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Honoring Chekov in Contemporary America

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which seems to be this year’s “regional favorite”, meaning that it’s appearing at many theaters across the country, will conclude a successful Michigan premiere run at the Tipping Point Theatre this afternoon. I was happy to be in the audience for Friday evening’s performance.

The play explores a modest web of relationships among siblings living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The titular Vanya and Sonia, so named by their theatre professor parents, live a quiet life in the country with occasional visits from neighbor and housekeeper Cassandra. The characters suggest they are not exactly happy with their idyllic existence, and it is quickly upended by the arrival of their sister Masha, a flashy and dramatic New York actress who pays the bills for their family home. Masha brings along her much younger boyfriend, Spike, while the group is later joined by neighbor Nina, a younger budding starlet who is familiar with Masha’s acting career and has her own dreams about a life in the spotlight.

Christopher Durang’s script initially leans heavily on expository rather than natural – seeming dialogue, but seems to find its groove as the play goes along. Preparation for an important local party is a highlight of the story, as Masha initiates an idea for all of them to reference Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, only to be upstaged by a different plan from Sonia. The party itself is left unseen, and the aftermath has a range of effects for all of the characters.

Tipping Point’s black box space was put to excellent use for this production, with a long promenade suggesting a sunroom or living room and an entry to the rest of the house in the rear of the stage. Modest sound design suggested the outer world of the play. Lighting design was also subtle and effective, with shadows on stage left in a morning scene giving way to the opposite effect for an evening scene, and brighter colors for solely interior sequences.

A tight knit ensemble of local actors had clearly been having a great time with the script and production, led by director James Kuhl. Real life couple John Seibert and Terry Heck feature as the siblings, and have many moments of playful, yet layered interaction. Janet Maylie brings suitably throaty and dramatic flair to the role of Masha, and seems to offer exactly the type of woman the script suggests. Brian Thibault has fun “playing dumb” and bouncing around the stage as Spike. Sonja Marquis brings inventive comedic choices and strong presence to what could have been an underwritten role as Cassandra. And Tara Tomcsik portrays Nina as an archetypal ingenue with a combination of starry eyed wanderlust and klutzy ditzy charm.

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End of Summer Arts Binge

So I want to keep up the blog chronicling, but I’m not feeling motivated to go into detail about my arts exploits this past weekend. So I guess the answer is to do a paragraph and see what happens.

Friday evening September 12 brought my first visit to the Village Players of Birmingham back up in my now-neighbor Oakland County. Their current production, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, is an adaptation of the same-titled film by Pedro Almodovar. I’d heard about this musical when it appeared on Broadway in late 2010, but it was not a huge success there, and doesn’t seem to have picked up steam on the regional circuits, so props to Birmingham for choosing to showcase it as their season opener. I have also followed some of Almodovar’s work (and briefly met him personally in 2007), but have never seen this film.

This was a gutsy production paying direct homage to Almodovar’s love of bold colors, Spanish women and passionate characters. Costume design highlighted the aforementioned colors, with lots of reds and big 80s hair. Set design was an interesting hybrid of small and large scale, with the company’s modest proscenium stage decorated with pop-art style drawings on the walls and small suggestions of living areas in the forefront of the stage. As well, the orchestra was creatively nestled in above the play-space and behind a wall. The large ensemble cast seemed pleased to be giving voice to such enthusiastic material, with the actors in the central roles standing out.

But the script remained flimsy and tangential, with a meandering plot switching around to multiple characters, and little time devoted to creating a central protagonist. Often it seemed that when allegiances could build to one specific character, it was time to switch over to another one. Or, a different, and less likable character would take over the focus from someone that seemed more interesting.

Nonetheless, a fun show and great excuse to see a new to me company.

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Saturday night brought a trip over the border to see Howie Mandel perform at the (overrated) Caesars Colosseum. I could write a separate entry about the challenges of this particular performance venue… Roy summarizes them well. I was not pleased that it took nearly an hour to depart the complex, between a protracted awkward group shuffle out of the auditorium, going back through the casino complex, and then slowly snaking down the levels in the crowded free parking garage. I’ll keep my eye on the future offerings at Caesars, but might think twice before actually going in there again.

Happily, Mandel offered an upbeat and “extended” routine for the receptive audience. The native Canadian was clearly excited to be back in his home province. He didn’t offer too much personal background (a feature in a Michigan City newspaper about his previous night’s performance did) but that may have been due to his excitement over becoming a grandfather earlier that day which, naturally, was a big topic in the first half of his routine.

The “homecoming” theme stuck throughout the one hour or so long performance, where Mandel didn’t seem to shy away from being personal, yet funny, and treated the audience like his friends. Towards the end of his performance, he claimed that we were even getting an “extended version” because of being there in Ontario. And he gave a brief nod to his iconic Bobby character, which was my first introduction to his work.

windsor skyline

The Windsor skyline as seen from Detroit, with Caesars visible at the far left.

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Sunday brought another trip over the border, this time at the “northern passage” Port Huron/Sarnia crossing point, bound for the iconic Stratford Festival and a long-overdue (for me) first visit there. I was pleased that this trip came about through my new community at Wayne State University and is an annual excursion.

Initially I was not excited that our play of the day would be the overly familiar Midsummer Nights Dream. But this version dared to be modern with the material, incorporating such timely topics as gay marriage, deaf characters, multiple ethnicities and cross – gender/nontraditional casting freely into an exuberant take on the well – known tale. The production also offered the strongest take on the Theseus & Hippolyta scenes that I’ve ever seen, thanks to committed work from stellar actors.

The Stratford experience, clearly designed to be similar to its UK sibling/cousin, is also a winner, with the festival theatres located just beyond a wider than you’d expect downtown area, with most shops clearly, but cheerily, catering to the festival’s tourist trade, and taking care to ensure that the patron’s experience is a memorable one.

Cecile Encore

On Wednesday night I was very pleased to catch a performance by “up and coming” jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant for the second time, after previously being wowed by her late last summer at the Detroit Jazz Festival. She did not disappoint, and seemed to add more insight and character in this performance. In the previous show, she had been more of a “featured vocalist” while here she was the star attraction. With a velvet voice and graceful stage presence, she is amazingly only in her mid 20s.

I wish I knew my jazz catalogue better to be able to specifically cite the songs that she and her very tight three piece band performed. It seemed to veer between lesser-known compositions and more familiar works, with a few songs not usually portrayed as jazz thrown in, such as “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. All four performers displayed a delicate balance of complimenting each other while finding moments for their individual contributions to shine.

It’s great to see that McLorin Salvant has an active presence on YouTube. I feel this excerpt, which must be from the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival, is a particularly good example of her performance power and skills:

Saturday Night Doubleheader

It felt like my old days of Bay Area arts-going as I enjoyed a live performance followed by a film in close proximity to each other (and walking distance from my apartment!) in downtown Ann Arbor this evening.

First up was an Ann Arbor Summer Festival kick-off appearance from Ms. Lily Tomlin – a Michigan native and (obviously) esteemed performer who does not act or present like the stereotypical/imagined 74 year old. Tomlin seemed to relish being onstage, frequently walking around with her hands outstretched like a very dedicated power walker, and easily slipping in, vocally and physically, to various characterizations from her catalogue. She also incorporated several video segments into her monologue, mixing a bit of older excerpts with some material that may have been conceived especially for this show. Perhaps most impressively, she delivered her whole 90 minute set as an extended monologue, barely pausing for breath on a handful of occasions and never needing to look at a card or any sort of prompt.

While I enjoyed the opportunity to see a legend like Ms. Tomlin onstage, I didn’t feel 100% connected to her material and felt that I might not be in the intended age range and/or demographic that she is gearing towards. I don’t hold that against her at all and am grateful for the chance to see her live, as she always has projected intelligence, fun and good humor in the various television and film projects I have seen her in over the years.

On my way back towards my apartment from Hill Auditorium, I noticed that my erstwhile favorite art house, The State, had some new films on the lineup, including Cold in July, which happened to be starting its late show right when I was in front of the cinema. So I ventured inside.

cold in julyThis film oozes Texas character, and at times seems like a sibling to No Country for Old Men as it tracks another trio of Lone Star State characters seeking vengeance for mysterious – and not clear until the final reel – acts. It is also based on a book, though I had not heard of the title.

Subtlety is the name of the game as the plot unspools, with Michael C. Hall in the central role projecting resoluteness alternating with uncertainty. He is strongly supported by older veterans Sam Shepard, who needs no introduction but really shines here after window-dressing in his August: Osage County cameo appearance, and an initially unrecognizable Don Johnson poking fun at his suave reputation, and then going deeper as the story goes on. Up and coming celebrity progeny Wyatt Russell makes an appearance late in the film as a key character, and isn’t given much to do or say, but projects strong screen presence. Character actress Vinessa Shaw gets the major female role, and while unfortunately she isn’t given much to do, she continues to demonstrate an intelligent screen presence that I first noticed way back in Hocus Pocus.

The familiar plot concerns the ricochet effects that happen to Hall and Shaw and their son after Hall suddenly shoots an intruder in their home late one night. The first quarter of the film covers standard police procedural territory, and then things turn more interesting after that, leading to a predictable, though well thought out explosive finish. The story doesn’t really tie up all of its initial loose ends, but it seems to be more concerned with the mood and impact of the violence. I guess that means more realism, and some of the scenes – and Hall’s remorse and uncertainty alternating with resolve – recall the recent Blue Ruin.

Technical elements of the film are solid if not outstanding, with the most detail seemingly on the 1989 period setting. Fitting in with the subtlety, and possibly low budget, I liked that most of the elements were suggested rather than fully realized, such as old cars tooting around the dusty Texas town, a night drive to the Houston area with only a distant highway sign giving a sense of place, and the finale initially beginning offscreen, but audible, and the main character moving into the forefront of the action. I could have done without, or preferred a different, music score from the at times heavy-handed cues that were used, emphasizing classical music and speaking for some of the character motivations in place of dialogue. I appreciated the act by act structure of the plot, in that it was well defined, and again feel that morality tales such as these are great fits for late shows on a Friday or Saturday night.