Wherever You Are: Geoff Sobelle’s experimental theater piece explores what it means to be "Home"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Full stage of actors on stage in a production of Home

Photo courtesy of UMS

Among the many, many things that have changed over the last two years is our sense of “home.” 

While traditionally associated with comfort and family and love, our homes became claustrophobic prisons of a kind during the pandemic as we holed up to protect ourselves and each other; and though home provided many of us with some semblance of safety, we were nonetheless terrified of being with others and of this dangerous thing that was out in the world that we didn’t yet understand.

So although the UMS presentation of Geoff Sobelle’s Home—a genre-defying hybrid of theater, dance, and interactive performance art that often has the feel of a live silent film—had been originally scheduled for April 2020, seeing it instead this past weekend during its two-day run at the Power Center inevitably meant the audience watched it with COVID-era eyes.

That’s not to say we collectively arrived at the venue with a jaundiced, wary perception filter firmly in place. But for many of us, the abstract idea of “home” as an emotional palette has expanded to include some darker hues, right alongside the more conventionally bright, cozy, warm ones.

(Not Quite) A MoodSwing Reunion: Jazz all-stars electrify Hill Auditorium despite missing a key member

MUSIC REVIEW

Brian Blade, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, and Brad Mehldau by Michael Wilson

Brian Blade, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, and Brad Mehldau—a MoodSwing reunion. Photo by Michael Wilson.

Joshua Redman comes across as surprisingly shy for one of the best saxophonists in the world. Instrument held slightly off to the side, he addressed the immense crowd at Hill Auditorium on Thursday night from behind his reading glasses and with an endearing timidity, almost apologetically searching for the right words as he gave titles for the night’s first two pieces and introduced his band. Never once did he betray even a hint of the fact that a minute before he’d delivered the kind of virtuosic performance only a handful of people in the world could give. 

The saxophonist and composer was joined onstage by talents no less ferocious than his own, almost a full reunion of the Joshua Redman Quartet lineup from the ‘90s. Bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade—Grammy winners both—grounded the ensemble as its rhythm section throughout the night, occasionally breaking out for breathtaking solos, and the only absence from the old days was pianist Brad Mehldau, who was originally slated to appear but called in sick at the last minute.

Encore Theatre premieres a new musical based on the life of silent star Lon Chaney

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

A stage scene from The Encore Theatre's production of A Thousand Faces based on the life of Lon Chaney

Photo by Michele Anliker Photography

In addition to presenting classic American musicals and lively cabaret shows, The Encore Theatre in Dexter is also doing its part to expand the musical theater repertoire with premiere presentations of new musicals.

This month, Encore is presenting the world premiere of A Thousand Faces, a musical bio on the life of silent-screen star Lon Chaney. 

As with any new theatrical production, the first presentation is an opportunity for the creative team to make adjustments and test run the audience's response to the new material. The book writer, the composer, the lyricist, and the director will tweak this show as the weeks go on. 

They’re off to a good start but audiences might be a bit surprised by the show’s approach to telling the Chaney family story.

Along with the great silent comedy stars, Lon Chaney's name and films still resonate with audiences. He was the man of a thousand faces. He was an actor who hid himself in characters that were both physically and psychologically damaged. Chaney was famous for his performances in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, The Unholy Three, Laugh, Clown, and He Who Gets Slapped. He did his own shock-producing makeup and twisted his face and body into a dozen different contortions. But he could also show his own face and give a tough performance in the contemporary war drama Tell It to the Marines.

After a scene of Chaney adjusting his Quasimodo makeup and trying on tortured facial expressions, A Thousand Faces takes us back to Chaney’s youth, because this isn’t a story about making horror movies, it’s about family.

Tracey Snelling's "How to Build a Disaster Proof House" constructions contemplate displacement and disenfranchisement

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Tracey Snelling's How to Build a Disaster Proof House

A vibrant installation at LSA’s Institute for the Humanities Gallery asks viewers to contemplate the utility (or lack thereof) of building a “disaster proof house.”

Tracey Snelling, the current Roman Witt Artist in Residence at the gallery, returns to LSA after previously exhibiting Here and There in 2017, which addressed “challenges of economic inequities, racial biases, and imposed class divisions that often limit the options available to so many people.” Her new exhibit, How to Build a Disaster Proof House, curated by LSA's Amanda Krugliak, “contemplates the uncertainty, displacement, and disenfranchisement that frames the present day” and asks, “How do we find a safe place, protected from bad weather and circumstance, in an era of floods, fires, violence, abuse and pandemics?”

Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over” is a Black Lives Matter-era translation of Exodus and "Waiting for Godot"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Dan Johnson and Justin Montgomery in Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu, directed by Casaundra Freeman at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Sean Carter Photography.

Dan Johnson and Justin Montgomery in Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu, directed by Casaundra Freeman at Theatre NOVA. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

The time is ripe for Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, now on stage at Theatre Nova.

The play was the show that officially reopened Broadway last August; we’re fast approaching the holiday of the same name, which commemorates the Jews’ emancipation from slavery in Egypt; and given the reignited culture wars of this mid-term election year—fueled in part by debate about critical race theory—Nwandu’s powerful reimagining of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, with two young Black men in the lead roles, feels like the theatrical version of lightning in a bottle.

Pass Over (run time 80 minutes) focuses Moses (Justin Montgomery) and Kitch (Dan Johnson), who live a hardscrabble Groundhog Day-like existence on a heavily policed city block. They regularly perform rituals like a secret handshake; Moses says “Kill me now” when he wakes up each morning, and Kitch replies, “Bang bang”; and they each name wished-for items on their “Promised Land Top Ten” lists.

But even as the men speak and dream of escape—using language so rife with curses and the n-word that it soon feels more centered on sound and music than meaning—they’re not going anywhere; and a streetlight pole that looms like Vladimir and Estragon’s tree, in this new context, haunts the play’s action with the ominous suggestion of lynching. Building on this idea, a cartoonishly obsequious, lost, “golly gee” white man (Kevin O’Callaghan) enters the scene, wearing a light-colored suit and carrying a picnic basket full of food for his mother; and a racist, violent white cop called Ossifer (also played by O’Callaghan) appears now and then to keep Moses and Kitch in their place, both literally and figuratively.

Penny Seats Theatre Company's "The Actors" is a comedic and emotional look at processing parental loss

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Penny Seats Theatre Company's The Actors

Early in Ronnie Larsen’s play The Actors—staged by the Penny Seats Theatre Company at the Stone Chalet Event Center in Ann Arbor—a character says, “Theater’s weird. Families are weird.”

Ronnie, the comedic drama’s main character (who notably shares the playwright’s name, and is affectingly played by Brandy Joe Plambeck), voices this idea while explaining why he’s looking to hire a man and a woman to spend a few hours a week in his apartment, playing the roles of his deceased parents. He's lonely and has decided to use his inheritance money to hire actors that might make him feel cared for and connected again. Ronnie provides a family history and specific, remembered scenes for the actors to play out, inviting them to improvise.

Inevitably, though, things go hilariously off-the-rails, as the boundaries between reality and pretend get increasingly fuzzy. Ronnie’s stand-in father Clarence (Robert Schorr) and mother Jean (Diane Hill) develop an attraction for each other; Clarence moves in, after being kicked out of his real home; and Jean’s real grown son (David Collins) inserts himself as Ronnie’s pretend older brother Jay, which makes the real Jay’s (Jeffrey Miller) unannounced visit all the more painfully awkward. But Jay’s arrival also brings new information to light that throws Ronnie’s family memories, and motives, into question.

60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: Two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl—another look at "Looking for Horses"

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

A still from the film Looking for Horses of a man with a weathered face and a cigarette in his mouth with a large lake in the background

Photo courtesy of Lightdox

Stefan Pavlović's Looking for Horses is a glimpse into the real-life story of an unlikely friendship.

A fisherman named Zdravko was in the Bosnian War in the first half of the '90s and sacrificed his youth as a soldier. A grenade left him severely hearing impaired and another accident took his right eye. Director Pavlović grew up in Bosnia and was exposed to four languages, but he suffers from stuttering in his mother tongue Serbocroatian, which he understands imperfectly. The two friends are of different generations and temperaments and communicate in sometimes halting speech. Pavlović’s patient listening often allows Zdravko the opportunity to talk at length, reflecting on life and fishing strategies.

Zdravko spends his days on a lake in a small motorboat while Pavlović films him. We see the island church, now abandoned, where Zdravko lived for several years, surviving through the cold in a small sheltered room. Pavlović has joined him for his fishing adventures motivated by something else that remains hidden from us.

So many unanswered questions arise. How did Stefan and Zdravko meet? How does Zdravko live? (For all the time spent on the boat fishing, we never see him catch anything.) What do they each get out of their friendship?

But that’s not really the point.

If we knew the answers, would it change anything?

60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: "Elephant" is a highly personal meditation on racism, violence, and trauma

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

A still from the film Elephant shows a woman sitting in a chair with her head bent low.

The opening scene of Elephant shows a young Black woman at the inner entrance of her apartment, wiping away tears. Remnants of blood are visible on her body and the door. The movie is shot almost entirely inside this small apartment, where the protagonist, played by director Maria Judice, confines herself after experiencing something intense and distressing. 

The scenes that follow unfold very slowly, without narration and with minimal sound. The pace and volume allow us viewers to linger on the details of the sparse surroundings. A second young woman—who we later learn is the protagonist’s sister—enters the apartment by the side door and begins to clean the apartment and quietly support her sibling. 

60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: "Rock Bottom Riser" digs into the cultural and physical roots of modern Hawaii

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

A still from the documentary Rock Bottom Riser showing an overhead shot of flowing lava

Hawaiian lava flows in the impressionistic profile of the island in Rock Bottom Riser. Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

How fascinating to watch two movies back-to-back for the AAFF, both of them focused on different island chains. While Archipelago is about the myriad islands of the St. Lawrence River and often reflects a playful, calm mood, Rock Bottom Riser by Fern Silva is much more fractured and fraught with danger.

Through a collection of film segments, Silva explores some of the clashing cultural beliefs of modern Hawaii: spiritual, traditional, scientific. With little context or introduction, we see the people and places of Hawaii and are left with our own impressions.

60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: The animated "Archipelago" traces the communities along the St. Lawrence River

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

A still from the animated film Archipelago featuring an abstract background with small bodies and a cow looking like they're struggling

What would you create if you wanted to convey the entire history of a place—the people with their personal struggles and giant conflicts, their loves and everyday lives, the music they listen to, and the story of the land itself?

Make a painting, write a novel, take pictures?

Archipelago, with its impressionistic mixture of animation and historic film footage, comes remarkably close to achieving the impossible task of capturing and reflecting the memories of a place on Earth.

Director Félix Dufour-Laperrière turns his attention to the islands and cities of the 800-mile-long St. Lawrence River to tell their stories and bring them to life. Admittedly, the St. Lawrence River, which originates in Lake Ontario in northeastern Canada, sounds like a dull topic for a feature-length film. But the vivid and wonderful expression of each stop in this fantastical travelogue is uplifting and hopeful.