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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: A play with sagas is premiering in Marinette

‘Menominee River Mysteries: The Summer of '27'

MARINETTE, Wis. - “There is so much history. That’s why you can get lost in it.”

Thus we have the play, “Menominee River Mysteries: The Summer of ’27.”

Theatre on the Bay is working toward the premiere of the murder mystery, teaming with the playwright, who has more ties to everything than a box of old shoelaces.

The quote above is his – Anthony “Tony” LaMalfa.

The project is unusual.

+ Theatre on the Bay at the University of Wisconsin-Marinette normally does not produce original works.

+ LaMalfa’s play is his first.

+ The play is historical, but not. Its story is based in real history, but key elements in it are fictional. The murder, the victim and the perpetrator are all made up.

+ Among sidelights, the play will have an art gallery display element just across the lobby from the theater where six performances will take place starting Nov. 10.

+The play was written while the author and his wife were on the road, working on organic farms.

+ In the play, Anthony LaMalfa portrays a character whose first and middle names are inspired by one of his relatives and last name comes from another relative.

A dot-to-dot-to-dot-to-dot-to-dot path from beginning to end is tricky to draw for this project. This feature column is an attempt, based on excerpts from an interview with LaMalfa in a room UW-Marinette’s Fine Arts Building.

First these essentials: “Menominee River Mysteries: The Summer of ’27” will be performed in Herbert L. Williams Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10, 11, 17 and 18 and 2 p.m. Nov. 12 and 19. Information is at (the production’s website) or (Theatre on the Bay’s website). The gallery exhibition will be up Nov. 10 to 24.

Essential other figures in the project are Anthony LaMalfa’s wife, Alexa, and Rebecca Stone Thornberry, artistic director of Theatre on the Bay and director of “Menominee River Mysteries: The Summer of ’27,” whose husband, John Thornberry, is scenic designer and more for Theatre on the Bay productions. Anthony LaMalfa also is assistant director and playing one of the roles, Kenneth “Bud” Feifarek.

The structure of this feature will be a hybrid and will wander. It continues with a Q. and A.

Q. What are your associations with the campus and the theater?

A. My associations with UW-Marinette have been lifelong. My father (James LaMalfa) was a professor here for 44 years – art and art history. Growing up, we would go to shows at Theatre on the Bay – “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Dancing at Lughnasa” – a whole string of them. They were mostly during Doug Larche’s era of directing here.

I came back from college in 2009 and auditioned for “Footloose” that summer, with my sister (Leah) as well, and we were both cast in that musical. That was such a sellout show, and it was really exciting to be a part of but it was all sort of new to me. We were thrilled with that. I did a couple of shows in college before coming to Theatre on the Bay, “Warrior” by Shirley Gee and “The Full Monty.”

Since “Footloose,” I’ve been involved in 70 to 80 percent of the productions…

There have been fantastic shows. Really good group of people to work with. Great production staff. John and Rebecca are amazing.

The fact that we’re putting the show – it’s a real gift for me.

We’ve been heavily involved the last seven years, and we love it.

The play story starts with a death, and the story behind the play starts with a death, too.

LaMalfa: The write-ups are based out of one of the most important aspects of all of this, which are Marinette County historical brochures (called Historian). The whole story goes back to 2004. I was an exchange student in Denmark during the time, and my grandfather, Merritt Richard Bauman, passed away while I was gone. He was an avid historian, and he was a member of the Marinette County Historical Society. He loved to learn about Queen Marinette and the logging history and the whole bit. Years later, after I came back from Denmark, my grandma gave me all 70-some of these brochures because I’m interested in local history myself.

So I took a look through these brochures, and I had an idea to maybe craft a small film related to local history – a young man goes to Stephenson Public Library, finds an old book from the ’20s, falls into it and has to solve a murder mystery. Maybe he gets drawn out and the book gets circulated elsewhere so he has to track it down. Who knows?

LaMalfa organized the articles on two sheets of paper with the Historian titles color coded in the relevancy toward the time period of the play.

LaMalfa: The Historians that were my grandpa’s are all the keys to a lot of the local history behind the show. The articles that you will see in the gallery will give credit to the Marinette County historians who wrote them.

Some of the articles are straight up about some of the characters involved, like Jab Murray or Arold Murphy or Dr. Luella Axtell.

So this is one of the most important parts of the show.

We took the brochures with us on our farming trip. We worked during the day, and I’d do research at night on the first part of the trip. And then when I started writing, we farmed during the day and then I’d write at night. Or I’d even stop in the middle of farming and run into the house and write something down – “Oh, what if this plot twist occurred here?”

The Historians really play an important part in telling the story and setting the scene… There is so much history. That’s why you can get lost in it. We had to keep the plot moving forward, too, in time.

My wife was very integral to the process. She was the chief editor.

A pause here for a bundle of credit.

LaMalfa: This whole project would not have occurred without my wife’s help. She’s very much at, “Let’s stay focused on the here and now and where we’re moving forward with this.” I’ve got to say I’m so grateful to her and the time.

I would write a scene during our farming work. We would run inside, and I would perform it for her. She would sit there very patient listening, and she then would take a couple of notes and I would be waiting, holding my breath, wondering. She was so integral helping with the consistency of the plot or fact-checking – the continuity. It was a fairly fun process, and I couldn’t have done it without her. She always kept me on track.

Q. How did you come up with the kernel of the plot?

A. I was reading through the historical brochures, and there’s one in particular that had a logging mark chart from a book about logging on the Menominee River by Fred C. Burke, published in 1946. I looked at the chart and thought, “Wow, this is really fascinating, and this is only seven of the 52 lumber companies?” And there were hundreds and hundreds of marks. I looked at them and thought, “Well, you know, that’s kind of interesting – what if you turned that into a secret code?”

And then I left that thought aside.

And I was reading the next article about salvaging dead-head logs in the river – logs that were pushed under water and trapped and then rose up later or people dredged them up during the Great Depression and made a living off of salvaging these logs. I thought, “What if you had a code based off of the logging mark symbols and you had a body to deal with; what if you put a code on a dead-head log and submerged it back under water with a body chained to it?” It was a kind of interesting and kind of fleeting and morbid thought, but I thought, “You know, that would be the basis for a really interesting murder mystery.”

So that was the direction we started taking things in. And so we had to reverse manufacture the whole plot based around one crime and the antagonist and his storyline. Everything sort of dances around this one individual – the scenario they create. It affects everybody in a real interesting and fun way – but serious, too.

The writing of the play took place in unique circumstances. LaMalfa and his wife set aside “standard” work to venture out.

LaMalfa: It’s been about two years since we started this project. The script started out about 125 pages long when I first wrote it. That was back during the fall of 2015 and winter of 2016. My wife and I were traveling around the country working on organic farms through a program called WWOOFing – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Previously, we were working for the Marinette School District, and we were looking for a change of pace. My wife had always wanted to do this, so we took off on a trip in August 2015. During that time, we wrote the show in the course of about nine months.

Q. How did production evolve?

A. Before Lexie and I left on that farming trip in the fall of 2015, when I had that idea for a short film, I went out to Perkins with John and Rebecca and I sort of threw the idea out there. I said, “Hey, what thoughts do you have, with all your experience in theater and whatnot, on this film idea that I have that would span across a couple of different time periods – start in the present, go back into the ’20s and reference to the logging era?” So we sat and we talked about it and talked about it and had a few ideas that went back and forth and then kind of set it aside.

Right before we left on the trip in August, we met one more time and I said, “If this idea turned into a play, how seriously would you folks consider looking at script, for one, and giving me some advice, two, and, three, possibly look at producing it some day?” And they said, ‘Yeah, you write the script and we’ll take a look at it.”

The first draft turned out to be equivalent of a five-hour play. That was trimmed to approximately 70 pages. The script eventually went to eight drafts. A private read-through with theater colleagues inspired an important change. Another read-through stirred community interest and support.

LaMalfa:  I try to count my blessings because I’m sure not every playwright gets their first show that they’ve written produced, and so we’re really grateful for that. Ever since the green light, we’ve thrown all our eggs into this basket, and we’re really excited with where it’s at right now. Every aspect of the show has come a long way and is in good shape. There’s a lot of community involvement, too. We’ve had some community groups step up and donate to the budget of the show – the Menominee Area Arts Council and the M&M Area Community Foundation.

Q. How does the play begin?

A. The play will start with a prologue – as many great murder mysteries start – with the murder itself. And you don’t have a lot of information to begin with as an audience member, right, because otherwise there wouldn’t be any mystique to it. We see one of the characters who is referenced to quite frequently in the show as it goes forward, and he is visited by someone, and there is a physical struggle that wasn’t necessarily intended but… We see a vague shadow of the actual murder that pushes the rest of the plot.

Q. How important was your acting to playwriting and knowing where you wanted to go and what you wanted to do?

A. Acting was really important to the writing process of the play because I took into account experience that I had through acting – writing scene directions, writing some of the intentions of certain lines, the way that they were spoken. It was meant to not only make sure that jokes were pushed at certain moments but that subtle implications were left on stage that were either important to the plot or character development.

More than 30 characters are in the play. Some are historical characters that LaMalfa pulled from information from the Marinette County historical brochures. They are figures who people in the area know. Included is Howard Emich, a radio broadcaster who was popular on WNAM. During the story, he’s 12 years old. The character of Harvey Higley is LaMalfa’s great-grandfather. Higley’s daughter is LaMalfa’s grandmother, who helped him check facts.

LaMalfa: So my 94-year-old grandmother – Joyce Higley Bauman, who is also an above-the-title sponsor of the show – is really excited about the whole production and supportive of the local history. Her husband, my grandfather, gave me the Historians. She is also very proud of that fact.”

Characters’ last names are drawn from names that were common around the area during that time of the play – Pineger, Kellner, Norling, Maningham.

LaMalfa: The perpetrator’s last name was one of those references. It doesn’t have any direct tie with anyone in particular. No crimes from the area were replicated.

Q. To what do you owe your grandfather?

A. Everything for this production. When we were kids – even in his 80s – he would play with us in the living room, and we would re-enact nursery rhyme tales. And we’d go outside and play basketball. He was a very important role model in my life.

It was almost as though he left a time capsule behind that my grandma gave me to open up later on. His love for theater and history was something that I think was passed on to me through interacting with him throughout my childhood. I think he’d be really excited and pleased to see a project of this scope come to fruition.

Q. What are the origins of the website?

A. That was one of the first promotional aspects of the show that I made. It was about nine months ago. I had learned how to make websites through WordPress, relatively inexpensively, on our farming trip, and I thought I had better make one for this show.

Among other things, the project encompasses hand-out promotional brochures, the gallery display and a 45-second promotional video for which time was paid for showing at two local cinemas.

LaMalfa: The spirit of the project is really meant to bring people together, to build a sense of appreciation for the community, a sense of belonging and togetherness and excitement as people travel back in time through Marinette history and whatnot.

After all is said and done – after the run of “Menominee River Mysteries – the Summer of ’27” is complete – Anthony and Alexa LaMalfa have a plan.

LaMalfa: We actually have a trip planned like the first trip we took, the WWOOFing trip. The week after the show, we fly to New Zealand for three months of farming and travel there and one month in Australia. And then we come back. It’s Nov. 27 to April 15.

We also have a tree farm of 800 trees. The farming trips and the tree farm are my wife’s babies, and the play is mine. We share in helping each other fulfill those dreams, so it works out well.

Contact me at Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words)” and the award-winning “Real, Honest Sailing with a Great Lakes Captain,” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

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