In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

From left, Peter Reeves, Mary MacDonald Kerr and Nicholas Harazin play patients in a mental hospital in "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball."

The Chamber Theatre "Swings" and Renaissance Theaterworks collects

Professional athletes' contracts often contain clauses that prohibit them from skydiving, motorcycle riding and other dangerous activities. Have to keep that valuable body intact.

Professional singers often baby their voices in the midst of a demanding performance schedule. Have to hit those notes every night.

It's understandable that visual artist Dana Fielding refuses to swallow psychotropic drugs in Rebecca Gilman's play "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball." As unhappily depressed as she may be, Fielding is acutely aware that her artistic identity as well as her livelihood rely on the coherence and integrity of her brain.

The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opened a production of "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball" last weekend. Later in this column I will preview the Renaissance Theaterworks staging of "American Fiesta," which opens Friday.

Playwright Gilman establishes a broadly ambitious and worthwhile topic in "Swing" -- how artists create and non-artists influence them. The latter would be critics, business associates, romantic partners and friends.

The play begins with Fielding brooding in a back room during the opening reception for her new show at a major gallery. Criticism of her work is messing with her head, emotionally and artistically. Once a commercially successful painter, Fielding is in a sales and popularity slump, and she is sliding into a depression so deep, a suicide attempt is in her future.

The table has been set for a stimulating exploration of the fragility of the creative spark. Perhaps the uncomfortable debate about the possible relationship between artistic ability and mental instability can also be raised.

Mary MacDonald Kerr's quietly sensitive and understated portrayal of Fielding heightens the anticipation in the Chamber production. But the script lets down MacDonald Kerr and her fine cast mates.

Gilman employs a plot device that blurs the play's focus and takes the story in multiple directions.

Fielding's unsuccessful suicide attempt lands her in a mental hospital that she prefers over her solitary existence in her apartment. The artist's flimsy health insurance places a 10 day limit on hospitalization for suicide patients, so she assumes the identity of baseball slugger Darryl Strawberry to obtain a more psychotic diagnosis from her supervising psychiatrist. The Strawberry ruse explains the play's title.

"Swing" becomes as much about a white woman trying to act like a street-talking African-American male athlete as it is about the creation of art. Add the American health insurance crisis as another issue. The blatherings of a criminally insane stalker further muddles the story.

In a cast that includes Peter Reeves, Linda Stephens and Laura Gray, Nicholas Harazin etches a particularly sweet and sensitive portrait of an alcoholic in rehab who befriends Fielding. "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball" continues through May 2 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center.

Dishing It Onstage

It's accurate to say the women of Renaissance Theaterworks are bowled over by the advance ticket sales for "American Fiesta," a one-actor show that despite having won a major national award in 2006 has only been previously staged in New York and Austin. The production, which opens Friday, has set the record for the largest pre-opening sale in Renaissance history.

The piece was created by Steven Tomlinson, an Austin based college professor, monologist, lay preacher and motivational speaker with a deep interest in theater. Largely autobiographical, it details his sudden passion for accumulating Fiestaware, the vividly colorful Depression-era ceramic dishes that have become items of obsession for collectors.

Tomlinson used his Fiesta fetish as a humorous bridge to a wide variety of subjects, from the blue state -- red state political divide and the government's color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System to the family discord that followed his decision to marry his same-sex partner. The Renaissance production, which features John McGivern, is the first time "American Fiesta" will be staged without Tomlinson performing it.

The piece received national attention when it earned Tomlinson the M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award. The American Theatre Critics Association gives the annual prize to an emerging playwright. Tomlinson, who performed the show off-Broadway in 2007, said in a phone interview that he received subsequent queries from theater companies requesting the rights to mount the play, but he turned them down until Renaissance inquired.

"It just didn't seem right before," was his answer to the question of why he is granting permission to produce the piece now. Tomlinson's busy life prevents him from touring it around the country himself.

The holder of a PhD. in economics from Stanford, he teaches in the Acton School of Business MBA program in Austin and is an adjunct professor of pastoral ministry at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest. In his spare time he preaches and advises corporations on communications issues.

McGivern knows all about writing and performing monologs that draw material from his personal life. The series of original one-man shows he has mounted here are his best work.

The local actor and comedian portrays about 20 characters in "American Fiesta," which has a running time of around 80 minutes, but playing all of those different people is not his biggest challenge, he recently said. "I have to handle probably 30 bowls that are placed all over the stage," he explained.

"Each has to be in a specific place at a specific time." Steady hands and GPS for the stage are a requirement for performing "American Fiesta."

Playwright Tomlinson reports that he stopped his Fiestaware personal collecting at about 120 pieces. "We ran out of money," he said. "But I do have a pristine example of every mixing bowl."

"American Fiesta" runs Friday through May 23 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. It will be remounted at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan June 15-19.

New Broadway Season

Assembling the annual season of touring shows for the Broadway at the Marcus Center series can be complicated. The local presenters, who partner with the Broadway Across America group, are reliant on whatever productions go on tour in a given year, and some years are much more fertile than others. After surveying the field of possibilities, the Marcus Center must find open dates at busy Uihlein Hall that fit into a specific show's national routing.

The 2010-11 Marcus Center season, which was announced this week, is moderately interesting. The big news is that "Jersey Boys" will appear in Milwaukee for the first time, with an engagement that will run from July 20 to Aug. 14, 2011. Note, that is the summer of 2011.

Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" will also make its Milwaukee debut, booked to play the Marcus Center Nov. 2 to 7. Three revivals are a part of the subscription package -- "Hair," Feb. 22-27, 2011; "Les Miserables," April 19-24, 2011, and "Fiddler on the Roof," June 14-19, 2011.

In addition to all of this, "Mamma Mia" returns to the Marcus Center Jan. 4-9, 2011 in an engagement that will not be included in the season ticket offer.


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