People use the word interesting when they don't know what else to say and don't want to be insulting. I can report that Broom Street Theater's latest production, Riverwest: A Rhapsody, which opened Friday, is interesting; genuinely interesting. It is also a bit overwhelming and chaotic.
This is writer/director Eric Theis' first play for Broom Street. It celebrates and examines the goings-on in his former Milwaukee neighborhood, Riverwest. Exploring themes like gentrification, white privilege, community activism, racism and police accountability, Theis certainly gives us a lot to think about. Clearly he's passionate and intelligent, but sometimes the play suffers from a heavy-handed, scolding tone. Fortunately, there are times when his words and the performances soar.
Most of the action takes place at the Atlantis Bar & Café, where former hippie activist Clyde (Chuck Mielke) presides over open-mike and karaoke night. Theis cleverly uses this device to welcome audience participation. On opening night I enjoyed the offerings from Chris and Patrick, who recited poetry, and the powerful contributions of Sidewalk Academy, a rap group.
Populating the neighborhood are a white couple with a rocky relationship, bisexual student Audrey (unflappable Sabra Katz-Wise), and self-proclaimed anarchist Bryan (Collin Erickson). There also is Dre (Odari McWhorter), an African American teen who is on the precipice of disaster and lives with his infant son, and white grandmother Lois (Betsy Wood), who says she married into the neighborhood. Their lives intersect in ways that are both ordinary and surprising.
Even apart from the musical performances at the Atlantis, characters sometimes break into song. This initially irritated me, because I don't typically like the kind of talk-singing, without much of a melody, that is done in this show. However, some of the actors have really good voices. In particular, Erickson's voice is deep and rich, and, at the risk of sounding like an American Idol judge, an amazing gift.
Some scenes feel clunky, like the Know Your Rights community program sequence, with some fumbled lines and more audience participation (this time less graceful); and Broom Street's obligatory passing of the hat, which is crowbarred into the open-mike scene.
But there are scenes that moved me with their simplicity and authenticity. When McWhorter and Erickson end up together in the back of a police car, their dialogue is spot-on. Later, when McWhorter and Katz-Wise casually banter and flirt, McWhorter impressed me with his loose but energetic physicality, convincingly bringing to mind a bright teen whose future could turn on dime.
Wood and Mielke share some tender moments as they discuss how their pasts shaped them, as well as the heartbreak that can come with parenting. Closing the show is a somber and eloquent closing monologue from Erickson. It rocked me and made me think.
I know I've come down on Broom Street productions for being too long, too sloppy, too indulgent, and those issues continue to haunt the company in Riverwest: A Rhapsody. But there are also smart, funny, profane and provocative things happening here, not to mention timely remarks about the labor crisis that's going on in Madison at the moment.