U-M’s take on Anton Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" balances an awkward blend of comedy and tragedy

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Overheard shot of the stage with the cast of The Cherry Orchard

Photo by Erin Kirkland/Michigan Photography.

Is it a tragedy or a comedy?

Anton Chekhov, master short story writer and playwright, believed he had written The Cherry Orchard as a comedy, taking a jab at a rapidly fading way of life in rural Russia. When director Constantin Stanislavski directed the play for the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904, he directed a tragedy about a social order soon to be eclipsed by a very different social order.

The University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama balances the two points of view with mixed results.

In his program notes director Daniel Cantor acknowledges the shifting tone that leaves room for very different points of view.

Cantor writes, “What’s fascinating to me about The Cherry Orchard is that it contains intense contradictions: contradictions in style, theme, and action, and highly contradictory characters. It fully occupies a tragicomic perspective that is always moving, shifting, turning on a dime—whipping from the profound to the farcical, the spiritual to the absurd. And sometimes both at once.”

Mary Gaitskill Reflects on Her Latest Works and Extensive Career During U-M's Zell Visiting Writers Series Event

WRITTEN WORD REVIEW

A portrait of Mary Gaitskill wearing a gray sweater.

Mary Gaitskill. Photo courtesy of The Helen Zell Writers' Program.

According to writer and University of Michigan alumna Mary Gaitskill, almost nothing is unbelievable and people are weird. Her work often reflects this notion with morally ambiguous characters, a gritty detailing of misconduct, and a complete rejection of clean-cut, black-and-white narratives. 

Quin, the protagonist of her acclaimed 2019 novella, This Is Pleasure, is one of her weirdest characters. In Quin's mind, his flirtatious workplace actions weren’t all that bad. When women began coming forward about feeling violated, he became caught off guard. 

“There was a cultural landscape for a while at least where he existed—I’m not saying it would be acceptable to everybody,” Gaitskill explained about Quin. “I’m sure he did offend some people, but because of his position, I think he didn’t realize he was offending people.”

Gaitskill shared her latest works and extensive literary experience during a March 21 reading and Q&A at the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Helmut Stern Auditorium. Hosted by the Zell Visiting Writers Series, an annual showcase sponsored by The Helen Zell Writers’ Program, it brings fiction writers and poets to U-M’s campus to host public readings and lectures.

Initially published in The New YorkerThis Is Pleasure dominated literary circles due to its unlikely telling of a story of the “#MeToo” movement, a social campaign aimed at exposing people, especially those in positions of authority, involved in sexual misconduct. 

It offers a complex narrative about two characters, Quin and Margot, who find themselves entwined with the tendrils of a public sexual misconduct scandal. Quin—a husband, father, and New York book editor—loses his career once young women start coming forward about his wrongdoings. Margot is Quin’s former co-worker, and after rejecting his sexual advances early in their working relationship, the two became close friends in the industry. When Quin’s name hits the front pages of tabloids, the two navigate the complex intersections of power, guilt, and manipulation. 

Susan Goethel Campbell’s “Garden Repairs” traverses the intersection of natural and man-made worlds

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Garden Repair No. 2, 2024 Stains from black walnut, iron oxide and dye on Japanese paper with hand embroidery 55” x 88”

Susan Goethel Campbell, Garden Repair No. 2, 2024. Stains from black walnut, iron oxide and dye on Japanese paper with hand-embroidery. 55” x 88”. Photo by Tim Thayer.

Not long before visiting Ferndale-based artist Susan Goethel Campbell’s Garden Repairs installation at the U-M’s Institute of the Humanities, I’d shared a photograph on social media of a cluster of snow-dusted daffodils in my backyard, shriveled and hunched over. I’d been struck by how often nature mirrors human gesture; how these flowers visibly conveyed what many of us were feeling that morning, as we pulled winter coats and gloves back out of our closets, just days after walking around in shorts. I’d wondered if the natural world shaped the way our physical bodies communicate emotion, or if this is all, in fact, subtle, visible evidence of our inter-relationship with each other.

As it happens, this train of thought was a perfect foundation for experiencing Campbell’s work, which marries the natural and man-made worlds in surprising ways.

Theatre Nova's "the ripple, the wave that carried me home" explores how a family deals with a long fight for social justice

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Bryana Hall in “the ripple, the wave that carried me home" by Christina Anderson, directed by Lynch Travis at Theatre NOVA. Photograph by Sean Carter Photography.

Bryana Hall in the ripple, the wave that carried me home by Christina Anderson, directed by Lynch Travis at Theatre NOVA. Photograph by Sean Carter Photography.

A social change agent who’s also a parent lives inside a paradox: Though they’re often driven by hopes of making the world a better place for their child, they must necessarily invest a vast amount of time and passion (that might otherwise be spent on the child) into their cause to even have a chance at moving the needle—and that child’s resentment can all-too-easily take root and grow.

This is one of the primary conflicts at the heart of Christina Anderson’s play the ripple, the wave that carried me home, now on stage at Theatre Nova. The 90-minute drama focuses on Janice (Bryana Hall), a woman living with her husband and sons in Ohio in 1992 as the L.A. riots—sparked by acquittals for the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King—unfold on television.

Encore Theatre's take on Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale mashup "Into the Woods" is filled with powerhouse vocals

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's Into the Woods

Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

It’s fitting that I watched Encore Musical Theatre Company’s new production of Into the Woods with my 12-year-old daughter.

Not just because the girl can sing every word of the show’s patter song (“Your Fault”)—she used to fall asleep listening to the show’s cast recording each night—but also because she now lives in that interstitial, fog-laden forest known as middle school, where preteens blindly fumble their way out of childhood.

And frankly, if I had to name one show that’s about the terrifyingly fraught and difficult process of growing up, it would be Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

A fairy-tale mashup that premiered on Broadway in 1987—long before the word “mashup” became such a regular part of our lexicon—Woods interweaves the stories of Cinderella (Ash Moran), Rapunzel (Lucia Flowers), Little Red Riding Hood (Sienna Berkseth), and Jack (Tsumari Patterson) and the Beanstalk

How? By way of a cursed baker (Marcus Jordan) and his wife (Jessica Grové), who can’t have children until they gather the four items requested by the old witch next door (Jennifer Horne). But even when the couple succeeds, and everyone—fairy-tale protagonists included—gets what they want, in its darker second act Woods dares to venture beyond “happily ever after” and ask, “OK, now what?”

Comic Duet: Theatre Nova's "Fortune" is a rom-com with expert timing

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Russ Schwartz and Josie Eli Herman star in Theatre Nova's Fortune. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

Russ Schwartz and Josie Eli Herman star in Theatre Nova's Fortune. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

This has been a chilly, wet, slippery, snowy winter, so it’s a perfect time to warm up with a rom-com—especially with Valentine's Day around the corner.

For Theatre Nova's production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Fortune, director Carla Milarch brings two talented actors together in a comical duet. It’s a good choice for Nova's tiny, sometimes cramped space. There are some lighting special effects, but most of the fireworks come from the actors who play two lonely people looking for love.

Madame Rosa is a fortune teller, like her mother. It’s a family business and a curse. Unlike other “fortune tellers,” Madame Rosa actually can look into the past and predict the future, but she'd rather be a secretary. 

When not being Madame Rosa, she’s a lonely young woman named Maude who is afraid of what she can do and afraid to give up the business and do something about her life.

One day, a desperate young man demands that Madame Rosa read his fortune. He’s an awkward young accountant who has been regularly striking out in his attempts to find love. He wants to know what his future holds and doesn’t want it sugar-coated. 

For Love and Money: U-M professor Scott Rick explores how couples navigate finances in "Tightwads and Spendthrifts"

WRITTEN WORD REVIEW

Scott Rick and his book Tightwads and Spendthrifts.

In my family, I’m the person who insists on setting apart the cans that can be returned for deposit, while my husband says, “What do you get, three dollars? Not worth it.”

Perhaps not. But different philosophies about money, at the macro and micro level, are all-too-common in marriage. I mean, there’s a reason that finances always make the list of “things couples fight most about,” right?

To address these differences, Scott Rick, a U-M Ross School of Business marketing professor, has a new book called Tightwads and Spendthrifts: Navigating the Money Minefield in Real Relationships. Billed as distinct from conventional self-help or personal finance books, the book instead uses behavioral science as scaffolding for a broader discussion of how spending plays into our sense of personal identity; why we’re sometimes attracted to people who are quite unlike ourselves (in terms of spending); and practical ways to work through money-related conflicts.

A Fair of Affairs: Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's "The Real Thing" is all about the dangerous game of love

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Actors sitting on a couch. Chris Grimm (Henry), Kara Williams (Charlotte), Manny Abascal Jr. (Max), and Sara Long (Annie) in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's The Real Thing.

Four scores: Chris Grimm (Henry), Kara Williams (Charlotte), Manny Abascal Jr. (Max), and Sara Long (Annie) tend to affairs of the heart in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's The Real Thing. Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.

A typical Tom Stoppard play features a whole lot of words just to get to a basic point. It can be intellectually stimulating—or a wee bit draggy if you're looking for more action on stage.

But the high-energy Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of Stoppard's The Real Thing that opened last Friday to a sold-out crowd flows at an excellent pace thanks to director David Widmayer and grips your attention throughout.

The play is set in 1980s London and focuses on two couples. Henry (Chris Grimm) is a playwright married to Charlotte (Kara Williams), an actress who frequently stars in Henry’s shows, including his current piece, House of Cards. They are good friends with Annie (Sara Long) and her husband Max (Manny Abascal Jr.), who is also an actor and starring in House of Cards with Charlotte. 

Deck Halls the Halls With Boughs of Corn: Encore Theatre's "White Christmas" hits all the right nostalgic spots

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's production of White Christmas.

Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

As a starting point, let’s just agree: White Christmas is pure, nostalgic corn. 

But ever since I was a kid, watching the 1954 Bing Crosby movie with my musical-loving mom, it’s always gotten me right in the feels. The world-wise romantic leads who initially dislike each other? The outwardly gruff but paternal General who’s deeply beloved by his men? The snow that refuses to fall in Vermont until conflicts are resolved, and love and goodness prevail?

Like it’s on the cob, ready to be shucked, people.

But recognizing how a story blatantly pulls on your heartstrings sometimes does little to defuse its impact, which is why I was all too happy to check out the stage musical adaptation of White Christmas at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

This Is Your Song: Jeff Tweedy's New Book Makes Us Think About How We Connect With Our Favorite Music

MUSIC WRITTEN WORD REVIEW

Jeff Tweedy stands with April Baer of Michigan Radio's Stateside.

Jeff Tweedy hangs out with April Baer of Michigan Radio's Stateside. Baer spoke with Tweedy about his latest book, World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music, last month at U-M's Rackham Auditorium in partnership with Literati Bookstore. Photo taken from Jeff Tweedy's Facebook page.

Back in 2009, I actually heard Wilco for the first time.

It’s not that I didn’t know the band’s music, but it was the first time I had developed an emotional connection to one of their songs.

It was “You and I,” a heartwarming duet with Feist from the band’s self-titled album. The track addresses two lovers trying to preserve a relationship as Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy sings, “You and I, we might be strangers / However close we get sometimes / It’s like we never met.”

While I’ve never met Tweedy and or any of the other Wilco members, “You and I” emanates a comforting familiarity in terms of its memorable lyrics, bittersweet harmonies, and smooth bassline.

There’s an unexplainable pull I feel to it, and it’s something Tweedy easily masters after nearly three decades of writing Wilco songs.

“I’m much more fascinated by the blurry area between a song and the mind that receives it, puts it back together in a shape that fits their own life, and allows the heart to take ownership,” writes Tweedy in his latest book, World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music.

That statement nicely encapsulates the key takeaway from Tweedy’s third book, which highlights the memorable connections—both positive and negative—he’s made with 50 different songs throughout his life.