By ANNE SIEGEL
MILWAUKEE, WI – Although it’s not “official,” playwright Bill Cain and Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre seem to be having a love affair or, at least, a mutual admiration society. Next Act already has presented three of Cain’s plays in recent years: Equivocation (2018), How to Write a New Book for the Bible (2019) and 9 Circles (2020). Their latest project is the world premiere of Cain’s The Last White Man, which plays through May 8 on the Next Act stage.
Full of droll humor and comprised of a crazy-quilt of scenes that spill back and forth on each other, the play isn’t what you may think. If you guessed that The Last White Man is about a standoff between white settlers and Native Americans on the frontier, guess again. Instead, it’s a poignant riff on one of theatrical history’s greatest characters, Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Specifically, it’s about one particular production of Hamlet staged in the late 1980s. The play finds Charlie, a newly-minted movie star who recently won an Oscar, in the title role. Charlie’s former undergraduate drama teacher, a Black woman named Xandri, is his director.
While the playwright doesn’t specify that the production is on Broadway, one can assume this from the fact that the characters reveal the space as a 1,200-seat theater that’s decked out, as theaters and movie palaces once were, with major architectural details.
Life Imitates Art
It’s become an inside joke at Next Act that the plights which affect the production of Hamlet are also wreaking havoc with The Last White Man. In Bill Cain’s script, there is a lot of back and forth between Charlie, the movie star, and Rafe, his understudy. Charlie says he will never miss a production, so he suggests that Rafe sit back and cool his heels.
However, things take a twist, and Rafe is called on to substitute for Charlie more than once. In fact, when a third, well-known actor is brought on to replace Charlie, he, too, will require Rafe’s services.
Some of the play’s dark humor has been reflected in the show’s debut production. Next Act has been plagued with all sorts of pandemic-related switcheroos.
On opening night of The Last White Man, the actor playing Rafe (JJ Gatesman) was sidelined by a positive-COVID test. While he was in quarantine, his understudy played the role of (what else?) the understudy. Next, the two Saturday performances were completely canceled when more actors tested positive for COVID.
Finally, by the following week, the show’s director and Next Act producing artistic director David Cecsarini was subbing as Charlie for Ken Miller. It may be a while before the original cast reunites.
But in theater, “the show must go on,” as they say. Not surprisingly, Cecsarini, a 35-year Milwaukee theater veteran, did a magnificent job in replacing the missing actor. He engaged the audience from the get-go. In the opening scene, the character of Charlie is hesitating to take the stage due to his massive case of stage fright. His director, Xandri (a subtle, moving performance by Demetria Thomas), must coax and coddle him until he regains his confidence.
It is very clear in The Last White Man, that playwright Bill Cain expresses a deep love of actors (and their failings), as well as the theater itself. As the founder of a Boston-based Shakespeare company, Cain also has more than a passing appreciation for Shakespeare and, in particular, Hamlet.
Hamlet Stays True to Its Origins
Much of the The Last White Man references Hamlet’s soliloquies and even brings in a few of the show’s characters (particularly Hamlet’s ghostly father). Even the essence of the character – those qualities that Shakespeare attempted to capture in human nature – also rings true. The result is a fresh look at a character we may think we know so well.
The play has more than its share of humorous moments. Cain uses a disco tune – which turns up repeatedly during the show – to lighten some of the play’s more serious matters.
One might think that it would take a Shakespeare scholar to appreciate this play, but ‘tis not so. Cain makes his play so accessible that even if audiences confuse Laertes with Horatio (they won’t), they’ll still have a good time.
Even better, the breathtaking sword fight at the end of Hamlet is repeated several times in The Last White Man. That provides enough action to keep anyone riveted to the stage. Fight choreography is by Christopher Elst, with additional movement and combat for Charlie provided by Neil Brookshire. Alicia Rice also contributes to the choreography.
In addition to actors Cecsarini and Demetria Thomas, winning performances are also turned in by Milwaukee-area actor Brian J. Gill and Chicago-based JJ Gatesman. Gill portrays Tigg, the “name” actor who eventually replaces Charlie, and Gatesman is Rafe, the men’s understudy.
Cecsarini, ever the man of many talents, is also credited with the show’s set and sound design. Aaron Sherkow’s lighting enhances the minimal set and the spot-on costumes by Amelia Strahan. As properties designer, Madelyn Yee keeps a handle on the large number of swords and knives, as well as Hamlet’s iconic skull. Music direction is provided by David Bonofiglio.
Next season, Next Act is planning to stage the world premiere of another Bill Cain show, God’s Spies. The play is scheduled to run April 27 – May 21, 2023. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the current production, patrons are required to wear masks indoors at all times. Among other pandemic-related changes, which include the installation of an enhanced air filtration system, the theater’s capacity has been limited to 75 percent to ensure social distancing.