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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
Life is an ever swirling dance in Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s satirical romance Sense and Sensibility.
Director Priscilla Lindsay keeps her cast, the scenery, the furnishings and the barrage of witty bon mots and nasty comments in constant motion in the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama production of Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility.
Reimagining Austen’s book as a dance is a way of both condensing it to a workable length and giving it a theatrical motion that helps capture the often uneasy and swiftly changing fortunes of middle-class England in the early 1800s.
Austen is romance, subtle wit, keen observation of social manners and, also, an early feminist outrage at what women had to do have a socially acceptable life.
Theatre Nova does it again with an outstanding production of a play that is both an intimate family drama and a relevant piece of social commentary.
Joshua Harmon’s Admissions is a precise, nuanced, and often funny take on the affirmative action debate and how it plays out in the real world. As the University of Michigan has long been at the center of the debate on affirmative action, the play has a special interest for Ann Arbor. Harmon doesn’t take sides; instead, he examines the tensions, the presumptions of white privilege and the hypocrisies of those with the best of intentions.
Sherri Rosen-Mason is the admissions officer for Hillcrest, an elite prep school in New Hampshire. Her husband Bill Mason is the school principal. They are white, well educated, politically liberal, and dedicated to making their school more racially and ethnically diverse.
But what happens when their ideals and good intentions suddenly conflict with the ambitions of their talented, intelligent son who wants to go to Yale.