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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Z-Fest’s ‘Next Room’ stirs thought

The frank play sees first light in this area.
Z-Fest program cover
Z-Fest program cover

PHOTO: Sarah Ruhl’s play, “In the Next Room,” was nominated for three 2010 Tony Awards. MacArthur Foundation photo

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)” is the type of play that wouldn’t be performed in this area save for Z-Fest. Z-Fest is a play reading festival well out of the mainstream. This week, the festival that is the outlet for the loose-knit Theatre Z is delving into topics of gender and sexuality through five plays, four of which have won some sort of recognition or another, with the fifth play being new.

Presented Tuesday, and being repeated Saturday, June 14, as part of an all-day marathon at Dudley Birder Hall of St. Norbert College in De Pere, “In the Next Room” is a frank study of female (mostly) sexuality. Normally, that’s not a public matter; Z-Fest’s presentation makes it somewhat public, though not many people (20, including eight actors on stage) attended Tuesday’s performance.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl draws on established research from way back when – the 1880s, when electricity was in vogue as the emerging technology – and builds a story around the wife of a science-driven doctor and clients who come to him seeking relief from “hysteria” (pent-up mental/physical situations). The doctor’s electrical gadget works wonders.

The performance is done with no props, no costumes, no set. It’s all words and body language. Directed by Merlaine Angwall, the actors/characters are Andrew Delaurelle as the doctor, Carolyn Silverberg as his wife, Sarah Gorski as a patient, Justin Gulmire as her husband, Erin Zimmerman as a wet nurse for the infant of the doctor and his wife, Larry March as an artist/patient, Kathleen Donnelly as the doctor’s nurse and Linda Feldmann as the narrator.

Sarah Ruhl’s play goes beyond the clinical and matter of fact. Among her observations, Sarah Ruhl tells the audience there’s a need for an artistic side – artistry, a sensitivity – to make life fuller.

There’s a lot of downright sensational expressiveness in the play, too. That’s as close as I’ll get to details here. I couldn’t imagine this play being produced by Green Bay Community Theater, or Attic Theatre of the Fox Valley, or Sheboygan Theatre Company, or Box in the Wood Theatre Guild of Shawano or the professional Peninsula Players Theatre of Door County (though any patrons of those companies would leave quite enlightened, if somewhat shocked).

Here’s a look at other plays in Z-Fest:

- “Cloud 9” by Caryl Churchill, directed by Laura Riddle. Presented Monday and repeating at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 14, to open the marathon. The Drama Desk and Obie Award-winning time-shifting comedy explores the sexual mores in British occupied Africa during Victorian England, and then switches to 1980 London.  The cast of “Cloud 9” consists of Carol Cassel, Andrew Delaruelle, Justin Gulmire, Derek James Knabenbauer, John Mariano, Cherran Dea Rasmovicz and Natalie VandenHeuvel. Each plays more than one role, with some roles portraying, as one character says, sinful and illegal behavior. While “Cloud 9” is a comedy (often), its humor quite topsy-turvy.

- “Take Me Out” by Richard Greenberg, 7:30 p.m. today, Wednesday, June 11, directed by Lee Kerwin. Winner of the 2003 Tony Award, “Take Me Out” looks at a star professional baseball player who comes out as gay. He assumes that everyone will accept the news, but he wrong, and the reverberations move through his entire team. Andrew Delaurelle, Adam Elmergreen, Justin Gulmire, Cameron Hitchcock, Lee Kerwin, Jerry Lesperance, Ron Lotte, Ian Wisneski.

- “The International Stud” by Harvey Fierstein, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 12, directed by Teresa Aportela Sergott. In part one of Fierstein’s ground-breaking “Torch Song Trilogy” (Best Play Tony Award as well as Drama Desk, Obie, and Dramatist Guild awards) we follow the hero, Arnold Beckoff, after a fight with his boyfriend into a hilarious romp in a sex club. Justin Gulmire, Dan Terrio.

- “Blackbirds’ Garden” by Merlaine Angwall, 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 13, directed by Stephen Rupsch. This will be the first public concert reading of the play. “Blackbirds’ Garden” focuses on the life of antebellum author, prison reformer and feminist Eliza Farnham during her tenure as matron for Mount Pleasant Female Prison (mid-1840s). The play investigates Eliza’s reforms and the opposition to her “treatments” during this seminal time in the American prison system. The reading will be followed by a discussion with the author. Lyle Becker, Chanda Daretas, Sarah Gorski, Justin Gulmire, Cameron Hitchcock, Kimberly King, Abigail Lee, Derek James Knabenbauer, Pam Obey, Ellen Rosewall, Teresa Aportela Sergott, Carolyn Silverberg, Rochelle Van Erem, Ian Wisneski, Ashley Wisneski.

VENUE: Dudley Birder Hall at St. Norbert College is located in the former St. Boniface Church at the corner of Fourth and Grant streets in De Pere. It’s a multi-purpose space. For Z-Fest, seating is set up for approximately 200 persons. The walls and towering arches of the former church are painted cream white. Above are acoustical clouds; the place does reverberate. The raised stage is spacious and airy. The St. Boniface building dates to the late 1800s and is a landmark for its classical exterior and clock tower.

THE PERSON: Dudley Birder started on the St. Norbert faculty in 1958 and has produced concerts and musicals ever since. He is retired from teaching. He continues as conductor of the Dudley Birder Chorale and artistic director of Music Theatre, which is in its 53rd year.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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