Choreographer Mark Morris notes that the ancient story of Layla and Majnun presented by UMS at the Power Center this weekend -- a Persian romance retold across the Mid-East since the 12th-century -- is one of profound, abundant, eternal love, and that a full staging of it has the potential to make it more accessible to a larger audience. Given the western penchant for a good tragic love story -- think Romeo and Juliet -- this tale of young lovers so desperate for each other that the man is driven mad certainly has potential cultural traction here. With his production of Layla and Majnun, Morris succeeds in bringing this story to life for audiences who may be unfamiliar with it and in so doing adds his distinct mark to a tale that has already had many hands on it.
Consider all the permutations of this ancient tale that are present in Morris’s production. Its musical source is a 1908 Azerbaijani opera, Leyli and Majnun, that in turn is based on a 16th-century poetic setting of the ancient story. The opera was the first instance of western symphonic music combined with mugham¸ a traditional Azerbaijani improvisational form performed by vocalists accompanied by frame drums, lute, and spike fiddle. Although the opera is beloved in Azerbaijan, it has been reconceived for this production. Renowned mugham singer Alim Quasimov, in collaboration with the Silk Road Ensemble, has compressed the three-and-a-half-hour opera into a more easily digestible seventy minutes, distilled around Majnun’s solos and his duets with Layla. Furthermore, elements that were kept separate in the original opera - mugham and western instruments, improvisation and written parts - are here integrated. To this story many times retold and this music many times re-imagined, Morris adds his dancing.
The musicians - Qasimov and his daughter, Fargana Qasimova, with the Silk Road Ensemble - fill the center of the stage while the dancers weave around and between them. The story unfolds in five acts: Love and Separation, The Parents’ Disapproval, Sorrow and Despair, Layla’s Unwanted Wedding, and The Lover’s Demise.
The tone of the verses, present as a libretto in the printed program, is sustained, seldom varying even as the story progresses from act to act. The lovers continuously profess their agonized passion, but Morris’s choreography refracts this one-noted desperation. In Act I, Layla and Majnun glow with smiles. They rebound from broad and deep pliés and extend glorious legs, testing their connection with one another from different angles and at different distances across the stage. They play a little game, encircling each other with their arms. This merry interaction directly contrasts the verses of Act I - “My heart is heavy because I am alone…I feel like a nightingale that cries in pain…” In so doing, it creates a satisfying starting place; theatrically, the story has somewhere to go.
The dancing also adds breadth to the characters. The full cast of twelve is almost always on stage, but different dancers take on the roles of Layla and Majnun in each of the first four acts. The different aspects of these characters that emerge over time and through circumstance are made evident by the different humans who embody them. Stacy Martorana’s Layla of Act I is exuberant and expansive, whereas Nicole Sabella’s Act II Layla becomes more restrained.
With the work of story-telling done by the printed libretto (and largely superfluous projected supertitles), Morris’s choreography only occasionally employs mime-like “literal” movement: Layla’s unwanted husband shakes his fist at Majnun, or Layla reaches longingly toward her lover. More often, the dancing relies on a more visceral meaning-making: as Majnun goes mad, he pitches backward with knees bent deep and arms spread wide. When her parents disapprove, Layla curtsies low and slow, her fingers and wrists tracing sinuous curlicues, but then finds herself standing high on a step, pushing the air away from her. As Layla’s Unwanted Wedding unfolds, the stage is flanked by rows of unison dancers whose pert and precise footwork and shifting facings manage to evoke both a folk dance and the inevitability of tradition and ceremony.
Sometimes, as with that wedding scene, the ensemble of dancers is a community. They herd the lovers away from each other, or watch and seem to whisper about them. Sometimes they play the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on or translating the actions of the central characters. In Sorrow and Despair, they stand linked together, heads whipping and rolling from side to side, on and on, creating a frenzy of obsession. Sometimes they are all Laylas and all Majnuns, reflecting the actions of the “real” Layla and Majnun.
The resolution of Layla and Majnun’s desperate affair is, of course, death. In the final act, all four Laylas and all four Majnuns are present, but their respective demises seem asymmetric. My impression is of all the Laylas descending together to sit with bowed heads, but each Majnun has a brief solo before surrendering to the floor. (After all, the story tells that it’s Majnun who officially goes crazy; Layla just expires.) A clarinet solo draws all the dancers up to their feet, and each pair of Layla and Majnun meets briefly before exiting. I want to think they have been united in death, or that their earthly love has been subsumed in a divine one, but the final image is of a pair of female dancers returning to extinguish two of the lanterns that have been burning throughout the performance.
If there’s a shortcoming in the production, it lies with an uneven distribution of restraint. In comparison to the wildness, the near-hysteria, of the singers’ improvised solos, the choreography sometimes seems safe, tame, comparatively unimpassioned. Perhaps it’s a function of spatial confinement; the Silk Road musicians and mugham singers take up a good chunk of the stage and the dancers have only limited paths available. Or maybe it’s the nature of the rehearsed versus the spontaneous; when each of the Majnuns performed his last, brief solo, I glimpsed an unleashing that paralleled that of the singers’ and I suspect it’s because those solos are largely improvisatory. Mine is a small complaint, though; this Layla and Majnun is a worthy installment in the story’s evolving history as a performance work. Its reconceived music and eloquent dancing serve the famous story and render it quite legible to a non-Azerbaijani audience.
From 1993-2004, Veronica Dittman Stanich danced in New York and co-produced The Industrial Valley Celebrity Hour in Brooklyn. Now, PhD in hand, she writes about dance and other important matters.
Layla and Majnun continues through Saturday, October 15 at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. For more information and tickets, visit: http://ums.org/performance/layla-and-majnun/.
A man with gray flecked hair, dressed in an old cardigan sweater sits in the dark complaining about modern theater and modern life in general. Things just ain’t what they used to be.
This is the beginning of magic, a near perfect production of The Drowsy Chaperone by the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre.
The man in the chair is sharing his weary view of the world and his obsession with a recording of a 1928 musical, from back in the day when musicals were fun. That musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, is a fizzy, frivolous fluff with the usual stock characters, thin and predictable plot, jazz inspired score and a fine example to the man in the chair of all the sweetness that has been lost in the world.
As the man tells us the story of the musical, the musical comes vividly to life in his nostalgia filled apartment. He swoons over every nuance of story and every piece of stage business and recounts the back stories for all the original stars, rising diva and fading diva, vaudeville comedy team and notorious womanizer, secretly gay leading man and charming old pros who have seen better days.
Director Mark Madama has assembled a terrific cast, each perfectly fit to the character they play. The style is arch, satirical but never so overplayed that it loses touch with what might have been a smashing opening night on Broadway those many years ago. The Drowsy Chaperone, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison and book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, uses that happy style of musical theater to poke fun at nostalgia but also offer an ode to entertainment for entertainment’s sake.
The 1928 play concerns the romance of a Broadway star and a businessman, their impending marriage, the star’s woozy “chaperone,” a couple of bakers (who are really gangsters), a producer afraid of losing his star, a chorus girl angling to take her place, a Latin lover, a dotty lady and her droll “underling.” Sound familiar? And every piece goes together like clockwork. Every performance is choice.
Hannah Lynne Miller is the effervescent Janet Van de Graaff, the star about to throw away the spotlight for marriage. Miller is a riot as she poses for the press, sputters between devotion for her new beau and anxiety over losing her celebrity fix. She’s a fine singer who delivers sincerity even on a song that the man in the chair warns has awful lyrics.
Equally compelling is Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as the title character, the chaperone. She is a deft comedian, with arched eyes and pained sophistication. Her singing shows great range and precise, sensitive phrasing needed to deliver all the humor and sly emotion of her “anthem” “As We Stumble Along.”
Charlie Patterson is hilarious as the egotistic, posturing Adolpho, self-styled Latin lover. He has a love song to himself “I Am Adolpho” that he delivers with just the right amount of clueless self-congratulation.
Kyle McClellan as the potential groom matches the self-loving ego of his bride to be with comic charm. But he also sings and dances superbly. McClellen and Christopher Campbell as his diligent best man perform a great tap dance routine to the song “Cold Feet.”
The tap dance is interrupted by the underling, a butler in the tradition of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, always one step ahead of the upper crusty. Aidan Ziegler-Hansen delivers his lines with precision timing and a bit of droll disdain. He also goes a mean little tap dance.
His usual partner is the ever-confused Mrs. Tottendale, played by Isbel Stein. Stein is amusingly spacey, dressed in a long-dated dress to match her bafflement. She and Ziegler-Hansen sing a goofy love song, “Love is Always Lovely in the End.”
Riley McFarland is the producer, a man in a constant state of despair as he is hounded by gangsters and a pushy chorine. He brings a bit of authority to a funny character. Jo Ellen Pellman plays Kitty, the “dumb blonde” stereotype, to a tee. Her voice cracks, her eyes roll, her body shimmies. It all works.
What also works is the clockwork timing of Joseph Sammour and Simon Longnight as the comic gangsters in both their comic wordplay (a stereotype of ’20s musicals) and their dizzy dance number “Toledo Surprise.”
Another post Lindbergh element to musicals of those days was an aviator, but here an aviatrix with a booming singing voice, well played by Cydney Clark.
The heart and soul of this production is Alexander Sherwin, that man in the chair. His voice may remind you of David Sedaris, a hint of sadness behind every laugh line. Sherwin takes us deep into this man who loves the theater and hates what has happened to it. He knows the story of every performer, the way kids know the story behind sports figures and rappers. He harbors ill will to the modern world and slowly, surely we find out why. Sherwin’s performance is impeccable and gives this bit of fluff its deeper meaning.
The musical direction and the jazz style orchestra under Jason DeBord is outstanding, especially in its ability to give punctuation to the humor on stage. Mara Newbery Greer’s choreography is terrific whether handing the lively tap numbers, a tricky skate routine or the ensemble in full motion.
Caleb Levengood’s set is a masterful tribute to nostalgia, a green colored parlor covered with star photos, posters and playbills and the comfy furniture of another era. The set is also well suited to the quick scene changes of the musical within the play. But there are some subtle touches that get at the heart of the man in the chair, like a row of pill bottles on his side table.
This is a big show, full of humor within the musical and at the expense of the musical. This is an ode to the giddy, goofy '20s musical in all its glory and the UM production grabs all that humor and goes deep into back story for a little more. Bravo!
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.
The Drowsy Chaperone continues at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre Friday through Sunday Oct. 14-16 and Thursday-Sunday Oct. 20-23. For tickets call the box office at (734)764-2538 or go online to http://tickets.music.umich.edu.
The Detroit Public Theatre hit the ground running less than a year ago, after the vision of creators Courtney Burkett and Sarah Winkler finally came to fruition. The DPT shares its home with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in the Max M. Fischer Music Center in the heart of Midtown. Now in their second season, the DPT offers audiences four new plays, all new to Michigan and all, the company believes, relevant to Detroit audiences. The first of these, running from September 28 to October 23 and directed by Burkett, is Murder Ballad, a rock musical about love, lust, rage, passion, obsession, and jealousy that got its start at the off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club.
Described as “a dark thriller with a razor’s edge,” the musical stars Arianna Bergamaschi as Sara, a broken-hearted New Yorker trying to rebuild her life, only to have her former love, Tom (Rusty Mewha, a current Resident Artist at the Purple Rose Theatre) continue to haunt her dreams and ultimately, her reality.
The play opens ominously: as the audience takes their seats in the small Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Hall where the DPT shows take place, a single spotlight shines down on a pool table at the center of the room with a baseball bat lying across it. A live band, comprised of Shawn Neal on drums, Mike Shriver on bass, and Jeff Sufamosto on guitar, is set up at the back of the stage and starts the show off with a crash of rock music. It’s great fun to see the band throughout the whole show, and they offer a dramatic backdrop to the scenery in the foreground.
The main conflict takes place quickly: Sara and Tom are in love (demonstrated by a series of sexy scenes where they crawl around on top of a bar and a pool table), but he breaks her heart. Stumbling home drunk and devastated, Sara meets Michael (Eric Gutman), who comforts her and the two eventually marry and have a child (This child, “Frankie” is invisible throughout the play, although the characters engage with it frequently, which is mildly off-putting.). Sara can’t get Tom off her mind though, and the two reconnect years later with disastrous results. Hint: the baseball bat makes a reappearance.
The highlight of the show is actually the nameless Narrator, played by Arielle Crosby, who takes audiences breath away with her hugely powerful voice. Fed up with all the other characters, she alternately encourages and discourages their actions through song and movement, wielding the baseball bat as a prop, although the others rarely interact with her. Bergamaschi also has a strong voice, although her attempts to mask her native Italian accent seemed ill-advised, as they somewhat affect her ability to sing to her full potential and it would not have detracted from the show for her character to have a non-American accent.
Overall, Murder Ballad is a fun performance to watch despite its somewhat predictable storyline and a lack of truly memorable music. The excellent set design and choreography keep the show moving, and the buildup to the climax of the show is well-executed, with everything concluding in a neat 75 minutes. And of course, who doesn’t love a little murder, passion and rock’n’roll?
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library who only likes to use baseball bats to play baseball.
Murder Ballad runs from September 28-October 23, 2016 at the Detroit Public Theatre in Detroit. Tickets and more information are available at their website. DPT's second season will continue with Dot, running November 16-December 11, 2016, The Holler Sessions, running February 1-26, 2017 and The Harassment of Iris Malloy, running May 3-28, 2017.
It's official – ArtPrize 8, the "radically open international art competition" in Grand Rapids, Michigan, now boasts the largest attendance to an art event on planet Earth. The 19-day event is now over for this year, the votes have been tallied and the 2 Grand Prize Winners (as well as the winners of the Category Prizes) have been announced.
Visitor numbers for this year have yet to be tallied, but from a mere 200,000 visitors in 2009, last year's event drew over 400,000 visitors from all 50 states and 47 countries. Clearly, ArtPrize has been and continues to be a wildly successful and popular art event that has put Grand Rapids on the cultural map.
Artist participation has fallen slightly from a high of 1,713 in 2010 to this year's 1,453. In a tacit admission that the event may be more of an unmixed blessing for the town than it is for the artists, additional prize money has been added to the two whopping $200,000 Grand Prizes in the form of 8 smaller $12,500 prizes in 2-dimensional, 3-dimensional, time-based, and installation categories (both voted by the public and juried)–plus a juried prize for best curated venue. Grants totaling $280,000 have also been awarded to artists, curators and venues for fabricating and installing site-specific artworks and exhibits.
Five entries from the Ann Arbor/Ypsi area were on view in Grand Rapids this year, and they are representative of the diverse backgrounds and professional experience of ArtPrize artists overall:
One Ann Arbor/Ypsi entry, Invasive Species by Shiny Seed, managed to make it into the prestigious final round of 20 for the $200,000 Public Choice Award, although the top prize ultimately went to Wounded Warrior Dogs by James Mellick of Milford Center, Ohio. (The Juried Grand Prize went to The Bureau of Personal Belonging by Stacey Kirby of Durham, North Carolina.)
Invasive Species, a giant aluminum-wrapped and LED-festooned tree, is a collaborative effort by software/electrical engineer and sculptor Gene Foulk and Casey Dixon, artist and shop manager of Maker Works in Ann Arbor. Invasive Species displays in abundance the qualities that can seize and hold the attention of the ArtPrize public and win their votes. It is figurative, centrally located, monumental in scale. It also demonstrates the technical mastery of the artists, is meticulously crafted and expresses commonly shared values in its environmental theme.
ArtPrize 8 is Ann Arbor glass artist Janet Kelman’s first experience with the event. She has been creating works of art in glass since she fell in love with the material while studying chemistry in college. Her wall-hung relief/assemblage Oracle was installed on the second floor of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
Kelman is drawn to water and images of water, and her latest work is an exploration of that fascination. Oracle is one of a series on this theme. It is deceptively simple in form but complex in execution. Composed of 16 separate layers of fused glass displayed at varying distances from the wall, the panels overlap and interrelate in color and shape. She describes her process, saying, "I create small glass pieces using threads of glass, enameled images, crushed glass, whatever else I can dream up, and assemble them in layers on a kiln shelf. The finished fused glass always provides surprises, its constant allure."
Other work by Janet Kelman can be seen at WSG Gallery in Ann Arbor and Vale Craft Gallery in Chicago.
Megan Foldenauer, whose time-based drawing and video How to Draw the Human Eye was on view at the Women's City Club, has lived and worked as an artist in Ypsilanti for 11 years. Her virtuosic pencil drawings of a wide variety of single human eyes arranged in a grid around a small video screen make excellent use of her background in anatomy and medical illustration. She claims she has always known how to draw: "I'm one of those 'all of the sudden I could draw' types. A gift, a calling, a life’s purpose, whatever you wanna call it – I didn’t have to work-work-work to be able to draw… it’s just something I can always remember doing."
A freestanding diptych by J. Daniel Strong was installed in a corner park a bit off the beaten path during ArtPrize. Strong is an Ann Arbor muralist who usually works on commission. The imagery on the front of Pallet is based on Roman paintings in Pompeii, with an array of quotes on the back that refer to humans and their interaction with nature over time.
I was pleased, and a little surprised, to see an artwork by Peter Warburton prominently displayed on the main floor of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. I have seen Warburton's "paintings" from duct tape from time to time in coffee shops around Ann Arbor and Dexter, and have always been charmed by them. A self-taught artist, he has often taken works by Vincent Van Gogh as inspiration for his pictures because he feels a spiritual kinship with the troubled French Impressionist. In Sunset, Monmartre, 1896, he evokes the jumpy stippling of Van Gogh's brushwork; the sun shining over the windmill in the picture mimics a giant eye glaring at the landscape below.
The participating artists’ opinions of ArtPrize experience are, finally, as varied as the individuals themselves, from an enthusiastic “pretty awesome” to a less positive “I’ll never do that again” and everything in between. The key to evaluation of the ArtPrize experience though, is in the management of expectations. With only 11 prizes to divide among over 14,00 entries, artists must weigh whether exposure of their work, engagement with the public and a line in their resume justifies the considerable expenditure of money and time required. What isn’t in doubt is the genuinely positive--and even transformative--effect ArtPrize has had over the last eight years for the city of Grand Rapids and its citizens.
K.A. Letts is an artist and art blogger. She has shown her work regionally and nationally and in 2015 won the Toledo Federation of Art Societies Purchase Award while participating in the TAAE95 Exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. You can find more of her work at RustbeltArts.com.
Theatre Bizarre, the "greatest masquerade on earth," returns to the Masonic Temple in Detroit this month for elaborate, extravagant, eerie debauchery. The annual event has grown in size enormously since its origin as essentially a backyard Halloween party 17 years ago and now takes place across eight floors of the Masonic. The brainchild of mastermind John Dunivant, Theatre Bizarre previously took place in an abandoned area near the Michigan State Fairgrounds before being unceremoniously shut down by city officials in 2010 (before that, they’d been kicked out of the Russell Industrial Complex). Now completely legal, the Masonic seems to be the perfect home for the event, and this year, for the first time, organizers have expanded it to take place across two weekends rather than just one.
Part circus, part carnival, part burlesque and fetish show, and part, yes, masquerade, Theatre Bizarre is unlike most parties taking place this time of year. Illusionists, carnival acts, dancers, musicians, and spontaneous theatrics greet attendees around every turn, along with mind-bendingly detailed scenery and exhibitions. Last year, a "Ghost Train," lit by a single strobe light and conducted by a silent masked man, took guests on a careening mini-roller coaster ride around the Masonic's foggy seventh floor, while several floors below, burlesque dancers emerged from the mouth of a giant devil and strutted down a long catwalk. Elsewhere, taxidermy animals held court over long buffet tables, mimes and jugglers moved among the crowd, and acrobats leaped over furniture. The Grand Ballroom is often the largest room at the Bizarre, and in previous years has been filled with an array of carnival games, treat stands and sideshow performances, including an ice cream shop serving Theatre Bizarre-inspired flavors.
Attendees are required to come in costume; in fact, you'll be turned away at the door with no refund if you show up in street clothes. Costumes run the gamut from homemade affairs, cobbled together from secondhand store finds to expensive, custom-ordered creations. You won't find Captain America or Minnie Mouse wandering around Theatre Bizarre either; the emphasis is on costumes that are weird, satanic, sexy, occult, eerie and/or decadent.
There are four separate Theatre Bizarre events this year, two Gala Masquerades on Fridays and two Historic Theatre Bizarres on Saturdays. The more expensive Gala Masquerade is a formal masquerade ball with a maximum attendance of only 450 people. Dinner and drinks are included in the ticket price, and formal attire, along with masks that conceal one's identity are a must. Guests can enjoy a cocktail reception, strolling dinner, pockets of entertainment around the Masonic, and dancing. The main Theatre Bizarre event takes place on Saturdays, and is less formal, although many still include masks in their costumes. This event is much larger, with attendance pushing 2,000, 5 separate main stages, and 20 performance areas, all of which remain active until the event closes at 4 am.
Theatre Bizarre is particularly unique for its lack of corporate sponsors. Dunivant and those he works with to create the event are artists, and don’t want logos interrupting the world they create or jolting visitors back to reality. Putting the event on at the Masonic is no easy feat: not only do sets and architectural features need to be built elsewhere and reassembled on site, but the wiring in the building is so old that Dunivant and his co-creators run the risk of frying it if they used it to support the electrical demands of the show. Instead, cables and wiring—thousands of feet of them—have to be routed through back hallways, walls, and vents. But Dunivant keeps making it happen every year, and hundreds of devoted attendees are glad. Still, who knows how much longer they’ll be able to pull off this outrageous event, so if there’s ever a year to go experience the magic, this is surely it.
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library. She is super excited to wear a giant horned headdress to Theatre Bizarre this year.
Theatre Bizarre takes place October 14-15 and October 21-22 at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. Tickets range from $95-$260 and can be purchased online, where you can also find out more information about the event.
It may sound like lofty praise, but it’s becoming readily apparent that POP•X is one of the most important events on the contemporary Ann Arbor visual arts calendar. It’s a curious blend of some of our most talented arts groups and individual artists tacitly stepping out of their comfort zone.
The polish and professionalism on display in the installation site was POP•X 2016’s conventional strength—and its non-conformity was the fact that the event took place at all. While this seeming contradiction may be paradoxical to some, it follows seamlessly (perhaps even providentially) from a trajectory that fits the mood of our time.
For the fact is: POP•X fills a gap in our local visual arts that’s been all-too-lacking for some time on our arts calendar. Tucked nicely in downtown’s Liberty Plaza, the installation site was as tidy and manageable as an arts event could be in contrast to the overwhelming behemoth that annually invades Ann Arbor over the course of a week in July. That massive congregation may be ostensibly devoted to the arts, but it’s not really about art. Rather it’s a merchandizing juggernaut that allows the entire community to celebrate the idea of art.
By contrast, POP•X 2016 is a different thing altogether. It partakes of the slightly off-kilter vibe of the mid-20th century “happening.” Granted, it’s far tamer than the Allan Kaprow inspired performance art which sought to perplex as much as it meant to elucidate. But then again, everything slows down as it matures.
There’s instead a touch of the provocateur in POP•X 2016. And the art is of sufficient quality as to gently mask this tension. Instead, as would have been noted by the countercultural Fluxus group of this same mid-20th century period, it’s the sheer concreteness of POP•X that democratizes the activity. There’s no artificial boundary to the event (outside of its physical boundary) because the only border to POP•X 2016 is territorial and this is a logistical distinction.
Whether referencing Kaprow’s performance art or Fluxus’ abstraction, it was one of Neo-Dada's conceits that art be taken off the wall—Pop Art, Environmental Art, Conceptual Art, Optical Art, and other likeminded art forms of this stripe—sought to reinterpret the concept of art altogether. Yet one of the aesthetic ironies of Modernism was that even these kinds of art were still typically found confined to the gallery setting with all the expectations of such pretensions.
Let’s just suffice to say POP•X 2016 bursts though the aesthetic fourth wall of the gallery mentality by gleefully setting up shop outdoors and letting the setting itself serve its basis. But the conventionality of the “art” market has also restricted the possibilities of democratizing the aesthetic potential.
By contrast, POP•X effectively uses the conventions of art to work in an allied configuration that expands these possibilities. Indeed, it’s likely (on the presumption that Ann Arbor is wise enough to continue in this vein) that the possibilities of POP•X have not really yet been broached.
If only for the reasons mentioned above: There’s a homey feel to the POP•X 2016 spirit that’s channeled through the professionalism of the artists and art groups on display. The impulse is clearly there: For example, Lisa Waud’s incarnation of her Detroit-based Flower House utilized her installation to craft a display of nature that threatened to burst from its confine. And although it was based on the limitation of its video monitors, there is a remarkable amount of possible expansion in Donald Harrison and Martin Thoburn’s invigorating four-channel installation roaming Ann Arbor from each direction via its Liberty Plaza starting point.
Effectively—and, again, presuming our arts community is wise enough to build on this remarkably dexterous POP•X format—we still haven’t seen what POP•X 2016 can really be. The possibilities are there; just as the evolution of the village lies in the flexibility of the pavilion format. And this is the most exciting—as well as most important—element of the format.
As is evident from other places and events, contemporary art is clearly reconsidering itself at this time through the adventurousness of its practitioners. It was most evident in the mid-to-late 20th century through the reincarnation of ceramics, fabrics, and functional design.
This is the fundamental and continual challenge of all aesthetics. And POP•X is on the vanguard of this most recent artful transition. So the only real question then is what this change can be?
Because if POP•X 2106 is any indication, we don’t really know yet. For it’ll be the task of our local artists and arts groups as well as visionaries like the Ann Arbor Art Center’s Omari Rush to nurture the concept through its possible growth.
Rather than hope that we see a POP•X again—think in terms of how we see it again. For this is the test of the visual arts.
John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
POP•X is an annual ten-day festival presented by the Ann Arbor Art Center. POP•X 2016 was Thursday, September 22 through Saturday October 1, 2016 from noon to 8pm at Liberty Plaza Park, 255 East Liberty St, Ann Arbor. To learn more visit popxannarbor.com or the POP•X Facebook event page. POP•X is free and open to the public.
Growing old can be hell but it can also be hilarious as proven by the Purple Rose Theatre Company’s World Premiere presentation of playwright Carey Crim’s Morning After Grace.
Crim’s meditation on aging, marriage and sexual frustration is in the superb hands of director Guy Sanville. A three-actor cast handles the unforced and sparkling humor with the precision of a well-disciplined string quartet while also letting it all out when the humor turns to a cathartic sadness.
The scene is a wealthy retirement community on Amelia Island, Florida. An older but still handsome man stumbles from his bedroom into his living room with all the evidence of a head-splitting hangover. He plops on a couch with a look of bewildered exhaustion and falls into a light sleep. Suddenly, a head pops out from a tangled comforter. A woman’s face peeks out and a giddy, happy grin spreads across her face.
In this small opening we immediately understand the dynamic that will play out in Crim’s play. These two characters were strangers to each other just a day before. They’ve had a night at the man’s condominium. Their very different personalities will delight, challenge and comfort each other over a momentous morning.
The title is a pun. Grace refers both to the religious meaning of divine favor but it also refers to the man’s now-deceased wife, whose funeral is the catalyst for what ensues. In this production, it also could refer to the grace and style of the three performers.
Michelle Mountain is Abigail. Her beaming entrance is a clue to Abigail’s attempts to keep a happy mood as she navigates her way through her mid-60s after a divorce. Mountain is a gifted actress. She is as adept at physical comedy, which she demonstrates with some creative costume changes, as she is with fast repartee. She has an expressive face that can light up with delight and also display deep sympathy. Her Abigail seems to have it all together as a professional grief counselor until bit by bit we learn of her insecurity. But she’s an optimist and sweet-natured, a perfect foil to the stranger she went home with.
Randolph Mantooth is Angus, Abigail’s emotional opposite. He’s a young-looking 70-year-old with some unsettled business with his late wife. But he has long been a taciturn, cynical and angry man. This comes through in some sharp barbs that Mantooth delivers with droll precision. Mantooth’s gruff demeanor has a shaggy dog quality that promises that his bark in worse than his bite, even when things get a bit rough. He seems to be getting the upper hand in his byplay with Abigail, but things take an unusual turn.
Ollie enters the scene. Ollie is another resident at the community. He’s a 66-year-old former Detroit Tiger and Grace’s friend. Played by Lynch Travis, a big man who brings big warmth to the character of Ollie, he could seem menacing, but is really gentle, big-hearted and struggling with issues of his own.
Sanville has a deft touch with comedy. He never allows his actors to overplay or get out of character for the purpose of drawing a bigger laugh. This is comedy rooted in reality. These three fine actors bounce lines off each other that are often roaringly funny but are never delivered as jokes. Crim’s comedy emerges from the characters she has created not from a standard joke book.
It would be unfair to those planning to see the production to say more about the plot, but the story has several amusing revelations that twist the perspective on what we’re seeing. As we begin to understand what has gone wrong with Angus’ marriage, comedy gives way to some agonizing self-reflection and real moments of despair. Mantooth makes these moments chillingly real.
Just as the comedy itself is rooted in the real world, Sanville and set designer Bartley H. Bauer have opted to create a stunningly realistic upscale Florida condo, complete with a state of the art kitchen, which plays a major role in the play. This works well as it makes voyeurs of the audience, giving the sense that we are really there is someone’s apartment watching these three lives entangle.
Crim has premiered five plays at the Purple Rose and has a booming career on regional and Broadway stages. This is an excellent addition to those successes. She’s a witty, subtle but also deeply sensitive playwright. She explores in the real context of this play some serious issues facing older people and she brings true compassion to the questions raised. The play should get produced at many other theaters in the future.
This is a winner for the Purple Rose, a fine play with a superb cast.
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.
Regular performances of Morning After Grace are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 pm, with 3 pm matinees Wednesday and Saturdays and 2 pm matinees Sundays through Dec. 17 at the Purple Rose, 137 Park St., Chelsea. For more information or to make reservations, call the Purple Rose box office at (734)433-7673 or visit them online.
Preview: Kevin Smokler's "Brat Pack America" book release party with Michigan Theater double feature, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Breakfast Club"
Writer/journalist Kevin Smokler grew up watching ‘80s teen movies in Ann Arbor, and he’ll be doing that again in the coming weeks, since the release of his new book, Brat Pack America: Visiting Cult Movies of the ‘80s, inspired the Michigan Theater’s fall film series, "Kids in America: '80s Teen Classics" which kicks off on Monday, October 10 with a double feature: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at 7 pm and The Breakfast Club at 9:30. Smokler will be in attendance, as will director John Hughes’ son, James Hughes, and both will offer their insights about the films.
“I knew I wanted to write about the movies I grew up with, but I knew I had to find something else to say about them,” said Smokler, a Greenhills School grad who now lives in San Francisco.
As Smokler started revisiting beloved movies from his youth, he noticed that they were consistently set in places that weren’t Los Angeles or New York City, but rather fictional towns like Shermer, Illinois, or the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, or the Midwestern city of Chicago. Locations played a key role in these films, so in addition to talking to actors, writers, and directors, Smokler went on ‘80s teen movie pilgrimages to Goonies Day in Astoria, Oregon, a Lost Boys Tour in Santa Cruz, California and more.
Fittingly, Smokler views the book as a “giant Trapper Keeper of trivia” about these movies, and one of the interviews he most anticipated was with director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless). “She’s responsible for two of the most important teen movies of all time,” said Smokler. “I was pretty worried about what I could ask her without collapsing into a Spicoli/Cher Horowitz quote-a-thon, which I’m sure she’s heard a thousand times and didn’t need me wasting her time with.”
Of course, watching movies you loved as a kid when you’re an adult can sometimes be a sobering experience, and not everything held up well. “I’d liked Adventures in Babysitting, and that might have been because I had a crush on Elizabeth Shue, or because we would sometimes drive to Chicago for a Blackhawks game, but God, is that an appallingly racist movie,” said Smokler. “ … And The Outsiders is still a good movie. It’s just beneath the skill level of a director like (Francis Ford) Coppola. S.E. Hinton, at 17, somehow wrote a book that’s more cogent and stronger thann Coppola could make it as a movie at 40. I just think the movie coasts on the collective talent of the people who made it.”
Some movies, though, hold up or even improve when viewed from adulthood. For Smokler, this category included Fame and the Matthew Broderick teen tech drama, WarGames. “WarGames is surprisingly sophisticated for what is a political thriller, more in the tradition of The Parallax View,” said Smokler. “It also has a great cast. There’s something special about that, too.”
But you can’t write about ‘80s teen movies without discussing director John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, 16 Candles, The Breakfast Club). “He did not stretch himself much,” said Smokler. “He was a miniaturist of sorts. He was a vertical filmmaker, in that he drilled down on what he did very deeply. … A journalist friend of mine had gone to a gifted and talented school for black teens in Bethesda, and he loved The Breakfast Club, but he was also aware that this was a white person’s fantasy. The same with Star Wars. … The thing that’s so complex about Hughes’ legacy is that he painted with a small palette of colors but his stories registered as universal. It’s both an achievement and troubling at the same time.”
While working on the book, Smokler watched more than 50 films (about 40 get discussed in Brat Pack America), at the pace of usually 4-5 a week. Once Smokler defined what made something a “teen” movie, he also determined where the film era started (Breaking Away).
“Heathers is the movie that literally blows up the genre,” said Smokler. “It’s designed as a satire of the genre, and that how you know that a genre’s time has passed. … Heathers predicts grunge and Quinten Tarantino and feel more ‘90s than it does ‘80s.”
But Smokler believes that the cinematic family line from ‘80s teen movies continues in the form of movie adaptations of John Green’s work (The Fault in our Stars, Paper Towns), The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Superbad, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl and more.
Even so, Smokler’s book invites readers to take another, closer look at the originals, which will be all the easier due to the Michigan Theater’s series, which includes Pretty in Pink, Adventures in Babysitting, The Lost Boys, Say Anything, Back to the Future, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and WarGames.
“I didn’t have as big of an idea as they did,” said Smokler, referring to the Michigan Theater’s staff. “ … I’d dropped Russ (Collins, Michigan Theater executive director and CEO) a note saying, ‘I’ve got a book coming out, and I’m from Ann Arbor.’ And he said, ‘We don’t have an idea yet for a fall film series.’ … At age 7, I sat in that theater’s balcony and watched things like, The Wizard of Oz. It’s the fulfillment of a dream to appear at the Michigan now as a working artist.”
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.
Michigan Theater’s fall film series, "Kids in America: '80s Teen Classics" runs through December 8.
Ah, Wilderness! is an outlier among Eugene O’Neill’s plays, usually full of painful truth telling. It’s a summertime comedy, nostalgic for the youth the playwright never had. Its humor is soft and warm but it is also a quiet reflection on the limits of freedom, set appropriately on the Fourth of July.
The play offers two challenges to a university theater company. It is set in 1906, a time that O’Neill romanticizes as a period of innocence and propriety under assault, a time far removed from now. It is also a family play, in which most of the characters are younger or quite a bit older than the student actors.
The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance cast under the direction of John Neville-Andrews tries hard to create a semblance of an early 20th century family but seems stiff, corseted in their roles and their interplay with each other. This play depends on that interplay, but in this production only a few scenes capture what O’Neill was about.
The Millers of a “large small town” in Connecticut are a solidly middle class clan. Father Nat is the owner of the local newspaper, his wife, Essie, is the dominant figure at home and a stickler for moral values. They have four children, Arthur, a Yale student; Mildred, a modern young woman; Richard, an emerging firebrand; and young Tommy, a firecracker in more ways than one.
Richard is the central character here. He’s a young man intoxicated by new, revolutionary ideas. He’s hiding his copies of Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Algernon Swinburne and Omar Khayyam. He’s also intoxicated with a girl named Muriel and trying out all he’s learned on her innocent person.
Another main character is Essie’s brother Sid. Uncle Sid is a cautionary tale, an alcoholic with a good heart and a crippling weakness. Sid is the object of Nat’s sister Lily’s affection and deep disappointment.
The Fourth is a holiday dedicated to celebrating a revolution and the ideas it helped take hold. But Richard is a classic naïf, a 16-year-old boy anxious to get on with becoming a man and ready to take that first step into naughty rebellion.
This production never settles into a comfortable give and take. The actors seem too often to be reciting and moving stiffly about. The gentle humor is often lost and the humor that is meant to be forced and awkward is never separated from all the rest. The actors seem to have trouble playing the middle aged characters authentically and fall back on stiff mannerisms of an earlier time. But there are good moments and solid effort.
Kevin Corbett gives Richard Miller the right amount of "gee whiz" enthusiasm for the swirl of ideas in his head and he has some good comic moments as he goes to the “dark side” in his encounter with a brassy lady of the night. But even he doesn’t quite capture the giddiness and fear of a boy on the cusp of manhood.
Larissa Marten has every bit the look of a strong matriarch as Essie. She’s tall with an attractive face made stern from admonishing her children. She also has a commanding voice. But her performance is stiff, missing the humor intended under what she says and posing too often. Essie is more than she seems as we see later in the play, but we get few suggestions of that early on.
Liam Loomer brings honest warmth to the role of Nat. He struggles to relax into a real middle-aged man and is forced into playing with cigars and pipes and too much joie de vivre. He does a fine bit of physical comedy in a scene with Corbett where he struggles to explain the “facts of life.” Loomer also has an uncanny resemblance to a young Orson Welles.
Oren Steiner probably has the hardest role in the play as Uncle Sid. Sid is a one-time valued newspaper reporter brought down by a weakness for alcohol. Despite his weakness, Sid is a lovable drunk, not the usual mess found in other O’Neill plays. Steiner does a good job of melding the two sides of Sid and brings some sweet interplay with his nephew Richard after Richard’s night out. But a lot of the humor that is sad/funny about Uncle Sid doesn’t come through and seems, again, stiff and labored.
Amy Aaron as the long-suffering Lily is fairly convincing but looks far too young for the part and lacks the nervousness that seems intended in a character defined as “poor spinster” forced to take shelter in her brother’s house while pining for desolate Sid.
Juliana Tassos plays the brassy prostitute with a nod to Mae West and a squawky voice. Morgan Waggoner is the ethereal Muriel. She gets the tension between desire and rectitude as the play becomes a poetic valentine.
A couple actors seem a bit more relaxed in their performances. Sarah Prendergast plays sister Mildred with a breezy good humor and no posed mannerisms. Eddie Williams as a shifty bartender is also natural as he seems to glide across the barroom.
Ah, Wilderness! was a sweet spot to which O’Neill never ventured again. His family plays in the future would be dark and brooding and even more revolutionary than Wilde, Shaw or Omar Khayyam. But even here he raised some real issues about the limits of freedom and the value of restraint when it comes in the warm embrace of a loving and upright family.
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.
Ah, Wilderness! continues at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the North Campus of the University of Michigan at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13, 8 p.m. Oct. 7,8,14 and 15 and 2 p.m. Oct. 9 and 16. For tickets, call (734)764-2538, go online to tickets.music.umich.edu or in person at the League Ticket Office in the Michigan League building at Fletcher and N. University.
Redbud Productions celebrates its 18th year with the Tony-nominated comedy/drama Good People, a delightful play named Best Play of the Year by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. From the writer of the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire, Good People explores the struggles, shifting loyalties, and unshakable hopes that come with having next to nothing in America.
Welcome to Southie, the Boston neighborhood where a night on the town means a few rounds of bingo; where this month’s paycheck covers last month’s bills, and where Margie Walsh (Katie Whitney) has just been fired from yet another job.
Facing eviction from her eccentric landlady (Linda Lee Austin) and scrambling to catch a break, Margie, on the advice of her best friend (Emily Rogers), approaches her former boyfriend (Dave Barker), now a wealthy doctor, in hopes that he is her ticket to a fresh new start. Will this self-made man face his humble beginnings? Margie risks what little she has left to find out.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s play Rabbit Hole was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, five Tony Award nominations, and the Spirit of America Award. Good People premiered on Broadway and received two Tony Award nominations and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year.
“Good People maps the fault lines of social class with a rare acuity of perception while also packing a substantial emotional wallop.” - Boston Globe “A wonderful new play … poignant, brave and almost subversive in its focus on what it really means to be down on your luck” - The New York Post
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Good People runs October 13-15 at the Kerrytown Concert House, 415 North Fourth Avenue, Ann Arbor. General Seating Tickets - $20 for adults; $15 for students (limited front row café table seating for groups of 2 - 3 for $25 a seat. For reservations, call Kerrytown Concert House at 734-769-2999 or visit http://kerrytownconcerthouse.com.