REVIEW: Slipstream’s ‘A Night of Stars, with Tennessee Williams,’ now at Theatre Nova, is a small wonder

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 11.54.53 AM.pngA go-to hypothetical question, especially among the word-nerd set, is: “What three writers, alive or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?”

The play “A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams,” by U-M student Maxim Vinogradov – produced by Ferndale’s Slipstream Theatre Initiative, but now on stage (as a guest production) at Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova – makes a pretty solid case for including the troubled playwright of “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the table.

Why? Because between the stream of not-yet-A-list stars (Paul Newman, Marlon Brando) and super-famous actresses (Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn) that flocked to Williams, hoping to be cast in his plays and films, and the more established artists (Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Greta Garbo) that composed his entourage, Williams became a sun at the center of a glitzy galaxy of his own making. Continue reading

REVIEW: Ferndale’s Slipstream Theatre Initiative gets absurd via ‘Lost in 3 Pines’

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 11.24.18 PM.pngThe title of Slipstream Theatre Initiative’s latest world premiere production, “Lost in Three Pines,” by Hopwood Award-winning U-M student Maxim Vinogradov, is drawn from a Russian idiom that means: to lose one’s way in broad daylight.

So it’s no surprise that the play will leave you feeling foggy and disoriented. This is, in fact, Vinogradov’s aim.

“Pines” – directed by Bailey Boudreau – begins with a handful of characters who stand in isolated rectangles of light on a darkened stage, facing the audience even when they’re speaking to each other. (Ryan Ernst is the show’s technical director.) Lyuba (Tiaja Sabrie) is the wife of advertising exec Misha (Brenton Herwat), and she must field calls from Misha’s confused, aging mother (Linda Rabin Hammell) while also preparing to host a dinner for Misha’s arrogant boss Volkov (Ryan Ernst) and his cheerful wife Mourka (Mandy Logsdon).

This part of “Pines” has the feel of an absurdist feminist play, since bright-eyed student Zhenka’s (David Wilson) simple, typical-small-talk question to Lubya, “What do you do?”, thrusts Lubya into an existential quagmire. She questions if she, or anyone around her, is real, and contemplates the purpose and meaning of her stultifying, domestically bland existence – which sends her (and us) ever further down the rabbit hole. Continue reading

My Pulp preview of Brass Tacks Ensemble’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s ‘The Hairy Ape’

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 1.29.27 PM.pngWhen someone “gets down to brass tacks,” they’re focusing on the essentials — and this is precisely what an Ann Arbor-based theater troupe, The Brass Tacks Ensemble, aims to do.

The company’s sets, props, and costumes are usually spare and simple in hopes of putting the spotlight on a play’s story and inviting audience members to fill in blanks with their imagination.

BTE’s latest offering, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (playing August 2-4 at Kerrytown Concert House), will be in keeping with the company’s vision.

“Right now, we have five theater blocks on stage, serving various functions, and some pretty basic black and white costumes,” said director Isaac Ellis. READ THE REST HERE

My latest WEMU-FM 89.1 Art & Soul segment with Lisa Barry, and Nashbash’s Judy Banker

Screen Shot 2018-07-31 at 9.57.04 PM.pngThis week, “Art and Soul” is about the local performing arts scene.  89.1 WEMU’s Lisa Barry is joined by local writer and reviewer Jenn McKee and an organizer and performing from the upcoming Nashbash Music Festival in Ann Arbor, Judy Banker.

The 12th annual Nashbash Music Festival is coming up August 12th in Kerrytown in Ann Arbor.  There will be a lot of music and food and activities for the entire family.  The music is described as eclectic with a “tinge” of commercial Nashville sound with folk and alt-country music as well.  Banker says it focuses on the quality of songwriting.  The music festival is free, and there is an “afterbash party” that happens as well. LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE 8 MINUTE SEGMENT HERE

My Pulp preview of Theatre Nova’s Michigan Playwrights Festival

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 9.05.05 PM.png“Sometimes a play calls out for a staged reading,” said Carla Milarch, Theatre Nova’s founding artistic director.

This is precisely why the Ann Arbor-based company — which specializes in producing new work and is located in the Yellow Barn on Huron St. — is hosting its Michigan Playwrights Festival for a third year.

“We’ve configured it differently over the years,” said Milarch. “At first, we crammed all the plays into one big week. But we tend to find a lot of plays we really like and want to see read, so we decided to break it down into two installments. … We pick 10 plays and space the festival out so we have one week in the fall and one in the spring. This [July 25-29] will be the second installment of last year’s submissions.”

To gather scripts for consideration, Theatre Nova puts out a general call for plays by Michigan-based playwrights, but the company also reaches out to more established writers to see if they have a new or in-progress project that might benefit from a reading.

“We have a good blend of veteran playwrights and writers who may be new to playwriting,” said Milarch. READ THE REST HERE

My Concentrate story on how Ann Arbor locals use (and feel about) Nextdoor

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 9.00.01 PM.pngThe basic idea behind Nextdoor – a San Francisco-based, hyper-localized social network that made its U.S. debut in 2011 – inevitably seems like an ironic Digital Age joke. Once, people got so lost in their screens that they no longer got to know their neighbors, so they went online to meet and communicate with them …

Absurd as it may sound, it’s a pretty apt description of Nextdoor. And although the company releases little in the way of usage statistics, scores of neighborhoods in the Ann Arbor area have active Nextdoor communities, suggesting that the site is pretty popular here.

So has Nextdoor – with its daily rundown of ephemera like service provider recommendations, lost pet notices, and item giveaways (and requests) – altered locals’ sense of their neighborhoods and the people who live there? Has it cultivated harmony or discord between residents? READ THE REST HERE

My Destination Ann Arbor post about Saline Celtic Festival, happening July 13-14

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 4.43.01 PM.pngAs big as the Saline Celtic Festival has become – drawing as many as 4,500 people each year to this small Washtenaw County town (approximately 9,000 residents) – it started small.

Like, picnic small.

“(The Saline Celtic Festival) began when our sister city of Brecon, Wales … sent a delegation to visit Saline,” said Celtic Festival Executive Committee member Terri Murphy. “So it started as just a picnic in the park, with a tent, some fiddlers, and a couple of bagpipers.”

Now, however, as we head into the 23rd annual SCF (happening July 13-14, 2018), it’s hard to take in all that’s on offer. Celtic dance competitions and workshops; jousts on horseback; artist booths and demonstrations; Michigan craft beer and food vendors; live music (from Celtic rock and roll to fiddlers and pipers); culturally distinctive events like the haggis hurl, caber toss, sheep herding, and more; performances by Ann Arbor’s Ring of Steel Action Theatre and Stunt Troupe; and a kid’s area with craft opportunities, story time with Merida (from “Brave”), games, and activities.

Plus, there’s what every Celtic event seems to be begging for: water-dwelling mythical creatures. SCFs most famous (and original) one is called Millie the Mill Pond Monster – seemingly a distant relative of Nessie the Loch Ness Monster – but these days, Millie has some company with her in the Saline River. READ THE REST HERE

My latest WEMU-FM 89.1 Art & Soul segment with Lisa Barry (and ElvisFest Director Mary Decker)

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 4.46.14 PM.pngThis week, Art and Soul is about the performing arts in our area.  89.1 WEMU’S Lisa Barry is joined by local writer and reviewer Jenn McKee and the director of the Michigan ElvisFest organization Mary Decker to talk about some of the performing arts opportunities happening now and in the near future. Listen to the eight minute segment here.

REVIEW (Pulp): Encore Theatre’s ‘West Side Story’ looks slick, and feels a bit too timely

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The cast of Encore Theatre’s “West Side Story.” (Photo by Michele Anliker Photography)

Not all that long ago, West Side Story seemed kind of quaint.

We’d all watch this classic, 1950s stage musical twist on Romeo and Juliet, built on the talent of four iconic artists (Jerome Robbins, concept; Arthur Laurents, book; Leonard Bernstein, music; Stephen Sondheim, lyrics), and think, “So many of the characters in this story are openly, unapologetically racist and anti-immigrant! I’m so glad we’ve evolved from this.”

Cut to the recent travel ban; and campaign promises about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; and white supremacists proudly marching in Charlottesville last summer; and the U.S.’s short-lived, limited aid for American citizens living in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria last fall; and the children of detained migrant families being separated from their parents.

So “West Side Story” — playing through August 12 at Dexter’s Encore Theatre — which had always felt a little dated to me, seems almost unnervingly timely now. READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW (Pulp): Penny Seats’ outdoor production of ‘The Gravedigger’ offers fresh exploration of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story

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David Galido and Robert Schorr in Penny Seats Theatre Company’s West Park production of Joseph Zettlemaier’s “The Gravedigger: A Frankenstein Story.”

Penny Seats Theatre Company’s two-show 2018 summer season — cheekily called “Hail to the Victors” — consists of two different takes on Mary Shelley’s classic horror story. Next month, PSTC will present Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan’s stage musical adaptation of Brooks’ 1974 film comedy Young Frankenstein, but the company first kicked things off this past weekend with a two-hour production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger, directed by Julia Glander and Lauren M. London.

The story takes place in the 1700s, and begins as Victor Frankenstein (Daniel A. Helmer) is purchasing body parts from a drunk, limping gravedigger named Kurt (Robert Schorr) — but this is merely a preface to the main story, which is focused on the creature Victor creates with these pieces.

This monster, who gives himself the name Anton (David Galido), seeks nothing but death in Kurt’s graveyard, but instead finds unexpected friendships — both with Kurt and an outcast gypsy named Nadya (Annie Dilworth). By digging for Kurt by night, Anton starts to imagine, for the first time in his short life, how he might forge an existence that features both companionship and moments of joy. But when Victor comes looking to destroy Anton — who, when immediately abandoned by his horrified maker at his “birth,” angrily murdered all the people Victor loved — the two must each face the consequences of their actions, in the form of each other.

Penny Seats’ summer productions happen outdoors, in Ann Arbor’s West Park (in front of the band shell) — and perhaps not surprisingly, some plays succeed more in this setting than others. The Gravedigger, particularly as night falls, works better than most. Yes, part of that is due to Tyler Chinn’s lovely lighting design (which obviously becomes more critical in the final scenes), and Will Myers’ sound design — three cheers for good mics and a well-calibrated sound system, so we can hear the dialogue! — but it’s also because, given the story’s historic horror vibe, The Gravedigger ends up achieving the feel of a ghost story told ’round the campfire. (Just remember to bring a blanket or jacket along; the temperature drops pretty dramatically with the sun.) READ THE REST HERE