Relevant Yet Irreverent, In Tandem Finds Niche in Holiday Entertainment
Footlights Editor Amanda Schumacher talks alternative holiday shows with In Tandem's Jane and Chris Flieller.
Photo Credit: In Tandem Theatre
Ah, the holidays. Radios begin pouring Christmas songs over the airwaves, malls deck the halls with over-sized ornaments, garlands, and enticing sales, and children scribble letters to St. Nick regarding their good behavior and what they should receive in exchange for it. And, of course, all the voluntary (and possibly obligatory) gatherings with family, friends, and co-workers you can’t stand.
Ah, the holidays.
In Milwaukee, the holiday season means The Rep brings back it’s annual tradition, A Christmas Carol, the ballet dazzles once again with The Nutcracker, and Skylight Music Theatre delights with a fun, feel-good musical. These shows bring families closer together, become generational traditions, and leave audiences smiling as they exit the theaters with Christmas carols and visions of sugar plums stuck in their heads.
And then there is In Tandem Theatre, the quirky breath of fresh theatrical air that is run by the dynamic couple that is Chris and Jane Flieller.
“People have been asking for it for years and years.” Chris excitedly explained when asked as to why they were bringing back Holiday Hell: The Curse of Perry Williams for the 2016 holiday season.
In Tandem Theatre, perhaps best known as the theatre company that brought A Cudahy Caroler Christmas into the world, has cemented their place in the Milwaukee holiday theatre scene by producing and presenting alternative and irreverent holiday shows.
This year’s Holiday Hell: The Curse of Perry Williams, which opens December 2, is no exception.
Holiday Hell has only been performed once before – in 2005, in a small storefront space in Walker’s Point (before moving to their current home in the lower level of the “big red church” on the corner of 10th Street and Wisconsin Avenue in 2007). The show centers around Perry Williams, a television crooner in the midst of his annual Christmas special, is in a panic: He can’t sing and he’s just fired Benny, the true provider of his signature, velvety voice, which begs the question: how far will Perry go to keep his secret?
Adam Estes (above, left) and Zach Woods star as the leads in Holiday Hell. Courtesy of In Tandem Theatre.
The cast features Adam Estes as the titular character, Zach Woods as Benny, and Marques Causey, Kathryn Hausman, and Samantha Sostarich rounding out the ensemble, playing multiple characters.
Holiday Hell originally began as a comedy variety show that showcased many local Milwaukee writers’ sketch comedy and song parodies. Cudahy Carolers came into being thanks to a Holiday Hell sketch, and following its success, the Fliellers were inspired to put together another Holiday Hell sketch comedy revue.
The Fliellers reached out to Anthony Wood, local writer and author of A Cudahy Caroler Christmas, asking him for a few skits. He surprised and delighted them when he said he would like to write the entire show. With some guidelines, such as setting the new work in a 1950s television studio, the Fliellers entrusted Wood to have a script ready in about a year’s time.
A year later though, what Wood gave them was not what they envisioned.
“He came back in September or October of the following year with The Adventures of the Green Wasp (which eventually became The Pink Wasp, his parody of The Green Hornet). But it had nothing to do with Christmas,” said Chris. “We had already cast it, we had already began promoting it as Holiday Hell, and we started rehearsals in a month.”
It was clear Wood would need to write something else.
But Wood was up to the challenge and with some assistance from Mondy Carter (author of In Tandem’s 2015 holiday show, A Twisted Carol), the two whipped up a brand new script that featured Christmas prominently and was set in a 1950s television studio as originally envisioned.
“At our first rehearsal in November, we all read the script for the first time and divvied up roles,” Jane shared, reassuringly adding that upon the first read through, it was evident Wood and Carter had given them a clever and down-right-funny play appropriate for the season.
A play that, despite its crudity and naughty hilarity, still offered up a heart-felt message fitting for the holiday months.
“With the advent of television in the 1950s, Christmas became an industry,” Chris explained. “This show is about taking out the commercialism and focusing on the reason for the season – whatever that may mean to you.”
In Tandem Marketing Manager Ann Ricca agreed, stating the characters add a lot to the show. “All the characters are a little crazy and wild but still [offer] so much heart. You can see different aspects of those characters in yourself.”
Perhaps more so than In Tandem’s other alternative holiday offering, their fundraiser The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, a dark comedy featuring Santa’s reindeer accusing him of misconduct. Originally inspired by the Clinton scandal in the ‘90s, the monologues discuss how people react when their favorite celebrities or politicians fall from their highly-placed pedestals and behave questionably.
A concept that is proving to be timely once again.
“It’s not cute. IT’S NOT CUTE. It’s rough. It’s a thinker. But it sells out every year. I think it’s really funny, it’s written really well, and it has a great message” Jane made clear.
“If you liked The Book of Mormon, then you’ll probably like The Eight: Reindeer Monologues,” interjected Chris.
“If you liked Book of Mormon, you may find Holiday Hell too tame!” Jane said with a laugh.
But despite their differences, both shows are in line with what In Tandem strives to do: offer a variety of stories on various topics that allow audiences to think and react.
“We do all kinds of shows here – we run the gamut,” Jane explained, acknowledging that on occasion, individuals have been offended by their holiday offerings.
But Jane, Chris, and Ann aren’t deterred when audience members have those reactions. Instead, they embrace it.
“That we can theatrically cause such a reaction – it means you’re feeling something, you’re thinking something.” Jane’s only wish is that more people would channel those reactions into a conversation. “Why did you find it offensive? Why do you feel that way? If that’s something you feel strongly about, then talk about it – examine those feelings.”
Fortunately at In Tandem, there truly is something for everyone. This season alone included a comic book style comedy (Dracula vs. The Nazis) this past fall and the two aforementioned, upcoming alternative holiday shows. In the second half of the season, the company will present the drama Time Stands Still and the musical Carnival.
All stories that have been picked with the intention to inspire reaction and thought.
Stories that, on occasion, include a self-indulgent Christmas crooner, and a reindeer or two (or eight) who are accusing Santa of sexual harassment and misconduct.But as Milwaukee audiences have proven year after year, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Holiday Hell: The Curse of Perry Williams runs December 2 – January 8. The Eight: Reindeer Monologues has only three performances: December 11 (sold out), 12 and 19. For more information about either show or to order tickets, please visit intandemtheatre.org.