Sunday, December 3, 2017

Life still sucks (or not): Two theaters and two directors approach the same script so differently, yet get equally entertaining results

Every so often, theatergoers have an opportunity to view firsthand what impact directors, actors and designers have on bringing a script to life when two or more theater companies produce the same show a few months apart from one another. The result, they'll discover, can be as different as night and day.

Critics, too, can have a lot of fun with such occurrences, as when Bridgette Redman (then a regular freelance critic and entertainment writer for the Lansing State Journal) and I got together several seasons ago and crafted a series of columns comparing and contrasting three productions of Doubt that took place over a short period of time. (For us, that was a lot of fun, and the reader response was great!)

Already this season we've seen two very different productions of Life Sucks, Aaron Posner's "irreverent variation on Anton Chekov's Uncle Vanya" - the first at Open Book Theatre in Trenton this past September, and currently at The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale.

In trying to describe their differences in a way that paints a very specific picture, I came up with the following analogy (imperfect though it may be): Open Book's production was like walking into a neighborhood restaurant where you find tables draped in white linen with flickering candles on top, impeccable service provided by a polite and polished waitstaff dressed in clean and perfectly pressed black uniforms, and a kitchen that runs like clockwork; on the other hand, The Ringwald's production was like having dinner at a truck-stop diner where flirty waitresses refer to you as "honey" or "darlin'" more times than you can count, uniforms reflect the staff's personal styles and choices, the flurry of activity in and out of the kitchen occurs at various (and often breakneck) speeds, and orders are barked in to and out of the kitchen with a mix of urgency and humor.

Neither is better than the other; the experiences are simply different. Very different. What's the same, though, is the ultimate result of your dining experience: a fun and memorable visit that accomplished what you hoped for and expected - a tasty, fully satisfying meal.

That's close to how I view the two productions. But if pressed for a more deeper (but equally incomplete) comparison about the style (not the substance) of each show, I'd say that it was if the Open Book production was set in the normally quiet estate of Grosse Point natives, whereas The Ringwald introduced us to that loud and rowdy bunch down the street who occasionally wakes us up in the middle of the night.

Again, both approaches are equally valid. Yet two directors interpreted the same material in significantly different ways. And even the designers brought a different look and feel to their respective productions. (Harley Miah's impressive lighting design for the Open Book production, for example, still sticks with me today.)

Because of choices made by the shows' directors (Krista Schafer Ewbank at Open Book and Joe Bailey at The Ringwald), a natural result is the different flow to how each story unfolds. Plus, since each actor brings their own unique skills and choices into their work, it's also expected that the actors playing identical roles will interpret them differently. And that's certainly the case with these two productions. (For more about Open Book's production see my post from this past September.)

For those who enjoy observing how different actors can play the same role so differently, Dyan Bailey as Pickles was radically different from Mandy Logsdon's, just as Bryan Lark's Dr. Aster was not in the same universe as Jonathan Davidson's. And Jane MacFarlane's Babs had little in common with Linda Rabin Hammell's, just as Sydney Lepora's Ella was worlds away from Caitlin Morrison's. But that didn't matter, as each fit snugly in to the worlds created by their directors.

Standouts in The Ringwald's production include Joel Mitchell, who runs rings around pretty much every other actor in town when it comes to playing pompous asses like The Professor. (He's also pretty damn good in other roles as well, as evidenced by his seven Wilde Awards nominations and two wins over the past 16 years.) The way he plays with certain words - both vocally and visually - adds important color to his dialogue.

Also impressive is Joe Bailey as Vanya. In yet another masterful performance, Bailey dives deep into his emotional well to bring all of Vanya's heretofore hidden pain to the surface. It's heart-wrenching to watch, made more so by his expert use of hand gestures and facial expressions to accentuate his words.

But it's Kelly Komlen who truly tears your heart out as Sonia, The Professor's daughter and Vanya's niece. Secretly in love with Dr. Aster, she believes he's out of reach - mostly, she believes, because she considers herself to be homely and he only dates hot, attractive women. (Their age difference doesn't seem to dawn on her; from his point of view, she's simply the younger niece of his life-long best friend.) Her last act meltdown was so powerful I couldn't help but ask Komlen afterward how she can go home and relax right after the show. Her answer made me laugh - and made total sense.

Lights by Brandy Joe Plambeck and the set by Jennifer Maiseloff served the concept well. I especially loved the painted scenery on the upstage and stage left walls.

So what's the moral of my story, you may be wondering? Directors matter. So do actors. And every so often its nice to have an opportunity to be reminded why that's so - and what impact they have on bringing a script to life.

The Bottom Line: If you're curious about which production I liked best, you'll be disappointed. Both were highly enjoyable. But they were also quite different - and that's what I love about live theater! And in this specific case, I went to The Ringwald knowing and appreciating the types of work they do, and they met and exceeded all of my expectations. As usual.

To see how on the mark or off base I am, you have only two more chances to catch Life Sucks at The Ringwald: today at 5 p.m and tomorrow at 8 p.m. For complete information regarding The Ringwald Theatre, CLICK HERE!

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