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

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