String Theory: Jas Obrecht is “Talking Guitar” at Nicola’s Books


Jas Obrecht, Talking Guitar, Eddie Van Halen

Jas Obrecht and some guy in Van Halen.

Longtime professional music journalist Jas Obrecht regularly tells his Washtenaw Community College creative writing students a story from early in his career.

Obrecht was sent by Guitar Player magazine to a music festival to interview Canadian rock guitarist Pat Travers, who, flanked by two young women while snorting cocaine off a mirror in his dressing room, sent Obrecht away. Obrecht stumbled upon a basketball hoop and ball, and after a few minutes of taking shots, a wiry young guy approached and asked to play.

That guy was Eddie Van Halen, who’d recently released Van Halen’s debut, self-titled album; and Obrecht found a new subject for his article.

"Remnants" uses survivor stories to educate about the Holocaust


Henry (“Hank”) Greenspan

Henry (“Hank”) Greenspan collected survivor stories for his one-man play Remnants.

U-M professor Henry (“Hank”) Greenspan likes to talk -- and thank goodness for that.

Greenspan has spent 40 years interviewing (and re-interviewing) Holocaust survivors, and from that trove of oral histories he compiled a radio-play-turned-one-man-show called Remnants, which he’ll perform on Monday, May 8, at the downtown library. He put together the radio play in the early '90s, using material he first started collecting for his dissertation in the 1970s.

“The first thing I did was call rabbis who had congregations in the Southeast Michigan and Toledo area,” said Greenspan, who noted that doing survivor interviews was an uncommon practice at that time. “They’d tell people, ‘This guy from U of M wants to interview survivors.’ So initially I’d used the rabbis as matchmakers, but that quickly became unnecessary because things snowballed. People would say to me, in the middle of an interview, ‘You have to talk to my friend Zoli.’ … So I’d make an appointment to talk with Zoli, and one person led to another.”

Ellipsis Theatre Company updates Brecht's canonical "Caucasian Chalk Circle"


The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Ellipsis Theatre Company

Simon (Eddie Rothermel) and Grusha (Lucy Price) in Ellipsis Theatre Company's The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Bertolt Brecht’s canonical 1944 text The Caucasian Chalk Circle is the kind of play that many of us read in a college course but rarely see produced.

So it’s worth noting that locals will have the opportunity to see Circle on the stage when Ellipsis Theatre Company presents it at the Yellow Barn from May 4-21.

“Ellipsis is always very interested in the act of storytelling … so the fact that it’s so explicit in this play was appealing to us,” said Ellipsis co-founder Joanna Hastings, who’s both playing a role in and co-directing Circle with Scott Screws. “Plus, (Circle’s) so flexible. You can do it in all sorts of ways.”

U-M grad and NYT best-selling author Elizabeth Kostova gets dark in "The Shadow Land"


Elizabeth Kostova, The Shadow Land

Elizabeth Kostova's The Shadow Land investigates grief, complicity, and communism.

Bestselling author Elizabeth Kostova (The Historian) may now be touring to promote her newest novel, The Shadow Land, but when she arrives in Ann Arbor to appear at Nicola’s Books on Monday evening, she may feel like she’s back home.

Why? Because after Kostova earned a spot in the University of Michigan’s renowned MFA program in creative writing, and graduated, she stayed in Ann Arbor until her family moved to Asheville in 2009.

“I’d intended to just stay (in Ann Arbor) for two years, then go back east and resume teaching there,” said Kostova. “But I loved it so much there that I ended staying. My family was there almost eight years. It was a great place to be for a while.”

"The Bridges of Madison County" makes its Michigan debut at The Dio Theatre


The Bridges of Madison County at The Dio Theatre

Francesca (Marlene Inman) and Robert (Jon McHatton) are 'bout to cross that chasm in The Dio Theatre's production of The Bridges of Madison County. Photo by Michele Anliker.

The stage musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County, now making its Michigan premiere at Pinckney’s Dio Theatre, ends its first act with a moment that feels like a key catching in a lock -- and in that instant, you feel each person in the audience make a choice: they’re either checking out or they’re all in.

Why? Because the show’s story, set in Iowa in 1965, focuses on a lonely, middle-aged, Italian former war bride (Francesca, played by Marlene Inman) who, while her husband and two teenage children are away for a few days at the Indiana State Fair, finds herself irresistibly drawn into a love affair with an itinerant National Geographic photographer (Robert, played by Jon McHatton) who’s in town to shoot pictures of the local covered bridges.

Hail to the Catholepistemiad Michigania: 200 years of U-M at “True Blue!”


True Blue! A Tribute to Michigan

True Blue! A Tribute to Michigan danced through 200 years of Wolverine history. Photo courtesy of Michigan Photography.

Saturday evening’s sold-out, star-studded True Blue! A Tribute to Michigan event at Hill Auditorium, celebrating U-M’s bicentennial, began like Michigan football games do: with the sonorous voice of Carl Grapentine.

But instead of introducing the Michigan Marching Band, Grapentine introduced two of the evening’s emcees, Glee star Darren Criss (’09) and Grimm star Jacqueline Toboni (’14), who welcomed musical theater majors to the stage to perform a special version of “The Victors,” arranged by A.J. Holmes (’11); and theater majors, who delivered a rap about U-M’s founding and growth -- wherein we learned that the school was originally called Catholepistemiad -- or University -- of Michigania. (Thankfully, the name didn’t stick. Imagine spelling that in the stadium.)

Complicite’s "The Encounter" is a hallucinatory audio playground


The Encounter

Simon McBurney is a one-man cast of hundreds in Complicite’s The Encounter. Photo by Tristram Kenton x1080.

Thursday’s opening night performance of Complicite’s The Encounter, presented by UMS (and running through Saturday night), got me thinking about how, when you’re a parent of young kids, you notice on a daily basis how their powers of imagination, and capacity for wonder, utterly dwarf your own. Now, this isn’t too surprising when you consider how often kids are encouraged to conjure up stories and images, while the adults around them are stuck in “adulting” mode: worrying about work, home upkeep, money, relationships, emails, appointments, and various other responsibilities.

So how do you lure a capacity crowd of over-stressed adults down the rabbit hole of imagination and deep into the Amazonian rainforest? By finding new, innovative ways to open this often-jammed door in our brains.

With The Encounter, Complicite -- one of Britain’s (and the world’s) most inventive theater companies -- achieves new levels of theatrical immersion by delivering the show’s time-hopping, atmospheric narrative to the audience through headphones; employing a visceral, binaural soundscape (designed by Gareth Fry, with Pete Malkin) that does a real number on your perception; and through employing lighting (Paul Anderson) and projections (Will Duke) that make a deceptively spare set (Michael Levine) -- with a textured foam backdrop, suggesting an enormous recording studio -- into a hallucinatory playground.

Lullabies & "Lullaboy": Broadway star Jessica Grové sings to benefit Encore Theater



Come to the cabaret, old chums, to hear Jessica Grové belt out some tunes. Photo by Justin Patterson.

At this point in her career, actress/singer Jessica Grové -- whose Broadway credits include A Little Night Music (with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch), Sunday in the Park with George, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Les Miserables -- is ready to venture into new, more personal territory: a cabaret show titled I Have Found: A Journey Through Song with Jessica Grove, which she’ll premiere this weekend at Dexter’s Encore Theater. (Friday’s performance is concert-only, while Saturday’s is Encore’s gala fundraiser.)

“I’ve done concerts before -- like, an hour-long concert of songs -- but cabaret is a whole different art form,” said Grové. “You have to tie them together in a meaningful way, and have a climax, and have a realization and a summation. Those are writer things, and I’ve never considered myself a writer, but I’ve really enjoyed the process.”

All Dolled Up: Tappan Players’ “Hello, Dolly!"


Tappan Players

The Tappan Players -- student run for student fun -- take on “Hello, Dolly!" Photo by Myra Klarman.

The current political climate impacts us in ways big and small -- like factoring into the decision of whether or not to ditch the “Motherhood March” number in Tappan Players’ new production of Hello, Dolly

“We were going to cut it for time,” said the show’s co-producer Lisa Richardson. “But after the Women’s March, we decided to put it back in.”

Tappan Players is a student-run theater company that stages one big musical each year. An outgrowth of the Burns Park Players, TP is now in its 27th year, and Hello, Dolly features about 80 Tappan Middle School students in the cast, more than 30 in the crew, and 15 in the orchestra. The company was born out of a desire to give kids who age out of Burns Park Players a chance to keep learning about theater and be part of a show.

“There’s a certain amount of magic that happens,” said Richardson. “When I’ve made sure the director (Anna Martinsen) has what she needs, and the business part gets done, I spend a good chunk of time sitting in the audience during rehearsals. … And watching these kids who started out shy and unfamiliar with the process start blossoming right before your eyes -- I think of it as a magic place, where kids get to be creative and free, and no one’s judging them for it.”

Ann Arbor novelist Camille Pagán is generating buzz with "Forever Is the Worst Long Time"


Camille Pagán

Camille Pagán knows that Forever is a mighty long time.

A few weeks ago, InStyle magazine named Forever Is the Worst Long Time by Ann Arbor-based novelist (and health journalist) Camille Pagán as one of "7 Books You Need to Read in February 2017.”

We’re now in March, of course, but Pagán’s new tale of contemporary friendships and romance gone askew offers a temporary escape hatch appropriate for any time of year.

Forever is Pagán’s third novel; her debut was The Art of Forgetting (2011), followed by Life and Other Near-Death Experiences (2015), which was a bestselling Kindle First selection that got optioned by Jessica Chastain’s production company Freckle Films.

Forever tells the story of James Hernandez, a would-be novelist who ends up writing copy for U-M’s business school. (Pagán is a U-M grad who grew up in Dearborn.) Though James falls for his childhood best friend Rob’s fiancee/wife (Lou) upon meeting her, he buries his feelings, delivers a toast at the wedding, and tries to build his own life. But years later, when Rob and Lou’s marriage falls apart, James is torn between what he wants and loyalty to his friend. In the end, he can’t resist acting on his long-repressed attraction, and the consequences for all three are far-reaching and life-changing.

“I didn’t plan on writing this book,” said Pagán. “I’d planned on writing one about a married couple, and I was just slogging through that when I had the idea for the first chapter [of Forever], and in a day or two, I had the opening chapters done. I just felt like, I know who these people are, whereas with the other project, I didn’t know who I was writing about. … With every book it seems like there’s a fire under me, where I had to get the story out.”