Brass Tacks' take on "Merchant of Venice" lets you decide who's a hero or villain


Brass Tacks Ensemble, The Merchant of Venice

The 2017 Brass Tacks ensemble is taking on three Shakespeare plays this season and stripping them down to their essence.

The Brass Tacks Ensemble has been performing shows in Ann Arbor since 1999. The company is known for stripping down its productions to the most basic elements of theater -- the text of a script and actors acting -- and eliminating as many distractions as possible so the audience's attention is focused on universal themes.

According to artistic director James Ingagiola, “The more you add to a production in terms of costumes, props, sets, etc., the more you lock it into a specific story about very specific people in a very specific time.” Put another way, Brass Tacks prides itself on being the antithesis of spectacle theater.

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Serious sentiments in "Spring Awakening" flip the script for A2 in Concert


Ann Arbor in Concert, Spring Awakening

In the musical Spring Awakening, a group of teenagers collectively face suicide, rape, homelessness, parental incest, and depression, all while they struggle to understand their burgeoning sexuality over the course of a school year. Adapted from a German play written in the 1890s, the musical hasn’t made many changes to the storyline, it just added some rock music.

This will be Ann Arbor in Concert’s fifth production since the organization began in 2012, and this is a very different show than anything else they’ve produced. Over the past few years, Ann Arbor in Concert’s credits have included Ragtime, 42nd Street, West Side Story, and, most recently, Hairspray.

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Double, Double, Fun and Trouble: Penny Seats Theatre Company's "The Renaissance Man"


Penny Seats Theatre Company, The Renaissance Man

Penny Seats Theatre Company's The Renaissance Man is modern rewrite of Macbeth.

Penny Seats Theatre Company's The Renaissance Man is a lot of fun, but that’s to be expected. After all, this is a play about a Renaissance festival, with actors traipsing about Ann Arbor's West Park dressed as pirate knights and gypsy elves. And if you’ve ever seen any Penny Seats show, you know before reading this that you’re in for a good time.

“First and foremost, I want people to walk away having had fun,” said Joseph Zettelmaier, playwright and director of The Renaissance Man, which is a modern comedy based on Macbeth. “I said from the jump that I want people to watch the play, and even if a Renaissance faire isn't their thing, I want them to get why people would want to do it. There are other themes throughout, but I'd rather people see it and decide what they are for themselves.”

What comes as a bit of a surprise, though, is that The Renaissance Man is overtly a play about the importance of fun. It bounces nimbly between wit and philosophy, but that fun is tempered just a touch by something more melancholy and far more beautiful. (Full disclosure: I have worked with the Penny Seats on its past couple of shows, including The Renaissance Man, in minor capacities.)

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From Scratch: Neighborhood Theatre Group's "Dispatches From the Dumb Decade"


Neighborhood Theatre Group, Dispatches From the Dumb Decade

Neighborhood Theatre Group's Dispatches From the Dumb Decade is an all-original everything, from the script to the music.

Neighborhood Theatre Group (NTG) is an Ypsilanti-based theater company that was founded by Kristin Danko and Aaron Dean, two transplants from the Chicago theater scene. And it’s not an accident that Danko and Dean are also the director and playwright, respectively, for NTG’s newest musical, Dispatches From the Dumb Decade, which runs June 2-4 at Bona Sera Underground.

“The ethos of the entire company is that everybody does a little piece of something,” says Dean. Which also explains why the NTG House Band arranged the music for Dispatches From the Dumb Decade. According to Danko, “Once we realized that we all had talents outside of theater -- we all play instruments, write music, and sing -- we decided to start a band. We’re called the NTG House Band, and it’s a great way for us to reach a more diverse audience, and the music scene here in Ypsi is outstanding.”

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Kickshaw Theatre and AADL team up for a staged reading of the award-winning "Lungs"


Lungs, Kickshaw Theatre

Kickshaw Theatre actors Dani Cochrane and Bryan Lark will participate in a reading of Lungs at AADL's west branch on May 19.

On Friday, May 19, the Kickshaw Theatre is collaborating with the Ann Arbor District Library to put on a staged reading of Lungs, a new play by Duncan Macmillan. Lungs tells the story of a couple weighing the pros and cons of deciding whether or not to have a child in modern America, knowing all the current societal and political problems in the world.

Lungs premiered at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre and has since been performed around the world. It was nominated for a Charles MacArthur Award for Best New Play or Musical and the British production won the Off West End Award for Best New Play. This reading will feature the actors Dani Cochrane and Bryan Lark.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to ask the Kickshaw Theatre’s artistic director and founder Lynn Lammers a couple of questions about the upcoming performance.

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Encore Theatre goes "Into the Wild" with a musical about Christopher McCandless


Clutter

U-M grad Conor Ryan plays the main character, Christopher McCandless, as well as Alexander Supertramp in The Encore Theatre's take on Into the Wild. / Photo by Michele Anliker.

The developmental premiere of the new stage musical adaptation of Into the Wild opens this weekend at The Encore Theatre. The play (and book that it’s adapted from) are based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, an Emory graduate who abandoned all of his possessions and stopped communicating with his family when he chose to hitchhike to Alaska.

Into the Wild is directed by Mia Walker, who has worked on some of the most influential plays in the musical theater world over the last ten years. She directed the current national tour of Pippin, acted as associate director for both Waitress and Finding Neverland on Broadway, and was the assistant director of Invisible Thread (previously Witness Uganda) at Second Stage Theatre.

The play is written by Niko Tsakalakos (music and lyrics) and Janet Allard (book and lyrics). Tsakalakos studied at Tisch School of the Arts under the mentorship of William Finn, composer of Falsettos, A New Brain, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Recently, I was extremely fortunate to have an in-depth email interview with both Mia Walker and Niko Tsakalakos, where I had the chance to ask them about both the show and their career paths up until this point.

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Theatre Nova's "Clutter" explores the traps of false memories


Clutter

Artun Kircali as Sir and Tory Matsos as Woman in Clutter. Photo by Jee-Hak Pinsoneault.

Much like a plaster casting mold, most modern American plays squeeze themselves into ready-made stylistic and thematic models that have a good track record. The styles can often be pinpointed back to one or two particularly significant behemoths that are scattered throughout the history of the American theater.

One such theatrical prototype is the Memory Play. It was initially popularized by playwright Tennessee Williams in the preface for his 1945 drama The Glass Menagerie. As Williams described it, “When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.”

The playwrights Pinter (Betrayal), Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa), and Leonard Jr. (The Diviners) are all known for their Memory Plays. Each examined different subjects, but all used the power of characters retelling their memories and dreams to exaggerate details in order to increase the emotional impact of those stories.

Clutter, the new show at Theatre Nova written by Brian Cox, is a world premiere Memory Play about the traps of false memories that we set for ourselves by taking part in nostalgic rumination.

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Cheers! Kickshaw Theatre's "Here's to You, Here's to Me" is a play masquerading as a drinking party (& vice-versa)


Since it began in January, Kickshaw Theatre is known for putting together unconventional productions. Lynn Lammers’ first show, The Electric Baby, was performed in the equivalent of a warehouse and centered on a woman grieving the death of her grown daughter. The show begins when the woman storms off into traffic and causes a cab to crash into a pole.

In contrast, in the current production, Here's to You, Here's to Me, Kickshaw is hosting a 30-minute drinking party at various local bars around Ann Arbor.

To clarify, this particular "party" is devised by the actors, but this is still as informal as theater can get. “The show started with just the concept of toasting, lots of research, and a discussion about what people want/need from theater at this moment in time,” Lammers told Pulp in a recent interview.

Which explains the improv, the jam sessions, and the alcohol. Oh, the alcohol. For really, what would a show about toasting be if the actors and the audience didn’t all have copious amounts of alcohol on hand throughout?

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Ellipsis Theatre fought a plague throughout its house to produce Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"


Twelfth

The rehearsals for Ellipsis Theatre's Twelfth Night were a breeding ground for illness (and good acting).

Ellipsis Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night has been beset by a tragedy of the sort usually only seen performed on the stage of Shakespearean prose -- namely, a plague.

Many of the actors caught serious cases of the flu, to the point where the show did not go on during the first weekend of its run and was pushed back a full week. The night I saw the show, one actor (playing Sir Toby) had just joined the cast in the last three days and another actor who was playing Orsino was doubling for Sir Andrew since the original Sir Andrew had turned green just hours before.

Such extreme changes in performance schedules will almost certainly affect audience levels for the run, which is a shame; I strongly recommend that you go see Twelfth Night this upcoming weekend if you can, assuming that the cast has not all fainted into comas.

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Penny Seats Theatre Company kicked off its 2017 season with the ebullient "Sing Happy!"


Sing

They sure do look like happy singers.

When Lauren London started the Penny Seats Theatre Company in 2010, it was with the idea that Ann Arbor should be brimming with “high-quality, live theater that doesn’t break the bank.” That’s exactly what you’ll get if you see the new Kander and Ebb revue Sing Happy! -- Penny Seats' first show of its 2017 season -- playing in the Celtic Room of Conor O’Neill’s pub and restaurant on February 9, 14, 15, and 16.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the work of Kander and Ebb, they wrote the musicals Chicago and Cabaret, among many others. The four women who star in this revue are remarkably gifted, and the songs and arrangements that director Thalia Schramm chose are consistently beautiful, moving, and show-stoppers.

I’ve now seen Sing Happy! twice and recently asked producer Lauren London and director Thalia Schramm some questions about the production and the Penny Seats Theatre Company's upcoming season.

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