Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


There's a certain bravado on display in director/compiler Lyndsay Michalik's Shoulder to the Wheel; even her program notes have a daring assertiveness, deferring description of what the play is about until she explains what it is [emphasis hers]. And here, in an assortment of scenes and pieces purported to weave a tapestry of American life and culture, this confidence proves to be quite at home.

Michalik's eight ensemble performers take the construction-zone stage for vignettes ranging from heartfelt monologues to abstract juxtaposition to joyous group dances. With original material from fourteen writers, we spend little time with any single perspective, which gave me the disappointing impression of a shallow overview. Presented with a fractured assortment of one-off and briefly recurring characters, I was forced to take the long view, and in so doing realized that these uniquely American points of view were primarily united in being loud, self-assured, and helplessly indulgent. Brought into sharp focus by an expatriate character — who herself cannot help betraying shades of the Ugly American she supposedly abhors — the play wants to convince us that there are a lot of right ways to be American, but unintentionally reinforces how much Americans like to be right.


Do not panic at the prelude to The Servant of Two Masters. They will start speaking English in a minute.

The newest Hilberry offering instantly plunges into the lighthearted goofiness of classic Commedia dell'Arte, as the supporting cast of clowns (all named Zany, rhymes with Yanni) gape out at the audience and then give officiously imbecilic etiquette reminders. It's both an efficient crash course in the style — "Hello, audience! We will frequently acknowledge your presence!" — and an example of director Lavinia Hart's resolve to pack ten pounds of comedy into a five-pound bag. The raucousness never lets up, similarly spilling over into intermission and curtain call; in its search for comedy potential, this production leaves no stone unturned.




Performance Network's K2 starts out ferociously; the rest of the production must aspire to do justice to its cinematic opening moments. The audience's senses are liberally assaulted with the sounds of high winds and endless terrifying darkness, juxtaposed with images of the actors coming into view on Daniel C. Walker's imposing cliffside ledge, all of which had my mouth hanging open in anticipation. Lighting and sound design by Andrew Hungerford is well used as a commanding presence and as an unobtrusive backdrop, especially in these quick illuminations.

In a production rich with such arresting visuals, two challenges arise. One is to effectively maintain the illusion of peril from being stranded at near-cruising altitude on the world's second-highest mountain, instead of mere feet above a stage floor. The other is to make the characters' words and relationship compelling enough to draw focus from the horror of their situation. Here, longtime collaborators James Bowen, John Michael Manfredi, and director Tim Edward Rhoze meet the former with aplomb, and come within a hair of sustaining the latter, in a riveting production as unforgiving as the mountain that lends it its name.


It's fitting that Based on a Totally True Story was a late entry on the Who Wants Cake? schedule; the script's structure is sometimes reminiscent of a placeholder. Everything from the "based on" of the title to the unassuming candor of the narrative suggests that this is not so much a play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, but a between-plays struggle with some personal demons, a writing exercise that turned out too good to discard.

Despite that description evoking some self-indulgent drama class exercise, director Joe Bailey's staging is pleasantly surprising in its frequent effectiveness. The story revolves around The Flash comic writer and playwright Ethan Keene (Vince Kelly), who weathers unbelievable success and personal anguish in parallel, and explains the unfolding events while clearly reticent to sort out to what extent each influenced the other. The role does not command the stage; instead, Kelly is enchantingly humble even as he plays notes of discomfort and anxiety, manifesting little tics that blossom into hilarious deliveries, but always with an undercurrent of regret — it's his story, but perhaps he wishes parts of it weren't.


From the first glimpse of A Song For Coretta, it's clear the production is willing to take risks. Nearly all the Detroit Repertory Theatre stage is taken up by an immense church facade (designed by Harry Wetzel), leaving the characters on the sidewalk outside with hardly more space in which to maneuver than that of an actual sidewalk. Every character on stage is relegated to the foreground, a manufactured challenge handled with commendable ease by director Barbara Busby.

Pearl Cleage's script throws five strangers together in line for the public viewing of the late Coretta Scott King. In the middle of the night, bothered by intermittent rain, these characters linger at the very end of the line, compelled only at the last moment to take part in history. Their reasons for coming are as varied as their lives and attitudes, and in the course of two acts we learn much about each character's convictions as well as the experiences that shaped them. It's not clear how much the women influence each others' perspectives, but their shared reverence of Mrs. King gives them — and the audience — plenty to consider.


The farcical Boeing-Boeing doesn't deceive its audience: it carefully sets up the premise and makes it clear from the beginning exactly how it will go wrong. (If asked what happens when more than one of your fiancées is in Paris at the same time, answering "Impossible!" means you [a] brought it on yourself and [b] deserve what's coming.) But in between director Travis W. Walter's air travel–inspired curtain speech and the tightly choreographed curtain call, this crisp Meadow Brook Theatre production proves that getting there is all the fun.

Marc Camoletti's play, adapted from the original French by Beverly Cross, is firmly set in the 1960s, most notably the "air hostesses" dressed like Stewardess Barbie (fine work from costume designer Liz Moore). Yet Katie Hardy's, Julianne Somers's, and Stephanie Wahl's flight attendants are far from interchangeable; instead, they're distinctly interesting, and not one is ever vacant or stupid. The women hail from different countries, have different employers, and are blissfully unaware of each other and the fact that they are all three engaged to Bernard (Christopher Howe). The audience is in on the joke, but waiting to learn when and how and whether they discover his secret — in the midst of constant near-misses and exits and entrances reminiscent of Noël Coward — adds palpable tension to this riotously funny caper.


There are some who like intense drama, who enjoy nothing more than to leave a theater feeling devastated. Others like a brief show, without those pesky intermissions. Margaret Edwartowski's new Snowbound, the latest in the Planet Ant late night series, proves one doesn't have to choose. Clocking in at just under an hour, this period piece rapidly piles on one unnavigable decision after the other, mistakes that accumulate to an inevitable but searing conclusion.

In late-1870 Colorado, what remains of the Adler family is preparing for — and fearing — another winter in isolation. However, this isn't a story of human perseverance; a sense of foreboding runs throughout, and death seems to be the only possible outcome unless they uproot themselves and move closer to the city. With the weather constantly looming, timing is everything, and on-the-spot decisions are often regretful and irreconcilable — leading to more impossible split-second choices. We spend little time with these characters; the scenes are almost like snapshots, but under director Michael Carnow, the detail and clarity of what unfolds more than makes up for its brevity.


Having missed Kwame a River and Kwame a River 2: The Wrath of Conyers, the highly lauded predecessors to Andiamo Novi's latest installment in the local-spoof canon, I have no basis of comparison for Act Your Wage: The Pink Slip and Fall of an Automotive CEO. This 60-minute comedy attempts to lampoon greedy, inept auto executives, a topic in which Southeast Michigan has been actively entrenched for months upon months, but shies away from openly mocking; the resulting vague and allegoric premise — albeit mixed in with some great bits — is tepid where it might have scorched.

Fittingly for a production on a former Second City stage, Act Your Wage is strikingly similar to a Second City revue, with a bare set, jump-cuts and other familiar scenic devices, nods to audience suggestions, and a handful of musical numbers. Yet this production puts story first, requiring expository and transitional scenes that aren't always funny; moreover, the story itself is pretty messy. CEO loses job, loses car, loses wife, is briefly introduced to how the other half lives (supposedly in order to "gain perspective," a eureka moment that never quite materializes), panics about money, flails about for a new job, and finds his calling just in time for the finale. Themes are embraced, then put on hold for another narrative thread. The script can't decide whether it wants to deliver a coherent story or just string together as many hilarious scenes as possible, and instead falls short of both.


Christmas fatigue is not an acceptable excuse to pass on Happy Season to You, Acquaintance Name. Although this Abreact comedy was originally slated for a December run, the story is more about office politics than Yuletide anything — the holiday setting is primarily a heightening device. It stands to reason that if being snowed in at the office is bad, then being snowed in at the office on Christmas Eve is a special form of torture.

It's supposed to be the last day at work for Jason (Travis Grand), but after manager Bonnie (Michelle Becker) forces him and the few remaining employees to wait out their shifts despite the bad weather, the whole gang is stuck indefinitely with no one but a new young security guard to protect — or unintentionally menace — them. The players are confined to the employee break room, a dreary little place carefully appointed with touches of banality any office worker will appreciate. (Thanks to whoever butchered the "Youre Mother Doesnt Work Hear" notice and hung near-identical posters of waterfalls, one labeled SERENITY and the other SERVICE, expertly setting the tone.)


Musicals get away with being fluffy. A man and a woman singing prettily at each other — the bar is set low. This is why the heartfelt The Last Five Years from Magenta Giraffe Theatre will soar past everyone's expectations. The small-scale piece by writer/composer Jason Robert Brown, sharply conceived and beautifully executed, delivers such exquisite sadness that your heart may explode.

The musical has just two characters, Cathy (Anne Marie Damman) and Jamie (Kevin Young); their romantic relationship has an expiration date. When the play opens, Cathy bitterly sings that it's over, yet in Jamie's reality, they've just met. From the opposite ends of their five years together, they bookend each other: he moves forward in time; she goes back. Although they occasionally share the stage, the characters mostly occupy it alone for alternating songs; there is relatively little dialogue, but a variety of  ballads and some up-tempo, rock-adjacent numbers. The concept allows us to primarily see each character feeling alone within a relationship, revealing well-earned undercurrents of pain and second guessing, and making the few points of connection all the more bittersweet. Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates takes excruciating care to develop the individuals as well as the couple, constructing believable love and loss — simultaneously — between two people who almost never address each other. The staging weaves the two actors together without being intrusive, there are no lazy choices, and everything clicks.