‘Artifacts’ Lovingly Looks Back on Milwaukee’s Industrial Past

Wild Space Dance Company’s new work turns a former metalworks factory into a gritty and rich homage to the city’s manufacturing past.

The title is a good place to start and Artifacts, the latest creation of Debra Loewen’s Wild Space Dance Company, is suitable for parsing. There’s “Art” of course, and “Facts,” as well. Smushed together, they suggest something more tangible than “art” and perhaps richer — more resonant — than mere “facts.” It’s a fitting way to think about the objects created in the still active “industrial park” where Artifacts takes place.

Then there’s the word “artifacts” itself: a collection of curiosities, the detritus of history, the stuff that remains of something lost. All these meanings are there for the plucking and divining in Artifacts’ 90 minutes. Artifacts runs through Sunday, September 17, at The Goat Palace in Riverwest.

Tisiphani Mayfield.
Photo by Paul Mitchell.

The divining doesn’t stop with the title, of course. Throughout Artifacts, Loewen and the company cast a nostalgic eye toward a Milwaukee of big shoulders, “a somber city” like Augie March’s Chicago. Set in a variety of interiors and exteriors in and around this former manufacturing plant and warehouse, Artifacts evokes a time when more Milwaukeeans made things, shipped things, sorted things. It does so, however, with a clear eye and a playful spirit.

The four dancers of “Loading Dock,” for example, are hardly ready for their “Workers of the World Unite” snapshot. They’re wearing their coveralls and moving those pallets off and on the stage created by the dock bay, but they lean and slouch, and occasionally charge up to the cliff-edge of the dock to look longingly into the future. Perhaps it’s the future being lived by the Steven Zarzecki in another of the piece’s “dioramas.” He has rolled up his sleeves, seat-belted his girlfriend (an inflatable sex doll), cranked up the Van Halen, and revved up his Ford F-150, ready to hit the highway. The sextet in “Gravel / Dust / Sky” evokes wide-open spaces, as well. Loewen extends the cool geometry of the building’s functional architecture, even as she lets her dancers kick up some gravel as they move around the grid of perspective. C. Olivia Vanlenza’s mysterious clarinet adds to the mystery.

Loewen plays with perspective again in the main ensemble section. Huge tarps mask part of the room, hanging a foot above the concrete, allowing the audience to see only the dancer’s feet and ankles move in playful dance-hall steps. Eventually, the space is filled with the whole ensemble, and the mood again is less-than-joyful, workaday, somber, but rich in image and texture.

Jimmi Weyneth and friends.
Photo by Paul Mitchell.

The audience divides again to view a series of indoor dioramas. We watch a domestic scene (directed by UW-Milwaukee theater professor Tony Horne) through holes in a wall, as if observing a construction site. A persnickety stereotypical housewife (Tess Rutkowski) gets the dining room ready for some visitors and seems to dream two African-American women into existence (Shirley Gilbert and Tisiphani Mayfield) — a surreal “what-if?” for race-relations in Milwaukee. “Bremen Street” is a dreamy, steampunk fantasy, as Danielle Lohuis and Maggie Seer explore a basement workshop that might be found in any number of Milwaukee bungalows. “Attention to the Edge” finds Lindsey Ruenger and Zarzecki engulfed in a maze of mysterious wooden boxes, which they move and inspect with great reverence and care. “Hidden Gestures” features a quartet of women, seemingly in mourning, who build a dance to a kind of violent, physical keening that lands with a visceral power.

And then there is “Pastorale,” a square of living, rich turf populated by three goats and Jimmi Weyneth, who wears an abstract animal mask. She plays the gracious farmer, plying the goats with food. She amuses herself by balancing pails on her head and shoulders, and the goats sit placidly, looking out beyond their own fence. They’re artifacts in their own right, I suppose. Rooted in the past, but curious about the future, as well.

Artifacts runs through September 17 at The Goat Palace (3740 N. Fratney St.)



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.