Preview: Warren's Peace, Saline Area Players

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Andrew Godell's national guardsman runs into trouble in a small Michigan town in Warren's Peace.

Andrew Godell's national guardsman runs into trouble in a small Michigan town in Warren's Peace.

Enjoy an evening of theater set in Michigan, written by Michigan playwrights--that also promises audience samples of Michigan-made treats from local providers like Ed's Bread, Grand Traverse Pie, and Zingerman's--when the Saline Area Players present Marc and Kathy Holland’s new comedy Warren’s Peace.

The production may seem to be an appreciation of all things Michigan, but the underlying purpose is to delight and amuse. As playwright and director Marc Holland stated in a recent interview “I want you to have a good time when you attend my show, just as I want to laugh when I lay down my money at the box office.”

Warren’s Peace centers on a national guardsman who is sent to a small Michigan town to kick off World Peace Day, but runs into conflict when he meets the distrustful, eccentric townspeople. Andrew Godell plays the guardsman, and the cast includes Brent Lofgren, Trevor Maher, Patti Ringe, Marlena Shuler, and (of special interest to library fans) Laurie Atwood as the Librarian.


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


Performances of ​ Warren’s Peace ​run Thursday­-Saturday, March 17-19, and will take place at Fifth Corner, 211 Willis Rd in Saline. For information, visit http://salineareaplayers.org.

Review: Civic Theatre embraces the absurd in 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern'

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their flipping coin.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their flipping coin.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--or is it Guildenstern and Rosencrantz? No matter, even they have trouble knowing who's who.

The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre takes on Tom Stoppard's absurdist comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with good humor and a respect for Stoppard's more serious intentions.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet, friends from his youth who become minor pawns in Hamlet's battle with his Uncle Claudius. Stoppard imagines the agony of the bit player, waiting his moments on the stage and always a little clueless as to what his role is about or why it matters. The play borrows knowingly not only from Hamlet but also from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The theme applies, of course, not just to actors but to all of us who imagine we are but bit players in someone else's story.

As the play begins, the two are endlessly flipping coins and discussing probability. Guildenstern is the verbose one. James Ingagiola saunters about the stage discussing all the important questions of journalists and philosophers: who, what, where, when, and why. Guildenstern is never sure about anything and always hesitates a bit too long. Ingagiola is a humorously pompous Hardy to Isaac Ellis' twittery Laurel as Rosencrantz.

Rosencrantz is a nervous but playful man, who enjoys a good game of coin flipping or anything else that is suggested. He's malleable and a bit slow on the uptake. Isaac's face is constantly mugging awe, fear, childish delight, or childish terror. His voice also rises higher as his confusion grows.

These two amiable clowns have a hard time remembering who they are, why they're in Elsinore, and exactly what they have to do with the actions around them. They are constantly reminding each other of how it all began and what it is that they are supposed to do.

As they wait, a whole gaggle of bit players arrive, the Tragedians, the players hired by Hamlet to expose his uncle's guilt in the murder of his father.

Joseph McDonald is boldly expressive as The Player, the group's leader with a taste for blood and vulgarity. He tries to explain how theater works to the bewildered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He does so by having his players display those elements of theater that the audience expects, like a good death well played. The players are a boisterous crew who give it their all.

The player who gets the most attention is the lovely Alfred, who plays the female roles. Daniel Bizer-Cox has fun sashaying about the stage in stockings and diaphanous clothes and, yet, he never over plays it.

Through this fog, the story of Hamlet runs on, off stage somewhere, until it's time for our two heroes to do their small part and then return to existential agony. In another gender switch, Hamlet is played handsomely by a woman, Suzy Culbertson.

David Widmayer makes his directorial debut at the Civic, and he's chosen a difficult play. Absurdist comedy is not for everyone. Tedium is one of Stoppard's themes and the play itself is sometimes tedious as Guildenstern goes on a bit with his musings. Still Widmayer clearly understands the core of this play and has three key actors who deliver on making their absurd characters come to comic life. Some of the Shakespearean scenes might have been played a little more formally and precisely to contrast more sharply with the protagonists' hazy world.

The play's title comes from a line near the end of Hamlet, when Hamlet's fury has left a stage full of dead bodies, worthy of the Player. A message arrives from London that in addition to all this mayhem, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead." But, of course, the point is that they live on, forever, in Shakespeare and in Stoppard.


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.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead continues 8 pm Friday-Saturday, March 11-12, and 2 pm Sunday at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the North Campus of the University of Michigan, 1226 Murfin Ave, 48109. Tickets are available online at www.a2ct.org, by calling the office at 734-971-2228, at the A2CT office at 322 W. Ann St., or at the door. Additional information is available by visiting www.a2ct.org.

Preview: Nufonia Must Fall

Even robots can be emo in Nufonia.

Even robots can be emo in Nufonia.

If the combination of puppets, moody robots, and quiet romance – all accompanied by a pop culture-inspired string quartet, moving fluidly from synth to pop to jazz – sounds intriguing and magical, then you need to go see Nufonia Must Fall.

Nufonia Must Fall is based on a nearly-wordless graphic novel published in 2003 by Kid Koala, a D.J., producer, composer, and studio contributor for the band Gorillaz, based in Montreal. As evidenced by his artistic output, Kid Koala, is comfortable in a wildly idiosyncratic, exciting, and whimsical world of raw beats and emotionally-charged stories. Sadly, the graphic novel is out of print, but this live performance uses mixed media to bring the story to life in ways the book alone never could.

The story takes place in Nufonia, a drab, monochromatic place, where T4, a robot, falls in love with a customer at the sandwich shop where he works – after having been fired and replaced by a newer model robot at his old job. The customer reciprocates T4's love and a romance unfolds. The adorable puppets are all white and stand about 10 inches tall. The simple intimacy of the story draws you in and holds you as the highs and lows of their romance play out.

All of the action is projected on a large screen, as the action takes place on a stage of shoebox-sized sets. It’s thrilling to watch the shadowy shapes of the puppeteers create the action in real time – offering up the skin-tingling sensation that only a live performance can evoke.

Kid Koala has said that "Nufonia" is derived from “no fun,” and for those who live there, “what’s going on in their mind gets in the way of having fun.”

Abandon any preconceived notions you may have about puppets, robot love, or marsupial DJs, and come out for a moving and magical evening of unusual storytelling.


Erin Helmrich is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library, a fan of the Gorillaz, graphic novels, and adorable stuff in all forms.


"Nufonia Must Fall" runs Friday, March 10 and Saturday, March 11 at 8 pm at The Power Center. The performance is presented by UMS as part of the International Theater Series UMS on Film.

Review: The Chieftains’ UMS Show at Hill Thrills Fans

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE MUSIC

The Chieftains support local artists, even letting them join in the fun.

The Chieftains support local artists, even letting them join in the fun.

Just a wee bit in advance of St. Patrick’s Day, the University Musical Society brought the Chieftains to Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium on Saturday, March 5th. And if this charming, 90-minute show failed to get you in the mood for the holiday, nothing would.

The Chieftains have been torch-bearers, and set the gold standard, for Irish music for more than half a century now. One of the group’s founding members, Paddy Moloney, still sings and plays the pipes and tin whistle at center stage. The band’s current roster also includes Tara Breen (violin, saxophone, dance), Jon Pilatzke (fiddle and stepdance), Kevin Conneff (bodhran and vocals), Matt Molloy (flute), Triona Marshall (harp and piano), and Tim Edey (guitar and accordian), with featured stepdancer Nathan Pilatzke, and featured vocalist and dancer Alyth McCormack.

The Chieftains – perhaps not surprisingly, given their longevity – have a pitch-perfect sense of balancing up-tempo, foot-stomping reels with more delicate numbers. Following a spirited fiddle solo (and dance) by Breen early in the show, Conneff sang “The Flower of Magherally,” largely without any musical accompaniment, letting us focus entirely on the melody and story. Then a quick take on “Cotton Eyed Joe” played out before McCormack appeared on stage to sing the moving ballad, “The Foggy Dew” (previously recorded by the Chieftains with Sinead O’Connor).

With such a vast catalog of music from which to choose, the Chieftains inevitably venture beyond the songs most familiar to fans. Among “new to me” offerings were: the Chinese tune “Full of Joy” (not my favorite, but a clear demonstration of the group’s commitment to sharing not just their own culture’s music); an inspired, gorgeous harp solo, masterfully delivered by Marshall; a song for Nelson Mandela titled, “The Troublemaker’s Jig”; and a musical reading of W. B. Yeats' poem, “Never Give All the Heart.”

But the Chieftains also offered tunes from the documentary television series The Long Journey Home (about Irish migration to the United States), including the American standard “Oh Shenandoah,” accompanied by the Ann Arbor Grail Singers. Indeed, several local groups were integrated into Saturday evening’s show, including Lansing’s Glen Erin Pipe Band (featured most prominently in “San Patricio”), and young students from Plymouth’s O’Hare School of Irish Dance.

This leads me to mention the electrifying role dance played in Saturday’s show. Though Breen was the first to put down her violin, various combinations of dancers performed throughout the show, and the consequence was consistently thrilling.

Most breathtaking of all were the Pilatzke brothers, whose percussive, perfectly synced, wildly complex dances conveyed a palpable sense of joy. I cheered every time they made their way back to the stage’s dance space. Something about their connection to each other amped the energy even higher, and in one instance, as they danced without music, they reminded us that, sometimes, the dance and the music are one and the same.

As the show neared its end, Moloney thanked the crowd and said, “This is one of our very favorite venues,” then played an encore and invited people from the crowd to join in a traveling dance line that moved through the aisles before heading back to the stage. Several fans rushed across their rows to take part, demonstrating the crowd’s unbridled enthusiasm for the show. With everyone’s hands joined, raising and lowering in time together, the moment seemed a wholly fitting conclusion to a night that felt so heartwarming and hopeful.


Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Preview: Stratford Festival Offers Variety at a Good Exchange Rate

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

A small sampling of the many plays that will be performed at this year's Stratford Festival.

A small sampling of the many plays that will be performed at this year's Stratford Festival.

The Stratford Festival, an annual, Canadian theatre festival, is set to begin in April and this year's lineup is typically wide ranging, with 13 plays at four venues.

As always, Shakespeare is the heart of the festival. This year, the Bard is represented with productions of Macbeth, As You Like It and a reworking of Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, and Henry V into two plays under the title Breath of Kings. The presentation was conceived and adapted by Stratford veteran Graham Abbey.

Shakespeare, himself, is the lead character in a new stage version of the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love. The comedy sets the young playwright in an Elizabethan setting that is not too different from our own.

The two musicals both have theatrical themes. A Chorus Line is a tribute to modern troupers and Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, with the hit song "Send in the Clowns."

Every year, Stratford presents a production geared for families. This year it's a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis's popular fantasy The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Arthur Miller's All My Sons is a modern Shakespearean tragedy of blind betrayal in the story of an airplane manufacturer who cuts corners to save money during World War II.

Other works are Moliere's comedy The Hypochondriac, Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, and the world premiere of two contemporary plays, Aeneid, a modern take on Virgil's epic poem, and a comedy, Bunny.

This is a good year to check out the festival at bargain prices. The value of the Canadian dollar has been falling. Recently the U.S. dollar was worth $1.40 Canadian. That's good news for thrifty theatergoers for tickets, hotel rooms, and restaurants.

The season begins in April and runs through the end of October.


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.


For more information, check out the Stratford Festival website or call 1-800-567-1600.

Preview: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern watch Hamlet talking nonsense not to herself in A2CT's new production.

Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern watch Hamlet talking nonsense not to herself in A2CT's new production.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, who began their season with an excellent staging of Julius Caesar, again salutes the famous playwright with a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the masterpiece of tragi-comic absurdity highlighting the misadventures of several characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Using two of the tragedy’s minor characters, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as its centerpiece, the play premiered in London in 1967 before becoming a critical hit on Broadway, winning the Tony Award and Drama Critics Circle awards for Best Play. New York Times critic Clive Barnes wrote that the play was “very funny, very brilliant, very chilling” and stated that, “in one bound Mr. Stoppard is asking to be considered as among the finest English-speaking writers of our stage, for this is a work of fascinating distinction.”

Civic Theatre first tackled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern twenty years ago in its 1996-97 season. David Widmayer directs the current production, and, in addition to his fondness for the play and love of absurdist theater, is particularly excited about the original music created for the production and how it fits each character.

Local audiences will recognize veteran actors Isaac Ellis and James Ingagiola who portray Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Other famous characters include Hamlet (Suzy Culbertson), Horatio (Chris Grimm), Claudius (Greg Kovas), Ophelia (Amanda Photenhauer), Gertrude (Christina Sauer), and Polonius (Elizabeth Wagner). Music direction is by Michael Edwards and the fight sequences are choreographed by Melissa Freilich.


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


Performances of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead run Thursday – Sunday, March 10-13 at the University of Michigan’s Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, 48109. Tickets are available online at www.a2ct.org, by calling the office at 734-971-2228, at the A2CT office at 322 W. Ann St., or at the door. Additional information is available by visiting www.a2ct.org.

Review: Live from London: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

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McNulty lets his cruel intentions show in National Theatre Live's Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

McNulty lets his cruel intentions show in National Theatre Live's Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

On Wednesday, February 17th, the Michigan Theater broadcast a stage performance of Les Liaisons Dangereuses through Britain's National Theatre Live. Directed by Josie Rourke, the production marks the 30th anniversary of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the original novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

Set in pre-revolutionary France, Les Liaisons Dangereuses tells the story of the beautiful Marquise de Merteuil, played by Janet McTeer, and the dashing Vicomte de Valmont, played by Dominic West, former lovers who now amuse themselves in a friendly competition of seduction and manipulation. The two are having a grand old time toying with their peers when the Vicomte unexpectedly falls in love with his newest mark, the virtuous and beautiful Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy).

The Marquise was the real standout in this performance. We so rarely get to see female characters like her: intelligent and witty, but also deeply flawed, scarred by her fight for independence. The Marquise is a woman who ruins the lives of others for petty revenge or jealousy, but who also fights ferociously to secure and defend her own freedom. Her ability to carry out her schemes in a world where the cards are so deeply stacked against women is a testament to her more admirable qualities. McTeer’s performance as the Marquise was incredible, bringing true range of emotion to a character that could easily have been played as a pure villain. West and McTeer had a definite rapport that underlined an unspoken jealousy between the characters that motivates many of the actions later in the play, as the personal stakes for the pair are quietly pushed higher and higher.

The sumptuous costumes and candle-lit scenes created a feeling of unsustainable decadence completely taken for granted by the French nobility. Within this splendor, the manipulative games played by the Marquise and Vicomte can almost seem frivolous. Their machinations ultimately boil down to trivialities, except that the emotions and lives of those involved, including the supposed masterminds, are so deeply affected. This production did an excellent job of laying out the emotional field of the characters, ensuring that each betrayal and revelation was felt like a twist of the knife, drawing the audience into a world where reputation and appearances are everything.

I entered this viewing with zero background for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but I now understand why the play has been so successful. The story is well balanced, the events spooling out in a way that keeps you entirely engaged with the action. I think the secret of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the attraction of watching a scandal develop before you, with no threat to your own reputation, almost like a guilty pleasure. Part of the reason the play is so effective is that you want to see what happens next, and so the audience is in some ways implicated in the games of the Marquise and Vicomte.


Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at AADL and agrees with Dominic West that people look much more attractive by candlelight.

Preview: The Ark's 29th Annual Storytelling Festival

PREVIEW WRITTEN WORD THEATER & DANCE

Storytellers Kevin Kling (left) and Yvonne Healy (right).

Storytellers Kevin Kling (left) and Yvonne Healy (right).

Humankind’s oldest art form is also the basis of one of The Ark’s longest running events. This year marks the 29th Anniversary of The Ark’s Annual Storytelling Festival, a two-night event that brings the oral tradition from the primordial bonfires of yore to The Ark’s warm and welcoming concert hall. Saturday night this year’s featured storytellers will spin yarns geared toward a mature adult audience, and Sunday afternoon they’ll switch gears to entertain an all ages crowd.

Over the years the festival has welcomed a bountiful mix of perspectives and storytelling styles, and this year is no exception. This weekend’s three featured storytellers -- author, playwright, storyteller, and NPR correspondent Kevin Kling; acclaimed musician and children’s entertainer Bill Harley; and local Irish performer Yvonne Healy -- spoke to me about what kinds of stories they will tell each night, and how their work has changed with the rise of radio storytelling shows like The Moth and Snap Judgement.

Headliner Kevin Kling is known for his humorous personal stories about his Midwestern upbringing and his experience with physical disability. Though he has been featured regularly on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Kling says he prefers performing in front of a live audience.

“Garrison Keillor really put us on the map, and somebody said, I thought very accurately, that he plays a microphone like a Stradivarius,” Kling says of his distinctly Midwestern colleague. “He's so wonderful on the radio. He really has found that medium. I'm a bit different in that I love a live audience. There's something visceral and chemical, something that happens on stage that neither sound waves nor lightwaves can quite fill. That to me is the magic of a live performance. You don't see a lot of standing ovations in front of the radio.”

Kling says he always knew he wanted to be a performer, but early on he had no idea he would get paid to simply stand on stage and talk about his life. He says his professional career as a storyteller began in that most fabled of artistic proving grounds: the dinner party.

“I was in the kitchen at a party, you know that's always the best place, and I was just blabbing away,” he says. “Little did I know there was a theater producer in the kitchen and she said, ‘Do you want to be in our season next year?’ And I said, ‘Doing what?’ And she said, ‘Just what you did in the kitchen.’ Before I knew it, before I knew what I was, I was on stage telling stories in a theater in Minneapolis. And then I went to Seattle, and then off-Broadway, doing pretty much what I did in that kitchen.”

Kling says he doesn’t know exactly which of his two-hundred-plus stories he will tell this weekend. He likes to show up to a venue with a good chunk of his repertoire in mind and read the crowd before deciding where to take the audience for the evening. One topic he is certain he will touch on, though, is disability, something he’s an expert on. Kling was born with a deformed left arm, and he lost the use of his right one after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Still, he assures us he’ll keep things as light as possible no matter how serious the subject matter he chooses to delve into might be.

“It will be done with humor,” he says. “That's the best way for me to get through that because you can laugh at something that doesn't control you anymore. Everybody in the audience knows loss. People say, ‘What's the difference between stand-up comedy and storytelling? You close a door with a joke with comedy, but with storytelling you open a door with a joke. It's like you're saying, ‘Now that we're all here, let's get to it.’’

Joining Kling on stage this weekend is another nationally renowned storyteller, Bill Harley. Dubbed “The Mark Twain of contemporary children’s music,” Harley pairs wit, humor, and song to embellish tales of his childhood, coming-of-age, and family life.

When asked why he is drawn primarily to telling stories from his youth, Harley responds, “I find that if I talk seriously about childhood, then everybody usually comes along. That's the birthplace of our disaster, so that's pretty fertile territory.”

Harley says he probably won’t tailor the topics of the tales he chooses for the adult and family sessions this weekend, but rather the manner in which he tells them.

“It's not so much structure as it is language, nuance and subtext,” he says. “If you talk about childhood or coming-of-age seriously, those experiences we carry with us through our whole lives, everytime we touch on those experiences it brings up something that touches us, that reaches adults just as much as it does younger kids. Obviously with the family show, I'm less likely do to do a 40-minute story. With a family show you can't mess around. You've got to keep your pedals moving and your foot to the floor and be very aware of what`s going on. With adult performances, there's a lot more nuance, and there's a lot more chance for discovery.”

Harley’s performances will ensure the melodic comfort The Ark typically traffics in won’t be entirely lost for the weekend. He says audiences are often surprised and delighted by the way he flirts with the intersection between song and spoken word.

“When you sing a song, people go, ‘Okay, we know that,’” he says. “And then you put your guitar down or you're holding your guitar and you start to talk, and all of a sudden people are kind of waiting for the talking to end and the music to begin again. And slowly, they realize this is something other. I always have people come up to me and say, ‘I haven't been to something like this for years. I can't remember the last time I sat and listened to something like that.’ It's an amazing experience.”

Local Irish storyteller Yvonne Healy rounds out this weekend’s bill with a rollicking blend of traditional Irish folklore and mythology and flamboyant tales of her own personal experience. Healy, now a resident of Howell, was born in Ireland and raised in the U.S. She says her upbringing straddled the cultural mores and traditions of both countries and gave her a master class in the art of storytelling.

“Inside the house was Ireland, and outside the house was the United States,” she says. “So inside the house we spoke Irish, and we danced Irish dances and sang to Irish music. We behaved in an Irish way, and part of that is learning to tell stories properly, with proper accent and proper detail. I learned by rote, phrase by phrase.”

Healy’s father had a profound influence on her interest in telling stories. She describes him as an alternately charming and argumentative contrarian who could worm his way out of any situation with a good yarn.

“I asked him one time, ‘How is it that you never get beat up?’ And he said, ‘Well I got beat up once. Now, whenever I get to that point, and I like getting them to that point, then I tell them a story and confuse them. And then they let me go.’ So really, talking is a martial art.”

Like this weekend’s other two storytellers, Healy says she doesn’t yet know exactly what stories she’ll bring to the stage. She says Sunday she will stick to traditional folklore and mythology because she believes children, who are are developing their perspective on life, need the neatness of literary devices and literary structure. For Saturday night, she says she will cull stories from her own life. With more and more people being introduced to live storytelling via NPR, she says that seems to be what people want to hear these days.

“I think it’s because we have such an educated populace,” she says. “We can figure out where stories are going to go, but real life is not neat like a fictional story is. Real life is messy and doesn't have those kind of fictional constructs, and so that's very interesting to us. We spend a lot of time alone or with screens in our contemporary society, and I think having deep, real conversations with other people face-to-face is very moving for everybody.”

Healy elaborates on that last remark. Live storytelling, she says, is a conversation between the performer and the audience.

“The story changes depending on how the audience reacts,” she says. “If you're losing some people in some place, you kind of come back and go back into the thread and go off on another digression, but only if the audience is responding to it. A story is really co-created by everybody in the room.”


Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer, and he would love to tell you the story about the time he saw a UFO.


The Ark’s 29th Annual Storytelling Festival runs Saturday at 7:30 p.m. & Sunday, at 1 p.m. The Ark is located at 316 S. Main St. Tickets are on sale now through the Michigan Union Ticket Office and at The Ark's website. Tickets are priced at $20 for the Saturday evening show and $10 for the kids’ show on Sunday afternoon.

Review: U-M's Clybourne Park Finds Deep Humor in Our Sad Racial Dance

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Maid Francine (Blair Prince) in Bruce Norris’s comic drama Clybourne Park

Maid Francine (Blair Prince) in Bruce Norris’s comic drama Clybourne Park.

It's still an awkward dance. When it comes to the subject of race, we seem to invent new language just to avoid the blunt words and ingrained feelings that are simmering just below the surface.

There are few places where that is more true than southeastern Michigan with a long, bloody history of racial animus. Flint and the Detroit school situation are just the most recent examples of the unresolved prejudices that politically correct speech can never hide.

The University of Michigan's School of Music, Theater and Dance couldn't have picked a more relevant and powerful play than Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park. But be warned, anyone expecting a sermon on race relations will find instead a hilariously serious comic drama. This is a play that exposes that awkward dance with sharp wit and a rare ability to understand the real complexity of the issue. The play has won the triple crown of theater awards, the British Olivier, Broadway's Tony, and the Pulitzer Prize and this U-M production is brilliant at making us laugh while unpeeling the many layers of code words that separate us.

406 Clybourne Street is the house in a white Chicago neighborhood that a black family moved into in Lorraine Hansbury's 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. The first act of Norris' play set in 1959 centers on the white couple who have sold this home and are anxious to move out to escape the pain of the death by suicide of their Korean veteran son. The second act takes place in 2009 as an upscale white couple are meeting to discuss plans to modernize the now ravaged home in what has become a low-income black neighborhood.

This is serious stuff. But even in this first act director John Neville-Andrews uses Norris' stylized speech moving at a brisk pace, perfectly capturing the various anxieties at 406 Clybourne. The second act moves at an even faster pace, with more laughs but also more direct confrontation. His cast handles this very precise language skillfully, capturing every nuance of meaning and wringing every bit of the humor that dulls the deeper pain. In addition, each actor in the play has two distinctly different characters. That transformation is awesome.

In Act One, Jack Alberts is Karl, a leader of the community association, who comes to warn Russ and Bev that selling their house to a black family will lead to the end of their tight, white community. Alberts' Karl is a tightly wound, nerdy accountant type. He can't let a bad argument go, he can't let anyone else get a word in to dispute his notion that mixing races is a bad idea. His tight suit and undersized fedora perfectly highlight Alberts' performance. In Act Two, Alberts is Steve, a modern, hip guy, a real urbanite who wants to come back to the city and make it new again. This is where Alberts really nails the character, a slick guy who thinks he's post-racial, until he finds out he's not.

Lila Hood plays Karl's sweet, deaf wife Betsy, a victim of another kind of mindless patronization, and Steve's very modern wife Lindsey, an urban woman who claims at one point "half my friends are black." Again, Hood plays two characters who couldn't be more different and captures the sadness and isolation of Betsy and the whip-smart intelligence and total cluelessness of Lindsey.

David Newman goes from depressed father Russ in Act One, to broad comic punctuation as a construction worker in Act Two. His performance as Russ explodes as he makes a case that not all decisions hinge on the issue of race, even in Chicago. It is a plea for the personal over the social and political. His comic turn is a complete turn around.

Madeline Rouverol is the center point of Act One as Bev, a woman with high anxiety over the death of her son and the increasing depression of her husband. She talks a blue streak, she fidgets, she gushes. And when it comes to relating to her black maid, she displays the easy bigotry that passed/s for liberalism. She thinks she and the maid are friends, how quaint and how sad. In Act Two, Rourverol is a real estate lawyer, Albert and Betsy's daughter, who also thinks she's free of prejudice. Rouverol gets some very funny lines here that she places with pinpoint timing.

And about that maid, Francine. Blair Prince is devastating in this pivotal role. She presents herself as a dutiful employee, even as she is about to lose her job. But she's not one to be pushed around and she disdains Bev's phony liberal overtures (bribes), with looks that would wither a forest. When confronted by Karl to stand in for her race and answer his absurd challenges she dances to avoid and not offend while clearly showing that she is deeply offended. In Act Two, the tables have turned. She is the educated, tart tongued Lena, defending her community against its impending gentrification. It was her family who moved into 406 Clybourne. But here again, she dances around the issue until push comes to shove. Prince shows all of this in her expressive face.

Aaron Huey is Francine's kindhearted husband Albert, who shows that slowly dying deference to whites that makes old movies so uncomfortable. But Huey's Albert also shows his real feelings in his face and when things get a little too insulting he reacts with quick wit. As Lena's husband Kevin, he is a young professional at ease with whites, sharing similar interests, knowing the same people, sharing the same good life in Chicago. But as Act Two goes on, the bonhomie gets thin and then explodes and Huey masters that slow burn.

Jordan Rich plays Jim, a minister in Act One, who tries to straddle two contradictory ideas at once and do it with Christian charity. The temptation to overplay this sanctimony is avoided and Rich makes the character real. In Act Two, he's a building inspector who acts as a referee as the conversation moves from funny to dangerous. He gets one of the night's funniest lines.

The set design by Gary Decker is superb. In Act One, the house is a solid, old Chicago house, real wood trim, plaster walls. It's untidy only because the moving boxes are scattered about. In Act Two, fifty years of increasing poverty and the neglect poverty causes are evident in the home that is also in the early stages of demolition. The change is eye-popping.


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.


Clybourne Park continues 8 pm Friday and Saturday, Feb. 19-20, and at 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on the central campus of the University of Michigan. Tickets at the League Ticket Office, (734) 764-2538.

Feeling Cross: David Cross at the Michigan Theater

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

David Cross had a little bit of fun at the Michigan Theater this Saturday.

David Cross had a little bit of fun at the Michigan Theater this Saturday.

Downtown Ann Arbor shivered with excitement and near-frostbite as over 1,000 comedy-lovers flocked to Michigan Theater on Saturday, February 13 for David Cross's Making America Great Again tour. The return of this stand-up legend was an event not to be missed.

Even if you don't recognize Cross by name, it's likely you've encountered his work before. Maybe you've seen him in the cult tv show Arrested Development, heard his voice in the Kung Fu Panda series, or stumbled upon his sketch show W/ Bob & David on Netflix. He's kept busy over the last twenty years recording comedy specials, starring in The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, and popping up in shows like Modern Family and Archer. One of my favorite little facts about Cross (there's no stopping this train now) is that he appears in both Men in Black and Men in Black II as completely different characters. (Not that you need an excuse to watch MIB.)

As a first-time visitor to the Michigan Theater, I was admiring my surroundings when someone extremely exciting took the stage to make an announcement. It was an American Sign Language interpreter. I couldn't help but wonder if this man would be interpreting the entire performance, because as a fan of David Cross's previous work, I knew what levels of vulgarity were possible. Where would the line be drawn for ASL interpretation?

Suddenly, the music got louder. Actually, it was deafening, but then I started picking up lyrics about a show...did I hear "David Cross?" I knew for certain this was the Making America Great Again theme song when I heard the phrase "turn off your cell phones or you'll be punched in the dick." This was going to be a good show.

Cross emerged with a beard even lumberjacks would envy. He wore a baseball cap, jeans, and a blue zip-up sweatshirt reminiscent of his Arrested Development Blue Man Group costume. Even Cross was completely entranced by the ASL interpreter. He tried a couple of test words, including "Ethiopia" and "Sputnik." Other, more...mature words definitely happened. This interpreter was legit.

Then came the traditional introductions, a time when performers compliment the town they're visiting to the delight of their audience. Cross mentioned that he'd been walking around town, and I later heard he'd been to HopCat. So what did David Cross have to say about Ann Arbor? "It's ok." He followed up with the question, "Is Ann Arbor still the most literate city in America?" and in response to audience applause, "Good for you."

Throughout the show, Cross paced along the stage, spouting what sounded like stream-of-consciousness commentary, jumping from one topic to the next effortlessly. His jokes reflected real life, from dysfunctional family gatherings to religion to politics. Surprisingly, despite the name of his tour, certain Republican presidential candidates were only mentioned in passing. More time was devoted to advocating for gun regulation; he sarcastically vented that "there's nothing more American than reading about a senseless...gun death."

Cross paused his ranting periodically to interact with an intoxicated audience member. Their banter seemed so natural that I started to wonder if she was an intended part of the show. Eventually, he gave in to her interruptions and handed her the microphone, and she sent her "peace and love to everyone." Cross, with total professional ease, chuckled and proceeded with his show saying, "So that was a little bit fun."

The night seemed to end before it started, and when it was over, Cross reemerged from backstage to take a group photo of the audience for his facebook page. If you missed the show this time, dry those tears! Rumor has it that Cross will record his performance on Friday, April 22 as a comedy special.


Kayla Coughlin is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library and is intrigued by American Sign Language possibilities.


David Cross returns to Michigan on Thursday, March 18, 2016, appearing at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids.