Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Outstanding video sets table for intensity of ‘Bent Compass’ play

Critic At Large

Weidner Center for the Performing Arts and UWGB Veteran’s Services

Neil Brookshire in “Bent Compass.” (Warren Gerds screenshot)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – A really articulate Army medic/veteran is friends with a professional actor who writes, and the result is a one-man play exploring a soul.

That’s one story.

Another story is about capturing their play-making process.

Another story is about the irony of having the opportunity to capture that process because of A CRUMMY CORONAVIRUS.

It’s funny (odd/unusual) how outstanding things happen sometimes.

It’s all around “Bent Compass,” a play that was presented – more like unleashed – online Wednesday night on the YouTube channel of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Viewing is no longer available, but portions are in an especially illuminating video that can be found at this gold mine:


UPDATE from Weidner Center

Thanks to positive reception, there will be an encore performance of “Bent Compass” premiering Monday, March 1 at 7 p.m. CST. 
Follow this link to view the performance of “Bent Compass:”
The performance of “Bent Compass” will remain available for viewing until Thursday, March 4 at 12 (midnight) CST.


In the one-hour “Veterans Conversations,” University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Veteran’s Services and the Weidner Center collaborate to feature the co-writers of “Bent Compass,” Neil Brookshire (the actor) and Colin Sesek (the former medic). Additionally, local broadcaster/author John Maino, formerly of WFRV-TV, adds to the discussion based on his experience in writing books about veterans and first-hand knowledge of Iraq, where Colin Sesek served as a combat medic.

Colin Sesek. (Screenshot)

Major points:

+ Profanities are the vernacular in the play, scenes of which are in “Veterans Conversations.” Gruesome situations are the vernacular of combat.

+ Kelli Strickland, executive and artistic director of the Weidner Center, oversees the Zoom-like “Veterans Conversations.” The “artistic director” element of her role is a factor.

Artistic directors guide and use their imagination.

The center normally receives some Wisconsin Arts Board funds to bring in touring productions. With touring productions on hold, she asked for and was allowed to apply some funding for the development of “Bent Compass” with the possibility of bringing the project to the live stage.

John Maino. (Screenshot)

+ The role of a university being a university enters in.

Universities create, elevate and experiment.

“Showbiz” is a side show, so to speak.

+ A collaborator in the project is UWGB Veteran’s Services, and many people will be surprised to learn of its significance on campus.

Elaina Koltz, senior advisor and certifying official, notes that 411 students on campus are veterans, and more from their families qualify for assistance.

+ The project is about emotional aid, and that’s where the background video and recorded play come in.

Brookshire, Sesek and Maino wholly click in the background video.

Sesek is the key because he opened up about his experiences as a wartime medic. He is quick, articulate and observant.

In a sense, Sesek is a life coach as applies a need to accomplish a goal that he learned in the Army – task, conditions, standard – into something workable in everyday life.

Sesek says he participated in creating the play because of total trust in Brookshire in Brookshire’s skills with acting, creating and storytelling. “I believe he’s on my side,” Sesek says.

In this area, Brookshire is known through acting with the professional Peninsula Players Theatre of Door County. Among his credits there the leading role in the world premiere of “A Trick of the Light” in 2019. Brookshire recently created “It Sounds Like a Christmas Carol” and “The Dust of Death” as Peninsula Players online productions.

Capsule: Brookshire recorded phone interviews with Sesek, transcribed them and edited them into theatrical form with an arcing storyline. “Veterans Conversations” reveals some of the guts involved in that.

Neil Brookshire in “Veterans Conversations.” (Screenshot)

Maino asks pertinent questions of Sesek. One is about what combat veterans might carry with them after service. One that haunts is thoughts of a situation in which “I did the right thing, and a bad thing happened,” and, as Sesek describes, “a tumor” developed. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – which bends one’s compass – is a lingering shadow in more ways than one in the project.

Brookshire notes Sesek “has all these skills and talents I don’t have” from his medic experience and more. Sesek essentially says ditto of Brookshire, as in distilling his story into a play and integrating Shakespeare.

One portion of the background video is how a couple of guys made a play filled with grit and blood and pain and awareness and – as Maino puts it – “thoughts and words and actions put on stage.”

The play

“Bent Compass” is a verbal expression of a combat mind.

Neil Brookshire delivers the persona of Colin Sesek (though nameless in the play) as if on adrenaline or caffeine or speed.

In an intense rush, Neil Brookshire distills sweeping and sometimes deadly experiences of a 15-month deployment in Iraq around 2005. He explores an amazing maze of a mind with penetrating power.

Direction by Phil Darius Wallace fuels the internal fires of the character/real person who is nameless in the play. That combat survivor carries with him this thought: “You sacrifice who you are for the rest of your life.”

The downside of the production is the visual fuzziness of the video recording. Who knew a pandemic would come along and better tech stuff would become useful? (My wish, too, is better tech stuff for better pictures from screenshots to accompany my writings.) Even so, the words and thoughts of the play still crackle through the blurry images.

In writing “Broken Compass,” Neil Brookshire bookends the story with a situation of an elementary school boy who has punched a teacher. In between, he careens along through Colin Sesek’s thought process that is akin to stream of consciousness.

For punctuation marks, Neil Brookshire adds infectious words that have come down through the ages, mostly from William Shakespeare. Early on, “Now is the winter of our discontent…” from “Richard III” rolls at length.

Colin Sesek is something else, a mind with double-barreled shotgun thoughts (and aim). Neil Brookshire climbs into that mind and personality in a remarkable, dedicated, exacting, sinewy and smart performance.

Neil Brookshire in “Bent Compass.” (Screenshot)

This is bare-bones theater – just a stool and a duffel bag and an actor in front of a black curtain addressing an audience of no particular origin for no particular reason except to kick trolls out from underneath the bridge.

This is theater of purpose, theater of catharsis. Affecting theater.

The performance was pre-recorded, with Kellie DeJardin as production manager and Kit Hokanen as stage manager.

The project is co-produced by the Weidner Center and Neil Brookshire’s Dirt Hill Productions. The project is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Veterans Resources: Department of Veterans Affairs Vet Call Center 1-800-273-8255 then press 1. Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Center Call Center 1-877-WAR-VETS (927-8387). Green Bay Crisis Center (920) 436 888. Nation Text “Hopeline” Text HOPELINE to 74174.

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