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‘Business as usual’ becomes intrigue and betrayal

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Glengarry Glen Ross"

The Ringwald Theatre

Posted: Feb. 22, 2015 at 9:30 p.m.

David Mamet is an acquired taste. Regular visitors to this site know I'm more of a gourmand than a gourmet at theatrical feasts, but I'm confident that even the most educated palate will share my enthusiasm with the fare master Mamet serves when he’s fired up.

It’s appropriate that The Ringwald Theatre, nestled amongst the trendy restaurants on Woodward in Ferndale, features Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner, "Glengarry Glen Ross," a searing drama of desperation and deceit. It is a scalding portrayal of pride, greed, and misdirected self-esteem. The mélange may be too salty for some tastes; the rapid-fire pace, with lines delivered on top of lines, all peppered with an onslaught of vulgarity and ethnic slurs, is a little overwhelming. It’s so characteristic of the playwright’s works that the technique is called “Mamet speak.” “Glengarry Glen Ross” is not served à la carte; no matter how bitter the taste, one cleans his plate and may ask for more.

The place is north side Chicago, in the fall of ‘83. In a grimy satellite office, four agents hustle real estate of questionable value to naïve clients (the play's title is derived from two of those investment "opportunities" - Glengarry Highlands and Glen Ross Farms). This month there's extra stress; the owners downtown, Mitch and Murray, have concocted a contest for the best performer. The winner gets a Cadillac; the runner-up, if we're to believe the poster stage right, gets a beautiful set of steak knives. These guys are serious competitors and, with each trying to eke out a living on a ten percent commission, there's no love lost among them. In fact, one of the fascinations with this play is listening to glib real estate agents try to con their conmen comrades.

Dave Moss (Dax Anderson) has had his fill. Having worked for the competition, he’s ready to turn coat, steal his firm’s preferred client list, and sell it to his former employer. But rather than dirty his manicured hands, he dragoons his less successful colleague, George Aaronow (Patrick Loos) to commit the robbery. Aaronow’s hesitation doesn’t even slow Moss; he tries to blackmail his clueless victim by threatening an "accessory before the fact" charge.

We find Shelley "The Machine" Levene (Joe Bailey), well past his prime, begging the universally despised office manager, John Williamson (Brenton Herwat) for better leads than his performance deserves. We also listen to the almost poetic soliloquies of the office top dog, Richard Roma (Travis Reiff) as he courts his next unsuspecting payday, James Lingk (David Schoen).

That’s just the first act, folks, and it’s only 38 minutes. The three scenes are like appetizers before a solid entrée - Act II - when the robbery is a fait accompli, every man’s a suspect, and the investigating officer (Nicholas LaGrassa) is tearing away defenses like a cook peels an onion. Mamet even manages what, if this were culinary rather than theatrical endeavor, a chef’s surprise.

Director Jamie Warrow draws admirable performances from her cast, yet there is something missing from the recipe. David Mamet’s scripts are beautifully balanced and beg for a performing ensemble. Think of ensemble as stew; the ingredients retain their unique flavors but the blend is greater than the sum of its parts. The binding agent that’s missing here is recognition of the strong sexual subtext pervading the writing.

One is struck by Levene’s observation directed at his younger, much more successful colleague, Roma. “A man is his job.” It’s a stunning - even stunted - belief, but it’s the self-perception common to all these flawed characters. Consider the corollary: a man not successful in his job is not successful as a man. There's an animalistic instinct woven through "Glengarry Glen Ross," a natural selection that more civilized humans would reject. The urban real estate office is no more civilized than the African veldt, and the young lions await their chance to bring down the older, slower males, in order to own a larger portion of the pride. "Pride?" Or is that "prize?" What profit a man if he wins a Cadillac, if he loses his immortal soul? Played right, that second act could be so intense you should be able to smell the acrid odor of tomcats marking territory.

Two design elements stand out in "Glengarry Glen Ross:" the set design by Jennifer Maiseloff and Barbie Amann Weiserman's costumes. Maiseloff extends the stage much farther into the house than usual, which permits her to mount two complete sets, one behind the other. Clear away the Chinese restaurant that is the first act setting and, voila!, the cluttered, soulless real estate office is revealed, made even more interesting by Katy Schoetzow’s detailed set dressing. It is unfortunate that the tight space at The Ringwald demands that a major piece of Act II scenery be stored in the lobby. Moving that chalk board is a chancy maneuver that may be easier if the pivot points are secured.

Barbie Amann Weiserman's choices in costumes speak volumes about the characters. The office hot shots, Williamson and Roma, are elegantly appareled compared to their less successful, older colleagues, Aaronow and Levene, who look like they’re wearing whatever was atop the pile on the bedroom floor. But they are all eclipsed by Dax Anderson, strutting like a peacock in a loud, patterned three-piece suit. There’s something very primal in the effect: the alphas sport brilliant plumage as a sign of their success - but the color palettes are all a little off. Bottom line: Weiserman telegraphs that this crew has more money than taste.

So, having sounded like a reject from both the Food Network and Animal Planet in a single review, a milestone even for a stream of unconsciousness writer like I am, how do I sum up "Glengarry Glen Ross?" It's compelling drama written by one of the true greats of modern American theater. The Ringwald production features some of the top talent that local theater has to offer. It is a chance to leave one's comfort zone and experiment with unfamiliar tastes. It's as good as well-prepared sashimi, but without the fishy odor.

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SHOW DETAILS:
"Glengarry Glen Ross"

The Ringwald Theatre
22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale, MI 48220
8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Monday, Feb. 20, 21, 23, 27, 28, Mar. 2, 6, 7, 9, 13, 14, 16
3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, Mar. 1, 8, 15
1 hour 40 minutes (10 minute intermission
$20-Fri./Sat. $15-Sun., $10-Mon.
248-545-5545
www.theringwald.com

 

With unprecedented progress, a considerable price

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Best of Enemies"

Matrix Theatre Company

Posted: Feb. 22, 2015 at 1:10 a.m.

Although racial profiling, civil unrest, and haves and have-nots remain in the news to this day, the movement for equal rights in the United States has in fact made great strides in the past half-century. For some Southern communities, such progress was hard fought, slow moving, and in at least one instance, achieved by unheard-of collaboration. Now at Matrix Theatre Company with direction by Kelly Komlen, playwright Mark St. Germain's "Best of Enemies" retraces an unholy alliance across the racial divide that developed into a fruitful and eventually amicable partnership.

St. Germain's script, based on the book "The Best of Enemies" by Osha Gray Davidson, recounts the true story of public school integration in Durham, North Carolina. In 1971, almost two decades after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision rendered school segregation unconstitutional, Durham remained strictly divided, with the black schools far behind the white ones in terms of quality and resources. But growing government pressure for the schools to integrate was met with vandalism and violence from both sides, which prompted city leadership to intervene.

The resulting "charrette," or strategy session, was shepherded by Bill Riddick (Dez Cortez Crenshaw), who for his co-chairs pursued two community leaders that could not be more at odds. Black grass-roots activist Ann Atwater (Katie Fullerton) and white Ku Klux Klan member C.P. Ellis (Joshua Robert Brown) are introduced to the viewer as outspoken, vehement agitators for their respective "people," each with just enough knowledge of the other to offer their unapologetic hatred.

Over a series of terse vignettes, Riddick's appeals to protect the best interests of each side force Atwater and Ellis together, as they bicker, make concessions, begrudgingly find common ground, and eventually work in tandem with something that looks more and more like respect and understanding. The scenes roll out quickly as parallel beats on a wide, unbroken set (by scenic and properties designer Lisa Charlotte Berg), an oversized literal gray area ominously packed with symbolic crosses. Although the script doesn't state it explicitly, time here is as fluid as place, and costume designer Kirstin Bianchi prods the characters forward across days, months, and eventually years, with gentle nods to era as well as economic class along the way. Yet although the scripted story eschews boundaries, the scenes and settings are heavily regimented (and tension consequently broken) by Amy Schneider's tightly keyed-in lighting design and sound by Michael Hallberg that bullet-points rather than dovetails the scenes.

The single-act play is on a fast track toward compassion; here, the bouts of politicized invective progress so quickly that it can be hard to pick up on the nuances of human personality that make these types into people and these particular people into friends. Fullerton's fearless Atwater has an innate sense of command that neither overcompensates nor has a scrap of spare energy to enjoy her evident wit. Brown is handed the more dynamic story arc, drifting from Ellis's easy, untouchable superiority toward a conflicted persona with troubled home and work lives and a wit's-end spouse (Vanessa Sawson). Crenshaw treads carefully with Riddick's diplomacy, although his brittle smile is peeled back just once to reveal his true motivations - another tight-lipped outburst in a play already full of them.

Change of any kind is hard won, and this is tough subject matter; feelings of bleakness and desperation definitely resonate in this production. But despite the struggle, the production's most compelling moments are not in the characters' gains, but in their admissions of loss. Paying the price for fraternizing with the enemy, Atwater and Ellis bond over being ostracized from their communities, and lament the consequences their children must also suffer. As intriguing as this story is, its repercussions on these two individuals - and the unique connection they share because of them - are the show's secret treasure. While the script boils down historical societal success into footnotes, the production's frank exploration of the personal costs of being an instrument of change is some emotionally resonant food for thought.

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SHOW DETAILS:
"Best of Enemies"

Matrix Theatre Company
2730 Bagley, Detroit, MI 48216
8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Feb. 20, 21, 27, 28, March 6, 7, 13, 14
3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, March 1, 8, 15
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission)
$15-20
313-967-0599
matrixtheatre.org

 

When nobody wants to hear the truth

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "An Enemy of the People"

Hilberry Theatre

Posted: Feb. 22, 2015 at 12:53 a.m.

In Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," a dedicated physician discovers that his town's healthful mineral baths, its big tourist draw, are dangerously polluted. The town doesn’t want to hear about it.

If it hadn’t been written in 1882, you might suspect the play was an allegory about today's science deniers, those people who won't acknowledge the perils of climate change, proclaiming disingenuously: "We’re not scientists, we can’t judge."

That’s precisely what somebody says in "An Enemy of the People." And they do judge. And what the dedicated physician learns is that the truth, which is supposed to set you free, will do nothing of the sort if it’s bad for business.

The production at the Hilberry Theatre is Arthur Miller's adaptation of Ibsen's play. You're forgiven if you assumed (as I did) that Miller wrote his update in the present century, in his final years; in fact, it premiered in 1950. There's a temptation to call it "An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen as told to Arthur Miller," but Ibsen couldn’t have told Miller anything: he died in 1906, Miller was born in 1915.

But Ibsen certainly speaks to Miller, and both of them speak to today. It has points to make, but "An Enemy of the People" remains a human drama as well.

At first, Dr. Thomas Stockmann thinks the townsfolk will hail him as a hero for his discovery that could save many lives. But the whole town, with one or two exceptions, turns against him, led by his brother, the mayor. Even the local newspaper, self-proclaimed champion of free speech, refuses to publish the doctor's findings.

As the good doctor, Brandy Joe Plambeck initially swells with pride at his civic-minded actions, and never literally bows under the weight of subsequent adversity.

Mary Sanson brings conviction, without overplaying it, to the role of Petra, Stockmann's adult daughter and most stalwart supporter, while Tiffany Michelle Thompson, as Stockmann's wife, Catherine, conveys palpable reluctance to take on the establishment at such a cost to her family.

Blair Anderson's staging is straightforward, without knowing sly winks to contemporary politics; the audience is free to supply them. As far as Anderson and company are concerned, it's Norway in the 1880s. Michael Sabourin's sets - Stockmann's house, the newspaper office, the warehouse where Stockmann invites the public to hear him - are things of timber, splashes of decorative stenciling, and at the newspaper, floor-to-ceiling sheets of newsprint.

John Woodland's costumes bespeak a bygone century and distant place, and Mario Raymond's lighting is unobtrusive, which is good. One shortcoming: while characters repeatedly reference the crowd waiting to get into the meeting place, there is dead silence outside.

SHOW DETAILS:
"An Enemy of the People"

Hilberry Theatre
Wayne State University, 4743 Cass Ave, Detroit, MI 48202
8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Feb. 20, 21, 26, 27, 28, March 26, 27, 28
2 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25
2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, March 28
2 hours, 15 minutes
$10-30
313-577-2972
Hilberry.com

 

‘Communicating Doors’ takes wild trip through time

By Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: "Communicating Doors"

Great Escape Stage Company

Posted: Feb. 28, 2015 at 1:30 p.m.

Alan Ayckbourn is a playwright who likes to play with the minds of his audience in a way most playful and fun. Once you know “Communicating Doors” is a play with time travel in it, you can sit back and enjoy the ride.

He reveals things in this fairly fast-paced comedy-thriller at just the right speed to keep the audience interested without giving everything away. In fact, part of the fun of this show is in figuring out what is just beyond the doors and when a particular scene is taking place. Director Randy Lake at the Great Escape Stage Company explains much of this during the curtain speech, but such explanations are unnecessary as the playwright handles it adroitly.

It starts with the arrival of a prostitute - though she prefers the term sex specialist or dominatrix. She has second thoughts about her summons when she realizes her customer is a dying man not even strong enough to tie his shoelaces. Her reservations increase when she discovers he doesn’t want her for sex, but to sign and deliver some documents. She then ends up at the mercy of a villain who doesn’t want what she now knows to be known. Her escape and hope at salvation comes through some communicating doors.

Great Escape has two fantastic leads in what is mostly an ensemble piece. Callie Bussell as Poopay Dayseer and Debbie Culver as Ruella Welles are an awesome team and the show is most entertaining when the two of them are on stage together. They play off each other well and their chemistry is real, making the story’s eventual summary very believable and satisfying.

Bussell doesn’t look old enough to be 33, but in every other way she creates the dominatrix who is as likely to burst into tears as have someone shivering on his knees. She is the archetypical whore with a heart of gold, sensitive and frightened, pulled into situations far beyond her understanding. She follows a great arc for her character, showing changes that occur even faster than Poopay, eventually Phoebe, can understand. It is a lovely thing to contrast who she is at the beginning of the show with who she is at the end, and Bussell handles it with not just her voice, but through making physical changes, aided by Culver’s costumes.

Culver is wise and smart, making Ruella able to understand things quickly and portraying a middle-aged woman who is sharp in her thinking and fast on her feet. She has excellent comic timing and was able to cover well when other performers forgot their lines or didn’t make their entrances.

Caleb Knutson’s Julian Goodman is suitably intimidating, though not believable in the early scenes as a man in his 60s - or even a few decades close to that. In fact, he looks to be in his late 20s or early 30s and no effort is made to age him one way or the other, as it was for Alan Elliott’s Reece Welles. Elliott is amusing both as an old man and as a randy young man, chasing his bride about the hotel room.

Karen York plays a ditzy Jessica Welles who is almost too soft in early scenes with her, though she has little time to assert herself immediately. She is far more entertaining in her final scene where she has time to play up some of the character’s quirks. Tim Culver plays the security man, Harold Palmer, who gets called in to deal with odd trespassers at the hotel suite where all the action takes place. He has several comic moments that add to the hilarity of the farce.

Lake conducts this fast-paced farce, finding ways to make each character believable in two of three different time periods. Doubling as the set designer, Lake makes excellent use of the small space at Great Escape Stage Company. There are six doors in this small space, including double doors out to a balcony. All of the doors are highly functional and take a lot of abuse during the course of the show.

Great Escape is a theater that has been transitioning to a professional theater from its community theater roots. With performances of such actresses as Debbie Culver and Bussell, they make good progress toward such a goal. Where they are still held back are by those actors who don’t know their lines and entrances and rely on others to cover for them when they go up - this even after the show’s opening was delayed a week because the production wasn’t ready for its opening night. There was a fair amount of noise backstage from people moving around that distracted from the show.

It is also a difficult thing in February to not be ready an hour before curtain and make your audience wait outside in subzero temperatures.

That said, this is an entertaining offering that challenges the cast and is worth watching for the laughs, the twisted plot, and the excellent chemistry between the main players.

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SHOW DETAILS:
"Communicating Doors"

Great Escape Stage Company
155 West Michigan Avenue, Marshall, MI
8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday Feb. 26, 27, 28, March 5, 6, 7
3 p.m. Sunday Mar. 1, 8
Running time: 2 hours, 29 minutes
$19-42
269-781-2700
www.greatescapestagecompany.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: An Enemy of the People - Hilberry Theatre

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theatre Examiner (Feb. 21, 2015)

 

Detroit's favorite cyborg returns in a take-no-prisoners musical comedy

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Robocop! The Musical"

City Theatre

Posted: Feb. 21, 2015 at 7:01 p.m.

"Where were you when the lights went out?"
"In the dark, your Honor!"

And if some corrupt magistrate of a dystopic Delta City demands an account of my whereabouts for the evening of July 14, 2011, I can honestly answer, "I was in the dark, your Honor, and in the performance space of Ferndale’s GO Comedy!" - laughing so hard I was rolling in the non-existent aisle. The cause of my loss of self-control was a subversive little parody entitled, with an eye toward possible MGM copyright infringement, "RoGoCop! The Musical."

I thought at the time that the show had "legs;" albeit Kevlar-laced, titanium legs. My sense that the show could expand beyond the handkerchief-sized square that serves as a stage at GO Comedy! was confirmed the next year, when the company graciously performed a medley at the 2012 Wilde Awards. The number looked SO good on the big stage at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts!

Well, "It's back. Big is back, because bigger is better!" "ROBOCOP! The Musical," v.2.0, with book by Sean May and music by May and Ryan Parmenter, is indeed bigger, badder and better - unlike, say the hot mess of a feature film, "RoboCop 2." Filling the stage at The City Theatre are new musical numbers, new scenes, and more sight gags than you can shake a police baton at. It reminds one of the wedding formula: "Something old, something new; something borrowed (certainly not plagiarized) and something blue." "Blue" is an operative word here - the language is not fit for the kiddies.

Now for the disclaimer. I’m no more familiar with the source material than I was in 2011. I've seen "RoboCop;" I don’t know if I get "RoboCop." It was the first major Hollywood production for Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Wikipedia notes that its themes include the media, gentrification, corruption, authoritarianism, greed, privatization, capitalism, identity, dystopia, and human nature. Do tell. Most stories are satisfactory with only one or two themes, but "RoboCop" is over the top in everything - especially ultra-violence and dark comedy.

In a dystopic, not-too-distant future, a cash-strapped Detroit outsources law enforcement to a major corporation, Omni Consumer Products; in return, the company has the go-ahead for a questionable urban renewal project, here dubbed, "Slightly Newer Detroit." With the city awash in a vicious crime wave, OPC opts for a radical step in policing. The body of Officer Alex J. Murphy, killed in the line of duty, is used as the template for a cyborg cop. The robot is emotionless, relentless, and dedicated. Yet submerged memories haunt him. His search for his lost humanity, for the psychopathic gang that murdered him, and for the rot at the heart of OCP make for a whole lot of blood and bullets.

The "something old," as in "reliable," about "RCTM" is Sean May and Ryan Parmenter’s wicked wit and incisive deconstruction of a cult film. Also reliable are some returning cast members; especially May as our cyborg hero (and who wouldn't like to play his own hero?) Both Bryan Lark and Pete Podolski were outstanding in the original production; now other elements of “ROBOCOP!” have reached their level of creativity. Micah Caldwell is gloriously oily as sadistic crime boss Clarence Boddicker, and the extra space allows him to really play his musical numbers to the house. The always reliable Dez Walker takes the lead for the first two numbers; he sets the pace for the heavily rap-inspired score to come.

What’s new? There’s a beefed-up ensemble that is reasonably capable of performing Allyson L. Smith's choreography but are at their best adding vocal harmonies. Stefanie Bainter is new. Her Officer Anne Lewis is a little underplayed in comparison to the scene-stealers around her, but her attractive soprano makes her solos memorable.

But both old and new and totally awesome is RoboCop's nemesis, Enforcement Droid 209, built and performed - operated? - by Tommy LeRoy, who is also director for the whole enchilada (and who wouldn’t want to perform as his own mechanical monster?) While "ED" made an appearance at the Wilde Awards, this was my first chance to see "him" in context. Grand Guignol, indeed.

I have an observation, though. Short scenes with blackouts between are a standard of sketch comedy. The interruptions are irrelevant because there is little or no continuity among the sketches. Frequent blackouts will interrupt the pacing of conventional narrative. Part of the charm of "RoGoCop! The Musical" was its madcap, hell-bent-for-leather style. Do I know how to fix a start/stop flow in the scenes illustrating Murphy’s transformation? Do I sound like a competent playwright? Them that can do, them that can’t become theater critics.

So I now have alibi for the night of February 20, 2015. I’m keeping the ticket stub in case I’m questioned by some corrupt magistrate of Delta City. For those of you who can't account for your whereabouts for this and next weekend, Robo has a special message for all the kids at home. "Stay out of trouble."

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SHOW DETAILS:
"Robocop! The Musical"

City Theatre
2301 Woodward Ave Detroit, MI 48201
8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Feb. 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28
6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22 & Mar. 1
5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28
2 hours 10 minutes 15 minute intermission
$29.50
800-745-3000
www.gocomedy.net

 

Proficient 'Island' almost has it all

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Once on This Island"

Meadow Brook Theatre

Posted: Feb. 15, 2015 at 11:38 p.m.

Meadow Brook Theatre embraces the capricious rhythms of the Caribbean-set musical “Once on This Island” (book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; music by Stephen Flaherty). A retelling of classic fairy-tale epic love, the script aims for a symbiosis of the fantasy escapism of stories and the cultural importance of oral tradition. This production, with direction by Travis W. Walter, takes a flying leap at both.

The story is based on the 1985 Rosa Guy novel “My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl,” which transposes “The Little Mermaid” to an island in the French Antilles, with a dash of “Romeo and Juliet” thrown in. Here, rather than interspecies love between man and mermaid, differences in class and skin color divide the orphan peasant Ti Moune (Darilyn Castillo) from her unattainable love, the wealthy and powerful Daniel (Jeremy Gaston). Ti Moune incites and defies the island’s four gods of earth (Jayne Trinette), water (Nkrumah M. Gatling), love (Jasmin Richardson), and death (Tyrick Wiltez Jones), who intervene with the humans’ lives and force the young woman to test the power of her love against mortality itself.

But the story is just that: a story, specifically one being told by a collection of villagers to distract and calm a young girl (Makayla Annaleese Flowers, alternating in the role with Jada Marie Sanders) during a frightening storm. The pull of tradition and escapism is hinted at in the less-than-picturesque building blocks of designer Jeremy Barnett’s wide elemental set, a gaping abstract vortex of driftwood, corrugated metal, and empty bottles that elegantly points out the have-not realities of these island storytellers.

Walter and company pay lip service to the device, carefully trotting the youngest cast member around the stage and aiming bits of narration at her as demanded by the script. Yet there’s a divide between the story and its purported audience; the bulk of the production feels desperate to retreat fully into the fairy tale, as exemplified in Matthew J. Fick’s forceful primary lighting scheme and the deities’ incongruous Mardi Gras excesses by costume designer Corey T. Globke.

The result is something ambitious, but also inconstant and incomplete - both in vision and in execution. As of the press opening, the ensemble work and grasp of the music still felt undercooked; although gaffes were skillfully repaired, there was an evident lack of sync with band leader/music director Daniel Feyer, and Daryl L. Foster’s choreography fared better with personalized flair than in unison movements. Individually, the performers (many making their MBT debuts) are clearly skilled: Trumpet-voiced Castillo’s Ti Moune is willful and bursting with childlike conviction, and the scene where her adoptive parents (Erich McMillan-McCall and Angela Birchett) give her leave to follow her dream is a tearjerker.

Yet between these strong solo moments, there's not much buzz of community or collective energy, which are critical to the thematic importance of culture and oral tradition. Even the barrier-shattering love between Ti Moune and Daniel is at best lukewarm, leaving her journey and consequences that much harder to justify. Without that invigorating sense of purpose, the production can’t take a firm step regarding the play’s themes of institutionalized racism and inequality, and instead becomes a pleasant, hummable imitation of the powerhouse it ought to be.

The ingredients in this "Once on this Island" are of unquestionable quality. The production is vibrant and visually appealing, the catchy numbers almost never stop, and the cast knows what it’s doing. Make no mistake: If a show’s chief flaw is that it doesn’t quite reach greatness, that must mean it’s still very good - perhaps with more time to blend and simmer, it will rise all the way and meet its considerable potential. But for viewers ready to shake up the winter with a little tropical heat and a lot of hip-heavy rhythm, this infectious entertainment certainly fits the bill.

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SHOW DETAILS:
"Once On This Island"

Meadow Brook Theatre
2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester
8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 11, 18, 25, Mar. 4
2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12
8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 13, 20, 27, Mar. 6
6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 14, 28
2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21 & Mar. 7
2 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Feb. 15, 22, Mar. 1
2 p.m. Sunday, Mar. 8
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission)
$26-41
248-377-3300
www.mbtheatre.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Once on This Island - Meadow Brook Theatre

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theatre Examiner (Feb. 15, 2015)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review - Detroit Free Press (Feb. 17, 2015)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Feb. 19, 2015)

 

What a Do Takes a Slow Journey with Stellar Cast

By Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: "The Trip to Bountiful"

What a Do Theatre

Posted: Feb. 15, 2015 at 12:12 p.m.

“The Trip to Bountiful” is a journey to dignity, a search for a place in this world that transcends the day-to-day sorrows and grayness of a life filled with bickering and smallness.

What a Do Theater is producing this Horton Foote drama featuring Susan Kernish as Carrie Watts, an elderly woman living with her son and daughter-in-law and longing to get back home to Bountiful, a once prosperous town that has become a ghost town after the Great Depression and World War II.

Set in the 40s, the play opens in the Watts’ three-room apartment, a stifling place where mother and daughter-in-law clash and heap small indignities upon each other. Betsy King stampedes over everyone with her demands, constant chatter and her insistence that things be done her way. She has gentle moments with her husband, Ludie, played by Troy Randall Kilpatrick, but is all harshness with her mother-in-law.

Kernish is the central figure of this drama and travels a clear arc, showing how Carrie changes from beginning to end in her search for who she used to be and a way to lift herself out of the daily indignities heaped upon her by her daughter-in-law. She starts out responding in a petty fashion, even her physicality shows a woman who is surrendering to small-mindedness in the beginning. It makes her eventual journey all the more powerful when she finally finds her dignity and realizes what she needed beyond a mere change in environment.

It isn’t possible, she learns, to go back to how things were, but one can be a part of something larger than oneself and find a way to get along. The Carrie Watts at the end of her trip is very different from the one who first started out. Kernish makes clear that the journey is a spiritual one as well as a physical one.

While there are strong performances throughout the show, particularly by Kernish and King, the pacing is slow. Director Randy Wolfe allows for so many tears on stage that there were none left for the audience to shed. There are moments that need a more subtle touch as the heaviness simply weighs and slows things down rather than contributes to drama of the production.

This is especially true in Kristin Marie Stelter’s performance as Thelma. She has a beautiful stage presence and a clear, crisp voice. She is one of the few characters who is sympathetic and likeable from start to finish. But she wears her sorrow so blatantly that one is certain it hid some other secret than what the text supports. It is too great and too present for what Thelma is going through and her attitude bespeaks a person in mourning for one dead, not one who is absent and in danger.

Michael Andres as the ticket agent provides some comic relief and both James King’s Roy and Scot Whitesell’s Sheriff provide characters who are upbeat and helpful.

As always, the sets in the What a Do production are excellent, highly functional, and able to quickly change to different locations. Samantha Snow’s designs are both functional and artistic, letting the stage easily transform from apartment to railway stations to a farmhouse porch. There is one unnecessary change. The two railway stations could have been set the same with a mere change in placard rather than adding more time to the show by moving set pieces around just because it could be done.

Nancy King’s costumes are very fitting for the period and also serve to show an economic difference in the play’s characters: Thelma is clearly more well off than the Watts family. The hats the women wear are also a delightful touch, from the turban worn to bed to the bonnet Thelma wears on her journey, and the traveling hat Carrie wears. As a minor point, it seemed odd that Ludie is not wearing his suit in the final scene of the play since he would be going directly to work.

“A Trip to Bountiful” offers hope in its slow journey, hope that each of us can reclaim our place in an ever-changing world.

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SHOW DETAILS:
"The Trip to Bountiful"

What A Do Theatre
4071 W. Dickman Rd, Springfield, MI 49037
8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Feb. 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, 28
8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19**
3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21*
2 hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission
$20 (*$10 matinee, **Pay-what-you-can with a $7 minimum, tickets can only be purchased at the door by cash or credit card.)
269-282-1953
www.whatado.org

 

The Dio does justice to 1955 classic

By Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: "Bus Stop"

The Dio Theatre - Dining and Entertainment

Posted: Feb. 9, 2015 at 5:00 p.m.

It’s a snowy night and the weather has left a collection of people stranded at a bus stop in Missouri. That’s the setting of William Inge's Tony-nominated 1955 classic that is currently being performed at Pinckney’s Dio Theater.

Three sets of romantic entanglements ensue with various levels of consent and age over a single evening from approximately 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. The cowboy Bo Decker wants to sweep the unwilling Cherie off to Montana to marry him, Dr. Lyman creepily seduces the high school student Elma Duckworth, and the diner owner, Grace, and the bus driver, Carl, sneak off for a late-night rendezvous. Observing and offering sage advice are the older cowboy, Virgil Blessing, and the local sheriff, Will Masters.

Directed by the busiest man at the Dio, Steve DeBruyne also served as the afternoon’s waiter and with 24 hours notice, had to step into the role of Dr. Lyman. With no script in hand, he took on the part of the wandering professor who frequently has to leave town because he preys on young girls such as Elma. His performance was spine chilling and made one want to go home and shower and lock up any teenage girls of one’s acquaintance away from the evils of the world.

This was an ensemble that worked all the way through. Peter Crist’s Bo Decker was filled with bluster and underwent a beautiful change in the second act, showing that Crist has a fine range as a dramatic actor. Elizabeth Jaffe was sweet rather than seductive as Cherie, a vulnerable nymph who at 19 needed protection not just from Bo, but from the world in general.

Andrew Gorney made Will one of the most likeable characters on stage, a sheriff who took seriously his duty to care for people and did so without any ego or bluster. He was Bo’s opposite and commanding in his quiet calm.

Stephen Dean’s Virgil shined when called upon to perform in a show during act two. What was most impressive about Dean’s performance was that he knew how to be a supportive, giving actor. He gave an imperceptible fade with his performance so the audience could focus on the fight taking place between Bo and Cherie. Like Virgil, Dean knew when to step aside and when to be gentle in his performance and quiet in his presence.

Jacklynn Cherry gave a Pollyannish innocence to Elma. The waitress was always outgoing, optimistic and ready to believe the best in others. Cherry made sure Elma always had a smile. Unfortunately, she goes through very little change even when the more worldly Grace informs her of what was going on. Rather than being the Red Riding Hood who says it is nice to know a lot "and a little bit not," Cherry was perfectly happy in her new knowledge without even a twinge of worry about what she had just escaped. She ends the play as vulnerable as she begins it and her smile is still plastered on her face.

The Dio, with its delicious buffet of foods home prepared by Chef Jarod, is an intimate space with limited seating. It was at first distracting to see face mikes on all of the actors. It seemed unnecessary for the space in a non-musical production. However, lighting and sound designer Matthew Tomich is to be commended because the mikes were perfectly executed. Even during the stage combat scenes, there was never any stray noises or audio feedback.

With the show set in the 50s, hair and makeup designer Thalia Schramm did an especially nice job on Cherie’s hair, evoking the finger-curl hair style of the era that a night club singer might sport.

The Dio’s rendition of the William Inge classic is a good one. The ensemble connects well and each creates very different characters that attract and clash and experience life-changing moments. It is often touching and gives the audience much to think about in terms of love, loneliness, and wooing. All very fitting topics for the short, cold month of love.

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SHOW DETAILS:
"Bus Stop"

The Dio Theatre - Dining and Entertainment
177 E. Main St., Pinckney MI, 48169
Evening* Thursday Friday, Saturday, Jan. 29, 30, 31, Feb. 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, 28
Matinee** Sunday, Feb. 1, 8, 15, 22, Mar. 1
Matinee** Thursday, Feb. 26
*Arrive for evening performances between 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. for dinner service.
**Arrive for matinee performances between 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m. for lunch service.
$35-41
1 hour an 45 minutes,with dessert served during intermission
517-672-6009
www.diotheatre.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Bus Stop - The Dio Theatre - Dining and Entertainment

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Feb. 5, 2015)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theatre Examiner Monitor (Jan. 31, 2015)

 

Dog, Caselli, and Lepard Steal Hearts in 'The Best Brothers'

By Bridgette Redman

REVIEW: "The Best Brothers"

Williamston Theatre

Posted: Feb. 8, 2015 at 11:30 a.m.

Pets have the power to change lives. It’s a simple revelation, one that isn’t news to most people who own cats or dogs or ferrets or birds. There is an exchange of love, care, and devotion that changes people, even when the animal may be more work than it seems worth.

We never see Enzo, the dog that features heavily in "The Best Brothers" by David MacIvor at Williamston Theatre, but we hear about him a lot, from the time Bunny Best’s sons get together to write her obit to a late walk in the park where the greyhound is off humping his girlfriend. He becomes the catalyst for the mother and the brothers.

We meet the brothers while they are at work and we instantly see the differences and similarities in their personalities. They are then informed that their mother has died in a freak accident that Hamilton, the older brother, is eager to blame on someone - anyone. Kyle seems more at peace with her death, taking it in stride with none of the anger his brother experiences.

Together they try to make all the arrangements that are necessary after the death of a family member and the sparks fly between them from the very start. Each approaches things differently and Hamilton is frustrated that his brother doesn’t do things properly.

What makes this a special treat is that the artists involved in this production have an intense connection and are convincing as brothers. John Lepard, the theater’s executive director, plays Hamilton and Tony Caselli, the theater’s artistic director, makes his return to the stage after last year’s illness as Kyle.

Lepard plays the controlled anger well. He seethes at Kyle and pours out his anger at Enzo, the dog he is ready to blame for the death of his mother and a series of other tragedies and mishaps. He also goes through a lovely transformation as he and Caselli take turns playing the mother watching from the afterlife. His voice and movements soften and he portrays an elderly woman without ever making a mockery of her or going for cheap laughs from the cross-gender performance.

Caselli infuses Kyle with an energy that is fun to watch, but he also gives him deeper moments where he is insightful and says just the thing needed to reach his brother. He is most hilarious in the reception line at his mother’s visitation next to his solemnly nodding brother, he is sparkling and charismatic, completely disregarding the morbidity of the situation.

Directed by Lynn Lammers, "The Best Brothers" runs without an intermission and the transitions between scenes are carefully managed by Shannon T. Schweitzer’s lighting design and the simple moving of curtains and furniture on Amber Marisa Cook’s white set. The back wall is adorned with empty white picture frames, allowing the audience to fill in pictures of a life while easily moving between locations with simple changes. Schweitzer’s lighting also helps as she casts reflections on the stage floor creating various rooms in the church.

There is a lot of love in this play, love that makes it difficult for the characters to say goodbye. Perhaps one of the more beautiful themes in the play is about how sometimes we love someone harder because they need it more. The things that make them hard to deal with - such as a dog that chews up furniture or pees where it shouldn’t - is what gives us more incentive to love. And when it comes to people who don’t act as they should, the lesson becomes even more clear.

Lammers makes sure that the wisdom of this play shines through all of the laughter and humor. She treats the poignant moments with a light touch, giving them an even greater effect. "The Best Brothers" works on levels both artistic and technical, but more importantly, it touches the heart and reminds us of all the reasons we have to love each other.

For my son and I, opening night was particularly heart-touching. We left a sick cat at home to go to the show, a cat who had been our family cat for nine years and was my son’s special friend. While we were at the opening night reception, that cat passed away, held in my husband’s arms the whole time. We came home to say our goodbyes, share our memories, and conduct our own version of a funeral with the words from “The Best Brothers” still echoing in our hearts and minds. These pets of ours, these animals that share our home and make things messy for us, they are our hearts.

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SHOW DETAILS:
"Best Brothers"

Williamston Theatre
122 South Putnam, Williamston, MI 48895
8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Jan. 29, 30, 31, Feb. 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28
3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7, 14, 21, 28
2 p.m. Sunday, Feb 1, 8, 15, 22, Mar. 1
running time: 85 minutes, no intermission
$15-27
517-655-7469
www.williamstontheatre.org

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Best Brothers - Williamston Theatre

Read KEN GLICKMAN's review - Lansing State Journal (Feb. 8, 2015)

Read MARY C. CUSACK's review - Lansing City Pulse (Feb. 11, 2015)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Feb. 12, 2015)

 

Getting there is half the story

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Leaving Iowa"

Tipping Point Theatre

Posted: Feb. 1, 2014 at 5:05 p.m.

Tell a stranger anything about your family, and chances are, the words "It's a long story" will enter the conversation. This is the genesis of Tim Clue and Spike Manton's "Leaving Iowa," a veritable Gordian knot of past and present, childhood memory and adult hindsight. In the production now at Tipping Point Theatre, director Beth Torrey leans hard into the stream-of-consciousness turns of this memory play, obliterating the line between the hilarious, nostalgic misadventures of one Midwestern nuclear family and the underlying melancholy of a belated apology.

The story is helmed by Don Browning (David Wolber), of the Iowa Brownings, although the adult Don has long since made Boston his home. But when a family event brings him back to tiny Winterset (birthplace of John Wayne, and don't you forget it, pilgrim), Don decides it's long past time to take a side trip, which slams him back into memories of summer vacations of old.

Back in the family car, he retraces the route of a particular road trip, with Dad (Dave Davies) at the wheel, Mom (Brenda Lane) riding shotgun, and Sis (Alysia Kolascz) pestering anyone within earshot. In the present day, however, Don is in the driver's seat, his only companion the silent container holding his father's ashes, which have waited three years to finally be put to rest.

Because the adult Don's journey — and the decisions he makes — are inextricable from past context, the stories unfold in parallel, with one timeline picking up the narrative thread even before the other has a chance to set it down. To reinforce the perceived dullness of the place Don so yearned to leave, the play cycles through a revolving door of characters that seem to personify the properties of being Iowan. In addition to the nuclear-family actors who double in multiple outlandish roles, the production does itself credit by including utility player Ryan Carlson, who perfects the intentional repetition of the text across a dozen flavors of comically understated earnestness.

Torrey and company honor the script's fluidity above all else, and even double down on this fast and loose approach to time and place with staging that is utterly unconcerned with the laws of physics. Because literalism would impossibly bog down the timing, the rest of the production design follows suit.

Suzanne Young's costume design begins with summer-vacation clothes of impressive versatility, and then adds on some quick-change pieces for show; similarly, Ryan Fisher holds back on properties, primarily reserving those with the most comic flair. Rather than capture the sense of everywhere and nowhere, designer Monika Essen makes a giant iconic scenic statement, which has the added benefit of a central projection screen for slide-show backdrop images and supplemental jokes.

These visual aids are helpful guideposts amid the hurly-burly; David Koltunchik's subtle lighting also nudges between past and present, in concert with Wolber's donning and doffing of the young Don's red baseball cap. Stage manager Tracy L. Spada is responsible for the quick cue work, and her timing is exquisite, especially for one stretch of persistent car horn. The highway noises are nicely layered in by sound designer Julia Garlotte, who also delivers a whistle-stop blend of songs that notice where we are on the way to wherever we're going.

The family dynamic in Don's memory scenes is played for laughs, and the translatable comedy tropes land hard thanks to capable timing and teamwork. Kolascz's carefully unhinged rat-a-tat whining is especially fun, although Lane's shifting tactics as peacemaker, taskmaster and occasional contrarian believably hold the family apparatus together.

Wolber proves adeptly adrift as the adult Don, balks at unfairness as his younger self, and capably leads the many abrupt tonal shifts between. But the central relationship tension — the regrettably widening divide between Don and his father — must be performed as a duet. Here, Davies acquits himself well as a focal point, pulling laugh lines out of thin air in all his road trip scenes. But it's his work out of sync with the grown-up Don that is the most telling; his face, at once expressive and inscrutable, provides all the impetus the show needs to keep seeking answers and absolution.

This "Leaving Iowa" is a rocketing comic whirligig that spends a lot of time on the funny bone, but also makes some nostalgic emotional appeals in the realm of bygones and closure. The production is set to coyly draw viewers in to its sweet journey across years and miles, then grabs on and hauls them along with such speed and comic precision that there's never a moment to ask, "Are we there yet?"

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SHOW DETAILS:
"Leaving Iowa"

Tipping Point Theatre
361 E Cady St., Northville, MI 48167
8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Jan. 29, 30, 31, Feb. 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28, Mar. 5, 6, 7
2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1, 8, 15, 22, Mar. 1, 8
3 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday Feb. 7, 14, 18, 21, 28, Mar. 7
Running time: 2 hours, (including 10-minute intermission)
$27-32
248-347-0003
www.tippingpointtheatre.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Leaving Iowa - Tipping Point Theatre

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theatre Examiner (Feb. 1, 2015)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review - Detroit Free Press (Feb. 4, 2015)

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (Feb. 5, 2015)

 

'Steel Magnolias' - Shrinking violets need not apply!

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Steel Magnolias"

Purple Rose Theatre Company

Posted: Jan. 26, 2015 at 3:30 p.m.

There are plays that get produced over and over - fortunately, those tend to be the best of the best. The critic, therefore, will be reviewing the same show many times in his or her career. It’s not a bore. It's like dropping in on an old friend from time to time; reliving old memories, learning what's new. And when an excellent company revives an excellent show, there’s ALWAYS something new.

We come, then, to the happy congruence of The Purple Rose Theatre Company and "Steel Magnolias," a play that touches so close to the heart of the human condition that it enjoys universal appeal. It is called a dramatic comedy or a comic drama; take your pick. Imagine - it's taken me three times to realize that this play's "real feel" stems from the fact that a life is never all smiles or all tears, and how we humans deal with each profoundly defines our humanity.

All six characters in "Steel Magnolias" are women. So how did a man, namely playwright Robert Harling, achieve such a sensitive understanding of the feminine condition? "Steel Magnolias" is based on experiences within his own family, and began as a way of building a legacy for his late sister.

The time is the latter years of the 1980s and the scene is a breezeway cum beauty parlor in a small Louisiana town where, for 15 years, Truvy Jones (Rhiannon Ragland) has catered to an elite clientele. On this special day in June, the belles are getting done up for an afternoon wedding. Shelby (Rachel C. Hull), "the prettiest girl in town" and daughter of long-time customer M'Lynn Eatenton (Michelle Mountain), is marrying her beau. Shelby and her mother are on the scene, as well as Truvy's new, fresh out of beauty school assistant, Annelle (Lauren Knox), who (though very young) may have a "past." Or as Truvy succinctly puts it, "This is the eighties. If you can achieve puberty, you can achieve a past."

They are joined by two long-time sparring partners. They are Clairee Belcher (Susan Craves), widow of the former mayor, and cantankerous Ouiser Boudreaux (Laural Merlington), who asserts that people are nice to her only because "...I have more money than God." The six proceed to do what playwright Harling would have us believe women do out of sight of their men. When otherwise not engaged in washing and setting hair, they sit and gossip.

Boring? Never. Harling's wordplay is delightful and the ensemble misses no opportunity to deliver it adroitly. There are some interesting and illuminating surprises in store. Truvy has some of the most ear-catching bon mots in the script and Rhiannon Ragland's absolute deadpan delivery makes them even funnier. It is, however, Rachel Hull’s Shelby that is the eye-opener here.

The material is there to play the character as the gushing, blushing young bride. Hull's approach takes an alternate path. Her Shelby is self-possessed, self-absorbed, and something of a brat. This is strong motivation for the tension between M'Lynn and her daughter that ultimately drives the plot. Our growing animus with the character is suddenly upended when Shelby goes into insulin shock and it is revealed that her diabetes would so seriously affect childbirth that she should never conceive. Hull’s play of subtext is a marvel.

No less marvelous is Michelle Mountain's delivery of the climactic monologue. It is here, when the emotional conflicts - not only for M'Lynn, but for all the characters - are their most extreme that we discover that this catharsis has been implicit since Act I, scene 1. Ultimately, she delivers the moral of "Steel Magnolias:" "We should handle it the best way we know how and get on with it."

The design team for "Steel Magnolias" need a special shout-out. Each, in his and her area of expertise, have worked a little stage magic in helping us achieve our willing suspension of disbelief. Bartley H. Bauer’s meticulously appointed set, coupled with Danna Segrest’s detailed props grab us out of a Michigan theater and drop us definitively into that Louisiana beauty parlor. The average patron isn’t going to notice the lighting. You never do, unless something goes horrible wrong – like an instrument falling to the stage (or into the audience). Let me, therefore, note the subtle, atmospheric effect of Dana L. White’s design. The Purple Rose’s thrust stage is bathed in warm amber light from directly overhead, which parallels the appealing glow among the characters. Angie Kane Ferrante’s sound design ranges from hot radio hits from the '80s to a pretty convincing, wall-shaking explosion.

Who may have had the most fun in her work, if finding costumes for this show was less work than I suspect it was, is Christianne Myers. There’s no element of parody of what was, in retrospect, a pretty garish era. Truvy’s slinky duds are just this side of tasteful, and the mannish tailoring of Ouiser’s outfits shouts "no nonsense!"

What guy could be able to keep it real with all this lady stuff going on? That would be PRTC Artistic Director, Guy Sanville, who has yet again assembled an elegant ensemble capable of limning unique, memorable characters.

For The Critic, one of the most memorable quips of the evening issues from crusty, shoot-from-the-lip Ouiser. "I do not see plays, because I can nap at home for free." See "Steel Magnolias" and just try napping. I dare you.

SHOW DETAILS:
"Steel Magnolias"

Purple Rose Theatre
137 Park Street, Chelsea, Michigan 48118
2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, Feb. 4, 11, 18, 25, Mar. 4, 11
7 p.m. Wednesday & Thursday, Jan. 28, 29 Feb. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18, 19, 26, Mar. 4, 5, 11, 12
8 p.m. Friday & Saturday, Jan. 30, 31, Feb. 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, 28, Mar. 6, 7, 13, 14
3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, Feb. 6, 13, 20, 27, Mar. 7, 14
2 p.m Sunday, Feb. 1, 8, 15, 22, Mar. 1, 8
11 a.m. Thursday, Feb 26
$15-42
734-433-7673
www.purplerosetheatre.org

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Steel Magnolias - Purple Rose Theatre Company

Read JENN MCKEE's review - MLive.com (Jan. 24, 2015)

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theatre Examiner (Jan. 25, 2015)

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - The New Monitor (Jan. 29, 2015)

Read JIM PRUITT's review - Chelsea Standard (Jan. 26, 2015)

Read TOM HELMA's review - City pulse (Feb. 5, 2015)

 

Detroit Rep's 'Sweet Pea's Mama' plays on familiar types

by Jenn McKee

REVIEW: "Sweet Pea's Mama"

Detroit Repertory Theatre

Posted: Jan. 09, 2015 at 4:45 p.m.

In Robert Lawrence Nelson’s play “Sweet Pea’s Mama” – set near the end of Martin Luther King’s life, and now having its world premiere at Detroit Repertory Theatre - a white Southern woman (Abigail) gives a photo of her grown son to her longtime black maid (Coralee), saying, “For your album.” Yet when Coralee’s husband and 16 year old son come up in a conversation, Abigail can’t think of their names without help. This dynamic – Abigail’s unspoken assumption that her family matters, while Coralee’s does not – boils just beneath the surface throughout “Sweet Pea’s Mama,” directed by Barbara Busby.

And while you might assume that the play’s title refers to Abigail (Emily Rose Merrell), since Sweet Pea is the nickname of her developmentally disabled grown son Georgie (Aaron Kottke), it actually refers to Coralee (Jenaya Jones Reynolds). For when it became apparent, early in Georgie’s life, that he was impaired, Abigail withdrew from him, clinging instead to her other son, Sonny (Kottke), while Coralee took Georgie under her wing.

At the play’s start, Sonny is away at college, while Georgie is meandering through his days with Coralee. When MLK’s assassination is reported on television, Georgie flees the house in a confused panic – an act that ultimately changes everything. If this synopsis sounds vague, it’s largely because Nelson’s script lacks a central dramatic question to drive the story and provide momentum. “Sweet Pea’s Mama” moseys through its sequence of scenes in the same way kindhearted Georgie marks time in his childhood home: without a clear, defined sense of purpose or direction.

So it’s ultimately a “slice of life” family portrait play – which might have worked, too, had the characters felt like living, breathing, complex human beings, rather than familiar types we’ve seen in endless movies, TV shows, and books (entitled, bigoted Southern white woman; the code-switching maid who must compromise some of her dignity each day to keep her job; her son, representing the next generation, who pushes back against old racial strictures, etc.). Plus, Nelson’s hand is too-visible at times, such as when Coralee’s son Jerome (Chris Jakob) suddenly, extensively waxes poetic about a baseball game in a monologue, and when the absence of Abigail’s husband seems more a matter of artistic convenience than narrative sense.

Yet the best moments in Detroit Rep’s production of “Sweet Pea’s Mama” are the most intense ones: when Coralee loses her temper with Jerome, and sharply instructs him on how he must operate in the white world in order to survive, you can’t help but immediately reflect on Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed young black men who lost their lives this past year. And you get the sense that Reynolds, in delivering those words, is thinking of them, too. Plus, Merrell hits just the right notes of obliviousness when asking Coralee, “You know that feeling? When you just want something new?”

Harry Wetzel designed the set, consisting of Abigail’s pale-palette kitchen, while Thomas Schraeder designed the lights. Costume designer Judy Dery found era-appropriate hats and dresses for Abigail (and the perfect dresses for reluctant recipient Coralee to throw away), and Burr Huntington designed the show’s sound.

So everyone involved has done their job – but even so, the play never quite manages to grab you by the lapels and ask hard questions. It simply congratulates us for now being able to see our racial past for all its flaws. And for me, that’s not enough.

SHOW DETAILS:
"Sweet Pea's Mama"

Detroit Repertory Theatre
13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit, MI 48238
8:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Feb. 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 20, 26, 27, Mar. 5, 6, 12, 13
3 & 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7, 14, 21, 28, Mar. 7, 14
2 & 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8, 15, 22, Mar. 1, 8, 15
$17 for advance sales; $20 for door sales
313-868-1347
www.detroitreptheatre.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Sweet Pea's Mama - Detroit Repertory Theatre

Read ROBERT DELANEY's review - New Monitor (Jan. 16, 2015)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review - Detroit Free Press (Jan. 15, 2015)

 

Hilberry Theatre takes up Restoration project

by John Quinn

REVIEW: "The Way of the World"

Hilberry Theatre

Posted: Jan. 17, 2015 at 3:20 p.m.

Hold on. This really is a review, not an article in “News and Previews.” The above headline is a deception. Given the shabby state of journalism it’s not the first, nor the last you’ll encounter. The Hilberry isn’t renovating; it is, in fact, preparing to build a whole new theater. The project they’ve undertaken is a play driven by deception; full of characters who revel so joyously in self-serving manipulation and callous disregard for the holy state of Matrimony that they seem positively 21st Century. The Restoration project is, in fact, William Congreve’s 1700 classic, “The Way of the World.”

Charles I allowed his royal prerogatives go to his head, and he lost it – his head, that is. Convicted of treason, Charles was executed by Parliament 1649. The Interregnum was dominated by puritanical morals; the theaters, in fact, had been closed as early as 1642.

One can only imagine a rousing chorus of “Happy Days Are Here Again” resounding through the streets when the monarchy was restored in the person of Charles II in 1660. A "Good Time" Charlie indeed, his reign permitted everybody let his hair down, figuratively and literally, and playwrights were still writing naughty bits four decades later. “The Way of the World” remains a witty, sassy, thoroughly cynical comedy even after three hundred years.

The plot is convoluted, the more so since many of the characters’ names are similar. Mirabell (Kyle Mitchell Johnson) loves Millament (Annie Keris), who comes with a big dowry attached. But in order to get both the girl and the cash, he must win the approval of Millament’s aunt, Lady Wishfort (Bevin Bell-Hall), who despises him. Milady would rather have Millament marry an oafish nephew, Sir Wilfull Witwoud (Santino Craven), and keep the money all in the family, as it were. Worse for Mirabell, if Lady Wishfort should marry before her niece, a big chunk of the money goes with her.

In order to compromise Lady Wishfort, Mirabell marries off his servant, Waitwell (Michael Phillip Thomas), to the Lady’s maid, Foible (Devri Chism). Waitwell, in the guise of Mirabell’s aristocratic “uncle,” woos Lady Wishfort as part of a “bigamy as blackmail” plot.

The paradox in “The Way of the World” is that, while none of the characters are likeable, they’re all, perversely, lovable. Congreve is responsible for much of that. All the characters delight in their decadence because, as we are frequently reminded: it’s “the way of the world.” There are memorable characters that are hold-overs from the hedonism of Charles’ days into the dourer reign of William and Mary. Michael Manocchio (Witwoud) and Brandy Joe Plambeck (Petulant) play two over-the-top fops; complete with bizarre wigs, clown-white makeup, garish raiment and heeled pumps that could pass muster in “Kinky Boots.” While costumer Anne Suchyta has outdone herself with this entire production, how well these designs define the comic foils is worth noting.

Other characters stand out, not for their finery, but for their licentiousness. Mrs. Fainall (Sarah Hawkins Moan) and Mrs. Marwood (Tiffany Michelle Thompson) both have histories with Mirabell and alternately conspire for and against him. Mr. Fainall (Miles Boucher) isn’t about to let a little thing like marriage stand in the way of snatching all the dowry for himself - by any means necessary.

The scope of the Hilberry experience is educational, and success depends on a skillful, thoughtful teacher. For “The Way of the World,” that’s director Lavinia Hart, Associate Professor of Theatre and Head of the MFA Acting Program at Wayne State University. By adhering to the conventions of Restoration Theatre, she has not only taken her cast out of their comfort zones established by modern technique; she has made a three hundred-year-old script totally accessible to a modern audience. Objectively, the vocal inflections, movement and gestures seem stilted; subjectively, they bring out the best in Congreve. The ensemble is first rate, with few weak performances.

Adding to the visual feast are the complementary scenic and lighting designs. Sarah Pearline, an Assistant Professor of Set Design, provides a backdrop of huge, white flowers on a gilt-edged black backdrop. They are three-dimensional, but hit by Amy M. Schneider’s lights, they take on the striking luminescence of mother-of-pearl marquetry. It’s a dazzling effect.

I suppose it could be argued that theater is all about deception. I prefer to think of it as “illusion” instead, since the audience is a willing participant in the experience. Illusion, entertainment, education – make of it what you will, “The Way of the World” is the real deal.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Way of the World' by William Congreve

Hilberry Theatre

4743 Cass Avenue, Detroit, at the corner of Hancock.

Jan. 16 - Mar. 7

2 hours 40 minutes 2 intermissions

313-577-2972

http://hilberry1.com

 

OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Way of the World - Hilberry Theatre

Read PATTY NOLAN's review - Detroit Theater Examiner (Jan. 18, 2015)

Read DANIEL SKORA's review - New Monitor (Jan. 26, 2015)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review - Detroit Free Press (Jan. 28, 2015)

 

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