Thursday, January 25, 2018

Laughs and tears: Two lives in the theater

Luna Alexander and Dan Johnson

The magic of live theater is on display anytime patrons with an admission ticket wander into a theater, take their seat, sit back and watch as a three-dimensional, multi-disciplinary art form is used to tell a story before their very eyes. But what happens backstage? Who are these people, and what journey do they take to get to where they are - on stage, performing in a play?

It's a line of questioning many (if not most) in the industry have addressed in one form or another, and it's one the creative folks at Ferndale's Slipstream Theatre Initiative attempt to answer in its current production, Tales from the Mitten, that runs weekends through Jan. 28.

Written and performed by Luna Alexander and Dan Johnson and "loosely" directed by Bailey Boudreau, the format is deceptively simple: On a mostly bare stage, two actors show up at an audition for a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and through multiple replays of the experience at various theaters across the state we discover the trials, tribulations, highs and lows of what it's like to work as a professional actor in Michigan.

The result is a very personal peek behind the curtains that's wickedly funny, yet equally heart-wrenching. (Even some offhand comments elicited near-riotous response on the night I was in the audience. And one particular spoof of the state's Pure Michigan campaign earned an especially raucous reaction! They're brave, these two, that's for sure!)

Alexander, with a twinkle in her eye throughout the show, is a natural storyteller, whose skillful blend of words, expressions and body language reveals the truths behind what she's experienced in the industry. And Johnson - who seems to be working everywhere these days (and that's a good thing for us theatergoers) - takes us on what's likely the most gut-punching emotional journey I've experienced in ages.

Together, they make a fine team.

But what I couldn't help but wonder is this: Since any endeavor that seeks to reveal what makes something tick runs the risk of painting with too broad a brush, how universal are these stories? Because everyone's experiences are uniquely their own, will actors from the broader community agree with them? How similar or different will their stories be? And will seasoned veterans have a different perspective? It's a conversation I'd love to eavesdrop on.

Going in to the show I was concerned that it might be too much of an "insider's only" production - that is, only those inside the industry would appreciate it. But afterwards, a gentleman I'd never talked to came up to me and commented that since he wasn't in the business he didn't understand some of the references. "But that's OK," he said. "There was lots of stuff to laugh at."

Yes, indeed there was.

The Bottom Line: I laughed (loudly several times) and got a tear in my eye (more than once), thanks to Alexander and Johnson who take us on one heck of a roller coaster ride that's not just for theater insiders.

For show information, CLICK HERE!

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