As an artistic director leaves, a playwright emerges
Joe Hanreddy wanted to end his 17-year run as artistic director of the Milwaukee Rep by giving his beloved acting company a big, juicy comedy. The idea was to provide the actors a celebratory opportunity to strut their stage stuff.
Building and maintaining a strong resident acting ensemble, a rarity in 21st century American regional theater, has been the dominant theme of the Hanreddy era at the Rep.
He chose the 97-year-old melodramatic comedy "Seven Keys to Baldpate" to be his final production in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, and for more than a year looked forward to the fun he and the company would have rehearsing the show. The George M. Cohan script was so creaky it was unproducible, prompting Hanreddy to write a new version of "Seven Keys" for modern audiences.
Retitled "Seven Keys to Slaughter Peak," the farce opened last weekend, and it delivers on the artistic director's intention of showcasing his actors' formidable talents. But "Seven Keys" goes beyond that. It establishes Hanreddy as a top tier playwright whose work merits national attention.
That should not surprise us. Collaborating with J.R. Sullivan last season, Hanreddy wrote a theatrical adaptation of the Jane Austen novel "Pride and Prejudice" that smoothly and effectively negotiated the difficult challenges of moving a story from the page to the stage. The show was a big box office success for the Rep.
Hanreddy is no stranger to tweaking texts of plays he directs, and he rewrote another Cohan comedy, "The Tavern," for a production in the Powerhouse Theater 13 years ago. "Seven Keys" emphatically makes the point that he is a writer who should not back away from the computer keyboard when he joins the UWM faculty later this year to co-develop a new fellowship program in stage directing and design.
The basic shell of the original Cohan play has been retained in "Seven Keys to Slaughter Peak," but the dialogue is completely new and fresh. Hanreddy moved the story to a fictional speck on the Wisconsin map called Spread Eagle. It's "upnorth."
The Slaughter Peak summer resort is closed for the winter, but the owner, a wealthy Chicagoan, sends his pal William Magee to the chilly lodge on a $10,000 bet. The decade is the 1930s, when that was serious money.
Magee is a prolific author of pulpy dime novels, including "the first dime novel to cost 15 cents," and the wager concerns his ability to pen an entire book in 24 hours. He put his money on doing it. Magee plans to hole up in the shuttered Slaughter Peak resort so he can work without distractions.
However, the writer is in the lodge for barely 30 minutes when the interruptions begin. A colorful collection of locals and Chicago tough guys shows up to engage in some shady business. Life imitates art, or is it the other way around?
Hanreddy and the late Rep playwright Larry Shue did not cross paths in their careers, but "Seven Keys" is enjoyably reminiscent of Shue's first big hit, "The Nerd." Clever word play abounds, lifting the silly humor to a more sophisticated level. Both pieces contain over-the-top role playing exercises, and both employ characters who gently caricature Wisconsin speech and physical mannerisms.
There is another similarity. Satisfying plot twists spice the second acts of each play.
"Seven Keys" is populated with trash novel types who are equally recognizable on screen and stage. The Rep actors have the fun of inhabiting them, which they do with gusto. Take your pick of your favorite performances.
Lee Ernst ignites the comedy a few minutes into the show with an exquisitely crafted portrait of the old geezer who serves as the resort's caretaker. His timing, vocal inflection and physicality are perfect.
Deborah Staples is the epitome of the hard boiled broad who can switch her allegiance in a heartbeat to be with the winner. Peter Silbert is a comic wild man as a northern Wisconsin recluse living as a hermit to avoid women, and Torrey Hanson is a slick looking Chicago hit man whose on-the-job bumbling contradicts his appearance.
As novelist William Magee, Brian Vaughn is at the center of the action, using his trademark affability to good effect. The cast also includes Laura Gordon, Lee Stark, Gerard Neugent, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Steve Pickering, James Pickering and interns Rob Glidden and Dylan Saunders.
"Seven Keys to Slaughter Peak" runs through April 18.
Playwright Goes to the Bank
The largest cash prize given to a new play in this country has been awarded this year to "Equivocation," a highly theatrical drama written by Bill Cain, a Jesuit priest. Cain has won the $25,000 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, granted annually by the American Theatre Critics Association.
"Equivocation," which received its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last April, is set in early 17th century England. The fictitious story concerns an official close to the English crown commissioning William Shakespeare to write a play about the real life Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by Catholic terrorists to blow up the British House of Lords.
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