The first thing I notice is there is no set. No minimalist wooden boxes, no moth-eaten couch a stage manager has hauled from her garage, no plywood backdrop sponge-painted to vaguely resemble a rolling meadow -- just black walls, black floor.
I'll admit I was skeptical.
I was leery of this show for more reasons than that. I loathe shrill, preachy political theater, especially when the shrilling and preaching are being done on the side I agree with. But a friend assured me she'd seen playwright Doug Reed's previous work, and if anyone could pull off a Broom Street Theater take on the political events that rocked Wisconsin earlier this year, it would be him.
It turned out she was right.
The Lamentable Tragedie of Scott Walker, running through Sept. 4, is a mock Shakespearean tragedy complete with iambic pentameter, soliloquies, swordfights and of course codpieces. It's clear Reed is a Shakespearean fanboy and ye olde blends seamlessly with ye new.
The story spans 30 days, from the day the character modeled on Gov. Scott Walker announces a budget repair bill to the day he signs it, and follows the kingly court of Walker and the Fitzgeralds, the Fab 14 Democratic senators, a ragtag team of protesters, and Walker's court jester, a public servant with a Tiny Tim-like son (played gloriously for laughs by Nolan Veldey) who relies on BadgerCare.
The Spartan stage becomes an asset, with nothing to distract from Carola Breckbill's stunning costumes, many of which were made by hand. The set's few flourishes are judiciously meted out: the flickering light of an unseen TV, a haunting rumble of distant thunder and a surprise special effect too hilarious to give away.
The script itself is breathtaking -- rapid-fire wordplay, a laugh-out-loud moment in nearly every line, and a startling idea density for a play with so many dick jokes. I was moved to tears on four separate occasions.
It's no secret which side the playwright favors, but the conservative characters are more than puppets for his message. Their motivations are believable and their arguments make sense. I wouldn't go so far as to call them sympathetic, but they're fully drawn.
The liberal protagonists are flawed, not heroic -- alternately unappealingly cynical and embarrassingly earnest, cartoonishly overeducated and awkwardly out of touch. We watch the Democratic senators transform from bickering children to unlikely heroes, making us root for them harder than we would for untouchable saints.
The performances are excellent across the board, with nary a weak link in the cast. Collin Erickson is particularly inspired as a protester who grows from cynicism to hope and in a second role as the mealy-mouthed jester. Ben Otto is an engaging protagonist, Ray Olderman is hilarious as a licentious Sen. Fred Risser and Jake Penner portrays Walker with the perfect blend of chilling calculation and pitiable self-delusion.
The final act gets a bit unwieldy and the story's denouement is darker than I expected, feeling a bit tonally off from the rest of the play, but this is one of the smartest, funniest plays I've seen in Madison.
One of the story's strongest moments is a quiet night under the Capitol rotunda, two protesters huddled in sleeping bags just moments before the bill passes the assembly. "I hate their movement based on hate," cries one, exasperated. "This Capitol is our house."
The other points out: "Is it not their house, too?"