On Wednesday, February 17th, the Michigan Theater broadcast a stage performance of Les Liaisons Dangereuses through Britain's National Theatre Live. Directed by Josie Rourke, the production marks the 30th anniversary of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the original novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Set in pre-revolutionary France, Les Liaisons Dangereuses tells the story of the beautiful Marquise de Merteuil, played by Janet McTeer, and the dashing Vicomte de Valmont, played by Dominic West, former lovers who now amuse themselves in a friendly competition of seduction and manipulation. The two are having a grand old time toying with their peers when the Vicomte unexpectedly falls in love with his newest mark, the virtuous and beautiful Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy).
The Marquise was the real standout in this performance. We so rarely get to see female characters like her: intelligent and witty, but also deeply flawed, scarred by her fight for independence. The Marquise is a woman who ruins the lives of others for petty revenge or jealousy, but who also fights ferociously to secure and defend her own freedom. Her ability to carry out her schemes in a world where the cards are so deeply stacked against women is a testament to her more admirable qualities. McTeer’s performance as the Marquise was incredible, bringing true range of emotion to a character that could easily have been played as a pure villain. West and McTeer had a definite rapport that underlined an unspoken jealousy between the characters that motivates many of the actions later in the play, as the personal stakes for the pair are quietly pushed higher and higher.
The sumptuous costumes and candle-lit scenes created a feeling of unsustainable decadence completely taken for granted by the French nobility. Within this splendor, the manipulative games played by the Marquise and Vicomte can almost seem frivolous. Their machinations ultimately boil down to trivialities, except that the emotions and lives of those involved, including the supposed masterminds, are so deeply affected. This production did an excellent job of laying out the emotional field of the characters, ensuring that each betrayal and revelation was felt like a twist of the knife, drawing the audience into a world where reputation and appearances are everything.
I entered this viewing with zero background for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but I now understand why the play has been so successful. The story is well balanced, the events spooling out in a way that keeps you entirely engaged with the action. I think the secret of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the attraction of watching a scandal develop before you, with no threat to your own reputation, almost like a guilty pleasure. Part of the reason the play is so effective is that you want to see what happens next, and so the audience is in some ways implicated in the games of the Marquise and Vicomte.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at AADL and agrees with Dominic West that people look much more attractive by candlelight.
Some might say Alvin Lucier: I am sitting in a room is not art by any means. But it is certainly right to say that it’s art by other means.
The Connecticut-based Lucier’s uncanny project—in the cutting-edge UMMA Irving Stenn, Jr., Family Project Gallery at the University of Michigan Museum of Art—is likely to be as underwhelming in its appearance as it is overwhelming in its accumulative cacophony.
The Stenn Project Gallery space has been stripped of everything except a few panels of soundproof insulation against its walls and armless couches for listeners to sit upon. Standing aside in the dimly lit gallery—and standing alone on a strategically placed black pedestal—is a single audio speaker. The only other thing left—as is sometimes said—is art.
Well, that’s to say, what’s left is a particular application of 20th century modernism because I am sitting in a room is as much creativity for the mind as it is an increasingly out-of-tune artful melody for the ear.
Lucier’s artistry—as minimalist in its execution as it is complex in its single-minded commitment—is analogous in spirit (though differing in execution) from the ambient replication of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and La Monte Young. It’s an enigmatic industrial drone that has as much of an equal footing in proto-electronica as it does abstract conceptualism.
Originally crafted in 1969 at Brandeis University’s Electronic Music Studio as an experimental echo installation, Lucier’s intent was— and still is through its systematized multiplication—to scramble the physical property of soundwaves through the interrelationship of automated media and our human ear.
Composed in such a way as to make stumbling upon it a matter of chance, Lucier’s words unfold repeatedly upon themselves until their recurrence becomes indistinct. Increasingly incomprehensible as a verbal congruence steadily replicating itself, the result is a sonic environment whose totality is the aggregate of its texture.
Lucier narrates the following text:
“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.”
That’s it, folks. Could anything be any simpler than this?
Well … the difference is in the details. After all, the Brandeis’ Music Studio in 1969 is not the same place as the UMMA Stenn Project Gallery today. And this means the work’s resonance will differ from the recording’s original acoustic setting.
Just as likewise, the sound of the recording will differ ever so slightly from the center and corners of the gallery depending on where you listen. There will therefore always be a subtle differentiation between each recipient of the source, the source of the transmission, and the transmission of the text itself.
An existential soundscape conditioned by its increasingly blurred repetition, the milieu plays a major part in the art itself. Lucier’s fragile reading—he has a discernible stutter—becomes progressively indistinct as his utterances are gradually blurred beyond recognition. But the cadence of his discourse also creates a peculiarly boisterous harmony through its replicated duplication.
It’ll admittedly take a bit of patience to sit through this masterwork, yet the experience is also going to be singular. Hovering uneasily somewhere between real-time and canned reiteration, I am sitting in a room is phenomenology as art gone nearly amok.
John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
University of Michigan Museum of Art: “Alvin Lucier: I am sitting in a room” will run through May 22, 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.
Humankind’s oldest art form is also the basis of one of The Ark’s longest running events. This year marks the 29th Anniversary of The Ark’s Annual Storytelling Festival, a two-night event that brings the oral tradition from the primordial bonfires of yore to The Ark’s warm and welcoming concert hall. Saturday night this year’s featured storytellers will spin yarns geared toward a mature adult audience, and Sunday afternoon they’ll switch gears to entertain an all ages crowd.
Over the years the festival has welcomed a bountiful mix of perspectives and storytelling styles, and this year is no exception. This weekend’s three featured storytellers -- author, playwright, storyteller, and NPR correspondent Kevin Kling; acclaimed musician and children’s entertainer Bill Harley; and local Irish performer Yvonne Healy -- spoke to me about what kinds of stories they will tell each night, and how their work has changed with the rise of radio storytelling shows like The Moth and Snap Judgement.
Headliner Kevin Kling is known for his humorous personal stories about his Midwestern upbringing and his experience with physical disability. Though he has been featured regularly on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Kling says he prefers performing in front of a live audience.
“Garrison Keillor really put us on the map, and somebody said, I thought very accurately, that he plays a microphone like a Stradivarius,” Kling says of his distinctly Midwestern colleague. “He's so wonderful on the radio. He really has found that medium. I'm a bit different in that I love a live audience. There's something visceral and chemical, something that happens on stage that neither sound waves nor lightwaves can quite fill. That to me is the magic of a live performance. You don't see a lot of standing ovations in front of the radio.”
Kling says he always knew he wanted to be a performer, but early on he had no idea he would get paid to simply stand on stage and talk about his life. He says his professional career as a storyteller began in that most fabled of artistic proving grounds: the dinner party.
“I was in the kitchen at a party, you know that's always the best place, and I was just blabbing away,” he says. “Little did I know there was a theater producer in the kitchen and she said, ‘Do you want to be in our season next year?’ And I said, ‘Doing what?’ And she said, ‘Just what you did in the kitchen.’ Before I knew it, before I knew what I was, I was on stage telling stories in a theater in Minneapolis. And then I went to Seattle, and then off-Broadway, doing pretty much what I did in that kitchen.”
Kling says he doesn’t know exactly which of his two-hundred-plus stories he will tell this weekend. He likes to show up to a venue with a good chunk of his repertoire in mind and read the crowd before deciding where to take the audience for the evening. One topic he is certain he will touch on, though, is disability, something he’s an expert on. Kling was born with a deformed left arm, and he lost the use of his right one after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Still, he assures us he’ll keep things as light as possible no matter how serious the subject matter he chooses to delve into might be.
“It will be done with humor,” he says. “That's the best way for me to get through that because you can laugh at something that doesn't control you anymore. Everybody in the audience knows loss. People say, ‘What's the difference between stand-up comedy and storytelling? You close a door with a joke with comedy, but with storytelling you open a door with a joke. It's like you're saying, ‘Now that we're all here, let's get to it.’’
Joining Kling on stage this weekend is another nationally renowned storyteller, Bill Harley. Dubbed “The Mark Twain of contemporary children’s music,” Harley pairs wit, humor, and song to embellish tales of his childhood, coming-of-age, and family life.
When asked why he is drawn primarily to telling stories from his youth, Harley responds, “I find that if I talk seriously about childhood, then everybody usually comes along. That's the birthplace of our disaster, so that's pretty fertile territory.”
Harley says he probably won’t tailor the topics of the tales he chooses for the adult and family sessions this weekend, but rather the manner in which he tells them.
“It's not so much structure as it is language, nuance and subtext,” he says. “If you talk about childhood or coming-of-age seriously, those experiences we carry with us through our whole lives, everytime we touch on those experiences it brings up something that touches us, that reaches adults just as much as it does younger kids. Obviously with the family show, I'm less likely do to do a 40-minute story. With a family show you can't mess around. You've got to keep your pedals moving and your foot to the floor and be very aware of what`s going on. With adult performances, there's a lot more nuance, and there's a lot more chance for discovery.”
Harley’s performances will ensure the melodic comfort The Ark typically traffics in won’t be entirely lost for the weekend. He says audiences are often surprised and delighted by the way he flirts with the intersection between song and spoken word.
“When you sing a song, people go, ‘Okay, we know that,’” he says. “And then you put your guitar down or you're holding your guitar and you start to talk, and all of a sudden people are kind of waiting for the talking to end and the music to begin again. And slowly, they realize this is something other. I always have people come up to me and say, ‘I haven't been to something like this for years. I can't remember the last time I sat and listened to something like that.’ It's an amazing experience.”
Local Irish storyteller Yvonne Healy rounds out this weekend’s bill with a rollicking blend of traditional Irish folklore and mythology and flamboyant tales of her own personal experience. Healy, now a resident of Howell, was born in Ireland and raised in the U.S. She says her upbringing straddled the cultural mores and traditions of both countries and gave her a master class in the art of storytelling.
“Inside the house was Ireland, and outside the house was the United States,” she says. “So inside the house we spoke Irish, and we danced Irish dances and sang to Irish music. We behaved in an Irish way, and part of that is learning to tell stories properly, with proper accent and proper detail. I learned by rote, phrase by phrase.”
Healy’s father had a profound influence on her interest in telling stories. She describes him as an alternately charming and argumentative contrarian who could worm his way out of any situation with a good yarn.
“I asked him one time, ‘How is it that you never get beat up?’ And he said, ‘Well I got beat up once. Now, whenever I get to that point, and I like getting them to that point, then I tell them a story and confuse them. And then they let me go.’ So really, talking is a martial art.”
Like this weekend’s other two storytellers, Healy says she doesn’t yet know exactly what stories she’ll bring to the stage. She says Sunday she will stick to traditional folklore and mythology because she believes children, who are are developing their perspective on life, need the neatness of literary devices and literary structure. For Saturday night, she says she will cull stories from her own life. With more and more people being introduced to live storytelling via NPR, she says that seems to be what people want to hear these days.
“I think it’s because we have such an educated populace,” she says. “We can figure out where stories are going to go, but real life is not neat like a fictional story is. Real life is messy and doesn't have those kind of fictional constructs, and so that's very interesting to us. We spend a lot of time alone or with screens in our contemporary society, and I think having deep, real conversations with other people face-to-face is very moving for everybody.”
Healy elaborates on that last remark. Live storytelling, she says, is a conversation between the performer and the audience.
“The story changes depending on how the audience reacts,” she says. “If you're losing some people in some place, you kind of come back and go back into the thread and go off on another digression, but only if the audience is responding to it. A story is really co-created by everybody in the room.”
Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer, and he would love to tell you the story about the time he saw a UFO.
The Ark’s 29th Annual Storytelling Festival runs Saturday at 7:30 p.m. & Sunday, at 1 p.m. The Ark is located at 316 S. Main St. Tickets are on sale now through the Michigan Union Ticket Office and at The Ark's website. Tickets are priced at $20 for the Saturday evening show and $10 for the kids’ show on Sunday afternoon.
When author Mo Daviau approached the podium at Literati Bookstore to read from her debut novel, Every Anxious Wave on Monday, February 15, she was friendly, enthusiastic, and eager to bring the audience in on the joke.
Her demeanor seemed well-matched to her subject matter - NPR describes her book as "a bittersweet, century-hopping odyssey of love, laced with weird science, music geekery, and heart-wrenching laughs." In it, 40-ish indie music fanatic Karl discovers a wormhole in his closet that enables time travel, and he uses it to send mega-fans back to experience concerts they missed - until a friend gets misplaced in time and Karl must connect with a prickly astrophysicist to untangle the problem.
Daviau started her talk with the confession that she'd recently heard from a reader who took issue with a character's trip to see the Traveling Wilburys perform live in 1990. The reader indignantly pointed out that the Traveling Wilburys never performed live, not in 1990, or ever. Daviau laughingly told the audience she'd come up with an explanation about the character technically crashing a recording session, but she good-naturedly thanked her concerned reader for pointing out her failure to properly research the performance history of the band.
Daviau's fiction debut was released February 9, but before that, it was a work in progress during Daviau's time in the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers' Program, where it won a Hopwood Award. The book carries a very sweet dedication to Daviau's father, who was 65 when the author was born, and who passed away when she was a young teenager. This is part of her inspiration for this story: because she had so little time with her father, Daviau says she thinks about time travel every day.
In her Q&A, Daviau said the discovery of a college radio station at age 11 started her on her love affair with indie rock. She came full circle with her early love of college radio by becoming a college radio DJ herself while attending Smith in the 1990s. She explained that main character Karl is some version of herself - but that she "found it easier to project feelings of regret on a schlubby bar owner" than on a woman like herself. But did she nail the male voice? "I just went for it," she admitted. "I'm interested to hear from real men how I fared with this." Reversing the question and answer portion, an obliging dude in the audience shouted, "Sounds authentic to me!" to the amusement of all.
Sara Wedell is a Production Librarian at AADL and might time travel back to see the Monkees Reunion Tour at Pine Knob in 1995, if only to get a t-shirt that's the right size this time.
The University Musical Society presented an amazing live performance of The Triplets of Belleville to a sold out crowd at the Michigan Theater on Friday night. The theater screened the movie while a live band played the soundtrack onstage. UMS announced this program on social media in February 2015, so I had a full year to look forward to it. Even with that anticipation, all my expectations were exceeded.
I was accompanied by my wife, my best friend, and my 88-year-old Grandma, who particularly loves The Triplets of Belleville. When the movie first came out, I walked into her house only to have my hearing almost destroyed by the soundtrack blaring from the speakers. She came downstairs with a triumphant grin and asked “Guess what CD I bought at Borders?!” It was not a hard guessing game.
For the uninitiated, Triplets is a 2003 animated film written and directed by Sylvain Chomet about the Tour de France, an aging jazz trio, the wine mafia, and the feud between an overweight dog and a train. In addition to its wonderfully strange story and delightful animation style, the film set itself apart by almost entirely eschewing dialog in its storytelling. The soundtrack, heavily influenced by jazz of the 1920s (but also prominently featuring Bach's Prelude No. 2 in C Minor), featured the Academy Award nominated song "Belleville Rendez-vous".
The first surprise of the live performance (to me; not to folks to read the event description more clearly) was that the conductor was Benoît Charest, who actually composed the soundtrack. It was amazing to see the person who had written the music that I love so much, and watching him conduct was a joy. In addition to conducting, he sang, played the guitar (and vacuum!), and danced along to the music. Charest also provided the French commentary for the Tour de France scenes.
The eight piece band, Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville, was excellent and played in sync to the movie, occasionally looking up to the screen to make sure their timing was precise. At a few points during the show, the musicians got up and moved around to the center of the stage in order to play some of the more unusual instruments highlighted in the movie, including a newspaper, a cooking pot, and a vacuum cleaner. My favorite part was when the conductor, along with a few of the other band members, danced on a wooden board while clapping and snapping to create a rhythm section. After they pulled this off, they high-fived each other while the audience cheered.
The live performance of The Triplets of Belleville was an incredibly joyous event. The entire band seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the audience. Perhaps the only thing that could have made the evening better would have been a hound dog trained to act (bark?) out the role of Bruno, the movie’s lovable pooch. Of course, it’s highly likely that I’m the only person in the audience who would have liked this. Everyone I attended the performance with loved it, and the crowd was practically giddy as the theater emptied out. The music amplified the story and made each emotion shown on screen both stronger and sharper. My grandma called the night “a real treat.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at AADL and is interested in finding a local instructor for vacuum playing lessons.
Like most great horror movies, The Witch is smart enough to largely dispense with the “rules” of its genre. We see the film’s titular boogeywoman early on and with some clarity; we’re then led to believe that she may even be somewhat incidental to the plot, and that the true evil may be inside one of our seeming protagonists. There’s little gore and very little in the way of traditional “jump scares”–at least until it’s too late for The Witch to present itself as the kind of movie which traffics in such gimmicks. Instead of trying to engineer a shock-delivery system, The Witch opts for a slow-burning sense of dread echoing other great, unconventional horror flicks like Repulsion or The Shining.
The film is set in 1630 New England, as a family of seven is exiled from their Puritan colony for vaguely defined reasons related to the father’s (Ralph Ineson) “prideful” approach to spreading the word of God. The father, William, leads his brood to a spot just at the edge of a dark and expansive woodland and they begin to establish a homestead. Again neglecting typical genre practice, The Witch doesn’t allow us that typical dull period of calm when you’re waiting for the first scare to happen; we’re barely five minutes into the film before the newborn of the family vanishes during a game of peekaboo with capable teenaged daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Cut to the unsettlingly premature appearance of the decaying witch (Bathsheba Garnett) in her hut, performing some unholy ritual over the infant.
But is she the witch? Our highly superstitious protagonists immediately begin to suspect and accuse each other of being responsible for the baby’s disappearance, as well as the string of other misfortunes that begin to befall their settlement. And it’s hard for us to blame them. There seems to be some kind of evil in just about every member of this family–from the young twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), who openly converse with a goat they call “Black Phillip,” to William himself, whose determination to make the new homestead succeed verges on the deranged.
The small cast is uniformly excellent, convincingly wrapping their tongues around the knotty period dialogue. Ineson exerts a terrific gravitational pull as the all-powerful father slowly losing his grip, and Taylor-Joy gives a fierce, sympathetic performance as she becomes the film’s ostensible lead. The performers expertly craft a growing sense of hysteria that piles up into a final half-hour of protractedly spine-tingling scenes.
Production designer Craig Lathrop and costume designer Linda Muir work hard to create an authentic period atmosphere that makes the family’s dogmatic mania all the more believable. Although the vast majority of the film takes place in isolation on the family’s homestead, brief glimpses of their old colony at the beginning of the film have the fascinating feel of real life. First-time feature director Robert Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke collaborate to create a striking visual sense for the proceedings. Cloudy skies are omnipresent in the film’s many exterior scenes, and the color palette emphasizes grays and browns that feel earthy even as they seem to forebode decay and death.
And that’s appropriate, because The Witch is a film about people deeply connected to the earth, dependent upon it, but also fighting against their true nature. At one point the mother, Kate (Kate Dickie), emphatically expresses her wish that the family had never left their native England. For all William’s professed desire to serve God, he’s consistently ignorant of the universe’s signs that he’s doing the wrong thing. The presence, and possible wrath, of Native Americans hovers around the story as well. Local natives are seen for a fleeting but significant moment in an early scene, and a trade William made with them becomes a point of some contention among the family later in the story.
It’s easy to try to read The Witch as a theological text on the relative merits of the Christian God and Satan; the New York-based Satanic Temple, which has wholeheartedly endorsed the film, certainly seems to think so. But no. The film is about invaders trying to impose their will upon a land that was never theirs, and the land taking its own back. The Witch suggests a fundamental sin at the root of American history. Even more so than the standard genre tropes of a cabin at the edge of a creepy woods, or the old standby of God versus the devil, there’s true horror in that idea for any American.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.
The Witch opens in wide release this weekend.
It's still an awkward dance. When it comes to the subject of race, we seem to invent new language just to avoid the blunt words and ingrained feelings that are simmering just below the surface.
There are few places where that is more true than southeastern Michigan with a long, bloody history of racial animus. Flint and the Detroit school situation are just the most recent examples of the unresolved prejudices that politically correct speech can never hide.
The University of Michigan's School of Music, Theater and Dance couldn't have picked a more relevant and powerful play than Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park. But be warned, anyone expecting a sermon on race relations will find instead a hilariously serious comic drama. This is a play that exposes that awkward dance with sharp wit and a rare ability to understand the real complexity of the issue. The play has won the triple crown of theater awards, the British Olivier, Broadway's Tony, and the Pulitzer Prize and this U-M production is brilliant at making us laugh while unpeeling the many layers of code words that separate us.
406 Clybourne Street is the house in a white Chicago neighborhood that a black family moved into in Lorraine Hansbury's 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. The first act of Norris' play set in 1959 centers on the white couple who have sold this home and are anxious to move out to escape the pain of the death by suicide of their Korean veteran son. The second act takes place in 2009 as an upscale white couple are meeting to discuss plans to modernize the now ravaged home in what has become a low-income black neighborhood.
This is serious stuff. But even in this first act director John Neville-Andrews uses Norris' stylized speech moving at a brisk pace, perfectly capturing the various anxieties at 406 Clybourne. The second act moves at an even faster pace, with more laughs but also more direct confrontation. His cast handles this very precise language skillfully, capturing every nuance of meaning and wringing every bit of the humor that dulls the deeper pain. In addition, each actor in the play has two distinctly different characters. That transformation is awesome.
In Act One, Jack Alberts is Karl, a leader of the community association, who comes to warn Russ and Bev that selling their house to a black family will lead to the end of their tight, white community. Alberts' Karl is a tightly wound, nerdy accountant type. He can't let a bad argument go, he can't let anyone else get a word in to dispute his notion that mixing races is a bad idea. His tight suit and undersized fedora perfectly highlight Alberts' performance. In Act Two, Alberts is Steve, a modern, hip guy, a real urbanite who wants to come back to the city and make it new again. This is where Alberts really nails the character, a slick guy who thinks he's post-racial, until he finds out he's not.
Lila Hood plays Karl's sweet, deaf wife Betsy, a victim of another kind of mindless patronization, and Steve's very modern wife Lindsey, an urban woman who claims at one point "half my friends are black." Again, Hood plays two characters who couldn't be more different and captures the sadness and isolation of Betsy and the whip-smart intelligence and total cluelessness of Lindsey.
David Newman goes from depressed father Russ in Act One, to broad comic punctuation as a construction worker in Act Two. His performance as Russ explodes as he makes a case that not all decisions hinge on the issue of race, even in Chicago. It is a plea for the personal over the social and political. His comic turn is a complete turn around.
Madeline Rouverol is the center point of Act One as Bev, a woman with high anxiety over the death of her son and the increasing depression of her husband. She talks a blue streak, she fidgets, she gushes. And when it comes to relating to her black maid, she displays the easy bigotry that passed/s for liberalism. She thinks she and the maid are friends, how quaint and how sad. In Act Two, Rourverol is a real estate lawyer, Albert and Betsy's daughter, who also thinks she's free of prejudice. Rouverol gets some very funny lines here that she places with pinpoint timing.
And about that maid, Francine. Blair Prince is devastating in this pivotal role. She presents herself as a dutiful employee, even as she is about to lose her job. But she's not one to be pushed around and she disdains Bev's phony liberal overtures (bribes), with looks that would wither a forest. When confronted by Karl to stand in for her race and answer his absurd challenges she dances to avoid and not offend while clearly showing that she is deeply offended. In Act Two, the tables have turned. She is the educated, tart tongued Lena, defending her community against its impending gentrification. It was her family who moved into 406 Clybourne. But here again, she dances around the issue until push comes to shove. Prince shows all of this in her expressive face.
Aaron Huey is Francine's kindhearted husband Albert, who shows that slowly dying deference to whites that makes old movies so uncomfortable. But Huey's Albert also shows his real feelings in his face and when things get a little too insulting he reacts with quick wit. As Lena's husband Kevin, he is a young professional at ease with whites, sharing similar interests, knowing the same people, sharing the same good life in Chicago. But as Act Two goes on, the bonhomie gets thin and then explodes and Huey masters that slow burn.
Jordan Rich plays Jim, a minister in Act One, who tries to straddle two contradictory ideas at once and do it with Christian charity. The temptation to overplay this sanctimony is avoided and Rich makes the character real. In Act Two, he's a building inspector who acts as a referee as the conversation moves from funny to dangerous. He gets one of the night's funniest lines.
The set design by Gary Decker is superb. In Act One, the house is a solid, old Chicago house, real wood trim, plaster walls. It's untidy only because the moving boxes are scattered about. In Act Two, fifty years of increasing poverty and the neglect poverty causes are evident in the home that is also in the early stages of demolition. The change is eye-popping.
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.
Clybourne Park continues 8 pm Friday and Saturday, Feb. 19-20, and at 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on the central campus of the University of Michigan. Tickets at the League Ticket Office, (734) 764-2538.
Budding animation enthusiasts at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University had the opportunity to learn from one of the best in their field this Thursday and Friday, as Disney animator Matthias Lechner gave free presentations to students at both schools. As art director of environments on Disney’s upcoming March release Zootopia, the German-born Lechner oversaw a staff of about 100 through a four-year process that equates to set design on a non-animated movie.
Zootopia not only features the largest digital environment yet created for Disney; it doubles the size of the virtual world created for previous record holder Big Hero 6. Creating that world entails an insanely detailed process, as every set and every tiny object is meticulously researched, sketched, and then realized as a 3-D model. In a slide presentation, Lechner walked students through the process of developing Zootopia’s “world built by animals, for animals,” sharing research, early designs, and finished scenes from the film. He interacted warmly with the student audience, projecting enthusiasm for working on his first Disney movie after a lifelong love of the studio’s work.
After his presentation at U-M, Lechner chatted with me about the experience of working with Disney for the first time, the very realistic research that goes into creating a fantasy world, and the big Disney project he’s got lined up next.
Q: You said that seeing The Jungle Book at age 6 was what interested you in animation in the first place. How did you feel when you finally got your first job at Disney?
A: You’d think that I’d be really happy. But I have to say that the first half-year I was extremely stressed. It was like, “What do they want from me that they can’t do themselves?” I guess it was just my style that worked really well, and [Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer] John Lasseter liked it, so they went with me. But everybody’s at the top of their game. I’m really used to working on movies that are middle-budget, so you try to make the best out of what you have. Suddenly you have all the time in the world, so you’ve got to come up with something that is worth all the time in the world.
Q: Disney’s such a big studio. How much do they try to impose a house style on what you’re doing?
A: That was surprising, that they don’t. I go in there and I was wondering, “What is it like? Is there a political agenda or anything like that?” But it’s not. The directors try to make it as good as we can, basically to please ourselves. If other people like it, that’s great. But nobody told me what to do or what not to do.
Q: What was John Lasseter like?
A: He’s a little bit of a celebrity at Disney because he’s the über-father, as we’d say in German. He’s a very emotional person, in a good way. He likes to hug. I was a little worried in the beginning because everybody really listens to what John wants, and that can be dangerous. But he wants the right things. Whenever he gave a note, it was the right note. So I don’t have a problem with that at all. That’s great. He’s been really good for Disney.
Q: In the animation that you enjoy, do you have a personal preference between cel animation and computer animation?
A: I used to. (Laughs) I come from cel animation, so for set design it had a lot of advantages. You would never have to wonder, “Can we afford this?” because everything’s just a drawing. You can draw whatever you want, and if it’s only for one scene it doesn’t matter. When you’re doing 3-D you have to plan: if we build a big set, can we use it in other scenes too? In the early days of 3-D there was a tendency of it not looking satisfying. Pixar did a very amazing job with their films, and yet they aged somewhat. I think now we’ve reached a point where Zootopia will not look old. It’ll just be a movie. In that respect, now I have a lot more possibilities, so I kind of like 3-D.
Q: It’s crazy looking back at Toy Story now, which looked so beautiful when it first came out, and seeing how much everything has changed since then.
A: Yeah. Toy Story is saved by the story, and that’s Pixar’s trick. If the story is entertaining then it doesn’t matter that much if it’s not perfect. In this movie we really went far out to fill it with detail and with love, basically to the top. We went as far as you can go right now.
Q: You mentioned bringing a NASA scientist in to consult about the “climate wall” [that separates Zootopia’s desert and tundra worlds, keeping the former hot and the latter cold]. Why put that level of scientific realism or scientific research into what is very much a fantasy creation?
A: Because they can. It’s one of John Lasseter’s little things, that he wants everything to be reasonable. Nothing is there just by coincidence. If you say, “This is the design I want,” you’d better find a good reason why you want this to be the design. Research is a big part of that. So if they offer to bring this guy in, of course we say, “Yeah. Let’s see if we can learn something from him.”
Q: You’ve mentioned how passionate you are about this movie. What do you like so much about it, besides the fact that you worked on it?
A: There’s that. And actually that doesn’t necessarily mean I like it, because I would see all the flaws. But I’m very happy with the sets. I’m happy with my part of the movie. Imagine that you think of something, or you dream something, and the best people in the world realize that for you. That’s an amazing experience. But what I really get a kick out of is the animation of the animals. We have dailies, and every day you see five or six scenes that come fresh from animation. It’s like Christmas for me. They’re so funny. There’s a scene where somebody crosses the road, which was not interesting in storyboard, and then the way they walk just makes it.
Q: How does it feel, after four years, to have this almost off your shoulders?
A: It is off my shoulders now. This [speaking engagement] is just reminiscing. It feels a little bit scary. I really got into it. I have to say, if it would have been only three and a half years, I would have said, “Ah, I can’t believe it’s over.” After four years I was like, “Okay. Done that.” It’s going to be hard for me to get as invested in the next project.
Q: Do you have your next project lined up?
A: Yes. Off the record–well, you can check if you can say it or not, but it’s Wreck-It Ralph 2.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.
If you enjoy challenging your notions of what is functional, what is craft, and what is art then you’ll find the Ann Arbor Art Center’s latest exhibition, Mid-West Furniture Zoku, especially engaging. While it is rare to view the collective works of local art furniture designers, do not doubt that this type of talent exists all around us. A deeply rooted and growing community, these are artists that earn their living either by making or teaching furniture design – or both. Once you learn about local modern masters such as these, you can further support them with your interest and by visiting their sites, both virtual and physical (really, call them up, plan a field trip, or just stop on by).
Exhibit co-curators and art professors John DeHoog, of Eastern Michigan University, and Ray Wetzel, of the College for Creative Studies, did an exceptional job selecting this concentrated, yet highly diverse grouping of artists and arts educators to represent “our regional clan of furniture makers, designers, and educators”, or our “Furniture Zoku”, to challenge preconceived notions. According to DeHoog:
“As educators we always look at exhibitions as having an educational role for students and for the public, so Ray and I wanted to collect work that was thoughtful, challenging, and in some cases provocative. The result is a group of objects that in my mind fall into the following categories: 1 – practical/functional, 2 – art furniture, 3 – sculpture that happens to use furniture, and 4 – conceptual.
While the viewers may not consciously pick up on the distinctions, I think they understand that there are makers working in certain common veins. Ray and I also made deliberate efforts to show ranges in scale (from miniatures to the very tall sculpture), ranges in material (wood, metals, fabric…) and ranges of mood (playful to serious). In all cases though, the level of craft is very high, and the love/respect for materials evident.”
In some cases, an artist’s work may be easily placed neatly in a single category. Others’ work may fall into two, three, or even all four of the categories mentioned by DeHoog.
Detroit artist Marco Terenzi, a graduate of the Art Furniture program at the College for Creative Studies, creates work that defies categorization. His fully functional replicas of woodworking hand tools are impeccably articulated in quarter-scale miniature. Functional, though not practical, these pieces are becoming highly sought-after collectibles. The precision necessary to successfully accomplish this type of construction and functionality is mind-boggling, but Terenzi is intensely disciplined. He’s even replicated his workshop in fully functional quarter scale. And, at 25 years old, he’s only just getting started.
Detroit-based functional furniture and object designer, Andy Kem's Rand Table, made from American ash and molded cork, holds center stage in the main room of the exhibit. Kem has this to say about his approach to creating functional objects:
“Using wood, man-made wood products, and rapid prototyping, my work delves into two directions: on one hand more traditional craft techniques—but interpreted in nontraditional ways—and on the other, the use of digital tools to enable and realize new interactions amongst the parts that constitute the objects I create. In the merging of my different investigations, my work transcends function to arrive at a unique aesthetic language.”
Curator Ray Wetzel said about inviting Andy Kem:
“I wanted to bring the product design approach to furniture design and manufacture into the conversation. Andy has done quite a bit of work with c-n-c cut parts and manufactured raw materials. I've always liked Andy's work and his approach to design and maintaining craftsmanship. His work is formal, subtle and detailed.”
Also falling into the category of practical/functional, is the work of Ann Arbor-based furniture designer, John Baird. You may have interacted with his work if you’ve frequented local establishments like the AUT Bar or Salon 344. Reminiscent of old wooden classroom desks that conjure feelings of familiarity and durability, but with a modern and elegant edginess, Baird has on exhibit a prototype and finished version of the short-run, custom-fabricated stools he designed and produced for Comet Coffee.
On the subject of art furniture, it would be impossible for me not to mention the work of Maxwell Davis, Professor and Head of the Art Furniture Area at the College for Creative Studies, I mention it not only because (full disclosure) he’s my partner, but because he has also served as instructor and mentor to several of the other artists in this exhibit. More than his artwork, this to me is his most poignant contribution here.
One of the two works on exhibit by Davis is Chair #13, a glass and stainless steel chair that defies all intellectual, tactile, and functional logic. I love to see viewers reach out and run their fingers along this chair’s jagged-cut spine. The thick, raw edges of cut glass with their reflective waves and promise of danger, visually sewn together with rounded hot glass stitches, are near impossible to resist! The chair’s seat, back, and legs are all made from various forms of hot and cold glass, inviting the assumption that it doesn’t actually function as a chair. It does.
Presenting a temptation greater than touching the edges of broken glass, the most irresistible pieces in this exhibit to me, are those made by Aaron Blendowski. Blendowski is a Detroit-based furniture and object designer, who also works as Fabrications Coordinator at Cranbrook Academy of Art, and Co-Founder of OmniCorpDetroit. His Moderondack Chairs, made from natural and stained cypress, are joyfully oversized, simple and shapely; but not quite flawless. Their voluptuous seats are swimming with the natural detail of the textured wood grain that has been intentionally alternated during the process of gluing together the thick strips from which the chairs are constructed. The occasional knothole or indentation in the wood are left in plain sight. Finely-shaped and sanded to a smooth and shiny finish, I will neither confirm nor deny having broken a 117 Gallery rule while viewing these pieces.
Nicholas Stawinski may be the most unexpected furniture maker to fall into the category of art furniture, based on what we usually think of when thinking about upholstered furniture. A native of Detroit, Stawinski is an artist, furniture designer, and fourth-generation upholsterer who uses the post-industrial landscape of Detroit as his inspiration. Stawinski says:
“My work pays homage to the ottoman and footstool forms that I helped my father create in the back of our upholstery shop. Through recognizable shapes and the motifs of furniture, my ottomans contort and connect in ways that make the forms new and unfamiliar. Some of the fabrics I use reference specific interiors—such as my grandmother's living room in Michigan, where I would spend time while my father and grandfather worked in the shop downstairs— while others recall the endless parade of floral armchairs that marched through our door. Other shapes and patterns draw from memories of riding across Detroit in our delivery van, going to help little old ladies in retirement homes select fabric for their favorite chair, the one—they say—that will be passed on to their children and grandchildren. In this way, my ottomans are a celebration of the work ethic and skilled trade of upholstery, taught to me by my father and grandfather, as well as the way interior spaces shape our memories.”
I must also acknowledge my appreciation for the multi-faceted perspective on functional and conceptual furniture design of Detroit-based artist Colin Tury. While the highly graphic conceptual piece "Remember me…" made from ash and steel, is representative of Tury’s general aesthetic, it is but an ever so small glimpse of his overall talent as a furniture designer. Tury’s work easily traverses all categories from practical and functional to conceptual. It manages to be lanky yet graceful, and cautiously modest, while also conveying balance and confidence. Tury states:
“To me, craft is an important factor to our culture because it provides us a reminder that we are all still human and that we make things for a reason, not just to look at. Furniture specifically shares importance in that we are all unconsciously intimate with it throughout our day. Modern furniture has become a game of geometry in which designers compositionally arrange basic shapes and colors, and eliminate any feature beyond its basic function. We have lost all sense of material in a sea of powder-coated aluminum and veneered particleboard. I want to present material in furniture for its true nature, and highlight human error because it is a reminder that someone consciously created it. I strive to create conceptual meaning to all my pieces so that it can tell a story beyond its own physical existence. Materials play a big role in this because they have unique, yet specific, physical attributes that we can obey or abstract. A story can exist just in bringing two materials together in an interesting way.”
In my mind, the only truly disappointing aspect of this exhibit are the posted signs constantly reminding visitors not to touch the artwork, when the very nature of the work evokes the desire to touch and interact with it.
Because, after all, it is furniture.
Terry Soave is Manager of Outreach & Neighborhood Services and also coordinates exhibits at the Ann Arbor District Library.
"Mid-West Furniture Zoku" will run through March 5, 2016, at 117 Gallery at the Ann Arbor Art Center, 117 W. Liberty St., Ann Arbor, MI 48104. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 10 am-7 pm, Saturday 10 am-6 pm, and Sunday 12-5 pm. Artist and Curator Talk: Thursday, February 18, 6-8 pm. Co-curators John DeHoog and Ray Wetzel, along with some of the artists of Zoku, will talk about their processes and artworks from the exhibition.
The book tells the tragic story of teens Joana, Emilia, and Florian, refugees fleeing from Poland and the advance of the Red Army at the end of World War II. Each from a different background and a different country, their paths cross aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a real, historic ship that almost no one, including myself, seems to have heard of—despite it being the scene of the worst maritime disaster in world history.
Literati staff opened the evening with a quick introduction of the local author, making sure to mention that her novel Between Shades of Gray was the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti reads book of 2014. Then Sepetys stepped over to the microphone to introduce herself, her background, and her newest story. Her enthusiasm for writing and storytelling was obvious, but it was clear by the way she lit up as she launched into the Wilhelm Gustloff's tragic tale that she was really in it for the history.
According to her avid research, the Wilhelm Gustloff was a German cruise ship that set sail into the Baltic Sea at the end of World War II packed with thousands of refugees searching for safety. The ship, designed to carry a maximum of 1,400 passengers, was filled with so many fleeing survivors that when it finally set sail, it carried 10,000 passengers, pressed into dining rooms, dance halls, and even the emptied swimming pool. Rooms meant to fit two contained 15 or 20 people. The ship was so heavy, it was forced to sail in deep water—and that's where a Soviet submarine found it and where three well-aimed missiles led to the world’s most fatal maritime tragedy, sinking the ship and sending 9,400 people to the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
Using only a handful of black and white photographs and her undeniable enthusiasm, Sepetys managed to paint a vivid picture of the tragedy and of her research process and keep the crowd completely rapt. With the flair of a master storyteller she managed to pull the audience into the story, hold us in suspense, impress on us the horror of the Gustloff's sinking—and then lighten the heavy atmosphere with a few anecdotes about her search for facts on the ship and its history.
Salt to the Sea was a mammoth effort in research for Sepetys, as she traveled to Poland and several neighboring countries to meet survivors of the disaster, hear stories from men who had dived the wreckage of the Gustloff, and wade through mountains of artifacts and heirlooms from those who lived the tragedy.
Sepetys explained that she chose to tell the story through characters from several different nationalities—Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian, and others—because she had found that the narrative of history could drastically change based on whose cultural experience was being told. You might write a book and think you know what it’s about, she said, but the story is really decided by the reader—and different countries can take one story in some vastly different directions.
She offered up her 2013 novel, Out of the Easy, as an example. Translated into dozens of languages, no two countries seemed to agree on what the book was about. Sepetys, when she wrote it, meant it to be about a girl living amongst the bordellos and brothels of 1950s New Orleans and struggling to shape her own destiny and make a life for herself outside of “The Big Easy.” But in France it’s marketed as a story of feminism in historical context. In Germany it’s a noir thriller. In Poland it’s about decisions and the dynamics that affect choice. And in Thailand, I kid you not, it is called The Hooker Book.
This diversity of interpretations fascinated Sepetys, and gave her a goal for this newest book: to show how the significance of a story could change from person to person, country to country. The author's genuine excitement was infectious and even the Q & A portion of the evening was entertaining as Sepetys enthusiastically answered questions from the audience and listened intently when audience members told their own family refugee stories. It was evident that the stories left the greatest impression on her and she made it clear that telling those stories was Salt to the Sea's main purpose. What exactly affects how history is shaped? Who decides how the stories get told and which stories get told?
Ambitious though it seems, Salt to the Sea works to tell a multitude of those stories within one, tragic story—history, as it is written by the victors and as it is written by the victims.
Salt to the Sea was released on February 2nd.
Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and if she ever writes a book she is totally calling it The Hooker Book.