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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘A Bear in Winter’ premiere potent in Oshkosh

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

Lobby display with Drake Hansen, from left, Jordan Whitrock, Lily Slivinski, Joshua Starr and Sydney Pomrening. (Warren Gerds)

OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) – Plays can go anywhere, do anything.

They can create realities – or their own realities.

In “A Bear in Winter,” a star player of a football coach is a presence. Even long after the college has fired the once-successful coach for too many losses and oh so many penalties – 21 in a game! – Booker Cobb appears to the coach seemingly from the vapors. “I don’t leave,” he tells Pete Angelini.

Booker is quite real to Pete. Booker is a kind of mysterious alter ego who fully has a mind of his own.

“A Bear in Winter” takes the audience to the give-and-take between the two. Booker does the giving in multiple personas, and Pete does the taking of views on living and views just out of Pete’s focus.

“A Bear in Winter” also explores aging, notably a decaying mind. Pete’s pillar of a mother is crumbling right in front of him, and the audience is brought along on the dark and humbling process of Katherine Angelini losing her grip on reality and memory.

The play by Richard Kalinoski and production by University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre are singular. The world premiere performance was presented Thursday night in the Theatre Arts Center.

Richard Kalinoski directs, and there is an aura of respect among the players and the whole setup for what he created.

Richard Kalinoski, Nov. 11, 2021. (Warren Gerds)

There is a choreography – of Richard Kalinoski’s words, of situations he materializes, of costume changes, of the moving of rolling set pieces, of what music is heard when and even of Booker’s movements at times. The piece flows – not very fast – with rich colors of humanity sprinkled in.

The play opens with Booker (Joshua Starr) writing a letter to Coach Angelini (Drake Hansen) in hopes of being recruited from a small-town high school. “I plan on being relentless,” he writes.

Flashing forward, the coach has been called into the office of the athletic director (Jordan Whitrock), who circles around the point of the meeting – firing Pete. Pete’s heyday with Booker is long past. Booker shows up, seen only by Pete.

Three days later, Pete has yet to tell his mother (Lily Slivinski) of his firing. That comes in a sequence of character development of the two – he a kind of brute with smarts and a brusque way of treating his mother, and she a health-conscious gourmet cook/baker who also is wise in the way of sports, with a tip of the hat to Pete as a coach.

As Pete Angelini, Drake Hansen is impressive in his range of expressing the coach’s multiplicities. Little is simple with the coach, and Drake Hansen captures that. It’s a massive role, and his performance is dynamic.

Lily Slivinski has a way of representing age, particularly in her manner of speaking. Very much is defined. And there is fun in the role, too, certain quips and quaintness and a game between the mother and son that’s a kind of out-there fantasy football. On the other end is a sequence with her in a wheelchair delivering sounds that are horribly honest.

Joshua Starr gets to nimbly be not only such personas as a football star, a well-dressed, briefcase-toting sort in a spiffy suit and a swashbuckling Shakespearean character swishing a foil and flashing fancy phrases. Joshua Starr has a super scene when he pulls a scroll from the briefcase – which he says carries truth – and reads a “proclamation” as a plaintiff making powerful statements.

Marcia Vogel tunes in to the ways of gifted caretakers in scenes in which she nurses Pete’s mother while Pete tosses hot coals her way. There’s sensitivity in her performance.

Jordan Whitrock represents some of the lockstep ways of administrative academia, touching on athletic director Sean MacDonald’s cheery facades as he struggles to be humane as a minion while carrying out orders.

A collage.

This and that:

+ The floor of the stage is painted as a football gridiron.

+ In the rear of the stage is a scoreboard of the kind found at football stadiums. In the center is a projection screen. In a unique touch, shown are key words or the title of the scene in progress.

+ Music weaves in. Often, cello is heard – the soul of an orchestra. At intermission, ’50s hit tunes are in air connecting with parts of the story – “Magic Moments,” “It’s Not Impossible” and “Catch a Falling Star.” At a key moment in Act II, Nat King Cole’s “Smile” arises for Joshua Starr to make important statements about injustices.

+ Costuming tells its stories. Lily Slivinski, for instance, adds 60 or so years by what she wears as the mother – and a just-right, just-so gray wig.

+ Richard Kalinoski’s script is a little epic – a play with few characters but large-scale meanings. Finesse is everywhere in what characters say and (for the players, with his direction) how to say it.

+ The play is new, different, interesting, daring in depicting dementia and sports mentalities, large of vernacular, friends with honesty and kind of scary in its bluntness.

+ Who is the bear? The answer is elusive and may depend on the individual. And, rather than being a who, maybe the bear is a what.

+ In a specialty of the campus, UW-Oshkosh productions come with four displays in side hallways that fill in playgoers on nuts and bolts about the play. For the present production, for instance, one panel details the playwrighting pedigree of Richard Kalinoski, starting with his internationally produced and honored “Beast on the Moon.”

+ This first production of “A Bear in Winter” calls on the student cast – with the exception of Joshua Starr, a recent graduate of Howard University – to bring to life characters by a respected playwright in their midst. What an opportunity. They do so excellently.

***

Creative: Playwright – Richard Kalinoski; director – Richard Kalinoski; costume designer – Zane Kealey; lighting and sound design – Mark Spitzer; scenic design – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; technical director – Mark Spitzer; production stage manager – Kyle Klein; production assistant stage manager – Aaron Stone; props – Leeann Hershey; deck and prop crew – James Wilson, Aaron Stone, Matt Peplinski; wardrobe and make-up crew – Shayne Steffen, Damon Dombrowski

Cast:

Pete Angelini – Drake Hansen

Booker J. Cobb – Joshua Starr (guest artist)

Katherine Angelini – Lily Slivinski

Marcia Vogel – Sydney Pomrening

Sean MacDonald – Jordan Whitrock

Running time: Two hours, 53 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12-13, 19-20 and 2 p.m. Nov. 21

Info: uwosh.edu/theatre

Note: Audience members are required to wear a mask due to COVID-19 consideration.

***

NEXT: “Silent Sky” by Lauren Gunderson, March 3-5, 11-13.

THE VENUE: The 498-seat Theatre Arts Center, formerly Fredric March Theatre, includes a traditional proscenium (flat front stage) that’s 40 feet wide by 16 feet high. Built in 1971, the theater is located in the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus. The exterior features a 1970s era UW campus architectural style that embraces cement, in this case the cement reminiscent of geometric trees supporting a flat roof on the glass-enclosed entry and lobby. The interior features honeycombed red-brick walls and a slightly arcing seating area with no center aisle, with a general impression of closeness to the stage, which is especially wide. Leg room is abundant. The acoustics are crisp for the spoken voice in plays.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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