REVIEW: Tipping Point Theatre’s ‘Miss Firecracker Contest’ kicks off the season with laughs

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Kryssy Becker stars in Tipping Point Theatre’s production of Beth Henley’s “The Miss Firecracker Contest.”

When even the Miss America Pageant is taking a long, hard look at itself (and eliminating its trademark swimsuit competition) in this #MeToo moment, you might be surprised to learn that Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre recently opened its twelfth season with a production of Beth Henley’s “The Miss Firecracker Contest” (1980).

After all, the Southern fried comedy focuses on Carnelle (Kryssy Becker), a reformed, churchgoing, good-deed-doing young woman who previously had been known around her Mississippi hometown as “Miss Hot Tamale.” Carnelle’s decided that if she can win the town’s annual beauty pageant, she might finally be able to put her bad reputation behind her, and maybe even leave town in a “blaze of glory.”

Director Dani Cochrane confesses in her program note that she, too, was initially wary of the play’s messages, but that over time, she and her cast came to appreciate “Miss Firecracker”’s characters and their “desperate need for love and acceptance.”

For in addition to Carnelle, there’s her beautiful older cousin Elain (Hallie Bee Bard) – a former Miss Firecracker herself – who’s run away from her wealthy husband and children; her brother Delmount (Patrick Loos), a mercurial, vain, self-styled poet and lothario who has a score to settle with Elain; Popeye (Maggie Meyer), an eccentric but good-hearted new seamstress in town who’s commissioned to make Carnelle’s pageant costumes; Mac Sam (Aaron Kirby), a self-destructive carnie and former beau of Carnelle’s; and Tessy (Shauna Hitchcock), an assertive stage manager for the pageant who once shared an evening with Delmount that he’d prefer to forget.

Like Cochrane, I approached “Miss Firecracker” with reservations (and I don’t mean our tickets). Having watched a previous production years ago, I didn’t count myself as a big fan of what had felt like a dated script. However, I’m usually pretty open to giving shows another go, especially when there are artists whose work I respect involved – and that’s definitely the case at Tipping Point.

So was the talent involved enough to win me over? Keep reading. Continue reading

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REVIEW (We Love Ann Arbor): Kickshaw’s ‘Milvotchkee, Visconsin’ is moving, no matter how you say it

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The cast of Kickshaw Theatre’s “Milvotchkee, Visconsin.” (Sean Carter Photography)

Shortly before I saw Kickshaw Theatre’s production of Laura Jacqmin’s “Milvotchkee, Visconsin,” I learned that a kind-hearted woman I’d known in high school was recently diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer (while being x-rayed for a completely unrelated condition).

All of which is to say, I’d already been mulling over the ways disease shatters our precarious sense of control over our bodies and our lives when I arrived to watch this play, which deftly, candidly chronicles an aging woman’s (Molly’s) journey into dementia. (Presumably Alzheimer’s, but the script pointedly avoids naming Molly’s illness.)

Jacqmin tells the story through Molly’s point of view – which is less common than approaching it through the lens of loved ones, in part because it’s far more challenging. After all, how do you convey a clear tale from a person who’s losing her grip on memory and reality? Yet Jacqmin makes this bold authorial leap with wit and commitment; and when her script is paired with Kickshaw artistic director Lynn Lammers’ sure-handed direction, the results are, by and large, quite moving.

Molly (Nancy Elizabeth Kammer), a widow, has spent years giving tours of Wisconsin Concrete Park, a strange, real-life roadside attraction that was the brainchild of a man named Fred Smith. The sculptures depict an odd assortment of scenes, built by a man who wasn’t an artist but nonetheless felt compelled to make them, from concrete and pieces of glass (often from beer bottles). We accompany Molly as she gives tours – sometimes with her long-dead husband Richard (Michael Hays) along for the ride – but we also tag along as she sees her doctor (Dave Davies), receives visits from her two grown children (Aral Gribble and Sonja Marquis), gets confused while watching a movie, confronts a haunting personification of her disease (which she diagnoses as a hole in her head), and participates in a support group session. READ THE REST HERE

REVIEW (We Love Ann Arbor): Theatre Nova’s ‘The Totalitarians’ lampoons American politics

Screen Shot 2018-09-24 at 2.42.42 PM.pngHarvey Milk famously said, “Politics is theater,” and he wasn’t wrong. When everything you say and do on the campaign trail, and while in office, is closely scrutinized by the public you serve, your behavior is inevitably shaped by that awareness.

Not surprisingly, this natural kinship between two performative constructs has resulted in a number of plays about politicians and the people who work with them, and Theatre Nova’s production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s black comedy “The Totalitarians” (which had its world premiere in 2014) is among the most recent crop.

“The Totalitarians” focuses on a young and hungry political operative wannabe named Francine (Sayre Fox), who hitches her wagon to rising star Penelope Easter (Diane Hill), a Nebraska state government candidate more famous for her great hair than for clear policy positions or eloquence.

Francine’s physician husband Jeffrey (Joe Zarrow) – who feels neglected, wants a baby, and questions Francine’s advocacy for a seemingly unqualified, shallow candidate – also struggles at work, where he meets (and treats) a young, manic conspiracy theory nut named Ben (Connor Forrester). Instead of working up the courage to deliver Ben’s dire prognosis, Jeffrey falls under the sway of Ben’s bizarre notions about a secret plan to make Nebraska a totalitarian state.

“The Totalitarians” clearly doesn’t aim to paint a realistic portrait. (Francine, despite being “on the rise,” is a pretty terrible speech writer, and Jeffrey, who can’t screw up the courage to give his patients bad news, could not possibly retain a license to practice medicine). Rather, it’s an over-the-top bit of silliness, lampooning our political system. Understood. And perhaps the seriousness of our current, divisive political climate makes it harder to sit back and laugh.

Because I must confess, I didn’t find myself laughing much at all. READ THE REST HERE

Dexter’s Encore Theatre gets ready to play ‘A Little Night Music’

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The cast of Encore Theatre’s “A Little Night Music.” (Photo by Michele Anliker)

Director/choreographer Matthew Brennan is gearing up for a kind of “Sondheim hat trick” at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

In 2016, Brennan helmed (and performed as Lee Harvey Oswald in) Encore’s award-winning rendition of “Assassins”; in 2017, he labored for months to bring his searing, unique vision for “Sweeney Todd” to life on Encore’s modest stage (and earned accolades and awards again); and now, he’s running rehearsals for “A Little Night Music,” experimenting and making adjustments.

“We’re doing a run with British dialects tonight, just to ramp up the comedy of manners,” said Brennan. “But it’s working so well, I’m thinking maybe we’ll leave it in, or at least leave a little of that flavor. I always thought it was so weird when (‘Night Music’ productions) did that. I mean, I get that it makes it feel more otherworldly. But the story takes place in Sweden!” Continue reading

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