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

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Purple Rose's Roadsigns

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

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

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

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

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

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The Believers Are But Brothers

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

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

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

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

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

Riverside Arts Center's "Insecurity: Not Enough Again" exhibit explores personal and social uncertainties

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Detail from RckBny's collage at Riverside Art Center

Detail from RckBny's collage at Riverside Art Center's Insecurity: Not Enough, Again. Image courtesy of the gallery.

Insecurity takes many forms and shapes: visually, culturally, personally, and within communities. But what is insecurity and how can it be cultivated to produce change?

Riverside Arts Center’s Insecurity: Not Enough Again suggests it is often “a gnawing at the pit of the stomach,” a series of nagging, persistent questions: “Am I enough?” Or, “Will there be enough?”

The Ypsilanti gallery asked artists to consider what insecurity means to them while also partnering with local nonprofits and organizations to address food and housing insecurities in the Washtenaw area.

Riverside’s exhibits frequently pair with broader community organizations, and the Washtenaw County Community and Agency Fair will take place on January 25 from 12-4 pm at the Arts Center and is free to the public. Additionally, on Friday, January 18, Keena Winterzwill will appear at the galleries for a book release and signing, with performances by Jameelski of Breathe Easy Music Group, BMC, Dope Ther@py The Poet, and Joey Crues.

Melting Into Darkness: "A World Without Ice" at Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum

VISUAL ART REVIEW

A World Without Ice

All A World Without Ice photos by Christopher Porter.

"It's making me uncomfortable but it's relaxing, too."

My kid's succinct review of A World Without Ice at Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum likely captures the sensation U-M music professors Michael Gould and Stephen Rush, along with Dutch electronic-media artist Marion Tränkle, had in mind when they created their multimedia installation with climate scientist and U-M professor emeritus Henry Pollack (co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore). 

Pollack's book A World Without Ice inspired the exhibit, which artfully illustrates through sound, music, and visuals the glaciers melting and asks us to consider our role in their disappearance.

Rush created a dark, ambient composition that drones discretely in the background as Tränkle's film -- featuring Pollack and associate's gorgeous images of the Arctic and Antarctic -- plays on a curved screen. But as you sit in the blackened room and your ears tune-in to Rush's music, the soothing and menacing tones are punctuated by the seven floor-tom drums arced around the front of the exhibit. (Presumably, seven toms for the seven continents, all of which will be affected by climate change.)

UMMA's "Reflections: An Ordinary Day" explores quotidian moments in Inuit life

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Pauojoungie Saggiak, Spirit in the Limelight, 2016

Pauojoungie Saggiak, Spirit in the Limelight, 2016

What one person might consider an ordinary, everyday scene, another might see as unusual and unique. It all depends on where you live, since cultures evolve in different ways that fit their environments. So, a person from the Caribbean might not recognize something from the Arctic as commonplace and vice versa. 

Reflections: An Ordinary Day, an exhibit University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) that features Inuit art, is filled with imagery of everyday tasks and mythologies of people who live in the Far North. But for people who live in the Midwest, these representations are anything but banal or commonplace.

This is the UMMA’s second exhibit of Inuit art and it gives viewers a chance to see even more works gifted by the Power family to the museum. In the newly named Eleanor Noyes Crumpacker Gallery, prints, drawings, and sculptures spanning from the mid-1950s to the 2010s are now on view through May 10, 2020.

The first exhibit, The Power Family Program for Inuit Art: Tillirnanngittuqfocused on the history of the Power family’s collecting and promoting art in the Cape Dorset area. While many of the pieces on display in Reflections: An Ordinary Day are direct promised gifts from the Power Family, others are purchases made possible by the Power Family Program, or gifts by donors such as Katherine Kurtz and Raburn Howland.

Works in the gallery span from the mid-20th century to the early 21st-century and feature Inuit artistic methods of inscription, printmaking, carving, and drawing. UMMA curator Vera Grant notes that the images selected for the exhibition are united in their depictions of “seemingly ordinary” everyday imagery.

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

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration, Aspiration, Expertise: “Gerome Kamrowski: Ann Arbor’s Own Surrealist” at The Michigan Art Gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Gerome Kamrowski in his backyard with his sculptures

Gerome Kamrowski in his backyard with his sculptures; first published in black and white in The Ann Arbor News, September 4, 1993. Photo by Photographer: D. A. Biermann.

I only met Gerome Kamrowski once. He granted The Ann Arbor News a 1993 interview for the paper’s annual old school “M-Edition,” a special start-of-the-school-year section.

We met at Kamrowski's tree-lined Waterhill residence where he had a detached studio. The place looked like a well-organized bead foundry -- only in this instance, the place had also been overrun by a menagerie of fantastic creatures.

Even at the age of 79, Kamrowski had the muscular heft of a lumberjack -- a handshake that griped like an iron vice -- and the soft-spoken grace of an artiste as he played with the rows of colorful beads he used to craft his late series of eccentric, surreal sculpture.

But Kamrowski's hypnagogic style wasn't a recent turn; he started to develop it 50 years prior when he lived in New York City.  

During the winter of 1939/40, artful youths Kamrowski, William Baziotes (known to art historians), and Jackson Polack (known to the rest of us) were, in Kamrowski’s words, “fooling around” with lacquer paint in studio when they began throwing paint on canvases using a palette knife and a slashing gesture; ultimately overlaying paint upon layer of hard drying and smooth surface paint to create a muscular variation of French surrealist André Masson’s automatic drawing.

Borrowing a cliché that has stood the test of time: The rest was history.

Well, sort of …

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

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

A New Brain

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

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

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

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

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

This Is America: Tylonn J. Sawyer's "WHITE HISTORY MONTH VOL. 1" at LSA Humanities Gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Tylonn J. Sawyer, DNA drawing

DNA, charcoal, collage and gold leaf on paper, 96 “ X 67”, 2019.

Tylonn J. Sawyer's exhibition WHITE HISTORY MONTH VOL. 1 might not seem to be made for people who ask, “Why don’t we have a White History Month when we have Black History Month?”

But people who ask that question should see this exhibit at the LSA Humanities Gallery at the University of Michigan. 

Sawyer is an artist, educator, curator, and activist based in Detroit who tackles difficult questions of race and identity in American culture. He grapples with the "why don't we have" question by representing iconic African-Americans in his show devoted to “white history” by suggesting that white history is inextricably linked to black history in the U.S. He uses varied media in his explorations of identity and race, including drawings on paper, oil paintings, a soundtrack, and a short film.

His works at LSA range from monumental drawings to intimate portraits of influential black women artists. Sawyer disrupts typical histories of the Civil War and its monuments in these bodies of work by referencing the creation and destruction of monuments both in America and throughout known history. He also offers audiences new heroes through Grâce Noire, his series of charcoal and glitter portraits of black women artists, including Faith Ringgold, Kara Walker, Sydney G. James, and Tiff Massey, an interdisciplinary artist based in Detroit.