The first German Park picnic of 2016 is coming up on June 25. German Park is one of Ann Arbor’s longest running, yet in some ways still lesser known, summer traditions. For over 75 years, the German Park Recreation Club has been throwing summer picnics on the last Saturdays of June, July and August. They started in 1938, when a group of German immigrants pooled their money together to purchase the land for the park off of Pontiac Trail. Many attendees have been going every summer for their entire lives! Native Germans or those who have been to Germany, often comment on the authenticity of the atmosphere, cuisine and performances at German Park. Whether you claim German heritage or not, these picnics are a wildly fun and festive display of German culture.
It’s best to arrive at German Park early, as the lines to get in grow steadily over the course of the evening. The doors officially open at 4 pm, and after passing through the front gate and paying the $5 admission fee (kids 12 and under are free), the die-hard picnic-goers rush to claim the prime spots at the community dining tables. It’s a universally acknowledged rule that if a table has a tablecloth thrown over it, it’s spoken for. You'll see people clutching tablecloths, blankets, or bedsheets, eager to snag a spot close to the music or in the shade. There’s plenty of room, though, people are friendly and accommodating, and the traditional German music can be heard throughout the park so there really are no “bad” seats in the house.
Food and drink tickets are sold for $1 each at locations around the park, and it’s wise to stock up on them. German Park still serves the same home-cooked, authentic German fare that was served at their first picnic in 1938 and the kitchen or “Deutsche Küche,” is open all evening. From bratwurst and knackwurst (a spicier version of bratwurst) to sauerkraut, spatzen, giant soft pretzels, and apple strudel, the very smell of the food at the picnics is enough to make your mouth water.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a true German festival without beer, and beer there is. It’s served in white plastic buckets; another German Park tradition is to buy enough beer to make a bucket tower on your table. The German Park Recreation Club actually imports wine and beer from Germany for the event, so German beers Spaten, Spaten Optimator and Franziskaner are available, along with a selection of domestic brews.
The music and dancing are another highlight of the picnics. Wearing traditional German outfits, the German Park Trachtengruppe dancers perform twice at every picnic, at 6 and 8:30 pm, wowing the crowds with complex dances despite the restrictions of their elaborately embroidered lederhosen and dirndls. In between performances, bands play German music and picnic-goers are welcomed onto the large dance floor.
For more information about the event, including directions, parking, and the designated driver program, visit the German Park website.
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library and is proud to be one-eighth German!
The 2016 German Park picnics will take place on June 25, July 30, and August 27. Admission is $5 for adults and free for persons serving in the military and for children 12 and under. The event runs from 4-11 pm.
Gregory Porter has ascended to become one of the premier male jazz singers of his, or any, generation. While his talent is unquestionable, it is the purity of his voice and the diversity he employs that makes him a standout performer and presence in contemporary popular music.
Over four CDs and a constant touring schedule, Porter has risen to the top in quick order. While his style incorporates the best of traditional jazz sound reminiscent of a young Billy Eckstine, he also takes cues from early influence of Nat “King” Cole on the more sophisticated side. He combines the bluesy hints of Joe Williams and Jimmy Witherspoon, with a dash of Stevie Wonder, while adding the soulful elegance Gregory Hines, an artist known more for his dancing or acting than his undervalued singing. Porter is also fond of the duet configuration.
Today’s kingpin Kurt Elling has had a dominant fifteen year run atop polls and album sales. Jose James is adored by many, Freddy Cole is everlasting, while Kevin Mahogany's consistency has led to his longevity. But Gregory Porter’s rise to stardom has trumped them all.
Porter's 2010 debut, Water, was a breakthrough on many artistic levels and demonstrated his exceptional talent. His follow-up Be Good, proved Porter was consistent while avoiding clichés, and led him to his current label, the legendary Blue Note Records. Two more CDs have cemented his place as a big fish in a small pond of male jazz vocalists. 2013’s Liquid Spirit and his new effort, Take Me To The Alley, have proven the most important element of a great artist – standing the test of time as a musician with a universal appeal.
Porter’s producer since day one, Kamau Kenyatta, has a distinct local connection. Those who attended the early period Montreux/Detroit Jazz Festivals may remember Kenyatta, then a prominent regular performer at the event, playing soprano saxophone and piano in the footsteps of his mentor, the late Teddy Harris, Jr. Kenyatta left Detroit for Florida, and then San Diego where he has carried on a role as a professional educator. It was in California that Porter connected with Kenyatta and was exposed to a hip hop and electronic dance music community that is yet another facet of his persona.
Porter is on a hot streak as he comes to Ann Arbor this week, with multiple wins as Best Male Jazz Singer in the Down Beat Magazine Critics and Readers Poll, as well as a Grammy Award for Liquid Spirit. That CD, in an era of declining sales, sold a remarkable one million copies, in addition to becoming the most streamed jazz album ever at 20 million hits. Take Me To The Alley has been the #1 Jazz Album on Apple Music in dozens of countries across six continents.
Recently Porter has stated how he is finding himself, with no need to adapt and try to be a singer that compromises to overtly commercial considerations. His recent hit “Don’t Lose Your Steam” reflects this realization, recognizing his role of an extension of his parents as preachers, leading to his staunch individualism, refusal to sing a majority of standards, and confidence as a self-reliant artist – no mean feat. He’s also moved his family from New York City back to Bakersfield, further emphasizing the deep respect of his roots.
Porter's promise as an artist was evident in his early work, and as his career has matured, he is fulfilling that promise in spades.
Michael G. Nastos is a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is on the Board of Directors for the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
Gregory Porter performs Wednesday, June 22 at 8 pm at the Power Center for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. For more information go to a2sf.org, call the Ticket Office at (734) 764-2538 or toll-free in Michigan at (800) 221-1229 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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 https://www.artful.ly/theatre-nova/store/events.
I first learned of Hayes Carll from the Bob & Tom radio show about 10 years ago as I drove to work in the morning, singing such goofy favorites as "She Left Me for Jesus" and a wonderful cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s "Drunken Poet’s Dream". Then I kept listening. There was more than satire and twisted lyrics here.
Hayes started making records in 2002 after earning his chops in and around Austin, Houston and Galveston, Texas. He quickly developed a reputation for sharp-witted lyrics that could make you laugh and cry all in the same song. Hayes channels other Texas troubadours Lyle Lovett, the aforementioned RWH, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and others, but possesses a fierce yet unassuming style of his own that becomes instantly familiar and comforting.
Of his first new album in five years, Lovers and Leavers, Hayes says, “It isn’t funny or raucous. There are very few hoots and almost no hollers. But it is joyous, and it makes me smile. No, it’s not my Blood on the Tracks, nor is it any kind of opus. It’s my fifth record—a reflection of a specific time and place. It is quiet, like I wanted it to be. Like I wanted to be."
Here’s your chance to discover – or to be reunited with – one of Americana’s most gifted and poignant songwriters, Hayes Carll, appearing at The Ark in downtown Ann Arbor this Saturday, June 18 at 8:00 pm. Emily Gimble, granddaughter of legendary Texas Playboys fiddler Johnny Gimble, opens for Mr. Carll.
Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host and musical wannabe, living in and loving his adopted home, Ann Arbor.
Tickets are still available but the Ark’s 400-seat Ford Listening Room is filling up fast. Grab your tickets online or take your chances at the door.
Inspired by Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, debut novelist Weina Dai Randel sets out to write stories of Chinese women who succeeded in mapping their own destinies and tries to redress the often misrepresented and misunderstood Empress Wu with The Moon in the Palace .
When a monk foretells that 5 year-old Mei will one day be both the mother of emperors and an emperor in her own right, her father takes this to heart and sees that she is schooled in poetry, history, mathematics, calligraphy, and even Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
At 13, the orphaned Mei enters the palace to serve in the royal household where she will need to draw on all she had learned from her father to survive the intrigue and duplicity of the Imperial Court and to earn favor with the emperor. Her only ally is a boy named Pheasant but their involvement might put both of them in danger.
Mei's story continues in The Empress of Bright Moon as she ascends to rule as China's only female emperor in more than four millennia.
These days, comics are everywhere. Superheroes dominate the silver screen. Graphic novels burn up the best-seller lists. And of course, comic-cons are a nationwide craze.
But graphic storytelling is about more than comic commercialism. And this weekend, the Ann Arbor District Library is presenting a lineup of some of the most popular cartoonists with young readers and a slew of local talent to deliver an event more about passion for comics than profit: the Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival.
Taking place Saturday and Sunday at the library’s main branch, A2CAF (as the show is known for short) is the continuation of the popular event formerly known as Kids Read Comics. The 2016 edition of this free festival not only brings over 50 comic creators to its "artist's alley" area to share their work with school-aged readers and their families – it will also host dozens of hands-on creative workshops all over downtown. And in a special Friday event, the show will welcome librarians and teachers to meet with the talent so they can boost their own comics bona fides. All in all, the guests and programming will work to build a love of the medium in all its attendees.
"Our ethos is 'A life can be changed by comics.' Mine was," explains A2CAF co-founder and organizer Dan Mishkin. And he should know. The Michigan-based writer spent years crafting stories for DC Comics including runs with Superman and Wonder Woman in addition to being co-creator of heroes like Blue Devil and Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld (which was recently adapted as a series on Cartoon Network). The A2CAF team hopes to inspire a new generation of comic lovers. As Mishkin says, "You don't have to be a professional for your mind to be opened up by comics."
Getting the community excited about the medium starts with the all-star lineup of cartoonist and writers. This year, the keynote presenters will be the creator of the Newbery Honor-winning graphic novel El Deafo Cece Bell and her husband Tom Angleberger who is the mastermind behind the Star Wars-themed Origami Yoda series, amongst other books. Joining them on the show floor will be acclaimed artists like Kazu Kibuishi (Scholastic's popular Amulet series), Ben Hatke (Zita The Spacegirl), and the team behind Oni Press's hilarious new comic BroBots, J. Torres and Sean Dove.
"These are all people who are committed to young readers and committed to comics, who you can see in their every move that they love this artform," Mishkin says. "We don't have the people who just sit behind their table and hope someone will talk to them. We also don't have the people who think that they're only there to sell their books. That's not our reason for being. Our reason is to instill a love of comics."
The organizer is also keenly aware of how much local flavor has been added to the show over the years. "Maintaining a variety is something that's really important to us, and it involves finding local people and being responsive to that," he explains. "We're always refining the mix of guests. It's not just about the professionals. It's about both the New York Times bestseller and the local person who's just starting out. You'll see a lot of Southeast Michigan and mid-Michigan creators who have a day job, but they're doing their webcomic on the side. It works out really well for them and for us to give them a showcase."
But as all artists presenting their wares at the show get to table for free, the organizers have an expectation for what the talent bring to the festival. "You need to represent what we're all about. I only half-jokingly say 'We don't care if you sell anything at your table.' Because for us, it's much more important that the artists engage with kids and teenagers and parents and teachers and librarians so that the passion for comics comes across."
That love extends into A2CAF's second major feature: its wide range of programming. Across the weekend, the library itself will hold comics-making workshops, a ceremony for the kids-focused Dwayne McDuffie Award, and signings for some of the biggest talent on hand. And on Friday, the A2Inkubate unconference will present educators and librarians with a chance to collaborate on methods for bringing comics to their students. But beyond that, programming will also pop up across downtown at spots including the Vault of Midnight comics shop, the 826 Ann Arbor Robot Supply & Repair storefront, and the Ann Arbor Art Center.
"It just makes sense to share the event with organizations with whom we share a mission. We're all in a Venn diagram of these things," Mishkin says. "It's really about turning young people onto having a passion for comics and doing it in a non-commercial setting with a lot of hands-on experience. During the show we're really, really hands-on. It's all about getting kids and teens to learn how to make comics. [Local cartoonist] Matt Feazell has his wonderful 'How To Make A Mini Comic' 90-minute workshop, which is so great, and there are other things that are geared towards different levels of ability. Some are geared towards storytelling, but one of the great revelations about doing these workshops is that kids are not inhibited about drawing. They just go ahead and do it.
"We're very much focused on hands-on workshops, and we also have programming that fits into the category of 'spectacle.' So if you're shy or somewhat inhibited, you can sit in an audience and watch artists compete with each other as they draw improvisationally. You can even shout out suggestions for what they can draw. And it always turns out that the kids that moms and dads think are inhibited get really into shouting out ideas for the cartoonists. We keep it fun, and there's a low barrier to participation."
That idea of an easy path into comics is what started the show now known as A2CAF. In 2009, the nonprofit called Kids Read Comics that runs the show launched their first event at the Chelsea District Library. And in 2016, the shift in name from Kids Read Comics to Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival represents a fulfillment of the team's mission. "I think the change in name means very, very little about [any kind of change in] the character of the show. It's an attempt to better state what we've been about all along," Mishkin explains.
For those curious about the festival's shift, the organizer explains that one key element of the previous iteration wasn't working. "Teenagers don't like being called 'kids.' With a distance from being a kid or a teenager myself, I failed to see that there was going to be an off-putting message in the word 'kids' for some of the people we really wanted to bring into the show. It was never our intention to say that teenagers shouldn't be involved. It was very much our intention that they should be there. They should be there to find really cool stuff, but if the name pushes them away, that's a big problem.
"The word 'Festival' instead of 'Convention' means you're not thinking about more 'adult' comics. You're thinking about joy."
Kiel Phegley is an Ann Arbor based writer, and teacher. His work has been published by CBR, Wizard Magazine, Publishers Weekly, Marvel Magazines, MTV Blogs, and many other print and web outlets.
A2CAF takes place at the AADL's main branch at 343 Fifth Avenue on Saturday, June 18 from 11:00 AM to 5:30 PM and on Sunday, June 19 from 12:30 to 5:30 PM. For more info on the show and Friday's A2Inkubate conference, check out A2CAF.com.
Ann Arbor’s Carriage House will present a variety of theatrical productions this summer.
First up, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's three improv troupes CSI (Civic Short-form Improv), Dearly Beloved, and Luxury Possum, performing short skits and improv games, and “Whose Line is it, Anyway?”-style games.
The first Carriage House mainstage production will be Shakespeare's Hamlet directed by new Artistic Director Trevor Maher.
Hamlet is immediately followed by Spinning Dot Theater's A Mouth with Flame, an original one-man show by Spinning Dot’s Artist-in-Residence Tae Hoon Yoo that explores history, reliving personal experiences, and finding identity. (This show is aimed at 7 to12-year-olds.)
Carriage House’s second mainstage production will be Photograph 51, directed by Angie Feak, a humorous and moving portrait of Rosalind Franklin, one of the great female scientists of the 20th century, and her fervid drive to map the contours of the DNA molecule.
The season finishes with Spinning Dot’s Only a Day, a thought-provoking play about fox and a wild boar who can’t bring themselves to tell a dayfly that her life only lasts a single day. (This show is aimed at 7 to 12-year-olds.)
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's improv performances: June 17, 18, 24, and 25 at 8:00 pm.
Hamlet: June 30, July 1, 2, 7, 8, and 9 at 8:00 pm; Sunday July 3rd at 2:00 pm.
A Mouth to Flame: July 14-17, time TBA
Photograph 51: July 28, 29 and 30th at 8:00 pm; August 4-6 at 8:00 pm; July 31st at 2:00 pm.
Only a Day: August 11-14, and 18-21, time TBA.
After a five-year hiatus, local folk singer-songwriter Chris Bathgate is back in the national spotlight with his new EP Old Factory. The Grand Rapids-based artist was first catapulted beyond the Midwest’s music scene with his 2011 album Salt Year, but the pressures of touring led to a five-year hiatus.
Bathgate’s latest batch of songs finds him sounding refreshed and reenergized. Old Factory is more upbeat than his often melancholic earlier records, and he says he’s already hard at work on two new full-lengths—a full length solo record, and the debut LP for his collaborative project SKULLLS.
This Thursday Bathgate will bring a full band to Top of the Park (which he calls “one my favorite performance opportunities”) for a free show. I caught up with Bathgate to talk about returning from his hiatus, the influence of nature on Old Factory, and the new direction his music seems to be taking.
Q: You’ve expressed some regret for how you handled the national attention Salt Year attracted. NPR exclusively debuted a track from Old Factory, so obviously a lot of people are paying attention to you again. Did you anticipate being in this position again?
A: I didn't expect NPR to promote this when it came out. Stephen Thompson, the gentleman who I guess premiered that announcement, has been a supporter for years. It's kind of strange. He's this kind of elusive figure in my life. I won't do anything for two years, and then I'll put something out and NPR will call. It's kind of nice. I think a lot of that national exposure is credited to him maybe being on top of it.
I think it's pretty easy to forget about artists, especially when they don't do anything for two or three years, or at least they aren't in the public eye for two years. That was a pleasant surprise. It wasn't something I was shooting for, I was just excited to have music coming out. The vision had been solidified for so long, so it was nice to finally get to share those songs.
Q: Do you ever feel pressured to keep up with those expectations: to release music at a faster pace?
A: I think trying to keep up momentum is a goal, but I've never really let it bring me down. I don't know if my process allows for that kind of visibility, of putting something out every 8 to 12 months. It takes me a long time to do anything with music, and I think that's better. You can only release a record once, you know? It's better for me to take my time and make sure everything's up to snuff and everything comes out the way I want it to. The art's always been my number one priority. Maybe my process and the way the music industry works don't line up, but that's just fine with me.
Q: You had a long time to sit with the material on Old Factory before you finished the record. How do you feel about the final product?
A: I'm still making minuscule edits. When I went back I already knew exactly what I wanted to change about what I'd worked on. I re-tracked some strings and some drums. I had a long time to think about those things. If the hiatus did anything for that record, it made me see where I needed to shore some things up on my end, at least compositionally and sonically. It gave me the space to fall out of love enough with the songs to find out what core parts needed to change.
Q: Nature had a big influence on this record. Can you talk about how that manifests itself—lyrically or sonically—in these songs?
A: I guess the most obvious connection is the song Acorns and its percussion section. The inspiration for that song comes from being on my back porch while there were acorns thumping on the roof on the deck. So that's an actual sound in nature, and I think something I had been thinking about as well, conceptually. Not to sound obtuse, but it's an interesting thing to me, the seasonal downfall of acorns. It's like word painting. The percussion on that song is directly attributed to that. I didn't write it: an oak tree in my back yard did.
I was thinking about humans in nature. When do we feel a part of it? When do we feel excluded from it? When do we feel greater than it, and what really connects us? All of those things were rolling around pretty heavily in my mind when I was making that record.
Q: Old Factory sounds more urgent and uptempo than your previous records. What do you think accounts for that?
A: Before Salt Year it was pretty rare for me to play with a full band. The majority of my material is kind of lilting and slow, and somber, even. I think working with better and better studios, being more interested in percussion and drums—there's definitely a lot of rhythmic stuff happening on Old Factory—I think that's just the direction my interest has gone.
Coming out of an 8-track home bedroom folk mindset, I feel like I had never been able to get high-fidelity recordings of drums. They've been the most complicated to track coming from when I was first starting out, and as I've gotten into better and better studios I have the ability to lay down two full drum kits and have it sound really good and be able to use a lot of expensive overheads and stuff like that. I think the rhythm comes from my color palette as a composer, that I haven't been able to use those colors in that way up until recently. That expansion pack—the ability to record high-fidelity drums—comes from that. I think it's maybe me over-exercising that new ability.
Q: What can we expect from your show at Top of the Park?
You're going to hear some of the arrangements from the record slightly tweaked, with a full band with a full horn section, which I don't play every show with, but Top of the Park is one of my favorites. That's something that hasn't happened in a while. We'll have three horns as well as pedal steel. Some of my songs are really just about the arrangement, and we're going to have the capacity to flex those muscles at Top of the Park.
Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.
Chris Bathgate will play the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s Top of the Park at 8:15 pm on Thursday, June 16. He and his band will perform on the Rackham Stage, located at 915 E Washington St. Admission is free, and venue and parking information can be found at a2sf.org.
In a time of intense political grievance, the Encore Musical Theatre Company is presenting a riveting, brilliant production of Assassins, a work that uses music, drama, and comedy to explore the darkest side of our democracy.
Presidential assassination is an odd topic for a musical but offers compelling material for lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman. Since the 1920s production of Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat, Broadway musicals have dealt with many serious topics, but usually in the context of a romantic core. Assassins is different, a multi-leveled examination of grievance and despair that is at once sympathetic and horrific, funny and sad, maddening and challenging.
Assassins tells the stories and the complaints of presidential assassins and would-be assassins from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. Yet this is no dry history lesson. The stories begin with Booth but are not chronological. The assassins interact across decades, each a separate and distinct personality with similar discontents but varied reasons. And the grim reality is fractured by comedy from musical lilts to slapstick.
Matthew Brennan does triple duty here as director, choreographer, and cast member as our storyteller/balladeer and as Lee Harvey Oswald. In Brennan’s director’s note he writes that this is the show that made him want to be a director and he gets everything right here. He has obviously thought long and hard about the rich possibilities opened up by Sondheim and Weidman, dramatically and musically.
Each part is well cast. They reflect our precise images and ideas of Booth and Oswald while delving deeper into the characters through the precision of Sondheim’s lyrics and music. The other assassins also have their day.
Brennan has that lean chiseled face of Oswald and looks about in that bewildered way that became so well known in the brief time he was on the public stage before his own murder. As the balladeer he is a clear note of conscience but also a fair guide to each grievance.
And who are these dark figures who present their stories, appropriately, on a set designed by Sarah Tanner of the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository?
David Moan is a dead ringer for John Wilkes Booth, the suave, handsome matinee idol. He wears the dashing mustache and styled hair but Moan’s face mixes the look of charm and steel that was Booth. He sings in an almost sweet and yet anguished voice as he makes his case and unburdens his agony that “our country is not what it was.” In the final scenes his voice has that rich syrupy southern warmth that must have made Booth the stage star he was, though always in the shadow of his brother Edwin.
Daniel A. Helmer is the funny, chipper, ever optimistic striver Charles Guiteau who assassinated James Garfield. Helmer sings, dances, and clowns and captures every nuance of a man who believed in his deepest heart in the American dream and never understood why he didn’t get his fair share. Helmer has him nailed in his performance.
More pathetic is Samuel Byck, who planned to kill Richard Nixon by hijacking an airliner and crashing into the White House. He was killed before he got off the ground. His story here is told in the recreation of two tapes he made, one addressed to Leonard Bernstein (for whom Sondheim wrote the lyrics to West Side Story) and another to Nixon. Keith Allan Kalinowski gives a shattering performance of a man on the verge of mental breakdown, everything in his life a mark of failure. Kalinowski’s performance is brusque, funny, soulful and full of pathos.
On a more “humorous” note are Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who in September of 1975 both decided to assassinate the least controversial, blandest president ever, Michigan’s own Gerald Ford in separate attempts. Fromme was as she said lover and slave of Charlie Manson and participant in his crimes. Sara Jane Moore was a scatter-brained, middle-aged housewife who wasn’t sure what she was doing or why.
Carly Snyder as Fromme and Sarah Briggs as Moore bring these characters to life in all their craziness and ineptness. Snyder has an interesting cross generation duet with John Hinckley (James Fischer) justifying her bizarre love for a madman. Briggs is a superb comic, with body motions and facial contortions that reveal the special anguish of Moore’s mental illness.
Dan Johnson plays the angry but personally retiring anarchist Leon Czologz, McKinley’s assassin. He captures the tight bewilderment of a man never at home in America and not really sure why. He speaks and sings poignantly of what it’s like to be on the bottom of the American economic system.
Ari Axelrod brings ferocity to his performance of Giuseppe Zangara, who in the attempt to kill president-elect Franklin Roosevelt killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. His death scene is ferocious but brilliantly undercut by a competing ensemble piece of bystanders who yearn for publicity for “saving Roosevelt.”
Fischer’s Hinckley is a quiet boy man. Fischer is a plaintive suitor to a phantom Jodie Foster. In one of many clever stagings, Hinckley’s pathetic assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan is stylized and highlighted by Reagan’s heroic voice of humor, calmness, and strength.
The music is alternately bracing, lush, and humorous, excellently performed by the orchestra under Tyler Driskill. The ensemble cast is excellent, especially on the multi-voiced final “Everybody’s Got the Right.”
One small glitch was a problem in the sound system but it didn’t distract from an outstanding show.
History often repeats itself, sometimes tragically in the form of assassinations. In a democracy we need and encourage dissent, strong voices with aggressive and sometimes vital complaints. But there is a line where complaint becomes madness and visions of a better day when our country was a better place distort reality. Sondheim and Weidman have given us a history lesson that provokes, amuses, shocks but never gives an easy answer. Encore brings that vividly to life.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Assassins continues at the Encore Theatre in Dexter at 7 pm on Thursdays, June 23 and 30; 8 pm on Fridays, June 17, 24 and July 1; and 3 and 8 pm on Saturdays June 11, 18, 25 and July 2; and 3 pm Sundays June 12, 19, 26 and July 3. For tickets, call the Encore Theatre Box Office at (734) 268-6200 or visit the website at http://www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets.
After reading Station Eleven — the recent sci-fi best seller about a troupe of actors and musicians traveling the dangerous shores of post-apocalyptic Michigan in order to keep culture, most notably Shakespeare, alive — I have a newfound respect for our peripatetic Tree Town tradition that attracts thousands of participants every summer: Shakespeare in the Arb, now in its 16th season.
This year, Kate Mendeloff of the University of Michigan Residential College will direct Love’s Labour’s Lost which she first took up and fell in love with 10 years ago. As the scenes change, performers (students and local actors) as well as the audience will move to various locations in U-M’s Nichols Arboretum, where the setting's natural landscape and pastoral splendor — broken only by the occasional jogger — will provide the perfect backdrop.
Bring a portable lawn chair or blanket. And remember that the stray bug (or two) is but a small thing to endure for the pleasure of experiencing Shakespeare al fresco. Just don’t forget to bring the OFF!
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Love’s Labour’s Lost runs Thursday-Sunday, June 9-12, 16-19, and 23-25, at 6:30 pm in Nichols Arboretum, 1610 Washington Heights. Tickets go on sale at 5:30 pm the day of each performance. Visit the Matthaei Botanical Garden website for more information, or call 734-647-7600.