First Stage’s Exhilarating “ANTARCTICA, WI“ Is Too Important A Play To Be Missed

Reviewed By: Matthew Perta

Highly Recommended

First Stage, a 30-year theater group in Milwaukee aimed at youngsters and families, bills itself as “transforming lives through theater.”  In staying true to its mission First Stage has partnered with the Filament Theatre in Chicago to co-commission the world premiere of Antarctica, WI, a play that recently opened in the Todd Wehr Theater of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee.

So how does Antarctica come to land in Wisconsin?  Antarctica is a metaphor imagined by the central character, a sensitive, gifted boy named Lenny.  Lenny sees his community, it could be Milwaukee or even Chicago – a place he loves and calls home – shifting and breaking apart, or changing or reshaping itself, much like Antarctic icebergs.  Most of the action takes place on a playground, where Lenny and his friends gather to play some baseball and experience life’s ups and downs.  In this briskly-paced plot we see one of Lenny’s friends tell his grandfather that he’s gay; two of his other friends, one of color and one white, decide to go on a date.  Through it all Lenny works at fighting his way around those menacing bergs to keep his friends – and their community together.

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Antarctica, WI was written by the award-winning playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer, and based on interviews he had with young people living in Milwaukee.  For me, the inspiring part of this play was seeing youngsters taking it in as audience members and young actors performing it on stage.   That’s always a good thing, right?  Otherwise, I found Antarctica, WI buried with one too many messages: A protagonist could be anybody.  Anyone can be great.  The best heroes make us feel like heroes.  Adults own everything.  Kids just want their own space where they can be what they want to be.  Some families don’t get to choose.  Can’t I be a nice young man if I’m gay?  People need anger to find solutions.

Just what, specifically, is the main message we can take away from Antarctica, WI?  How about just accepting kids for what they are and encouraging them to be who they were meant to be?

The cast of young actors performing the show I saw, called the “Berg” cast under the direction of Malkia Stampley, was convincing, but I do wish the actor portraying the key character of Lenny, Collin Woldt, would have put a little bit more emotion behind his lines.  At times, he sounded as though he were merely reciting them in rapid succession for fear of forgetting them altogether.

Giving Antarctica, WI a professional look is the scenic design of Yu Shibagaki and lighting of Jason Fassl.  Shibagaki’s squiggly lines in cement lighted by Fassl in stunning blue create the perfect illusion of icebergs ripping apart the community under the feet of these young people struggling to be heard.

Antarctica, WI is too important a play to be missed, an exhilarating work that we need right now, but I think it could be more of a wakeup call for adults than a lesson for kids, who are probably smart enough these days to already know what this play is getting at.

Antarctica, WI runs through April 22 in the Todd Wehr Theater of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, located at 929 N. Water St. in downtown Milwaukee.  Tickets can be purchased at the Marcus Center Box Office, 929 N. Water St., by phone at (414) 273-7206 or online at www.firststage.org.  The play is recommended for families with youngsters aged 10-17.

Chicago Ties: The Antarctica, WI cast includes Allen D. Edge, an ordained minister with more than 40 years of experience as an actor, director, producer and comedian.  Edge has performed at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Goodman Theatre, and at a variety of Chicago comedy clubs including Zanies, Barrel of Laughs, All Jokes Aside and Jokes and Notes, and with the Chicago-based comedy show U Got Jokes.  He also holds a bachelor’s degree in theater from Columbia College Chicago.

First in Nation: First Stage in Milwaukee had its premiere season in 1987, and is now regarded as one of the country’s leading theaters for young people and families.  Its theater academy is the country’s largest theater training program for youngsters, serving more than 2,100 students every year, and its theater in education programs reach some 20,000 students annually.  In 2012, First Stage was chosen to take part in the “Partners in Education” program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.