Review: Alejandro Escovedo at the Ark

REVIEW MUSIC

Review: Alejandro Escovedo at the Ark.

Alejandro Escovedo and his trio rocked the Ark last Wednesday.

Last Wednesday, singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo took to The Ark's stage, joined by his longtime cellist Brian Standefer and keyboardist/harmony singer Sean Giddings as the Alejandro Escovedo Trio. The trio’s performance was part of an ongoing tour to promote the vinyl reissues of his first two albums, 1992’s Gravity and 1994’s Thirteen Years, which were released on Record Store Day last month.

Escovedo likes sharing stories with his audience during his shows, and this show was no exception. He gave a shout-out to his early producer, Chuck Prophet, who he met while working at Waterloo Records and who shepherded him into the Austin music scene. He also shared the story of his young wife’s suicide many years ago, leaving him behind with two young children.

Then he opened the show with a plucky rendition of "Five Hearts Breaking." The cello brought a heartbeat-like sound to the music as a fine alternative to percussion. Next, they performed with rocking fervor Tom Waits’ "Bottom of the World." Jamming to the dark lyrics of "Sally was a Cop;" the singer said it “goes out to Trump”, to which the audience cheered. The poignant ballad, "Rosalie," Escovedo sang about the longing of two lovers separated by thousands of miles. This is a story Escovedo often shares; the two young almost-lovers meet while Rosalie is visiting her aunt in California and the young man so taken by her that he writes her letters everyday for years until they are able to be together again.

Next, they performed "Chelsea Hotel ’78" conjuring punky sounds and images from the Real Animal album released in 2008. The singer mentioned his earlier band, Rank and File which he aptly described as a George Jones & Clash mash-up.

At one point the singer said he was going to make “some Detroit-style noise” and started on some familiar notes to The Stooges’ “Wanna Be Your Dog”...but it was just a tease. Upon playing Sister Lost Soul, Escovedo spoke of the recent losses of David Bowie, Merle Haggard, and Prince. Sheila Escovedo, aka Sheila E., is the performer’s niece, so the loss of Prince was a personal family one.

Escovedo performed 11 songs total with one encore: the rocking "Castanets." To top it all off, he told the backstory of that tune, divulging who it was that he "likes better when she walks away." The night was full of rocking music and great stories and, despite a fairly mellow audience, both Escovedo and his special guest Lucette couldn’t say enough great things about the gem that is the Ark in Ann Arbor.


Beth Manuel is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library and one of her favorite Alejandro songs is Velvet Guitar.

Review: Leisure & Luxury at the Kelsey Museum

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Leisure & Luxury exhibition images

Landing Nike/Victory [mid-1st c. AD/pentelic marble] (left), double-pearl-pendant earrings [1st c. AD/gold and pearl] (top right), Strongbox [3rd-1st c. BC/iron, silver, bronze, copper] (bottom right) / Images courtesy of the U-M Kelsey Museum of Anthropology.

The University of Michigan Kelsey Museum of Anthropology’s Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii has everything going for it that a supremely superior museology project can have going for it. It’s a remarkable detective story thousands of years in the making, complete with bona fide top-notch investigators. And, not the least, it is a visual feast for the gallery browser who is willing to take the time to investigate the proceedings at hand.

As Kelsey Curator Elaine K. Gazda tells us, the exhibit “explores the lavish lifestyle and economic interests of ancient Rome’s wealthiest citizens from the time of Julius Caesar (around 50 BC) to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius AD 79. On view are spectacular marble sculptures and wall paintings from an enormous luxury villa that may once have belonged to the Roman empress Poppaea, second wife of Nero."

“In contrast,” continues Gazda, “objects from a nearby commercial complex show how wine is bottled and traded. It was also here that 54 people died during the eruption, several of them carrying gold jewelry and coins. Disparities of wealth and social class evident in these two establishments raise questions about the life of leisure and luxury in ancient Pompeii—questions that were as vital in antiquity as they are today.”

This succinct synopsis pretty much covers the territory of the exhibition, but it’s the hard-earned work on display that makes this such an exceptional museological project. These artifacts give the exhibit a previously uncirculated authenticity that’s quite exciting—as well as illuminating of this ancient period of history.

As anyone who has visited the ruins of this area with the still-smoldering Vesuvius in the background can tell you, the distances depicted in Leisure & Luxury are far shorter geographically than the imagination might lead us to believe. Situated in the hills off the Bay of Naples, the city of Pompeii took the brunt of the two events on August 24-25, 79 AD—a first day of gas and volcanic ash extending high into the stratosphere that produced a pumice rain southward of the cone that built up to depths of nine feet, followed by another day of gas and hot rock that buried the city in two flows and engulfed the bay of Naples. But equally devastated were the coastal cities of Herculaneum (to the northwest across the bay) and Oplontis (situated three miles away slightly northwest on the coastline).

And this is where the detective story begins in earnest. The excavation of some public baths in 1834 identified the long lost city of Oplontis as a middle-sized town with wealthy villas and a well-developed residential community. But it took systematic excavations between 1964 and 1984 to unearth several important villas, most notably “Villa B,” a house that is now known as the Villa of Lucius Crassius Tertius, where more than 50 bodies were found. Inside, excavators found piles of jars that indicated the villa was a business center where wine, oil, and other agricultural products were manufactured, processed, and sold.

Yet as archeologically important as this "Villa B” has proven to be, the arguably more sensational excavation is the now-called “Villa A” of Poppaea Sabina, named after emperor Nero’s second wife, which was situated on the coastline between Naples and Sorrento. This luxurious villa, buried under 28 feet of pumiced ash, was first discovered during the construction of the 18th century Sarno Canal at the modern city of Torre Annunziata, when plundering mid-19th century French excavators removed several paintings from the villa and uncovered its lavish peristyle garden.

Flash forward to the late-20th century through the present and one encounters the work of University of Texas Art Historian John R. Clarke, who with colleagues founded the Oplontis Project. Housed in that university’s Department of Art and Art History, the project was founded with private funds, University of Texas Funds, and the National Endowment for the Humanities through special permission by the Italian Ministry of Culture with the cooperation of the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii. The current result is a handsome recounting of this history, edited by the U-M’s Gazda and Clarke and now on view at the Kelsey Museum.

Leisure & Luxury fragment images

Small Fragment with Ionic Column and Architrave [50 BC/fresco on plaster] (left), Fragment of a Figure of Eros [45-79 AD/fresco on plaster] (center), Fourth Style Ceiling Fragment with Hippocamp [45-79 AD/fresco on plaster] (right) / Images courtesy of the U-M Kelsey Museum of Anthropology.

And what riches are on display: architectural components such as a mid-First century Corinthian capital with a ring of eight acanthus leaves at the bottom, lately excavated in a storage place that decorated (or was meant to decorate) a wing of "Villa A" that was undergoing renovation at the time of Vesuvius’ blast. Likewise, there are wide ranges of painting fragments uncovered from the now-called Atrium Five, with reconstruction renderings that indicate where these frescos would have been situated at the original site. Of commercial importance are first-century silver spoons, earrings, bracelets, a gold necklace, double pearl-pendant earrings, and a variety of recently minted first-century coins.

Yet of all these treasures, among the most poignant is a delicately rendered, re-pieced-from-fragments, first-century BC, white marble “Aphrodite/Venus,” whose left foot is raised above a diminutive standing Eros, and whose left hand holds an apple resting on a smaller female statue. Oddly enough, a slight disfiguration of this Aphrodite’s nose completes her rescue from oblivion.

We cannot know for certain if this is a depiction of the goddess. As Gazda writes, “It is not clear who is represented in the sculptural support, and there are no parallels that might identify her.” As such, the statue may be a play in time as well as in meaning, a folding of fate from within both idolatry and mythology through the conceit of all-too-familiar vanity—as unexpectedly undone by nature.

But that was then—and this is now. As Leisure & Luxury whole-heartedly shows us, there’s so much more we can—and must—learn from what little past we have. We’ve literally just scraped the surface. As “Aphrodite/Venus” might tell us if she could speak, there’s a fantastic world beneath our contemporary world awaiting excavation. And this is the exhibit’s most enduring legacy.


John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.


University of Michigan Kelsey Museum of Anthropology: “Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii” will run through May 15, 2016. The U-M Kelsey Museum Meader Gallery, Second Floor of the Upjohn Exhibit Wing is located at 434 S. State Street. The Kelsey Museum is open Tuesday-Friday 9 a.m.–4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 1–4 p.m. For information, call 734-764-9304.

The Ragbirds Grow Up and Get Stronger With 'The Threshold and the Hearth'

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The Ragbirds Grow Up and Get Stronger With 'The Threshold and the Hearth'.

Today is a good time to begin listening to the Ragbirds' new album, The Threshold and the Hearth.

The easy sound byte about the Ragbirds’ new album, The Threshold and the Hearth, is that it’s the Ann Arbor folk band’s first release since band cofounders Erin Zindle and Randall Moore had their first child. One might expect more than a couple dewy-eyed reflections on new parenthood, if not an album full of them, but the Ragbirds seem to have their eyes set on bigger things. Structured as a loose concept album about the ups and downs of a fictional couple’s relationship, The Threshold and the Hearth is certainly informed by a newfound sense of wisdom and maturity, but it’s not obsessed with the personal particulars of Zindle and Moore’s very recently changed lives.

In fact, if you’re going to read anything too personal into the album, Zindle kicks things off by asserting her status as an inveterate musician, unchanged by the years. “I was born in a lemon grove with a fiddle / Not a stitch of clothes,” she sings in opening track “Lemon Grove,” naturally backed by a jaunty and immediately catchy plucked fiddle riff. The track builds beautifully, eventually incorporating a rollicking drumbeat, harmonies, and a fiddle solo. For those who know the band, the tune is classic Ragbirds: upbeat folk, in the sense that it features some acoustic, traditionally Appalachian instrumentation and because the music industry requires an easy genre tag for the sound. But otherwise it’s the wholly unique product of Zindle’s world-spanning blend of musical influences and her pop sensibility for a great hook.

Zindle stretches that sound even more as The Threshold and the Hearth goes on. “Cosmos,” with its charming lyric setting up the album’s central relationship between “a cosmologist and a cosmetologist drinking cosmos at the club,” has a funky little guitar and bass riff. “The Curse of Finger Pointing” makes lovely use of kalimba and some African-inspired percussion for a sound straight out of the Paul Simon playbook. And on “Strange Weather” Zindle quietly pours her heart out over a minor-key piano ballad.

This mélange of sounds highlights Zindle’s adaptability and adventurousness as a songwriter, and her lyrics display similar range. Over their decade in action, the Ragbirds have made their name on being mostly a feel-good kind of band, but Zindle contextualizes that positivity more on The Threshold and the Hearth. In “Good Time To Be Born,” Zindle crafts a nicely detailed interaction between a cynical man and a harried young woman in line at a grocery store checkout lane. With empathy for both her characters, she admits “There is always peace, there is always war” while asserting that “Today is a good time to be born / Today is a good time to begin.” And on “Sometimes Honestly” she sings, “I believe in optimism / Secretly I still expect the worst.”

The album’s most downbeat cut, the beautiful “Strange Weather,” chronicles the low point in the record’s central relationship. But even amongst doom-laden imagery, Zindle conjures hope. “If I build a fire to melt the frost / If you stop the winds before they gust / We can save our love before it’s lost / Before we become just rubble and dust,” she sings. The tune ends on an unexpected major chord. While she may be positive-minded, Zindle’s certainly not wearing rose-colored glasses. Her songwriting here reflects a thoughtful adult perspective on love and life that uses hope as a weapon to cut through the rough stuff.

Beyond the band’s songcraft, musicianship on The Threshold and the Hearth is excellent as well. Zindle’s dusky voice is expressive and engaging as ever, although it’s impossible to ignore the equivalent personality she puts across through her fiddle work. Zindle’s brother T.J. is also a standout here, lending warm, occasionally jazz-inflected guitar licks to songs like “Tough Love” and “On Your Side.” Bassist Dan Jones subtly lends weight to a few of the fiddle riffs, harmonizing with Zindle, and Jon Brown and Moore fill out the sound with a versatile complement of percussion.

The Threshold and the Hearth garnered a newfound national distribution push from the Ragbirds’ signing with Rock Ridge Music, and the band enlisted the producing talents of Grammy-nominated R.E.M. and Ryan Adams collaborator Jamie Candiloro for the record. Those decisions seem to have paid off well for the band, as The Threshold and the Hearth debuted at No. 20 on Billboard’s folk chart. And rightfully so. It’s a pleasure to see this band growing up and just getting better, stronger, and smarter with age.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He also believes in optimism, but secretly expects the worst.


The Threshold and the Hearth is now available in physical form at the Ragbirds’ online store and in digital form on major streaming services.

Review: ART NOW: New Directions in Contemporary Photography

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Art Now: Photography 2016 at the Ann Arbor Art Center.

Art Now: New Directions in Contemporary Photography at the Ann Arbor Art Center. Detail of Brittany Denham’s Western Vestige (right).

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I had Ann Arbor Art Center’s 117 Gallery to myself. Between the FestiFools events and the arrival of the first real spring-like weather of the season, it was a perfect quiet time to take in some new art. I was at the gallery to see ART NOW: New Directions in Contemporary Photography—and I could view it at my own pace and in a space that allowed me freedom to see the work up close and from far away.

In hindsight, it was serendipitous that I was there on Eadward Muybridge’s birthday. Born almost 200 years ago, he was a pioneer in photography and used technology in new and exciting ways— perhaps most famously for using still photography to capture and convey motion and to reveal hidden realities.

Photography is the focus of this exhibit, juried by Wayne State University photography instructor Millie Tibbs, but many of the artists featured have combined traditional photography with other techniques, creating abstractions that conceal the methods with which they were made. These artists explore and overlay techniques, experiment with texture and color, and use visual elements that shift the scale in the mind of the viewer.

Maybe it’s my background in landscape architecture, but I was particularly intrigued by two pieces by photographer and U-M professor Seder Burns. Both "Suburban Camouflage Detection" #5 and #7 convey a sense of artificiality. The tree canopy shifted to an otherworldly red—conveying a sense that there is something inherently wrong. In "Suburban Camouflage Detection #7" (which was awarded second place in this exhibit), cookie-cutter beige architecture is organized in a relentless pattern in a space between water towers and a playground. Though this is entirely a man-made landscape, there are no humans to be seen, leaving the viewer with an uneasy feeling.

"DreamStart", a photograph by Horace Kerr II, appears from a distance as an alien industrial landscape or an experiment in postmodern architecture. The color palette of sickening orange and fluorescent green jumps off the wall and recalls imagery from a 1960s science fiction film. These colors draw the viewer closer to investigate. Only when seen at close range do the assembled objects in the photograph become clear in an unusual still life of a fluffy pillow and an upright egg.

John Sanderson’s Perspectives (Interior and Exterior).

John Sanderson’s Perspectives (Interior and Exterior) (left). Brittany Denham's Western Vestige (right).

John Sanderson’s "Perspectives (Interior and Exterior)" was named Best in Show for this photograph of a country road framed by an opening of trees and overlain with a smaller instant photograph of the interior of a bowling alley. The two images together in one composition contrast one another in a way that is at once jarring and harmonious. Though the perspective is the same, the photograph of the road reaches from darkness into light and the bowling alley transitions from light into darkness.

Brittany Denham’s "Western Vestige" is a striking composition that at first appears as though it is a piece of glitch art. Upon closer inspection, it is actually composed through the careful selection and placement of fragments from other landscape photographs. Using just the right colors and textures, Denham has invented a wholly new landscape that evokes the long views and big sky of the Great Plains.

Dean Kessmann’s Details #1-6 (Nature's Promise Organic Vegetable Broth) and detail.

Dean Kessmann’s Details #1-6 (Nature's Promise Organic Vegetable Broth) (left) and detail (right)..

Dean Kessmann’s "Details #1-6 (Nature’s Promise Organic Vegetable Broth)" is a series of inkjet prints, created in the spirit of his works of “Utilitarian Abstraction.” The viewer is confronted with six identical bold shapes of overlapping rough circles of primary colors with a large black organic shape at the center. When viewed closely, the edges are blurred and undefined. This work recalls aspects of the Color Field Movement in the work of Louis Morris or Helen Frankenthaler. Yet the use of primary colors also feels very much like Pop Art—especially when the viewer realizes that this particular pattern of colors has been dramatically enlarged from the printer’s marks on a label from Nature’s Promise Organic Vegetable Broth, made clear by the name of the work.

The bold simplicity of Steven Edson’s "Road Paint" is striking. The highly-textured black and white shapes are well balanced in their imperfection. The photograph recalls the work of abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell and his use of oversize black and white strokes. Again, closer investigation is required to fully grasp that this not a painting, but an image that captures roads and their markings as infrastructure.

The variety of scale, subject, and point of view in this exhibit and the ways in which the artists push the boundaries of a traditional medium, made the viewing this show an experience beyond what might be expected in a photography exhibit. This exhibition runs through May 14, so there’s still time to get over to the Ann Arbor Art Center to check it out.


Amanda Szot is a graphic designer in AADL's Community Relations & Marketing department.


"ART NOW: New Directions in Contemporary Photography" runs through May 14, 2016 at the Ann Arbor Art Center's 117 Gallery (117 W. Washington in downtown Ann Arbor). The gallery is open Monday–Friday from 10 am until 7 pm, Saturdays 10 am–6 pm, and Sundays noon–6 pm. Note: the 117 Gallery will be closed for private events on Tuesday, May 3 (closing at 4:30 pm); Saturday, May 7 (closing at 2 pm); and Saturday, May 14 (closing at 5 pm).

Review: Irrational, Theatre Nova

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Don't believe the hypotenuse in Theatre Nova's Irrational.

Don't believe the hypotenuse in Theatre Nova's Irrational.

You don’t get much quirkier than the concept for Theatre Nova’s new production Irrational, a rock musical about ancient Greek mathematicians. The show by Ann Arborites David Wells and R. MacKenzie Lewis follows the con man Hippasus (Sebastian Gerstner) as he attempts to ingratiate himself with the powerful cult leader Pythagoras (Elliot Styles). But Hippasus’ plan to use his newfound social stature to win the beautiful Eloris’ (Tara Tomcsik) hand in marriage–and more importantly, her wealth–goes pear-shaped when Hippasus inadvertently introduces the concept of irrational numbers into Pythagoras’ ratio-obsessed sect.

It’s a rather bizarre story at face value, even more so given that it’s at least somewhat based in historical record. Pythagoras, namesake of the famous theorem, did in fact lead a movement known as Pythagoreanism, and legend has it that he also had a man named Hippasus put to death for introducing the concept of irrational numbers. Wells takes this odd bit of mathematical lore and thoroughly has his way with it, adding a number of third-act twists and fleshing out a love triangle between Hippasus, Eloris, and the forthright Pythagorean Theodusa (Emily Brett).

The strongest moments in this unusual riff on ancient history are consistently those involving Styles’ Pythagoras. Styles, only two years into his musical theater studies at the University of Michigan, is the play’s comic center of gravity. Clad in white plastic-framed glasses and a flowing white tunic and pants, Styles fully grasps the humor inherent in his nerd rockstar character and plays it for all it's worth. He has the grace to pull off a few surprising physical stunts, the presence to fully project Pythagoras’ bluster, and vocal chops that even extend to pulling off a well-placed rap in Pythagoras’ self-aggrandizing showstopper “Mononymous.” The character is over-the-top, of course, but with Styles in the role you won’t doubt Pythagoras’ power for a second.

Styles is helped along by a generally well-used Greek chorus, an entertainingly sassy trio of gamblers played by Anna Marck, Esther Jentzen and Emily Manuell. The three harmonize beautifully and frequently pump up the humor of Pythagoras’ numbers with fawning girl-group backup vocals and a smattering of hip-hop dance moves. Wells overuses the trio for exposition, however, as the chorus repeatedly re-explains plot developments made perfectly clear in song moments before.

Tomcsik is a sly supporting player, punching up several laugh lines that are good on paper but surprisingly hilarious thanks to her delivery. Brett puts considerable physical energy into her performance, if not quite the inner confidence that her character is written with, and Matthew Pecek is amusingly game as a disenfranchised Pythagorean. Gerstner, however, doesn't quite match the personality and comic energy summoned by Styles, Tomcsik and other costars. Hippasus ought to be at least Pythagoras’ equal in charisma, but the character never quite pops.

That probably has something to do with the fact that Wells and Lewis seem to inject the lion’s share of their creative energy into pretty much everything except Hippasus. We never quite get a sense of our leading man from square one, and his crucial relationship with Eloris is established in a single musical number that isn’t enough to sell us on her connection to him.

Lewis’ score may be at its best when Pythagoras and the chorus are involved, but it’s consistently strong throughout the play. Lewis’ songs are excellent, mostly traditional show-tune stuff with bits and pieces of funk, R&B, and rock thrown in to lively effect. His work here is sometimes quite complex, with some of the group numbers featuring accomplished use of counterpoint and harmony. The tunes are thoroughly catchy and you’re likely to walk out of the show with at least one of them stuck in your head.

Perhaps the most ambitious task Irrational sets itself is pulling off a full-fledged musical in Theatre Nova’s extremely intimate stomping grounds at the Yellow Barn. Director Carla Milarch makes the best possible use of the theater’s small thrust stage, successfully blocking the actors to play to audience members on all three sides of the sparse set and choreographing to the greatest extent that the space allows. But there’s simply no room for a live band in this setting, which is something of a shame given how good Lewis’ score is. On opening night the prerecorded score seemed surprisingly quiet; the coming performances of the show would be served well by cranking up the volume and letting the music soar a little more.

Irrational is far from a perfect production, but it certainly doesn’t lack for creativity, originality, or enthusiasm. Wells and Lewis deserve major props for conceiving such a singular idea, and Milarch deserves the same for her efforts to bring it to life in this challenging space. The Irrational team did two years of workshopping to get the show to this point, and it’s easy to see something truly great emerging with a bit more refinement.

We’re fortunate to have creative minds in town coming up with big, crazy, fun ideas like Irrational, and even more fortunate to have an outfit like Theatre Nova that’s willing to realize those ideas onstage with professional craft. Although it has its flaws, Irrational is a lot of fun and it deserves the attendance to prompt the additional development that a second (or third or fourth) staging might bring. Where else are you going to see a rock musical about ancient Greek mathematicians?


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. Like Pythagoras (or Prince), he intends to one day be known by just one name.


Irrational runs April 22 through May 15 at the Yellow Barn, 415 W Huron St. Tickets are $20 and showtimes are 8 pm Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; and 2 pm Sundays.

Review: Purple Rose gives first class world debut for Gaps in the Fossil Record

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Mark Colson and Aja Brandmeier explore Gaps in the Fossil Record in PRTC's latest production.

Mark Colson and Aja Brandmeier explore Gaps in the Fossil Record in PRTC's latest production. / Photo by Sean Carter Photography

A paleontologist walks on the stage. Behind him is a projection of a famous and enigmatic fossil find. The bones of two ancient bodies are seemingly entwined, facing each other.

Lovers, religious sacrifices, bodies covered in a long ago volcanic eruption? No one knows, everyone has a theory or two.

The paleontologist is an absent-minded professor, a bit of a joker, a man who admits being more comfortable on a dig conversing with ancient bones than in front of a classroom. But he has always been drawn to those dusty bones and their secrets and what they might say about love, community, and life.

This is the beginning of Matt Letscher’s richly-conceived comic drama Gaps in the Fossil Record, making its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.

Gaps is an interesting conversation across generations, a family drama, an emotional volcano at times, and even a bit of eco-science fiction. That it all works so well is a tribute to director Guy Sanville and his creative team, three superb actors, and the raw intelligence, wit, and insight of Letscher’s play.

Richard, the awkward paleontologist, is a very late bloomer. He’s given his life over to those lovely bones and shunned people. Now he’s a middle-aged college teacher who finds himself loved by a 20-year-old student. They’ve come to give the good news to the young woman’s mother, with whom she has a complicated, if loving, relationship.

This provides the bones for an interesting exchange of secrets, fears, hopes, and explanations across several years. To reveal too much of the plot would spoil some of the play’s appeal. Suffice it to say that the three characters go through some big changes that open both wounds and revelations.

Mark Colson is a gaunt, shambling figure as Richard, at first a nice guy, though seemingly ill fit for Jane, his assistant on a recent dig. As the play progresses, Colson must deal with the deepest emotions. He goes from sly wit, to anxiety-ridden unemployed middle-ager in crisis, to an old man with cognitive problems. Colson finds the core in each of these transformations, and in the beginning and at the end is our guide. His strongest emotional moments are also some of his more hilarious moments, a testimony to just how complex Letscher’s play is to perform.

Michelle Mountain is riveting as Susan, Jane’s mother and a widow of a complicated and tragic marriage. She also navigates the shifting tones beautifully, from horrified mother “losing” her daughter to an old geezer, to sympathetic mother-in-law struggling with her own desires, to troubled grandmother. Mountain’s Susan is blunt, foul-mouthed, tender, warm, and finally a survivor through life’s ups and downs. Every emotion is real.

Aja Brandmeier takes on two roles; the love-struck Jane, finding love in a world shy father figure, and Meredith, Richard and Jane’s teenage daughter. As Jane she has a kidding, ribald, and good but sometimes tense relationship with her mother. Brandmeier captures that tension excellently and is also convincing in portraying her affection for her smart but socially awkward older lover. But Brandmeier’s strongest moments come as Meredith, a purple-haired punk with a kindly heart. She tends to an aging father who doesn’t know her and here the character is a shy, tentative girl, more like her father. She’s also someone bewildered by a world in chaos. Brandmeier holds her body as if trying to hug herself and shield herself from a cold world.

Sanville brings this together with a rewarding simplicity. The acting is sharply in sync. The comedy never falters and the emotional highs never become too overwrought. The production values are high.

Vince Mountain’s gray set is basically a bare stage, a backdrop of white wall doors for projections of bones, with furniture pieces moved in and out efficiently. Lighting and projection design by Noelle Stollmack and sound design by Tom Whalen are integral to the production’s success and take center stage for a while at the end.

Gaps in the Fossil Record should find a place in many regional theaters and may well get its shot at Broadway, but Letscher should count himself lucky and well-served by this superb Purple Rose world premiere production.

The play received recognition with the 2015 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. The Foundation provides financial support to theatres with established reputations for producing new plays. The grants have provided funds for extended rehearsal time to develop plays and schedule productions. Fifteen of these plays have gone on to Broadway including the 2014 Tony Award winner All The Way and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner Next to Normal.

Playwright Matt Letscher is a Grosse Pointe native, a 1992 graduate of the University of Michigan, and an actor on stage, film, and television.


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.


Gaps in the Fossil Record continues at The Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park Street, Chelsea, at 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 pm matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 pm matinees Sundays through May 28. For ticket information, call the box office at (734) 433-7673 or visit http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.

Review: Civic Theater goes barefoot in the park with laughs and a bit of romance

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Colleen Davis's Corie tries to talk down Karl Kasischke's Paul in the A2CT production of Barefoot in the Park.

Colleen Davis's Corie tries to talk down Karl Kasischke's Paul in the A2CT production of Barefoot in the Park.

Barefoot in the Park was an early Neil Simon Broadway hit.

It had the bantering dialog, the sarcastic asides, and the frazzled New York setting of most of his plays. But it's a romantic comedy without the neurotic edge or the bitter insights into the stress of the big city of his later plays, nor the depth of character of his biographical plays. It has its funny and its pleasant moments, but it hasn't aged as well as his later plays, perhaps because anxiety is funnier.

The Ann Arbor Civic Theater is presenting Barefoot at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the University of Michigan north campus. Director Wendy Wright notes that the play is a sweet product of its time that isn’t often performed. She also notes that Simon, the most successful comedy playwright in Broadway history, is having a moment at regional theaters and it’s a good time to take another look at the play that really launched him into orbit on Broadway and on film.

The play is set squarely into its 1960s time period - in this production 1965, to be exact - to make use of a groovy Top 40 soundtrack of the times.

The play concerns newly-weds who are setting up their first "home" in a cramped, one-bedroom walk up apartment on Manhattan's east side. Corie Bratter is trying her best to feather this love nest for her lawyer husband after a six-day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel. She's nervous about his reaction to their new home that he has yet to see. She's also nervous about the reaction of her perfectionist mother.

The apartment house has many eccentric tenants but the only one we see is a charming old flirt who lives in an even more cramped attic apartment.

Even when the play was new, the relations between men and women, especially in New York City, were already changing, as Simon's later plays would show. But here the tension is between a nervous stay-at-home wife and her striver husband. The focus is on Corie's attempts to match her tart-tongued mother with the sweet-talking old gentleman, Victor. She also wants to loosen up her conventional lawyer husband enough so he can "walk barefoot in the park," even in February.

Colleen Davis is bright and cheery as Corie. She sets the tone for the play, eager to please and increasingly upset when things don’t go as planned. She is appropriately charmed by the old rascal and sees him in contrast to her stolid husband.

Karl Kasischke as Paul is the more practical of the two. Comically he comes into his own at the end when he finally loosens up for Corie. This comes after an argument that could be a bit more sharply played. I think Simon was looking for a bit of a slamming-door farce in this scene. Things pick up when Kassischke’s Paul goes into a bit of inspired hysterics that is the valve release that Simon has been building toward.

Ellen Finch as Corie's mother Ethel gives an excellent performance. She gets the funniest lines and she handles them with authority - droll, biting, but really affectionate. She's charming.

Larry Rusinsky gets to overact as Victor Velasco, the character that is meant to be broad. He is someone for whom life is a stage. His scenes with Corie and her mother are amusing and silly in a 1950s comedy way.

Also amusing in a small role as telephone installer Harry Pepper is Theo Polley. He sounds like New York and he also has a fine sense of timing.

This is not top drawer Simon. Some of the jokes are too rooted in their time period and in this case don’t even acknowledge the changing world of young women at the time. It lacks the insecurity that would be at the heart of later Simon. But it does have something that would be rarer in later Simon plays with the exception of The Goodbye Girl: It has a romance and an affirmation that love conquers all.


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.


Barefoot in the Park runs through April 24, 2016 at the Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, Ann Arbor. Buy tickets online, or call (734) 971-2228 (A2CT).

Another Round Live!

REVIEW WRITTEN WORD

Tracy & Heben called for Another Round at the Michigan Union.

Tracy & Heben called for Another Round at the Michigan Union.

On April 14, my favorite podcast, Buzzfeed’s Another Round, put on a live show at the Michigan Union. If you don’t have a favorite podcast, what makes you think you’re some kind of special non-nerd? Another Round is now your favorite podcast--get listening! If you have a different favorite podcast, that’s fine. I also used to have a different favorite podcast. But it also means that you just haven’t listened to Another Round yet. So get listening!

Hosted by the unbelievably sharp duo Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, Another Round is a show featuring interviews with such amazing people as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hillary Clinton, and Queen Latifah, among many others. However, the show is much more than just interviews. It's also chock full of brilliant critiques on race, gender, and politics, hilarious opinions on animals, amazing stories, live bourbon drinking, and advice about calling your mom. Thanks to U-M's School of Social Work People of Color Collective, the show was free and open to the entire public. Heben and Tracy performed to a packed audience that rightfully lost its mind when they showed up.

The show started with the segment “Tracy’s Animal Corner,” in which we learned how truly terrifying owls are. I'll admit to having a positive association with owls before this event, but I think I may have switched sides and now agree with Tracy that they probably are demon animals brought up from Hades. The second segment of the live show, “Is This Real Life?” generally addresses what truly abhorrent thing white folks have recently done. Luckily for the audience’s mood, this particular story leaned more towards hilarious than rage-inducing. And I learned from it that apparently most white folks don’t know about shea or cocoa butters, so get on that.

The guest interview was Flint musician Tunde Olaniran, who was smart and funny as he talked about music, belonging, choreography, and the Flint water crisis. He finished with an amazing performance that had everyone out of their seats and dancing. Despite all of the mega-celebrities that Heben and Tracy have interviewed, they treat all of their guests with the same respect and excitement, which was wonderful to witness in person.

I left the show feeling uplifted and inspired. As a white woman, this podcast and live show is not made for me, and that’s a good thing. It’s made for black people, and I feel lucky just to be able to listen in. Tracy and Heben had wonderful and moving advice about being confident for the young black women in the audience, and I saw a few people tear up amidst all of the laughter. As corny as it might sound, I felt honored to share the same space as Heben and Tracy even for just a few hours, and I could tell I wasn’t alone. Now go start listening to Another Round!


Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at AADL.

Review: Once United at Crossroads Showcase Tuesday

REVIEW MUSIC

Once United at Crossroads Pub's Showcase Tuesday

Once United at Crossroads Pub's Showcase Tuesday.

Emerging musicians and work week refuge come together at Crossroads Pub's Showcase Tuesday. The staples of a local dive bar -- pool tables, retro wall signs -- mix with the Starry Night-inspired stage decor and energetic lighting, creating an open space for live performances. Last week featured two Ann Arbor area bands, Gillie & the Freeman and Once United, who were enthusiastic about playing together.

I had an opportunity to sit down with Once United before they jumped on stage to perform a dynamic array of indie rock songs written mostly by lead vocalist and guitarist Patrick Beger. The core of the trio seemed to be the distinct musical identity of each member. “I just want to play the songs I write with good people," Patrick says. "Being friends first, and not being the exact same type of musician makes us who we are as a band.”

A Michigan native, Patrick taught himself guitar, piano, and drums while growing up on Torch Lake. He joined a friend’s classic rock cover-band, The Breakers, and played shows all over northern Michigan. The experience cemented Patrick’s love for songwriting and performance, encouraging him to move to Chicago to pursue music. In 2013, Patrick came to Ann Arbor to study communications at the University of Michigan and founded Once United.

Patrick started rehearsing with drummer Josh Weichman, a sound engineer for Solid Sound Recording Company, the iconic Ann Arbor studio tucked away in the woods with clients ranging from Beck to The Detroit News. Josh’s keen technical sensibility and resonance on the drums adds a punchiness to Once United’s sound, especially in the song “Trust Me”. While his past musical projects were mostly punk or hard rock, Patrick’s songs caught Josh’s ear. “This is not the typical type of band that I would have joined, but I'm happy that I did," Josh says. "The songs were really catchy. And fun to play too.”

As luck would have it, Patrick found a room in an apartment with Ryan King, Once United’s versatile bass player whose love for psychedelic and prog rock comes through in particular on songs like “Killin’ Time” and “Cracks of New York City”. Along with his uncanny ability on the bass, Ryan is an accomplished clarinetist and founder of several Ann Arbor area bands, including local jam prog band Stormy Chromer.

Ryan: “As a musician, you are a conduit for some feeling or emotion, or spirit, that needs to go through you, or through your fingers when you play, so it's not like we're responsible for the emotion that comes through. It just has to do with our hearts, and our ability to put sound through our appendages and through love.”
Patrick: “What he is kinda describing is the subconscious, which I think is true with a lot of musicians. It's your subconscious coming out, and for some reason you have to express it. I don't know why exactly.”
Ryan: “It's like your spin on the greater collective conscious. It’s like you are a certain tint or shade of glasses, and there's this man behind you looking through it, and what you see is the music.”

This interest in turning the stories running through our lives into song and experimenting with sound is apparent on “The Looper Song,” where electric guitar riffs are mixed live, or “Came to Get Greedy,” an edgier piece. Once United’s captivating hour and a half set proved their range as musicians and treated the audience to authentic songs that capture a simultaneous longing for intimacy and escape -- or, as Ryan put it, “just a healthy dose of human spirit.”


Juliana Roth is a writer currently living in Ann Arbor whose poetry, essays and fiction have appeared in The Establishment, Irish Pages, Bear River Review, DIN Magazine, and other publications. An original film she wrote will be released in 2017.


Once United’s refreshing sound can be heard online at onceunited.bandcamp.com or live at Ann Arbor Brewing Company on June 6th and Chelsea Sounds & Sights Festival on August 4th. Keep up with them on Facebook as they add more shows for the summer.

Review: Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's The Planets was Out of this World

REVIEW VISUAL ART MUSIC

Review: Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's The Planets was Out of this World

A2SO's The Planets revolved around music that celebrates our solar system.

Last Saturday, April 9th, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra presented an excellent selection of music to a sold out Michigan Theater.

The evening opened with "The Tall-Eared Fox and the Wild-Eyed Man," a piece written by Ann Arbor composer Evan Chambers. Inspired by traditional jigs, the strings section started with a jaunty tone and then transitioned into different breakdowns of the music, ending with an experimental section that pushed the boundaries of the jig into a more traditional and modern place.

A2SO's The Planets.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, featuring guest violinist Jinjoo Cho, was the second entry in the night’s concert. I was completely caught off guard by Cho’s tremendous performance, which was both technically complex but also emotionally packed. Her playing was simply astounding, breathtaking in the depth of emotion conveyed even as control of the instrument was maintained. I honestly don’t have the words to convey how absolutely delightful and absorbing Cho’s playing was. If Cho ever happens to visit Ann Arbor again, I would highly recommend attending. I will certainly be following her career with avid interest.

Jinjoo Cho

Jinjoo Cho (left) takes a bow.

After a short intermission, the orchestra returned to perform Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Composed in 1917, this piece explores the character of each of the planets of the solar system, excluding Earth. Each character sketch is relatively quick, resulting in a piece that progresses quickly and holds the interest of even those unfamiliar with classical music. Even if you’ve never heard of The Planets, you’ve probably heard some clip of this influential and popular composition playing in the background of some piece of media.

A2SO's The Planets.

The performance by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra was a joy to attend. The Planets is a fun suite of music to start with, and the orchestra was clearly up to the challenges presented by the piece. Since the character of each planet is so distinct, I can only praise the A2 Orchestra for conveying a spectrum of emotions and concepts. From the jaunty "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," to the strident and somehow playful "Uranus, the Magician," the A2 Orchestra rose to the occasion and delivered an exceptional range of musical experiences. I was familiar with The Planets going into the concert, and I was surprised at how much of a difference there was between the recordings I’ve listened to and hearing the music in person. There’s a bit of personality or a depth of emotion that recordings just can’t capture. The journey the music takes you on through the solar system seems somehow more real when you’re sitting in the same room as the musicians.

The visualizations paired with the music made for an interesting experience, slightly reminiscent of Disney’s Fantasia. Visual artist Adrian M Wyard created the accompaniment using both NASA images and digital recreations of the planets. Pairing the music with images added a layer to the performance that certainly captured your attention, but that could sometimes border on distracting. I was surprised at how well Holst managed to capture the essence of the planets, particularly those closer to Earth, in 1917, when our knowledge of the solar system was so much more limited than it is today.


Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library.