Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Like a little kid who saw The Phantom Menace before Star Wars, the Purple Rose Theatre Company's final installment in the Escanaba trilogy was the first I had seen. Unlike that little kid, I wasn't disappointed, and, from the murmurs and chuckles of the audience, nor were the die-hard Escanaba fans.

The story of Jeff Daniels's Escanaba predates both Escanaba in Da Moonlight and Escanaba in Love, chronicling the very moment at which the Soady family history and traditions began: patriarch Alphonse Soady (Tom Whalen) completes the cabin at the deer camp. It's pretty unrealistic that every single tradition had its roots in just over an hour's time (including when Soady met Negamanee), but what legend was ever believable? The events are best taken in with the same skepticism one would use to interpret annals of ancient history — probably not how it really happened, but as close as we'll ever get.


I am not a Halloween person. Nor am I a scary-movie person. Had I not felt obligated to get the full experience for this review, I would never have chosen to sit in the designated "splash zone" at a theater with posters warning, "There will be blood!" Which explains why I took my seat for Evil Dead: The Musical, at the farthest reaches of the splash zone, with a bandana covering my hair and my torso sheathed in a scented trash bag. I was skeptical, but game. This exposition is necessary in order to put the following in its proper context: I loved every single minute.

The play is a fast-moving interpretation of the Evil Dead series of films, which I have never seen because of my aforementioned avoidance of yuckiness. Five college students — protagonist Ash, his girlfriend, his sister, his best friend, and the girl his best friend is nailing — have the brilliant idea to spend their spring break alone, in the woods, in an abandoned cabin. They accidentally summon demons from another dimension, and one by one become possessed or worse. As the plot unfolds, the students, and a handful of other characters, sing their hearts out even as they are being shot and dismembered.


Playwright Jacob M. Appel, in his program notes for Causa Mortis or The Medical Student, suggests that his plays are defined by "strong female characters." I disagree. At the Detroit Repertory Theatre's world-premiere production, what I saw was shrill female characters.

The script is undoubtedly funny; it is madcap, full of jokes. I could envision a version of this show that attempted to bring out the humor through character and relationship, although there is only one relationship of note here. In the absence of a grounded approach, as in this production's larger-than-life presentation, an ensemble needs to perfect its timing and polish every joke in order to keep the audience laughing every instant. Once again, what I saw came up short; instead, the thinly sketched, stressed-out characters barked at each other for occasional laughs. 

In the talk back I attended after Dutchman, director LoriGoe Nowak told the audience that the Magenta Giraffe Theatre's production was intended to be abstract. I was actually surprised to hear this, as it had escaped my notice during the 60-minute play. Some choices became clearer in retrospect, but at first, most of the elements of this version did not seem much different from a classic staging.

The setting, especially, revealed details — from the set to the costumes to the passengers' movements suggesting a train in motion — that precisely evoked a 1960s subway car. The cohesive set design by Kevin Beltz lent intimacy and a sense of voyeurism that were well suited for this challenging piece. Lighting design by Gwen Lindsay and music by Chuk Nowak (mixed live from the conductor's booth onstage, an undercurrent of music blended with the constant sound of the train) added additional layers of vérité, so much so that the actors had to raise their voices over the din. The four nonspeaking passengers were unremarkable upon first glance, in nondescript costumes suggestive of decades ago. Perhaps the abstract point of view was a bit too well concealed.


The Tipping Point Theatre outdid itself for its first production truly in the round. Daniel C. Walker's set design gave the impression of dozens of entrances, including some on raised platforms visible from every seat. (Overheard from the audience: "I hope that's sturdy.") This ingenuity, and the creative staging on and around it, helped keep the action lively in Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!).

The plot is right there in the title: Three actors (Dave Davies, Michael Brian Ogden, and Jeff Thomakos), dissatisfied with doing A Christmas Carol for the umpteenth year, instead attempt to bring the entire Christmas experience to the stage in ninety minutes. The result is a whirlwind of word play and sight gags, infused with a few solemn moments. This is the first production of Every Christmas Story I have seen, so I can't distinguish old from new (as implied by the added "and then some"), but I can say that the play was at its most enjoyable when hitting close to home. Whereas interpretations of the Grinch and Rudolph stories were essentially truncated — but faithful — restagings of beloved holiday classics, the exquisite parody of Detroit's annual Thanksgiving day parade was both innovative and side-splitting. A few points of lull were smoothed over by the sense of speed: hold on, you'll like the next part.


Because construction traffic had kept me from seeing the first ten minutes of An Infinite Ache, I returned to the Williamston Theatre for the closing performance to get the whole experience. Interestingly, I found that "the whole experience" I had expected wasn't possible to get on the second try.

I expected a hilarious romp during the expository minutes, as mentioned by one reviewer; indeed, there were plenty of laughs from the start. However, because of the circuitous and unpredictable nature of the show's timeline, I found myself prematurely returning to my emotional state at the play's end. [The show has closed now; it's no longer a spoiler for this production if I reveal that the entire audience was reduced to snuffling and eye-wiping.] Even as I laughed along at the show's many funny moments — indeed, the larger crowd that joined me for my second viewing eagerly ate up the comedy — I felt like I was already at the closing, simply luxuriating in the memory of these lives, instead of living them along with the characters as I had the first time.


The writing process is difficult to translate into theater, because so much of it is deeply private and not easily put into words. Kitty Dubin's The Blank Page, in its world premiere at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, uses a writer's professional and personal relationships to give the audience a better view, and very nearly triumphs.

Novelist Amy Kaplan, played here by a guarded Sarab Kamoo, is facing a three-month deadline for her second novel. The play covers those three months and ends on the deadline day. Meanwhile, her rabbi husband appears to give little more than lip service in supporting her, and a headstrong, youthful graduate student serves as a walking reminder of the vigor Amy had when she wrote her first, bestselling novel. Despite the play's title, there is a book in place at the beginning of the play; Dubin avoids clichés like writer's block, instead showing the audience a professional, disciplined scribe and her attendant insecurities.