My Pulp review of Penny Seats Theatre’s production of ‘Dr. Seward’s Dracula’

Screen Shot 2019-10-30 at 2.49.11 PM.pngNear the end of Joseph Zettelmaier’s play Dr. Seward’s Dracula — now being staged by The Penny Seats Theatre Company, at Ann Arbor’s Stone Chalet Inn — a character observes, “People need their monsters.”

So it seems. For it’s far more comforting and palatable to believe that humans like ourselves simply aren’t capable of committing the very worst acts of violence and depravity.

But we are, of course. And this unnerving truth is precisely what drives Zettelmaier’s unconventional take on the Dracula story.

Set in London in 1895, in Dr. Jack Seward’s home, the play begins with the former asylum physician Seward (Jeffrey Miller) being visited by the ghost of Emily (Allyson Miko), the love of his life; and writer/Lyceum Theater business manager Bram Stoker (Zettelmaier), who’s perusing Seward’s journals for story material (that will eventually be used for Stoker’s landmark 1897 novel Dracula).

When a local inspector, Louis Carlysle (Jonathan Davidson), shows Seward that his mentor has just been brutally murdered — by way of a neck wound that suggests a death-by-ravenous-vampire — and he’s visited in the night by a mysterious figure cloaked in darkness (David Collins), Seward starts to question his own sanity, made cloudier by a months-old, asylum-inflicted open wound, and the morphine he must take daily to keep the pain at bay. READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode story about the downtown library’s partnership with Visions Unlimited students

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Photo by Nick Hagen

Each Tuesday morning, in the lower level of downtown Farmington’s public library, an unabashedly joyful, hug-filled reunion happens in the children’s department.

For that’s when a group of young adult students from Visions Unlimited – Farmington Public Schools’ post-secondary school for students (ages 18 to 26) with physical and/or developmental disabilities – arrive to not just attend, but be an active part of, the library’s weekly preschool storytime.

“(Max) tells everybody about his Tuesday library job,” says VU parent Colleen Van Camp. “He reads to preschoolers and often helps with puppets and other toys that incorporate the children’s story. It has given him confidence, purpose, social skills, responsibility, and pure joy.”

The community partnership between the library and VU began about seven years ago, when a para-pro brought her own children to storytime and asked children’s librarian Maria Showich-Gallup about possibly, in the future, bringing a couple of VU students to help out.

“In the back of my head, this voice was saying, ‘Don’t say no, don’t say no, don’t say no,’” says Showich-Gallup, who’s worked at Farmington’s downtown library for 19 years. “So then I told her, ‘Let’s start off with students doing the nursery rhyme,’ … and it just grew from there. … I was never so happy in my life to have not said ‘no.’ … It became such a win-win. The library staff and families that come to storytime probably get even more out of it than the (VU) students do.”

“We see the same kids each week, so we learn kids’ names, and they say ‘hi’ to us, and the parents are always happy to see us, too,” says VU teacher Lisa Wiltrakis. READ THE REST HERE

My Destination Ann Arbor Great Minds Think a Lot profile of Eve Aronoff Fernandez

This profile is part of Destination Ann Arbor’s Great Minds Think a Lot series, highlighting influential leaders in Washtenaw County who make a positive impact within our community.
Chef Eve Aronoff Fernandez stands in her restaurant Frita Batidos and holds a tray containing a lemonade with a blue umbrella and a frita burger covered in shoestring french fries.One of Ann Arbor’s most esteemed chefs, Eve Aronoff Fernandez, has been a little busy lately.In addition to overseeing the original (and wildly popular) Frita Batidos on Washington St. – a casual eatery that’s been serving delicious Cuban-inspired fare since 2010 – Aronoff Fernandez has got a one year old daughter at home; and earlier this month, she launched a second Frita Batidos in Detroit, near the Fox Theatre. So … busy might be an understatement.Even so, Aronoff – who appeared as a contestant on “Top Chef” in 2009, earned diplomas from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and graduated from high school in East Lansing – took a long enough break to answer questions about her work, her life, and her longtime hometown of choice, Ann Arbor.

Q. It sounds like you were fascinated with cooking from a young age. How was the seed planted so early on? And what were some of the first things you learned to cook?

A. I grew up in a family where pretty much everything revolved around food – cooking and eating together. I was always in the kitchen with my Mom – more so as a taster than helper until I was a little bit older. My Mom is a really wonderful cook, and she is very free-spirited in her cooking. She would never follow a recipe, and was always substituting ingredients when she did start with a recipe. I think that was a really great example for me – to develop the confidence of just paying attention to the flavors and textures of different ingredients and how they came together.

My best friend of 45 years has shown me letters I wrote to her when I was away at summer camp, all describing, in painstaking detail, everything I ate throughout the day – which you could imagine, at a summer camp, wasn’t a very exciting menu, so I guess I was pretty into food.

I fell in love with cooking when I was about 12 years old. My mom gave me a copy of the New York Times International Cookbook, and I started making dishes from around the world. I would prepare elaborate dinner parties for my parents’ friends, and I think my parents still have all of the detailed notes I would take, planning each menu. I would make French baked rice, Asian cucumber salad, Peruvian avocado soup, etc. READ THE REST HERE

My Destination Ann Arbor post about exploring Heritage Tours via an app

Screen Shot 2019-10-16 at 2.50.54 PM.pngYou don’t need a “Back to the Future” DeLorean to visit Washtenaw County’s past. Any car, or even just a smartphone, will do. Yes, Washtenaw County’s Office of Community & Economic Development recently began translating heritage tour “story maps” via an app called Vamonde. “It’s this exciting thing we found last year, where we can share historic information but also connect you directly to Google maps,” said historic preservation specialist Melinda Schmidt. “…That gets to the heart of what we’re trying to get at with almost all of our tours: to encourage people to drive around and explore the more rural parts of the county.” This applies to long-established local heritage tours like the historic barns tour; a Greek Revival architecture tour; a German heritage tour; and the Esek Pray Trail. (Generally, the spots highlighted on these tours are private property, so visitors must settle for looking at them from the road.)

Other tours, meanwhile – which may highlight places where few of the original structures remain (Willow Run, as well as Heritage Foodways) – are best experienced virtually, via the app. “When it comes to the Willow Run tour and the Foodways tour, our aim was educational,” said Schmidt. “They’re geared toward school groups, so kids and teens can connect, in a tangible way, to the history around them.”

More broadly, though, these tours aim to provide visitors and locals with a profound sense of place. “That’s so important as we grow our local economies and communities, especially in light of sprawl,” said Schmidt. “If we can spread the word about some of these treasures, and share them with the rest of the county, we can help these communities become better known and valued.” READ THE REST HERE

My bulleted mini-review of Roustabout’s ‘Haunted: The Great Lakes Ghost Project’

Screen Shot 2019-10-09 at 8.48.03 PM.pngOK, so, a minor editorial snafu resulted in two critics being sent to the same show. ERGO, I won’t be offering up a full review of Roustabout Theatre Troupe‘s new production of Joseph Zettelmaier‘s “Haunted: The Great Lakes Ghost Project,” a devised theater piece, after all. (Hilariously, my replacement assignment is – wait for it – a Joseph Zettelmaier show, this time produced by The Penny Seats!) Anyhoo, since I did see the opening night performance of “Haunted,” and the Rousties were kind enough to have me out, I thought I’d at least share a kind of bulletpoint micro-review.

* Though this is a bit “Inside Baseball,” I will confess that one of the pleasures of the show was watching Dan Johnson do his level best (and really impressive) Zettelmaier impression – from vocal inflection to facial expressions, right down to his style of dress. Those who know the local playwright will very much enjoy Johnson’s dead-on “homage.”

* Dan assumes the character of Joe, of course, because the show is built around a quest the playwright actually took to gather Michigan-based ghost stories (including those involving Wayne State’s Bonstelle Theatre) and explore the state’s reputed “ghost towns.” Shows like this can often feel like a mishmash, but Zettelmaier crafts it all together with sure-handed skill. The transitions between tales, and the overall build and structure, generally feel smooth and natural, and that apparent “effortlessness,” I know full well, belies the considerable challenges of the form. An impressive feat of creation.

* The Ypsi Experimental Space, while probably not ideal for other kinds of shows, is quite well-suited for “Haunted.” The audience is packed into a tight, dimly-lit space, providing a sense of collective claustrophobia before the lights even go down. Director Anna Simmons – with crucial atmospheric contributions from sound and projections designer Will Myers, lighting designer Dustin D. Miller, and scenic designer Jennifer Maiseloff – manages to create several chilling moments by way of some pretty creative staging choices (executed by the talented cast, which also includes Julia GarlotteAlysia Kolascz, and Allison Megroet). “Haunted” isn’t about gore or emotional manipulation, but rather about the delicious allure of being drawn into stories that quietly challenge our sense of the natural world.

* The “why” of the piece – the reason Zettelmaier wants to take us on this personal journey (that by his own admission fell short at times, with “ghost towns” that sometimes turned out to be little more than economically depressed towns or minor tourist destinations) – becomes clear as hints of Zettelmaier’s own experience with the supernatural are dropped like breadcrumbs along the way. Without revealing too much, I’ll just say that Joe’s tale works well as the show’s anchor, and the tension and payoff work.

Maybe too well. I mean, I know it’s getting close to Halloween and all, but a girl’s gotta sleep, people …

My Pulp review of the Purple Rose Theatre’s ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Soufflé’

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Paul Stroili and Mark Colson in the Purple Rose Theatre’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Soufflé.” (Photo by Sean Carter Photography)

Local Baker Street Irregulars who enjoyed David MacGregor’s 2018 world premiere production of Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre may now revisit the world’s most famous detective in his London flat for yet another all-new case.

MacGregor’s world premiere follow-up, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Soufflé, directed by Michelle Mountain, opened this past weekend at the Purple Rose. Fans of Ear will not only recognize the same actors playing the show’s primary roles — nice bit of continuity, that — but also Bartley H. Bauer’s sumptuous, award-winning set, which has been gloriously resurrected.

Just as Ear wove together cases involving Victorian-era celebrities Vincent Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde — I believe I likened it to a lofty, arts-centric Love Boat episode — Soufflé does the same, this time bringing both world-renowned chef Auguste Escoffier (Tom Whalen) and Prince of Wales Albert Edward (David Bendena) to 221B Baker Street.

The reasons for the men’s visit are anything but clear at first. Escoffier barges into the apartment, rambling about scandal and imminent ruin before collapsing unconscious on Holmes’ floor. The piggish Prince — routinely mocked by the infantilizing nickname Bertie assigned by his disapproving mother — arrives dressed in full, pompous military regalia and a simple black mask (an absurd attempt to hide his identity). He soon explains that he’s been targeted for assassination by anarchists, but you might well wonder: What’s that got to do with Escoffier’s troubles? And why does the surviving, brilliant daughter of Holmes’ criminal nemesis Moriarty — namely, Marie Chartier (Caitlin Cavannaugh) — sneak into the flat for a secret, one-on-one conversation with Dr. Watson (Paul Stroili)?

Answering these questions would, well, suck all the air from MacGregor’s Soufflé, so I’ll simply leave them there. READ THE REST HERE

My Ann Arbor Observer review of UMMA’s Collection Ensemble art installation

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 3.20.20 PMImagine an “art potluck,” wherein forty-one attendees are deployed to different parts of a museum to select one piece and bring it back, creating an eclectic mix of items from various lands and time periods to showcase side by side.

The result would likely resemble the Collection Ensemble, an installation (which debuted in April) housed in the U-M Museum of Art Apse.

The austere, curved white space–with its elegant skylight and Greek columns–previously displayed a tasteful (if staid) group of American and European paintings from the last two centuries. It’s now home to a far broader range of media, organized into nine groupings.

The “Water Protocols” grouping, for instance, places American artist Jenny Holzer’s 1983 Selections from Truisms–an electronic scrolling message board that spouts statements like “People are boring unless they’re extremists” and “Resolutions serve to ease your conscience”–beneath fellow American Robert Hopkin’s traditional nautical oil painting Chasing a Slave (1880), and near Frenchman Bernard Picart’s early eighteenth-century etching Night Scene from Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux’s “The Lectern,” inspired by Boileau’s 1674 mock heroic poem.

I couldn’t always make sense of the grouping titles. Holzer’s messages appear in a constant, water-like flow, and they could be viewed as rules, so “Water Protocols” could maybe apply–but then, what on earth do I make of the inclusion of Christo’s 1968 plastic, aptly named Wrapped Roses?

When the grouping titles do work, though, they add an interesting twist. One of my favorite pieces, Jordan Eagles’ TSBC3 (2011), consists of dark splatters of blood, UV resin, and copper on plexiglass, and it’s part of a group called “The Cosmos + Me.” The piece indeed resembles deep space images captured by the likes of the Hubble telescope, though it was instead created by mingling substances from bodies and the earth, reminding me of Carl Sagan’s famous quote, “We are made of star stuff.” READ THE REST HERE