This is the typical time of year for family reunions. In popular music, bands break up after short periods of time and rarely get back together for various reasons, not the least of which is a limited repertoire.
In one form or another The Lunar Glee Club or Lunar Octet has the distinction of being together for three decades, but they've recently been in a reunited cycle several years running. Band members have lived in several locales across North America after establishing their home base in Ann Arbor. Now local listeners will have another opportunity to hear this exciting instrumental ensemble do their thing -- fusing jazz, Latin and funk musics.
When they formed, the group was dubbed The Lunar Glee Club but changed their name so as not to be confused with a vocal band. Frequent appearances at The Apartment Lounge in the Huron Towers, as well as other nightclubs and the Montreux/Detroit Jazz Festivals, firmly established their style and sound to an audience that enjoyed their contemporary stance of presenting all original material.
Definite comparisons were made to artists that also influenced the group – Chick Corea, the Brecker Brothers, Weather Report, Steps Ahead, and The Yellowjackets. Fueled by the unique compositions of bassists Dan Bilich or Dan Ladzinsky, and especially saxophonist Steve Hiltner, the ensembles were driven rhythmically by drummer Jon Krosnick and percussionists Dave Mason and Aron Kaufman. The Lunar Glee Club and Octet stood out in a small field of large Michigan based jazz oriented groups.
Unfortunately for the future of the Octet, employment demands scattered members across the continent. Krosnick headed for Columbus, Ohio working at Ohio State University, where he formed the fusion trio Charged Particles, then moved to Palo Alto, California and Stanford University to become a vital cog in social research and their Communications Department.
Hiltner headed for North Carolina and keyboardist Mark Kieswetter moved to Toronto, while their next pianist, Craig Taborn, based in New York City, has become one of the more prominent musicians in the world. Original trumpeter Kalle Nemvalts resides in San Francisco, while Kaufman, saxophonist/flutist Paul VornHagen, and electric guitarist Sam Clark remain in Ann Arbor.
Over the years, the LGC/8 have used several bassists, including Bilich and Ladzinsky, David Stearns (recently with Laith Al-Saadi) and currently Jeff Dalton. Also included in the reunion bands will be trumpeter Brandon Cooper and percussionist Olman Piedra, both bassists, and composers Bilich and Ladzinsky from the initial Lunar Glee Club.
Paul VornHagen was in the original line-up of The Lunar Glee Club as well as a later and current version of The Octet. He recalls the early days in 1985: “We got together in Jon Krosnick’s basement and wrote our own tunes. From the beginning it was with this eclectic mix of Afro-Cuban, Afro-Pop, and rock rhythms. And The Apartment Lounge was an important part of the Ann Arbor scene, as they had music several nights every week. One night Freddie Hubbard came in - that was memorable.”
VornHagen noted a change between the two groups. “The Glee Club performed for many years, but The Octet formed after a break," continued VornHagen. "It became more of a jazz group per se with some Brazilian influences, mambos, cha-chas, be-bop, and Steve Hiltner contributing as a prolific composer with beautiful harmonic sound.”
Via e-mail from California, Krosnick elaborated on the initial thrust of the participants and ideas. “If the band had simply composed, rehearsed, and never performed publicly, everyone would have been happy. But the music ended up being too fun to keep to ourselves.”
“The original vision for the music came about during a conversation at Fuller Pool between Dan Ladzinsky and Aron Kaufman," continued Krosnick. "They envisioned a sound that left a lot of open mid-range sonic space by having no keyboards, and a guitarist (Sam Clark) that played single notes and no chords. During early rehearsals, musicians would bring very skeletal ideas - in fragments really - and the entire band would compose the song together in real time.”
If their stirring performance in front of a full house at the 2016 Michigan Jazz Festival (hosted by Schoolcraft College in Livonia) is any indication, fans and listeners are in for a treat. They are refining the old arrangements and reviving the spirit that made the Lunar Glee Club and Lunar Octet unique unto themselves -- and to everyone.
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of 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.
The Lunar Glee Club and Lunar Octet will perform at 7:30 pm, Sunday, August 14, at The Ark, 316 S. Main St. Call The Ark at (734) 761-1800 or 761-1451, or visit http://theark.org.
The Ann Arbor Art Center held their third and final Pop-In event of the summer last Friday, in collaboration with the Intermitten conference. The conference, which focused on creativity and innovation, took place in Ann Arbor on August 5-6. Curated by Intermitten, this Pop-In event, like the two before it, featured unique art focusing on creating an immersive experience for attendees.
Immediately upon entering the Art Center, the loose, electronic, trippy music of Shigeto enveloped the senses. A large screen showed sporadic movement around an orange-tinted landscape that coordinated with the music. It took a moment to realize that individuals participating in the ICON Interactive virtual reality experience beyond Shigeto’s DJ table were controlling the movement on the screen, and the music itself to a certain extent. Wearing virtual reality goggles and holding a remote-like device that allowed users to “move,” ICON Interactive was definitely a favorite part of the show for many. One young boy became progressively more amazed as he went deeper into the VR world, and volunteers had to stand against the walls near him to protect the art as he jumped around waving the remote wildly.
After ascending the stairs to the Art Center's second floor, visitors were greeted by a large, gray phone booth-like structure with a curtain hanging down from the front side. This installation was Switch Flip, created by Anna Nuxoll and Chris Czub. Described as a “hacked phone booth,” the setting of the piece is the year 2056. As explained by Nuxoll, she and Czub imagined an astronaut who has travelled beyond the solar system, only to realize that someone has been there before. The astronaut finds a series of communications booths, and Switch Flip is meant to be one of them. Inside the booth, along with lights and eerie plants, a telephone sits on a stand with a note inviting users to “dial Earth.” Apparently, upon picking up the phone one would hear an old-fashioned dial up tone, and then could push different buttons to hear up to 30 sound samples, but the Raspberry Pi computer running the exhibit broke just 45 minutes before the show began. The concept and the booth itself were cool, but the piece was marred by the technology failure.
Also on the second floor was the live screen dance piece iSelf, created and performed by Sean Hoskins. The gorgeous space that the Art Center had for this performance added to it immensely; the white walls and hardwood floors offered no distractions from Hoskins, who was framed by the sunlight filtering in through the trees outside the floor-to-ceiling windows on the north side of the building. A white linen cloth cut into three strips hung from the Art Center ceiling and after the lights were dimmed Hoskins stepped forward from a corner of the room saying, “I’d like to start off by introducing myself: me, myself, iSelf,” and commenced his dance. His image was also projected into the strips of cloth using Isadora software. Later in the performance, the images on the screen doubled and viewers saw the differences in the visual field from one frame to the next, and eventually saw Hoskins’ dance on a three second and seven second delay. The entire effect was of multiple dancers that had all choreographed a complicated performance together although it was really just Hoskins, essentially dancing with himself.
The third floor of the Art Center featured very different displays. In one studio, A2ESK8’s electronic skateboard display took up the entire room. Sadly for some, attendees weren’t allowed to actually try out the electronic boards, but there was a video, directed by Rik Cordero, playing continuously showing people riding them. There were five electronic skateboards on display, and they apparently have a top speed of 35-38 miles per hour and a range of 10 miles.
The room across the hall from A2ESK8 featured an origami exhibition by Beth Johnson, along with a demonstration and hands-on opportunity to make one’s own origami creation. Johnson’s origami is not of the usual type. She creates amazing flora and fauna out of earth-toned paper with exquisite detail. This Pulp writer was particularly intrigued by the origami sunflower and the jellyfish that Johnson managed to construct out of paper. Her designs have a distinctly geometric look, giving them all a modern feel that traditional origami lacks. The room was filled with eager amateur origami artists spread out across several tables constructing designs with the aid of books and Johnson herself.
I was delighted by the contrast of Johnson’s origami with the art exhibition by Jeremy Wheeler, which shared the same studio space. Wheeler’s posters often advertise local events past and present—some more obscure than others—and feature big words, bright colors, and eye-catching images. My personal favorite piece was the Boss Hog 2016 tour poster, depicting various people running away from a giant crustacean-like beetle. “17 years in the making! Now they emerge!” cries the poster. “Nothing can prepare you for… BOSS HOG.”
Overall, there cannot be any doubt that the Art Center’s Pop-In series this summer was a success. The diversity of the artists featured, the welcoming and accessible atmosphere that greeted attendees, and the Art Center’s ability to offer it all for free made this event and the two prior a truly special addition to summer in Ann Arbor.
Elizabeth Pearce is a library technician at the Ann Arbor District Library. She has no desire to travel 38 miles per hour on a skateboard but commends those who do.
It’s loverly what a fine cast and a clever director and designer can do.
The Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter has taken on one of the most challenging and most beloved musical romances and redesigned it for the theater’s intimate confines.
My Fair Lady is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its Broadway debut this year. To mark the occasion Encore has enlisted the talents of noted theatrical director and set designer Tony Walton, who in 1956 was married to the musical’s original Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews.
Walton has taken a minimalist approach to a work that has always inspired a certain extravagance. But neither the Encore stage nor budget could accommodate that richness. Walton has been inspired by line drawings for a published script of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, upon which My Fair Lady is based. The drawings by Feliks Topolsky and the original Broadway sets by Oliver Smith were inspiration for rear screen projections that neatly, and compactly, capture the look and feel of the various London locations. The costumes still have a stylized Edwardian charm. The low- and high- class areas are not as starkly defined but are still clearly suggested.
A chamber orchestra visible in the rear stage, a smaller ensemble, and the elimination of the grand ball scene allow Walton and his talented cast to focus on what matter’s most, Shaw’s great characters and wit and Lerner and Loewe’s beautiful music, one of the finest collection of memorable songs in the history of musical theater.
The story is well known. An arrogant upper-class linguist accepts a bet from a fellow language expert to transform a howling lower class flower girl into a “proper lady” by teaching her how to speak like the proper people do. For Shaw this was a play about class differences and the snobbery of those on top. But Alan Jay Lerner’s book transformed it into the unlikely near romance of a beautiful young woman and a grumpy middle-aged confirmed bachelor. Lerner and Frederick Loewe created songs of poignant yearning for position and love and comic songs that capture the spirit of the “undeserving poor.” And it works every time.
The lead performers come with Broadway, film, and television credits that add a bit of glamour, but it’s their talents that really count.
Jessica Grové is an enchanting Eliza, feisty, determined and yet also a bit vulnerable. Grové has a rich, commanding voice that always hits the sweet spot on the show stopping “I Could Have Danced All Night,” but also finds the wistfulness of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” the fierce determination of “Just You Wait,” and the giddy joy of “The Rain In Spain.” The musicals ambiguous ending has always seemed a bit forced, but the sweet, resigned look on Grové’s face makes it a bit more believable.
The object of Eliza’s scorn and growing affection is of course the irascible Henry Higgins, or to the flower girl 'enry 'iggins, a man with a talented ear for accents and no sense at all for the feelings of others, until he’s transformed by his creation. Veteran British actor David Gerroll looks as if he were born to play Higgins. He’s lean, angular with a hawkish, weathered Sherlock Holmes face. He sings in the traditional Rex Harrison speak sing. He bites off Higgins' disdainful opinions of the world with relish and he really comes into his own in his final desperate attempts to keep Eliza without losing himself.
Eliza’s wastrel father with his original ideas on morality, Alfred P. Doolittle, is one of the great comic characters. Keith Allen Kalinowski gives a roaring, rollicking, joyful performance as this always drunk con man. He has two standout musical numbers on “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me To the Church on Time” and finds every nuance of humor and bits of naughtiness that the songs embody. He is supported by a lively, if confined, ensemble, and particularly by his two rubber faced mates Harry and Jamie, Dan Morrison and Jeff Steinhauer.
The small but important role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill is given a stunning performance by Riley McFarland. Not only does he have a beautiful, piercing tenor voice on “On the Street Where You Live,” but he has a bright, engagingly goofy personality that captures the sweet pain of Freddy’s unrequited love for Eliza.
Dale Dobson is a square jawed rock of propriety as Col. Pickering, the decent contrast to Higgins’ boorishness. Connie Cowper is nicely tart as Higgins' long suffering mother who comforts Eliza.
The musical director Tyler Driskill also finds a way to make a big show work in a small venue. The chamber orchestra does a fine job, and can be particularly expressive in the quieter moments. Sometimes the orchestra is a bit too loud over Higgins’ spoken songs but more often it can’t capture the sweep of a large orchestra on Loewe’s lushly romantic songs. But Driskill and his tiny crew have found a way to provide what’s needed and give full support for the fine singing of the ensemble and the solo performers.
This is solid musical theater, which is what is always expected at Encore. But for the company and for the multi-award winning Walton it has also been an interesting experiment in how to pare down a big, big show and bring out all the intimacy at its core. Walton and Encore have met the challenge.
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.
My Fair Lady runs through August 28. For ticket information, call the Encore Theatre Box Office at (734) 268-6200 or visit the website at http://www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets.
The Second Girl** by former D.C. police detective David Swinson is "an auspicious, and gleefully amoral, series debut" (Kirkus Reviews), featuring retired DC cop Frank Marr - damaged, damned, and an unrepentant drug addict who works sporadically as a private investigator for defense attorney (and occasional bed-mate) Leslie Costello.
When Frank breaks into a drug den to replenish his personal stash, he discovers a teenage girl doped up and chained to the bathroom. Rather than calling the authority and trying to explain his involvement, he hands her off to Leslie, but not before he manages to draw out all the details of her kidnapping. As the news of Amanda Meyer's return to her family, another suburban family with a missing girl hires him to find her, and Frank is not above administering his own brand of justice to get the job done.
"Swinson delivers an excellent addition to the noir genre as he unveils layer after layer of his gritty protagonist. Readers of Dennis Lehane and Richard Price as well as fans of The Wire will appreciate the bleak description of inner-city Washington, DC." (Library Journal)
With victory in sight, the suspicion of communist spies in the capitol is palpable, spies who seem to stop at nothing to get their hands on the atomic bomb project. When Naval Intelligence officer Logan Skerrill is found dead in a back alley of the Navy Yard, Lt. Ellis Voigt is called in to investigate.
With clues of the murder pointing to Skerrill's connection to a news-clipping service suspected of Communist affiliations, Voigt goes undercover. Pursuing crosses and double-crosses, he discovers a defecting German physicist, a top secret lab in Los Alamos, and Uranium-235 which suggest something far larger than the usual spy v. spy shenanigans.
"Voigt is an engaging character.... (history professor) Krugler’s portrait of wartime Washington, particularly the rivalries within ONI and the enmity between the FBI and ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence), is thoroughly absorbing." (Booklist)
** = 2 starred reviews
* = starred review
Sometimes, when you see a Shakespeare play that’s rarely produced, you walk out thinking, “I’m pretty sure I know why.” But then, at other times, like an unexpected gift, you walk out of a production thinking, “Where have you been all my life?”
The latter describes my experience with Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s three-hour production of Richard II, now playing at Canton’s Village Theater.
The history play focuses on King Richard (Robert Kauzlaric), who’d been crowned at age 9, after his grandfather Edward III ruled England for 50 years, and his father, the natural heir, died.
Richard II takes place when Richard has reached adulthood, after wrangling with his father’s brothers for years to retain power. When one of Richard’s cousins, Henry Bolingbroke (Robert McLean), gets into a feud with a noble named Thomas Mowbray (Matt Daniels), who’s accused of being involved in the murder of one of Richard’s uncles, Richard banishes them both, thereby angering Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Alan Ball). The rift sets events in motion, as Gaunt confronts Richard and later dies; Richard leaves England to reclaim power in Ireland; and Bolingbroke returns to England to not just claim his father’s title and land, but also Richard’s crown.
Many factors play into our response to a show, of course: design elements, the language, performers, pacing, the director’s choices, prominent themes, and even what personal experiences we’re bringing with us into the theater.
For me, this seldom-produced history play opened up near its end, when Richard has been usurped and imprisoned and says: “Alack the heavy day/ That I have worn so many winters out/ And know not now what name to call myself./ … But whate’er I be/ Nor I nor any man that but man is/ With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased/ with being nothing.” In this monologue, Shakespeare reflects not only on the experience of a person’s previously firm sense of identity in freefall, but also our shifting sense of our place in the world as we age – which is to say, the inevitable realization that each of us might not, after all, be super-special snowflakes.
So there’s already some grade A meat to chew on in Richard II, but director Janice L. Blixt’s vision for the show also injects some fun touches. Re-imagined as a contemporary power struggle, MSF’s Richard II features actors in suits and ties and sweater vests (designed by costumer Suzanne Young) instead of the more traditional doublet/hose combo. With this in mind, Richard’s sycophantic, hipster friends, when not laughing at others or rolling their eyes, play a subtle drinking game early in the show, stealing nips from their pocketed flasks each time someone says the king’s name. This led me to viewing the trio of Bushy, Bagot, and Green (Eric Eilersen, Ian Geers, Michael Phillip Thomas) as “the bro courtiers.”
But the center would not hold if not for the truly outstanding work of Kauzlaric, who makes Richard someone we feel probably should be knocked down a peg or two, but perhaps not knocked off the peg board altogether. For Richard is smug and self-assured as king, not to mention compassion-challenged (upon learning of his uncle’s death, he flippantly says, “So much for that”); but these flaws somehow make Richard’s imminent fall all the more searing. When Kauzlaric grips tightly onto the crown, just as Richard’s scheduled to hand it over to Bolingbroke, he delivers a blistering speech, disillusioned by how quickly and easily his life has been dismantled; and in the show’s powerful penultimate scene, when he’s been abandoned by all and left alone in his cell, Kauzlaric presents us with a man earnestly struggling to process grief.
Jeromy Hopgood designed the show’s set, which consists of a seemingly collapsed, slanted gateway (actors often duck while making entrances through it), and a backdrop of church windows hanging at different levels. Visually, the stage picture suggests a wobbly, failing infrastructure, which dovetails well with a play about a young ruler who enjoys the confidence of neither his family nor his subjects. Things really are falling apart.
David Blixt expertly choreographs the production’s sword-fights (and assorted violent acts); David Allen Stoughton designed the lighting, which creates a world outside the brightly lit king’s court that feels ominous and isolating – an effect achieved in concert with Kate Hopgood’s sound design and music composition. And Betty Thomas designed the show’s props.
Of course, Shakespeare’s lesser known history plays often frustrate contemporary audiences; it can feel as though you’re jumping into the middle of an epic novel, and try as you might, there are just too many people, and too much you’ve missed, to make sense of the whole.
But you can trust that you’re in good hands with director Janice Blixt, who has, to name one example, added a brief prologue to Richard II – from an entirely different play – to dramatize the murder that’s at the heart of Bolingbroke and Mowbry’s argument in the true opening scene. (This also, conveniently, sets us up for the shady betrayals and violence to come.) Blixt’s commitment to finding creative ways to fill the gaps in our knowledge on stage, so that we’re better able to plug in and focus on the story being told, demonstrates MSF’s mission writ large: to encourage modern audiences to re-connect with Shakespeare’s work in new, invigorating ways.
Held to this standard, Richard II passes with flying colors.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Richard II continues through Sunday, August 14 at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton, MI. For tickets, visit http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com.
There are songs that move your soul, songs that make you want to dance, songs that fill your heart. But what about singing? Can singing—especially in a group—really make a difference in your life?
The answer to that question is a harmonious “yes!” Numerous studies indicate that singing changes our brains, both calming and energizing us. A 2013 article in Time Magazine described group singing as the “perfect tranquilizer, (one) that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the many community sings that have cropped up around our state, including one right here in Ann Arbor. Since last November, people of all different vocal abilities have been gathering at the Ann Arbor Senior Center in Burns Park on the first Sunday of the month at 7 pm to belt out tunes ranging from Woody Guthrie to Bill Withers.
As someone who was kicked out of my high school choir class, I was a bit reluctant to attend. The ad said that it welcomed anyone—whether you sang in a choir or in your shower. Since I most definitely do the latter (with a rousing selection of Barry Manilow songs), I decided to give it a try; I was put at ease almost immediately.
“How many of you were told to just mouth the words?” song leader Matt Watroba asked at the beginning of class. Since I technically was told that it was better to just mouth the words as my choir teacher was signing the slip to move me to a drama class, I raised my hand. Watroba then said the words that I didn’t know I needed to hear, “That’s nonsense. Anyone can sing.”
And Watroba knows a thing or two about singing. A singer, teacher, founding member of the National Folk Alliance, writer, former host of WDET’s Folks Like Us, frequent performer at The Ark—Watroba has contributed to the musical landscape of our country in ways that most of us can only dream of. Recently, he has focused his energies on community sings.
Inspired by the words of Pete Seeger, who said he always intended to put songs on people’s lips, Watroba set out to create and host these magical gatherings. The idea is simple—gather together, share songs, and sing. Even if you have been told you should transfer out of choir class immediately and go back to drama class. Singing is the “perfect excuse” to get offline and get back in touch with the healing brought about by being in a community.
Even after a few songs, I feel better. Research studies confirm this, finding that singing contributes to the quality of lives and lowers stress. It is considered an aerobic activity in that improves circulation by increasing oxygen in the blood. Singing also requires deep breathing, which is a key to most relaxation techniques. And honestly, it is hard to worry about your job when you are concentrating on the lyrics to some of the most beautiful songs ever written.
But why does singing, especially with others, affect us this way? Some researchers believe it may come from the endorphins and oxytocin that are released when we sing. The former hormone is related to feelings of pleasure; the latter enhances feelings of trust and bonding. Another study posited that singing is our “evolutionary reward” for working together cooperatively, rather than trying to fix something on our own.
The benefits of being in a group are also innumerable—the sense of belonging and acceptance, the absence of loneliness, the act of being welcomed. The Community Sing groups are especially welcoming, in that you don’t have to audition, and you don’t even have to be able to carry a tune.
So whether you are a trained opera singer, someone who rocks out to 80s hair bands in your car, or yes, even someone who has been asked to lip-sync in a choir, join us for our next Community Sing on August 7 at 7 pm at the Ann Arbor Senior Center. You will never be asked to just mouth the words!
Patti Smith is a special education teacher who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and cats. She is the author of two books about Ann Arbor, the most recent is a history of the People’s Food Co-op. She wishes she had even an ounce of musical talent so that she could join the Civic Band! Visit her at www.PattiFSmith.com or @TeacherPatti on Twitter.
The Community Sing takes place Sunday, August 7 at 7 pm at the Ann Arbor Senior Center at 1320 Baldwin Ave. There is a $5 participation fee.
A best-seller in Europe, the first foreign-language romance novel to be translated and published in the U.S, All In* by Swedish author Simona Ahrnstedt is "sexy, smart, and completely unputdownable." (Tessa Dare)
David Hammer, the upstart, infamous venture capitalist and corporate raider, known for his brutal take-overs is poised to pull off the biggest deal in the history of Swedish finance, make it world-wide finance. His sight is set on Investum - one of Sweden's biggest and oldest financial institutions, owned and controlled by the De la Grip Family. After years of planning, all the players are in place; he needs just one member of the owning family on his side—Natalia De la Grip. He invites her to lunch.
(Countess) Natalia is everything David despises - upper-class, traditional, as close to royalty as you could get without actually being royal and yet he finds her brilliant, driven to succeed in a man’s world, and enchanting. Natalia is intrigued by this way-too handsome man who is rich, dangerous, and in the business circles - utterly unethical. However, the powerful chemistry between them leaves both of them exhilarated and vulnerable.
As the deal goes through, it turns out that it is not all about business. Past history, family secrets and revenge will force David and Natalia to confront their innermost fears and desires as they make deeply difficult choices.
“The author’s ability to skillfully fuse a luxurious lifestyle, a refreshingly different Swedish setting, a plot riddled with revenge and financial intrigue, and plenty of steamy romance means All In will be the must-have leisure read everywhere this summer.” (Booklist).
* = starred review
One thing you’ll inevitably think about while watching the Michigan stage premiere production of Karen Tarjan’s The Killer Angels – presented by Michigan Shakespeare Festival, and inspired by the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel of the same name by Michael Shaara – is how 19th century American warfare and military strategy look nothing like our contemporary conflicts; yet even so, brutality, death, and nightmarish confusion on the battlefield remain constants.
Focused on the three-day Battle of Gettysburg – cited by many as a key turning point for the victorious (uh, spoiler alert?) Union Army – Killer Angels introduces us to military leaders as well as infantrymen on both sides of the war.
How? By double- and triple-casting the production’s 12 actors. And while this casting instruction/suggestion is wholly practical, it nonetheless makes following the play’s already-complicated narrative that much harder. Indeed, if your knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg is minimal - ahem - you’ll likely be struggling to keep the characters (and other details) straight.
But there’s also a larger storytelling paradox at work: a military battle must, by definition, involve lots of people; and yet, to establish an emotional connection to the story, the audience must have sustained, intimate access to a smaller group of characters. (This is how we follow Shakespeare’s history plays, which tend to focus less on a single battle and more on those vying for power.) Because so many leaders and soldiers played a key role – some for better, some for worse – in the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels shifts focus often, providing only cursory glimpses of most characters.
Yes, some conversations among the men are highly personal and touching; but the moments are fleeting, making the show feel more like a well-crafted, visually sumptuous 3D history lesson – with occasional musical interludes.
Indeed, the cast’s spare, haunting, men's chorus harmonies on songs like the show’s opener, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – marvelously led by Killer Angels’ Troubadour Ian Geers – were among my favorite moments of the show. Music director Kate Hopgood, who researched and arranged the show’s music, in addition to being the show's sound designer, affectingly gives the show some soulful scaffolding (and thus gives patrons a few goosebumps).
Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design is simple and theatrical, so that despite the play’s many locales, the only constants are a wood platform at stage right that stands in for General Lee’s (Tobin Hissong) headquarters, and a draped sheet of white fabric for projections (designed by Christine Franzen) that hangs upstage left. To establish other settings, crates get moved and stacked, so soldiers may appear to be sitting in a tree, or taking cover behind the terrain’s natural features.
Costume designer Patty Branam expertly dresses the actors in historically accurate uniforms, using a pants-and-white-shirt base that allows for several quick costume changes; and the attention paid to details like the worn, weathered look of Lee’s hat, and the way the number of buttons on a uniform indicates one's military rank, really seals the deal. Betty Thomas designed the show’s era-appropriate props, and David Allen Stoughton’s lighting design looks gauzy and occasionally spooky under cover of fog, giving Killer Angels the feel of a lived ghost story.
David Blixt does fantastic work choreographing the show’s battles, but the most arresting moment comes at the show’s climax, when an elegant and devastating bit of stagecraft conveys how Lee’s advancing Confederate troops are gutted in the final showdown.
Scenes like this, as well as the more personal, philosophical conversations that happen between men at Gettysburg, get to the heart of The Killer Angels, and director Janice L. Blixt seizes on the show’s best moments with a sure hand. And although the ensemble was strong generally, some standouts included Geers, who guides the audience through the complex story while slipping into multiple roles; Dwight Tolar as Union Col. Chamberlain, a thoughtful, dignified former schoolteacher-turned-soldier who has to make terrifying choices on the battlefield (like charging when his men run out of ammunition); Robert McLean as frustrated Confederate Lt. General Longstreet, who carries out Lee’s orders even when he knows the mission is doomed; and Hissong, who makes Lee a well-intentioned leader who’s so set on ending the war that his judgment about how to best achieve that is compromised.
Civil War buffs will likely swoon at The Killer Angels, as will fans of Shaara’s book (or the film adaptation, Gettysburg); and MSF’s overall execution is impressive and solid. But history dilettantes looking to get lost in a gripping story may instead just feel generally lost.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
The Killer Angels continues through Sunday, August 14 at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton, MI. For tickets, visit http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com/.
You love the intimacy of Kerrytown Concert House as a music venue. You enjoy KCH jazz, classical, cabaret, and other concerts. But did you know that this historic Ann Arbor performance space offers live theater?
The Brass Tacks Ensemble has faithfully used the Concert House as a summer venue for their outstanding mix of classical plays and original theatre since 2004 (with their staging of Shakespeare Variations, an original production of sketches based on Shakespearian tragedies). Formed when local actor and writer James Ingagiola gathered with other theatre lovers to produce King Lear at the Performance Network in 1999, Brass Tacks has consistently offered intimate and involving theatrical experiences to the Ann Arbor community.
The simplicity of the Concert House works well for the Ensemble: a guiding Brass Tacks principle is to concentrate on a play’s core elements –plot, theme, characterization - stripping away any excess and focusing on the theatrical essentials. This simple and direct approach also frees the audience’s imagination.
The Ensemble returns to Kerrytown this week, staging one of the wittiest, funniest plays in the English language: Oscar Wilde’s classic The Importance of Being Earnest. This tale of gentleman John Worthing, his love for the lady Gwendolen Fairfax, and her steadfast determination to only marry a man named Ernest combines sparkling wit, social satire, and farcical situations in one glorious package.
Directed by Ingagiola (the Ensemble’s Artistic Director), this production features local actors Amanda Barnett, Ethan Gibney, Elizaveta McFall, Amanda Photenhauer, Jan Romans, Annaliese Romans, Elizabeth Wagner, and Catherine Zudak.
If you are wondering about this largely female cast for a show that historically features five men, Ingagiola will tell you that "The sex of the characters has not changed. A lot of talented actresses are frequently left out of productions because of a dearth of female roles. They haven't been left out now."
Enjoy an evening of delightfully intimate theatre with one of the area’s most established and innovative theatrical troupes in one of Ann Arbor’s most beloved performance venues.
Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs Thursday - Saturday, August 4 -6, at Kerrytown Concert House, 415 North Fourth Avenue in Ann Arbor. Shows are at 8pm with an additional 2:00 pm matinee on Saturday August 6. For reservations and ticket information, call the Kerrytown Concert House at 734-769-2999 or visit http://kerrytownconcerthouse.com.
The Ann Arbor Art Center’s latest 117 Gallery offering asks a tantalizing, if not also impossible question to satisfactorily answer: Who—and what—is a real American?
Indeed, more precisely: What physical, cultural, theological, and/or social features does a real American have? Do these perimeters have any boundaries that pertain to being a “real” American? And what are the political consequences—if there are any such consequences—attached to this definition?
After all, the presumption is (and it’s certainly been repeated enough during this present election cycle) that there is such a thing as a “real” American. And it’s a seemingly strong potion upon which to mount a political campaign.
But is there such a thing as a real American? This display of superlative art intends to find out—for better or worse.
As juror and Ann Arbor-based photojournalist Peter Baker tells us of his rationale for the exhibit, “Real American” seeks to “explore the generational, ethnographic, cultural, and anthropological ideals of what the word ‘American’ means. From fresh apple pie to Budweiser, the Star Spangled Banner to Party in the USA, what is the modern American experience?
“Are we entering the sci-fi World of Tomorrow, longing for the Norman Rockwell past, or painting ourselves into an Idiocracy? If our culture is our biggest export, what kind of image are we presenting to the world?
“This exhibition,” concludes Baker “seeks artworks that span the spectrum from whimsical to austere, nostalgic to provocative. Artworks may consist of images from popular and visual culture, contain everyday objects assembled in unexpected ways, or incorporate stars and stripes.”
Correctly said—and perhaps the best thing about Baker’s selections in this show is the extraordinary range of what a real American can be. After all, even if the common understanding is also obviously a caricature, Americans cannot by definition or description be said to be analogous to what a Frenchman or Irishman or Nigerian supposedly looks like—or supposedly is. The beauty of the term is that a real American can look like all stereotypes.
Local, regional, and national artists selected for inclusion by Baker are Jim Aho, Mark Bleshenski, Tina Blondell, CJ Breil, Sarah Buddendeck, Seder Burns, Barbara Melnik Carson, Vanessa Compton, Errol Daniels, Keith Downie, Dan Farnum, Kathie Foley-Meyer, Heather Freeman, Jonathan Frey, David Gardner, Sarah Hahn, Amber Harrison, Christian Helser, Timothy Householder, Melissa Lynn, Astrid Muller-Karger, Dietmar Krumrey, C.B. Murphy, John Posa, Shawn Quinlan, Jim Rehlin, Jaye Schlesinger, Geoffrey Stein, Marilynn Thomas, Seth Trent, Tamara Wasserman, Chad Yenney, and Micah Zavacky.
Baker’s Best of Show selection in the exhibition is Pittsburgh, PA resident Shawn Quinlan’s quilt and fiber “The New American Heritage.” Second Place is Tulsa, OK photographer Dan Farnum’s archival inkjet color photograph “Monster Energy, Tulsa.” Third Place is Ann Arbor John Posa’s untitled acrylic on canvas mixed-media deer hide and scrap metal Donald Trump portrait. And Honorable Mentions have been handed to Minneapolis, MN’s Tina Blondell for her oil on canvas “Antimony as Nubia” and Denver, CO’s Melissa Lynn for her “Mitchelen BigMan—Crow Indian/Iraq Veteran” chromogenic color photograph print.
As stated above—and is the case with most group exhibits—there’s no particular rhyme nor reason to the artwork in “Real American” outside of taking general aim at the topic. And interestingly enough, this speaks of both the pluralism of our society as it does these artists’ decidedly independent frame of mind. The exhibit proves it’s a good American place to be.
For example, Shawn Quinlan’s Best of Show quilt and fiber “The New American Heritage” is an emphatic satirical take on what is real about being a “Real American” as the quilt takes scatological aim at the U.S.A. through its lampooning of our society’s strengths and weaknesses. Uncle Sam is depicted as a red, white, and blue clown with straw hat atop and arms propped with disembodied six-shooters at waist-height standing in front of a cloud of newspaper smoke and fire. Add an exceptionally buff George Washington as well as a vaguely surreal exquisite corpse Abraham Lincoln charbroiling a steak and Quinlan’s “The New American Heritage” is a rather pungent view of what it means to be a “Real American.”
“The New American Heritage” is one of many artworks in this exhibit that have an overt political or social bent—this is the kind of display that brings out the best of this kind of parody. Yet license of free thought is only one aspect of what it means to be an American. On the other hand, Baker’s Second Place archival inkjet “Monster Energy, Tulsa” by Dan Farnum touches far more subtly and thoughtfully at class and economics in its artless depiction of an everyday group of archetypical American youths standing casually in front of suburban strip mall.
But so much for politics: The exhibit is also exceedingly lyrical, and my favorite work on display is Allen Park, MI Seder Burns’ magnificent archival inkjet “RV Camped for the Night on BLM Land in Colorado” color photograph that describes an “unexpected, quirky, and complex” view of what it means to be a real American.
This lone camper vehicle, taking advantage of federal regulation that allows for extended free camping (albeit in a band of states running vertically from Montana to New Mexico; horizontally west to the Pacific Ocean) is shown after dusk set against a magnificent American countryside with stars and stripes strategically draped across the front windshield.
Burns’ photograph clearly partakes of what it means to be a “real” American as there’s a free-spiritedness that’s been part of our national wanderlust reaching back for centuries from the days of Native American habitation up and down North America to varied European-based explorations through the Manifest Destiny that’s subsequently championed continental expansion. His “RV Camped for the Night” merely gives this notion a well-deserved 21st century spin.
Shawn Quinlan, Dan Farnum, and Seder Burns ultimately span the range of what Baker heartily illustrates in this exhibit. Yet there are, of course, many more views. What’s implicitly inferred in each work in this display is the belief that what it means to be a “real” American is really no more than a psychological state of mind—and everything else proceeds from there.
John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
“Real American” will continue through August 13 at the Ann Arbor Art Center 117 Gallery, 117 W. Liberty St. Exhibit hours are 10 am to 7 pm, Monday-Friday; 10 am to 6 pm, Saturday; and noon to 5 pm, Sunday. For information, call (734) 994-8004.