Making good on an intention, just like my mother taught me

Last weekend I visited Meadow Brook Theatre on the campus of Oakland University for the first time. Their website proudly states, “as Michigan’s largest producing professional theatre, we are committed to bringing the highest quality of entertainment to southeastern Michigan.” The company enjoys a very strong reputation in the local theatre community among patrons and artists, and so I was pleased to finally make it over there for a show. It felt great to be living up to my intention of returning to seeing more live plays in 2015. I’m eagerly looking at ways to turn the theatregoing back into an at least once per week activity.

The play, Things My Mother Taught Me, is a sweet natured look at modern family relationships and how to navigate continued family connections in a media-saturated age. It isn’t a particularly deep script, but there are many “oh yeah my family does that” type of moments that viewers will nod in acknowledgement of. At least that was the case at the performance I attended, with many incidents of laughter and chuckling.

The genial tone followed through into the storyline, where we meet a young couple, Olivia and Gabe, who are completing a quarter-country move from NYC to Chicago. They are joined by BOTH sets of their parents to get them settled in, and inevitably, that complicates matters in simple and detailed ways for everyone in the apartment! But it’s not a spoiler to say that things right themselves in the end, especially for the young lovers. And the show itself “puts a ring on it” with an awesome live Beyonce dance montage that finds all of the cast members having a ton of fun moving around with ease and delight.

The show takes pleasure in the little things of life, both happy (finding a commonality or surprise) and challenging (trying to find a common ground over a disagreement or argument). The capable cast seems to be enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company. And for the audience members, I hope that the show reminds them, with a smile and a raised eyebrow or two, of the joys, eccentricities, challenges and rewards of living a modern life, where you can chose your own adventure but you can’t chose – and you can always embrace – your family.


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.


Boyhood – a tribute to and exploration of life

I was very pleased to catch Boyhood on its opening day (Friday) at the Michigan Theater in an “exclusive Ann Arbor area engagement.” It’s amazing and impressive that a film like this stayed under the radar for so long (at least to the general public) until its release was confirmed sometime late last year or earlier this year.

The genesis behind the movie is now well – known, and so I won’t recap it here. I will add that the storyline achieves its goal of serving as a narrative time capsule of the past 10 – 12 years. Somehow director Richard Linklater had the foresight to offer lingering shots on various cultural objects – whether a Game Boy, older model car, Harry Potter release party, a bulky cordless landline phone, hit song from a particular year, etc – that the audience can recognize and relate to, or in some cases laugh at and be like “wow, I can’t believe I used that, or that thing was so common back then.”

From the very first shot of the movie, we are right there with the development and growth of Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. The film tracks the journey of, but never feels like a spectator in, Mason and his family’s growth over the next 12 years. We meet his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), his mother (Patricia Arquette) and his distant father (Ethan Hawke). The parents are divorced with the mother taking primary custody, and her career and life path initially dictates the geographical range of the film as they move across Texas, the kids’ father comes in and out of their life, As Mason matures, he moves into the more direct focus of the narrative, and the last third or so of the film focuses on his own development in claiming an artistic life and stepping off on his own – into interpersonal relationships, career development, and a new life in college.

This was easily the most humane movie I’ve seen since Toy Story 3, with its tear-jerker of an ending, back in 2010. And this film touches the heart in a similar and different way, showing that life is relatable in its small, poignant, important moments, and drawing emotional truth, recognition and reflection from those same narrative themes.

On an industry – watcher note, it’s fascinating to see known actors Arquette and Hawke age on-screen; we can chart their growth in individual films over the years, of course, but never before in the same movie. Meanwhile, Coltrane and the younger Linklater mature into thoughtful young people, with a reflective poignancy present in their earlier in life scenes. Several actors move in and out of the narrative, and I wondered what that must have been like to come back to a project after a gap, or leave it after a year or two of working on it.

The film offers a fuller view of Texas than is usually seen on screen. Linklater directs with a steady hand, never letting a particular moment or theme overwhelm the narrative, or the story to be taken over by sentimentality or something that isn’t rooted in realism.

Best film of my year so far. I’m sure it will be hard to top. I almost don’t want to see another film this year after seeing this one.

boyhood cast

The cast and director as seen at the recent New York premiere.


In a World… where comedy is rooted in reality

I was very pleased that the Michigan Theater belatedly brought the movie In A World.. to Ann Arbor. Something about this movie stood out to me when I became aware of it over the summer. I’m not sure if it was the striking image of Lake Bell prepping a voceover that serves as the film’s poster, something about a news article or publicity item I read, or something else entirely, but I wanted to see it, and even considered making a trip to Royal Oak specifically to see it at the Landmark – but then I learned it was on the calendar at the Michigan.

Versatile actress Lake Bell served as writer, director and star for this film, clearly putting much thought and heart into the project. Bell has an appealingly everyday screen presence, though this was perhaps enhanced by a dowdy wardrobe and several “aw, shucks” character choices. I think what made this film stand out to me was her choice to root the comedy in a very real situation, which is something I feel like films don’t often dare to choose.

In this case the plot revolved around the trials and tribulations of making it in the voiceover industry, which is something I’ve had some observational – but not direct – experience of over the years. Bell confronts the reality (and it is a reality) of no women ever voicing movie trailers – and decides to do something about it. With the help of some friends and colleagues. And … her father. Sort of. Who is also a bigshot in the industry and has his own networks and goals. 

The film cast a light on the (occasionally narcissistic) competitiveness of the performing arts industry – and actually acknowledged that trait! I give Bell big props for being willing to go there with her work while finding a resolution to the storyline. She also poked some fun at Los Angeles culture – and made me miss it (though I will be back there, briefly, in February.) I’m not sure her plot really needed several dramatic interludes that felt like padding in the wider scheme of the film, but she led the character arc to a suitable and thoughtful conclusion. Her script was peppered with extensive witticisms and frequent industry in-jokes that I appreciated.

I’m sure this film will stand out on my year-end list.