The cast of Embers.
Seven friends gather around the fireplace to catch up on the years that have passed since they graduated high school four years ago. This is a feeling that most audiences can relate to - the familiarity of what used to be, clashing with the distance that has grown in the time since then.
Except, in director and playwright Tim Backes's new work, we are all gathered outside around an actual fire pit in a park, right there with the characters. Located in Grant Park in South Milwaukee, audience members hike down with lawn chairs to cluster around the performance site. The turnout for a new work can sometimes be dismal, but Embers was most certainly an exception - patrons arrived in droves and filled the forest to support the piece.
The audience at Embers at Grant Park.
The play is an immersive experience. With the cast seated just the same as you are, it becomes difficult to remember that you're there to watch a performance. So much of this is thanks to Backes's text - the dialogue throughout is hyper-realistic, never once breaking suspension of disbelief. Even as drama inevitably unfolds as secrets are revealed and friendships broken, the audience is only privy to the portions that happen to pass by the fire.
Amidst the realism, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the humor in the play. The punchlines range from overt (with Matt Gould playing a messy drunk athlete has-been) to the subtle nuances of group friendship dynamics. You find yourself warming up to the colorful array of personalities through their stories and interactions, just as you would when making new friends yourself.
Daniel Persino, Isabella Zeimet, and Alyssa Higley.
The cast is a powerful ensemble, each featured in their own right throughout the play. Isabella Zeimet is a particular highlight as Sara, whose strong relationship and perfect friendships are bound to collapse before the evening ends. Just as Sara hides her vulnerability around her audience of friends, Zeimet closely guards her emotions around the real audience.
Paired as the opposing figure to Sara is Leah, whose history has a way of stirring the pot amongst her friends. Giovanna Greco's performance in the role evokes sympathy despite circumstances suggesting otherwise. She is empathetic and concerned for others, an opposition of her action, which makes the viewer see Leah as a flawed person rather than an easy villain. The portrayal dodges "the other woman" tropes and maneuvers the role to a much more interesting place.
Jessica Calteux, Giovanna Greco, Alex Trevithick, and Daniel Persino.
Embers lights a flame for new works in the Milwaukee area. The play takes a simple, relatable concept and delivers it in an inventive way. Backes's script is polished - realistic, and still full of meaning. You leave the park with a spark for what's coming up in theatre on your mind and the scent of smoke clinging to your clothes.