21 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20 and can be ordered at milwaukeerep.com or 414-224-9490. 

‘Amelia’

Renaissance Theaterworks opens its 2014–15 season with Amelia, a sweepingly powerful Civil War-era love story and a Midwest premiere directed by Laura Gordon. When wartime wife Amelia (Cassandra Bissell) stops receiving letters from her Union soldier husband Ethan (Reese Madigan), she dresses up as a soldier and travels south to find him, ultimately arriving at the gates of the infamous Confederate prison camp Andersonville.

At the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets are $36. Call 414-291-7800 or mouse over to r-t-w.com.

Oct. 18 to Nov. 9

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‘Skin Tight’ shows love’s profundity

What is love? You really want to know? Go see Gary Henderson’s Skin Tight at Renaissance Theaterworks.

Love is a wild beast, at least as Elizabeth and Tom, an Aussie farm couple, practice it. Leah Dutchin and Braden Moran dash onto the set at the start. They hop onto a raised platform about the size of a boxing ring. They square off and punch, parry, grapple and throw in convincing fight choreography devised by Maria Gillespie and Ryan Schabach, with Laura Gordon directing.

This goes on for some time, without a word spoken. At first, you worry about Elizabeth: Is this a rape scene? But after a few moments, the eager aggression in Dutchin’s expressive, open face and the sly smile on Moran’s mark this as rough play. They’re avid and skilled as athletes up for the game, but the term “final score” has a new meaning in this contest. Elizabeth comes out on top, in position to deliver the knockout blow. Instead, she delivers a long, delicious, panting, eagerly accepted kiss.

Love takes many guises and erotic strategies. Combat — highly physical but nevertheless mock — is theirs. Even more provocative foreplay involves the knife Moran uses to slice the apples the two devour at intervals.

Dutchin and Moran are so attractive, so committed physically and emotionally to their characters and so free in their expression that we don’t mind not knowing what’s going on for the first half of the play. On one hand, the youthful actors behave like especially lusty and imaginative newlyweds; on the other, they have the techniques and rituals that loving couples develop over years.

The action takes place on and around the square, which has a resilience suggesting stacked gym mats beneath a taught fabric cover. A claw-foot bathtub, filled with water that figures prominently in the play, stands at the upstage edge. Beyond that, a wide, bright landscape shines between the slats of a wall of barn wood. Jason Fassl’s set, lighting and projection hints at a farm. But the space reads as a sort of limbo, a sunny, wide-open nowhere with plenty of room for the lovers to romp.

Henderson assigned Tom and Elizabeth dangling, meandering conversations, some of them teasing run-ups to combat and love-making. Others of them reveal their histories. Little by little, we get a fix on this couple: Schoolmates in rural Australia in the 1930s, he’s off to war, comes home to her, they marry, work a farm, have a daughter.

I won’t be more specific because piecing things together on the fly is near the top of the long list of charms of watching this play. But I will say that as we grasp their histories, Skin Tight becomes a memory play. It also becomes increasingly poignant, but not sentimental or cloying. It becomes more purposeful as we come to understand the climactic nature of this particular conversation between these people.

As they demonstrate their love in many ways, not all of them sexual, we come to understand the profundity of that love. And while the play takes on more weight, it bears that weight lightly. Elizabeth and Tom don’t philosophize. They live.

Gordon has led her actors to an authentic place with Elizabeth and Tom. Dutchin and Moran wrestle with the virtuosity of strong, physical people who’ve had years of practice at their special ways of love. They pay no mind to the audience or theatrical convention. They focus entirely on each other. They give us Elizabeth and Tom as they were when no one else was looking and their love most fully realized. What a beautiful thing to see.

For more of veteran cultural writer Tom Strini’s insights, visit his blog at striniwrites.blogspot.com.

On stage

Skin Tight continues at the Studio Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center through April 27. For tickets and further information call 414-291-7800 or go to http://www.r-t-w.com. Caution: Full nudity at the end of the play.

‘Skin Tight’

A decade ago, Renaissance Theaterworks had a smash hit with Skin Tight, a passionate, sensual play about a lifelong love affair. Now, RTW brings it back — with original actors Leah Dutchin and Braden Moran, as well as original director Laura Gordon. The production offers a rare second opportunity to see an acclaimed piece of local theater in something close to its original form, but with the added benefit of Dutchin, Moran and Gordon’s artistic growth over the past decade.

At the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets range from $31.50 to $39.50. For more information or to purchase, visit r-t-w.com or call 414-291-7800.

April 4 – 27