It's almost time for the May edition of the Westside Art Hop, a one-day day art walk around the Old West Side of Ann Arbor! This is the 8th iteration of this event, a neighborhood sale of art in homes, studios, porches, and yards, held in May and December.
It's an opportunity to find interesting handmade arts and crafts, while enjoying the neighborhood bordered by Liberty S., 7th St., Pauline St., and Eberwhite Woods. Participating artists specialize in painting, photography, glass, metal and wood sculpture, jewelry, cards, mosaics, and fiber arts.
Sara Wedell is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
The 8th Westside Art Hop takes place Saturday, May 14, 2016 from 11-5 pm in the Old West Side of Ann Arbor. Free parking is available on the street and at Eberwhite School. Keep an eye out for Art Hop lawn signs to direct you to participating locations.
I absolutely love sketch comedy.
This guilty passion was inherited by my son, Matt, who is still one of MADtv’s biggest fans. In fact, he spent much of his high school career as one of the chief contributors to the Planet MADtv discussion forum.
So, you can imagine how excited we both were this month to learn that, not only will MADtv return to network television, but that Ypsilanti’s Neighborhood Theatre Group is planning a local weekly sketch comedy series to be performed at Dreamland Theater every Friday this May!
Entitled Ypsi Daze, the raw and fast paced show, written and performed by the cast, offers new, original sketches each week. A weekly rolling-sketch filled with characters highlighting the absurdity of theater itself is also part of the comedy mix.
Directed by founder Kristin Anne Danko, the Neighborhood Theatre Group cast features Aaron Dean, Eric Hohnke, Mary Hourani, Chris Jakob, Angela Tomaszycki, Erin Watts, and Christopher Zavac.
I cannot think of a better way to end the work week than with a relaxing evening of comedy! Neighborhood Theatre Group’s decision to offer tickets at affordable prices ($10 general admission, $5 students) is also a welcome feature.
Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.
Ypsi Daze will run Fridays in May at Dreamland Theater (26 N. Washington St.) in Downtown Ypsilanti. All shows are at 8 pm. Tickets are available for purchase online. For info on group rates, email NeighborhoodTheatreGroup@gmail.com
The easy sound byte about the Ragbirds’ new album, The Threshold and the Hearth, is that it’s the Ann Arbor folk band’s first release since band cofounders Erin Zindle and Randall Moore had their first child. One might expect more than a couple dewy-eyed reflections on new parenthood, if not an album full of them, but the Ragbirds seem to have their eyes set on bigger things. Structured as a loose concept album about the ups and downs of a fictional couple’s relationship, The Threshold and the Hearth is certainly informed by a newfound sense of wisdom and maturity, but it’s not obsessed with the personal particulars of Zindle and Moore’s very recently changed lives.
In fact, if you’re going to read anything too personal into the album, Zindle kicks things off by asserting her status as an inveterate musician, unchanged by the years. “I was born in a lemon grove with a fiddle / Not a stitch of clothes,” she sings in opening track “Lemon Grove,” naturally backed by a jaunty and immediately catchy plucked fiddle riff. The track builds beautifully, eventually incorporating a rollicking drumbeat, harmonies, and a fiddle solo. For those who know the band, the tune is classic Ragbirds: upbeat folk, in the sense that it features some acoustic, traditionally Appalachian instrumentation and because the music industry requires an easy genre tag for the sound. But otherwise it’s the wholly unique product of Zindle’s world-spanning blend of musical influences and her pop sensibility for a great hook.
Zindle stretches that sound even more as The Threshold and the Hearth goes on. “Cosmos,” with its charming lyric setting up the album’s central relationship between “a cosmologist and a cosmetologist drinking cosmos at the club,” has a funky little guitar and bass riff. “The Curse of Finger Pointing” makes lovely use of kalimba and some African-inspired percussion for a sound straight out of the Paul Simon playbook. And on “Strange Weather” Zindle quietly pours her heart out over a minor-key piano ballad.
This mélange of sounds highlights Zindle’s adaptability and adventurousness as a songwriter, and her lyrics display similar range. Over their decade in action, the Ragbirds have made their name on being mostly a feel-good kind of band, but Zindle contextualizes that positivity more on The Threshold and the Hearth. In “Good Time To Be Born,” Zindle crafts a nicely detailed interaction between a cynical man and a harried young woman in line at a grocery store checkout lane. With empathy for both her characters, she admits “There is always peace, there is always war” while asserting that “Today is a good time to be born / Today is a good time to begin.” And on “Sometimes Honestly” she sings, “I believe in optimism / Secretly I still expect the worst.”
The album’s most downbeat cut, the beautiful “Strange Weather,” chronicles the low point in the record’s central relationship. But even amongst doom-laden imagery, Zindle conjures hope. “If I build a fire to melt the frost / If you stop the winds before they gust / We can save our love before it’s lost / Before we become just rubble and dust,” she sings. The tune ends on an unexpected major chord. While she may be positive-minded, Zindle’s certainly not wearing rose-colored glasses. Her songwriting here reflects a thoughtful adult perspective on love and life that uses hope as a weapon to cut through the rough stuff.
Beyond the band’s songcraft, musicianship on The Threshold and the Hearth is excellent as well. Zindle’s dusky voice is expressive and engaging as ever, although it’s impossible to ignore the equivalent personality she puts across through her fiddle work. Zindle’s brother T.J. is also a standout here, lending warm, occasionally jazz-inflected guitar licks to songs like “Tough Love” and “On Your Side.” Bassist Dan Jones subtly lends weight to a few of the fiddle riffs, harmonizing with Zindle, and Jon Brown and Moore fill out the sound with a versatile complement of percussion.
The Threshold and the Hearth garnered a newfound national distribution push from the Ragbirds’ signing with Rock Ridge Music, and the band enlisted the producing talents of Grammy-nominated R.E.M. and Ryan Adams collaborator Jamie Candiloro for the record. Those decisions seem to have paid off well for the band, as The Threshold and the Hearth debuted at No. 20 on Billboard’s folk chart. And rightfully so. It’s a pleasure to see this band growing up and just getting better, stronger, and smarter with age.
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 also believes in optimism, but secretly expects the worst.
The Threshold and the Hearth is now available in physical form at the Ragbirds’ online store and in digital form on major streaming services.
On April 22, 2013, almost exactly three years ago, Saturday Looks Good to Me set up in the Ann Arbor District Library’s Multi-Purpose Room to play a set. It was still almost a month until the official release of their album One Kiss Ends it All, but their performance was full of those emerging songs — Invisible Friend, Empty Beach, Johnny. There were plenty of favorites from their dozen-plus prior years as a band, too — Underwater Heartbeat, Ultimate Stars, and even a version of Everyday that harkened back to their self-titled 2000 debut.
Backbone of the band Fred Thomas captured the performance on a four-track. After lots of fiddling and adjusting and remixing in the intervening time, he came up with a lovely mix.
Now, you can hear the song of the strings, the chime of the glockenspiel, and the saxophone’s warmth on top of intertwined vocal harmonies, and the bass and guitar's back-and-forth in this really special performance.
Stream the entire set here.
Mariah Cherem is a Production Librarian at AADL and has a hard time ever picking just one favorite band or record when people ask her that question.
More albums by SLGTM can be found in our catalog, with lots of EPs, singles and other releases available through bandcamp.
Spring has sprung! Or at least it’s in the process of springing — blossoms popping amidst the drizzle, sunshine peeking out every day or two. Festifools in April feels like a hopeful end to winter in Ann Arbor, but for the last 5 years, it’s been that first Sunday in May — and with it, Water Hill Music Fest — that have made me feel like the warmer season has truly arrived.
If you live in a nearby neighborhood, you’ve likely stumbled upon this happening, but for those who don’t have an address adjoining the festivities, Water Hill Music Fest is worth a little trip. Whether you’re a grownup flying solo (or with a crew) or a family toting along a babe, Water Hill is a homegrown, low-key music festival that pops up in front yards and porches from Sunset to Miller (N/S) and from the railroad tracks up to Brooks (E/W).
Unlike a lot of the music festivals that get all the attention (think Coachella, etc.), Water Hill has a super DIY ethic and no expensive ticket charges. It celebrates making music for the sheer fun of it — with nine-year-olds getting the same sort of stage as the veterans.
Everyone is in close proximity and variety is the name of the game. There are 70+ musical acts playing throughout the four hours of the Fest. You might catch a renowned pianist at one house, and then skip a few blocks over to see members of an elementary school band. No lie, one of my very favorite acts a few years ago was a gale of teens singing songs about citrus fruit. You just can’t get grown-ups with that kind of unbridled enthusiasm!
While part of the fun is just wandering around and the serendipity of what you might happen upon, here are a few acts that you may want to check out, along with handy links:
CHRIS BUHALIS 2-3pm, 600 block of Cressfield
JIVE COLOSSUS 2-3pm, 1000 block of Fountain
APPLESEED COLLECTIVE 3-4pm, 700 block of Spring
WALEED HOWRANI 3-3:15pm, 700 block of Miner
LITTLE TRAPS 3:15-4pm, 500 block of Hiscock
CORNDADDY 4-4:30pm, 600 block of Hiscock
WYCH ELM 4-5pm, 1200 block of Bydding
ACCIDENTALLY HIP 4:15-5pm, 900 block of Miner
HUMAN SKULL 4:30-5pm, 700 block of Gott
Check out the full lineup for times and locations (by block!) here.
You’ll want to plan on parking outside the neighborhood and walking (or heck, take the bus or bike!) into the neighborhood, as many of the streets really become more for pedestrians than for cars. The terrain is pretty stroller-friendly with the caveat that this ‘hood IS called Water HILL. Still, the sidewalks and crosswalk ramps are generally in fairly good shape.
If you’re still feeling unsure of where to go and what to bring, festival organizers have a few tips, too!
Mariah Cherem is a Production Librarian at AADL and is glad that her neighborhood got its moniker from a music fest (and its water-word streets).
Water Hill Music Fest will be held in Sunday, May 1st, 2-6 pm in the Water Hill neighborhood of Ann Arbor. Since it IS spring, and this is an outdoor festival, it’s good to note that there is a rain date. In the case of inclement weather, the festival may be postposed until the following Sunday, May 8th.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I had Ann Arbor Art Center’s 117 Gallery to myself. Between the FestiFools events and the arrival of the first real spring-like weather of the season, it was a perfect quiet time to take in some new art. I was at the gallery to see ART NOW: New Directions in Contemporary Photography—and I could view it at my own pace and in a space that allowed me freedom to see the work up close and from far away.
In hindsight, it was serendipitous that I was there on Eadward Muybridge’s birthday. Born almost 200 years ago, he was a pioneer in photography and used technology in new and exciting ways— perhaps most famously for using still photography to capture and convey motion and to reveal hidden realities.
Photography is the focus of this exhibit, juried by Wayne State University photography instructor Millie Tibbs, but many of the artists featured have combined traditional photography with other techniques, creating abstractions that conceal the methods with which they were made. These artists explore and overlay techniques, experiment with texture and color, and use visual elements that shift the scale in the mind of the viewer.
Maybe it’s my background in landscape architecture, but I was particularly intrigued by two pieces by photographer and U-M professor Seder Burns. Both "Suburban Camouflage Detection" #5 and #7 convey a sense of artificiality. The tree canopy shifted to an otherworldly red—conveying a sense that there is something inherently wrong. In "Suburban Camouflage Detection #7" (which was awarded second place in this exhibit), cookie-cutter beige architecture is organized in a relentless pattern in a space between water towers and a playground. Though this is entirely a man-made landscape, there are no humans to be seen, leaving the viewer with an uneasy feeling.
"DreamStart", a photograph by Horace Kerr II, appears from a distance as an alien industrial landscape or an experiment in postmodern architecture. The color palette of sickening orange and fluorescent green jumps off the wall and recalls imagery from a 1960s science fiction film. These colors draw the viewer closer to investigate. Only when seen at close range do the assembled objects in the photograph become clear in an unusual still life of a fluffy pillow and an upright egg.
John Sanderson’s "Perspectives (Interior and Exterior)" was named Best in Show for this photograph of a country road framed by an opening of trees and overlain with a smaller instant photograph of the interior of a bowling alley. The two images together in one composition contrast one another in a way that is at once jarring and harmonious. Though the perspective is the same, the photograph of the road reaches from darkness into light and the bowling alley transitions from light into darkness.
Brittany Denham’s "Western Vestige" is a striking composition that at first appears as though it is a piece of glitch art. Upon closer inspection, it is actually composed through the careful selection and placement of fragments from other landscape photographs. Using just the right colors and textures, Denham has invented a wholly new landscape that evokes the long views and big sky of the Great Plains.
Dean Kessmann’s "Details #1-6 (Nature’s Promise Organic Vegetable Broth)" is a series of inkjet prints, created in the spirit of his works of “Utilitarian Abstraction.” The viewer is confronted with six identical bold shapes of overlapping rough circles of primary colors with a large black organic shape at the center. When viewed closely, the edges are blurred and undefined. This work recalls aspects of the Color Field Movement in the work of Louis Morris or Helen Frankenthaler. Yet the use of primary colors also feels very much like Pop Art—especially when the viewer realizes that this particular pattern of colors has been dramatically enlarged from the printer’s marks on a label from Nature’s Promise Organic Vegetable Broth, made clear by the name of the work.
The bold simplicity of Steven Edson’s "Road Paint" is striking. The highly-textured black and white shapes are well balanced in their imperfection. The photograph recalls the work of abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell and his use of oversize black and white strokes. Again, closer investigation is required to fully grasp that this not a painting, but an image that captures roads and their markings as infrastructure.
The variety of scale, subject, and point of view in this exhibit and the ways in which the artists push the boundaries of a traditional medium, made the viewing this show an experience beyond what might be expected in a photography exhibit. This exhibition runs through May 14, so there’s still time to get over to the Ann Arbor Art Center to check it out.
Amanda Szot is a graphic designer in AADL's Community Relations & Marketing department.
"ART NOW: New Directions in Contemporary Photography" runs through May 14, 2016 at the Ann Arbor Art Center's 117 Gallery (117 W. Washington in downtown Ann Arbor). The gallery is open Monday–Friday from 10 am until 7 pm, Saturdays 10 am–6 pm, and Sundays noon–6 pm. Note: the 117 Gallery will be closed for private events on Tuesday, May 3 (closing at 4:30 pm); Saturday, May 7 (closing at 2 pm); and Saturday, May 14 (closing at 5 pm).
Every spring in Ypsilanti, a beautiful community event blossoms. For 12 years now, Totally Awesome Festival has marked the true beginning of spring in Ypsilanti. Totally Awesome Festival is an annual celebration of music, arts, fashion, and pancakes.
The event traces its roots back to Totally Awesome House, once located at 724 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor (now demolished), which hosted the Totally Awesome Supper Club in 2004 and 2005, where one could see local and touring acts and dig into with great potluck food. When theTotally Awesome House-mates were told they couldn’t renew their lease, they threw a festival, the first ever Totally Awesome Festival, to celebrate the music and the spirit of the house, one where anything was possible.
The next year, Totally Awesome Festival II was held to commemorate the first festival and it has been going on ever since.
Most often falling on the last weekend of April, and with venues sprinkled among backyards, puppet theaters, riversides, and other dreamy locations, Totally Awesome Festival is a chance to enjoy the great music that happens all around Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and Detroit. It is always free, and open to all ages, and all species. For the 10th Totally Awesome Festival, the festivities ran for a whole week. For the 11th Totally Awesome Festival, events ran for 55 continuous hours. This year, the festival goes international, with some of the acts performing in Bangalore, India.
This year’s lineup of performers looks incredible and includes, Stef Chura (whose new album is coming out soon), Avery F, Bevlove, and Dykehouse. Totally Awesome Festival’s acts features singer/songwriters, punk, freak folk, neo soul, performance art, poetry, and of course, the annual Totally Awesome Take Home Fashion Show, an outpouring of free clothing curated from Ypsilanti Ann Arbor/Detroit fashion icons. Keep an eye on the public Facebook event as the schedule may change slightly.
So bring your family, bring your friends, bring your goldfish, bring anyone who is interested in music and art and community to this exciting annual event that is unlike any other. Take home some memories and take home some fashion and become part of this Ypsilanti ritual!
Shoshannah Ruth Wechter is a librarian living in Ypsilanti, and views Totally Awesome Fest as an annual holiday that is not to be missed.
The 12th annual Totally Awesome Festival kicks off Friday, April 29, 2016, at 12 pm and runs through the evening of Sunday, May 1, 2016, at venues throughout downtown Ypsilanti.
You don’t get much quirkier than the concept for Theatre Nova’s new production Irrational, a rock musical about ancient Greek mathematicians. The show by Ann Arborites David Wells and R. MacKenzie Lewis follows the con man Hippasus (Sebastian Gerstner) as he attempts to ingratiate himself with the powerful cult leader Pythagoras (Elliot Styles). But Hippasus’ plan to use his newfound social stature to win the beautiful Eloris’ (Tara Tomcsik) hand in marriage–and more importantly, her wealth–goes pear-shaped when Hippasus inadvertently introduces the concept of irrational numbers into Pythagoras’ ratio-obsessed sect.
It’s a rather bizarre story at face value, even more so given that it’s at least somewhat based in historical record. Pythagoras, namesake of the famous theorem, did in fact lead a movement known as Pythagoreanism, and legend has it that he also had a man named Hippasus put to death for introducing the concept of irrational numbers. Wells takes this odd bit of mathematical lore and thoroughly has his way with it, adding a number of third-act twists and fleshing out a love triangle between Hippasus, Eloris, and the forthright Pythagorean Theodusa (Emily Brett).
The strongest moments in this unusual riff on ancient history are consistently those involving Styles’ Pythagoras. Styles, only two years into his musical theater studies at the University of Michigan, is the play’s comic center of gravity. Clad in white plastic-framed glasses and a flowing white tunic and pants, Styles fully grasps the humor inherent in his nerd rockstar character and plays it for all it's worth. He has the grace to pull off a few surprising physical stunts, the presence to fully project Pythagoras’ bluster, and vocal chops that even extend to pulling off a well-placed rap in Pythagoras’ self-aggrandizing showstopper “Mononymous.” The character is over-the-top, of course, but with Styles in the role you won’t doubt Pythagoras’ power for a second.
Styles is helped along by a generally well-used Greek chorus, an entertainingly sassy trio of gamblers played by Anna Marck, Esther Jentzen and Emily Manuell. The three harmonize beautifully and frequently pump up the humor of Pythagoras’ numbers with fawning girl-group backup vocals and a smattering of hip-hop dance moves. Wells overuses the trio for exposition, however, as the chorus repeatedly re-explains plot developments made perfectly clear in song moments before.
Tomcsik is a sly supporting player, punching up several laugh lines that are good on paper but surprisingly hilarious thanks to her delivery. Brett puts considerable physical energy into her performance, if not quite the inner confidence that her character is written with, and Matthew Pecek is amusingly game as a disenfranchised Pythagorean. Gerstner, however, doesn't quite match the personality and comic energy summoned by Styles, Tomcsik and other costars. Hippasus ought to be at least Pythagoras’ equal in charisma, but the character never quite pops.
That probably has something to do with the fact that Wells and Lewis seem to inject the lion’s share of their creative energy into pretty much everything except Hippasus. We never quite get a sense of our leading man from square one, and his crucial relationship with Eloris is established in a single musical number that isn’t enough to sell us on her connection to him.
Lewis’ score may be at its best when Pythagoras and the chorus are involved, but it’s consistently strong throughout the play. Lewis’ songs are excellent, mostly traditional show-tune stuff with bits and pieces of funk, R&B, and rock thrown in to lively effect. His work here is sometimes quite complex, with some of the group numbers featuring accomplished use of counterpoint and harmony. The tunes are thoroughly catchy and you’re likely to walk out of the show with at least one of them stuck in your head.
Perhaps the most ambitious task Irrational sets itself is pulling off a full-fledged musical in Theatre Nova’s extremely intimate stomping grounds at the Yellow Barn. Director Carla Milarch makes the best possible use of the theater’s small thrust stage, successfully blocking the actors to play to audience members on all three sides of the sparse set and choreographing to the greatest extent that the space allows. But there’s simply no room for a live band in this setting, which is something of a shame given how good Lewis’ score is. On opening night the prerecorded score seemed surprisingly quiet; the coming performances of the show would be served well by cranking up the volume and letting the music soar a little more.
Irrational is far from a perfect production, but it certainly doesn’t lack for creativity, originality, or enthusiasm. Wells and Lewis deserve major props for conceiving such a singular idea, and Milarch deserves the same for her efforts to bring it to life in this challenging space. The Irrational team did two years of workshopping to get the show to this point, and it’s easy to see something truly great emerging with a bit more refinement.
We’re fortunate to have creative minds in town coming up with big, crazy, fun ideas like Irrational, and even more fortunate to have an outfit like Theatre Nova that’s willing to realize those ideas onstage with professional craft. Although it has its flaws, Irrational is a lot of fun and it deserves the attendance to prompt the additional development that a second (or third or fourth) staging might bring. Where else are you going to see a rock musical about ancient Greek mathematicians?
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. Like Pythagoras (or Prince), he intends to one day be known by just one name.
Irrational runs April 22 through May 15 at the Yellow Barn, 415 W Huron St. Tickets are $20 and showtimes are 8 pm Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; and 2 pm Sundays.
Back for its 8th year, the Midwest Literary Walk showcases nationally-lauded authors and poets at various venues throughout downtown Chelsea. The event will be held on Saturday, April 30 from 1-5 pm and is free to the public.
This year’s exceptional lineup opens with Christopher Sorrentino, author of The Fugitives, former National Book Award Finalist for Fiction, at 1 pm at the Chelsea Depot at 125 Jackson St. Set in Michigan, The Fugitives blends the literary fiction and crime thriller genres. The Los Angeles Times describes it as a “stunning new novel… with exceptional interior monologues animated by deception, double-dealing and a doomed affair…”
At 2 pm, National Book Award “5 Under 35” honoree Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus, will also read at the Chelsea Depot. The hauntingly beautiful Gold Fame Citrus takes place in a future American West ravaged by drought and follows a young couple and mysterious child as they try to make their way to a better life.
The Midwest Literary Walk then moves to the Clocktower Commons at 320 N. Main St. for Robin Coste Lewis (Voyage of the Sable Venus), winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Poetry, and Jamaal May, an American Library Association Notable Book honoree. At 3 pm, the two poets will discuss their art form, interspersed with readings of their work.
At 4 pm, novelist Paula McLain, whose bestsellers include Circling the Sun and The Paris Wife, will take the stage at the Clocktower Commons. McLain’s latest, Circling the Sun, brings to life the fearless and captivating Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who, as Isak Dinesen, wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.
At each reading location, the authors’ books will be available for purchase from Literati Bookstore, and time for book signing is incorporated into all sessions. Additionally, many downtown Chelsea businesses are offering discounts to attendees of the Midwest Literary Walk on the day of the event. Following the final reading, participants are invited to the Chelsea Alehouse at 420 N. Main St. for a casual afterglow.
Tune in to WDET's Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson on 101.9 FM to hear an interview with a different author each Friday between now and the Midwest Literary Walk. The show airs from 9-10 am and re-airs from 7-8 pm.
Community contributor Emily Meloche is an Adult Services Librarian at the Chelsea District Library.
The 8th Annual Midwest Literary Walk will be held on Saturday, April 30 from 1-5 pm at venues throughout downtown Chelsea, and is free to the public. For more information on the 2016 Midwest Literary Walk, the authors, and their works, please visit midwestliterarywalk.org.
A paleontologist walks on the stage. Behind him is a projection of a famous and enigmatic fossil find. The bones of two ancient bodies are seemingly entwined, facing each other.
Lovers, religious sacrifices, bodies covered in a long ago volcanic eruption? No one knows, everyone has a theory or two.
The paleontologist is an absent-minded professor, a bit of a joker, a man who admits being more comfortable on a dig conversing with ancient bones than in front of a classroom. But he has always been drawn to those dusty bones and their secrets and what they might say about love, community, and life.
This is the beginning of Matt Letscher’s richly-conceived comic drama Gaps in the Fossil Record, making its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.
Gaps is an interesting conversation across generations, a family drama, an emotional volcano at times, and even a bit of eco-science fiction. That it all works so well is a tribute to director Guy Sanville and his creative team, three superb actors, and the raw intelligence, wit, and insight of Letscher’s play.
Richard, the awkward paleontologist, is a very late bloomer. He’s given his life over to those lovely bones and shunned people. Now he’s a middle-aged college teacher who finds himself loved by a 20-year-old student. They’ve come to give the good news to the young woman’s mother, with whom she has a complicated, if loving, relationship.
This provides the bones for an interesting exchange of secrets, fears, hopes, and explanations across several years. To reveal too much of the plot would spoil some of the play’s appeal. Suffice it to say that the three characters go through some big changes that open both wounds and revelations.
Mark Colson is a gaunt, shambling figure as Richard, at first a nice guy, though seemingly ill fit for Jane, his assistant on a recent dig. As the play progresses, Colson must deal with the deepest emotions. He goes from sly wit, to anxiety-ridden unemployed middle-ager in crisis, to an old man with cognitive problems. Colson finds the core in each of these transformations, and in the beginning and at the end is our guide. His strongest emotional moments are also some of his more hilarious moments, a testimony to just how complex Letscher’s play is to perform.
Michelle Mountain is riveting as Susan, Jane’s mother and a widow of a complicated and tragic marriage. She also navigates the shifting tones beautifully, from horrified mother “losing” her daughter to an old geezer, to sympathetic mother-in-law struggling with her own desires, to troubled grandmother. Mountain’s Susan is blunt, foul-mouthed, tender, warm, and finally a survivor through life’s ups and downs. Every emotion is real.
Aja Brandmeier takes on two roles; the love-struck Jane, finding love in a world shy father figure, and Meredith, Richard and Jane’s teenage daughter. As Jane she has a kidding, ribald, and good but sometimes tense relationship with her mother. Brandmeier captures that tension excellently and is also convincing in portraying her affection for her smart but socially awkward older lover. But Brandmeier’s strongest moments come as Meredith, a purple-haired punk with a kindly heart. She tends to an aging father who doesn’t know her and here the character is a shy, tentative girl, more like her father. She’s also someone bewildered by a world in chaos. Brandmeier holds her body as if trying to hug herself and shield herself from a cold world.
Sanville brings this together with a rewarding simplicity. The acting is sharply in sync. The comedy never falters and the emotional highs never become too overwrought. The production values are high.
Vince Mountain’s gray set is basically a bare stage, a backdrop of white wall doors for projections of bones, with furniture pieces moved in and out efficiently. Lighting and projection design by Noelle Stollmack and sound design by Tom Whalen are integral to the production’s success and take center stage for a while at the end.
Gaps in the Fossil Record should find a place in many regional theaters and may well get its shot at Broadway, but Letscher should count himself lucky and well-served by this superb Purple Rose world premiere production.
The play received recognition with the 2015 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. The Foundation provides financial support to theatres with established reputations for producing new plays. The grants have provided funds for extended rehearsal time to develop plays and schedule productions. Fifteen of these plays have gone on to Broadway including the 2014 Tony Award winner All The Way and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner Next to Normal.
Playwright Matt Letscher is a Grosse Pointe native, a 1992 graduate of the University of Michigan, and an actor on stage, film, and television.
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.
Gaps in the Fossil Record continues at The Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park Street, Chelsea, at 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 pm matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 pm matinees Sundays through May 28. For ticket information, call the box office at (734) 433-7673 or visit http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.