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Family: Can't live with them...

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"

Tipping Point Theatre

Posted: Sept. 21, 2014 at 4:50 p.m.

The show's director, James R. Kuhl, is right: You don't need to know Anton Chekhov to enjoy "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," but it doesn't hurt. Foremost, he's not an ensign aboard the USS Enterprise; he was a Russian playwright. American playwright Christopher Durang has not only filled his comedy with Chekovian in-jokes, he's adopted the master's aesthetics. So – is "Vanya and Sonia," etc, etc, a "well made play?" Apparently, since it won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, plus numerous other awards.

Chekhov famously examined the complex relationships within families. Poor guy – he thought he was writing comedies, and his director, Constantin Stanislavski, kept turning them into tragedies. So how better to open Tipping Point Theatre's eighth season, themed "All in the Family?" "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" affirms what the Russians discovered: Laughter and tears aren't that far apart.

Bucks County, PA, despite its proximity to Philadelphia, is off the beaten track. Its only claims to fame are that Washington slept here and that writer Dorothy Parker owned a house in Piperville. But here is the life-long home of Vanya and Sasha, middle-aged brother and sister, whose professorial parents were ‘way too involved in community theater. They are well aware that by staying home to care for their dementia-ridden, now-deceased parents, they have never lived lives of their own. Their personal pity parties are interrupted – first by their housekeeper, Cassandra (who, like her Grecian namesake, makes prophesies no one believes), then by the homecoming of their sister, Masha.

It's Masha who actually owns the family homestead, but she left Bucks County for Hollywood and turned a role in a series of horror films into serious money. She's accompanied by her protιgι (shades of "Sunset Boulevard"), a handsome, 20-something lunk-head who goes by the name "Spike." What follows are riffs on classic Russian drama, drawn largely from "The Cherry Orchard," "The Seagull" and "The Three Sisters." Losing touch with one's past, especially "home," aspirations unmet, the acknowledgement of futile lives – all make their way into the play. Durang writes, "It's as if I took characters and themes from Chekhov and put them in a blender." The results, if you will excuse the expression, are "mixed."

There is tinge of "oh, what a good boy am I" self-congratulation present in the script of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike." The second act, while hysterically funny, is something of a hodgepodge.

This is where a director makes all the difference, and James R. Kuhl is a cut above the rest. Not only has he made sense out Durang's self-indulgence, he assembled an all-star cast to help.

At the top of the line-up are John Seibert as Vanya and Terry Heck as Sonia. The duo represent lives never fully lived, and the actors revel in their characters' resentment. Both have elegant monologues, arguably the best-written elements of the play. Heck's is a delicate dance as the spinster Sonia dips a toe in the water of real life. In a scene borrowed from "The Seagull," a live reading of Vanya's avant-garde play is interrupted by Spike's obsession with his smart phone. Vanya's tirade in response is an impassioned cry for the loss of community to electronically enabled isolationism. In Seibert's hands, it's a tour de force.

Janet Maylie as Masha, the fading diva, is suitably over-the-top. The interest here, though, is watching the character gradually descend from her high horse and become the sister her siblings thought they lost. "Spike," the lout, bounces around the stage like a big puppy; clueless yes, innocent, no. Gotta give a lot of credit to Brian Thibault; it's not easy acting when you spend half the play clad only in boxer briefs. Or is it true, as Masha observes, that all actors are exhibitionists?

Rounding out the cast are actors playing contrasting roles. Cassandra, as limned by Sonja Marquis, plays for broad comedy, whether mimicking a Greek Sybil or a voodoo priestess. Nina, on the other hand, is a sweet young girl next door. An aspiring actress herself, she's Masha's biggest fan and fascinated by Vanya's play. Tara Tomcsik finds the sense of wonder that is the fundamental to her character.

Chekhov's dramas are meant to feel "real." At Tipping Point, that reality is enhanced by a textured, detailed scenic design by Monika Essen and Alex Gay's subtle lighting.

In summation, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" benefits from thoughtful direction, inspired performances and attractive design. Regardless of the play's inspiration, in this production there was no rushin'.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike'
Tipping Point Theatre
361 E. Cady St., Northville
3 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8
8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, Oct. 2, 9, 16
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, Oct. 3, 10, 17
3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, Oct. 4, 11, 18
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, Oct. 5, 12, 19
2 hours, 20 minutes

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The house that Shepard built

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Buried Child"

The Abreact Theatre Collective

Posted: Sept. 20, 2014 at 5:47 p.m.

With a title as uplifting as "Buried Child," the viewer might presume (correctly) that bleak times are ahead. But the mechanism of bleakness in this play, which merited the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for playwright Sam Shepard, reaches beyond run-of-the-mill family troubles. In the season-opening production at The Abreact, director Greg Bailey manifests a household of isolation, scratching an incessant itch of mystery that will leave viewers gasping for salve in resolution.

The play and its characters are comparably confined to the front rooms of an old-fashioned farmhouse. Ailing patriarch Dodge (Alan Madlane) is immobile on the sofa, resigned to worrying his handkerchief against a stream of upstairs prattle from his wife, Hallie (Barbie Amann Weisserman). Borne back ceaselessly into the past, Hallie's soliloquy dwells on the pride and promise of their grown sons, which has long since soured: Affectless Tilden (Mike McGettigan) is now living under their roof under vigilant scrutiny after a less-than-prodigal return from New Mexico, and amputee Bradley (Patrick Loos) stops by regularly to vengefully minister to the resistant Dodge. A third son tragically died long ago, and naturally shines all the brighter as the favorite and hero.

Just as the dialogue dwells on the old, so does the atmosphere. Bailey's set design is overrun with the imprints of where photos and people used to be, and Weisserman's filthy costumes suggest the literal stink of perpetuity. The place feels pickled with alcohol and stale air; while the lighting (by John Jakary) and sound cues are reminiscent of a world outside, they can't penetrate such interior gloom. Contrast this with the inexplicable bounty of vegetables that Tilden keeps reaping from the forbidden, long-barren back fields – they stand out as uncharacteristically organic in such a decaying home, a clear sign that something is amiss.

Into the grotesque but certain rhythms of the house comes Vince (Michael Lopetrone), who claims to be Tilden's son and wants to drop in on his grandparents during a cross-country trip with a lovely young companion (Dani Cochrane). But the inhabitants don't claim to recognize him; indeed, they insist that there is no such person, and maddening appeals for clarity only lead to further obfuscation. It's with this twist that "Buried Child" not only cultivates that nagging sense of something wrong, that some key revelation is needed to make these pieces fall into place, but also continuously moves the goal posts of what knowledge or action is ultimately needed to right it.

These are tough, desolate characters to portray, and although the performances here sometimes run hot, there are more hits than misses. Highlights include Madlane's nothing-to-lose bursts of truth telling through questionable lucidity, as well as Loos's emotional preemptive strikes and devastating physical work. Incredibly, McGettigan makes anonymity into a personality, going beyond merely sad and slow to become a terrifically disquieting presence. And Cochrane, saddled with dynamism among stasis, lends fascinating evolution to her unsuspecting character as she is enveloped by the house's influence.

Although Shepard primarily dwells in the land of inference, the overarching mystery isn't beyond the viewer's grasp. But Bailey and company hit the nail on the head by making their production about more than the facts of the case. For over two hours, viewers are encouraged to believe that maybe once we know everything, then we can make sense of it. The show's success comes from building its real tension within a capricious, morphing grasp of reality – the palpable but arbitrary rules of the house's figurative gravitational pull, the manifestation of concurrent solitude, the need for release in the form of comprehension. The result is a production that is brutally far from withholding, but knows just what to keep out of reach.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Buried Child'
The Abreact Theatre Collective
1301 W. Lafayette #113, Detroit
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, Oct. 3, 10
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, 27, Oct. 1, 11
4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5
Admission by donation

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Boeing once, Boeing twice: Bold comedy at the Hilberry

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Boeing Boeing"

Hilberry Theatre

Posted: Sept. 20, 2014 at 4:29 p.m.; updated Sept. 21, 2014 at 7:25 a.m.

"Timing is everything."

That fact was observed, not only by the long-time Hilberry Theatre patron seated on my right, but by guest director Lenny Banovez, co-founder and artistic director of New York City's Titan Theatre Company, in his director's note. While the adage is true of all plays, its application is never more critical than in the comic sub-genre, farce. Long-time patrons of the Hilberry will recall that the company explored farce in its infancy last season with Moliere's "A Doctor in Spite of Himself." This year we experience farce matured with Marc Camoletti's 1960 hit, "Boeing Boeing."

The French have a phrase for it. "ΐ chacun son gout – "To each one his taste." "Hit" can be a relative term when culture is factored in. "Boeing, Boeing" is the most popular French play ever, but it closed after only 23 performances in its 1965 Broadway run. The 2008 revival, though, won two Tony Awards and two Drama Desk Awards, so maybe tastes change. Certainly the definition of "erotic" has changed, since this "erotic farce" derives its comedy from the traditional building blocks of character and situation, rather than shock or innuendo.

But make no mistake – Bernard (Brandon Grantz) is an utter cad. Enjoying mid-century joie de vivre in Paris, Bernard is something of a sexual juggler – balancing three engagements, all at the same time. His secret? They're all "air hostesses" on international airlines, and he knows their schedules down to the minute. Thus his unsophisticated American girl, Gloria (Sarah Hawkins Moan), his fiery Italian inamorata, Gabriella (Annie Keris), or his Lufthansa lover Gretchen (Bevin Bell-Hall) don't suspect that she's not his one-and-only. He's safe – as long as faster planes, tail winds and mid-Atlantic storms don't upset the schedules.

But this is farce, so of course there are complications – not only for Bernard, but for his overwrought cook, Bert (Miles Boucher) and his visiting pal from Wisconsin, Robert (Brandy Joe Plambeck).

There's real comic power in Camoletti's script; there's real comic joy in the English version by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans. Rarely do you find a translation that flows so well in colloquial English. But wit is only part of the charm of "Boeing, Boeing." Director Banovez refers to farce as "the most difficult style of comedy." "Farce, at its best, is an articulate portrayal of chaos or ‘controlled chaos,' if you will."

This is a tremendously physical production, yet his careful choices never let farce bleed into slapstick. While the cast demonstrates a fine example of ensemble acting, performances of the more absurd characters are memorable. These include Plambeck as the American in Paris man-child; Bell-Hall's take on Gretchen's Wagnerian-sized emotions; and Boucher's skill at turning the character of a snooty woman housekeeper, "Berthe," into downright snotty "Bert" the cook.

A standard of farce is the fast entrance – or exit. To this end, Michael Sabourin's scenic design spans the wide Hilberry stage to accommodate seven – count ‘em – seven doors. Above the living room set soar eye-catching silhouettes of a Parisian skyline. Lighting designer Tom Schraeder shows solid craftsmanship in the warm, even glow that marks the apartment lighting, and a playful whimsy in the rich backlighting of the silhouettes. John Woodland's costumes are stylishly retro, particularly the eye-popping primary colors of the ladies' flight uniforms.

As the Hilberry Theatre enters its 52nd season, it's time to give pause and reflect on its significance. Its fundamental purpose is to provide an advanced education in the performing arts. They're graciously letting us tag along. We've watched Boucher move from Macbeth to the comedic Bert, and Brandy Joe Plambeck play both the Marquis de Sade and the hapless Robert. That's just to name two of the artists who are expanding their potential under this program. What an education the audience gets on their journey!

So happy 52nd, Hilberry. Many happy returns.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Boeing Boeing'
Hilberry Theatre
4743 Cass Ave., Detroit
2 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 24 (post-show talkback)
8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25 (preshow discussion), Oct. 2
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, Oct. 3
2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, Sept. 27, Oct. 4
2 hours, 20 minutes

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They cram a lot into 'Spamalot' – and good times ensue

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "Spamalot"

The Encore Musical Theatre Company

Posted: Sept. 20, 2014 at 3:35 p.m.

Excalibur. No, that isn't it.

Exuberance. Yes, that's the word for The Encore Musical Theatre's production of "Spamalot." In Thalia V. Schramm's staging, the Monty Python musical may lose a little of the heft and polish it had on Broadway but retains all of the hilarity and charm. If you aren't already a Monty Python fan, you will be. If you are a fan of the British comedy troupe, you'll likely be among the theatergoers happily whistling along to "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life." (I say "likely" only because not everyone can whistle.)

A raucous ruckus of reinvention, "Spamalot" recasts King Arthur and his knights into a band of nincompoops. Everything works here, from broad acting, to exaggerated accents (when called for), robust singing, a flawless five-person orchestra led by pianist R. MacKenzie Lewis, Daniel C. Walker's cartoonish castle set and unobtrusive lighting, and Sharon Urick's astounding array of costumes with an even more astounding number of changes offstage. Props, too, to properties designer Anne Donevan whose work incorporates rubber fish, a stuffed cow the size of a St. Bernard, and a killer bunny hand puppet. And that's just the animals.

Based on – creators Eric Idle and John Du Prez say "lovingly ripped off from" – the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," one of the musical's charms is that it never forgets it's a show, with such self-referential numbers as "The Song That Goes Like This" and "You Won't Succeed on Broadway"

Most of the actors do double duty or more, except for Keith Kalinowski as King Arthur, and Liz Jaffe as the Lady of the Lake. Come to think of it, each does a kind of double duty: Kalinowski manages to be both regal and ridiculous, and Jaffe demonstrates vocal strength while making fun of her singing.

Sebastian Gerstner is endearing and funny as Arthur's servant/sidekick Patsy, supplying the sound of hoof beats (clacking coconuts) as they pretend to ride horses, and he's a scream as the French Taunter calling out epithets ("I fart in your general direction") in a ridiculous accent.

Joey DeBenedetto is a hearty baritone as Dennis Galahad (who knew?), and Brian Charles and Ryan Dooley bring charisma and boundless energy as Sir Lancelot and Sir Robin, respectively.

None of this would be possible without a strong ensemble of singers/dancers who appear to be having as good a time as the audience. And that's a very good time, indeed.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Spamalot'
The Encore Musical Theatre Company
3126 Broad St., Dexter
7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, Oct. 2, 9
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, Oct. 3, 10
3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, 27, Oct. 4, 11
3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21, 28, Oct. 5, 12

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Spamalot - The Encore Musical Theatre Company

Read JENN MCKEE's review – The Ann Arbor News (Sept. 20, 2014)

Read RONALD BAUMANIS' review – Mostly Musical Theatre (Sept. 19, 2014)


'Secret Garden' sprouts with young talent

By Judith Cookis Rubens

REVIEW: "The Secret Garden"

Farmers Alley Theatre

Posted: Sept. 20, 2014 at 2:38 p.m.; updated Sept. 20, 2014 at 3:50 p.m.

Without frequent watering, light and love, a lush garden will wither and go dormant – not yet dead, but not quite alive either.

This can happen to people, too, we learn, if exposed to great depths of loss and loneliness. In the musical, "The Secret Garden," now at Farmers Alley Theatre, widower Archibald Craven has gone dormant after losing his lovely wife, Lily, shortly after birthing their invalid son. Archibald, a hunchback pacing an empty mansion, is haunted by Lily's ghost and mourns his ill son, Colin, hidden away upstairs, waiting to die.

It's not exactly the upbeat stuff of today's family-friendly musicals. But this revival of a 1991 Broadway musical (Tony winner for its book), has enough lighter, happier moments to keep it from becoming too bloated and maudlin.

Based on the 1911 Frances Hodgson Burnett children's novel, "The Secret Garden" focuses on Mary Lennox, Archibald's niece, a sullen, 11-year-old orphan who's lost both her parents to a cholera outbreak in India. She's sent to live on the Yorkshire Moors of England with her distant uncle in his rattling, seemingly haunted mansion. At first she thinks she's all alone, but soon after befriending a young gardener, Dickon, and meeting her young cousin, Colin, Mary and her "new family" unite to revive a secret garden.

Marsha Norman's rich book stays true to the popular children's story, though we get more glimpses into the adults' backstories and more of a spiritual message about death. The deceased characters appear as ghosts, pacing the halls as observers, and sometimes mixing with the living – an interesting, but sometimes chaotic staging choice.

Archibald's wife/Mary's aunt, Lily, restlessly wanders the halls as a sparkling white image. Mary's parents – Rose and Albert – are there, too. Rose and Lily even converse as they watch and remember the action.

Director Kathy Mulay (directing several members of her real-life family in this show) has the great task of mixing the living and dead without entering campy territory. Certain scenes work better than others. The hovering ghostly figures in the Prologue's "House on the Hill," for example, seem to crowd one another irritatingly on the small stage. Yet the one-on-one interactions between Lily and grieving Archibald, or Lily and bedridden Colin are more powerful.

Better yet, when the division between the ghosts and the living disappears, such as the charming Act II number, "Come Spirit, Come Charm," it's not so distracting.

Considering Lucy Simon's and Marsha Norman's music – a mix of gloomy operatic ballads and more uptempo English folk tunes – you'll want to keep your Kleenex handy, as the melodrama is never subtle. Especially laid-on-thick is the torn-apart romance between Archibald and Lily and the early death of Mary's parents.

However, one might argue the most tender and wrenching scenes are those in which the children confront their fears and losses, yet manage to go on. They believe in living, and, therefore, encourage the adults around them to do the same.

The young stars are superbly cast here. As orphan Mary, 13-year-old Traverse City actress Madison Hertel has a delightful stage presence and impressive singing voice that showcases Mary's complexities. She's one to watch, for sure.

Equally impressive is 11-year-old Jason Koch (Mulay's grandson, full disclosure), who more than holds his own as the sometimes-bratty Colin. Colin's and Mary's evolving relationship is one of the sweetest parts of the show, and young Koch brings humor and solid vocals to the part. Considering his real-life mother and father play Archibald and Lily, the scenes with this decidedly talented theater family are quite touching.

Other excellent highlights are U of M graduate Jane Bruce as Mary's plucky chamber maid, Martha, and NYC's DJ Bucciarelli playing the energetic Dickon. It's cheerful Dickon who helps Mary realize there's hidden life in the home's secret garden. Both actors breathe humor and fun into this show, which at times, can start to veer into gloomy depths. Bruce has fun with Martha's strong Yorkshire accent, while Bucciarelli's Dickon just exudes good cheer and optimism.

Mary's and Dickon's duets, including "Show Me the Key" and Act Two's "Wick," are delightful, and one can't help but wish for a few more of those scenes.

Other standouts include Zachary Joel Smits as Archibald's doctor brother, Neville, who has ulterior motives; and John Mulay (director Kathy Mulay's husband), as Ben, the home's longtime gardener.

Truly keeping it all in the family, husband-and-wife theater couple Jeremy Koch and Denene Mulay Koch (also two of Farmers Alley's co-founders) play Archibald and Lily, respectively. Their chemistry translates on stage, mostly in the end number, "How Could I Ever Know," when there's a recognition that Archibald might have to let Lily go to move on.

Trying out a new stage configuration, Farmers Alley pins most of its set design around an expansive video screen, which projects images of the mansion, the Moors, the garden. It allows audiences to follow the story from Colonial India to the ever-evolving garden.

It works technically, aided by luminous lighting by Lanford J. Potts, but, for a story so built around the transformative nature of greenery, it would have been fun to have a more colorful, 3D transformation in real blooms.

Music director Marie McColley Kerstetter and a hidden seven-piece orchestra do justice to the demanding musical score in all its somber and joyful parts.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Secret Garden'
Farmers Alley Theatre
221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, Oct. 2, 9
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, Oct. 3, 10
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, 27, Oct. 4, 11
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21, 28, Oct. 5, 12
2 hours, 25 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Secret Garden - Farmers Alley Theatre

Read MARK WEDEL's review – Kalamazoo Gazette (Sept. 20, 2014)


'Angels' we have heard on high

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches"

The Ringwald Theatre

Posted: Sept. 13, 2014 at 10:53 p.m.

"Putting the cart before the horse" is a familiar old saw. It describes reversing "the accepted or logical order of things." The Critic finds himself reviewing The Ringwald Theatre's production of "Angels in America, Part One" after reviewing Part Two last weekend. So have I emerged "bewitched, bothered and bewildered?" That would be a "no" on all three counts – "entranced" is a better description of my experience than "bewitched."

Just to bring you up to speed: "Angels in America" is an epic drama crafted by playwright Tony Kushner. It's set in 1985, when the grim reality of AIDS finally began working its way into the national conscience. The play runs over six hours; thus it is divided into two parts, subtitled "Millennium Approaches "and "Perestroika." The current production of Part One is a revival of last season's successful rendition. That show is nominated for the Wilde Award for Best Drama. Also nominated is Travis Reiff for Best Actor in a Drama. The difference between February and September is that Dennis Kleinsmith has assumed Reiff's role and quite ably, if I might add. The rest of the original cast reprise their roles.

Consider the failing relationships of two couples. Louis (Matthew Turner Shelton) and Prior (Bailey Boudreau) have been together four and a half years when Prior reveals he has AIDS. His condition rapidly deteriorates, and Louis, breaking under the strain, abandons him. The second couple, staunch Mormons Joe and Harper Pitt (Brenton Herwat and Meredith Deighton), are already drifting apart. Joe is gay but in denial; Harper compensates for the lack of intimacy with heavy dosages of Valium.

Let the weaving of plots begin! Louis is a "word processor" at the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, where Joe is a law clerk. Joe encounters Louis sobbing in the men's room, and they begin an unlikely acquaintance. We're soon introduced to Joe's mentor and "friend," Roy Cohn, the McCarthy-era legal bully. The self-aggrandizing Cohn is also in denial. Given a diagnosis of HIV infection, he claims men with his "clout" wouldn't get a disease associated with gay men; rather, he has liver cancer.

It is not disparaging to say that Part Two is more "interesting" than Part One. It's the difference between exposition and resolution. Part One provides a much richer sense of character and is significant in appreciating how the characters evolve. Deighton and Boudreau's dexterity in portraying their characters diminishing grip on reality is remarkable, as is Shelton's careful balance between fear and guilt. Kleinsmith appears to have moved seamlessly into his role, bringing out the brash, crass nature of the venal Roy Cohn, yet keeping the character "forgivable."

Forgivable, but not forgettable. In Kushner's view, there's a distinction. Although Part One is full of "reassuringly incomprehensible" rhetoric, largely political, ultimately the prevailing theme of the entire drama is the potential for forgiveness. Although "Angels in America" is 20 years old, it will never be out of date.

Can the discriminating theater patron see Part One or Part Two alone? In theory, yes; "half a loaf is better than none." But to truly appreciate the scope of Kushner's vision you really owe it to yourself to see both. After all, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

SHOW DETAILS: 'Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches'
The Ringwald Theatre
22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 19, 26
3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27
2 hours, 55 minutes (with two intermissions)

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'The Value of Names': a betrayal exhumed

By Martin F. Kohn

REVIEW: "The Value of Names"

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company

Posted: Sept. 7, 2014 at 4:58 p.m.

It was Lee Hays, of the Weavers, who once said the 11th commandment ought to be "Never give up a grudge." Hays has something in common with Benny Silverman, the pivotal character in Jeffrey Sweet's drama "The Value of Names."

Like so many other artists, Hays and the fictitious Silverman, an actor, were both blacklisted in the '50s after they were named as Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

"The Value of Names," set some three decades later, in 1981 (coincidentally the year Lee Hays died), kicks into high gear when Benny (Thomas Mahard), who eventually made it big in a TV sitcom, again encounters the onetime friend who had denounced him before Congress, film director Leo Greshen (Phil Powers). A play of conflicting viewpoints and philosophies, "Names" is also and always a play with a beating heart – three, actually: Benny's, Leo's and that of Leo's daughter, Norma (Kathryn Mahard, Thom Mahard's daughter).

Yolanda Fleischer's production at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre never lets the play's intellectuality stray from its humanity. Early on, Benny and Norma discuss whether Norma, an up-and-coming actress, should keep the part she's been offered in a play; its original director has dropped out and been replaced by Benny's old nemesis. Father and daughter speak in ideas fit for a college ethics class – as a TV star, Benny refused to work with people whose politics he disdained; doesn't that make him guilty of blacklisting? – but their mutual affection is evident. For instance, Benny, who has taken up painting in retirement, gives his daughter's nose a playful flick with a paintbrush.

Leo shows up on Benny's Malibu patio, ostensibly to persuade Norma to stay in the play Leo is directing. Norma, knowing there's more at stake, eventually leaves and lets the two old adversaries have their long-avoided meeting.

Amid the cerebral give-and-take, with talk of Communist dogma, right-wing bigotry, of Trotsky, Stalin, Nixon, Ezra Pound, and the value of holding on versus moving on, it's clear that each man is more than the sum of his thoughts. And Fleischer ensures that the play is more than a static discussion. As Mahard moves around the stage, watering a profusion of greenery, he is a man who won't be pinned down. Powers, in need of not quite forgiveness but something similar, is the one who literally and figuratively reaches out.

Thomas Mahard is nicely wry and righteous as the wronged Benny, and Kathryn Mahard is convincing as the one who's always in the middle, between the two men, between Benny and his ex-wife (talked about but never seen), but the real wonder here is Powers who seems to have disappeared into his character. He looks different, his voice is different. It's not just, there's Phil Powers doing a good job playing so-and-so; it's where did Phil Powers go?

What's come to be known as McCarthyism, even when it predates the late senator, has been well chronicled in film and on stage – very notably in Arthur Miller's allegorical "The Crucible," about a literal witch-hunt – but rarely so clearly and concisely as in "The Value of Names."

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Value of Names'
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company
Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center
6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield
2 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 17
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 11, 18, Oct. 9
5 p.m. & 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, 20, Oct. 11
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14, 21, Oct. 12
7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14
1 hour, 20 minutes

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: The Value of Names - The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review – Detroit Free Press (Sept. 17, 2014)


The tall tale of the 'come-back' kid

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "The Big Story of Lazarus Small"

Planet Ant Theatre

Posted: Sept. 7, 2014 at 2:14 p.m.

You have to feel for Lily Small. She's caring for her delusional father who, in his less lucid moments, thinks he's Queen Victoria. She's hoping to raise the household income by training as a sommelier and still pay the bills. But her biggest burden is her husband, Lazarus. While laid off from work, Lazarus, by chance, played the glassy-eyed "satisfied client" in a local legal-eagle's TV ad. The experience has gone to his head; he's spending money the family doesn't have readying himself for Hollywood, fame and fortune.

Then Lazarus drops dead.

You'd think that set-up would make local playwright Linda Ramsey-Detherage's new comedy, "The Big Story of Lazarus Small," a really, really short one-act, but the protagonist's name should tip you off. Like his namesake – despite organ donation, funeral and cremation – Lazarus Small is risen from the dead. His inexplicable resurrection makes him the darling of the talk show circuit, while Lily is left home dealing with groupies, reporters, government agents and investigations for insurance fraud.

All this makes for an evening of choice satire, a slap upside the head for the cult of celebrity. The show is buoyed by presence of some of the usual suspects when something funny is goin' on in Detroit theater. "The Big Story of Lazarus Small" is directed by Dave Davies, aided and abetted by a half dozen cut-ups who have established reputations for quality performances. They would be Joel Mitchell as Lazarus, Lisa Melinn as Lily, Dan Jaroslaw as her dizzy Dad, and Joe Hamid as their best friend, Ben. Dyan Bailey and Patrick O'Connor Cronin round out the cast, playing the odd balls with whom Ramsey-Detherage fills out her story.

But "The Big Story of Lazarus Small" isn't all a laugh riot. There's real heartache in Melinn's sensitive turn as a dutiful daughter missing the father who "isn't there." The connection is made easier by Jaroslaw's sad Dad – alert and intelligent in his right mind, delicate and wispy when he's lost it. Hamid plays a rock of reliability, as Ben steps into the role of "family man" that Lazarus won't – actually can't – fulfill. Mitchell plays madcap with ease, but can be touching when he exposes his character's vulnerability.

This is an all-around fine ensemble.

"The Big Story of Lazarus Small" is a short piece – a little over 90 minutes with intermission – and there is a sense, small though it be, that there is some filler here. The comedy is so solid that it wouldn't be diminished by attention to the more emotional aspects of this fantasy.

Celebrating harvest season, Planet Ant Theatre reaped the cream of the comic crop in producing "The Big Story of Lazarus Small." Home grown always tastes better.

SHOW DETAILS: 'The Big Story of Lazarus Small'
Planet Ant Theatre
2357 Caniff, Hamtramck
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 12, 19, 26
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, 20, 27
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14, 21
1 hour, 35 minutes

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Dancing marionettes enthrall in PuppetART season opener

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Sleeping Beauty"

PuppetART: Detroit Puppet Theatre

Posted: Sept. 7, 2014 at 1:28 p.m.

PuppetART: Detroit Puppet Theatre embarks on its 17th year of residence in Detroit, in a multipurpose space close to the opera house and the downtown YMCA. The company keeps the programming compelling with a different show each month, so there are already precious few remaining Saturdays to see this season's opener, "Sleeping Beauty." Directed by Igor Gozman, the classic fairy tale needs no words to tell its story, but strings along young and old viewers alike with expressive movement and lush design.

In this production, the puppets are marionettes, which dance an intricate and magical ballet. In a faraway kingdom, a princess is born, whereupon the royal court celebrates and a benevolent fairy bestows on the child a magical blessing. But another fairy, furious at having been excluded, vindictively curses the girl to prick her finger on a rose and die. Indeed, the prophecy comes true upon the princess's 16th birthday, but the kind fairy mitigates the magic, softening the punishment to years of sleep.

In order to awaken her, some brave prince must fight his way past the evil fairy and her sentinels and give the princess a kiss. This version of the story takes pains to establish the character of the prince and finds a delightful way to explain and ready him for his quest.

To manipulate puppets in a believable fashion is one thing, and puppeteers Irina Baranovskaya and Nick Pobutsky have every lifelike head tilt and persuasive hand gesture down to a science. But making them dance is something else altogether. To watch the footwork and grace of these characters, which indeed eclipses that of many humans, is to appreciate exquisite artistry. The show glides through finely timed musical beats and scene changes, stirring interest with poignancies and surprises that elicit audible reactions from the more impressionable of the audience.

All of this takes place in an intimate 70-seat theater, on a stage-within-a-stage set in miniature – and to say that tiny movements effectively command little viewers' attention is both accurate and testament to the company's strengths. Baranovskaya's production design is sweetly ornate, fastidiously detailed, and includes about a dozen unique puppets. Of these, the court jester and the fairies' familiars are especially captivating, as the puppeteers work with the marionettes' unusual body composures to explore the bounds of physicality. Moreover, the musical selections (compiled by Maria Mikheyenko) and copious lighting and special effects contribute to an experience that successfully conveys joy, lamentation, adventure and dollops of fright with nary a word.

The PuppetART experience not only includes the live show, but also gives patrons an opportunity to browse the puppet museum throughout the theater lobby and building. The exhibits include examples of puppet forms and styles from around the world, as well as complete production designs. For those inspired to learn the practice hands-on, the company offers a workshop at the conclusion of each show, in which children can learn the craft of puppet making and take their creations home. It's hard to imagine a better or more inviting introduction to this ancient theatrical custom.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Sleeping Beauty'
PuppetART: Detroit Puppet Theater
25 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit
2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, 20, 27
2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28
10 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 18
45 minutes; no intermission

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Ringwald completes epic tale

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika"

The Ringwald Theatre

Posted: Sept. 7, 2014 at 10:35 a.m.; updated Sept. 7, 2014 at 12:08 p.m.

The complete title of Tony Kushner's monumental opus is "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." Did I write "monumental?" It is so big it's split into two plays, each of which runs over three hours. Is it self-indulgent? Yes. Is it bombastic? Yes. Is it utterly compelling drama? You better believe it. "Angels" received the Tony Award for Best Play of 1993 and 1994, plus the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The Ringwald Theatre mounted a remarkable production of "Angels in America, Part One" in February. To open the company's eighth season, that production has been revived, and is joined by "Part Two," subtitled "Perestroika." While the plays are considered to be producible separately, it's tough getting up to speed in "Perestroika" if you don't also catch "Part One: Millennium Approaches." The experience is greater than the sum of its parts.

"Angels in America" follows three intertwined stories. The time is 1985, the place is New York City. Prior Walter (Bailey Boudreau) is increasingly incapacitated by AIDS, and his lover, Louis (Matthew Turner Shelton), eventually abandons him. It would appear that Joe and Harper Pitt (Brenton Herwat and Meredith Deighton) are a straight-laced, Mormon couple, but each hides an inner torment. Joe is sexually in the closet, and Harper has turned to high doses of Valium to relieve her anxieties. The third plot introduces a fictionalized portrayal of the notorious, Communist-baiting attorney Roy Cohn (Dennis Kleinsmith). Obsessed with his alpha-male status, Cohn conceals his homosexuality and his HIV-positive status.

"Perestroika" begins as Louis begins seducing a reluctant Joe. They had an unlikely acquaintance from work – the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, no less – but an encounter cruising Central Park leads them to Louis' apartment. Meanwhile, Joe's mother, Hannah (Jamie Warrow), alarmed by Joe's coming out, flies to New York to find both son and daughter-in-law AWOL. Harper's hold on reality is fragmenting.

Prior is also losing touch with reality. An angel (Cara Trautman) has appeared unto him, named him a prophet, and declares that God has abandoned the world because of "migration." Cohn's health has deteriorated and he checks into the hospital, only to find that his nurse is the ex-drag queen, "Belize" (Chris Jakob). Wouldn't you know – Belize just happens to be Prior's BFF.

Does this all sound unbelievable, in an over-the-top, soap opera-ish sort of way? That's the intent.

"Angels in America" is epic theater in classic Brechtian tradition. Kushner is less interested in his plot than in its messages. He sums up the whole enchilada by a single line in the epilogue: "The world only spins forward." It should come as no surprise that a self-described socialist would explore themes like conservatism versus progressivism and cast the likes of Roy Cohn and Ronald Reagan as the bad guys. That being said, the strength of his script is in its poetry, wondrous symmetry and acknowledgement that there are, after all, shades of grey. As director, Jaimie Warrow admirably carries out the playwright's vision, ably assisted by both cast and crew.

"Angels in America" invites us to compare and contrast. Bailey Boudreau strikingly marks Prior's passage from hollow-eyed madman to resolute crusader in parallel with Matthew Turner Shelton's equally well-limned transformation of Louis from callous cad to enlightened sympathizer. Nicely on point are Brenton Herwat and Meredith Deighton, as each explores his and her characters' flawed attempts to reconcile their emotional conflicts. Kushner's depiction of Cohn brings to mind Shakespeare's Shylock, another power-mad Jew. Both playwrights transcend stereotype to produce rounded characters that are at once both sympathetic and repellant. Dennis Kleinsmith's performance embodies that contrast.

As noted above, epic playwrights enjoy showing their audiences "how the sausage is made," reminding us that this is only a play. As of opening night, the scene changes (and there are a LOT of ‘em!) are only running semi-smoothly, not through any fault of stage manager Sean McClellan, but because dim lighting hampers the effort. As dramatic as this work is, it's entirely consistent with its genre to – ahem – "lighten up."

Let's raise the question of relevance. Is "Angels in America" a period piece, given that anti-viral therapies have turned HIV from a death sentence to a manageable infection? Is its message of "healthcare inequality" blunted by the Affordable Care Act?

It's a tough call. Prior's stirring call for progress may not rally a generation that's a generation removed from the onset of the disease. But, in "Angels" context, Roy Cohn's evil is not his despicable career, but his unwillingness to publicly acknowledge his HIV status. That problem, I fear, remains with us.

SHOW DETAILS: 'Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika'
The Ringwald Theatre
22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale
8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6, 13, 20, 27
3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7, 14, 21, 28
8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 8, 15, 22, 29
3 hours, 15 minutes (with two intermissions)

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OTHER VOICES - REVIEWS: Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika - The Ringwald Theatre

Read DREW PHILP's review of Parts One and Two – Metro Times (Sept. 17, 2014)

Read DENISE MILLS MANZAGOL's review – The Oakland Press (Sept. 11, 2014)

Read JOHN MONAGHAN's review – Detroit Free Press (Sept. 10, 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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