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Detroit Rep features U. S. premiere of a sun-kissed play

By John Quinn

REVIEW: The Kiss of the Sun for Pardon

Detroit Repertory Theatre

Article: 9513; Posted: March 27, 2015 at 4:30 p.m.

In any relationship, a delicate balance of personalities is important. In The Kiss of the Sun for Pardon, playwright Lans Traverse shows that however far the teeter may totter there remains a calm at the center.

The Detroit Repertory Theatre here is producing the U.S. premiere of this new endearing dramatic comedy.

Living isolated on his rural property near Cherokee, OK, T-Bone (Todd Hissong) is set in his ways. He has his orchids and coupon collection. What he doesn’t have is full mobility. Chasing muskrats out of the house is difficult in a wheel chair. His ad for live-in help attracts homeless, barefoot Oriel (Morgan Breon).

A brief, polite beginning, as the two sound each other out, becomes bickering more suitable for a long-married couple. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Pragmatic and level-headed Oriel begins an incessant battle against T-Bone’s narrow-minded parsimony. Emotions flare when Oriel and T-Bone’s best and only friend, Wally (Mark Halpin), develop a mutual attraction.

The Kiss of the Sun for Pardon is a fast-paced, witty piece that depends on Traverse’s strongly developed characters. While the story has a young, black woman opposite an older, unredeemed redneck, their conflict is neither generational nor racial. Instead, conflict and resolution is driven by their unique personalities, which give the play a universality well beyond what could be expected from sticking to stereotypes.

Director Leah Smith keeps her cast on the top of their game, maintaining a crisp tempo through a slight falter in the second act narrative. After a strikingly emotional scene that points towards a climax, we find that blocks of exposition have been left as a surprise. By maintaining her measured pacing, the ensuing two scenes still hold our interest.

“The Kiss of the Sun for Pardon” features set design and construction by Harry Wetzel, with an interior and exterior to T-Bone’s narrow world. It is complimented by a lighting design by Thomas Schraeder that features a warm inviting glow for the house’s little rooms, in contrast to a much starker sunlight. Costume designer Judy Dery selected the men’s wardrobe to look comfortable and maybe even slept in. Dressing the sylph-like Morgan Breon in a series of beltless shifts complements Oriel’s character. She’s at once childlike and provocative, seemingly vulnerable until one encounters the steely will her posture indicates.

Chalk up The Kiss of the Sun for Pardon as yet another gem mined by Detroit Rep. Keep ‘em coming, folks.

The Kiss of The Sun for Pardon
Detroit Repertory Theatre
13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit
Thursdays from March 26-May 17, 2015 at 8:30
Price: $17 in advance; $20 at door


Mitch Albom’s Oscar “Winner” skewers at the Snug

By Jennifer Knightstep

REVIEW: "And the Winner Is..."

The Snug Theatre

Posted: March 22, 2015 at 11:15 a.m.

MARINE CITY--If the business of Hollywood teaches us anything each spring when many of us hover around the TV set waiting to see if our own tastes match that of the Academy of Motion Pictures on Oscar night, it is that the culture of celebrity is as vacuous and saccharine as the worst cynics make it out to be. That is where Michigan native Mitch Albom comes in with his sharply funny tale about an Oscar-nominated actor who dies the night before the night of the red carpet.

“And the Winner Is…”, playing at the Snug Theatre in Marine City, is at heart, a sweet love story, just what you’d expect from anything written by Albom. But it’s also a wickedly funny physical comedy and a touching story of redemption — think the mushy tendencies of Nicholas Sparks meets Jerry Lewis (plenty of one-liners and falling-down bits).

“Winner,” which saw its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, MI, in the summer of 2005, tells the comic story of Tyler Johnes, a self-absorbed movie star finally nominated for an Oscar for his role in a film called “The Wind and The Fury” after many years of hoping, then dies the night before the awards. Outraged at his unfortunate turn, he’s determined to know if he wins and makes a deal with a heavenly gatekeeper to return to earth for the red carpet. He drags his agent, girlfriend , ex-wife and an acting rival into this funny pre-afterlife journey.

Most of the physical comedy is carried by the lead actor, Jonathan Meldrum, who will undoubtedly be covered in bruises by the end of this production. His Tyler Johnes (that’s “Jones, with an H”) is brilliantly played, surprisingly nuanced for what is at the start a very straight-forward character. Johnes is self-centered and shallow, the stereotypical Hollywood actor hoping for immortality through the little gold statue. His foil is Seamus (played by Jeffery Perdue), barkeep/pearly gatekeeper in “a mythical Irish bar somewhere between here and heaven,” a character that should conjure up Clarence in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Perue’s brogue is not just believable, but lyrical; is Irish his native tongue?

Rounding out the cast is Mandy Logsdon as Johnes’ agent, a fast-talking, quick-thinking faux-Frenchwoman, Jared Jarvis, Johnes’ competition. Sara Koch as Sheri, Johnes’ long-suffering soon-to-be-ex-wife, and Amanda Sayers as Johnes’ vacuous girlfriend. All four deliver stellar performances. Logsdon’s Teddi LaPetite is tack-sharp. Koch’s Sheri steals every scene she’s in (especially the one where she’s making her own Oscar’s dress while chatting on the phone). And Sayers is both gorgeous and funny, an excellent combination for this role.

The sets are simple but creative, and light and sound were nicely engineered. Both have been designed perfectly for the intimacy of the Snug Theater – the seating literally touches the stage — there’s no raised stage platform, and the theater seats less than 100 people.

Overall, the show is clever and charming, funny and surprisingly touching. Prepare to laugh, and by the end, to reflect a bit on our own mortality. After seeing this production of “And the Winner Is…,” even the least sentimental among us, especially about the Hollywood celebrity life, will find ourselves saying a little prayer before bed each night just in case.

And the Winner Is

The Snug Theater
160 S Water St, Marine City, MI 48039
Friday and Saturday nights from Fri, Mar 20, 2015 7:30pm through Sat, Apr 4, 2015 7:30pm
Price: $20



Provocative new play keeps viewers guessing

by Carolyn Hayes Harmer

REVIEW: "Luce"

Meadow Brook Theatre

Posted: March 22, 2015 at 3:00 p.m.

Playwright J.C. Lee’s recent drama, “Luce,” investigates how a single incident, or a sliver of information, can call into question everything parents thought they knew about their child. In the Michigan premiere production now at Meadow Brook Theatre, director Travis W. Walter hopes to send the viewer reeling into gray areas of cloudy intent and raw uncertainty.

The story revolves around ace high-school senior Luce (Leroy S. Graham), a young black man adopted ten years prior from war-torn Congo by non-black parents (Sarab Kamoo and Ron Williams). The teenaged Luce bears no resemblance to the child displaced on a new continent, who spoke no English and slept terrified under his bed for the first year. Instead, the Luce the viewer sees, a sought-after star athlete and model student, is said to be well adjusted, popular, and a leader among his peers.

However, when Luce writes a vaguely troubling school essay (the playwright dances around the subject matter, inserting the fear-mongering words “jihad” and “terrorist” to let inference run wild), his concerned teacher (Angela G. King) searches his locker as a precaution. What she finds is the subject of a parent-teacher conference that sets the play on its rocket trajectory into private hysteria. The heated scenes that follow examine the notions of privacy and authenticity, the role of parents and teachers in shaping young people, and the slippery nature of truth and trust.

Costume design by Liz Goodall is suggestive of affluent suburban normalcy, as is designer Brian Kessler’s set. To create scenes at home, at school, and in a coffee shop, Kessler has created a low, minimalist canvas for designer Reid G. Johnson’s differentiating lighting schemes. These everyday people and places, contrasted with the characters’ comfortable worldviews that are spiraling away, are loud reminders that such troubling family unrest could happen anywhere.

Walter and company are clearly aiming to be provocative, but also seem wary of being blatantly confrontational to the audience. Scene after scene, characters are upset without engaging in consequential conflict; instead, these primarily intellectual exchanges seem scrubbed clean of grit. In fact, the coarsest moment of the play (and also its most affecting) is a monologue: Luce’s classmate Stephanie (Dana Kreitz) offers a harrowing glimpse into the high school social scene in its real, unvarnished form.

Despite its insistence that there can never be satisfactory answers to any of its many questions, the production is continually baiting the audience to solve the mystery of Luce. Is he really as good as he’s perceived? Could he possibly be as bad as they fear? Graham’s inscrutably wooden performance is minutely calibrated to keep viewers guessing. For those who enjoy picking apart a story after the fact or digging into pockets of doubt, “Luce” is packed with such disquieting conversation starters.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)


Meadow Brook Theatre
207 Wilson Hall, Oakland University in Rochester
March 18 - April 12; check website for exact dates and times
Price: $26-$41



Everything old is provocative again

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "A Doll's House"

Slipstream Theatre Initiative

Posted: March 9, 2015 at 2:45 p.m.

Art is amusing; great art is provocative. Consider the works of playwright Henrik Ibsen, citizen of Norway by birth and citizen of the world by choice. In his time, that being the turn of the 20th century, he was an artistic renegade, challenging the social norms of La Belle Epoque. He is considered one of the fathers of modern drama, writing plays about the little lives of insignificant people. He can also be a crashing bore.

The Modernist Movement for which Ibsen was a vanguard replaced a more histrionic aesthetic, but over the past century-plus has become in its turn melodramatic. In fact, Ibsen resembles well-written soap opera, if that is not an oxymoron. There are a number of ways to yank the material into the 21st century; leave it to Slipstream Theatre Initiative and artistic director Bailey Boudreau to come up with a reimagined staging of Ibsen's "A Doll’s House" that's entirely unique.

The major part of the experience at the Michigan Actors Studio in Ferndale is cut-and-dried Ibsen. Nora Helmer (Egla Kishta) is on a buying spree, anticipating her husband Torvald's (Richard Payton) promotion at his bank - and the extra income that comes with it. True to the spirit and practice of 19th century "husbandhood," Torvald is a condescending jerk, ribbing Nora that she saves what she can - which in nothing. Little does he know that the curative trip to Italy that may have saved his life was not financed by Nora's father, but by a loan drawn on Torvald's bank. She had forged her father's co-signature and the loan was obtained by fraud. Only two people know about the crime - Nora and Krogstad (Steve Xander Carson), the bank employee who extended the loan. Krogstad is facing dismissal when Torvald assumes his new job, since the latter finds the former a man of low morals. Let the melodrama begin!

In an effort to save his job, Krogstad blackmails Nora. All that Steve Carson is missing is a sneer and a handlebar mustache. What will be the upright, uptight husband's reaction be when he finds he is married to a woman as guilty as the man he's about to fire?

Those are the basic facts. So what is "A Doll’s House" all about? In "Notes for a Modern Tragedy," the playwright commented, "...a woman cannot be herself in modern society," since it is "an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint." So, have we "come a long way, baby"? Boudreau and his cast want you to think long and hard about that one.

In his interpretation of Ibsen's script, Boudreau presents "A Doll’s House" from the perspective of a young girl (Kaitlyn Valor Bourque) held captive in Ryan Ernst's basement for ten years. OK, Ernst is no monster, but he can sure play one on stage. The captive's sole amusement is a doll house and some Barbie-sized figures - toys that mimic the set and costumes of the play. She is acting out "A Doll’s House" in an eerie parallel as if she's a puppeteer manipulating the performers.

The burning question is "Why?" Ibsen's intent was provocation. When "A Doll’s House" was staged in Germany, the leading lady was so shocked by the ending she refused to perform it and Ibsen reluctantly provided a sappy alternative. But the common culture is not what it was, and the original ending fails now to provoke the desired response. Nora realizes, "I've never been happy, only married." First she was her father's "doll child," brought out so he could play with her until Torvald assumed the role of lord and master. But a modern failing marriage would be a pale companion piece to Ibsen. The imprisonment is much more disturbing. Thus we have two protagonists, one trapped by convention, the other by physical restraints. Neither can experience self-realization.

The program attributes technical design for "A Doll’s House" to Alexander Henderson Trice, yet a theater company this well-knit may have ideas flowing from every side. Before the (non-existent) curtain rises, what appears to be a giant packing crate looms over the stage. This opens and like Copenhagen Barbie's Dream House to reveal a sitting room, replete in hues of pistachio and pepto pink that shout "toy!" The reference is so direct one doesn’t need a Mattel catalogue or Barbie pin-up to make the point. In his curtain speech, Boudeau apologized for the scanty stage lighting - unnecessarily, as it turned out. Someone with a masterful hand evenly lit the playing area with only four lights, leaving only a seldom-used area down stage right dim. Madeleine Hughes has chosen modern dress, largely in subdued pastels and earth tones, to costume the cast.

Ibsen liked women, and his characters reflect that. Nora is such a complex, well-rounded role it is considered one of the most challenging in drama. Egla Kishta beautifully plays Nora's conflicting emotions; her interpretations are broad, but never slip into bombast. Luna Alexander is working off the same template. Christine, a childhood friend of Nora's and an ex of the hapless Krogstad. Again, it's a well-written role, played just broad enough to emphasize the emotional highs and lows.

As the basement captive, Kaitlyn Valor Bourque spends the evening in dimness, fastened to a futon. For a good portion of the audience, she is a mere silhouette -- but her gestures and body language draw the eye without causing distraction.

Now I'm not saying that Ibsen didn’t like his male characters, but they're underwritten and stereotype-ridden. Kudos to Daniel Miller for demonstrating that there are no small parts. He plays the dying Dr. Rank, a character whose raison d'être appears to be a distraction for Torvald and the other half of expository dialogues with Nora.

When a playwright doesn't deliver the meat, one can fills up on salad. Torvald is very much a stereotype and one would expect more patronizing bluster in Richard Payton's interplay with "obstinate" Nora. The audience should know long before Nora that her husband is a louse. In like manner, Steve Xander Carson gets to play both beggar and bully; bigger contrast would fill the voids Ibsen left in character development.

So, what does the critic think? Let’s start with what the critic expected: "A Doll’s House" had every potential to be a stretch to "update" a classic - kind of like setting Shakespeare in outer space and not being able to top "Forbidden Planet." Instead of updating a script, Slipstream Theatre Initiative applied a modern ethos to evoke the emotional catharsis of the original. Aristotle would be proud.

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"A Doll's House"

Slipstream Theatre Initiative
Michigan Actors Studio, 648 East Nine Mile, Ferndale Michigan
7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, March 8, 10, 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22, 24, 25, 26, 29, 31, April 1, 2
1 hour 45 minutes (10 minute intermission)


“Stones in his Pocket” Lifts Irish spirits

By John Quinn

REVIEW: "Stones in His Pocket"

Performance Network Theatre

Irish playwrite Marie Jones understood her people and her country. In her 1996 play, “Stones in His Pockets,” written for the DubbleJoint Theatre Company of Dublin and now being performed at The Performance Network in Ann Arbor, Jones discourses merrily on a sobering theme, “Imagination can be a damned curse in this country.”

“Stones in His Pockets” marks a time when Ireland’s traditional, agricultural economy could no longer support the rural population. The national government offered lavish tax incentives for business investment on the Emerald isle, including the American film industry. One arm of the Hollywood invasion is “The Quiet Valley,” a Hollywood period piece that’s taken over a small County Kerry town.The locals sign on as extras; “40 quid” per-diem and free meals are hard to turn down.

In the endless delays between shots, Jake Quinn takes Charlie Conlon under his wing. Jake is a local guy who lives with his mother after a stint in the U.S. Charlie, owner of a failed video store and screenwriter wanna-be, packed a tent in his car and tags along after film companies.Charlie is from Ballycastle in the far northeast of the Ireland.Kerry is in the extreme southwest. This may be Jones’ way of saying “things are tough all over.” But in Ireland,that’s the status quo.

The glamorous Hollywood star,Caroline Giovanni, has her eye on Jake. She meets him at the pub where she has gone to soak up local culture and the extras have gone to soak up the local brew.Her suggestion that they go back to her room might just be an actress seeking a dialect coach,but the implication of rehearsing between the sheets is enough to drive Sean, Jake’s young second cousin,to take a drug-induced walk into the Atlantic--with stones in his pockets to assure he won’t be walking back.The production company, far from demonstrating its respect for Irish tradition and the local residents, refuses to suspend production for the funeral.

A tour-de-force in playing multiple roles,Andrew Huff plays Jake, and Wayne David Parker plays Charlie. But the two actors give life to some fifteen or so characters with merely a change of hat or posture.To call their performances “energetic” is faint praise.Each artist handles the necessary delineations of character with aplomb; each brings a wicked sense of humor to their cross-gender roles. Parker dons a garish hat or wisp of scarf, slips into a demure falsetto and becomes the sultry Caroline without the portrayal falling off a cliff. Huff, replete in glasses and headphone/mic, summons up a voice that could cut glass to embody a harried assistant director.

In minimalist tradition, John Manfredi’s scenic design largely depends on an assembly of painted flats on wheels as a background. One side depicts a rocky hillside complete with cows; the other, the local pub.That,a few crates and a wardrobe chest is all that’s needed to pull off the play. Daniel C. Walker’s lighting is never simple but always subtle. Once again his design helps define place and time without intruding.

Suzanne Young’s costumes are intriguing in that they echo the underlying tension of the play. The extras’ outfits are Hollywood’s notion of oppressed peasants.They are no more realistic than Caroline’s awful attempt at a Belfast dialect.It’s totally lost on the film company that their extras really are oppressed – by the company.

Dialect coach Lynnae Lehfeldt, who has our dynamic duo speaking artfully in somewhat generic Irish accents, and blessedly made no attempt to specifically reproduce a Kerry accent. “Stones in His Pockets” is simply too entertaining to need subtitles.

"Stones in his Pockets"

Performance Network Theatre
120 E Huron St., Ann Arbor, MI 48105
7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 5, 12, 19, 26, April 2
8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, March 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, 28, April 3, 4
3 p.m. Saturday, March 7, 14, 21, 28, April 4
2 p.m. Sunday, March 8, 15, 22, 29, April 5


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