Review: Ann Arbor Summer Festival's presentation of "L'Homme Cirque"


Lord

Lord of the Wire, David Dmitri.

On Saturday evening, I sat inside a white tent in Burns Park and watched veteran performer David Dimitri’s one-man-show, “L’Homme Cirque” (presented by Ann Arbor Summer Festival), under what might be ideal circumstances – which is to say, I had a five-year-old on my lap.

This wasn’t “ideal” because of comfort – five-year-olds rarely stop wiggling, and the weather was post-storm muggy besides – but rather because, as Dimitri performed his wordless, hour-long circus show for a capacity crowd (220), my daughter repeatedly voiced questions like, “How’s he going to get down?” “What’s he going to do with that?” “What’s he going to do next?”

Neve’s stream-of-consciousness curiosity underscored Dimitri’s playfulness and demonstrated to me how the show is ultimately built on a kind of repeating pattern: stoke anticipation, tease the audience, and finish with a moment or two of joyous wonder.

With bleachers surrounding the small performance space in the tent, Dimitri began the show by changing his shoes.

This may sound painfully banal, but as is true for all the show’s transitions, Dimitri finds a way to make even the most ordinary moments whimsical and fun. And soon enough, Dimitri uncovered a treadmill that launched him into a routine – set to recorded music that could easily accompany a Woody Allen comedy’s opening credits – that involved him gradually dialing up the machine’s speed, as well as his feats’ level of difficulty, until you wondered how on earth he was going to get on, let alone how he’d pull off a cartwheel or a walking handstand.

Dimitri then incorporated a small pommel horse – decked out with a mane, a painted face, a tail, and legs – and propped it alongside the treadmill, so as to give the crowd the experience of watching a trick rider without a ring to run around. This bit of physical comedy was pure fun, yet you never lost awareness regarding the skill necessary to achieve these stunts.

While he is certainly a man of multiple circus talents, including playing the accordion (proven when he provided a hilariously suspenseful soundtrack for himself while he performed a backflip off a seesaw), Dimitri’s calling card has always been his work on the high wire. Inside the small tent at Burns Park, the crowd got to watch as he pulled himself up without a ladder, played trumpet while lying on the wire (offering a more laid back musical backdrop this time), and jumped rope.

Then, finally, Dimitri pulled a large cannon from the sidelines, made an amusing show of dressing in a flight suit and helmet, got the cannon properly positioned, pulled himself up inside it and lit a fuse.

At this point, my notoriously skittish five-year-old covered her ears and burrowed into me, but she ultimately couldn’t look away, either – which shows exactly how much she’d connected with Dimitri. This is one moment when the intimacy of “L’Homme Cirque” really pays a dividend. Every second of the show happens in close-up, so that Dimitri’s warm, witty personality shines through, and we quickly feel like friends more than an audience.

David

David Dmitri walks on air. / Photo by Jenn McKee.

Even so, precision within each of Dimitri’s set pieces must be crucial for their successful execution, and while he clearly takes pains to get each object into the correct position, the fact that he does so so quickly and cleanly, by himself, is almost as astonishing as the feats themselves. And he never seems rushed, either. During one transition, he pretended to give a little girl in the audience a handful of feed, and as she walked over to feed the horse, at Dimitri’s urging, we all briefly believed in this flight of fancy as much as she did.

The show’s big finish, though, was far more broadly dramatic, as Dimitri pulled himself up onto another high wire, opened a flap on the tent, and waved for the audience to follow him outdoors. We tumbled out of the tent to watch him climb 150 feet into the air on a wire, toward the blue sky and clouds of the evening.

I’m pretty sure this magical sight is one that my inquisitive 5-year-old, as well as my 8-year-old, won’t soon forget.

But the same could be said of their parents, too.


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


L’homme Cirque ran through August 28 at Burns Park.

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Preview: Jenn McKee's Most Anticipated Theater Events for 2016-2017


TEAM's

TEAM's RoosevElvis, courtesy of UMS

September isn’t just back-to-school season; it’s also the moment when most theater companies (and universities’ performing arts departments) launch into a brand new year of programming.

It’s enough to make a dramaphile downright giddy.

But because we’re blessed with a perennially rich, vibrant arts scene here in Ann Arbor, it can be challenging to keep track of all the good stuff on the horizon – so I’ve compiled a list of theater offerings that I’m most excited about for the coming year. The list is organized by date, so mark your calendars!

Theatre Nova’s Dear Elizabeth, playing Sept. 2-25 at the Yellow Barn, 410 W. Huron in Ann Arbor.

Hearing about a play that’s built from the decades-long correspondence between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop may not, at first blush, get your blood pumping (unless you’re a writer-nerd like me), but you should also keep in mind that Dear Elizabeth playwright Sarah Ruhl is the mastermind behind fantastical, witty works like The Clean House and In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. I’m excited to take a more personalized dive into these poets’ lives, by way of Ruhl’s proven skills as a dramatist.

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, playing September 8-11 at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University in Ann Arbor.

A2CT often stages big musicals, but Spelling Bee is a smaller, more intimate look at a group of driven, misfit kids (played by adults) who gather together to see where they fit into the spelling bee world’s pecking order. Sweet, heartbreaking, and hilarious, the Tony-winning Spelling Bee will likely charm your socks off. (Even though the show’s about kids, though, please be advised to leave kids younger than 12-14 at home.) Plus, one of my favorite parts of William Finn’s winning score is a love song about a dictionary – which may just say a little too much about me. Ahem.

The TEAM’s RoosevElvis, presented by UMS, playing September 29-October 1, Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University in Ann Arbor.

I’m super-excited to see this show, which sounds trippy and fun and fascinating. (The UMS website calls it “a halluncinatory road trip from the Badlands to Graceland.”) In the show, the spirits of Elvis Presley and Theodore Roosevelt, played by women, battle over the soul of Ann, a shy meat-processing plant worker. This surreal mash-up of the past and the present, icons and “regular people,” history and mythology, and gender definitions promises to be a memorable night of theater, courtesy of UMS and the Brooklyn-based company, The TEAM.

U-M Musical Theater Department’s The Drowsy Chaperone, playing October 13-23, Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University in Ann Arbor.

U-M’s musical theater program is one of the best in the country, so this goofy, Tony-winning show promises to be a blast. In Chaperone, an anti-social musical theater buff puts the score of a beloved, over-the-top, 1928 show on his record player, and the show comes to life on stage, with hysterical asides and commentary from the narrator. Get your tickets now, folks.

U-M Theatre and Drama Department’s Peter and the Starcatcher, playing December 8-11, Power Center, 121 Fletcher in Ann Arbor.

Inspired by a 2006 novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Starcatcher sketches out Peter Pan’s backstory, acting as a kind of prequel to the story we all know and love. Plus, this will be the first time local audiences will get the chance to see the magical, award-winning show, which made its Broadway debut in 2012.

EMU Theatre’s A Raisin in the Sun at EMU, playing February 8-12, Sponberg Theatre, 124 Quirk Hall on EMU’s campus in Ypsilanti.

I’ve studied the play, I’ve seen the movie, but I’ve never in my life seen a live production of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play about a poor black family in Chicago who struggle to decide what to do with the patriarch’s life insurance payout check when it arrives. Each person wants the family to have a better life, but how to get there is the subject of an impassioned debate that reflects ideas about race, class, generational conflict, and familial love.

U-M’s Theatre and Drama Department’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, playing February 16-19, Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University in Ann Arbor.

Anne Washburn’s 2012 play is where pop culture and edgy theater meet. In Mr. Burns, a group of post-apocalyptic survivors gather to recount an episode of “The Simpsons”; seven years later, we see these same characters as a theater troupe that specializes in re-enacting episodes of “The Simpsons”; and 75 years beyond that, we see how this story has been altered and interpreted by a culture still reeling from near-extinction.

Million

The Million Dollar Quartet graces Encore's stage.

Druid Theatre Company’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, presented by UMS, playing March 9-11, Power Center, 121 Fletcher in Ann Arbor.

Druid, based in Galway, Ireland, last came to Ann Arbor via UMS in 2011 to present a fantastic production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, so color me excited to see yet another Druid production of a Martin McDonagh drama. “Beauty Queen” chronicles a battle of wills between an aging, manipulative mother, Mag, and her plain and lonely 40 year old daughter, Maureen, who’s been playing the thankless role of caregiver in an economically depressed Irish village in the 1990s. Marie Mullen, who won a Tony Award playing the daughter, plays Mag in Druid’s production. A can’t miss in my book.

Purple Rose Theatre’s Vino Veritas, playing March 23-May 27, 137 Park St. in Chelsea.

David MacGregor’s comic drama had its world premiere at the Purple Rose in 2008, and it became one of my all-time Rose favorites. In the play, on Halloween night, two suburban couples agree to drink an exotic Peruvian wine – made from the skins of blue dart tree frogs – that acts as a truth serum. They soon learn, though, that while the truth can set you free, it can also make your closest relationships profoundly tricky.

Complicite’s The Encounter, presented by UMS, playing March 30-April 1, Power Center, 121 Fletcher in Ann Arbor.

Complicite has become one of my favorite theater companies in the world, thanks to UMS repeatedly bringing it to Ann Arbor to present mesmerizing, technically innovative past productions like The Elephant Vanishes, A Disappearing Number (my favorite), and Shun-Kin. This time, we get to see The Encounter, inspired by a National Geographic photographer’s experience, in 1969, of getting lost among the people of Brazil’s Javari Valley. The audience will wear headphones for the show, which makes use of “3D Audio” to more fully submerge audience members into the Amazon rainforest experience.

Encore Theatre’s Million Dollar Quartet, playing April 13-May 7, The Encore Theatre, 3126 Broad St. in Dexter.

Though this musical has toured in recent years, I’ve never had the chance to catch it, so I’m excited to see it at Encore, which has really upped its game, in terms of production quality, in the past year. Quartet dramatizes a December 4th, 1956 recording session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis, with all the actors playing live music on stage. Given the huge success Encore had earlier this year with Always … Patsy Cline, I have high really hopes for Quartet.

U-M Musical Theater Department’s Disney’s The Little Mermaid, playing April 13-16 Power Center, 121 Fletcher in Ann Arbor.

I know, I know. But I’ve got young kids who love going with me to shows, and not only will this stage production of Mermaid probably be top notch – simply because it’s Michigan’s musical theater program putting it on – but it will make them happy to sing along to Menken and Ashman’s still-infectious score (“Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” etc.). Yes, we will likely have a post-show discussion about whether Ariel should be willing to give away a significant part of her identity to chase after a guy (sigh), but even so, the potential for stage magic is pretty high with Mermaid, so I assure you we’ll be there.


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


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Review: Michigan Shakespeare Festival's Richard II


The

The center holds in MSF's Richard II.

Sometimes, when you see a Shakespeare play that’s rarely produced, you walk out thinking, “I’m pretty sure I know why.” But then, at other times, like an unexpected gift, you walk out of a production thinking, “Where have you been all my life?”

The latter describes my experience with Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s three-hour production of Richard II, now playing at Canton’s Village Theater.

The history play focuses on King Richard (Robert Kauzlaric), who’d been crowned at age 9, after his grandfather Edward III ruled England for 50 years, and his father, the natural heir, died.

Richard II takes place when Richard has reached adulthood, after wrangling with his father’s brothers for years to retain power. When one of Richard’s cousins, Henry Bolingbroke (Robert McLean), gets into a feud with a noble named Thomas Mowbray (Matt Daniels), who’s accused of being involved in the murder of one of Richard’s uncles, Richard banishes them both, thereby angering Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Alan Ball). The rift sets events in motion, as Gaunt confronts Richard and later dies; Richard leaves England to reclaim power in Ireland; and Bolingbroke returns to England to not just claim his father’s title and land, but also Richard’s crown.

Many factors play into our response to a show, of course: design elements, the language, performers, pacing, the director’s choices, prominent themes, and even what personal experiences we’re bringing with us into the theater.

For me, this seldom-produced history play opened up near its end, when Richard has been usurped and imprisoned and says: “Alack the heavy day/ That I have worn so many winters out/ And know not now what name to call myself./ … But whate’er I be/ Nor I nor any man that but man is/ With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased/ with being nothing.” In this monologue, Shakespeare reflects not only on the experience of a person’s previously firm sense of identity in freefall, but also our shifting sense of our place in the world as we age – which is to say, the inevitable realization that each of us might not, after all, be super-special snowflakes.

So there’s already some grade A meat to chew on in Richard II, but director Janice L. Blixt’s vision for the show also injects some fun touches. Re-imagined as a contemporary power struggle, MSF’s Richard II features actors in suits and ties and sweater vests (designed by costumer Suzanne Young) instead of the more traditional doublet/hose combo. With this in mind, Richard’s sycophantic, hipster friends, when not laughing at others or rolling their eyes, play a subtle drinking game early in the show, stealing nips from their pocketed flasks each time someone says the king’s name. This led me to viewing the trio of Bushy, Bagot, and Green (Eric Eilersen, Ian Geers, Michael Phillip Thomas) as “the bro courtiers.”

But the center would not hold if not for the truly outstanding work of Kauzlaric, who makes Richard someone we feel probably should be knocked down a peg or two, but perhaps not knocked off the peg board altogether. For Richard is smug and self-assured as king, not to mention compassion-challenged (upon learning of his uncle’s death, he flippantly says, “So much for that”); but these flaws somehow make Richard’s imminent fall all the more searing. When Kauzlaric grips tightly onto the crown, just as Richard’s scheduled to hand it over to Bolingbroke, he delivers a blistering speech, disillusioned by how quickly and easily his life has been dismantled; and in the show’s powerful penultimate scene, when he’s been abandoned by all and left alone in his cell, Kauzlaric presents us with a man earnestly struggling to process grief.

Jeromy Hopgood designed the show’s set, which consists of a seemingly collapsed, slanted gateway (actors often duck while making entrances through it), and a backdrop of church windows hanging at different levels. Visually, the stage picture suggests a wobbly, failing infrastructure, which dovetails well with a play about a young ruler who enjoys the confidence of neither his family nor his subjects. Things really are falling apart.

David Blixt expertly choreographs the production’s sword-fights (and assorted violent acts); David Allen Stoughton designed the lighting, which creates a world outside the brightly lit king’s court that feels ominous and isolating – an effect achieved in concert with Kate Hopgood’s sound design and music composition. And Betty Thomas designed the show’s props.

Of course, Shakespeare’s lesser known history plays often frustrate contemporary audiences; it can feel as though you’re jumping into the middle of an epic novel, and try as you might, there are just too many people, and too much you’ve missed, to make sense of the whole.

But you can trust that you’re in good hands with director Janice Blixt, who has, to name one example, added a brief prologue to Richard II – from an entirely different play – to dramatize the murder that’s at the heart of Bolingbroke and Mowbry’s argument in the true opening scene. (This also, conveniently, sets us up for the shady betrayals and violence to come.) Blixt’s commitment to finding creative ways to fill the gaps in our knowledge on stage, so that we’re better able to plug in and focus on the story being told, demonstrates MSF’s mission writ large: to encourage modern audiences to re-connect with Shakespeare’s work in new, invigorating ways.

Held to this standard, Richard II passes with flying colors.


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


Richard II continues through Sunday, August 14 at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton, MI. For tickets, visit http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com/.

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Review: Michigan Shakespeare Festival's The Killer Angels


Tobin

Tobin Hissong in The Killer Angels.

One thing you’ll inevitably think about while watching the Michigan stage premiere production of Karen Tarjan’s The Killer Angels – presented by Michigan Shakespeare Festival, and inspired by the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel of the same name by Michael Shaara – is how 19th century American warfare and military strategy look nothing like our contemporary conflicts; yet even so, brutality, death, and nightmarish confusion on the battlefield remain constants.

Focused on the three-day Battle of Gettysburg – cited by many as a key turning point for the victorious (uh, spoiler alert?) Union Army – Killer Angels introduces us to military leaders as well as infantrymen on both sides of the war.

How? By double- and triple-casting the production’s 12 actors. And while this casting instruction/suggestion is wholly practical, it nonetheless makes following the play’s already-complicated narrative that much harder. Indeed, if your knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg is minimal - ahem - you’ll likely be struggling to keep the characters (and other details) straight.

But there’s also a larger storytelling paradox at work: a military battle must, by definition, involve lots of people; and yet, to establish an emotional connection to the story, the audience must have sustained, intimate access to a smaller group of characters. (This is how we follow Shakespeare’s history plays, which tend to focus less on a single battle and more on those vying for power.) Because so many leaders and soldiers played a key role – some for better, some for worse – in the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels shifts focus often, providing only cursory glimpses of most characters.

Yes, some conversations among the men are highly personal and touching; but the moments are fleeting, making the show feel more like a well-crafted, visually sumptuous 3D history lesson – with occasional musical interludes.

Indeed, the cast’s spare, haunting, men's chorus harmonies on songs like the show’s opener, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – marvelously led by Killer Angels’ Troubadour Ian Geers – were among my favorite moments of the show. Music director Kate Hopgood, who researched and arranged the show’s music, in addition to being the show's sound designer, affectingly gives the show some soulful scaffolding (and thus gives patrons a few goosebumps).

Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design is simple and theatrical, so that despite the play’s many locales, the only constants are a wood platform at stage right that stands in for General Lee’s (Tobin Hissong) headquarters, and a draped sheet of white fabric for projections (designed by Christine Franzen) that hangs upstage left. To establish other settings, crates get moved and stacked, so soldiers may appear to be sitting in a tree, or taking cover behind the terrain’s natural features.

Costume designer Patty Branam expertly dresses the actors in historically accurate uniforms, using a pants-and-white-shirt base that allows for several quick costume changes; and the attention paid to details like the worn, weathered look of Lee’s hat, and the way the number of buttons on a uniform indicates one's military rank, really seals the deal. Betty Thomas designed the show’s era-appropriate props, and David Allen Stoughton’s lighting design looks gauzy and occasionally spooky under cover of fog, giving Killer Angels the feel of a lived ghost story.

David Blixt does fantastic work choreographing the show’s battles, but the most arresting moment comes at the show’s climax, when an elegant and devastating bit of stagecraft conveys how Lee’s advancing Confederate troops are gutted in the final showdown.

Scenes like this, as well as the more personal, philosophical conversations that happen between men at Gettysburg, get to the heart of The Killer Angels, and director Janice L. Blixt seizes on the show’s best moments with a sure hand. And although the ensemble was strong generally, some standouts included Geers, who guides the audience through the complex story while slipping into multiple roles; Dwight Tolar as Union Col. Chamberlain, a thoughtful, dignified former schoolteacher-turned-soldier who has to make terrifying choices on the battlefield (like charging when his men run out of ammunition); Robert McLean as frustrated Confederate Lt. General Longstreet, who carries out Lee’s orders even when he knows the mission is doomed; and Hissong, who makes Lee a well-intentioned leader who’s so set on ending the war that his judgment about how to best achieve that is compromised.

Civil War buffs will likely swoon at The Killer Angels, as will fans of Shaara’s book (or the film adaptation, Gettysburg); and MSF’s overall execution is impressive and solid. But history dilettantes looking to get lost in a gripping story may instead just feel generally lost.


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


The Killer Angels continues through Sunday, August 14 at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton, MI. For tickets, visit http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com/.

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Penny Seats Theatre presents Xanadu


You have to believe we are magic in Penny Seats's Xanadu.

You have to believe we are magic in Penny Seats's Xanadu.

Sometimes, you actively avoid re-visiting the most beloved TV shows and movies of your youth, because you know in your gut that the adult, more critical version of yourself will see nothing but flaws.

Yet when a witty playwright like Douglas Carter Beane (“The Little Dog Laughed,” “Lysistrata Jones,” “As Bees in Honey Drown”) adapts one of your favorite childhood movies – Xanadu, now being staged by Penny Seats Theatre – you get the best of both worlds. Yes, Beane affectionately mocks the campy film musical’s laughable absurdity, but he also unabashedly grants us permission to re-visit it, as well as its still-appealing ‘80s score (by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar).

For those of you who, for some reason, didn’t hold a cassette recorder up to the TV as Xanadu played on your family’s jerry-rigged cable system - ahem - here’s the story: frustrated Venice Beach artist Sonny Malone (Matt Pecek) is about to give up when Kira (Paige Martin) rolls into his life on a pair of skates. She’s a muse, one of 9 Greek sister goddesses who inspire artists, so she guides Sonny toward his dream: a roller disco that’s also an arts showplace. Naturally.

But when Sonny becomes business partners with a rich, older man (Roy Sexton) from Kira’s past, and Kira’s jealous sisters (Allison Simmons and Kasey Donnelly) decide to intervene to bring the upstart down, Sonny’s roller disco dream hangs in the balance.

Penny Seats’s outdoor production (in West Park) struggled mightily with sound issues on opening night. The actors’ mics were hit-and-miss, which meant that some lines (and jokes) got lost; ensemble numbers, particularly near the beginning, never quite gelled, vocally; and the show’s band – situated on the West Park band shell stage, a good distance behind where the action unfolds (which may have been one source of the problem) – often sounded pretty rough and out of sync, shifting tempos and struggling to align with the performers.

This is one reason why it’s particularly tough to stage a musical outdoors, of course. It’s harder for the performers and the musicians to hear and listen to each other, and focusing and balancing the sound is a challenge.

But that wasn’t the only difficulty facing Penny Seats in regard to this show. As the program notes, Xanadu's original director had to leave the production two weeks into rehearsal, so a number of local theater artists (R. MacKenzie Lewis, and Thalia Schramm and Matthew Brennan from Dexter’s Encore Theatre) pitched in to help direct the show, and an ensemble performer (Sebastian Gerstner) stepped in as choreographer.

Gerstner’s choreography is appropriately sassy and fun, and Ginny Reiche’s flowy costumes for the muses pop with color. Given the constraints of the open, outdoor performance space, some exits and entrances feel awkward; but using nothing more than a few free-standing columns, a phone booth facade, and a similarly-sized set piece with Sonny’s chalk drawing of the muses, cast members perform costume changes – and get into and out of roller skates – with impressive alacrity.

Martin looked a little shaky on her skates at times, but she generally has a ball playing golden-haired, favored-child Kira (known as Clio to her sisters and father Zeus), who glides dramatically across the stage each time she pronounces her own name, and adopts an Australian accent by way of a disguise – but mostly because Olivia Newton-John, the original movie’s star, had one. Martin’s well-cast with Pecek, who charmingly conveys Sonny’s dimwitted-but-sweet worldview while also providing solid vocals. Finally, Simmons’s quirky delivery gives her accomplice role added comic oomph, and Gerstner gets bonus points for flinging Martin over his shoulder on cue while donning a Pegasus head. (You heard me.)

Some of Xanadu's sound issues will likely get worked out as the run continues, but opening night felt like a show that wasn’t quite ready for public consumption yet – perhaps because of all the behind-the-scenes challenges previously mentioned.

But even while the production team progresses and makes fixes through the show’s run, there’s no denying the charming silliness of the material itself. The pop score still feels infectious, and the silly, warm-hearted goofiness of Beane’s book provides a temporary respite from the bad news pouring in from every part of the world just now. No, Xanadu won’t cure what ails us these days; but being able to giggle at a 1980s roller disco dream for 80 minutes is nonetheless a kind of comfort.


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



Xanadu has shows at 7 pm Thursday through Saturday now until July 30 at the West Park Bandshell. Tickets are available online.

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Review: Kate DiCamillo packs the Downtown Library on Sunday


Kate DiCamillo brought some tales of despereaux-tion to the Downtown Library on Sunday.

Kate DiCamillo brought some tales of despereaux-tion to the Downtown Library on Sunday.

Bestselling, award-winning children’s author Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie, Flora & Ulysses, The Tale of Despereaux) drew a few hundred excited fans – clutching books as if they were treasures – to the Ann Arbor District Library's Downtown Library on Sunday afternoon; and she not only read from her new novel Raymie Nightingale, but self-deprecatingly shared the reason for her “late start” as a writer.

“When I was in college, I had a professor who said to me, in my senior year, … ‘You have a certain facility with words. You should consider graduate school,’” said DiCamillo, dressed in sneakers, black jeans, and a black V-neck T-shirt, with a pink long sleeved shirt wrapped around her waist. “That’s exactly what he said, but I was 20 years old, and so, I heard something entirely different. I thought he was speaking to me in code, and that he was saying, ‘Wow. You are super-talented. I think that you’re probably the next Flannery O’Connor.’ So I thought, ‘Why should I bother with graduate school if I’m really talented? I’m just going to go be a writer.’ So what I did was, I used my mother’s JC Penney credit card and I got a black turtleneck, and then I was set to go. I just sat around, wearing the black turtleneck, looking bored and disdainful and having people go, ‘Oh, that’s Kate. She writes.’ I did that for 10 years. … You can dream all you want and have great story ideas in your head, but eventually, you’re going to have to sit down and figure out a way to do the work. And I didn’t figure that out until I was 30.”

DiCamillo’s now established her regimen, obviously, having published about 20 books over the course of 20 years. The author spoke about how a novel now generally takes a year and a half – working through 7-8 complete drafts – for her to write, and she advised aspiring writers to read as much as they can. But the suggestions didn’t end there.

“Another thing you have to do is find out a way to make a deal with yourself about how you’re going to do the work of writing. For me, it’s two pages a day. I’m not offering that as a directive, but saying that’s what I have found works for me. So I make myself write two pages a day, whether I feel like it or not. And guess what? I never feel like it. So what I do is, I do it first thing in the morning. I come downstairs, I pour the coffee, I go right in there and write the two pages before I can talk myself out of it. And I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve got a voice in my head that goes, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. You can’t write a book. This is never going to work.’ I have found that that voice sleeps in ’til about 9 o’clock. So I get up at 5:30, 6 o’clock, … and when that voice shows up to say, ‘You fraud, you don’t know what you’re doing,’ I’ve already done the important work.”

With an easy, approachable charm, DiCamillo – her hair a gently messy, white-blond cloud – answered kids’ and adults’ questions for nearly an hour on Sunday, addressing her characters’ often-odd names (“The only explanation I have is, I am a strange person, and I grew up in the South”); how she doesn’t write from an outline (“It’s a terrifying way to write, but I find that if I know what’s going to happen, I have no interest in writing the story”); how she struggled to write following the huge success of her first novel, Because of Winn-Dixie (“I knew I was going to have to go in a completely different direction, and so, enter the mouse with extremely large ears [Despereaux]”); why authors and illustrators usually have no communication with each other until after a book’s publication (“It was long my suspicion that authors are crazy, and artists are even crazier, so why should we have them talking to each other? I ran that by the publisher, and they said, ‘Yeah, that’s it’”); and how the experience of her father’s abandonment when she was 6 shaped her and made Raymie Nightingale – in which a girl enters a pageant in hopes that a win would convince her father to come home – one of her most personal books (“(Raymie’s) the kind of kid that I was: worried and hopeful and watching all the time and flexing my toes. … That’s as close as I’ve ever come to putting myself in a book”).

One of the scores of kids seated on the floor asked what drove DiCamillo to write stories.

“Part of it is being a reader and living for books,” DiCamillo said. “And you get told those stories, and you feel like you want to tell a story back. And part of it is, as hard as writing is for me, when I’m writing a story, I’m connecting to the world and to myself, and it helps me understand things. It makes the world make more sense if I’m writing.”

Indeed, one of the most sad and funny moments of DiCamillo’s talk arose when a fan asked where Flora & Ulysses’ surreal plot – focusing on a squirrel that’s sucked up into a vacuum cleaner and gains super powers and writes poetry – came from.

“My mother passed away in 2009,” DiCamillo said. “She had a tank Electrolux vacuum cleaner that she loved. And in the last year of her life, she said to me many times, ‘What’s going to happen to the vacuum cleaner after I’m gone?’ I kept on saying, ‘I’ll take the vacuum cleaner. Don’t worry about the vacuum cleaner.’ … She passed away, and I did what I promised. I took the vacuum cleaner, but I had to put it in my garage, though, because I’m allergic to cats, and my mother had the world’s most evil cat named Mildew. … So I put the vacuum cleaner in the garage, and every time I pulled into the garage, it would make me feel really sad, and make me miss my mother. So that’s one place where the story started. And the second thing that happened is, the spring after my mother died, a squirrel was on my front steps, draped in this very dramatic fashion and clearly unwell.”

DiCamillo called a close friend who said she’d come over and “whack him over the head.”

“I’m on the cell phone, right next to the squirrel, as she’s saying this, so I start to back away, because I don’t want him to hear it,” DiCamillo continued. “So I go in the side door, and I look out the front door, and guess what? He did hear it. He was gone. He clearly thought, ‘There’s better ways to die. I’m going elsewhere.’ So it made me feel sad, and it made me remember a wonderful essay that E. B. White wrote called ‘The Death of a Pig.’ … Before Charlotte’s Web came out, he was thinking about how to save a pig’s life, so I started thinking about how to save a squirrel’s life … And I combined the squirrel with the vacuum cleaner in the garage, and that’s where the story came from.”

Finally, an adult in the crowd asked about DiCamillo’s recent reference (in an interview) to a White quote that goes: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” The fan asked DiCamillo to talk about the quote further in light of recent, tragic events.

“I think that we need stories more than we ever have needed stories, and we need to collect around stories and read stories out loud together,” said DiCamillo. “Stories teach empathy. You learn to think about what the other person is feeling, and it is so necessary to imagine yourself into somebody else’s shoes. And I think we need that so much right now.”


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

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Review: Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare in the Arb


Review: Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare in the Arb

Love's Labours, lost in the Arb.

While watching Shakespeare in the Arb’s Saturday evening production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which wrapped up its run this past weekend, I realized that it’s kind of the Elizabethan drama ancestor of a famous Seinfeld episode called, “The Contest.”

Why? Because in both stories, four characters make a pledge to each other to suppress sexual desires (and its expression), and in both stories, they fail miserably – and pretty immediately.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, begins when Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Will Arnuk), decrees that he and three companions – Lords Berowne (Michael Shapiro), Dumaine (Nicholas Menagan), and Longaville (Jackson Tucker-Meyer) – will dedicate themselves to scholarly study for three years, sleeping little, fasting often, and abstaining from any contact with women, so as to not be distracted.

Shortly after signing the pact, though, Ferdinand’s reminded that the Princess of France (Clare Brennan) is on her way to Navarre, accompanied by three ladies-in-waiting: Rosaline (Amy Robbins), Maria (Rebecca Godwin), and Katherine (Maia Gersten). When the King greets the royal party to explain why they must make camp outside his court, he falls in love with the princess, of course, and his friends become smitten with her companions, leaving the men scrambling to convey their affections to the women while also hiding it from their compatriots.

Shakespeare in the Arb shows are always “traveling” productions, so instead of watching a series of set changes, the audience gets up and moves to a new part of Nichols Arboretum. This is a double-edged sword, of course, because while it gives the players a great variety of natural backdrops within which to play, the logistics of getting a couple hundred audience members from one area of the park to another – separating the ground-sitters up front from the chair-sitters behind – more than a half dozen times can bloat the show’s running time, compromise momentum, and grow unwieldy (audience members at Saturday’s performance seemed to get a smidge grumpier/more impatient with each transplant).

Even so, the unique opportunity to marry classic material with outdoor elements is part of what has made Shakespeare in the Arb a magical, beloved, 16 year old tradition. For watching Ferdinand and his friends hide in the trees as they’re each revealed, one-by-one, to be composing love letters, and seeing the Princess leading her party away, in mourning, far off in the distance as a scene among the men plays out, makes Shakespeare’s text come alive in beautiful, arresting ways.

Not that Love’s Labour’s Lost is among the bard’s best plays – far from it. Like a romantic comedy that doesn’t quite know when to quit throwing obstacles in love’s path, the three hour play drags most heavily in its second half. Once the men confess to each other their love for the women, they decide to abandon the oath and visit the royal party in disguise (according to the text, as Muscovites, but in Kate Mendeloff’s Arb production, they all looked more like The Princess Bride’s Dread Pirate Roberts); but the women get wind of this scheme and play a trick of their own, disguising themselves so that each man professes his love to the wrong woman. And then, when all deceptions have finally been revealed – and it feels like the end is near – the schoolmaster and others present a theatrical pageant, drawing things out further, and the Princess receives news from home that changes everything.

Gersten made the princess a wise, strong and mischievous woman – definitely one of the best, most clearly defined performances of the night – while Robbins’ Rosaline was an ideal, charismatic foil for the equally wily and witty Shapiro. And as the cast’s youngest participant, Elijah Hatcher Kay charmed the socks off the audience as Moth.

Mendeloff incorporates a fun bit of swordplay and dance into the show, and one of her strengths is that her actors always speak Shakespeare’s poetry with a clear sense of meaning and purpose, so that those audience members largely uninitiated in the ways of the bard (including young people) can pretty easily follow the narrative.

So despite the fact that Love’s Labour’s Lost is ultimately the lesser work of a master, Shakespeare in the Arb managed to make its production – which played to many sold out crowds – the occasion for a pretty nice night in the park.


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

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Review: The Penny Seats Theatre Company's Canterbury Tales


Review: Canterbury Tales, Penny Seats

From every shires ende, Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende.

We’re all pilgrims, in a sense, finding our way around the hairpin twists and bumps in our life’s path. Maybe this is why Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century writings about a group of pilgrims traveling to Sir Thomas Becket’s shrine still endure.

Or it could just be because The Canterbury Tales – adapted for the stage by Lindsay Price, and now being staged (outdoors) by Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats Theatre Company – are often laugh-out-loud funny, and demonstrate that hundreds of years ago, people had many of the same desires and fears that we have have now.

One basic human drive was, and remains, storytelling, which Chaucer’s pilgrims employ as a means of distracting themselves during the journey. For Price’s stage version of Canterbury, the pilgrims have been distilled down from about thirty, in the original Middle English text, to seven: the Pardoner (Brian Baylor), the Miller (Matt Cameron), the Franklin (Dale Dobson), the Cook (Jenna Hinton), the Prioress (Tina Paraventi), the Wife of Bath (Debbie Secord), and the Reeve (Jeff Stringer) – plus an inn’s hostess (Jennifer Sulkowski), who tags along and suggests that the pilgrims compete in a storytelling contest.

I’ll pause a moment here while you Google the definition for “Reeve” and “Franklin,” as I needed to do.

Director Anne Levy stages the production on the walkway in front of the West Park band shell, so patrons sit on blankets or lawn chairs in a tiered, grassy space. (Many brought a picnic dinner, and some snacks and drinks are available for purchase; sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen are recommended, since the sun can be pretty intense for the show’s first hour.)

Using little more than costume props and small, stackable wooden benches – in a way, Penny Seats’ Canterbury hearkens back to theater at its simplest and most pure – the spirited troupe re-enacts six of Chaucer’s most memorable tales, employing music and small bursts of audience interaction/improv for set changes. And while a couple of the stories feature bawdy sexual situations and crude acts, Price’s adaptation, paired with Levy’s direction, suggest instead of show. (It also makes some textual adjustments, so that the Nun’s Priest’s tale of a rooster and a fox is told instead by the priggish Prioress.)

Levy’s ensemble works together beautifully, occasionally working in contemporary references for fun. (Following the line, “The truth is out there,” there’s a mumbled reference to Agent Scully.) And Price’s choice to have the pilgrims re-enact the tales results in many opportunities for the players to shift accents and personas. Some don’t make sense – a New Yorker? – but they’re not supposed to. The shifts underline the fact that this is all just a bit of silly fun.

Hinton earns big laughs as the self-doubting cook who’s too cowed to tell a story; Secord plays an appropriately bold, unapologetically straight-shooting Wife of Bath (and an even funnier hen); and Stringer, as the touchy Reeve, anchors the production, stepping into many roles with no-holds-barred zest.

With a running time of just over two hours, with one intermission, Canterbury doesn’t exactly feel fleet, despite the cast’s best energy and efforts, so it’s ultimately more pleasant than thrilling. But given the relaxed vibe of the venue, and the quality of the production, there’s no reason why Penny Seats Theater – alongside Shakespeare in the Arb – shouldn’t become yet another beloved outdoor theater tradition in Ann Arbor.


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



The show runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays until July 2 in Ann Arbor's West Park. Tickets are available online.

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Review: Spin at Theatre Nova


Theatre Nova's latest spins a tale of two vulnerable young men.

Theatre Nova's latest spins a tale of two vulnerable young men.

Mila – a gay, black/hispanic teen in Emilio Rodriguez’s Spin, now having its world premiere at Theatre Nova – greets the enrichment programs at his homeless shelter, as well as the world outside, with measured skepticism.

“They try to get you with the root beer floats. Then you have to learn something,” he says.

Yet his new roommate, a more trusting Latino teen named Angelo (Jose Martinez), feels differently. “Poetry is dope,” he says weakly, like a little brother who’s been caught cuddling a teddy bear.

The young men vacillate between vulnerability and guardedness with each other throughout the show’s 80-minute run time, gingerly navigating a minefield of masculinity. Both spin self-defensive lies as well as rhymes: Angelo with his verses – which he presents to the audience between scenes, thus providing the play’s connective tissue – and Mila with rap.

But Rodriguez’s script also takes pains to remind you how young and naive these two characters are, despite their hard pasts and bluster. Mila explains, for instance, that if he ever has kids, of they were misbehaving, he’d simply tell them to knock it off. “They’ll stop, and they’ll be grateful I stayed,” he says. (This got a pretty big laugh on opening night.) And when Angelo explains that he has an alternate identity he adopts in moments of stress, Mila settles in to watch the transformation, as if expecting an act of magic to occur. In these moments, we know they’re just boys grown tall.

Daniel C. Walker designed the show’s set, consisting of little more than a back wall with a window (through which Mila sneaks out, returning later with handfuls of crumpled-up bills), two angled beds, a small, shared nightstand, and mini-dressers; Alona Shewach designed the props, keeping in mind what items these adrift young men might each choose to keep from their past. Indeed, the modest, spartan nature of the entire space makes the opening scene work, since Mila gets angry at seeing Angelo’s duffel bag on “his side.”

These two don’t feel they have a claim on much space in the world, so Mila’s become accustomed to fighting to keep the little bit he’s granted.

Walker also designed the show’s lights, which mainly shift from room scenes to Angelo’s poetry readings. (Sound designer Carla Milarch provides an aural backdrop for these readings.) But it’s Rodriguez’s funny, thoughtful script, and the performances that director Kennikki Jones gets from her actors, that ultimately make Spin a winner.

Martinez and Matthew Webb play off each other beautifully. From the start, there’s a profound contrast in their vocal cadence and posture and movement. Webb, tall and lean, initially armors himself with anger and cynicism, while Martinez conveys a more softspoken openness that slowly chips away at Mila’s walls. When Mila finally trusts enough to ask Angelo to read to him, you know that a significant milestone has been reached.

And Rodriguez is skilled enough to both earn it and avoid a too-easy ending. Though some of the play’s interludes felt like padding, instead of a means of providing new insights into the characters and their situation, I nonetheless felt a real sense of discovery regarding this Detroit-area playwright.

Plus, in the wake of the heartbreaking massacre in Orlando, wherein Mila and Angelo would have been among those targeted, it just feels right to stop talking for a while and instead listen closely to what they have to say.


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


Spin runs through July 10 at the Yellow Barn, 410 West Huron Ann Arbor MI, 48103. For more information and tickets visit //www.artful.ly/theatre-nova/store/events.

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Review: Lesley Stahl Discusses What's So Grand About Becoming Grandma


Review: Mary Norris, Comma Queen.

Lesley Stahl talked about the joys of grandparenting and the horror of trying to make kids sit still for a book cover.

Don’t be fooled by the idyllic cover of 60 Minutes star Lesley Stahl’s new book, Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting.

“[My granddaughters] usually love to be read to, except on this particular day,” Stahl told a crowd gathered at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater to see her on Monday evening. “Eventually—this was so unbelievably frustrating—we put an iPhone inside the book I was holding and put on Frozen.”

Stahl’s talk, co-sponsored by the Ann Arbor District Library and Michigan Radio, focused on what she learned while researching her book; the sexism she faced early in her television journalism career; and answering questions from the audience.

But she kicked things off with a joke. “Someone asked me the other day, ‘Who watches 60 Minutes?’ I said ‘Who?’ ‘Old people and their parents.’”

Stahl quickly pointed out, though, that just as Baby Boomers have influenced every facet of American culture, as they’ve marched through each stage of life, they’ve also altered our sense of how we must look and act as we age.

“Grannies don’t have permed gray hair anymore,” said Stahl. “We’re all blonde. And we’re going to the gym three or four times a week.”

And unlike previous generations, aging people may now reasonably expect to live another 30 years beyond retirement.

“One person said, the first 30 years of life are focused on education,” said Stahl. “The next 30 years are about having a family and making money. And the last 30, we don’t really have a plan for. … The best way to spend this bonus time is not sitting at home watching television and being bored. It’s spending time with our grandchildren.”

Stahl argued, in fact, that science has demonstrated that involved grandparents reap significant health benefits, and that not spending time with grandchildren actually disrupted the natural order. The earliest human families had a mother and a father that hunted and gathered food during the day, while grandparents cared for babies; and a similar structure carried over into pre-urban agricultural societies.

“Now we have the nuclear family, but it’s not natural to not be a part of our grandchildren’s lives,” said Stahl, noting that just as a woman's brain is re-wired after giving birth, a grandmother's brain is also re-wired. “When we don’t see them—even when it’s just been 3 hours—we crave them.”

Stahl said her book was inspired by the euphoric feeling—“like falling in love”—that washed over her when she first held her baby granddaughter. “It’s different from the love you have for your own children,” said Stahl. “You’re distracted by worry, and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. … When you’re a grandparent, we don’t have that. We love that child completely, without any distraction.”

This is why, Stahl said, “no matter how strict we were as parents—sit up straight, do your homework, eat your vegetables—we flip from being a disciplinarian to a mushball.”

Stahl said her book was inspired by the euphoric feeling that washed over her when she first held her baby granddaughter.

Stahl said her book was inspired by the euphoric feeling that washed over her when she first held her baby granddaughter.

Grandparents also now spend more on their grandchildren than any previous generation has. “Grandparents today are spending seven times more than grandparents did just 10 years ago,” Stahl said, citing big ticket costs like health care and daycare (and in her case, a piano).

Regarding her early work as a journalist, Stahl told the story of the Senate hearings on Watergate, which were broadcast daily on all three networks; Stahl was asked to be part of a panel of analysts that would discuss, each night, what had happened at the hearings that day, but her fellow male panelists talked over her and never let her speak. Her boss, after receiving viewer complaints—accusations that the men were being rude to Stahl—finally told the male reporters that they had to let her speak, or the whole thing would be shut down.

The moderator of the broadcast that followed threw out a question regarding the gossip surrounding a D.C. figure, and Stahl sat back, deciding she’d let the men deal with the gossip question.

“They sit there, and there’s dead silence,” said Stahl. “It was excruciating. Then Daniel Schorr jumps in and says, ‘You asked for gossip—well, we have a woman here.’ I was so angry. I started talking, but nothing sensible came out of this mouth.”

This related to Stahl’s analysis about working mothers of her generation struggling to work out a work/life balance. “We were just struggling to get into the workplace,” said Stahl. “We wanted to prove we could do the job as well as men, and that led to us trying to be like men. Men didn’t breastfeed, so we didn’t breastfeed, either.”

Stahl is still working, of course, and while her granddaughters aren’t particularly impressed that Grandma’s on TV—“They think you’re all on TV. To them, it’s just what grandmas do,” said Stahl—the oldest was at least wowed when Grandma got to meet Taylor Swift.

And Stahl explained that although 60 Minutes may appear to be still heavily skewed toward men, by way of the show’s correspondents, “Many of the producers are women. When I go to work, it doesn’t feel like a male enclave…Women do pretty well in journalism…I never felt like I was not one of the group. It’s a wonderful place to work. I love what I do, and they haven’t asked me to leave yet.”


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

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