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Audiences Await World Premieres, in Michigan

It was a special treat this week to focus again on theatregoing instead of my currently more customary filmgoing. It was also intriguing and exciting to be able to see two world premiere plays right in my (relative) backyard.

img_8280First up was a trip back out to The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, well-known for its founder, actor Jeff Daniels, and its role as a cornerstone of the economy in Chelsea, a small yet well-settled town that is more or less the end of the metro Detroit sprawl as one heads west towards Kalamazoo, Chicago and other south/westerly points. The “Rose” makes a point of presenting new work – their fall play which I had also seen was a first-time presentation – but this time they did things particularly well with a strong script and production. In fact, I feel this play was one of the best I’ve seen in the entirety of my nearly four years living in Michigan.

Smart Love told a relatable story of a recent widow, Sandy, who at first glance appears to be doing OK at getting on with her life following the recent death of her husband. We’re introduced to her in the midst of a night spent with new boyfriend Victor at her home, said to be in the Detroit area. Just when things seem like they’re going to continue in a pleasingly domestic manner, Sandy’s son Benji appears at the door, urgently knocking and urging his mother to let him inside, even though it’s the middle of the night and they haven’t seen each other for a number of months. Benji is a scientific researcher at MIT (coincidental for me as a Massachusetts native) and chooses to come back to Michigan as he is eager to share some new creative developments related to his career and research.

And the story unspools from there, in surprising and often thought-provoking directions. Never going too far into the provocation category, the play stays in realistic gravity thanks to Kamoo, one of this area’s finest actresses IMO, who sells every moment from surprise to tenderness to anger to contemplation and beyond. The rest of the cast holds strong with the material and the twists and turns of the story. The key dramatic questions stay grounded in humane and familial realism, which was helpful to me as an audience member.

The second show of the weekend enabled a very belated first visit to Matrix Theatre Company in southwest Detroit. This group is thoroughly grounded in the tight-knit community of the city, and I’d intended to attend one of their shows on a couple times during the past few years, but didn’t make it until now. This play, Intentions, by Abbey Fenbert, looked at a small community of residents in an intentional living house outside Chicago. I wondered at times how the drama would reveal itself, and at multiple occasions the scenarios reminded me of the on-campus housing environments at my own college, where issues of green living, creating with purpose, entanglements with housemates and questions of how to conduct oneself in the outside world are often hot topics.

A mostly youthful five person ensemble cast keeps the tables turning on each other, and the script knew how to keep things fresh without falling into tropes of just two people talking or the scene going on too long. While some story elements were fairly predictable in my eyes, there was an appealing continued emphasis on nuances and the value of relationships. Several scene transitions carried the story along in its silent moments, as well.

Overall an appealing pair of newer plays, each with their own quirks and appeal, that I’ll continue to remember and appreciate for their origins right here in Michigan.

Theatregoing Quartet

Today is #LoveTheatre day over on Twitter. So it’s a perfect time to recount my quartet of theatregoing experiences so far this week, and reiterate my satisfaction that the rest of the week will be spent working shows here at The Hilberry Theatre.

The majority of the show viewing has been right here on campus in midtown Detroit, and it’s a great treat to have so many options right here at my fingertips.

A Song for Coretta, which recently concluded its run at the Studio Theatre, offered a contemporary and fresh voice to the local theatre community. The play tracks the stories of five women who assemble at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, drawn there by a large communal desire to pay their respects to the recently deceased Coretta Scott King. The play explores the variety of stories that each women possess and an eventual commonality they can all face.

Director Billicia Hines made her Wayne State theatre debut with this production, and she brought a sensitive precision to the staging of each sequence in the play, making a one-act piece have many more dimensions than one might expect at first glance. The capable and committed ensemble of women knew how to express their characters, most vividly seen in a climactic sequence expressing the stories of two of the women who had been hesitant to speak prior to that point.

A second Wayne State show, Peter Pan, concludes its run with three more performances this weekend at the Bonstelle Theatre. It was a pleasure to watch this show alongside an extremely energetic young audience. The script is a new adaptation by author Janet Allard, with a particular focus on the Peter – Wendy relationship and the timeless goal of “never growing up.”

Nearly all of Wayne State’s undergraduate theatre ensemble is given a chance to shine in this production, both in central and supporting roles. Actress Maggie Beson brings impish charm to the stage as Peter, paired with Luke Rose’s dual roguish ways as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling. The set design skillfully morphs from nursery to water to forest over the span of an hour and twenty minutes. And several actors literally reach new heights through the magic of flying wire technology, moving up, down and around through the air.

A third Wayne State show, All In The Timing, will be opening on Friday night; I attended an early dress rehearsal. One look at Max Amitin’s schoolhouse funhouse set lets the viewer know they are in for a wild and fun ride, filled with David Ives’ trademark wit and humor. (you’ll just have to come see the show to find out more about it.)

Finally, our northern neighbor The Ringwald Theatre has debuted a fresh and notable contemporary work. The company is currently offering the Michigan premiere of Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner, billed appropriately as a contemporary riff on The Seagull. This play was the best thing I have seen at the Ringwald, with a notable and provocative focus on character, atmosphere and wordplay.

A tight ensemble, led by Jonathan Davidson as Con, proceeds to riff on Seagull in contemporary tones, and with occasional knowing asides to the audience. The playwright’s three act structure is also honored, which helped lend an intriguingly epic feel to the evening, with two intermissions and bitter cold and snow outside the storefront doors. Several moments in the play, particularly those that focus on Mash, played by Vanessa Sawson, incorporate winsome music and story through song. However, the story comes back around to dramatic heights, primarily thanks to Kelly Komlen as Emma, who lends imperious height to her maternal role. I hope the word gets out about this production and that it is seen as a major coup for the Ringwald!