Sunday, March 6, 2016

Brief thoughts on four shows I've seen these past two weekends

In recent weeks I've had the opportunity to catch four shows around town, but given my schedule recently, I haven't had much time to write about them. (My next post in a day or two will expand on that a bit.) And so while I have few minutes to spare today, here are some short notes about each of them, arranged in the order in which I viewed them:

Not so odd: Tipping Point does Simon well

As I believe I've said in at least one prior post, the most consistent producer of quality shows is Northville's Tipping Point Theatre.

Under the leadership of James Kuhl, everyone you encounter there is friendly and engaging - even the volunteer ushers who direct you to your seats.

But equally of importance, Kuhl and his team know their audience, and as such, they deliver to them the types of shows they enjoy with production values that rank among the best the industry has to offer.

Its current show is no different. With that said, however, I'm not a fan of "The Odd Couple (female version)."

When Neil Simon's original "Neil Simon" debuted in 1965, it examined something that was quite rare up till then: two middle-aged straight guys living together. Social mores at the time looked suspiciously at two men in such an arrangement, with an assumption that the two must be gay. (An historical note for my younger readers: Being labeled as gay was seen as a terrible, horrible, dirty thing back then, which meant most gay men were deeply and securely hidden in the closet. Men were often fired and harassed - or even arrested - for nothing more than a passing suspicion.) And so Simon had some fun with his play, exploring male relationships and their ways of bonding. Stereotypes, too, were part of the equation, as Oscar was a butch sportswriter and Felix was a "light in his loafers" (to use an old expression) news writer.

The show enjoyed great success, and 20 years and a popular TV series later, it spawned the female version.

Why, I don't understand. For starters, social dynamics at the time were different for women than men. (Both of my grandmothers took in borders, for example, and no one gave it a second thought.) And to me it seemed to be unoriginal and not very creative for a celebrated playwright of his caliber.

Nevertheless, the bazillionaire's instincts proved better than mine, and the play has been a popular staple off theaters everywhere ever since.

So too were Kuhl's instincts, as tickets have been flying out of the box office, with many (or most) performances totally sold out.

Which only proves one thing: What do I know!

I do know a slick, well-produced production when I see one, however, and that's exactly what's on the Tipping Point stage through March 6.

Fine direction by Lynn Wilde Concannon briskly moves the story along, while the entire cast brings energy and fun to their roles. (People around me a few weeks ago especially loved Sonja Marquis' scene changes.) And Patrick Loos and Nick Yocum make a delightful team as the Latino neighbors. But kudos to Katherine Banks and Dani Cochrane as Florence and Olive, respectively, for making me believe Simon's time wasn't wasted in crafting this update.

The Bottom Line: I really did have a great time, probably the best I've had in all the times I've seen productions of this script.

Want to see what other critics thought about the show?

David Kiley,

Patty Nolan,

Daniel Skora, It's All Theatre

John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press

The show is now closed. For more information about the production: CLICK HERE

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Yes, Butler did it (so to speak)

One of the many things I love about the Detroit Repertory Theatre is its emphasis on producing new works - whether as a world premiere or something that's new to Michigan. And as a history nut, I especially love it when the Rep stages a show that has its roots in a real life incident.

It's current show, "Butler," is both.

Based on the true story of a runaway slave who shows up at Virginia's Fort Monroe near the start of the Civil War asking for asylum, director Barbara Busby crafts a production that's both funny and engaging.

It also features two seasoned pros as adversaries Major General Benjamin Butler and Major John B. Cary: Todd Hissong and Robert Grossman, respectively. Butler is an inexperienced officer, having recently earned his commission after practicing law and serving as a state legislator in Massachusetts. His counterpart, Cary, is a teacher-turned-Confederate officer, and the two tangle over what do with Shepard Mallory.

It's a fascinating story that had repercussions for slaves throughout the area, to which playwright Richard Strand hews quite closely. (Do the research; it's quite a tale!)

To watch Hissong and Grossman create such strong, unique characters is quite fun. And Peter Podalski as the "by-the-rules" Lt. Kelly, has many fine moments. (The woman behind me kept commenting on Podalski's eyes. Catch the show to see what she means; his expressions are priceless.)

But I was particularly impressed with Christian Williams as Shepard Mallory. A relative newcomer to the professional stage, Williams must make an unlikable character likable, which is not an easy task to achieve. Yet that's exactly what he does. And he does so while working alongside two accomplished veterans of the local stage without looking the least bit intimidated. That alone is worthy of acknowledgment!

The Bottom Line: I highly recommend the show!

Want to see what other critics thought of the show?

David Kiley,

John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press

"Butler" runs through March 13. For more information about the production, CLICK HERE

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Scary futures can be fun indeed

I love it when theaters take risks - especially the smaller theaters that have tiny budgets and limited resources, but instead are gifted with enormous creativity. I also love it when they accept the challenge and conquer it through careful planning and meticulous craftsmanship. And I love it even more when those risks are handsomely rewarded by stellar reviews and sold out houses.

Such was the case with Puzzle Piece Theatre's decision to stage "R.U.R.," a rarely performed script by Czech author Karel Capek first presented in 1921 that explores a question frequently addressed by science fiction writers throughout the 20th century: What would be the fate of man should artificial life forms become sentient?

For director D.B. Schroeder, the question must have been: How do I take a "fantastic (but somewhat dated) melodrama" with a large cast (including six robots) and squeeze it into a somewhat tight black box performance space and make it relevant to today's audiences?

It was a heavy task to be sure, yet one he and his team accomplished quite well.

From the moment I walked into the performance space I was immersed into a possible future in which lifelike, unthinking robots (or androids, as we refer to them today) are tasked with doing our heavy work. And that's exactly what was happening around me as I entered the space: Robots Marius (Stebert Davenport), Sulla (Anna Marck) and Radius (Joshua Daniel Palmer) silently and methodically went about clearing the stage.

The three performed their work with great precision, with every movement carefully drawn - and with focused eyes that never wandered. (They even navigated around unsuspecting patrons who didn't immediately realize what was happening around them - and they did so without any unnecessary blinks of the eye or noticeable irritation.)

This set the tone, quite frankly, for what was to come: a well-played melodrama that flowed like clockwork. Even the music used throughout the production perfectly underscored the plot as it unfolded.

The Bottom Line: So despite the script's dark message, "R.U.R" was indeed a fun and enjoyable night at the theater. Risks can indeed pay off, and here's proof!

Want to see what other critics thought of the show?

Martin F. Kohn,

John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press

Patty Nolan,

Daniel Skora, It's All Theatre

"R.U.R." is now closed. For more information about Puzzle Piece Theatre: CLICK HERE

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'You'll rue the day' you missed 'Mr. Burns, a post-electric play'

About a week ago I heard from a very excited Vanessa Sawson who had just seen "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" at The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale. To say that she loved it would be an understatement. "(It) was incredible," she exclaimed. "I have to see it again." And then she asked me to join her at last night's performance. How could I refuse? Her enthusiasm was infectious. (That, too, is an understatement.)

So there I was, sitting next to her, waiting for the show to begin. She was itching to talk about it, but wouldn't. "You have to see it for yourself," she bubbled. Her excitement was palpable.

And now I know why.

What I experienced, though, is hard to explain. (It takes a while to digest.) All I know for sure is that I'll never see Bart Simpson quite the same way ever again, thanks to a heart-choking final act with Dyan Bailey playing America's favorite young rebel.

Imagine, if you will, the very near future. A global catastrophe has occurred, and the world we knew no longer exists. Instead, survivors roam the forests and streets in search of supplies. Death and fear are everywhere. But since there is safety in numbers, small, tight-knit groups form for mutual survival. For one such group, their entertainment is recalling their favorite episodes from the hit TV series "The Simpsons" - most notably, the one entitled "Cape Feare."

The episode, which originally aired on Fox in 1993, is among the favorites of series aficionados - and rightfully so, as it's a parody of the movie "Cape Fear" and is filled with more cultural references than one can possibly find on their own. And that gives the playwright (and actors) plenty of things to work with as the story moves through three very different acts (the third of which is a rather dark musical) and across 82 years.

But why "The Simpsons" as the starting point of the script, you might wonder?

In a 2013 interview published in the Gothamist, playwright Anne Washburn told John Del Signore that the idea for the play was something she had had for a long time - "to take a TV show and push it past the apocalypse and see what happened to it." Her initial inclination was to use "Friends," "Cheers" or "MASH" - or "any show that had had a long term viewership and was much beloved and cheerful."

But then she settled on "The Simpsons," which is now in its 27th season and is American television's longest-running prime-time series. Her decision makes total sense, as the series is a cultural cornerstone that multiple generations are familiar with. And that means the plot she developed would have resonance and meaning for theatergoers young and not-so-young alike.

That certainly seemed the case at last night's performance. What's even more intriguing, though, was eavesdropping on (or participating in) conversations after the show, as patrons struggled to share their thoughts on what was likely an experience they didn't expect. If only I could have followed them to their cars or bars where they likely continued their conversations.

Because if they're like me, they're still not sure what the heck they experienced. I do know, however, that everyone in the room was intensely following the plot and focused on the action as it unfolded - even if they were unsure what was occurring. (At one particular point - following a very tense confrontation - not a sound could be heard throughout the audience as Brandy Joe Plambeck's Sam and Joel Mitchell's Gibson shared a powerful, poignant moment.)
Long-time readers know I love challenging, thought-provoking theater. As I continue to scratch my head in a mix of wonderment and bewilderment, there's one thing I know for sure about "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play": Director Joe Bailey and his team of artists and craftspeople took yet another risk and nailed it.

The Bottom Line: Although I'm still not sure what it was that I saw at The Ringwald, I do know that I loved it, thanks to excellent technical work and performances that will stick with you for quite a while.

Want to see what other critics thought of the play?

David Kiley,

Patty Nolan,

"Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" runs through March 14. For more information about the production: CLICK HERE

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