Among the many, many things that have changed over the last two years is our sense of “home.”
While traditionally associated with comfort and family and love, our homes became claustrophobic prisons of a kind during the pandemic as we holed up to protect ourselves and each other; and though home provided many of us with some semblance of safety, we were nonetheless terrified of being with others and of this dangerous thing that was out in the world that we didn’t yet understand.
So although the UMS presentation of Geoff Sobelle’s Home—a genre-defying hybrid of theater, dance, and interactive performance art that often has the feel of a live silent film—had been originally scheduled for April 2020, seeing it instead this past weekend during its two-day run at the Power Center inevitably meant the audience watched it with COVID-era eyes.
That’s not to say we collectively arrived at the venue with a jaundiced, wary perception filter firmly in place. But for many of us, the abstract idea of “home” as an emotional palette has expanded to include some darker hues, right alongside the more conventionally bright, cozy, warm ones.
In addition to presenting classic American musicals and lively cabaret shows, The Encore Theatre in Dexter is also doing its part to expand the musical theater repertoire with premiere presentations of new musicals.
This month, Encore is presenting the world premiere of A Thousand Faces, a musical bio on the life of silent-screen star Lon Chaney.
As with any new theatrical production, the first presentation is an opportunity for the creative team to make adjustments and test run the audience's response to the new material. The book writer, the composer, the lyricist, and the director will tweak this show as the weeks go on.
They’re off to a good start but audiences might be a bit surprised by the show’s approach to telling the Chaney family story.
Along with the great silent comedy stars, Lon Chaney's name and films still resonate with audiences. He was the man of a thousand faces. He was an actor who hid himself in characters that were both physically and psychologically damaged. Chaney was famous for his performances in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, The Unholy Three, Laugh, Clown, and He Who Gets Slapped. He did his own shock-producing makeup and twisted his face and body into a dozen different contortions. But he could also show his own face and give a tough performance in the contemporary war drama Tell It to the Marines.
After a scene of Chaney adjusting his Quasimodo makeup and trying on tortured facial expressions, A Thousand Faces takes us back to Chaney’s youth, because this isn’t a story about making horror movies, it’s about family.
Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over” is a Black Lives Matter-era translation of Exodus and "Waiting for Godot"
The time is ripe for Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, now on stage at Theatre Nova.
The play was the show that officially reopened Broadway last August; we’re fast approaching the holiday of the same name, which commemorates the Jews’ emancipation from slavery in Egypt; and given the reignited culture wars of this mid-term election year—fueled in part by debate about critical race theory—Nwandu’s powerful reimagining of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, with two young Black men in the lead roles, feels like the theatrical version of lightning in a bottle.
Pass Over (run time 80 minutes) focuses Moses (Justin Montgomery) and Kitch (Dan Johnson), who live a hardscrabble Groundhog Day-like existence on a heavily policed city block. They regularly perform rituals like a secret handshake; Moses says “Kill me now” when he wakes up each morning, and Kitch replies, “Bang bang”; and they each name wished-for items on their “Promised Land Top Ten” lists.
But even as the men speak and dream of escape—using language so rife with curses and the n-word that it soon feels more centered on sound and music than meaning—they’re not going anywhere; and a streetlight pole that looms like Vladimir and Estragon’s tree, in this new context, haunts the play’s action with the ominous suggestion of lynching. Building on this idea, a cartoonishly obsequious, lost, “golly gee” white man (Kevin O’Callaghan) enters the scene, wearing a light-colored suit and carrying a picnic basket full of food for his mother; and a racist, violent white cop called Ossifer (also played by O’Callaghan) appears now and then to keep Moses and Kitch in their place, both literally and figuratively.
Penny Seats Theatre Company's "The Actors" is a comedic and emotional look at processing parental loss
Ronnie, the comedic drama’s main character (who notably shares the playwright’s name, and is affectingly played by Brandy Joe Plambeck), voices this idea while explaining why he’s looking to hire a man and a woman to spend a few hours a week in his apartment, playing the roles of his deceased parents. He's lonely and has decided to use his inheritance money to hire actors that might make him feel cared for and connected again. Ronnie provides a family history and specific, remembered scenes for the actors to play out, inviting them to improvise.
Inevitably, though, things go hilariously off-the-rails, as the boundaries between reality and pretend get increasingly fuzzy. Ronnie’s stand-in father Clarence (Robert Schorr) and mother Jean (Diane Hill) develop an attraction for each other; Clarence moves in, after being kicked out of his real home; and Jean’s real grown son (David Collins) inserts himself as Ronnie’s pretend older brother Jay, which makes the real Jay’s (Jeffrey Miller) unannounced visit all the more painfully awkward. But Jay’s arrival also brings new information to light that throws Ronnie’s family memories, and motives, into question.
Thirteen years ago, the Found Spaces Theater Company in Los Angeles commissioned a play from José Casas about homelessness. “I was really struggling with the play,” he recalls. “It was like a bad afterschool special with two-dimensional characters.”
Then the artistic director gave Casas an article about homeless kids who lived in motels, kids with fathers who were absent or deceased, who live near Disneyland and suffer “earth-shattering tragedies each day.“ At once, he was inspired by the thought of some children enjoying a theme park, while children in abject poverty were near enough to hear their laughter.
And somebody’s children took shape quickly. The University of Michigan is staging a production at the Arthur Miller Theatre through April 2.
Touching From a Distance: “A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter” explores emotional connections between strangers
After months of isolation and “Zoom socializing,” many of us are probably feeling pretty rusty when it comes to face-to-face conversations with strangers—which seems a raison d’etre of 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways (Part 2): An Encounter, presented by the Ann Arbor Summer Festival and the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
This intimate, interactive theater experience positions you and a stranger across from each other at a table, with a glass partition between you, in an empty room at UMMA. You take turns reading from a stack of cards—a black arrow indicates which of you the card is for—and you read aloud from it, or follow instructions like, “Imagine what keeps this person up at night,” or “wink with each eye,” or “with your partner, make a box with your hands against the glass.”
It doesn’t take a genius—or a grand performance on stage—to reveal how people will do anything for money.
On February 25 and 26, Basement Arts, a U-M student theater organization, gathered at the Newman Studio in the Walgreen Drama Center and performed Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit, which shows how far people will go.
First published in 1956, The Visit tells the tale of millionaire Claire Zachanassian who returns to Güllen, the small town where she grew up. Excited by her visit, the townspeople decide to take this opportunity to better their town and their lives as they’ve fallen on hard times. But Zachanassian has a different plan in mind: In exchange for a one billion dollar donation to Güllen, she wants the townspeople to kill Alfred, the man who she became pregnant with, then jilted her.
Sam White, founder of Shakespere in Detroit, guest directed the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance’s recent production of Antigone (February 17-20). She felt the weight of the pandemic while conceiving of the staging and decided that rather than putting on a play written in 441 BCE as some sort of separate escapism from our current world, the two can interact and help one another.
The curtains opened and revealed a dark stage. It was silent, and over the course of a few minutes, lights started to show the audience fragments of what was on stage while keeping the illumination dim enough that you had to squint to see there were people with instruments tucked in the left corner of the stage.
Eventually, the light, though still low, revealed everyone on stage: Sharif Sehnaou on guitar, Hala Omran with a microphone, Aya Metwalli with a guitar, Simona Abdallah on drums, and above them all, Ali Chahrour lay on top of the speakers, one arm dangling and the other with a bouquet of dead flowers in his hand.
This is the entry to Layl (Night) by Ali Chahrour, presented at the Power Center in Ann Arbor on February 12.
In Transition: Jeffry Chastang's “Under Ceege” explores tension, change, and stasis between a son, a mother, and her community
In June 2021, after the brutal murder of George Floyd and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, many theater artists began to wonder if they had done enough to combat inequality. American Theatre published responses of a sampling of theaters across the country, and the magazine’s editor, Rob Weinert-Kendt, wrote that artists “must not let this moment of potential for change … pass us by.”
The Purple Rose Theatre Company felt the call of the times, too. While founder Jeff Daniels was on Broadway as Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who defended victims of prejudice in To Kill a Mockingbird, he wrote to the theater’s supporters expressing pride in the Rose’s diversity record: 30% of productions featured a person of color, Daniels reported. Seven productions centered on a diverse community, and four were written by playwrights of color. “But it’s not enough,” Daniels added.
So, the artistic director at the time, Guy Sanville, launched an initiative to seek out artists who are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color. The theater started holding acting auditions in Detroit as well as at its home in the mostly white city of Chelsea. Sanville appointed Lynch Travis, an African-American actor and director who had been part of the Rose company, to be the chief diversity enrichment advisor.
“When I was engaged by the Purple Rose to find more diverse voices to put on their stage, we invited 12 local playwrights,” says Travis. After Daniels and Sanville selected Jeffry Chastang’s Under Ceege, they asked Travis—who had been one of the first people to read the play—to direct it.
Under Seege started previews on January 20, fully opens on January 28, and runs through March 12.