Theatre Nova’s Zoom play series continues with "Mortal Fools" by Ann Arbor playwright Catherine Zudak
The Goldilocks Principle, though not regularly cited in reference to storytelling, can nonetheless be maddening for those who build narratives.
For how does a writer determine, in each scene, what’s too much information (thus bogging things down and killing suspense) and what’s too little (leaving audiences confused and frustrated)? How do you consistently land upon what feels “just right”?
It’s a notoriously tough needle to thread—particularly within the tight parameters of a 30-minute Zoom play—and this notion was something I thought about often while watching the third and newest entry in Theatre Nova’s Play of the Month series, Mortal Fools, by Ann Arbor-based playwright Catherine Zudak. (The live performance recording of Fools may be viewed—along with the first two entries in Theatre Nova’s Zoom play series, Jacquelyn Priskorn’s Whatcha Doin? and Ron Riekki’s 4 Genres—with the purchase of a $30 series pass, which also covers admission for the fourth and final play in the series, Morgan Breon’s The W.I.T.C.H., scheduled to be performed April 28 at 8 pm)
This review originally ran on January 19, 2021. We're featuring it again because UMS is streaming "Some Old Black Man" for free March 1-12, 2021, but you have to register for the screening here.
The closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to engage in picayune arguments that quietly scratch at, and chafe against, far deeper issues.
Which is to say, a family clash about what to eat for breakfast—a conflict that kicks off early in the recently streamed University Musical Society theater production of James Anthony Tyler’s two-hander Some Old Black Man—is often about something else entirely.
In the case of NYU literature professor Calvin Jones (Wendell Pierce) and his ailing, 82-year-old father, Donald (Charlie Robinson)—who’s just been relocated from his home in small-town Mississippi to Calvin’s posh Harlem penthouse—a conflict about a yogurt parfait strikes notes of really being about control, and conflicting generational perspectives, and blackness, and ego, and masculinity.
That is an awful lot for a soupy bowl of granola and fruit to carry.
But Tyler understands that to mine down to the heavy, hard-to-face stuff, humans inevitably have to start the process by hacking away at nonsense for a while—with absurdly tiny pickaxes.
It's fitting that J. Amber Kao is listed as "mover" in the website bio section of IS/LAND, a performance collaborative comprised of Asian Pacific Islander American and Asian artists. Yes, she's a dancer, but as shown in the performance video "In Isolation Pt. 1 - SYNODIC," it's movement that matters most, not a prescribed notion of dance.
Recorded last year in Saginaw Forest before the leaves changed, Kao and fellow Ann Arborite Chien-An Yuan (aka Jienan Yuan) created this video and soundtrack as a "meditation reflecting on both the passage of time and the nature of change—embodied in the dancer’s movement between, around, and within the changing sunlight."
Accompanied by Yuan's ghostly soundtrack, Kao cuts a hypnotizing figure among the tall trees, her movements so slow and controlled that you might think it's a camera trick. While the choreography is for a solo performer, Kao's active dress makes it a duet. The billowy garment almost looks like a special effect, with its horizontal lines implying a landscape, or even a face, its colors syncing with the washed-out greens and blown-out backlighting. But even when Kao bounces the dress, it looks like she has perfect dominion over the fabric's movement, leading the raiment through the dance like a patient teacher.
Over the course of nearly five minutes, it's easy to be transfixed by Kao and ignore her surroundings, but on subsequent viewings, you'll see how the video's contrast subtly changes. While Kao's movements stay in a tight radius, time slides up the path toward her as the colors move from pale to saturated, the backlight dimming with time, the foreground becoming more and more vibrant. Yuan's quivering drone accompaniment is occasionally punctured by a treated piano chord, which introduces a sharp video edit that indicates the next stage of the forest's evolving hues.
It's the perfect video for January, when we're huddling inside our homes, hiding away from the season's browns and grays, waiting to glide in tandem with the verdant world once again.
Normally, you might come into the library, talk to someone on staff, get some recommendations, perhaps share a few of your own, and we'd go on our merry ways, content we could engage in a positive social interaction while discussing whatever book, movie, TV show, music, or more that came up.
Art is life and life is people.
But we've not seen most of you since March 13, the last time the Ann Arbor District Library was fully open to the public—and to the staff. While many AADL staffers have returned to the buildings to do important behind-the-scenes work since the summer, many others have been working from home since the closure. And we miss being able to share what we're currently loving not just with patrons but also with each other.
So, to staffers and patrons alike, these are the movies, TV shows, music, books, and more that helped the AADL crew get through 2020.
Pantomime, or panto, is a form of audience participatory musical comedy theater developed in England that has become a beloved part of the Christmas and New Year season in many parts of the English-speaking world. There are songs, dances, and gags galore. Theatre NOVA proudly carries on this tradition right here in Ann Arbor.
This year, however, things had to change a bit. How does one engage the assistance of an audience when theaters across Michigan have had to close? Through the magic of modern technology of course. Theatre NOVA had already experimented with theater over Zoom in October with its Zoom Play Series. Now Nova has applied Zoom to its 2020 panto I’m Streaming of an Alright Christmas by Carla Milarch and R. MacKenzie Lewis.
The plot revolves around Santa and his team getting ready for their Christmas flight. But the reindeer have gone on strike, the elves haven’t made the toys, and the dreaded Rona Monster is on the loose in the North Pole. Can Christmas be saved?
After I clicked the provided link and logged into Zoom, I was met by an animated red curtain. Holiday music played while a five-minute countdown popped up in the lower right corner of my screen along with a dancing Santa along with four guidelines for maximum enjoyment of the show:
During the pandemic, music has found its way: making songs in home studios, livestreams, and even socially distanced concerts have been a regular part of the past eight months.
Visual arts have also slowly come back in the form of virtual gallery shows, outdoor murals, and some staggered, limited-capacity crowds entering museums.
But theater, with its heavy reliance on casts and crew working in close proximity, has really struggled since Covid ravaged the world.
Locally, Ann Arbor's Theatre NOVA and Ypsilanti’s Neighborhood Theatre Group did Zoom theater festivals in October, and Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and Dexter Community Players did two days of outdoor performances of original Halloween-themed plays on October 30 and 31 at Dominos' Petting Farm.
But the move to indoor productions on a slightly larger scale is about to swing back into action thanks to University Productions' virtual season, which will run in December on U-M's School of Music, Theatre, and Dance YouTube site and one premiere on SMTD's Facebook page.
All the performances will be available to view online for free, albeit for a limited time, and the six shows will feature four from Departments of Musical Theatre and Theatre & Drama and two from the University Opera Theatre. The season was filmed throughout this semester with numerous safety protocols in place.
With most University of Michigan students being asked to stay home for the winter semester, this might be our last chance for a while to take in some quality theater from the SMTD crews.
Here's the lineup with descriptive text provided by University Productions:
Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and Dexter Community Players' Halloween Drive aims to scare you with good theater
While most of us mourn the loss of traditional Halloween celebrations this year—scary movie marathons at home notwithstanding—the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and Dexter Community Players decided to do something about it.
The two troupes, who haven't been able to perform in front of audiences since the pandemic started, will have a slow-rolling crowd for their shows on October 30 and 31 at The Petting Farm at Domino's Farm.
Halloween Drive features three spooky plays written by Brodie H. Brockie and produced by Patty Mazzola that people can watch as they cruise along a path in their cars at the farm, including:
Area stages have gone dim to protect audiences, actors, and theater workers during these uncertain times.
But that doesn’t mean the show can’t go on.
Have you ever wanted to direct a play? Have you ever wanted to cast your kid in the leading role? Have you ever wanted to stage the whole theatrical event in your living room?
If your answer to every question is "no," that's reasonable because directing is a lot of work, nepotism is bad, and who wants to mess up an adequately clean living room?
But perhaps the Covid crisis has you saying "yes" to things you would've never considered before since you're running out of things to do in the adequately clean house you've been cooped-up in for five months.
Well, then, perhaps the idea of directing a play in your living room starring your kid is back on the table.
If you don't know which play to produce, you're in luck: U-M professor José Casas joined seven fellow playwrights who wrote commissioned scripts for California's La Jolla Playhouse. The works are free to access online for everyone and are aimed, respectively, at elementary, middle, and high school students. The plays can be performed with two to six people, depending on the story, with no requirements for costumes, props, or sets -- since we all know the set will be your adequately clean living room or even your mostly maintained backyard.
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.