Encore Theatre’s "Once on This Island" combines lilting songs, dynamic dancing, and caustic social commentary

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

A woman dancing on stage during Encore Theatre's Once on This Island. She is bathed in red-pink light.

Photo by Michele Anliker.

Deep bass drums beat out a rhythm inviting people to dance. They dance to keep alive their spirits and their culture. They dance with joy, but life is never easy, even on a Caribbean island—especially when the island is Hispaniola and the country is Haiti.

Haiti is a troubled land. It has been hit hard by earthquakes, hurricanes, and a long history of unstable governments. 

But the people of Haiti are resilient and fight back time and again. They also are in a divided country. There is a racial divide between the wealthy mixed-race elites and the struggling peasant class. 

Once on This Island is based on Rosa Guy’s novel My Love, My Love. Lynn Ahrens’ book and lyrics for the musical Once on This Island combine a love story with a caustic take on class in the Caribbean. Stephen Flaherty composed the music that combines Caribbean beats for lively dances and soaring pop music for plaintive songs of yearning.  

The Encore Musical Theatre presents an energetic, even passionate, production of the Ahrens-Flaherty musical through March 12 at the Maas Performance Center in Dexter.

An Honest Mistake: Purple Rose Theatre’s “Human Error” Uses Comedy and Relationships to Bridge the Nation’s Growing Political Divide

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The cast of "Human Error" at the Purple Rose

Two couples unexpectedly form a lifelong connection in the Purple Rose Theatre comedy Human Error. Photo taken from the Purple Rose Theatre's Facebook page.

It’s no secret, this is a divided country. The chasm has widened between liberal and conservative, rural and urban, and religious and not so much. We don’t talk to each other; we scream at each other.

Playwright Eric Pfeffinger takes this disturbing truth and imagines what would happen if right meets left under unusual circumstances in Human Error, a comedy having its Michigan debut at the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.

Madelyn and Keenan, described as NPR-listening, latte-sipping blue staters, have gone to a fertility clinic in hopes of starting a family. Unfortunately, as a nervous doctor tells them, their fertilized embryo has been implanted in another woman’s uterus.

Heather and Jim, described as small-government, churchgoing, card-carrying NRA members, agree to meet with Madelyn and Keenan, and after discovering they don’t have horns, Heather agrees to give the liberal couple the baby when it’s born. 

Director Lynch R. Travis and his uniformly excellent cast do a good job of balancing Pfeffinger’s mix of broad comedy and heartfelt connections. The set is simple and spare. White chairs become a car, storage bins, and love seats. The stage backdrop is a set of curved gray-white walls for easy entries and exits. The audience is not distracted by scenery from the point the playwright hopes to make.

U-M students go back to the Victorian era in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

The cast of "The Importance of Being Earnest"

The cast of The Importance of Being Earnest includes Rhett Hemingway, Caleb McArthur (standing), Caleb Quezon (seated), Luke Manikus (standing), Mikey Fabisch (seated), Brendan Dallaire (standing), Angeleia Ordonez (standing) and Stephanie Prestage (seated). Photo courtesy of U-M's School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

It was still early in rehearsals and cast members were beginning to master an unfamiliar language as well as a different set of values in a distant time. It was the ’90s when a queen reigned and defined an age.

No, not the 1990s, the 1890s.

That’s when Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest made its debut. 

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance will present Wilde’s giddy and ever-popular comedy February 16-19 at the Arthur Miller Theatre. 

Every year musical theater majors at the University of Michigan perform in a non-musical production. It’s all part of making theater students at ease in both musical and non-musical productions and honing their skills.

Production director Vincent Cardinal, a professor of musical theater at the University of Michigan, has directed and produced scores of productions across the country and is also a noted playwright. Cardinal said Wilde makes it easier for the actors to get into the Victorian era.

“You’re never in better hands than someone like Oscar Wilde,” Cardinal said. “Wilde is going to give them great language, really great characters, and they’ll be really good. When not solving problems, they’re becoming really good at their craft.”

Jen Silverman’s absurdist dark comedy "Bonnets (how ladies of good breeding are induced to murder)" is a feisty feminist fable

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

The Bonnets cast in rehearsal. Photo by Pricilla Lindsay.

University of Michigan's Bonnets cast in rehearsal. Photo by Pricilla Lindsay.

Jen Silverman’s Bonnets (how ladies of good breeding are induced to murder) is so violent that it took a fight director and two assistants to choreograph it. Death by poison arrow, chainsaw, Ninja—it’s all there for your delight and horror. Even God, a character in the play who opens every scene, is powerless to stop it.

The chorus of one song in Bonnets goes like this:

Chop, chop, chop, chop, chop, chop
We killed a man a-piece and we just couldn't stop!
Glug, glug, glug, glug, munch, munch,
Join me for tea-time, you might not live to lunch.

Will anyone survive in the dark comedy that runs February 16-19 at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre?

Pricilla Lindsay, who directs University of Michigan theater students, says the play shifts between three eras. “Silverman picked three of the many times men have subjugated women—Salem in 1690, England in the 1890s, and France in the 1600’s, during the reign of Louis XIV. All three periods are not special but indicative of women being moved to the side. In our play, women wreak havoc and get revenge by actually murdering.”

These women don’t stop at killing their abusers.

“A young girl who is having an affair with a married man accuses his wife of being a witch,” Lindsay says. After his wife hangs, the man decides to leave for Boston—without his young paramour. ”You’re dead to me,” she declares.

In this play, that can only mean one thing.

Ann Arbor Musical Theater Works Brings The Cult Musical “Moby Dick” to the Children’s Creative Center

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

The musical adaptation of "Moby Dick" aims to save an all-girls school from bankruptcy by staging the American classic in the school’s swimming pool.

The musical adaptation of Moby Dick aims to save an all-girls school from bankruptcy by staging the American classic in the school’s swimming pool. Photo taken from Ann Arbor Musical Theater Works' Facebook page.

What’s weirder than learning that there’s a stage musical adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

Learning there are two, actually, one from 1990 and another from 2019.

And the Moby Dick adaptation that came first, which includes a book by Robert Longden along with music and lyrics by Longden and Hereward Kaye, is the one that local theater artist Ron Baumanis has been jonesing to stage via his company, Ann Arbor Musical Theater Works

“Whenever I see a show, whether it’s on Broadway or the West End, I always leave thinking, ‘Would I want to do it or not,’” said Baumanis, whose Moby Dick production begins its two-week run February 9 at The Children’s Creative Center.

“When I saw this in the West End, by intermission, I thought, ‘I’ve absolutely got to do this show someday.’ … I was drawn to the weird mix of the show’s all-out hilarious comedy with British pantomime and a lot of burlesque elements.”

Carnal Letters: UMS's No Safety Net series closed with two Rachel Mars plays that explore the expression of desire

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Rachel Mars of Our Carnal Hearts and Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters

Rachel Mars explores the concept of desire and how it's expressed in her two productions, Our Carnal Hearts and Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters. Photo taken from Rachel Mars' website.

If there’s one common thematic thread between British theater artist Rachel Mars’ two shows, Our Carnal Hearts and Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters, it’s desire and the ways in which it’s expressed.

Both shows wrapped up UMS’s No Safety Net event series with Our Carnal Hearts quickly assuming the feel of a darkly comedic, secular church service complete with a small choir on a bare stage. It takes envy as its focus and explores how our ego reflexively ties itself in knots when a peer or loved one succeeds.

Mars even has the audience say, in unison, “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you!” in the same fake-enthusiastic tone we’ve all employed at one time or another in the interest of appearing like an adult instead of a petulant child.

Presented in the round, Our Carnal Hearts features a different singer—Rhiannon Armstrong, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, Kelly Burke, and Louise Mothersole—seated in the middle front row of each side. It also combines cheeky musical asides composed and arranged by Mothersole, short audience interactions, and storytelling to plumb the question: why does another’s triumph inevitably make us feel small or less than?

Searching for the Right Words: Julia Cho's award-winning "The Language Archive" makes its Michigan debut at Theatre Nova

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

A photo of Rick Sperling and Monica Spencer on stage for The Language Archive.

Rick Sperling and Monica Spencer star in the Michigan premiere of The Language Archive, which is at Theatre Nova through February 26. Photo by Sean Carter.

When Julia Cho read about dying languages, she wondered if losing a language meant something larger—losing a whole way of looking at the world.

In her whimsical play The Language Archive, Cho explores the questions: Do languages that develop between people in a country (or a marriage) die when the participants die? Does the culture die when the language does?    

First produced in 2009 at The South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, California, and then in 2010 at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City, The Language Archive makes its Michigan debut at Ann Arbor's Theatre Nova, February 3-26, directed by Carla Milarch. (The play won the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded to a new English-language play by a woman.)

“There are sixty-nine hundred languages in the world. More than half are expected to die within the next century,” says George, a linguist and the play’s protagonist. In addition to his native English, George speaks eight languages including Greek, Cantonese, Esperanto, and Elloway—the last of which is a dying fictional tongue.

"Are we not drawn onward to new erA" Encourages Understanding the Climate Crisis From an Unconventional Perspective

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

UMS' "Are we not drawn onward to new erA" addresses the climate crisis in unconventional ways.

UMS' Are we not drawn onward to new erA examines the possibility of undoing the damage people have done to earth in one night. Photo taken from UMS's Facebook page.

A few people quietly left the UMS presentation of Are we not drawn onward to new erA mid-performance while many others stayed and took part in a spirited standing ovation.

Conceived and performed by Belgian theater collective Ontroerend Goed, it’s just one of those shows: an experimental, challenging piece of theatrical performance art that you either embrace or reject.

And your reaction likely depended on your capacity for patience and ambiguity, which was initially tested when deciding whether or not to purchase a ticket for the January 20 or January 21 performance.

By way of a vague show description, the UMS site reads, “You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube. You can’t remake a shattered vase. Or undo the damage that humans have inflicted on the Earth. But what if you could—in just one night?” (When asking my husband if he wanted to accompany me to the show, he asked, “What is it about?” “Uh … repair, I guess?” He didn’t come.)

Selina Thompson's “salt: dispersed” is a powerful document of her monologue retracing the transatlantic slave route forced on her ancestors

FILM & VIDEO THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Writer and performer Selina Thompson sits on a stage in a white dress with a large rock of salt next to her.

Selina Thompson's monologue salt and its filmed adaptation salt: dispersed document her story of taking a cargo ship across the ocean to retrace the journey of her enslaved ancestors. Photo courtesy of UMS. 

In 2016, Selina Thompson, an interdisciplinary artist based in Birmingham, England, went on a journey to retrace the path of her ancestors. That path was that of the transatlantic slave trade.

The writer and performer recounts her trip in salt, a monologue she first performed in 2017, and now in salt: dispersed, the film adaptation of her stage presentation. UMS is streaming the film for free through February 13 as part of its Renegade Festival's No Safety Net series, which focuses on theater and art installations.

Thompson's mission started in the U.K., boarding a cargo ship with another Black female artist, and discovering a story so powerful it takes the air out of your lungs. 

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's take on "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" is a mystery that explores a spectrum of emotions and relationships

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Christopher (played by Drew Shaw) feeds his dog while sitting on a couch in the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Drew Shaw (along with Rosie the dog) stars as Christopher in the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo by Tom Steppe.

Cassie Mann was a fan of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and was excited when Simon Stephens' stage version became a hit in London and New York.

“I went to New York and saw the Broadway version and just loved it,” she said. “It’s got so many elements to it. It’s a family drama, it’s got humor, it’s a mystery, it’s got themes of perseverance and it’s a good character-driven play and yet it’s got a love of fun stuff that goes along with it.”

Mann wanted to direct a production for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre and was all set to stage it in 2021, when the show was canceled because of the pandemic. This pause gave Mann a chance to delve a little deeper into the play and its unusual perspective.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time begins as a mystery. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone discovers the corpse of a neighbor’s dog and sets out to discover who murdered the dog. Though never explicitly remarked on in Haddon’s novel or Stephens’ play, Christopher is on the autistic spectrum. The story of this mystery and what comes after is told from Christopher’s perspective as a sort of therapy suggested by his teacher, Siobhan.

The play is a family drama revolving around Christopher’s troubled relations with his parents. But it’s also a celebration of his determination, his wit, and his mathematical genius.

Mann read some books on autism and one book in particular influenced her approach to the play.