Friday, June 15, 2018

Platonic critics: Characters bloom in Rep season closer



As the final installment of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s Platonic Theater Date review series, the two critics attended the same performance of Detroit Repertory Theatre’s “Ghost Gardens” on June 7, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

New life, especially in the face of hard circumstances, always offers hope.

This is the reason people are happy to see baby pictures in their social media feed. They provide a break from the anger, posing, and tragic news that otherwise clog our daily lives; and they suggest that no matter what, life will out. Steven Simoncic’s play “Ghost Gardens,” now playing at Detroit Repertory Theatre (directed by Lynch Travis) through July 1, builds its story around this notion.

Set in a Detroit neighborhood that stands in the shadow of an old, chemical-spewing plant, “Gardens” begins with Lorelie (Leah Smith) at her baby’s grave on what would have been her tenth birthday. Lorelie’s been trying to get pregnant again for the intervening years, without success, and she’s not the only one. No children have been born in the neighborhood in years. So when Lorelie, on this tenth anniversary, announces that she’s pregnant, her underemployed husband Tryg (Aral Gribble), sassy best friend Myra (Jenaya Jones Reynolds), ailing mother Helen (Linda Rabin Hammell), and the local pimp-turned-preacher Powder (Cornell Markham) rejoice.

Indeed, a man named Lonnie (Will Bryson), just released from prison, who’s now working alongside Powder, hatches a plan to use social media to raise money and hopes around Lorelie’s good news. But as Tryg continues to sometimes go missing for days at a time, and Helen grows sicker – despite her new, blossoming relationship with Powder – Lorelie begins to buckle under the pressure of her community’s collective hopes.

DC: In my opinion, the Detroit Repertory Theatre is ending its 61st season with the type of show they excel at: stories about ordinary people struggling with their everyday lives. And what they also do quite well is cast their shows with a mix of longtime favorites and new faces to keep their shows fresh and energized. This show embodies both ideals.

JM: This was the first time I'd been back at the Rep since I last reviewed a show there a few years ago, and it reminded me of how focused they are on telling the kind of stories you describe.

DC: It's also a theater I love going to because of how welcoming it is. At how many theaters can you find the founding artistic director still manning the bar after 61 years? And another cheerfully greeting you in the box office? And where else can you buy tasty cookies freshly baked based on recipes from yet a third co-founder?

JM: First, WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE COOKIES?! And second, these touches are definitely part of what charmed me most the last time I visited Detroit Rep. But we should get to talking about the show. What were your overall impressions of "Ghost Gardens"? I wasn't previously familiar with the work of playwright Steven Simoncic.

DC: That makes two of us – at least I don't recall seeing any of his other plays. I enjoyed this one, though. While it didn't have a really big dramatic arc, it was filled with numerous intimate moments in which we got to learn about the characters, their hopes, their dreams, their problems - and what happens when a community unites together for a cause despite their differences.

JM: For me, the play spreads itself a little thin. Though everything's connected, the sheer number of stories within the play results in them all getting short shrift. We have the story of a beleaguered blue collar marriage, an ailing parent, a mature romance, an ex-convict finding his way in the world, an unexpected pregnancy, the deep friendship between two women, an examination of how hope gets commercialized and marketed online - there's a lot. Maybe too much.

DC: While I can see your point, it didn't particularly bother me. We had a lot of characters and relationships to sort through and understand, and I thought we were given just the right amount of information we needed about each character’s story arc to follow the plot and keep all the interconnected dots straight.

JM: There were some really nice moments between the actors, but the script itself felt like someone throwing all kinds of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. My point is, with so many different elements, I never felt invested in any particular one of them.

DC: I'll agree with you on that last point. Because of how each character is given so much time in the spotlight, you're never quite sure whose story is the primary one. I think it’s Lorelie's because it's her pregnancy that starts the ball rolling, but there's some competition for that honor. The focus; not the pregnancy! (laughs)

JM: Right. And that's the driver of many events and conversations. Oh! I forgot that the play's also got a public health thread, by way of the chemical-spewing plant located near this neighborhood. The surprise and hope her pregnancy provides everyone stems from that.

DC: But like you said, the story meanders across so many plot threads, that it takes focus away from Lorelie. She almost becomes a sub-plot in her own story.

JM: Yes. I agree. That having been said, what performances did you find most affecting?

DC: That's a tough call, since this was a pretty strong cast. Personally, I loved Cornell Markham as Powder, the pimp-turned-preacher. He had such honesty in his characterization, always with a twinkle in his eye. Jenaya Jones Reynolds as Myra was the show’s comic relief, yet you could totally feel her love for Lorelie, her best friend. And who couldn't love Aral Gribble's very convincing Tryg? He plays these “blue collar everyman” roles to perfection. And Leah Smith, one of my favorite actresses, brought such sensitivity to her role!

JM: Yes, and the actors have an extra challenge because filling in a lot of blanks (regarding character) in the script is ultimately up to them. That's one reason why Gribble wowed me. He wasn't on stage all that much, but when he was, he poured way more into his scenes, just by way of his choices. Similarly, Hammell imbues Helen with an irresistible feistiness that made her, as a character, come more alive, too.

DC: That's why it's so tough to pick a favorite or highlight a specific moment to discuss. They all do such great jobs filling out and giving heft to what the playwright gave them. There are so many little touches...

JM: I loved Reynolds' no-nonsense sassiness, and Smith has some really powerful moments. But again, unfortunately, it didn't add up to cumulative impact.

DC: That's indeed a problem when a playwright uses somewhat of a scattershot approach to storytelling: the focus becomes the many rather than one or two clearly defined lead characters, so you’re not sure whom to root for.

JM: What did you think of Harry Wetzel's set? It looked as if the "garden" of the title had taken over every inch of this world, including its interiors.

DC: Yes, indeed. I interpreted it to mean that seeds planted in the hearts and minds of this neighborhood took root and spread throughout the entire community. But I could be wrong. (laughs)

JM: Huh. I saw a darker meaning - which may just be my twisted personal filter at work. But it seemed to me to emphasize how in this neighborhood, there was no separation between outside and inside. What's happening "out there" - with the nearby plant, and the harmful things coming from it - long ago infiltrated everything. Though things are verdant and green, and somewhat beautiful, there's also something haunting about the way the greenery is pervasive.

DC: Could be. I didn't see that, but I guess I didn't give it that deep of a consideration. I just know it’s another of Wetzel’s well-executed designs.

JM: Meanwhile, Thomas Schrader's lighting design had a colorful, watery quality at times.

DC: It sure did. I was quite impressed with his work.

JM: Quite a lovely effect. And Sandra Landfair Glover’s costumes place us more firmly in this blue collar Detroit neighborhood – but the real stars of her work were Helen and Lorelie’s red dresses, of course. Both frocks convey an air of individual defiance and pride.

DC: I loved the scene where we see Gribble’s Tryg quickly change clothes to show his life’s progression up to this point. It was very creative and required some careful planning on Glover’s part, since he had to get in and out of various items very quickly. So overall, what's your bottom line?

JM: Some good performances, with solid direction from Travis, but there's only so much the artists can achieve with a scattered script.

DC: I found it to be entertaining, more so because of the performances, direction and tech work than the script, which is ultimately not a very memorable one. But overall, it was yet another enjoyable evening at the Rep, and I can’t wait to see what they have on tap for season 62!


For complete show details, CLICK HERE!




Friday, June 8, 2018

Return of the Platonic Duo: Critics follow Johnson to Milan; Zettelmaier added to stalking list



As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same performance of Roustabout Theatre Troupe’s “All Childish Things: The Special Edition” on June 1, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

If you recently felt a tremor in the Force, something you haven’t felt since … well, the last time Joseph Zettelmaier’s “All Childish Things” was produced … it’s likely because the Roustabout Theatre Troupe (co-founded by Zettelmaier, Joey Albright and Anna Simmons) has mounted a new “special edition” of the “Star Wars” collectibles heist comedy that runs through June 17 at Milan’s McComb Performing Arts Center.

“Childish” marks the first full production staged by Roustabout, and like “Star Wars” editions available on DVD, it’s received several tweaks and updates since its 2006 world premiere production at Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre.

Set in a basement apartment where “Star Wars” memorabilia occupies every shelf and surface, “Childish” is the story of three longtime male friends (and one girlfriend) who, after months of meticulous planning, aim to rob a nearby Kenner Toys warehouse. Reportedly, the ultimate stash of classic “Star Wars” collectibles is hidden there, and because an anonymous buyer is willing to pay two million dollars for it, each nerdy and unlikely heist participant starts daydreaming and making plans. Dave (Dan Johnson), who lives in the basement, aims to get his own place; Max (Andy Gaitens), a single dad, wants security and a better life for his four year old daughter; and Carter (Jacob Hodgson), who works a low-pay job at Kenner, plans to cut a record with his rock band and show Kendra (Meghan VanArsdalen) – a film studies grad who works at a nearby cinema and isn’t all that into “Star Wars” – he’s serious about their future together.

DC: I find it interesting that two of the last three shows we've reviewed have scripts by Joe Zettelmaier, and oddly enough, both are from earlier in his career. So for me, taking a fresh look at "All Childish Things," of which I saw the world premiere in 2006 and also a handful of subsequent productions and sequels, gives me a chance to see how well the script holds up a decade later. But more importantly, I wanted to check out the first full production produced by Roustabout Theatre Troupe.

JM: Yes, it's always exciting to see the first full production from a new company. And weirdly, given how much Zettelmaier work we've taken in, I was just assigned to review the upcoming Penny Seats Theatre production of his play "The Gravedigger.” So the Year of Joe continues! As with actor Dan Johnson, it feels like we're stalking Zettelmaier...

DC: It does indeed. Dan's been everywhere this season, it seems, and now here we are with almost back-to-back Zettelmaier shows. The stalking list grows! (laughs)

JM: So you said you were interested in seeing how the material held up 10 years later. What's the verdict?

DC: I still love the script. And since “Star Wars” is still such a major cultural phenomenon and huge money maker - and since nerds are still with us and always will be - it holds up quite well.

JM: That's interesting, because - light sabers down, everyone - it didn't hold up as well for me.

DC: Was it the script or the production itself? For me, it was the latter.

JM: Well, I caught most of the riffs on and allusions to “Star Wars,” and chuckled a few times and thought, "That's cute," but I never felt completely plugged in. I wasn't swept up in it - which good heist narratives do, of course. And to answer your question, I've been thinking about whether it was the script or the production a lot, but I'm still not sure. As we dig into this, I'm hoping it will become more clear. What were your issues with the production?

DC: It took me a while to warm up to the show as well, and I think it was because of some of the performances. As much as I love Dan Johnson, who seems like he'd be the perfect nerd, I felt his and Andy Gaitens' performances as Dave and Max, respectively, were a bit too wild, too out of control at times, so much so that I sometimes had trouble understanding them when their emotions and anxieties soared. And Gaitens, especially, seemed a bit all over the place with his performance; it wasn’t a polished performance, in my opinion, which distracted me at times.

JM: I think getting the tone exactly right for this show is pretty crucial, and yes, that was part of what was off for me. It's hard to gauge. You have to be true to their nerd-dom, yet we have to be able to relate to them, too.

DC: Yes, and that was my problem with them: I couldn't relate to them - which as a fellow nerd, shouldn't be difficult for me. (laughs) I just wasn't "feeling" it for much of the first act.

JM: And as gorgeous as Milan High's theater space is, it felt too big, too open and airy, for this story. At Planet Ant, I kind of felt like I was in that claustrophobic basement with the characters – so there was a vicarious joy and thrill in being part of this ill-fated heist.

DC: I agree, even though Jennifer Maiseloff's set couldn't have been more basement like. She had a lot of space to fill, and she did it without sacrificing what it was meant to be – a lived-in basement.

JM: The attention to detail is impressive, from the shelving to the basic layout and furniture choices. It really does look like a basement apartment kind of set-up. But as I said, the size of the venue seemed to be adding an extra challenge.

DC: Agreed. This script needs to be done in a small black-box space in which - as you point out - the audience is squeezed into the space along with the characters. I think that helps the audience get invested in the characters; you become one of them - and you feel their energy and excitement and get caught up in it with them.

JM: It's so interesting to me how much the performance space impacts the show. In fact, the exaggerated acting tone, I'd guess, stemmed from the actors (and the director, Joey Albright) instincts to fill that expansive space with bigger gestures, bigger statements.

DC: That could be. But then the performances of Jacob Hodgson and Jon Davidson as Carter and Max show you don't need to go over the top to fill the space. Now, I totally understand the differences in how their characters are conceived and written, but they gave very slick, controlled, nuanced - and polished - performances that drew and focused my attention to them. Their performances were far more in line with the cast from the original production at Planet Ant than with this one.

JM: What I found odd was that this time, I kept feeling like these characters seemed more pathetic, and less sympathetic, than they had been previously. I know that sounds harsh, but the small-ness of their lives, and their obsession with what are, in the end, children's toys, just seemed less compelling to me this time around. Maybe that's also a function of the times we're living in. But it's definitely how I was feeling.

DC: No, I felt that too. In earlier productions, you couldn't help but root for these guys. They may be a bit misguided, but they were likable. Even Meghan VanArsdalen's Kendra - the icky girlfriend who intrudes into the all-boys’ club - seemed a little harsher than I've seen in past productions.

JM: In the spirit of Princess Leia, Kendra has to be spiky and hard-edged, of course. But I also didn't connect all that much with her this time around.

DC: So what did you like about the production?

JM: I really did like Maiseloff's set. Venue issues aside, I loved how I could keep looking at its many nooks and crannies and notice even more little things of interest on stage. I think that came to mind first, because the set had a sense of fun about it - and that's what I think the production needed more of.

DC: I loved the "vault" – inside which we never actually see, except for the superb lighting effect by Alex Gay. And I also wanted to go up and play with some of the toys - but I knew better. I bet props designer Ben Despard had a blast finding all this stuff!

JM: The vault put me in mind of the glowing suitcase in "Pulp Fiction" - which was an homage to the ‘50s film classic "Kiss Me Deadly," if you want to go all the way back. But it's a fun effect, definitely.

DC: It certainly allows everyone in the audience to imagine for themselves how enormous the vault is and what treasures are stored in it.

JM: I also appreciated that Despard, who designed the costumes as well, made pointed but not-too-self-conscious choices. I was happy to see Big Man not decked out head to toe in Darth Vader black, but in a colorful track suit. Though he gives off the air of danger, there's a casualness to his malevolence - and I thought that worked. The banality of evil and all that...

DC: (laughs) Oh, exactly. When one conjures up the image of a gangster, they picture a Tony Soprano type. That's not Davidson at all. Yet he truly becomes this geeky, yet dangerous thug in such a way that you can't help but like him, too. He's just another nerd. But a very dangerous nerd.

JM: And it fit perfectly with the way Davidson played the role, which I appreciated. The idea of a "Star Wars" fanatic mobster is kind of irresistible.

DC: It is indeed. What did you think of Hodgson's performance?

JM: This marked the first time I'd seen him on stage in a long time. I appreciated his performance, but it struck me that there's not a lot of meat to that role. More of interest gets revealed about his character late in the show, but up until then, we just have a few pieces to put together about him.

DC: Yes, the second act is where we learn more about the character. And it's where Hodgson's skill as an actor shines. I kept watching him after the gang returns from their adventure, and his eyes and face reveal quite a bit. it's a pleasure to have him back on a local stage.

JM: Carter's story arc gets much more interesting after he's wounded - and Hodgson did play that part really well.

DC: Agreed.

JM: Let me ask you about the title, which is becoming a thing with me. It's drawn, I presume, from the biblical verse about how, once you grow up, you put away childish things. So the idea seems to be that what we're seeing is a group of people who are at the point of needing to complete that transition into adulthood.

DC: I agree. And it's a transition that many males seem to resisting and taking much longer to do these days. The guys in Joe's play, though, take it to the extremes. I wouldn't recommend their plan of action to other basement dwellers. (laughs)

JM: It's a really perfect, concise summation for the story - even though I questioned one of the characters setting another up to work for "the dark side" at the end. But you at least get to see how things from that point will now change for each of them. Though that basement may never lose its tenant. Sorry, Mom!

DC: (laughs) He'll sure be richer, though! Actually, that ending was an interesting twist, I thought.

JM: Yes, I did, too. And I wondered if forgiveness would come that easily for those involved. I have to think lingering distrust among the friends would ensue.

DC: Maybe the sequels address that!  (laughs)

JM: Though as it is, we might have to start calling ourselves Platonic Theater Daters Who Only See Zettelmaier Plays.

DC: Old Zettelmaier plays! (laughs) So what's your bottom line?

JM: Hmm. I guess I'd say this production might be most appreciated by "Star Wars" geeks, and/or people who are closely following and love Joe Z's work. But overall, I felt lukewarm (um, pun intended?) about the show. I'm excited about Roustabout, and I look forward to seeing what they do next, but this was, in my opinion, more of a decent start rather than a wow-inducing one. (God, have you noticed we sound like the very nerds featured in this play? “The original was better!”)

DC: We do, don’t we? Well, I am known as the Cranky Critic, so I guess it fits! (laughs) I, too, would recommend the show to "Star Wars" fans. But I suspect some who see "All Childish Things" for the first time may walk away with a different impression than we have; they’ll have nothing to compare it to like we do. So I don't want to discourage anyone from checking it out. Especially since I think it's important to support our newest theaters. And I think Roustabout has the ingredients to become a popular voice in the region.

JM: May the Force be with them …



For complete show details, CLICK HERE!



Thursday, May 31, 2018

Platonic critics celebrate DPT's 'Birthday'



As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Saturday performance of Detroit Public Theatre’s “Birthday Candles” on May 26, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

After moments of extreme duress, people often say, “my life flashed before my eyes” – but in Noah Haidle’s drama “Birthday Candles,” now having its world premiere at Detroit Public Theatre through June 3, we instead bear witness to a highly compressed version of someone else’s long, eventful-but-ordinary life.

Specifically, Ernestine Ashworth’s (Claire Karpen) life. We first meet Ernestine on her seventeenth birthday, as her mom (Hallie Lee Bard, who plays multiple roles) is performing the ritual of making her daughter a cake, and also helping Ernestine run lines for her school’s feminist production of “King Lear.” Kenneth (Daniel Pearce), a nerdy neighbor boy smitten with Ernestine, drops by with a gift – the first of what will be a long series of goldfish – and a prom-posal, but after Ernestine turns him down, Matt (Michael Brian Ogden) drops by, causing Ernestine to visibly swoon, despite her stated commitment to live an unconventional life that will “surprise God.”

The scene ends with a audio cue, like a bell, that signals the passage of time to a near-future birthday of Ernestine’s, wherein she’s assumed responsibility for making her own cake in the exact way her mother did, citing the importance of this ritual. And this jump forward in time happens repeatedly throughout the 80 minute play (directed by Vivienne Benesch), so that we see Ernestine’s life play out in bursts as she gets married, raises a family, suffers loss and heartbreak, launches a business, re-discovers her independence, and experiences both profound joy and terrifying loneliness.

DC: So you've finally been able to visit the Detroit Public Theatre. Since it's your first show there, what were your first impressions?

JM: I was glad I was coming with a veteran attendee, because I think I might have initially been confused about where to go - especially since other events were happening in the same building. But once we were in the right place, my first thought upon seeing the set was "Wow." I liked the space a lot, and was impressed with the presentation before the show even got underway.

DC: I've heard a number of people say the same thing about their first-time visits there. With mobs of people funneling through the doors, it's not obvious in which direction Detroit Public Theater patrons need to go when so many are heading the opposite way. But I also agree that from that point on, the powers-that-be do a fine job creating a very welcoming environment and a professionally run space. They've quickly become a force to be reckoned with - not only here, but nationally as well.

JM: Once again, I was going in with a completely blank slate, not realizing that DPT had commissioned the play - nor did I know anything else about it. What did you think of "Birthday Candles"?

DC: If you had asked me that question about half way through the show, you'd have gotten a totally different response. Playwright Noah Haidle is pretty damn sneaky in how he made us care more and more about his characters as the story moved forward.

JM: Yes. I mean, the basic structure of the show feels familiar. Seeing a life's progression from youth to death by way of an annual event, like a birthday, is certainly something we've seen variations of before. And the device initially felt cloying to me. But I, too, fell more under the play's spell as it progressed. There were still repeated, stiff bits of dialogue here and there that felt more "writerly" than organic, and that grated on me a bit, but overall, by the end, I'd become much more emotionally invested.

DC: To be honest with you, I didn't see much of a raison d'ĂȘtre for this play until we were getting close to a quarter or a third of the way through, for precisely what you said. But then as the years and decades pass and "real life” begins to intrude more and more into their world, the show finally came together for me. I was hooked.

JM: That's right on the money. I didn't know why this particular story needed to be told for the first several scenes, either. It doesn't operate with a clear narrative hook, so you just have to go on faith - which is fortunately, in the end, rewarded.

DC: I kept thinking to myself, "Where is this story going and why should I care?” - until it became obvious and I did. It just took a while to get there for me.

JM: Me, too. And it didn't help matters that characters purported to be seventeen looked considerably older in those opening scenes, and I thought, "What's with this casting?" Of course, it becomes clear quite quickly that they'll be embodying these characters through long lives, but it was one more initial point of distraction when trying to settle into the play.

DC: Again, totally I agree. For example, when Claire Karpen first appeared as Hallie Bee Bard's daughter, I wasn't buying it whatsoever. That was too much disbelief to suspend - until it became clear what was going on.

JM: That's just one of the inherent challenges of this script. There's little you can do when characters are going to be spanning that broad a range of ages.

DC: Exactly. And that's not to disparage anyone's acting. Playing much younger or older than your actual age isn't easy for an actor to do convincingly – especially without wigs and make-up changes. So because my eyes, ears and brain weren’t initially in sync with one other, it caused me to pause and take stock of the situation. It took me out of the moment a couple of times.

JM: I experienced that constant drumbeat of "Huh??" for a while. But on the other end, I was pretty damn wowed by the ways in which Karpen seemed to progress into old age before our eyes, with very few external props or costume changes.

DC: Again, I agree - although I thought she needed to slow down a bit more as she got into her late 80s. I felt she was a bit too spry for such an advanced age - and that's coming from someone who watched his two grandmothers and a first cousin live into their early 90s. While they were still able to get around and live on their own, I expected to see a more distinct progression of the aging process towards the end of Ernestine's life like I did theirs.

JM: Yes - again, tricky to keep the play moving at a reasonable pace and yet still convey the realities of aging. But I agree. She did seem rather spry for an octogenarian, but the addition of glasses, her expressions, the way her hair got a bit messier - all these things contributed to the illusion that I was watching a much older woman.

DC: And her voice. That sealed the deal for me. Yes, she COULD be spry enough physically to move like a 60 or 70 year old, but the subtle changes to her voice as she aged were perfect

JM: And she's the only one on stage the whole time, anchoring the play. A really impressive performance overall. It's got to take a LOT of focus, and be pretty draining, to make all those adjustments, and ride through that much life in 90 minutes each night.

DC: Yes, the only breaks she gets are the few seconds between scenes, and that's all it takes for her to move into the next era of the story. It's quite a masterful performance. Who else stood out in the cast for you?

JM: I adored Daniel Pearce's Kenneth. Quirky and funny and so, so lovable. I love the humor he brought to the production.

DC: Yes, he was certainly the show's comic relief. You couldn't help rooting for the guy!

JM: What about you?

DC: In all honesty, I was impressed by the entire cast. I've been a fan of Chris Corporandy and Michael Brian Ogden since their Hilberry days, and their considerable skills are put to great use here, as they too age and/or become other characters. And Hallie Bee Bard brings such honesty to all of her roles.

JM: One of the heart-stopping moments of the show for me happened between Bard and Karpen, when Bard's playing Ernestine's struggling adult daughter. Karpen simply says, "Stay" with such quiet urgency that you can practically smell the tragedy ahead. Also, for me, Corporandy’s performance in one of the last scenes is just marvelous – funny and genuine and sweetly touching in its compassion. And Ogden has a thankless (and therefore challenging) role, in that Matt isn't the most likable character.

DC: No, Matt’s not, and that ties into one of the show's heart-stopping moments for me, which I can't fully explain without giving too much away. But let's just call it his final few scenes. I think that's when the two women next to me started crying the loudest.

JM: It's easy to vilify and dismiss Matt, but Haidle complicates that too-easy choice by making his path a bit bumpy, too. And Ernestine's response to it, I think, is part of what's likely to bring on those tears.

DC: True. The playwright is right on the money when it comes to married couples who suffer a tragic loss like Ernestine and Matt do; many break apart. So it IS easy to vilify Matt, but it's not as simple as that. Men and women grieve in different ways, and if partners aren't cognizant of what their other half is going through and what their other half needs, situations like theirs can happen.

JM: I'd argue, actually, that each individual person processes grief in his/her own way. It's like the snowflake of the pain world, where no one's experience is quite the same as someone else's - which is yet another reason it can be so isolating and lonely. But something Matt says when the, uh, stuff hits the fan in his marriage to Ernestine seemed unnecessarily mean. Which is why I was ready to write him off. But Haidle didn't let me do that.

DC: Sure, as individuals, yes we DO grieve in our own ways. But men don't vocalize their feelings like women do. We’re problem solvers, and we want to fix things for our wives and mothers when they are hurting. And men need to FEEL wanted and loved – and for us, sex or intimacy is a way to provide comfort and to escape momentarily from grief. So when wives shut down emotionally or reject them altogether as Matt says Ernestine did, SOME men MAY respond to the warmth of another woman who will meet those needs. It may not be right, but some marriages never recover from a tragedy because of this. (pause) So enough about psychology. (laughs) Something else initially bugged me, but then I changed my mind about it. What did you think of the set - and the fact that the plot took place over the course of about eight decades and the kitchen never changes?

JM: I thought about that in passing, but it didn't give me too much pause. If anything, I kept thinking about the many bowls they had back there to dump hunks of butter and cups of flour into.

DC: I kept thinking about the outdated colors of the appliances and how they'd never be able to find spare parts to keep them running so far into the future! (laughs) But ultimately, this wasn't about appliances, set pieces or anything like that. It’s about the human experience and how we grow and change over a lifespan.

JM: Yes, I did find myself fixating at times on the stove and other parts of the kitchen, thinking about how they looked like something from a time capsule, definitely from another era, but not so out of the realm of now that they jumped out at me, either. That's kind of an impressive feat. Just like the actors have to travel this decades-spanning journey, so do the set design and props. And I liked how a cosmic, astronomy-themed backdrop for this literal “kitchen sink” drama visually underscored the idea that this, when we take the long-view, is about how we spend our relatively short time on Earth. So some really thoughtful work by set designer Michael Carnahan and prop designer Pegi Marshall. You have to strike just the right balance, and they did a marvelous job.

DC: I agree. The set and props gave the production a consistency and a feeling of timelessness, much like the story itself. If there had been numerous set and prop changes, that would have stolen focus and dragged the pacing way down. I also thought Cecilia Durbin's lighting design was quite interesting, although it took me a couple of times to realize what one special effect meant.

JM: Yes, that, to me, is part and parcel of getting settled into the structure of this show. These tech elements are used to help signal changes in time, but it takes a few reps for this all to feel natural and clear.

DC: It sure did.

JM: We haven't touched on Shelby Newport's costumes yet. What did you think?

DC: They’re character defining. And you don't always see that done as sharply as it is here. And as an aside, when Ernestine first entered, I couldn't help but think," WOW! That looks new and freshly ironed." Again, you don't always see that throughout the industry here. Sometimes costumes look like they came right off the rack of the Salvation Army and onto the actor’s body.

JM: Not to put too fine a point on it, but dressing Ernestine in yellow seems a kind of theatrical highlighter. We know from the get-go that our eyes should follow her from scene to scene. And as with the set, the clothes have to somehow translate across eras - which they do. Again, this is something that demands a lot of careful thought.

DC: It does indeed, and Newport is totally successful in accomplishing that.

JM: Quick question: did you think of "Our Town" at all during that first scene? Or is it just me?

DC: Nope. I didn't. It's just you. (laughs) I think I was too busy trying to figure out what was going on.

JM: I think I was put in mind of "Our Town" because you've got this young woman with her family at home, and you're hearing about her big hopes and dreams, even though she lands right where she begins. And, of course, you see how her life plays out, with the focus on these ordinary people that aren't particularly special in any way. Wilder's play was more about capturing a time and a town, but I still felt some homage being paid by way of the playwright's approach and the play's content. But again, that may just be me!

DC: No, I can see that. But now I'm going to ask you the million-dollar question: As this was your first exposure to Detroit Public Theatre, did it meet, surpass or fail your expectations?

JM: Trick question! Because I know and really respect the folks involved with the company, I had high expectations going in. But that said, the production totally met my expectations. I even liked little touches like the white balloons hanging in the air, around the perimeter of the set. The lighting played off them at times, and they reinforced the birthday thing that undergirds the show. Just a nice little added touch that I appreciated.

DC: As you know - since we've talked about DPT a bit over the past three years - I'm a big fan of the company and the women who lead it. They keep making smart choices, and they seem to be rewarded with a very loyal audience base. For me, the choice of "Birthday Candles" as their first commission was a gutsy move, given how atypical a script it is; it could have been a train wreck. But director Vivienne Benesch did a great job pulling its elements together, putting together the perfect cast, and finding the right groove to reveal the story's touching, personal moments. And I have to say - to use an analogy related to the play - the ingredients she baked and served ultimately delivered its intended goods, as the two women next to me couldn't stop crying towards the end of the show - and even a certain Cranky Critic will admit to being a bit choked up towards the end. And that doesn't happen often.

JM: Yes, I thought it was impressive that during the course of this not-that-long show, I went from skepticism to being moved. Part of that, I think, stems from the fact that this is a show not about happy or sad endings - or even endings, really. It covers some really joyful and painful things, so that it's not tied up in a pretty bow. I really appreciate how Haidle handled the end. Because it was more truthful, frankly. There are moments when we're surrounded by loved ones as we age, and there are moments we feel existentially alone. Too often, the too-easy wrap-up gnaws at me, so I admired the playwright's choice to complicate the conventional paradigm.

DC: You nailed it, Jenn. And I think that's why we both grew to like the show so much: It became more truthful as the plot and years went by.

For complete show information, CLICK HERE!


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!