Review: National Theatre Live's Hamlet

THEATER & DANCE FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

Gertrude questions Hamlet with a wicked tongue.

Gertrude questions Hamlet with a wicked tongue. / Photo by Johan Persson

On Sunday, January 17th, the Michigan Theater showed an encore screening of the National Theatre Live’s production of Hamlet to a sold-out theater. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, this production entirely reimagines the classic play and brings it into focus with a captivating clarity. It’s evident from the moment Hamlet enters the wedding celebration between his mother and his uncle that this is a dark play. The set is characterized by indigo hues and shadows, so that Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, appears both splendid and on the verge of decay.

Cumberbatch gives an excellent performance, delivering his lines with a convincing ease. This production presented Hamlet as more than a vengeful, petty step-son. Cumberbatch infuses Hamlet with purpose and emotional depth. His performance is anchored in the grief Hamlet feels over the death of his father, making Hamlet’s erratic behavior throughout the play more understandable.

War is constantly on the edges of the action; several scenes take place in a command room, antique swords and military paintings decorate the castle, and the second act includes scenes on a battlefield. Yet that constant threat is entirely overshadowed by domestic drama. Polonius and Claudius are only too willing to meddle in the lives of their children, taking time off from political matters to contrive meetings between Hamlet and Ophelia which are then watched from behind closed doors. In a way, it seems like the entire royal family is consumed, one way or another, by madness.

There are so many elements of this production that deserve praise. An inspired set design, created by Es Devlin, resulted in a broadcast that was almost like watching a typical movie. The only difference was that occasionally people would run onstage to shuffle things around in anticipation of upcoming scenes. The enclosed nature of the set, which was built at an angle to the front of the stage, almost seemed like it was designed with the camera in mind. Because the camera never captured any offstage action, it was easy to forget that you were watching a play. The downside of this cinematic quality is that the main room of Elsinore became a little claustrophobic over time, but the feeling dovetailed nicely with the themes explored by the production.

The second half of the play was characterized by low lighting, with spotlights targeting specific areas of the stage. During the final acts of the play, the entirety of the set is covered in piles of black debris and broken furniture, adding an unsettling element of discord to the Elsinore scenes. It seems as though a darkness or illness has burst out of the characters and been projected onto the rooms through which they move. The whole stage never seems to be visible, and that darkness overshadows the actions of the final scenes. We’ve reached the end of the play, and the end of almost every character onstage as the play culminates in a destructive whirlwind of a finale.

While I suspect that Cumberbatch’s popularity attracted many people to this broadcast, I got the impression that many of the people who saw the play with me enjoyed their overall experience. I know that I appreciated the chance to see a first-rate production at an affordable price. The filmed version of the play probably wasn’t quite as good as being there—I think you lose a bit of the interplay in energy between the audience and the actors—but I’d say this definitely satisfies as the next best thing. I would definitely recommend future versions of the live broadcasts for those of us who can’t jet off to London in time for the next big production.


Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library and knows a hawk from a handsaw.

Preview: The Electric Baby, Kickshaw Theatre

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Kickshaw bursts onto the scene with The Electric Baby.

Kickshaw bursts onto the scene with The Electric Baby.

Kickshaw means “rare delight.” The term now also refers to Kickshaw Theatre, Ann Arbor’s newest professional theater company, whose first full production, The Electric Baby, by Stefanie Zadravec, opens on Thursday, January 28.

In alignment with their core values, Kickshaw Theatre has partnered with local organizations, including the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, the Ann Arbor Storytellers Guild, and the Lamaze Family Center, to bring this magical drama to the Ann Arbor audiences.

The dark comedy The Electric Baby received its World Premiere in 2012 and, in addition to other awards, received the American Theatre Critics Association’s Francesca Primus Prize for an Emerging Female Playwright. Talkin’ Broadway raved that the play was “richly entertaining;” and The New York Times praised The Electric Baby as “gently touching” with a “mix of expressionism and magical realism.”

The plot revolves around six characters (Will Bryson, Peter Carey, Mary Dilworth, Julia Glander, Michael Lopetrone, and Vanessa Sawson) whose lives collide after a tragic car accident, forcing each to confront the secrets, hopes and fears that consume them, and helping them to find love, strength and forgiveness through a mysterious baby that glows like the moon. Kickshaw’s premiere production is directed by the Theatre’s artistic director and founder Lynn Lammers.

Take a chance to view this magically delightful new play with Ann Arbor’s brand new professional company!


Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.


Performances of The Electric Baby will run from Thursday, January 28 through Sunday, February 21 at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, 704 Airport Blvd, Ann Arbor, MI 48108. There are also several special performances featuring post- performance conversations with special guest organizations. For tickets, visit kickshawtheatre.org or call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006.

Review: Ann Arbor Symphony's Mozart Birthday Bash

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE MUSIC

The A2SO celebrates as Mozart turns a spry and youthful 260 years old.

The A2SO celebrates in style as Mozart turns a spry and youthful 260 years old.

Last Saturday, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra celebrated Mozart’s birthday in style, with a performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio at the Michigan Theater. Opera is all about spectacle—elaborate sets, a cast of thousands—but the A2SO made a deliberate decision to highlight Mozart’s excellent music, which underpins the story. The A2SO brought in incredibly talented lead vocalists to round out the presentation of the opera, but decided to present a semi-staged version of the piece. The overall effect was that this was a performance for music lovers, with an emphasis on the songs within the opera, rather than the drama of the story.

The Abduction from the Seraglio is somewhere between a tragedy and a comedy. It tells the story of a pair of lovers, Belmonte and Constanze, and their servants, Pedrillo and Blondchen. The opera opens after Constanze and Blondchen have been kidnapped and taken to the titular seraglio (which turns out to be a harem) of Pasha Selim, Sultan of Turkey. The Pasha has fallen in love with Constanze, who resists his advances and remains true to Belmonte. Blondchen, meanwhile, has attracted the attention of Osmin, who guards the seraglio. The opera centers on the trials of the lovers as they try to find a way to escape the seraglio. There is a lot of singing about the pain of being separated from a lover and how painful love can be. Our heroes are ultimately released by a suddenly benevolent Pasha, who is moved by the strength of the love between Constanze and Belmonte.

A narrator verbally bridged the action between each song, providing background information and a quick summary of the plot. It was a clever device that allowed the focus to remain on the music of the opera, and, perhaps more importantly, it was an entry point for opera newbies. Those not previously familiar with The Abduction from the Seraglio might have had a difficult time following the action and emotion through lines of the opera, particularly since it was performed in German. Between the narrator and the lyrics projected on a small screen above the orchestra, there was no need to have memorized the entirety of the opera beforehand.

The real standout stars of the opera, among the vocalists, were the female performers Jeanette Vecchione and Suzanne Rigden. Vecchione played the part of Constanze with a wonderful gravity. Vecchione was also remarkable in her ability to keep pace with the full orchestra immediately behind her. There were moments, particularly in fire and brimstone songs, where the vocalists could get a little drowned out by the full orchestra directly behind them. This was not so with Vecchione, a testament to her skill as a vocalist. Rigden brought a wonderful lightness and humor to the stage, and was a real joy to watch. All of the vocalists deserve mention for excellent performances.

I haven’t said much about the orchestra itself, and that’s because the performance was essentially flawless. The orchestra blended into the background, supporting the vocalists’ performances, which is what you want in this sort of setting. It was interesting to get a sense of the music through the movement of the bows on the stringed instruments, however it was impossible to resist the action of the story communicated through the vocalists on stage.

The close quarters of the semi-staging helped to underscore the natural humor written into The Abduction from the Seraglio. Pushing all of the vocalists into close quarters helped up some of the dramatic tension. The downside was that the actors didn’t always have much to do, but this performance was always focused on the music of the opera. The performance was a joy to watch, and proved to be an accessible entry point into the world of opera.


Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library and has never seen an opera before.


The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's next Main Stage event will be Harp Magic on March 12 at the Michigan Theater.

Sometimes Pointless Things are Worth It: Pointless Brewery Opens in A2

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

The Pointless Brewery opened on Packard in Ann Arbor.

The Pointless Brewery opened in December, and it's so easy to make a pun about it that it almost feels poin--USELESS. Useless.

The pointless dreams of husband and wife team Jason and Tori Tomalia came true in mid-December as their Pointless Brewery & Theatre opened on Packard in Ann Arbor. The idea that had been brewing for over a decade came to fruition after Tori was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and they were asking themselves what the point of everything was.

The answer: sketch comedy and beer.

The brewery and theater offers a delightful combination of improv and craft beer made by the owner, and from my experience both were worth the ticket. The sketch comedy is provided by three different improv groups each night, including their resident group — The League of Pointless Improvisers. It is definitely more of a bar in a theater than a theater in a bar, as the long-form improv performances are the focus. The small space may have a small stage and a small bar but it has a giant heart – which creates a welcoming and relaxed environment for theater-goers. Owner and brewer Jason Tomalia is quick to tell you that if you feel like grabbing a beer or one of their made-in-Michigan snacks in the middle of the show, go right ahead.


Amanda Schott is a Library Technician at AADL and sometimes snorts when she laughs at improv comedy.



Improv Shows are Fridays at 8 pm, and Saturdays at 8 pm and 10:30 pm. For the kids there’s Little Peeps every Saturday morning at 10:30 am. It is part performance, part drama activities, and part crafts. And Sundays at 7 pm is open stage night where you can sign up to show off your own talents such as music, improv, poetry, etc. The theater also offers improv classes on site.

Review: Civic Theatre Cast Brings out Their Best for 'Company'

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The Civic Theatre cast brings out their best for 'Company'

Two's company, but seven is...also Company.

Intimate relationships are complicated, contradictory, and baffling.

Company is a musically and lyrically intense exploration of love and marriage, at times rueful, funny, bitter and hopeful. The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth, is musically challenging, lyrically intricate, and emotionally draining. The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre has taken on the challenge with an outstanding ensemble who seem to relish the rich variety and tonal changes of Sondheim's music.

Director Rachel Francisco notes in the program that the play has an odd structure. The center of attention is Bobby, an aging man-about-town who has reached his 35th birthday without settling into a serious relationship. He is surrounded by married friends who both envy and worry about him. Bobby visits these couples and struggles with who he is and who he is supposed to be. Francisco notes that the action seems to play out in Bobby's head, a meditation on life, ending with a desperate affirmation.

Company is well named as the play provides spotlight moments for many in the cast, each song keying in on some aspect of love and marriage. Francisco and musical director Jennifer Goltz keep it fluid, moving easily from moments of slapstick humor to quiet introspection. Sondheim draws on jazz, the blues, and musical theater models. His multi-voiced settings, complex lyrics at breakneck speed, and his shifts in style are a challenge. Goltz gets the best from the singers and leads a small combo in a solid musical accompaniment.

At the center is Robby Griswold as Bobby. He is our guide through this mid-life crisis. He is charming, boyish, but also visibly aching for something else...or is he? Griswold is the glue that binds everything with his nuanced performance and his rich, intelligent singing. He wonders about the limits of intimacy in the reflective "Marry Me a Little." His rendition of "Being Alive" is strong, sad but triumphant.

But, of course, Bobby is not alone. He is surrounded and sometimes smothered by the affection of his friends.

Harry and Sarah seem happily married, even as they engage in a little karate. Jodi-Renee Giron's Sarah is tough and funny. Harry may not be all that happy as he sings "Sorry-Grateful," one of the most mature reflections on marriage. Paul Clark as Harry has a strong voice that captures the rueful mood.

Marta, a bohemian girl, is one of three people with whom Bobby has off-and-on relations. Kate Papachristou has a voice that seems to rise above the others. Her Marta offers one explanation for Bobby's reluctance to get involved, the teeming, stimulating, maddening city of New York, in the frantic song, "Another Hundred People."

Another frantic song is from a bride in panic as the ceremony nears. Marci Rosenberg is hilarious as Amy, a woman in a longterm lesbian relationship who feels too much pressure to get married. Sondheim's "Getting Married Today," is a rapid fire musical stand-up routine that Rosenberg blazes through, while flailing across the stage hilariously. Her sweet-tempered, kind intended, Paula, is well played by Amanda Bynum.

April is another of Bobby's tentative love relationships. She's a stewardess, more noted for her beauty than her intellect, a definite bad mark from Bobby's female friends. Kimberly Elliott is funny and a little goofy as April and she and Griswold do a nice comic duet on "Barcelona".

A knock-out moment in Company is always Joanne's bitter observations on "The Ladies Who Lunch." Joanne and her third husband are a bit older than the crowd. As played by Amy Bogetto-Weinraub, she is a bit of a cougar, always on the hunt but more than a little sad about her situation. Her performance on "The Ladies" builds slowly to a savage, emotionally draining declaration that is more about self-loathing than gossip.

Others of note are Trisha Fountain as the square Jenny, Chris Joseph as the bisexual Bobby's sometimes boyfriend Kevin, and in the musical quartet, Greg Simon on trumpet and flugel.


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


Company continues Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Arthur Miller.Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, 48109. Tickets are available online at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's website, by calling the A2CT office at 734-971-2228, or at the door. Additional information is available by visiting the theater's website.

Preview: Company, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Robby Griswold will be in good company as he stars in Ann Arbor Civic Theater's production of Company

Robby Griswold will be in good company as he stars in Ann Arbor Civic Theater's production of Company.

Ann Arbor Civic Theater will open the New Year with a sparkling new production of the beloved musical Company, which is, according to its seasoned AACT director Rachel Francisco, “about relationships…interactions between spouses and the deep feelings that underlie many marriages.”

The plot centers on Bobby (Robby Griswold), who on the eve of his 35th birthday, questions his bachelor status. Married friends surround him, full of advice about relationships. But is marriage the best option? Will it lead to happiness? His current and former lovers (Kimmy Elliott, Chris Joseph, and Kate Papachristou) make his choice even more difficult.

When Company opened in 1970, it was a landmark in Broadway musical history. A “concept” musical composed of short vignettes, it was the first collaboration between two theater legends: composer Stephen Sondheim and director/producer Hal Prince.

Nominated for 14 Tony Awards, the production won six, including Best Musical. Sondheim’s music for the show (including “Being Alive,” “Another Hundred People,” and the Elaine Stritch showstopper “Ladies Who Lunch”) was sublime. New York Times critic Vincent Canby, reviewing the 1995 Broadway revival, raved that Company contained the most “dazzling and bittersweet show tunes Mr. Sondheim has ever written.”

Jennifer Goltz is the Music Director for this first show of the 2016 year and choreography is by Rachel Francisco and Emily Olson.


Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.


Company runs Thursday through Sunday, January 7 - 10 at the University of Michigan’s Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, 48109. Tickets are available online at Ann Arbor Civic Theater's website, by calling the A2CT office at 734-971-2228, or at the door. Additional information is available by visiting the theater's website.

Preview: Winter Dance Sharing

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Dance out the winter blues with the Winter Dance Sharing

Dance out the winter blues with the Winter Dance Sharing

Let the music move you! If you enjoy meeting performers and interacting with them, this event is designed with you in mind. To kick off the Winter Dance Sharing, Christina Sears-Etter (Artistic Director for the People Dancing Company) will teach a sample SOMAdance class in a workshop format. SOMAdance helps dancers use their bodies to express imagery, which can be enhanced by increasing mind body integration. You do not need prior dance training to enjoy and benefit from this workshop. SOMAdance is designed for teenagers and older. On-site childcare will be provided during the workshop with advance reservations.

Following the SOMAdance workshop, you can enjoy live performances in the studio with works choreographed by Sears-Etter and Abigayle Cryderman.


Heide Otto Basinger is on the Board of People Dancing.


Winter Dance Sharing will take place on Saturday, December 19, 2015, from 4:30-7:30 pm at the Arts in Motion Dance Studio (6175 Jackson Rd., Suite B). The suggested donation is $8.

I'm Dreaming of a Stockingful of Holiday Stuff

Dash through the snow (dirt?) to these holiday events!

Dash through the snow (dirt?) to these holiday events!

December is upon us and, like the giant rolling boulder in that one Indiana Jones movie, the holidays are rumbling ever closer.

If you need some tips to help you celebrate the season, here's a handy list of festive holiday things going on in the area:

Dickens: An A Capella Carol
Friday, November 27th - Sunday, December 20th
Performance Network Theater - Ann Arbor, MI

National Theatre of Scotland: A Christmas Carol
Thursday, December 17th - Sunday, January 3rd
Power Center for Performing Arts - Ann Arbor, MI

Ypsilanti Community Choir's Annual Holiday Concert
Thursday, December 17th
Washtenaw Community College - Ann Arbor, MI

Gifts of Art presents Holiday Harmonies with Counterpoint
Thursday, December 17th
University Hospitals - Ann Arbor, MI

Home for the Holidays! with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Friday, December 18th - Sunday, December 20th
Detroit Symphony Orchestra - Detroit, MI

The Corner Christmas! (Not Your Family's Christmas Party) at the Corner Brewery
Saturday, December 19th
Arbor Brewing Company Microbrewery - Ypsilanti, MI

Krampus Costume Ball
Saturday, December 19th
The Dreamland Theater - Ypsilanti, MI

Scones and Shopping at the Eyrie
Saturday, December 19th
The Eyrie - Ypsilanti, MI

X'mas Explosion 4 feat. Archimime, Meridians, Scapegoat and The Path Of Exile
Saturday, December 19th
The Maidstone Theater - Ypsilanti, MI

Museum of Natural History Planetarium: Season of Light
December 19th-20th, 27-30th
University of Michigan Museum of Natural History - Ann Arbor, MI

Winter Solstice Celebration
Tuesday, December 22nd
Cultivate Coffee and Taphouse - Ypsilanti, MI

Gifts of Art presents Sweet Sounds of the Season with Wanda Degen
Thursday, December 24th
University Hospitals - Ann Arbor, MI

Black Christmas Feat. The Suicide Machines, The Black Dahlia Murder, BIGWIG, Mustard Plug, Koffin Kats
Saturday, December 26th
The Majestic - Detroit, MI

Mittenfest X
Tuesday, December 29th - Saturday, January 2nd
Bona Sera Cafe - Ypsilanti, MI


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and she's been listening to Christmas music since July.


Review: Henry IV, Part I, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

UMSMTD gives the devil his due in their production of Henry IV

UMSMTD gives the devil his due in their production of Henry IV

Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I isn't really about King Henry IV. It's about the rivalry between Henry's son, Prince Hal, the future Henry V, and the heroic and headstrong Harry "Hotspur" Percy.

The play is full of jolly roistering and clashing swords, but its theme of delayed maturity seems to fit well for a university production. And the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance offers a perceptive and action-packed production.

The heir to a much-disputed crown is happier in a tavern than on a battlefield and his father worries that Hal will never assume his proper role. Meanwhile, the son of one of his allies, Hotspur, has won acclaim for his daring. Hotspur and his father and aunt (a change of gender for the role) will soon change allegiance and lead a rebellion. Will Hal meet the challenge?

Not if an old, soused knight named Falstaff has any say in the matter. Falstaff is of course one of Shakespeare's great creations. He's a lecher, a drunk, a buffoon, a coward, and a great party animal. He's a "bad influence" but closer to Hal than his own father and something of a modern day cynic.

Director Priscilla Lindsay pulls all these elements together in a rousing, traditional staging of one of the Bard's most popular works. The production moves smoothly from the bawdy confines of the Boar's Head Inn to the royal court to the bloody fields of battle. Shakespeare's language is a challenge for young actors and the clarity of some of the actors is less than it should be. But Lindsay gets some excellent work from her three major actors.

Robert M. O'Brien is a handsome, charming, and playful Hal. He speaks the language well, he moves gracefully and, crucially, he makes a convincing move from party boy to a leader of men. He conveys some of the sadness and loss that that move will cause him.

The plum role in any production of this play and its sequel is of course Sir John Falstaff. Graham Techler may need padding to fill the obese profile, but he is a superb Falstaff. He handles both the rapid verbal wit and the complex physical comedy excellently. He's hilarious, but in his famous comments on "honor," he also conveys a deeper understanding of what he's saying.

But, the real find here is Caleb Foote. His Hotspur is a raging revelation. He is fierce, rapid-tongued, and physically athletic and on-edge. Foote's command of Shakespeare's language is amazing. He understands perfectly that the best approach is to speak it naturally as your own and in this case he even gives it a rough north English accent. When he is on stage, he commands the stage. He bears himself like a young Jimmy Cagney, which is perfect for the reckless if honorable warrior he plays.

Key roles are played by Larissa Marten as Hotspur's ambitious aunt, Matthew Provenza as the title character, Elyakeem Avraham as a Welsh lord and Jesse Aronson, Samuel Bell-Gurwitz, and Sten Eikrem as Hal's Boar's Head companions.

The complex battle scenes are excellently staged by fight director Robert Najarian. Costume designer Christianne Myers helps define the players by putting the king's men in golds and tans and the rebels in silver and gray.

The production concluded Sunday at the the Power Center on the central UM campus.


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

Preview: National Theatre of Scotland: A Christmas Carol

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

The puppets of Christmas past, present, and future visit Scrooge in the National Theatre of Scotland's A Christmas Carol

The puppets of Christmas past, present, and future visit Scrooge in the National Theatre of Scotland's A Christmas Carol

Every year, at this time, audiences can choose from countless stage and screen versions of A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim, Scrooge, and the Ghost of Christmas Past--characters created by Charles Dickens in 1843--are part of our shared holiday heritage. With so many professional and amateur productions each year, what new can be brought to this timeless and familiar classic?

With uniquely intimate staging, the National Theatre of Scotland brings its acclaimed version of A Christmas Carol to The University Music Society (UMS) for the holiday season. Using a mixture of puppets and actors, live music and a set that forces the audience into the action, director Graham McLaren mounted a theatrical experience that has Dicken’s original text at its core and will “challenge all notions of sentimental stage and screen adaptations.”

The Daily Telegraph raved that “every aspect of the piece contributes perfectly to its irresistibly magical atmosphere” and that the National Theatre of Scotland’s A Christmas Carol “deserves to be remembered as one of the classiest pieces of theatre to have been staged in Scotland, not only in the winter season, but at any time of year.”

Only 125 audience members will be seated at each staging, so it is best to get seats early.


Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.


Performances of A Christmas Carol will run from Thursday, December 17 through Sunday, January 3 at The Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. For ticket information, visit ums.org.