Any Milwaukeean around in the early ‘80s and ‘90s knows the story of Laurie “Bambi” Bembenek, the former Milwaukee Police Department cop and Playboy Bunny accused of murdering her husband’s ex-wife, Christine Schultz.
Bembenek’s history proves the truth is often stranger than fiction, and now a group of Milwaukee creatives are bringing the bizarre story to the stage for the world premiere of Run Bambi Run, opening at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater on Sept. 13. Wisconsin-born Academy Award-winner Eric Simonson wrote the play, and Gordon Gano, singer, guitarist and songwriter of Milwaukee’s beloved Violent Femmes, turned the story into a rock opera.
“It’s an engaging story,” says Simonson. “It’s a story about the truth. It’s a story about people who don’t want the truth to be exposed. It’s a little bit about our justice system.”
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The plot follows Bembenek, a young south side Polish girl who had big dreams of independence. After seeing an ad in the newspaper recruiting women and minority candidates to the Milwaukee Police Department, she decided to pursue a career in law enforcement to follow her father’s footsteps and explore a career that has been largely denied to women. That choice led Bembenek to love, marriage, betrayal and her eventual sentence of life in prison after being found guilty of first-degree murder.
Throughout her incarceration, and after Bambi escaped from Taycheedah Correctional Institution, she advocated for her innocence, even filing three unsuccessful appeals of her conviction. Over the years she gained notoriety somewhat of a whistleblower, unearthing malfeasance within the Milwaukee Police Department, and accusing the MPD for singling her out for prosecution due to her role as a lead witness in a federal investigation of the MPD’s corruption.
“It’s about characters like you and me, who get caught in a situation where they lose control and they aren’t able to lead the lives that they want to because of forces beyond their control,” says Simonson. “I think that’s something all of us can relate to. We’ve all been in a situation where we felt like we’ve completely lost control and we have no recourse. I hope that they see Laurie as an inspirational character, someone who doesn’t give up no matter how many times she gets knocked down.”
The story comes alive with plenty of musical numbers written by Gano. During the several year writing process, Gano wanted to make sure the show had a variety of musical styles that not only reflected each character, but the heritage of the Bembenek family and Wisconsin as a whole.
“I thought okay, Milwaukee has to have a polka,” says Gano. “She was a Polish girl from the South Side, so we needed something that was a reflection on her Polish heritage. I also used the beat of the mazurka, which is a type of Polish folk music, which most people know from Chopin’s treatments of the mazurkas. But it comes from a Polish Folk beat and rhythm of music and and and so it’s like a waltz, but it has a little bit of a different rhythmic pulse.”
Erika Olson, the Polish-American actress who is portraying Laurie Bembenek, is excited to portray such a strong figure in a story that she argues has a feminist tilt. “You know, she has so much betrayal in her life,” says Olson. “ She goes through so much betrayal and she always gets back up on her feet and fights. She really is a whistleblower, and her fight reminded me of Anita Hill.”
And while this story is very well known to locals alive in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the musical introduces this story to a whole new audience who can be just as enthralled in the turmoil and drama of the story that was ripped from the headlines.
“There’s this idea that people who lived through this story have made-up their minds a long time ago,” says Gano. “I think that older people or people that were at that time have such strong ideas of what the truth may be. I like the idea of having people who are completely new to the story just take it in and see what their reaction will be. I think that’s going to be very exciting.”
Performances of Run Bambi Run run from Sept. 13 through Oct. 22. Tickets are available for purchase at the Milwaukee Rep’s website or by calling or visiting the ticket office.