Tanya Shaffer and Vienna Teng's musical "The Fourth Messenger" offers a contemporary view of the Buddha  

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The Fourth Messenger

Meditation is meant to focus the mind by clearing away random thoughts. But sometimes meditation may inspire a radical new idea.

Playwright Tanya Shaffer had such an inspiration that led to the creation of The Fourth Messenger, an unusual musical about the Buddha that will be given a concert staging at The Ark on March 14 as a fundraiser for the venue's Spotlight Series.

“The idea came to me on a nine-day silent retreat when I was supposed to be clearing my mind,” she said. “I was thinking about the story of Buddha’s enlightenment, where he sat under a tree and vowed not to get up until he found enlightenment. Then for many days and nights, all the temptations of the world are trying to get him up. And it came to me that would be cool as a song and dance, the temptations standing under a tree and then thinking the whole story would be a musical because it has that scale of a hero’s quest and so I got excited on the retreat and for many hours forgot about my breath and I thought about the musical.”

Wordplay and funny fisticuffs highlight "Jeeves Intervenes" at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre

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Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Jeeves Intervenes

Agatha Spencer-Gregson (Ann Stoner) comforts her niece Gertrude Winkelsworth-Bode (Veronica Long) as Eustace Bassington-Bassington (Ryan Mauritz) fights with Bertie Wooster (Sean Magill) with the help of Uncle Rupert (Chris Martin), as Jeeves (Rory Quist) remains calmly in control in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Jeeves Intervenes. Photo by Aaron C. Wade | Lions Paw Films and Photography.

Monty Python didn’t invent the upper-class Brit twit. That honor goes to P.G. Wodehouse with his man-about-town Bertie Wooster. 

Wodehouse was a humorist, novelist, short-story writer, Broadway lyricist (teaming with composer Jerome Kern), and man about town in the 1920s when he created Bertie. But he didn’t leave his inept creation without support, because he also created a witty man’s man, the very epitome of the valet, Reginald Jeeves, but always called just Jeeves.

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre will take audiences back to Wodehouse’s fanciful, upper crusty London of the 1920s when it presents Margaret Raether’s stage adaptation of Wodehouse in Jeeves Intervenes, March 12-15 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the University of Michigan North Campus.

Director Andy Jentzen said it was Wodehouse’s playful use of language and a BBC series that got him interested in Jeeves and Wooster.

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre finds the character-driven "Proof" a good fit on its Second Stage

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Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Proof

Theater is sometimes about spectacle: chandeliers that crash before our eyes, ocean liners that seem to sail across a stage, or bloody battles at a Paris barricade.

Alex Duncan was interested in a different kind of theater when she suggested directing David Auburn’s Proof for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s Second Stage. The play’s intimate drama of a troubled young woman and her relationships seemed right for the Civic’s small studio theater and Duncan’s minimalist approach.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “The language is almost poetic. I’ve always liked dialogue and character-driven things as opposed to, I guess, a little more flash going on. It’s fun digging into the language and working with the characters and figuring out what the actors are going to bring to it and blend that with what I see in the show.”

Duncan, who graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a drama major, directed a Main Stage Civic Theatre production of Arsenic and Old Lace last year and when applications went out for production ideas this year, she proposed Proof. It wasn’t selected for the Main Stage, but in the second round of interviews it was picked for Second Stage.

Theatre Nova actors shine in an otherwise thin "Apple Season"

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Apple Season at Theatre Nova

Alysia Kolascz as Lissie and Jeremy Kucharek as Billy in Apple Season by E. M. Lewis, directed by David Wolber at Theatre NOVA. Photograph by Sean Carter Photography.

E.M. Lewis’ Apple Season is a memory play. Memories haunt and suffocate three people who have had trouble moving on.

Three excellent actors bring quiet authority to their performances in Theatre Nova’s Michigan premiere of Lewis’ play under the direction of David Wolber. While Lewis’ play strains to be poetic, seems thin, and is too much like other family trouble dramas, but Wolber and his cast bring an honest realism to the story.

Apple Season is a story about dark family secrets, long-repressed emotions, and lost opportunities. Lissie has come back to her Oregon family home to bury her father and decide what to do with the family apple orchard. She is 36 years old, a fourth-grade teacher, and hasn’t been home since running away with her brother to an aunt’s house as a teenager. 

U-M brings diversity to Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath"

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Grapes of Wrath book cover

Excerpt of the book cover for the first edition of The Grapes of Wrath, 1939.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a great American classic.

It is set in a specific time, the Great Depression of the 1930s; specific places, the Dust Bowl ravaged southwest and the fertile promised land of California; and a specific group of people, the migrant Joad family of Oklahoma, one of many families looked down upon as ignorant Okies, traveling with hope for a better life. Yet the story continues to resonate as migrants make their way from Central America to the United States border and from Syria and North Africa to the shores of Europe in search of justice, peace and a chance for that better life. 

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre and Drama is presenting a production of Frank Galati’s critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel.

“It seemed timely, relevant, a great American tragedy, a great novel,” said production director Gillian Eaton, an award-winning actress, director, and U-M faculty member.

Theatre Nova fund-raiser showcases a stripped-down version of Sondheim’s "Follies"

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Theatre Nova's Follies

Photos by Sean Carter Photography

Theatre Nova has chosen, appropriately, a showbiz musical as a fund-raiser for the innovative professional theater that specializes in new plays and new playwrights.

This play isn’t new nor are the writers, but the show-business environment and its emotional ups and downs are perfect for reminding theater-goers why live theater matters. Follies, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Goldman, is a tip of the hat to obsessions, from being on stage to matters of the heart.

Nova recently received a matching grant of $15,000 from the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. The two-weekend limited run of Follies is one of several fund-raisers to meet the match. Nova is presenting a stripped-down, concert version of the musical that puts the spotlight on the songs and keeps the focus on the central story of two former showgirls and their unhappy marriages. Actors double up on some roles and side plots are eliminated. 

The story concerns a reunion of Weismann Follies showgirls (a fictional Ziegfeld). They gather together in an old Broadway theater in 1971, 30 years since they last performed just before the U.S. entry into World War II.

Michigan Made: Theatre Nova’s Playwrights Festival puts the spotlight on new works for the stage

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Theatre Nova's yellow barn building

Theatre Nova's yellow-barn home. Photo courtesy of Theatre Nova.

Part two of Theatre Nova’s semi-annual Michigan Playwrights Festival has an added evening that gives more opportunities to shine the spotlight on new playwrights. In addition to staged readings of four full length plays, the festival will set aside an evening for the presentation of six 10-minute plays.

The Michigan Playwrights Festival is in its fifth season, part of Theatre Nova’s focus on new plays and playwrights. Twice a year, a committee selects four plays for presentations in staged readings. The festival will present a play each night Oct. 24-27. The Evening of 10-Minute Plays will be presented Oct. 23.

The four plays selected for the regular festival are The Lion’s Share by Catherine Zudak, Dear Camp by Lisa MacDonald, Silo Tree by Sam Collier, and Blight by R.D. Wakeman.

Playwright Sarah Elisabeth Brown is coordinating the evening of 10-minute plays for Theatre Nova.

“The evening is new to the festival and comes out of a group I started in conjunction with Theatre Nova about a year ago called the Nova Lab, which is designed as a resource to playwrights of all levels who would like to develop their craft,” Brown said in an email interview. “Our signature event is called Prompts for Playwrights and we meet on Sunday evenings when the theater is dark.”

Locked-Up With Laughter: A2 Civic Theatre’s "My Three Angels" is a sharp family comedy

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My Three Angels

L-R: Dillon Roseen, Theo Polley, Jim Sullivan, and Ellen Finch in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's My Three Angels. Photo by Lisa Gavan | Gavan Photo.

When Barbara Mackey King proposed directing My Three Angels for this season at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, she had two goals in mind. One was for actors and the other for audiences.

“I was in another play at Civic Theatre and everyone was talking about how there weren’t a lot of great plays for older actors,” she said. “I thought I can help with that and I remembered My Three Angels, which has some very fine parts for older, experienced actors.”

She was also looking for a play that would appeal to a diverse audience.

“I chose this play because it’s what I would call a good family comedy,” she said. “By that I mean not Leave It to Beaver or something like that, not for tiny kids. But something that the whole family can enjoy. It’s not too salacious or suggestive or anything like that. It’s something you can bring older kids to.”

She said that’s important for the future of live theater.

U-M’s take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Pirates of Penzance" zips along in swashbuckling style

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

U-M's Pirates of Penzance

It is the very model of a modern musical comedy.

The University of Michigan Department of Music’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ever-popular The Pirates of Penzance moves along faster than the celebrated major-general’s patter song. The tiny Lydia Mendelssohn stage is alive with color, movement, and music.

Director Vincent J. Cardinal has chosen the 1980 Joseph Papp New York version of Penzance with more swashbuckling, dancing and some reinterpretation of Sullivan’s music. That production starred Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith. U-M’s production is filled to overflowing with musical theater stars of the future.

All the Town's a Stage: Ann Arbor Civic Theatre celebrates its 90th anniversary

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Ann Arbor Civic Theatre cast member rehearses for Voice of the Turtle, October 1948

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre cast member rehearses for Voice of the Turtle, October 1948. Photo donated by © The Ann Arbor News.

On Broadway in 1929, the Marx Brothers had them rolling in the aisles with Animal Crackers, Louis Armstrong was singing and playing a driving trumpet in “Hot Chocolates,” William Gillette was back for another turn at Sherlock Holmes, and Cole Porter had his first big hit with “Fifty Million Frenchmen.”

On a more serious note, Porgy by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward debuted and Eugene O’Neill Strange Interlude starring Lynn Fontanne was a big draw.

In Ann Arbor, a group with a passion for theater started a private club that began meeting to study and perform script readings. That passion is still glowing as the club that became the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre celebrates its 90th anniversary.

“That was sort of an outlet for people who wanted to get involved in theater but weren’t part of the university, because there wasn’t a community outlet at that time,” said Alexandra Berneis, Civic Theatre executive director. “They met at homes and in basements and things like that. They read plays, thinking about what they would do about creating an artistic outlet for people.”