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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.

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When the words capture your imagination

Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse (aka “The” Vineyard Playhouse) does many things well in its continued year-round operations, and one of the highlights to me is their summer series of Monday Night Specials, a one-off staged reading of a new script at some stage in its development. This summer I could only see one of the offerings, and so this past Monday I was in the audience for the large cast staged reading of A Month in the Country, newly adapted by playhouse artistic associate Carol Rocamora.

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One of LAST YEAR’s Monday night specials at the Playhouse

A large cast of at least 12 actors in a wide range of ages gave life to the story. The Playhouse often brings back actors who have been seen in fully staged productions for their readings, so not only did I know 5 of the featured actors, I had seen a few more of them in other projects, and there were a few that looked familiar from one thing or another.

In a staged reading, sometimes the presence of the script and accompanying music stand can serve as a distraction to the audience, along with the additional actors sitting and reading along. That was not the case with this evening. A subtle attention to detail and character moments, coupled with some quick thinking on account of the actors, ensured that I (and hopefully other audience members) quickly left the “real” setting behind and felt instantly transported into the character’s world.

In the second act, it became even more clear that the actors were comfortable with going the extra mile, as the play included not one but TWO rather passionate kisses between characters, along with implied other entanglements. Relate-ability was key here too, as it was clear that the actors were having fun with those big moments! (as opposed to possibly getting swept up in the heightened drama within a fully staged production.)

The Monday night specials continue to well represent some of the hallmarks of creative live theatre and dynamic in the moment adventuring that often leads to the most rewards.

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.

London Theatre Doubleheader

What a treat it is to be back in a place where I can choose my theatregoing based on the venue’s reputation – and my previous experiences seeing shows there – rather than the title itself.

That’s just what I did for two plays yesterday at the Royal Court and Almeida theatres at opposite ends of London. I joined the legions of tube and on foot commuters in the interim period with an extended stop at Leicester Square, which just happened to be on full showman mode with the UK premiere of Cinderella.

IMG_1002But back to the plays. First up was How To Hold Your Breath, running at the Royal Court. In some ways it was difficult to follow exactly what was going on in this story, but as the tale went on, it became clear that was part of the point. We’re introduced to Dana (Maxine Peake), a woman who appears to be in her 30’s or 40’s and is struggling to make ends meet. In the beginning of the story, she may or may not have sold herself for romance with Jarron (Michael Shaeffer), but (since this is a play!) they have an argument that sets the plot in motion and leads to Dana thinking that Jarron also holds supernatural powers which haunt her as the story goes on.

Dana brings her sister and roommate Jasmine (Christine Bottomley) into the action, and is trailed by a mysterious librarian (Peter Forbes) as her journey goes on. The supernatural thread expands with the story, leading to a series of arresting and memorable physical images near the climax when Dana is isolated against an army of people also suffering from her plight.

Because the plot meandered from point to point, it was difficult to tell when the conclusion was being set up and led to the story feeling anticlimactic for me – it would have surely been more effective with a dramatic denouement in the image described above, for instance. However, the design team offered a crackerjack sense of compactness, with backdrops rising on top of each other in the modestly sized Royal Court stage, and effective hints of sound design sprinkled throughout the narrative.

When the script by Zinnie Harris played with its lines and a sense of repetition, also near the end, that also created a feeling of taut anxiety and uncertainty. Although in a broader sense the play remained successful simply from showing two strong female leads and the sense of a realistic world nestled within current events.

(If I knew more about current political affairs in Europe I might have appreciated the play more, but I certainly felt like it could still be appreciated on its own merits.)

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In the evening I ventured back up to the Almeida Theatre in north-central London’s Islington district. Their current production, Game, drew me in with its promise of a unique viewing experience, and convenient “late show” 9:30pm start – the performances are actually twice per night because it’s a short length play. The show has drawn strong reviews from all major local sources.

The show takes a provocative premise and really runs with it. We’re introduced to a young couple moving into an affordable house and getting to know their new living quarters. But it immediately becomes apparent that their presence in the house is part of a sadistic plot for members of the public to improve their shooting skills. In a sharply constructed 60 minute viewing experience, we’re given a sense of what the couple must endure to live in that environment and how their efforts to live a “normal” life are severely compromised. Although the voyeuristic shooters remain somewhat thinly drawn, they get a moral conscience with one character who rises in importance during the story.

I’m sure I will remember the show most for the novelty of its staging, in which the Almeida’s modestly sized auditorium was reworked into a series of arcade style viewing experiences, with the audience (divided into three or four separate sections) seated on backless benches looking in at the central set. Viewing was also augmented by medium sized televisions above the set, and all of the scenes not involving the couple took place in areas that are part of the audience seating area, with the images being transmitted to those in other sections. Finally, the audio of the experience was through headphones rather than live listening, and the actors had to expertly coordinate between their lines onstage and off, and sometimes overlapping.

It’s clear that the writer, Mike Bartlett, intended for his piece to be cultural commentary in our ever – expanding age of reality shows and celebrity obsession. I would say that he and the design team, led by director Sacha Wares, succeed in balancing a sense of satire and one of nervous drama.

While it’s possible this show experience would be different if it was a longer or less radically conceived piece, I think it was right in tune with the challenges of today and how things could turn if we collectively don’t take more humane charge of our future lives.

Good Men and True

Last Friday night I enjoyed a belated first visit to Hamtramck, Michigan’s Planet Ant Theatre, a small venue that has an ambitious slate of provocative plays. As sometimes happens, I’d wanted to go to this theatre earlier on and didn’t. But it was rewarding to be able to make the time to attend the Opening Night of this particular production.

The publicity materials for the show take care to spell out the basic premise of the play (what if a trio of protagonists from some of Shakespeare’s well-known works meet up in a single story?), but, delightfully, don’t give a sense of the creativity and free spiritedness of the production. The play has received additional press attention in a positive review by John Quinn of Encore Michigan and a feature article running in The Detroit News.

For me personally, the show was a delightful mash-up and reminder of a more creative side of theatre that I sometimes feel sad to not see very often in the professional world. This approach that I speak of is one that is not afraid of taking risks, rolling with the possibilities of a prompt or suggested activity, and being comfortable with the dramatic ambiguity or simply not knowing how a creative exercise might turn out. This was a hallmark of some of my most memorable improvisation and creative discovery based courses over the years, and in some cases, audience attending, such as at San Francisco’s BATS Improv.

In Good Men and True the four actresses (Jaclynn Cherry, Kez Settle, DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton and Jackie Strez) perform confidently and comfortably as their roles undergo various switchups and moving of layers, literally and figuratively. Their vocal and physical inflections and character choices from the first moment on stage show a strong command of the material and willingness to take risks. I look forward to remembering the fresh and exciting feel of their play – and the associated creative confidence they project with the material – for some time.

Throwback Thursday: Theatre Commute

In early 2009 I commuted for a few weeks in “figure 8s” around the Bay Area from the East Bay into San Francisco and down to San Jose, then back to the East Bay. I compiled a few highlights for LiveJournal on several of the days, and here’s one of them.

I resumed my temporary routine of (total) 125 miles driving and travel from Richmond to San Francisco to San Jose and back today, a geographic figure eight around the Bay Area. Things were pretty smooth today, though here are some episodic highlights:

10:45am: Leave the house. No traffic on 580 East.
11:03am: Pass the Bay Bridge toll. Am surprised by the fact that the metering lights are on and the traffic is backed up after the morning commute.
11:25am: Am detoured from my usual parking spot by today being a “street cleaning” day. Instead I go to a completely different neighborhood where I know parking will be free and non-stickered.
12:00pm: My MUNI trip inbound from Noe Valley is free when the conductor waves passengers past the non-working ticket machine.
12:05pm: During the MUNI trip, I see an intense panoramic view from the top of Dolores Park that I had never seen before.
4:05pm: Near the end of my work shift, I step outside for a few minutes and have an experience out of an action movie. I’ve arranged to give a black suitcase filled with laundry to the show’s costume designer. Instead of stopping, she pulls up to the curb and wordlessly gestures for me to drop the suitcase in the open bed of her truck. I do, and feel like it should have contained lots of money, or we should have been filmed, especially since it is right on Market Street.
4:50pm: During the MUNI trip back to the parking spot, two high schoolers near me decide that they will make the biggest PDA possible while jointly blowing smelly bubble gum.
6:05pm: Arrive at the theatre in San Jose and am pleased that there was no traffic going south on 280.
11:20pm: Leave theatre and begin the trip home on 880.
12:00am: A CHP car suddenly begins to weave across the highway just a few cars ahead of me. Turns out there’s been a minor accident, and that was this officer’s way of alerting the drivers.
12:25am: Arrive home.

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.