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Tackling tough topics with humor

Theatre Z returns to the stage with ‘The Father’

By Janelle Fisher

City Pages Editor

Four years since their last live performance, Theatre Z will take to the stage at St. Norbert College’s Webb Theatre with its production of The Father, a show about a man and his family’s experience with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Although led by April Beiswenger and Stephen Rupsch, both of whom are professors in St. Norbert’s theatre studies program, Theatre Z is an entirely separate theater troupe where Beiswenger and Rupsch have the opportunity to put on productions they otherwise might not have the opportunity to.

“It’s a separate group entirely,” Rupsch said.”Basically, these are shows that we could not do here at school — and honestly, there aren’t that many things that we wouldn’t necessarily do here. We’re not [that strict], they’re not that strict… Like 12 years ago, we wanted to do Angels in America, but that felt like it was a little bit too much for our campus because there’s nudity in it.”

Even though the group is small and has very limited resources, Rupsch said Theatre Z hopes to bring new kinds of productions to the area — filling a niche among the many local theater groups.

“We don’t have a ton of money, and we’re tiny,” he said. “We don’t have a permanent space and we’re going to do some things that are a little bit different… That’s one of the things that we’d like to do with theater is just theater experiences that are not typical for this area.”

Theatre Z’s upcoming production of The Father, Rupsch said, is no exception, and will deliver a poignant story to audiences about a topic that often goes unmentioned.

‘The Father’ is the story of a man and his family’s experience with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Submitted photos

“The Father is kind of this weird combination of comedy and drama,” he said. “It’s about a man going through dementia, which doesn’t sound like it’s going to be very funny, but there are lots of funny bits in it and it’s very poignant… Because dementia is not something that has a cure, so it’s really about how his family, or specifically his daughter, is dealing with him. And the way that the play is constructed kind of allows the audience to somewhat experience what it’s like for him. It kind of interchanges scenes, it repeats scenes sometimes, we don’t know who the people are, things like that show kind of the way he’s perceiving the world. It feels like it’s really timely and it’s not a topic that people really talk about.”

It’s not a topic people talk about often, but Rupsch said it is certainly a topic that seems to be on people’s minds.

“I was reading a New York Times article about a story of a woman with dementia,” he said. “And one of the things that they talked about is how dementia has moved to the top of what people fear. It used to be cancer, and now it’s dementia. Because one of the things that we know is that it’s not something that is curable. What you can do is alleviate and plan around it… The problem that people have with dementia and Alzheimer’s isn’t the people [who have it], it’s the people around them trying to adapt and change to this kind of new person that emerges… Of course, yes, it’s tragic, but there are also moments that are pretty funny. Life is like that. Life is kind of awful and amazing at the same time, and that is represented really well in this piece.”

Rupsch said The Father fits very well into the type of theatrical production he enjoys putting on, and one that can be difficult to pull off.

Being a small theater group with limited resources and no permanent spaces, Theatre Z primarily puts on show swith small casts and minimal technical elements but that pack a big punch emotionally.

“I love plays that get pretty deep into emotion and can talk about things that people don’t talk about — things that can be sometimes even controversial — but do it with humor,” he said. “It’s very difficult to find plays that do that well, and when you do, it just feels so good because it feels like you are able to give the audience something real that they can chew on but you’re also not bombarding them at every second. You’re giving them some relief with some humor.”

When going through potential scripts for Theatre Z’s next production, Rupsch said The Father really just clicked for both him and Beiswenger.

“I wish I could say that there was a very specific process, but it’s usually mostly April looking at scripts and saying ‘what about this one? What about that? What about that?’” Rupsch said. “We’re kind of so oddly specific because we have to watch the kind of stuff we do. If it needs a lot of technology, we probably can’t do it. We don’t really do big casts, lots of actors, that kind of thing. We really love plays that make people sit up and pay attention and things that will affect them in a really powerful, kind of emotional way and just makes them think about things in a new way. That’s kind of our criteria… When I read The Father for the first time, I knew we had to do it. I was just like, ‘oh, this one.’ And April’s office is down the hall and it was like ‘dude, oh my god,’ and she looked at me and said ‘I know, oh my god.’”

Rupsch said he hopes audiences will respond to the show just as well as he has, noting that this show won’t be one to miss for fans of intricate acting.

From left, Alan Kopischke, Katie Guzek, Carol Cassell, Rochelle Van Erem, Alex Sabin, Elizabeth Jolly, and Michael J. Laskowski discuss the production during an early rehearsal.

“People who are really into — and it sounds really strange — but really like intricate, interesting, deep acting, like if they really enjoy watching actors work, this is totally a show that they’re going to enjoy,” he said. “And that sounds contrary, because of course everybody likes that, but sometimes it’s more about the story, or it’s about the effects or the pageantry of it. But this one you’re really going to see actors go emotionally deep with all their roles. I think that’s going to be something that people are going to respond really strongly to.”

Those interested in attending the show will have the opportunity to do so June 7, 8, 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. and June 11 at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are on sale now at snc.edu/tickets.

Keep up with Theatre Z and their upcoming productions by following Theatre Z on Facebook.

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