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By John Quinn
Posted: May 12, 2013 at 4:22 p.m.
"Life is very long" T. S. Eliot
"August: Osage County" is also very long and worth every minute. Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play, it demonstrates that sometimes they do make things like they used to. Playwright Tracy Letts, a regular at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, takes hints from the playbooks of masters Eugene O'Neill and Edward Albee as he writes on one of the great classic motifs of tragedy, the dysfunctional family. It's audacious for a small theater like The Ringwald to undertake a challenge of this magnitude, but director Joe Bailey and company have produced a marvel.
"August: Osage County" is a tough work to pigeonhole, but it's been described as a "tragicomedy." A play that begins and ends with quotes from Eliot's bleak poem "The Hollow Men" is likely to be a downer, but Letts injects a lot of levity into his script; the better to soften the effect of some really unlikable characters. But ultimately, he's written a classic, three-act family drama that pays homage to O'Neill's "A Long Day's Journey into Night." That a three hours plus running time can breeze by is due to a happy union of script, director and actors.
It's fortunate for theater patrons that the Ringwald family is happier than the Westons of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Beverly Weston (Dan Jaroslaw) is an aging poet, a one-hit wonder and alcoholic, who has spent decades writing his second book. Beverly disappears. The Weston clan, with assorted entourages in tow, assembles to lend support to the family matriarch, Violet (Jane MacFarlane), a victim of oral cancer who is heavily addicted to prescription drugs. We meet the Weston daughters first, Barbara (Kelly Komlen), in from Colorado with her philandering husband, Bill (Travis Reiff), and their rebellious daughter, Jean (Katie Terpstra). Middle child Ivy (Jamie Warrow) didn't have far to travel she's a spinster and still living in town. Karen (Melissa Beckwith) flies in from Florida with a contemptible companion her fiance, Steve (Bryan Lark). Also in attendance are Violet's waspish sister, Mattie Fae (Jan Cartwright), her docile husband Charlie (Patrick O'Lear), and their adult son, Little Charles (Joel Mitchell).
So much family under one roof is bound to create critical mass, and the explosion is inevitable. Old grudges are revived, secrets revealed, true characters burst to the surface. While the audience can be sympathetic toward this sad family, there is the urge to stand above the fray and simply observe as does the housekeeper, Johnna (Amy Probst), and Deon Gilbeau (Jamie Richards), Barbara's old beau.
"August: Osage County" explores the clash between generations: mother versus daughters, but specifically, Violet versus Barbara. While all the actors in this production bring a raw honesty to their characters, we are inevitably drawn to the outstanding performances of Jane MacFarlane and Kelly Komlen. Violet is a bitter, vindictive woman, and MacFarlane wrings out every character flaw, both as sober tyrant and drug-addled mess. Komlen executes a dramatic build to Barbara's anger, culminating in the explosive, "You don't get it, do you? I'm running things now!" as she and her mother struggle for dominance.
Kudos to scenic designer Adam Crinson, who has managed to cram three and a half playing areas in the tight space of The Ringwald, a feat akin to parking a Bentley in a walk-in closet. This was accomplished by throwing convention to the winds and putting the audience three quarters round and setting a massive dining room table among us. Joe Bailey took full advantage of the arrangement; when the entire family sits down to a rancorous meal officiated by an out-of-control Violet, we onlookers share the experience and the tumultuous emotions as an unholy communion.
The press release for "August: Osage County reads in part, "Capping off a successful Season of Family,' The Ringwald has indeed saved what is arguably the best for last." They sure got that right. And, to thoroughly taunt T. S. Eliot, "This is the way the season ends/Not with a whimper but a bang!"
SHOW DETAILS: "August: Osage County" continues at The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, Friday-Monday through June 3. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes; 2 intermissions. Tickets: $10-22. For information: 248-545-5545 or www.theringwald.com.
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By Bridgette M. Redman
Posted: May 11, 2013 at 10:19 p.m.
Few stories on stage have characters that are irredeemably evil. Most drama is about exploring why people do the things they do, building connections and empathy.
In "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," that rule is broken in the character of Nurse Ratched who is sadistic, cruel, power-hungry and, yes, evil. In What A Do Theatre's production of the Dale Wasserman play (based on Ken Kesey's novel), Lesley Shabala is creepily perfect in her portrayal of the iron-fisted nurse whose cruelty ranges from absurdly amusing to deadly.
Her every move is contained and controlled, and she owns the stage whenever she is on it. She often says as much with a pointed glare as she does with her words.
Shabala's Ratched rules over the ward of a mental institution, claiming to establish her rules and policies for the good of the men being treated there and in the interest of "therapeutic community." Her so-called benevolence is called into question by the arrival of Randall McMurphy, played by Joe Dely. McMurphy is in the ward to dodge a prison sentence work party as he's decided that pretending to be insane will get him a cushier sentence than working a farm.
To Dely's con man, everything is a game and he quickly calls Ratched's behavior for what it is abuse. But to him it is a game. He decides he will make her crack, and gets the other inmates to bet on whether he can get her to lose her cool within a week's time.
Dely imbues McMurphy with great charisma and energy. He and Shabala are divine foils, clashing in what becomes an epic battle for human dignity, control and community.
Given how much the state of mental health care has changed in the past 40 years since this story was first written, its relevancy would be questionable if it were not for the meaning transcending its setting and specific situation. The patients help show that the battle isn't simply over how mental health care should be administered, but about how those in power treat the vulnerable and the amount of power that we give to the cruel out of fear, insecurity or the desire to have what they have, be it confidence, strength or power.
Dave Stubbs' Harding displays this vulnerability as he swings from the would-be alpha male who has the greatest intellectual grasp on their situation to the cringing, emasculated victim who lifts not a hand in his own defense when Ratched sets his fellow patients against him. He also provides the crucial narration that explains how Ratched has achieved such power, power that goes far beyond what is granted to her institutionally. He tries to explain to McMurphy that he and the fellow patients are bunnies, helpless victims to the cruelty of the world and easy targets for both dedicated sadists and those who are carelessly cruel.
Directed by Randy Wolfe, the patients are an ensemble of crazies, each unable to function in society and progressively weakening until the arrival of McMurphy. Josh Olgine puts in a powerful performance as Chief Bromden and commits to an arc of character development, the one who is most affected by McMurphy, though only Nicolas Mumma's Martini remains unchanged by the convict's presence. Ian Russell's Billy stutters and shakes his way through the show, having his moment of brilliance in the second act where it seems that perhaps all will yet be well.
Like most What A Do performances, this production takes advantage of their superior light system, with Cory Kalkowski's intricate design that includes black lighting, flashing lights from the nursing station and the sterile, stark bright white light of an institution.
Of special note in this production is Olgine's set design. The walls of the institution contain paintings representing his character's hallucinations, paintings that show up only under black lighting when Chief Bromden gives his shock-treatment induced monologues.
This production again features original music composed by John Purchase, a frequent contributor to What A Do's productions. The music serves as eerie scene transitions, never letting the audience forget the precarious mental balance of those on the stage or what is at stake in the battle between McMurphy and Ratched.
Wolfe carefully manages every moment, and keeps the action moving across What A Do's wide stage. The two-and-a-half-hour show moves quickly, and the climax and resolution are both so powerful that the audience is left drained and emotionally wrung afterward.
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" tosses down the gauntlet, asking how we care for the weak and vulnerable and what is within our ability to empower or further victimize them. While there may be few Nurse Ratcheds in the world, their existence is made possible and they thrive when others give them power or stand by and watch as they victimize others. Challenging them often comes at great personal cost, and may even seem like impossible odds, but McMurphy's final contribution isn't measured in whether he succeeded or failed, but in the difference he made in helping the few move from victim to survivor.
SHOW DETAILS: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" continues at What A Do Theatre, 4701 W. Dickman Road, Springfield, Friday-Saturday through May 25, plus Thursday, May 23. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Tickets: $20 ($10 3 p.m. May 18, and pay-what-you-can May 23). For information: 269-282-1953 or www.whatado.org.
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By John Quinn
Posted: May 11, 2013 at 4:09 p.m.
It is the nature of the job that theater critics work odd hours. At Encoremichigan.com, we also work an arbitrary "year," which ends today. I am experiencing a Zen-like completion, as my Metro Detroit wanderings bring me full circle to where my season began Planet Ant Theatre in Hamtramck. But "The Do Over," Margaret Edwartowski's little comedy of love's labor lost, is a polar opposite from Dennis Potter's "Brimstone & Treacle." But that's the Ant for you: a black box full of surprises.
If "Brimstone and Treacle" is, as the press release describes it, a comedy, it is the darkest comedy I've encountered. One doesn't find the caveat, "This play contains shocking content: Not for the faint of heart!" in press releases very often, not especially regarding comedies. Originally recorded in 1976 as a teleplay for the BBC, "Brimstone" was withdrawn from the schedule. Alasdair White, the BBC's head of programming, called it "brilliantly written and made, but nauseating."
Indeed. Potter rewrote the script as a stage play, which debuted the following year. Potter's script is so deliberately provocative that an audience should experience it undiminished by the small screen. Director Dave Davies stirs the boiling pot and serves up a stew chock full of creepy Gothic glory.
It's England, sometime in the '70s. For two years, Thomas and Amy Bates have devoted their lives to the care of their daughter, who was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident. Strapped to a hospital gurney in the living room, Patricia is unable to communicate and must depend on her parents for even the most basic needs. Thomas believes she is just a vegetable. Amy thinks her daughter is still inside the failed body, unable to communicate except by random gibberish.
By amazing coincidence, Thomas encounters a young man on the street. Martin Taylor claims to have been Patricia's almost-fiance. He appears crushed by her disability, and his insistence on helping quickly disarms Amy. Thomas is suspicious. ''We don't know anything about you," he says. "You could be the Devil himself.'' Ensuing events demonstrate that this angel of mercy is not heaven-sent.
Director Davies, always a master craftsman, chose some top-flight material for this project. Planet Ant is one of the most flexible performance venues in town, and part of the fun is discovering what the designers have come up with. Kevin Barron provides suitably moody stage lighting, complete with a rousing lightning-charged rainstorm in conjunction with Dyan Bailey's thunderous sound design. Katie Orwig's scenic design is one of the most detailed I've seen there, a full box set that incorporates two of the theater's doors. The entrance to the theater from the lobby becomes access to the flat's bedrooms in the time it takes to close it. In, literally, shutting out the world, that simple action impelled us into suspension of disbelief. It was an unexpected and pleasurable experience.
Sonia Marquis and Clement Valentine portray all the stress a couple would bear under such tragic circumstances. Marquis is especially affective as she shares Amy's pleasure in her first day off in two years. Carolyn Hayes, also known around these parts as the Rogue Critic, accepted the role of Patricia, which is quite a challenge. Left without movement, without dialogue, with only vague gestures and, from my vantage point, only limited expressions; the performer must still denote character, which Hayes pulls off admirably. Artist and director make it clear that Patricia is aware of her surroundings and is trying to communicate.
But, sweet as syrup and as acrid as sulfur, Martin Taylor drives the plot. Patrick O'Connor Cronin imbues the role with a two-faced delight. Like Shakespeare's Iago, he is delighted to announce his wickedness to us. But without the Bard's soliloquies, Cronin employs smirks and leers and knowing glances to share his glee. The character is the central paradox of "Brimstone and Treacle": can evil be good? Could the performance be broader, to better contrast the dichotomy? Possibly; but there exists a thin line between drama and melodrama that would here be inappropriate to cross.
"A word to the wise is sufficient," but for "Brimstone and Treacle I'm giving two. Potter's provocations can be offensive. BBC correspondent Gerald Priestland claimed that he could "imagine several groups of people who will be very upset by it, particularly carers (sic) for the mentally handicapped, women who do not believe in the therapeutic value of rape, and people who believe very firmly in the value of prayer." It helps if one can forgive the playwright for his essentially nihilistic world view. In addition, if you go (and why wouldn't you?), PAY ATTENTION! Potter has woven into his plot off-hand comments that are crucial for understanding the climax. If you have to consult Wikipedia to find out what just happened, you'll feel like a doofus.
SHOW DETAILS: "Brimstone and Treacle" continues at Planet Art Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through June 1, plus 2 p.m. Sunday May 19 & 26 and 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 28. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission. Tickets: $20 ($10 May 28 only). For information: 313-365-4948 or www.planetant.com.
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By John Quinn
Posted: May 5, 2013 at 7:37 p.m.; updated May 16, 2013 at 11:43 p.m.
Each of the narrative arts tells a story in a different way. Adaptations are a mixed bag; some are successful, many are less so. Aaron Posner's dramatic adaptation of Chaim Potok's 1972 novel, "My Name Is Asher Lev," though, is an achievement. Posner distills Potok's 375 pages into less than 90 minutes of drama, creating a richly theatrical experience. The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company offers us the rare opportunity to enjoy a current off Broadway hit without visiting the Big Apple.
His name is Asher Lev. He's an observant member of Brooklyn's tight-knit Hassidic community. He also, from early childhood, demonstrates brilliance in art "a little Chagall." His incessant, compulsive drawing irks his father, Aryeh, who considers art irrelevant to true religious devotion. The mediator between father and son is Asher's mother, Rivkeh, dedicated to her beliefs but a little more tolerant of her son's obsession.
Around age 13, Asher is introduced to noted artist Jacob Kahn, who is thoroughly secular and proud of it. It is remarkable that he'd be a friend of the Rebbe, leader of the community a combination of "president and prophet." Its even more remarkable that the Rebbe understands Asher's gift and brings the two together with the intention of allowing Kahn to mentor Asher.
Art is a world of "goyim and pagans," and as Asher gains proficiency and fame, the subjects of his paintings begin to offend his parents. The young man is torn between conflicting passions. Can he find a synthesis between the demonic and the divine?
"My Name Is Asher Lev" is a conceptual work so streamlined it could play effectively in the smallest chamber theater. All the men but Asher are played by John Seibert, all the women by Naz Edwards. Together they are a case study in the actor's art. Although each is using a full complement of tools to delineate his and her multiple characters, Seibert tends to employ voice. He's particularly effective demonstrating the polar opposites among the men, contrasting the gentle, Old-world cadence of the Rebbe with Jacob Kahn's harsh, "New Yawk" accent. Edwards leans toward using expression. Just the way she holds her mouth defines Rivkah Lev. One might think she wears a totally different face when she portrays (Sigmund Freud, call your office!) Asher's first nude model.
But the title character is Asher Lev, and he is Mitchell A. Koory, whose stamina is impressive. He's pretty much non-stop for the entire performance. No less impressive is the way he finds the fundamental truth in his character and conveys it to his audience.
Structurally, the drama alternates between narration and vignette and the transitions are seamless. David J. Magidson, artistic director of JET, establishes a measured pace that allows an audience to savor Potok's use of language. He even overcomes the script's rare hiccups; for example, a potentially dull scene in which Posner uses repetition for comic effect. Asher is trying to explain the difference between painting nudes and painting naked women to his skeptical father. It kind of got away from the playwright; the director reined it back in. Timing is everything.
At first, it seems odd that, in a play about art, there's no art in the play. But look beyond the empty picture frames that dot the stage to the synergy between Sarah Tanner's scenic design and Jon Weaver's lighting. Even Chagall would be impressed. What appear to be standard interior walls painted muted colors glow in Cubist splendor when light hits them. In addition, Weaver has invented an atmospheric canvas with blue down lights, which gives him a backdrop for tight pools of warm light that follow the actors. The delineation of time and space are instantly recognizable.
Exploration of a universal theme can lead to powerful storytelling. "My Name Is Asher Lev" speaks to the clash between cultures, broadly illustrated here by the conflict between tradition and the individual, but more personally, between father and son. It may be set in New York City in the third quarter of the 20th century, but it's a timeless story and a captivating evening of theater.
SHOW DETAILS: 'My Name Is Asher Lev' co-produced by The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company, continues at Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield, Thursday, Saturday & Sunday through May 19, plus Saturday, May 25 at 5 p.m. & 8:30 p.m. Running time: 85 minutes; no intermission. Tickets: $38-45. For information: 248-788-2900 or www.jettheatre.org.
The production will also be presented at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor, Aug. 8 Sept. 8. Tickets: $22-41. For information: 734-663-0681 or www.performancenetwork.org.
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By John Quinn
Posted: May 5, 2013 at 9:51 a.m.
Aristotle, great biologist but so-so drama critic, credits Greek tragedian Aeschylus with adding a second character to drama making dialogues possible. In "The Mountaintop," winner of Britain's Olivier Award for Best Play in 2010, Katori Hall adds a second character to bring a dramatic tension to one of the great American tragedies, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This taut fantasy is the latest offering from the Performance Network Theatre in Ann Arbor.
Fantasy, rather than fiction, is the operative word here, although the history is all too real. As his mission had expanded from civil rights to social justice, Dr. King was in Memphis, Tenn. in support of a sanitation workers' strike. He checked into room 306 at the Lorraine Motel the evening of April 3, 1968 and was shot on the balcony the following evening at 6:01 p.m.
As Hall imagines it, a hoarse and weary King returns to his motel in the middle of an ominous thunderstorm. He has just delivered the inspirational speech "I've Been to the Mountaintop" at Mason Temple, and is preparing a follow-up for the next day a speech he'll never deliver. He's interrupted by Camae, a young and very wet chambermaid; it's her first day on the job. Camae hangs around. Bummed cigarettes and a couple of shots of whiskey lead to some mild flirtation, as the feisty maid forces the preacher to review his accomplishments and contemplate his legacy. But Dr. King is troubled: The mysterious Camae knows far more about him than a stranger should.
Hall describes her intent as follows: "I want people to see that this extraordinary man who is actually quite ordinary achieved something so great that he actually created a fundamental shift in how we, as a people, interact with each other." And, indeed her King is an embodiment of the Age of Reason. Man, though imperfect, accomplishes marvelous things when he strives for perfection. The playwright, however, does not give much solid material with which to work. "The Mountaintop" depends on believable characters and that, thankfully, is where director Carla Milarch and her talented cast ride to the rescue.
Performed in one act, "The Mountaintop" evolves from its deathly-dull first scene into a barreling freight train at its conclusion. Milarch evens out the fits and starts along the way. Brian Marable does not imitate Martin Luther King, and thereby creates a solid, real character. In a final speech we hear the fiery skills that marked the career of, arguably, the greatest orator of the 20th century, but Marable has made it all his own.
Carollette Phillips turns out Camae as a sassy firebrand, and Katori Hall has given her some of the funniest lines. Yes, funny lines; "The Mountaintop" leavens its tragedy with humor, a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. But beyond the one-liners, the fundamental humor lies in the contrasting characters Marable and Phillips have developed.
Stage managers get no respect. When everything goes right, they're forgotten; when something goes wrong they get the blame. There's a lot that could go wrong in this production, and the fact it runs like a Rolex is due to Michelle Bryan. And a lot of what could go wrong is the "fault" of scenic and media designer Justin Lang, whose somewhat scruffy motel set transfigures into a multimedia extravaganza. The effect is extraordinary.
Ultimately, "The Mountaintop" inspires; through tragedy, we are "renewed and restored." Aristotle calls it "catharsis." Given the quality of the Performance Network production, maybe the old boy knew his stuff, after all.
SHOW DETAILS: "The Mountaintop" continues at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor, Thursday-Sunday through June 2. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission. Tickets: $27-41. For information: 734-663-0681 or www.performancenetwork.org.
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By Donald V. Calamia
Posted: April 19, 2013 at 4:46 p.m.
For 22 years, shock jocks Boner and the Neudge ruled the morning airwaves at Detroit's 96.6 The Beast. But music and tastes change, and the two find themselves out of synch with both the industry they love and the listeners who once adored their shtick. Unfortunately, producers and station managers also come and go and now in the twilight of their long and popular careers, the duo is faced with a tough decision: either change or end up in the dustbin of broadcast history.
"Boner and the Neudge," which stars Brian Papandrea (Boner) and Josh Campos (Neudge) the 2012 Wilde Award-nominated co-creators of last year's creative and delightful "Montag and Marbles" is Go Comedy's latest late-night original work. Directed by Pete Jacokes and also starring Jennifer Bloomer as producer Liz and Scott Vertical as smarmy station manager Rick, much of the show's humor is based on the "shocking" turn of events the two DJs encounter on what should have been a fairly typical Friday morning drive-time broadcast. But it's not, and to reveal much more would do the show's writers (the cast) and potential customers (you) a great disservice.
So all I'll say about the show is this: Despite the howls of laughter from the much-younger audience members sitting around me on opening night, it took me about 10 minutes or so to warm up to the production. (Shock jock humor was never my cup of tea; JJ and the Morning Crew was about as edgy as I got back in the '70s and '80s.) But once the script moved past the basic introductions and set-up, it became a well-plotted and executed comedy filled with plenty of twists and turns I didn't see coming. And it ended on a sweet note that caps their story quite nicely.
What ultimately propels "Boner and the Neudge" above your basic original comedy are the characterizations crafted by Jacokes and his performers. Like "Montag," Papandrea and Campos work together as a finely tuned engine, bouncing off one another with gleeful abandon and playing aging jocks to perfection. Vertical's comically evil Rick couldn't be better, and Bloomer's very low-key and understated Liz the butt of many not-so-friendly on-air jokes serves as an excellent counterpoint to the over-the-top antics of the DJs she stuck working with. (She does need to talk louder, though; she was hard to hear at times from the back of the theater.)
From a technical standpoint, director Jacokes and his unnamed co-conspirators (one of whom I suspect is Tommy Leroy) pulled out all the stops with their creation of the broadcast studio and all the sound effects although I do wish someone had thought of giving each DJ a broadcast-style microphone; from my seat it looked like they were talking into empty microphone stands (which I suspect they were).
One line repeated in various ways a handful of times throughout the show pretty much sums up the "Boner and the Neudge" experience: "It's what the people want." And that's certainly true if "the people" want an entertaining night out at the theater.
SHOW DETAILS: "Boner and the Neudge" continues at Go Comedy! Improv Theater, 261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale, 10 p.m. Thursday through June 6. Tickets: $10. Contains adult language and themes. For information: 248-327-0575 or www.gocomedy.net.
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By Dana Casadei
Posted: April 15, 2013 at 2:38 p.m.
Nowadays there seem to be cruises for everyone. Disney cruises for the family; singles cruises for those looking to find their soul mate (or hook up with some randoms); and ones for those crazy spring breakers. The Abandon, the cruise ship in Go Comedy's "Ahoy!" may not really fit into any of those categories, but it is still one heck of a good time.
The cast of six, and director Bryan Lark with assistance from Joe Hingelberg, wrote the script for this vacation cruise ride. As soon as it begins guests are greeted by Garrett Fuller and Pete Jacokes, playing what would best be described as cruise directors. After shouting out some interesting cruise facts, with "Six of you are going to try to push someone overboard" being my personal favorite, the adventure begins.
During the 80-minute show, viewers go everywhere from the buffet line, to a yoga class and a zip line excursion, with Fuller and Jacokes coming back to guide us along the trip and make sure the safety marshal is doing her job. FYI, the safety marshal is a randomly picked audience member at the beginning of the show, one given a binder titled "Safety Marshall's Guide to Not Getting Everyone Killed." There's also a murder, and some choreographed dancing to "Walking in Memphis"... but I'm giving it all away, aren't I?
Let me say now that the cast works exceptionally well together, even when things don't go quite as planned. During the zip line excursion, told with Barbies and some creative stage placement, there was a little bit of a mishap, but the actors didn't miss a beat, proving again and again how well their improv skills are.
If reviews were allowed to write closer to 1,000 or 1,200 words, I would gladly write paragraphs about each of the six actors, but alas, that would be a bit much. I'll only mention a few of my absolute favorites, even though they all have a moment or two that will catch your attention.
A few weeks ago I saw Lauren Bickers in Planet Ant's "Action Sports News," and frankly, I wasn't all that impressed. I saw other reviews mentioning how great a comedic actress she is, and after seeing her in "Ahoy!" I now understand the brilliance, and high praise, of Bickers. Whether it be playing the ship's attorney or one-half of two very different couples, she constantly delivers.
As for the boys, I have to mention Jacokes again. When he walked out with Billy Joel's "In the Middle of the Night" playing, doing this strange, spazzy dance was the moment I knew he had to be mentioned. Jacokes has fantastic comedic timing throughout, even when he's a depressed magician or a monkey named Daisy.
He also plays half of my favorite pairing of the night: Bickers and Jacokes as the crankiest old couple one would probably meet on a cruise. They're filled with piss and vinegar, and have so many zingers at others and each other including "I can't hear you over all the Nazis I killed" that you can't help but smile every time they're onstage.
The crews costumes, which stick to blue slacks for the ladies, khakis for the men, and button-up shirts, fit perfectly. Their light blue ties that have anchors on them are a great touch. Costume and prop master Tommy LeRoy adds little details that make all the difference, with additions of hats and scarves, among other things, creating completely different characters.
Even if a cruise isn't on the top of your "must do" list, it would be an absolute shame not to check out "Ahoy!"
SHOW DETAILS: "Ahoy!" continues at Go Comedy! Improv Theater, 261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale, 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday through May 31. Running time: 80 minutes; no intermission. Tickets: $15. For information: 248-327-0575 or www.gocomedy.net.
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By John Quinn
Posted: April 6, 2013 at 6:43 p.m.
Thanks to the miracle that is the Internet, I'm listening to Ludwig van Beethoven's "33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli," Op. 120, while I write about Moises Kaufman's "33 Variations." To steal a word that recurs in commentary, the music is transcendent. In his variation on the "Variations," Kaufman has created a drama that is both inspired and inspiring. It celebrates the possibilities that only occur when all hope is gone. In a local theater season which has featured a wealth of plays that are both thoroughly entertaining and intellectually stimulating, The Purple Rose Theatre Company hits another high note.
Beethoven's massive opus had an odd origin. Music publisher Anton Diabelli, played here in all his egotistical self-confidence by Daniel C. Britt, writes a waltz. He invites 50 of the "greatest composers" to each write a variation on the theme, to be published in a single, sure-to-sell book. Beethoven, an even greater egotist and possible madman, writes not one, but 33 and takes some four years to do it.
But why so many, when one would do? Was it mercenary? Beethoven always needed money. Was it vanity? Bach's "Goldberg Variations" comprises only 32 pieces. Is he dissing Diabelli for writing a "clumsy and repetitive" waltz? Present-day musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt attempts to answer that question by going to primary sources the Maestro's sketchbooks and notes. The quest takes her from New York to Bonn, Germany, where the Beethoven collection resides in the care of the no-nonsense Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Rhiannon Ragland).
As Kaufman weaves past and present into an ever tighter tapestry, we find parallels between musicologist and composer. Both are emotionally repressed. Katherine is a distant mother to her daughter Clara (Lauren Knox). Ludwig is an insufferable employer to his secretary, Anton Shindler (David Bendena). Both use their work as an emotional pressure valve. Both have the fortitude to, as Beethoven shouts, " ... take fate by the throat and bend it to my will!" And both are running out of time. Beethoven is in ill health and increasingly deaf; Katherine has advanced ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"33 Variations" is directed by Guy Sanville, something of a maestro himself when it comes to tempo and form. There is an otherworldly feel to the drama, as Sanville's characters share the stage but not the scenes. This culminates in a remarkable first act finale, where separate conversations in separate centuries resonate in a verbal, contrapuntal septet worthy of a Mozart opera.
The play, however, is not all sturm und drang, and the drama is nicely complimented by a little levity. Of note is the awkward, but growing, relationship between Clara and Mike, one of her mother's nurses, played by Michael Brian Ogden. Even the plot of "33 Variations" has variations.
While the cast forms the seamless ensemble we've come to expect at the Purple Rose, Michelle Mountain as Katherine and Richard McWillams as Beethoven are outstanding. Their characters are two sides of the same coin, and the performances are truly in sync remarkable, since they share no scenes until (spoiler) late in Act II.
Arnold Schoenberg writes that the "Diabelli Variations," "in respect of its harmony, deserves to be called the most adventurous work by Beethoven." He had lost his conventional hearing, yet in his head was music that no one had heard before. His late works changed classical music and all the forms that have followed. As an illustration of the human will's triumph over adversity, "33 Variations" is an uplifting experience.
SHOW DETAILS: "33 Variations" continues at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea, Wednesday-Sunday through June 1. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Tickets: $18.50-42. For information: 734-433-7673 or www.purplerosetheatre.org.
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