Tag Archives: play

What’s a Zubat? Pokemon Go, how to play

Confused by the Pokemon Go mania sweeping the world?

You’re not alone.

For those who don’t know the difference between a Squirtle and a Zubat, here’s a look at the game, how to play it and some of the problems it’s causing.

WHAT IS IT AND HOW DO I GET IN ON IT?

Pokemon Go is a free game app that you can download for your iOS or Android smartphone. The game asks players to wander their real-world neighborhoods on the hunt for the animated monsters made famous years ago by cartoons, video games and trading cards. Players build their collections, make their Pokemon more powerful and do battle with those held by other players.

Set up is relatively quick. You customize your avatar – choosing the color of its hair and style of clothing – then set off on your adventures. Fans like how it takes gaming into the streets and gets people walking around outside instead of sitting in front of a console system hooked up to a TV.

Part of the setup process also involves signing into the app with a Google account, at least unless you have an existing account with the Pokemon site’s own “training club .” (It’s rationing out new signups.) The Google sign in process prompted a backlash over privacy concerns, but we’ll get to that later.

SO, IN A NUTSHELL, HOW DO I PLAY?

The app displays your avatar amid a grid of streets and other bits of geography, such as rivers and parks. It’s like a bare-bones version of Google Maps with a pretty sky above it. You can see in all directions by spinning your character around.

But it takes a little getting used to. The streets don’t have names on them, making it tough to determine which way you need to walk until you actually start moving. (A compass icon points north, if you find that helpful.)

Look around and you’ll see floating light-blue blocks that signify “Pokestops,” landmarks that could be anything from the entrance to a park to fancy stonework on a building. Tagging these spots with your phone earns you “Pokeballs,” which you can use to throw at, and ultimately collect, Pokemon, along with other items.

The actual Pokemon — there are 128 initially listed in your profile’s “Pokedex” — also appear on your grid from time to time. Tapping on them brings them up on your screen, allowing you to fling your Pokeballs at them. The idea is to bop them on the head and capture them inside the ball.

Fair warning, some Pokemon are easier to hit than others. Some can escape from Pokeballs, forcing you to re-capture them.

HOW DOES AUGMENTED REALITY FIT IN?

The app makes it look like the Pokemon are right in front of you by using your phone’s camera to capture an image of the street and display the Pokemon on top of it. This has resulted in some pretty funny pictures on social media.

But the augmented reality feature also makes it tougher to hit the Pokemon, because you have to point the phone at the beast’s supposed location. Turning the feature off by flipping the switch in the top right-hand corner of the screen puts Pokemon right in the middle of the screen, making them easier targets.

SOUNDS LIKE FUN. WHAT’S THE BIG PROBLEM?

While it’s great that people are out walking and exploring, a lot of them are also walking — often the busy streets of big cities like New York — with their heads down and eyes glued to the screens.

This has prompted worries about people walking into traffic, trespassing onto private property or finding themselves in unsafe situations. Many players are children, raising the anxiety level.

Some real-world locations aren’t so keen on attracting players, either.

Operators of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland have asked that their site be removed from the game, saying that playing it at the former Nazi German death camp would be “disrespectful.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Arlington National Cemetery have also asked visitors to refrain from playing.

IS THE APP ACTUALLY READING MY GMAIL?

No. Well, at least, not anymore.

When it first launched, the app asked users who signed in with Google for access to their accounts, but didn’t specify that it was asking for access to their entire account including their Gmail, Google documents, Google search history and maps.

The backlash was a strong one. Niantic, the game’s developer, said Monday that it never intended to request such sweeping data access and hadn’t collected information beyond the user’s ID and email address. And on Tuesday, it issued an update that pared back the authorization in the Google sign in to just that data.

Game developers find creativity in diversity with Overwatch

When the makers of the globe-hopping video game Overwatch were coming up with the backstory for a character with the ability to freeze enemies and erect ice walls, their initial inclination was to make her homeland a stereotypically chilly place, someplace like Iceland, Canada or Norway.

“That’s what you would expect,” said game director Jeff Kaplan. “We asked ourselves, ‘What if she was from somewhere else? What if she was from China? How would that look?’ It’s not your normal expectation, and that’s what is cute, adorable, endearing and exciting about that character.”

Inspired by Chinese ice sculpture festivals, Overwatch lead character concept artist Arnold Tsang crafted a look for Mei, the bespectacled climatologist among the 21 characters of various races, genders, nationalities and sexual orientations which players can portray in the superhero-inspired multiplayer game out May 24.

Mei’s unlikely heritage and ability to encase her body in a chunk of ice aren’t her only unique attributes. She doesn’t sport a busty, Barbie-like physique that most female characters have in video games.

“From a visual standpoint, we want every character to have a different silhouette, not just because that’s more interesting to look at but because you want to be able to know which character is coming at you from a distance when you’re playing,” said Tsang. “With that sort of philosophy, it’s easy to embrace diversity.”

For years, the video game industry has been criticized for relying on stereotypes and not depicting a wider array of characters. Many games invite players to construct their own avatars, but a new wave of multiplayer games such as Battleborn, Paragon and Overwatch are providing dizzying rosters of defined characters – each with different looks, abilities and histories.

The initial line-up of 21 heroes for Overwatch features 10 men, eight women, a pair of robots and one genetically engineered gorilla. (By contrast, the original Mortal Kombat featured six men and one woman when it was first released in 1992.)

Kaplan said the top three most popular Overwatch characters in the game’s open beta, which was played by 9.7 million people earlier this month, were nefarious French female assassin Widowmaker, hardened American male vigilante Soldier: 76 and high-flying Egyptian female security chief Pharah.

The decision to construct such an assorted cast apparently wasn’t motivated by the bottom line. Kaplan said the studio didn’t use any player demographic data gathered by publisher Activision Blizzard Inc. over the years to conceive characters that might generate more sales in particular regions of the world. However, actual Chinese gamers will be able to play as Mei. Blizzard tapped Chinese online company NetEase Inc. to release Overwatch in China.

“I think diversity is a nice byproduct of us trying to create heroes that people will love,” said Kaplan. “We didn’t set out to have a hero of every race, nationality, body type or gender. That’s not the goal – or really even possible with a game like this one. However, by not limiting ourselves creatively, it steers us back to this diverse place.”

Overwatch is the first new franchise in nearly 20 years from Blizzard, the studio behind the wildly successful Warcraft and StarCraft fantasy and sci-fi series. It also more closely resembles the real world, despite all the futuristic laser guns and over-the-top superpowers.

“When we decided to set Overwatch on this optimistic, near-future version of Earth, the most exciting thing was that we could take inspiration from all these different places and cultures,” said senior game designer Michael Chu. “For me, that was exciting after working on Blizzard games that took place in totally fantastical worlds.”

Chu noted that the developers aren’t attempting to appease every fan or create a character to represent every region. He’s hopeful players will find different aspects of themselves in the heroes of Overwatch.

While the game’s focus is more on squad-based action than a detailed storyline, Blizzard is expanding on the fiction in animated shorts, comics and other material outside the frenetic matches that make up Overwatch gameplay.

Other characters include a pink-haired Russian bodybuilder named Zarya, who is equipped with a cannon and gravity bombs, as well as a Brazilian disc jockey with the power to heal or speed up his teammates with his beats. His name is Lucio, the game’s only black character.

“We do have a level set in a first-world African nation called Numbani that is a place that humans and robots built together in harmony,” said Chu. “We’ve got so many ideas for more characters. If we could make 100 characters, we’d still have more ideas. This is just where we’re starting.”

On the Web

http://www.playoverwatch.com

Bronzeville Arts Ensemble grapples with loss in ‘The Mojo and the Sayso’

An African-American family mourns the death of their 10-year-old son at the hands of a police officer, searching for a talisman of faith and the inner strength of family ties to keep them from being torn apart by the grief.

What sounds like another tragedy ripped from today’s headlines is in fact the plot of The Mojo and the Sayso, a play by Aishah Rahman being produced jointly by Milwaukee’s Bronzeville Arts Ensemble and Madison’s Theatre LILA. The production will have a limited run in late January at the Milwaukee Rep, where BAE is a new company-in-residence, and then again in February in The Playhouse at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

While the play’s themes are still relevant today, Rahman actually wrote the play back in 1987. The Mojo and the Sayso, set on the third anniversary of the child’s death, finds the Benjamin family struggling to understand and cope with loss. WiG asked BAE’s artistic director Malkia Stampley and Theatre LILA’s co-artistic director Jessica Lanius, who also is directing the show, to tell us more about the production.

What is the plot of The Mojo and the Sayso?

Malkia Stampley: The Benjamin family has to find the strength and courage to pick up the pieces and move forward together. With some humor, magic and a creative exploration of language, we go on this journey with the family. “Mojo” is that power, that magic and missing ingredient needed to get through.

The topic is very contemporary, yet playwright Aishah Rahman comes from a much earlier era. Do her perceptions and experiences bring greater depth to the narrative?

MS: Mojo is such a relevant piece and I love that so many people are shocked when they discover it was written almost 30 years ago. This piece is a strong reminder that these issues are not trends, not just hashtags and nothing new. The setting is meant to be timeless, which helps bring depth to this story. Her artistic freedom was bold at the time and was the beginning of a form of theater that is now very common to most theatergoers, exploring language and themes in abstract ways.

Jessica Lanius: (Rahman) is such a vivid and poetic writer. The layering of imagery alongside this particular story brings the characters and the circumstance to life in such a rich and complex way. Every day in rehearsal I feel like we uncover layers of the language that I hadn’t seen before. 

Does the play offer some interpretation of the issues with which it deals, or is it merely a reflection of America’s racial issues? 

MS: This piece highlights the families who are left behind after a publicly known tragedy. We have become so accustomed to the sensationalism of black youths being killed by the police, immediately forming opinions and picking our platforms. I don’t believe this play focuses on race, but rather brings greater humanity to the 30-second news story or front-page picture. I think psychologists would have a field day exploring the different ways each of the characters in this play processes trauma.

JL: Black lives matter, and this is what that looks like: A life, and the lives that one life touches, have been taken. The effects on a personal, familial level also reflect the effect it has on his community as a whole. If we can get our audience to feel this and make it personal for them, perhaps the issue becomes more important, more immediate, and the demand for change and justice becomes more obvious.

The play is described as a comedy/drama, yet it deals with a very serious issue. How does the playwright make this work?

JL: I think right now we are discovering that in great pain comes absurdity and that necessary levity. 

MS: Aishah Rahman’s language will make you laugh and cry in the same line. As with most of us, we desperately need find ways to see the humor in any situation, and this play is no different.

ON STAGE

The Mojo and the Sayso is being presented by Milwaukee’s Bronzeville Arts Ensemble and Madison’s Theatre LILA. Milwaukee productions of the work will run Jan. 28 to Jan. 31 at the Milwaukee Rep, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com. Madison productions will run Feb. 19 to Feb. 24 at Overture Center, 201 State St. For tickets call 608-258-4141 or visit overturecenter.org.

Finding Bronzeville

The name Bronzeville was used in many early- and mid-20th-century U.S. cities to refer to African-American neighborhoods. These neighborhoods often comprised the black business, cultural and artistic centers of those cities.

Opinions vary on the exact borders of Milwaukee’s historic Bronzeville, but the area was considered to have been roughly bounded by North Avenue and State Street on the north and south and Third and 12th streets on the east and west. The neighborhood was largely destroyed and properties appropriated for the construction of the I-43 freeway in the 1960s. In the last decade, a redevelopment project re-applied the name to the core of the Harambee neighborhood.

The Bronzeville Arts Ensemble is named as a tribute to what those neighborhoods meant to their community, according to artistic director Malkia Stampley.

“Milwaukee’s Bronzeville district at its peak was a center point for jazz, theater, art, music, community and culture,” Stampley says. “My hope is that the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble pays homage to Milwaukee’s Bronzeville, as well as the essence of the name ‘Bronzeville’ in communities throughout the country.”

— Michael Muckian

KRASS joins Bartell Theatre groups

The performance companies sharing Madison’s Bartell Theatre have a new companion set to join them in 2016: Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre, a formerly itinerant company that will likely use its new home to enhance its reputation in Madison’s theater community.

“Short of our actual founding this is the next important step for us, being at the Bartell,” says cofounder and artistic director Jan Levine Thal. “It’s great to be with other companies whose work we admire.”

The troupe was founded in 2009 as “a theater for smart women” and is commonly referred to by its followers by the portmanteau “KRASS.” There’s nothing “crass” about KRASS, though, according to playwright Marcia Jablonski, whose world-premiere play Rumors of Truth will be the company’s first production as a Bartell member theater. 

“(KRASS) is an extremely professional group of dedicated theater creators,” says Jablonski. “At the first production meeting, Sarah Whelan (the director of Rumors of Truth) would express an opinion that I was thinking — as if she was reading my mind. It’s been a collaborative experience that I’ve enjoyed.”

The group’s namesake, Kathie Rasmussen, was a performer and playwright who was a veteran of Madison’s Mercury Players and Broom Street Theater. Rasmussen met Levine Thal when the two worked for the now-defunct Feminist Voices newspaper, and helped her lay the groundwork for the company along with Heather Renkin and Ben Emerich. (Rasmussen was unable to see the company come to fruition, dying in 2007, but the company now memorializes her in its name.)

Levine Thal says the company was designed to be informed by the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, but not defined by it — instead choosing which works to produce with an implicit and organic mindset.

“Kathie and I both went through our bra-burning stage,” she recalls. At the time, “we felt there was a lot of pressure on women to write material that would be appropriate for consciousness-raising. It’s not that we don’t want to do that, but we don’t demand that women have to write about a certain theme, and we don’t demand that women have to direct a certain way.”

It can be a delicate balance, and KRASS’ dramatic imperative is perhaps best made clear by contrast. For example, Levine Thal says, “If you are a male playwright and you bring your work to a contest or a workshop or something, nobody says, ‘Well, it has to have a certain kind of content or we aren’t going to take it.’” In the same fashion, she says, KRASS doesn’t look for a certain kind of work from female writers. “Today I feel that it’s a feminist project when women write about anything they god damn well want to.”

KRASS takes a step forward at a time when the gender disparity in the theater world is more apparent. Nationwide, she says, women represent about 15 percent of the playwrights whose works are produced and, excluding children’s theater, only 15 percent of directors are women.

Levine Thal attributes the company’s survival to the support of fellow theater artists and advocates in the area. For the first few years, TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater shared its space with KRASS for both rehearsals and performances. “We wouldn’t exist without them,” she says. The company also received support from Arts Wisconsin, a statewide nonprofit, and their new Bartell neighbors Mercury Players Theatre.

“To be able to draw on that, to pick people’s brains and offer what we have to offer in return, feels like true artistic collaboration,” says Levine Thal. “Everyone’s doing their own project, but you find that people are still willing to help you.”

Playwright Jablonski agrees. “Jan is great at getting together a team of people who are serious at making the best theater experience,” she says.

Jablonski’s team for Rumors of Truth will have to take on a mix of funny and heavy material. The play portrays three sisters who meet at their mother’s grave on her 50th birthday, and the reminiscences that turn quickly into confrontations.

The story was partly inspired, she says, by studies that show “the clearer you remember something, the less chance it happened that way.”

Rumors of Truth comically explores the complications of the relationships between three sisters caused by unspoken truths and downright lies that occurred within their family,” Jablonski explains. “Through the revelations discovered during the course of the play, they each have to ultimately decide what’s more important: to hang on to old beliefs or to forge ahead and take the risk of forgiveness.”

A veteran of the Second City Players’ Workshop, Jablonski is based in Mineral Point. Her works have been produced and had readings regionally and off-Broadway, where Rumors of Truth enjoyed a staged reading at Urban Stages Theater in 2013.

ON STAGE 

Rumors of Truth will be presented Jan. 29 to Feb. 6 at the Bartell Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St. Tickets are $20 with discounts available Feb. 3 and at “Sisters Night,” Feb. 4, which also includes a prize drawing. To order tickets, call 608-661-9696 or visit either bartelltheatre.org or krasstheatre.com.

‘Starlings’ spreads its wings at Soulstice Theatre

Can you be friends with people who don’t share your fundamental beliefs?

In his new work, local playwright Ben Parman suggests it’s not easy — but it’s vitally necessary in our increasingly divided world.

The play, Starlings, addresses that issue in the context of a gay Christian conference, where four former youth group friends re-encounter each other years after violently splitting over one’s sexual orientation. It’s a world premiere screwball comedy director Erin Eggers says she and the rest of the Soulstice Theatre board gave unanimous approval to produce this year.

“It touched a lot of people on very different levels and everybody thought it was an important work to be done,” Eggers says. “It viscerally affected me, the first time I read the piece.”

Parman says he based the play on a mix of experiences in his own life, including his own attendance at a gay Christian conference. In Soulstice’s production, he plays Neal, the member of the quartet who Parman says he most closely identifies with, and whose plot most closely follows things Parman himself has struggled with. “It was my own personal grappling with identity that informed this work,” he says.

But the original incident that separated the friends originates not from Neal, but from Matt (Claudio Parrone Jr.), who told a friend in confidence that he believed he was gay. That information ultimately spread, turning Matt’s then-girlfriend Kelly (Shannon Netteshem) and friend Ethan (David Spiro) against him.

The conference marks the first time all four have been together again since, and Parman says they can’t help but be drawn into rehashing old grievances in an attempt to find closure.

“When you have a definite, dynamic, powerful experience in your youth, you just keep going back to that. Or seeking out reasons for that, or explanations, or consolations,” Parman says. “Obviously you are not settled about this, so you keep going back.”

One of the most important things Parman says he focused on in writing the play was making sure no character’s opinion was treated like the only one with validity — a trap he says many plays that depict the conflict within Christianity between religious conservatives and LGBT people and allies fall into. He says he wrote the play with a singular principle in mind borrowed from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail: the idea of willingly embracing non-violent tension between opposing groups as a way to create dialogue and growth. “We can have constructive tension, where people are learning and listening to one another, despite differences of belief,” Parman says. “And it’s not about abandoning those beliefs for the sake of conformity. … It’s learning how to respectfully disagree.”

He also wanted to be sure the play balanced its comedic foundation with the serious topics it deals with — so it doesn’t bounce from one tone to the other and disorient the audience.

On the eve of the play’s premiere, both Parman and Eggers are carefully calibrating their promotional efforts, making sure they send the message that this play is designed for people on all sides of its central argument. Parman says he’s concerned that a mistake or misworded promo might result in alienating someone so much that they might not even attend — the exact lack of dialogue he’s hoping his play can resolve.

“I can disagree with someone and be their friend,” Parman says. “We can have a conflict and still be close, and be grateful for the diversity and grateful for that difference.”

That’s a realization Parman says his characters ultimately reach — and one he believes audiences can realize too.

ON STAGE

Starlings runs Jan. 14 to 30 at Soulstice Theatre, 3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave., St. Francis. Tickets are $15, $13 for students, seniors and veterans. Visit soulsticetheatre.org to order.

Jason Alexander prepares to sing ‘the music of Larry David’

When Larry David was showing his old “Seinfeld” pal Jason Alexander the quirks of his Broadway dressing room, the discussion naturally went to the toilet.

“You know what he said? ‘It’s a two or three flusher,’” said Alexander. “He said, ‘Don’t assume.’ I said, ‘Really? OK, I won’t assume.’”

But Alexander, who is about to take over from David in his hit play “Fish in the Dark,” fooled with the handle and discovered that he could just hold it until the water cleared.

“I went to him and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t want to rock your world but it’s actually less effort than you’ve been making it,”” Alexander said. “Like most things in life.”

Alexander is pretty much planning to do the same thing with David’s play that he did with his toilet — mess around with the plumbing to find a more efficient way to tell the story.

“It is possible that I will be better and he will be funnier,” said Alexander in David’s dressing room one recent morning.

“If someone saw both of us do it, if they laughed 100 times with Larry, they may only laugh 90 times with me but the takeaway from the show will be ‘Wow, I actually went on that journey a little bit.’”

If anyone can do it, it’s Alexander, who before “Seinfeld” was a Tony-winning stage performer who then played David’s alter-ego on the show’s nine-year run.

“We are making the small adjustments that allow me to approach this as more of a trained actor than Larry could,” he said. “I really understand Larry’s turf, his rhythms, his melodies. I get the music of Larry David.”

Director Anna D. Shapiro has helped Alexander and the cast manage the transition and said Alexander knows instinctively how to spread the focus around the stage.

“He likes to throw the ball as much as hold the ball,” she says. “With Larry, what he’s doing, he is the most expert at. What Jason’s doing is a shared mastery.” 

“Fish in the Dark,” David’s first play, is about the rivalries and still-simmering angers that explode when a family gathers to bid farewell to their dying patriarch.

The show has been a huge draw because of David, who co-created “Seinfeld” and went on to star and write “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Theater-goers get to see him do a bit about whether or not to tip doctors and be typically petty, vindictive and clueless.

The play co-stars Jayne Houdyshell and Rosie Perez, but David has dominated the stage, with his usual exasperated, impolite routine.

“I think the show with me will feel more like an ensemble show than a star vehicle even though the character continues to drive the piece,” said Alexander.

“The upside is it’s not a deeply complex play. It’s a light comedy. So the trick is finding how you get the laugh and finding the rhythms of the show with the cast.”

Before David ever began the role, he asked Alexander what he might expect in his Broadway debut. For one, he had no idea how grueling the eight-a-week schedule becomes.

“As most people do, he had some misconceptions,” Alexander said. “He said, ‘It won’t be so bad. I’ll play golf during the day.’ I said, ‘You’re not playing golf.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll go out for drinks after.’ I said, ‘Not if you want to do a show the next day.’”

Alexander knows that playing George Costanza has built him plenty of fondness in the crowd, but he isn’t counting on that for long when he hits the stage.

“That buys you 5-10 minutes of extraordinary good will,” he said. “And then after that, if you drop the ball, they’ll go, ‘You know, he’s not so good.’”

On the Web …

Online: http://fishinthedark.com 

MCT’s ‘Train Driver’ hits racial prejudice head-on

Roelf Visagie, a white Afrikaner who drives a train in his native South Africa, is haunted by the death of a black African woman and her child. One night, out of nowhere, the woman steps in front of his engine as a way of committing suicide.

Less to assuage his guilt and more to act out his anger at a world that would inconvenience him, Visagie desperately seeks the identity of the victims — but along the way, he begins to understand the elements of his culture, and himself, that would lead this woman to commit such a desperate act.

His journey forms the dramatic arc of Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver, the latest production by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Penned in 2010, the play was based on an actual incident that took place in 2000. It’s a work the South African playwright considers his most important because of what it says about his country’s history of apartheid and racial prejudice and how it is deeply ingrained in each Afrikaner, according to director C. Michael Wright.

“Fugard himself says, ‘All that happens to Roelf Visagie in the course of the play encapsulates the journey I have made myself in trying to deal with my legacy of racial prejudice,’” says Wright, quoting the author. “’It is, in essence, a final statement for me — about my relationship to the South Africa I have loved all my life; cursed at a couple of times, but loved, certainly loved.’”

In the MCT production, a Midwest premiere that runs through March 15, American Players Theatre veteran David Daniel plays Visagie and Michael A. Torrey plays Simon Hanabe, the old gravedigger Visagie meets in his search for the identity of his unintended victims. The interaction between the pair sheds a greater light on the play’s themes and how they manifest in Visagie’s character.

“I admire Visagie very much as a man,” says Daniel. “He is a racist, but a racist that was born and thrived in ignorance. He is confronted by truths that do not fit conveniently into those life-long, community-held beliefs, and it is his heart that reshapes him into something new.”

In the wake of anti-racism protests in New York City, Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, there’s a sense of contemporary relevance to the play’s subject matter and its protagonist. But Wright says the trajectory of The Train Driver is less a literal reflection and more a refraction of such incidents, and it forces Visagie to think outside of South Africa’s institutionalized racism. 

“Even though he writes specifically about his South African experience, Fugard’s themes are universal,” Wright says. “He consistently asks extremely important questions about what it means to be a person of integrity and compassion in today’s world, and he asks these questions in a profoundly eloquent way.”

Best known for his play ‘Master Harold’… and the Boys and its depiction of racism, hatred and bigotry, Fugard was a lifelong opponent of apartheid. The political messages of many of the now-82-year-old playwright’s works brought him into conflict with his country’s apartheid government. He formed multiracial theater troupes in Johannesburg in 1958, which led to police surveillance and government censure, and many of his first plays were published and produced outside of South Africa.

In The Train Driver, the themes that characterized much of his work are brought to crystal clarity. The character of Visagie is in many ways a stand-in for South Africa’s former Afrikaner government, but unlike that government, Visagie has found a way to understand and evolve, a hurdle that many in that country still have trouble addressing in a meaningful way, according to Wright.

“Like Fugard, I believe quite strongly in the power of hope,” Wright says. “Even in the most hopeless of circumstances, we have so much to gain by simply connecting with our neighbors. This sort of deep investment in our fellow man can eventually lead to understanding, trust and maybe even redemption.”

For Daniel, the assessment is an even simpler one.

“Visagie changes,” Daniel says. “I don’t think God could have asked for anything more.”

ON STAGE

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver runs Feb. 25 to March 15 at the Studio Theatre in the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. weeknights, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and more information, call 414-291-7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

‘Once On This Island’s’ story pits love vs. death

Former artistic director Bill Theisen is back at the Skylight, and boy, does he have a story to tell.

It’s not his — though it’s likely Theisen, artistic director for nine years and a frequent performer in the decades prior, could have a lot to say about his time with the company and subsequent departure to serve as the director of opera at the University of Iowa. Instead, the story Theisen will present this winter is that of a girl named Ti Moune, the heroine of Once On This Island, a Caribbean-infused one-act musical about a tussle between the powers of love and death.

The first Broadway success of music-and-lyrics team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, Once On This Island depicts two communities on the island of Haiti, the Jewel of the Antilles. One, the lighter-skinned grandes hommes, are the wealthy, urbanized descendants of the island’s original French planters and their slaves. The other consists of darker-skinned peasants, who live in close-knit villages on the other side of the island and worship gods like Erzulie (Cynthia Cobb), goddess of love, and Papa Ge (Bill Jackson), god of death. Ti Moune (Kanova Johnson) is the bridge between them, an orphaned girl whose prayers to the gods make her the subject of a bet between Erzulie and Papa Ge. They will grant her love — in the form of the grande homme Daniel (Sean Jackson) — but promise her death should he ever leave her for another.

It’s a tale Theisen says is strongly inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” by way of the novel My Love, My Love, but has been made more universal by Ahrens and Flaherty. “Everyone can relate to the journey that Ti Moune takes — what she comes up against, what she is able to conquer and what she learns along the way,” he says.

He’s loved the musical since it first premiered in the early ‘90s. Remembering the original Broadway run, Theisen’s tone perks up as he recalls watching the departing audience literally dancing in the street.

Yet this production marks the first time he’s had the opportunity to direct it. Blame timing: When he joined Skylight as the company’s artistic director in 2004, they had just staged it in 1998. When he was leaving the company nine years later, he had to set it aside in order to cross a different show off the top of his bucket list: a critically acclaimed staging of Porgy and Bess.

But when new Skylight AD Viswa Subbaraman called to invite Theisen back for this season, the moment was finally right.

One of the reasons Theisen thinks Once On This Island works so well onstage is its framing device, conceived by Ahrens, Flaherty and original director Graciela Daniele: telling the story to a young child on the island. It’s a device he’s allowed to inspire the entire production. Narration to the little girl can be directed in part to the audience members, bending the fourth wall. Costumes, set and prop design are more suggestive than explicit, inviting viewers to let their imaginations fill in the blanks and travel alongside Ti Moune.

“I can’t say it’s the way it’s always done,” Theisen says, “but it seems like you’d be missing a great opportunity if you didn’t do it, because (the audience) is really taking the journey with you. To exclude them from that would be unfortunate.”

That’s a sentiment bolstered when the play is staged in its original form, as a one-act. Theisen says the play “just moves” as a single piece, with scene transitions effortlessly transporting the story from one moment to the next. “It’s quite simple but really effective, because people go from character to storyteller and weave back and forth.”

Many of those storytellers will be familiar to Milwaukee audiences. Theisen’s cast of 11 features nine local actors, some of whom, including Sheri Williams Pannell and Lee Palmer, he’s known for years. It wasn’t an intentional decision, but it’s one Theisen sees as a perfect fit for the musical. “It’s a real celebration of a lot of Milwaukee talent. To see them all come together on a piece that is so much about community and storytelling and lives as they grow and are enriched … to see their journeys and have them come back together in this, it’s a dream come true.”

ON STAGE

Skylight Music Theatre will perform Once On This Island Jan. 30-Feb. 22 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets range from $23 to $64 and can be ordered at skylightmusictheatre.org or 414-291-7800.

‘The Other Place’

OUT ON THE TOWN

The Other Place is a mystery play, but it’s no whodunnit. Instead, the mystery is in the head of Juliana Smithton, a neurological research scientist whose life seems to be falling apart around her — or has already collapsed? Madison’s Forward Theater dares to ask the question in this dynamic play, where the boundaries of fact and fiction are blurred and Juliana’s past threatens to encroach on her increasingly unstable present.

At Overture Center, 201 State St. Tickets range from $25 to $44, and can be purchased at 608-258-4141 or
overturecenter.org.

Jan. 15 to Feb. 1


Soulstice Theatre stages a ladies’ ‘Macbeth’

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth is among the most gendered, its characters struggling with the ways their society expects them to act like men or women.

So it’s fitting that Soulstice Theatre’s foray into all-female Shakespeare takes the form of the “Scottish Play,” with every role played by a woman as a woman — albeit a woman still forced to choose between presenting as masculine or feminine.

Director Catherine Jones explains: Her take on Macbeth sets the play in a period shortly after World War I, when the young men of Europe went to battle in the trenches. Her conceit suggests they never returned, forcing the women who remained to realign themselves within their society’s patriarchy, choosing during puberty whether they will take on masculine gender identities (allowing them to wage war or rule) or feminine gender identities (allowing them to remain womanly but relegating them to the domestic sphere).

It’s a change that alters the nature of the play, without changing a word of Shakespeare’s regicidal text. “Our Lady Macbeth (Alicia Rice) has chosen to present feminine, so the way she expresses herself has to be in these very gentle ways,” Jones says. “(With) Macbeth (Amy Hansmann), because she’s trying to fit into this patriarchal social structure, everything’s coded as masculine — you want to be king, you have to be male.”

The result, she adds, is that the play’s two main characters, as well as many others, are forced to grapple with the way they choose to express their genders, not their biological sexes. This more nuanced approach shines the spotlight directly on the implications of Shakespeare’s gendered language — especially when the women start to challenge each other’s manliness or womanliness.

Changing every male role in Macbeth to a masculinely coded female role is an interesting dramaturgical experiment, but Jones says she knew it was one that would pay off when the show’s announcement drummed up a flood of interest even before she held auditions. Once she had a cast assembled, she says, they got together for a table read to discuss the play’s subjects and ended up discussing gender in modern society for several hours.

But Jones says that in many ways, getting to have such a rich discussion and exploration of women’s and gender issues is almost incidental to her and Soulstice’s original goal: finding a way to provide more opportunities for women to be on stage. During the show selection process, Jones says, most Shakespeare plays have to be discounted, because his works have so few opportunities for women. But this year, she came up with the idea of performing an all-female production, and Macbeth’s fixation on gender roles made it a clear frontrunner.

It also gave her the opportunity to have “ladies with swords” — not as tongue-in-cheek a rationale as it sounds. 

Jones says female actors tend to have less training than male actors in stage combat, and what experience they do have tends to be against men, and often couched in domestic violence scenarios. Making all Macbeth’s characters women offered her and fight choreographer Christopher Elst a chance to change that for the dozen-and-a-half women in the cast. 

To further suggest the monosexual nature of the play’s society, Jones says Elst specifically choreographed stage conflicts to reflect the different way women spar with each other, a more brutal and vicious style that lacks macho posturing. 

“Violence as an expression is usually a masculine trait; women usually have to mask that,” Jones says. “So in a society where you are allowed to be violent, and even encouraged, they’re going to take every opportunity to do so.”

It’s certainly not an ordinary interpretation of the Bard’s work — but as an opportunity to have multiple women playing characters with greater depth than the witches three, Jones says, it’s a royal treat.

ON STAGE

Soulstice Theatre’s production of Macbeth opens Jan. 16 and runs through Jan. 31. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $20, $18 for students/seniors/military. For more information or to order, call 414-481-2800 or visit soulsticetheatre.org.