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All in the dysfunctional family

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Elektra"

Michigan Opera Theatre

Posted: Oct. 19, 2014 at 4:20 p.m.

'Tis the season for houses of horror to appear all over Metro Detroit, but who would have expected that one of the goriest would be the Detroit Opera House? Given the venue, however, we are once again reminded that horror implied is more visceral than horror depicted.

Michigan Opera Theatre opens its 44th season with Richard Strauss' "Elektra," a little monster of an opera so fearsome that it can eat music directors and sopranos alive. The beast has been gloriously tamed by MOT conductor Steven Mercurio at the podium and an opera superstar, Christine Goerke, in the title role.

It is apparent that the ancient Greeks liked a good horror story as much as we do. Strauss loosely based "Elektra" on 5th century BCE plays, particularly those by Sophocles and Euripides, concerning the Curse of the House of Atreus. The gods had cursed Atreus to teach him that, when you invite your brother to dinner, it's improper to serve nephew as the main course. But that's another story. It does, though, give a backdrop to a clan with real family value issues.

Agamemnon, son of Atreus and king of Mycenae, was prepared to sail off to avenge the abduction of his sister-in-law, Helen. The fleet was becalmed, so the king sacrificed his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis in exchange for fair sailing. That horrifies his wife, Klytemnestra, who turns to Aegisth, the king's cousin, for comfort.

Agamemnon returns from the Trojan Wars and is promptly murdered by the lovers. By all the cultural norms, it is the duty of Orest, Agamemnon's son, to avenge his father's death, but that means violating a fundamental taboo, matricide. Rather than risk retribution, the assassins exile the boy.

But again, that's background. "Elektra" is the story of Agamemnon's remaining daughters, Chrysothemis, who has come to terms with the status quo and lives in the palace, and Elektra, who prowls outdoors, living for the vengeance that only the exiled Orest can mete out.

"Elektra" recounts the fateful day of Orest's return – in disguise, lest his mother and uncle murder him as well. His return frees Elektra from committing unspeakable crimes, taking revenge in her brother's place and killing her mother. But only her indomitable drive convinces Orest to undertake the murders.

With "Elektra," Strauss created a densely woven study in contrasts. Written in 1909 and incorporating a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the opera represents the composer's most advanced experimentation with chromaticism, and yet retains the lush, romantic lyricism that mark his "lieder." The orchestral score is considered one of the most challenging in the dramatic repertoire due to its wealth of emotional content. The MOT Orchestra has been beefed up to accommodate the complexities, and Steven Mercurio elicits a textured, layered wall of sound. There is a roiling sea of emotion underlying the melodies, with harmony and dissonance complementing the main themes.

Vocally, "Elektra" is dazzling. Christine Goerke, in what constitutes a breath-taking performance in more ways than one, appears to effortlessly handle the wide range and violent passions of this most difficult of roles. Her Elektra has not been driven mad, but driven wild – and her stage presence has all the menace of a tiger at bay. Contrary to convention, Goerke will sing all performances.

Jennifer Check debuts in the role of Chrysothemis, a study in light compared to Elektra's darkness. She easily takes on the soaring full-voiced leaps to the top of the range, and the duets between the sisters are some of the most beautifully articulated music of an otherwise grim opus.

Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove explores the tortured Klytemnestra, her low, dark tones expressing both the fear of retribution and the terrors in which her guilt binds her.

"Elektra" is generous to its female cast, less so with the men. Tenor Richard Margison makes his MOT debut in the role of Aegisth, but no sooner does he establish character as a petulant pretender to the throne than he's slaughtered by Orest's companions. Bass-baritone Thomas Gazheli, who sang the title role in last season's "The Flying Dutchman," returns as Orest, a role that demands agonized emotions portrayed in a deep resonant lower register. Gazheli doesn't disappoint.

"Elektra" is directed by Nicholas Muni, based on a production he originally conceived for the Cincinnati Opera. He also designed the lights - which, while wonderfully atmospheric, frequently turns the male cast as pale as the walking dead. To enhance the creepiness of the production, it is very effective, but I'm still working through how it advances the story.

Sets and costumes, designed by Dany Lyne, are suitably somber and reserved, reflecting German, rather than Grecian, inspiration. The fortress-like building that dominates center stage becomes part of the drama, alternately revealing and concealing the horrors inside.

The Greeks knew that a good drama, like good house of horrors, can have a positive psychological effect. Experiencing the emotions evoked by either allows the audience to work through and purge the negative and emerge refreshed. Aristotle called it "catharsis." This close to Halloween, we'd call it "scaring your pants off." "Elektra" lets you have it both ways.

Michigan Opera Theatre
at Detroit Opera House
1526 Broadway St., Detroit
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25
2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26
1 hour, 45 minutes; no intermission

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Elektra - Michigan Opera Theatre

Read GEORGE BULANDA's review – The Detroit News (Oct. 19, 2014)


'Once' creates magic with romantic tale

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Once"

Wharton Center

Posted: Oct. 15, 2014 at 1:36 p.m.

"Sometimes in the middle of an ordinary life, love gives you a fairy tale," is a quote that floats around the Internet on wedding sites and other such places. What the pithy quote doesn't tell you is that sometimes the fairy tale doesn't end with the protagonists swearing "I do" and riding off into the sunset together.

Even in the magical world of musicals, it is possible for a love story to be told without a kiss, and for the demands and responsibilities of life to trump the longings of the heart and the passion of individuals.

"Once," the musical currently touring through Wharton Center, is one such fairy tale. It is a fairy tale for grown-ups, for those who have learned that life is complex and that love has surprising ways of changing us, even if we can't surrender everything to it.

The musical has an almost magical, mystical quality to it, even while being grounded in the modern world in a place that is easy to recognize. The audience is invited up on stage before the show to look up close at the pub that makes the set. There is no barrier or need to transport the audience to a fairy tale world. Instead, the world of Dublin is brought to the audience. The stage experience even extends beyond the auditorium, with actors performing as street musicians between the Wharton Center parking lot and the building. Later they take center stage while the audience is still wandering about them, and they sing and dance while the house lights are still up full in a pre-show that sets the world as firmly our own.

The two protagonists are nameless, a purposeful everyman and everywoman, even though they are more fully fleshed out than all of the rest of the named ensemble. They are "guy" and "girl." The guy is an Irish street musician, who is about to give up on his dreams because his broken heart has left him convinced that no one wants to hear his music – at least, no one who matters. The girl is an immigrant from the Czech Republic. She is a pianist, who becomes the guy's muse.

"Once" is a bittersweet tale that is filled with moments of gentle humor, humor that makes you smile and chuckle rather than guffaw. It is humor that humanizes the characters and make their dreams and desires feel more real.

On opening night, Alex Nee played the role of Guy, and he brought a charisma to the part that was compelling. He wasn't just a mesmerizing singer, he was a talented actor who knew just how to play moments of silence as well as the spoken ones. Even with a heavy accent and the clipped speech of an Irishman, he was clear and easy to understand.

It is Dani de Waal's Girl who brings the mystical quality to the show. At first, she seems an angel of sorts, someone sent to rescue Guy for no other reason that he needs a muse. As the story progresses, she becomes more grounded, and we see in her a woman with needs, commitment and dreams. De Waal is magical in her performance. She is ethereal and otherworldly at times, and then in the blink of an eye, completely human and down-to-earth.

Together de Waal and Nee have an incredible chemistry, made all the more so when considering that Nee is the understudy for the role that is usually played by Stuart Ward, an Irish actor touring with the show. There is a strength that comes in the spaces between them. Nee and de Waal create moments where the emptiness and distance is as powerful as any embrace could be.

The rest of the ensemble spends the entire time on stage, and they are a talented crew both vocally and physically. The choreography is splendid and natural. Each of the ensemble members (with the exception of the child actress) plays one or more instruments, and they not only perform with those instruments, but they dance while playing. If you've never seen someone dance while playing the cello, you won't want to miss "Once." Steven Hoggett's choreography is complex and deliciously Irish with foot stomping energy.

"Once" defies the usual format for musicals and for fairy tales in many ways. In doing so, it creates something new that is filled with soul, heart and love.

Wharton Center's Cobb Great Hall
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17
2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18
1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19
2 hours, 30 minutes

The production then moves to:

Broadway Grand Rapids
at DeVos Performance Hall
303 Monroe Ave. NE, Grand Rapids
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 4
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7
2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8
1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Once - Wharton Center

Read ALLAN I. ROSS' review – City Pulse (Oct. 15, 2014)

Read KEN GLICKMAN's review – Lansing State Journal (Oct. 15, 2014)


Curiouser and curiouser: An edgy production stands convention on its head

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Alice"


Posted: Oct. 13, 2014 at 2:15 p.m.

Some theatrical experiences defy description. But a few adjectives come to mind that are applicable to "Alice," the performance organization Nerve's immersive journey through Wonderland. "Unconventional?" Without a doubt. "Unique" – that too. Unsettling? More than a little.

Sometimes it's best to let the artists speak for themselves. "Alice" is Nerve's latest experiment in "consensual theater" in which, according to the company's web site, "It's all about the senses." Nerve is all about "immersive, audience participatory shows in non-traditional spaces." This non-traditional space is the school associated with Drayton Avenue Presbyterian Church in Ferndale. Usually, audiences sit and watch performers. For "Alice," performers meet you in the lobby and sweep you up into the show.

"Alice" is an original work, based on characters and motifs created by Lewis Carroll in his timeless novels "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass, and "What Alice Found There." Regardless of their appeal to the very young, the "Alice" books aren't kid stuff. Carroll was a geometrician, a discipline based on rigid logic. His pair of novels are revels in the illogical, full of elegant word play. What better theme could one adopt for alternative theater than the madness created when a mathematician blows off steam?

"Alice" is highly conceptual, intensely stylized. The costumes and makeup only suggest character; voice and gesture are paramount. Our guide down the rabbit hole is the White Rabbit, who encourages us to explore the installation on our own. Sticking close to the bunny, though, keeps you in the center of the action. Her cohorts include a Mad Hatter and a March Hare, a Cheshire Cat, a Pale King and a malevolent Red Queen. And Alice? She's a raffia-haired puppet that the Rabbit pushes around in a cart.

Classrooms on both sides of a darkened hallway are transformed into "settings" for the play; they are themselves works of art. The attention to detail is striking.

The Hatter may be called "mad," but the fundamental theme of "Alice" is summed up by the evocative observance of the Cheshire Cat, "We're ALL mad here." And indeed, what started out as a romp in a garden of talking flowers descends into a darker, more twisted journey.

In the spirit of ensemble theater, Nerve provides no program for "Alice," but a tour of their website reveals that the core company are Laura Bailey, Steve Xander Carson, Marisa Dluge, Chris Jakob, John Denyer and Kathe Koja. They are familiar faces on Metro stages, but audiences at other venues haven't experienced them quite so up close and personal. This is "immersive" theater; even though participation is "consensual," the production is very much "in your face." But no audience members were harmed in the making of "Alice."

This is an experience for the adventuresome only – the adventuresome and the physically fit. I mean, plays have left me breathless in the past, but not quite in this manner. The painfully shy, like yours truly, can try to hide in the shadows, but it's likely that Red Queen will ferret you out. And that's a fate you really don't want.

at Drayton Avenue Presbyterian Church
2441 Pinecrest Dr., Ferndale
9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, 24, 31
9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, 25
Children 14 and over accompanied by parent/guardian only
1 hour, 20 minutes; no intermission
$30; $75 Halloween. All tickets are pre-sale only

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Photo: Copyright Rick Lieder -



Read PATTY NOLAN's review – Detroit Theater Examiner (Oct. 11, 2014)


Connections made on Thursday nights

By Amy J. Parrent

REVIEW: "Missed Connections: The Movie (Live on Stage)"

Go Comedy! Improv Theater

Posted: Oct. 13, 2014 at 11:19 a.m.; updated Oct. 14, 2014 at 10:48 a.m.

Go Comedy! continues on Thursdays with an assortment of scripted experiences with more on-the-edge improv.

Despite its billing as a filmmaking experience, the early evening show "Missed Connections: The Movie (Live on Stage)" is mostly a series of live vignettes (yes, there's a term someone could do an entire sketch about).

This troupe, a former mainstay of "The Sunday Buffet" show now promoted to nighttime, includes James Cerini, Jessica Loria, Kevin Lytle, Nuverre Naami, Tom Novik, Sean Robinson and Jason Valentini, with direction by Gary Lehman.

The hour-plus ranges from bits on a fixed Bingo game to a bizarre salsa lesson, as well as an interview that gives new meaning to the phrase "hot job market."

There are restaurant themes: A slap-happy night at an Applebee's, and – one of the best sketches – a Japanese chef who knows just what the customer needs.

Meanwhile, a man and a woman are spicing up the bedroom with roleplaying, the basis for videos interspersed through the evening. With his wife having nervously blurted out an interest in U.S. history, the husband attempts to launch sexy times dressed up as famous presidents. It does not go well. ("Nobody wants to f*** Nixon.")

One of the ensemble's standouts is Jason Valentini, convincing in a mix of roles, from various Dads to a man you definitely don't want answering the door on your trick-or-treat outing. Let's just say he went way overboard on creating his costume.

Valentini commits fully to the guy who's gone mad for Halloween, leading one theatre-goer to comment afterward, "If I wasn't afraid of clowns before, I am now."

The show takes a fling at tying the disparate bits together at evening's end. Some of the sketches are a bit rough around the edges, lacking either a clear strong premise or enough punch to carry it through. And Loria and Naami could sometimes project a bit more. But although parts lack polish, the cast works well as a group, pushing out energy and enthusiasm.

Each week, a different improv troupe will open the evening. On opening night it was the three-man crew called Javelin (Gary Lehman, Bob Wieck and James Quesada). First up was a trio of doctors – or were they kids playing doctor? – with a fascination for certain medical terms: "sternum, septum – all the ‘ums.'" Then they jumped to "exotic Greektown" where two girls were picking up a guy whom they begged to "say something in Greekish."

And just to reinforce that this is indeed Michigan-based improv, we returned to the doctors, now dumping on the Spartans of MSU, singing about its med school to the tune of "Hail to the Victors."

Throw in "Missed Connections" earlier references to local sights and businesses, and it's a reminder that no matter what school colors you bleed, part of the appeal of taking in Go Comedy! on a thirsty Thursday is that local flavor.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Missed Connections: The Movie (Live on Stage)'
Go Comedy! Improv Theater
261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, 23, 30, Nov. 6
90 minutes

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A spirited romp at Go!

By Amy J. Parrent

REVIEW: "The Die Centennial"

Go Comedy! Improv Theater

Posted: Oct. 13, 2014 at 10:44 a.m.

Thursday nights in October at Go Comedy! Improv Theater end with the two-person improv, "The Die Centennial." A duo of jovial, off-the-wall spirits are celebrating 100 years of death with a look back at some of the highlights, lowlights and lowlifes they have observed from their incorporeal state.

Henry and Agnes Mortelli – James Quesada and Heather Sejnow – failed to receive an invitation to either heaven or hell upon their demise, although they suspect the latter is where they belong. So they wander the world, and into the audience, amiably chatting about a century of very odd observances.

Singling out audience members for brief inquisitions (no actual torture involved), the answers to their questions are springboards to eccentric improvs, using as props a few wigs, scarves and boas which they fling over their clothing, an appropriate approximation of their old turn-of-the-20th-century garb.

There was, they recall, the 1930s torture chamber that didn't seem THAT bad. And a 1950 cheerleading team whose overly elaborate rah-rah-rahs reveal a certain lack of sports knowledge. ("Kick it if you have to – or throw it, if that's your job.")

Quesada has a wonderful strong theatrical voice. Sejnow brings a particularly effervescent and wacky high spiritedness to her ghost, whether she‘s portraying a torture victim or a sexually starved Slav.

Upon being told by one man in the audience that he'd once been bitten by a horse named Steve, Senjow casually dropped, "Oh, if I had a dollar for every Steve that bit me … I'd have three dollars."

Another audience talk somehow led to a tale of two freezing-cold Russian lovers, and then an aside about the spirits' own disastrous attempts at a post-mortal coupling. Senjow scrunched her face as she remembered with distaste, "There was ectoplasm everywhere."

But the squeamish can be assured, these spirits are more garrulous than ghoulish, and the pair create a fine improv nightcap.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Die Centennial'
Go Comedy! Improv Theater
261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale
10 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, 23, 30

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World-premiere parody puts the horror in puberty

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Are You There God? It’s Me, Carrie"

The Ringwald Theatre

Posted: Oct. 13, 2014 at 10:05 a.m.

In 1970, an emerging writer published a seminal young-adult novel of a preteen girl figuring out school, fitting in, boys, religious faith, and her developing body. The book was groundbreaking for its forthright discussion of sexual development, particularly the topic of menstruation. In 1974 came another writer's first published novel, which told the story of a different schoolgirl grappling with some bloody similar religious, social, and pubertal troubles. Although thematically comparable, that book was notable for…different reasons. Then in 2014, a pair of Michigan playwrights decided these two just had to get together.

Judy Blume, meet Stephen King. And brace yourselves for the Ringwald Theatre world premiere of "Are You There God? It's Me, Carrie."

For the concept alone, playwrights Lisa Melinn and Dyan Bailey deserve adulation. Mashed together, these two distinctive tales are as complementary as peanut butter and jelly. Their adaptation largely follows the milestones of the Judy Blume book, but vastly reimagines the girl-talking meetings of the secret club the Four Pre-Teen Sensations to replace Margaret with new girl Carrie White (Meredith Deighton). How would the young confidantes' frank dialogues change if one of them, say, had a demented, ultra-fundamentalist mother with dangerously wackadoo notions of sin and sexuality and a hankering for child abuse? How would sheltered, isolated Carrie's fortunes fare if she could be part of a gang at long last, and buy her first bra and go to a boy-girl party in a classmate's basement?

Here, the central girl characters operate together at a heightened dynamic of catty candor. As the group's ringleader, Nancy (Brittany Michael) maintains an air of worldly pretense, rolling her controlling tendencies and her mother's skanky influence into an outlandish persona of queen bee proto-tramp. DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton excels as the perennially hectored, cookie-hoarding Gretchen, both in brooking dissent loud enough for the audience to hear and in subsequently backing down, and tomboy Janie (Katy Schoetzow) is farcically unsubtle in telegraphing her Sapphic leanings. Meanwhile, Deighton's Carrie hones a kind of skittish schizophrenia, innocently chirping her mother's backward lessons one moment, then spitting invective or manifesting uncontrolled telekinetic powers the next.

The production is every inch the 1970s, from groovy costume dresses and wigs (Melinn) to configurable set pieces (Gwen Lindsay) adorned with ripped-from-a-paperback designs. The design team also can't ignore the massive influence of the 1976 film "Carrie," pulling out lookalike costume pieces, strewing religious-icon properties (Schoetzow), borrowing familiar music cues (Bailey), and reserving an entire corner of the set for the looming-crucifix horror show that houses Carrie's mother, Mrs. White (Lauren Bickers).

The scenes with Carrie and her mother may be the best preserved from the source, which is an absolute godsend, because Bickers needs no enhancements to bring fireworks to this bat-guano crazy role. The result is less performance than possession, from full-throated invocations to histrionic crazy eyes; even her lying in wait is a laugh riot. No doubt the deck was always going to be stacked in favor of this outsized character, but the hilarity of Bickers's insistent command readily ensures that nothing else in this show comes close.

Ringwald newcomer Joel Hunter is a capable utility player, portraying all the show's men with everything from popular-boy suave to geeky exuberance. Beyond writing, designing, and also directing, Bailey appears onstage as well, both as a thick-skinned, resented early bloomer classmate and in a brief boozy stint as a grownup.

Although the laughs in store are big and unapologetically ribald, the production does suffer some inconsistencies, with fits and starts that most often surround the musical interludes. Yes, these characters sometimes pause to reflect in (period-appropriate) song, intoning intact or gently tweaked lyrics to the sound of a karaoke track. The song choices are passable, and one or two are simply ingenious for their comic juxtaposition. Yet more often than not, the audience is treated to a sparse handful of relatively funny discoveries dragged through a three-minute span of vocally unremarkable filler and clumsy aping of Schoetzow's choreography, heaving this otherwise breezy piece just over the one-hour mark.

In the Ringwald's campy, parodic pantheon, the rock-solid premise of "Are You There God? It's Me, Carrie" makes it another worthy entry. This wild – and wildly excessive – show lovingly desecrates what was a hugely formative pop culture touchstone for many women, while paying seasonally appropriate homage to a horror classic. Despite some disorder and energy dips, the bulk of the content is strong and purposeful, the outlandish, slapdash humor is in good form, and crackpot darling Mrs. White is always just around the corner, waiting to jolt the proceedings with a welcome Bible to the face.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Are You There God? It's Me, Carrie'
The Ringwald Theatre
22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, 25, Nov. 1
3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, 26, Nov. 2
8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 13, 20, 27, Nov. 3
65 minutes; no intermission

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Are You There God? It's Me, Carrie - The Ringwald Theatre

Read DENISE MILLS MANZAGOL's review – The Oakland Press (Oct. 15, 2014)


Script carries 'Birth' as performances labor to match

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "The Birth of Chad"

Planet Ant Theatre

Posted: Oct. 11, 2014 at 4:28 p.m.

Throughout its history, Planet Ant Theatre has proudly straddled the improvisational comedy and scripted theater worlds, and that partnership is at peak visibility during the company's Colony Fest/Late-Night Series crossovers. For each of the biannual Colony Fest competitions, the winning improv troupe is given its very own late-night time slot to script and star in a one-act play. The latest in this tradition is "The Birth of Chad," written by the cast and director Michael Hovitch in a months-long process.

Collectively, these original productions share only two qualities: humor and a DIY budget. The rest varies as much as the imaginations and sensibilities of the individual directors and performers, some worshipping at the altar of sketch comedy caricature, others piling crisscross motivations and plot contrivances ever higher. This particular production's bread and butter is the quality of its writing: This isn't an exercise in explosive, hyperbolic humor, but rather a short, grounded story constructed and drafted with appreciable skill.

Here, Steve Oliver plays the title character, while the other three in the ensemble (Michael Babbish, Arthur Brannon III, and Aaron Mondry) inhabit the many surrounding characters in his stalled-out life. Living in his parents' basement, without the means to push off and enter adulthood with his long-suffering girlfriend, Chad has made the investment to become a self-sufficient business owner. Specifically, he's selling candles through a multi-level marketing company, the kind with a super empowering message about being your own boss and best self, as well as a distinctly triangle-shaped organizational flow chart (whose resemblance to a pyramid, Chad would be the first to say, is purely coincidental).

But although money is at the forefront of this objective (just ask the soundtrack, which includes all manner of hits about wanting it, earning it, having it, lacking it, spending it), behind it looms questions about the kind of person Chad and others want him to be. As his support system's patience remorsefully runs out, the downtrodden Chad clings to the catch phrases and sales tactics he learns at expensive company training seminars, hoping that this hefty buy-in will improve his financial outlook and, by extension, his entire life. The depth and breadth of his belief – not only that the economic scheme will pay off, but also that some kind of better self will consequently emerge – drives believable stakes into all the show's key relationships, and the inherent pep and mania of the downright cultish seminar scenes keep the action pulsing at a frenzied and downright desperate tone. Moreover, the kind of insider jargon that infects these schemes also turns out to be comic ground ripe for the mining; some of the script's sharpest jokes and quips lie in pure gems of willful party-line ignorance.

In practice, however, the text isn't being quite as well served as it might. Chief among the show's troubles is the lack of physical surroundings: The playing space is intentionally stripped back to two chairs, a back wall, and a handful of entrance doors, relying on lighting cues and mimed object work to set the various scenes. Yet this leaves the actors floating anchorless in a large, blank void, at times uncertain of where to plant oneself or what to do once there.

Such a lack of cohesion also bleeds over into the performances themselves, which showcase individual strengths, but at different times and in drastically diverse ways. At the play's center, Oliver is a fine Everyman of introspection, at first a generously funny and sweet sad-sack type who later evolves into a slick, obnoxious cipher. His straight-man approach is in pointed opposition to Babbish, who aspires for extra dweeb points in all his portrayals with liberally applied tics and silly affectations. And starkly different again is Mondry's deep commitment to understatement, particularly in the pained, murmuring devotion of his shrinking-violet love interest. Meanwhile, Brannon steals scenes with mere emphatic monosyllables in small, over-the-top characters, but in the guise of a major linchpin player (that literally makes his money on his buoyant sales persona), the actor can't muster the same confidence for a more true-to-life portrayal.

The infrastructure of "The Birth of Chad" is strong, in the form of a dually comedic and meditative script. As of opening night, all the raw materials appear in order, and the show's potential to grow into its own hype is certainly feasible over the remainder of its three-week run. But like Chad, it's time for these four promising comics to start buying what they're selling.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Birth of Chad'
Planet Ant Theatre
2357 Caniff, Hamtramck
9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, 24
9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 18, 25
60 minutes; no intermission

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Oddball comedy calls for men with many hats

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "The 39 Steps"

The Snug Theatre

Posted: Oct. 11, 2014 at 3:32 p.m.

John Buchan's 1915 novel, "The 39 Steps," is a real pot-boiler. The 1935 film by the legendary master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, is a loose adaptation of the original. Patrick Barlow's 2005 adaptation for the stage is a loving parody of Hitch's spy thriller, popping the hot-air-filled melodrama with well-aimed pin pricks. It won the 2007 London's Olivier Award for Best Comedy and New York's 2008 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience. The "experience" is currently at The Snug Theatre in Marine City.

In his study, "Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts," Ben Singer, assistant professor of film studies at University of Wisconsin – Madison, notes the "key constitutive factors" of melodrama: pathos, overwrought or heightened emotion, moral polarization, non-classical narrative structure and sensationalism. Hitchcock's film has all that and more. British Everyman, Richard Hannay, takes in a show at London's Palladium Theatre. Prominent on the bill is the amazing Mr. Memory, a veritable walking encyclopedia, who will answer any question posed to him (It's not much of act, but it pays the bills). The performance is interrupted by gunfire, and the beautiful, mysterious Annabella Schmidt begs for Richard's protection. Back at Richard's flat, Annabella reveals she's a counter-espionage agent trying to thwart a Nazi spy ring's attempt to smuggle military secrets out of Britain. She has little to go on but a contact in Scotland and the enigmatic code phrase, "The 39 Steps."

But wouldn't you know, Annabella is murdered overnight, leaving Richard as the obvious perp. Dodging the authorities, he flees to Scotland seeking Professor Jordan – his only lead – in the hopes of clearing his name.

Ah, but there's a difference between the film and the play. Director Hitchcock has around 150 characters. Director Brittany Everitt Smith has only four actors. Aaron Dennis Smith, playing Richard Hannay, is the only actor who does not double in another role. Wendy Krekeler plays the principal women, leaving Jeffery Pedue and Randy Skotarczyk to play everyone else.

The comedy in "The 39 Steps" derives from two sources. The script is a wicked sendup of dramatic stereotypes, a knowing wink at suspense as a narrative genre, as well as its most creative practitioner, Hitchcock. But this production relies heavily on the quick-change costume and character abilities of its "clowns." Pedue and Skotarczyk do not disappoint, but as of opening night timing was still shaky. The performances amused, but didn't have the "golly, how'd they DO that?" aspect as of yet. Yet their on-stage transitions are pretty deft, thanks to some unnamed heroes who have come up with a seemingly endless supply of wigs and hats.

Because Krekeler and Smith are playing hyperbolic versions of common dramatic characters, their performances have a delightfully campy element. Smith is especially adept at broad physical comedy.

While Tom Vertin is named for set construction, "set assembler" might be more accurate. The design for "The 39 Steps" is very versatile; steamer trunks become a bed, a railway seat or a dais. Bring on four chairs and a wheel – you have a car. Proper setting of place and time are clear due to the satisfying work of lighting designer Chris Martus and sound technician Garrett Hadwin. And no one can deny the appeal of those stylish, period costumes.

"The 39 Steps" is a risky endeavor – plays involving split-second timing always are. Opening night saw a fair number of minor snags that don't bear reporting – they won't happen again – but others will crop up in such a complex production. But well-played comedy goes a long way in glossing over rough spots.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The 39 Steps'
The Snug Theatre
160 S. Water St., Marine City
7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, 23
7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, 24
7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 18, 25
3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12, 19, 26
2 hours, 15 minutes

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A chilling and intense political tale

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "1984"

What A Do Theatre

Posted: Oct. 11, 2014 at 2:50 p.m.

It's October, so if you traverse the state's theaters you can indulge in such Halloween fare as Dracula, Frankenstein, Carrie, and the Evil Dead. But if you want some true horror this month, you should make the trip to Springfield's What a Do Theatre and see its production of "1984."

It's a political thriller, written more than half a century ago, that views a world of surveillance, of governmental control, of unbridled power and of cruelty and pain. It is one of the early examples of dystopian novels. In it, the "party" holds absolute sway over people's lives. Winston Smith (Joe Dely) works in the Ministry of Truth, changing records of the past to align with the Party's current version of reality. He and his co-worker Syme (Lars Loofboro) translate things into Newspeak, the Party's new language that destroys old words in an attempt to control ideas and thinking.

Julia (Kristin Marie Stelter) is transferred into the department, replacing an "unperson" – someone who has been hung as a traitor and who is now said to have never existed. Despite being a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League, she confesses she is in love with Winston, and they begin an affair which would mean arrest and certain death if it were discovered.

Together they confess their hatred for the party, making them "thought criminals," and engage in a conspiracy to change things.

What a Do manages the intensity of the story with all the tools at its disposal. A uniformed guard stands dead-eyed next to the box office, a contrast with the friendly volunteers. Another guard barks orders at people in the lobby, telling them to approach him when they are ready to enter the theater. Yet a third guard snaps at patrons as they prepare to take their seats.

John Purchase's original sound track pulses throughout the house before the show begins and throughout the course of the play. It is an electronica reminiscent of the '80s with lyrics fitting the setting of the show. Samantha Snow and Joshua Olgine's scenic design is stark and unforgiving, much like the Party itself. The feel is one of oppressive poverty, with chain link fences serving as doors and weathered concrete the pervading motif.

Dely immediately establishes himself as out-of-sync with his committed co-workers. He's late to work and a little slower on his feet when the telescreen announcements come on. His hissing is pro forma, and he barely participates in the calisthenics until the disembodied voice from the screen reprimands him personally.

His discontent is aided by Loofboro's goofy grin and puppy-dog like passion for the Party and his work. Co-worker Parsons (Stacy Little) is enthusiastic about the party and convinced everything they do is correct and for the best.

The chemistry between Stelter and Dely communicates volumes in what must be a shortened version of what plays out in the novel. There is a tension and fear that underlies their relationship, a forbidden love which they both know is doomed.

Some of the most intense scenes come at the end with Troy Randall-Kilpatrick's O'Brien, an inner party member whose fate becomes inexorably linked with Winston and Julia. He becomes the voice of the party, the voice of power and cruelty and control. Randall-Kilpatrick moves instantly between reasonableness and anger, exerting fine control over his voice as he commands, then shouts, then threatens.

It is also in these final scenes where Dely truly shines as the confused man who tries to hold onto what he knows is true in the face of unrelenting physical and emotional torment. He travels a spectrum of emotions as he tries to process all that is happening to him and is being said to him.

Director Randy Wolfe controls the pacing with an iron fist. There is never a slow moment or one in which the tension is allowed to release. He crafts a story that is unified in its vision and voice, ensuring that everyone is working toward the same goal. It is this discipline that emphasizes the horror and thriller aspects of the story.

Intermission was a bit confusing, for while the houselights went up, things kept happening on stage and the audience stayed mesmerized and unwilling to move from their seats as the guards and Rachel Markillie's landlady had intense and violent interactions.

Ashlyn Shawver was the voice over the loudspeaker and she gave an unseen performance that was creepy and intense. There were times her voice seemed electronically altered, adding to the overall oppressiveness of a society that is constantly watched and under electronic surveillance.

What A Do mines every bit of intensity in playwright Robert Owens' adaptation of the classic Orwell novel. While there is nothing supernatural in this horror story, it frightens by revealing the darkness of the human soul and the dire predictions of what a totalitarian state can do to wipe out one's very thoughts and memories for no other reason than the pursuit of power.

What A Do Theatre
4071 W. Dickman Road, Springfield
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16 (pay-what-you-can; $5 minimum)
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, 24
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 18, 25
3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18 (half-price matinee)

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: 1984 - What A Do Theatre

Read CHRISTOPHER TOWER's review – Battle Creek Enquirer (Oct. 11, 2014)


Dracula haunts Dio dinner theater

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Dracula The Musical

The Dio - Dining & Entertainment

Posted: Oct. 5, 2014 at 7 p.m.

'Tis the season for ghouls, ghosts, pumpkins and vampires.

Those looking for the latter to spice up their Halloween season can head to The Dio in Pinckney and get their fill of the Bram Stoker tale told in all its classic glory. Forget Buffy and "Twilight." Forget the campy memes or modern twists on the legend. This is Count Dracula, Van Helsing, Mina, Lucy, Jonathan Harker and Renfield, straight out of the 1897 gothic horror novel.

Even the music, and the twist on the ending, is fully gothic in genre and style.

The tale? "Dracula The Musical" with music by Frank Wildhorn, the creator of the musical "Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical."

Steve DeBruyne is the busiest man in the house, fulfilling the roles of artistic director, director of this musical, Jonathan Harker and head waiter for this dinner theater. While that may seem a heavy load, he carries it with grace and skill. The stage pictures are carefully planned and spread out among Matthew Tomich's two-story set. The pacing is sometimes ponderous, but this adds to the gothic feel of the musical. There are no comedic moments in this script. It is meant to be creepy and frightening, a traditional telling of the horror tale. DeBruyne captures this and keeps the intensity high.

The play opens with Harker arriving at Count Dracula's castle in Transylvania on a stagecoach. Joshua David Cavanaugh greets Harker with suitable creepiness and soon launches into his song "A Solitary Man," showing off his strong vocal abilities and rich timbred voice, though with an accent that sometimes muffled the lyrics.

The music, directed and conducted by Tyler Driskill, is rich and full, with a live orchestra of keyboard, cello, percussion and violin hidden behind the set. The score is filled with several solos, allowing the musical to feature the strong voices gathered in this cast, along with some beautifully arranged chorus numbers that infuse energy and hope into the story at key moments.

Sarah Brown's Mina is strong and as pure as Jonathan describes her in the first scene. She shows a real struggle between what she ought to do and the mind-controlling compulsion that Dracula throws on her. While Lucy, played by Mahalia Greenway, gave in easily and quickly to Dracula's calling, Mina resists, even after things seem hopeless.

Greenway does a beautiful job – first as the innocent young girl choosing among her three suitors, and then as the sexy and insane vampire filled with bloodlust and a passion for Dracula.

Midway through the first act, the audience gets to meet Jared Schneider's Renfield, a mental hospital patient who eats flies and spiders and who talks to Dracula in his mind. Schneider plays this grotesque man to the hilt, and his voice in "The Master's Song" is impressive and clear. His scenes, both in the first and second act, are highlights in the show, a true creepiness injected into the Victorian setting. His is a commanding presence that contrasts well with Cody Musteffe's Jack Seward, the doctor in the insane asylum, and one of Lucy's suitors.

Andrew Gorney's Abraham Van Helsing is another highlight of the show, with his barely hidden pain and his obsession with finding and defeating Dracula – the demonic Nosferatu he sings about with passion and conviction.

The posse of vampire hunters, played by Gorney, DeBruyne, Musteffe Peter Crist and Zak Stratton, raise the tensions in the second act, a group of men with little but conviction and scant knowledge to stir them on against the supernatural and seemingly all-powerful abilities of their foe. They open the act with the exciting "Undead One," where they confront the turned Lucy. Later they are almost heart-breaking in "You Have My Word."

Speaking of heart-breaking, DeBruyne's solo, "Before the Summer Ends," is a haunting love song that sets the stakes high for the remainder of the show.

Set designer Tomich also designed lighting and sound. While both designs were intricate and demanding, there were execution problems with the lighting, as spots often led the actors rather than captured them and there were odd moments of dark faces that seemed unintentional. However, the backlighting and silhouettes were stunning and added much to the show's spookiness, especially in the scenes with the vampires who haunted the story behind set pieces before coming out to feast.

Norma Polk's costumes were traditional Victorian, with the real triumph being the series of dresses worn by Mina. In her costumes we see the transition that takes place in Mina spelled out symbolically in color and fabric.

"Dracula The Musical" is a heavy production, meant to haunt in theme, story and music. The Dio stays true to Wildhorn's interpretation, paying attention to the details that make a tale gothic. It's fine October fare and served with a delicious dinner of fried chicken and exceedingly tender ribs.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Dracula The Musical'
The Dio - Dining and Entertainment
135 E. Main St., Pinckney
6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, 17, 24, 31
6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 18, 25, Nov. 1
12:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12, 19, 27, Nov.2
12:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30
2 hours, 36 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Dracula The Musical - The Dio

Read RONALD BAUMANIS' review - Mostly Musical Theatre (Oct. 12, 2014)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Oct. 9, 2014)


Exhilarating escapades of the pre-jet set

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Around the World in 80 Days

Meadow Brook Theatre

Posted: Oct. 5, 2014 at 5:03 p.m.

Long-distance travel, even now with the benefit of jet engines, can be simultaneously arduous and thrilling. In centuries past, its hardships were certainly harder, and its novelty and danger made it all the more exciting. In this pioneering spirit, Meadow Brook Theatre opens its new season with a classic journey whose anxieties and elations remain undiminished by time. Under the direction of Travis W. Walter, the Michigan premiere of "Around the World in 80 Days" (adapted by Mark Brown from the Jules Verne novel) proves that the human zest for adventure is never out of date.

Wealthy Londoner Phileas Fogg (Rusty Mewha), advocate for mathematical precision in all things, stakes his savings in a wager with the chaps at the gentlemen's club. As of 1872, with certain rail routes having been completed, a person could hypothetically circumnavigate the globe – by a combination of steam ships and trains – in a scant 80 days. But rather than argue whether the hypothetical is in this case attainable, Fogg would rather prove it personally. His spur-of-the-moment departure and expensive journey coincide with a high-profile bank robbery, raising suspicions that he may not be merely a thrill-seeking vanguard, but rather a fugitive as well. What follows is a whirlwind travelogue and chase narrative that makes "The Amazing Race" look like a weekend scavenger hunt.

As Fogg, Mewha plays straight as a laser level: a dour, unfailingly proper, ramrod-postured human line item. Yet what sounds like a lifeless choice is anything but; the actor strides confidently into his jokes, but generously plays the foil in counterpoint to the four supporting players who hold all the comic cards. The myriad characters most notably include Fogg's verbose French manservant (Matthew Schwartz), an ever-thwarted detective (Ron Williams), an exotic damsel in distress (Kara Kimmer), and a blustery colonial-era brigadier general (Peter C. Prouty), but also extend to a whole string of variably competent service people and authorities as well as delicately stereotypical locals.

Yes, the source material dabbles in some Near and Far East cultural otherness and a Wild West standby that, by today's standards, are troublesome. But as it can't be avoided, the production (and costumer Liz Goodall) treads lightly on the potentially offensive ground, sidestepping literalism with loads of fancifully cut, bold fabrics and trims as well as performances that look beyond accent and custom to find their humor.

Key to Walter's direction is pacing, which relies on lightning-quick line delivery to drive the immediacy of Fogg's endeavor, but happily takes its time where funny business is concerned. The variable approach allows excitement and comedy to comfortably coexist, thanks in large part to highly stylized group mannerisms and delivery that cements the cast as a like-minded storytelling ensemble. Expository narration is also well deployed, divvied up between characters and smoothly integrated, even interacting with the audience and the main action in cheeky ways. This cast performs nimbly and synchronously across the board, although Schwartz's patchwork jester, Passepartout, shines with piteous nuance and dazzling imagination that stands to make the character a viewer favorite.

The production design is inspired by steampunk, an emerging retro-futuristic movement whose fanciful sci-fi gadgets run on nothing but imagination, innumerable gears, and steam power. (The choice might feel derivatively trendy, except for Verne's own work being a cornerstone influence of the genre.) And the yields are lush indeed: Jen Price Fick's oxidized set design, complete with antique world map nestled into the round lip of the stage floor, is so full of trunks and velvet it could be mistaken for a magician's secret back room. Beyond its breathless instrumental flourishes, sound design by Mike Duncan backs off from early tick-tocking prominence, finding ways to markedly enhance rather than force the action. Lighting cues (courtesy of designer Reid G. Johnson) come fast and furious, charting the passage of days, but also crystallizing a single narrative thread from diffuse story components. And all the while, innovations large and small overload on curiosity – from the cleverness of a simple card game, to impromptu conveyances, to reveals that are practically elephantine in scale.

The resulting "80 Days" is a conspicuously stagy staging that truly, repeatedly capitalizes on the form. Walter and company bring this lively voyage to life, infusing it not only with the excitement of an adventure story, but also with generous helpings of pure fun and laughter. For viewers in the mood for visual delights, the thrall of a good old story, or just plain onstage silliness, this show is well worth the trip.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Around the World in 80 Days'
Meadow Brook Theatre
2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester
2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15, 22
8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8, 15, 22
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, 16, 23
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, 17, 24
2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 25
6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12, 19, 26
6:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5, 12, 19
2 hours, 5 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Around the World in 80 Days - Meadow Brook Theatre

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review – Detroit Free Press (Oct. 15, 2014)

Read RONELLE GRIER's review - The Oakland Press (Oct. 12, 2014)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Oct. 9, 2014)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review – Detroit Theater Examiner (Oct. 5, 2014)


A 'glowing' example of traditional wisdom

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Firebird"


Posted: Oct. 5, 2014 at 11:23 a.m.

Puppetry is different from most of the other performance arts, and therein lies its magic. The audience sees the art, but not the artists. A willing suspension of disbelief is harder to maintain when the "actors" are obviously blockheads (though that could be said about some alleged "live" performers I've encountered). Appreciation for the genre depends on imagination – and it's not hard to conclude that puppetry appeals to the young. Children are more open-minded than adults. But stretching is good exercise, and exercising the imagination will keep an old brain thinking young.

To that end, PuppetART: Detroit Puppet Theater opens its 17th season with "Firebird," a reinvention of a traditional Russian folk tale. Its plot is simple. Ivan meets Vasilisa at a village festival and recognizes that she's the love of his life. Their first dance is barely begun when Vasilisa is snatched away by an evil force. Undaunted, Ivan packs a few essentials and sets out to find his missing love, regardless of his mother's misgivings.

Days of sleepless travel leave him exhausted, and Ivan falls asleep under a tree that bears golden apples. The iridescent plumed Firebird comes to feed at the tree, but is snared by a golden chain. Ivan frees the bird, who leaves a feather to guide his way. That way leads to a rock, where Ivan encounters one of the prime characters of Russian folklore, the witch Baba Yaga. The boy's act of kindness is rewarded when she reveals the entrance to the underground lair of the Black Dragon, the triple-headed reptile who had captured Vasalisa. Will Ivan be brave enough to overcome the Dragon and save his beloved? Spoiler alert: The very best folk tales end, "And they lived happily ever after."

There is a reason this synopsis is a tad long, and it's all to do with PuppetART's mission statement. "To explore a variety of cultures and to foster an appreciation of the wisdom of traditions, the beauty of the spirit and the art of diverse communities through puppet performances, exhibits and classes." "Firebird" is not just a Russian story; one finds motifs from a remarkable array of cultures. They are not limited to witches and dragons and golden apples. American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell would consider "Firebird" is based on one of the most fundamental themes of storytelling – The Quest.

The Quest Hero sets out to find that which he lacks, lost or had stolen. His life is incomplete without it. He endures trials before he achieves his goal; if he's fortunate, he returns home changed and enriched. Ivan is a quest hero, as is Gilgamesh, Jason and his Argonauts, Orpheus, Sir Galahad and Bilbo Baggins. The easy flow of motifs among diverse cultures marks the unity of the human spirit; thus "Firebird" is an elegant vision of PuppetART's mission.

"Firebird" employs rod puppets; the characters are mounted on wooden sticks and are visible roughly from the waist up. One or both arms are controlled by more slender rods. Neither mouth nor fingers are articulated, but a flexible wrist joint allows for rather graceful gestures. The exceptions are the three heads of the Black Dragon, which while lacking limbs, can bite.

The stage is unique in this production. Our world is realized high on stage, allowing the puppeteers to work standing. But the dragon's underground lair is revealed below – a rising curtain becomes the roof of the cavern. The characters are switched out for full manikins. Hands are frequently visible, but our suspension of disbelief is intact. We get a glimpse of the timing necessary to get the manipulations right.

"Firebird" is attractive both to eye and ear. The music is Russian, ranging from two-century-old folk music to the chromatic modernism of Igor Stravinsky.

In his essay "On Fairy Stories," J. R. R. Tolkein, creator of the above-mentioned Baggins, wrote about the "Tree of Tales," comparing the vast body of traditional literature to a tree whose leaves are of a similar structure but each of unique design. Time and again that image is strengthened when artists play with the classics. "Firebird" is a worthy addition to the tree.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Firebird'
at Detroit Puppet Theater
25 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit
2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 25
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26
40 minutes; no intermission
$10 adult, $5 child

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Frankenstein story finds hope amid despair

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "The Gravedigger, A Frankenstein Story"

Williamston Theatre

Posted: Oct. 4, 2014 at 7:11 p.m.

Mary Shelley has captured the imagination of artists everywhere since publishing her novel "Frankenstein" in 1818.

The novel has spawned books, plays, cartoons, movies, other novels, costumes and art work. These works have spawned genres from horror to comedy to drama to musicals.

Williamston Theatre opens its ninth season with a world premiere of the latest of these offerings, a new play by Joseph Zettelmaier dubbed "The Gravedigger, A Frankenstein Story," directed by John Lepard.

The play takes place in a cemetery outside Ingolstadt, Bavaria in the late 1700s. It is, we learn, where the parts that make up the creature come from. Victor Frankenstein has hired a gravedigger to dig up the needed parts for him. Much later, the monster, on the run from Victor, shows up at the cemetery, drawn there for reasons he doesn't understand. He enters an open grave and plans to die there. In Mary Shelley's novel, Zettelmaier's play would be set in chapter 23, in that period after he has fled and before he and the doctor have their final confrontation.

An unlikely friendship develops between the broken gravedigger, played by Mark Colson, and the creature who takes on the name Anton, played by Alex Leydenfrost.

Zettelmaier's play is an exploration of what makes a person human. If we are more than the collection of our parts, when does our soul develop? How do we learn to overcome our impulses and to become more than a collection of emotions and reactions?

Colson's Kurt, the gravedigger, limps onto the scene with wry humor and a pain that goes beyond his aching leg. He is a loner whose good heart shines through. He talks about the pain of the world and how it can only be endured, never avoided, yet he himself brings comfort and aid to others. He reaches out to Anton and patiently endures what other men might flee from.

In a cast of solid, strong actors, Colson shines with a strength that comes from his character's brokenness. He never loses the limp, and his actions are always consistent with that of a man who has a crushed leg. He also portrays the brokenness of spirit, a man who has lost all but still hasn't given up hope that people can be helped.

Leydenfrost captures the creature with a combination of slow speech and ponderous movements. He is an intelligent monster, one who is growing into life and starting to understand the world around him. Leydenfrost finds the perfect note that avoids the stereotype of the monster and creates a person that others can relate to. He is child-like and powerful at the same time. He is also, as the character says about himself early on, "damaged" – and Leydenfrost speaks and moves like a man who is damaged on the inside and despairing of redemption.

Joe Seibert is the young doctor who is on a mission to undo his mistakes and eliminate the monster he created. Victor, too, is a broken man, a man who is crazed from watching all those he loved be destroyed by what was supposed to be his greatest triumph. He is obsessed with revenge and blind to anything that might temper it. Seibert brings this single-mindedness to the role, finding both the doctor's strengths and weaknesses. He forces the questions: Who is the monster, and who is the man? Can too much sorrow cause a person to lose his soul?

Rounding out the cast is Alysia Kolascz, a gypsy named Nadya who raids the cemetery for bones and grave dirt so she can tell the future to her clients. Like Kurt, Nadya has lost much and yet still is able to see the good in Anton and recognize his growing soul. Kolascz brings a contrasting energy to the stage. She moves lightly despite her sorrow and smiles with a real lightness. If Kurt represents justice, Nadya is love, a love that is young, pure and simple, but no less deep for its brightness.

It is the relationships between these characters that bring strength to the play, for each of them draws something from the other. They learn from each other – in positive and negative ways – and the actors are able to bring a vulnerability to each of their characters that open the path for the relationships to bloom.

Central to this is the relationship between Kurt and Anton. Both men emerged changed from their encounter with the other, changed in life-altering ways. Anton finds a humanity that makes him more than a monster, while Kurt finds hope for redemption.

Lepard and his team of designers put laser-like focus on these relationships. Kirk Domer's set is representational, a series of wooden ramps and platforms, built up to allow the misty grave to dominate the upstage area, while a table and chairs create the downstage gravedigger' hut. Daniel C. Walker's lighting brings out the forest in the painted stage backdrop. Michelle Raymond finds music to create dramatic transitions between scenes, along with the sounds of the cemetery that so entrance Anton and guide him to feeling the presence of God.

Karen Kangas-Preston provides period costumes, including a series of changes for Anton. The makeup is uncredited, but someone did an excellent job of capturing the grotesque that is hidden for most of the play under a series of bandages.

Lepard approaches this script with great care, finding the humanity and emotions in it. He balances the violence with peaceful moments, the heaviness with humor, and the despair with hope. Each are given their time on stage with a commitment to telling the story that Zettelmaier has mined from Mary Shelley's novel.

In the end, the play is one of hope and redemption. It is one that shows the value of friendship, of trust, and of the belief that people can change, even those people who have nothing left to lose.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Gravedigger, A Frankenstein Story'
Williamston Theatre
122 S. Putnam Road, Williamston
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, 16, 23, 30
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, 17, 24, 31
3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, 11, 18, 25, Nov. 1
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26, Nov. 2
1 hour, 55 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Gravedigger, A Frankenstein Story - WIlliamston Theatre

Read KATE O'NEILL's review - Lansing State Journal (Oct. 9, 2014)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Oct. 9, 2014)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review – Detroit Free Press (Oct. 7, 2014)

Read MARY CUSACK's review – CITY PULSE (Oct. 8, 2014)


A bloody, bloody fun night of theater

By Jenn McKee

REVIEW: "Evil Dead: The Musical"

City Theatre

Posted: Oct. 4, 2014 at 11:33 a.m.

Yom Kippur – which began Friday night, when I was driving to Detroit's City Theatre to see "Evil Dead: The Musical" – is a day of atonement, so I'll just come clean: I've never seen any of Sam Raimi's three "Evil Dead" movies, though they're comedy/horror cult classics.

This gaping hole in my cultural education made me wonder if I'd still find things to enjoy in The Ringwald and Olympia Entertainment's fifth annual production of "Evil Dead: The Musical." But really – do I need to have seen the source material to laugh at a man's possessed hand throwing him around a stage?

No. No, I don't.

With a gleefully profane book and lyrics by George Reinblatt, and music by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris, and Reinblatt, "Evil Dead: The Musical" is (I'm told) a mash up of elements from each of the "Evil Dead" movies.

Five college students – S Mart employee Ash (David Moan), his co-worker/girlfriend Linda (Allison Huber), his little sister Cheryl (Kimberly Alley), his best friend Scott (Graham Todd), and Scott's new girlfriend Shelly (Kryssy Becker) – are traveling to an abandoned cabin in the woods for a vacation. Once there, they find a Sumerian version of the Book of the Dead, and an archeology professor's recordings of the book's incantations, which unleash demons that start to attack and possess Ash's friends – and eventually his own hand.

The nearly two-hour production, directed by Phill Harmer, employs a pre-recorded score. Unfortunately, the music occasionally overwhelms the delivery of Reinblatt's sharply funny lyrics, particularly during ensemble tunes like "Cabin in the Woods" and "Do the Necronomicon." Also, during Friday night's performance, Huber hit a couple of rough patches in "Housewares Employee," and David Schoen – who's played "alternate trail" guide Jake for five years now, and whose performance in the show is otherwise wholly enjoyable – was intermittently drowned out by the music during "Good Ol' Reliable Jake."

Yet these are relatively small quibbles, particularly when weighed against all the things "Evil Dead" gets right. Chief among them is Moan, who plays the puffed-up camp icon Ash to near-perfection. His hilarious delivery and sense of timing are dead-on – so to speak – and his vocal abilities are truly tremendous. Plus, remember, not only does Moan have to beat himself up with his own hand, which he does quite capably, but also, because "Evil Dead" films are a beloved cult staple, the actors have to respond when audience members anticipate lines and yell things out, as if attending a "Rocky Horror" screening. In Moan's case, on Friday, after the crowd joined him in saying, in reference to his raised rifle, "This is my boomstick," a patron said, "S Mart, top of the line," and Moan responded, "I'm getting there."

This gets at one thing (of many) that makes "Evil Dead" fun: The cast seems to be having a fantastic time with the show and each other, and that translates to the crowd. After Richard Payton, playing oppressed research assistant Ed, delivered a really entertaining rendition of "Bit Part Demon," he was supposed to be shot and killed; but lying on his stomach, his body convulsed with giggles over what was happening on stage – and this is precisely the kind of show in which a glimpse behind the curtain is not only acceptable, but adds to the laughs.

Todd, meanwhile, clearly relishes playing Ash's horny, foul-mouthed best friend – his bro-tango with Ash, "What the Fuck Was That," is a highlight – and Becker delivers on two roles: Scott's eager sex toy Shelly and the archeologist's daughter (whose clothes keep getting ripped off), Annie.

Tommy LeRoy's hunting lodge set design – and one should note that pretty much everything placed there will be used at some point during the show – must look real while also being able to withstand being splattered with loads of fake blood nightly, plus many, many other tricky technical demands. Alex Gay's lights, whether they create a red glow outside the window, or pulse to signal the demons' return, are a key element of the production's storytelling. Bailey Boudreau designed costumes that must, in a couple of cases, tear away, as well as withstand gallons of fake blood nightly (a 21-gun salute to stage manager Holly Garverick for handling the messy stage and costume clean-up duties). Jeff Bobick is the show's music director, and Allyson Smith designed the cheeky choreography (right down to the "Thriller" moves near the end).

But speaking of the show's messiness, I've just realized that I failed to mention the "splatter" rows in the theater, wherein about a dozen rows in the center section are covered with garbage bags, and patrons are warned that if they sit there, they may well get fake blood on them, and they may not be able to wash it out of their clothes.

It's telling that most of the people who chose to sit in the splatter section sat in the front row. The people who really love "Evil Dead," the true fans, seem to be all in. But even if, like me, you're a newbie to this offbeat world, you'll still likely find it all to be bloody fun.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Evil Dead: The Musical'
The Ringwald Theatre & Olympia Entertainment
at City Theatre
2301 Woodward Ave., Detroit
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, 16, 23
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, 17, 24
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, 11, 18, 25
Contains adult language and themes

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The Lehrer report: Be prepared for fun

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "Tomfoolery"

The Penney Seats Theatre Company

Posted: Oct. 3, 2014 at 2:14 p.m.; updated Oct. 19, 2014 at 11:24 a.m.

So, how is Tom Lehrer holding up these days? Not the man himself, he's 86 and living in California, but his songs, those hilarious exemplars of subversive wit that without benefit of radio airplay or the support of a major label went viral in the 1950s and '60s, or whatever the equivalent of going viral was back then.

For answers we turn to Ann Arbor's Penny Seats Theatre Company, which has dusted off and freshened up "Tomfoolery," the 1980 revue of Lehrer songs, and is presenting it cabaret-style at a downtown restaurant/pub, Conor O'Neill's, on Thursday nights.

Put together by Cameron Mackintosh (yes, that Cameron Mackintosh) and Robin Ray, "Tomfoolery" offers more than two dozen Lehrer compositions covering topics that range from the way one letter can change the sound and meaning of a word (written for a children's TV show) to sexually transmitted diseases (not written for a children's TV show).

A spirited four-person cast and piano accompanist have a ball with such Lehrer favorites as "Be Prepared" ("Don't solicit for your sister, that's not nice/ Unless you get a good percentage of the price"), "The Masochism Tango" ("You can raise welts/ Like nobody else"), "The Vatican Rag" ("Ave Maria/ Gee it's good to see ya") and "The Irish Ballad" ("She weighted her brother down with stones/ Rickety-tickety-tin…/And sent him off to Davy Jones").

Lehrer didn't just write wickedly funny lyrics. Each of those songs is musically accurate. "Be Prepared," ("the Boy Scouts marching song"), is a sprightly march; melodically, "The Masochism Tango" could pass for the real thing in Buenos Aires; without lyrics "The Vatican Rag" sounds like a ragtime tune circa 1900, and if "The Irish Ballad" were played on fiddle, flute and bodhran it could easily become a standard on St. Patrick's Day.

Other Lehrer efforts now seem like museum pieces. Songs about the Cold War, nuclear annihilation and pollution appear quaint at a time when our bigger worries are terrorism, mysterious diseases and climate change. Overall, though, Lehrer's oeuvre remains highly entertaining.

Matt Cameron, Laura Sagolla, Roy Sexton and Brent Stansfield are lusty singers whose appreciation for the material is fully evident. Pianist Rebecca Biber's accompaniment does the job, but it's a bit restrained, the better to hear the (unmiked) singers, I suppose, but one misses the hearty attack of Lehrer (a fine pianist) in his prime.

Director Lauren London has added inspired props and bits of business to many of the numbers. Especially clever are the posters on sticks – protest signs on one side, guitars on the other – and the way the folks killed off in "The Irish Ballad" eventually rise as zombies.

One practical note: You can enjoy "Tomfoolery" as a stand-alone performance or as a performance with dinner. You'll sit closer if you opt for the dinner and have a better chance at seeing everything.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Tomfoolery'
The Penny Seats Theatre Company
at Conor O'Neill's Irish Pub and Restaurant
318 S. Main St., Ann Arbor
6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, 16, 23 (with dinner; or 8 p.m. curtain)
6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 (with dinner; or 8 p.m. curtain)
1 hour, 20 minutes
$20 with dinner; $10 show only

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Performance Network mines the magic of Uhry classic

By Bridgette M. Redman

REVIEW: "Driving Miss Daisy"

Performance Network Theatre

Posted: Sept. 27, 2014 at 2:44 p.m.

"Driving Miss Daisy" by Alfred Uhry can seem like a simple play. It needs three actors, three set pieces, and few costume changes. The script is straightforward, only 90 minutes long, and is performed without an intermission. Its needs are seemingly few.

Yet, it takes more than those things to bring out the magic in this story. It takes three actors committed to their craft and able to connect and disconnect at crucial moments. It takes a set that can work unobtrusively in simple yet complex ways. It takes a love for the characters, the words and the story.

Performance Network, in its opening production of a season that almost wasn't, finds this love, and they make the magic of "Driving Miss Daisy" happen. This production teases, charms and tantalizes. It makes the most of every moment, and shows in an almost palpable manner how a relationship grows from hostility to love.

Initial kudos go, of course, to the three actors who bring the characters of Miss Daisy, Boolie and Hoke to life. The experienced team of Nancy Elizabeth Kammer, James Bowen and Bryan Lark tell the story of an older, fiercely independent woman who can no longer drive. Her son, Boolie, hires Hoke, and for 25 years, he becomes her chauffeur.

The play begins in 1948 in Atlanta, Georgia. She is Jewish, he is "colored." She is rich, he has been out of work for nearly a year. They have little in common except that they are on the fringes of Atlanta society, neither fully accepted by white Christians. Add to the mix that she doesn't want a driver. Her son hires Hoke and he must go about the process of convincing her to accept his services.

Kammer readily takes on the challenge of presenting a difficult, often-cranky woman that the audience can still love. Kammer instills Daisy with a dignity and a vulnerability in equal parts. She portrays a history, a woman whose background is ever present in her current choices. Kammer's Daisy is strong-willed, but able to show moments of pain and fear without it ever seeming inconsistent.

Bowen brings a full performance to the part of Hoke. He makes strong choices in body language, facial expressions, inflection and movement. He makes each line work, charming not just Daisy, but all of the audience. He isn't, as he tells Daisy later in the play, just the back of a neck that drives her about. He is a fully fleshed out person, and Bowen embodies Hoke from start to finish. He never plays a stereotype, but he shows the life of an African-American in this tumultuous period of 1948-1973.

Both actors have scenes where they tug at the heart, revealing in an expression or a pause how very much they are moved or affected by events taking place around them, whether it is a gift or the violent act of bigots.

It can be easy to overlook the character of Boolie, as the story truly is that of the blossoming relationship between Daisy and Hoke. However, Lark is fully the equal of the two giants he shares the stage with. His Boolie is filled with energy, and he embodies the Southern charm of an Atlanta businessman. Boolie clearly loves his mother, and he immediately sees the good in Hoke. Lark counter-balances some of the more serious scenes by giving Boolie a constant good humor and optimism.

Director John Manfredi chose to put two of his crew into work clothes rather than theater black and enter the stage as if they were part of the scene. Eric Hohnke and Cynthia Szczesny interact tenderly with Daisy, helping her up and down as they move the car and other set pieces around. Their presence seems natural and makes the scene changes move with grace and speed.

Manfredi was also in charge of the set design and created a beautiful triptych with the realistic painting of a house on each panel. The interior set pieces were kept simple, as were Michelle Raymond's properties. They provided what was needed, but not so much that it would get in the way or interfere with the telling of the story.

Suzi Regan created a sound track that assisted in the smooth scene changes, set the mood and contributed to the story telling.

Together, the team of actors, designers and crew created the magic that takes "Driving Miss Daisy" from a simple story to something intensely moving and memorable.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Driving Miss Daisy'
Performance Network Theatre
120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2, 9, 16, 23
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3, 10, 17, 24
3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, 18, 25
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, Oct. 4, 11, 18, 25
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26
1 hour, 25 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Driving Miss Daisy - Performance Network Theatre

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Oct. 9, 2014)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review – Detroit Theater Examiner (Oct. 4, 2014)

Read JENN MCKEE's review – The Ann Arbor News (Sept. 27, 2014)


A journey ends, a door opens, the past enters

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "Annapurna"

The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Posted: Sept. 27, 2014 at 2:20 p.m.

Name a main character Ulysses and unless he's a Civil War general, you've got "The Odyssey" on your mind. The Ulysses in "Annapurna" hasn't done much traveling to get back to his wife – he hasn't been to the Himalayan mountain that provides the title (more on that later) – but he has been lost for 20 years.

It's his wife, ex-wife actually – her name is Emma, not Penelope – who makes the journey from somewhere to get back to him in nowhere, a lonely dump of a trailer in the Colorado Rockies.

And so begins Sharr White's beguiling and deeply moving play, a drama that enfolds as it unfolds, rich in truth and metaphor, about two people who have badly damaged each other, and yet…

At the start, "Annapurna" might be a comedy, with Ulysses (Richard McWilliams) standing bare-assed at the stove when a woman, comes to the door. That would be Emma (Michelle Mountain), surprising Ulysses two decades after she left in the middle of the night with their five-year-old son.

Why she has come back is explained fairly quickly. She has found out that Ulysses is gravely ill and there are things that need to be said. "Just because you leave somebody," Emma declares, "doesn't mean you're not in a relationship." Why she left is the greater mystery, revealed as the play's layers are peeled back, not unlike the onion Emma works on as she fixes a sandwich (metaphors, many metaphors).

White has an enviable talent for letting his characters disclose their back stories in the natural course of their conversation. Ulysses, a poet and college professor, drank too much, smoked too much and, when Emma left him, fell apart, lost his job and has wallowed in grief and pain ever since. Emma fled to the East Coast, married another professor of poetry, gave up her career for parenthood, and has left her husband just as suddenly as she left Ulysses.

McWilliams and Mountain are so in synch that it's difficult to talk about one's performance without discussing the other's. Through stance and voice, McWilliams shows how Ulysses' hurting transcends the merely physical. Through touch, through movement, Mountain conveys Emma's willingness to assuage before she can acknowledge it verbally.

The play could remain fairly static and still work, but the actors and director Guy Sanville present a masterpiece of blocking and exquisite timing. Bartley H. Bauer's grubby set, Dana L. White's lighting atmospheric, Suzanne Young's down-home costumes, Tom Whalen's well-placed, natural sounds (sizzling meat, a running shower…) and Danna Segrest's props all contribute to the sense that we're eavesdropping on something real.

As for the title, Ulysses talks about the first expedition to reach the peak of Annapurna, in the 1950s. The climbers made it, but the casualties were horrific. You may be pondering that long after the play ends.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Annapurna'
The Purple Rose Theatre Company
137 Park St., Chelsea
Performances through Dec. 20:
7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
3 p.m. Saturday
2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday matinees
1 hour, 25 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Annapurna - The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Read TOM HELMA's review - City Pulse (Oct. 3, 2014)

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (Oct. 2, 2014)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review – Detroit Theater Examiner (Sept. 27, 2014)

Read JENN MCKEE's review – The Ann Arbor News (Sept. 28, 2014)


A different sport comes to Ferndale – and scores a big win

By Dana Casadei

REVIEW: "ComedySportz Detroit"

Michigan Actors Studio

Posted: Sept. 21, 2013 at 6:13 p.m.

Detroit is known for its sports teams. We root each year for the Wings as they make it to the playoffs time and time again, scream at the TV as the Lions play, and love watching Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera come up to bat. Now there's a new kind of sport entering the Detroit scene, ComedySportz Detroit.

This sport doesn't have bats or helmets, although there are team uniforms and fouls. At the press preview, and world premiere (according to the evening's referee, Jeff Fritz), two teams of three (a red team and blue team) battled it out for laughs – and points – at the Michigan Actors Studio in Ferndale.

When you walk in you're given a glow stick, a token to take home, that has a red and blue side. This is how points for the voting aspect of the show work. Before the show begins the players come into the audience to chat with spectators, immediately breaking down any sort of fourth wall.

The evening's ref explains the rules, and the three fouls, then introduces the two teams. One of the really interesting aspects of ComedySportz is no two shows will ever be the same. Teams are constantly competing against different ones, there's variety in the games that are played, and it's highly unlikely that two different audiences will give the exact same answers each night.

After the national anthem is sung – get ready for some off-key, and in last night's case, way off-tune, singing – the real fun begins. Games will be played, the ref may get a little too "drunk with power," and ultimately a winner will be chosen.

The debut teams, the Motor City Mechanics and the Ferndale Fire, both really brought their A-game, with each team's captain being standouts amongst the group. The Ferndale Fire's Rico Bruce Wade was dynamite, and the Motor City Mechanics' Jaclynn Cherry was simply superb. Both teams were strong, but some people were just genuinely funnier to watch.

Most of the games work well, but a few felt a little stale. Sit, Stand, Kneel has a few kinks to work out, and it wasn't all that funny to watch. Same goes for Do-Rap-Rap; it had some bumps, as players weren't always sure when to start the actual rap, and it felt a little predictable that the final two had players from each team.

I was most skeptical of 3 Things – which is very tough to briefly describe herein – but it ended up being one of the most amazing improv routines I've ever seen. At first I had no idea what was going to happen, but once the Ferndale Fire started the game, it was pure improv magic. Re-play was another highlight of the evening.

When some people think of improv, they automatically assume it will be dirty with a lot of swearing. This is another way that ComedySportz Detroit stands out among the improv crowd. One of the fouls, the Brown Bag Foul, works this way: If someone in the audience, or one of the players on stage, says something "you wouldn't want your grandma to hear," they have to wear a brown bag for the rest of that game. It's improv that's still funny for everyone, but parents won't get asked uncomfortable questions on the ride home.

If last night's show was any indication of what's to come for ComedySportz Detroit, the Michigan Actors Studio will be hitting homers for many weekends to come.

SHOW DETAILS: "ComedySportz Detroit" continues at Michigan Actors Studio, 648 E. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale, every Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 7:30 & 10 p.m. 105 minutes. Tickets: $10-$15. For information: 877-636-3320 or

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