James Roatch, left, Dawn Cieszynski, Jennifer Scott and Jessica Jane Witham in Encore Studio's The Gentlemen.
I hadn't checked out an Encore! Studio for the Performing Arts show since its productions moved from the Bartell Theatre to the cozy Mary DuPont Wahlers Theatre, in the troupe's headquarters. So it was good to catch up with the group, Wisconsin's only professional theater company for individuals with disabilities.
Encore's new play, The Gentlemen, written by artistic and executive director KelsyAnne Schoenhaar, is loosely based on the life experiences of eight men in the company. It is punctuated with song. It opened Friday; I saw Saturday's performance.
Two alien women (Jennifer Scott, Dawn Cieszynski), whose job is to dispatch humans to their lives on earth, meet with the gentlemen of the show's title and go over their challenges, which include cognitive disabilities, blindness, quadriplegia, fetal alcohol syndrome and anxiety. The aliens also go over the men's strengths -- wit, caring, positivity, a forgiving nature.
We then see vignettes that give us insights into the men's time on earth and how the cards they were dealt shape their experiences. As the aliens watch, their head honcho (Jessica Jane Witham) is horrified that humans can treat these men with such hatred, disdain and indifference. She questions the mission. Witham's character is shown that life on earth can be crappy no matter what the circumstances, and that somehow happiness and compassion can emerge. Throughout the production, images of the men at different times in their lives are projected on a screen, along with information from their alien dossiers.
Sean (Joe Walhers) faces ridicule but remains good-humored and buoyant. Jeffery (James Roatch) uses comedy and celebrity impressions to escape the scathing verbal abuse inflicted by his father.
Monty (William Kornblum) and Terrell (D.J. Moore, with his angelic voice) comfort each other as the devastating story of Monty's childhood plays out on the screen. Christie Stadele as Mac, a mustachioed Borscht Belt comedian, has a great voice and impeccable comic timing. She's quite the scene-stealer.
A trio of friends tries to cheer up the despondent Quentin (Randy Sands). His fiancée, Gabs (Connie Alsum), works to nudge him out of his near-catatonic state. When he reaches for her hand (his first movement, his first display of emotion), it's quite touching.
Martin (Corin Reilly) is the last of the men to descend to earth. He doesn't want to cooperate with his alien specialists, and he uses his communication board in a wise and witty fashion.
As the alien overseeing the operation, Witham has a strong voice and a no-nonsense presence. Sometimes the scenes with the alien trio are a bit shrill, and I was occasionally confused about the mission. Between Cieszynski and Scott's characters, Cieszynski's is the sunnier and more optimistic, while Scott has a world-weary edge.
It's clear from watching what the gentlemen go through that we need to examine how we treat our fellows, disabled or not. With comedy, drama and music, and without preachiness, Encore successfully gets that message across.