Arsenic and Old Lace, Joseph Kesselring’s classic dark comedy now being staged by Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, provided director Alexandra Duncan with her first-ever stage role in high school -- though it wasn’t a particularly lively or demanding part.
“I was Adam Hoskins, the dead man in the window seat,” Duncan said.
Welcome to the Brewster family home in Brooklyn, where writer Mortimer Brewster wants to marry the girl next door. Problem is, he’s just learned that his sweet old spinster aunts have been murdering lonely old men with poison-laced elderberry wine; plus, his delusional uncle, who believes he’s Theodore Roosevelt, has been providing graves by digging locks for the Panama Canal in the house’s cellar.
At one point during Thursday night’s sold out, joyous on-stage conversation with Grammy, Tony, and Oscar award-winning songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- who met and started writing songs together when they were U-M musical theater students (’06) -- surprise guest moderator Darren Criss (Glee) stated what many of us were thinking: “Collectively, we’re a Michigan EGOT.”
Yes, Criss (’09) arrived in Ann Arbor fresh off his Emmy win for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, while Pasek and Paul came to promote a newly released novelization of their hit Broadway show, Dear Evan Hansen.
But the nearly two-hour event, presented by Literati Bookstore at U-M’s Rackham Auditorium, mostly felt like a chance to crash a reunion of really talented, witty friends who’d also, along the way, perform a few songs and a short reading.
Though the title Night and Day initially calls to mind a famous Cole Porter tune, U-M’s new production of the same name -- consisting of a pair of playwright Charles Mee’s myth-inspired “dance/theatre works” -- bears absolutely no relation to the song.
Well, unless director Malcolm Tulip and his artistic collaborators decide it does, that is.
How could a theatrical presentation be so malleable? That’s both the allure and challenge of Mee’s work. Dubbed the “public domain playwright,” Mee draws on old stories, re-tells them with new text, and offers them up freely online by way of his (re)making project. Built on the idea that “there is no such thing as an original play,” (re)making invites artists to use Mee’s plays as the creative starting point more than a blueprint.
“It’s this incredible mixture of working with text, but then devising a whole new piece, too, because of the liberty he gives you to alter it and to remake his work,” said Tulip. “For me, the approach was discovering what all the parts meant, and what the skeleton of what he amassed looks like. Because even he’s bringing together elements from other sources, making a kind of collage. So you end up talking about and determining what you keep, what the thrust of each section is, and how you remake or rewrite them.”
This my not seem an obvious time for a play titled Humble Boy -- ahem -- but Ypsilanti-based community theater company PTD Productions will be presenting Charlotte Jones’ award-winning 2001 comic drama at the Riverside Arts Center nonetheless.
“I love plays that are both funny and poignant at the same time, and this certainly qualifies,” said director Laura Bird. “The main character is grieving the loss of his father, but he’s also getting grief from other people about how he’s grieving. And this is a subject I’m passionate about -- that there’s no wrong way to grieve. ... Plus [the play] has these great characters, and flirts with Hamlet in a lighthearted way.”
When someone “gets down to brass tacks,” they’re focusing on the essentials -- and this is precisely what an Ann Arbor-based theater troupe, The Brass Tacks Ensemble, aims to do.
The company’s sets, props, and costumes are usually spare and simple in hopes of putting the spotlight on a play’s story and inviting audience members to fill in blanks with their imagination.
BTE’s latest offering, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (playing August 2-4 at Kerrytown Concert House), will be in keeping with the company’s vision.
“Sometimes a play calls out for a staged reading,” said Carla Milarch, Theatre Nova’s founding artistic director.
This is precisely why the Ann Arbor-based company -- which specializes in producing new work and is located in the Yellow Barn on Huron St. -- is hosting its Michigan Playwrights Festival for a third year.
“We’ve configured it differently over the years,” said Milarch. “At first, we crammed all the plays into one big week. But we tend to find a lot of plays we really like and want to see read, so we decided to break it down into two installments. … We pick 10 plays and space the festival out so we have one week in the fall and one in the spring. This [July 25-29] will be the second installment of last year’s submissions.”
Not all that long ago, West Side Story seemed kind of quaint.
We’d all watch this classic, 1950s stage musical twist on Romeo and Juliet, built on the talent of four iconic artists (Jerome Robbins, concept; Arthur Laurents, book; Leonard Bernstein, music; Stephen Sondheim, lyrics), and think, “So many of the characters in this story are openly, unapologetically racist and anti-immigrant! I’m so glad we’ve evolved from this.”
Cut to the recent travel ban; and campaign promises about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; and white supremacists proudly marching in Charlottesville last summer; and the U.S.’s short-lived, limited aid for American citizens living in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria last fall; and the children of detained migrant families being separated from their parents.
So “West Side Story” -- playing through August 12 at Dexter’s Encore Theatre -- which had always felt a little dated to me, seems almost unnervingly timely now.
Penny Seats Theatre Company’s two-show 2018 summer season -- cheekily called "Hail to the Victors" -- consists of two different takes on Mary Shelley’s classic horror story. Next month, PSTC will present Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan’s stage musical adaptation of Brooks’ 1974 film comedy Young Frankenstein, but the company first kicked things off this past weekend with a two-hour production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger, directed by Julia Glander and Lauren M. London.
A colleague of mine once observed that when you ask people about their mothers, you tend to hear stories and fond memories, but when you ask people about their fathers, tears flow within minutes.
Perhaps because traditional, American modes of masculinity and emotional expression have stood at loggerheads for many generations, making father-child relationships highly complicated. Yet it’s precisely this dual struggle to connect that drives Big Fish, the novel-turned-movie-turned-stage-musical now playing at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.
Most of us know Megan Mullally as boozy, unapologetically solipsistic Karen Walker on Will & Grace, and also perhaps as Parks & Recreation star Nick Offerman’s real-life partner, but not as a former dancer and Broadway performer.
This is likely why you’d be surprised to learn that Mullally, in recent years, has teamed up with another multi-talented artist, Stephanie Hunt (who played lesbian bass-player Devin on Friday Night Lights), to form a music duo called Nancy And Beth, which will perform at The Ark on Monday, April 23.
Where did the arbitrary names Nancy And Beth come from (complete with a capitalized And)? The answer will tell you a great deal about the two women’s soulmate-like friendship.
“The ether,” said Mullally.
“I was going to say ‘the ether’!” cried Hunt.