This Woman's Work: UMSTMD's "Nora" explores Ibsen's "A Doll's House" through three different eras

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Alyssa Melani, Ruby Sevcik, Ruby Pérez star in UMSMTD's Nora

Alyssa Melani, Ruby Sevcik, Ruby Pérez star as three generations of Nora in U-M's interpretation of Hendrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Photo courtesy of UMSTMD.

I felt guilty for stealing away, by myself, for a few hours on Sunday to see U-M’s Department of Theatre and Drama production of Stef Smith’s Nora: A Doll’s House, leaving my kids and spouse to fend for themselves.

Fittingly, this discomfort points to Nora’s raison d’être: no matter how much we want to believe otherwise, a woman’s role in the domestic sphere really hasn’t changed that much over the past century.

Using Henrik Ibsen’s classic 1879 play, A Doll’s House, as a blueprint, Smith retells the story of Nora—who scrambles to keep secret her method of keeping the family afloat during her husband’s past illness—as she would appear in three different time periods: 1918, 1968, and 2018.

Theatre Nova's "The Lifespan of a Fact" is a compelling issue play built on a lopsided debate

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Theatre Nova's The Lifespan of a Fact

Left to right: Diane Hill as Emily Penrose, Justin Montgomery as Jim Fingal, and Andrew Huff as John D'Agata in The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Murrell, directed by Carla Milarch at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Sean Carter Photography.

During a set change in Theatre Nova’s first live, in-person production in front of an audience since March 2020, a stage crew duo flipped and turned an office desk to reveal a fluffy couch.

As this metamorphosis played out on the Yellow Barn’s stage Saturday night, the audience—masked and seated in spread-out chairs—ooooh-ed and gasped in delighted surprise. 

I’m clearly not the only one who’s been pining for little hits of theater magic during this pandemic.

Review: Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s “A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call”

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call

By sheer coincidence, I experienced the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s theatrical presentation of A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call at a time when I’d also revisited Mandy Len Catron’s viral essay, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This,” which references 36 questions purported to accelerate intimacy between two strangers.

What’s the connection, you ask?

A Thousand Ways (created by Brooklyn-based troupe 600 Highwaymen) is a phone conversation between you and a stranger, moderated by a pre-recorded, Siri-like voice that poses questions, offers pieces of an imagined narrative, and issues orders. By the end of the hour-long call—filled with seemingly innocuous queries that nonetheless revealed a great deal about ourselves—I felt strangely connected to, and emotionally invested in, the other participant.

To the point that I felt a little heartbroken when I realized that neither of us had enough information to find each other later in real life.

And I felt this sadness despite the fact that we never exchanged names or laid eyes on each other (the latter was part of psychologist Arthur Aron’s experiment, which gave rise to the infamous 36 questions).

The impact struck me as especially curious in this moment, when we’re all slowly emerging from our respective pandemic hidey-holes. We’ve been able to talk by phone with each other this whole time; it was, indeed, one of the safest means of socializing. So why did a pre-recorded moderator make it a far more meaningful, memorable phone conversation than most I had with friends and family during quarantine?

Camille Pagán's "Don’t Make Me Turn This Life Around" was partly inspired by the Ann Arbor author's disastrous vacation

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Camille Pagán's Don’t Make Me Turn This Life Around

During this cloistered pandemic year, lots of us have daydreamed about escaping to sunny, tropical destinations.

So readers drawn to the beach-y cover of Ann Arbor-based novelist Camille Pagán's latest release, Don’t Make Me Turn This Life Around, may be initially surprised to find that the book tells the story of a family getaway to Puerto Rico that goes very, very wrong.

But let’s keep in mind the time in which it was born.

“It’s my pandemic book,” says Pagán, and it follows up on the characters from her Amazon bestseller Life and Other Near Death Experiences but can also stand on its own. “It took me a while to get excited about it. … But I knew I wasn’t done with Libby. She’s my favorite of any of the characters I’ve created.”

Theatre Nova’s Zoom play series continues with "Mortal Fools" by Ann Arbor playwright Catherine Zudak

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Theatre Nova, Zoom Play of the Month graphic

The Goldilocks Principle, though not regularly cited in reference to storytelling, can nonetheless be maddening for those who build narratives.

For how does a writer determine, in each scene, what’s too much information (thus bogging things down and killing suspense) and what’s too little (leaving audiences confused and frustrated)? How do you consistently land upon what feels “just right”?

It’s a notoriously tough needle to thread—particularly within the tight parameters of a 30-minute Zoom play—and this notion was something I thought about often while watching the third and newest entry in Theatre Nova’s Play of the Month series, Mortal Fools, by Ann Arbor-based playwright Catherine Zudak. (The live performance recording of Fools may be viewed—along with the first two entries in Theatre Nova’s Zoom play series, Jacquelyn Priskorn’s Whatcha Doin? and Ron Riekki’s 4 Genres—with the purchase of a $30 series pass, which also covers admission for the fourth and final play in the series, Morgan Breon’s The W.I.T.C.H., scheduled to be performed April 28 at 8 pm) 

From the Fifth Estate to Ann Arbor: Harvey Ovshinsky's new memoir recalls his agitating and publishing days in Detroit

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Harvey Ovshinsky and his book Scratching the Surface

Ann Arbor’s Harvey Ovshinsky faced a problem when he settled in to write his memoir, Scratching the Surface: Adventures in Storytelling.

“I sat down with Kathryn [Wildfong] at Wayne State University Press, and she said, ‘Oh, my God, Harvey, there are three or four different books in here. You’ve got to pick one,’” Ovshinsky said. “I have all these dots and I really felt the need to connect them, and I knew I could. … What they all had in common was my need to scratch the surface. And that’s when [the book] came together.”

The book's focus was originally a puzzle to solve because Ovshinsky is a lifelong restless spirit. 

Ann Arbor native David Blixt discovered a cache of long lost novels by journalist-adventurer Nellie Bly

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Writer David Blixt and covers for the lost Nellie Bly novels

In December 2019, while researching a novel series based on the life of journalist Nellie Bly, Ann Arbor native David Blixt—a Greenhills and EMU grad who’s now a Chicago-based theater artist and writer—made an astonishing discovery.

“At that point, my office was right next to the kitchen, and Jan [Blixt, David’s wife, and the producing artistic director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival] was in the kitchen late in the afternoon that day,” said Blixt. “I was going, ‘Honey, this can’t be real. This can’t possibly be real. … Surely everybody knows about this, right?’”

Wrong. Blixt, following what seemed an unlikely-but-possible hunch, had stumbled upon 12 long-lost serialized novels that Bly wrote after her famous trip around the world concluded in 1890.

Born Elizabeth Cochrane in 1864 in Pittsburgh, Bly got her pseudonym from her first newspaper editor, who named her after a popular 1850 song by Stephen Foster. Scholars and biographers have long known that Bly wrote fiction for publisher Norman Munro’s New York Family Story Paper—she’d signed a lucrative, three year $40,000 contract—but few to no copies of that publication have survived, so Bly’s fiction has largely been lost to time for well over a century.

Until now.

UMS's stage-film hybrid production of "Some Old Black Man" explores race and generational conflict

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Wendell Pierce and Charlie Robinson in UMS's Some Old Black Man. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Wendell Pierce and Charlie Robinson in UMS's production of Some Old Black Man. Photo by Doug Coombe.

This review originally ran on January 19, 2021. We're featuring it again because UMS is streaming "Some Old Black Man" for free March 1-12, 2021, but you have to register for the screening here.

The closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to engage in picayune arguments that quietly scratch at, and chafe against, far deeper issues.

Which is to say, a family clash about what to eat for breakfast—a conflict that kicks off early in the recently streamed University Musical Society theater production of James Anthony Tyler’s two-hander Some Old Black Man—is often about something else entirely.

In the case of NYU literature professor Calvin Jones (Wendell Pierce) and his ailing, 82-year-old father, Donald (Charlie Robinson)—who’s just been relocated from his home in small-town Mississippi to Calvin’s posh Harlem penthouse—a conflict about a yogurt parfait strikes notes of really being about control, and conflicting generational perspectives, and blackness, and ego, and masculinity.

That is an awful lot for a soupy bowl of granola and fruit to carry.

But Tyler understands that to mine down to the heavy, hard-to-face stuff, humans inevitably have to start the process by hacking away at nonsense for a while—with absurdly tiny pickaxes.

No Slowing Down: Ann Arbor cartoonist Dave Coverly celebrates the 25th anniversary of "Speed Bump"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Davy Coverly, Speed Bump

The easy part of compiling a book that celebrates a comic strip’s silver anniversary is, well, you’ve got lots of options.

“I’ll get reviews and comments that say, ‘Not a clunker in the bunch!’—but, you know, I had 10,000 to choose from,” said Ann Arbor-based cartoon artist Dave Coverly, whose book Speed Bump: A 25th Anniversary Collection debuted in September. “If anyone wants to visit my house, you could see a big plastic tub of cartoons that are terrible.” 

Perhaps that’s inevitable when your job’s required you to hatch and execute seven new ideas every week throughout two and a half decades. “You can’t wait for the muse to strike when you’re on deadline,” Coverly noted.

But having the National Cartoonists Society award your work with Best in Newspaper Panels (’95, ’03, ’14) in addition to its highest honor, the Reuben Award (’09), might suggest that you’re getting it right far more often than not.

And for Coverly, one of the most appealing things about a single-panel cartoon is its unfettered flexibility.

“I do a lot of cartoons that use aliens and animals, but they’re always really about people and the things we all have in common,” said Coverly. “My daughter, who’s a painter, had a professor who told her, ‘Don’t ask yourself what you’re going to paint. Ask yourself why you’re going to paint it.’ And I love that quote because I’m someone who—I don’t like jokes for the sake of jokes. … I’d rather try for something that’s driven by an idea. Something that’s more subtle.”

Encore Theatre's junior production of "James and the Giant Peach" finds a way to make everything better

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

James and the Giant Peach

A Nancy Ekholm Burkert illustration from the 1961 edition of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how trippy a moment we find ourselves in that the work of Roald Dahl seems suddenly, particularly ubiquitous.

For just as a touring production of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues its run at Detroit’s Fisher Theater, regional productions of the James and the Giant Peach stage musical -- with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald, and music and lyrics by U-M grads and Oscar, Tony, and Grammy Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- have been sprouting up everywhere, including at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

Encore’s junior production, which begins February 28 and runs for eight performances through March 8, features 22 young performers, ranging in age from eight to 18.

“One of the things I love about [the show] is, not just the chosen family aspect of it, but also, James has this ability to be dealt a terrible hand constantly, and yet he always finds a way to make it better, and always finds the good in things that other are quick to overlook and discard,” said Matthew Brennan, the director of Encore’s production. “The insects, for example, these pests people just want out of their house. … [H]e finds potential in them, and that speaks to something really cool about this story.”