Wow... that was weirdly saturated with sports metaphors.
Thanks for reading!
Well, Michigan... it's been a pretty great ride. Unfortunately... for the ten and a half of you who have actually read my reviews... I have moved out of the Michigan area. I'm not entirely sure where I'm going to land yet, at least artistically speaking, so my stage reviews will be on hold. I'll probably post a movie review or two, just to keep my reviewing muscles nimble and in fighting shape, but for the moment, I'm on the bench.
Wow... that was weirdly saturated with sports metaphors.
Thanks for reading!
The director's note for Michigan Shakespeare Festival's current production of Hamlet reminds us that this is probably one of the most known, most read, most performed, most analyzed and most over-exposed of all of Shakespeare's plays. To undertake this show is to accept the 600 or so years of baggage attached to it, and to make a stab (pun intended) at making it your own. And while this is by no means a perfect or particularly revelatory account of "the Melancholy Dane," it usually proves to be a solid, intelligent and entertaining one.
In case you didn't attend high school in the Western, English-speaking world, Hamlet is the story of the titular prince of Denmark (Shawn Pfautsch), who returns home from school for his father's sudden funeral to find that his father's brother Claudius (David Turrentine) has assumed the throne and married Queen Gertrude (Janet Haley). Once the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to tell him that his untimely death was at Claudius's hand, Hamlet sets out to prove the new king's treachery and to avenge his father. Along the way, of course, Hamlet breaks the heart of his young lover, Ophelia (Lydia Hiller), kills her father Polonius (Alan Ball), and generally leaves a swath of dead people in his wake.
Director Janice L. Blixt creates a sleek and appropriately timeless world for her Hamlet, which (thankfully) throws the focus on the story and the characters rather than the expectations of pumpkin hose and historicity. Overall, the staging and storytelling are evocative and clear, leading us along Hamlet's path with authority, carefully building to the bloody denouement. She treats Hamlet as a clever and traumatized young man whose performances weigh on him as he builds toward his ultimate demise. The ghost scenes are particularly well done, leaving mystery and malice hanging in the air with each appearance. However there are a few moments that fall inexcusably short of the stakes set by the circumstances. In particular, the scene in Gertrude's bedchamber, which (spoiler alert) features Polonius's murder, is played with almost no recognition that there is a wrongfully killed man on the floor behind them. That murder is a turning point for everyone in the play, and it is delivered and dismissed with so little fanfare that one might wonder why Ophelia couldn't just quit her whining and get over it like everyone else. Don't get me wrong here - I did like the production. In fact, I liked the production enough not to understand why it fails to live up to itself in a key moment like this, when so many other moments deliver such power and life.
Shawn Pfautsch is an energetic and engaging Hamlet, effectively embodying the claustrophobia of his situation (particularly in the first half of the show). And while this is, of course, a great tragic role, for my money, Pfautsch is at his best in his moments of comic counterpoint, wearing Hamlet's "antic disposition" with creativity, charm, and laser focus. David Turrentine is a bit strident and one-note as the deceptive King Claudius, playing the power-monger from the first moment, therefore having little room for discovery. His relationship with Janet Haley's Gertrude is cold and distant, giving us little clue as to why either would have married the other in the first place. Brandon St. Clair Saunders is solid and strong as Hamlet's stalwart confidant Horatio. And the final moment between him and Hamlet is flat out excellent. Lydia Hiller delivers an uneven performance as Ophelia, but her deeply affecting mad scene in the second act made me wonder if her first act performance might have just been an off night. Sam Hubbard as her hot-headed brother Laertes has his best moments when he is with his family, every bit the big brother and the fond son in a way that makes this family's downfall all the more poignant. And speaking of this family, one of the highlights of this production is definitely Alan Ball's delicate portrayal of Ophelia and Laertes's father Polonius. He scrapes away the traditional doltish caricature of the role in favor of simple truth, finding both comedy and tragedy in his earnestness as both a father and a civil servant. And the added bonus of his reappearance as the gravedigger drives home Ball's comic mastery. Edmund Alyn Jones and Topher Payne as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play the build of their bewilderment well. The rest of the supporting cast - Joe Lehman, Eric Eilersen, Rick Eva, Daniel A. Helmer, and Rachel Hull - fill out the world with appropriate investment. (Though I can't help but lodge a pet peeve with those absurd blue electric cigarettes, which were way overused in this production. You're talking to the Prince - maybe don't blow smoke in his face, huh?)
Jeromy Hopgood's scenic design is elegant and open, though I must admit, it is probably a little too open for the world of deception and captivity that this production set out to highlight. Diane Fairchild's lighting design, on the other hand, uses shadow and angles to great effect in illustrating a world haunted at least as much by misdeeds of the living as by ghosts of the dead. Kathryn Wagner's costumes are straightforward and effective, though I found the gray suit in which Gertrude appears for the bulk of the show downright unforgivable. It's quite a feat to make the statuesque Janet Haley seem frumpy. Kate Hopgood's sound design adds depth and mystery to the world. Her contribution to the ghost sequence ("SWEAR!") is all the right kinds of spooky, and the production would have been served well by incorporating that sort of element at more points along Hamlet's emotional journey.
While this production certainly has its foibles, overall it is a thoughtful and well-acted offering to the long history of Hamlets. So, if it all comes down to "To see, or not to see" (with apologies to William Shakespeare), I come down firmly on the side of "to see!"
Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Director: Janice L. Blixt) continues at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival through August 17. Tickets range from $31-$40. For more information, visit http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com/.
NOTE: I regret that I will not be able to make it out for the MSF's third offering, Cymbeline. It is a play that, in my opinion, is not done nearly enough. And I applaud them for giving this gem its day! Don't miss your chance to see it!
The Michigan Shakespeare Festival's sparkling production of The Importance of Being Earnest opened July 27 with all the wit and ridiculousness one could wish for from dear old Oscar Wilde.
The story of Earnest is classically light and farcical, centering around upper crust playboy Jack Worthing (Joe Lehman) and upper crust playboy Algernon Moncrieff (David Blixt), each of whom falls in love with an upper crust lady - Gwendolyn Fairfax (Rachel Hull) and Cecily Cardew (Lydia Hiller) respectively - under the false pretense that his name is actually Earnest.
Of course, the story is really just a vehicle for Oscar Wilde's pith and vinegar, which are carried off beautifully by MSF's cast. Director Janice L. Blixt has created a crisp and lively production that takes full advantage of its own silliness, much to the delight of the opening night audience. Lehman and Blixt as Worthing and Moncrieff are a dashing duo of dalliance and dramatics. Their timing is superb, and their sort of odd couple dynamic and schoolboy sincerity provide bit after hilarious bit, rarely giving the audience a chance to catch our breath. As their ladies love, Gwendolyn and Cecily, Hull and Hiller are deliciously funny. They nimbly punctuate their exchanges with the razor-sharp precision required by great comedy, fully embracing every moment of frivolity and feistiness. And while I never relish taking one of those too-rare women's roles away from an actress, David Turrentine is terrific as the imposing matriarch Lady Bracknell. He never plays the drag as a bit, but inhabits the character thoroughly, giving Lady Bracknell all the force and majesty she feels quite certain that she is entitled to. Alan Ball is utterly charming as the lovestruck intellectual Reverend Chasuble. Wendy Kate Hiller has some fun bits as his timid temptress Miss Prism, though she ultimately misses some pretty important comic opportunities in the final scene. Rounding out the play are the butlers Lane (Brandon St. Clair Saunders) and Merriman (Rick Eva), both of whom skillfully apply their own dry drollery to the proceedings. Aside from the inexplicable and distracting banana bit near the end of the play (you'll see what I mean), they are very nearly prototypes of exactly how a comic manservant should be used.
Jeromy Hopgood's scenic design seems a little too empty and sprawling in the first act, but fills out nicely in the second and third (yes - it's three acts, but Janice L. Blixt's brisk pacing and excellent sense of fun give the piece a momentum that positively flies), providing ample opportunities for the lively bits that populate the production. Suzanne Young's costume design is straight up fantastic, placing the action firmly in its historical moment, and speaking volumes about each character in a single glance. And the sheer scope of the sleeves on Lady Bracknell and Gwendolyn's dresses should probably win her and her stitchers some sort of medal. Kate Hopgood's sound design provides a clear and appropriately subtle environment for the proceedings. Diane Fairchild's lighting design is perhaps the design element that participates the least in the world of the play, but she provides what is needed, and that's just fine by me.
So make the trip out to Jackson for a production that is a positive smorgasbord of comedic delights (my metaphor was drawn from... food).
The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival through August 15. Tickets range from $31-$40. For more information, visit http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com/.
NOTE: I regret that I will not be able to make it out for the MSF's third offering, Cymbeline. It is a play that, in my opinion, is not done nearly enough. And I applaud them for giving this gem its day! Don't miss your chance to see it!
Tipping Point Theatre opened their production of The Red King's Dream on Saturday, May 31. A story of love, friendship, indices and just a tinge of Lewis Carroll brand nonsense, the American premiere of The Red King's Dream supplies a healthy dose of humor and heart.
The story centers around the reclusive Steven Tudor (Aral Gribble), whose entire world consists of working from home creating indices (that's the plural of index) for his boss, publisher Katherine Rapell (Julia Glander). Aside from his pushy employer, the only visitor who ever seems to cross his threshold is his friend and neighbor Amy Mathias (Leslie Hull)... until graduate student Zoe Pryce (Maggie Meyer) moves in down the hall and begins to open up his tiny world to things he didn't even know he was missing.
First things first: I can't say that I loved the script. There are some genuinely touching and funny moments, but a good deal of the conflict feels a bit contrived, sort of whipping itself into a frenzy out of nowhere because we're supposed to have a climax now, and Katherine's motives never quite come into focus in a way that justifies the suddenly heightened stakes. On top of the script issues, the production suffers a bit from a sort of general pacing problem - with a bit too much air in conversations to give them the quick crispness that I think the writer wanted (though I suspect this is something that will remedy itself over the course of the run). And I fear that director Chantel Gaidica danced along the surface of the script in a few places, missing some of the opportunities for deeper nuances in the storytelling - though I do think she did much more with the script than the playwright built in. Still, despite some of the hang-ups, the performance is generally quite charming and fun - due in no small part to the excellent work of Aral Gribble as Steven. In a role that could easily have become a nerdy, nebbishy stereotype, Gribble brings a delicate vulnerability that endears him to the audience and makes his journey really matter despite the shortcomings of the playwright. He is funny and timid and brave and true, and an awful lot of fun to watch. The bombastic Leslie Hull as his friend Amy is a great foil for Gribble's sweet shut-in, blowing in and out of his apartment with energy and life. And though I think that the production missed some opportunities to deepen this character, she is generally very likeable. Maggie Meyer's Zoe has a natural, down-to-earth approachability about her. There are times when she plays the "sweet ingenue" card a little too heavily, but generally her ease and openness make her someone we really root for. Julia Glander has her moments as Steven's abrasive publisher boss Katherine, but she is overall a little over-the-top for my taste - she rarely seems to be playing in quite the same world as the rest of the characters.
While I did have some issues with the production, all in all, the visual world of the play is really spot on. Brandon Newton's deliciously cluttered scenic design puts us smack dab inside Steven's apartment... or maybe it's his brain... or maybe it's both. No doubt a (very effective) collaboration with props designer Amanda Ewing, there is hardly a surface unused, and the cockeyed angles and labyrinthine shelf layout provides a rich setting for the action of the play. Colleen Ryan-Peters's costume design is creative and functional. It's sort of a shame that her playful fantasy costumes don't get more stage time, but the real world characters also look pretty darn good. And I'll just go ahead and say it: I kind of wanted all of Zoe's costumes (green party dress... you will be mine). Brian Scruggs's lighting design, though minimal, reinforces the action of the play handily, and I particularly like the depth added to the maze by the judicious use of a few bare bulbs. Throw in Quintessa Gallinat's energetic sound design, and you've got a technical world that really does a lot to bring this show to life.
It's interesting, I didn't really expect to find a contemporary political message in this play - and I certainly don't think that anyone at Tipping Point remotely intended one, and it even seems fairly likely that I could be the only person who might make this connection - but I couldn't help leaving the theatre thinking about the recent conversations in the media surrounding the nerdy "nice guy" underdogs and whether or not they are simply "owed" the pretty girl in the end because that's how it happens in the movies. In this sense, The Red King's Dream ended up being inadvertently well timed to be a part of that conversation. And though the script has some bumps, and the show isn't perfect, what it does do is provide a genuinely warm, thoughtful, and often funny production that ends up providing a narrative that is a welcome something different, and a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the theatre.
The Red King's Dream by David Belke (Director: Chantel Gaidica) continues at Tipping Point Theatre through June 29. Tickets range from $27-$32. For more information, visit http://www.tippingpointtheatre.com/.
I’ve seen and performed a lot of Shakespeare in my life. Let’s be honest, if you’re in the theatre long enough, pretty much all of us will say that. I’ve seen Shakespeare set in the Renaissance, Little Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Algeria, the circus, comic books, the Prohibition, there was even this crazy silver-clad, fluorescent-wigged futuristic Two Gents this one time. But whatever the concept, I have found one rule to be true: if a concept is going to work, it needs to illuminate the text, not be shoehorned on top of it. But the latter is just what happens in The Performance Network’s current production of Richard III.
Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, notable partly for the creative license he takes with his telling of the War of the Roses. The story follows its title character through his multiple machinations on the way to the throne, and eventually (SPOILER ALERT) his grave (Dun dun DUUUUUNNNN!). Along the way he has a hand in murdering pretty much every relative he can get his hands on, betraying even those who stood beside him, and finally ending up alone, crying out famously for a horse that might bear him out of the fate he manufactured for himself. This particular Richard III is set in "a messy, technological jungle, at once familiar and distant, a foreboding dystopia in scope" in which "gender fluidity comes to the forefront" and old biases linger despite the ostensible success of gender-identity civil rights battles.
Now, let me be clear – when I talk about the concept, I’m not complaining about Richard being played by a woman (PNT Associate Artistic Director Carla Milarch). They actually managed to highlight enough instances on the script dealing with the weakness of the character’s effeminacy, that I ended up being on board with that. Rather than the traditional limp or hunchback, her "deformity" was not being born a man. Fairly offered. My problems, unfortunately, boil down to a fundamental disagreement with the play's direction, helmed by Julia Glander. Trying to make this a play ABOUT gender fluidity means having to impose a lot of meaning onto the text that just isn't there, and, it seems, ignoring some other things that are in the text. To make a heavy concept like this work, we needed to know a lot more about this world - we needed more consistency in the characters, who generally felt like they were each stuck, free floating alone in their own play. (The incomprehensible character of Mistress Shore, for example, seemed to be played in drag simply to say, "Look! Gender is fluid!" rather than to tell us anything about the character or her place in the world.) The tone of the show is, almost unilaterally, inappropriate to the story being told. The stakes are too low for people facing imprisonment, beheading, forced marriage, war, child murder and the like. Preferring gags to gravity (Frozen and The Princess Bride references may have brought some chuckles in rehearsal, but they rip us right out of the performance), Glander's production trips about, over and through the corpses with no real sense of importance or consequences. Anne is led off to marry a monster, but we can't feel for her because we already watched her hugging and comforting him. Margaret is treated as a fool rather than a madwoman (two wildly different Shakespearean archetypes), which makes her curses and portents lose all sense of foreboding. And the final battle, true to the two and a half hours that precedes it, is utterly anti-climactic. All in all, it felt like a play directed by someone who was not interested in telling the story the playwright had given her.
By far the strongest performance in the cast is delivered by Drew Parker as the Duke of Clarence and Lord Stanley. His melodious voice deftly navigates the language with confidence, and he is mesmerizing as he recounts his dream. But even he falls victim to the laissez faire world, giggling his way to the Tower of London and making chit-chat up until the moment of his death (at the hands of two men who would absolutely never have been able to overpower him the way they do). John Seibert is intriguing as Queen Margaret (another bit of gender bending that worked pretty well for me) - this character, though misdirected, ushers in one of the first appearances of appropriately high stakes into the play. And he's sort of adorable as the bumbling Lord Mayor. Brian Sage has some genuinely interesting moments as Richard's co-conspirator the Duke of Buckingham. He's particularly good in the second act when playing to the public outside Richard's window. However, his defection from Richard's posse shares his castmates' problem with low stakes. Francisco Fiori as the Young Duke of York brings a great shot of youth to the proceedings, and is a breath of fresh air. Alysia Kolascz and Logan Ricket are solid as Hastings and Catesby respectively, though neither escapes from the general haze hanging over the cast's collective energy. Kolascz does step up quite a bit in her second incarnation as the conquering Richmond, bringing some much needed power to the opposition. Janet Haley and Terry Heck as Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York seem both to be fighting an uphill battle - both show the signs of being excellent performers, but neither manages to find a consistent through-line to her character that could communicate the true depth of their personal tragedies. Jonathan West has some nice variety in his performances as the ailing King Edward IV and Sir James Tyrrel, though there is occasionally something a little too presentational about his greasy evilness as Tyrrel. Joanna Bronson as Lady Anne is insular and wooden, making her come off at most as uninterested rather than the enraged, passionate noble woman she should have been. Jason Tomalia and Justin Dietzel are so overly cartoonish as the two murderers that they provide no menace and simply don't end up belonging in this world. And Carla Milarch throws herself fully into her frustrated, male-identified incarnation of Richard. She is convincing in terms of the gender fluidity that is at the center of this interpretation, but her delivery usually ends up being too one-note to fully convey Richard's delicious duplicity, often substituting speedy delivery for conscientious communication of the words and ideas.
One truly redeeming element of this generally misguided production is Monika Essen's dynamic set design. Somehow simultaneously cluttered and open, it gives us a lot to look at, the actors plenty of places to play, and provides an engaging vision of the dystopian world. Daniel C. Walker's lighting design is serviceable - sometimes creating truly rich stage pictures, sometimes leaving us too much in the dark. Will Myers's sound design is intrusive and jarring, forcing itself on top of key moments rather than supporting them. And Katherine Nelson's costume design, though it places us loosely in "dystopia," does little to communicate character, allegiances or theme (though I do think her treatment of Richard is spot on for the direction they have chosen).
When I come into a theatre at the beginning of the evening, my sincere hope is always that I will enjoy the show, and the sad truth is, that can't always happen. So now, having had an evening of theatre that I unfortunately did not enjoy, my sincere hope is that other audience members will go and will disagree with me. This may be the winter of MY discontent, so here's hoping you find some of that glorious summer instead.
Richard III by William Shakespeare (Director: Julia Glander) continues at The Performance Network through June 1. Tickets range from $27-$46. For more information, visit http://www.performancenetwork.org/.
Sondheim's epic love letter to fairy tales, Into the Woods, opened last weekend with a new treatment that only The Ringwald Theatre could bring. A campy yet thoughtful production staged with creativity and wit, this Into the Woods is both contemporary and timeless... and an awful lot of fun!
The story, for those who don't already worship at this particular musical theatre altar, is a mish-mash of classic fairy tales. It centers around a childless baker and his wife who are sent on a quest by the witch next door so they can end their curse and finally have a child. Along the way, they meet Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and his mother, Cinderella, Rapunzel, princes, stepsisters, giants...it's quite the journey. Each character has his or her own wish, and by the end of the first act everyone's feeling pretty good. But wishes can be tricky things, and act two unravels beyond even the Grimmest of tales.
Now, Into the Woods is a notoriously tough (albeit wildly popular) undertaking. It's long, the music is complicated, the cast is sizable, and I have to admit, I wasn't sure how the show was going to fit into the tiny storefront theatre in Ferndale, but I was pleasantly surprised by what director Joe Bailey did to bring the behemoth down to the right size. Bailey sets his tale in a bomb shelter, where a handful of disparate people have come together for safety, and the stories come to life in front of us as a way for the refugees to pass the time. Of course, there aren't enough people, so almost all of the actors take on multiple roles, which is really where this production shines. The Ringwald knows how to do camp, and in this production the flouncing and prancing and metatheatrical commentary does a great job highlighting the magic and the artifice of the fairy tales, but Bailey also knows when to shed the tricks for some genuine moments of fear, loss, discovery, and growth.
Across the board, it was clear that the cast was having a lot of fun in this uneasy world Bailey set up for them. First, Jeff Bobick deserves a special shout-out for not only serving as Musical Director, but also acting as narrator and one man band! Kryssy Becker as Cinderella has a crystalline soprano that soars through her songs, and she has just the right balance of sincerity and silliness. Drew Arnold is delightfully daft as Jack, with a sweet, silky tenor voice (and, it turns out, a pretty rockin' soprano of his own). David Moan and Richard Payton are a riot as the Princes...and the stepsisters...and the Wolf and the Cow...and whatever else they needed to be at any given moment. They sound great together...and they both have some pretty impressive comic chops and princely hops! Molly McMahon has some archly funny moments as Little Red. Dan Morrison is a lot of fun as The Mysterious Man and sort of camp-master general of the performance. Jamie Richards turns in a solid performance as the Baker. Eva Rosenwald has a few nice moments as the Baker's Wife, but is generally a little bland and vocally inconsistent. Lisa Jesswein is fine as Jack's Mother, though she never quite manages to match the vocal energy of the rest of the cast. And though I hate to say it, Suzan M. Jacokes as the Witch misses the mark in my book. There's more yelling and mugging than is really called for even in the campiest of plays (which, despite its non-traditional take, this still is not), and aside from a few moments (her performance of "Children Will Listen," for example, is a rare and lovely moment of truth), she generally doesn't quite feel like she's in the same play as the rest of the cast.
Phill Harmer's scenic design fills the Ringwald space creatively, providing a versatile acting space and effectively engulfing the audience in the fairy tale world as well as the "real" world of the bunker. Dan Morrison's lighting design does an excellent job of leading us through the woods along with the characters. Tracy Murrell's costume design is simple and communicative, carefully signaling the myriad character shifts. And I have to give a shout out to properties master Alexander H. Trice for some pretty brilliant little bits - the hen and the birds are my personal favorites. But for my money, the star of this show's technical team is Brandy Joe Plambeck's sound design, which superbly delineates and defines the framing world and the fairy tale world.
I wasn't sold on the bunker concept at first, but as the play progressed it really grew on me. I developed a kinship with these huddled strangers just trying to get by, and the magical, exciting, story they told. There is a darkness to fairy tales, to this script, and to our world that, even in our stories, we can't escape. But according to The Ringwald's admirable production, maybe it's not escape that we need, so much as the courage to hang together and keep on wishing.
Into the Woods by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim (Director: Joe Bailey, Music Director: Jeff Bobick) continues at The Ringwald Theatre through June 2. Tickets range from $10-$25. For more information, visit http://www.theringwald.com/.
The Hilberry Theatre is closing this season with a bang... a crash... a shriek... a wallop... and a stellar production of Tracy Letts's Pulitzer and Tony award winning meditation on family dysfunction, August: Osage County. Director James R. Kuhl and his cast and production team have fashioned a superb evening of theatre that soars and wallows and delivers its audiences a dextrous black comedy and a breathtaking emotional journey.
The action of the play centers on the Weston family home in the plains of Oklahoma. The three daughters - Barbara, Ivy and Karen (Danielle Cochrane, Annie Keris and Megan Barbour) - flock to their homestead and the side of their ailing mother Violet (Lavinia Hart) when their father Beverly (Alec Barbour) goes missing. With the whole family crammed into the hot house together, truth after ugly truth wriggles its way out from the shadows into the light, and each in their turn is forced to confront their family demons.
Not to be too effusive, but James R. Kuhl and his cast knock this one out of the park. The play is long (three solid acts), but the tempo is sparkling and vivid, making the time positively fly. Across the board, the cast is too young for their roles (except, of course, the 14-year-old daughter), but they are exceedingly well cast and, also across the board, they rise to the challenge. For any family drama to work, the family has to feel like a family, and that is achieved in spades by the Hilberry company*. Letts's script creates not a setting, but a home, and Kuhl fills that home with a living, breathing family that trips and trudges through the poetic cacophony with skill. Head of the MFA Acting program Lavinia Hart as matriarch Violet is a force of nature - but you're never sure which face this Mother Nature is going to show. Whether lulling us in like a sweet spring zephyr, or plowing through her family like an Oklahoma twister, Hart lives the torment, ire and manipulation with uncommon grace and humanity. Danielle Cochrane as daughter/chief antagonist Barbara steps up to Hart's torrential level and holds her own, navigating the waters of strength, damage, and desperation beautifully. As Barbara's estranged husband Bill, Miles Boucher effectively tickles the moral ambiguity of his character while still finding the dedicated stability of father and husband. And undergraduate Egla Kishta is great as their in-a-hurry-to-grow-up daughter Jean, painting a truthful portrait of the thin and winding line between childhood and adulthood. Annie Keris does a lovely job as the put-upon, close-to-home daughter Ivy, elegantly playing the sharp twinges of disapproval and the private moments of hope. Megan Barbour's bright bubbly energy as daughter Karen slices through the accustomed acrimony of the rest of her family, but her nuanced performance also shows the cracks in this veneer. And Brandon Grantz delivers a funny and unsettling performance as her fiancé Steve, creating an engaging, sleazy, mid-life-crisis on two legs. Bevin Bell-Hall is outrageous as Violet's sister Mattie Fae. Swinging from boisterous to banshee, she is every bit her sister's sibling. Brandy Joe Plambeck is fantastic as her husband Charlie, playing the reluctant patriarch with charm, humor, and an unexpected well of power and family devotion. And David Sterritt is sweet and unassuming as their beaten down son Little Charles, making his search for belonging and acceptance in his own family poignant and relatable. Sarah Hawkins Moan as the live-in maid Johnna brings a quiet strength and matter-of-factness that sets her distinctly outside of the Weston family, and yet tethers her to it with a gossamer thread of sincere responsibility. Topher Alan Payne as Sheriff Gilbeau is even more of an outsider than Moan, which makes his intrusions into the Weston world all the more palpable, uncomfortable, and necessary for him, for them, and for us. And Alec Barbour's all-too-brief appearance as patriarch Beverly Weston anchors the play with the accumulated weight of decades in this house, with these people (particularly this woman), with these expectations and these vices. Right away his slow, steady rhythm establishes the stickiness of the heat, the sweetness of the bourbon, and the sting of a long, long life - all of which propel us into rest of the performance.
The production team for August: Osage County is every bit as on their game as are the actors. Leazah Behrens's sprawling set fills the Hilberry space with utility, care, and creativity. With the bones of the house showing, the very foundation of the family is laid out for us to see. Every little nook and cranny is filled, and alive. Heather DeFauw's delicate lighting design dapples the stage with the contrasting warmth of an Oklahoma summer, and the chill of long-buried family ghosts. She also works well with the action on stage, deftly guiding our focus, while allowing us the freedom to explore as well. Clare Hungate-Hawk's costume design is simple and strong, illustrating and illuminating each character with careful and clear detail. And Leah McCall's sound design provides gorgeous and appropriate underscoring for the turbulent world of the play.
Yeah, I know you can rent August: Osage County. You can stay home in your PJs watching Meryl and Julia duke it out over the Oscar neither of them got. But I will tell you in no uncertain terms, the version of Letts's beautiful, hilarious, devastating play currently on stage at the Hilberry brings this world to life in a way no DVD could hope to. So make the time to join those Hilberry folks in Oklahoma while you can. Because life may be long, but their run is all too short.
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (Director: James R. Kuhl) continues at The Hilberry Theatre through May 10. Tickets range from $10-$25. For more information, visit www.cfpca.wayne.edu/theatreanddance/
*I could take this as a moment to get on a soapbox about the tragedy of the death of the resident company in America... but I'll try to refrain.
The Golden Age of Broadway is alive and well at Wayne State University's Bonstelle Theatre, with their production of Guys and Dolls, which opened April 11. The large and marvelously energetic cast of undergraduate triple threats (actors/singers/dancers) deliver a charming and entertaining performance that's better than rolling a hard eight with 5 Gs on the line!
Guys and Dolls is the classic gem about a couple of free-wheeling gamblers, and the dames who (spoiler alert?) get them to settle down. The plot centers on Nathan Detroit (Nick Yocum), who is scrambling to find a location for his underground craps game - unbeknownst to his perpetual fiancee, a nightclub singer named Adelaide (Keira Schmitt). To get the money for a venue, he makes a bet with his buddy Sky Masterson (Jackson McLaskey) that puts him straight in the path of the stalwart and staid Salvation Army sergeant, Sarah Brown (Kelly Robinson). A few dice games, prayer meetings, chase scenes, and missed connections later, of course, everything is as it should be...and then they sing.
The problem I have facing me now is that there are so many excellent performances, I'm not sure how I'll be able to fit everything in. Nick Yocum is loads of fun as Nathan Detroit, balancing the shifty gambler with the terrified waffler and the wide-eyed lover. And Keira Schmitt's adorable Adelaide has a set of pipes on her! One of the standouts in a cast of top-notch voices, she is right at home on the stage, playing in and through the music with ease. Jackson McLaskey's Sky Masterson is suave and in control, with a forward momentum that keeps the whole cast moving. Kelly Robinson's crystal clear tone and unflagging sweetness make her Sarah Brown a great partner for McLaskey. And she knocks "Marry the Man Today" right out of the park. But a four-person musical this is not! There are simply tons of wonderful standout performances from the supporting cast. Matthew Miazgowicz is a hoot as Nicely Nicely Johnson, complete with constant munchies and more than his share of showstoppers. And his partner in crime Benny Southstreet (Garett Harris) takes on the 1950s Runyonland style like a second skin, with all kinds of swagger. Colin Mallory as Rusty Charlie rounds out this trio of no-goodnicks with panache. Luke Rose is a riot as the Chicago thug Big Julie, and he has some pretty impressive moves to boot. Anthony Scamihorn has some very funny moments as Harry the Horse. The Hot Box Dolls' dance numbers are as hilarious as they are skillful. And Anna Seibert's sweet second act ballad as missionary Aileen Abernathy positively floats.
From a production standpoint, Michael J. Barnes's show relishes in its fantastically fun design concept. Sarah Pearline's dynamically cartoony set is highlighted handily by Samuel G. Byers's clever, painterly lighting design, all creating a perfect playground for Mary Copenhagen's deliciously vibrant costumes. And the choreography by Meg Paul and J.M. Rebudal is fantastic, full of strength, grace, humor, and excellent storytelling. The orchestra is serviceable, though at times it feels just on the edge of keeping it together. And the staging is generally a little lackluster, missing numerous opportunities for pacing and punctuation. Still, these prove to be small blemishes on an otherwise delightful evening of musical theatre!
So get on out to the Bonstelle for a classic, catchy, cartoony, comical, downright fun performance! I bet you'll love it... and I'm no welcher.
Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows (Director: Michael J. Barnes) continues at Wayne State University's Bonstelle Theatre through April 19. Tickets range from $20-$25. For more information, visit http://www.cfpca.wayne.edu/theatreanddance/.
As a maker, scholar, and watcher of theatre, these are just my own damn opinions. And if they happen to be useful to you, then that's super.