Sunday, April 15, 2018

'Ear, 'ear: A fascinating 'adventure' at The Purple Rose Theatre

Ever since a teacher introduced me to the fascinating world of Sherlock Holmes way back in high school, I've been a major fan. So much so that the complete canon by creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sits proudly on my bookshelf to this day, having survived several purges of old books to make way for the new. Since then, I've devoured the "lost" manuscripts "edited" by Nicholas Meyer, bought comic book adaptations of the character's adventures, watched the movies, and - more recently - became a fan of the old radio series thanks to SiriusXM's Radio Classics channel.

So when chance encounters over the past year or so with local playwright (and a nominee for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Drama) David MacGregor revealed tantalizing tidbits regarding his then-forthcoming Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear now at The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea through May 26, I just knew it was a show I was not going to miss. (The fact that I'm a major fan of his earlier work made it an even easier decision!)

And so there I was on a recent Wednesday afternoon, standing in the theater's lobby with at least three bus loads of senior citizens and my platonic date, fellow critic Jenn McKee, when the doors to the theater opened and an audible gasp was heard coming from the patrons. No, no one tripped and fell. Rather, they were stunned by the remarkable, dazzling set by Bartley H. Bauer (likely among his best work, if not the best) that dominated their view. If it didn't break the budget I'd be surprised, as the interior of 221B Baker Street (where the entire play unfolds) is magnificent. (Should I ever build a house, I'll consider asking Bauer to design my living room with similar grandeur and opulence!)

Renting such an apartment mustn't have been cheap, which helps explain Dr. John Watson's concern at the opening of the play regarding their recent lack of revenue-generating income. (The two are roommates.) But voila! In walks the not-yet-famous Vincent van Gogh with a mystery to be solved: Where is the piece of his left ear that was cut off the night before during an argument with fellow artist Paul Gauguin?

No spoiler alerts are needed when I tell you the mystery gets solved at the end of the second act. (After all, that is what Holmes does: solves mysteries.) What I won't reveal, however, is most of what happens in between, since much of the show's appeal is simply sitting back and enjoying the roller coaster of (mostly) unlikely comings, goings, revelations and events that are almost too crazy or coincidental to be believed.

Yes, the show is that fun. And it all starts with the unusual approach MacGregor takes with his story.

Unlike tales written by Holmes' creator, MacGregor's isn't "told by" Watson. Rather, the Elusive Ear is a "behind the scenes" story in which we're watching an actual plot unfold before pen was put to paper, or filtered and sanitized by editor Watson. So rather than an adaptation of a Holmes adventure tweaked, enhanced or otherwise modified by the good Doctor, instead we're watching the "real" Holmes and Watson pursue a case in their native element.

That means Holmes' love of cocaine is addressed, for example, and his relationship with housekeeper Mrs. Hudson is fleshed out. (That's a pun, folks. See the show to find out why.) And additional information that may otherwise be excised by Watson is there for all to see.

It's an approach I found quite intriguing, as the master detective might say. And it allows the story, which is set in 1888, to go in a number of directions that I felt were both educational and creative (although picky Holmes aficionados might disagree with me about that).

Art and art history, for example, are important elements of the story, and I suspect many in the audience learned a thing or two they didn't know before. And theatergoers many not realize that women's suffrage became a national movement in Victorian England in the decade prior to MacGregor's story, hence its applicability to the plot. (There were moments, however, when the dialogue sounded more like it was ripped from newspaper headlines in 2018 rather than 130 years earlier.) And what can I say: Even though a cheesy, clunky sword fight was neither realistic nor integral to the plot, two women stripped to their corsets while duking it out (duchessing it out?) will always get the attention of an audience (especially its male members).

So too will excellent direction and performances. This production - MacGregor's fifth world premiere at The Purple Rose - is blessed with both.

Guy Sanville, whose specialty is guiding and nurturing new plays from the page to the stage, works his usual magic in bringing MacGregor's script to life. The entire show moves like clockwork, with all its moving parts working seamlessly together to create a slick and thoroughly enjoyable afternoon or evening at the theater.

Among the director's many notable skills is his ability to choose the perfect actor to play each role, and that's especially true of this particular cast. And each, in turn, works hard at creating a believable character within the world the playwright has placed them.

Both Mark Colson's Holmes and Paul Stroili's Watson are what I envision Sir Arthur had in mind when he created the characters: Colson is tall, lanky, and with a slightly hawkish nose that certainly defines the character, while Stroili fits the image of what you'd expect a one-time British Army medical officer to look like. Together, their camaraderie and repartee perfectly defines the relationship between these close friends and confidantes.

Tom Whalen, who's never met a character he couldn't master, fully captures the complexity of van Gogh, whose inner demons would get the best of him only two years after this story takes place. Sarab Kamoo - an actress I'll follow anywhere to catch her always brilliant work - is dynamic and sexy as Holmes' intellectual equal and love interest Irene Adler. And Caitlin Cavannaugh would give Catwoman a run for her money as the villainous and secretive Marie Chartier. (There were a few times when Cavannaugh's French accent was a little too thick, however.)

There's one character, though, who wanders into the story at the beginning of Act Two for no really good reason other than "why not" and to add some bon mots to the mix - and do you know what? In an afternoon or evening of coincidences and plot elements that make you scratch your head and wonder why, the addition of noted author Oscar Wilde to the story is a welcome addition, especially in the hands of longtime Purple Rose favorite Rusty Mewha. With a simple twirl of a hand or a flip of his hair, Mewha's Wilde is as charming and colorful and philosophical as you'd expect him to be - the ultimate party guest whether he was invited or not. And here, he's much appreciated.

As with all Purple Rose productions, all technical elements (lights by Noele Stollmack, props by Danna Segrest, costumes by Suzanne Young, sound by Brad Phillips) serve the show exceptionally  well.

The Bottom Line: While Holmes sticklers may gripe and grouse about certain aspects of the show, I find MacGregor's script to be respectful to the canon set forth by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while adding to it a bit of fun and humor that serve the characters and their history quite well. It's a world premiere well done by MacGregor, Sanville & Company!

For complete show detailsCLICK HERE!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Two critics pull 'ripcord' on Tipping Point review

It's become a running joke in certain corners of the industry that fellow-critic Jenn McKee and I are dating, since we seem to be at the same shows together more often than not. We've had a lot of fun with it - especially online. But then Jenn suggested we take our "dates" to the next level and co-author a review together. I loved the idea; a similar project with Lansing-based critic Bridgette Redman a handful of years ago with multiple productions of "Doubt" was quite popular. So here's our first team-up, with the intro written by Jenn. If our readers' reactions are positive, who knows - we may turn this into a regular "thing!"

Early in David Lindsay-Abaire’s comedy “Ripcord,” now on stage at Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre (running time, just under two hours), an aging-but-perpetually-cheerful woman announces that she never gets angry. “It always leads to an ugly place, and I don’t care for ugly places,” Marilyn (Susan Craves) says.

This ends up being an ironic declaration, since it leads Marilyn and her grumpy assisted living facility roommate, Abby (Ruth Crawford), to make a bet that puts the ladies on the express train to ugly. For Abby, a snarky misanthrope, longs to have her own room again, while chatty, hyper-social Marilyn covets Abby’s bed by the window, which has a lovely view of a nearby park. So the two make a wager: if Abby can make Marilyn lose her temper, Marilyn will request a room change; if Marilyn can scare Abby – something Abby believes is no longer possible – they’ll switch beds.

And although the women launch into this venture with obnoxious-but-harmless pranks – such as putting their phone number on Craig’s List, with a claim that Marilyn was giving away a houseful of items and a car, and calling in a fake message from Marilyn’s daughter (Vanessa Sawson), claiming she’d be coming to take her mother out to lunch – things ramp up fast. Marilyn drugs Abby to dope her up for an involuntary skydiving excursion (courtesy of Marilyn’s family’s business), and Abby posts painful records of Marilyn’s past life all over the building. As their bemused caretaker Scotty (Dez Walker) observes in one scene, these very different women may be more suited to each other than they even realize.

To discuss the play, fellow critic Don Calamia and I (Jenn McKee) thought we’d try something new, since we both attended Tipping Point’s opening night performance of “Ripcord”: a joint review – the first of what I’d love to call Platonic Theater Date Reviews, since Don and I have attended many shows together lately – that’s ultimately a conversation between two local critics about the show.

DC: I hate to sound like a broken record, Jenn, but this is the type of show Tipping Point does best: a well-cast comedy, slickly produced.

JM: I really, really enjoyed myself at “Ripcord.” Little niggling questions arose for me about the script later on, but as I mentioned to you that night, I’m naturally stingy with laughs, yet I found myself laughing often, and quite loudly, during this show. I thought both Ruth and Susan were just terrific in their roles.

DC: I agree.  I’m very familiar with Ruth’s work, but not Susan’s, and so I was quite interested in seeing how the two would interact with each other. They were a great match.

JM: They were previously on stage together for “Morning’s at Seven” at the Purple Rose – a very different show, but one that’s also focused on people in the later stages of life. Which is one of the things I like about “Ripcord” – it’s not just saying, “Getting old is hard!” It’s about these two women who have a lot of life and mischief still running strong in their veins.

DC: I agree. It shows that old age and a competitive nature aren’t mutually exclusive. And these women were sure competitive!

JM: Definitely. And I think it’s tricky, particularly in Ruth’s case, to play a curmudgeon who does these cruel, nasty things, and somehow avoid being completely written off by the audience. Crawford was very deft, I thought, at being a cold fish, but still noticeably vulnerable in subtle ways.

DC: It’s a tough role because she still has to be likable – or at least someone you can identify with, to a certain extent. Her facial expressions, I think, had a lot to do with how successful she was at pulling it off. You could always tell what she was thinking, and her vulnerability often came through with just the slightest change in her expression.

JM: Susan’s challenge, meanwhile, involves grounding the bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed person who tends, in real life, to drive many of us nuts. Marilyn’s fiercely competitive streak helps to round her out, but also, Craves is very good at riding the line between annoying and sunny, so that we like Marilyn, but we also completely understand why Abby’s so set on getting her out.

DC: Either one would drive me nuts as a roommate.

JM: Which is why it’s so fun. “Golden Girls” meets “The Odd Couple.” Did anything in the script give you pause, or take you out of the story?

DC: Just the ending. I don’t want to give anything away, but that wasn’t what I was expecting.

JM: For me, some of the characters’ attempts to win the bet strained credulity: a staged crime in the park seemed so exaggeratedly ridiculous that I couldn’t imagine it not drawing the attention of every person in the vicinity; and while the scene that gives the play its name is fun, and creatively staged (tip of the hat to set and projection designer Monika Essen), it’s still a bit of a “could this really happen?” stretch. And finally, when Scotty gets the two women to buy tickets to his haunted house, I questioned whether Abby would actually go. Yes, her purchase makes sense, since she’s looking to bribe him, but there’s no reason she has to actually cash it in. Small things, but those are the kind of narrative hiccups that can intermittently pull you out of a story.

DC: I actually didn’t have a problem with these, mostly because I simply accepted that the plot would have to move towards the type of extreme challenges it did, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything to keep us wondering just how far they would go. And I thought playwright David Lindsay-Abaire set up the title-related challenge quite well early on when Marilyn talked about the family business.

JM: Yes – he wisely laid the expositional groundwork for this to make some kind of real-world sense. If it hadn’t been the family’s business, in no way would it ever be allowed to happen.

DC: Exactly.

JM: Again, it’s a little surprising that no one in the family raises an ethical issue about what’s happening. But we often have at least a toe dipped in the realm of absurdity when Lindsay-Abaire’s involved.

DC: Yep. The only one who DID raise some concerns was Marilyn’s son-in-law, Derek (Jason Bowen), but he still went along with all the craziness.

JM: Let’s talk tech. What elements stood out for you?

DC: Monika’s projections, for starters. Tipping Point received a grant to upgrade its lighting system and it included projectors – and she made great use of them. And I appreciated that the scene changes were well choreographed, always in step with what was going on in the show. You?

JM: I agree. There are wildly different locales in this play – the assisted living facility room, a haunted house attraction in a warehouse, the park – and the lights (designed by Rachael Nardecchia) and Monika’s projections and versatile set allowed for the changes to be quick and clear. Shelby Newport’s costumes were also effective, conveying personality – Marilyn’s flowy, looser vibe, contrasted with Abby’s buttoned up, walled-off persona – and making things like the skydiving scene more convincing.

DC: Yes, the wildly different locations would have been far more difficult to pull off without the projections. And that would likely have meant longer scene changes, which can kill a show’s momentum. Tipping Point’s designers did their usual excellent job in helping create the show’s characters. Even the room had its own character. I could understand why Marilyn wanted the bed closer to the window. The rest of the room was kind of bland. It made sense.

JM: And I must mention that in my experience, when I have a great time at a show, and only later start thinking of little things that didn’t quite add up in the script, it’s often a credit to not just the actors, but the director guiding the ship – in this case, James Kuhl.

DC: Yes, I agree. James – in my humble opinion – is one of the top directors we have in the community, partly because of how insightful he is at pulling all the various strings together to make a cohesive whole.  Plus, every actor who works there all rave about the working conditions there. They love working at Tipping Point because of its positive, creative atmosphere.

JM: You can palpably feel his affection for these characters, as well as the material itself. He cast it perfectly, and he’s made it so fun and sweet. Any highlights for you in the supporting cast?

DC: Patrick Loos has always been a favorite, and you couldn’t help but feel sorry for him as Abbey’s estranged son, Ben, trying to reach out to his mother, only to be swatted away. And I couldn’t keep my eyes off Vanessa Sawson, whose energy reminded me of a an athlete pacing back and forth anxiously waiting to jump into the game. Again, James’ eye for casting couldn’t have been better. Oh – and Dez Walker. He’s such a natural actor. He came across as if he WAS working in an assisted living facility and having to deal with these crazy ladies.

JM: You mentioned being surprised by the end. Without giving away the nature of that conclusion, were you disappointed? Or surprised in a good way?

DC: Conflicted is more like it. I’m just not sure (the character would) do what she did. Especially so quickly. But then again, I’ve never been in her situation. And darn it – I can’t explain why without giving anything away!

JM: That’s my struggle, too. Without getting specific, I guess I’d say that it aims for something quietly, deeply meaningful, but for me, it didn’t succeed in achieving it. Not because of the actors or staging, but for the reasons you mention. I wasn’t fully convinced that the character would arrive at that level of emotional capacity so swiftly.

DC: Even the friend that was with me on our “date” had a problem with the ending. He didn’t buy it whatsoever. He wanted a different ending.

JM: I did wonder how on earth the whole thing would and should be wrapped up. I think our qualms indicate that Lindsay-Abaire never quite figured that out, either.

DC: Maybe he flipped a coin.

JM: Or made a bet.

DC: That would certainly fit the theme, wouldn’t it?

JM: So, final word: Tipping Point’s “Ripcord” is a fun, dark comedy, in the sense that it goes to some painful places while making us laugh. And while Lindsay-Abaire’s script isn’t perfect – some of those dark places are glossed over a bit too easily for my taste – Tipping Point’s production is pretty irresistible.

DC: I mostly agree. For me, the bottom line is this: Tipping Point knows its audience well, and so they’ve served a comedy with some bite to it, with all the right ingredients cooked properly to result in a very enjoyable night at the theater. I’ve now seen three of its first four shows this season, and I’m pumped to see the rest!

For complete show details, CLICK HERE!

Friday, March 23, 2018

What lured to me to the Ant: Bickers, Jacokes and Bailey (with a dab of Brown)

Not long ago I received a press release from Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre, and it served to remind me that I hadn't been there in quite some time. The Ant has long been a favorite of mine, having  reviewed 59 shows there over a 14-year period (more than at any other theater), and so I figured it was time to make a return visit to see what they've been up to in recent months.

What always appealed to me about the Ant was the wide variety of shows it offered. Not only did I critique classics such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (the first show I ever reviewed there, way back in 2002), I was also treated to an amazing array of new works by local playwrights such as Joe Zettelmaier, Linda Ramsay-Detherage and Margaret Edwartowski (among others).

But what I particularly looked forward to were its slate of original comedies created by local improvisers. These were often the result of an improv troupe winning a highly competitive battle held once or twice a year at the Ant, with the winner earning a slot in the Ant's schedule supervised by an established pro at the helm as director. This offered the winning artists an opportunity to spread their wings and challenge themselves to create from the ground up an original one or two-act play.

As you can imagine, some shows were better than others. Several, however, remain memorable to this day.

Either way, it was always great fun to watch artists of various levels of training and experience sharpen and grow their skills - both as writers and as performers.

So when I received the press release for Who Run The World, an original comedy that runs through April 7, I saw its pedigree and immediately began to salivate. The show is directed and co-authored by one of the most creative artists I've had the pleasure to observe over the years, Lauren Bickers (an 11-time Wilde Awards nominee and three-time winner), and it features Detroit's Queen of Comedy, Suzan Jacokes (with 8 nominations and 2 wins) and teams her with another, more-recent favorite, Dyan Bailey (with 4 nominations and 1 win). That alone sold me on the show.

But it also stars three additional women and one man, whose writing and performance skills I was unfamiliar with - and that made me curious to check out how well they'd step up when working alongside two such well-known powerhouses.

I found out this past Saturday night.

Who Run The World envisions an America only a few decades from now when women run the country - and men have fled into their underground man caves. When an asteroid is discovered heading directly for Earth, will it destroy the world? Or will women find a way to save us all?

Ripping its plot from recent headlines, Bickers and her cast have come up with a unique take on the historic battle of the sexes while also poking fun at male and female stereotypes. (Yeah, mandatory dance breaks throughout the day wouldn't thrill me.) It's a mostly fun script, with plenty of sharp commentary to help move the story along. But a weaker-than-expected second-act opening had me worried that the steam had run out. I shouldn't have worried, however, as another twist soon came our way that wrapped the story up in a thoroughly satisfactory manner.

Just like the script varies, so too do the performances.

As expected, Jacokes (as Cabinet member Letitia McAllister, director of science) and Bailey (as Cabinet member Kameela Toriana, department of appearance and diplomacy) dominate the stage. Both are masters of comedy, and each puts her considerable skills to great use. Bailey is especially effective as the smiley-faced, double-crossing president whose number one goal is self preservation. (The two had the audience in stitches when a "bit" went awry and their finely tuned improv skills kicked in.)

Unfortunately, with the exception of strong and consistent performances by Scott Sanford (the story's sole male performer) and Caitlyn Shea as Jacokes' twin sister Tracee (director of unpacking), the other performers fade somewhat into the background when surrounded by scenery-chomping Jacokes and Bailey.

Even director Bickers gets into the act, with strong appearances on screen as a TV newswoman with creative ideas on how to spend her remaining hours on earth - which brings me to yet another reason why I've been a fan of the Ant's work: the integration of video into many of its shows.

And the video work by Bailey (with stage manager Mikey Brown, whose past video work I've raved about) is excellent, as are the costumes by Vince Kelley.

The Bottom Line: So how would I rank Who Run The World in comparison to past original comedies? How about "pretty much in middle of the pack." And louder than most. But I went home with a smile on my face, pleased that my return to the Ant turned into an entertaining visit with old friends, new acquaintances and filled with plenty of laughs.

For complete show details, CLICK HERE.

Friday, March 16, 2018

A Night at the Races

In Moliere's 17th-century comedy Tartuffe, Orgon promises his daughter Mariane's hand in marriage to Tartuffe, a seemingly pious gentleman who has wormed his way into the father's good graces. Apparently he doesn't care that she's in love with young Valere.

In the version now on stage at Ferndale's Slipstream Theatre Initiative, however, the story has been moved ahead a century or so and across an ocean to the up-and-coming town of Detroit, where it's Joseph Campau (likely Michigan's first millionaire and its largest landowner) who has been taken in by Tartuffe, and his daughter Catherine's hand that's been promised in marriage. And so the question the folks at Slipstream seem to be asking is this: How different would the Motor City be today had some of its most famous early citizens fallen for a trap set for them by a sweet-talking con man?

It's an intriguing question - and one given a madcap response by first-time director Mandy Logsdon that had my head spinning this past Friday night. (More on that later.)

As I've likely mentioned in previous posts, one of the reasons I keep going back to Slipstream is to watch how each show builds upon the lessons learned from past productions, and how the creativity of its artists stretches and grows with each new project. Sometimes they improve by leaps and bounds; other times not so much. But each is an earnest attempt at making an old show relate-able to modern-day audiences while also being respectful towards the intentions of its author.

That certainly is the case with Tartuffe. Initially produced in 1664 as a three-act comedy, subsequent revisions (due to criticisms from church and state alike) resulted in a five-act version that's commonly produced today. But don't worry: Slipstream's is a streamlined 80-minute romp that hits all the story's necessary plot points and provides a thoroughly satisfactory conclusion. (I probably don't need spoiler warnings for this, but the city's future is safe at the end of the show.)

It also presents actress Luna Alexander with an opportunity to push a character to the extremes, which is exactly what happens when she tackles the role of Adelaide DeQuindre, the wife of Joseph Campau and step-mother of Catherine. Adelaide isn't falling for the nonsense spouted by the overly religious Tartuffe - mostly because he's in hot (but secret) pursuit of her. And so she schemes to prove he's not the saint her husband (played by Dan Johnson) believes him to be. (Johnson seems to be everywhere these days!)

The result is one of Alexander's best comedic performances I've seen so far - and she's damn good in pretty much every show she's in. I won't spoil it for you, but watching her avoid the clutches of Jay Jolliffe's Tartuffe reminded a couple of us of the physical comedy Lucille Ball was known for throughout her television career. Her facial expressions are especially priceless! (Johnson has some fun moments as well, secretly watching the escapades while stuffed tightly underneath an antique sofa table.)

Much fun and revelry are added into the mix by the entire cast, but personal favorites include Slipstream newcomers Rachel Biber as the all-knowing, always-floor-sweeping family housekeeper, and Nancy Dawdry Penvose who plays multiple characters and keeps them all unique and separate. And artistic director Bailey Boudreau as John R. Williams adds some sanity to the doings (if threatening to hatchet his step-mother's pursuer can be considered sane in such a situation).

Unfortunately, an old Slipstream quirk (curse, maybe?) resurfaced with this production: A handful of actors rushed through blocks of their dialogue so fast that it seemed as though they were racing to get to a much more important engagement after the performance, which meant they were not speaking clearly and distinctly enough for everyone in the audience to understand them and follow the plot. It became so problematic at one point that I missed some important details and had a tough time catching up. I love enthusiastic actors, but diction matters, people!

All of the show's technical elements serve the show well. Especially impressive are the costumes by Tiaja Sabrie.

The Bottom Line: Tartuffe is yet another creative endeavor by the fearless and much-talented folks at Slipstream Theatre Initiative. The performance I saw wasn't perfect, but it was a whole lot of fun!

I was once again accompanied by my date Jenn McKee. Would you like to read what she thought of the production? If so, CLICK HERE!

For complete show details, CLICK HERE!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A Tale of Two Critics (or, Don Introduces Jenn to Open Book Theatre - but will they agree on what they saw?)

Some of my readers may not remember this, but not long ago most daily newspapers in the state had a staff theater critic. So did several of the weeklies, or at the very least a freelancer or two. I loved the fact that we had multiple voices discussing the work produced by our theaters, but what was especially fun was the collegiality among the critics. So much so, in fact, that many times after an opening night performance a gaggle of critics could be found socializing and discussing the latest industry gossip at a nearby local pub. (We were also the first to pick through the buffet table some theaters had on opening night, but that's a different story.)

The one thing we didn't talk about, though, was the show we had all just seen. It was a rule we stuck to no matter what, as it could be very easy for one critic to unintentionally influence the opinion of another. (As an aside, this actually happened to me once at one of those gatherings; the husband of a critic made a comment about something that occurred during the performance, and as I was writing my review the next day I kept discovering that what I wrote sounded more like him than me. So I removed the reference from the review altogether.)

I miss those days, when Jenn McKee (then of The Ann Arbor News), Judith Cookis Rubens (then of The Oakland Press), Marty Kohn (then of the Detroit Free Press), Carolyn Hayes (the former Rogue Critic) and I (then of Between The Lines) would mix and mingle after a show. Friendships were forged that continue to exist to this day.

I was reminded of this just this past Friday evening when Jenn accompanied me to Open Book Theatre to see its production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. She had never been there before, but based on past discussions we'd had - and what she'd heard and read elsewhere - it was decided that she'd join me at that evening's performance. We even rode together.

And even though neither of us has a current gig in the media as a working theater critic, we still held to the same policy as before: Thou shalt not talk about the play until the reviews have been published or posted.

Except that each of us briefly violated it at some point during the evening. In the lobby at intermission I asked her, "See what I mean about the work they do here?"

And on the ride home, she said," Sorry, I know I shouldn't, but I can't wait." She then proceeded to make a brief point about one particular aspect of the show, to which I pretty much agreed.

The total time spent violating our Golden Rule? About 45 seconds. That's it.

And so I can't wait to see what Jenn writes about the show. Will she agree with me that director Angie Kane Ferrante had a particularly keen eye for casting the right people in the right roles? That Lindel Salow and the always-delightful Connie Cowper were simply wonderful as aging siblings who never left the family nest? Or that Wendy Katz Hiller lit up the stage as their famous sister who'd supported them and their now-deceased parents all those years? And will she agree that the very limber Alexis Barrera brought much laughter and physicality to the stage as the somewhat-odd sooth-saying cleaning woman? I do know we agree that the adorable Kyle Kelley - who struts the stage for much of the show in nothing but tight underpants - likely hasn't eaten a cookie or piece of pie in many years and is perfectly cast as Spike, the play's young, hunky stud muffin. But what will she say about his acting chops? (In my opinion, at times his line delivery seemed a bit wooden, but I wasn't sure if he was directed that way to indicate that his character's status as eye candy trumped everything else, including his personality.)

Overall, I suspect she'll be as impressed with the show as I was. And I also think she's discovered what I did about this company a handful of years ago: that the work they do is of very high quality. And I also bet Open Book will become a regular part of her reviewing schedule.

Just like it has mine.

The Bottom Line: Open Book Theatre Company is a class act from start to finish, and the shows they produce are of the highest quality. As I've said before, of all the young theaters we're blessed to have in Southeast Michigan, I suspect Open Book will be among the few that will survive long in to the future.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs through March 18. For complete show information, CLICK HERE.

UPDATED March 9: To see what Jenn thought of the performance, CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Saucy Sawson & Company sizzle at Kickshaw

Vanessa Sawson and Mary Dilworth

From this critic's perspective, it's the little things that matter. And it's how those little things are discovered, played with and delivered by director Suzi Regan and her trio of terrific actors that lift Kickshaw Theatre's production of "Or," by Liz Duffy Adams into the realm of fine comedy.

It starts with the script. Rather than simply overloading the audience with tons of vital information about the story's time and place through a head-spinning monologue or two, Adams sprinkles short and entertaining bursts of meaningful historical references into various parts of the dialogue through which the audience ascertains the important facts it needs to understand the story moving forward: It takes place in London during the reign of King Charles II; recent wars, the Great Plague and Great Fire have taken their toll on the citizenry; and society is throwing off the shackles placed upon it by the Puritans.

At the same time, Adams is also acquainting the audience with the story's colorful protagonist. Although from a historical perspective not much is known about Aphra Behn's first 27 years of existence - and what little is known is subject to debate, likely the result of deliberate misdirection on the part of Behn herself - what's clear is this: What a fascinating life she lived throughout her remaining 21 years! Likely born in 1640, history remembers her best as a libertine poet and "one of the first prolific, high-profile female dramatists in Britain."

But she was also a spy on behalf of King Charles II, and it's a direct result of that risky (and for her, a not very fruitful) occupation that Adams' script opens with Behn in debtor's prison, caused by the high cost of living the job entailed and the likely lack of payment and reimbursement from the King for those very same services.

Although already a poet, Behn - who claimed to be a widow, although that too may have been a purposeful misdirection -  latched onto the idea that her best route to support herself would be to write for the theater, which in 1660 was experiencing a revival under the King. (Let's just say the prior rulers, the Puritans, were no fans of this evil art form and had shut it down.)

However, there was one significant roadblock: Play writing was a male-only occupation at the time. But since women had ideas, too - a novel concept back then - she saw no reason why she couldn't break into that exclusive club. Especially if she had a significant backer.

Therein enters the king. Literally.

But since this is a Restoration comedy, complications quickly arise that might find her not only in the arms of several different lovers in short order, but back at her old job as well!

A witty, well-researched script, "Or," is filled with sparkling and insightful dialogue, well-developed characters, an intriguing plot and an interesting linkage to the hippy-era of the 1960s (which explains the seemingly odd, but actually rather clever choice of pre-show music by Quintessa Gallinat).

It also serves plenty of red meat to creative directors such as Regan to pull out all the artistic chops they can muster to bring this colorful, sensual tale to life. A six-time Wilde Award nominee and two-time winner for directing (Panache at Williamston Theatre and the memorable Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe at Performance Network), Regan again proves why she is one of the gems of the theater, as her careful eye, long-honed instincts and ability to work with actors on interpreting complicated material are all apparent throughout the entire performance.

So what makes this show so tough, you might be wondering (other than it being a Restoration comedy)? For starters, there are seven characters but only three actors (Vanessa Sawson, Mary Dilworth and Daniel A. Helmer), one of whom plays only one role (Sawson, as Behn). That means the other two must divvy up the remaining six - and sometimes switch between them and back again rather quickly. Each does so quite well, as both Dilworth and Helmer are adept at creating distinct voices, mannerisms and gates to keep each character unique and easily identifiable. Plus, timing is everything - and at the final preview performance I attended this past Friday night, the show ran like clockwork; entrances, exits, quick changes of clothes and door slams all seemed flawless. (As an aside: It's extremely rare for me to visit and discuss preview performances, but apparently I didn't read the press information I received too closely, as I thought I was attending opening night. So once again I was reminded of a lesson I learned many decades ago: Never assume - and in this particular case, that if it's the first Friday performance, it must be opening night!)

And then there's this: Regan and her thespians dive head first into the script's take on gender and sexuality (of which both bend a bit). Yes, the free-loving 1960s did have much in common with the bawdy 1660s - and with anything-goes 2018 as well!

With no seat more than a handful of feet from the stage, it becomes even more important than usual for director and actors alike to pay close attention to the little things that can be found or implied in the script. That's especially true of both facial expressions and body language, and it's through subtle and carefully controlled changes to both that Dilworth and Helmer deliver much about their characters' thoughts and intentions. Dilworth's brilliant entrance as potential employer Lady Davenant, for example, reminded at least two of us in the audience of some of the best moments from Carol Burnett's old TV variety show. And Helmer's revelation as King to a surprised Behn sizzled and dripped with sexual tension, portending hot encounters (of many flavors) yet to come.

It's Sawson, however, who truly stands out. Behn is a strong and strong-willed woman built upon what seem to be numerous contradictions - spy vs. poet; female charting a career in an all-male profession; lover to both men and women - and as such, she must be played by someone who can be all of these things and do so convincingly. Sawson, with a strong background in Shakespeare and the classics, tackles the role with lusty gusto. As Behn, Sawson is sexy, she's naughty, she's brave, she's commanding, she's quick thinking, and she's intelligent - and she can switch from one to the other in an instant when the need arises. It's a masterful performance from start to finish.

Of the show's fine technical elements, Em Rossi's costumes are especially noteworthy. (See my earlier comment about Lady Davenant's entrance; the character's costume plays an important role in the audience reaction to her entrance.)

And finally, in this particular production, attention to the little things include the curtain call - which has become my favorite so far this (and last) season!

The Bottom Line: If you love your Restoration comedies to be delightfully bawdy and deliciously witty - and who doesn't? - get thee to Ann Arbor's Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth by March 4 for Kickshaw Theatre's highly entertaining production of "Or," by Liz Duffy Adams.

For complete show information, CLICK HERE!

Daniel A. Helmer, Mary Dilworth and Vanessa Sawson

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A topic often ignored given 'brilliant' life at Tipping Point

Katherine Banks

When it comes to the hot-button topic of health care, there's one component that seems to be shoved into the back of the closet more often than not - which is a shame, since it directly and indirectly impacts a significant number of people. Did you know that nearly one in five Americans experience some form of mental illness each and every year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness? (That's approximately 18.5% of us, folks!) What's more, approximately one in five young people between the ages of 13 and 18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life; the number is 13% for ages 8–15.

Yes, talking about mental health issues can be uncomfortable, thanks to a combination of societal stigma, misinformation and an overall lack of accurate subject-matter knowledge. Yet it's a conversation we need to have if lives are to be improved and saved. (Also from the above-mentioned source: Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., the third leading cause of death for people ages 10–14 and the second leading cause of death for people ages 15–24. So, yes, this is an important conversation we must have!)

The magic of live theater can be an important voice in that discussion. And that's what's currently happening inside Northville's Tipping Point Theatre through Feb. 25.

Teamed with experts from St. Mary Mercy Livonia's Behavioral Health Department, Tipping Point's production of Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe explores the topic of depression and its long-term ramifications on a child whose mother suffers from the illness. The story begins with a seven-year-old who copes with the situation by creating a list of things that make life worth living (such as ice cream), a list that grows and expands for years and decades to come. Originally created as a tool to help heal the mother, the list actually serves to help anchor the child as life takes it unexpected twists and turns, ups and downs.

There you have it: the story's basic plot in a hundred words or less. So why, then, is live theater a better way to bring it to life than, say, a short story (which, under the title Sleeve Notes, is how the project actually started)?

Unlike the passive, solo experience of reading, live theater utilizes sight, sound and multiple art forms to create a shared universe that stimulates our minds and imaginations in both personal and communal ways unlike anything else. (What do I mean by that? Although the audience receives the same visual and audial stimuli and may laugh or cry together at certain points along their shared journey, afterward ask each person what they're taking away from the show and you'll get a surprisingly broad diversity of responses.)

And, when presented with great care, sensitivity and creativity, the result can be a powerful and emotional learning experience that will long be remembered by most in attendance. (It sure beats a lecture!)

Director Angie Kane Ferrante delivers all that and more. The basics are built into the script: no set, basic lighting, audience in the round, music in the background, one actor, some audience participation. It's what Ferrante contributes from that point on that's significant.

With subject matter that's more likely to create an invisible wall between performer and audience (and fear, since many theatergoers hate the idea they might be called on during the show), a safe space must be created in order for the audience to feel comfortable and responsive. As such, the first order of business for Ferrante was to cast someone whose personality would help create such an environment the instant the audience meets the performer. And that must be an immediate response, since the actor is in the theater from the moment the doors open, greeting folks as they enter and soliciting their help when needed during the show. (What are they asked to do? Shout out specified items from the child's list when prompted to do so, which were provided on numbered sheets of paper. I didn't count, but I'd guesstimate a couple dozen audience members participated.)

But that's not all. Additional theatergoers are drafted throughout the performance to play whatever additional characters are required to move the story along. So one person becomes a spouse, another a father, while someone else assumes the role of a sock-puppet-using school counselor. And therein lies potential danger.

Part of the fun of live theater is knowing that anything can happen at any moment - especially the unexpected. So when a script calls for unrehearsed theatergoers to play important parts of the story with little or no guidance, a director better have an actor in the show who is prepared to deal with wannabe stars who try to steal the show, or someone who panics and freezes like deer in headlights.

Therefore, it becomes imperative for the actor in the show to have at least some improv training or experience to help in such situations. So local improv guru Dave Davies - a longtime Tipping Point favorite - entered the mix, working with the actors to polish their skills.

Wait. Did I say actors? Isn't this a one-person play?

I did indeed, and yes it is. That's what I love most about this production.

What prompted this decision I'm not sure, but it's a great one: Two actors have been cast in the show, one man (James R. Kuhl, Tipping Point's producing artistic director) and one woman (Katherine Banks), each of whom performs on a different night. What I find ingenious about the concept is that it reflects the reality that girls and boys (and men and women) often respond differently to identical stimuli. And, I suspect, we respond to them differently as well.

Since Kuhl opened the show and has been showered with love by the media as a result of his performance (see the links below), I attended this past Friday night to observe Banks in the role. To say she was brilliant would be an understatement.

Her ability to charm the audience was noticeable upon entering the theater. With a warm smile and an old-friends-like demeanor, she greeted audience members as they took their seats. She looked you straight in the eye, and with a sincere quality to her voice as if you were the most important person in the room, she'd ask if you'd like to be a part of the show. If there was hesitancy, she'd take another approach (which she had to do with me when I first declined; when I'm there to write about the show, I make it a point never to become part of the performance). When successful, she seemed excited and honest with her thanks; she was equally understanding and nice when rejected.

All of that work paid off the second she stepped up onto an all-purpose wooden cube and started the show. It was her movement and voice alone that grabbed our attention; the lights never dimmed or brightened. And from that point on, she had the audience in the palm of her hands.

As the unnamed woman, Banks tells us her story beginning at the age of seven, jumping back and forth between narrator and participant. She is a natural storyteller, addressing us directly and keeping her focus laser sharp at all times. Her delivery is calm, soothing and reassuring; you can't help but hang on to every word she says.

But where she especially shines is with her rapport with those she brings on stage to help tell her story.

With gentle and often humorous prodding, everyone she approached throughout the performance joined in. And quite surprisingly, each provided her with responses that likely surpassed Bank's most desired expectations.

The result, then, was a performance in which - for me - the character became the reality. This wasn't an actress telling me a story; this was the woman herself discussing what life was like with a mother who'd "done something stupid" multiple times, and how those actions impacted her emotionally for the rest of her life.

All technical elements serve the show well: Scenic and properties by Gabriella S. Csapo; Costumes by Katherine Nelson; lights by Rachael Nardecchia; and sound design by Sonja Marquis.

So, yes, this is a story speckled with sadness. Yet it's also filled with genuine, heart-warming laughs. Ultimately, though, Every Brilliant Thing is an uplifting and hope-filled tale brilliantly told that shows us the resiliency of the human spirit. And it's one that theatergoers won't soon forget.

The Bottom Line: A project this good and worthwhile should live on after its final performance as a way to jump start a much-needed discussion on mental health treatment in the 21st century. That's what great theater excels at!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Performance details can be found HERE.
Mental health statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness can be found HERE.

Read John Monaghan's review in the Detroit Free Press HERE.
Read Patrice Nolan's review on HERE.
Read Ronelle Grier's review in The Oakland Press HERE.
Read Daniel Skora's review on It's All Theatre HERE.

James R. Kuhl and Katherine Banks