Friday, August 31, 2018

Theatre RED presents "This Prison Where I Live"

The brothers Booth make their Midwest debut

Who is Edwin Booth? If you're a theater fiend or know a thing or two about 19th century American history, you may have some idea. And if not, it comes as little surprise. As the brother of President Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, Edwin falls under a notorious shadow, despite being worthy of remembrance in his own right. 

Edwin Booth was arguably the most acclaimed Shakespearean actor of his day, and that's partly why Director and playwright Angela Iannone feels compelled to tell his story. Making its midwest debut at Theater RED, This Prison Where I Live is one in Iannone's four-play Booth Cycle, with two more pieces currently in the works. 

How one woman can work behind the scenes to craft such an eloquent and compelling script, while also finding the time to act on stage, is utterly amazing. During a Talk Back, Iannone all but said she felt intrinsically bound to Edwin Booth, as if the universe bestowed upon her the task of bringing him out from behind the eclipse of his evil brother. Edwin, Iannone summed up, was an incredible performer, American, and contributor to the arts; a man deserving of his own place in history, apart from his family ties. 

In This Prison Where I Live, we meet Edwin Booth (Jared McDaris) at a Chicago theater in 1879. He's rehearsing lines for Shakespeare's Richard II, when he's repeatedly interrupted by the ghosts of his past — his brother John Wilkes (Cory Jefferson Hagen) and first wife Mollie (Andrea Chastant Burkholder) — and the snares of his present — second wife Mary (Marcee Doherty-Elst) and the uninvited Mark Gray (Brandon Haut, marvelously nerve wracking). 

Though Theater RED's tenets include "substantial roles for women," the on-stage female parts in this production are actually quite small — but they're not insignificant. Edwin's wives represent a portion of the titular prison: Mollie grasps him in the guilt of unsaid goodbyes, while Mary's unhinged mental state imprisons his daily existence. Though she has just one line of dialogue, Burkholder's Mollie silently entrances, while Doherty-Elst's Mary is verbose, imperious, and unmistakably mad. 

But the ladies must make way for the Booth brothers, without whom this show couldn't be an excellent one. In reality, picking a favorite Booth requires no thought — but picking a favorite in This Prison Where I Live? It's too close to call.

McDaris exudes all the spellbinding conviction of a renowned thespian, while simultaneously crumbling within the confines of Edwin's mental and emotional distress. As for Hagen, he brings such Southern swagger, humor, and charm to John Wilkes, you almost forget how the man's actions shattered America in 1865. The two men play off each other with wonderful ease, capturing a brotherly bond that's believable and complex. 

Throughout the cast, there's a certain theatricality to each actor's delivery. Although some moments may come off as a bit over zealous, they nearly always coalesce to serve the mood of the play as a whole. Iannone's articulate, commanding spirit comes through in the characters she's written and the actors she's directed. 

Going into Theater RED, I was one of those who knew very little of Edwin Booth, apart from his villainous brother. I left This Prison Where I Live contemplating a life lived in another's history-shattering wake. Iannone's achievement, beyond the work itself and assembling such a stellar group of creatives, lies in encouraging a curiosity for histories both infamous and intimate. 

Photo credit: Traveling Lemur Productions

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Memorial Union Terrace

A not-so-hidden gem at UW Madison 

I don't know if I'm a sheltered born-and-raised Milwaukeean and Marquette grad or if I've just been living under a rock, but friends, I had never even heard of the Memorial Union Terrace in Madison before a bachelorette party a few weeks back brought me to that very place. 

Though this historic spot on Lake Mendota may be old hat to much of the Wisconsin population, Badger and beyond, this little shout-out is really for the rest of us who didn't even know that our lives were seriously lacking in Terrace. Well now we know. Sit in the sun or shade, lay on the pier, dip your toes in the water, watch sail boats glide by, have a beer and a brat — oh, oh, it's magic! 

I imagine it's overrun with students come fall, as it should be. But either way, the Terrace has a vibe that's unlike any Wisconsin lakeside locale I've personally seen. What other not-so-hidden waterfront gems are waiting for us in the Badger state? If you have a favorite, sound off in the comments! 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Up-Down Arcade Bar

Vintage arcade games, craft beer & nostalgia on tap

You're a child of the 80s or 90s. You step into Milwaukee's brand-new, much-buzzed-about arcade bar and you clutch your cohort's arm. "What year is it?" Neon on the walls, skee-ball, pinball, games galore. You notice Mrs. Doubtfire playing on one of the TVs and sigh a little. Then you spot Hook on a second TV and nearly cry. When they start streaming Land Before Time on a third screen, you brace yourself on the bar to keep from falling over.

Welcome to Up-Down Milwaukee, located at the curve where Water meets Brady. The place has a knack for triggering nostalgia and happy vibes. If Robin Williams in his prime doesn't do it for you, maybe replays of André the Giant, the killer craft beer list, or the spacious patios will. The Up-Down hits all the right notes, albeit for a rather specific slice of the population.

But I'd wager kids of all ages can get stoked over coming in first in Mario Kart or gunning down oozy aliens — and all games are just 25 cents to play. Our only complaints: On the four-player Simpsons game, just one controller worked. On the super-retro Super Mario Brothers game, the screen was glitchy, making it pretty tough to play. Lastly, according to the website, we were promised Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (an arcade game in which you basically have to dance battle your enemies), but it was nowhere to be found. 

These hiccups won't keep us away. Rather, I bet we'll be back combing the Up-Down for Moonwalker over a $5 slice of pizza in no time. 

Friday, August 24, 2018

MOT presents "Doc Danger & the Danger Squad"

A madcap new musical & love song to pulp fiction 

We're told from the very beginning of Doc Danger & the Danger Squad that, in this universe, creativity rules and the hero always escapes. Spoiler alert? Not so much. And if so, who cares! Doc Danger isn't so much about its tightness of plot or genuinely shocking twists and turns. It's about having a rollicking good time inside the brain of composer and Milwaukeean Jason Powell.

Powell's claims to local fame include a number of musicals, an opera, a handful of folk songs, and the occasional comedy sketch. Doc Danger is his latest achievement, and his original pulp fiction musical comedy has found its rightful home under the direction of Jill Anna Ponasik at the Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT).

Ponasik has a knack for bringing the quirky, camp, and colorful to life, and Doc Danger is no exception. The creative team has gathered top-notch new (to MOT anyway) talent, and the set, sound, and lighting design, though simple, is cleverly employed. A narrow escape from a thundering train, the menacing flash of the Beetle Queen's wrath, the methodical re-hingeing of an unhinged universe: These larger-than-life moments are shown through bursts of color, light, and sound. 

Okay, so about the Beetle Queen... Let's back track and talk plot. For starters, Doc Danger is very much a love letter to pulp fiction of the 1920s and 30s. These stories were called "pulp" because of the cheap paper used for printing them, and they peaked in popularity during the Great Depression as a means of distracting folks from dire reality. The signatures of pulp: Extraordinary, fast-paced plots; thrilling, action-packed genres; broadly-drawn heroes and villains.

Sound like today's ubiquitous superhero movies? Ding ding ding! Doc Danger & and the Danger Squad is a sort of crossover of characters and genres, merging sci-fi, western, spy thriller, and jungle action into one mission to save the universe from evil. It's also chockfull of archetypes, both heroic and villainous. 

There's Doc Danger herself (Briana Rose Lipor), an ode to science, brain power, and ingenuity. Next up, a couple of cowpokes named Satellite Sally (Carrie Gray) and Clare de Lune (Hannah Esch) — the plucky, guns-blazing brute squad. Jesai of the Jaguars (Stephanie Staszak) reps the jungle princess contingent, while the Lady in Black (Rae Elizabeth Paré) embodies a Batman-like detective with super-spy undertones. Last but not least, the Kid (Harper Navin) gloms onto Doc Danger as an underdog and unexpected hero.

What a bunch of badass female guardians of the universe! It's cool to learn that, while Powell's lineup is progressive even today, pulp fiction novels were especially forward-thinking in their heyday. Women could be heroes, homosexuals, brains & brawn, and find fulfillment sans romance. Doc Danger pits this wondrous world against an evil, alternate reality of banality, conformity, and unimaginative drudgery — in essence, our own reality.

Through the diabolic minds of the maniacal-laughing Professor Z (Eric Welch), the sultry and super-powered Beetle Queen (Ana Gonzalez), and the slightly-dim Penny Dreadful (Becky Cofta), this alternate reality takes hold. Our heroines turn into self-involved, male-worshipping, creativity-stifled shells who stab each other in the back rather than build each other up. The horror! If you're wondering whether or not our brave band of women can escape such evil clutches, see the spoiler alert up top.

What's so enjoyable about Doc Danger & the Danger Squad is how all this food-for-thought never outweighs the fun. Marvelous talent, snappy tunes (shout out to my personal favorite, "Cowgirls on the Moon"), and the satisfaction of pegging these familiar characters and plot points — that's the draw for pulp fiction fans and musical theater lovers alike. The extent to which you dissect the subtext, that's just an added bonus. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Wisconsin State Fair

A few 2018 take-aways

If you're looking for a Wisconsin State Fair expert, I'll be the first to admit that you've come to the wrong place. Last Friday, however, I did spend a good six-ish hours eating my way through the fair with a couple of near-experts, so today I can speak from pretty solid experience. In brief: Hope you like fried cheese!

Top Specialty Eats 
Deep fried spinach lasagna from Albanese's Roadhouse. Deep fried French onion soup on a stick (yup) from Slim's PBR Park. The deep fried double stuffed s'mOreo sundae from Saz's Taste of Wisconsin. My cohorts also loved the cheese curd taco from Poncho Dog. I personally prefer my curds the old-fashioned way (read on!). 

Top Tried & True Eats 
Cheese curds from Hot Wisconsin Cheese. The pro tip? It has got to be the booth plastered with those glorious words: "Hot Wisconsin Cheese." And you gotta get the jalapeño ranch. These are hands down the meltiest cheese curds I've ever had the pleasure to binge. They actually outdid the specialty eats for me.

Feelin' Thirsty
Beer lovers, go to the craft beer garden at The Micro. The offerings are easily the best on the fair grounds. To the types of people who usually buy wine based on the label and sometimes choose beer based on the name, please note that the Milwaukee Brewing Company Cream Puff Ale is delicious and refreshing, but nothing like a cream puff. Kudos to the marketing team — you got me. The beer here is about $8. The everyman's beer elsewhere on the grounds is $6. You do you. 

Livin' for the Livestock 
Saw my first pig race! It's three super-fast rounds of adorableness, plus the inevitable pig puns. (Pigs with names like Ham-ah Montana and Notorious P.I.G.) If you're a real animal lover, take note of when certain livestock buildings close. The rabbits and chickens have a 4pm curfew, or at least they did last Friday. 

Flavored Milk: Meh 
Would it be a trip to the Wisconsin State Fair without some 50-cent flavored milk? Some people are all about it as a once-a-year must. I think that chocolate milk has survived the mainstream for a reason, and I don't feel any great loss by not having other flavors in my life. But it's probably one of the best deals at the fair, kiddos will love it, and it is a real Wisconsin novelty. So what da heck — if you're into it, get yourself some flavored milk der.