Saturday, September 23, 2017


Yes, change is in the air. As state theater executives learned this past Monday, I've decided it's finally time to sever all connections with EncoreMichigan.com and The Wilde Awards, two local institutions I co-founded over the past 16 years.

It was an amicable split, driven by directions in which the company is going that make me uncomfortable. However, I wish owner David Kiley well; financing EncoreMichigan.com has been a major problem since day one, and much of its budget has come out of his own pocket since he assumed control of the company. And so I thank him for his continued efforts on behalf of the theater community, a community that doesn't always appreciate the hard work done by others on its behalf. (I also thank him for putting up with me and the "hard-ass" positions I've taken throughout his time as owner. We might not have always agreed on things, but we have always agreed professionally and respectfully.)

So what does this mean for me and my future?

Between The Lines has invited me to return on a fairly regular basis to once again help increase its theater coverage with more previews and interviews, the first of which appeared a couple of weeks ago. I’ll be back with more stories in the coming weeks.

In addition, although my reviewing days are over (the unofficial count stands at 629, not including those I wrote for the Observer & Eccentric newspapers way back in the 1970s and early ‘80s), I plan to continue using this blog to share my thoughts on every show I see. These won't be formal reviews, but a mix of short and not-so-short write-ups that focus on whatever aspect or aspects of a production catch my attention. And so if I discuss a production you're involved with and you're not mentioned, please don't take it as a slight. Or that I didn't like your work. It simply means my focus was on something else and nothing more.

I'll also use this blog to chat about whatever else about the industry pops into my mind at any given moment.

Plus, I’m still continuing to investigate new and innovative ways to promote our theaters. But, as seen with both EncoreMichigan.com since its inception and a proposed online magazine Jenn McKee and I discussed with industry leaders a few months back, the stumbling block is always how to generate enough revenue to pay people for their time and keep the project afloat. So who knows what the future may bring.

Or I may finally hang up my "gone fishing" sign (despite the fact I hate fishing). We'll see.

But for now, I'll be back on Monday with my thoughts on Open Book Theatre's fourth-season opener. (Here's a spoiler warning for you: I recommend it!)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A (nicely executed) revolution in the theater



In my not-so-humble opinion, one mark by which to judge the success of a playwright's work is whether or not it stimulates a theatergoer to think about or research the topics or characters discussed or featured therein. And that's precisely what happened last weekend after I attended a performance of Lauren Gunderson's "The Revolutionists" at Ann Arbor's spunky Theatre Nova.

For despite a few minor quibbles on my part, Gunderson's very creative, yet dark comedy about the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror - which starts with the sound of a guillotine, of all things - intrigued me enough to send me to my computer to learn more about the four women she brings together for an imagined encounter, which led to my uncovering a treasure trove of information a history lover like me will drool over for days.

And what interesting women they were!

In her play, Gunderson imagines what might happen if a controversial French feminist playwright is visited by a civic-minded murderess-to-be, a free black woman activist from what's now known as Haiti, and a well-known and somewhat-ditsy queen at a time when France was in the midst of major, world-changing cultural and political turmoil. All are there for reasons of their own, yet each is requesting the services of the playwright to create for them what could be their exit line from this mortal plane. (I won't spoil it for you, but since three of the characters are based on actual historical figures, quick research will reveal their fates and whether or not the statements were needed.)

The result is a script that is oftentimes quite witty (some of which seemed to go over the heads of the audience on the night I was there), yet cognizant of the perils these brave women faced. The carefully crafted dialogue is crisp, sharp and intelligent throughout, with each character carefully drawn and fully realized. And by play's end we certainly know who these women are, what they believe and how they fit into French society.

And how dangerous it was for a woman to speak out on the issues of the day!

However, I walked away from the performance unsure of and a little puzzled by what Gunderson's goal truly was. Is "The Revolutionists" a piece of artistic naval-gazing in which the playwright ponders the power of the written play and what impact such work may or may not have on society? Or is it a feminist manifesto (or propaganda piece) in which a light is shined on all of the world's ills then and now (from gender inequality to the wealth gap, and from privilege to slavery), yet with no message other than it would be a different world if women were in charge?

Was it a mix of the two? Or better yet: Did I simply miss the point?

What I didn't miss, though, was the performance everyone who has seen the show is raving about. After an astounding solo performance last year in Theatre Nova's production of "Katherine," 2016 Wilde Award nominee Melissa Beckwith returns with another tour de force, playing the historical Marie Antoinette. I've been a fan of Beckwith's work since I first saw her on the The Ringwald stage many years ago (or was it its progenitor, Who Wants Cake, at that point?), and she still has the chops to surprise and impress me. From the moment she first enters to the show's final moments, Beckwith fills the character with the larger-than-life traits one expects of this historical figure, yet with an emotional underpinning that reveals a depth and awareness one may not expect. If there's a performance to beat this season, this is it.

Also featured in the show are K Edminds as Marianne Angelle, Diane Hill as Olympe De Gouges, and Sara Rose as Charlotte Corday.

As fellow critic Jenn McKee stated in her review, "The Revolutionists" is a play that can't help but remind me of the productions staged by the now-defunct and very missed Performance Network, especially when director David Wolber and founding artistic director Carla Milarch were running things. (The only difference is the budget for the set, which I suspect would have been much higher in the good ol' days.) And that's high praise indeed!

THE BOTTOM LINE: I wouldn't be surprised if this weekend's closing performances will be sold out, so if you'd like to catch the show, I recommend you reserve your tickets now! You won't be disappointed!

For complete show details, CLICK HERE!


Sunday, September 3, 2017

A life's menagerie on display at Slipstream

Bailey Boudreau and Steve Xander Carson


A few weeks ago, as I was interviewing University of Michigan undergrad and up-and-coming playwright Maxim Vinogradov about his new work, A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams that's now onstage at Ferndale's Slipstream Theatre Initiative, I couldn't help but think, "I've gotta check this show out." And that's what I did this past Saturday night - and I left afterwards impressed by both his script and the work of the actors who brought this difficult, yet intriguing story to life.

Set some undisclosed years after his death, Williams now holds court in Purgatory where he gives daily lectures to his fellow "residents" who want to hear stories about the playwright and his many famous friends. These chats, it seems, cover the same territory as the typical gossip magazine found on newsstands both then and now - which means nothing too personal and nothing too serious is discussed.

Tonight, however, is different, thanks to malfunctioning gadgetry Williams and his assistant, Edwina, use during his presentation. (To show you how well thought out this production is, the tech is consistent with what Williams would be familiar with during his lifetime.) So rather than the typical laugh-filled romp through his well-publicized life and times, Williams is instead forced to face some rather unpleasant thoughts and memories he'd rather keep hidden.

Purgatory, it seems, is not what Williams was expecting.

The play itself, however, surpassed my expectations.

Vinogradov - whose script has already been blessed with two impressive writing awards through U-of-M's prestigious Hopwood competitions - tackles his subject with a sharp scalpel, expertly scraping away layer upon layer of the persona Williams created for himself and the public. But the truth hurts, as the saying goes, and Vinogradov's extensive research and careful plotting help us to better understand the man behind the myth and how his inner demons played out in the stories he told upon the stage and silver screen - many of which we still cherish more than three decades after his death.

The result is a powerful tale well told - and a very human one.

But it's also a bitch to stage well and convincingly, as most of his characters are the famous and infamous whose voices, images and mannerisms are burnt into our collective memories.

And so choices have to be made: How far does the director go - in this case, Vinogradov co-directed the show with Victoria Rose Weatherspoon - in recreating these colorful characters?

Wisely, the co-directors kept the characters grounded in reality, never allowing them to rise to the point of caricature. Instead, each actor found the flavor of their characters through hours of research that they then used to build their interpretations.

That's especially visible when you watch Ryan Ernst as Truman Capote. Although he'd never appear in my Top Five Hundred People To Play Capote list - the two men are polar opposites in pretty much every way conceivable - the role affords Ernst a meaty opportunity to grow, expand and mature as as actor, and he certainly rises to the opportunity by capturing the idiosyncratic author's vocal characteristics and mannerisms quite well. But equally important is the dignity and respect he shows his character by portraying him as realistically as possible when it would be far easier to resort to stereotypes.

Another fascinating performance is given by Slipstream heart throb Steve Xander Carson. Playing the role of Williams' handsome, longtime lover Frank Merlo, Carson slips onto the stage as if he stepped out of a 1950's Life magazine and strikes a pose that would be familiar to anyone familiar with publications that catered to gay men of that era.

I could go on and on about the show's many fine performances, including Jan Cartwright as Edwina and Tiaja Sabrie as Williams' sister Rose (who will break your heart). And continuing its endeavor to give high school students a chance to earn some real-life stage experience while on their summer vacation, recent Wilde Award winner Jackson Abohasira captures a young Brando quite nicely, while Grace Jolliffe's Garbo and Hepburn made me smile, for example.

But the toughest nut to crack is that of Williams himself. He was a complicated man in real life with demons who haunted him till his death, and it's a many-layered role that runs the gamut of emotions. it's a role that took Slipstream artistic director Bailey Boudreau out of his comfort zone - so much so, he kept trying to get out of it. But Vinogradov would not hear of it, and he pressed the actor to keep at it.

To say that Boudreau succeeded would be an understatement. He too showed significant growth as an actor in this production, and his (and the show's) final 10-15 minutes will leave your heart in your throat and you'll be speechless as the lights go down for the last time.

That's how powerfully good this production is. And I predict great things will be forthcoming from the talented Mr. Vinogradov!

A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams runs through Sept. 17. For show details, CLICK HERE!

To read my preview of the show, CLICK HERE!

Maxim Vinogradov and Bailey Boudreau