Sunday, March 31, 2019

RTW presents "Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven"

A young-adult, sci-fi mystery takes the stage

"I usually write plays that I want to see," laughed playwright Reina Hardy on WUWM's Lake Effect radio show last week. Hardy isn't alone in the type of theater she craves. A quick run through her catalog of work reveals themes of fantasy and science that tend toward a youthful appeal.

No doubt Hardy's refreshing approach is one reason why her latest world premiere, Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven, was picked for Renaissance Theaterworks' 2017 Br!nk New Play Festival. Three additional productions will also be mounted across the country within the coming year, thanks to the National New Play Network. It seems theater companies agree with Hardy: there is ample space for Annie Jump on our stages.

Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven is the story of titular character Annie Jump, a 13-year-old science prodigy living in the small town of Strawberry, Kansas, with her alien-hunting dad. He's kind of the town crackpot. Extraordinary things begin to happen when the skeptical Annie is visited by the out-of-this-world Althea, an intergalactic supercomputer manifesting as a teenage mean girl with killer hair. Althea alleges that Annie is "the chosen one" of Earth, destined to guide humanity to link up with other intelligent beings in the universe.

While it all sounds very extraterrestrial, Annie Jump is as much about our human connections and community as it is about our place in the stars. With all her genuine genius, Annie (Reese Parish, a junior at Nicolet High School) struggles to relate to her "soft doctorate"-holding, E.T.-obsessed father, Dr. Jump (Jonathan Gillard Daly). The new, nerdy kid in town, KJ Urbanik (Jarrod Langwinski), becomes a lesson in the wrong way to make friends - and having the courage to right those wrongs. Althea (Rachael Zientek) must learn that humans make choices based on loyalty and love, rather than simply the quest to reach their full mental potential.

There's a lot in Annie Jump that works as young-adult fodder: the ages of the protagonists, the sci-fi and fantasy, even the humor. Rachel Zientek is laugh-out-loud funny as Althea, her tone a sort of whiny new-age valley girl, armed with whip-smart comebacks and a spot-on blasé attitude. There's lots of fabulous hair tossing and disinterested nail picking. She's pretty perfect. 

As Althea's human supercomputer-in-training, Reese Parish shines. There's something so very bright and poised in Parish's manner that makes her a joy to behold. Her Annie exudes believable brain power and a sincere blend of adolescent confusion and optimism.

As Dr. Jump, Jonathan Gillard Daly taps into what he does so well: being likable. His is a Dr. Jump you root for and sympathize with; funny and a little heartbreaking. It did, however, feel like Daly and Parish took some time to warm up to the father-daughter dynamic - but perhaps that was the plan all along. Their connection comes through in the end.

The only other adult we see in the story is teacher Mrs. Gomez, played by the delightful Karen Estrada. Estrada should play a hilariously tipsy, ukulele-toting, "I'm gonna make out with my husband," PhD-in-Physics-trapped-as-a-Spanish-teacher more often; she really nails it.

Yes, in a play about a girl genius and female supercomputer, even Mrs. Gomez has an affinity for science. Reina Hardy has left no woman without a brain. Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven boasts moments that are highly cerebral, brought to life through these incredibly intellectual female characters. It's immensely satisfying. If there's a young adult in your life, particularly a young lady, tell them about Annie Jump. Heck, buy them a ticket and make it a date.

The cool thing about Hardy's script is how it falls in the in-between. The journey of Annie Jump would mean as much to a teen as it would a grown-up, and we need more theater like that. Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven aims to bridge the gap in theater-going age groups and link up fresh, youthful audiences to that mysterious, perhaps-undiscovered universe of the stage.

Photo Credit: Ross Zentner

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Skylight Music Theatre presents "Carmina Burana"

An exhilarating & exquisite hour of 'total theatre'

17 Skylight artists. Seven Danceworks dancers. 25 Chant Claire Chamber Choir members, plus four Chant Claire guest artists. Six percussionists. Two pianists. One conductor. One visionary artistic team. One stage. It all adds up to Skylight’s exhilarating Carmina Burana, an experience dubbed “‘total theatre, in which music, dance, and text are inseparable.”

First, a short history lesson. Carmina Burana is the magnum opus of German composer Carl Orff. His cantata is based off a collection of poems dating from the Middle Ages, whose themes examine the full scope of human existence, from life to death, joy to despair, love to loneliness, and the changing of the seasons.

At the center of Carmina Burana is the Wheel of Fortune, highlighted in the instantly-recognizable “O Fortuna,” a thunderous anthem that speaks to the turning of Fate’s wheel. The wheel depicted in the Carmina Burana manuscript has four sides, representing human fortune and misfortune: regno (I reign), regnavi (I have reigned), sum sine regno (I am without a kingdom), and regnabo (I will reign). It’s important to understand the themes of Carmina Burana, but less so the nuances. As it’s performed in Latin, German, and Old French, this is a piece that’s better when it's fully felt, rather than fully understood.

In this collaborative Skylight production, the Wheel of Fortune is conveyed throughout: in raised circular stage design by Lisa Schlenker, in the large looming moon illuminated by lighting designer Jason Fassl, and in the multigenerational cast brilliantly costumed by Shima Orans. The greyscale costumes are contemporary, ranging from streetwear and sneakers to a three-piece suit, from a mechanic’s jumpsuit to an evening gown. Together, these remind audiences of the persistent relevance of Carmina Burana, despite the Middle-Aged poetry upon which it’s based.

The performance begins and ends with the aforementioned “O Fortuna,” which sandwiches three distinct themes: springtime, the tavern, and love. Throughout these three movements, Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik has indeed achieved “total theatre.” Musicians, opera singers, lyrical dancers and actors, and multimedia projections fill the Cabot stage with near-constant motion.

Some might not know where to look. Others might find supreme beauty in this vibrant, exciting display that melds into a cohesive work of art. Should any one leg be removed, the whole thing would topple — or at least feel less complete.

The voices are naturally magnificent. Special mentions to Shorewood native Katie Koester, whose sweet soprano is a standout, and to the utterly sublime power of soprano Cecilia Davis. But truly all vocals, from the soloists to the chorale, deserve the highest praise. Orff’s orchestrations are mighty and, at times, incredibly tender; the troupe assembled by Skylight and Chant Claire serves Orff well.

As for the dancing and movement, the limited breadth of the Cabot only rarely appears evident. By and large, every inch of the performance is expertly choreographed by Dani Kuepper for vignettes that feel full, not crowded. As the vocalists treat our ears, the dancers offer a delightful feast for the eyes — none more than Lady in Red, Christal Wagner. Wagner dances divinely, her manner such that she seems to inhabit another plane of existence when she moves. She is magnetism. Her red dress evokes immediate emotion, as do other strategic moments where color pops against the otherwise grey wardrobe.

For all its transcendent beauty, the scenes and staging throughout Carmina Burana are marked by Jill Anna Ponasik’s signature playfulness. The springtime sequence is especially charming: Families lounge and children frolic in a merry picnic scene, as dancers whirl about the stage wielding scarves of punchy spring green. In a sudden downpour, the cast brandishes umbrellas as letters fall from the sky — letters bearing good news or ill (the Wheel of Fortune strikes again). Next comes a baby shower, where glad tidings burst upon the greyness in rainbow swaths of fabric and tissue paper.

In the second movement, set in a tavern, raucous fun erupts. Here we find bickering lovers, a mad dash for McDonald’s fries (drunk munchies anyone?), a glamorous sequined jumpsuit, and ample frivolity. Although Ponasik ensures such revelry, works under her direction also promise moments of real poignancy and grace. One such moment follows a woman from childhood to old age and the metamorphosis of her beauty. Another, a stirring duet between singer Alaina Carlson and dancer Posy Knight, in which the dancer perishes and a funeral procession follows. In silent memoriam, Fassl’s lighting creates a warm, otherworldly glow that is, in a word, exquisite.

As the reprise of "O Fortuna" heralds the finale, the Wheel of Fortune continues to turn. For all its sorrows and silver linings, life marches on. The Skylight’s Carmina Burana is an unparalleled way to experience it.

Photo credit: Ross Zentner

Monday, March 11, 2019

Milwaukee Rep presents "Things I Know To Be True"

A gripping, powerful & poignant family drama 

"It wasn't supposed to be like this. I thought they'd be like us. But better than us. Better versions of us."

At the onset of this family drama, we're greeted by a garden bathed in twilight — three finely-pruned rose bushes, a meticulous hedge, suspended origami flowers, and one towering tree strung with lights. The scene is dreamlike, reflecting a script that Scenic Designer Scott Davis calls "fluid, emotional, and poetic." A fine choice of words, though there are a dozen more I'd add to his list.
This Australian play by Andrew Bovell, making its American premiere under the direction of Mark Clements at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, is indeed poetic — in its verbiage, the way it flows in and out of monologues, and the way choreography lends surreal moments. But for all the dreaminess of its staging, this is a story that steadily descends into the kinds of nightmares, confusion, and heartache faced by a family whose dynamics might be found in any household.

While some of the drama (infidelity, identity crisis, corporate crimes) feels a bit heavy-handed when it all falls under one roof, it makes for a show that resonates with every individual in one way or another. If you don't relate to the extremes on display, perhaps the more ubiquitous themes will ring true — like the expectations we have for our children, what love looks like after 30 years of marriage, the mess of emotions involved when we grow up and leave home, and the relationships between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons.
In short, Things I Know To Be True follows a year in the life of the Price Family. The play's parents, Bob and Fran, and their four grown children face a myriad of challenges and truths in the span of these four seasons, and that makes for an intense and keenly moving night of theater. It's a searing look at the ebb and flow of family ties and a testament to the idea that, through painful confessions and deeply-felt disappointments, family remains an unbreakable bond.
Bovell's turbulent, poignant script — dotted with just enough laugh-aloud humor and lightness — is brilliantly served by the cast assembled by Clements and the Milwaukee Rep. Highest praise to the extraordinary Jordan Baker as Fran, whose character is smartly nuanced. It takes real strokes of genius to convey this frank, chirping, shocking, self-sacrificing, sympathetic, and seemingly all-knowing mother figure, and Baker leaves you breathless. Fran's husband Bob finds perfection in Bill Geisslinger, who endears as the dad who calls Uber "Yuber" and can't for the life of him get the hang of the new Keurig. Feels familiar. Geisslinger moves to tears in moments both fervid and tender. Together, these two make an unforgettable duo.
The four children, played by Aubyn Heglie, Kelley Faulkner, Zach Fifer, and Kevin Kantor, each turn out stunning performances — especially Heglie and Kantor. As youngest daughter Rosie, Heglie anchors the play with captivating monologues and a crisis coping mechanism wherein she lists all of the things she knows to be true. As for Kantor, let's maintain some mystery and just say: if you have a heart, it's going through the wringer.

To be honest, I wasn't prepared for the ways in which Things I Know To Be True would draw me in and affect my musings for days to come. There's a lot to unpack in this script, and depending what baggage you're personally carrying, odds are Bovell's play will wreak havoc on some of it. Kudos to the Milwaukee Rep for staging a show that doesn't run from life's uneasiness, but rather sits in grey areas for a while and forces audiences to sit there, too. No shiny ribbon to wrap it up. No sigh-inducing final moments where the mess is tidied and the moral made clear. It may be a lot to handle on a Friday night, but it's beautiful and well worth the emotional effort. Just remember to pack some tissues.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Pumpkin bread: One can, two loaves!

The best and only recipe you'll ever need

If you think pumpkin bread is seasonal, I beg to differ. The fact that you can reach into your pantry any time and snag a can of pumpkin to do your baking bidding makes this a breakfast bread for all seasons. 

The couple cans of pumpkin I had in my cabinet came in super handy on certain near-record-breaking subzero days we've had this Wisconsin winter. As if the convenience of canned pumpkin wasn't enough, I also discovered the perfect recipe from Once Upon a Chef that calls for one entire can of pumpkin to yield two scrumptious loaves of bread. 

That's right: One can. Two loves. No awkward leftover pumpkin sitting in the fridge for weeks, well-intended for another baked good that will never be. So thank you, Once Upon a Chef, for giving the world a no-waste recipe that's double the delicious trouble. 

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(yields two loaves)

2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp cinnamon 
1 tsp nutmeg 
3/4 cup (1 and 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs, at room temp 
1 15-oz can 100% pure pumpkin (Libby's brand works!)
1 tsp vanilla (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees with oven rack in middle position. Grease and flour two 8x4-inch loaf pans (or use baking spray with flour in it). 

2. In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and whisk until combined. Set aside. 

3. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until just blended. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Continue beating for a few minutes until very light and fluffy. Beat in the pumpkin. Note: If the mixture looks grainy, at this point, that's okay.

4. Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until just combined. 

5. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake for 60 to 75 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool loaves in the pans for about 10 minutes, then turn onto a wire rack to cool completely. 

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I love the crusty top this bread boasts when it's just out of the oven. It's just as tasty the next day, especially if (pro tip!) you toast individual slices in the oven or toaster oven for that just-baked texture. You could also wrap the entire bread in foil and pop it in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes.