Taking a closer look at Madison theater
May 29, 2014
03:02 PM
Stage Write

Jam-Packed 2014–15 Lineups for Bartell's Theater Groups

Jam-Packed 2014–15 Lineups for Bartell's Theater Groups


The four presenting theater companies at the Bartell Theater are prepping interesting shows, including an original play about the first woman to practice law in Wisconsin.

There’ll be musicals, a double-shot of Paula Vogel and several plays that you may know better as big-screen films. Also a director’s swan song and a lot of hot-button social issues.

In other words, it’s another packed docket coming up for the presenting companies in the Bartell Theater—that’d be Mercury Players Theatre, Stage Q, Strollers Theatre and Madison Theatre Guild—whose representatives and friends gathered together last week to unveil their 2014–15 seasons. For local theater lovers, it’s like Christmas in May…except that we have to wait another four months to actually open the gifts.

The companies’ playbills are packed with intriguing and artistically risky fare. Rather than roll you over with a tidal wave of play titles and dates, we’ll hit on some of the highlights for each.


Mercury Players have never shied from challenging, difficult work—see their current show, Skin Tight, if you’re looking for a recent example—and 2014–15’s no exception. Take, for instance, next January’s The Beautiful Dark, Midwestern playwright Erik Gernand’s monologue-heavy drama about a family struggling with secrets and coming to terms with a terrible tragedy. The play shares its subject matter with an offering that’s on Forward Theater’s fall docket—and hopefully, that means we’ll be discussing it for four months rather than only two.    

Buoyed by the madcap success of Xanadu: the Broadway Comedy Musical, director Steve Noll’s now poised to tackle Bare: The Musical,  a no-holds-barred rock musical about a pair of gay teens who struggle with sexuality, drugs and alcohol at a Catholic boarding school (think Spring Awakening meets Rent). With nearly forty musical numbers of comedy, tragedy and an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet serving as the backdrop, we’re expecting fireworks when it opens next March.


Strollers’ season has a strong dash of the Hollywood—three of the company’s five shows also exist as movies, including the opener, On Golden Pond, a show they’ll co-produce this September with Silver Stages, a local nonprofit that brings theater to seniors, and December’s The Lion in Winter. We’ll be watching anxiously to see who gets to play the Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn roles.  

Strollers also has the first of the two Paula Vogel plays on its October docket: The Baltimore Waltz, a comi-tragic series of vignettes that focus on a brother and sister dealing with Acquired Toilet Disease, the playwright’s darkly comic stand-in for AIDS.  

In a sense, Strollers saves its best—or at least its most historically impactful—for last. Next April, longtime actor-director Jeff Knupp will direct his final show: The Dresser, Ronald Harwood’s drama about a personal assistant to an aging actor. (The 1983 film version netted Oscar noms for Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.) It’s the show he’s always wanted to do, so we’re expecting him to throw his heart and soul into it.  


New artistic director Audrey Wax announced her intentions to place her company’s spotlight on the transgender voice, and nowhere will that be more evident than the company’s August opener, Tobias K. Davis's Standards of Care, a play that focuses on a gender therapist who’s struggling with her own daughter’s desire to change genders at the same time she’s falling for one of her male patients struggling with the same issues. Callen Harty’s directing this one, so you know it’s in great hands.


MTG, as usual, has the biggest docket, staging six shows between next September and May 2015. They’re responsible for the second Paula Vogel play—the deeply disturbing How I Learned to Drive, opening in February 2015.

Steve Noll, ever the busy beaver, will direct Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde in November. Noll has some interesting twists in mind in terms of how the play will be staged. Given that Moises Kaufman’s script already features plenty of stage-aware devices—the actors, for instance, change costumes onstage as they shift between roles—this is definitely one to watch.

And so is Lavinia, local playwright/director Betty Diamond’s original tale of Rhoda Lavinia Goodell, the first woman to be licensed to practice law in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s sponsoring the show, and as stamps of approval go, you’re not likely to get much better than that. Don’t miss it next March.  

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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