So, it’s a Friday night. You need to go out after a very, very long week. And you need to get away from all that’s been going on in the world. The natural thing would be to go out and perhaps see a show. And that’s what I did last night (December 2), when after a long day and week of work, I went here:
That’s the front marquis for the Barrymore Theatre, which is located in the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood on Madison’s near east side. The Barrymore (named in tribute to the Barrymore acting family) has had a long and varied yet rich history since first opening in 1929 as the Eastwood Theater. It served primarily as a movie theater for much of its first 6 decades, offering the latest Hollywood fare and even featuring an occasional live performance. But competition from newer, multi-screen cinemas, combined with a declining neighborhood surrounding it, would leave the theater resorting to showing X-rated fare exclusively by the early 1980s.
New ownership and the adoption of its current name in 1987 would transform the Barrymore. With it began a gradual transformation from a second-run budget cinema to the live performance venue it’s known as today. The screening of films would stop completely by 1992, when its current nonprofit ownership began concentrating exclusively on concerts by various touring artists of wide-ranging styles (from rock and folk to world beat and stand-up comedy), along with an occasional art house film. A much-improved Schenk-Atwood neighborhood has certainly helped, with many restaurants and small businesses sprouting up since the Barrymore’s revitalization.
Live plays are also a part of the Barrymore’s fare, including the show I went to last night.
Are We Delicious? is an ensemble live theater group (or “pickup group,” as this article describes it) that exclusively and proudly consists of performers and writers from the Madison area. Established in 2012, Are We Delicious? specializes in mini-plays connected with a uniting theme, concept, or setting. I say “mini-plays” since these are short, one-act productions, each credited to a different writer, that usually run between 5 and 10 minutes. The plays can be stand-alone (such as “Musical Heroes,” which I’ll talk about in detail below) or have the same continuing characters from the start of the night until the end (this science fiction-themed show that I saw in October is a prime example of that).
As Are We Delicious? mentions on its website, “Everyone writes, everyone acts, and no one can rest until the final curtain.” What do they mean by that? Well, the participants all have full involvement; they can write one mini-play while acting, directing, or otherwise collaborating on the others. The participants not only work with each other but for each other, and it creates a night so seamless you can forget that each scene had a different writer. On top of all that, almost all of Are We Delicious’ productions, from conception to first performance, occur in a single week. That 7-day turnaround time makes an Are We Delicious? show less like the 24-hour “Blitzes” that Mercury Players Theatre puts on and more akin to the “Queer Shorts” productions that Stage Q allows to gestate a little longer. (I’ve made mention of those shows here and here.) That being said, however, they all appear to share a “time is short so let’s work together and get this right” feeling.
As noted above, most of Are We Delicious’ work has featured the same characters in the same show. “Musical Heroes,” did not, making it similar to “Blitz” or “Queer Shorts.” But unlike those shows, “Musical Heroes” used the same 9-person roster of actors playing different characters throughout the evening; the performers could jump from minor characters to major players, or even from gallant to evil, within a 2-play span. The stage layout was also bare bones, including the use and re-use of an occasional prop or drape-over costume when necessary.
As confirmed by Are We Delicious? founder Tony Trout here, “Musical Heroes” was originally going to have a full escapist feel, with heroes in various costumes or whatever coming in to defeat the villains and/or save those in distress, all with songs written during conception and backed by the accompaniment of a live band who collaborated with the actors/writers. The heroes would save the day, some songs would be sung, and everyone would have a good time.
And then Election Night happened…
Thanks to the awful results of the election — an outcome that, to be blunt, has still shaken a great many in progressive-leaning Madison — it was clear that the tone of “Musical Heroes” (whose title was confirmed and promoted well before Election Day) would have to change. The title of the show would stay. The heroic and musical themes would stay as well. (Are We Delicious? couldn’t let all that promotional material go to waste, now could they?) As for the fantasy aspect… well, fantasy would have to collide with reality a little bit. As a result, at least half of the 9 mini-plays in Friday’s performance of “Musical Heroes” — the only staging of this show, for the record — dealt directly with the scary future awaiting our nation and planet. Give the crew credit for striking while the iron is hot, dealing with a topic that is plaguing everyone these days in brave and daring ways.
Knowing ahead of time what the subject matter would be, I wasn’t sure if going to “Musical Heroes” would result in a fun time. Like most of you and most everyone in Madison and this country, I still feel shook up by Election Night. I’m deeply worried by the ongoing change in political power in the U.S., a transition from a progressive and deeply positive leader to one that relishes in spreading prejudice and fear of “the others” in a misguided effort to make our country “great” (as if it wasn’t great already). And I’m finding it quite hard to laugh at even the most well-pointed of topical jokes right now. But I seemed to be in the minority last night, as many in the “Musical Heroes” were eager to put their fears aside for 2-1/2 hours and laugh and cheer at nine talented performers daring to take our new thin-orange-skinned leader down several notches.
With all that said, I’ll go through the 9 mini-plays that made up “Musical Heroes.” But rather than rank them in chronological order or by any sort of quality level (they were all nicely crafted and well performed, I must make clear), they’re listed by how frightened the subject matter left me in regards to current events; the most distressing play is listed first, then going in descending order to the least distressing. As befitting the “Musical Heroes” title, each play had some variation of a “heroic” theme, all had a live 5-piece backing band (Madisonians all, as were the cast), and nearly all had a song or two. And, yes, I did find myself chuckling a bit during the night. So, here we go:
“Beano the Super Clown and the League of Laughter in… The Orange Man Chronicles” (1st play), which seemed to adhere closely to the night’s original fantastical superhero intent, saw a trio of clownish (literally, they were clowns) heroes trying to defeat a new orange-skinned leader, who won “with a minority of the vote” (yeah… *sigh*), and the religious figures and the proletariat who fell under his spell. It’s all for naught, however, as the leader commands an all-powerful vortex intended to vacuum the heroes into oblivion. Instead, said vortex sucks up… wait for it… every character in the play. With the exception of the new leader. Who laughs with glee over his victory, paying no mind to how hollow that victory now is. It was joyous in tone, and the audience really lapped it up. But its subtext left me stone-faced… because who knows how much damage the real new leader will leave in his wake?
“Have They Reached You Yet?” (9th and final play) wasn’t about politics so much as it was about the commercially-controlled news media, personified here by two professional men — a network news anchor tasked to present nothing more serious than “human interest stories,” and his gradually-becoming-former colleague, a reporter who implores the anchor to stress serious stories (e.g. global warming, foreign affairs) in his newscast. This play really seemed to make you think; I mean, turn on nearly every TV news program and it’s clear that even the most dedicated of news organizations are missing the mark when it comes to covering the news that will affect everyone’s lives. But spirits were lifted after the play’s conclusion, when the cast sung a beautifully-done encore, promising in the chorus to “raise all our voices.”
“A Scythe of Relief” (8th play) was a “villain vs. hero” battle of wills between the Grim Reaper (who, and excuse me for putting my fashion maven hat on for a second, looked fierce in her gold elbow-length gloves and a well-used gold lamé cape) and a personification of a certain health care measure that could be in deep trouble before too long. (*sigh*) Ms. Health Care Act knows her time in her current life form may be limited, but she’s not ready to give up the fight just yet, and persuades Ms. Reaper to have a little bit of compassion before claiming her next victim.
“Pussy Grabs Back” (5th play — and, yes, that was the title) was set in an “Apology Room” deep in the bowels of “Dump Tower,” where a certain female TV reporter whose initials are “M.K.” and works for a network that starts with “F” convinces an analog to a certain recent presidential candidate (first name “Calliope”) to not concede/apologize to the offended thin-skinned leader who played dirty election tricks and is now sitting on a literally golden throne (for sure, Are We Delicious? got a lot of mileage out of that gold lamé fabric Friday night). This was the bawdiest play of the night, using humor to go from troubling to uplifting to a downright awesome outcome. Of the night’s 9 plays, this seemed to be the one that took the clearest stand against the new real-life leadership. It also had the most daring creative moment of the night: As “Calliope” is at the microphone ready to concede (spoiler alert: she instead tells the new leader to stick it somewhere… you know where), some audience members literally got up from their seats and approached the foot of the Barrymore stage; before you knew what was happening and why, they were successfully pleading with Calliope to not concede to the new leader. This move by those sitting in the audience was a moment likely no one (except the cast, probably) was expecting… which made it all the more cooler. (P.S.: Catherine Capellaro is credited for writing this play, while her husband Andrew Rohn composed the music. Both talk about the play and “Musical Heroes” in this awesome Wisconsin State Journal article.)
“The Problem We All Live With” (4th play) had real-life inspiration in the story of Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to integrate New Orleans’ all-white William Frantz Elementary School in the early 1960s (the title is taken from a Norman Rockwell painting depicting Ruby’s moment in history). This play was the simplest in terms of performance and layout. It was also the night’s most serious play, unflinchingly dealing with racism and integration through a lead character (a federal marshal and war veteran, as his camouflage jacket confirmed) really laying into a colleague for his perception that whose who are not as white as him are, in turn, not as intelligent as him (a great turn by the actor in the camouflage). This play also seemed the most timeless: The girl they were escorting into civil rights history in the early 1960s could be a stand in for someone wearing Sikh or Muslim garb or even an openly LGBTQ person in 2016. And with the dangerous attitudes against minority groups of all stripes now rearing its ugly head in the weeks since the election, it’s scary to think that this recreation of a famous event could come back into real life somewhere, sometime soon.
So, yeah, five plays whose fine construction still left one wondering, oh my goodness, our real-life future doesn’t look very promising. That’s not to say that “Musical Heroes” as a whole wasn’t intending to lift the audience’s spirits. On the contrary, for you should consider the rest of the evening:
“Trapped in the X and Y Axis” (6th play, and the first post-intermission), set in ancient Egypt, featured two scientists (one of whom determined the world was not flat, hence the play’s title) demoted to construction work by a pharaoh with papyrus-thin skin and never-ending demands to construct pyramids and walls (the latter to keep the Ethiopians out). Laments about the “dumbing down” of the human race, lively singing, and lots of ancient Egyptian puns, which got the best laughs of the night (and who doesn’t love sharp puns, right?).
“In Case of a Water Landing” (2nd play) took a blurred-line, non-liner route as a husband and wife (and the audience) go back-and-forth from a ride at Disney World to an unsuccessful attempt to conceive a child at an Orlando clinic to a plane ride back home that runs into a bit of unresolved trouble. Weighty yet inspiring, the leads perform well together, telling… nay, singing their expression that they are not just friends and lovers but heroes to each other (they harmonized quite beautifully). One of two plays with a beautifully tender theme, along with…
“Ready For My Close Up” (7th play), which involved an aging movie actor whose talents and line-memorizing skills have long gone past their prime, and the director/daughter who still looks up to him. While it had a few humorous moments, it was clear that this was about a daughter who loves and respects her father for being the loving parent he still is, the star he once was, and the inspiration he’ll always be.
“Rhythm and Who?” (3rd play) took the “Guitar Hero” route, with two members of a rock band trying to reinvent themselves with prospective, worshiping new members… who, in their own strange ways, took to heart an open invitation that went through auto-correct a little too much. (Really, doesn’t anyone read their correspondence before hitting the “send” button? *LOL*) The play that went the furthest away from current events, with no reference of any kind to modern-day politics.
So, yeah, nine plays that had fun with and made you think about this post-election world we now find ourselves in. And while they were all well-done, the songs well-performed (real singing chops among the cast… and ooh, the acoustics…), Little Ol’ Worrywart Me still couldn’t shake the feeling that these politically-themed tales could come to fruition if our world doesn’t become too careful and doesn’t start paying close attention.
But then, I started to look past the trees and began to appreciate the forest. I can’t help but think that the intent of Are We Delicious?, with “Musical Heroes,” wasn’t to make people laugh (and there were some good laughs) or to have them leave the theater worried and fretful. Why do I say this? Well, there was the inclusion of 4 real-life “Local Heroes” from the Madison area, all noted activists and leaders who took a few minutes in-between plays to step up to the microphone and heap praise on those they consider heroes, to promote good causes, and to encourage everyone to see their fellow human beings in a light that’s free from prejudice and ugly influence. Certainly the liveliest presenter of the quartet was John Nichols, who you may know as a writer for Madison’s Capital Times and The Nation magazine and as a frequent analyzer of current events on local radio and on national networks such as MSNBC. Nichols’ audience-stirring talk, though somewhat lengthy, was a heartfelt dedication to the Wisconsin farmers who took part in 2011 protests against Wisconsin’s GOP governor and his pushing of legislation widely considered anti-union and pro-corporate fat-cats.
And then there was the inclusion in the “Musical Heroes” program of the following quote from Fred Rogers. Yes, the Mister Rogers, he of that famous neighborhood with the magic trolley. Here’s what Fred Rogers said way back when:
“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
It’s that quote, and “Musical Heroes” in general, that left me with the realization that Are We Delicious?, its crew, and guest heroes weren’t intending to make people cry while laughing. They weren’t wanting to make people long for better times of the past, nor did they want them to be fearful of the future.
Instead, they wanted the audience to feel… inspired.
Inspired enough to stay strong in the face of uncertain dangers. Inspired enough to keep raising voices for the voiceless. Inspired enough to do something as simple as care for someone or something they have concerns about. Inspired enough to pass a kind word or action to even a friendly neighbor down the street, a little goodwill that can easily be passed forward. It’s that tone of goodwill that this nation and world are clearly in short supply of. But when you think of it, a better world begins with a better you.
Kudos to Are We Delicious? for putting on a nice show Friday night with “Musical Heroes.” If you saw it in person as I did, here’s hoping you enjoyed it as well. If you didn’t get a chance to see its only performance, that’s too bad… although perhaps they can do an encore sometime in the future. Because one gets the sense that the future may need the inspiration and positive vibes that this night provided.