Theaters Still in the Absurd: An update on the Washtenaw County stage scene

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

tragic masks

When Pulp published this article on May 4 about how area theater companies were dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, all had lost their current seasons and canceled most of the next ones.

But in the two-plus months since then, theater companies -- like the rest of us -- have had time to navigate this plague and try to make plans for what they can offer creatively knowing this pandemic isn't ending soon. 

So we decided to check in with the Washtenaw County theater world and see how their plans may have changed.

While all the info for The Purple Rose Theatre, Eastern Michigan University theater, and UMGASS remains the same from the May 4 article, here are updates for 12 other companies:

The Real Reality: PTD Productions explores Tom Stoppard’s multilayered “The Real Inspector Hound”

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The cast of PTD Productions' "The Real Inspector Hound"

Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound puts a theater reviewer in the interesting position of reviewing a play that satirizes theater reviewers reviewing a play. It is an absurdist work that is, on the surface, like a play-within-a-play, but it becomes something more. It’s a journey that explores identity, authenticity, and what is real versus what we tell ourselves might be real. PTD Productions performs this layered classic with aplomb.

The audience is first introduced to characters Moon (Russ Schwartz) and Birdboot (Larry Rusinsky), two theater critics attending a new murder-mystery play in London in the style of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. (The title is also a reference to Christie’s famous play.) Moon is a second-string theater critic with an obsessive fixation on first-string theater critic Biggs. Throughout his monologues, Moon begins to define his existence with Biggs’s absence and ponders killing Biggs in order to take his place. We eventually learn, however, that there is a third-string critic Puckeridge behind Moon, and Moon wonders if Puckeridge yearns for Moon’s death as Moon dreams of Biggs’. 

For the 'Gram: Lee Minora’s “White Feminist” plays with doing-good-to-look-good activism

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

White Feminist

For one hour on Tuesday, my fellow theater-goers and I in the video studio of U-M's Duderstadt Center were transformed into the live studio audience for a fictional television morning talk show called Becky’s Time. Our host, Becky, portrayed by Lee Minora, was a blonde-haired, French-manicured, self-proclaimed feminist, ready to use her voice to fight for herself and for us -- whether we wanted her to or not. 

White Feminist takes to task the white women who suddenly became “woke” after the 2016 presidential election, eager to jump in, take charge, and change the world, all while failing to realize that not only were people already doing that work, but they have been for decades. That day’s episode was devoted to “Ladies' Time” (or was it “Lady’s Time”?), yet there were no guests.

60 Minutes: "Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription" is a terse presentation on how one hour can upend a life

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Reality Winner played by Emily Davis

Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription looks behind the headlines and the newspaper articles of the real case of Reality Winner, a young woman currently serving a lengthy prison sentence for the unauthorized release of classified documents. She had violated the Espionage Act, which dates back to 1917.

Presented as part of UMS's No Safety Net 2.0 theater festival, this roughly one-hour long show highlights a single moment in Winner’s life, her interview with the FBI that ultimately resulted in her arrest. The stage is almost empty of props, and the audience is focused entirely on the four performers, their dialogue, delivery, and use of personal space. At times, the all-male agents crowd Winner, the only woman present at the time of her interview, giving an appropriate feeling of claustrophobia. At one point, the actors’ speech seems to be slowed down or sped up, perhaps giving insight into Winner’s emotional state at that moment.

The dialogue itself comes from, as the title of the piece says, a verbatim transcription of the recording of the interview. It includes coughs, stumbling over words, people talking over each other, and random unrelated phrases (such as “is this a room”) while the agents both converse with Winner and search her home. 

Roustabout Theatre Explores the Life and Works of The Bard in "Big Daddy Shakespeare"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Roustabout Theatre's Big Daddy Shakespeare

Roustabout Theatre's Big Daddy Shakespeare looks at The Bard in a more personal and humanizing lens than is generally studied in school. A one-act play adapted from several of Shakespeare’s works by Anna Simmons and directed by Josie Lapczynski, shows him as a son, husband, and father who he left his young family to be a playwright in London. What was he thinking? Feeling? And how could his plays reflect his state of mind through separations -- and grief?

The Ypsi Experimental Space (YES) is decorated throughout with a specific theme. A popcorn machine greets you at the door, the warm scent of the freshly popped treat filling the air. Posters from past Roustabout Theatre shows are plastered on the walls like old circus playbills. The stage is draped in the unmistakable striped fabric of a circus tent. 

The vehicles for our exploration of Shakespeare are, fittingly, four roustabouts, or circus workers who erect and dismantle tents, care for the grounds, and handle animals and equipment. Our four roustabouts (Amanda Buchalter, Julia Garlotte, Russ Schwartz, and Cynthia Szczesny) enter the stage to put up another poster (for the show we are about to see) and set up some stage equipment and costumes the circus might need, but are, of course, used for their own show. 

Redbud Productions takes on the power of family in the Michigan premiere of "The Herd"

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Redbud Productions' The Herd

Lisa Coveney as Carol in Redbud Productions' presentation of The Herd.

Redbud Productions explores with humor and heart the dynamic of a family raising a child with special needs in The Herd by Rory Kinnear.

Mother Carol (Lisa Coveney) is anxiously putting together the perfect 21st birthday party for her son Andy, who is severely disabled and living in a care home. Also invited to the party are Carol’s parents, Patricia (Lenore Ferber) and Brian (Michael Haifleigh), and Carol’s adult daughter Claire (Katie Whitney), who takes this opportunity to introduce her new boyfriend Mark (Chris Krenz) to the family. Carol’s estranged husband Ian (Brian Hayes), who abandoned the family when Andy was a baby, also chooses to attend unannounced. In the words of producer Tim Grimes, “The intrusion does not go well.”

Now in its 20th year, Redbud Productions, offers acting classes for adults and high school students using the techniques of Sanford Meisner, which, among other things, focus on emotional work. 

Neighborhood Theatre Group Brings the Laughs with Original Sketch Comedy Show "Trending Now"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Neighborhood Theatre Group, Trending Now cast

Ypsilanti's Neighborhood Theatre Group closes their 2018-2019 season with original sketch comedy show Trending Now, highlighting the humor found in "fads, fashion, and fandom." 

NTG has always had its hand on the pulse of popular culture. In previous seasons, their annual sketch show has asked, "What is love?" (Sketchual Healing, 2017) and "Can I Help You?" (focused on customer service, 2018). There is catharsis in poking fun at ourselves (and each other) and having a good laugh. 

Topics this time around include a Klingon wedding, Grandma's misuse of internet initialisms, Lite-Brites, spoiler alerts, who is the best Doctor Who, dance-offs, how Facebook knows our every desire, #RaisingAwareness, and a rousing game of Craft Beer or Race Horse? with audience participation (it's harder than you might think). 

Roustabout Theatre Troupe’s “Mad As A Hatter” Is A Tea Party Reunion With Old Friends

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Roustabout Theatre's Mad As a Hatter

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Whether we’ve read Lewis Carroll's books or not, most of us are familiar with the character Alice and her adventures in Wonderland. One of the more iconic figures is the Mad Hatter with his tea party and nonsense riddles. Alice was based on a real person, Alice Liddell, but what about the Mad Hatter? Playwright Michael Alan Herman has proposed that he was, one Theophilus Carter, a well-known (at the time) furniture salesman and inventor who, according to Herman and others, bears a striking resemblance to Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations of the Mad Hatter. 

Roustabout Theatre Troupe’s Mad As a Hatter -- directed by Joey Albright -- imagines Carter (Russ Schwartz) and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll was a pseudonym) as school friends who grew up together then grew apart after Dodgson published his less than flattering portrayal of his good friend in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In the play, Carter is haunted by his literary alter-ego the Mad Hatter, who not only comes to life but also bears a striking resemblance to Dodgson (both Dodgson and the Mad Hatter are played by Jeffrey Miller). 

Axis of Strategery: "Dispatches From the Dumb Decade" takes on the 2000s with song and humor

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Dispatches From the Dumb Decade

Craig VanKempen plays the Sean Hannity-type talk-shot host George O’Bannon in Neighborhood Theatre Group's original musical Dispatches From the Dumb Decade. Photo by Crysta Coburn.

People sometimes struggle with how to refer to the first 10 years of the 21st century. The zeros? The aughts? Ypsilanti playwright A.M. Dean has put forth his own nickname for these transformative years in our nation’s history: The Dumb Decade.

Neighborhood Theatre Group’s original pop/rock musical Dispatches From the Dumb Decade follows its characters as they come of age in the age of 9/11, George W., Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Axis of Evil, "strategery," and the birth of fake news. All these things that I had put behind me were brought alive again through music and song. We were so innocent back then. 

Bloody Good Times: Neighborhood Theatre Group's "Black Cat Cabaret"

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Neighborhood Theatre Group's Black Cat Cabaret

Music! Dance! Drama! And a wee bit of blood!

All that and more will feature in the Neighborhood Theatre Group's annual hit Halloween show, Black Cat Cabaret, which runs October 19 and 20 at Bona Sera Underground in Ypsilanti. Not appropriate for young children, Black Cat features live musical accompaniment by the NTG “Haunted” House Band, a cash bar, costume contest, and raffle. 

Pulp spoke with NTG company member Greg Pizzino and Tom Hett of the House Band about the show.