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time and place through a head-spinning monologue or two, Adams sprinkles short and entertaining bursts of meaningful historical references into various parts of the dialogue through which the audience ascertains the important facts it needs to understand the story moving forward: It takes place in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 EncoreMichigan.com 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

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A force to be reckoned with

Jonathan Davidson and Krista Schafer Ewbank

Every so often - and it occurred again this past week - I'm asked to name my favorite play. If we're talking about musicals, I have a quick and easy answer: Sweeney Todd. Or another Stephen Sondheim masterpiece, A Little Music, depending on my mood that day.

But it's a tough call when it comes to comedies and dramas; the list of possibilities is far too long to single out just one or two. If pressed, however, I've long identified both Copenhagen by Michael Frayn and Proof by David Auburn as distinct possibilities, with Doubt by John Patrick Shanley and Equus by Peter Shaffer as close runners-up. What appeals to me is that each is a smart, complex and thought-provoking script with an important story to tell. And when given a well-conceived and executed production, the result is an amazing experience that leaves theatergoers with serious questions to ponder.

That's precisely what happened this past Friday night at Trenton's Open Book Theatre Company, which provided me with yet another script to add to my potential list of favorites.

Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson brings forward from 18th-century France one of the most brilliant minds you've never heard of till now, and her arrival from the afterlife allows her to finally resolve a major, game-changing question of science she worked on much of her entire adult life: Is it F=mv or F=mv2 (squared)? (I won't bother you with the details, but her research helped lead to Einstein's better-known equation.)

Described by the playwright as a "tour de force," Emilie was a "physicist at a time before there was such a word, a mathematical genius, a card shark (the practical use of her mathematical genius), a published author, and the love of Voltaire's life. And she was a woman. Which made everything I just mentioned ten times harder to achieve."

All of that is true, as Emilie lived at a time when women were mostly to be seen, not heard - especially when it came to important matters reserved exclusively for men. Yet that didn't stop her or her work, despite the ridicule and scorn that was tossed her way by - supposedly and incorrectly - her betters.

If that sounds a bit sterile and boring, it's not, as Gunderson frames the narrative as Emilie's personal struggle to define and judge her life and accomplishments according to her perceived battle between love and philosophy - or better yet, her affairs of the heart versus her affairs of the head. Is one a better way to achieve your goals than the other? If so, which?

It's complicated stuff, to be sure. And as such, it's important for such a historically fact-driven script to fall into the hands of a perceptive and creative director who can discover the many levels of the characters' humanity and deliver a riveting and passionate interpretation that otherwise could end up as a very dry snooze fest. Sarah Hawkins Moan does that - and more - with an engaging production that seemingly breezes by much quicker than its actual 120 minutes (give or take, with a 10-minute intermission).

Much of show's charm is the result of the deeply layered performance of Krista Schafer Ewbank, Open Book's founder and producing artistic director, who brings Emilie to life. Emilie (who never leaves the stage) is the show's narrator, and Ewbank's storytelling abilities are excellent. Every skill in her actor's toolbox is put to great use and perfectly serves to define her character; there's not a single utterance or movement that doesn't ring true. And Ewbank never made me feel like I was being lectured to.

Since much of the show revolves around Emilie's intense, yet volatile relationship with fellow rabble-rousing philosopher and writer (and 12 years younger) Francois-Marie Arouet (a.k.a Voltaire), an equally strong actor is required. Hence, Jonathan Davidson was a wise and superb choice for the role. Just like every other show I've seen him in, Davidson lives and breathes the role; he's fully invested in his character at all times, with a wide range of emotions that are perfectly played. His interactions with Ewbank are often quite delicious.

Also in the production are Caitlin Morrison, Cynthia Szczesny, Patrick Loos and Matthew Wallace, each of whom play whatever other characters the story requires. (Morrison also doubles as Emilie in certain flashbacks; see the show yourself to find out why.) Although these are mostly under-defined, slightly more-than-sketchy roles, they are integral to the story and all serve the show quite well.

Technical aspects of the production are up to Open Book's usual standards: scenic design is by Eric Niece (I've been wondering where he's been lately); costume design is by Cheryl Zemke; and Harley Miah once again does an excellent job lighting the show. (There's one effect used in the show multiple times that I especially love.)

The Bottom Line: Open Book Theatre Company is one of a handful of Metro Detroit's young professional theater companies I predict will have a long and fruitful life, and Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight is a fine example of why I say that. Downriver residents are especially blessed to have them there!

Performances run through Feb.3. For show details, CLICK HERE!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Laughs and tears: Two lives in the theater

Luna Alexander and Dan Johnson

The magic of live theater is on display anytime patrons with an admission ticket wander into a theater, take their seat, sit back and watch as a three-dimensional, multi-disciplinary art form is used to tell a story before their very eyes. But what happens backstage? Who are these people, and what journey do they take to get to where they are - on stage, performing in a play?

It's a line of questioning many (if not most) in the industry have addressed in one form or another, and it's one the creative folks at Ferndale's Slipstream Theatre Initiative attempt to answer in its current production, Tales from the Mitten, that runs weekends through Jan. 28.

Written and performed by Luna Alexander and Dan Johnson and "loosely" directed by Bailey Boudreau, the format is deceptively simple: On a mostly bare stage, two actors show up at an audition for a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and through multiple replays of the experience at various theaters across the state we discover the trials, tribulations, highs and lows of what it's like to work as a professional actor in Michigan.

The result is a very personal peek behind the curtains that's wickedly funny, yet equally heart-wrenching. (Even some offhand comments elicited near-riotous response on the night I was in the audience. And one particular spoof of the state's Pure Michigan campaign earned an especially raucous reaction! They're brave, these two, that's for sure!)

Alexander, with a twinkle in her eye throughout the show, is a natural storyteller, whose skillful blend of words, expressions and body language reveals the truths behind what she's experienced in the industry. And Johnson - who seems to be working everywhere these days (and that's a good thing for us theatergoers) - takes us on what's likely the most gut-punching emotional journey I've experienced in ages.

Together, they make a fine team.

But what I couldn't help but wonder is this: Since any endeavor that seeks to reveal what makes something tick runs the risk of painting with too broad a brush, how universal are these stories? Because everyone's experiences are uniquely their own, will actors from the broader community agree with them? How similar or different will their stories be? And will seasoned veterans have a different perspective? It's a conversation I'd love to eavesdrop on.

Going in to the show I was concerned that it might be too much of an "insider's only" production - that is, only those inside the industry would appreciate it. But afterwards, a gentleman I'd never talked to came up to me and commented that since he wasn't in the business he didn't understand some of the references. "But that's OK," he said. "There was lots of stuff to laugh at."

Yes, indeed there was.

The Bottom Line: I laughed (loudly several times) and got a tear in my eye (more than once), thanks to Alexander and Johnson who take us on one heck of a roller coaster ride that's not just for theater insiders.

For show information, CLICK HERE!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Danger: Actors at work (and busting their chops in delightful comedy)!

Wayne David Parker, Terry Heck and Kyle Mitchell Johnson

Although Norm Foster will likely never win a Pulitzer Prize for his work, there's a reason why he's the most-produced playwright in Canada - and why Tipping Point Theatre in Northville has produced one of his shows in five of the last six seasons: because they're pretty damn funny.

Office Hours, Tipping Point's latest (which runs through Dec. 23), is also a treat for actors and directors who are up for an interesting challenge thanks to the play's not-so-typical structure. Rather than tell a single story from beginning to end, Office Hours features six seemingly unrelated tales set in six different offices scattered throughout an unnamed city. But be forewarned: Pay close attention to even the most irrelevant-sounding names and bits of dialogue, as they may become important plot points later in the show.

And that's what's so much fun about Foster's script: watching as he weaves his various threads into a connected whole, right down to the show's final moments.

Having a well-written script is one thing, of course, but it needs a sharp director and fine team of actors to successfully bring it to life. The performance I saw last weekend certainly proved that Foster's work was indeed in fine hands!

Beth Torrey, after having earned the distinction last season of  directing Tipping Point's all-time top-selling play (Sexy Laundry), returned to work her comedic magic on Office Hours. And she assured its success by returning two longtime Tipping Point favorites to dominate the stage: Wayne David Parker and Ryan Carlson. Then she added to the mix Terry Heck (who earned a 2015 Wilde Award nomination for Tipping Point's Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike) and new-to-Tipping Point Sarah Hawkins Moan and Kyle Mitchell Johnson, and the result this past Saturday was a delightful evening of laughter.

Because half the fun (more or less) is experiencing the plot unfold for yourself with little or no knowledge of the plot beforehand, I won't say too much more about it. But the other half of the fun (more or less) is watching how each actor is called upon to create a handful of unique characters and how they keep them separate as the night progresses so the audience doesn't get confused with their every subsequent appearance. It ain't easy - but they sure make it look that way, with top-notch performances by the entire cast.

Bartley H. Bauer's set and Kellie Dugan's props work hand in hand defining each office with the simplest and quickest of changes.

The Bottom Line: Tipping Point Theatre consistently offers a quality and entertaining product to its customers, which is why it continues to be among the top producers of live theater in Southeast Michigan.

For complete information about Office HoursCLICK HERE!

Ryan Carlson and Sarah Hawkins Moan

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Unsung heroes: Designers who add character to their shows

The set of American Buffalo at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre

As a critic, it's my long-held belief that designers can play an important role in boosting a production from one level to the next. In fact, their work can often add as much character to a show as do the contributions of its director and actors, just as designers can improve the quality of the storytelling through the efficient and effective use of space. Yet critics and theatergoers alike often ignore the contributions of these artists when discussing the shows they see. (And yes, I myself have been guilty of this at times over the years.)

It's no secret that Metro Detroit is blessed with an abundance of creative and skilled designers whose work can be seen in theaters throughout the year. Two recent productions served to reinforce just how important their work is to the success of a production.

The first was a few weeks ago when I attended the Detroit Repertory Theatre's season-opening production of Swimming Upstream by playwright Rich Rubin. The Rep is known for its shepherding of new plays and new playwrights, and this world premiere was enjoyable, but ultimately not very notable because of two things: a script that tries too hard to shoehorn the topic of climate change into a romantic comedy about a marine biologist whose specialty is saving salmon (and the world) from extinction, and the lack of spark and sizzle between its two lovebirds. (Sandra Love Aldridge as the biologist's mother, however, lit up the show with every appearance.)

But what I loved about the production was director Harry Wetzel's design for the set. Noted for his many years of design work at the Rep (among other things), I was impressed this time by his efficient use of space. Rubin's story unfolds in four separate places - an office, a restaurant and a couple of apartments (or houses) - and Wetzel was able to fit all of them onto the Rep stage simultaneously using multiple levels to help keep each location roomy, unique and separately identifiable.

What's more, his design allowed him as the director to ensure that scene changes were especially quick and short - and there were a lot of them - thereby not slowing down the action for more time than was necessary. As such, the story flowed from one scene to the next in rapid succession with just enough time in between for the audience to catch its breath and shift its attention to what happens next.

In addition, Thomas Schraeder's complementary lighting design helped define and focus the story's ebbs, flows and emotional beats.

As such, the show was well served by both artists.

That's also the case with The Jewish Ensemble Theatre's production of David Mamet's  American Buffalo, this time by pretty much it's entire design team.

The first thing I noticed as I entered the theater was the realism of its set. Mamet's story unfolds entirely inside a resale shop, and so set designer Elspeth Williams and property designer Harold Jurkewicz seemed to go all out in jointly creating a junky storefront that screamed "come in and browse" - so much so, that I observed several theatergoers wander about the front of the stage prior to the performance trying to check out as many of the goodies as possible. And at intermission, one gentleman seemed ready to walk on to the stage and take a closer look, but he thought better of it after hesitating a few seconds.

But what really impressed the heck out of me was how the inclement weather was handled - the rain against the windows, the thunder and the lightning - that in most productions come off as fake or artificial. Not here, though, thanks to Williams (as technical director) and the contributions of additional team members Neil Koivu (lighting design) and Matt Lira (sound design). Together their efforts were so effective and realistic that I briefly wondered if the windows of my car were closed when I first heard the torrential rainfall hit the storefront glass.

Enjoyable as the production was, however, it wasn't as powerful as I expected, mostly because some of the ingredients provided by Mamet - a rather tough taskmaster when it comes to wordplay and understanding its subtext - were under served or delivered a bit too cautiously.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Mamet is known for creating characters - often hyper-competitive alpha males - who live on the fringe of society or who are barely scratching the surface of the ever-elusive American Dream. In American Buffalo, a seemingly average junkshop owner is anything but, as we learn Don (Lynch R. Travis) is not above a little breaking and entering to increase his operating profit. Nor is his friend and accomplice, "Teach" (Matthew David), who worms his way in to a deal Don made with a recovering neighborhood junkie (Shane O'Connor).

Mamet's tight, street-smart dialogue - filled with subtleties, wordplay and varying degrees of manipulation among the characters as they jockey for power and control - is laden with profanity, and characters often talk over one another. Yet there's a rhythm to his words, an intensity, which eschews the usual line delivery found in the majority of plays. And that was what I felt was missing from parts of the production, which resulted in some of the interpersonal dynamics among the characters feeling a little off to me at times.

(I'll admit here to being spoiled by The Abreact's production back in 2008, which saw the interplay among and between the three characters sizzle from stop to finish.)

One final note: In his biography in the program, O'Connor says, "I'm sorry for always playing drug addicts on stage. At least it pays the rent." My words of advice? Don't be sorry! It was an absolutely amazing performance - so much so that I was ready to take him to a recovery clinic immediately after the performance to get him cleaned up!

* * * * *

Swimming Upstream runs through Dec. 23 at the Detroit Repertory Theatre. For show details, CLICK HERE!

American Buffalo runs through Dec. 10 at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield. For show details, CLICK HERE!

Swimming Upstream at The Detroit Rep with
Yanni Papadimos, Sandra Love Aldridge and Audrey Lovy

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Life still sucks (or not): Two theaters and two directors approach the same script so differently, yet get equally entertaining results

Every so often, theatergoers have an opportunity to view firsthand what impact directors, actors and designers have on bringing a script to life when two or more theater companies produce the same show a few months apart from one another. The result, they'll discover, can be as different as night and day.

Critics, too, can have a lot of fun with such occurrences, as when Bridgette Redman (then a regular freelance critic and entertainment writer for the Lansing State Journal) and I got together several seasons ago and crafted a series of columns comparing and contrasting three productions of Doubt that took place over a short period of time. (For us, that was a lot of fun, and the reader response was great!)

Already this season we've seen two very different productions of Life Sucks, Aaron Posner's "irreverent variation on Anton Chekov's Uncle Vanya" - the first at Open Book Theatre in Trenton this past September, and currently at The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale.

In trying to describe their differences in a way that paints a very specific picture, I came up with the following analogy (imperfect though it may be): Open Book's production was like walking into a neighborhood restaurant where you find tables draped in white linen with flickering candles on top, impeccable service provided by a polite and polished waitstaff dressed in clean and perfectly pressed black uniforms, and a kitchen that runs like clockwork; on the other hand, The Ringwald's production was like having dinner at a truck-stop diner where flirty waitresses refer to you as "honey" or "darlin'" more times than you can count, uniforms reflect the staff's personal styles and choices, the flurry of activity in and out of the kitchen occurs at various (and often breakneck) speeds, and orders are barked in to and out of the kitchen with a mix of urgency and humor.

Neither is better than the other; the experiences are simply different. Very different. What's the same, though, is the ultimate result of your dining experience: a fun and memorable visit that accomplished what you hoped for and expected - a tasty, fully satisfying meal.

That's close to how I view the two productions. But if pressed for a more deeper (but equally incomplete) comparison about the style (not the substance) of each show, I'd say that it was if the Open Book production was set in the normally quiet estate of Grosse Point natives, whereas The Ringwald introduced us to that loud and rowdy bunch down the street who occasionally wakes us up in the middle of the night.

Again, both approaches are equally valid. Yet two directors interpreted the same material in significantly different ways. And even the designers brought a different look and feel to their respective productions. (Harley Miah's impressive lighting design for the Open Book production, for example, still sticks with me today.)

Because of choices made by the shows' directors (Krista Schafer Ewbank at Open Book and Joe Bailey at The Ringwald), a natural result is the different flow to how each story unfolds. Plus, since each actor brings their own unique skills and choices into their work, it's also expected that the actors playing identical roles will interpret them differently. And that's certainly the case with these two productions. (For more about Open Book's production see my post from this past September.)

For those who enjoy observing how different actors can play the same role so differently, Dyan Bailey as Pickles was radically different from Mandy Logsdon's, just as Bryan Lark's Dr. Aster was not in the same universe as Jonathan Davidson's. And Jane MacFarlane's Babs had little in common with Linda Rabin Hammell's, just as Sydney Lepora's Ella was worlds away from Caitlin Morrison's. But that didn't matter, as each fit snugly in to the worlds created by their directors.

Standouts in The Ringwald's production include Joel Mitchell, who runs rings around pretty much every other actor in town when it comes to playing pompous asses like The Professor. (He's also pretty damn good in other roles as well, as evidenced by his seven Wilde Awards nominations and two wins over the past 16 years.) The way he plays with certain words - both vocally and visually - adds important color to his dialogue.

Also impressive is Joe Bailey as Vanya. In yet another masterful performance, Bailey dives deep into his emotional well to bring all of Vanya's heretofore hidden pain to the surface. It's heart-wrenching to watch, made more so by his expert use of hand gestures and facial expressions to accentuate his words.

But it's Kelly Komlen who truly tears your heart out as Sonia, The Professor's daughter and Vanya's niece. Secretly in love with Dr. Aster, she believes he's out of reach - mostly, she believes, because she considers herself to be homely and he only dates hot, attractive women. (Their age difference doesn't seem to dawn on her; from his point of view, she's simply the younger niece of his life-long best friend.) Her last act meltdown was so powerful I couldn't help but ask Komlen afterward how she can go home and relax right after the show. Her answer made me laugh - and made total sense.

Lights by Brandy Joe Plambeck and the set by Jennifer Maiseloff served the concept well. I especially loved the painted scenery on the upstage and stage left walls.

So what's the moral of my story, you may be wondering? Directors matter. So do actors. And every so often its nice to have an opportunity to be reminded why that's so - and what impact they have on bringing a script to life.

The Bottom Line: If you're curious about which production I liked best, you'll be disappointed. Both were highly enjoyable. But they were also quite different - and that's what I love about live theater! And in this specific case, I went to The Ringwald knowing and appreciating the types of work they do, and they met and exceeded all of my expectations. As usual.

To see how on the mark or off base I am, you have only two more chances to catch Life Sucks at The Ringwald: today at 5 p.m and tomorrow at 8 p.m. For complete information regarding The Ringwald Theatre, CLICK HERE!