Review: Direct from Sundance - The Lobster


John C. Reilly, Colin Farrell, and Ben Wishaw in The Lobster

John C. Reilly, Colin Farrell, and Ben Wishaw in The Lobster.

Before a special, packed, “Direct from Sundance” screening of The Lobster got underway on Thursday, February 3, at the Michigan Theater, Executive Director/CEO Russ Collins appeared on stage with Sundance Film Festival programmer Hussain Currimbhoy.

By way of introducing The Lobster, which won the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Currimbhoy said, “This one has a certain sense of humor and sense of irony, and it addresses structures that control us and stop us from being ourselves. … (The film’s) absurd, but we figured this was the town that brought us Madonna and Iggy Pop, so you can handle absurd, right?”

Filmed in Ireland, and directed by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster tells the story of a newly dumped husband (Colin Farrell, sporting glasses, a moustache, and extra weight) who must now go to a hotel to try and find another partner. He has 45 days to do so, or he will be turned into an animal of his choosing. (His brother, now a dog, accompanies him.) At this hotel, masturbation is forbidden; hotel staffers, as part of their duties, bring guests to arousal without orgasm; and potential partners must share a trait. Consequently, one widower hotel guest with a limp (Ben Whishaw) regularly bangs his face against things to make his nose bleed, in order to match with a nosebleed-prone woman; and Farrell’s character pretends to be callous to match with the hotel’s longest-surviving guest, who has earned her extended stay by successfully shooting down the escaped, off-the-grid “Loners” that live as a tribe in the wilderness.

When Farrell’s ruse is revealed, he flees and joins the Loners, who allow masturbation but forbid romantic coupling of any kind, punishable by mutilation. Yet it’s in this setting, of course, that Farrell finds love with another short-sighted person, played by Rachel Weisz. The two develop a secret language of gestures, but when the loners’ sadistic leader (played by Lea Seydoux) figures out what’s happening, she metes out a cruel bit of justice, leaving Farrell with an excruciatingly painful choice.

In addition to Farrell and Weisz, John C. Reilly plays a hotel guest who’s struggling mightily with the system’s strictures; but he, like everyone else in this black comedy, is stoic above all else, moving grimly, with resignation, through each day. Plus, as Currimbhoy noted after the film, Lanthimos was drawn to shoot the film in Ireland not only because of the country’s aggressive film incentives, but also because of the natural landscape’s “gray light” quality, which gives the exterior shots in The Lobster a washed-out look.

“He needed a certain kind of setting or atmosphere that only Ireland has,” said Currimbhoy.

The film’s first half, set at the hotel, achieves fresh, affecting balance between horror and humor – to name one example, after couples form, if they fight often, they’re assigned a child to parent (which I found hysterical) – and makes you question the deep-seated, constant social pressures upon us to pair off, as well as the myriad ways society tends to condescend to those who live outside that model.

And while Farrell’s character’s defection to the Loners provides a kind of satisfying symmetry – the opposite model has significant flaws, too, and of course he finds love not in the place that’s rigidly designed for it, but in the space where it’s forbidden – the latter part of the film drags and lacks the weird spark present in the hotel scenes. The ambiguous final scene, though, is likely to spur heated discussions, as well as some frustrated anger.

The Lobster was part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Spotlight Series, which consists of “films from other festivals that the programmers love,” said Currimbhoy. “Movies that won’t get picked up for distribution, probably, but that have a certain quality, something fresh.”

Some of the biggest news coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, of course, involved the controversial drama, Birth of a Nation, which focuses on African American preacher Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion aimed at freeing slaves in Virginia, and the violent retaliation by whites that followed.

During The Lobster’s post-screening discussion, Collins confirmed that Cinetopia – the annual international southeast Michigan film festival that was born at the Michigan Theater – was in talks to bring Birth of a Nation to the Mitten State (hopefully) when the festival happens June 3-12, 2016.

The Michigan Theater’s relationship with Sundance began in 2010, when Sundance rolled out a program wherein 8 films that had just had their world premieres at Sundance in Park City, Utah, were shipped out to a handful of art house theaters across the country for a one-night screening, and one or two people involved with the film – a director, a star, a producer – would be on-hand to answer questions. (The first Sundance movie shown at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater through this program was the comedy Cyrus, and one of the stars, Jonah Hill, plus filmmaker brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, appeared.)

More recently, Sundance’s close ties to the Michigan Theater (and Collins, who helms the annual, Sundance-affiliated Art House Convergence conference in Park City) have resulted in Ann Arbor becoming the sole site for this kind of special screening.

And Currimbhoy’s inaugural visit seems only to have cemented the good relations between Ann Arbor and Park City.

“I am loving this place, by the way,” Currimbhoy said. “It has really surprised me. … You are lucky to live in a place with a theater like this.”


Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, but also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

READ MORE  

Review: Sondheim on Sondheim Soars at Encore


The company of Encore Theatre's Sondheim on Sondheim

The company of Encore Theatre's Sondheim on Sondheim.

Imagine you've been invited to a sophisticated party at the Manhattan apartment of the dean of American musical theater, Stephen Sondheim. In the course of the evening, guests will perform from Sondheim's rich vault of musical theater pieces that brought a new irony, maturity and depth to Broadway. And Sondheim, himself, will explain his craft, his artistic growth and his sometimes troubled life.

And it's all happening magically on Broad Street in Dexter at The Encore Theatre.

This is the set-up for Sondheim on Sondheim, a musical revue conceived by Sondheim's frequent collaborator James Lapine. A wide-range of beautiful music from the Sondheim catalog is presented by live performers while on a large screen videos show Sondheim in interviews and documentaries covering his career from his early success as a lyricist for Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne through his career as the most successful Broadway composer of recent history. Sondheim is an engaging, witty and insightful host, willing to share the "secrets" of his trade, learned at an early age from another master, Oscar Hammerstein II. He is also quietly reflective about a lingering sadness in his life.

Four men and three women arrive on stage dressed for a cocktail party. A man sits at a grand piano going through the finger movements of a piano lesson and we're off for an evening of laughs, tears and much in between, because this is a cast that understands Sondheim.

Director Daniel Cooney was a little nervous on Feb. 5 because a cast member was unable to perform, so he was a singer short. Not to worry, with the help of a few index cards, the cast members rose to the occasion and filled in the gaps. Talk about troupers!

Cast members Peter Crist, Leah Fox, Daniel A. Helmer, Kelsey Pohl, Thalia V. Schramm, Jim Walke and Adam Woolsey make a fine ensemble around music director Tyler Driskill's skilled piano accompaniment. But they also shine on their special moments, the kind of theatrical moments that are almost exclusive to Sondheim's repertoire.

Kelsey Pohl brings sass and brass to "Now You Know" and sexual energy to "Ah, But Underneath." She has a commanding voice and energy.

Jim Walke is a big guy who gets to handle the more dangerous songs. As the mad baker from Sweeney Todd, he roars through "Epiphany" and as a potential killer from Assassins he ruminates sadly and madly on the power of a gun in "The Gun Song."

Daniel A. Helmer gets the spotlight as a feuding songwriter on "Franklin Shepard, Inc." and is fierce and funny, as he is in several ensemble pieces. He takes a quieter turn on Sondheim's best reflection on art itself in "Finishing the Hat."

Adam Woolsey offers a slow, quiet reading of Sondheim's concluding statement in Company, "Being Alive." Woolsey's version is powerfully sad with just a hint of positive self discovery. Peter Crist gets the spotlight on "Is This What You Call Love," which he sings with the right note of wounded confusion.

Thalia V. Schramm and Leah Fox perform a counter rendering of sad love-maybe songs "Losing My Mind" and "Not a Day Goes By" with all the wistful weight intended.

Schramm is also excellent on two of Sondheim's most complicated songs. On "In Buddy's Eyes," her near tears performance underlines softly the song's bitter regrets. And on Sondheim's most famous song "Send in the Clowns," Schramm delivers all the poignancy of love lost that has made the song so beloved.

Cooney's staging and Driskill's musical direction make the complex blending of video and live performance flow effortlessly. The ensemble pieces are crisp and natural. The solos are well defined. And all of it keys nicely off the Sondheim videos, which are a series of revelations.

Set designer Sarah Tanner has created an eye-popping rendering on a Manhattan apartment, meticulously decorated with show biz photos, old posters and playbills, a display of game boards and bric-a-brac. The room is appropriately furnished and looks out on a city skyline. Andy Galicki handles the complex lighting design and the precise video presentation.


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


Sondheim on Sondheim continues Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 21 at the Encore Theatre in Dexter. For tickets, call the Encore Theatre box office at (734)268-6200 or visit the website at www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets/

READ MORE  

Review: Momentum - Great Modern Dance with all the Weirdness You Might Expect


Dancers in a piece by Camille A. Brown.

Dancers in a piece by Camille A. Brown.

The University of Michigan Department of Dance trains young people to be excellent modern dancers and then frequently asks them to perform bafflingly academic pieces. Their most recent performance, Momentum, running at the Power Center from now until February 7th, showcased this duality. The first three pieces were all choreographed by Department of Dance faculty, and the finale by guest choreographer Camille A. Brown.

Momentum opened with a piece by local dance legend Peter Sparling. I generally like Sparling’s work, but recently he has become enamored of video projections which tend to overwhelm his choreography. His work for Momentum, “Big Weather,” featured not one but two video screens between which the dancers moved. The videos contained a strange mix of images, including stars, corpses, sandbags, and at one point, a stuffed elephant falling slowly from a table. The dancers wore heavy rubber boots that they took off and on throughout the piece, which was set to pounding and not particularly rhythmic percussion music. If I’m not describing much of the dancing, it’s because I was too distracted by the trappings of the piece to focus on the actual movement. At his best, Sparling, a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, can choreograph wonderfully thoughtful modern dance pieces. However, “Big Weather” seemed more the work of an artist who has been insulated within academia for a little too long.

I was worried about the issues that would plague the second piece, “Cheating, Lying, Stealing,” choreographed by Bill DeYoung, because the program notes described it as about “the relentless dog-eat-dog momentum of office dynamics.” But after a strange start featuring a fake tennis match (which I quickly forgot), “Cheating, Lying, Stealing” became a fun and fast piece that worked beautifully with the music choice. The lead dancer, dressed in silver lamé, danced with such a stunning and precise ferocity that I could easily understand why all of the others dancers were following her lead by the end.

Amy Chavasse’s piece “Goodbye to Wayward Flesh” showcased some of the younger and less experienced dancers and brought a great sense of play to Momentum. I had a hard time focusing on the beginning because I was preoccupied by a dummy that was covered in duct tape and tied up to a movable piece of shattered plexiglass at the back of the stage. I half-expected the dummy to turn out to be a real dancer who might pop out at any moment, so I braced myself for the surprise. I did not have this same fear with the life-size stuffed alpaca watching static on TV in the front of the stage, although I found it equally confusing. “Goodbye to Wayward Flesh” featured some nice partnering and the dancers, dressed as what I can only describe as futuristic merpeople, seemed to be truly enjoying themselves.

The last piece of the night was choreographed by Camille A. Brown, who will be bringing her new work Black Girl–Linguistic Play to the Power Center on February 13th. Brown’s piece, “City of Rain,” was far and away the best of the night. It would be worth going to see Momentum for this work alone, which allowed the Department of Dance to show off their most amazing dancers. Of particular note is Beynji Marsh, a junior from Chicago who could easily be mistaken for a professional dancer. Marsh’s precise control over his body is matched by the emotion and nuance he brought to the choreography. He is a true and notable talent and I look forward to seeing his dance career flourish. All of the dancers in “City of Rain” were excellent, and it was a moving and lovely end to the evening.

Stuffed alpacas and rubber boots aside, Momentum is worth your time. The dancers are talented, though their abilities were sometimes lost amid the choices of some of the more academic choreographers. Notably missing from Momentum was a piece from faculty member Robin Wilson, who is one of the most accessible and excellent choreographers in the Department of Dance. Wilson acted as Rehearsal Director for “City of Rain,” but it would have been great to have gotten an original work from her as well. I could have done with fewer video screens and unused but overbearing set pieces. My date for the evening, my father, suggested that the faculty be required to choreograph to only Katy Perry music for a year, just for the challenge. Although I’m more of a Taylor Swift fan myself, I can’t help but agree with the sentiment. In the meantime, get a ticket to Momentum and enjoy it for–and despite–all its weirdness.


Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at AADL and former dancer.


Momentum continues its run at the Power Center through this weekend, with performances Friday and Saturday, February 5 and 6 at 8 pm, and Sunday, February 7 at 2 pm. Tickets range from $22-$28, and students with ID can attend for $12.

READ MORE  

Review: New Technologies and Victorian Society


The Kiss of Peace, circa 1865 [albumen print on paper] by Julia Cameron. Loch Katrine, from Sun Pictures in Scotland, 1844 [calotype on paper] by William Henry Fox Talbot. Images courtesy of the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

The Kiss of Peace, circa 1865 [albumen print on paper] by Julia Cameron. Museum purchase 1975/1.63 // Loch Katrine, from Sun Pictures in Scotland, 1844 [calotype on paper] by William Henry Fox Talbot. Museum purchase made possible by the Friends of the Museum of Art 1980/1.144. Images courtesy of the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

It perhaps isn’t too ironic that Charles Dickens’ opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities can also serve as a vivid motif for the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s New Technologies and Victorian Society: Early British Photographs from the UMMA Collection.

As Dickens writes in his 1859 novel contrasting two opposed worldviews of late 18th century Industrial-era European culture: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

As he himself notes, Dickens might as well have been writing of his own time. And as illustrated in UMMA Curator Emerita Carole McNamara’s selection of some of this museum’s most significant photographic holdings, mid-19th century England would have indeed been among the best and worst of times. As the exhibit shows us by example (and McNamara’s choices are certainly peerless), England was undergoing rapid transitions in both technology and society that would affect and influence the world.

The Victorian era—measured by the 63 year reign of Queen Victoria of the House of Hanover; dated 1837 (on her assumption of the British throne) to precisely the turn of the 20th century—was a paradoxical period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities, and highly moralistic national self-confidence often described as Pax Britannica because of the progressive rise of British prosperity fostered by the nation’s worldwide empire.

But it was also a time of sometimes brutal industrial consolidation coupled with an unprecedented population growth as millions of British subjects continued their equally unprecedented migration around the country as well as around the world—and particularly from the British countryside to the country’s urban centers. London especially swelled from one and a half million inhabitants at the beginning of the Victorian era to more than triple that number by the end of the century.

There to capture this extraordinary social, political, economic, and cultural transition was a technological marvel that would reshape the history of art as well as how we see the world. For, prior to the innovation of the photographic camera in the early decades of the 19th century, draughtsmanship and painting had always vacillated between impulses of realism and fancy. And although various forms of pre-camera photographic equipment go as far back as ancient China and ancient Greece, the notion of photography as a practical technology was spurred in the early-19th century through the development of chemical photographic processes.

As McNamara says in her introduction to New Technologies of this era:

“The first half-century of British photography charts the journey of a new medium with distinct expressive and artistic potentials. Although photography served as an aid to science and exploration, it captured aspects of British society in ways that are poetic and artistic. Early photographers exploited existing pictorial conventions and their subject matter is often derived from painting traditions—portraits of family members and friends, still-lifes of household objects, and landscapes.”

In short, spreading quickly around the world, mid-19th century photography emancipated art from its dependence on subjective creativity by giving photographers the ability to capture images drawn directly from life. And these pioneers were quick to explore the new technology with increasing alacrity.

Some of the earliest images on display—three 1844 salted paper prints from calotype negatives: “Part of Queen’s College, Oxford”, “Loch Katrine” (from the “Sun Pictures of Scotland”), and “Bust of Patroclus” (plate five from “The Pencil of Nature”)—reflect the range of British photography at this seminal period as crafted in what can only be described as an inspired creativity by William Henry Fox Talbot.

Fox, one of England’s foremost photographic technologists of the time, invented a photographic procedure through his silver salt and nitrate process that made it possible to produce as many positive prints as anyone would wish of any image. And Fox’s forays into what is now called contact printing fostered the development of landscape photography and artful photojournalism with a zestful fidelity that’s still breathtaking today.

Among the socially-oriented documentary works on display are David Octavious Hill’s circa 1840s carbon print “St. Andrews, Baiting the Lines” drawn from his “A Series of Calotype Views of St. Andrews” and John Thomson’s equally penetrating 1876-77 Woodbury type “The Crawlers” drawn from his “Street Life in London” series; both works where the emphasis is to give viewers a sense of what life would have been like for the 19th century British working class.

This is surely among the worst of times as the photographs clearly show us a society caught on the moorings of seriously pressed workers (in Hill’s photo) and a thoroughly economically depressed mother with child on her lap (in Thomson’s photo) even as the country was itself among the more enlightened polities in the world at that time.

Likewise, as we see in New Technologies, portraiture would be slow, but steady in evolving. Largely because of the length of time necessary to develop negative plates through bulky equipment, the posture of early portraiture sitters is far more formal than what we’re used to seeing. As such, John Adamson and Robert Adamson’s circa 1841 salted paper print from calotype negative “Sir David Brewster (1781-1868)” is a decidedly straight-forward no nonsense visage.

Yet even as a palpable steely discomfort renders Brewster’s portrait rather starched, this famed Scottish scientist, mathematician, and editor of the influential 18-volume Edinburgh Encyclopedia (as well, coincidently, inventor of the first three-dimensional lenticular stereoscope camera) poses patiently for the brother Adamsons. Focusing on the seated Brewster’s white hair as well as left-hand crossed on his waist; “Sir David Brewster (1781-1868)” crafts a decorous ceremonial portraiture that’s common to this day.

Technology itself is best represented by Scotsman James Stewart’s 1878 albumen print, “No. 247.” This seemingly simple profile of a steam locomotive is actually handsomely pregnant in both its photographic and technical articulation. Certainly one of the most important inventions prior to the Victorian era, and also a technology that was relentlessly worked upon through this period, the external combustion engine was of as much fascination to the Victorians as rockets still are to us in our time.

Stewart’s composition is flawless. The steam locomotive is depicted squarely in the center of the photograph with remarkable attention paid to its sleek design. A concise masterwork, Stewart pays attention to the locomotive from its striking forward smoke box to its perched cab with the photo being crafted sufficiently to scale as to accent its curvilinear brake shoes in contrast to its horizontal air brake pump. “No. 247” is a fastidious rendering of this marvel of 19th century machinery.

But perhaps the most stunning composition in New Technologies is Julia Margret Cameron’s circa 1865 “The Kiss of Peace” albumen print. Cameron, a deeply religious woman who only began photography at middle age, most often photographed her family. Yet in this inspired composition of friend and domestic depicting the Christian tradition of “the kiss of peace” practiced as a gesture of friendly acceptance, Cameron’s “The Kiss of Peace” is also a keenly observed proto-feminist mediation on the status of women in Victorian society.

The photograph’s mood is reminiscent of the distinctive British Pre-Raphaelite art that had a uniquely influential popularity only shortly before the advent of photography. As such, the models’ wind-blown hair, simple cloth drape, and their languid diagonal gaze mirror an inward melancholy that in turn suggests that period’s conception of the supposed innocence of femininity—but Cameron clearly knows better. As knowingly heartfelt as it is aesthetically accomplished, her “Kiss of Peace”—certainly one of the most famed photographs of the 19th century—is a profound mediation on the paradoxical symbolic and heightened dramatic sensibility of the Victorian era.


John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.


University of Michigan Museum of Art: “New Technologies and Victorian Society: Early British Photographs from the UMMA Collection” will run through May 8, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am–5 pm; and Sunday 12–5 pm. For information, call 734-764-0395.

READ MORE  

Preview: Guys and Dolls, Huron High School


Huron Players prove they can do with a production of Guys and Dolls

Huron Players prove they can do with a production of Guys and Dolls.

This weekend Huron High School's Huron Players present the musical Guys and Dolls, with direction by Jeffrey Stringer and music direction by Dr. Richard Ingram.

Guys and Dolls was adapted from two short stories by author and journalist Damon Runyon, whose colorful lifestyle beyond the pen as a chain-smoking gambler with a 40-cup-a-day coffee habit and close friends with gangsters, hustlers, and chorus girls shaped the endearing “Runyonesque” lowlifes that populate his tales with their distinctive gangster slang.

With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls follows small-time gamblers Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit as they wager with Lady Luck on the streets and back alleys of New York City. A big hit when it opened on Broadway in November 1950, the musical went on to win a Tony Award, inspire a 1955 film adaptation, and has seen several successful revivals over the decades.

"More I Cannot Wish You" but you’ll double your odds of catching more Guys and Dolls on the Power Center stage in April when the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre & Dance takes a chance on the show.


Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.


Guys and Dolls runs Friday, February 5 - Sunday, February 7. Tickets: $15 for Adults and $10 for Students/Seniors/Staff. For more information and tickets, visit: the Huron Players website.

READ MORE  

Preview: The Bard at the Michigan Theater


The Michigan Theater presents a film series dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare.

The Michigan Theater presents a film series dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare.

Starting tonight, Monday, February 1, the Michigan Theater presents a film series dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare. The Bard will celebrate Shakespeare’s works through a range of film adaptations of his plays. Alongside the more traditional performances interpreted by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, you’ll find remixes of Shakespeare’s works that cross the barriers of culture and time, such as West Side Story.

The lineup of films selected for The Bard reveals the flexibility of Shakespeare’s writing, and celebrates the universal themes explored through his timeless plays. If you’re new to Shakespeare, a lifelong fan, or if you haven’t thought about him since high school, any one of these films would be an excellent way to experience classic Shakespearean storytelling.


Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at AADL.


Most of the films will be screened on Monday nights at 7 pm, with the exception of Romeo + Juliet which will be showing on Saturday, February 13th. Take a look at the Michigan Theater's website for the full series schedule.

READ MORE  

Preview: Chesapeake, Theatre Nova


Politics finds its natural bedfellow, dognapping, in Theatre Nova's Chesapeake.

Politics finds its natural bedfellow, dognapping, in Theatre Nova's Chesapeake.

A highlight of last year’s theater season was Theatre Nova’s critically lauded production of the Off Broadway smash comedy Buyer and Cellar, featuring a delightful Wilde-award nominated performance by Sebastian Gerstner. Local audiences will be excited to hear that Gerstner and the Buyer and Cellar creative team return to the Yellow Barn to kick off the 2016 season with a production of Lee Blessing’s political comedy Chesapeake.

Directed by Daniel C. Walker, this Michigan premiere showcases Sebastian Gerstner’s comedic skills in another hilarious one man show, this time as a performance artist so outraged by a conservative Republican senator and his anti-arts campaign that the he plots to kidnap the senator’s beloved Labrador Retriever. The caper does not unfold as planned, however, to amusingly disastrous results.

The play is inspired by a true event: the 1989 challenge by Jesse Helms over First Amendments rights and the National Endowment for the Arts. The play premiered in New York in 1999 and has since been performed throughout the U.S. The Chicago Sun-Times highly recommended Chesapeake, calling the play “hilarious, provocative, and blisteringly smart,” while the Baltimore Sun praised it as an “enriching play that entertains audiences and…redefines what a complete theater experience can become.”


Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.


Performances of ​Chesapeake begin Friday, February 5, and will run throughout the month, with performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. For information, visit www.theatrenova.org or call 734-635-8450. All Theatre Nova shows are pay-what-you can, with a suggested donation of $20. Theatre Nova is located at The Yellow Barn, 416 W. Huron in Ann Arbor.

READ MORE  

Review: Kickshaw Theatre goes bold with The Electric Baby



The cast of Electric Baby. / Photo by Sean Carter Photography

The new Kickshaw Theatre is kicking off with a bold promise that it will be presenting theater with a bite by staging Stefanie Zadravec's The Electric Baby as its first production.

The Electric Baby is a play with drama, humor and a social conscience. But it is also burdened by its shifting styles, its dips into magic realism and its central symbolic image, a baby that "glows like the moon."

In choosing to take on this particular play, director Lynn Lammers dares to challenge her audience to give in to the playwright's excesses to mine for the moments of gold. She has the benefit of directing an outstanding and dedicated cast that shares her sensitivity and seriousness to material that often seems too fragile.

An immigrant mother in a rundown apartment is our guide. The Romanian immigrant, Natalia, talks directly to the audience, suggesting helpful folk remedies or telling fanciful folk tales, all while rocking her baby. The baby is hope in an unusual form.

The action begins with a middle-aged couple engaged in a fierce argument while waiting for a valet to bring their car after visiting the husband of their deceased daughter. The woman becomes enraged and hurries into the night.

Nearby, an immigrant African cabdriver picks up a young man and woman who have just dramatically stormed out of their low-paying restaurant jobs but become embroiled in their own argument about the woman's side job as an "escort."

The taxi and the running woman collide, setting off a series of encounters. In the process Zadravec explores a myriad of social issues from the impact of loss on a longstanding marriage, the problems of aging in an economic downturn, the problems of the young forced into dead-end jobs, the problems of immigrants trying to make it in a less than friendly America. To do this, she moves back and forth from realism to folk tale and mysticism. But the Kickshaw cast makes it work.

Vanessa Sawson's Natalia is earthy, confiding, at times romantic. The accent sounds very credible. She is especially effective at drawing the audience in as she cajoles them with her old country remedies. She is also good at portraying the bitter struggle in her once hopeful life in America.

William Bryson as the cabdriver, Ambimbola, also has a credible accent that booms with authority. He also has a sardonic chuckle and a face that animates a hundred different emotions. This character is a beacon of hope that depends on Bryson's charm to work.

The married couple groping to repair a badly damaged marriage are played sharply by Julie Glander and Peter Carey. Glander at first is a bundled of nerves as Helen, grieving and blaming for too long. Gradually she learns how to channel her grief and Glander handles the transition beautifully. Carey's Reed is a difficult character hiding a secret and holding down his own grief until it boils over. Carey's rich voice gives special weight to Reed's attempts to evade and then accept his responsibilities.

Mary Dilworth plays the foul mouthed young prostitute, Rozie, with a perfect combination of childlike vulnerability and defiant brass. Dilworth snaps off a torrent of vulgarity while retaining that hint of the young girl she once was.

Michael Lopetrone rounds out the cast as Dan, Don and David. He makes each a little different. His stuttering Dan is never played for laughs or sympathy.

This is a strong beginning for a new company that might have played it safe the first time out. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


The Electric Baby continues through Sunday, February 21 at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, 704 Airport Blvd, Ann Arbor, MI 48108. For tickets, visit kickshawtheatre.org or call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006.

READ MORE  

Review: Purple Rose's Odd Couple Has Humor and Heart


Guy Sanville's Oscar figures out that FU is David Montee's Felix Unger in the Purple Rose's production of  The Odd Couple.

Guy Sanville's Oscar figures out that FU is David Montee's Felix Unger in the Purple Rose's production of The Odd Couple. / Photo by Sean Carter Photography

Oscar and Felix are back.

The most famous stage bromance, The Odd Couple, is as hilarious as ever at Chelsea's Purple Rose Theatre, where the jokes just keep coming but the play's underlying humanity rises to the top.

Neil Simon had a long, prolific and successful career, but The Odd Couple is probably his most enduring and most produced work. Following its box office success on Broadway and as a hit movie, it is produced regularly across the country and has even inspired a female version.

The Purple Rose makes their production special with an excellent cast in top form, hitting each zinger with perfect timing, while finding the play's heartfelt take on what it's like to be lonely in a big city.

The neat-freak, fuss budget Felix Ungar has been given the boot by his wife and his poker-playing buddy Oscar Madison, an uber masculine slob, reluctantly offers him temporary residence in his Manhattan apartment. The apartment has been too big and too empty since Oscar's divorce.

At the heart of this story are two men of opposite personalities who find a way to complement each other. Guy Sanville is the gruff, slovenly Oscar but with a look in his eyes that suggests a sensitivity befitting one of New York's top sports writers. He's funny in a sly, deadpan way. David Montee is a sweet-natured Felix, the slightly prissy man who enjoys cooking and can't stand a mess. Montee doesn't overdo the effeminate qualities as some actors would and instead emphasizes Felix's gentleness along with his irritating, but funny, perfectionism.

Lauren Mounsey makes her professional directing debut and does a fine job of keeping the mood droll and funny but also low key. The jokes are there and the audience laughs but they come out of real conversations. All of her actors are in sync which keeps things moving along hilariously.

The poker gang played by David Bendena, Jim Porterfield, Chris Lutkin and Tom Whalen kibbutz and razz each other with easy rapport. Porterfield is especially funny as the excitable cop Murray, whose agitation rises to a boil of nervous energy.

Oscar and Felix, of course, find female companionship in the form of the ever lovable Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn (Michelle Mountain) and Cecily (Rhiannon Ragland). They twitter and fidget about as their surname suggests and all in sparklingly twitty English accents. Their scene with Felix is both funny and endearing.

The intimate Purple Rose setting is perfect for The Odd Couple, drawing the audience into Oscar's Manhattan apartment. Set designer Bartley H. Bauer does a good job of presenting a well-appointed apartment that has somewhat gone to seed under Oscar's disregard.

These are characters we all know so well from stage, movie and a hit TV series, but the Purple Rose gives them bright new life.


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


The Odd Couple continues through March 26 at the theater, 137 Park Street in Chelsea. Tickets range in price from $19 to $43 with discounts for students, seniors and groups. For more information or to make reservations, call the theater box office at (734) 433-7673 or go online to http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.

READ MORE  

Review: National Theatre Live's Hamlet

Gertrude questions Hamlet with a wicked tongue.

Gertrude questions Hamlet with a wicked tongue. / Photo by Johan Persson

On Sunday, January 17th, the Michigan Theater showed an encore screening of the National Theatre Live’s production of Hamlet to a sold-out theater. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, this production entirely reimagines the classic play and brings it into focus with a captivating clarity. It’s evident from the moment Hamlet enters the wedding celebration between his mother and his uncle that this is a dark play. The set is characterized by indigo hues and shadows, so that Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, appears both splendid and on the verge of decay.

Cumberbatch gives an excellent performance, delivering his lines with a convincing ease. This production presented Hamlet as more than a vengeful, petty step-son. Cumberbatch infuses Hamlet with purpose and emotional depth. His performance is anchored in the grief Hamlet feels over the death of his father, making Hamlet’s erratic behavior throughout the play more understandable.

War is constantly on the edges of the action; several scenes take place in a command room, antique swords and military paintings decorate the castle, and the second act includes scenes on a battlefield. Yet that constant threat is entirely overshadowed by domestic drama. Polonius and Claudius are only too willing to meddle in the lives of their children, taking time off from political matters to contrive meetings between Hamlet and Ophelia which are then watched from behind closed doors. In a way, it seems like the entire royal family is consumed, one way or another, by madness.

There are so many elements of this production that deserve praise. An inspired set design, created by Es Devlin, resulted in a broadcast that was almost like watching a typical movie. The only difference was that occasionally people would run onstage to shuffle things around in anticipation of upcoming scenes. The enclosed nature of the set, which was built at an angle to the front of the stage, almost seemed like it was designed with the camera in mind. Because the camera never captured any offstage action, it was easy to forget that you were watching a play. The downside of this cinematic quality is that the main room of Elsinore became a little claustrophobic over time, but the feeling dovetailed nicely with the themes explored by the production.

The second half of the play was characterized by low lighting, with spotlights targeting specific areas of the stage. During the final acts of the play, the entirety of the set is covered in piles of black debris and broken furniture, adding an unsettling element of discord to the Elsinore scenes. It seems as though a darkness or illness has burst out of the characters and been projected onto the rooms through which they move. The whole stage never seems to be visible, and that darkness overshadows the actions of the final scenes. We’ve reached the end of the play, and the end of almost every character onstage as the play culminates in a destructive whirlwind of a finale.

While I suspect that Cumberbatch’s popularity attracted many people to this broadcast, I got the impression that many of the people who saw the play with me enjoyed their overall experience. I know that I appreciated the chance to see a first-rate production at an affordable price. The filmed version of the play probably wasn’t quite as good as being there—I think you lose a bit of the interplay in energy between the audience and the actors—but I’d say this definitely satisfies as the next best thing. I would definitely recommend future versions of the live broadcasts for those of us who can’t jet off to London in time for the next big production.


Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library and knows a hawk from a handsaw.

READ MORE