Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Once upon a time, three young adults left home for good: the first fled Nazi-occupied Poland to live with relatives in the United States; the third answered a call within himself to serve his country after 9/11; and fifteen-year-old Sonia touched down alone in Miami shortly before the Bay of Pigs Invasion rocked her home country of Cuba. Melinda Lopez's complex and evocative Sonia Flew, a co-production now at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, examines the path we expect our lives to follow, how outside forces can warp and sever that trajectory, and what happens in the aftermath. The play's internally and externally turbulent struggles of balancing opposing family and national identities is made all too palpable by David Wolber's marvelous direction and the work of a pitch-perfect cast.

In the late 2001 of the first act, adult Sonia (Milica Govich) is in the throes of an acute but nonspecific anxiety, which finds a legitimate, full-throttle outlet when her son (Russ Schwartz) announces that he has dropped out of college in order to join the Marines. Her inability to come to terms with his news blows up another tenuous situation: the apparently un-religious family's rare observance of Shabbat, in which it falls upon Catholic-born Sonia to recite the blessing. As Zak, Schwartz displays sides of conviction and adult behavior as well as the petulant self-righteousness that seems to prevent his mother from trusting his decision making. Govich's anger is solidly based in a pleading incapacity to cope, and Jon Bennett as Sonia's husband gives a subtle example of a troubled marriage eroding against both partners' wills.


Far more than a religious observance, Christmas is a cultural behemoth; consequently, it holds vastly different meanings to different people. Its ubiquity means nothing at all or may be a sore point for many non-Christians and Christians alike; some take pains to remember the holy roots of the day, whereas others genuinely enjoy the excesses of shopping and eating, or the too-infrequent celebration of loved ones gathering together. Similarly, theaters capitalize on the many facets of the holiday with remarkable variation, and the mainstream-ducking Blackbird Theatre has found an approach that suits it perfectly. The theater's revision/revival of If Only In My Dreams, directed this year by Patricia Wheeler, is once again a wintry mix of seasonally themed literary works as told by their authors. The production dodges orgasmically festive commercialism and done-to-death cautionary tales about goodwill to humankind, instead fully embracing a personal, contemplative view of Christmas, in particular the sharply recalled warmth and magic of those past.

For the occasion, the Sh\'aut\ Cabaret and Gallery is arranged in a semi-cabaret formation, with one prominently placed table mingling among those placed before the front row. At first sight, the setup can mistakenly suggest the eavesdroppy closeness of a restaurant setting, as though the audience and performers alike are simply murmuring Christmas-weary patrons huddled in a dark bar with obligatory tree and half-subversive seasonal soundtrack. However, Wheeler's staging thwarts this preconception: its big physicality, buoyancy, and disregard for the fourth wall elevate the writer characters to magical heights. These are not so much men as literary giants, backed up by their gorgeous, lyrical words.


Who in the world gives a gallon of semi-gloss as a Christmas gift? From the outset, it's a surreal existence in Sweetlove Productions' so-called "seasonal retail story" F$$$ the Holidays, produced in partnership with the Ringwald and directed by Joe Plambeck. This one-act late-night production, written by Marke Sobolewski and Cara Trautman, is an unlikely tale of rival paint stores and their respective offbeat employees; the small story is a good fit for the short running time and leaves room for comedic character development and hilarious moments.

Trautman plays Kirsten, a frontrunner in the rat race who manages one franchise of a paint conglomerate; Sobolewski's Jeremy is the heir to his father's small-town family paint store. Their conflict plays on themes of corporate versus small business and new- versus old-school marketing, but mostly the two seem to revile each other because one lives to sell paint and the other ought to. Christmas approaches at each location, but the stores themselves don't appear to be jeopardized or locked in any do-or-die competition; the attention in this show is on the personal and interpersonal, not on holiday shoppers or the bottom line.

In its fourth year at Matrix Theatre, Puppet Scrooge is getting slimmer and sleeker. Gone are the transitions from human interactions to puppet stagings — this year's offering is all puppets, all the time. Written by Mary Luevanos, Fran Marschone, Rebecca Young, Jaclyn Strez, and this year's adaptor and director, Megan Harris, this present-day spin on the Scrooge story feels close to its grim southwest Detroit setting, yet faithful to the warm Christmas tidings of the original.

This year's production clocks in at a quick one hour, cutting some fat from the tale of Pecunia Scrooge, miser owner of a check-cashing store. Harris uses late partner Jacob Marley and the trio of Christmas ghosts to focus on the relatively logical roots of the ambition and shrewdness that, taken to extremes, sapped Scrooge's ability to care about family, contemporaries, and others less fortunate than herself. The bare-bones story keeps the focus on Pecunia's wayward sense of empathy and willing reformation, and each scene included has both weight and clear importance to the plot. Food-obsessed tagalongs Ratso and Rat Ray are promoted to a running gag, introducing each scene with a joke and selected commentary — the device connects the scenes well and likely adds an entry point for younger viewers. Harris's revisions universally benefit the concept and turn in a crisp tale that's easy to follow.

Although most of the things that terrified us as children aren't worth revisiting, the popularity of the Late Night Catechism franchise is proof positive that adults sure do love to get scolded by nuns. The latest southeast Michigan installment is Century Theatre's Sister's Christmas Catechism (by Maripat Donovan with Jane Morris and Marc Silvia), a holiday flavor of the very familiar framework. With well-seasoned Catechism star Mary Zentmyer and director Marc Silvia, this comedy takes the concept of putting the Christ in Christmas and turns it on its head.

All nuns are not created equal, and what keeps the show dynamic and fresh is seeing the different takes on Sister in action. Zentmyer, a near-fifteen-year veteran, has crafted a hilarious and multidimensional character in her almost-saucy, eclectic Sister, cracking jokes and acting the ham as she reads the story of the virgin Mary aloud. Although no stranger to resorting to punitive measures to keep order in her class, Zentmyer's Sister is engaging and personable, the kind of teacher students might remember as the goofy one, but revere nonetheless. It's a sly twist on the imposing-nun stereotype that started the franchise in the first place, yet no less effective or funny.


What play wouldn't be improved by a dose of David Bowie? He certainly does more good than harm to Dance Xanax Dance, a Planet Ant original comedy written and directed by Lauren Bickers. The production is light on story but heavy on design, all influenced by the Glam One himself, which makes for an outrageous, glittery, dancing extravaganza.

The already eclectic Planet Ant space is made over exquisitely by designer Barton Bund in outrageous abstract style, down to a red-patterned floor that looks like a flash of light viewed through closed eyelids. Hillary Bard's intense low lighting gives the entire set the look of an amazingly terrible music video, a perfect fit for Jill Dion's intense (and technically skilled), geek-serious choreography. Costumes by Vince Kelley are a hot, shimmering, eyelinered mess of the highest order. Setting the scene and providing awkward transitions are assembled fever-dream videos parodying various celebrity-obsessed television programs; sound and video designer Dyan Bailey's cheeky blend of actual TV footage with original scenes establishes the back story of the exceptionally named Olivia Sasha Now (Genevieve Jona), a championed child actor turned pop icon, whose well-documented substance abuse has her once-rising star now hurtling toward rock bottom. Essentially, it's the tale of Lindsay Lohan, if LiLo had the good fortune of releasing the hit song of the play's title (by Dustin Gardner of the local band shoe.) and divine intervention by Ziggy Stardust.

Last season's infectiously fun original musical Detroit Be Dammed: A Beaver's Tale has moved to the heart of downtown Detroit for another round of good-natured ribbing from among the ranks of its own. Written by Shawn Handlon and Mikey Brown and presented (as before) by Planet Ant Theatre, the current production has changed somewhat, yet feels as complete as the original, with all of its abundant satire and affection intact.

From the beginning, the viewer is thrust into the bosom of the fictitious LeMerde family, a proud and likable batch of Charlie Brown types genetically predisposed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, to wholeheartedly champion a doomed cause, or to be shouted down the relatively few times they make a good point. The show boasts essentially the same songs as before, which both impress musically and are cultivated for maximum comedy. The more wrong the point of view, factually or ideologically, the bigger and more impassioned the number, and the giggle-inducing juxtaposition is turned to full laughter by whip-smart lyrics. The city's few wins and mounting losses are presented almost as inside jokes; when a descendant finally succumbs to mounting crime rates and white flight and moves to the suburbs, the attendant tune is an eviscerating ode to whitewashed Livonia, with Jill Dion's ironically idyllic choreography blossoming on a larger stage. Also retained is the well-executed framework and story line, tracing three hundred years of melting-pot LeMerde lineage (and, by extension, Detroit history) throughout the first act, then drawing out its present-day plot in the second.


Playwright Fred Alley and composer James Kaplan must have known the only way I'd agree to hole up in an ice shanty with two fellas and their thick Wisconsin accents would be if the whole experience was set to music. Their Guys on Ice, at Tipping Point Theatre with direction by Joseph Albright, is a delightful, climate-controlled, melodic escape to a sportsman's paradise in the frozen north.

This light production is home to perhaps a dozen playful ditties about catching and consuming fish, cold-weather wear, drinking beer, and more ethereal topics. The songs' various styles and tones are unified by their exhaustive lexicon of fishing euphemisms; some lyrical repetition is allayed by James R. Kuhl's goofy, exuberant choreography. In addition to main characters Lloyd (Brian Sage) and Marvin (Matthew Gwynn) whiling away a day on the lake together, regrettable acquaintance Ernie the Mooch (Andy Orscheln) keeps turning up like a bad penny, ukulele at the ready, to inflict his commendably terrible singing on the pair. Musically, this trio of accomplished performances is universally strong; the comedic moments invite rolling laughter.


Harry Kondoleon's Christmas on Mars is about looking for redemption in the wrong places, not outer space or even Christmas per se. Directed by Jamie Warrow, this Who Wants Cake? production pins its hopes on moving forward at the expense of the past. Can one baby save four people? In the world of this comedy, probably not.

Audrey (Warrow) works at a casting agency, where she met charming model boyfriend Bruno (Jon Ager); at the play's start, they're scoping out an empty Manhattan apartment (set design by Warrow). Marriage and children aren't necessarily on their radar, until he proposes and she reveals that she's pregnant. Yet even as they plan for their future, it's their pasts that keep dogging them; their respective baggage takes human form, that of Bruno's desperate roommate, Nissim (Joel Mitchell), and Audrey's wealthy mother, Ingrid (Leah Smith). Nissim holds forth about his ten years living with Bruno in an incredible series of paranoid monologues; Mitchell is a churning font of self-indulgent stories about sad childhoods and pity-based friendship, fairly sweating out his codependent need for Bruno. Audrey's naked distaste and distrust for her mother is explained by Ingrid's pathetic story of regrettable, irrevocable decisions and inability to resist male attention. When fast friends Ingrid and Nissim learn about the baby, they use the news to wrangle another chance with the person bent on cutting them out.

Venerated author John Steinbeck had a magical knack for writing the Saddest Thing Ever, and his Of Mice and Men is no exception. The Hilberry Theatre tackles the stage adaptation of the classic novel, handling the Great Depression–era subject matter with gravity but not dramatics. Directed by Anthony B. Schmitt, this tale of loyalty, partnership, self-preservation, and meager hope comes alive in a production that’s as glorious as it is unbearable.

Before a word is uttered, set designer Peter Schmidt captures the void of abundance in his dustbowl-evoking soaring burlap horizon, with saturated sunset courtesy of Thomas H. Schraeder’s primary-colored lighting. The flat expanse of stage adapts to portray an unremarkable patch of California nothing by a river, which the protagonists pass on their way to a job at a ranch, and the crowded bunk house where they take up residence. The narrative follows traveling companions George (Peter Prouty) and Lennie (Erman Jones), migrant workers with a goal of scraping together enough money to buy their own place and work for themselves, at a time when they and most of their kind alternated between scraping by and starving. That they are able to dream at all is at once a sign of hope in a vicious world and cruelly utopic.

The world becomes smaller and more homogeneous every day, with the far reach of media and the ubiquity of chain restaurants and big-box stores, and yet: rural Texas. For a Michigan crowd, much of Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard's Greater Tuna may feel as remote as an alien race that doesn't let their pet dogs in the house. But for all the idiosyncratic, folksy humor in Williamston Theatre's production, directed by Tony Caselli, there's little condescension; the best mockery comes from a place of love, and the affection inherent in this text translates.

From sunup to sundown, the play covers a representative day in Tuna, Texas, as just two actors (Aral Gribble and Wayne David Parker) adjust voices, statures, and costumes to play nearly a dozen roles each. The title is derived from the listening area of local radio station OKKK (and its hosts, delivering all the news it's fit to chatter about), whose daily programming provides a loose thematic framework and effective transitions. The diminutiveness of a city home to fewer than 500 is evident in Donald Robert Fox's forced-perspective set, which makes the main downtown intersection look like the meagerest hub ever created. Lighting design by Daniel C. Walker keeps up with the changing places and focal points, discerning brief radio spots and other one-off material from the lingering fuller scenes. Although Karen Kangas-Preston's surprisingly thorough quick-change costumes are a useful visual aid to the character changes (and a wealth of potential for wardrobe malfunctions), props by Erin Roth and sound design are intentionally scarce; sound effects frequently originate in the actors' own mouths, and abundant use of pantomime keeps the stage free of clutter. In Tuna, it's a simple existence, and its residents know what's most important: family, church, rivalries, firearms, socially ingrained racism, and their own brand of justice.


They just don't make 'em like they used to. Contemporary musicals have evolved to find new ways around and through the discomfiting "they-just-break-into-song" effect; gone are the days of full-cast numbers in which half the characters have no justification to be in the scene — we crave smart, edgy, believable. Yet the strictures in place for modern musicals tend to keep them from achieving the kitchen-sink, freewheeling fun of their ancestors, when threats of violence could morph into a questionably appropriate song about cooking and nobody asked questions. Incredibly, the Performance Network Theatre has its cake and eats it, too, in The Drowsy Chaperone. Written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, the production is a showcase of follies-style vaudeville indulgence whose meta-commentary still lands it squarely in the present.

In the world of the play, The Drowsy Chaperone is a 1928 musical about a plot to foil the ingenue's impending marriage and retirement from the stage. As the charismatic bride, Janet, Andrea Mellos sparkles while demurely grandstanding that she's through being a showoff. Nervous but dedicated groom Robert (Brian Thibault) is just dim enough for the silly plot; at his right hand is gee-willikers best man and de facto wedding planner George (Matt Andersen), who's a whirling dervish on tap shoes. Plotting against the wedding are Janet's boss, cigar-chomping producer Feldzieg (Mark Hammell), and a couple of wise guys (Pete Podolski and Phill Harmer), even as Feldzieg's airhead assistant (Eva Rosenwald) maneuvers to take the spotlight. Mild conniving pits a Latin lover with all the subtlety of a silent film star (Scott Crownover) against Janet's protector, the boozy belter of the show's title (Naz Edwards); the interaction of the half-wit Don Juan with the half-gone happy drunk is certainly something to behold. Musical direction by R. MacKenzie Lewis and choreography by Phil Simmons are equally strong with solo numbers and wall-of-song feats by the dozen players, backed up by the big sounds of a four-piece combo. The self-consciously dated feel of the Jazz-age performances feels like the best kind of fun we're not allowed to have any more since the world got all serious.


The second Go Comedy! original holiday sketch show, Best Damn Holiday Show, is largely grounded in the here and now. Current events figure prominently in the production's few dozen sketches; add to that the severity of Michigan's particular hardships, and this is one holiday offering that looks for its humor in dark, bleak places.

Framing the nearly 90-minute production is a pair of sketches in which the cast's attempts to sing an original Christmas tune are repeatedly shut down by imperious killjoys — as the Go Comedy! space used to be a Secretary of State office, bureaucratic equal-opportunity political correctness still applies. The song's repeatedly amended, increasingly vague lyrics are quite sharp, pushing the absurd concept to its limit; it's an effective mechanism to set up a show that strives to be about more than just Christmas. Between these bookends lie much more diverse characters and places, but the topical feel largely remains. Rumination on the lousy presents of a down economy, a visit with the rescued Chilean miners, and a sketch pitching hot new toys to kids of various stereotyped Michigan cities deny escapism, priming the viewer for a scathing closing medley that skewers everything in sight.


Magenta Giraffe Theatre has its first world-premiere production in The Current, by new playwright Sean Paraventi. The story of four friends, a few gallons of tequila, and one memorable bachelorette party is given appropriate preamble by sound designer Frannie Shepherd-Bates's pre-show playlist: circa-1990s Now That's What I Call Music! hits that invite ironic appreciation, a parade of exceedingly popular, irritating, overplayed, yet irresistibly addictive party tunes. Viewers raised on these songs might outwardly groan at them, but they secretly know all the lyrics. As directed by Molly McMahon, this estrogen-packed show has a similar feeling of succumbing to what we might profess to resist.

Mary (Jaye Stellini) is about to be married, and the first stop of her bachelorette party is a visit to the psychic Madame Camille (Shepherd-Bates). Not only does Mary get a reading, so does each of her three friends, although most appear to lend little credence to the practice. Indeed, the unfamiliar surroundings invite rampant nay-saying, primarily from skeptic Angie (Angie Kane Ferrante) and cynic Sharon (Kirsten Knisely), the latter of whom wishes loudly to be somewhere else. Both the relationships and the action of the play fare much better when the characters buy into the psychic's predictions; in particular, the pure faith of doe-eyed Darlene (Jaclyn Strez) is injected with both humor and unfathomable sweetness, and her scenes invite a camaraderie that's quite engaging.

It happens to every Christmas fanatic, great and small — from time to time, the repetition of those classic stories and songs wears on us. Forever Plaid creator Stuart Ross obviously gets it, and his holiday follow-up, Plaid Tidings, offers a refreshing middle ground: just the right combination of spiced-up musical innovation, holiday and otherwise, mingling with familiar fireside comfort. Enjoyable theater and enjoyable holiday show don't always go hand in hand, but this spirited Gem Theatre production, directed by Mark Martino, has a handle on both.

Viewers like me who haven't seen the original are helpfully caught up by introductory narration and thickly spread exposition by the guys. The mythology behind Forever Plaid holds that the semi-professional singing quartet of the same name, tragically killed in a 1964 auto accident, is granted one reprieve to perform a final show on Earth — which, let's face it, doesn't exactly leave room for a sequel. Accordingly, here the Plaid lads are deposited at the theater with little fanfare and less understanding of their journey's purpose, but they decide to just start singing until they stumble upon and accomplish their true mission. Any viewer sharp enough to note the play title knows where this is leading, but although the characters take most of the first act to catch up, there's enough going on to extend the viewer's patience. More importantly, the group's energetic, joyous take on the Christmas theme is well worth the wait.


Family, community, devotion, and apiculture are all given their due in playwright Elena Hartwell's A Strange Disappearance of Bees. The world-premiere production by Detroit Repertory Theatre is a strong union of script, direction, and tech, creating a safe-feeling yet emotionally vulnerable journey whose honey-drenched heart rarely skips a beat.

Hartwell's script uses bees and beekeeping as a framework as well as a loose metaphor for the events of the play. The central role of bees in the agriculture industry, the symbiotic relationship between the potentially deadly insects and their cultivators, the power of the female in community dynamics, and even the emergence of colony collapse disorder, a real-life threat to bees that lends the show its title, are discussed in monologue form by beekeeper Rud (Milfordean Luster). Time will tell how this highly topical entry point ages, but the connection between Rud's brief lectures and the organically unfolding events of the play are largely complementary. In fact, as directed by Hank Bennett, each element of the story feels integral, which is no small feat.


To accurately explain Cloud Tectonics — the premiere production of The New Theatre Project’s first full season, written by José Rivera — is akin to explaining a dream. Viewers who like concrete explanations for things would be well served to keep this in mind: after all, metaphysical impossibilities that are nevertheless accepted as fact are frequent features of the dream world. As directed by associate artist Ben Stange, this one-act production is appropriately dreamy, presenting a mere capsule of an unfamiliar existence that still manages to feel comfortably familiar and sound a deep emotional knell.

In a very specific place at a less-specific time, Anibal de la Luna (Samer Ajluni) takes pity on greatly pregnant hitchhiker Celestina del Sol (Jamie Weeder) during a rare Los Angeles downpour, bringing her home to dry off and eat and sleep. Having endlessly crossed the country in a vain search for her baby’s father, Celestina seems at first like a flighty, cagey vagabond; she doesn’t wear a watch and is dodgy at best in reference to questions about how long she's been traveling. Yet increasing clues, and finally a blatant statement of fact, takes the premise in a new direction: time behaves differently around Celestina; her pregnancy, for example, has lasted at least two years of real-world time. But the how and why of her extreme peculiarities, although addressed, are less important than the mere reality of them, and the profound sadness to which this world confines her. When one cannot distinguish a second from a minute from a year, connecting with another person becomes a tricky and ultimately fleeting enterprise.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog is a withering portrait of a subversive American dream. The Blackbird Theatre’s production presents this story of two brothers through the lens of their dystopian domesticity, almost disappointed in, yet defensive of, the struggles of the underprivileged, persevering black man.

Lincoln (Brian Marable) and Booth (Ruell Black), their names a bad joke from a long-gone father, appear to have no one but each other. Lincoln, the elder brother, is recliner-surfing on Booth’s good graces after being kicked out by his wife. While he tries to make a stable living (of all things, portraying Abraham Lincoln in whiteface at an arcade shooting gallery), naively ambitious Booth wants to build a three-card Monte empire, but requires the expertise and guidance of former savant Lincoln. Amid discussions of the weekly budget, the women in their lives, and their absent parents and woeful upbringing, Booth and Lincoln enter into a larger, longer con that sheds light on their past and an ominous shadow over their futures.


After last year's The Hot Mess Chronicles, a Viking funeral of sorts for its former Halloween mainstay, the Abreact comes back to the well this year with The Hot Mess Chronicles 2. This installment features four brand-new short plays, selected through a submissions process in collaboration with Planet Ant Theatre. The varied offerings are presented episodically by an ensemble cast of five, without a unifying theme or thread; this way, the show is able to be both harmlessly funny and soul-stirringly creepy, some to greater effect than others.

The production's first act is plainly its weakest, with two pieces full of quick, short scenes that require long, dark pauses to set up their sight gags and cutaways. "The ‘Screwed’ Tape Letters," an update of the adjacently named C.S. Lewis novel, concerns a minion new to Hell unable to claim the soul of a criminally boring human (Josh Campos and Brian Papandrea, respectively, who also penned the play). This interpretation doesn't add much perspective to the story, serving mostly as a vehicle for some running jokes and absurd-death gags; the highlight is James Nanys as a wasted, laid-back Satan, who’s somehow threatening even as he maintains a level of relaxation that rivals The Big Lebowski’s Dude. Next is "The Way to Win Over Annie" by Steven Blackwell, a romance told in flashbacks with a delicate Sarah Galloway as the title character, the seemingly heaven-sent girl. Whatever foreshadowing is inherent in the script is swallowed by extremely casual staging of the expository present-day scenes — the bleak and strangely funny ending is indeed a surprise, but sadly not of the should've-seen-it-coming variety. Director Mike McGettigan seems trapped in very literal staging for these two pieces; the lack of fluidity saps the scenes of polish and causes some unexpected drag.


The Purple Rose Theatre Company's world premiere of Best of Friends certainly succeeded at blasting away my expectations. Everything from the warm and fuzzy title to the so-happy portraits adorning Vincent Mountain's rich Pottery Barn catalog set to the opening notes of convivial laughter is carefully suggestive of a real, honest, touchy-feely journey of discovery and friendship. Then the actors start speaking, and the ensuing laugh-baiting eighty-five minutes unravel a savagely mean, ruthless underbelly that almost punishes every preconceived notion of niceness. Indeed, playwright Jeff Daniels's new comedy is like putting bugs together in a jar and shaking it up to watch them fight.

Told in a fluid, half-narrative style, the single-act play gives the viewer entry into the living rooms of two married couples. Privileged auto executive John Martin (Alex Leydenfrost) and his bitter lush of a wife, Beth (Michelle Mountain), fall halfway into and then unreservedly out of a friendship with rough-edged mechanic Ken Porter (Matthew David) and his easily influenced wife, Hannah (Rhiannon Ragland). An apparently harmonious quartet at first, some potentially unremarkable incidents drive an immediate, irreparable wedge between the Martins and Porters, who fully morph into scheming and vengeful monsters gleefully holding up the pretense of friendship in order to keep their enemies closer. What follows is part childish prank escalation, part upper versus upper-middle class war, and all a highly concentrated embodiment of the frenemy concept. Even as it becomes clear these couples never liked each other much, even as it becomes questionable that they are capable of liking anybody, both sides collectively come back for more, claws at the ready.


Not content to leave its Ringwald home inactive, Who Wants Cake? has actually mounted a second, concurrent production this Halloween season: Conor McPherson's Shining City. Although markedly smaller and subtler than the company's blood-smeared Evil Dead: The Musical, this "contemporary ghost story" is no second-string production. With the right attention to atmosphere and a foundation of noteworthy performances, this understated piece masks its considerable power to rattle the suggestible viewer.

The structure of McPherson's long one-act script is in itself daring, fleshing out parallel stories and leaving it to the viewer to puzzle out how and why they complement and inform each other. The action takes place in the office of new therapist Ian (Jamie Richards) and follows the progress of recently widowed patient John (Joe Bailey), who fears his late wife is haunting him. Sessions with John are balanced by scenes from Ian’s personal life, including a blazing fight with Neasa (Cassandra McCarthy), the mother of his child, and a hesitant, clumsy scene with a stranger (Matthew Turner Shelton). Contrasting scenes in which Ian participates with ones in which he merely listens is certainly an interesting choice, one that deepens the character and reminds the viewer that this isn’t some kind of horror movie — life goes on as usual, even when one person is battling with literal and figurative ghosts.

As far as classic American theater goes, the deservedly canonized Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sells itself. Matrix Theatre cofounder Wes Nethercott directs this production of Tennessee Williams's iconic play, for which Matrix has taken up residence at the YMCA Boll Family Theatre in downtown Detroit. The larger venue boasts stadium seating for excellent visibility, and allows set designer Eric W. Maher more space and options for his Southern plantation bedroom and adjacent breezeway. The set is a livable blend of well-worn comfort and opulence, which properties designer Stella Woitulewicz fills with lovely period incidentals and a few gallons of amber liquor. Given the literal feel of the backdrop, this faithful, grounded production concurrently presents an honest examination of the difficulty of adult family relationships, the pitfalls of longevity and legacy, and the terror of facing one's frankly disappointing, unrecognizable life.

The pinnacle of the production is its second act (of three), the blistering confrontation of Maher as worthless drunk Brick and Alan Madlane as Big Daddy Pollitt. A heretofore sidestepped conflict between father and son is dragged out into the open, allowing each to freshly wound the other as they clumsily vie to understand and be understood. Nethercott shows incredible comfort with Williams's talky dialogue, delicately guiding the long ebbs and flows of the conversation for maximum effect without maximum drama. Much of the act is surrounded by deliberate silence, with few interruptions to act as a salve; however, incidental voices and lights by Randall Mauck work in tandem to simulate an act-closing fireworks show to rival the one happening inside the house. Madlane and Maher are well matched, using their familial closeness as weapons as they dispense with niceties and claw into the scandalous truth behind Brick's career failures, chronic laissez-faire, and epic alcoholism.


Halloween is a time to celebrate the unexplained and/or supernatural, but fright and danger can just as easily originate from the better demons of our corruptible human nature. This season, Planet Ant Theatre delights in a manmade horror show in Nightmare Box, an assortment of original short plays by local writers. Not quite it-could-happen-to-YOU cautionary tale, but certainly not a bloodbath for its own sake, the production is an examination of the dark and depraved motivations of people who could, at first, almost pass for normal.

The structure of this two-act play intersperses the title piece, a hero’s journey to prevent a mystery-shrouded event of mythical proportions, among half a dozen stand-alone vignettes. Playwrights Dave Davies, Margaret Edwartowski, Kelly Rossi, Marke Sobolewski, and Shawn Handlon (who also directs) present a handful of characters and scenarios that seem far removed from real life, but each has a kernel of humanity at its core that makes it — if improbable — still frighteningly believable. As the production was created via a call for submissions, it’s understandable that the resulting show is a bit at a loss for unifying tone. A grab bag of styles ranges from aggressive confrontation to feather-light black comedy to unveiling intimate horror; twist endings and staggering reveals abound. Although the production has a few gory surprises in store, the intrigue relies in large part on story and character, preying on emotional and intellectual fear responses rather than resorting to shock value.


"Dying is easy; comedy is hard"? Try both at once. In large part, what makes Evil Dead: The Musical such cultish fun is its dedication to reproducing the original horror films' gore and suspense, woven right into the utterly insane campiness of its silly tunes and raunchy dialogue. They could scare the wits out of you if they wanted to, and they don't mind letting you know it.

After its madly successful production last year, Who Wants Cake? has partnered with Olympia Entertainment and resurrected the musical for another Halloween run, but this time the Deadites have taken to downtown Detroit's City Theatre. With some of the same cast, the same director (Joe Plambeck), and the same creative team, the result is a production that looks and feels happily familiar, but plays out on an enormous stage that set designer Tommy LeRoy makes into a playground for Jen and Ted Hansen's mystical array of special effects. Everything is supersized, from the cabin walls to the knick-knack assortments to the taxidermied moose head, with no drop in quality. Blood fountains, Michele LeRoy's dazzling lighting, sound effects, and an unseen three-piece band exist together in practically perfect harmony with a hardworking cast that captures the delicate balance between homage and mockery.


October is playoff season, and the Encore Musical Theatre Company hopes to spread some of that baseball fever in Damn Yankees (words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop). Indeed, many themes of this 55-year-old musical are still relevant to contemporary audiences: the questionable benefits of all-consuming fandom, the rift that sports causes in romantic relationships, and the timeless YANKEES SUCK.

The show's setting really captures a summer-baseball feeling, with Daniel C. Walker's incredible whirling and folding grass-green set plus bright-orange dirt and chalk line accents. Yet with help from his ambitious lighting, the scenes off the field don't feel like they're still on the diamond. Period costumes by Colleen E. Meyer pop with clean, Rockwell brightness. The play is preceded with the singing of the national anthem, and concessions at the rear of the theater call out to patrons hungry for peanuts or a hot dog. It's a nostalgic take on America's pastime, a simpler era when a grown man could sell his soul to the devil, leave his family and work behind, age negative-forty years, walk on with his favorite team midseason as the best hitter anyone's ever seen, lead the Senators to the pennant, and maybe even get away with it all.


The Internet swears that The God of Isaac is a comedy; I say that's not the whole truth. Instead, what the Jewish Ensemble Theatre and director Christopher Bremer serve up for two hours is a deceptively light approach to serious questions of faith and culture. It's funny, but don't be fooled — comedy alone can't make you feel nearly this much.

The play has a layered meta structure: Isaac Adams (Michael Brian Ogden) has written a play, about himself, and this is it, and he's in it, and he plays himself. (It works better on stage than it does in print.) Keep in mind that Isaac Adams is a character, and that the play was actually written by James Sherman, and that everything that plays out is scripted, because the production does a fine job of trying to make the viewer forget. Front and center on designer Sarah Tanner's city apartment/front stoop for nearly the entire show, Ogden spends much of his time talking directly to the audience in a narrative role, adding story details and anecdotes and providing commentary about his own feelings, but he also takes part in scenes with characters identified only as "Actor" and "Actress." The predominant sense is that Isaac is, by contrast, real, that this is a private expedition playing out in front of a paying crowd — so much so, in fact, that one almost forgets to credit Ogden for wholly disappearing into the role. His command of the audience and differentiation of scripted moments from supposedly off-the-cuff dialogue (remember, still just as scripted) makes it easy to accept that he is playwright/actor Isaac, digesting these issues in real time as well as in the world of the show. And he does it all while battling the ultimate heckler: his Jewish mother.

Meadow Brook Theatre certainly enjoys its spooky-scary this time of year, and indeed, its production of Dracula, A Rock Opera (by John R. Briggs, in collaboration with Dennis West) excels in its moments of fright and danger. The audience gets a glimpse of it in a foreboding early scene in which Transylvanian villagers painstakingly explain to foreigner Jonathan Harker (Eric Gutman) exactly what Dracula is and what he does...if only Harker had listened. However, the play's biggest accomplishment is a thrilling graveyard confrontation between vampire hunters and their prey — the staging and special effects considerably heighten the tension and make for a spine-tingling experience. Director Travis W. Walter clearly knows how to do suspense, and revels in the kill-or-be-killed standoffs between good and evil.

Unfortunately for a production that so champions its action scenes, much of the show feels frustratingly inactive by comparison. Most of the first act concerns Jonathan corresponding with his faraway love, Wilhelmina (Andrea Mellos), and slowly — really slowly — coming to realize what every viewer already knows by virtue of the show title. The story also pauses to concern itself with the marriage of Lucy (Katie Hardy) and Arthur (Rusty Mewha) and her corresponding rejection of Dr. Seward (Caleb Gilbert), a plot point that simply drags in contrast to the exciting parts and has almost no tangible effect on later interactions. The fault may lie in a combination of audience familiarity and format: because the viewer already knows the basics of the story, the details of the performance are what matter, but it's hard to subtly play awakening comprehension when the score requires one to essentially wail it. Rock opera has little room for nuance, which is too bad because several of these scenes feel like marking time without it.

Mid-Michigan theater can let out a collective breath: after nearly a year of fundraising, a flurry of staged readings, and two incarnations of its Web site, Stormfield Theatre has taken the leap of faith and come out with its first fully staged production. With founder and artistic director Kristine Thatcher as the public face of the company, it's only fitting that the inaugural play be not only directed by Thatcher, but written by her as well. Happily, the choice is much more than just apropos; her 1997 Among Friends is a tour de force, and this incarnation quite simply shines.

With this production, the theater has also found a new temporary home in downtown Lansing, a ringingly bare-walls property tastefully softened with curtains and rows of chairs on three sides of a modestly sized raised stage. Yet this unassuming setting is home to lush production values in Michelle Raymond's set of staggered walls and Tim Fox's through-the-window lights that introduce each scene. Sparsely appointed enough to stand in as three men's homes, the set is a marvel of varied hues and finishes that's a perfect fit for its surroundings. These elements are also well met by three expert performances in a story about how surprisingly tenuous friendships can be.


The Hilberry season begins with Hay Fever, playwright Noël Coward's over-the-top story of an eccentric family whose only delight bigger than deriding each other seems to be deriding each other's friends and acquaintances. Director David J. Magidson presents most of this production at face value, focusing on character and relationship rather than fine-tuning comic bits; the result is a well-crafted comedy that swells with potential to really let the laughs fly.

The entire play takes place in the country home of the Bliss family: novelist and father David (Alan Ball), retired stage diva and mother Judith (Samantha Rosentrater), lackadaisical fop Simon (Andrew Papa), and snitty princess Sorel (Sarah Hymes). The children are awful because their parents are awful — the entire family thinks itself somehow evolved beyond the kind of horrible politeness other people put themselves through. And yet each of the four has quietly invited someone to the house for the weekend; unsurprisingly, they soon lose interest in their respective guests and then tire of the prospect of hosting altogether. It's proof positive that a comedy of manners can still bring the former in the total absence of the latter.


Oh, Craigslist. Just look at what you've done.

As the instigating event of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's boom, a vague online personal ad brings Jo (Jaye Stellini) to Jules's (Jeffery J. Steger) bomb-shelter basement laboratory/apartment seeking anonymous sex. (Red flags, anyone?) Indeed, what happens goes well beyond any convention of boy meets girl: Jules, believing a comet is about to wipe out the human race, seals them together in the lab, hoping to convince Jo to be the Eve to his Adam. As each worst-case scenario is somehow trumped by an even worse one, this Breathe Art Theatre Project comedy (directed by Diane Hill) cleanly cycles through genres with each added piece of context, from opposites-attract first date to threatening hostage situation to animals refusing to mate in captivity to abject post-apocalyptic hopelessness. For that's the really funny thing about Jules's catastrophic prediction…he was right.


Tanya Barfield's script for Blue Door is beyond ambitious, taking on themes of race and identity in concert with issues of ancestry and origin. As presented, it's enough material for two entirely separate plays, yet Barfield comes out with a highly distilled ninety-minute powerhouse. Cemented by intense performances and Suzi Regan's thoughtful direction, the Williamston Theatre's production is a luminous mingling of personal identity with personal history, and the case of a man who desperately wants to cut one off from the other.

Lewis (Rico Bruce Wade) is an accomplished academic and professor who wants to stop being seen as a black man and be just a man. At the play's outset, his refusal to attend the Million-Man March has turned out to be the last straw that ends his marriage. This in turn plunges him into one bleak and sleepless night, his head swirling with liquor and thoughts — the latter taking physical form in actor Julian Gant, who appears as Lewis's brother, Rex, as well as their grandfather, Jesse, and great-grandfather, Simon. Gant's varied characters inform the past Lewis doesn't care to acknowledge: his ancestors' upbringings as slaves, their emancipation and subsequent struggle to exercise their freedoms, and the continuing (even increasing) danger of being black in the murderous deep South. Lewis, meanwhile, is disgusted that the reviews of his book all qualified him as a black mathematician, as though his work has been assigned some kind of handicap; however, what Lewis sees as his desire for parity, Rex labels as assimilation. The brothers' different approaches to honoring their forefathers' struggle for equality is a fascinating exploration of how, and whether, race should play a part in one's self-perception.


Actor Tommy Simon has an unmistakable Woody Allen–esque quality. Distinctive voice, nervous streak a mile wide, little skinny guy with glasses...he can naturally turn on what the legendary playwright and filmmaker has made into a calling card. And here, with Magenta Giraffe Theatre and director Frannie Shepherd-Bates, Simon takes a stab at the classic Allen protagonist in the legend's own Play it Again, Sam. Casting a Woody Allen type for an Allen play seems like a slam dunk, but it carries considerable risk: the actor's innate similarities to the iconic original cannot help but invite comparison, which may leave the viewer wondering whether this is merely mimicry. Having seen Simon's work before, I was able to discern and appreciate the actor's own fresh (if often reminiscent) take on the character of Allan Felix. Many of the choices worked in their own right, adding a flurry of activity and energy to Allen's usual subdued pacing and hand-wringing, yet I couldn't help thinking that a few moments might have gone better were they done Allen's way.

Certain themes and scenarios loom large in the playwright's body of work, and this one is no exception, despite dating back to 1969: here's a real loser of a man, with equally high and low opinions of himself, obsessed with sex, in a New York setting. Recently divorced but longtime head case Allan is adrift in the first act, enlisting the help of best friend Dick (Stephen Blackwell) and Dick's wife, Linda (Jaclyn Strez), to provide emotional support and, even better, an attractive woman to fill the void in his life. The man is an utter mess, in no shape to meet anyone, which is proven in an overblown slapstick scene in which Simon's trying too hard tries too hard. Dick's officious inattention to anything but work makes him live up to his name, and sets the stage for Allan to loosen up and be himself in Linda's company. The story blossoms along with the affection between Allan and Linda, which goes exactly as one would expect, given the source. Surprises are few, but the real draw of this production is the skewed self-damning perspective and sharply awkward dialogue for which the writer is known.


The Performance Network opens its season with a difficult perspective on political conflict, the children compelled to fight for their countries, and the parents who think they know better. However, the David Wolber–directed Sonia Flew doesn't feel like propaganda; instead, it presents two beautifully sad family portraits that make the political very personal indeed.

Playwright Melinda Lopez's intriguing structure presents challenges that pay off handsomely in this production. The first act introduces a contemporary family preparing to celebrate the holidays just months after 9/11. Son Zak (Russ Schwartz) confidently defends his revelation that he is leaving college to enlist in the military, which upsets no one more than his mother, Sonia (Milica Govich). Although its members are at odds, this family certainly feels like a cohesive unit, and the ensuing dinner-table battle sets the stakes high. Zak alludes to Sonia's own origins in Cuba and the circumstances of her departure, which she swears she will never talk about — until the second act, set in 1961 Havana, with the same cast switching roles to depict the flight of young Sonia (Christina L. Flynn), part of a real movement known as Operation Pedro Pan.


The D.H. Lawrence novel Women in Love gets roughed up in Barton Bund's original adaptation (of the same name) for the Blackbird Theatre — characters, scenes, plot points are stripped away to get at the story Bund wants to tell. Personally, I never read the book and chose to go in fresh; my limited knowledge of the source material comes from later Web research, spurred by a curious program synopsis whose long exposition, to my surprise, never played out onstage. What does unfold readily challenges and sustains the viewer over the two hours of this production, which Bund also directs, but it does not completely eliminate the sensation that something is missing.

This feeling of absent context is unintentionally supported by an otherwise cool and innovative set (Bund again). Fabric pieces stretch abstractly into the newly black corners of the SH\aut\ Cabaret and Gallery, providing a neutral backdrop that pops in concert with Sarah Lucas's targeted lighting design. Set apart from the blank shapes and one multipurpose chaise are the myriad details and patterns of Dana Sutton's magnificent costumes, which merge the suggestion of early-1900s period with eye-catching Eastern influences in a tight overall concept. Still, the rewardingly complex visuals of the performers and performances themselves, in contrast to the general dearth of properties and the black-dominated surroundings, seem to emphasize that the background's been cut out of this picture.


The play on opposites in Jane Martin's Criminal Hearts begins even before the Planet Ant production gets underway. Faced with the challenge of making a mattress, towering pizza boxes, and myriad Dr. Pepper cans resemble an upscale Chicago apartment, set designer Dave Early fills the Spartan surroundings with details, from beautiful molding to accent lights that tastefully mark the space where a featured art piece used to be. The play quickly explains the circumstances behind disturbed, nearly agoraphobic Ata (Kate Peckham): her cheating husband took everything that wasn't nailed down, which is especially problematic because Bo (Sharon L. Brooks) has just come to rob the place.

Under Will Myers’s direction, this production has a streak of unevenness. For every perfectly timed laugh-out-loud retort (and there are several), there’s another choice that runs contrary to the text. Myers’s staging generally compensates well for a challenging L-shaped seating configuration, but leaves characters awkwardly stranded when the focus shifts. As endearing as Peckham is while neck-deep in desperation and squalor, it’s difficult to imagine her Ata even passing as a functional adult capable of basic hygiene, let alone the strong woman whose unconventional departure from the bourgeoisie the viewer is expected to celebrate.


Among many other intrigues, the Abreact's True West is a marvel of consumption. The theater uncharacteristically added a curtain speech prior to the performance; its message, in a nutshell: stuff goes flying, so watch out. In its claustrophobic standoff between two mismatched brothers, the production seems to accumulate more objects than it has space to strew them, making literal a major theme of playwright Sam Shepard's script — this kitchen ain't big enough for the both of us.

This Abreact tenth-season opener unveils a new layout for the theater in its second year at Lafayette Lofts, widening the stage and pushing the seating up close on three sides. (And by close, I mean don't-set-your-drink-there-it's-part-of-the-set close.) The current setting of an unremarkable kitchen comes alive by how frequently and easily its performers interact with it — because the space is so intimate that fakery is impossible, they open and consume cans of beer, turn on the coffee percolator, toast and butter bread, and take out their frustrations on a typewriter. How a theater comes up with the budget to furnish and replenish all these things is a wonder in itself. Yet the effect is well worth it, adding a gathering sense of danger to a zero-sum game that tests the tensile strength of the line between sibling rivalry and outright hatred.


How does a decades-married man throw off the mantle of fidelity and cut loose for a one-off steamy love affair? If Last of the Red Hod Lovers is any indication, the answer is: ineptly, awkwardly, uproariously. Tipping Point Theatre and director James Kuhl tackle Neil Simon's comic tale of one man's quest to get extramarital, backing up Benny Hill levels of silliness with fine character work and subtlety.

At first sight, Barney Cashman (Dave Davies) seems like an unlikely Lothario. Spend a few minutes with him and the conviction just gets stronger — he's a painstakingly responsible owner of a fish restaurant, a husband and father, who's always followed the rules. Now approaching age fifty, he wants to do something ribald before it's too late, and so he invites an acquaintance (Sandra Birch) to his mother's empty apartment, with soaring expectations of one afternoon of perfect emotional and sexual connection. When he unsurprisingly fails to woo the chain-smoking, no-nonsense, storming-out firebrand, Barney goes back for more, changing tactics but not expectations (and certainly not venue), with two different women. 


Northville's Tipping Point Theatre built itself a home with an eye for ground-up design. Entrances at all corners, a high ceiling with far-reaching lighting grid, and movable riser seats keep its returning patrons guessing. This tabula-rasa space, in which designers elect not only whether and where to erect the walls but how to arrange the seating, celebrates the exciting theatrical possibility of an empty room. To supplement the theater's usual seats-on-three-sides approach, this season the company made its first — and then its second — foray into the round. The resulting productions packed the intimate feel of a black-box theater with thoughtful staging and substantial polish.


Populated entirely by the students of Wayne State University's graduate repertory program in theater, the names and faces of the Hilberry Theatre become especially familiar over the course of a season. This was true even though I missed two of this season's early offerings, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Chekhov's The Seagull. In the absence of these ultimate classic's classics, the remaining four productions offered a variety of styles and moods, from an accessible and well-loved musical to a lesser-known nonlinear think piece that challenged audiences both intellectually and morally.


As one might expect from a biographical one-woman show, the subject of Performance Network's Woman Before a Glass is interesting, successful, and famous in her own right. White-haired Peggy Guggenheim invites the audience into her mid-1960s Italian palazzo filled with her "children," a staggering collection of modern art assembled over a lifetime. In the play's expansive eighty minutes, actor Naz Edwards and director Malcolm Tulip delve into art and artists, politics and religion, and Peggy's private life and family.

What makes playwright Lanie Robertson's take on Peggy worth the visit is the character's scathing honesty, her abundant humor, and — yes, at least in part — her wealth. As "merely" a millionaire Guggenheim (small potatoes compared with most of her relatives), she attributes most of her success to herself, and to a large degree it's deserved; she may have started with a few million, but what she did with it stemmed from her own ingenuity and drive. The combination of gumption and bankroll allowed Peggy to cultivate a curious amalgamation of nuances: now firing words crisply into the phone with the savvy entrepreneurship of a self-made woman, now throwing about her coture wardrobe like an unimpressed debutante, now saucily dropping names of some of the most celebrated modern artists of the mid-twentieth century.


The most obvious characteristic that makes Breathe Art Theatre Project unique is its status as one of the only "cross-border" companies on the continent. Each production this season enjoyed a three-weekend run in downtown Detroit's Furniture Factory, then packed up for a final weekend at Windsor's Mackenzie Hall. The company scaled back somewhat with only three productions this season: one story of a man whose whole world fits in four walls, one of a young girl living exclusively in her imagination, and one of a decimated city whose residents' ruination seems far from over.

Self discovery does not equal happily ever after. This is the bitter pill served up in Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed, in which heartache lies not in life's random unfairness, but in the willful choices made by people in a position to hurt each other. As directed by Joe Bailey, this Who Wants Cake? production is an emotionally bloody work wrapped up in the tenderest of love stories.

Providing the framework of the play is Diane (Suzan M. Jacokes), Hollywood agent to rising star Mitchell (Vince Kelley). Diane knows her client is gay, even when he isn't fully ready to admit it; she also knows how quickly and completely that fact would hobble his film career. Mitchell's awakening comes in the form of Alex (Matthew Turner Shelton), a straight-identifying rent boy summoned to the wasted actor's New York hotel room. The first-act scenes are permeated by nervous timidity, a reflection of Kelley's believably pained reluctance and half-hearted denial, as the men accept by halting degrees their deep emotional and physical attraction. Caustic, comic Jacokes dismissively presides over these developments, as Diane exhibits her skills as narrator, talent wrangler, sharklike negotiator, and almost-soulless problem solver.


BoxFest Detroit 2010 is the latest installment in an ever-growing enterprise to support and encourage women directors in the metro Detroit theater community. This year's festival is marked by the promotion of longtime collaborator Molly McMahon to artistic director, accompanied by Kelly Rossi's return as executive director. Both are omnipresent at the Furniture Factory performance space, swapping shifts at the box office with other festival directors. The participants' eagerness to help events run smoothly is evident — among the volunteers manning the concessions counter is Frannie Shepherd-Bates, artistic director of Magenta Giraffe Theatre, which is playing host to the festival. The prevailing sense is one of overlap between the people actively involved in the plays and the people making the machine run, as well as joy in what they've brought to fruition.

Over the years, the BoxFest Detroit franchise has grown from a single evening of short plays to a three-week festival with a complicated schedule of six individual programming blocks. It has become literally too much theater to see in a single day — I know, because I tried. Short plays are fascinating and fun to dissect because they can create strange, special worlds without having to sustain them; the seventeen of this year's festival are no exception, but the sheer number limits my capacity to describe each as fully as it deserves.


What audiences generally want from The Sound of Music is the closest possible approximation to the Julie Andrews movie. I don’t intend this as a condemnation; the film is wound tightly into our cultural DNA, and few movie musicals are grander. Deviation from such a deeply ingrained classic is a risky proposition: why jar when one can delight? Accordingly, the Encore Musical Theatre Company and director Barbara F. Cullen chose to play it very safe with this production. Although this is no simple mimicry (among other variations, this staging of the original Rogers and Hammerstein script and score includes three songs that did not appear in the film and omits two that did), viewers who attend the Encore production with the movie in mind should be pleased with its familiar feel.

The complete ubiquity of the play’s songs essentially partners the success of a production with the success of its music, and here musical director Jill Quagliata delivers handily. From the engrossing a cappella hymns of the abbey nuns, led by the glorious voice of Jody Doktor as Mother Abbess, to the accurate several-part harmony of the Von Trapp children, every last song is lush and rich. (It’s a good thing, too, because there were never so many reprises as there are in this musical.) Quagliata also provides piano accompaniment, assisted only by CT Hollis on keys, yet the score never stands out as being too sparse. When there’s singing, which is nearly always, the production swells and delights.

There's a lot going on during the three time slots of Go Comedy!'s August Thursdays: improv, a reboot, a sequel, even a hot tub. The visually distinct and conceptually unique offerings highlight the difference between a three-hour show and three shows in as many hours: where the former can sometimes feel like eating a novelty-sized giant hamburger, the latter is akin to a long encampment at a buffet — and what a spread.

Although Thursday is Go's sole night for scripted fare, some improvisation tends to seep in at the edges, and here is no exception. One time slot is supplemented by a short set from members of the weekend All-Star Showdown — the All-Star Grab Bag, as they call themselves, engage in a loose long-form style in which suggestions are simply reflections of the preceding scenes. In the absence of the competitive format and structured improv games, the improvisers use the basics of relationship and conflict to build a hit-and-miss flow of scenes (with more hits than misses). Flight 1977 returns in its late-night slot, in which Pj Jacokes, Bryan Lark, and Matt Naas essentially play themselves and improvise a conversation on an airplane. It's like My Dinner With Andre, if Andre and Wallace Shawn had made jokes about Cedar Point and 1980s fads. The unconventional form allows these three funny people to let the conversation simply drift, confident that it will land in some very amusing places.


If nothing else, the Blackbird Theatre's season was a true test of its mettle. From producing a strong first half to suddenly announcing a swift change in venue to postponing its spring plays until next season, its journey has been a roller coaster ride that hasn't entirely subsided. However, the Blackbird battled setbacks with a daring original musical, followed by a long-awaited announcement about the organization's future. Yet the turbulent and dramatic real-life events of this season should not overshadow the many artistic accomplishments of this outspoken and experimental theater.


Something in The Two Gentlemen of Verona compelled director Barton Bund to play it in the vein of a Judd Apatow movie: the story of hapless losers and their shortcomings as they bumble through adulthood and responsibility. The resulting Water Works Theatre production contains much evidence in support of the notion, although whether the entirety of the play is ready for this take is less clear. However, from the silly song and dance numbers to the fluorescent design that blazes in the fading sunlight of Royal Oak's Starr Jaycee Park, the show's two and a half hours deliver a familiar flavor of contemporary humor via an unlikely channel.

Quite like the "bro" comedies that inspired it, this production finds riches in its wacky supporting characters. As the Duchess, Linda Rabin Hammell is hilariously eccentric in voice and mannerism, conducting one of the play's funniest scenes in which she catches a young troublemaker about to steal away with her daughter. Jaime Weeder and Tommy Simon are highly emphasized in their roles as conniving servants; Simon in particular has a multifaceted humor that belies uncanny control and awareness. Stephen Blackwell carefully renders man-of-few-words Thurio duller than furniture, which in itself becomes an effective punchline. Sean Paraventi plays a handful of small roles to keep the cast compact, doing his best work as secretive Eglamour. A real, live dog gets surprising stage time as Crab the Dog and reaffirms that having an animal onstage is never not funny.


Sex, danger, and dangerous sex: the original adaptation The Spring Awakening Project makes for an intense 90 minutes. The inaugural production of The New Theatre Project, directed by founder and Artistic Director Keith Paul Medelis, uses the rigidly repressed and uninformed adolescents of Frank Wedekind's century-old script to examine the intangible threshold between childhood and adulthood.

The play moves fast, combining elements of song, dance, fantasy, and unlikely narration with more straightforward two-person scenes; although the cadence and immediacy of the tone can feel initially prohibitive, it took me little time to catch up with the characters and sort out each of their stories. Viewers like me, who have never seen the original Spring Awakening or its popular musical adaptation, will be well assisted by a quick Wikipedia overview of the major players and plot points. Most of the plot developments are lifted from the source material, although a few surprises emerge, including the appearance of a delightfully bonkers deus ex machina that makes total sense in the context of the project. True to a young perspective, it seems as though none of these young people has any agency over the the situations that change — and sometimes end — their lives; all the characters can manage is to feel and react and despair.


We think of love as such a complicated thing, when the recipe is simple: one man, one woman, one waiter. So argues Williamston Theatre's Five Course Love, in a bawdy production that repeatedly defies expectations. Directed by Tom Woldt, the one-act musical sprawls and meanders, but just when it appears to be no more than a series of barely linked vignettes about the marriage of sex and international cuisine, playwright/composer Gregg Coffin ties it all together handsomely.

To be fair, love remains hidden for most of the 90-minute production. Instead, the first scenes are more concerned with aspects of passion and lust: four increasingly rowdy demonstrations that perversion knows no nationality. Performers Laura Croff, Matthew Gwynn, and Aaron T. Moore each play five different characters, changing costumes and hair as sharply as they change their accents. In the absence of a clear plot line, the production relies heavily on its jokes — big comedy founded in euphemisms, sight gags, and over-the-top characterization, giving much of the show a musical-sketch-comedy feel. However, it's the ending that really sparks: it's clever, it justifies everything that precedes it, and I never saw it coming.


Girls will be boys and boys will be girls, but that's only part of the mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world that is Sordid Lives: It's a Drag! The Who Wants Cake? production of Del Shores's Sordid Lives swaps genders across the board, with female roles played by men and male roles played by women, but whether it's even possible to further skew the already distorted and tawdry proceedings of one small Texas town is up for debate.

In a community where everybody knows everybody's business, the nightmare of losing a parent becomes even worse in light of the embarrassing details of her demise. Yes, sister, mother, grandmother, and scandalously uninhibited of late Peggy Ingram has suffered a truly saucy, lusty death, which sets off shock waves through her family and friends that forces them together and allows them to right longstanding wrongs. To explain the relationships among the dozen characters would require a flow chart which, if attempted, would probably buckle under its own weight and implode. However, Shores uses careful, corroborating exposition and liberal amounts of gossip to bring the viewer up to speed; in the moment, what needs to be understood comes across well.


Part of the reason why my most recent Thursday at Go Comedy! seemed to pass at a quicker clip (despite its similar running time) is the presentation of two shows instead of three. More of the reason is that the second of the two offerings is a film. Although I don't plan to migrate into film criticism, this review is entitled "Thursdays at Go Comedy!," so here goes.

The 8 PM time slot belongs to the original comedy Space Fight. Written and directed by Pete Jacokes and Jen Hansen, the 40-minute sketch production presents a skewed view of the Star Wars narrative. The show opens with video of a subtitled toddler babbling her lopsided understanding of the story, and scene changes feature projected images of children's drawings of characters and scenes from the films. While cute and amusing, the through-a-child's-eyes take doesn't completely gel with the story lines of the live sketches: the conventionally heroic Rebel forces being composed of local yokels, Darth Vader attempting a softer leadership style, and workaday slackers musing about the Empire from the apolitical outskirts of the conflict. The plot of the original trilogy is merely alluded to from the periphery of the action, a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to Star Wars's Hamlet. As with most spoof productions, it appears the better the viewer knows the source material, the more there is to appreciate.


To briefly summarize the accomplishments of Matrix Theatre Company is a challenge, given the organization's far-reaching scope and multifaceted goals. Crucial to its mission is the symbiosis of community and place — not only striving to enroll neighborhood residents as performers and audiences, but tailoring its material to address the issues most important to them. The company's exhaustive approach to making art that reflects on its surroundings belies its conviction to foster social justice. The trade-off is that sometimes, performance quality must take a back seat.


There's two people having breakfast and there's a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that's a surprise. But if it doesn't... —concept attributed to Alfred Hitchcock

Boeing-Boeing is a comedy, and a very good one, but it also gets mileage from Hitchcock's perspective on suspense. A woman's decision whether to eat at home or go out for dinner plays totally different when the audience knows there's another woman behind the bedroom door — and that neither is aware of the other's existence. It's taxing to worry every instant that one character could walk in the wrong door, doubly disconcerting when another might come out. In its production of this 1960s Marc Camoletti script (adapted from the original French by Beverly Cross), the Purple Rose Theatre Company has crafted a riotous flavor of thriller: five doors, three fiancees, and two hours spent wondering when the truth will detonate.


The Planet Ant Theatre's almost-insane goal to produce all three plays of Joseph Zettelmaier's The All Childish Things Trilogy in repertory seems, on its face, like an answer to the summer blockbuster. Sure, the movie quotes, criminal activity, action, heroism, and sequel format may be familiar fare, but to pass off these productions as mimicry or parody is to undersell them. Any notion of big-budget fluff should be disabused from the start: director Shannon Ferrante and her workhorse cast and crew infuse this immense undertaking with an underdog sensibility that makes for one winning series.

On the Star Wars superfan end of the spectrum, ACT is stormtrooper approved. Not only are members of the Michigan chapter of the 501st Legion frequently in attendance, but Zettelmaier has been inducted as an honorary member of the premier fan-organized society, signs he must have done something right. Yet this epic adventure about childhood best friends grown up — and still growing up — is equally accessible to viewers whose familiarity with Star Wars is limited to its considerable cultural footprint. Take it from someone who has actually seen ACT Episode I more times than all but one of the George Lucas films: "Boba Fett is that one guy, with the...thing" is a perfectly acceptable entry point. Star Wars amateurs will likely understand the references better than they expect, and, more importantly, these characters' specific devotion translates to a more universal kind of passion that any audience can appreciate.


Against the oppressive heat of a Michigan summer, the Performance Network Theatre has conjured up a Dublin winter in Conor McPherson's The Seafarer. Under the direction of Malcolm Tulip, the production takes its misguided characters and toys with delivering at least one of them from his hellish fate.

The major story is bundled up tightly with a handful of smaller arcs, touching on themes of dependence and redemption. Recently blinded Richard (Hugh Maguire) is forced to rely on others to provide for him. He and his brother, Sharky (Aaron H. Alpern), eke by with the help of cash settlements they seek after getting drunk and injuring themselves on public property. Everyone has an alcohol dependency. Friend and occasional caretaker Ivan (Keith Allan Kalinowski) waits out Christmas Eve at Richard and Sharky's house after a row with his wife, waiting to find a way back into her good graces. Finally, fair-weather Nicky (Joel Mitchell) swings by to tell of his all-day bender financed by mysterious companion Mr. Lockhart (Richard McWilliams). This is when all the other stories become so much background din: unbeknownst to the others, Sharky discovers he is beholden to the devil for his soul, and his only hope rests on a friendly game of poker.