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Theater RED’s ‘Bachelorette’ parties hard, then gets real

The saying “with friends like these, who needs enemies” wasn’t written to describe Bachelorette, but it certainly could have been. The Leslye Headland play, produced by Theatre RED at the Alchemist Theatre, depicts a pre-wedding night gone terribly wrong, as four former friends fueled by booze, drugs and jealousy scrap over slights old, new, borrowed and blue in a fancy hotel suite.

It’s a juicy premise with an even juicier execution. But what makes this production of Bachelorette more than just 80 minutes of girls behaving badly is the emotional depths director Mark Boergers finds in a seemingly shallow premise, grappling with issues of addiction, loneliness and what it means to be a true friend.

Headland’s script eases us into these more serious subjects with a sleight-of-hand trick, opening with what appears to be the beginning of a bachelorette party. First arrive Gena and Katie (Liz Faraglia and Shannon Nettesheim), already buzzed on alcohol and cocaine and delighted to find a bathtub full of champagne. Then comes Regan (Tess Cinpinski), the maid of honor, promising the eventual arrival of guys she met at a party earlier in the evening and informing the others that the bride Becky (Kelly Doherty) left them the suite for the evening.

But even before Regan arrives, the tone of the evening is fundamentally off — Gena and Katie are bitter from the minute they enter the room, Katie hiding it behind a veneer of childish delight and Gena not hiding it at all. All three alternate between generic bitching and specific complaints over how unfair it is that their “pigface” friend Becky scored a rich, handsome fiancee before any of them. Neither Gena nor Katie are even invited to the wedding itself — just to this night-before debauchery. And when that debauchery leads to a catastrophe — the destruction of Becky’s wedding dress — Regan reveals that inviting the two was her idea altogether, an act of sabotage either unintentional or deviously malicious.

This sounds like it’s about to segue into some madcap adventure to save the dress and the wedding, but most of that actually takes place off screen, when Gena flees the scene to find a tailor (one of Headland’s few missteps; Gena is too fascinating and acerbic a character and Faraglia too compelling an actor to remove from the action). With that MacGuffin removed, Katie and Regan simply spiral further, with Regan choosing to sleep with her slick new friend Jeff (Nick Narcisi) when he arrives and Katie getting drunker and more depressed even as she makes a real connection with Jeff’s friend Joe (Evan Koepnick).

The worse things get, the more Bachelorette becomes about real, serious issues. Sure, Regan jumps into bed with Nick, but not before revealing her own insecurities about the longtime boyfriend who won’t even propose to her and doubts about her self-worth. And Katie is just getting blackout drunk like she always does, except that seeing it through the eyes of a newcomer instead of a friend her behavior looks addictive and self-destructive.

But most importantly, Bachelorette’s characters are forced to be honest — for the first time, perhaps, in a long while — or suffer the consequences.

Nettesheim and Koepnick get the best leverage out of that choice. Each of their characters bare their souls to each other and share dark secrets, and despite their immediate connection neither of them are 100 percent okay with what they see — a nuanced response that’s fascinating to watch.

Regan, on the other hand, continues to hide behind a false self, and it comes back to haunt her in the play’s final moments, as first Gena and then Becky shatter it for all to see. Cinpinski doesn’t always seem on the same level as Faraglia and a showstopping Doherty, but perhaps that’s the point. When they finally call out her character, she breaks — and in that shattered moment, Cinpinski more than makes up for any uncertainties earlier in the production.

'Bachelorette' depicts a pre-wedding party that goes south quickly – but it's about more than the bachelors and bachelorettes behaving badly (from left: Evan Koepnick, Tess Cinpinski, Shannon Nettesheim, Liz Faraglia, Nick Narcisi, Kelly Doherty). Photo: Traveling Lemur Productions.
‘Bachelorette’ depicts a pre-wedding party that goes south quickly – but it’s about more than the bachelors and bachelorettes behaving badly (from left: Evan Koepnick, Tess Cinpinski, Shannon Nettesheim, Liz Faraglia, Nick Narcisi, Kelly Doherty). Photo: Traveling Lemur Productions.

For all the laughs you’ll get from its characters, Bachelorette is not a play to be seen lightly. On the surface, it is coarse, vulgar, tawdry and mean. At its core, it is heartbreaking, poignant and sometimes even contradictory. But it is also not a play you’ll forget lightly. After all, bachelorette parties are supposed to be nights to remember.

Bachelorette runs through March 19 at the Alchemist Theatre, 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Milwaukee. Tickets are $15, with VIP ticket packages available. Visit theaterred.com for more details.

Robin Hood, through the eyes of Marian’s ‘Lady in Waiting’

Whether portrayed by a swashbuckling Errol Flynn or a conflicted Kevin Costner, Robin Hood has always been interpreted more as myth than man. Theater RED, a relatively new Milwaukee theater company, reverses the equation. In its latest world premiere, A Lady in Waiting, the troupe adopts a female point of view that presents the legendary male outlaw on a human scale.

Penned by Wisconsin playwright Liz Shipe (who also plays Maid Marian in the production), the story is told from the perspective of Marian’s handmaid Aria (Kelly Doherty). Shipe says Aria’s quick tongue and sharp insights shed new light on familiar characters like Robin Hood (Zachary Thomas Woods) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew J. Patten), as well as the play’s other Merry Men and royals, thus muddling the usually stark distinctions between heroes and villains.

The play begins with Robin Hood already established as the outlaw prince of Sherwood Forest, so both Aria and the audience are inserted in medias res. “Everything I read positioned Robin Hood as the main character, and that seemed the logical way to go,” Shipe says. “But I wanted to look at Robin Hood through the lens of someone who might not see him as a hero, learning about him as the audience does.”

Shipe says telling the story from a female perspective also gives the play some contemporary flavoring, although she hesitates to label its viewpoint as explicitly feminist.

“The original idea was to create a medieval buddy-on-the-road story for two women and a bunch of fellas,” Shipe says. “(But) over the course of writing it, the play did become much more about what it is to be a woman in any society — which is a great thing to put in the spotlight.”

The unconscious shift in perspective fits well with Theater RED’s creative ethos. Married co-founders Christopher Elst and Marcee Doherty-Elst established the company last year as a way to present premiere works from local authors and plays that offer substantial roles for women and new artists. Their first full production A Thousand Times Goodnight was a particularly good example: an original, Shakespeare-esque adaptation of The Arabian Nights by local writer Jared McDaris that centered on Scheherazade as the lead character.

Neither Elst nor Doherty-Elst had extensive experience or education in theater arts until reaching adulthood. Elst majored in literature and has a background in fencing, with advanced actor combatant certification from the Society of American Fight Directors. Doherty-Elst, a trained skater, majored in sociology and statistics. But the two became independently involved in local productions, learning about theater from fellow cast members as they went along. 

“We credit the theater training we have received from being involved in productions with amazing actors, musicians and directors,” Doherty-Elst says. “We learned from working alongside the best and are often cast in the same shows, which is great fun and nice to have our schedules align.”

Starting Theater RED has allowed the couple to share what they’ve learned with others, including Shipe. She’s excited about sharing her unique vision of the Robin Hood myth.

“Robin Hood’s story has been told from his point of view a lot, and I thought that shifting the focus a bit would breathe some life into the story,” Shipe says. “I hope other people feel that way, too.”

ON STAGE

Theater RED’s production of Liz Shipe’s A Lady in Waiting runs Aug. 7-23 at the Soulstice Theatre, 3770 Pennsylvania Ave., Ste. 2, in St. Francis. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Tickets are $15. Visit www.theaterred.com.