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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘You Can’t Take It with You’ radiates warmth in Shawano

Critic At Large

Box in the Wood Theatre Guild

Play programs. (Warren Gerds)

SHAWANO, Wis. (WFRV) – Thousands of productions of the wonderful “You Can’t Take It with You” have been put on since the play arrived in 1936. The current one of Box in the Wood Theatre Guild in Mielke Arts Center has qualities all its own.

The interior of a family residence is recreated in the adaptable open space inside the center. Audience seating arcs at angles to the dining and living rooms of the Sycamore household. The performance space is very large. The troupe fills the area with furnishings reminiscent of the ’30s, with a few extras that are part of the story. On a desk is a typewriter. In the rear is a xylophone. A printing press is nearby.

Basic setup for Box in the Wood Theatre Guild’s “You Can’t Take It with You.” (Warren Gerds)

Box in the Wood Theatre Guild’s production includes two catchy features, each daring in its own way.

In the story, two of the characters invent fireworks displays in the basement. This production ignites pyrotechnics in front of the audience. Situations are controlled in metal containers for, first, sparks, and then open flame. A major controlling element is the concrete floor. This production does what few, if any, have done.

The other special addition is cats, live cats. The mother in the story arrives at the beginning carrying a basket with two young cats. During Sunday’s matinee, the cats did cat things. As the mother typed on the typewriter, one casually stepped out of the basket onto the table. Soon, it was on the floor, wandering. The second cat eventually followed. More wandering. At a designated time, the housekeeper in the story gathered the cats in their basket to be taken backstage. Fine… but half way to the door, one leapt from the basket and began to roam. For 10 or so minutes as other action took place, the cat roamed from one end of the performance space until it was retrieved back at the mother’s spot. Funny thing is, the addition of live cats to the performance is something the Sycamores would do. They’re individualistic. Oddball also applies.

The play is about being yourself. This production is itself. In a methodical way, the players become their characters, and atmosphere envelops the room. It’s a lovely piece director Sue Kluge put together with a cast that cares.

The story is about two families. The patriarch of one allows everyone to pursue his or her heart’s desire. The patriarch of the other knows all about making money but not much about happiness. The trick by the oh-so-clever authors, giants of whimsey Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, is to bring the families together. That’s done with romance and a dinner that’s announced for one day but takes place the evening before – catching everybody off guard.

What’s more, the era is important in two ways. One. It’s the Great Depression, so a massive struggle is taking place. One line is “How can you relax in times like these?” Sound familiar? Grandpa Sycamore’s response is, “Just relax.” Grandpa is so relaxed he hasn’t paid income taxes since day one, which brings The Government to his door. Two. Another government, the Soviet Union, is woven into the story in fascinating ways. The authors tease the Soviet five-year-plan failings and Josef Stalin’s rigid ways. The authors also show sympathy for people once of the noble class who have taken refuge in America. (Along the way is an inside joke about Rasputin that is fireworks humor about his anatomy). Along with all kinds of family and living stuff going on, the play is interesting historically. That’s why it’s great.

Dave Stuewer takes the opportunity to philosophize in portraying the grandfather, Martin Vanderhof. It’s a beloved role, and Dave Stuewer he takes care to embrace the niftiness about Grandpa in a style of his own. The illusion is Grandpa has the Answer.

Among many positives are these:

This is the troupe’s first full, live, in-person production since December 2019 because of the COVID-19 production.

+ Sunday’s audience was pin-drop attentive to the romance sequence between Madeline Stuewer as Alice Sycamore and Matthew Pfantz as Tony Kirby, the boss’s son. This is nicely and smoothly played. Side note: Madeline Stuewer’s fine clothing factors in her character.

+ Hailey Falish, as Essie Carmichael, a ballet dancer eight years along in lessons, has convincing moves and character aura. Jacob Grignon, as Essie’s husband, Ed, also convinces musically on the xylophone.

+ Angela Crowner brings cheerfulness to Penelope Sycamore, the play-writing mother. David Woosencraft brings loft to Anthony W. Kirby, the inflexible Wall Streetarian. Rebecca Setterman brings flair and flourish to Madame Kolenkhov’s exasperations about her Soviet-spoiled homeland.

The production’s pacing at first is slow, perhaps in part because the few players in the sequence are far apart in the performance space. But, like bricks on a house, action picks up, with the dinner scene filled with comedic mayhem.

For the finale, Sue Kluge and her creative corps set a scene like a painting as the Sycamores and their unconstrained guests gather for a meal that includes perhaps the best blintzes in the world.

***

Creative: Playwrights – Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman; director – Sue Kluge; set construction – Matthew Pfantz; lights and sound – Peter Kluge, Nat Madsen; set crew – Madeline Stuewer, Dave Stuewer, Hailey Falish, Jacob Grignon; backstage crew – Ireland Setterman, Grace Stuewer

Cast (in order of appearance)

Penelope Sycamore – Angela Crowner

Essie Carmichael – Hailey Falish

Rheba – Bailey Harkey

Paul Sycamore – Andrew Sturm

Mr. De Pinna – Tayten Koelbl

Ed Carmichael – Jacob Grignon

Martin Vanderhof (Grandpa) – Dave Stuewer

Alice Sycamore – Madeline Stuewer

Wilbur C. Henderson =- Joel Setterman

Tony Kirby – Matthew Pfantz

Madame Kolenkhov – Rebecca Setterman

Gay Wellington – Angela Doss

Anthony W. Kirby – David Woosencraft

Miriam Kirby – Denise Riley

G-Man 2 (Jim) – Kurt Kluge

G-Man 3 (Mac) – Marcus Whitehouse

The Grand Duchess Olga Katrina – Germaine Schwaller

Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Sept. 24-25, 2 p.m. Sept. 26.

Info: shawanoarts.com.

***

Mielke Arts Center, Sept. 19, 2021. (Warren Gerds)
Mielke Pond, Sept. 19, 2021. (Warren Gerds)

THE VENUE: The Mielke Arts Center was dedicated as the Mielke Theatre on Feb. 9, 1976, in the 24-acre Mielke Park on Airport Road north of Shawano in the Town of Westcott. The park includes a picturesque pond adjacent to the parking lot. The building was renamed in 1994. The Shawano County Arts Council maintains and operates the center. The theater is of the “black box” type – unadorned (cinder block walls, painted black, and cement floor, painted gray) and adaptable to the needs of a specific production. For “You Can’t Take It with You,” the audience is seated on floor level. The performance area is laid out at a near-diagonal, with seating somewhat in an arc. The audience faces to the building’s west. This production is another example of how use of the space is flexible.

THE EAGLES: Right outside the entrance on the east side of the building – and up in a pine tree – is an aerie. Bald eagles keep the nest well-kempt. Not many theaters anyplace have a home of eagles outside their door in plain sight.

THE PEOPLE: The Mielke Family Foundation was established in 1963 by Dr. Edward F. Mielke and his wife, Beulah (Bee), together with sisters Ruth and Sarah Mielke. A native of Shawano, Dr. Mielke practiced medicine in Appleton for 60 years. Ruth Mielke presided over the library at Appleton West High School for 40 years. Sarah Mielke taught advanced mathematics at Shawano High School.

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

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