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. 

Take Comfort: Jeff Daniels and Purple Rose Theatre's "Roadsigns" is like a '70s folk song come to life

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Purple Rose's Roadsigns

For more than a quarter-century, Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre has specialized in new plays that don’t normally require a music director.

That's why I was initially surprised to hear that a musical (or “play with music”?) called Roadsigns would have its world premiere there.

But then I quickly remembered the theater’s movie/Broadway/TV star founder, Jeff Daniels, has been performing his ever-growing catalog of original folk songs as an annual fundraiser for the Rose, and his son, Ben Daniels, is a professional musician in his own right.

Then the whole notion of a Purple Rose musical felt not just sensible but downright inevitable.

"The Believers Are But Brothers" explores the darkest corners of the internet

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The Believers Are But Brothers

The minimalist stage setup of The Believers Are But Brothers. Photo by Christopher Porter.

Last night it felt like Javaad Alipoor's The Believers Are But Brothers started in the lobby of U-M's Arthur Miller Theatre. I was asked by a stranger for my phone number so I could be added to a WhatsApp group chat with a couple of hundred other people I didn't know for a discussion that ran concurrently with the play, including messages from Alipoor.

I complied but instantly questioned my decision: I had voluntarily given up personal info with no questions asked, just as all of us do every day on the internet, and I did so on the same day it was reported that Amazon's Jeff Bezos had his phone hacked by malware sent via WhatsApp by Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Believers Are But Brothers, co-directed by Alipoor and Kirsty Housley, explores how technology and the internet can make people compliant, reactionary, or radicalized. But Alipoor didn't write Believers to slam our reliance on screens and the World Wide Web. Standing on a minimalist stage decorated by a plastic folding table hosting a computer-gaming setup, a large video screen, and the lurking presence of a headphone-wearing man (Luke Emrey) whose eyes were fixed on his laptop, Alipoor talked about how the internet has always been a part of his life and that he loves social media, even with all the caveats. 

“I try not to make work that is either negative or positive, but just to look at what we do,” Alipoor told The Guardian on the eve of the BBC showing a filmed version of The Believers Are But Brothers, which explores the 4chan world that birthed the Gamergate ugliness, the radicalization of young men -- whether brown kids from the U.K. or white boys from California -- and the rise of the alt-right.

Performance, Art: UMS's "No Safety Net 2.0" offers theatrical productions that challenge norms

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

No Safety Net 2020

Clockwise from left: images from As Far As My Fingertips Take MeWhite FeministIs This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription, and The Believers Are but Brothers.. Photos courtesy of UMS.

UMS's No Safety Net 2.0 series offers theatrical performances, of course. But it's the sort of theater that even avid theater-goers might not be able to get a handle on. 

After all, it's a long way from sitting in the audience and passively watching the singing and dancing in West Side Story to interacting one-on-one with a refugee as your arm is stuck in a wall during the experimental play As Far As My Fingertips Take Me

The 2020 edition of No Safety Net explores terrorism, addiction, racism, BDSM, transgender identity, patriotism, migration, and a whole host of hot-button issues through four unique theatrical works: The Believers Are but Brothers (Jan. 22-26), As Far As My Fingertips Take Me (Jan. 24-Feb. 9) Is This a Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription (January 29-February 2), and White Feminist (February 3-9).

But since a huge part of UMS's mission is education -- whether it's for young members of the community, potential patrons, or those already open to new works -- it always provides tremendous resources for people to take deep dives into the cutting-edge productions the organization throws its considerable weight behind.

This year's No Safety Net's ancillary assets include podcasts, videos, chats, essays, and blogs chock full of information to give you insights and contexts into these challenging works. Below is a selection of No Safety Net media, including the January 16 Penny Stamps lecture at the Michigan Theater by Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater in New York City, which was the official kickoff of No Safety Net 2.0.

AADL 2019 STAFF PICKS: BOOKS, MUSIC, MOVIES & MORE

2019 Staff Picks

AADL 2019 STAFF PICKS: BOOKS, MUSIC, MOVIES & MORE

Below you will see that 41 Ann Arbor District Library employees composed 18,000 words listing arts and culture that made an impact on their lives in this calendar year. While movies, books, and music released in 2019 figured prominently among our picks, we never limit our selections to material from the past year. Not all timeless art can be discovered and absorbed in a mere 365 days, so we're like Master P: no limits.

We're All Crumpet Now: Kickshaw Theatre's production of David Sedaris' "The Santaland Diaries"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Yianni Papadimos in Kickshaw Theatre's production of The Santaland Diaries

Yianni Papadimos in Kickshaw Theatre's production of The Santaland Diaries. Photo via Facebook.

Despite the clichéd, eye-roll-inducing notion of creative work that makes you laugh and makes you cry, David Sedaris’ essays are nearly universally adored because they regularly, miraculously achieve just that.

This has become particularly true in recent years as Sedaris has explored, with bracing candor, the painful aftermath of a sister’s suicide and grappled with his complicated relationship with his aging, politically conservative father.

Yes, Sedaris and his craft have both come a long way since his hilarious, breakout 1992 radio essay “The Santaland Diaries” -- chronicling Sedaris’ work experience as a Macy’s elf in New York City during the holidays -- premiered on NPR’s Morning Edition. It’s since become a kind of subversive holiday classic, up to and including a one-man stage adaptation by Joe Mantello that’s now being produced (in Ypsilanti) by Kickshaw Theatre.

Judy, Judy, Judy: Taylor Mac’s "Holiday Sauce" is a mischievous feast for the eyes, ears, and soul

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce

Usually when I see a show for review, I don’t end up on stage, singing a Pogues song.

But then, most shows are nothing like Taylor’s Mac’s Holiday Sauce, which UMS brought to the Power Center on December 14 and 15.

Mac has so many talents that I’d wear out my hyphen key if I tried to list them all. A MacArthur “Genius” and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Mac created Holiday Sauce as a tribute to the playwright-singer-artist's drag mother, Flawless Sabrina. “She used to always say, ‘You’re the boss, apple sauce,” Mac said, referring to the show's title, and Sabrina regularly hosted "judy" and others during the holidays. (As Mac told the Los Angeles Times, "[M]y gender pronoun is 'judy’ because I wanted a gender pronoun that is an art piece.”)

And indeed, Mac’s final elaborate ensemble for the evening, which made judy resemble a majestic, snow-covered peak, featured what looked like a formation of tiny pine trees that spelled “BOSS” down the gown’s back.

Mac wore this while performing the show’s quietest and most personal number, “Christmas at Grandma’s,” wherein judy sat alone on stage and played ukulele. The darkly comic, ironically jaunty song chronicled what the holidays were like when judy was annually dragged to visit homophobic relatives who were themselves struggling with past sexual abuse, a serious head injury, and alcoholism.

So … a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, right?

But that’s the point, of course: While we’re all confronted each year by cultural depictions of perfect families joyously celebrating the holidays together, the reality is that a good number of us identify far more with the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys.

The Cost of Joy: "A New Brain" is odd, lovable, and filled with ear candy

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

A New Brain

“Sometimes joy has a terrible cost" is a quintessential lyric in William Finn’s autobiographical musical, A New Brain.

And in the production staged this past weekend at the Arthur Miller Theater by the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre, creatively blocked composer Gordon Michael Schwinn (Jack Mastrianni) gets an existential jolt of electricity by way of an unexpected, scary brush with death.

For just as Gordon struggles mightily to write a song for a children’s television show frog named Mr. Bungee (Matthew Sanguine), he meets up with his agent and best friend Rhoda (Brianna Stoute) for lunch and suddenly loses consciousness. After various tests, a hilariously blowhard doctor (Hugh Entrekin) tells Gordon he needs a craniotomy, and this scary news sends Gordon, his mother Mimi (Madeline Eaton), and his lover Roger (Luke Bove) into an emotional tailspin.

While this may not sound upbeat and lighthearted, A New Brain -- which premiered Off-Broadway in 1998, with music and lyrics by Finn, and a book by Finn and James Lapine -- is a kind of odd, lovable, small, shaggy dog of a musical. Because the primary narrative’s series of events is markedly compact (Gordon’s collapse, diagnosis, surgery, and outcome), the 90-minute show opens its doors with some quirky turns, providing space for fanciful character tangents (like “nice nurse” Richard’s lament, “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat”), minor characters (a homeless woman), and frog-haunted flights of hallucination and memory (“And They’re Off,” which fills in the blanks on why Gordon’s father isn’t part of the picture).

Inspired by Finn’s own arteriovenous malformation diagnosis, in the months following his Tony Award-winning success with FalsettosA New Brain is a flawed but endearing confection. For every seeming misstep -- to name one, the homeless character never wholly justifies her sizable footprint within the show (even though Daelynn Jorif’s vocals wowed me) -- there are several brilliant little strokes of wit, surprise, and warmth.

Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Yeomen of the Guard" casts a darker shadow for light comic opera

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

UMGASS's Yeoman of the Guard

Photo courtesy of UMGASS.

Comic operas usually live up their genre name: lively songs, light humor, and endings filled with satisfied characters.

For the most part, Gilbert and Sullivan's twist on the style, Savoy operas, are no exception. But their The Yeomen of the Guard mixes playful puns and broken hearts, making for an emotionally complicated environment that is a distinct change from standard comic-opera fare.

The play debuted in London on Oct. 3, 1888, at the 1,200-seat Savoy Theatre, which was built to showcase Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas. The University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society (UMGASS) is staging its take on The Yeomen of the Guard at the 600-seat Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, December 5-8, which will give attendees a more intimate look at a play Sullivan described in his diary as, "Pretty story, no topsy turvydom, very human, & funny also."

U-M brings diversity to Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Grapes of Wrath book cover

Excerpt of the book cover for the first edition of The Grapes of Wrath, 1939.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a great American classic.

It is set in a specific time, the Great Depression of the 1930s; specific places, the Dust Bowl ravaged southwest and the fertile promised land of California; and a specific group of people, the migrant Joad family of Oklahoma, one of many families looked down upon as ignorant Okies, traveling with hope for a better life. Yet the story continues to resonate as migrants make their way from Central America to the United States border and from Syria and North Africa to the shores of Europe in search of justice, peace and a chance for that better life. 

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama is presenting a production of Frank Galati’s critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel.

“It seemed timely, relevant, a great American tragedy, a great novel,” said production director Gillian Eaton, an award-winning actress, director, and U-M faculty member.