Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Platonic neighbors go to war; Platonic Critics have difference of opinion (but don't go to war)

As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Saturday performance of Tipping Point Theatre’s “Northern Aggression,” on May 19, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

An inherent challenge of a family squabble – particularly when there’s a clear resolution – involves the reality of having to still interact with each other for years afterward while silently assuming our post-conflict, arrogant/resentful roles.

As divisive and dysfunctional as the United States has become, we’re still ultimately one big family, and the Civil War remains our definitive quarrel. Though multiple generations have died and been born since battles between the Confederacy and the Union took place, a tension – something like historical muscle memory – still radiates from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line; and prolific Michigan playwright Joseph Zettelmaier taps into this long-simmering tension via his play “Northern Aggression,” now playing at Tipping Point Theatre through June 24.

The show begins as a young couple from Detroit, Maddie (Alysia Kolascz) and Rob (Patrick Loos), are moving into their new home in rural Georgia, where Maddie’s landed a new job as the town’s veterinarian. Rob, formerly an engineer, doesn’t know how or where he’ll fit into the local ecosystem yet, but after elderly neighbor Doc (Thomas D. Mahard) stops by, Rob not only finds himself wearing gray during a local Civil War reenactment, but also waging a prank-filled personal war against Doc.

DC: It's been a while since I've attended a Joe Zettelmaier play, and so it was a great refresher on what I've always liked about his work: well-drawn and identifiable characters, dialogue that serves both the characters and the story, and an overall entertaining story.

JM: So you didn't get to catch his drama "Our Lady of Poison" at Williamston?

DC: Unfortunately, no. I haven't been out to Williamston in a while.

JM: That was the most recent show of his I've seen, and because I had very different reactions to these two shows, that's what I've been kicking around all weekend. "Poison" had really high stakes for its characters - and this is what I think I felt was missing in "Northern Aggression." It's an amusing premise, but it felt slight to me.

DC: Well, it's one of his earlier scripts. I reviewed its world premiere in Williamston under the title "And the Creek Don't Rise" back in 2011, and he's certainly grown as a playwright since then. While you're correct, this isn't a high-stakes story, I find it to be a very intimate and personal tale that explores various aspects of men and their ability to accept change and bond with other men. And he accomplished it with a rather unusual, yet creative plot.

JM: Ohhhhhhhh. Oops. I hadn't known of the show’s history, and I hadn’t heard this title before –I had a baby in 2011, so I can just blame that for my ignorance on this point, right?! – so I’d presumed it was a more recently written script.

DC: (laughs) I’ll buy that excuse. At the time I found it to be yet another evolutionary step in his maturation as a playwright.

JM: I appreciate its ambitions, and there's definitely some good stuff to unpack in it - North/South differences, generational differences, how notions of masculinity are changing - but again, for me, it didn't dig quite deeply enough to make much of an impact.

DC: What do you think it was missing?

JM: Well, take the sequence in which the men are ramping up their pranks on each other, for instance. That, to me, feels a bit sit-com-y. It's something we often see in films and television shows, and it's familiar shorthand for an escalating conflict, so it just made things feel more contrived and less organic to me. And how does a man who's despised by everyone - though he doesn't seem particularly hateful or mean when we meet him - get a job for a guy who moved into town? And if Rob hates the job, which he seems to from the get-go, what's stopping him for looking for other work in town? I just kept getting tripped up by questions like this, and I wasn’t so riveted by the central conflict. I appreciated the wit of the dialogue, and many elements of the production's execution, but overall, this was not one of my favorite Zettelmaier shows. Fortunately, there are lots to choose from, though.

DC: That there are. Up till the time this initially appeared, I had seen every one of Joe's shows, and what I appreciated is that it wasn't trying to tackle the world's woes, but rather simply look at what could happen when two men who have absolutely nothing in common other than their Y chromosomes are forced to reckon with each other as next door neighbors. So what we end up with is their own mini Civil War, or Hatfield-McCoy feud. And so how it escalated didn't bother me; testosterone will do that to a guy - although breaking into the other's house was a bit too extreme for me; that crossed a boundary. You also have to remember that small Southern towns may not be hospitable to a Yankee newcomer, and I think there's a line or two about there being no jobs available. So he was kind of stuck there in a job he hated. And why did the dealership give it to him if they hated the doctor so much? He mentions several times he's owed favors, and so I assume the owner lived up to granting that favor – despite his personal feelings for the guy.

JM: I just felt like things like this were explained away too easily when they didn't hold water for me. Yes, I definitely, upon moving to Athens, Georgia for a two year stint long ago, became pointedly aware of my own Yankee-ness, so some of this rang very familiar. But again, some plot points just felt contrived to me - where I was thinking about the choices made by the writer instead of being engaged with the story.

DC: I think part of our difference of opinion here is that I went in to the performance with complete knowledge of what to expect, and being fully aware of how far Joe’s skills as a playwright have progressed since then. So I was seeing it as a reminder of just how far his work has progressed over the years, while for you it felt like a step back.

JM: That's probably part of it. Having no previous knowledge of this script, I went in expecting the level of skill Zettelmaier's working at right now. And expectations can definitely play a significant role in how we process and respond to works of art.

DC: Exactly. Although it earned a 2012 Wilde Award nomination for Best New Script, six years later it’s dropped off my list of Top Three Favorite Joe Zettelmaier Plays. Still, it's one I enjoy very much because of its simplicity and the truthfulness behind how men often have trouble making friends and resolving differences. But then again, I might also be influenced by the performances - both with the Tipping Point production and with the world premiere in Williamston.

JM: I was just taking note of Mahard's bio, which states he originated the role in the first production at Williamston. Did you notice significant changes in the show since seeing it back then?

DC: I loved him in both, actually, as he fully became the doctor in each production. He was the epitome of the small town Southern Gentleman - at least on the outside. If there was a difference, it was only in how certain lines were delivered.

JM: Mahard did a great job of projecting the polite Southern gentleness that Doc puts on for Maddie, while still suggesting Doc's sense of mischief and his potential for anger that's always just beneath the surface.

DC: In my review of the 2011 production, I instructed theatergoers to watch Mahard's eyes if you really want to know what's lurking inside the doctor's head, and that's STILL a relevant statement. He's a master at using his eyes to tell a story.

JM: And Loos is so funny and earnest as Rob. He pretty much has to carry the thing, since his "fish out of water" struggle is the one we're following most closely, and Loos' joy in the role feels contagious.

DC: When I first heard he was cast in the role, I thought it was perfect casting; it's like he was made for the role. John Lepard played the character in Williamston, and it was interesting to see how differently they approached it. Loos was a boiling tea kettle ready to explode, and watching him struggle to keep it inside him was fun to watch.

JM: Because this play is largely about a sandbox battle between the two men, Maddie's part is the most utilitarian - she has to play referee, lover to Rob, and concerned neighbor and veterinarian to Doc. She's crucial for being the bridge between the men, and providing information that helps us piece things together, but it's all in service to the central story. Nonetheless, Alysia Kolascz strikes the right tone as the go-between. She's like the human embodiment of the Mason-Dixon Line.

DC: Yes, there's not a lot of dramatic meat to the role, but she plays the sympathetic referee quite well.

JM: Maybe that was part of my issue with the show, too. It's fine that the beef between these two men plays the starring role, but I feel like, since Maddie's part of their story, and plays a part in bringing them together, maybe there should be more of her in there.

DC: But this isn't Maddie's story. It's the guys’ story. Joe had written a number of excellent plays starring strong women who were the focus of the plot, and this was his attempt - in my mind, at least - at showing he could also tell a men's story equally as well.

JM: There's no question that it's a really tough balance to strike, as a playwright. You can't give everyone equal space and time, or you'll lose focus. So I absolutely acknowledge that, and I don't suggest I have an easy answer, either. That was just one element that felt undercooked to me.

DC: Since, in general, men and women have different ways of resolving conflicts, when it comes to interpersonal issues between two men such as this, the guys have to resolve it on their own. And - no spoiler warning needed - they did. Her direct interference might have resulted in a different ending.

JM: I don’t know that I necessarily believe that there are gender differences in regard to conflict resolution - but that sounds like a topic for another Platonic Theater Date all together. Can't imagine who would read that one, but ...

DC: Probably no one. (laughs) But traditionally, women will take whatever time is necessary and talk things out. Men aren’t like that; we’re not talkers, we’re doers. So we’ll often go to war with each other until we figure out a way to resolve the conflict to our mutual satisfaction. That’s especially true for alpha males who jockey to become top dog. But you're right; that's for a different discussion! (laughs)

JM: So let me ask: did the set designer for the original production employ a completely different concept?

DC: Yes, very much so. In my earlier review, I describe Daniel Walker’s set as “mostly the exterior of the Graff’s house, plus various moveable set pieces” And I made special mention of the hospital bed that they quietly sneaked on stage.

JM: Tipping Point's Jennifer Maiseloff used projections on a set of tall, white vertical blinds, and minimal furniture for scene changes. Plus, you saw a painted wooded backdrop to underline not only how far into the woods this couple had moved, but also to supply an appropriate visual backdrop for the Civil War reenactment scenes.

DC: For me, the blinds were a great idea in theory, but in practice they didn’t succeed as intended. All too often there were gaps between panels, and they continued to shimmer for far too long after they were closed, which made the projected image look like what those of us older than dirt will remember when you watched TV with an antenna on your roof: a shaky image if not tuned correctly. I found them distracting.

JM: I found it distracting at times, too. Not constantly, but my eye was drawn away when they would continue to flutter, post-closing.

DC: Yep. Mine, too.

JM: It seemed like one of those cool ideas that, in practice, presents a small but hard-to-solve problem.

DC: I'll give them an "A" for at least trying the idea, though.

JM: Yes, when I first realized how they were using it, I thought, “Oh, that's so clever!" But I will say that the painted floor design and backdrop where quite beautifully executed.

DC: I agree. And so did the friend who was with me. He was quite impressed with both. What did you think about the sound?

JM: I loved Julia Garlotte's use of bluegrass covers of pop/rock hits – by everyone from Guns-N-Roses to Tears for Fears. A nice little musical reminder that we’re not in Detroit anymore. But she also, of course, had to make the battlefield feel more visceral by way of shots and explosions, and "fill the battlefield," as it were, with a crowd of reenactors that aren't there.

DC: It was a magnificent job, that's for sure. And I think stage manager Tracy L. Spada deserves a hearty round of applause, too, for executing what seemed like a million cues so flawlessly.

JM: Yes - all ran smoothly on opening night! I also appreciated how lighting designer Rita Girardi could subtly differentiate between indoor and outdoor settings - with the battlefield scenes doused in something akin to natural lighting, while Doc's hospital room gave him more the pallor of a man in such an institution.

DC: Agreed. Even the TV in Doc's hospital room was realistically represented.

JM: And Colleen Ryan-Peters' costumes – which Doc would correct me by saying "uniforms" – not only help bring us further into this world, but also visually underline the many differences between these two men. Rob wears a Tigers t-shirt when we first meet him; Doc might wear a t-shirt as underwear – if that!

DC: Yep...other than the blinds, this was a very well-designed and executed production!

JM: And it's interesting that in a time of ever-widening partisan division in this country, this play about two very different men finding a way to live next to each other in peace is being re-staged now. Probably not a coincidence.

DC: I agree; probably not. It's very timely, actually. If only all of our nation's disagreements could be resolved with such a satisfactory conclusion. So, ultimately, what's your overall opinion of the show?

JM: I've used this allusion before, but it felt more like an appetizer than a meal. It was pleasant enough, and I laughed a few times, but I didn't feel satisfied. For those seeking a lighthearted night out, it'll definitely do, but I think I was looking for more. Or perhaps "expecting" that, as we mentioned earlier.

DC: For me it's a pleasant night at the theater that lightheartedly examines how our differences don't have to separate us if both sides are willing to meet half way. And it leaves me wanting to see what new things Zettelmaier has coming down the pike.

JM: Oh, do you think he'll write more plays? (I kid, I kid…)

DC: I dunno. Maybe one or two more! (laughs)

For complete show information, CLICK HERE!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

'Appropriately' complex, say Platonic critics

As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Friday performance of Planet Ant’s “Appropriate,” on May 11, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

Sometimes, a death in the family can bring out the worst in people. This is, in part, because family members are each processing grief in their own way, but there are also awkward, inevitable conversations about who gets what, and how assets should be divided. In addition, everyone involved is forced to revisit and reassess their relationship to the deceased and to each other. And finally, related adults who have long gotten used to not living anywhere close to each other may suddenly find themselves thrown together in close quarters for a few days.

All this (and far, far more) is in play in Branden Jacobs-Jenkin's “Appropriate,” now being staged at Hamtramck’s Planet Ant through May 19, directed by Joe Bailey. Set on what was once an Arkansas plantation –where the Lafayette family’s patriarch, a retired judge who became a hoarder, lived his last days – three grown siblings with lots of grudges and complicated history make the pilgrimage to the place where they spent their childhood summers.

Toni (Kelly Ann Komlen), the oldest, is reeling from a divorce, financial strain, her father’s death, and a tenuous relationship with her troubled teenage son Rhys (Shane Nelson); Bo (Joel Mitchell) initially appears to be the Lafayette sibling who broke free, living and working in New York with his wife Rachel (Melissa Beckwith) and two kids Cassidy (Meredith Deighton) and Ainsley (Forrest Gabel); and Frank (Donny Reidel), the longtime addict who’s been MIA for years, suddenly appears on the scene with a young vegan wife named River (Jaclynn Cherry). As family members try to clean up the decaying house for sale, they unearth some alarming items, including a photo album full of lynching photos, and anatomical souvenirs in jars.

DC: I don’t know about you, Jenn, but for me, “Appropriate” was one of the quickest three hours I’ve ever spent inside a theater – and that’s considering it included three acts and two intermissions. I credit that to a couple of things: An amazingly complex script; a director who played to the strengths of both the script and his actors; and performances that kept me focused and invested in the story right up till the end. Tedious it’s not.

JM: Well, I wouldn't say it's the quickest three hours I've spent - the first act is intense, and I felt pretty wrung out by the time the first intermission arrived - but I did find myself engaged and sitting on the edge of my seat as things progressed, and more and more was revealed.

DC: Given that we've become so used to shows that run 90 minutes or less, I expected the show to take forever. But it barely seemed two hours to me, let alone three - and that's coming from someone who'd been up since 5 that morning and would've normally been asleep long before the curtain came down.

JM: I thought the play struck some similar notes to Letts' "August: Osage County." Family dysfunction run amok, occasional dry humor, a really dark underbelly – complicated, rich material that tackles the messy intersection of history, race, power, and how that resonates within this family through the generations.

DC: Interesting; I hadn’t thought of that. I see somewhat of a similarity to a different show. The playwright is very skillful at dribbling out dollops of information throughout the show that provide you with just enough detail to begin making assumptions or drawing conclusions about certain things, yet it’s not enough to allow you to be fully certain that what you think you know is one-hundred-percent, absolutely true. It’s kind of like John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” which is one of my all-time favorite scripts. If it’s done correctly, you should have doubts at the end of the show as to whether or not the priest is guilty of sexual assault. In “Appropriate,” you should have doubts and suspicions about a lot things, which is why I’ve been thinking about the play quite a lot since last Friday night.

JM: It certainly hangs its hat on ambiguity, as does "Doubt." You hear the perspective of each person in this family, and they all have good points, as well as flaws. You don't really take sides because you can't.

DC: Right, you can't, because some of what's revealed is circumstantial, and other revelations are in conflict with one another. Especially as the first act progresses, it’s not clear what everyone’s motivations are and whose recollections are most accurate.

JM: Which is totally realistic, of course. This is why so many conflicts in families can never, ever quite be resolved.

DC: Exactly. And you were right about something else, as well. By the end of Act One, you can't help but wonder if you can survive two more such emotional wringers. Luckily, there's a shift in tone in Act Two.

JM: Yes. I really did wonder if I was up for it. But it's not a one-note play. It's got different textures, but you have to get through that first, highly confrontational and tense first act. It's like a freshman weeder class, in a sense. To be able to handle what's coming, you kind of have to prove your willingness to look at some pretty ugly stuff in the face. Maybe it just wouldn't work, otherwise.

DC: I suspect that's true. Act One certainly lays out all sorts of "stuff" that sets off an initial round of emotional turmoil that later sets the stage for what follows. The way Jacobs-Jenkins accomplishes that is quite fascinating.

JM: I'll try not to reveal too much, but I'm compelled to ask you what you thought about the role race plays in this show about a white family.

DC: That's one of two topics where I think the playwright proves just how masterful he is. Jacob-Jenkins sets up his discussion on race by letting us know the deceased, whose ghost hangs over the entire play, is the fifth-generation owner of what was once a slave plantation in Arkansas. So he creates for us a certain set of characteristics by which we can make certain assumptions about him. So when heretofore secret artifacts are discovered while preparing to sell his home, we can easily jump to certain conclusions. But then additional information about his history and background are revealed - including statements by a black woman who took care of him towards the end of his life – that make you rethink your initial assumptions. So now we have potentially conflicting information to sort through, and it’s STILL not a complete portrait of the man. And unfortunately, he’s not available to defend himself against what seem to be some pretty damning evidence.

JM: But one thing that felt so unnerving to me - probably the playwright's intent, of course - was how, while everyone was horrified by the existence of lynching photos in the house, they nonetheless seemed totally willing to profit from them, without too much conversation or thought about whose hands they might fall to, or what that party might use them for. Plus, when they unearth saved, anatomical relics from lynchings, I found that even more disturbing, but their response is, essentially, "Put that away!" It was chilling.

DC: I agree. People are complicated, and sometimes we don’t want to think about the ugliness we’re confronted with – especially if it means acknowledging something despicable about a loved one. It’s also amazing how quickly some folks can push such atrocities aside when money is potentially involved.

JM: But to me, the fact that they could dismiss the pain and ugliness of these things relatively easily, and not recoil more on a human level, seemed to be Jacobs-Jenkins' way of saying, this is how an oppressor responds to relics of its own past, versus what it would be like for a black family to come face-to-face with them. There's a banality to their reaction that hurts you to witness. But the implication of this numbness, too, seems to be the lasting, existential damage to this family. They are broken, and there seems to be no real hope for things to get better.

DC: There's another way to look at their reaction that can't be ignored. They might not look at it as a part of their own past - partially because there's no real proof of where the relics came from and why they were there. But also because they may not accept any responsibility or acknowledge any responsibility for them since they themselves had nothing to do with them. That's part of what I love about the script: There are multiple ways to look at or interpret what he presenting, mainly because he's given us just the right amount to keep us guessing.

JM: I don't know. There certainly are several unanswered questions, but I felt pretty persuaded that if the items didn't belong to their deceased father, it didn't go too much further back in the family tree. As one character said, it seems unlikely someone visited, brought their lynching memorabilia, and just left it behind. To me, the idea that this ugly history is enmeshed in this messed up family's identity seemed put to rest. And this suggested, at least in part, why the family has become what it is. But that's me trying to connect the dots, as the playwright invites us to do.

DC: I understand. But labeling a person as racist is a serious charge, one that can do great and long-lasting damage if it’s applied incorrectly. And so I’m very loathe to call someone that without indisputable evidence. So while he may have been one, there are also many other possibilities as to why he had those relics in the house, such as they could have belonged to his father or great grandfather and he didn't discover them till late in life; since it was established he was a well-respected attorney and judge in D.C. on track for the Supreme Court, they could have been part of a case he handled; or he also could have intended to give them to something like what we have here in Michigan, the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Or, he could have been a member of the KKK, but nothing in the story revealed racism towards blacks - including what his caregiver said. We still don’t know all the facts; it's all circumstantial.

JM: What about what he said to Bo in his dorm room? About keeping watch on his possessions because of his black roommate?

DC: Yes, that's certainly a potential check in the "he's a racist" category. But because we don’t have enough information about him and his past, it could also reflect prejudice on his part, which is not the same as being a racist. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood and heard parents of all colors and ethnicities make similar statements to their kids about other kids they were suspicious of for various reasons (me included). So what he said doesn't necessarily mean he hates all black people or feels superior to them.

JM: Maybe. But that definitely scored one for the prosecution for me. And as a sidenote, it was interesting to learn, after-the-fact, that the playwright is African American. Not that that necessarily changes things, but I just thought, "Oh. That's interesting, too."

DC: Unfortunately, when race is involved, we're quick to judge, even when all the facts aren't clear.

JM: But it's hard not to be quick to judge, given our country's history and, frankly, the contemporary aftershocks of that history, which I'd argue we're still very much living with.

DC: What did you think about the relationship between Rhys and Frank?

JM: The Rhys and Frank dynamic was weird - but then everything involving Frank was kind of weird. Toni blames Frank for being a bad influence on Rhys, but when a misunderstanding occurs, and what Frank thinks he sees is Rhys pleasuring himself in front of the horrifying photo album, his attempt to talk to him, awkward though it is, comes off as good-hearted and sweet. Even if the experience he thinks is connecting them is creepy.

DC: To me, what’s even creepier is when Frank alludes to what he sees as similarities between the two of them. When Frank apprehensively asks Rhys if he remembered him, which got me wondering: We know Frank assaulted an underage girl in his past. Could something have happened between him and Rhys as well?

JM: It's verrrry gently suggested that this could have happened; that suggestion of Frank possibly molesting Rhys as a child is there. Something else we can never quite put together, given the pieces provided by the script.

DC: That’s not the only creepy relationship in the story. But we won’t go there.

JM: And I must say, Donny Reidel's performance as Frank is odd, but that's kind of perfectly in keeping with the character. There's something so off about him, in so many ways. And Reidel's tall, lanky physique being hunched throughout, particularly when talking to his siblings, conveyed so much of his discomfort with his body, with himself. The strange and constant gesturing achieved that, too.

DC: I agree. There's a certain...halting...to his performance seems to indicate Frank might be a bit slow, or more likely, he’s a burn out. It certainly creates a specific impression on you.

JM: At first, I thought Reidel might be playing things too emphatically - like, self-consciously odd. But as you learn more about Frank and his past, it feels less out of left field and more like, well, maybe someone with all this in their history would be this mess of spaced out nerves.

DC: Totally. I agree with that. And when in the third act he tries to fix what he sees as a problem, he actually lights up – that the years of family baggage have finally been lifted from his shoulders. Too bad the response isn't what he was expecting.

JM: Yes, I was with his young wife River/Tricia on that one. I thought, "He may have just saved you all from yourselves." But to his siblings, this is just one more example of his self-absorption and idiocy.

DC: Yes, and without wanting to give much away, money is once again at the root of their reaction.

JM: Yes - but again, at what spiritual price does that money come? I understood the reasons for the siblings’ reactions - they're in dire financial straits, with little hope of escaping - but that's a tough, tough call, morally speaking.

DC: It is. And your question doesn't get answered. There are no easy answers to be found in the play.

JM: Let's talk about the other messed up family members, shall we?

DC: (laughs) We have so many to choose from, too! How about we start with River. You first this time!

JM: Jaclynn Cherry plays the chirpy young vegan who, despite her willingness to walk miles with Frank and simply camp on the property, also seems to keep speaking up when it comes to Frank's legal share of the house and everything attached to it. It's an interesting part. Cherry does a pretty good job of managing that balancing act.

DC: Like pretty much everyone else in the house, she too seems to have an agenda. And hers is making sure Frank gets whatever money he's entitled to. But as played by Cherry, she really does seem to have his best interests at heart. It is indeed a well-balanced performance. Much of the time she’s saccharinely sweet and doe-eyed, but when needed, she becomes a fiercely protective mama bear who’s scared of no one.

JM: You see why she drives Toni crazy, with her youth and earth-hugginess and her optimism, but you also understand why Frank loves her. She believes in him more than anyone, including Frank himself, ever has in his life. Which makes her discoveries about the unadorned truth of his past all the more wrenching.

DC: Toni isn’t used to anyone standing up to her, especially an outsider like River. She finally meets her match.

JM: Ooh, let's talk about Toni! Kelly Ann Komlen has an exhausting first act. It was emotionally taxing for me to experience, just as an audience member, but holy cow! If I was living that each performance, I'd be trying to cram in a power nap during the first intermission in the green room. Woo! It's a bear of a role, and she is all in.

DC: I don't know how she can go home at night and relax. Her performance is utterly amazing for its intensity, ferocity and focus. She's on the attack pretty much throughout the entire first act, and she doesn't hold back or take prisoners. It’s one of the strongest performances of the year, I think.

JM: It's visceral for sure. We throw around "force of nature" a lot, but Toni really IS one. She's so raw that she can no longer traffic in nuance or artifice or conventions anymore. She's just done. And it's hard to watch a woman who's reached that point, after trying to do the right thing for years, and only experiencing more and more pain.

DC: Especially since her brothers did little to nothing to help over the years except financially, and now they have nothing but complaints about she's been handling things. I’d be a bit upset, too!

JM: Even Komlen's hair looks the part, if that doesn't sound ridiculous. Frizzy wisps just hang down around her face, with the rest sloppily clipped back - just another sign of Toni having lost all motivation.

DC: Now let’s rag on Bo, her brother.

JM: Bo and Toni are happy to gang up on Frank, but they're better-matched sparring partners for each other. And Mitchell, as always, is terrific as the New York guy who's assumed to be in a better place financially than he is. The others see him as the one who escaped the family, but he's secretly facing an economic crisis, which may lead to a personal crisis as well.

DC: For me, his is a rather intriguing performance. Mitchell is known for playing bombastic characters, storm-the-stage types of characters, but in this case, he's very nuanced. He's not the usual alpha male here; in fact, I suspect it’s his wife who rules the roost back home. I really enjoyed how he played this character.

JM: Well, to go toe to toe with Komlen’s Toni, he gets to flex a little bombast muscle. But it’s definitely a varied, challenging journey to depict.

DC: That leads to another fine performance: Melissa Beckwith as Rachel.

JM: There really is some top-notch local talent in this show. Beckwith's steely spined Rachel is another person not scared to stand up to Toni.

DC: The women in the show are by far the strongest characters. They have more and bigger balls than the guys do.

JM: Yes. This is really, in part, about whose arguments and methods will win out among the women involved.

DC: Very much so.

JM: And like Reidel, Beckwith's posture and movements express so much about Rachel, and what's happening under the surface. Add in the New York accent, and you know that while she may be little, she won't be moved.

DC: She's a force to be reckoned with, that's for sure. It’s easy to see why she rubs family members the wrong way. She’s not always likable.

JM: Who is, in this story?

DC: (laughs) Not a single one of them, actually. Which is contrary to what we're told is good playwriting. There's no one who serves as a protagonist we can identify with.

JM: The irony is, though, we identify with almost everyone to some degree, because as we mentioned at the start, they each have good points alongside some truck-sized flaws. You can always at least understand where they're coming from, and that they've done the best they could. They've tried to do "the right thing," but it seems not only at cross-purposes, but also, on some level, leads them closer toward self-destruction.

DC: Yes, by the end of the show, we don't have much hope this family will stay together

JM: Speaking of the play's end - which I won't reveal - it threw me for a loop. I'm still not quite sure what to make of it. I've been guessing since Friday night, but I'm still floating on what, exactly, it meant to send us home with.

DC: You’re not the only one! I was scratching my head about that as well. I have an idea what it meant, but like the rest of the show, I don't have enough information to make a final determination.

JM: I came up with several possible reads of the play's final moment. But the more I thought about it, the darker the different options became.

DC: Yep. Me, too.

JM: What did you think of Jen Maisloff's set design? Was it rough and cluttered enough to look like the house of a hoarder?

DC: At first I would have expected it to be even more cluttered, but a line in the play indicated a lot of it had been cleared already, so it didn’t bug me as much.

JM: The walls, and stripped doorframes and mouldings, certainly made it believable that this house might not be sale-able. Looked like an abandoned place for squatters more than a place someone recently called home.

DC: Yes, a haunted house, maybe. But nothing anyone would want to buy – hence, part of their financial dilemma.

JM: Which reinforces the idea that the photos may be their only way to come out of this with anything to show for it. But maybe that's the point. Maybe the family is suffering from previous generations' karma.

DC: That’s why the ending puts much of the show in doubt. (laughs) I think that was certainly the motivation for some of them.

JM: And, as is true whenever I see "fight choreographer" listed in the program, I think, "Ooh, there's going to be a fight!" And this one involves just about everyone.

DC: It sure does! It’s like a killer, “winner-take-all” cage fight, but without a referee.

JM: With so many characters involved in the ruckus - which brews for a long time over the course of the first two acts - the choreography feels like it has to paint a broad tableau of physical mayhem and violence. And it does. Your eye doesn't quite know what to focus on, so you just try to take in the whole picture.

DC: Yes, even though there’s a lot going on, Bailey’s direction and Sydney Lepora’s fight choreography keep you focused on where it needs to be.

JM: So ... what's your general consensus about the show? Would you recommend it?

DC: Yes, I certainly would - but with a warning label! (laughs) it’s a powerful, thought-provoking piece that will have you questioning pretty much everything you see for hours and days afterward. You?

JM: I would, too, with similar caveats. Like, you should definitely be up for something challenging and intense. Eat your Wheaties before you go, because you can't just casually sit back and have this play fed to you. There's a lot of meat on the bone, lots of stuff to unpack. LIke, for instance, the title. What did you make of that?

DC: Thanks for the fast ball, Jenn. (laughs) That's part of what I've been chewing on since last Friday. Was Frank's decision the "appropriate" response to what the family discovered? Is it "appropriate" to dig for skeletons inside a deceased parent's closet? I have a lot more of those, if you’re interested...

JM: But it also strikes me that "Appropriate," in the other sense of the term, the verb form, makes sense here, too. To take or seize without permission.

DC: Ah, you got me there...I hadn't thought of it that way.

JM: There’s so many ways that you can break that meaning down. You’ve got an African American playwright writing about a white family, which could spark a number of conversations about cultural appropriation. But then, of course, the lynching relics point to a far more horrifying, literal, and bodily form of appropriation.

DC: Damn...now I have even more to think about! (laughs)

JM: Yes, which indicates we should probably wrap this up before it becomes more a novella than a review.

DC: Sounds like a good idea. If our two or three readers don't have a good flavor for what this show is about by now, they never will.

For complete show information, CLICK HERE!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Not so 'platonic': Love story weaves its charm at The Dio

As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Friday performance of The Dio’s “Daddy Long Legs,” on May 4, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

The fairy godmother myth has a nearly irresistible pull on us all – and that’s precisely how “Daddy Long Legs,” now playing at Pinckney’s The Dio - Dining & Entertainment, begins.

The musical, based on Jean Webster’s 1912 epistolary novel (which was also adapted into a 1955 film starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron), tells the story of a plucky, clever teenage orphan, Jerusha (Emily Hadick), who lands an anonymous patron, on the basis of essays she’s composed, for a college scholarship. The sole condition is that Jerusha must write monthly letters to her benefactor, despite being told that the letters will neither be read nor returned.

Because Jerusha only saw the long shadow cast by her benefactor upon leaving the orphanage, she nicknames him Daddy Long Legs in her letters, and lovingly shares her thoughts and observations as if writing to the family she’s never, ever had. On the receiving end, young, aristocratic philanthropist Jervis Pendleton (Alexander Benoit) ultimately can’t resist Jerusha’s charm and wit, reading her letters with ever-greater emotional investment. But as time passes, and Jerusha nears the end of her studies, she grows more and more independent, and Jervis – who’s now met and spent time with Jerusha, by way of being an uncle to one of her roommates – feels trapped by his complicated situation.

The stage musical adaptation of “Daddy Long Legs” – with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, and a book by John Caird – premiered in 2009 in California before being produced in London’s West End in 2012, and Off-Broadway (a production that was live-streamed) in 2015. The Dio’s production, which closes May 20, marks the show’s Michigan premiere.

DC: I’ll be honest: I went into “Daddy Long Legs” knowing little about it, and after the first few minutes, I figured it was not going to be my cup of tea – that it was going to be the equivalent of a “chick flick.” Instead, I found myself quite invested in the story.

JM: What got you past that initial resistance?

DC: It was the characters and how well defined they were. They took us on a journey, during a time in our country’s history when change was in the air, and I found their story to be quite engaging because of how different it was. It was more than a love story; it was a love story wrapped in a history lesson.

JM: It’s funny to hear you say this, because I felt an initial resistance for an entirely different reason: the idea of an older man “grooming” a young woman that he has power and control over and, along the way, falls in love with - that raises lots of red flags for me (not to mention associations with shows like “My Fair Lady” and “Gigi”).

DC: I can see that, but Jervis hadn't planned on getting involved in Jerusha's life whatsoever - just as he didn't with the boys whose educations he paid for. It's only because of the letters he received that he started falling in love with her. That was not part of his original plan.

JM: But like those more famous shows, the woman that this man helps to “create” starts gaining her own bit of power and control as she grows more independent and, in this case, finishes her degree. So although Jerusha has Jervis to thank for the opportunity to earn her degree, she doesn't owe him her love unless she chooses to give it.

DC: You’re right; she doesn’t. But it’s also important to remember that Jerusha hadn’t a clue Jervis was in love with her until relatively late in the show. And so for much of the performance it’s almost two love stories in one: He was falling romantically for the woman he was getting to know through her letters (and later, the visits in which she didn’t know who he really was), while she was developing non-romantic feelings for a man she pictured to be a grandfatherly type.

JM: I liked that the song "Charity" kind of dealt with the messy ethics of the whole dynamic between them. Jervis sings about how charity, on a basic level, had put a wall up between them - and it's very true.

DC: I totally agree.

JM: Still, seeing that classic gendered power dynamic, especially in our current moment, made me a bit itchy from the outset. Because we, of course, know that a love narrative is in the offing. This IS a musical, after all. Plus, I was curious about him being so firm about not reading or responding to her letters, and then, he reads them right from the outset.

DC: Yes, but remember: She impressed the heck out of him with the initial essay she wrote trying to get the scholarship - so much so, that he decided to make her his first-ever female recipient so that she wouldn't waste her talent on marriage. So he had a vested interest in her from the start, which made this different from the earlier scholarship winners. Plus, her letters were so damn entertaining! How could he resist after that first one?

JM: Yes, and the exchange of letters was central to the show’s charm. It really takes you back in time, and makes you feel like one thing that we’ve lost with technological progress is that sense of mystery we once had about each other. So many details on all of us are merely a quick Google search away. But there's something really beautiful about two people getting acquainted by externalizing their thoughts via letters.

DC: Yes - and trust me: Boys would never write such interesting letters to another guy!

JM: Ha! And Jervis did say he detested writing them, and that's why he wouldn't answer. He'd clearly be outmatched by Jerusha's whimsical, fun reports.

DC: By a mile, yes!

JM: I just like how letters strip away everything else from the equation, so that what you're getting is Jerusha's inner life, uncensored. And that that’s what Jervis falls in love with is sweet and moving.

DC: Very much so. In her letters, Jerusha is open, honest, vulnerable, funny, frustrated, upset, charming - she simply writes what she feels at any given moment. And it’s especially intriguing because her sponsor is nothing like she pictures him to be, so she talks to him that way.

JM: It’s a nicely balanced show, even though Jervis never writes to Jerusha as himself, and only shoots off brusque notes to her in the guise of his “secretary.” The show’s creators had to figure out how we’d see Jervis’ thoughts and feelings, since everything Jerusha shares with us is in the form of her letters, so they have him kvetching and plotting and taking joy in her letters out loud. Which is to say, thank God it's not like “Love Letters,” in that there's enough movement on stage for us to have something to watch, not just listen to.

DC: I was just about to say the same thing! I much prefer how the concept was utilized here as well.

JM: Some of this, I’m sure, is the creators' design, but I also credit director Steve DeBruyne for making an epistolary show visually engaging. And with a running time of three hours, there’s a lot to consider in this vein along the way.

DC: Very much so. There were lots of “little things” the characters did to help keep us engaged - various era-appropriate props by Eileen Obradovich, for example, and character-defining costumes by Norma Polk.

JM: What did you think of the show's music?

DC: The songs, of course, told the story. The lyrics, I thought, were excellent. Unfortunately, I don't remember a single tune from the show.

JM: Many songs seemed so similar musically that it felt like variations on a theme. That may be deliberate, of course, but it also meant that by late in the second act, you’re like, “OK, reveal yourself already, Jervis!!!”

DC: (laughs) And yet despite the thematic similarities across the songs, I can't remember a single melody; they’re not memorable at all. What did you think of the projections used throughout the show?

JM: They were brief and subtle enough to just clue us in to the passage of time. So I found them effective, and they didn't take me out of the "time machine" feel of the show.

DC: I just wish some of them - like indicating what year it is - would have stayed around a little longer. A few too many times I was looking at something else and only caught a momentary glimpse of the projection, and so it didn't register.

JM: In reference to that “time machine” element, the show's length and pace did serve to remind me of how rush-rush we've all become. “Daddy Long Legs” kind of forces you to turn your phone off, slow down, and absorb its story and songs at an old-fashioned pace - which I so appreciate, but also had to adapt to over the first few songs.

DC: I think we’ve become so used to the 75-90 minute play these days that we’ve come to expect a much faster pace. And yet, it didn't really SEEM like an almost three-hour runtime, either.

JM: Let’s get into performances and tech. Opening thoughts?

DC: I thought Emily Hadick was wonderful. Her voice, movement and facial expressions were all perfectly executed, and so you couldn't help but fall in love with her performance.

JM: She has an interesting line to toe: be young and spunky, but not too bubbly, lest she annoy or work against the smart, “talented writer” part of her character. And I think Hadick just killed it. Jerusha's on the cusp of adulthood, and whip-smart and charming and funny, and Hadick not only nails these character elements, but her vocals perfectly express the feelings behind each of Jerusha's letters. A really great performance. Probably the strongest work I've seen from her to date.

DC: I agree. We get to see Jerusha's growth from an insecure young girl raised in a stifling orphanage to a grown, confident, educated woman - and Hadick nails the entire span.

JM: Conveying that gradual sense of growth over time is one of Hadick's greatest accomplishments here.

DC: Benoit also had a tough job, given that he had to go from disinterested rich guy to jealous lover to husband material. I loved his acting, but I thought there were some “pitchiness” issues at the start of some of his songs – and especially some of the duets.

JM: I’ll confess I didn’t notice, if so. But for me, Benoit’s challenge is to be sympathetic, despite being in control, in many ways, of Jerusha's life, and dictating things like how she spends her summers. Those were the moments when that power dynamic seemed most cruel, so Benoit had to navigate all that with a sense of the impassioned fear that’s driving Jervis. Plus, I found it interesting that, being a world-ranked ice dancer (cool, no?), Benoit has a physical presence that’s such an integral part of his performance. How he stands and gestures and moves - for a musical structured in letters, that was one real advantage to amping up the visual.

DC: Yes. His body language did play an important part of his character development. Man, he can stand up straight!

JM: And seeing his slow burn of frustration when reading about Jerusha's other possible love interest - some really funny and genuine moments.

DC: But going back to your comment about Jervis' cruelty, did you notice the vocal response from the audience when he stopped Jerusha from going where SHE wanted to go one summer? It’s interesting to see how we in the 21st century respond to things like that which were so common a hundred years ago.

JM: That audience response was again part of the time machine experience for me. The crowd, in that moment AND when Jerusha receives flowers from Jervis (“Awww!”), among others, felt reminiscent of one that might be watching a clear-cut morality tale – an entertainment that all but invited people to express their reactions audibly. In some historic contexts, that was simply part of being in an audience, having a shared experience while sitting in the dark. Unusual for these times, but also part of the charm of an old-fashioned, take-your-time love story.

DC: The responses were so polite, too. They weren't loud or obnoxious. They were...well...sort of cute, I’d say.

JM: Right. Like they couldn't quite hold it in.

DC: Like they just seeped out. I got a kick out of it.

JM: I think that's probably because it was genuine. It wasn't self-conscious. It wasn't about drawing attention. It was just unadulterated emotional investment in the show. Which is what we all want when we go to the theater, really.

DC: Shared experiences are becoming less and less of a "thing," unfortunately

JM: Which is why it means so much more when it happens. And I must say I LOVED Matt Tomich's set for this show.

DC: The wallpaper in Jervis’ office certainly defined his financial status, didn't it?

JM: And Eileen Obradovich’s props! A manual typewriter Jervis could actually bang on; the furniture that looked era-appropriate but didn’t take up too much stage space; and that office, at the angled center of the stage – it nicely sets apart Jervis' sphere from Jerusha's while being really economical.

DC: Norma Polk's costumes are also effective. Jerusha starts out at the orphanage wearing what I'd call a fairly non-descript dress, and as she moves through time, her clothing becomes more and more pretty, more upscale, more adult, more successful.

JM: Yes, early on, Hadick literally strips off the gingham she's worn all her life at the orphanage to reveal the skirt, blouse, and tie of a student at a women's college. And later, she evolves even further, visually cuing us in to the changes happening inside her. Benoit, meanwhile, wears clothing appropriate to his class and economic status - but even the angle of his top hat indicates where his head is at. So to speak. (Rim shot!)

DC: He looks like he stepped off a Monopoly game card, didn't he?

JM: Yes. And Tomich's lighting and sound helped transport us to this long-ago time as well. Before the show started, DeBruyne noted that The Dio had a new speaker system that separated the vocals out from the music, so that the audience could hear each word more clearly, and boy, the different it made is just fantastic.

DC: It really is. I had no trouble hearing Hadick and Benoit whatsoever. That was a great investment! But we can't leave out the three-piece band. They were flawless. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this was a show in which all of the technical elements truly came together to create an amazing piece of work.

JM: Everything about this musical is so economical: two actors, three musicians, a relatively simple set – it's really something.

DC: It’s very well thought out and executed. Simplicity at its finest.

JM: Simplicity’s deceptively hard, of course, but when a company pulls it off, it's really, really satisfying. 

DC: Very much so.

JM: The Dio's a little off the beaten path for me, but “Daddy Long Legs” has pretty much convinced me that I should try to make the trip more often.

DC: I agree. It's been quite a while since I've been there, and it made me realize I need to get there more often. And as an added bonus, it's a nice drive there!

JM: We can carpool! “Critics in Cars Getting Coffee.”

For complete show information, CLICK HERE!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

This time, a 'hard' Platonic Theatre Date that left us exhausted (but impressed with the performances)

As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, we attended the same matinee performance of The Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s “Hard Love” on Thursday, April 26, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here is our joint review:

Love stories nearly always focus on individuals struggling to overcome obstacles in order to be together, yet Motti Lerner’s “Hard Love,” now being staged by The Jewish Ensemble Theatre through May 6, focuses on lovers who can’t seem to get out of their own way.

This is for many reasons, of course – religious beliefs, and their role in one’s sense of identity being chief among them. The play begins with novelist Zvi (Drew Parker) coming to visit his ex-wife Hannah (Inga R. Wilson) in an Orthodox Jewish section of Jerusalem. Though the two haven’t seen each other since their painful, teenage divorce twenty years earlier, and they’ve each remarried – Zvi renounced his faith and moved to Tel Aviv in the interim – Zvi’s son and Hannah’s daughter have recently met and fallen in love. But Hannah wants Zvi to discourage the courtship.

So the meeting is ostensibly about their children, but it inevitably ends up being more about Zvi and Hannah and their unresolved, complicated feelings for each other, as Zvi faces another divorce, and Hannah continues to care for her elderly second husband. Then, in the second act, when Hannah travels to Tel Aviv a couple of months later to visit Zvi in his apartment, the two are forced to hash out both the things that keep drawing them together and the things that will forever keep them apart.

DC: I think the best way to describe the show is that it feels like a grudge match between two highly skilled tennis players, with each serve and volley designed to one-up and severely cripple their opponent. As such, it makes this show very difficult to get into the specifics, because to do so would give way too much away – and the fun of this show (if you can call it that) is watching the revelations that come from watching these two players work their strategies.

JM: My question late in the show was, are there too many revelations? These are people in a tough situation, but after a certain point, it felt like we were watching them talk in circles. Painful, emotionally fraught circles.

DC: Yes, and I felt a bit battered by the end. It certainly takes them AND us on one hell of a roller coaster ride that has the potential to go on forever.

JM: And you don't have that "We made it!" kind of post-rollercoaster rush of relief. It's more the queasy kind of "I don't feel so good" response. Plus, when something's this emotionally brutal, I leave asking myself, what do we take from this?

DC: I walked away thinking, "I hope these two are finally finished with this nonsense."

JM: They can't be! That's the thing. We can't get into specifics without giving revelations away, but that's part of what makes this such a tough go, even once a final decision is made.

DC: Yes. It took twenty years to get to this point, and unfortunately, you KNOW this isn’t going to be their last battle. I’m not sure I’d be up for a sequel if it’s as grueling as this one.

JM: As hard as it is to watch these characters’ emotional face-off for 90 minutes, I can only imagine what Parker and Wilson go through for each performance.

DC: Exactly. If the audience feels bruised and battered, so must they. But damn, they're good!

JM: They are. And their performance in these complicated, meaty roles is probably the best thing about "Hard Love." The script itself, well, I have a few issues. But Parker and Wilson do their absolute damnedest with the material they have to work with.

DC: I was impressed right from the beginning when, for probably the first 10 minutes or so, Wilson never looks directly at Parker. How can you talk to and interact with someone only a few feet away and NOT look at them? Even by accident?

JM: It’s true-to-life in those kind of circumstances, of course, and I was impressed, too, with her dialect work and physical choices. So much was conveyed by the way she held her body and moved around that claustrophobic apartment. Everything she says and does in that first act is almost an apology for her presence, for the argument she feels compelled to make, etc. She's been taught to be present but largely invisible all her life, and we see her chafe against that with the appearance of Zvi on the scene.

DC: Yet there's that spark she still feels for him that slips through every now and then. It's a much-nuanced performance with tons of subtleties woven throughout.

JM: Zvi’s more overt with his feelings for Hannah, but given how "non" she’s dedicated to being in her own life, I struggled to understand what still appealed to him about her in this cloistered life. I know it's wrapped up in his childhood, his past identity, and his memories, but it's still something we have to take on faith.

DC: I’m not sure if he was attracted to HER so much as he was the idea of taking her away from what she held most dear.

JM: Which ties in all the comparisons he keeps making between his mother, who'd committed suicide, and Hannah. He seems bent on "saving" Hannah, more than loving her for who she is. Which undercuts so much of what's said and what happens. And Zvi's got other contradictions, too. Parker definitely had his hands full with this role. I mean, upon having what seems like a heart-to-heart with Hannah in act two, Zvi has a phone call with his latest young-girlfriend-of-the-month that reveals that neither we, nor Hannah, should trust what he says.

DC: But Hannah shouldn't be trusted, either. She’s equally manipulative. I suspect the result of what happens at the end of Act One COULD be the result of just how far she might go to get what she wants.

JM: It almost feels like director Linda Ramsay-Detherage should hand out scorecards before the lights go down.

DC: (Laughs) That's why I referred to it as a tennis match. Who's winning changes with every volley, and all the while our heads keep spinning from one side to the other.

JM: But there's no clear person to root for in this fight. They're both deeply flawed, which is realistic but inevitably frustrates you as an audience member. How can I get invested on more than an intellectual level if both of these people can’t be straight with each other?

DC: I actually left feeling sorry for both of them, in a way. Apart they might be nice people, but together they are like water and oil, and neither sees it. So their unhappiness is pretty much assured. Oh, the games people play!

JM: I suppose it's kind of revolutionary in a sense to go against the audience's desires and expectations of how a "love story" is supposed to go. This ultimately leaves me "appreciating" the play's artistry at an arm’s-length distance, though, more than being shaken or moved by it.

DC: Agreed. I thought Ramsey-Detherage staged it quite well and got amazing performances out of her two actors.

JM: Let’s talk about the tech contributions to the show. First, I'll just say that sound designer Matt Lira's choice to play familiar pop ballads sung in Hebrew during the breaks was subtly effective in setting the mood.

DC: I was about to mention that, too! That was very creative. Several times I found myself thinking, “Is that…?” And yes, it was – but in Hebrew!

JM: A really nice touch. And Elspeth Williams' set design, furnished with Harold Jurkiewicz's props, offered a nice contrast with regard to the very different lives that Zvi and Hannah have been living.

DC: Yes, both apartments certainly served to explain the different circumstances in which each lived. Neil Koivu's lighting certainly added to the mood as well.

JM: I noticed Mary Copenhagen's costumes most with Wilson, who must dress so modestly and plainly as an Orthodox woman. I think these costumes likely helped Wilson achieve that hemmed-in physicality I referred to earlier, where she's, in many ways, trapped by her own life.

DC: Yes, she certainly LOOKED the part. Zvi just needed to look modern day. And he did.

JM: Though the overall experience of "Hard Love" was harrowing, I will say that I don't often see a play that takes religion seriously as something important in the lives of its characters, and I appreciated that. It's a topic that's so rich with potential conflict, particularly in regard to people's sense of themselves, but I think playwrights, and we as theatergoers, tend to shy away from it because it’s such an uncomfortable, deeply personal subject. So I appreciated the playwright’s courage in tackling something so tricky.

DC: Me, too. Religion is one of a handful of topics that in past years no one was supposed to talk about in public because of how explosive the discussion could become - and "Hard Love" is a pretty good example of just how true that is.

JM: And it's WITHIN a single religion!

DC: Yes. The believer and the doubter. This is a "family squabble,” religion-wise. But every religion has them, which makes it universal.

JM: The story reminded me of one of my favorite punchlines: two Jews, three opinions!

DC: This Catholic won't touch that punchline! (Laughs)  But I will offer my opinion: Personally, I think Zvi HATES God, and his revenge against Him is an attempt to destroy Hannah's faith, too. What didn't make sense to me, then, was if Zvi was successful, the end result would be a woman he no longer recognized. And what would happen then? I don't think he'd be happy. Nor would she.

JM: Oh, Don. Neither of these people was ever going to be happy.

DC: True, true. So I guess I should ask: Ultimately, did you LIKE the play or not?

JM: Well, ... it's hard for me to recommend it outright. Not because of the work of the artists involved, which is solid, but because of the script. I felt used up upon leaving, which, to my mind, runs counter to thinking more deeply about the issues raised by the play. Did YOU like the play?

DC: Despite the bruises and the whiplash, I found the plot more complicated than it needed to be, but ultimately it was the excellent work of the director and actors digging through all of the muck and making as much sense of it as possible that I found appealing.

JM: I think that "more complicated than it needed to be" is my sticking point. The play felt like a looooong 90 minutes, and that's because watching each volley of this intense tennis match was exhausting. It was hard for me to take it all in when constantly shifting agendas and so many bits of information are coming at you.

DC: So YES, Linda, where IS that scorecard Jenn asked for?

JM: I think it's an idea that’s time has come. 

DC: Just make sure you get the credit! 

For complete show information, CLICK HERE!

Photo by Jan Cartwright

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Don & Jenn are at it again: Paddling upstream against forces of nature

As part of Don Calamia and Jenn McKee’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, we attended the same performance of “Kayak” on Friday, April 20 at Matrix Theatre in Detroit's Mexicantown neighborhood, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here is our joint review:

The mom who can’t stand her son’s girlfriend (and vice versa) is a pretty well-worn narrative, yet Canadian playwright Jordan Hall puts a new, politically-minded spin on it via “Kayak,” now on stage at Matrix Theatre Company through April 29.

Annie (Kez Settle), the play’s central character, sits in a kayak for nearly the entire show, smearing on sunscreen; eating s’more ingredients; and telling the story of her grown son’s (Peter, played by Dan Johnson) love affair with ardent student activist Julie (Claire Jolliffe). Tension festers as Peter finds himself caught between the comfortable, conventional middle class life of his parents and the risky, altruistic life of sacrifice modeled by Julie. But why is Annie riding in Peter’s kayak? What’s happened, exactly, to put her in this unlikely situation?

Annie reveals the answers, which feel both surprising and inevitable, over the course of Hall’s 65 minute play. And Matrix’s production, directed by Amanda Grace Ewing, makes the play’s questions all the more immediate by thrusting Annie’s kayak into the seating area, so that we’re along for the ride on this sometimes funny, mostly harrowing journey.

DC: “Kayak” is the perfect show for such an intimate space as the 50-seat Matrix Theatre - and one of the smartest decisions director Amanda Grace Ewing made was the placement of the kayak, with its nose pushed into the seats. Since this is a memory play, with Annie talking directly to the audience about how she ended up in her predicament, the audience becomes part of the intimacy; we're no longer passive listeners, but active participants who she's directly speaking to. It's like being part of a conversation at a party - only one of us is sitting in a Kayak. You can't help but hang on her every word.

JM: Taking this party idea further, it’s as though we in the audience are, in fact, the ones Annie describes in the opening scene as the “perfectly nice people” that Julie makes uncomfortable at parties – because of our consumerist, careless lifestyle choices, for not caring and doing enough, etc.

DC: We’ve all encountered people like that. Annie described her perfectly - and you could see people in the audience nodding in agreement.

JM: What did you think of the opening, where, under dimmed lighting, Peter is in the kayak, while Julie's seated behind him, aggressively guiding the paddle in his hands?

DC: It was a bit confusing at first. It's only later you realize it was a foreshadowing of things to come. One minute these two were battling for their lives, and the next minute, there's a chirpy, upbeat motherly figure in it who starts telling us a story. It didn't make sense.

JM: I was thrown off, too, because – as we later learn – Peter isn’t ultimately having his strings pulled by Julie. He makes a conscious choice, inspired by Julie, regarding what he wants to do with his life. I suppose the play is structured as a gradual revealing of puzzle pieces, but I nonetheless struggled to gain an initial foothold in the play’s world.

DC: Plays that jump back and forth in time - not always clearly - can be a bit frustrating. Yet more and more plays seem to be doing that these days.

JM: I’ve also noticed that quiet background choreography between characters has become a big thing lately. This is the second or third production I've seen that happening in recently - this time, between Peter and Julie when Annie's speaking. In their case, it serves double duty, since they're often doing a costume or scenic change, but still - definitely a trend.

DC: Yes it is. Sometimes it's distracting - it takes your focus away from what's being said or happening elsewhere. Other times, though, it's like having smooth jazz underscoring the action. This had a little of both.

JM: I understand the temptation of doing it, but yes. I often find it more distracting than enhancing. My attention gets too divided.

DC: I got pulled out of the play a few times when Peter and Julie were threading long, red ribbons throughout the backdrop. I had no clue what they were doing - or why - and so I lost whatever it was that Annie was saying at the time.

JM: I think the red ribbons were so abstract as to feel like, well, a red herring, especially given the attention we ended up paying to them without having some kind of a payoff.

DC: Agreed.

JM: Here’s another question I have for you: I kept wondering, as the story unfolded, if it would veer into preachiness regarding its political messages (social justice, consumerism, climate change, etc.). Do you think it did?

DC: I’m glad you asked that, because there were moments in which I felt like I was being hit over the head by propaganda. Julie was SO relentless in making her points - almost to the point of physically assaulting Annie - that she lost a lot of sympathy from me. Being passionate is one thing; I can understand that. But screaming and invading another's personal space like she did? For me, that had the opposite result than what was intended.

JM: Well, then my question for you becomes, is that a directorial misstep, in your view? Or do you think the script makes Julie too over-the-top strident?

DC: I was wondering the same thing. The characters as written are all extremes: the overprotective mother, the overly involved social justice warrior, and the mama's boy who's pulled in two directions and can't seem to choose which would make him happier. It almost BEGS for that interpretation.

JM: I did feel the intense physical invasion Julie often committed against Annie when taunting or berating her tended to put me a little more on Annie's side. It seemed like she was being bullied into silence.

DC: I had the same reaction – although Annie ALSO committed a major foul that turned people in the audience, including ME, against HER. So it went both ways.

JM: Which was that? For me, Annie buying Peter an SUV seemed a very pointed choice. Since Julie's against any car that uses gas, she could have bought anything, rather than choose the most emblematic “f.u., eco-warrior!” kind of car. But Annie didn't, and that seemed petty. Like she wanted to deliberately stir the pot and make Peter's life messier.

DC: True, but I’m referring to that last encounter between Annie and Julie, in which Annie lied to her about something – which I won’t explain so that I don't give anything away. And pretty much the entire audience reacted rather loudly to it. (We had a very vocal, responsive audience with us that night.)

JM: That’s right! And I do credit the playwright, Hall, for making this drama something far more nuanced than a straight-up environmental sermon. I really do. In my opinion, she flirts with preachiness, but because she keeps aiming for fairly balanced storytelling and characterization over that, the play never devolved into propaganda for me. I mean, Hall’s point – that we willfully ignore the Julies of the world simply because it’s easier, more comfortable, and less stressful for us to do so, regardless of the dire consequences – is a timely one. That said, though, Peter is the least satisfying, least filled-out character in the script. He seems merely a crucible of conflict for these two women, who both have things that make them likable, but have considerable flaws, too. Plus, they both have some things right. And a fight between equals is always more involving and fascinating than a one-sided knockout.

DC: Agreed. This isn't a "she's right" and "she's wrong" kind of story. This really IS about two strong-willed women who are passionate, but in different ways, battling it out, with Peter as the prize. You can sympathize with both women.

JM: And the end, which explains why Annie finds herself in the kayak, was surprising and satisfying to me. Despite some clear clues, I hadn't seen that coming. Yes, it seems to come down on the side of Julie's worldview, and re-raises all the questions she’d peppered Annie with earlier - except now, rather than being hypothetical, they're literal. Which tipped the scales, certainly, but I found it an intriguing end.

DC: It certainly WAS unexpected, and it did tie everything together. But the fact that it so blatantly tipped those scales – again, I don’t want to give anything away – is why I referred to it earlier as propaganda.

JM: As a sidenote, Peter's romanticization of a person who dedicates her life to a cause, even though she'll likely have zero impact, hit a bit of a nerve for me - being an underemployed former journalist who's still out there blogging about local theater. Ahem.

DC: (laughs) I totally understand! Although I'd like to think you and I have SOME impact on our small corner of the globe!

JM: Here’s hoping.

DC: For me, it was the performances that really made the experience worthwhile.

JM: Me, too. I thought Settle was terrific. A little mischievous and manipulative, but also witty. For the show to work, we have to connect with her. Like she's letting us into her life.

DC: Very much so, in all regards. You couldn't help but like Annie. Settle’s storytelling was superb - especially so since she was mere inches away from some of the patrons. What concentration she had! That must not have been a very comfortable 65 minutes for her.

JM: Yes. I was really impressed with how poised Settle was in that awkward position. But it really helped endear her character to us. Annie goes too far at times, as we've mentioned, but because her life likely most resembles our own, we feel a kinship with her and sympathize. What did you think of Johnson and Jolliffe as the ill-fated lovers?

DC: I found their interactions to be quite complex, actually. There were multiple agendas at play: Peter was looking for some excitement outside of his parental-planned upper-middle-class existence, while Julie was looking for someone to convert to the cause. So I'm not sure they really LOVED each other, but rather, they loved what the other stood for – and I felt that came across quite well. You?

JM: Yes, I too kept thinking, do they love the person or the “cause”? Because as you point out, the context seems to be more the glue, the foundation, than who they are as people. That makes the characters a challenge to play. I did think Johnson may have been a hair too old for this part, but he delivered on the buried intensity that he effectively brings to almost every role he plays. This is an interesting tool for him, as it makes his characters’ seemingly irrational choices feel more believable. Like there's something in him that's never all-the-way visible. And Jolliffe had that unshakable quality about her, too - which she needed to have, definitely, to bring Julie to life.

DC: I’m beginning to think I'm either stalking Johnson or becoming a groupie because of how many shows he's been in that I've written about. What I loved about his performance THIS time was that it was a bit more low key and constrained than many of his others, which allowed him to find the deeps subtleties of his character.

JM: Yes. And as I said, his character, in my mind, is less developed than the other two. He's the supporting player in their drama.

DC: Exactly. This isn't HIS story; it belongs to the women in his life. He's just along for the ride. (Bad pun, I know.) As for Jolliffe, she certainly packs a lot of punch into her young body. Whereas Johnson plays Peter as a milquetoast, Jolliffe is the polar opposite. The contrast between the two is quite clear.

JM: I wondered if there was room for any humor in her role, or if that would have undermined the laser-like focus Julie has on bettering the world.

DC: I’m not sure the script lent itself to much humor on her part. People on a mission often are rather humorless. Relentless, yes; humorous, no.

JM: I suppose that’s true. And that is one of Annie's criticisms of Julie, so Jolliffe pretty much had to play it straight - and she did. There's a palpable sense of Julie's iron will in her performance - partly through her rigid, deliberate physical movements. She's so sure of herself that it throws everyone around her off-balance.

DC: It was an almost scary performance, actually, because of the intenseness of her portrayal - but it worked. Annie was the funny one; Julie’s the serious one.

JM: Another point of contrast.

DC: Exactly.

JM: Yet they're both "dig your heels in and fight" kind of ladies, so they have that in common. As for us, let’s move on to the show's tech folks – but first, let me say this is the first time I've seen "production nanny" listed in a program. Yay, Matrix! That sounds like a fantastic thing.

DC: (laughs) What an image that creates!

JM: Love it. Anything that makes it feasible for people to take care of their family AND pursue their art is a wonderful thing. Bravo, Matrix! But in other news, multiple Gaidicas are represented via “Kayak.” Chantel Gaidica did the colorful, atmospheric lighting for the show, and Charlie Gaidica did the set, with the draped, hanging white fishnet backdrop, and Annie's kayak in the crowd.

DC: Both have developed excellent reputations in the community for their work, and this show is no different. I loved that the set was simple, but descriptive. Anything more would have been overkill.

JM: And Casaundra Freeman's sound design plays a key role, too, particularly as the show reaches its conclusion. Rarely has gently lapping water sounded so haunting before.

DC: Agreed. This is a show in which tech is important to make the show work - especially in such close confines - and sound in particular added significant resonance to the show's conclusion.

JM: Overall, I was really glad to be introduced to both Matrix (my first visit, believe it or not!) and to this play. Theater should be a place where human stories launch hard conversations, and I think Matrix's team did a really solid job bringing Hall’s script to life.

DC: I agree. Matrix has long been known for tackling socially conscious themes, and while it's been quite some time since I've been there, "Kayak" served to remind me just how good their work can be.

For complete information about Matrix Theatre's production of Kayak, CLICK HERE!