Going to live theater is like stepping onto Bilbo Baggin’s road: you never know where you might end up. Milwaukee theater artists most often perform contemporary dramas in which we are supposed to accept the characters and situations as “realistic.” But performance can take us to many other worlds, with the power to surprise, delight, and sometimes shock us. Blessedly, some do offer flavors other than vanilla: edgier, more adventurous styles and topics that stimulate thought and imagination. 2014 saw enough creative, interesting shows in Milwaukee that we can stand without shame beside our sister cities of Chicago and Minneapolis.
We sadly acknowledge the passing of Youngblood, who consistently gave us many hours of quirky, lyrical plays never before performed here. But the oddly-shaped hole they left has been filled flamboyantly by the treasure that calls itself “The Quasimondo.” Under the co-direction of Brian Rott and Jessi Miller, these intrepid young artists prove that making it up as you go along is highly underrated: they regularly create original mini-spectaculars from scratch. All four of their 2014 season shows deserve recalling: Love and Cthulhu, which perfectly captured the simultaneous creepiness and ridiculousness of H.P. Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror”; Bottle 99, a heart-breakingly beautiful modern dance space ballet about interstellar travel (that would have been utterly mind-blowing if they could have gotten the damn projections to work); Animal Farm, which made great use of Andrew Parchman’s essence-capturing puppets, a rootsy live band, and the incomparable atmosphere of a genuine vintage barn to realize George Orwell’s political fable; and most recently, Buboes, an illuminated medieval manuscript of desperate clowns in plague-time. Both exotic and accessible, Quasimondo is an indispensable stop for explorers of the artistic antipodes.
Of course we can rely on Dale Gutzman, the grand master of storefront theater, to give us champagne plays on a beer budget. This season Off the Wall theater evidently struck a creative mother lode, unearthing glittering dark gems one after another: an extremely stylish Rope took us into the sinister underbelly of inter-war England, followed by two of the must-see shows of the season: a harrowing, no-holds-barred Cabaret that plunged to the depths of Nazi brutality—without resorting to violent cliches—and a stunning production of Nick Dear’s recent adaptation of Frankenstein. All three shows featured Jeremy Welter in his purest, most committed performances to date, particularly as the monstrous clown MC and the ubermensch creature.
Across the street, the Milwaukee Rep—not generally renowned for risk-taking—surprised us with it’s towering one-man rendition of a literal epic: An Iliad, adapted by poet/playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, expertly delivered by James DeVita. Who would have thought that one of the oldest literary works of Western Civilization could so thrillingly comment on our current military culture? Meanwhile, in the Third Ward, the venerable Skylight Music Theatre tried to rattle some cages. Along with a lively (if a tad patronizing) Hair, they produced a true countercultural vision: Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg’s trippy, subversive Hydrogen Jukebox. With dreamlike choreography and building-sized video projections, it was an immersive voyage into the beloved beat poet’s Whitmanesque cosmos.
Other of our favorite small theaters gave notable works in 2014: Alchemist Theater’s absurdist classic The Chairs highlighted two fine performances on Aaron Kopeck’s wondrously intricate set of the island at the end of the world; while Kopeck’s original script Suicide Sleep offered surreal Halloween fun. Theatre Gigante’s Midsummer in Midwinter was a joyously inventive suburban riff on Shakespeare’s fantasy; while Cooperative Performance Milwaukee gave us a gracefully stylized condensation of Chekhov’s The Seagull; both of these artfully joined theater and movement to create rich confections that explored the worlds beyond our mundane experience. A new company, the Splinter Group, started out strong with Dog Sees God, a bittersweet and hilarious update of Charles Schultz’s beloved comic strip.
And every now and then the theater adventurer discovers curious animals not to be seen elsewhere: a brilliantly pop-culture-goofy cross-dressing Twelfth Night put on by an ad hoc consort of college kids in a school courtyard; and the miraculous once-a-year visitation by the DIY touring company Der Vorführeffekt, whose Three Kinds of Wildness featured, among other things, Alexander Graham Bell, an ice magnate, and a chorus of singing luminescent mushrooms. If you want to catch Der Vorführeffekt next year—and who wouldn’t?—you can join their mailing list.
There are strange, beautiful, and frightening things out there in the darkened theaters of Milwaukee. It’s not always pleasant—you pay your money and take your chances—but with the coming years promising a veritable feast of fools, we can count on our theater artists to keep being, in Shakespeare’s phrase, the abstract chronicles of our times, with surprising, moving, silly and spectacular works that delight and amaze us, challenging our preconceptions and reminding us of the horizons beyond our front doors.