I saw dozens of great theater productions in Milwaukee, Madison and Spring Green during 2018. Of course, as I reflect on the year there are a few performers and productions that really stand out. Here is my idiosyncratic list of “bests.” Feel free to add to this list with your own experiences throughout the year.
Most Delicious Props: “Waitress,” National Tour at the Marcus Center
The touring company of “Waitress” came sashaying into the Marcus Center last January with the musical version of a quirky indie movie that focuses on three down-on-their-luck best friends who work as waitresses in a diner, somewhere in middle America. Over the course of the tuneful musical (score by the lovely and talented Sarah Bareilles) their love lives change — some for the better and some for the worse — and their hopes and dreams alter. But the value of a great piece of pie is never in question and the delicious-looking tins of fruit, chocolate, and whipped cream concoctions not only decorate the set, they are featured in songs and displayed in dance numbers. Seeing the show made me hungry for a little “wild, wild berry pie,” among other treats.
Most Menacing Family Reunion: “Russian Transport,” Renaissance Theaterworks
All families have their odd relatives, rivalries and generational conflicts, but Renaissance’s production of “Russian Transport” took those divisive forces to an entirely new level. The story combined the complicated issues of immigration and assimilation, economic struggles and moral questions about how to get ahead when the system may be rigged against you. Beautifully directed by Laura Gordon, the play featured fierce performances by Mark Puchinsky and Elizabeth Ledo that were tempered by a compassionate Max Pink, as the son caught up in “family business” dealings that horrified him. Arresting and moving, audiences couldn’t look away.
Most Exciting Combination of Music, Movement and Poetry: “The Brothers Size,” Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
MCT’s production of the acclaimed work by Tarell Alvin McCraney literally reached out into the audience and gathered us under a tree so we could listen to a story that merged modern African American characters with gods from West African mythology. The theater shook with drumming, chanting and step-dance as the ancient and divine collided with the present. It was a stunning accomplishment for performers Travis A. Knight, Andrew Muwonge and Marques Causey, percussionist Jahmés Tony Finlayson, and director Marti Gobel.
Best Twist Ending: “I and You,” Next Act Theatre
For 99 percent of Lauren Gunderson’s play “I and You,” the audience is treated to a pretty standard story of two teens from very different backgrounds becoming friends and discovering how much they really have in common. And if that’s all the production delivered, it would have been a satisfying show. But “I and You” has a truly original curveball that no one in the audience can see coming. I read the script before seeing the show, and the ending still took my breath away. It’s one of the most beautiful cases of subverting expectations I have ever seen in the theater, and Next Act executed it extremely well. It’s so nice to know that live theater can still astound us, as no other medium can.
Most Captivating Wedding: “Svadba-Wedding,” Milwaukee Opera Theatre & Wild Space Dance Company
We’ve all been to our fair share of weddings. We know the rituals, the traditions, the things that can go wrong on that special day and the tumult of emotions that weddings inspire. But never has the celebration conveyed so much to a room full of strangers, using dance, modern opera and creative staging — quite a feat when you consider the entire performance was sung in a mix of Polish and a poetic gibberish. Greeted by flower girls, seated at tables as if we were attending the reception, the audience for “Svadba-Wedding” was immersed in a visually gorgeous evening that felt both personal and profound. Plus, there were pierogis.
Most Riveting “Tour de Force” Performance: Dael Orlandersmith in “Until the Flood” at the Milwaukee Rep
As violent clashes between white police officers and young black men continue in this country, journalists, historians, social scientists and artists have grappled with finding the causes and forging paths forward after events like Ferguson. One of those artists was Dael Orlandersmith, a commanding actor and gifted playwright. She was commissioned by the St. Louis Rep to create a play based on interviews with Ferguson-area residents holding wildly divergent views about the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, and the violence and protests that ensued. The result was “Until the Flood,” which she performed at the Milwaukee Rep in March. With small costume pieces to indicate changes in character—from old black men in a barber shop, to white rednecks, to young black high school kids, to 30-something white women drinking wine in a newly gentrified café, Orlandersmith totally inhabited the gut-wrenching, thoughtful and complicated stories about clashing communities. Nuanced and aching, the performance was astounding and the conversation around the subject matter was essential.
Best Performance by Invisible Animals: “Chapatti,” Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
I know I’m in the minority, but I can’t stand to see real dogs, cats, and other livestock in plays. Their cuteness and novelty regularly upstages the action, and the poor actors are saddled with a completely unpredictable scene partner with who may bark, refuse to move or “do his business” on the stage floor at any moment. So when I read that “Chapatti” focused on the relationship between a lonely dog lover and a crazy cat lady, I feared the worst; that actors were responsible for the care and wrangling real pusses and pooches — especially since so many scenes deal with Dan (a sublime James Tasse) talking to his faithful friend, with no one else in the house. I needn’t have worried. Chapatti turned out to be the cutest, most well-behaved dog I ever saw in the theater, in part because he was so beautifully created by Tasse’s mind’s eye. The adorable stray named after Indian food even had a run in with a box of kittens at the vet — also imaginary — which was perfectly drawn and very funny. And no animals or stage managers were harmed in the making of the show.
Best Political Commentary: (tie) “Urinetown,” Skylight Music Theatre and “One House Over,” The Milwaukee Rep
The Skylight closed their ’17-’18 season on a hilarious and ridiculous high note with the tongue-in-cheek political satire “Urinetown.” Tweaking agit-prop plays, our current president, global warming, mega corporations, lawmakers on the take and more than a dozen well-loved musicals, it was over the top from the opening number and never let up. Led by phenomenal performers Lucas Pastrana and Rachael Zientek as the star-crossed lovers, the whole cast turned it up to 11 and celebrated being subversive.
In a more realistic production, the Milwaukee Rep’s “One House Over” thoughtfully addressed the complicated issue of immigration, long before images of kids in cages appeared on the news or the president gave ominous warnings about a “caravan” headed to the U.S./Mexican border. In this impressive world premiere, Catherine Treischmann’s script examined how two families become intertwined when Joanne, an affluent Baby Boomer divorcee, hires an undocumented immigrant to be the live-in caregiver for her elderly, cantankerous father. Being a liberal is one thing, but sharing her house and backyard in a swanky Chicago neighborhood with the young Latino couple proves much more challenging than Joanne imagines when the “borders” become fuzzy between work, friendship, love and obligation. A timely nuanced story, beautifully presented, with themes that continue to echo.