Inauguration Week Onstage: Darkness and Light

Three local performances reflect the challenges and optimism of a new 2017.

The shows and concerts that played Milwaukee this weekend were planned and scheduled almost two years ago. So it’s safe to say that artistic staffs—however carefully they track the pulse of the community and national culture—couldn’t have foretold the synergy their choices of plays and music would have with the recent political events. While millions around the country marched, protested and celebrated, performing artists here gave audiences the opportunity to dig deep into the tenor of our time—discovering uneasiness, outrage, and hope.

The uneasiness builds slowly in Ayad Akhtar’s incendiary Disgraced, which opened Friday night at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Celebrated with both a Pulitzer Prize (in 2013) and Tony nomination for Best Play (2015), Akhtar’s unflinching examination of contemporary identity politics has only grown more potent as the political rhetoric of the recent Presidential campaign has inflamed and polarized the country.

Janie Brookshire, Imran Sheikh and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh in “Disgraced.”
Photo by Michael Brosilow

The world of Disgraced is the high-rise world of Manhattan art and finance, embodied by a circle of friends and associates that might have—as they used to say–stepped out of a Benetton ad. Amir (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) is a first-generation Pakistani-American–a high-powered corporate attorney who is on-track to become a partner at his firm. His nephew Abe (Imran Sheikh) is a young man struggling with his identity. Emily (Janie Brookshire) is his white wife, a painter recently fascinated and impassioned by the aesthetics of Islamic art. Isaac (Jason Babinsky) is Jewish, a museum curator quite smitten with Emily’s work. Jory (Austene Van), an African-American woman, is a business associate at Amir’s firm.

In the beginning, we are surrounded by the easy comforts of affluent congeniality. James Youmans’ set is tastefully minimal, while brilliantly allowing a glimpse outside to the bump and grind of a public sidewalk. The plot is set in motion when Amir is asked by Emily to lend his support to a local Imam who is accused of raising money for terrorists. For her, it’s the right thing to do. For him, it means an association with Islam, the heritage he has disavowed and hidden from all but his closest friends.

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Janie Brookshire in “Disgraced.”
Photo by Michael Brosilow

Akhtar lets the tension in Amir’s situation build slowly and economically, leading up to an explosive dinner party in which the veneer of affability among friends and associates is stripped away to reveal raw and bitter conflicts rooted in racial and ethnic identities. Not surprisingly, it ends in violence.

Director Marcela Lorca‘s cast is exceptional, but the focus is always on Amir, portrayed with blistering intensity by Ebrahimzadeh. Akhtar’s script immerses the audience in naturalistic human behavior, but actor and director heighten the reality of Amir’s climactic transformation—convulsions that are almost metaphysical in their depths–to expose the deep rift in his heart and mind.

In an interview published along with the Disgraced script, Akhtar talks about why his plays avoid a kind of didactic “message” by “offering something that is so troubling, so multivalent, that the people in the audience cannot easily answer or release the questions that the piece has raised for them.” Appropriately, The Rep offers “Community Conversations” after each performance—discussions with audience members about the play and the challenging questions it presents. It promises to be an exceptional way to process the power of this exceptional production.

The spectres of war and fascism seem like major musical concerns to the Uruguayan conductor Carlos Kalmar. Five years ago, he and his Oregon Symphony Orchestra wowed New York with a Carnegie Hall concert entitled “Music for a Time of War,” which included Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony and Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem.” Leading the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra this weekend, he paired another anti-war piece by Britten with the shattering Tenth Symphony of Dimitri Shostakovich.

Carlos Kalmar

Speaking from the podium before conducting, Kalmar explained the genesis of both pieces: Britten’s concerto was a tribute to British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War; and Shostakovich’s symphony is generally considered a response to the legacy of Joseph Stalin, composed shortly after his death.

Both pieces reflect the historical gravitas of the events that inspired them. Playing the Britten concerto, Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä played with both virtuosity and soul, navigating the more unusual technical demands—the second movement cadenza calls for a host of ethereal harmonics, as well as passages in which the player has to pluck and bow strings simultaneously. Kalmar’s accompaniment was deft and sensitive, with warm string ensembles and sprightly energy in the charged second movement.

There’s nothing sprightly in Shostakovich’s powerful Tenth Symphony. It is rather a juggernaut full of outrage and mordant humor, and it’s one of the most challenging pieces of the 20th-century repertoire. The MSO hasn’t played it in almost a dozen years, and this performance suggested both Kalmar’s mastery and the ensemble’s growing artistry. Kalmar pushed hard on Shostakovich’s dynamic contrasts, bringing some ensembles down to a whisper, and letting the triple forte ensembles blare with emotion. After the second movement cyclone of crashing percussion and furious strings—spurred on by the brass invoking the Dies Irae, as if issuing a judgement of Stalin from on high—Kalmar eased into the Mahler-like third movement waltz with dark humor. And brought the symphony to a close with the raucous triumph that proclaimed (by musically quoting his initials) that Dmitri Shostakovich was still here.

There was a more wistful and gentle sense of triumph in Zie Magic Flute, a collaboration between Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Cadance Collective and Quasimondo Physical Theatre that’s being staged at the Tripoli Shrine Center. Mozart’s generous, egalitarian celebration of enlightenment and brotherhood is a brilliant respite from these soul-trying times.

It starts spectacularly. Mozart’s ebullient overture performed not by the fine instrumental trio (pianist Paula Foley Tillen, cellist Alicia Storin and flutist Emma Koi) but as a wordless vocal chorus, sung from the balcony over the audience, as if the music was descending from heaven itself.

Nathan Wesselowski in “Zie Magic Flute.”
Photo by Mark Frohna

As with Mozart’s original 1791 production, the cast is composed of trained singers and comic actors who haven’t yet cultivated their operatic pipes. Still, there is plenty of sublime and spectacular music—lovely harmonies featuring the trio of Tiana Sorenson, Erin Sura and Jackie Willis, dramatic love duets from the leading couple Benjamin Ludwig and Jennifer Hansen (Tamino and Pamina), comic wit from Nathan Wesselowski (Papageno), and spectacular pyrotechnics from Sarah Richardson (Queen of the Night).

And did I mention the rollerskating Papagena? As usual with MOT and Quasimondo productions, wit and invention more than make up for tiny production budgets. Rather than a pan flute to call his birds, Papageno plays a 59-cent kazoo. The three doors of the temple are represented by words written in Lite-Brite toys.

Erin Sura in “Zie Magic Flute.”
Photo by Mark Frohna

Some of the music is sung in the original German, but the cast uses old-fashioned placards to translate the gist of the song. But the story is told and sung in a witty, couplet-driven translation by MOT’s Daniel J. Brylow.

It’s a story full of strange myths and arcane symbols, but ultimately it’s a story of love and optimism replete with lovely song and a glorious, finale drenched in sunlit optimism.

These days, there’s nothing wrong with that.



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.