Skip to content

WPW Backstage

World Premiere Wisconsin premiere of I CARRY YOUR HEART WITH ME at Third Avenue PlayWorks.
14 June 2023

The Dream of a Common Language

Mike Fischer, for World Premiere Wisconsin
The Dream of a Common Language Image

If from time to time I envy
the pure annunciations to the eye

. . .

what in fact I keep choosing

are these words, these whispers, conversations
from which time after time the truth breaks moist and green

– Adrienne Rich, “Cartographies of Silence”


Christine Sáenz and Maddy Sylvester in MICRO.

What microbiology doctoral candidate Ali Masihl desperately needs is a room of her own.

In the first scene of Adam Qutaishat and Heidi Joosten’s Micro, Ali is continually interrupted by professors and other grad students – obnoxious, clueless, often both – barging into the lab where she’s trying to hear the sound of her own ideas.

Increasingly desperate, she finally posts a sign on the door, warning potential intruders that opening that door could trigger the release of dangerous pathogens.

But as quickly became clear in watching Music Theatre of Madison’s workshop production of Micro this past Friday night, the real toxins are without rather than within. Beyond the room in which Ali is trying to work, so-called colleagues and mentors as well as Big Pharma await, countering her microbiology with a barrage of microaggressions.

Christine Sáenz’s Ali registers the mounting frustration of a fiercely intelligent global majority woman whose powerful, self-defining ballads are continually fractured by hostile external voices, messing with her head and making it hard for her to hear herself.

Content dictates form: Micro bakes such interruptions into its structure, particularly during those moments when Ali and her friend MJ (Maddy Sylvester) sit in a music practice room, discovering how the sounds between conventional intervals – much like the words between lines, or like global majority women such as Ali herself – embody truths the world is prone to ignore.

As Ali and MJ begin making music together, their developing harmony is continually thwarted by short, staccato scenes in which Ali’s nemesis – a white acoustician (Kevin Blakeslee) who repeatedly belittles her – argues with Ali’s mentor (Qutaishat) and Big Pharma (Amanda Rodriguez), each of them angling to appropriate and claim Ali’s work as their own.

Even within the ostensible sanctuary of a practice room, Ali can’t compose a new song without hearing the din of others’ empty noise. Is it any wonder that she’s eventually ground down, plaintively singing how others’ view of who she is “becomes my reality”?


And yet there I was on Friday night, listening to a promising new musical in which one of the two creators is a nonbinary, global majority artist; the very existence of Micro marks a refusal to let others define who one is or might be.

Instead we heard Sáenz find her way to a radically different and far more inclusive reality, as she and her castmates dare to imagine a world in which we could actually hear all the voices, notwithstanding efforts to silence them. Ali ultimately rises above the sound and fury, embracing the new words and sounds that were within her all along.

“We need better/From the voices inside us,” Sáenz sings. And she finds it, abetted by a chorus that channels the multitudes within, “so many voices” beautifully singing “in harmony with others” – while nevertheless retaining the unique and individual sounds we each learn to hear when we’re given time and space to think and be ourselves.

As it soars toward close, Micro returns to that initial longing for a space apart, filled with the “peace and quiet” – “still and soundless/free and boundless” – that paradoxically allows us to create a new world together, in a dialogical give-and-take that celebrates difference even as it finds common ground.

One gets hints of the same from scenic designer Erin Baal’s renderings, on display in conjunction with this workshop production.

Baal imagines a backdrop in which national flags from around the world – subtly striated and faded – come together to form a new image, comprised of distinct colors and shapes that find a way to co-exist. The result: a multicolored, stained-glass window onto a world made and seen new, in an America where every color of the spectrum can shine in all its glory.

In the post-workshop talkback, Qutaishat emphasized that seeing the world anew requires companies like Music Theatre of Madison – and festivals like World Premiere Wisconsin – which are committed to new work.

Invest in new work and you allow new, previously marginalized storytellers to be heard, Qutaishat emphasized. “There are so many voices,” Ali sings toward show’s end. “And theoretically, they can all make sound.”

What might American theater be like if we could hear more of them, more often?


Stephanie Albrecht, Kelly Noel Zeva, Marie Charles, Olivia Rose, Valentina Perdomo, Maggie Schenk, Autumn Yael Fearing-Kabler, Kathleen Nichols, Safina Klepzig (L-R) in DANCING TO INTERMISSION. Photo: Jason Compton

I was still living with that question as I drove back to Madison on Saturday night for Rotate Theatre’s Mini Fest, a collection of nine plays – world premieres as well as plays hitherto unseen in Wisconsin – representing Rotate’s contribution to the WPW festival. [Note from the editor: plays presented as part of WPW will be denoted in bold.]

Echoing what I’d seen through Micro the previous night, the first two Rotate plays set the (micro)tone, as isolated characters tally the cost of engaging the outside world.

In Kristin P.’s Out, three nonbinary friends longing to renew connections with that world must decide what to do as reports come in of yet another hate crime involving an attack on a gay bar. In Rini Tarafder’s Rishi’s Grocery List, even a seemingly innocuous trip to the store for food becomes fraught, as Rishi’s phone blows up with reports of political unrest in his native India.

Much like Ali in Micro, the protagonists in both of these plays confront the truth that peace and quiet won’t come easy – and won’t come at all by imagining that one can somehow ignore a crumbling, hate-riven world.

When the female employees in a daycare center try that approach in Wi-Moto Nyoka’s horror-inflected Ella’s Children – in which beleaguered workers pretend the kids they supervise aren’t morphing into feral zombies – it’s they themselves who suffer the consequences, in a country where underpaid women are routinely tasked with raising the next generation of monsters.

In Rhea Leman’s haunting Bleeding Heart, a quartet of doctors in a nightmarish future Denmark wait for transport to somewhere better; only one of them fully confronts the truth that they can’t escape the history they’ve made by abandoning the ruined world they’ve called home.

Living within that world means finding a shared language through which we might rebuild it together. True to form, Rotate’s dream of a common language often involves humor, facilitating a recognition of all that divides us so that we might move toward a mediation of our many differences.

In Aisha Leverett’s Three Cheers for Ava – a deliciously satiric send-up of capitalism, colonialism, and competition – three guilt-ridden and ungrateful friends await the long-deferred arrival at their table of the one who has made their lives possible and left them feeling resentful.

In Richard Paro’s Fox in the Snow, participants in a bible study meetup gradually come clean regarding why they’ve shown up: they’re hungry, and not just for the free food served at the numerous meetups – covering a broad range of topics – that they attend. What they truly crave – and the reason they play the various roles different meetups require – is human connection.

Is it any wonder that several actors are among those who gather? Isn’t theater itself a meetup, allowing actors and audience alike to come together – trying on different versions of who they might be, in the hope that they might thereby escape the prison house of the self and play more fulfilling roles on the world’s stage?

Playwright Kristin P. answers that question with a resounding “yes” in Dancing to Intermission, which begins as a fight among friends exposing biases involving race and class, before evolving into a dance party in which the audience joins the cast on stage.

Together, they learn the steps of a simple line dance, moving beyond their comfort zone to take back the night by creating a collaborative expression of uncontainable joy. I couldn’t contain my own smile as I headed home afterward to Milwaukee.

Cast & Crew of Village Playhouse’s 38th Annual Original One Act Festival


There were smiles and laughter aplenty among audience members attending Sunday afternoon’s performance of the Village Playhouse’s 38th annual Original One-Act Festival in downtown Milwaukee; most of the six showcased plays were comedies.

As I’ve written in a prior blog post previewing the Playhouse festival, the majority of these six pieces sound variations on the disconnect between what we feel, what we see, and how we express it, as we search for a language that might give voice to those frequently overlooked microtones making us who we are.

First up was Anastasia Wild’s The Art of . . . Dating, with that ellipsis in Wild’s title underscoring the gap between all that singletons dream and the frequently more prosaic reality they experience when it comes to dating. Especially when the dreamers are three women, replaying their consistently disappointing encounters with men.

But Wild makes clear that while life’s possible scenarios invariably sound better in our heads, that’s no reason not to play them out. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; while a retreat into the self may help protect one from hurt, it will also ensure that one doesn’t fully live and never learns to love.

Something of what we feel inside is inevitably lost when we put it down on paper; in thousands of tries spanning decades, I’ve never yet written a review that captured everything a show gave me. But such inevitable failures don’t justify throwing in the towel. And at its best, what gets written still captures and allows one to share something of the magic one has experienced.

That’s why Will – a dead ringer for Meredith Willson in Michael Lucchesi’s delightful Til There Was You – works on into the night, alongside an everyday companion named Marian (of course) who helps him realize his vision in a way that the lofty Calliope cannot. By play’s end, Marian has given Will his opening for The Music Man, while the Muse has been sent packing.

(left to right): Bonnie Kotlewski, David Jirik, Tarolyn Fulkerson in MOM AND AUNT SOPHIE SEE MY PLAY. Photo: imothy Ruf, Brown Deer Photography

And that’s why the characters in J.D. Larson’s Mom and Aunt Sophie See My Play each ultimately gives a novice playwright his props; while his play may be a stinker, his effort commands respect – even from a curmudgeonly critic.

Two more plays directly address our collective efforts to suit the words to the action, as we seek to forge a common language that reflects our shared context.

In Jamie Love’s The Big Talk, an engaged couple conducts spirited negotiations to determine what surname they’ll choose – and by extension how they’ll both call themselves and see themselves – once they’re married.

In Alexis Fielek’s smart and well-crafted So, two pairs of birds use similar words to reach different conclusions regarding whether their respective relationships will fly, proving anew that context matters.

Were we to pay greater attention to context – working harder to perceive and appreciate more of the microtones and multitudes in ourselves and others – what might we not accomplish together?

That’s the question Qutaishat and Heidi Joosten throw down in Micro, and it’s also the question at the heart of Mike Willis’ The Heart Has Eyes, the Playhouse selection that drives home what’s at work in all six Playhouse festival plays.

Unfolding during a high school lunch period, Willis’ play lives up to its title, as we watch Molly – blind, but able to see much farther than any of her classmates – patiently teach Wyatt how to see with more than his eyes.

Learning to heed his heart, Wyatt’s increasingly expansive vision takes in all he’d missed when his eyes were open but his mind was shut. Like Molly, he learns to see in the dark, experiencing that most rare vision that comes to us when we use our imaginations and dare to make believe.

Both MTM’s Micro and Rotate’s Mini Fest have concluded; the Village Playhouse festival continues at through June 18 at 628 N. 10th St. in Milwaukee. You can learn more about all three productions at


The author with (half of) Festival Producer Michael Cotey and WI playwrights Sam D. White (HUSH THE WAVES) and Karen Saari (BAD IN BED – A FAIRY TALE).

Meet Mike

Mike Fischer wrote theater and book reviews for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for fifteen years, serving as chief theater critic from 2009-18. A member of the Advisory Company of Artists for Forward Theater Company in Madison, he also co-hosts Theater Forward, a bimonthly podcast. You can reach him directly at

Mike’s work as WPW’s Festival Reporter was made possible through the sponsorship of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF). Learn more: