Thursday, February 25, 2016

What a debut: Kickshaw kicks ass

New theaters seem to spring up like wild flowers; some wither almost immediately, while others enjoy a very long and fruitful existence. So when word first got out early last year that a new Equity theater was planned for Ann Arbor, I greeted the news with an equal mix of skepticism, interest and curiosity.

On the plus side, Kickshaw Theatre seemed to be a promising addition to the community. Founders Lynn Lammers and Julia Glander (and their management team) seemed to be taking a careful and deliberate approach to building their company, and since the women involved all enjoyed sterling reputations and noteworthy track records, their likelihood of creating a successful endeavor seemed far greater than many others that came (and disappeared) before them.

Plus, their stated goal - wanting to be known for "uncommon stories and stylistic daring" - intrigued me. (Pleasant memories of innovative shows staged at the long-defunct Zeitgeist Theatre and the early days of Performance Network came flooding back to me.)

But then I asked myself, "Is Ann Arbor able and willing to support yet another theater?" Are there enough patrons, donors and funders to go around, I wondered, when the town is already home to Performance Network, Theatre Nova, Arbor Opera, The Penny Seats and the University Musical Society? And the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, The Brass Tacks Ensemble, and the various theater programs at the University of Michigan? And with the nearby Purple Rose Theatre and The Encore Musical Theatre soaking up dollars from the community?

Only time will tell, of course. But more on that later.

For its initial offering, Kickshaw chose "The Electric Baby," an odd-duck of a script that certainly meets the company's goal of telling unusual stories. Perfectly described in a press release as "a dark and fantastical comedy about sad endings, strange beginnings and the unlikely people that get you from one place to the next," playwright Stephanie Zadravec starts out by introducing the audience to what looks like a series of unrelated characters and random events. But the beauty of the script is how she weaves together a young, fourth-wall-breaking Romanian mother, a lottery ticket-loving Nigerian cab driver and two couples of differing ages and worldly experiences having a bad night into a powerful journey that questions the randomness of life and how the unexpected and unpredictable interactions of strangers can impact each other's lives and futures.

It's a unique script, to be sure, filled with folktales and legends and a baby that glows like the moon. It's also one that lesser directors could surely mess up in its transition to the stage - but not Lammers, who kept the show grounded and focused, tight and balanced. Right from the opening moments - which I'll discuss later - Lammers drew her audience into the story and never let them go.

And for good reason: Her eye for casting the appropriate actor for each role couldn't have been better.

This is a production in which every character was carefully drawn and fully realized, even when the playwright gave the artists little to work with. The result, then, were characters and situations we could relate to, even when the plot and specific circumstances might feel otherwise.

(How convincing were they, you might be wondering? The show opens with Natalia (the young Romanian immigrant and mother) talking to her baby. Played by the superb and always-delightful Vanessa Sawson, Natalia acknowledges our presence, asks us to turn off our cell phones, and strongly, but sweetly, in that all-knowing, motherly way, urges us to resist coughing during the play so that we don't irritate our neighbors. And guess what? Her request, recommendation, or perceived threat worked, as I don't recall a single cough throughout the entire performance. Even I stifled one out of fear of the repercussions...)

All-in-all, when you mix the fine performances by Sawson, Julia Glander, Peter Carey, William Bryson, Mary Dilworth and Michael Lopetrone (who plays three roles) with the excellent work of technical director Charlie Gaidica and his team of craftspeople, the result is one of the best opening productions by a new company I've ever seen.

So what does that mean long term?

If Kickshaw's opening production is any indication, the company has already accomplished two important things:
  1. It has quickly staked out its niche within Southeast Michigan's professional theater community; and
  2. It has already mastered the art of creating excellent, thought-provoking theater, something new companies often (if not usually) struggle with over the course of several shows.
With the recent demise of Performance Network, Kickshaw is now Ann Arbor's sole producer of Equity theater. (The CRLT Players at the University of Michigan also operates under an Equity contract, but it functions as an educational arm of the university for workshops and consultations.) And with Theatre Nova, the two are now the town's dominant non-profit, professional producers of live theater.

But there's still work to be done.

In this not-so-humble critic's opinion, what Kickshaw needs to do in order to become a permanent fixture in the community is to develop a broad and loyal group of patrons and donors that would enable the company to grow and prosper. But that won't happen without a permanent facility to call home.

As other theaters have learned the hard way over the past few decades, it's difficult to retain and build an audience when you move from one location to another for each show. People (and patrons) are creatures of habit; change is difficult - even for something as simple a concept as this. Although Kickshaw has been searching for a permanent facility for quite some time, that should be their primary focus before staging another show. Hoping and praying for a miracle - that your audience will follow you wherever you go - isn't the worth the risk when a great future looms before you.

 So welcome, Kickshaw, and congratulations on a great opening! I look forward to the exciting times ahead for you!

The Bottom Line: Although "The Electric Baby" is now closed, here are a handful of reviews for you to check out:

Jenn McKee's review:

Patty Nolan's review:

Daniel Skora's review: It's All Theatre

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