Review: Penny Stamps Presents David OReilly

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

David OReilly delivering his Penny Stamps lecture as part of the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival.

David OReilly delivering his Penny Stamps lecture as part of the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival. / Photo by Doug Coombe

Artist David OReilly has worked in a variety of media from film to video games to concept art, but he added a new medium to that list Wednesday night at the Michigan Theater: public speaking. OReilly appeared as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, presented in conjunction with the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival. Taking the stage after an introduction he self-deprecatingly described as “hyperbolic,” OReilly immediately sought to manage his audience’s expectations. “I don’t know how to follow that up,” OReilly said. “This is going to be a total letdown.”

However, OReilly proved himself a more than capable speaker over the course of his nearly 90-minute presentation, entertaining, inspiring, and at times genuinely dazzling the crowd. OReilly began by examining how he developed his unique style of 3D animation, which he’s now best known for. After early attempts to emulate Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s expressive figure drawings, OReilly became involved in animation through a job as a concept artist. Around 2004 he became fascinated by the untapped potential he saw in 3D animation, a field dominated at the time by many Pixar imitators and very few individual auteurs. OReilly described working with 3D animation software as “a constant process of the thing falling apart,” and early on he started maintaining a computer folder of the various glitches that resulted from his experiments. “All of these felt like something the software wanted to do, the trajectory of what it wanted to do,” he said.

So OReilly developed an artistic style that welcomed the quirks of his medium and drew attention to its rougher edges, rather than hewing towards a perfectly polished finished product. He demonstrated the evolution of that style from his 2007 debut short film RGB XYZ to 2009’s Please Say Something. OReilly described the former, an extremely glitchy acid-trip tale of a creature moving to the big city, as “pretty awful.” But the latter showed just how quickly OReilly developed his talent. Please Say Something, a very funny and surprisingly affecting tale of a tumultuous marriage between a cat and a mouse, embraces those glitches and rough edges with intent and artistry.

OReilly has since done a variety of work, including an episode of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, animated segments of the movies Her and Son of Rambow, and music videos for U2 and M.I.A. In between commercial works he’s also found time for more personal projects–like his 2014 video game Mountain, which creates a personalized mountain on which players can watch slow and often surreal changes in real time. Typical of his unpretentious presentation, OReilly said he enjoys commercial work as much as his pet projects. “I don’t know if it’s ideal if I just stayed doing my own stuff,” he said. “Every time I do a job I end up getting out of my comfort zone, being forced to learn stuff that I’m not familiar with.”

OReilly saved his best for last, presenting an extended demo of his forthcoming video game entitled Everything. The game presents a universe in which one can play as literally anything. OReilly began by exploring a sunny field in the character of a bear, which moved around by comically rolling head over tail. From there he jumped into the characters of a clump of grass, bouncing along at ground level, and then a Douglas fir, which moved majestically over the landscape. Those demonstrations were entertaining, but OReilly had only scratched the surface of the world he’d developed for the game. He jumped down to a smaller scale to explore the microscopic world between blades of grass, playing as various molecules and germs. The audience broke into applause, but OReilly still wasn’t even close to finished. Taking a trip to the other end of the cosmic scale, he played as a continent swimming around the earth, then an asteroid orbiting the planet, then as a galaxy spinning in space. Surrounded by other glittering galaxies, OReilly’s galaxy joined up with them and moved in a rhythmic “dance” as numerous audience members uttered audible gasps of wonder.

Those gasps, and the laughter and applause that permeated the presentation, were proof positive that OReilly has repeatedly hit on something singular, accessible, and human in his highly unconventional works. Refreshingly, the man behind them was consistently, exceedingly humble. OReilly closed by noting with some bewilderment that he’d been asked to address in his presentation how his work “fits into the bigger picture of humanity.” He tackled that request by reading a scathing critical review of Mountain, followed by a letter he received from a mother who thanked him for the way the game had drawn her autistic son out of his shell. “That kind of response is worth more than all of the impact in the world,” he said. “I feel very privileged to get to have that effect, as small as that is.”


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.

Ann Arbor Film Festival Opening Night

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

The opening night screening gave attendees a taste of everything they will see at the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival.

The opening night screening gave attendees a taste of everything they will see at the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival.

On Tuesday night, the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival began with an Opening Night Reception and a screening of ten short films from around the world. The reception was a packed and energetic event, completely filling the main lobby of the Michigan Theater with donors, filmmakers, and excited movie-goers. The music was loud, the bites of local food were delicious, and the vast space was packed to the rafters with anticipatory chatter. The total variety of people and apparel gave off the vibe of unadulterated welcome. Some were dressed to the nines in neckties or heels and floor-length dresses, and some were wearing their usual old jeans, sneakers, and plaid shirts, so no matter what, it seemed that this event was made for you.

This was my first experience at AAFF, or a film festival of any sort, and I was a bit apprehensive. Part of my newcomers’ fear was that I’d choose a movie I didn’t enjoy and be stuck with it for the two-hour duration, so it took the pressure off to discover that the Opening Night Screening consisted of a number of short films. The experience was more of a sampler: all the unique flavors of films that you might encounter at AAFF, helpfully squashed into one session.

The films themselves were a mixed bag of narrative, documentary, animated, and experimental, and they ran the emotional gauntlet—from sad and serious, like Hotel 22, a documentary about the homeless taking refuge at night on a 24-hour bus line in San Francisco, to hilarious, like Discontinuity, a film about a couple losing touch with each other and with reality, amongst a sea of disappearing and reappearing cats.

Attendees and lobbies alike were decked out for the Opening Night Reception.

Attendees and lobbies alike were decked out for the Opening Night Reception. / Photo by Doug Coombe

Some films were so experimental that I didn’t even recognize them as films, like REGAL, a fuzzy 2-minute interlude that appeared to be clips of an old pre-movie disclaimer reel interspersed with Internet icons and occasional pauses for buffering. I didn’t realize it was a movie until it was over and my companion clued me in. My first film of the festival and, technically, I missed it.

While some of the films were as avant-garde as I had worried they would be, I found them each to be surprisingly stimulating in their own way. Back Track, a remix of 1950s black-and-white films, had a captivatingly dark, noir vibe. Curt McDowell’s homey A Visit to Indiana effortlessly harnessed the drama and comedy of everyday conversation. Drive In, a close-to-home look at one of the last drive-in theaters in the Detroit area, evoked feelings of sunny summer nostalgia while The Place, a documentary about an isolated weather station, plunged the audience into the cold stillness of a Polish winter. The charmingly untidy animation of Isola del Giglio gave sketch-like impressions of a cozy Sunday morning on an Italian island, while Life with Herman H. Rott told the wordless yet highly comic story of a chain-smoking, drunken rat whose life is tidied up by a neat and proper cat with a love for cleanliness and classical music.

Even when lost among the swirling colors and fuzzy images of an experimental film or staring deep into the impossibly still and dull Polish snowscape, each movie pulled me in and left a genuine impression. I entered the event unsure of what I would find, and when I left, while still unsure what more I would encounter, it was with much more eagerness than apprehension.


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and she hates popcorn, so this has been a harrowing experience on many fronts.

Preview: Charley's Aunt, Skyline High School

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Dating is a drag in Skyline's production of Charley's Aunt.

Dating is a drag in Skyline's production of Charley's Aunt. / Photo by Lisa Gavan.

This weekend, Skyline High School Theatre presents Charley's Aunt.

Long before Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire - 122 years ago, in fact - the cross-dressing comedy Charley’s Aunt has been keeping audiences in stitches. Playwright Brandon Thomas wrote this British farce about a couple college buddies who rope a third friend into dressing up as an elderly aunt/chaperone for their girlfriends. They hope “she” will be a more reasonable alternative to the girls’ over-protective and overbearing male guardian...but of course it turns out to be a little more complicated than that.

Charley's Aunt is the quintessential British farce,” says director Anne-Marie Roberts, explaining that the show isn’t just entertaining for the audience, it’s also educational for the participants. “Exposing the students to a gem of the British theater is one of the goals for educational theater.”

Skyline's production features Jianmarco Barbeau and Jakub Hann as the college friends; Leah Bauer and Amanda Wilhoit as the girlfriends; Riley O'Brian as the guardian; and Theo Billups as "Charley's Aunt". Rounding out the cast are Peter Dannug as Sir Fancis; Madison Burk as wealthy widow Donna Lucia De Alvadorez; Sonja Mittlestat as her young ward Ela; and Luke Wertenberger as Jack's put-upon butler, Brasset.


Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.


Charley’s Aunt runs March 17,18, and 19 at Skyline High School Auditorium at 7:30 pm each night. Tickets are available at www.showtix4u.com for $8 for adults and $6 for students and seniors. Tickets will also be available at the door for $10 for adults and $8 for students and seniors.

Review: Third Coast Kings Rule at Ferndale’s Magic Bag

REVIEW MUSIC

The Ann Arbor-based funk ensemble Third Coast Kings.

The Ann Arbor-based funk ensemble Third Coast Kings.

Ann Arbor-based funk ensemble Third Coast Kings were off their home turf in their Friday night show at Ferndale’s Magic Bag, but that didn’t stop the group lighting the stage and the dance floor on fire with material new and old.

Friday’s show marked something of a return for the Kings, who are just resurfacing on the local scene after an injury last year left high-energy frontman Sean Ike limping and relying on a cane. But the band used its brief off-time to put together some new tunes with an eye towards hitting the studio later this year, and they worked out some of that new material at the Magic Bag. The Kings performed some tunes for only the first or second time live, but delivered them with confidence–no surprise for this tight group of professionals. Among the new material, one minor-key groove came off particularly well, with a fiery trumpet solo from Ryan Dolan that had the audience howling its approval.

The Kings made plenty of time, though, for favorite tunes from their previous releases, including a number of tracks from their 2014 album West Grand Boulevard. Alec Cooper’s menacing baritone-sax groove in “Sporting Life (I’m a Man)” inspired Ike to mix some comical boxing and rowing moves into his dance routine. “Birds and Bees” found the Kings settling into a rare slower jam, with guitarist Andy Filisko laying down a wonderfully warm wash of wah-wah-laden rhythm work. And although the band faked an exit after playing the dance-floor call to arms “Get Some, Leave Some,” the exceptionally charged-up rendition of that tune certainly could have passed for a satisfactory show closer.

It’s impossible to talk about this band without recognizing the near-superhuman contributions of Ike, perhaps the best–and undoubtedly the most entertaining–frontman Ann Arbor has to offer. In distinct contrast to his bandmates’ tan and gray suits and vests, Ike was clad in a red satin vest and gold tie over black pants and shirt, the band’s unmissable focal point. Within three songs his bald pate was covered in a sheen of sweat as he pranced, danced, and shook a tambourine like it owed him money. “This is the only Friday night we got and we got it here together,” Ike proclaimed early on, and from the energy he put into the performance it seemed he believed that. With a killer voice, unflagging energy, and a strong sense of visual pizzazz, Ike could go toe to toe with James Brown in just about every department except ego.

While it’s hard to take your eyes off Ike during a Kings show, ample credit is also due to the exemplary outfit backing him up. At six, the current Kings lineup is a bit smaller than it’s been in the past, but the band’s sound is powerful as ever. Although they’re only two men, Cooper and Dolan make for a robust horn section. Dolan handles most of the leads with a laid-back, jazz-inspired style that cuts a nice contrast to even the Kings’ most furious grooves. While the horn players make a rather cool, impassive duo onstage, the guitar-slingers on the other side of Ike are all goofy energy. Bouncing enthusiastically as his mop of curly hair sways back and forth, Steve Barker lays down rock-solid grooves on the bass. Filisko mugs and dances as he carves up slice after slice of wah-drenched guitar. Perhaps the least showy player–and, at the back of the stage behind Ike, the least visible–is drummer James Keovongsak. He isn’t much for solos. But rhythm is the essential element of what this band does, and Keovongsak handles that with unflappable precision.

The crowd at the Magic Bag demonstrated abundant appreciation for the Kings’ work Friday night. Although not sold out, the venue welcomed a sizeable crowd that spanned an impressive range of ages and races. It took a surprisingly long time–two whole songs!–for the dance floor to really fill up, but once the crowd got going they were loath to stop. Ike’s departure from the stage after delivering a few a cappella bars of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” drew raucous screams of “One more song!” The audience seemed to take Ike’s proclamation of “the only Friday night” seriously–and with a band this committed to having a good time, how could they not?


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.

Preview: Warren's Peace, Saline Area Players

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Andrew Godell's national guardsman runs into trouble in a small Michigan town in Warren's Peace.

Andrew Godell's national guardsman runs into trouble in a small Michigan town in Warren's Peace.

Enjoy an evening of theater set in Michigan, written by Michigan playwrights--that also promises audience samples of Michigan-made treats from local providers like Ed's Bread, Grand Traverse Pie, and Zingerman's--when the Saline Area Players present Marc and Kathy Holland’s new comedy Warren’s Peace.

The production may seem to be an appreciation of all things Michigan, but the underlying purpose is to delight and amuse. As playwright and director Marc Holland stated in a recent interview “I want you to have a good time when you attend my show, just as I want to laugh when I lay down my money at the box office.”

Warren’s Peace centers on a national guardsman who is sent to a small Michigan town to kick off World Peace Day, but runs into conflict when he meets the distrustful, eccentric townspeople. Andrew Godell plays the guardsman, and the cast includes Brent Lofgren, Trevor Maher, Patti Ringe, Marlena Shuler, and (of special interest to library fans) Laurie Atwood as the Librarian.


Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.


Performances of ​ Warren’s Peace ​run Thursday­-Saturday, March 17-19, and will take place at Fifth Corner, 211 Willis Rd in Saline. For information, visit http://salineareaplayers.org.

Review: Civic Theatre embraces the absurd in 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern'

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their flipping coin.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their flipping coin.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--or is it Guildenstern and Rosencrantz? No matter, even they have trouble knowing who's who.

The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre takes on Tom Stoppard's absurdist comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with good humor and a respect for Stoppard's more serious intentions.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet, friends from his youth who become minor pawns in Hamlet's battle with his Uncle Claudius. Stoppard imagines the agony of the bit player, waiting his moments on the stage and always a little clueless as to what his role is about or why it matters. The play borrows knowingly not only from Hamlet but also from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The theme applies, of course, not just to actors but to all of us who imagine we are but bit players in someone else's story.

As the play begins, the two are endlessly flipping coins and discussing probability. Guildenstern is the verbose one. James Ingagiola saunters about the stage discussing all the important questions of journalists and philosophers: who, what, where, when, and why. Guildenstern is never sure about anything and always hesitates a bit too long. Ingagiola is a humorously pompous Hardy to Isaac Ellis' twittery Laurel as Rosencrantz.

Rosencrantz is a nervous but playful man, who enjoys a good game of coin flipping or anything else that is suggested. He's malleable and a bit slow on the uptake. Isaac's face is constantly mugging awe, fear, childish delight, or childish terror. His voice also rises higher as his confusion grows.

These two amiable clowns have a hard time remembering who they are, why they're in Elsinore, and exactly what they have to do with the actions around them. They are constantly reminding each other of how it all began and what it is that they are supposed to do.

As they wait, a whole gaggle of bit players arrive, the Tragedians, the players hired by Hamlet to expose his uncle's guilt in the murder of his father.

Joseph McDonald is boldly expressive as The Player, the group's leader with a taste for blood and vulgarity. He tries to explain how theater works to the bewildered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He does so by having his players display those elements of theater that the audience expects, like a good death well played. The players are a boisterous crew who give it their all.

The player who gets the most attention is the lovely Alfred, who plays the female roles. Daniel Bizer-Cox has fun sashaying about the stage in stockings and diaphanous clothes and, yet, he never over plays it.

Through this fog, the story of Hamlet runs on, off stage somewhere, until it's time for our two heroes to do their small part and then return to existential agony. In another gender switch, Hamlet is played handsomely by a woman, Suzy Culbertson.

David Widmayer makes his directorial debut at the Civic, and he's chosen a difficult play. Absurdist comedy is not for everyone. Tedium is one of Stoppard's themes and the play itself is sometimes tedious as Guildenstern goes on a bit with his musings. Still Widmayer clearly understands the core of this play and has three key actors who deliver on making their absurd characters come to comic life. Some of the Shakespearean scenes might have been played a little more formally and precisely to contrast more sharply with the protagonists' hazy world.

The play's title comes from a line near the end of Hamlet, when Hamlet's fury has left a stage full of dead bodies, worthy of the Player. A message arrives from London that in addition to all this mayhem, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead." But, of course, the point is that they live on, forever, in Shakespeare and in Stoppard.


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.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead continues 8 pm Friday-Saturday, March 11-12, and 2 pm Sunday at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the North Campus of the University of Michigan, 1226 Murfin Ave, 48109. Tickets are available online at www.a2ct.org, by calling the office at 734-971-2228, at the A2CT office at 322 W. Ann St., or at the door. Additional information is available by visiting www.a2ct.org.

Q&A with 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival Executive Director Leslie Raymond

INTERVIEW PREVIEW FILM & VIDEO

Leslie Raymond is in her third year as Executive Director of AAFF.

Leslie Raymond is in her third year as Executive Director of AAFF.

I recently stopped by the busy Ann Arbor Film Festival office to chat with Leslie Raymond about the upcoming 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival running March 15-20, 2016. Leslie has been involved with the AAFF since the 30th Festival in 1992; this will be her third year as the Festival’s Executive Director.

Q: What’s new or different about this year’s Festival?
A: Well, we’re seeing a lot of animation. We’re also seeing a lot of feature length documentaries, nine or ten of which are in competition, as well as three films by Chantal Akerman who passed away tragically last October. We felt she was such an important figure in the history of avant-garde cinema as well as a great role model for women.

Q: Why do you think there are more documentaries this year?
A: Yeah, David [Dinnell, program director] and I were talking earlier about this being a more “moving image” culture where so much of the information we receive now comes through the moving image because of its ubiquity. Now we can shoot a movie on our cellphone, edit it, and publish it in minutes. Maybe that has something to do with it, although I don’t know why that would draw somebody more to making something more documentary than narrative.
 
Q: Which of the Festival events excite you the most this year?
A: Grahame Weinbren’s 78 Letters - which will show on Sunday, March 20 at 3:15 pm in the Main Auditorium - is an interactive series of one-minute pieces where the audience will help direct how the work goes together. I’m particularly excited about that. There will also be a 1975 installation by Lis Rhodes at the Ann Arbor Art Center on Friday, March 18 from 3 to 5 pm. It’s titled Light Music and it’s composed of two 16 mm projectors projecting abstract imagery from either end of the viewing space with an optical soundtrack read by light passing through. We’re also excited about the live shadow puppet performance by local artist Tom Carey that opens the “Films in Competition 5 (Ages 6+)” event. We call it “family friendly” and “ages 6 and up” but it’s not just a “kid’s show.” One of the things important for us is to engage audiences on other levels than just being a passive observer.
 
Q: Do you think audiences are more receptive today to an interactive experience?
A: I think so. And we want to provide opportunities for Festival viewers to be part of the fabric of the environment. Along these lines we have the “What We Saw” cards in the lobby -- we’ve done this for several years now -- where we invite participants to fill the cards out, let us know what they think about what they’ve just seen, and then take pictures of them for a slide show. There will even be an Oculus Rift piece in the grand foyer of the Michigan Theater -- a 9-foot inflatable bubble! -- where people will be able to put on the Oculus Rift and have an 8 or 9-minute Oculus Rift experience.  
 
Q: I know someone who’s coming to the festival for the first time. What do you want her to take away from the experience?
A: We’d want her to feel the empowerment of seeing a lot of different things about the world. I think there’s so much to be said for being able to access all of these different viewpoints and ways of expressing things that go far outside the mainstream culture. We’d want her to experience the richness and diversity we live in. So I’d hope that somebody coming for the first time would see things they’re not familiar with...and be okay with that.
 
Q: The legacy of the AAFF as the longest-running independent and experimental festival in North America is an honor for Ann Arbor. Do you feel a sense of responsibility that Festival goers leave with a sense of that history?
A: I do think about it a lot. I feel like it’s a huge responsibility. The Festival has been here since 1963 and it still embodies the ethos in which it was founded - that particular time and place in history where there was such a rich political, social, and even fashion culture in every direction you looked. I think this heritage ties directly into the diversity of independent cinematic voices and our embracing of that diversity of expressions. It’s still relevant. So I think it’s important to stay grounded in the Festival’s history while also moving toward the future using the technologies that will now allow for much more of this experimentation.
 
Q: Any final thoughts on this year’s Festival?
A: I’ve been thinking lately about the sense of the collective journey. For a lot of people who are invested in joining us for the whole week – or even if you’re only coming to a few programs – there really is a sense of embarking on something unknown with a spirit of adventure. There are all kinds of things to discover, conversations to be had, thoughts to be thought, and feelings to be felt. Part of it is looking at the work and having the opportunity to share it with those you came with or walk out of the screening and then run into someone in the lobby and talk about what you’ve just experienced.


Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at AADL.


The Ann Arbor Film Festival runs from March 15-20, 2016. Tickets are available at the door or online.

Preview: Nufonia Must Fall

Even robots can be emo in Nufonia.

Even robots can be emo in Nufonia.

If the combination of puppets, moody robots, and quiet romance – all accompanied by a pop culture-inspired string quartet, moving fluidly from synth to pop to jazz – sounds intriguing and magical, then you need to go see Nufonia Must Fall.

Nufonia Must Fall is based on a nearly-wordless graphic novel published in 2003 by Kid Koala, a D.J., producer, composer, and studio contributor for the band Gorillaz, based in Montreal. As evidenced by his artistic output, Kid Koala, is comfortable in a wildly idiosyncratic, exciting, and whimsical world of raw beats and emotionally-charged stories. Sadly, the graphic novel is out of print, but this live performance uses mixed media to bring the story to life in ways the book alone never could.

The story takes place in Nufonia, a drab, monochromatic place, where T4, a robot, falls in love with a customer at the sandwich shop where he works – after having been fired and replaced by a newer model robot at his old job. The customer reciprocates T4's love and a romance unfolds. The adorable puppets are all white and stand about 10 inches tall. The simple intimacy of the story draws you in and holds you as the highs and lows of their romance play out.

All of the action is projected on a large screen, as the action takes place on a stage of shoebox-sized sets. It’s thrilling to watch the shadowy shapes of the puppeteers create the action in real time – offering up the skin-tingling sensation that only a live performance can evoke.

Kid Koala has said that "Nufonia" is derived from “no fun,” and for those who live there, “what’s going on in their mind gets in the way of having fun.”

Abandon any preconceived notions you may have about puppets, robot love, or marsupial DJs, and come out for a moving and magical evening of unusual storytelling.


Erin Helmrich is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library, a fan of the Gorillaz, graphic novels, and adorable stuff in all forms.


"Nufonia Must Fall" runs Friday, March 10 and Saturday, March 11 at 8 pm at The Power Center. The performance is presented by UMS as part of the International Theater Series UMS on Film.

Review: The Chieftains’ UMS Show at Hill Thrills Fans

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE MUSIC

The Chieftains support local artists, even letting them join in the fun.

The Chieftains support local artists, even letting them join in the fun.

Just a wee bit in advance of St. Patrick’s Day, the University Musical Society brought the Chieftains to Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium on Saturday, March 5th. And if this charming, 90-minute show failed to get you in the mood for the holiday, nothing would.

The Chieftains have been torch-bearers, and set the gold standard, for Irish music for more than half a century now. One of the group’s founding members, Paddy Moloney, still sings and plays the pipes and tin whistle at center stage. The band’s current roster also includes Tara Breen (violin, saxophone, dance), Jon Pilatzke (fiddle and stepdance), Kevin Conneff (bodhran and vocals), Matt Molloy (flute), Triona Marshall (harp and piano), and Tim Edey (guitar and accordian), with featured stepdancer Nathan Pilatzke, and featured vocalist and dancer Alyth McCormack.

The Chieftains – perhaps not surprisingly, given their longevity – have a pitch-perfect sense of balancing up-tempo, foot-stomping reels with more delicate numbers. Following a spirited fiddle solo (and dance) by Breen early in the show, Conneff sang “The Flower of Magherally,” largely without any musical accompaniment, letting us focus entirely on the melody and story. Then a quick take on “Cotton Eyed Joe” played out before McCormack appeared on stage to sing the moving ballad, “The Foggy Dew” (previously recorded by the Chieftains with Sinead O’Connor).

With such a vast catalog of music from which to choose, the Chieftains inevitably venture beyond the songs most familiar to fans. Among “new to me” offerings were: the Chinese tune “Full of Joy” (not my favorite, but a clear demonstration of the group’s commitment to sharing not just their own culture’s music); an inspired, gorgeous harp solo, masterfully delivered by Marshall; a song for Nelson Mandela titled, “The Troublemaker’s Jig”; and a musical reading of W. B. Yeats' poem, “Never Give All the Heart.”

But the Chieftains also offered tunes from the documentary television series The Long Journey Home (about Irish migration to the United States), including the American standard “Oh Shenandoah,” accompanied by the Ann Arbor Grail Singers. Indeed, several local groups were integrated into Saturday evening’s show, including Lansing’s Glen Erin Pipe Band (featured most prominently in “San Patricio”), and young students from Plymouth’s O’Hare School of Irish Dance.

This leads me to mention the electrifying role dance played in Saturday’s show. Though Breen was the first to put down her violin, various combinations of dancers performed throughout the show, and the consequence was consistently thrilling.

Most breathtaking of all were the Pilatzke brothers, whose percussive, perfectly synced, wildly complex dances conveyed a palpable sense of joy. I cheered every time they made their way back to the stage’s dance space. Something about their connection to each other amped the energy even higher, and in one instance, as they danced without music, they reminded us that, sometimes, the dance and the music are one and the same.

As the show neared its end, Moloney thanked the crowd and said, “This is one of our very favorite venues,” then played an encore and invited people from the crowd to join in a traveling dance line that moved through the aisles before heading back to the stage. Several fans rushed across their rows to take part, demonstrating the crowd’s unbridled enthusiasm for the show. With everyone’s hands joined, raising and lowering in time together, the moment seemed a wholly fitting conclusion to a night that felt so heartwarming and hopeful.


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.

Preview: Voices of the Middle West Literary Festival

PREVIEW WRITTEN WORD

Voices of the Middle West brings the writing community together for the third year in a row.

Voices of the Middle West brings the writing community together for the third year in a row.

Now in its third year, the Voices of the Middle West literary festival will take place on Saturday, March 12 at the University of Michigan’s Residential College. It’s free and open to the public.

The event includes a book fair, panels with authors and publishers, an open mic, and a keynote by poet and 2015 National Book Award finalist Ross Gay. On Friday, March 11, there’ll be a kick-off reading at Literati Bookstore, featuring Ross Gay along with Fred Arroyo, Peter Geye, Emily Schultz, and Amber Sparks.

The festival was founded by Robert James Russell and Jeff Pfaller, having worked together on the literary journal Midwestern Gothic. To make Voices of the Middle West happen, they work together with co-organizer and co-curator Laura Thomas at the Residential College.

As an editor at Joyland Magazine, I've participated in the book fair, and this year, you can also find me at the festival chatting up the UMS Artists in Residence program. I gave Rob a call to chat about the festival.

Q: I want to get your founder/curator view of things. Can you tell me how the festival first came together?
A: Yes, so, Jeff Pfaller and I were always looking to do more with Midwestern Gothic. We always wanted to do more, and legitimately, we love the writing community. So we tossed around ideas for a long time, and we came up with Voices.

It’s a totally free event, and we’re doing it purely as a way to get the community together. Personally, I don’t really view writing as a solitary thing. I mean, the actual writing itself is a very small part of the writing process. I think most writers really are social. They want to be together, talk about books and talk about writing.

I go to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference every year, and I really like it, but it’s really expensive, and I recognize that not everyone can do that. We wanted to make Voices accessible to those who can’t go to bigger, expensive conferences and festivals.

At the time we already had a working relationship with U-M’s Residential College, where I also teach, and we kind of approached them and said, hey, we have this idea for this, would you be interested? It turned out they were looking to do something like the festival already, and it worked out well.

The RC’s Laura Thomas, our co-organizer and co-curator, she’s fantastic. You know, there a lot of moving parts to this, and let’s just say that with Laura’s help, it’s been easier to put together than it should be.

Q: I like that. How big has the festival been?
A: So, last year our foot traffic was about 2,500 throughout the day. We’re hoping for at least a 10% increase in that.

Q: How has the festival changed year to year for you?
A: I would say coverage, and you know, awareness that we exist now. Quite frankly, we have put on two pretty awesome festivals. Our first year keynote was Curtis Sittenfeld. She is great. Last year we had Stuart Dybek. And this year we have the poet Ross Gay.

This year we have some people driving up from Missouri, people who are driving over from Minnesota, to experience the festival. That's the biggest honor I could ever have.

Q: What would you recommend to a newbie to the festival?
A: I would say, spend the whole day, because we have panels all day with really fantastic, captivating, exciting authors.

But I would also recommend spending a lot of time in the book fair, which I think is unique in that we do get a good crowd, but you can also actually have one-on-one time with the authors and the publishers, and they actually want this to happen. I think at bigger festivals like AWP, it’s very hard to do that.

Q: So, this is maybe like a pick your favorite child question?
A: Yes. I guess my final answer is: Pick a couple panels that you're really excited about, and then spend the rest of the time at the book fair.

Q: And is there anything you are particularly looking forward to yourself this year?
A: Ross Gay's keynote I think is going to be incredible. He was just shortlisted for a National Book Award for poetry last year. I had the pleasure of being on faculty alongside him at a writing retreat last year, and I had read some of his work before, but I had never seen him read in person. When I saw him read, I said, "We have to get this guy". Because he is the most dynamic, the most electric reader I have ever seen. That is not hyperbole, he is fantastic.

People will be utterly transfixed. We are having a kick-off reading Friday night at Literati, and he is going to be reading there. Saturday’s keynote will really be about the craft of writing. I would say both of those things you can’t miss.

Q: Awesome. Anything else you want to make sure is in this preview?
A: That it’s free. [laughs] My own official motto this year has been: If you are remotely in the area and you are a writer or a reader, you should come to this.


Anna Prushinskaya is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


The Voices of the Middle West Festival is on Saturday, March 12. The event schedule, presenters, and list of exhibitors are available at www.midwestgothic.com.