Preview: Falling Up and Getting Down, UMS Season-Opening Live Skateboarding + Music Celebration



Andy MacDonald at Ann Arbor Skatepark. / Photograph by Morgan Andrew Somers.

Both athletes and musicians must be able to improvise, but they rarely do so in tandem.

That will change on Sunday, when the University Musical Society and Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark, in collaboration with City of Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation, present a free-style show that combines professional skateboarding with live jazz music.

“Falling Up and Getting Down” takes a concept originated by jazz pianist/composer and MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Jason Moran – who kicked off the UMS season in 2013 with a Fats Waller Dance Party at Downtown Home & Garden – and brings it to Ann Arbor.

Previously, Moran helped put together a similar event at the Kennedy Center and at the San Francisco Jazz Center, but Ann Arbor’s show will be the first to take place at an in-ground, permanent skatepark.

“The Ann Arbor Skatepark is such a special place,” said UMS senior programming manager Mark Jacobson. “Kids can go there and be safe and hang out and stay out of trouble. The phrase ‘skateboarding saves lives’ is something I truly believe in, just like I believe that music saves lives. Young adults go to the skate park to find themselves, and to find a community. … I’d been at the skatepark’s grand opening, in June of 2014, and I had this thought: how ridiculous would it be if UMS had a season-opening celebration at the skate park?”

Perhaps not so ridiculous, but there has been a lot of work involved over the course of the last year; and although the event costs tens of thousands of dollars to produce, UMS is absorbing the cost into its budget so that anyone can attend for free (though pre-registration is required at

“We’re giving back to the community that we love, and that we live in,” said Jacobson. “ … I think right now we have 1,400 registrations, but I think we’ll see 2,000 or 2,500 people out on Sunday. … Roughly the first 90 minutes will be exhibition skaters, from 2:30 to 4, with live DJs providing the music, and then we’ll have the pro skate demo with live music and professional skateboarders.”

Those skaters include X game legend Andy Macdonald; “old schoolers” Ron Allen and Chuck Treece (who’s an accomplished musician himself); young “vert” skating star Tom Remillard; and pro lady skaters Jordyn Barratt and Natalie Krishna Das. Tadd Mullinix and Alvin Hill will DJ the first portion of the event, while Moran and his band, The Bandwagon, featuring saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, will provide “Falling Up”’s live, free-style jazz.

There will also be food trucks on site, including Ricewood BBQ, Bigalora Wood Fired Pizza, Cheese Street, and Reilly Craft Creamery.


Jason Moran and the Bandwagon. / Photograph by Clay Patrick McBride.

The event promises to be different from anything UMS has presented before – but that’s part of its appeal.

“Over and over again, when we survey our audiences about what they’re looking for, and what they’re excited by, they consistently tell us they want new and unusual and innovative presentations. They want to engage with art in unique and unusual ways, and this checks all the boxes.”

So Jacobson believes that a sizable portion of UMS’ established audience base are willing to give “Falling Up” a chance; but he’s also excited that the show offers those normally beyond UMS’ – and jazz’s – typical reach with a fun point of entry.

“Jason Moran’s brilliant,” said Jacobson. “In addition to his playing, which is phenomenal, … he has such rich ideas and concepts. … For many of these kids who will be listening to his music on Sunday, many of them will have never listened to live jazz before in their lifetime. They’ll be exposed to this artform, this amazing American art form, that they otherwise wouldn’t be.”

“Falling Up” is a rain-or-shine event, though “the safety of the athletes is prioritized,” said Jacobson. “They can’t skate if the surface is wet, but if we find ourselves in that situation, we’d hope that the party could still go on in some way.”

The main hope, of course, is that the crowd will get to see skaters and music artists collaborating in exciting and unconventional ways.

“This whole notion of improvisation between musicians and athletes – they really feed off each other, with the musicians pushing the skaters to try different things, and the skaters prodding the musicians to jam harder. It’s very reciprocal, with a lot of give and take in terms of energy.”

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Falling Up and Getting Down takes place at the Ann Arbor Skatepark, Sunday, September 11. Free, with advance registration required. Exhibition begins at 2:30 pm. For more information and to RSVP, visit

Review: Theatre Nova's Dear Elizabeth


An epistolary play of impassioned poets.

An epistolary play of impassioned poets.

While watching Theatre Nova’s lovely new production of Sarah Ruhl’s play, Dear Elizabeth, drawn from 30 years of correspondence between poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, the phrase “alone together” comes to mind often.

Why? Because although they both experience love off-stage – Bishop with a woman in Brazil named Lota, Lowell with three different wives – their true first love is words; and like a jealous, possessive lover, words, when you’re a professional writer, demand that you spend most of your waking life alone with them, and only them.

So it’s not surprising that Lowell and Bishop – who lived a similarly isolated artistic existence, and consequently understood each other deeply – flung letters to each other as if they were life preservers.

In life, Lowell and Bishop wrote more than 800 letters to each other, offering praise and feedback for each other’s work; celebrating each others’ awards and personal victories; and chronicling their travels, as well as their battles with inner demons (Bishop’s depression and alcoholism, Lowell’s bipolar disorder). Not surprisingly, even the prose of their casual letters rings gorgeously poetic; in reference to a lighted swimming pool, Bishop wrote, “it is wonderful to swim around in a sort of green fire. One’s friends look like luminous frogs.”

The inherent challenge of an epistolary play, of course, involves giving the audience something to watch, not simply listen to. Ruhl lays the foundation for a visually satisfying production by way of stage directions, calling for occasional projections, and giving the actors a template for connecting scenes through actions; they also “live” certain quirky moments as they speak the words of their letters instead of pretending to write them.

But director David Wolber gets much credit, too, for adding his own creative touches, effectively using props, different areas of the set, and a movement pattern for the actors – partly inspired by Lowell’s frustrated observation that the two poets seem connected by a wire, so that when one moves, the other does as well – that keeps the audience engaged.

Another tricky prospect, however, involves how to present the poets in their moments of weakness, such as when Bishop pulls two filled wine glasses from her desk to drink. It’s initially funny, but when she then pulls out a bottle of rubbing alcohol and downs that, too, we know we’ve suddenly gone down the rabbit hole of addiction. Wolber and actress Carrie Jay Sayer handle the shift with sensitivity, not playing it too heavily or too lightly, but rather suggesting a haunting, all-too-natural progression into darkness. (Wolber specializes in plays about artists and the process of creation, so play and director are ideally matched here.)

Joel Mitchell is marvelous and heartbreaking as Lowell, a man who struggles mightily in his own life, and uses that as material for his confessional poetry. Sayer, meanwhile, is well-cast as Bishop, conveying the emotionally guarded poet’s simultaneous desire to connect to Lowell while also always maintaining an arm’s length distance; and the actress nails a running gag wherein, after showering Lowell with praise over a poem or collection, she pauses and says something like, “There are just three words I take objection to,” or “I have two minor questions.”

Similarly, Lowell critiques his letter-writing in a postscript – “The last part is too heatedly written, with too many ‘ands’ and so forth” – thus providing a glimpse of the writer’s particular brand of neurosis. But this telling moment also suggests why he and Bishop never find happiness for long: they each can’t stop trying to edit their own lives.

Carla Milarch designed the show’s sound (including key exterior noises), as well as its costumes (Mitchell pulls different jackets and sweaters from a coat stand on stage). And Daniel C. Walker designed the show’s lighting and set, with adjacent workspaces for each poet, a ladder upstage center, and a large, short rock downstage right.

Indeed, in Dear Elizabeth, the rock marks the spot where Lowell and Bishop spent time together on a beach one day in Maine, early in their friendship. In a rush of feeling, Lowell nearly proposed to Bishop there, and he later confessed this to Bishop, writing, “asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”

Though this is a beautiful, emotionally powerful admission to make, Dear Elizabeth makes you realize that in Bishop and Lowell’s case, Lowell’s failure to propose likely resulted in the pair having the most satisfying and durable kind of marriage they could ever hope to share with each other.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Dear Elizabeth runs through Sunday, September 25, at the Yellow Barn, 410 West Huron, Ann Arbor, MI, 48103. Call 734-635-8450 or visit Theatre Nova for tickets.

Preview: The 14th Annual Kerrytown BookFest



An array of books and authors from last year's BookFest.

You needn’t pack a suitcase to attend the 2016 Kerrytown BookFest’s “Travels with Books” programs; you just need a sense of adventure and a passion for the written word.

Yes, the 14th annual BookFest, happening Sunday, September 11 from 10:30 am to 5 pm at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market and Kerrytown Concert House, is a free celebration of authors, books, bookmaking and more, with events and activities for kids, too.

The day kicks off with coffee and doughnuts, as well a short presentation of the 9th annual Community Book Award; this year’s recipient is Washtenaw Literacy, which provides literacy support, free of charge, to adults by way of trained tutors.

“That was a pretty easy decision,” said KBF president and Aunt Agatha’s Book Shop co-owner Robin Agnew. “There was unanimous agreement. It’s a great organization, and they’re now celebrating their 40th year of doing great things in our community.”

In keeping with the “Travels with Books” theme, “Under the Radar Michigan”’s Tom Daldin will talk at 11 am about the some of the state’s best-kept secrets, which he regularly explores on his PBS series.

But you might wonder: does each BookFest’s theme come first as an organizing principle, or does the BookFest team connect the dots as guest speakers are lined up for the following year?

“Kind of both,” said Agnew. “It’s pretty organic. … It has to be general, or it’s too hard to program things around it. But last year, Daldin was one of the first people we booked, so we chose ‘Travels with Books’ and thought it sounded like a fun theme.”

This year’s KBF writer-in-residence is Huron High teacher and author R.J. Fox (Love & Vodka), who will be critiquing attendee-submitted manuscripts. All the slots for this program are already full, but there’s still a book fair, author signings, and some enticing panel discussions to check out.

“I always have some spidey sense about what people are most excited about, and this year, I think [mystery writer William Kent Krueger will be a big draw, because he’s got a new book out,” Agnew said, referring to Krueger’s Manitou Canyon. “But I also think the identity quest panel will be pretty popular. It’s an interesting group.”

The panel, titled “The Quest for Identity,” features Desiree Cooper (Know the Mother), Kelly Fordon (Garden of the Blind), and Andrew Mozina (Contrary Motion) talking about their work with moderator Donald Lystra (Something That Feels Like Truth).


Items for sale at the Kerrytown BookFest.

Other events include a thriller writer (Brian Freeman) sharing photos from a domestic “photo safari” that informs how he uses settings in his fiction; a “Travel the Lakes” featuring writers Loreen Niewenhuis and Maureen Dunphy discussing their Great Lakes adventures; Eating Wildly author Ava Chin, who will speak about urban foraging (and Food Gatherers will be accepting donations on-site); and a pragmatic talk called “Writing for Hire,” during which three writers will talk about the myriad ways they support themselves through writing.

“That panel is going to be so good,” said Agnew, noting that the panelists wrote under multiple names and did projects as various as Goosebumps installments, sci-fi and mystery books-for-hire, and flashcards.

But one talk that Agnew herself is most excited about it “Travel through Time,” featuring novelist B. A. Shapiro (The Art Forger and The Muralist).

“I’m really interested in art history, and we’ll be having an art historian interview (Shapiro), so it should be a really interesting conversation,” said Agnew.

The children’s tent will host a Mother Goose program, author readings, storytellers, a craft, and a drawing workshop.

Regular KBF attendees may notice one new addition this year. “It’s not a big thing, but people will see ‘The Book I Love’ signs, with slips to fill out. Every bookstore will have a box or a table devoted to it, and we’ll probably share some of the responses on social media or the website. We may even have a panel about it next year.”

So bookmark your latest read for a while and head to Kerrytown on September 11th!

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Review: Ann Arbor Summer Festival's presentation of "L'Homme Cirque"



Lord of the Wire, David Dmitri.

On Saturday evening, I sat inside a white tent in Burns Park and watched veteran performer David Dimitri’s one-man-show, “L’Homme Cirque” (presented by Ann Arbor Summer Festival), under what might be ideal circumstances – which is to say, I had a five-year-old on my lap.

This wasn’t “ideal” because of comfort – five-year-olds rarely stop wiggling, and the weather was post-storm muggy besides – but rather because, as Dimitri performed his wordless, hour-long circus show for a capacity crowd (220), my daughter repeatedly voiced questions like, “How’s he going to get down?” “What’s he going to do with that?” “What’s he going to do next?”

Neve’s stream-of-consciousness curiosity underscored Dimitri’s playfulness and demonstrated to me how the show is ultimately built on a kind of repeating pattern: stoke anticipation, tease the audience, and finish with a moment or two of joyous wonder.

With bleachers surrounding the small performance space in the tent, Dimitri began the show by changing his shoes.

This may sound painfully banal, but as is true for all the show’s transitions, Dimitri finds a way to make even the most ordinary moments whimsical and fun. And soon enough, Dimitri uncovered a treadmill that launched him into a routine – set to recorded music that could easily accompany a Woody Allen comedy’s opening credits – that involved him gradually dialing up the machine’s speed, as well as his feats’ level of difficulty, until you wondered how on earth he was going to get on, let alone how he’d pull off a cartwheel or a walking handstand.

Dimitri then incorporated a small pommel horse – decked out with a mane, a painted face, a tail, and legs – and propped it alongside the treadmill, so as to give the crowd the experience of watching a trick rider without a ring to run around. This bit of physical comedy was pure fun, yet you never lost awareness regarding the skill necessary to achieve these stunts.

While he is certainly a man of multiple circus talents, including playing the accordion (proven when he provided a hilariously suspenseful soundtrack for himself while he performed a backflip off a seesaw), Dimitri’s calling card has always been his work on the high wire. Inside the small tent at Burns Park, the crowd got to watch as he pulled himself up without a ladder, played trumpet while lying on the wire (offering a more laid back musical backdrop this time), and jumped rope.

Then, finally, Dimitri pulled a large cannon from the sidelines, made an amusing show of dressing in a flight suit and helmet, got the cannon properly positioned, pulled himself up inside it and lit a fuse.

At this point, my notoriously skittish five-year-old covered her ears and burrowed into me, but she ultimately couldn’t look away, either – which shows exactly how much she’d connected with Dimitri. This is one moment when the intimacy of “L’Homme Cirque” really pays a dividend. Every second of the show happens in close-up, so that Dimitri’s warm, witty personality shines through, and we quickly feel like friends more than an audience.


David Dmitri walks on air. / Photo by Jenn McKee.

Even so, precision within each of Dimitri’s set pieces must be crucial for their successful execution, and while he clearly takes pains to get each object into the correct position, the fact that he does so so quickly and cleanly, by himself, is almost as astonishing as the feats themselves. And he never seems rushed, either. During one transition, he pretended to give a little girl in the audience a handful of feed, and as she walked over to feed the horse, at Dimitri’s urging, we all briefly believed in this flight of fancy as much as she did.

The show’s big finish, though, was far more broadly dramatic, as Dimitri pulled himself up onto another high wire, opened a flap on the tent, and waved for the audience to follow him outdoors. We tumbled out of the tent to watch him climb 150 feet into the air on a wire, toward the blue sky and clouds of the evening.

I’m pretty sure this magical sight is one that my inquisitive 5-year-old, as well as my 8-year-old, won’t soon forget.

But the same could be said of their parents, too.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

L’homme Cirque ran through August 28 at Burns Park.

Preview: Jenn McKee's Most Anticipated Theater Events for 2016-2017



TEAM's RoosevElvis, courtesy of UMS

September isn’t just back-to-school season; it’s also the moment when most theater companies (and universities’ performing arts departments) launch into a brand new year of programming.

It’s enough to make a dramaphile downright giddy.

But because we’re blessed with a perennially rich, vibrant arts scene here in Ann Arbor, it can be challenging to keep track of all the good stuff on the horizon – so I’ve compiled a list of theater offerings that I’m most excited about for the coming year. The list is organized by date, so mark your calendars!

Theatre Nova’s Dear Elizabeth, playing Sept. 2-25 at the Yellow Barn, 410 W. Huron in Ann Arbor.

Hearing about a play that’s built from the decades-long correspondence between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop may not, at first blush, get your blood pumping (unless you’re a writer-nerd like me), but you should also keep in mind that Dear Elizabeth playwright Sarah Ruhl is the mastermind behind fantastical, witty works like The Clean House and In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. I’m excited to take a more personalized dive into these poets’ lives, by way of Ruhl’s proven skills as a dramatist.

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, playing September 8-11 at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University in Ann Arbor.

A2CT often stages big musicals, but Spelling Bee is a smaller, more intimate look at a group of driven, misfit kids (played by adults) who gather together to see where they fit into the spelling bee world’s pecking order. Sweet, heartbreaking, and hilarious, the Tony-winning Spelling Bee will likely charm your socks off. (Even though the show’s about kids, though, please be advised to leave kids younger than 12-14 at home.) Plus, one of my favorite parts of William Finn’s winning score is a love song about a dictionary – which may just say a little too much about me. Ahem.

The TEAM’s RoosevElvis, presented by UMS, playing September 29-October 1, Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University in Ann Arbor.

I’m super-excited to see this show, which sounds trippy and fun and fascinating. (The UMS website calls it “a halluncinatory road trip from the Badlands to Graceland.”) In the show, the spirits of Elvis Presley and Theodore Roosevelt, played by women, battle over the soul of Ann, a shy meat-processing plant worker. This surreal mash-up of the past and the present, icons and “regular people,” history and mythology, and gender definitions promises to be a memorable night of theater, courtesy of UMS and the Brooklyn-based company, The TEAM.

U-M Musical Theater Department’s The Drowsy Chaperone, playing October 13-23, Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University in Ann Arbor.

U-M’s musical theater program is one of the best in the country, so this goofy, Tony-winning show promises to be a blast. In Chaperone, an anti-social musical theater buff puts the score of a beloved, over-the-top, 1928 show on his record player, and the show comes to life on stage, with hysterical asides and commentary from the narrator. Get your tickets now, folks.

U-M Theatre and Drama Department’s Peter and the Starcatcher, playing December 8-11, Power Center, 121 Fletcher in Ann Arbor.

Inspired by a 2006 novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Starcatcher sketches out Peter Pan’s backstory, acting as a kind of prequel to the story we all know and love. Plus, this will be the first time local audiences will get the chance to see the magical, award-winning show, which made its Broadway debut in 2012.

EMU Theatre’s A Raisin in the Sun at EMU, playing February 8-12, Sponberg Theatre, 124 Quirk Hall on EMU’s campus in Ypsilanti.

I’ve studied the play, I’ve seen the movie, but I’ve never in my life seen a live production of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play about a poor black family in Chicago who struggle to decide what to do with the patriarch’s life insurance payout check when it arrives. Each person wants the family to have a better life, but how to get there is the subject of an impassioned debate that reflects ideas about race, class, generational conflict, and familial love.

U-M’s Theatre and Drama Department’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, playing February 16-19, Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University in Ann Arbor.

Anne Washburn’s 2012 play is where pop culture and edgy theater meet. In Mr. Burns, a group of post-apocalyptic survivors gather to recount an episode of “The Simpsons”; seven years later, we see these same characters as a theater troupe that specializes in re-enacting episodes of “The Simpsons”; and 75 years beyond that, we see how this story has been altered and interpreted by a culture still reeling from near-extinction.


The Million Dollar Quartet graces Encore's stage.

Druid Theatre Company’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, presented by UMS, playing March 9-11, Power Center, 121 Fletcher in Ann Arbor.

Druid, based in Galway, Ireland, last came to Ann Arbor via UMS in 2011 to present a fantastic production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, so color me excited to see yet another Druid production of a Martin McDonagh drama. “Beauty Queen” chronicles a battle of wills between an aging, manipulative mother, Mag, and her plain and lonely 40 year old daughter, Maureen, who’s been playing the thankless role of caregiver in an economically depressed Irish village in the 1990s. Marie Mullen, who won a Tony Award playing the daughter, plays Mag in Druid’s production. A can’t miss in my book.

Purple Rose Theatre’s Vino Veritas, playing March 23-May 27, 137 Park St. in Chelsea.

David MacGregor’s comic drama had its world premiere at the Purple Rose in 2008, and it became one of my all-time Rose favorites. In the play, on Halloween night, two suburban couples agree to drink an exotic Peruvian wine – made from the skins of blue dart tree frogs – that acts as a truth serum. They soon learn, though, that while the truth can set you free, it can also make your closest relationships profoundly tricky.

Complicite’s The Encounter, presented by UMS, playing March 30-April 1, Power Center, 121 Fletcher in Ann Arbor.

Complicite has become one of my favorite theater companies in the world, thanks to UMS repeatedly bringing it to Ann Arbor to present mesmerizing, technically innovative past productions like The Elephant Vanishes, A Disappearing Number (my favorite), and Shun-Kin. This time, we get to see The Encounter, inspired by a National Geographic photographer’s experience, in 1969, of getting lost among the people of Brazil’s Javari Valley. The audience will wear headphones for the show, which makes use of “3D Audio” to more fully submerge audience members into the Amazon rainforest experience.

Encore Theatre’s Million Dollar Quartet, playing April 13-May 7, The Encore Theatre, 3126 Broad St. in Dexter.

Though this musical has toured in recent years, I’ve never had the chance to catch it, so I’m excited to see it at Encore, which has really upped its game, in terms of production quality, in the past year. Quartet dramatizes a December 4th, 1956 recording session with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and newcomer Jerry Lee Lewis, with all the actors playing live music on stage. Given the huge success Encore had earlier this year with Always … Patsy Cline, I have high really hopes for Quartet.

U-M Musical Theater Department’s Disney’s The Little Mermaid, playing April 13-16 Power Center, 121 Fletcher in Ann Arbor.

I know, I know. But I’ve got young kids who love going with me to shows, and not only will this stage production of Mermaid probably be top notch – simply because it’s Michigan’s musical theater program putting it on – but it will make them happy to sing along to Menken and Ashman’s still-infectious score (“Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” etc.). Yes, we will likely have a post-show discussion about whether Ariel should be willing to give away a significant part of her identity to chase after a guy (sigh), but even so, the potential for stage magic is pretty high with Mermaid, so I assure you we’ll be there.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Review: Michigan Shakespeare Festival's Richard II



The center holds in MSF's Richard II.

Sometimes, when you see a Shakespeare play that’s rarely produced, you walk out thinking, “I’m pretty sure I know why.” But then, at other times, like an unexpected gift, you walk out of a production thinking, “Where have you been all my life?”

The latter describes my experience with Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s three-hour production of Richard II, now playing at Canton’s Village Theater.

The history play focuses on King Richard (Robert Kauzlaric), who’d been crowned at age 9, after his grandfather Edward III ruled England for 50 years, and his father, the natural heir, died.

Richard II takes place when Richard has reached adulthood, after wrangling with his father’s brothers for years to retain power. When one of Richard’s cousins, Henry Bolingbroke (Robert McLean), gets into a feud with a noble named Thomas Mowbray (Matt Daniels), who’s accused of being involved in the murder of one of Richard’s uncles, Richard banishes them both, thereby angering Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Alan Ball). The rift sets events in motion, as Gaunt confronts Richard and later dies; Richard leaves England to reclaim power in Ireland; and Bolingbroke returns to England to not just claim his father’s title and land, but also Richard’s crown.

Many factors play into our response to a show, of course: design elements, the language, performers, pacing, the director’s choices, prominent themes, and even what personal experiences we’re bringing with us into the theater.

For me, this seldom-produced history play opened up near its end, when Richard has been usurped and imprisoned and says: “Alack the heavy day/ That I have worn so many winters out/ And know not now what name to call myself./ … But whate’er I be/ Nor I nor any man that but man is/ With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased/ with being nothing.” In this monologue, Shakespeare reflects not only on the experience of a person’s previously firm sense of identity in freefall, but also our shifting sense of our place in the world as we age – which is to say, the inevitable realization that each of us might not, after all, be super-special snowflakes.

So there’s already some grade A meat to chew on in Richard II, but director Janice L. Blixt’s vision for the show also injects some fun touches. Re-imagined as a contemporary power struggle, MSF’s Richard II features actors in suits and ties and sweater vests (designed by costumer Suzanne Young) instead of the more traditional doublet/hose combo. With this in mind, Richard’s sycophantic, hipster friends, when not laughing at others or rolling their eyes, play a subtle drinking game early in the show, stealing nips from their pocketed flasks each time someone says the king’s name. This led me to viewing the trio of Bushy, Bagot, and Green (Eric Eilersen, Ian Geers, Michael Phillip Thomas) as “the bro courtiers.”

But the center would not hold if not for the truly outstanding work of Kauzlaric, who makes Richard someone we feel probably should be knocked down a peg or two, but perhaps not knocked off the peg board altogether. For Richard is smug and self-assured as king, not to mention compassion-challenged (upon learning of his uncle’s death, he flippantly says, “So much for that”); but these flaws somehow make Richard’s imminent fall all the more searing. When Kauzlaric grips tightly onto the crown, just as Richard’s scheduled to hand it over to Bolingbroke, he delivers a blistering speech, disillusioned by how quickly and easily his life has been dismantled; and in the show’s powerful penultimate scene, when he’s been abandoned by all and left alone in his cell, Kauzlaric presents us with a man earnestly struggling to process grief.

Jeromy Hopgood designed the show’s set, which consists of a seemingly collapsed, slanted gateway (actors often duck while making entrances through it), and a backdrop of church windows hanging at different levels. Visually, the stage picture suggests a wobbly, failing infrastructure, which dovetails well with a play about a young ruler who enjoys the confidence of neither his family nor his subjects. Things really are falling apart.

David Blixt expertly choreographs the production’s sword-fights (and assorted violent acts); David Allen Stoughton designed the lighting, which creates a world outside the brightly lit king’s court that feels ominous and isolating – an effect achieved in concert with Kate Hopgood’s sound design and music composition. And Betty Thomas designed the show’s props.

Of course, Shakespeare’s lesser known history plays often frustrate contemporary audiences; it can feel as though you’re jumping into the middle of an epic novel, and try as you might, there are just too many people, and too much you’ve missed, to make sense of the whole.

But you can trust that you’re in good hands with director Janice Blixt, who has, to name one example, added a brief prologue to Richard II – from an entirely different play – to dramatize the murder that’s at the heart of Bolingbroke and Mowbry’s argument in the true opening scene. (This also, conveniently, sets us up for the shady betrayals and violence to come.) Blixt’s commitment to finding creative ways to fill the gaps in our knowledge on stage, so that we’re better able to plug in and focus on the story being told, demonstrates MSF’s mission writ large: to encourage modern audiences to re-connect with Shakespeare’s work in new, invigorating ways.

Held to this standard, Richard II passes with flying colors.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Richard II continues through Sunday, August 14 at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton, MI. For tickets, visit

Review: Michigan Shakespeare Festival's The Killer Angels



Tobin Hissong in The Killer Angels.

One thing you’ll inevitably think about while watching the Michigan stage premiere production of Karen Tarjan’s The Killer Angels – presented by Michigan Shakespeare Festival, and inspired by the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel of the same name by Michael Shaara – is how 19th century American warfare and military strategy look nothing like our contemporary conflicts; yet even so, brutality, death, and nightmarish confusion on the battlefield remain constants.

Focused on the three-day Battle of Gettysburg – cited by many as a key turning point for the victorious (uh, spoiler alert?) Union Army – Killer Angels introduces us to military leaders as well as infantrymen on both sides of the war.

How? By double- and triple-casting the production’s 12 actors. And while this casting instruction/suggestion is wholly practical, it nonetheless makes following the play’s already-complicated narrative that much harder. Indeed, if your knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg is minimal - ahem - you’ll likely be struggling to keep the characters (and other details) straight.

But there’s also a larger storytelling paradox at work: a military battle must, by definition, involve lots of people; and yet, to establish an emotional connection to the story, the audience must have sustained, intimate access to a smaller group of characters. (This is how we follow Shakespeare’s history plays, which tend to focus less on a single battle and more on those vying for power.) Because so many leaders and soldiers played a key role – some for better, some for worse – in the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels shifts focus often, providing only cursory glimpses of most characters.

Yes, some conversations among the men are highly personal and touching; but the moments are fleeting, making the show feel more like a well-crafted, visually sumptuous 3D history lesson – with occasional musical interludes.

Indeed, the cast’s spare, haunting, men's chorus harmonies on songs like the show’s opener, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – marvelously led by Killer Angels’ Troubadour Ian Geers – were among my favorite moments of the show. Music director Kate Hopgood, who researched and arranged the show’s music, in addition to being the show's sound designer, affectingly gives the show some soulful scaffolding (and thus gives patrons a few goosebumps).

Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design is simple and theatrical, so that despite the play’s many locales, the only constants are a wood platform at stage right that stands in for General Lee’s (Tobin Hissong) headquarters, and a draped sheet of white fabric for projections (designed by Christine Franzen) that hangs upstage left. To establish other settings, crates get moved and stacked, so soldiers may appear to be sitting in a tree, or taking cover behind the terrain’s natural features.

Costume designer Patty Branam expertly dresses the actors in historically accurate uniforms, using a pants-and-white-shirt base that allows for several quick costume changes; and the attention paid to details like the worn, weathered look of Lee’s hat, and the way the number of buttons on a uniform indicates one's military rank, really seals the deal. Betty Thomas designed the show’s era-appropriate props, and David Allen Stoughton’s lighting design looks gauzy and occasionally spooky under cover of fog, giving Killer Angels the feel of a lived ghost story.

David Blixt does fantastic work choreographing the show’s battles, but the most arresting moment comes at the show’s climax, when an elegant and devastating bit of stagecraft conveys how Lee’s advancing Confederate troops are gutted in the final showdown.

Scenes like this, as well as the more personal, philosophical conversations that happen between men at Gettysburg, get to the heart of The Killer Angels, and director Janice L. Blixt seizes on the show’s best moments with a sure hand. And although the ensemble was strong generally, some standouts included Geers, who guides the audience through the complex story while slipping into multiple roles; Dwight Tolar as Union Col. Chamberlain, a thoughtful, dignified former schoolteacher-turned-soldier who has to make terrifying choices on the battlefield (like charging when his men run out of ammunition); Robert McLean as frustrated Confederate Lt. General Longstreet, who carries out Lee’s orders even when he knows the mission is doomed; and Hissong, who makes Lee a well-intentioned leader who’s so set on ending the war that his judgment about how to best achieve that is compromised.

Civil War buffs will likely swoon at The Killer Angels, as will fans of Shaara’s book (or the film adaptation, Gettysburg); and MSF’s overall execution is impressive and solid. But history dilettantes looking to get lost in a gripping story may instead just feel generally lost.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

The Killer Angels continues through Sunday, August 14 at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill, 50400 Cherry Hill Road, Canton, MI. For tickets, visit

Penny Seats Theatre presents Xanadu


You have to believe we are magic in Penny Seats's Xanadu.

You have to believe we are magic in Penny Seats's Xanadu.

Sometimes, you actively avoid re-visiting the most beloved TV shows and movies of your youth, because you know in your gut that the adult, more critical version of yourself will see nothing but flaws.

Yet when a witty playwright like Douglas Carter Beane (“The Little Dog Laughed,” “Lysistrata Jones,” “As Bees in Honey Drown”) adapts one of your favorite childhood movies – Xanadu, now being staged by Penny Seats Theatre – you get the best of both worlds. Yes, Beane affectionately mocks the campy film musical’s laughable absurdity, but he also unabashedly grants us permission to re-visit it, as well as its still-appealing ‘80s score (by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar).

For those of you who, for some reason, didn’t hold a cassette recorder up to the TV as Xanadu played on your family’s jerry-rigged cable system - ahem - here’s the story: frustrated Venice Beach artist Sonny Malone (Matt Pecek) is about to give up when Kira (Paige Martin) rolls into his life on a pair of skates. She’s a muse, one of 9 Greek sister goddesses who inspire artists, so she guides Sonny toward his dream: a roller disco that’s also an arts showplace. Naturally.

But when Sonny becomes business partners with a rich, older man (Roy Sexton) from Kira’s past, and Kira’s jealous sisters (Allison Simmons and Kasey Donnelly) decide to intervene to bring the upstart down, Sonny’s roller disco dream hangs in the balance.

Penny Seats’s outdoor production (in West Park) struggled mightily with sound issues on opening night. The actors’ mics were hit-and-miss, which meant that some lines (and jokes) got lost; ensemble numbers, particularly near the beginning, never quite gelled, vocally; and the show’s band – situated on the West Park band shell stage, a good distance behind where the action unfolds (which may have been one source of the problem) – often sounded pretty rough and out of sync, shifting tempos and struggling to align with the performers.

This is one reason why it’s particularly tough to stage a musical outdoors, of course. It’s harder for the performers and the musicians to hear and listen to each other, and focusing and balancing the sound is a challenge.

But that wasn’t the only difficulty facing Penny Seats in regard to this show. As the program notes, Xanadu's original director had to leave the production two weeks into rehearsal, so a number of local theater artists (R. MacKenzie Lewis, and Thalia Schramm and Matthew Brennan from Dexter’s Encore Theatre) pitched in to help direct the show, and an ensemble performer (Sebastian Gerstner) stepped in as choreographer.

Gerstner’s choreography is appropriately sassy and fun, and Ginny Reiche’s flowy costumes for the muses pop with color. Given the constraints of the open, outdoor performance space, some exits and entrances feel awkward; but using nothing more than a few free-standing columns, a phone booth facade, and a similarly-sized set piece with Sonny’s chalk drawing of the muses, cast members perform costume changes – and get into and out of roller skates – with impressive alacrity.

Martin looked a little shaky on her skates at times, but she generally has a ball playing golden-haired, favored-child Kira (known as Clio to her sisters and father Zeus), who glides dramatically across the stage each time she pronounces her own name, and adopts an Australian accent by way of a disguise – but mostly because Olivia Newton-John, the original movie’s star, had one. Martin’s well-cast with Pecek, who charmingly conveys Sonny’s dimwitted-but-sweet worldview while also providing solid vocals. Finally, Simmons’s quirky delivery gives her accomplice role added comic oomph, and Gerstner gets bonus points for flinging Martin over his shoulder on cue while donning a Pegasus head. (You heard me.)

Some of Xanadu's sound issues will likely get worked out as the run continues, but opening night felt like a show that wasn’t quite ready for public consumption yet – perhaps because of all the behind-the-scenes challenges previously mentioned.

But even while the production team progresses and makes fixes through the show’s run, there’s no denying the charming silliness of the material itself. The pop score still feels infectious, and the silly, warm-hearted goofiness of Beane’s book provides a temporary respite from the bad news pouring in from every part of the world just now. No, Xanadu won’t cure what ails us these days; but being able to giggle at a 1980s roller disco dream for 80 minutes is nonetheless a kind of comfort.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Xanadu has shows at 7 pm Thursday through Saturday now until July 30 at the West Park Bandshell. Tickets are available online.

Review: Kate DiCamillo packs the Downtown Library on Sunday


Kate DiCamillo brought some tales of despereaux-tion to the Downtown Library on Sunday.

Kate DiCamillo brought some tales of despereaux-tion to the Downtown Library on Sunday.

Bestselling, award-winning children’s author Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie, Flora & Ulysses, The Tale of Despereaux) drew a few hundred excited fans – clutching books as if they were treasures – to the Ann Arbor District Library's Downtown Library on Sunday afternoon; and she not only read from her new novel Raymie Nightingale, but self-deprecatingly shared the reason for her “late start” as a writer.

“When I was in college, I had a professor who said to me, in my senior year, … ‘You have a certain facility with words. You should consider graduate school,’” said DiCamillo, dressed in sneakers, black jeans, and a black V-neck T-shirt, with a pink long sleeved shirt wrapped around her waist. “That’s exactly what he said, but I was 20 years old, and so, I heard something entirely different. I thought he was speaking to me in code, and that he was saying, ‘Wow. You are super-talented. I think that you’re probably the next Flannery O’Connor.’ So I thought, ‘Why should I bother with graduate school if I’m really talented? I’m just going to go be a writer.’ So what I did was, I used my mother’s JC Penney credit card and I got a black turtleneck, and then I was set to go. I just sat around, wearing the black turtleneck, looking bored and disdainful and having people go, ‘Oh, that’s Kate. She writes.’ I did that for 10 years. … You can dream all you want and have great story ideas in your head, but eventually, you’re going to have to sit down and figure out a way to do the work. And I didn’t figure that out until I was 30.”

DiCamillo’s now established her regimen, obviously, having published about 20 books over the course of 20 years. The author spoke about how a novel now generally takes a year and a half – working through 7-8 complete drafts – for her to write, and she advised aspiring writers to read as much as they can. But the suggestions didn’t end there.

“Another thing you have to do is find out a way to make a deal with yourself about how you’re going to do the work of writing. For me, it’s two pages a day. I’m not offering that as a directive, but saying that’s what I have found works for me. So I make myself write two pages a day, whether I feel like it or not. And guess what? I never feel like it. So what I do is, I do it first thing in the morning. I come downstairs, I pour the coffee, I go right in there and write the two pages before I can talk myself out of it. And I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve got a voice in my head that goes, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. You can’t write a book. This is never going to work.’ I have found that that voice sleeps in ’til about 9 o’clock. So I get up at 5:30, 6 o’clock, … and when that voice shows up to say, ‘You fraud, you don’t know what you’re doing,’ I’ve already done the important work.”

With an easy, approachable charm, DiCamillo – her hair a gently messy, white-blond cloud – answered kids’ and adults’ questions for nearly an hour on Sunday, addressing her characters’ often-odd names (“The only explanation I have is, I am a strange person, and I grew up in the South”); how she doesn’t write from an outline (“It’s a terrifying way to write, but I find that if I know what’s going to happen, I have no interest in writing the story”); how she struggled to write following the huge success of her first novel, Because of Winn-Dixie (“I knew I was going to have to go in a completely different direction, and so, enter the mouse with extremely large ears [Despereaux”); why authors and illustrators usually have no communication with each other until after a book’s publication (“It was long my suspicion that authors are crazy, and artists are even crazier, so why should we have them talking to each other? I ran that by the publisher, and they said, ‘Yeah, that’s it’”); and how the experience of her father’s abandonment when she was 6 shaped her and made Raymie Nightingale – in which a girl enters a pageant in hopes that a win would convince her father to come home – one of her most personal books (“(Raymie’s) the kind of kid that I was: worried and hopeful and watching all the time and flexing my toes. … That’s as close as I’ve ever come to putting myself in a book”).

One of the scores of kids seated on the floor asked what drove DiCamillo to write stories.

“Part of it is being a reader and living for books,” DiCamillo said. “And you get told those stories, and you feel like you want to tell a story back. And part of it is, as hard as writing is for me, when I’m writing a story, I’m connecting to the world and to myself, and it helps me understand things. It makes the world make more sense if I’m writing.”

Indeed, one of the most sad and funny moments of DiCamillo’s talk arose when a fan asked where Flora & Ulysses’ surreal plot – focusing on a squirrel that’s sucked up into a vacuum cleaner and gains super powers and writes poetry – came from.

“My mother passed away in 2009,” DiCamillo said. “She had a tank Electrolux vacuum cleaner that she loved. And in the last year of her life, she said to me many times, ‘What’s going to happen to the vacuum cleaner after I’m gone?’ I kept on saying, ‘I’ll take the vacuum cleaner. Don’t worry about the vacuum cleaner.’ … She passed away, and I did what I promised. I took the vacuum cleaner, but I had to put it in my garage, though, because I’m allergic to cats, and my mother had the world’s most evil cat named Mildew. … So I put the vacuum cleaner in the garage, and every time I pulled into the garage, it would make me feel really sad, and make me miss my mother. So that’s one place where the story started. And the second thing that happened is, the spring after my mother died, a squirrel was on my front steps, draped in this very dramatic fashion and clearly unwell.”

DiCamillo called a close friend who said she’d come over and “whack him over the head.”

“I’m on the cell phone, right next to the squirrel, as she’s saying this, so I start to back away, because I don’t want him to hear it,” DiCamillo continued. “So I go in the side door, and I look out the front door, and guess what? He did hear it. He was gone. He clearly thought, ‘There’s better ways to die. I’m going elsewhere.’ So it made me feel sad, and it made me remember a wonderful essay that E. B. White wrote called ‘The Death of a Pig.’ … Before Charlotte’s Web came out, he was thinking about how to save a pig’s life, so I started thinking about how to save a squirrel’s life … And I combined the squirrel with the vacuum cleaner in the garage, and that’s where the story came from.”

Finally, an adult in the crowd asked about DiCamillo’s recent reference (in an interview) to a White quote that goes: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” The fan asked DiCamillo to talk about the quote further in light of recent, tragic events.

“I think that we need stories more than we ever have needed stories, and we need to collect around stories and read stories out loud together,” said DiCamillo. “Stories teach empathy. You learn to think about what the other person is feeling, and it is so necessary to imagine yourself into somebody else’s shoes. And I think we need that so much right now.”

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

Review: Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare in the Arb


Review: Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare in the Arb

Love's Labours, lost in the Arb.

While watching Shakespeare in the Arb’s Saturday evening production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which wrapped up its run this past weekend, I realized that it’s kind of the Elizabethan drama ancestor of a famous Seinfeld episode called, “The Contest.”

Why? Because in both stories, four characters make a pledge to each other to suppress sexual desires (and its expression), and in both stories, they fail miserably – and pretty immediately.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, begins when Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Will Arnuk), decrees that he and three companions – Lords Berowne (Michael Shapiro), Dumaine (Nicholas Menagan), and Longaville (Jackson Tucker-Meyer) – will dedicate themselves to scholarly study for three years, sleeping little, fasting often, and abstaining from any contact with women, so as to not be distracted.

Shortly after signing the pact, though, Ferdinand’s reminded that the Princess of France (Clare Brennan) is on her way to Navarre, accompanied by three ladies-in-waiting: Rosaline (Amy Robbins), Maria (Rebecca Godwin), and Katherine (Maia Gersten). When the King greets the royal party to explain why they must make camp outside his court, he falls in love with the princess, of course, and his friends become smitten with her companions, leaving the men scrambling to convey their affections to the women while also hiding it from their compatriots.

Shakespeare in the Arb shows are always “traveling” productions, so instead of watching a series of set changes, the audience gets up and moves to a new part of Nichols Arboretum. This is a double-edged sword, of course, because while it gives the players a great variety of natural backdrops within which to play, the logistics of getting a couple hundred audience members from one area of the park to another – separating the ground-sitters up front from the chair-sitters behind – more than a half dozen times can bloat the show’s running time, compromise momentum, and grow unwieldy (audience members at Saturday’s performance seemed to get a smidge grumpier/more impatient with each transplant).

Even so, the unique opportunity to marry classic material with outdoor elements is part of what has made Shakespeare in the Arb a magical, beloved, 16 year old tradition. For watching Ferdinand and his friends hide in the trees as they’re each revealed, one-by-one, to be composing love letters, and seeing the Princess leading her party away, in mourning, far off in the distance as a scene among the men plays out, makes Shakespeare’s text come alive in beautiful, arresting ways.

Not that Love’s Labour’s Lost is among the bard’s best plays – far from it. Like a romantic comedy that doesn’t quite know when to quit throwing obstacles in love’s path, the three hour play drags most heavily in its second half. Once the men confess to each other their love for the women, they decide to abandon the oath and visit the royal party in disguise (according to the text, as Muscovites, but in Kate Mendeloff’s Arb production, they all looked more like The Princess Bride’s Dread Pirate Roberts); but the women get wind of this scheme and play a trick of their own, disguising themselves so that each man professes his love to the wrong woman. And then, when all deceptions have finally been revealed – and it feels like the end is near – the schoolmaster and others present a theatrical pageant, drawing things out further, and the Princess receives news from home that changes everything.

Gersten made the princess a wise, strong and mischievous woman – definitely one of the best, most clearly defined performances of the night – while Robbins’ Rosaline was an ideal, charismatic foil for the equally wily and witty Shapiro. And as the cast’s youngest participant, Elijah Hatcher Kay charmed the socks off the audience as Moth.

Mendeloff incorporates a fun bit of swordplay and dance into the show, and one of her strengths is that her actors always speak Shakespeare’s poetry with a clear sense of meaning and purpose, so that those audience members largely uninitiated in the ways of the bard (including young people) can pretty easily follow the narrative.

So despite the fact that Love’s Labour’s Lost is ultimately the lesser work of a master, Shakespeare in the Arb managed to make its production – which played to many sold out crowds – the occasion for a pretty nice night in the park.

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.