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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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Albee from Dubuque

I’m disappointed that Edward Albee’s play The Lady from Dubuque, which he very specifically wrote about mortality, appears to be getting overlooked in the tributes following his death on Friday.

Oddly, on Friday evening, before learning of his passing, I told someone about the memory of seeing Maggie Smith perform in that very play in London at the end of March, 2007. Smith hasn’t appeared on stage since, so I’m especially grateful to have seen the production and met her afterwards, which I briefly chronicled in a LiveJournal post the following day, excerpted below.

After the show I was feeling adventurous, and we decided to go to the stage door to see if we could get Maggie Smith to sign our program. Surprisingly, we were the only fans there. We didn’t have too long to wait before she appeared. I decided to play the “USA tourist” role (partially owing to a slight nervousness of meeting a theatrical legend!) and said to her, “We’ve travelled all the way from the USA to see you tonight and would love it if you could sign our program!” She smiled graciously and said “Of course” with considerable genuineness. She really did seem to be just as warm and gracious as her actorly persona suggests, and said “god bless!” as she got into her waiting BMW, to which Mom replied “and God bless you, Dame Maggie!” — a fitting in-person tribute, and a true thrill to meet her as she’s probably my 2nd favourite British classical actress.

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.

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.

Falling Slowly Onstage

The touring version of Once: The Musical is now in residence at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre through February 15th. Since that’s just up the street from me, I attended their first preview performance on Tuesday night.

I’d forgotten that the play originally began its dramatic life at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) back in Cambridge. It’s not surprising that the play found further success, where ART has successfully repositioned itself over the last few years (under the shrewd leadership of Diane Paulus) as a major feeder of new or reimagined stage work into the Broadway and national theatre conversation.

Of course, Once takes its story from the movie of the same name. If you’ve seen the film, you know the basic story about the Guy meeting the Girl who inspires him to refocus on his songwriting and use his songs to convey his emotions… and that doesn’t change here on the stage. The play does, however, adroitly open up the story to more of an ensemble production, with a modest band starting the experience with pre-show songs and several scenes featuring ensemble members (either in one or multiple roles) interacting with the protagonists.

The play also creatively invites the audience to come more directly into the story, in that drinks are served onstage before the start of the show and during the intermission. My friends and I enjoyed the pre-show option, and I found it to be a fresh and fun way to get into the story, standing onstage for a few minutes with fellow audience members, and then being allowed to stay there for a few more minutes while the cast came onstage and began their pre-show medley.

I can’t say that the story creates a revelatory level of dramatic depth. But I would say that the play is worth attending for its fun and fresh onstage experience, and the chance to take in some very well-done acoustic songs in a refreshingly intimate story setting.

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.

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.

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)

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!