U-M professor José Casas' "The Imagination Place" is a play to be performed by families at home

THEATER & DANCE

Jose Casas

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.

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:

Theaters in the Absurd: Washtenaw-area drama troupes announce cancellations, postponements, and out-of-business news due to the covid-19 pandemic

THEATER & DANCE

tragic masks

On March 12, Kickshaw Theatre announced on its Facebook page that it had to cut short its then-current production of Lungs, and because the show didn't have a full run, it seemed reasonable to wonder if the play might be rescheduled.

But on May 1, the cancellation became permanent: Kickshaw Theatre sent out a note that said the organization was closing permanently after five seasons. It also canceled the final scheduled event for the current season, Madeleine George's The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, which was to run July 9-26.

With the sad news of Kickshaw's demise in mind, we decided to check the updates of other theater groups in Washtenaw County to see how they were doing.

UMS announces 2020/21 Season; Ann Arbor Summer Festival calls off Top of the Park

MUSIC THEATER & DANCE

Two major arts presenters in Ann Arbor have announced their upcoming schedules:

The University Music Society (UMS) released its full calendar of 2020/2021 season events and the Ann Arbor Summer Festival (AASF) has canceled all its traditional outdoor Top of the Park events, following the late March announcement terminating all indoor performances.

While UMS's schedule is based on the idea that we'll be able to attend indoor shows by September, AASF's June 12 to July 5 outdoor series is coming up too soon to know if the quarantine will be over. But the AASF is coming up with alternate plans to it traditional fest, "including digital offerings, collaborative art projects, and live music reimagined," it said in a press release. "Today, the public can participate in the first of those programs, Kooky Kreatures, a community art project presented in partnership with the Ann Arbor District Library’s Bummer Game. In the coming weeks, the Festival will share additional elements of an adapted season."

UMS's schedule begins September 11, 2020, with a two-night stand by the Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Power Center and ends April 24, 2021, with the Jerusalem Quartet featuring Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth. In between is UMS's usual mix of jazz/classical/world music, dance, and theater. The only obvious things missing are the National Theatre Live series of filmed performances by the British theater group and the big, free, outdoor kick-off event.


Check out UMS's entire 2020-2021 schedule here.
Keep up with the evolving AASF schedule here.

Night Moves & Funny Dudes: Matt Braunger at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Matt Braunger

Matt Braunger thinks Ann Arbor is a hellhole, which is why he does stand-up here a lot.

This interview originally ran on March 9, 2017. Braunger returns to the Ann Arbor Comedy Club from March 12-14, 2020.

Portland-raised, Los Angeles-based stand-up comedian Matt Braunger has been a regular fixture in comedy clubs and on late night talk shows for over 10 years with his brand of introspective observational comedy. Braunger, 42, will be getting married later this year for the first time and is currently working on new material for a new hour-long special during his Enraged to be Married tour that hits Ann Arbor this week.

In the late 1990s, fresh out of college, Braunger moved to Chicago where he worked with improvisational guru Del Close, and along with comedians like Hannibal Buress and Kyle Kinane helped create an alternative comedy scene in a city that didn’t have one. Finally deciding on stand-up instead of improv, Braunger moved to Los Angeles to further his career, eventually landing a spot on the final season of MADtv in 2009.

Since the end of MADtv, Braunger has been a regular on the NBC comedy Up All Night, had a recurring role in the second season of Agent Carter on ABC, and most recently appeared on Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher’s Seeso comedy Take My Wife. Along with his acting appearances, Braunger has also released three comedy albums and appeared as Bruce Springsteen in the Channel 101 series Yacht Rock.

Braunger will appear Thursday, March 9 through Saturday, March 11 March 12-14, 2020, at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, and we talked to him about Midwestern comedy scenes, his upcoming special, politics, his podcast, a new Amazon Prime series, and Bob Seger.

Tanya Shaffer and Vienna Teng's musical "The Fourth Messenger" offers a contemporary view of the Buddha  

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

The Fourth Messenger

Meditation is meant to focus the mind by clearing away random thoughts. But sometimes meditation may inspire a radical new idea.

Playwright Tanya Shaffer had such an inspiration that led to the creation of The Fourth Messenger, an unusual musical about the Buddha that will be given a concert staging at The Ark on March 14 as a fundraiser for the venue's Spotlight Series.

“The idea came to me on a nine-day silent retreat when I was supposed to be clearing my mind,” she said. “I was thinking about the story of Buddha’s enlightenment, where he sat under a tree and vowed not to get up until he found enlightenment. Then for many days and nights, all the temptations of the world are trying to get him up. And it came to me that would be cool as a song and dance, the temptations standing under a tree and then thinking the whole story would be a musical because it has that scale of a hero’s quest and so I got excited on the retreat and for many hours forgot about my breath and I thought about the musical.”

Neighborhood Theatre Group’s new play "Thoughts and Prayers" explores what happens when a high school is upended by violence

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Neighborhood Theatre Group’s Thoughts and Prayers

Eric Hohnke as Andy Webber in Neighborhood Theatre Group’s Thoughts and Prayers. Photo by Sun Chao. 

Neighborhood Theatre Group’s new play, Thoughts and Prayers -- written by A.M. Dean and directed by Marisa Dluge -- is a story based in fictional but present-day Michigan where a gun and manifesto were discovered in a high school student’s trumpet case. The FBI responds by sending in Agent Sarah Allistair to implement “Project Armored Apple” in which teachers are supplied guns and training to react in the event of an attack at the school.

The story centers on Agent Allistair and Andy Webber, the awkward and ominous 17-year-old friend of Tyler, the gun-and-manifesto student. Andy’s family comprises of his mother, Melanie -- the devoted but anxious parent who is also a teacher at his high school; his father, Doug -- the cringe-inducing dad who thinks Tyler’s motive is related to receiving “too many hugs”; and Uncle Jeff -- a janitor at the high school and the relatable adult the teenager desperately needs.

There's a violent interaction in the play, but writing about it directly would be a spoiler. Trust that it comes as a surprise.

Thoughts and Prayers is directed by Marisa Dluge and stars Mimi Blackford, Eric Hohnke, Mike Sandusky, Debbie Secord, Kate Umstatter, and Craig VanKempen.

The term “thoughts and prayers” has become a common colloquialism within the discussion of school shootings. Playwright A.M. Dean uses this story to explore our reactions to these tragedies, how these tragedies may affect the afterlife, and how we prevail through our thoughts and prayers.

As to be expected, this play did not provide answers as to why these senseless acts take place in our schools. It left me feeling more nauseous about the current state of violence in our schools, more so than anything else. Perhaps that is a good thing.

Dean is the literary manager and co-founder of Neighborhood Theatre Group. He lives in Ypsilanti and received his degree from Michigan State University where he studied theater. 

He answered a few questions via email.

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’. 

Michigan-based theater artists create "The Call of the Void," a sci-fi audio drama set in New Orleans

THEATER & DANCE INTERVIEW

The Call of the Void

The Call of the Void is a sci-fi audio drama following Topher and Etsy as they look for the truth behind a mysterious illness taking hold of victims in modern-day New Orleans. The audio drama has 10,000 listens in 54 different countries on 14 different streaming platforms -- and it was all created in a living room in Pinckney, Michigan.

Creators, lead voice actors, and engaged couple Josie Eli Lapczynski and Michael Herman are theater artists who are using podcast technology to share their talents with a global audience through a nine-part series podcast audio drama. 

While immersing themselves in sci-fi culture by reading HP Lovecraft, binging shows like Stranger Things and listening to the podcast Rabbits, Lapczynski and Herman decided to make their own sci-fi audio drama.

“We wanted to make a television show for your ears,” said Lapczynski. “In the last year, we've also been getting more and more into cosmic horror. We knew we wanted to create something in this genre and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, but rather than write about Cthulhu, we wanted to make our own monster, and so The Call of the Void was born."

Encore Theatre's junior production of "James and the Giant Peach" finds a way to make everything better

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

James and the Giant Peach

A Nancy Ekholm Burkert illustration from the 1961 edition of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how trippy a moment we find ourselves in that the work of Roald Dahl seems suddenly, particularly ubiquitous.

For just as a touring production of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues its run at Detroit’s Fisher Theater, regional productions of the James and the Giant Peach stage musical -- with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald, and music and lyrics by U-M grads and Oscar, Tony, and Grammy Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- have been sprouting up everywhere, including at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

Encore’s junior production, which begins February 28 and runs for eight performances through March 8, features 22 young performers, ranging in age from eight to 18.

“One of the things I love about [the show] is, not just the chosen family aspect of it, but also, James has this ability to be dealt a terrible hand constantly, and yet he always finds a way to make it better, and always finds the good in things that other are quick to overlook and discard,” said Matthew Brennan, the director of Encore’s production. “The insects, for example, these pests people just want out of their house. … [H]e finds potential in them, and that speaks to something really cool about this story.”