Monday, October 2, 2017


compiled by Orianna Valentine & Kaylie Bowen

Ever since Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE opened, critics have been raving about this Terrence McNally romance! Read these selections from their reviews, and don't forget to come see the play for yourself! Purchase tickets before October 15 by calling 414.291.7800 or visiting our online box office.

Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

Marcella Kearns as Frankie and Todd Denning as Johnny
Photos by Paul Ruffolo.
Lonely hearts grope for connection in magical 'Frankie and Johnny'

"One of the best and surely the bravest of the many excellent performances I’ve seen (Kearns) give, during the 12 years I’ve been watching her on stage."

"Kearns captures the consequent despair and self-loathing, of a woman who can’t love another because she hates herself. But she’s most heartbreaking in hiding from Johnny and even herself how badly she wants to believe in the fairy tale he’s spinning, as he begs her to let him stay."

"Denning – also excellent – suggests a man who isn’t quite sure he believes his own story."

"Don’t miss your chance to watch two actors at the top of their game, as characters searching for the courage we all need to seize the day and grab hold of each other."

Paul Kosidowski, Milwaukee Magazine 
The real thing: The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's "Frankie and Johnny" explores the fugue of romance 

"Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's new production of Terrance McNally's 1987 play features standout performances by Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning"

"Director Mary MacDonald Kerr orchestrates the give and take of the evolving relationship with a sure hand, balancing the humor and the painful self-revelations, allowing both actors to display McNally’s ample wit and charm. And in Kearns and Denning, she has two brave actors who are willing to bare all — both physically and emotionally."

Gwen Rice, OnMilwaukee
Chamber's "Frankie and Johnny" finds sensitive souls under the sheets

"Kearns's eyes, meanwhile, get wider and wider with every new line of crazy conversation that Johnny launches into, envisioning a happily-ever-after that she's given up on long ago. Her shoulders tense. Her arms cross. She puts on layers of clothes to protect herself. And then, in a moment that approaches true connection, her body melts into his, and her armor falls away. It's a beautiful scene, allowing the entire theater to exhale."

"Fortunately, Kearns and Denning are up for complicated. As Frankie, Kearns displays dozens of shades of shock, hurt, fear, disdain, vulnerability, anger and annoyance simply in her transparent face. Watching her is a masterclass in subtle changes of expression that communicate more clearly than paragraphs."

Russ Bickerstaff, Shepherd Express
A one night stand and something more

"Scenic designer Brandon Kirkham brings a very distinct ’87 look to the stage for the production. From the boom box and a few cassette cases on the far shelf to the missing kids on a milk carton, this show feels quite vividly like a couple of hours between two people getting an encore 30 years later."

"This sort of thing can be maddeningly tricky to bring into a theater: that feeling that two people are alone onstage baring their souls to each other. Under the direction of Mary MacDonald Kerr, Kearns and Denning are so convincing that it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole audience watching them."

Julie McHale, Waukesha Freeman

"Both Kearns and Denning are master actors."

"See it. I strongly recommend it to anyone who has ever tried or failed or succeeded in understanding and loving another human being."

Dave Begel on Theater

"This may be the most personal play to be staged in Milwaukee all season."

"I have seen both of them many times over their careers but this may be the finest and (most) dignified work by both Ms. Kearns and Mr. Denning."

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

MCT Board Member Profile: Patrick Fennelly

by Max Seigle

I grew up in Greenfield and went to Marquette University High School. From there, I went to Marquette University where I majored in theatre and English. I decided to stay in Milwaukee afterwards because I’ve always liked it here. The city has just about everything you need. It’s a very eclectic community and has a vibrant arts scene. I’ve just always felt a strong connection here and am proud to call myself Milwaukee “through and through.”

My wife and I previously lived in Pewaukee but we just moved to the city in June. We bought a house on the Upper East Side and are excited about the quality of life and the proximity to downtown. Instead of 40 minutes to get to a show at MCT, it will only take us 10 minutes! We also felt like it was time to come back and be part of all of the great things that are happening in the city right now.  


My first job out of college was at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. I spent three years there as a Public Relations and Marketing Manager. It was a really good fit with my theater and English major and my desire to have a behind-the-scenes role for a theater company.

One of the major highlights of the job was working with MCT’s original artistic director, Montgomery Davis. He was like another grandpa to me. After Davis retired, the search began for a new artistic director and that’s when we came across Michael Wright. Michael was such a natural fit for the role and everything just felt right with him coming on board. I think it’s a testament to MCT that it has only had two artistic directors in its history — it has created a great continuity. Michael wasn’t out to set a new direction when he joined us. He was out to preserve a company vision that was already strong. 


After working for MCT right out of college, I felt I had made a connection here that I couldn’t let go. Once you’ve embraced this place, you’re part of the MCT family! 

So I approached Michael and Kirsten about reconnecting through a seat on the board. At the time, I thought I could offer a commitment at that level and add value to the company. I also wanted to give back because MCT took a chance on me with my former job here and gave me some valuable work experience. I was interested in joining an arts board as well, so it was a no-brainer to do something with a place I already had special ties to. I have been on the board for five years now.


I tend to like plays that make my wife laugh the most. We really liked BOEING BOEING. I thought A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR had one of the best ensemble casts we’ve had in a long time.
It’s hard to pick a favorite play because we’ve had so few clunkers that we’ve produced. I think the fact that I can’t pick one is the best thing about the Chamber Theatre and a real testament to this company. 


My wife and I really enjoy Chris Klopatek’s work. We sponsored LOBBY HERO last year because he was in that production (he played Jeff, the apartment building security guard).

This year, we sponsored DEATHTRAP because we are also big fans of Di’Monte Henning. He was also in LOBBY HERO (he played William, the apartment building security manager). 


I have actually enjoyed more of the challenging times for MCT and being there to help the staff navigate and overcome them. I served as treasurer for the beginning of my term on the board and helped out during some tough financial periods. I felt like I was there when they really needed a perspective like mine.


After working at MCT, I made a career move into finance. I just marked my ten-year anniversary as a certified financial planner with Morgan Stanley. I work in the company’s Brookfield office, and help individuals, couples and families manage their finances in preparation for retirement. I find this job to be very rewarding given the trust that clients put in me to help build their “nest egg.” I’ve come to understand just how hard people work to achieve this security and don’t take this responsibility lightly.


My wife and I love to travel. We try to go to Napa Valley every other year. It is one our favorite places and kind of like our “Adult Disney Land.” We also enjoy cooking and entertaining.

I like to run as well and am excited to be able to run along the lakefront now that we've moved back to Milwaukee.


Bavette in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. The restaurant has a phenomenal chef and the menu is always fresh with new dishes. It’s also right around the corner from MCT, so you can’t go wrong with it! 


Fish Creek in Door County. My wife and I have a condo there and travel there all year around. It is a fantastic place to go and unplug and relax. We go hiking and there are great restaurants. You can be as active as you want, and sometimes we are and sometimes we’re not.  


Irish Fest. We’re Irish! My parents are also very involved in the festival and we have a great group of friends we volunteer with there every year. It’s tough, we serve beer!


I am member of the Milwaukee Rotary Club. It’s a wonderful organization with quality programming, and I love all the people you get to meet through this group.


First of all, people don’t realize MCT is the largest non-musical-based theater company in town after “The Rep.”

We’re a professional Equity playhouse with local talent on stage and behind the scenes. We are there to nurture the artists and help them produce some of the best theater in this city. While biased, I don’t think anyone touches the quality of our productions, and we do it in a really cool space. I’ve never hesitated to invite a client or friend or family member to an MCT play because I know that I can be proud of what’s going to be put on that stage. I don’t have to worry about that.

There is also a strong sense of family that is instilled in the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. As I mentioned earlier, it’s hard to let go of this place once you’ve made the connection. You can also be involved in so many ways here. We do lots of “extracurricular” programs, like the Young Playwrights Festival every year and the Talkbacks with the director and artists following the shows. You’re not going to find a dynamic like this with a larger theatre company.  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Frank Note on Fairy Tales

by Marcella Kearns

Heinrich Lefler illustration, 1905
When I first started studying up on FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, I found a remark by playwright Terrence McNally labeling this piece “a romantic fairy tale.”


Romantic fairy tales and I have a fraught relationship. I love some. I hate some.

The ones I hate have that button on the end. You know it: “And everything was pretty spectacular always after that.” You’ve heard the famous three-word phrase. I won’t write it here. Nope. On a similar note, most romantic movies and plays? Romance novels, romantic comedies? Same thing for me. Yawn.

The stories I don’t mind—okay, the ones I love—take into account that life knocks us about pretty well, but sometimes there are concessions, sometimes pleasures, sometimes a little redemption, and maybe, sometimes, a bit of real happiness. Take “Rapunzel.” Rapunzel gets pregnant by that prince who visits her in her tower, and the fairy who’s raised her there gives her the boot, and she ends up birthing twins and living in misery in a hovel. Then that prince goes to visit her again but winds up meeting the fairy instead and throws himself from the tower in despair.

He loses his eyesight and wanders homeless, until years later when he stumbles upon the hovel where Rapunzel and the kids are.  She recognizes him and cries over him, and he gets his eyesight back. That’s the end (I kid you not—that’s from the Grimms’ earliest collected version of that tale). A little fun followed by a lot of misery, and I’ll grant, a tiny miracle, perhaps—but no indication in the story that all the suffering up until the reunion was just erased. In fact, I like to think those characters’ separate trials are given some acknowledgment and dignity by that simple ending.

Walter Crane illustration, 1874
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve witnessed Disney-level real life romances unfold. I’ve fallen in love at first sight myself.  I appreciate that depth of experience. But that doesn’t mean everything’s a snap then, or ever after for those characters or real people. I'm much more inclined to turn my eye towards a story that has some evidence of a relationship still at work after its inception.

“Romantic fairy tale” notwithstanding, McNally has drawn portraits of people who would in no way end up a theme park couple, and I appreciate that. First, I see this play as an anthem of sorts to the anonymous masses or the rarely celebrated—the ones who fail, who don’t get asked to prom, who aren’t spectacularly beautiful, who make mistakes and end up with battle scars, the ones whom we pass on the street or sit near on the bus or tip at the restaurant without remembering their names.

Second, this play never forgets the fact that there’s work at being together after coming together. It’s not just (okay, I’ll say it now) Happily Ever After. What happens when you run people with a lot of mileage up against a chance they might not have thought they had?

Mary MacDonald Kerr, who’s directing FRANKIE AND JOHNNY at MCT, phrased it best. At first rehearsal, in front of an intimate collective of production team, staff, board, and MCT friends, she offered up the question: “Fairy tales and romantic comedies bring us to sex. So then what? What is choosing, what comes after?”

We only see Frankie and Johnny for a short while, but this play’s infused with the work of after. Of choice. Of mileage and what to do with it. That’s the kind of fairy tale I can get behind.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, by Terrence McNally, runs Sept. 20 to Oct. 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre. Tickets are on sale now at 414.291.7800, in person at 158 N. Broadway or our online box office. Visit for more details.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Notes from FRANKIE AND JOHNNY'S "First Day of School"

by Marcella Kearns

Happy back-to-school season, friends! We’ve recently had our own “first day of school,” so to speak, at MCT: first rehearsal for FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE on August 28. In this bittersweet comic romance, I'll be performing the role of Frankie alongside Todd Denning (Johnny), with Mary MacDonald Kerr directing.

I’m a perpetual student, so I took some notes for you in the hall. Enjoy these assorted thoughts:

*First thing that strikes me is the intimacy of the room. There’s a cozy gathering of friends and fans of MCT whose tradition it is to listen to the first reading of the play aloud. Several of them vanish after the first act. They want to let the second half come as a surprise or, if they know the play, they might like to wait until they get to see the final product onstage in the theatre. The second half of the read-through feels even more intimate. Intimate’s a big word on this one.

*Some of those friends brought snacks. Snacks and coffee: welcome comforts on the first day.

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City. 1983. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2006, 15 1/2 × 23 3/16" (39.4 × 58.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Jon L. Stryker. © 2016 Nan Goldin
"Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City," an example
of Nan Goldin's work in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
*Amy Horst’s costume inspiration pierces me: Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. She showed me pictures before today, and I’ve seen some floating around the MCT office. It’s been driving me crazy why they looked so familiar. Of course it’s during her design presentation to everyone gathered that it clicks. I caught Goldin’s work at the Milwaukee Art Museum a few years ago when it was on exhibition with other photography. I remember what I felt watching it. Discomfort. Openness. Nakedness. Weariness. Loneliness. Nah—desolation. Intimacy. There’s that word again.

*This is such a song for the rarely celebrated.

*Brandon Kirkham, our scenic designer, says Frankie’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen is “gritty.” My most recent contact with Hell’s Kitchen was a date with a Manhattan (the drink, to be clear) and back-to-back episodes of Daredevil on Netflix. Same setting, a particular pocket of New York City. Just some decades apart, at least as the Marvel juggernaut has framed it now on film and television. What does the script say about the population of New York City again? I grin to think of a few superheroes running around out there somewhere. Most everybody else is slogging along. Frankie? A slogger.

*Johnny keeps a dictionary in his locker at work. I suddenly want to look up the word “intimacy” for how the dictionary frames that word we use all the time. How do you know when you feel true intimacy? How can one ever know?—all you can do is assure another you feel it. But do they? What’s true assurance? All we really have is our own construct of another based on collected evidence. All we really have is their word that our construct of ourselves is somehow discernible and pleasing to them. Gosh, that’s a rabbit hole. I’m remembering that photography.

*On a break, I find myself trying to remember the productions on which Todd and I have worked together as actors before. Turns out three out of the four were Shakespeare. The first? THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. I laugh out loud: MERRY WIVES is actually mentioned in FRANKIE AND JOHNNY.

*Our assistant stage manager’s name is Jena. Jena’s got a giant job ahead of her. I don’t envy her, and I am grateful already for the help I know she’s going to give along with Judy, our stage manager. Funny. I instinctively trust her in part because her name’s Jena, not just because of the position she holds—because my college roommate’s name was Jenna, and she was fantastic. Associations, connections, coincidences bubbling up… Johnny’s big into that kind of thing. I’ve got a few of my own happening here.

More notes to come, friends. In the meantime, a lovely September to you. I have to head to the rehearsal hall.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, by Terrence McNally, runs Sept. 20 to Oct. 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre. Tickets are on sale now at 414.291.7800, in person at 158 N. Broadway or our online box office. Visit for more details.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Violence by Design: An Interview with Fight Director Christopher Elst

by Marcella Kearns

A few summers ago, I saw a sequence of torture and murder onstage that horrified me in all the right ways—simply, it looked real. Fully immersed in the tension of the moment, I forgot for a moment where I was. In hindsight, however, I realized I hadn’t for an instant worried about the actors both perpetrating and undergoing the crime not ten feet from me in real time. Why?

Christopher Elst.

Elst, fight director for MCT’s production of DEATHTRAP, has a gift for making an audience squirm with the kind of intricate physical storytelling that follows when conflict between characters escalates beyond words alone. Since seeing his work for the first time those summers ago, I’ve been insatiably curious about his process and his own story. Recently, even as he wrapped Theater RED’s latest production (Elst and spouse Marcee Doherty-Elst are the company’s producing directors), he graciously granted a request for an interview.

Marcella Kearns: What originally drew you to undertaking the study of violence design (stage combat)? What continues to captivate you about this aspect of the theatre?

Christopher Elst: I started in high school when I heard about the “fencing” program for the high school Madrigal Dinner in Kenosha. I had always had an eye for swords and martial arts and thought this might be a way to start learning more. I was “captain” of the team in my senior year, but it was really more of an acting troupe than anything. I began to assist the teachers in my first year out of high school, and then began teaching it myself shortly thereafter. I joined the SAFD (Society of American Fight Directors), at the urging of Jamie Cheatham, in 2006 and have pursued stage combat as a profession ever since.

MK: Tell us about your personal process in building physical fights onstage. How do you approach a script and your work in the rehearsal hall?

CE: Theatrical violence incorporates the most important aspects of theatrical performance: objectives and commitment at the very highest stakes, physical communication and cooperation between actors, and a dual awareness at both the character and actor levels. For me, stage combat informs all of my work as an actor.

I consider stage combat to be a modern martial art, focused on storytelling, rather than defense, in the same way that many Eastern disciplines teach that violence and destruction are set aside in favor of aesthetic creation. A master becomes an artist, as the understanding of violence reminds one of their human nature—the earth, the id, the beast, etc.—but channeling that directionless passion are the creative and rational drives. As artists in the theatre, the consummation of all arts, we have the ability and responsibility to bring this violence as realistically to bear as we are able in order to confront and discuss, and perhaps to change, the way in which we accept and cope with our natural tendency toward violence.

To that end, it is essential that we as fight directors give our actors the tools required to tell these stories. By necessity, we begin to help with precautions against harm; beyond the obvious preservation of the body, if the actor must hesitate because of a safety concern, then we have hindered the story by whatever fraction that hesitation costs. Contrarily, when we instill in actors the knowledge and practice to free them of the constraint of fear, we not only allow that particular scene to come alive, but we bring the actors to a greater state of awareness and commitment, which can only serve them in all aspects of performance.

The responsibility is colossal for fight directors, as with any teachers, to keep this always in mind. We must understand fear, violence, and all of the darkest parts of our humanity in order to create compelling art, but we must be in command of those forces, and teach others to be in command of them, if that art is to be of value.

Elst directed the fight scenes in Theater RED's swashbuckling BONNY ANNE BONNY.
(L, Zach Thomas Woods; R, Alicia Rice. Photo: Traveling Lemur Productions)

MK: What have you found is the most challenging part of staging fights with actors who have very little experience with combat? What’s challenging, on the other hand, about working with actors who are very experienced?

CE: Classical acting training once mandated that all actors be trained in stage combat, but it’s rare to run across someone with more than cursory knowledge today, which is surprising when one considers all of the popular media that features violence. Working with an actor unfamiliar mostly poses challenges in getting the appropriate commitment level; they are usually either too timid or too eager. I am fond of saying, “Keep your method acting out of my stage combat, please.”

Contrarily, with actors accustomed to the work, including me, the trick is to remind them of the dangers the characters face and not to be too complacent in the responses. Also, veteran stage combatants can cling to bad habits, or make a character seem facile with a weapon, when the character should not be. Being too comfortable with stage violence can be detrimental to the story, even if safety is more assured.

MK: There are several weapons revealed as part of the setting of DEATHTRAP. If you had your pick, which of those would be most exciting to you to use in a fight and why?

CE: I have to say, I was drawn to the work by swords, and I’m still fascinated by them, even with my facility in their use. There’s a reason other weapons just never found their way as strongly into the canon of theatrical violence, and indeed, history. There have always been swords. Their elegance and effectiveness are unsurpassed.

MK: Along the same lines, what do you enjoy most about DEATHTRAP, both as an artist working on the team and as one who gets to see it from the house?

CE: Long before I considered the theatre as an occupation, I had seen the film version of DEATHTRAP. I love the blend of dark humor and true thrills, and I hope to bring the actors to a place where they can startle even me with this production.

MK: If it’s possible to answer this without spoilers: what do you foresee may be the most challenging thing for you to accomplish (and/or the actors to execute… no pun intended…) on DEATHTRAP?

CE: Theatrical violence is no different than a magic trick. The challenge here is that we never know which effect is meant to be real and which is a character fooling another character and the audience. We want to create that duplicity without belying the truth of each moment. That will take some real focus, and I think we have a great team to make it happen.

MK: Do you have any “dream plays” to choreograph?

CE: I think I’d like to have a chance at THE THREE MUSKETEERS or something in that vein. BONNY ANNE BONNY (with Theater RED) was the closest I’ve come, and we did a bang-up job if I say so myself, but those old swashbuckling epics were the beacon to me in my youth, and I’d like to see what I can do when realism is no limit.

Elst’s innovation seems to have no limit. Join us at MCT for DEATHTRAP — with him in charge of the fights, we can guarantee the thrills.

DEATHTRAP opens August 10 and runs through August 27. Tickets can be purchased at 414.291.7800 or online.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


compiled by Kaitlyn Martin

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's GREAT EXPECTATIONS opened this past weekend and the reception for this Dickens classic has been great indeed! Be sure to catch up on what others are saying about the show as well as making a trip to see Gale Childs Daly's adaptation of this classic story on our Cabot Theatre stage! We close on April 30!

Mike Fischer,
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Cast of Great Expectations with violinist, Andrew Crowe
 Photo by Paul Ruffolo
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre staging reinforces greatness of Dickens 'Expectations'

"As Pip, Josh Krause is the lone actor who plays just one character, although Pip goes through so many changes during the play – while traveling from orphaned, seven-year-old waif to chastened, 30-something man – that Krause might as well be playing several roles."

"Karen Estrada exhibits the range to play both halves of a fascinating psychological double, embodying the haughty Estella as well as the warm-hearted Biddy."

"The amazingly versatile Deborah Staples is excellent in multiple roles as real or surrogate mothers, including the tragic Miss Havisham and the hilarious Mrs. Joe, in which capacity she lords it over both Pip and her cowed blacksmith husband (Chiké Johnson)."

"In Jason Fassl’s breathtaking lighting design, we see these characters' souls at night, revealed through illuminated faces surrounded by shadow, struggling to find their way to the light."

Top: Josh Krause and Deborah Staples
Bottom: Zach Thomas Woods
Photo: Paul Ruffolo
Dave Begel,
Chamber's masterful "Great Expectations" exceeds every single one

"This production, under the singular direction of Molly Rhode, pays tribute to everything Dickens wrote and more."

"Joining Krause in this cast are five wonderful and well-known Milwaukee actors: Jonathan Gillard Daly (married for 35 years to the playwright), Deborah Staples, Chike Johnson, Karen Estrada and Zack Thomas Woods. Joining them from North Carolina is Andrew Crowe, a composer and actor who played the violin with a haunting grace and evocation that set the mood for so many moments."

"Each actor had moments in the sun, but watching Daly, who is well over six feet tall and north of 60 years old, play a two-year-old sliding down, time after time, on a short little slide made out of wood may well have been the funniest moment of the night. He is an actor of resplendent breadth and depth but has always had a marvelous feel for just the right kind of comedy."

"Madelyn Yee, the uber-creative properties master, designed and built a final scene with seven actors holding books in front of them, with individual white lights shining their faces out into a dark auditorium. It was a haunting example of what a intelligence and taste can do."

Dominique Paul Noth,
Urban Milwaukee

A Dickens of a Staging
T: Andrew Crowe
M: Chike Johnson, Zach Thomas Woods, Jonathan Gillard Daly
B: Deborah Staples, Josh Krause, Karen Estrada
Photo: Paul Ruffolo

"Director Molly Rhode needs only seven performers, visible stage lights and a few pieces of furniture (though we are also being fooled by scenic designer Lisa Schlenker, since the set piece is more complicated than that)."

"Madelyn Yee’s props interact with Jason Orlenko’s costume pieces in a dervish of activity. The actors are props as well – also living furniture, noise makers and page rustlers."

"Playwright/adapter Gale Childs Daly has ripped up the novel and reassembled it with mathematical expertise and Dickensian interpolations. It’s like a fascinating literate solution to the Rubik’s Cube. The cast constantly changes hats and purpose while retaining identifiable characters when needed."

"Krause keeps innocence and noble conviction alive through all the changes in age and the torrents of exposition. He has a bright open appeal in a role that demands both warp speed and quiet listening."

"Chiké Johnson brings formidable voice and characters ranging from the friendly blacksmith to the haughty suitor to the cunning street agent—a lead example of the versatility required of the whole company."

Josh Krause and Chike Johnson | Photo by Paul Ruffolo
Paul Kosidowski, 
Milwaukee Magazine
A Richly Imagined "Great Expectations" at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

"Gale Childs Daly’s adaptation, written in 1993, cannily streamlines the tale in classic story-theater style, creating the world of Victorian London using simple benches and chairs as props and scenery. Rhode takes it a step further, putting the items in Dickens’s study to theatrical use."

"Rhode’s and Childs Daly’s approach puts the actors front and center, and the MCT cast builds the world of the story with energy and charm."

"Deborah Staples brings a deep voice and a deep sense of humanity to Miss Havisham, one of Dickens’s greatest creations. Like many of Dickens’s characters, she’s larger than life. But this Havisham is no mere caricature—Staples inflects each gesture with the character’s broken-hearted history."

"Chiké Johnson brings similar heart and depth to Joe Gargery, the simple blacksmith who is Pip’s most loyal friend. With a simple gesture of perfectly timed emotion, Johnson makes his goodbye to Pip one of the most heart-stopping moments of the evening."

Josh Krause and Deborah Staples
Photo by Paul Ruffolo
Anne Siegel,
Total Theatre
Great Expectations

"Incredibly, this adaptation has but six actors (and one violinist). Daly has the actors change costumes (and characters) in the blink of an eye. Sometimes they slip into new clothing upstage, often within view of the audience. "

"Rhode also can be credited for mining the humor from Pip’s sometimes dismal, precarious situation. The laughter reaches a peak when Pip steps out to see a hilarious rendition of Hamlet (it takes “bad acting” to new heights)."

"One of the must-see performances is actor Deborah Staples as Pip’s hideous older sister (this is a compliment). She smacks the young boy about when she’s not congratulating herself on having raised him. Staples appears a moment later as the sad figure of Miss Havisham, cloaked in a faded wedding gown (just one of costume designer Jason Orlenko’s fabulous outfits)."

John Jahn,
Shepherd Express

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre Exceeds "Great Expectations"

Jonathan Gillard Daly, Deborah Staples, Karen Estrada,
Andrew Crowe and Josh Krause
Photo by Paul Ruffolo
"Rhode’s cast of seven takes us rapidly, and convincingly, through different locations and personas. The fine actors change characters with confident assiduity."

"MCT’s current production is likewise something to cherish and celebrate, for it is well acted, amusing, touching, sprightly paced and superbly staged."

"What remarkable effort and effectiveness! Kudos to scenic designer Lisa Schlenker, stage manager Judy Martel, costume designer Jason Orlenko and lighting designer Jason Fassl for making this all come off so well. Their work—plus that of the amazing actors and the wonderful Childs Daly adaptation from which they all clearly drew inspiration—make for a truly enjoyable evening at the theater."

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Empathy and Adaptation: A Conversation with Gale Childs Daly

Author Gale Childs Daly, who originally
completed her adaptation of
by Marcella Kearns

At MCT, we’ve got a voracious appetite for great literature. So does Gale Childs Daly. It’s a match! 

Recently I caught up with Gale to talk about her history, the story of her adaptation of the beloved novel GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and Charles Dickens, the author of the novel. [Warning: If you haven’t yet experienced GREAT EXPECTATIONS, spoilers below.]

Marcella Kearns: What is the history of this adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS? It’s had an interesting life so far!
Gale Childs Daly: This adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS started as a 45-minute outreach play. I created it for six actors, because that’s how many actors were in the Outreach Company at PCPA Theatrefest in Santa Maria, California. [MCT Note: Outreach Tours’ mission is to enhance education by taking performances to schools, libraries, etc.] The production was a success, so the theatre asked me to complete it in a two-act version of the whole thing. I got to work on my Christmas break in 1992 and completed it in May of 1993. 

I directed the first production; since then there have been many productions of the play. It was the production that was done at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma that gave GREAT EX new life. A young graduate student there named Jason Gerace loved the piece, and when he left school, he asked the stage manager for a clean copy of the play. Chris Sadler, who had been my stage manager for the first production, had such a thing and gave it to Jason. Jason moved to Chicago to be a director and shopped the play around. Strawdog Theatre Company loved it and slotted Jason to direct it for their holiday show in 2014. The play was a great success there—standing room only, sold-out houses and amazing reviews. Kate Seidel of Dramatic Publishing Company came down to see it and as a result of that production the play was published in 2015. In Chicago, the play was nominated for Best play, Best Adaptation, Best Ensemble, and Best Director by the Jefferson Award Committee.

MK: What inspired you to adapt GREAT EXPECTATIONS in such an innovative way (5 narrators, Pip, and a musician…)?
GCD: When given the task of adapting this Dickens novel, I immediately tapped into a production that I had been part of in 1982. There was a production of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY created by the RSC. A producer grabbed the first American rights (and the only rights at the time) for a production at Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, Ohio. It was done in a beautiful old theatre like the Cabot, only larger and there were 36 actors playing at least a hundred parts. I was privileged to be in that company—as was Jon, my husband.

 So—with that experience under my belt, I heard actors speaking narration, saw them changing character with a simple costume piece, and telling the story in a minimalist way. But, my job was to write a play that successfully tells Pip’s story using only 6 actors (there was no musician in the original piece). Putting the play together was like making a jigsaw puzzle. It was hard work, but great fun.

MK: This adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS weaves in scenes about the theatre—Shakespeare in particular. Why was this element important for you to include?
GCD: The scene of Mr. Wopsle playing Hamlet is one of my favorite scenes. It was great fun creating it and such fun for me to watch it performed. I also love the pantomime (the song that is sung was written by Jon in those far off days. I think he enjoys being part of the production and getting to sing his very own song)! I think it is important to add these scenes because Dickens was an actor and loved Shakespeare, so Mr. Wopsle’s readings of RICHARD III and HAMLET are my salute to the author who created the novel I adapted. 

Also, Shakespeare has been a huge part of my life. As an actress and director I have played many parts—in fact I have worked on twenty-eight of the plays. I taught Shakespeare Studies for fourteen years in California at PCPA, and then I have been the text coach in over twenty Shakespeare plays since moving to the Midwest. I have also continued to teach Shakespeare in the Milwaukee area, and until I retired last year I have had the pleasure of directing quite a few plays myself. So — Shakespeare! Mr. Wopsle and I have something in common, only it is not my intent to build the theatre up and then “crush it”! (However, I have been known to give some performances myself that were “massive and concrete”!)

"Dickens' Dream," painted by Robert William Buss.

MK: Dickens is arguably most well-known to Americans as the author of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. What ideas or themes—social justice, how humans treat one another, etc.—do you find most compelling in that work and GREAT EX? Why is GREAT EX an important story for the present?
GCD: I believe the single characteristic that makes us human is empathy. One of the most prevalent themes in both A CHRISTMAS CAROL and GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and in fact, all of Dickens’ work, is the human need for understanding and compassion. Pip and Scrooge both are seeking connectivity—Pip by being a gentleman and Scrooge by opening his heart that has been closed for so many years. Pip learns to love at the end of the play—not only Estella but Joe and Magwitch too. He puts himself in their shoes and at last understands what it means to have empathy. Scrooge finally understands what it means to have the Christmas spirit all the year long. Both lead characters discover that generosity and forgiveness make them good men. They also learn that money means nothing to them though it can be a means for good—as in Scrooge giving to the charity men, or Pip giving his allowance to Herbert to start his own company. There are so many other lessons, morals and themes in the works of Dickens—the fun thing is to read all the books and see how the themes recur and intermesh. Dickens’ characters, though, no matter what role they play in the story, always learn empathy.

MK: Which of the characters in GREAT EX do you find most sympathetic, and why? Do you have a personal favorite (and if so, why)?
GCD: The character I find the most sympathetic (and he’s my favorite character, too) is Magwitch, the convict. I know it might seem odd to have the “villain” of the piece be the most sympathetic character, but I think Magwitch and Pip are much alike. Pip would have been the boy Magwitch was if he had had a chance to be taken care of and loved. Magwitch is a gentle man deep inside — and finally has a chance to help someone besides himself. He learns empathy by loving and taking care of Pip. He and Pip both have that other important human characteristic — a conscience. When we first see him on the Marshes he confesses that he stole the pork pie—protecting Pip. From the very beginning, Dickens lays in that Magwitch is a “good” man. And he is — Pip just doesn’t know it yet.

MK: You come from a history of acting and directing yourself. What drew you to playwriting, and what kind of work do you find most satisfying to pursue?
GCD: I was drawn to playwriting in 1986 when I was pregnant with my son, Samuel. I read a book about a pioneer child named Opal Whiteley. It was called THE STORY OF OPAL and was a copy of her diary that she kept from the age of 5 to the age of 12. I fell in love with Opal and her interesting language and world view. I was reading the diary when I went into labor with Sam. About one year later I felt the need to create something that spoke to the mother in me—and that was Opal’s diary. I started adapting it whenever I got a few minutes, and before I knew it I had a one-act play. I put it on the road with the Outreach Company at PCPA. It has had several productions over the years, most recently at the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. Since then I wrote GREAT EXPECTATIONS and many short plays. My favorite of these short works was an adaptation of THE LAMENT FOR IGNACIO SANCHEZ by Federico Garcia Lorca.

As for satisfying work, I prefer directing to any other theatre activity. I like having a vision and seeing it come to life. I love rehearsing and having tech week. I like to be the boss! I am more of an objective artist than a subjective one, although I was an actor for nearly twenty-five years. I also love writing, but it is much more difficult than directing or acting. Now that I have “retired” I can concentrate on writing and am enjoying my next project—adapting FRANKENSTEIN.

MK: You have other family members in the theatre. What advice would you give (or have you given) to those who are just beginning their career? What expectations should they or could they reasonably have about the future, in your view?

GCD: It’s funny — Jon and I are theatre artists and we have been able to raise a family (two children) on the money we make as actors and or directors/playwrights. It hasn’t been easy, but we accomplished it and our children are on their way. Samuel is 30 and just finished a doctorate in Contemporary African History at Columbia University in NYC. He is beginning his career, and it is about as far from the theatre as you can get! Emily, on the other hand, has wanted to be an actress since she was four years old. She got a B.A. from The University of Evansville in performance art and is currently in her second year of an M.F.A. at the University of California-Irvine. 

Here’s what we told her: You’ve seen how your dad and I live. Sometimes it is paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes we have had to work apart — he out of town, me out of town  to make a living. Sometimes we have to do work we are not thrilled about just to bring in the money. But we have managed to work in the theatre for over 40 years and never take a day job (yet!). We have told Emily how hard it is — she has seen how hard it is and she still wants to do it. So we support her unconditionally. We hope she has a great career—at least one that pays the bills and allows her to have a family if she wants one. She is beautifully talented, and as one friend of ours says — "She didn’t get it licking it off the sidewalk!” Ha, ha!