Platonic Theater Date Review: Detroit Public Theatre’s ‘Birthday Candles’ catches fire slowly, but burns bright

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The cast of Detroit Public Theatre’s world premiere production of Noah Haidle’s “Birthday Candles.”

As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Saturday performance of Detroit Public Theatre’s “Birthday Candles” on May 26, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

After moments of extreme duress, people often say, “my life flashed before my eyes” – but in Noah Haidle’s drama “Birthday Candles,” now having its world premiere at Detroit Public Theatre through June 3, we instead bear witness to a highly compressed version of someone else’s long, eventful-but-ordinary life.

Specifically, Ernestine Ashworth’s (Claire Karpen) life. We first meet Ernestine on her seventeenth birthday, as her mom (Hallie Lee Bard, who plays multiple roles) is performing the ritual of making her daughter a cake, and also helping Ernestine run lines for her school’s feminist production of “King Lear.” Kenneth (Daniel Pearce), a nerdy neighbor boy smitten with Ernestine, drops by with a gift – the first of what will be a long series of goldfish – and a prom-posal, but after Ernestine turns him down, Matt (Michael Brian Ogden) drops by, causing Ernestine to visibly swoon, despite her stated commitment to live an unconventional life that will “surprise God.”

The scene ends with a audio cue, like a bell, that signals the passage of time to a near-future birthday of Ernestine’s, wherein she’s assumed responsibility for making her own cake in the exact way her mother did, citing the importance of this ritual. And this jump forward in time happens repeatedly throughout the 80 minute play (directed by Vivienne Benesch), so that we see Ernestine’s life play out in bursts as she gets married, raises a family, suffers loss and heartbreak, launches a business, re-discovers her independence, and experiences both profound joy and terrifying loneliness. Continue reading

Platonic Theater Date review: Joseph Zettelmaier’s ‘Northern Aggression’ at Tipping Point causes critics to take sides


Thomas D. Mahard and Patrick Loos star in Tipping Point Theatre’s “Northern Aggression.”

As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Saturday performance of Tipping Point Theatre’s “Northern Aggression,” on May 19, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

An inherent challenge of a family squabble – particularly when there’s a clear resolution – involves the reality of having to still interact with each other for years afterward while silently assuming our post-conflict, arrogant/resentful roles.

As divisive and dysfunctional as the United States has become, we’re still ultimately one big family, and the Civil War remains our definitive quarrel. Though multiple generations have died and been born since battles between the Confederacy and the Union took place, a tension – something like historical muscle memory – still radiates from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line; and prolific Michigan playwright Joseph Zettelmaier taps into this long-simmering tension via his play “Northern Aggression,” now playing at Tipping Point Theatre through June 24.

The show begins as a young couple from Detroit, Maddie (Alysia Kolascz) and Rob (Patrick Loos), are moving into their new home in rural Georgia, where Maddie’s landed a new job as the town’s veterinarian. Rob, formerly an engineer, doesn’t know how or where he’ll fit into the local ecosystem yet, but after elderly neighbor Doc (Thomas D. Mahard) stops by, Rob not only finds himself wearing gray during a local Civil War reenactment, but also waging a prank-filled personal war against Doc. Continue reading

Platonic Theater Date Review: History haunts Planet Ant’s ‘Appropriate’


The cast of Planet Ant’s “Appropriate”

As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Friday performance of Planet Ant’s “Appropriate,” on May 11, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

Sometimes, a death in the family can bring out the worst in people. This is, in part, because family members are each processing grief in their own way, but there are also awkward, inevitable conversations about who gets what, and how assets should be divided. In addition, everyone involved is forced to revisit and reassess their relationship to the deceased and to each other. And finally, related adults who have long gotten used to not living anywhere close to each other may suddenly find themselves thrown together in close quarters for a few days.

All this (and far, far more) is in play in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “Appropriate,” now being staged at Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre through May 19th, directed by Joe Bailey. Set on what was once an Arkansas plantation –where the Lafayette family’s patriarch, a retired judge who became a hoarder, lived his last days three grown siblings with lots of grudges and complicated history make the pilgrimage to the place where they spent their childhood summers.

Toni (Kelly Ann Komlen), the oldest, is reeling from a divorce, financial strain, her father’s death, and a tenuous relationship with her troubled teenage son Rhys (Shane Nelson); Bo (Joel Mitchell) initially appears to be the Lafayette sibling who broke free, living and working in New York with his wife Rachel (Melissa Beckwith) and two kids Cassidy (Meredith Deighton) and Ainsley (Forrest Gabel); and Frank (Donny Reidel), the longtime addict who’s been MIA for years, suddenly appears on the scene with a young vegan wife named River (Jaclynn Cherry). As family members try to clean up the decaying house for sale, they unearth some alarming items, including a photo album full of lynching photos, and anatomical souvenirs in jars. Continue reading

My Destination Ann Arbor blog post about small town bookstores in Washtenaw County

fullsizeoutput_c87.jpegYears ago, when the bookselling industry began experiencing seismic shifts – which can be summed up in two words: Amazon and e-books – bookstores of all sizes faced a dark night of the soul. How might they adapt and find a way to survive in this brave new world?

Many found that they couldn’t. A number of independent stores and big chains alike (looking at you, Borders) have closed their doors in the interim, leaving just a small number of bookstores still standing. And while you’ll still find a handful clustered in Washtenaw County’s college towns of Ann Arbor and Ypsi, you might wonder what the local bookstore landscape looks like beyond those academic hubs.

It’s sparse, not surprisingly; and none of the four stores found in the county’s smaller towns of ChelseaDexter, and Milan draw on the traditional model of a general interest bookstore with all-new merchandise. Instead, they’ve focused on niche markets (comic books, games, and hosting related events); or chosen to sell books for kids alongside toys and puzzles and music; or curated a collection of used books with a highly personal touch. READ THE REST HERE

Platonic Theater Date Review: The Dio’s ‘Daddy Long Legs’ offers a sweet, old fashioned love story

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Alexander Benoit and Emily Hadick star in The Dio’s “Daddy Long Legs”

As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, they attended the same Friday performance of The Dio’s “Daddy Long Legs,” on May 4, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here’s their joint review:

The fairy godmother myth has a nearly irresistible pull on us all – and that’s precisely how “Daddy Long Legs,” now playing at Pinckney’s The Dio – Dining & Entertainment, begins.

The musical, based on Jean Webster’s 1912 epistolary novel (which was also adapted into a 1955 film starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron), tells the story of a plucky, clever teenage orphan, Jerusha (Emily Hadick), who lands an anonymous patron, on the basis of essays she’s composed, for a college scholarship. The sole condition is that Jerusha must write monthly letters to her benefactor, despite being told that the letters will neither be read nor returned.

Because Jerusha only saw the long shadow cast by her benefactor upon leaving the orphanage, she nicknames him Daddy Long Legs in her letters, and lovingly shares her thoughts and observations as if writing to the family she’s never, ever had. On the receiving end, young, aristocratic philanthropist Jervis Pendleton (Alexander Benoit) ultimately can’t resist Jerusha’s charm and wit, reading her letters with ever-greater emotional investment. But as time passes, and Jerusha nears the end of her studies, she grows more and more independent, and Jervis – who’s now met and spent time with Jerusha, by way of being an uncle to one of her roommates – feels trapped by his complicated situation.

The stage musical adaptation of “Daddy Long Legs” – with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, and a book by John Caird – premiered in 2009 in California before being produced in London’s West End in 2012, and Off-Broadway (a production that was live-streamed) in 2015. The Dio’s production, which closes May 20, marks the show’s Michigan premiere. Continue reading

REVIEW (Pulp): Encore Theatre’s ‘Big Fish’ aims to tell big stories on a small stage

30772453_10100301149068854_1477184615_oA colleague of mine once observed that when you ask people about their mothers, you tend to hear stories and fond memories, but when you ask people about their fathers, tears flow within minutes.


Perhaps because traditional, American modes of masculinity and emotional expression have stood at loggerheads for many generations, making father-child relationships highly complicated. Yet it’s precisely this dual struggle to connect that drives Big Fish, the novel-turned-movie-turned-stage-musical now playing at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

The story begins when Will Bloom (Billy Eric Robinson) is about to be married to his journalism colleague Josephine (Kimberly Alley), and he asks his charismatic, tall-tale-telling father Edward Bloom (David Moan) to refrain from making a wedding toast, or sharing the baby news they’re not yet announcing. Edward, despite his promises, proceeds to do both, infuriating Will and putting his mother, Sandra (Emmi Bills), in the middle of yet another father-son squabble. But when Edward’s health takes a turn for the worse, Will grows desperate to know his father’s true history — not the tales of mermaids, giants, and witches he’s been fed since childhood — and this leads him down a path of discovery that Edward would rather leave blocked off. READ THE REST HERE

PLATONIC THEATER DATE REVIEW: Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s ‘Hard Love’ pushes boundaries

As part of Jenn McKee and Don Calamia’s new Platonic Theater Date review series, we attended the same matinee performance of The Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s “Hard Love” on Thursday, April 26, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here is our joint review:

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Inga Wilson and Drew Parker in Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Hard Love.”

Love stories nearly always focus on individuals struggling to overcome obstacles in order to be together, yet Motti Lerner’s “Hard Love,” now being staged by The Jewish Ensemble Theatre, focuses on lovers who can’t seem to get out of their own way.

This is for many reasons, of course – religious beliefs, and their role in one’s sense of identity being chief among them. The play begins with novelist Zvi (Drew Parker) coming to visit his ex-wife Hannah (Inga R. Wilson) in an Orthodox Jewish section of Jerusalem. Though the two haven’t seen each other since their painful, teenage divorce twenty years earlier, and they’ve each remarried – Zvi renounced his faith and moved to Tel Aviv in the interim – Zvi’s son and Hannah’s daughter have recently met and fallen in love. But Hannah wants Zvi to discourage the courtship.

So the meeting is ostensibly about their children, but it inevitably ends up being more about Zvi and Hannah and their unresolved, complicated feelings for each other, as Zvi faces another divorce, and Hannah continues to care for her elderly second husband. Then, in the second act, when Hannah travels to Tel Aviv a couple of months later to visit Zvi in his apartment, the two are forced to hash out both the things that keep drawing them together and the things that will forever keep them apart. Continue reading

My latest WEMU-89.1 FM Art & Soul segment with Lisa Barry and artists from Wild Swan Theater

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 6.36.12 PM.pngSandy Ryder, co-artistic director of the Wild Swan Theater, and Michelle Lanzi, WST’s company manager, talk about an upcoming adaptation of the Wizard of Oz, written by their resident playwright Jeff Duncan with original music by Brian E. Buckner.  It will be playing in early May at the Towsley Auditorium on the Washtenaw County Community College campus.

Lisa and I also discussed Vincent York’s Jazzistry appearance on Sunday, April 29th, which also happens to be International Jazz Day.  Rhiannon Giddens will be at the Michigan Theater on May 18th and the Moth GrandSLAM at the Ark on May 23rd. Listen to the whole segment here.

PLATONIC THEATER DATE REVIEW: Matrix Theatre’s ‘Kayak’ takes you on a provocative ride

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Dan Johnson, Kez Settle, and Claire Jolliffe star in Matrix Theatre’s “Kayak.”

The mom who can’t stand her son’s girlfriend (and vice versa) is a pretty well-worn narrative, yet Canadian playwright Jordan Hall puts a new, politically-minded spin on it via “Kayak,” now on stage at Matrix Theatre Company.

Annie (Kez Settle), the play’s central character, sits in a kayak for nearly the entire show, smearing on sunscreen; eating s’more ingredients; and telling the story of her grown son’s (Peter, played by Dan Johnson) love affair with ardent student activist Julie (Claire Jolliffe). Tension festers as Peter finds himself caught between the comfortable, conventional middle class life of his parents and the risky, altruistic life of sacrifice modeled by Julie. But why is Annie riding in Peter’s kayak? What’s happened, exactly, to put her in this unlikely situation?

Annie reveals the answers, which feel both surprising and inevitable, over the course of Hall’s 65 minute play. And Matrix’s production, directed by Amanda Grace Ewing, makes the play’s questions all the more immediate by thrusting Annie’s kayak into the seating area, so that we’re along for the ride on this sometimes funny, mostly harrowing journey.

As part of our (Don Calamia and Jenn McKee’s) new Platonic Theater Date review series, we attended the same performance of “Kayak” on Friday, April 20, and followed-up with a conversation about the show. Here is our joint review. Continue reading

My Pulp interview with ‘Will & Grace’ star Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt, a/k/a Nancy And Beth

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 10.44.08 AM.pngMost of us know Megan Mullally as boozy, unapologetically solipsistic Karen Walker on Will & Grace, and also perhaps as Parks & Recreation star Nick Offerman’s real-life partner, but not as a former dancer and Broadway performer.

This is likely why you’d be surprised to learn that Mullally, in recent years, has teamed up with another multi-talented artist, Stephanie Hunt (who played lesbian bass-player Devin on Friday Night Lights), to form a music duo called Nancy And Beth, which will perform at The Ark on Monday, April 23.

Where did the arbitrary names Nancy And Beth come from (complete with a capitalized And)? The answer will tell you a great deal about the two women’s soulmate-like friendship.

“The ether,” said Mullally.

“I was going to say ‘the ether’!” cried Hunt.

“We were in a restaurant in Austin with Nick one night, and we said, what should we call the band?” continued Mullally. “I wrote down in my phone all the names we picked. … It was a long list. I couldn’t narrow it down, so I emailed it to Stephanie, but in the interim, I’d thought of the name Nancy And Beth. It just came to me in a vision. I could’ve just buried it in the middle of the list, but then she immediately emailed back Nancy And Beth. … It’s just one of those symbols of the thing that we both understand intrinsically about the band.” READ THE REST HERE