Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: A play and place quite different in Green Bay

Theatre Z's ‘Sordid Lives'

GREEN BAY, Wis. - “Sordid Lives” is as much a play as it is an experience as presented by Theatre Z of Green Bay.

What’s happening is taking place through July 22 in a space in The ARTgarage on Main Street.

As a play, “Sordid Lives” is how a family deals with truths at the time of a funeral. Funerals tend to tip over the woodpile, bringing to light all sorts of spiders, mice, ants and snakes. This family has a large woodpile.

As a play, “Sordid Lives” offers an exploration of homosexuality of the closet kind and the closeted kind (as incarceration in an institution for being a transvestite). This exploration is done in sensitive ways and wildly comical ways by playwright Del Shores and the company.

Side note 1: The material has attracted noted performing talent in our area to be part of the production, and some high-flying acting is a result.

As a play, “Sordid Lives” is an opportunity to look at a topic – the elephant in the room for some people – that is not often, if ever, explored openly. That this is done with a comedic touch is icing on the cake.

As an experience, Theatre Z’s production is one of a kind. Normally if a play requires changes of scenery, the audience sits as set pieces and props are moved. In the case of Theatre Z’s “Sordid Lives,” the set for a scene stays and the audience moves to the setup for the next scene. The scenes are a home, a bar, a therapist’s office in a mental institution and a church set up for a funeral, casket and all. The production takes place in a large, wall-less space at The ARTgarage that once served as a canning factory (now called The Cannery). The audience sits on folding chairs at each scene setup, and the audience is close to the action in each case.

As an experience, Theatre Z’s “Sordid Lives” immediately gets into a “different” aura when everyone is handed a prop upon entrance. It’s a fan, as given out for a funeral as you are heading into a service. (It’s the fan in the photo above). On opening night, the fans came into use in the audience because The Cannery is not air conditioned, and the place was sticky-hot. The conditions fit right in with the play, which opens in Texas on a day with the temperature in the 100s. The audience could feel what the characters are feeling.

All in all, Theatre Z’s “Sordid Lives” is a “real theater” deal. The actors respond to director Stephen Rupsch, who has a sense of risk-adventure to go with imagination (that scenographer April Beiswenger runs with).

“Sordid Lives” is material that few theaters take on headlong. I would love to list examples, but this is a mass market outlet. You will have to imagine the apt “sordid” of its title. The play is loaded with off-color words and situations, risqué behavior and racy and raunchy happenings. That’s not to say it can’t be poignant at the same time.


Creative: Playwright – Del Shores; director – Stephen Rupsch; sceneography – April Beiswenger; stage manager – Elizabeth Jolly; assistant director – Rochelle Van Erem; dialect coach – Laura Riddle

Cast (order of appearance): Bitsy Mae Harling – Amy Ensign; Ty Williamson – Alex M. Sabin; Sissy Hickey – Dawn M. Byrne; Noelta Nethercott – Erin Hunsader; Latrelle Williamson – Carol Cassell; LaVonda Dupree – Teresa Aportela Sergott; G.W. Nethercott – Eric D. Westphal; Wardell “Bubba” Owens – Jeremy Pelegrin; Odell Owens – Justin Gulmire; Dr. Eve Bolinger – Jennifer Thomas; Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram – Alan Kopischke; Rev. Barnes – Justin Gulmire

Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 2 p.m. July 16

Info: snc.edu/tickets/


The story that unfolds: The family matriarch has died. She died in a motel room. She was having an affair with the husband of one of her daughters’ friends. She died by accident. She tripped over the wooden legs of her Vietnam veteran lover and hit her head. The deceased’s son likes to dress as country music queens, Tammy Wynette at present. She has rejected her son. The deceased’s grandson is gay. Everything takes place in Texas, and there are accents galore.

Side note 2: The play is set in the late 1990s. It is a look-back play and in general doesn’t reflect today’s (usually) more open climate. It seems to be Del Shores’ comeuppance for feelings he had to set aside in the past.

The three key characters in relation to the deceased are a daughter whose son is gay, that gay grandson and the deceased’s transvestite son. This is where the acting gets heavy duty.

The gay grandson, Ty Williamson, is a through character in all the scenes. He provides a narrative of the struggles of trying to keep the covers on being gay while acting in a TV soap and on stage. In scene after scene, Alex M. Sabin expresses Ty’s costs and dilemmas in carefully crafted, evocative and compelling ways. This is dramatic realism (while the rest of the play is often of a dark-humor tone).

The daughter, Latrelle Williamson, is bolt upon bolt of excitability. The moment Carol Cassell arrives as Latrelle, sparks fly. Latrelle doesn’t want a fur stole on her mother in the casket because it’s incongruous in the heat. Latrelle doesn’t want her brother at the funeral, much less the legless “acquaintance.” The thought of her son, who she saw acting naked on stage in New York, coming to the funeral has Latrelle crackling at somewhere near 1,000 watts. On her son being gay, she screams, “I’m not in denial!” Then she yells the telling line (one of Del Shores’ comeuppance touches), “I don’t want to hear the truth!”

The deceased’s transvestite son, Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram, is why the play is subtitled “A Dark Comedy About Big Hair.” The character is in the rather large acting wheelhouse of Alan Kopischke, a member of Actors’ Equity Association. Earl has been essentially imprisoned for 23 years for dressing as a woman. Currently, Earl feels obligated to keep alive the legacy of country music star Tammy Wynette in his manner of dress. Kopischke dresses the part and wears make-up as would Ms. Wynette and enacts a completeness in Earl’s comfort in being the embodiment of a female star.

Side note 3: This scene ridicules the concept that a person can be “dehomosexualized.” The process is colorfully described, and then Earl’s therapist makes moves to supposedly help Earl. While Earl has a kind of happiness in himself, there is a sadness in his situation – the layering being another bonus of Del Shores’ script.

In general, the cast is called upon to play trashy and/or quirky characters. Some end up in their skivvies. The players take to the mischief that’s afoot – like a raucous scene in a bar with gun-tottin’ women bent on revenge and embarrassment.

This and that:

+ Justin Gulmire learned a bunch of tricks with string as part of his character. Funny what acting calls on you to do sometimes. The tricks enhance the character.

+ Amy Ensign plays another through character, a musician. Ensign also is the audience’s guide, telling it what’s going to happen and where to set up next. The musician-character’s songs are on the sordid side in some lyrics. This line early on helps set the tone for what will transpire: “We sleep away our truths under tattletale skies.”

+ Rupsch and Beiswenger are members of the St. Norbert College theater faculty, with Theatre Z being a separate, professional entity – a summertime thingie that has added expanse to what normally is available in this region.

THE VENUE: The Cannery of the ARTgarage building, 1429 Main St., is one of the converted sections of a former canning factory. The performance space is set amidst concrete pillars, bricks, open ceiling with exposed wood and utilities and a polished concrete floor. For “Sordid Lives,” the scenes take place in four sectors of a rectangular area that looks to be about 100 feet on the long side. There is some theatrical lighting. The space may not seem theatrical but is.


Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My new books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words),” are available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

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