Monday, December 17, 2018

Lux Domes at Café Benelux

Winter on top of the Ward

Step aside, Brooklyn. Who says Milwaukee can't do winter-chic? 

A metal igloo, zippered-up plastic, and a space heater are all that stand between you and the Benelux rooftop in December. But yes, I swear it's chic! I was lucky enough to be one of a handful of Lux Domes guinea pigs earlier this month, and boy did we have a blast. 

Reservations are $200 for a dome that seats eight, and that cost includes one drink package, also for eight. Eight is the magic number to maximize resources. Benelux doesn't encourage bopping between domes; that's how things get drafty and unpleasant. Trust that the folks in charge have thought this through, and embrace the experience they've crafted. Eight or fewer, no moving between domes. 

You can add additional drink and food packages on top of the $200 — things like a platter of local cheeses, meats, pickles, seafood, oysters, and dessert bites. For drinks, sip mulled wine, hot toddys, hot cocoa with Rumchata, or a bier sampler package. Yes, you must be over 21 to visit the Domes. No, you can't order things from the regular menu; bite-sizes noshables are where it's at. 

While imbibing, the domes lend a lovely, wintry, outdoor-yet-cozy vibe. The temperature inside hovers around 50–55 degrees; warm enough to cast off coats, cool enough that we were all glad to be in layers, hats, and scarves. So dress for the cold, knowing you can always lose a layer if the space heater-supplied weather permits. 

As a package deal, the Lux Domes really do deliver a super dreamy time. Sitting around with friends, enjoying delicious food and drinks, further warming the dome with laughter and conversation — it's a real treat. The problem is, reservations are selling like hotcakes. Time slots are limited, spaced out in 1.5-hour increments throughout the holiday season and beyond. Good luck getting one.

The Benelux folks are also, understandably, working through any hiccups, as this is their first year attempting a rooftop winter wonderland. How will the domes fare in high winds? A snowstorm? Bitter cold? Some of these questions are, as yet, unanswered, so hopefully Milwaukeeans will be understanding of that. I'd wager that this experience will only become more luxurious as time goes on. 

Check out for details, and sign up for the Lowlands email newsletter to be the first to hear about any new reservation time slots. To all you fancy-pants people who already secured your spot in the domes: enjoy that winter-chicness!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

I ❤️ Eating in NY

Taking the proverbial bite out of the Big Apple

My favorite things about having best friends who live in NYC are: 

a.) they already have public transportation figured out 
b.) they know where to eat in a city that's overwhelmingly delish 

Like, where do people who don't have besties in New York even start? I feel panicked just thinking about it. 

So here I am, logging two scrumptious spots these friends of mine brought into my world during my last trip to New York. Why log a measly two? Because I don't want to forget how tasty these meals were, and passing along even a couple recos to the wide world is better than not passing on any recos at all. So here goes.

Can I get more picturesque Mediterranean brunch in my life? Shuka made my eyeballs and tastebuds so happy. "One of the most warm and inviting rooms in the city" and "fresh and local food" — that's what the Shuka website promises. And does it deliver? 

Well, I felt plenty warm and invited, so yes, I'd say so. This place has ambiance for days! Even the bathroom is stylish as all get out, so you know this is a quality establishment. The website also claims a "friendly staff," which is notably true per our experience. 

The eating was scrumptious. We ordered a chicken kebab, the shakshuka, a killer kale salad, cucumbers, and assorted dips on the side. Can we eat this every day? 

Xi'an Famous Foods
On days when we're not eating Shuka, can we eat Xi'an Famous Foods? Oh my gosh, noodles and dumplings and sauces and so what if it's a chain? It's a New York chain, so. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. 

The location we went to had space for about four or five hungry folks to sit elbow-to-elbow at a small ledge facing the window or a wall, so no points for ambiance. Though I guess you could count cramped as a sort of authentic New York City ambiance in itself. 

Still, all the points go to this meal I can't stop craving. We had pork "Zha Jiang" hand-ripped noodles, spinach and lamb dumplings, and spicy noodles in soup — all amazing, all things I will be dreaming of until I get them back in my belly again.

New York, thanks for being so tasty. New York friends who always show me a good and delicious time, thank you for knowing where to go. Now what's for dessert? 

Milwaukee Rep presents "A Christmas Carol"

A merry holiday tradition that's as good as ever

“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

So wrote Dickens in this moment that snuck up and grabbed me last Friday at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 43rd annual premier of A Christmas Carol. There’s something about the idea of the holidays being a great unifier among men that, these days, feels especially relevant, important, and profound. Thinking back, I don’t recall Nephew Fred’s festive little speech sticking with me at last year’s 42nd Christmas Carol, but that just goes to show what makes repeat viewings of this holiday tradition such a delight.

Ebenezer Scrooge’s story is ever familiar and warms the soul, and the Rep consistently delivers production value you can count on. Yet even knowing that this is a Christmas Carol steadfast and true, there’s always something new to glean — whether it’s actually new or just new to your memory. Of course Nephew Fred has defended the spirit of Christmas for over forty years, but this time, for me, it resonated anew.

In other newness: I don’t recall in years past that Scrooge shouts at a young caroler to “shut up” as he does this year. His swift reaction to a child’s sweet singing felt particularly jarring, which is as it should be. Positioning Scrooge as so very outwardly cruel allows him an even more dramatic transformation.

New notable cast members include the spine-tingling, booming-voiced Mark Corkins as the spectral Marley and James Pickering as Fezziwig, among other smaller parts. Pickering’s Fezziwig is rosy-cheeked and jovial — a fun departure from the 14 years he played the Rep’s Scrooge. There’s a spring in his step and warmth about him, and partnering him with Angela Iannone as Mrs. Fezziwig makes for a darling pair. The Rep’s newest Tiny Tim, Eliel Pozos Lopez, instantly tugs at heartstrings and makes it easy to believe that Scrooge could be so affected by the plight of this little boy with a heart of gold.

Not new, rather three years running, is Jonathan Wainwright as Scrooge himself. He’s settling wonderfully into the role, bringing an emotionally-charged, woeful, then mirthful Ebenezer to the Pabst stage. Wainwright is especially captivating whenever he interacts with shadows of the past. His heartache over the loss of both his sister, Fan, and true love, Belle, is keenly felt. It’s especially stirring to watch Wainwright’s Scrooge retrace his steps, dancing alone with Belle’s memory. His changed demeanor come Christmas morning is blithely felt throughout the theater, face muscles aching, as Scrooge’s do, from the sudden influx of smiling.

The sets and costumes, like Wainwright, are also gifts from Christmas Carols past, but they are still nothing short of impressive and gorgeous, respectively. The monstrous rotating London set, designed by Todd Edward Ivins, is jaw-dropping in its magnitude. As for the costumes, designed by Alexander B. Tecoma, they’re rich and luscious with plush textures and sumptuous colors, like something plucked from the cover of a Christmas card. Special hats-off to the three spirits, each one whose ensemble boasts a light feature. It’s enchanting even as an adult, so just imagine a child’s reaction to Christmas Past’s luminous gloves or Christmas Present’s glowing torch.

Also playing to the willing child in all of us is the continuation of Panto-style theater, where audience participation is a key component. Two years ago, with the debut of this new Christmas Carol, some folks found the amount of audience interaction to be a bit much. If you fall into that camp, rest assured that the Rep has dialed it back. During an Alphabet of Scrooge, where two narrators run A to Z rattling off synonyms for “avaricious,” the audience is consulted on adjectives for letters M and N, so come prepared.

Other than that, there are just a few instances of shouting a hearty “yes!” when the moment presents itself. My theater date, perhaps younger at heart than even I am, would have liked more audience participation. For me, the Rep has reached the Goldilocks zone in terms of Panto — though I do selfishly wish for more snow. Each snowy moment is just that enchanting.

Rounding out the childlike wonder at work, this Christmas Carol begins and ends with the characters on stage addressing the audience as if reading Dickens aloud. We’re aren’t simply watching events as they happen; we are being told a story. As with any story, there is always a takeaway or moral. In A Christmas Carol, there are so many morals to choose from, and if this Milwaukee Rep production is a yearly tradition for you and yours, it may be fun on the drive home to pick apart one of the many morals with each passing year.

This time, I’m choosing to latch onto Dickens’ endorsement of frivolity, as seen in Fezziwig and Nephew Fred’s jolly Christmas parties. A Christmas Carol is a chance to make merry and escape into the company of family and friends, leaving worldly work and worries at the door. This holiday tradition and masterful work by the Milwaukee Rep already has and will surely continue to stand the test of time, and so it invites you to start a new tradition of your own — one of making space in our busy lives for good times and good cheer with those nearest and dearest.  
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Next Act presents "The Twelve Dates of Christmas"

One woman's rom-com-esque story of singledom 

Twelve (largely-failed) meet-cutes, four performers, two backup singers, and one very chatty partridge in a pear tree suffering from a year of aloneness. Those are the numbers behind Ginna Hoben's The Twelve Dates of Christmas, a play whose simple, rom-com-esque premise is greater than the sum of its parts.
In Next Act's Twelve Dates, we spend one hour and forty minutes, no intermission, with Mary, a struggling New York actress in her thirties who has, in a nutshell, been dumped by her fiancé on Thanksgiving Day. Thus begins a year in the life and holidays of Mary and her many suitors: the perfect-but-too-soon guy she meets almost immediately at Aunt Kathy's Christmas Eggnog Party, the mid-20s bartender and one night stand on St. Patrick's Day, the over-planner, the ghoster, the asshole who skips out on date six without a word, the dude in the band who's moving to Prague next week. The usual suspects.
One might think the dreamboat from Aunt Kathy's party will wind up being Mr. Right by the same time next year, but The Twelve Dates of Christmas smartly leaves Mary's story loosely wrapped in the end, rather than tied neatly in a big red bow of predictable rom-com happily ever after. The fun of Twelve Dates is navigating each encounter and anticipating the next one. As Mary, Susie Duecker is funny, approachable, and smartly harnesses the many feelings associated with moving on.
Lending backup and festive vibes are the musical stylings of The Doherty Sisters and Jack Forbes Wilson. The Dohertys sing, coo, and serve up intermittent reactions to Mary's many tales, at one point wrapping her in gold tinsel garland in an attempt to get her into the Christmas spirit. They're fun, funny, and lend the right amount of support to Duecker's otherwise one-woman show. Forbes Wilson's piano accompaniment never skips a beat, bringing moments of musical sound-effect humor, too.
This is a script and a show that will no doubt most resonate with thirty-something singles, or recently-singles. I know because I'm smack dab in the middle of that target demographic. Mary's string of potential love interests certainly sounds familiar — the witty one, the one who's perfect on paper, the one with whom you could talk for hours, the one who can also quote Macbeth. Duecker ignites with the excitement one feels over these little signs of promise found in a potential partner, then turns and embodies the emotional roller coaster that is moving on after a breakup. Hers is a relatable versatility.
It's a different kind of Christmas show, to be sure. Simple in its premise and more of an introspective snapshot of one woman's life, rather than the sweeping "good will toward men" sentimentality that often accompanies such holiday fare. For some, the unconventional, chatty script will be a refreshing change; the chance for a fun evening spent with your best girlfriends, the newest of which is up on stage telling you about her last twelve dates. For those with Buddy the Elf-caliber Christmas tendencies, however, this feels more like a story that's set at Christmas, rather than a Christmas story through and through.
That said, Twelve Dates does indeed serve up laughs and the rush of new love — a yummy buffet of the warm feelings one craves at the holidays. It also wisely make you think about how the holidays affect those who are vulnerable, insecure, and grieving, wherever that grief stems from. Mary's breakup is one example of how a person might feel emotionally mixed-up and uncharacteristically alone at this time of year, and her story serves as a reminder to reach out to those people — and maybe stop asking about their love life at the family Christmas party.