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’


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

My Destination Ann Arbor Great Minds Think A Lot profile of Nikki Sunstrum

Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 4.05.13 PM.pngThis 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.

Between having six young, active kids and working as the University of Michigan’s Director of Social Media Communications and Public Engagement, Nikki Sunstrum’s leisure time has been, well, pretty sharply limited since she moved to the Ann Arbor area five years ago.

“I must admit, we haven’t done a really good job of exploring Ann Arbor,” said Sunstrum. “ … And we actually did an entire content series this year for the University called ‘Summer at Michigan.’ It was a series specifically for Youtube that showcased everything that was happening over the course of the summer. However, I executed that from my office, and didn’t actually go (to the events).”

Hopefully, Sunstrum will get to experience more Ann Arbor things in person in the coming years. But in the meantime, let’s find out more about her, since she somehow managed to carve out a few moments to talk about her work, her home life, and what drives her. READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode story about downtown Farmington playing host to the VegMichigan Free Festival

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Photo by David Lewinski

If you passed by downtown Farmington’s Riley Park on Sunday and spotted white tents, food trucks, and entertainers, you may have done a double-take and thought, “Wait … wasn’t the farmers’ market yesterday?”

It was, but the vibe of Sunday’s all-afternoon VegMichigan Free Festival had the same kind of energy and communal warmth.

With a variety of vegan-friendly vendors, a kids’ activity area, long tables set up under the pavilion (where attendees could sit and sample the vegan food on offer), and live music from Sinjon Smith, the festival drew a pretty big crowd, despite some raindrops.

“(My daughter) and my 10-year-old were mesmerized by (Clark the Juggler), who was quite the entertainer,” Farmington Hills resident Kristin Dwyer says. “They cuddled under the clouds watching, laughing, and talking. My son was even 45 minutes late to a play date because he didn’t want to leave the scene.”

This is the first year that downtown Farmington has played host to the four-year-old event, which previously called Livonia’s Madonna University home. Construction on Madonna’s campus this year necessitated a change of locale for the festival (which used to be scheduled in August and was then called VegMichigan SummerFest).

“We did a search,” says VegMichigan president Tom Progar. “When we looked at Riley Park, we just thought it was the perfect venue.” READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp review of Encore Theatre’s ‘Fun Home’

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Sarah Stevens and Dan Cooney in Encore Theatre’s “Fun Home.” (Photo by Michele Anliker Photography)

When I first read Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home — the basis for a Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, now on stage at Dexter’s Encore Theatre — I immediately sent copies of the book out to my three closest girlfriends.

It wasn’t Christmas or anyone’s birthday, but I couldn’t contain myself. Bechdel’s groundbreaking, bracingly candid, and bittersweet chronicle of a family tragedy gripped me so profoundly that my first, undeniable impulse was to share her story with others.

The stage musical adaptation — with music by Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics by Michigan’s own Lisa Kron — necessarily pares Bechdel’s tale down to its essentials, but it’s no less poignant while depicting Bechdel’s gleeful, college-age “coming out” and, shortly thereafter, her closeted father’s sudden suicide.

At Encore, Sarah B. Stevens plays the always-on-stage, present-day version of Bechdel, who’s struggling to sketch out and narrate her family’s history. (The “Fun Home” of the title is the nickname Alison and her younger brothers had as kids for the funeral home that has long been the Bechdels’ “family business.”) As she draws, she remembers various moments from her childhood and college days as they play out in front of her, until she finally can’t resist inserting her present-day self into the last late-night drive she ever took with her father (Daniel C. Cooney), urging herself to say something that will alter the course of what’s about to happen.

Fun Home, while moving, poses some significant production challenges for director Vincent J. Cardinal and his Encore team. With an intermission-less run-time of just 90 minutes, the memory-driven musical requires numerous scene changes, given its lightning-quick jumps in time and place. At Encore, some of these changes are more awkward and clunky than others, and one of Alison’s flights of imagination as a child — an escapist, groovy Partridge Family fantasy — felt pretty murky in its transition from the family’s dark reality.

Even so, there are goosebump moments in Encore’s show, particularly surrounding the triumvirate of actresses who play Alison at different ages. Stevens’ reactions to watching her younger self are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking — and that the actress must do this continuously, while sidelined during much of the show, is no small feat of acting. Plus, her self-flagellating, achingly restrained performance of “Telephone Wire,” in the show’s tensest scene moment, perfectly captures Bechdel’s helplessness in the face of certain, crushing knowledge. READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode feature at downtown Farmington’s Art 101

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(Photo by David Lewinski)

Art 101’s debut in downtown Farmington, in November of 2017, was – well – subtle.

How subtle?

One of Art 101’s classes that fall consistently had a roster of one.

“But Sophie kept that class alive,” co-owner and manager Kim Messing says with a laugh.

Part of the challenge, of course, was the art studio’s peek-a-boo location behind The Rocking Horse (now closed) and next to Neu Kombucha.

But outreach efforts, online marketing, and word-of-mouth soon brought many more kids and teens to Art 101 for (pay as you go) classes, so that now, they occasionally have to turn students away.

“That first year, we had about 80 students a week, and by the second year, we were at over a hundred a week,” says Art 101 co-owner Kevin Messing (who met wife Kim when they were both art students at Wayne State University). “ … We’ve constrained our growth because we’re so big on quality. … There’s no point in growing if the instruction’s not as good.” READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode story about how Farmington’s Dressbarn came to feel like a local business

Screen Shot 2019-08-24 at 8.13.54 PM.pngUsually, when a national chain’s CEO announces that its 650 stores will be shuttered by year’s end, the news doesn’t feel particularly personal.

But then, downtown Farmington’s beloved, high-performing Dressbarn store has – since its late ‘80s launch – come to feel more like a local business than a corporate retailer.

“I remember years ago, my father passed away, and I needed the proper clothes for the funeral before I flew out of town later that day,” wrote Farmington Hills resident Barb McHenry on NextDoor. “I got (to Dressbarn) early and knocked on the door because the store wasn’t open yet. A saleswoman came to the door, and I explained the situation. She let me in and put me in a dressing room. She and the other saleswoman kept bringing me clothes to try on until I had what I needed. I will never forget their kindness that day.”

“It’s definitely a neighborhood store,” says Stephanie Clement, store manager of downtown Farmington’s Dressbarn. “We’re unique because we’ve got this 11,000 square feet corner spot in a strip mall, but it doesn’t feel like a strip mall, because right outside, there’s the farmers market and there are all these other community events happening year-round. I don’t know of any other stores that have this kind of atmosphere. … It’s not like being part of an outlet mall, where there’s this quick turnaround time, and people are only there to shop. Here, people sometimes come in just to say ‘hi,’ because it’s been a while since they’ve come in to see us.” READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode Farmington story about PLUSkateboarding’s summer camps for kids

If the shredders at Riley Skate Park appear shorter than usual lately, it’s because PLUSkateboarding – a downtown Farmington store founded by owner Rob Woelkers in 2003 – runs week-long summer day camps that are so beloved, many kids not only attend year after year but ask to register for multiple weeks in a single season.

“Anytime a kid learns a new trick, and one of their parents comes to pick them up for the day, you’ll hear the kid say, ‘Watch this! Let me show you what I can do now!’” says Randy Smith, who’s worked as a counselor for PLUS’ camp for more than a decade. “I take pride in being part of that. … But on a deeper level, the kids are learning real-life lessons, and they don’t even know it. Lessons like, when you fall down, you get right back up and try again. … For me, that’s the biggest takeaway.”

PLUSkate Camp. (Photo by David Lewinski.)

About 35 to 40 kids, ages 5-15 (and of varying skill levels, including lots of beginners), attend each of the six offered weeks of PLUS’ summer camps. Also, though Riley Skate Park opened just 10 years ago, this is PLUS’ 15th season of camps. (An earlier iteration of the camp happened at Heritage Park.)

Woelkers’ history goes even further back, though, having started – at his former boss’ urging – a skateboarding camp while managing a skate park in Brighton in 2000.

“At first, I was against it, because that’s not really what skateboarding is about – (having) a coach or teacher,” says Woelkers. “Once we started doing it, I realized how fun it was, and it really wasn’t any different than just skating with your friends and encouraging them to push themselves.” READ THE REST HERE