Sunday, April 16, 2017

No mess, just a fine-tuned production at Theatre Nova

Since the start of the new year, a handful of shows have generated a high level of "buzz" in the community. "It's a 'must-see' show" I've heard several times, and when I checked them out, they were indeed correct - which helped prove what I've maintained for many years now: that Southeast Michigan is blessed with an abundance of high quality theater.

One show in recent weeks seemed to rise above the rest, however, and luckily I was able to catch it on its closing weekend at Theatre Nova.

Clutter, playwright Brian Cox's first full-length play, explores a familiar, time-tested concept - "the battle of the sexes," as it used to be called - but does so by taking it apart and reshaping it into a gutsy, thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of one couple's deteriorating marriage through the recollections of the husband.

Even the form Cox chooses to tell his memory play is unique, as the husband (referred to simply as "Me") - telling his story directly to the audience - chooses two people seated in the house (called "Woman" and "Sir") to help bring his memories to life. It's a concept fraught with danger, however, as the characters slip back and forth from past to present and from their "actual" selves to Me's memories, the result of which could be very disjointed and confusing. But in the hands of Diane Hill, making an impressive directorial debut since joining Theatre Nova as a producing artistic director a handful of months back, every moment is precision tooled to keep the timeline clear and the plot focused.

Equally focused are Tory Matsos and Artun Kircali as Woman and Sir. Although they are portraying characters who talk but rarely communicate with one another, the two are in total sync with each other throughout their fully believable performances. Their tell-tale eyes, their subtle movements, and their revealing facial expressions all add multiple levels of depth and color to Cox's words and characters, thereby allowing the audience to better understand the complex nature of their relationship.

But most impressive is Phil Powers as Me. For several years, Powers seemed to be stuck in roles needing a strong utility player - that is, someone to come in, play a supporting role, knock it out of the ballpark, and then go home. As such, he was never the star, didn't received much acclaim, but was nonetheless appreciated for the caliber of his work. (Or is my memory faulty about the past, like his character's is in the play?) But when offered an opportunity to dig into a meaty role, Powers excelled, the result of which earned him four Wilde Award nominations and one win (which was, to me, his breakout role in Performance Network's The Drowsy Chaperone). In Clutter, Power invests every emotion imaginable into his character, so much so that I'm not sure how he pulls it off night after night and not go home mentally exhausted - especially following the emotionally draining final minutes of the show.

With so much to chew on, playwright Cox and his co-conspirators deliver theatergoers with something few plays offer: hours of follow-up, and likely lively, discussion. That's especially true of the bombshell they drop as the show moves into its homestretch, the ramifications of which are not addressed. But they were in the car on our way home.

The Bottom Line: Clutter is my type of theater: thoughtful script, powerful performances, and plenty of meat for continued discussion long after the performance is over.

Unfortunately, Clutter closes April 16. Performance details can be found here.

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