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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!

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Two Days of Two Handers

I finally returned to the theatergoing life this weekend by taking in a play on Saturday and another show on Sunday afternoon, both of which were “two-handers”, only starring two actors, just talking with each other, for an hour and a half or so. Clearly time well spent!

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Saturday afternoon took me to the somewhat far afield but well regarded Willamston Theatre for their production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, a play that seems to be well known in the theatre canon but I had never seen performed. It was also made into a 1991 film that I recall seeing in video stores for some years afterward, though also have never seen.

This production took on a realistic look at two co-workers (I want to say “lost souls” but that seems a little too harsh) getting to know each other more intimately on a Saturday night in the New York City of 1987. We see them move through the motions of a first date, starting at the peak and going back down… and up again… and through their differing stages and perspectives of intimacy and acceptance.

As the couple, John Lepard and Suzi Regan are clearly acting pros, showcasing an easy, yet caustic rapport with each other and mostly believable roller coaster of emotions in reaction to one another. They were helped by an extremely detailed set, squeezed in to a narrow thrust/theatre-in-the-round type space, with a working refrigerator, stove top, sink and adjacent bathroom all helping to add realism to the story. Not to forget the wide range of costumes visible in a closet and artfully strewn about the floor.

While the script has dated slightly, giving the impression of a grimier and more violent NYC than exists today, along with some now-anachronisms like calling a radio station to ask for the title of a song, I felt that didn’t distract from the impact of the performance. I also felt like the actors effectively conveyed a sense of not overly dramatic, but urgent desperation in each other’s role — they want to connect with the other partner, but they might not know just how to do that.

This afternoon I walked steps from my front door to catch Performance Network‘s closing performance of Venus in Fur, a play that holds the honor of being the most-produced title at US theaters this season.

While this version didn’t feel quite as lively as it could be at times, in my opinion, it clearly showed the spark of David Ives’ writing and why the play has become so popular. Stressed out writer Thomas Novachek has completed a round of unsuccessful auditions for the new play that he’s also directing, based on a 19th century novel. As he’s getting ready to leave, in walks Vanda, who holds the same name as the play’s protagonist and quickly establishes a game of verbal cat and mouse with Thomas as she reveals more than she initially lets on.

The constant shift in balance of power – and characters not being what they seem – reminded me of a 2011 film, Certified Copy, which I promptly checked out from the Ann Arbor library and hope to revisit this week.

Actors Sebastian Gerstner and Maggie Meyer showed a deft command of the piece as they navigated the twists and turns of the plot. Meyer, in particular, seemed to be having fun with the demands of her role, requiring her to vamp it up to Noo Yawk levels at times, while building up the English/European character at other moments… and parade around in a sexy costume at the same time. I felt that Daniel C. Walker’s lighting design was another star of the show, emphasizing shadows at many instances, which added complexity to the pauses and banter of the two characters.

But I did feel like the production could have been livelier or snappier at times. I can’t put my finger on exactly what needed to be quickened, and it could be a reaction to seeing David Ives name as the writer, where he is best known for snappy comedies. I wouldn’t count this as a major fault, though, and it was clear that the simplicity of the piece – just two actors, etc – and relative modernity (a simple tale becomes more than it seems) have contributed greatly to the show’s appeal across the world.

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Photo from main Performance Network VENUS IN FUR page, copyright Sean Carter photography