In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

In Tandem's "Carnival" shows that small companies can stage big shows. (PHOTO: Tanya Dhein)

In Tandem's "Carnival" offers example of a small company dreaming big dreams

It's impossible to stop thinking about the production of "Carnival" currently being staged at In Tandem Theatre, which I reviewed on opening night last week and is a fascinating example of what can happen when you stretch yourself and dream big dreams.

In Tandem stages its productions at the Tenth Street Theatre, in the basement of that big red church on 10th St. between Wisconsin and Michigan. It's a small space with a stage that is broken at two sides by support pillars, which can't be removed.

It's a problematic space for a number of reasons, but Chris and Jane Flieller, who run the company, always manage to stage an interesting, high-level show. In Tandem is one of the theater companies in town that encounters many of the issue facing other similar groups.

Joining them are Next Act and Renaissance and Chamber, all companies that endure the economic realities of a smaller company, keeping a tight rein on expenses while staging meaningful and interesting theater. All four of them meet their missions almost every time they raise the curtain.

But there are constraints that move beyond the size of their stages or configurations of their spaces.

The primary one, as it is for just about every theater, is economic. Nobody gets rich running a mid-sized theater company. Artistic and managing directors need to be very careful, looking for plays that will generate an audience while balancing expenses against expected revenues.

What this frequently amounts to in Milwaukee is that we get plays, normally excellent plays, that feature smallish casts. It is not unusual to see plays in the city with two, three or four actors. There is nothing inherently wrong with small-cast plays. Even one-man (or woman) shows can be thought-provoking, challenging and entertaining.

But it would be interesting to see some of these companies stretch to include productions that call for larger casts, including musicals. I would love to see David Cecsarini at Next Act or C. Michael Wright at Chamber Theatre bring their impeccable taste and years of experience to infrequently produced musicals like "100 Degrees in the Shade" by the same team that created the venerable "The Fantasticks."

I can imagine what directors like Suzan Fete or Mallor Metoxen would bring if Renaissance staged a musical with many female lead roles.

One thing I'm not suggesting here is that these companies abandon their missions and commitment to quality theater. But I do believe that there are shows that get no consideration because of the size of a cast or the complexities of a production.

Jane Flieller directed "Carnival" and she knows as well as anyone that In Tandem has some advantages.

"We believe that organizations should operate within their means, growing when they can, and staying true to their missions," she said. " We are fortunate to have our own space and are able to rehearse right on the set most of the time, from the beginning of our process. This puts us ahead of the game. We are fortunate to have very talented professional actors in town who can put together a show of this size with just evening and weekend rehearsals, as we have to work around daytime work schedules more often than not.

"I had a terrific team. Josh Robinson and Karl Miller shared the workload and we communicated well. They were great in keeping to my vision of the piece, putting together a cohesive story that included song and dance. Not all organizations, especially the smaller ones, have access to these things as we do. We consider ourselves very fortunate."

She's right, of course, but other companies can also find the kinds of resources necessary to mount these large productions. Not every time, to be sure, but occasionally it would be nice to see some companies stretch beyond their comfort zones.

Leave it to the master of dreams, Walt Disney, to put it best.

"All our dreams can come true," Disney said, " if we have the courage to pursue them."


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