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A New Play plays the provocation card

This weekend’s entertainment/arts culture vulture journeys led me to take in two stories that both explored the art and challenges of what is known and unknown in any given situation, and how individuals work around those issues – or not – and maintain a sense of awareness in their possible confusion.

I’ll save the movie for a separate post; here is a focus on the play:

Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester, MI, is currently offering (just) the third professional production of Luce, a new play by JC Lee that premiered at NYC’s Lincoln Center last year. I learned that Lee had been a writer in residence for a year at my California hometown theatre, Marin Theatre Company.

The play is very much of the moment, with references to Facebook, mobile technology, teen obsession with texting, high school social dynamics and more. But the broad portrayal seen at Meadow Brook, while commendable, did not seem to fit with the ethos of emphasizing the smaller moments that the playwright was clearly going for.

Experienced and versatile local actress Serab Kamoo carries the show as Amy, Luce’s adoptive mother who wants nothing more than the best for her son. The rest of the cast gives strong effort to their roles, but I felt that only Kamoo truly convinced in her part. As Luce himself, Leroy S. Graham fares best with a monologue partway through the show, which is the only chance that the character has to truly speak for himself.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the show would have played differently on a smaller stage and with a more unified sense of direction. The script never spells our Luce’s specific intentions when his actions are called into question, but it never allows the character to get to the heart of the matter, either. Meadow Brook’s stage is well used in the design, with a clever conceit of a downstage area doubling as two locations thanks to some lighting maneuvering, but some of the intimacy of the drama is also lost in the wide space.

The play is performed without intermission and suffers from a sense of anticlimax. Several scenes close to the end could easily be the end, and when the last scene comes around, the resolution feels less satisfying than if the story had closed on a more ambiguous note. Similarly, since Luce’s true intentions are never made clear after his actions are called into question, a note of uncertainty might have driven the plot home in a deeper and more direct way.

All this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the play. I am always grateful when a theatre presents a new piece, and especially if it is something that stimulates a feeling of engagement and discussion.

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Live Long and Prosper

This month has been unintentionally quiet on the blog front, likely a combination of my self-imposed hiatus from social media and increased workload in the second semester of Grad School 2.0.

However, upon hearing today’s sad news of actor Leonard Nimoy’s death, I remembered that some of my most inspired recent writing here has been about Star Trek. And I realized that I’m paying tribute to Nimoy this afternoon and early evening by (once again) spending some time at Detroit Metro Airport, located in none other than Romulus, Michigan.

I was honored to share a hometown with Mr. Nimoy, and one time, my dad and I even got to see him live. In the fall of 1995 Nimoy underwent a book tour for his recently released second memoir, I Am Spock, and one of the stops was the Somerville Theatre. Oddly, this remains the only time I’ve ever been inside that locally acclaimed venue, although I’ve been outside it many times since that fall night.

Nimoy introduced a special screening of the two Trek films he directed – The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home – and gave an “intermission” talk about his new book. There was a raffle of just a few autographed pictures he’d signed that night, and to our surprise, we won one of them! The picture occupied a prominent home location for a number of years, and I still have it, somewhere…

Inevitably I feel a little bit of “I should have seen Nimoy live again at that Star Trek convention, that special screening, that art opening” – especially since he had a well rounded career with lots of diversity beneath the surface. But I’m grateful to have that one special memory and to have witnessed his gradual embracing in his later years of being a strong role model for the younger generation, as seen in many tributes today.

Stormy Day back in The Homeland

Trying to keep up the daily posts, at least until the end of the month, so for today I will keep it brief and say that it felt weird to be watching my home state Massachusetts get hit by a blizzard while I went about my business in sunny and cold Detroit. Maybe it’s because the “expected” weather pattern is generally the reverse geography for the storms… but this winter has had its own plans.

Reflecting on Square One

Square One's original logo. Image Source: Wikipedia

Square One’s original logo. Image Source: Wikipedia

My favorite children’s television show, Square One Television, first appeared to the television world 28 years ago today. Happy Birthday, Square One!

The show remains conspicuously absent from the DVD collections market, most likely due to a complicated copyright involving (then) Children’s Television Workshop and (now) Sesame Workshop. A fan site, SquareOneTV.org, which I formerly contributed to, seems to have gone offline. So the show’s Wikipedia page provides a thorough overview of what each episode was like and why people like me grew so affectionate for it. (and so upset when it suddenly left the airwaves in the fall of 1994.)

In the summer of 2006 I had the chance to meet one of the show’s core ensemble cast members who was appearing in an off-Broadway show I attended, and wrote about the experience on LiveJournal:

I got a front-row seat and read the program before the curtain went up. I scanned the cast list and was surprised to see a cast member (Cynthia Darlow) from Square One Television, one of my top-5 favorite childhood TV shows, was part of this cast. She displayed just the same brasyness and captivating theatricality that she had displayed in the show, and was a stand-out among the secondary characters of the show. Later, I was waiting around in the lobby and she happened to come out from backstage. We made eye-contact briefly and I decided to take a minor risk and say that I loved her work on Square One. She smiled broadly and said she always is charmed that people still remember the show and that it was “one of her best jobs” of her career with a very tight-knit cast and crew. She is also always amused that people my/our age still remember the show and can tell her how they watched it compulsively when it aired first-run. Once again it felt good to take a risk of approaching a celebrity, especially when Cynthia was as friendly as she is.

Square One briefly reappeared on television screens around the turn of the millennium as part of cable network Noggin (a joint venture between Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop) and its anthology series “The Phred on Your Head Show” – with segments from Square One intercut into the newer show, and perhaps most importantly, the show-within-a-show Mathnet, which was always my favorite part of the program, reappearing in full glory.

Mathnet

I was very excited to finally see the original Mathnet HQ in Los Angeles on a March 2013 visit to the area.

I owe a longer post on the enduring appeal of Mathnet – but it won’t be tonight! I will say that the show contributed greatly to my lifelong love of numbers and coincidences and mysteries and number sequences. And it indirectly introduced me to the theatre world at a young age, with one episode set in a Broadway house and all of the main actors coming from strong theatrical backgrounds.

I only realized a few years ago (possibly on moving to Michigan) that Square One included many references to Michigan and the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, where its creators attended college. So from an early age I had many little snippets of Michigan lore seeping into my brain, most notably centered around U of M life and my current area code, 313, which once covered the entirety of Southeastern Michigan. To that I just say… “wow!

And it’s a perfect segue to the other birthday I learned is today, which is the state of Michigan itself! 178 years young! MLive asks its readers to guess how well they know the state.

Cinematic Wrap on 2014

My mission to chronicle all the films I saw during 2014 was a success!

60 films total for the year. At times I felt like I was running parallel to – but not competing with! – my friends Gabe and Roy, although I ultimately staked out a distinct independent film orientation, with occasional exceptions.

Will I do it again this year? Probably.

But my final entertainment experience of 2014 was, fittingly, back at a theatre that I know well in Berkeley, California, and the immediacy and satisfaction and poignancy of being in that audience made me want to re-focus on theatregoing here in Michigan – not just making it, but seeing it – so I hope that the new year will bring a renewed commentary on live theatre, as was once more common in this blog.

However, it wouldn’t be fair to 2014 to leave it without a top ten list, so here’s mine with a few brief comments taken from the individual write-ups.

1. BOYHOOD
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.

2. THE ONE I LOVE
the film… cleverly does not spell everything out for the viewer and leaves several elements up to discernment and imagination — something I always appreciate and often prefer in published or written works. Duplass and Moss rise to the challenge of the material and are tasked with carrying nearly the entire film only on their shoulders.

3. CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA
The two actresses rise to the challenge of working together and carrying the film almost completely on their shoulders. Binoche, accustomed to the lead role both in fiction and real life, commands with an increasingly dislocated sense of reality and heightened awareness of the passage of time for someone in the acting industry… The film deserves to be seen as a return to form or start of a new chapter for Stewart… easily one of the most unique films I have seen this year.

4. CHEF
The story… is told in such a warm – hearted and also exuberant style, including an emphasis on colors in the frame, tantalizing shots of food onscreen, and the family relationships of the characters pushed to the front of the story, that this became one of the most appealing and satisfying films I have seen in some time.

5. BLUE RUIN
(features) one of the most “normal” protagonists I have ever seen in such a film, and although the movie eventually leads itself to a somewhat familiar and inevitable climax, it maintains the minimalism and character uncertainty to make it seem refreshing and unusual to the viewer.

6. UNDER THE SKIN
I don’t know what this film means (who can, really?) but I feel appreciative of its willingness to challenge and provoke the audience in a subtle way, along with a willingness to let actions speak louder than words complimented by an atypical story.

7. NIGHTCRAWLER
Nightcrawler is constructed coldly yet beautifully for the audience, with sleek cinematography by Robert Elswit and several fitting themes composed by James Newton Howard. Writer and director Dan Gilroy, making a later career debut behind the camera, shines a light on an unsettling angle of contemporary culture… the topicality of the subject matter ensures that the viewers might continue to think about their own role in taking in current media, and the pros and cons of continued life engulfed in the digital age.

8. A MASTER BUILDER
The film unsurprisingly holds the story’s dramatic intensity through the entire length of the film without betraying its stage roots. Shawn seems to have achieved a timeless quality with the text…

9. BEYOND THE LIGHTS
The film puts a pragmatic and realistic spin on a familiar story, and is really a showcase for a dynamic and revelatory performance by Mbatha-Raw…

10. SNOWPIERCER
The greater plot element of a class system on a contained environment is notable, and continues to find relevance in the present era…

Stay tuned! (image taken in December, 2014, near Martha's Vineyard, MA)

Stay tuned! (image taken in December, 2014, near Martha’s Vineyard, MA)

Bright lights shine on a familiar cinematic story

fairlane cinemaI made a return visit to the garishly Disney World – esque AMC Fairlane Cinema (photo at right) this evening. Though this cinema is a relatively close neighbor to me in my present living situation, this was only my second time there. Their admission price of $7.25 seemed like a throwback to another era, although the average priced concessions made up for the initial cheapness.

The interior of the cinema offers a familiar design seen in many turn-of-the-millenium era Loews Theatres, which I know well from early visits to the Boston Common cinema, and I’m sure can be seen at other venues across the country. However, it doesn’t seem to have aged badly, and this particular complex has been well maintained.

This evening’s feature of choice was Beyond the Lights, a current release focusing on the story of Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a British R&B/urban singer and clear Rhianna/Katy Perry/insert your pop star here composite, who has found fame in her provocateur act and lives the high life in Los Angeles, but yearns to drop it all and go back to her more humane self. She faces conflicting guidance from an overbearing mother (Minnie Driver) and decides that she wants to get to know a noble police officer (Nate Parker) who came to her aid at a particularly challenging moment. Simultaneous to her challenges, her intense stardom tugs at her window and makes her struggle to decide which way she wants to take her life.

beyond the lightsThe film puts a pragmatic and realistic spin on a familiar story, and is really a showcase for a dynamic and revelatory performance by Mbatha-Raw (pictured at left), an actress who proved she was a talent to watch in Belle earlier this year – though I would have enjoyed seeing her Ophelia opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet a few years back on London and New York stages. She carries the film and does all of her own singing with charisma and smoldering heat through most of her scenes, creating a fully rounded character out of what could have just been a caricature. It was good to see Driver back on screen in a primary role; it feels like it has been several years since I’ve seen her in any widely released movie, though I understand she has been busy with television work. Veteran actor Danny Glover, whom I once met briefly in Massachusetts and have a 1 degree connection to in the Bay Area, appears in a supporting role as Parker’s father, and his familiar gravelly voice and committed screen presence were also a welcome sight.

I can’t recommend the film with super-enthusiasm due to its formulaic plot, but think it is worth seeking out at some point for its committed performances and the important fact that it’s made by a female filmmaker, Gina Prince-Bythewood, who knows how to tell a detailed and relatable story.

One Morning on a Train

I wrote a post on Wednesday morning meaning to post it later when internet connections returned. But here it is now instead.

It’s my third morning on a train this year – interesting to realize that the previous trip (Ann Arbor – Los Angeles) was earlier this year, where it feels like longer.

In contrast to my observations in 2012, Amtrak now seems more comfortable in the digital age. This long distance train still does not have a wifi service, and who knows why, but there are plenty of people using their digital devices and not blinking an eye. I think that coming into a snowy atmosphere, with accumulation being constant and building as we head East, adds a different flair to the atmosphere.

The bus driver from Detroit to Toledo was certainly one of the most democratic drivers I have ever had on public transportation. He asked the full bus to “not use profanity” if we/they were talking on cellphones, and then initiated a vote as to whether people would like to get concessions at a convenience store prior to boarding the train in Toledo. We did, and it proved to be a good move.

I found (as I had expected) that the initial travel experience brought back sharp flashbacks of my earlier visits to Michigan, before I was a resident in the state and had not gotten to know it as well as I do now. In particular, being back in the same places – the Detroit and Toledo Amtrak stations – brought back very clear memories of what I had done in the previous visits there, such as calling California friends – so I called one of them – and observing Ohio’s old – style porcelain highway signs, which have now been replaced at some point in the last couple of years. And being resident in Michigan, with its troubling bumpy roads, made me notice the smoothness of I-75 immediately after crossing the state line.

As for the rest of today, since I’ve just gotten over the mesmerizing quality of observing the passing snow, I’m hoping that the lack of internet distractions gives rise to some productivity on my assortment of homework assignments due in December….

Amtrak in the Digital Age

Tonight I will re-board Amtrak’s Capitol Limited train for the first time since 2012. My previous trip on that route, which was coming to Michigan rather than from it, also marked my last post in a previous blog. And so I thought I’d re-post that entry here. I will be turning off my smartphone tonight.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 29, 2012
Return to Amtrak in the Digital Age

I did not realize how much of a distraction this iPhone would become tonight. Something about having it along is making me see tonight as just another digital night. EXCEPT that the 3G signal disappeared around Harpers Ferry, and seems unlikely to return until Pittsburgh at the earliest. I now see how Internet dependent the phone is, as if I did not know that already. Unfortunately, the same situation is running rampant like a virus across the train – I see at least half of the passengers tangled up in their digital devices . People are still taking in the scenery, but now it is dark and some have already fallen asleep.

While the aforementioned digital issue has given this trip a different feel, it has certainly still been memorable. My second ever visit to Washington DC allowed more flexibility than the first, which was coincidentally the last time I did this train itinerary. The US Capitol building was within reach, though securely guarded, and I took it all in with some surprise at the scope of The District. Perhaps my close knit (native New Englander) geographic orientation also extends to my perception of the capital city. I am sure that is the case, where it is a similar scenario when 2 inches on a Massachusetts map does NOT equal 2 inches on a … New Mexico map. The physical sensation of seeing more of DC was grandiose, and more about the WOW feeling than a question of melodrama.

Now the focus turns to the great state of Michigan, site of intense political scrutiny today and at least SOME fallout or backlash tomorrow. I have greatly enjoyed my previous stays in the state, especially this past August going from the distant lands of the UP all the way down to the Ohio border. This time the focus will return to the city of Ann Arbor and its immediate vicinity, and I am sure that being there with the University in full swing will be just as memorable with a Leap Day fresh spin.

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.

The fall of the dollar house, and those that still support it

Yesterday I was pleased to discover the CInemark 16 on the border of Oakland and Macomb counties, and its selection of second – run movies that may or may not have arrived on DVD, but in this case, were still showing on the big screen.

I find this style of moviegoing to be a lost art. Not so in the Midwest, but very much so in my New England home turf, and on the other coast as well. 

It’s unfortunate, because I remember 15 – 20 years ago, second run movieplexes were still very widespread in New England. If I missed something at Danvers 6, it would show up later on at the Warwick Cinema, and maybe after that at the Cabot Street Cinema, and the same thing could be seen within a range of different small towns around Boston. 

Nowadays, a kid growing up on the North Shore will go to the Liberty Tree Mall 20, which I’m sure is showing its 15 years of age, and the Gloucester Cinema is still hanging in there. Other spots have either changed (the Warwick Cinema was re-born as a classy cinema restaurant within the past year) or closed down, with the Cabot Street Cinema sadly for sale.

And so it’s been refreshing to know that tradition of seeing movies past their initial expiration date continues here in the Midwest, as I initially saw in Dayton, Ohio, several years ago and now see to be true around Detroit. Although I bought a ticket for a movie yesterday, I didn’t actually go in (!) but will consider the $1.50 as a donation to the complex. I’ll look forward to finding the right time to go back.