This is the part of the blog where I aimlessly talk about shows that I've seen.
Today's blog is about "Little Wars" at Milwaukee Entertainment Group.
Overall, MEG’S Little Wars is a beautiful and powerful piece of theatre. Seven women have gathered in Gertrude Stein’s home in France during World War II where they will spend the next few hours batting around ideas of literature, theatre, art, politics, and everything in between. Each woman has a method behind the madness of her character and while we may not agree with some of them, we, as an audience, grow to at least understand their choices and what brought them here. Everyone agrees that what Hitler and the Nazis are doing is horrific, but how we fight back (or if we fight back at all) is up for debate.
The bottom line is that the Subterranean Theatre at Brumder Mansion is a difficult space in which to stage a show. When you first see it, you are blown away by the charm and character of such an intimate setting, but these come at a heavy price. Seven women on such a tiny stage often leaves the entire set feeling overcrowded. Sightlines were never really an issue for me, but with so little room to move, scenes at time became rather stagnant from lack of action. I wish that more of the whole basement (not just the traditional stage) would have been utilized. In favor of getting enough furniture on the stage so that every character may have a place to play (sit), the set was made into a kind of obstacle course that often played the actors rather than the other way around.
Cara Johnston as Dorothy Parker was probably the biggest highlight of the show for me. When we first meet her, there’s little more to her than a love of boasting and an infatuation for gin, but once said gin begins to flow, Johnston’s Dorothy reveals herself to be a feisty yet simultaneously melancholy artist. There is a natural grace and gravitas to Johnston which commands the audience’s attention. In short, it’s hard to look away from her.
Ruth Arnell as Muriel Gardiner and Victoria Hudziak as Agatha Christie likewise give standout performances. Hudziak’s Agatha has little to no time for melancholies; she’s here to enjoy herself and prove that she’s the smartest woman in the room. Agatha has her own moments of reflections, but, on the whole, she is a steady and unfaltering woman, who enjoys giving out commentary rather than deep insight. This allows Hudziak to fully flex her comedic muscles and give the show a break from its many dark themes. Arnell’s Muriel, on the other hand, is less comfortable in the presence of such women as she is neither a writer nor really supposed to be there. Her awkwardness will melt your heart and her passion for her cause will light a fire inside you.
It would be erroneous to talk about Little Wars without giving mention to Maggie Wirth’s Gertrude Stein. I don’t know the complete nature of playwright McCasland and Wirth’s relationship (if I understand correctly, they are friends and Wirth was the one to suggest this play to MEG after it was initially performed in New York City), but it strikes me as a possibility that the playwright wrote this part specifically for Maggie. It plays to all of the actress’s strengths: a larger than life persona, mixed with hilarious one-liners, and sprinkled with a touch of vulnerability. Wirth shines here.
The cast is rounded out by Molly Corkins who gives a beautiful performance as the German maid Bernadette, Carrie Gray as Lillian Hellman, and Donna Daniels as Alice B. Toklas.
Aside from staging, the biggest issue of the piece was the script itself, and I don’t mean plot or character development, but, rather the poetic nature of the language. Let me be clear: this is a beautiful script, but it requires special attention. The story moves from straightforward dialogue into rhythmical prose, and it was obvious that some actors had a better understanding of those transitions than others. When you step outside of natural dialogue, there has to be a reason why. What changed to make you want to speak now in metaphors and similes? For Johnston and Wirth, their trips into poetry seemed more than justified (Dorothy was now drunk and Gertrude was…well, that’s just the way that Gertrude Stein is). Gray, on the other hand, often seemed uneasy with her dialogue. Early on, she is left alone with Muriel (a woman she only met five minutes ago) and begins to tell a long-winded story about her former husbands. The monologue had layers to it, but they were layers that I don’t think Gray really explored. Why is she pouring this intimate story out to Muriel? The character that you’ve created so far doesn’t appear to be uncomfortable with silence, so this isn’t out of a need to fill empty space. Gray has worked a great deal in musicals (she’s a fantastic singer in case you didn’t know 😉 ), and it’s been a joy to watch her develop her acting abilities more and more over the years. She clearly has the talent and devotion to her craft, and while parts of her performance were lacking here, I’m excited to watch her grow more as time goes on.
Little Wars was not a perfect show, but it was a damn good show.