Encore Theatre's production of the Tony-winning "Fun Home" passes the test

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's production of Fun House

Sarah Stevens as Big Alison in Encore Theatre's production of Fun Home. Photo by Michele Anliker.

When I first read Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home -- the basis for a Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, now on stage at Dexter’s Encore Theatre -- I immediately sent copies of the book out to my three closest girlfriends.

It wasn’t Christmas or anyone’s birthday, but I couldn’t contain myself. Bechdel’s groundbreaking, bracingly candid, and bittersweet chronicle of a family tragedy gripped me so profoundly that my first, undeniable impulse was to share her story with others.

The stage musical adaptation -- with music by Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics by Michigan’s own Lisa Kron -- necessarily pares Bechdel’s tale down to its essentials, but it’s no less poignant while depicting Bechdel’s gleeful, college-age “coming out” and, shortly thereafter, her closeted father’s sudden suicide.

At Encore, Sarah B. Stevens plays the always-on-stage, present-day version of Bechdel, who’s struggling to sketch out and narrate her family’s history. (The “Fun Home” of the title is the nickname Alison and her younger brothers had as kids for the funeral home that has long been the Bechdels’ “family business.”) As she draws, she remembers various moments from her childhood and college days as they play out in front of her, until she finally can’t resist inserting her present-day self into the last late-night drive she ever took with her father (Daniel C. Cooney), urging herself to say something that will alter the course of what’s about to happen.

The 2019 edition of Rasa -- Akshara's annual multi-arts, inspired by India festival -- hits the home stretch

MUSIC THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

Akshara dancers

The fall 2019 edition of Akshara's Rasa Festival is coming to a close, but not before it celebrates with four "multi-arts, inspired by India" events.

"Dances of India: classical and folk traditions" happens Thursday, September 19, at 7 pm, at AADL's downtown location. It will feature classical and folk dances from India, plus a discussion on the historical and cultural context of each.

The following night at 7 pm will be "Music from the East and the West," also at AADL's downtown branch. Indian and western musicians will talk about the concepts behind Indian and western music, and how they collaborate to create new music. This will be accompanied by a short concert.

The largest event of the festival is "Rasa Performing Arts Weekend: dance|music, east|west, classical|folk" on Saturday, September 21, 4 pm, at Towsley Auditorium, Washtenaw Community College. This is an evening of classical and folk dances from India as well as a concert that brings together Indian and western music traditions.

Civic kicks off a new season with the meta-musical "Urinetown"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

A2 Civic Theatre's production of Urinetown

Eeww!

The funny, punny title of Urinetown: The Musical may wrinkle some noses, but the show has been a smash hit off and on Broadway and at theaters across the United States since it opened in New York in 2001. On Sept. 12, the pee-centered satire will kick off the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s 90th anniversary year.

Urinetown: The Musical is the most important musical of the 21st Century with the worst title,” said Rob Roy in an email interview. “In fact, it’s that meta approach to the subject matter that makes it even more relevant to the audience. One is never allowed to just sit and be entertained. Authors Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman specifically brought Bertolt Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt to the show to force the audience to pay attention to the vital subject matter: our way of life is unsustainable.”

Verfremdungseffekt is a German word for a distancing technique used in theater and film to prevent an audience from getting too wrapped up in the story instead of bringing a critical mind to the ideas being explored. 

This meta-comedy is a shrapnel satire aiming for big capitalism and populism, bungling government bureaucracy and corrupt business with a format and musical score that lampoons the very idea of serious-minded musical entertainment, including the seminal work of Brecht and his musical collaborator Kurt Weill on The Threepenny OperaUrinetown was a critical as well as popular success, winning three Tony Awards and many other honors.

Pulp Bits: A Roundup of Washtenaw County Arts & Culture Stories, Songs & Videos

Dani Darling and her band outside Ziggy's in Ypsilanti

Singer-songwriter Dani Darling (far right) with her band Joel Harris, Noor Us-Sabah, and CA Jones outside Ziggy's in Ypsilanti. Darling's latest release is the Nocturne EP. Photo by Kyla McGrath via Facebook.com/pg/danidarlingmusic.

A round-up of arts and culture stories featuring people, places, and things in Washtenaw County, whether they're just passing through or Townies for life. Coverage includes music, visual art, film & video, theater & dance, written word, and Pulp life (food, fairs, and more). If you're reading this in the future and a story link is dead, look up the URL on web.archive.org; we've cached every post there.

This is the vacation-catch-up edition of Pulp Bits, so we have links going back to late June -- a true smorgasbord of culture news. Feast!

GREY GRANT’S NEW OPERA PLAYS WITH THE FORM WHILE CHRONICLING THE JOURNEY AND TRANSFORMATION OF A TRANS-WOMAN

MUSIC THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Grey Grant, creator of the opera Michigan Trees

Grey Grant (left) leads the new Fifth Wall Performing Arts group, whose logo (right) was created by Tanner Porter.

Trees, folklore, Michigan places, Greek mythology, and the trans experience infuse the new opera Michigan Trees: A Guide to the Trees of Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, which is also the name of a guidebook that inspired it. This opera, written, composed, and produced by Grey Grant, depicts the journey of a trans-woman named Orna as she comes to terms with her identity.

Fifth Wall Performing Arts will present the opera as its establishing project, which premieres Wednesday, August 28, and Thursday, August 29, both at 8:30 pm at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse.

A preview of the opera, also paired with other operas and folk songs, will take place at Literati Bookstore on Friday, August 2, at 7 pm. 

In the 11-part libretto, Orna travels north to Chapel Rock on Lake Superior, where she becomes a white pine and connects with her womanhood. She also encounters the mystic character of Mother of Trees, which represents and protects the spirit of trees and encourages Orna’s transformation. During her journey and transformation, though, Orna separates into two parts -- Orna, As She Feels She Is Seen and Orna, As She Sees Herself -- which embody the internal disconnect and conflict that transgender people feel, Grant told Pulp in an interview. Then Orna, As She Feels She Is Seen leaves the other half of herself to trek back south, passing Gaylord, Flint, and other cities to reach Ypsilanti, only to realize that she has left her true self wilting on the shore. Again, Orna goes north and becomes one with herself. 

During these journeys, Orna communicates her desires, singing:

Love and physics commingle in Theatre Nova’s “Stargazers”

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Theatre Nova's Stargazers

Clockwise from top right: Kaitlyn Valor Bourque as Claire, Katelyn Wilson as Elaine, and Eddie Rothermel as Rupert in Stargazers by Reina Hardy at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Golden Record Media Company.

Playwright Reina Hardy has a lot on her mind: the Big Bang Theory, the course of true love, the waxing and waning of sexual passion, personality disruptions caused by social media, the difficulty of making contact at a party when you’re socially awkward, and so much more. 

These interests all come incongruously together in her play Stargazers, now having its Michigan premiere at Theatre Nova.

Three talented actors under the direction of David Wolber work hard to bring credibility to their characters and find the humor and a bit of poetry in Hardy’s cosmic drama. The play is a bit too artsy, the metaphors too forced, and the plot too thin. But the actors are engaging and in touch with the characters they play.

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. 

Pulp Bits: A Roundup of Washtenaw County Arts & Culture Stories, Songs & Videos

Christopher Jemison of Strange Flavors playing Fuzz Fest 6 at The Bling Pig. Photo by Chuck Marshall/Life in Michigan.

Christopher Jemison of Strange Flavors playing Fuzz Fest 6 at The Bling Pig. Photo by Chuck Marshall/Life in Michigan

A round-up of arts and culture stories featuring people, places, and things in Washtenaw County, whether they're just passing through or Townies for life. Coverage includes music, visual art, film & video, theater & dance, written word, and Pulp life (food, fairs, and more). If you're reading this in the future and a story link is dead, look up the URL on web.archive.org; we've cached every post there.

This is a music-crazy post. We have 28 links to various new albums, singles, videos, interviews, and more. Plus, several Ann Arbor Art Fair previews and stories about Washtenaw Dairy turning 85.

Chloe Gray’s Fun Girl dance company blends quirky movement with thoughtful activism in “Girlfriend”

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW INTERVIEW

Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray photo by Erika Ruch.

On June 22 at Riverside Arts Center, I had the pleasure of attending the first show presented by Fun Girl, a new Ypsilanti-based contemporary dance company created and run by Artistic Director Chloe Gray.  The company offers paid rehearsals and performances to their dancers, as well as apprenticeships, and acts as a platform for technically based dancers to explore quirky movement while applying thoughtful activism.  

Artistic Director Chloe Gray’s credentials are extensive, with her training beginning at the age of 6 with the Toledo Ballet and continuing at the Toledo School for the Arts throughout her high school years.  She graduated from Eastern Michigan University where she double majored in Dance Performance and Women’s and Gender Studies, and her choreography and dancing have been featured in performance opportunities through Kristi Faulkner Dance (Detroit), ARTLAB J Dance (Detroit), Koresh Dance Company (Philadelphia), and Side Street Art Studio (Chicago).

“I always thought that I was going to wait until I was older to start my own company,” says Gray.  “My plan was to graduate from college, move to a big city to dance, and then eventually come back to Ypsi to plant some roots. Through careful consideration and after falling in love with a Michigander, I decided to stay in Ypsi and go for it. We have to create in places and spaces where the art we want to see does not exist. If we all take off to big cities, how will art exist in our community?”

The show, entitled Girlfriend, featured four original pieces choreographed by Gray and performed by Fun Girl, as well as four pieces that were chosen through the Ypsi Dance Swap organized by Gray in January, in which choreographers from across the state could submit their work to be performed in a show at Riverside Arts Center.  Several of the choreographer’s pieces would then be chosen by a jury to be presented at Fun Girl’s Girlfriend recital in June. 

What's Love Got to Do With It: The Purple Rose's comedy "Welcome to Paradise" offers a dreamlike romance -- or is it real at all?

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The Purple Rose Theatre's Welcome to Paradise

Rory (Ryan Black) and Evelyn (Ruth Crawford) trip the light fandango in The Purple Rose Theatre's production of Julie Marino’s Welcome to Paradise. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

In Julie Marino’s play Welcome to Paradise, a young man who has been backpacking through Europe helps an elderly woman who is having difficulty at the airport. Rory doesn’t just help Evelyn to her cab. He accompanies her to her beach house on the fictional Caribbean island of St. Sebastian, a beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere. Exhausted, he tries to find an inexpensive place to spend the night, but accommodations are costly in paradise. She invites him for the night.

He stays a good deal longer. He rearranges her flowers. He rearranges her furniture to better see the sunset from the couch.  And just by being there, he rearranges her life. 

In a detailed and nuanced performance, Ruth Crawford embodies Evelyn, at turns feisty and flirtatious, basking in the attention of an attractive fellow as young as her grandson who caters to her needs before she knows she has them. Ryan Black is a fine Rory, thoroughly at home in Evelyn’s home and life.