Tag Archives: milwaukee rep

Milwaukee Rep taps director Lou Bellamy to take a swing at ‘Fences’

After a long season, the Milwaukee Rep is looking for one more home run to close out the year. So they’re taking a swing at Fences — arguably one of the greatest works written by American playwright August Wilson — and sending up to the plate a director whose batting average with Wilson plays is equally exceptional.

Penumbra Theatre founder and co-artistic director Lou Bellamy will direct Fences.
Penumbra Theatre founder and co-artistic director Lou Bellamy will direct Fences.

That director is Lou Bellamy, who founded the acclaimed African-American company Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. That theater is where Wilson’s professional career began, and where Bellamy’s long association with Wilson’s works — as an artistic director and actor as well as a stage director — began.

Over the past 40 years, Bellamy says he’s been involved with dozens of productions of Wilson’s plays, including his entire 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle tracking the lives of African-American families in the 20th century. Fences, set in the 1950s, is a part of that cycle (sixth in itsinternal chronology, but the third written, in 1983), and Bellamy says it’s one of Wilson’s best, a “wonderful” production that tells the story of a black garbage man, Troy Maxson, who grapples with his family’s hopes and dreams in a rapidly changing world.

Bellamy has both directed Fences and played the role of Troy multiple times, but he says the Rep’s production (co-produced with Arizona Theatre Company and Indiana Repertory Theatre) features one of the strongest casts he’s ever worked with. He attributes that strength in part to the presence of two Penumbra company members, David Alan Anderson (Troy) and Lou’s brother Terry Bellamy (playing Troy’s brother Gabriel), who have helped him anchor the production and emphasize the ensemble feel he’s cultivated at Penumbra.

Within that ensemble, Bellamy says he’s worked with each actor to develop versions of their characters that play to their strengths — an approach different from that of many directors, who walk in with a particular vision and ask actors to adhere to it. “I tend to be the kind of director that looks for the strong points of actors and makes choices that they’re capable of excelling in,” he says. “It’s different always depending on the company. These are pros. I’m not pouring my will into their head.”

In Fences, garbage man Troy (David Alan Anderson) struggles to do what is right for his family. Photo: Tim Fuller.
In Fences, garbage man Troy (David Alan Anderson) struggles to do what is right for his family. Photo: Tim Fuller.

There are some core themes Bellamy has made sure to emphasize in this production, though. The more immediately apparent one is the father-son relationships Troy has with his two children: Lyons (James T. Alfred), the elder son from a previous relationship, and Cory (Edgar Sanchez), his son with wife Rose (Kim Staunton). Bellamy says both times he’s played the role of Troy, he’s been struck by the universality of the troubled character, with patrons of all ethnicities approaching him after productions to tell him they see their own fathers in the role.

More complex, Bellamy says, is Troy’s depiction as a tragic hero. He is clearly the protagonist of the play, yet Bellamy says he is nonetheless “difficult to like.” Over the course of Fences, we see how racism has shaped Troy’s life — an exceptional baseball player, he was unable to play in Major League Baseball due to the color barrier having not yet been broken, and in the present day he faces opposition to moving up even in his job as a garbage man.

But we also see how those injustices have made it difficult for Troy to realize that he’s developed defensive, myopic biases that sabotage his efforts to fight back. For instance, Troy opposes Cory’s participation in football, despite the fact that a scholarship would give his son an otherwise unobtainable path to college. “(Troy) is blind to the issues that are affecting him, while everyone around him, including the audience, sees them,” Bellamy says. “He’s warped by the racism that is part and parcel of American society … but he has no idea that has shaped him.”

Bellamy says he’s anticipating the chance to see how Milwaukee audiences respond to the work, especially since this is his first time working with the Rep. He’s been gradually passing the reins of Penumbra to his daughter, co-artistic director Sarah Bellamy, and as his duties with the company have declined, he’s taken on more freelance work across the country with companies like the Rep.

It’s not as easy to translate the work he’s done with Penumbra to other companies as his fellow artistic directors would like, Bellamy says. But that hasn’t stopped him from venturing out anyway, using the knowledge he’s acquired in decades of theater work to tell stories like Fences — stories that need to be told by directors who, like him, have spent their lives learning to convey the social and cultural nuances of black life on stage.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Fences runs April 29 to May 22. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

Why ‘American Song’? That’s exactly the right question.

American Song is a well-written play. Star James DeVita proves once again he’s a master of the one-man show, and the Milwaukee Rep deserves credit for taking a chance on this world-premiere work, which forces its audience to consider two of the greatest issues facing 21st-century society: rampant gun violence and school shootings.

For much of the audience — perhaps most of it — that will be enough. If so, then you should stop here and pick up tickets before someone else snatches them.

It was not enough for me.

For 80 minutes, DeVita portrays a bereaved father, Andy. He’s in the process of building a stone wall on his property as he tells the audience about the moments in his life leading up to the day his beloved son walked into his high school and committed an unthinkable act of violence. It’s a play the company promises will be “moving and provocative,” sparking conversation among audience members and forcing them to question the beliefs they walked in with.

Walking out, I had several questions, but they all shared the same sentiment: Why?

Why did talented Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith — writer of Bombshells, which ran at the Rep during artistic director Mark Clements’ first year with the company — present us with this particular story, and this story alone? There’s a subtle twist to DeVita playing the parent of a gunman rather than a victim, but that choice loses its potency after we’ve spent an hour listening to Andy flip through memories from the family scrapbook, putting off the elephant in the room. Andy’s story is powerful and sad, but is it more so than the stories of his son’s victims? Should his voice be the only one we hear?

Why, if this is the voice Murray-Smith and director Clements have chosen to give us, have they chosen one with nothing more to offer than uncertainty and contradiction?

To be clear: I see nothing wrong with Andy having uncertain, contradictory feelings about his son’s actions. Such a response makes perfect sense for a grieving father, and DeVita balances those conflicting emotions with laser-tight efficacy.

But I wonder why the script forces him into doing so at all. I understand the impulse to make Andy an everyman with no extreme, a man with whom any viewer can identify. He’s not a religious man, but he calls it human nature to suspect a post-life moral reckoning; he has liberal and conservative friends; he buys a gun after his wife is mugged but buries it in the yard after a coworker’s wife he’s sleeping with tries to shoot him and her husband at the office. Unfortunately, making Andy unsure of anything does not challenge us to reconsider our beliefs — it simply unsettles us for having any.

Much of the play revolves around Andy’s story before the shooting. Murray-Smith’s narrative seems constructed around a singular need: to show us that the way you think and feel about your children is unlike how you think or feel about anyone else. This is why Andy still loves his son, the school shooter; this is why Andy is so unconcerned about his son, whom he should have intuitively known needed help. But parents in the audience know this already, and those without children cannot understand this feeling as more than theory.

James DeVita gives a powerful portrayal of grieving father Andy in 'American Song.' Photo: Michael Brosilow.
James DeVita gives a powerful portrayal of grieving father Andy in ‘American Song.’ Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Why does the story of a life that begins with so much hope and ends with so much sorrow compel me to neither smile nor cry?

Why did the opening night “Act II” talkback come off so didactic? Inviting local community leaders to comment on the play is a good idea, but not if it’s done as haphazardly as the effort I saw, in which a representative from the Zeidler Center stepped on stage practically as soon as DeVita stepped off. The wise words of that night’s guest, MPS superintendent Darienne Driver, were undercut by the shallowness of “Act II’s” execution.

How did a play that is objectively good, with perhaps the best cast and crew possible, on an issue I’m extremely passionate about, leave me so cold and unfeeling?

I don’t have the answer after seeing this play — which may, I suppose, be the Rep’s point.

School shootings are nothing but whys. “Why did they do it?” “Why was no one able to catch this before it was too late?” “Why can’t our politicians and civic leaders stop the violence?”

The problem is we already know how to ask these questions. So a production that tackles these issues needs to do more than simply ask them again.

It is an undeniably good thing to spend 80 minutes thinking about being a parent in a dangerous world, or how we can stop violence from hurting those we love. And it’s better to spend 80 minutes at American Song than not think about those things at all.

But just thinking about it isn’t enough. If those 80 minutes don’t motivate you to do anything once they’re over — except keep asking that same old “why?” — then what’s the point?

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of American Song runs through April 10 in the Quadracci Powerhouse, at 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20. Visit milwaukeerep.com for more details.

Milwaukee Rep’s ‘Invisible Hand’ questions the morality of capitalism

Last year, the Milwaukee Rep announced a singular partnership with playwright Ayad Akhtar, a Milwaukee native who’d since made it big both on stage and in other written media. The four-year collaboration will see the Rep producing three of Akhtar’s plays, including his Pulitzer Prize-winner Disgraced, followed by a world premiere commission in the final year.

If the first of these plays, The Invisible Hand, is any indication, it’s going to be a great four years for Rep patrons. Akhtar’s thriller about an American banker kidnapped by militants in Pakistan is a gripping work in and of itself, but its true success comes from the way it challenges the assumed benevolence of capitalism using the language of the marketplace itself.

Technically, no economics primer is necessary before walking into this production — Akhtar places just the right amount of exposition in the mouth of captured American Nick Bright (Tom Coiner) to get even the most financially illiterate viewer through the show.

But it certainly can’t hurt to know in advance that the play’s title references the core belief that guides Nick and every mainstream Western economist and financier. The “invisible hand,” a term coined by 18th-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, is the moral justification for having a free market, capitalist system, like that of the United States and other Western nations. It argues that a free market tends toward benevolence because individuals will act in their own self-interest and counter others’ attempts to unfairly profit.

The problem, as the play quickly makes apparent, is that those who know how to play the game have an advantage over those who don’t. The militants who have captured Nick — Imam Saleem (Tony Mirrcandani), his lieutenant Bashir (Shalin Agarwai) and grunt Dar (Owais Ahmed) — are all dedicated to fighting the corrupt Western imperialists, but they’re outgunned on both a military and financial level.

Nick changes that. When the U.S. government formally declares Imam Saleem a terrorist — making it impossible for them or Nick’s family to negotiate a ransom for his release — the only option remaining is for Saleem to trade Nick to the fundamentalist group responsible for the death of Americans including Daniel Pearl, who will kill him as propaganda. Nick offers an alternative: With his knowledge of the global and local markets, Nick will teach Bashir how to make millions buying and selling financial securities.

Nick (Tom Coiner, left) and Bashir (Shalin Agarwal) share a complicated prisoner-captor/teacher-mentor relationship in "The Invisible Hand." Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Nick (Tom Coiner, left) and Bashir (Shalin Agarwal) share a complicated prisoner-captor/teacher-student relationship in “The Invisible Hand.” Photo by Michael Brosilow.

This sounds dry, but never becomes so on stage — largely due to the high-speed, high-stakes nature of the game Nick and Bashir are playing. At one point, the teacher describes the method to his trainee as gambling on the marketplace, betting that a company’s fortunes will rise, or fall, and buying and selling accordingly. As we watch the two of them place their bets, the tension does begin to resemble a Vegas casino as much as a claustrophobic Pakistani prison cell — albeit one where failure will result in the loss of millions of dollars and Nick’s life.

Coiner and Agarwai carry the bulk of the production, their characters a curious and volatile mix of friends, rivals and mortal enemies. At first, this is a sustainable equilibrium — Nick has all the knowledge and Bashir all the power. But the more Bashir learns, the more dangerous and unstable he becomes, with his religious beliefs warring with his new capitalist understandings. It’s a dissonance Agarwai wears well. Every moment he’s on stage, he commands attention, and it’s never clear what he’s going to do next.

Interestingly, The Invisible Hand doesn’t show Nick adopting a similar uncertainty. True to form, from the moment the play starts, every action he takes is in his own self-interest: he agrees to play the markets to save his life, chips away at the bricks and mortar of his cell to try and make his own escape, remains silent and focused on self-preservation when his captors begin to grow suspicious of each other. But this time, Nick doesn’t have the Western luxury of being removed by class and distance from the consequences of those actions — ones that will eventually be countered, as his theory of the invisible hand promises, but lead to violent instability in the interim.

The Invisible Hand is almost a parable in this way, explaining the moral ambiguity of capitalism and the free market through the use of a vivid, captivating narrative. But it’s a parable that haunts long after you leave the theater — because if the only way to defeat a morally bankrupt society is to use its own weapons against it, that may not be a victory at all.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Invisible Hand runs through April 3 in the Stiemke Studio, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20 and can be ordered at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

‘The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith’

The world of music has been without Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” for almost 80 years. Actor and singer Zonya Love will singlehandedly revive her on the Stackner Cabaret stage as part of this musical revue, channeling Smith’s exemplary voice and recounting a life as large and outrageous as her talent. The one-woman show will feature hits including “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “St. Louis Blues” and “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”

At the Milwaukee Rep, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $45 and can be ordered at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

Jan. 22 to March 20

Rep Lab

This annual showcase presented by the Milwaukee Rep’s acting and directing residents may have been pushed up the calendar from April to January, but don’t expect that to change anything about Rep Lab. The one-act festival will still feature seven short plays and a new devised work, each with a unique style that’ll appeal to a different swath of the audience — a “something for everyone” approach that’s helped to make this one of the most anticipated shows of the season.

At 108 E. Wells St. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

Jan. 8-11

‘A Christmas Carol’

It’s a rare theater tradition that has the staying power of the Milwaukee Rep’s annual Christmas Carol. The Dickens tale of redemption will receive its 40th annual production with the company this year, with local actor Jonathan Smoots returning to the role of Scrooge alongside a cast of new and old carolers alike. If going with your family is a tradition, don’t pick this year to break it — and if it isn’t, there’s no better time to start than Christmas Present.

At the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

Dec. 1 to 24

‘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

‘Guys on Ice’ warms up the heart in its return to the Stackner Cabaret

The concept of Guys on Ice is pretty simple. Two guys. Ice fishing. For one day. Add some music and the show is complete.

However, as countless audiences have experienced, the show is much deeper than it sounds. And the Milwaukee Rep will prove it, with a new foray out onto the ice running at the Stackner Cabaret Nov. 15 to Jan. 17.

The show was originally produced by Northern Sky Theater (then American Folklore Theater) in 1998, as a one-act play, before moving to the Stackner Cabaret for a run through the holiday season.

Guys on Ice has exploded since those initial performances. The musical follows two men, Lloyd (Steve Koehler) and Marvin (Doug Mancheski), who are spending the day in a Northern Wisconsin fishing shanty. 

The two brave the cold while musing about events in their lives. Marvin is waiting to hear from a local cable show about a possible appearance and is excited for a possible chance in the limelight. Meanwhile, Lloyd is worried a recent squabble with his wife will affect their plans to spend their anniversary at Lambeau Field.

They’re also visited by Ernie the Moocher (Bo Johnson), who provides the duo with scraps of information from off the ice.

Mancheski has been with the show since the beginning, but he wasn’t sure what to think of it when he first got the script. “I was still in New York at the time, and the script was sent to me from (writer Fred Alley),” explained Mancheski in a recent phone interview. “Needless to say, the script was much different than it is now.” 

He agreed to the gig, joining Alley himself and actor Chris Irwin in the three-person cast. That original script changed rapidly as rehearsals went on, often spurred by inadvertent suggestions from Mancheski and others. “Fred would take note of something that I said and sometimes I would see it in the script a few days later,” Mancheski said. “It was fun getting to be part of that initial writing process.”

Alley died in 2001, but Mancheski has been a vital part of keeping Guys on Ice alive since, often in partnership with his real-life best friend Koehler. Mancheski says he and Koehler have grown into the roles over the past 15-odd years. “I discover new aspects of Marvin all of the time,” he says. “A lot of it comes from the audiences themselves. They really drive the show each night based on what they find funny or more poignant.”

The subject matter of Guys on Ice — light-hearted Wisconsin conversations in an ice shack — can seem a little silly at times, but Mancheski says it’s much more than that. “The show has a lot of heart to it. It might talk about light-hearted topics but it really is much deeper than that,” Mancheski says. “It harkens back to a time when life was a little simpler and when there wasn’t the ulterior motives that seem to be everywhere these days.” 

The musical’s songs include a variety of Wisconsin-themed tunes, including “Ode to a Snowmobile Suit,” “Fish is the Miracle Food” and “The One That Got Away.” Composer James Kaplan also will serve as the music director for this production. 

Competition for a seat around the fishing hole should be fierce for this one. While the Rep has produced it in the intimate Stiemke Theater four times in the last decade, Guys on Ice hasn’t been performed in its original Rep home, the Stackner Cabaret, since 2001. 

In addition, Mancheski has his own reason why he suspects this run will be a success for the company: “This is the one musical I know of men dragging their wives to it, so it has to be something special.”


Guys on Ice will run Nov. 15-Jan. 17 at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $45 and can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

‘The Lion’

Milwaukee becomes one of the first cities in the country to see performer/songwriter Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion, his one-man coming-of-age story. His breakout success off-Broadway has led Scheuer to take his show on the road, and he’ll use the intimate space of the Rep’s Stiemke Studio to tell a 70-minute story-with-music about his complicated relationship with his father and his pursuit of a musical career, both marred by tragedies.

At 108 E. Wells St. Tickets are $20 to $45 and can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

Oct. 2 to Nov. 8


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‘Back Home Again: On the Road with John Denver’

After striking box office gold with Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman’s Low Down Dirty Blues at the Stackner Cabaret last year, the Milwaukee Rep decided to go back to the same rich vein. But this time around, they’re getting fresh material from the duo: a world premiere musical theater work celebrating the life and music of John Denver. With David Lutken (last seen at the Rep in Woody Sez two years ago) at the helm as “the Storyteller,” the show will feature classic Denver works like “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Rocky Mountain High” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

At 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $45 and can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

Sept. 11 to Nov. 8