REVIEW: Theatre Nova’s ‘Constellations’ explores one couple’s alternate realities

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Meghan VanArsdalen and Forrest Hejkal in Theatre Nova’s production of Nick Payne’s “Constellations.” (Photograph by Jee-Hak Pinsoneault)

Neurotics pore over events large and small, considering every way that things could have gone differently, and how things might happen in the future.

So in a way, Nick Payne’s two-hander play “Constellations,” now playing at Theatre Nova, felt like familiar territory to me. (Ahem.)

But instead of neurosis, the basis for exploring two romantically linked characters’ possible choices, actions, and responses in a handful of situations is theoretical physics – specifically, the notion of multiverses, where “every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” So although we only see about a half dozen interactions play out between two people, over the course of seventy minutes, we see different versions of each one – including one performed entirely in sign language – and no particular take is more “accurate” nor more “real” than any other.

Marianne (Meghan VanArsdalen) is a spunky astrophysicist who works at Cambridge when she meets a sweet, married (except when he’s not) beekeeper named Roland (Forrest Hejkal) at a barbecue – where it’s a clear night. Or it’s raining. The two fall into a relationship, where he cheats on her, or she cheats on him. They meet up again sometime later at a ballroom dance class, in preparation for a wedding – of a friend, or for Roland’s nuptials, or for Marianne’s – and the two end up going out for a drink. In some universes, Roland surprises Marianne at work one day with an endearingly odd proposal that only an apiarist could write. But when Marianne receives a dire diagnosis – or the “all clear” – she and Roland end up facing hard choices of another kind. Continue reading

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Preview: Encore Theatre’s ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ promises a rockin’ good time

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Josh White, Marek Sapieyevski, Stephen Shore, and Alex Canty, the four male leads in Encore Theatre’s production of “Million Dollar Quartet.”

There are some moments in history when you might wish to be a fly on the wall, so you could watch and hear events unfold in real time.

In the history of American popular music, one of those moments would definitely be a largely spontaneous jam session that happened at Memphis’ Sun Records on December 4, 1956, when Carl Perkins was scheduled to lay down some tracks; exuberant, up-and-coming piano player Jerry Lee Lewis arrived (hired by Sun founder Sam Phillips) to back him up; Elvis Presley, already hugely famous, dropped by the studio with his girlfriend, just to visit; and Johnny Cash, who’d recently made it big, came at Phillips’ invitation.

You can’t resist wondering what this unexpected gathering of four music icons, in the early days of their careers, crammed into a small studio, was like, can you?

Neither can anyone else. Which is probably how the idea for the stage musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” now being staged at the Encore Theatre, was born.

But because the show’s characters are world-famous rock musicians, the actors who play them must have a skill set that not all musical theater performers have – namely, a rock and roll background. For the actors are also the show’s orchestra (with a couple of additions); and their vocals must be less polished, and more raw.

“A lot of people who do this show – (performing rock music) is another one of their passions, not just musical theater,” said Josh White, who plays Elvis in Encore’s production. “We’ve all been in rock bands, we’ve all played in groups. So we’re in tech week now, and we’re already jamming together, so that skill set definitely plays into it.”

This is one reason that casting MDQ can be tough; and indeed, Encore initially struggled to find the right four lead actors. But once Encore’s audition call was shared on a Facebook page for MDQ alumni (yes, that’s a thing), “one by one, the cast all came together,” said director Tobin Hissong. Continue reading

REVIEW: UMS’ presentation of ‘(I Could Go On Singing) Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ conveys its message in a wall of sound

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 9.37.00 AM.pngThe sensory overload starts before you even enter the Stamps Gallery to watch the UMS presentation of “(I Could Go On Singing) Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Specifically, noise band Okishima Island Tourest Association blasts its ear-filling, chest-thumping  audio into the space, so that hearing a sound technician’s shouted instructions about how the show will work is a challenge, to say the least.

And this sends a signal to audiences pretty immediately: FK Alexander’s performance art piece – which involves Alexander taking the hand of an audience volunteer, locking eyes with them, and singing along, against OITA’s loud, pulsing backdrop noise, to a recording of Judy Garland’s last live performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” before her death – isn’t concerned with making you comfortable.

Indeed, it’s not really about you at all. As Alexander explains in her artist statement, her art is a means for her recovery from various wounds, by way of “sensory overload together with grueling repetition and ritual.” Which sums up “(I Could Go on Singing) Over the Rainbow” pretty concisely, actually. Continue reading

REVIEW (EncoreMichigan.com): UMS presentation ‘Us/Them’ revisits a terrorist act through the eyes of children

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 10.45.21 AM.pngThe morning after seeing the opening night performance of BRONKS and Richard Jordan Productions’ Us/Them – presented by University Musical Society (as part of its three week No Safety Net theater series) – my nine year old daughter, Lily, heard about Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon’s resignation on the radio, on the heels of convicted pedophile and gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar’s sentencing. Lily listened as her parents grumbled and said, “It’s about time” in response.

“Why?” she asked. “What did she do?”

There was a pause, as there always is, while my partner and I exchanged looks, silently weighing the risks and benefits of exposing our child to humanity’s potential for cruelty and awfulness. But with Us/Them fresh in my mind, I decided to take on the struggle of providing an age-appropriate, broad-stroke explanation.

Because Us/Them is, at its core, about forging a way to meet kids halfway when it comes to talking about harrowing, painful topics like terrorism. Specifically, it tells the story, from two children’s point of view, of a nightmarish 2004 hostage incident in Beslan, Russia, which involved Chechen rebels holding twelve hundred people – mostly children, mothers, and grandmothers – inside a school for days. By the crisis’ end, more than 300 people had died. READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW (EncoreMichigan.com): Touring production of ‘Waitress’ at Wharton deserves a huge tip

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Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley, and Lenne Klingaman star in the touring production of “Waitress.”

If I could leave the touring production of Waitress a tip, it would be a whoppingly huge one, because it’s rare for me to feel so profoundly moved, while also experiencing so much joy, during the course of a show.

Inspired by Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 indie film hit of the same name – with a book by Jessie Nelson, and Tony Award-nominated music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles – the show tells the story of a small-town, pie-baking Southern waitress named Jenna (Desi Oakley) who’s fallen out of love with her insensitive, insecure husband Earl (Nick Bailey). When Jenna accidentally gets pregnant, she falls for the town’s new, charming gynecologist (Dr. Pomatter, played by Bryan Fenkart) and starts, with the support of her coworker friends (Becky, played by Charity Angel Dawson, and Dawn, played by Lenne Klingaman), to plot a baking-fueled escape from her life.

The first thing that will blow you away is Bareilles’ winning score, which achieves its storytelling ends with ebullient charm, humor, and heart, and makes itself instantly at home in your ear, courtesy of some killer song hooks. Jenna’s standing-at-the-crossroads heartstring-yanker, “She Used to Be Mine,” has become the show’s trademark number for good reason – and Oakley’s rendition soars to the Wharton’s rafters – but I drove home humming and thinking about some new favorites (“Bad Idea,” “Opening Up,” etc.). Not every pop singer/songwriter can seamlessly make the jump from Top 40 to Broadway, but Waitress leaves me anxious to see what theatrical project Bareilles might take up next. READ THE REST HERE

My American Theatre magazine story about artistic theft and social media

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 3.13.37 PM.pngImitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the old saying goes. It may be true, but it doesn’t pay the bills. And in theatre, blatant imitation isn’t flattery—it amounts to theft of an artist’s intellectual property. Production photos, fight choreography clips, even bootleg production videos are often just a Google search away. While it’s never been easier to copy someone else’s work, it’s also never been easier for directors and designers to find potential offenders.

In 2015, for instance, Detroit-based set designer Monika Essen had a colleague alert her to Facebook photos shared by a local community theatre company. Why? Because the company’s set appeared to be a replica, down to the style and positioning of its furniture, of one she’d created for a 2005 production of Ice Glen at Ann Arbor’s now-defunct Performance Network Theatre.

“It wasn’t as well crafted or as well painted, but the concept was exactly the same,” said Essen. “I called the person in charge there, and at first she denied knowing me or seeing the show. But it’s not like [the design] came from the script. It was an abstract concept I came up with. It’s not like it was a realistic set that had the same moldings and color scheme.” Essen then recalled the person on the phone backpedaling yet again, before admitting that “maybe she did see it at the Network years ago, and subconsciously she must have thought about it when doing the design.” To which Essen responded, “You have to pay me, or you’ll be in a world of trouble. I will shut your show down.”

In the end, the company agreed to pay Essen the union rate for her design, though the whole experience left a sour taste in her mouth. “When I looked at those photos, I was shaking, I was so upset,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a community theatre or professional.” Had Essen met with greater resistance, she would have contacted her union, United Scenic Artists 829, for more support. But for her, it wasn’t just a matter of income loss. “It’s not just the time it takes to research and design and create something. It’s like part of your soul, so it ends up feeling like someone stole part of your soul.” READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW: Slipstream Theatre Initiative’s ‘Tales from the Mitten’ gets to the heart of being a ‘creative’ in Michigan

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Luna Alexander and Dan Johnson in “Tales from the Mitten” at Slipstream Theatre Initiative. (Photo by Jennifer A.J. Jolliffe)

I was intrigued when I first heard that “Tales from the Mitten,” a world premiere two-hander now on stage at Ferndale’s Slipstream Theatre Initiative, told stories of what it’s like to be a working artist in Michigan’s theater scene.

Why? Because it’s one thing to see lots of locally produced shows (as I do); it’s another thing entirely to hear about all the behind-the-scenes stuff that happens on the way to opening night – especially now, when local theaters are struggling like never before (thanks to the gutting of local arts sections in media) to reach potential audience members.

And while “Mitten” might sound, at first blush, like an “Inside Baseball” type of affair – with my fellow critics and I serving as occasional umpires, I guess? – the show gradually shifts into telling the broader story of the challenges of being a dedicated, passionate artist in an environment that doesn’t really seem to value the work you do (Jenn wrote in a theater review she’d later post on her blog and share with her handful of Patreon supporters – ahem). Continue reading

REVIEW (EncoreMichigan.com): ‘Underground Railroad Game,’ presented by UMS

Screen Shot 2018-01-19 at 10.30.56 AM.pngAt one point in Ars Nova’s Underground Railroad Game, brought to Ann Arbor by University Musical Society for six performances, two characters wonder if – as middle school teachers overseeing a Civil War role-playing game for fifth graders while also diving into an interracial love affair – they’re reveling in the past or learning from it.

An apt question for our “Make America Great Again” era, no?

For Stuart (Scott R. Sheppard), who’s white, speaks of “moving history forward” and “making progress” as if these ideas are interchangeable, while Caroline (Jennifer Kidwell), who’s black, replies, “Those words don’t mean the same thing to me that they do to you.”

But all this probably makes Underground sound like a gravely serious, straightforward play, when nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, this avant-garde theatrical cherry bomb (running time, 75 minutes) is a daring study in dark comedy, in which the laughs – and there are many – are often accompanied by a wince.

Which I guess should be expected when we’re fumbling our way through a (seemingly impossible) conversation about American history and race, and how we still experience that ugly past in our contemporary bodies and minds. READ THE REST HERE

My CultureSource preview of UMS’ ‘No Safety Net’ theater festival

Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 9.08.59 AMLearning about the four productions that compose the University Musical Society’s No Safety Net theater festival (happening January 17-February 3) will likely make you feel both excited and nervous.

But then, that’s the whole idea.

“I was seeing a lot of work … that was asking lots of really difficult questions, and work that was not afraid of making audiences feel uncomfortable or ‘provoked,’ to use a more old fashioned word,” said UMS Programming Director Michael Kondziolka. “Out of that grew a suite of plays … that felt like they had a kinship to each other. We decided to take them and place them on the calendar as a festival, instead of as a number of presentations over the course of a season. The energy of each one could build on the others and itself, providing a very different kind of experience for our audience.” READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW: ‘Cue This’ offers a fun distraction at Pointless Brewery & Theatre

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 4.50.36 PMTraditionally, journalists avoid inserting themselves into the story they’re telling.

But on Friday night, when members of the League of Pointless Improvisors at Ann Arbor’s Pointless Brewery and Theatre struggled to find an audience volunteer to spin the “genre wheel” – and thus get the new show “Cue This” rolling – well, I raised my hand.

Yes, this fulfilled a minor “Wheel of Fortune” fantasy I’ve had since I was six (when 3D caricature Chuck Woolery was the host), but also, when the wheel landed on “rom com,” a Leaguer asked me to name a kind of romantic comedy I haven’t seen before, but would like to.

Oh. Whoops. I guess I wasn’t just spinning the wheel. I was also providing the basic framework for the evening’s show. That’s some pretty serious journalist-insertion. Continue reading