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.

With major shifts in tone that can prohibit prior scenes from resonating, I had trouble embracing the show as a whole; instead, I found myself examining its individual parts. This is borne out by the staging itself: the promised interweaving is generally abandoned for neatly packaged scenes with clean blackouts between, resembling a sketch comedy style. Even when characters appear onstage together but in separate realities, Michael Williams's lighting design tends to show one person at a time. However, when Michalik deviates from this formula, the scenes themselves and how they inform each other become far more interesting — I would have loved to see more of this careful attention to how one point of focus evolves into another. The staging makes use of most of the theater, including a fair amount of interaction with the orange cones and barrels of the set as well as with Barbara Michalik and Kelley Stonebraker's cornucopia of props. Many scenes of the first act have to do with popular culture, family, and romantic relationships; the second act veers into more serious themes of war and the causes that inspire people to action. The overwhelming amount of material makes some inherently forgettable, and the play runs a bit long, especially when several scenes at the end feel like the finale.

As with a literal collage or tapestry, even an uneven one will have superior points of detail, and there were several choices here that sang through. Among these, Michalik's multimedia approach required the actors to cue videos and perform monologues as video bloggers, all from a laptop placed onstage (vloggers' voices are artificially amplified by nearby speakers, a nice addition). The dilemma of whether to watch the live person speaking to the computer or watch the projected image is an effective demonstration of our draw to the digital world. Of the point/counterpoint scenes, one using 1950s narration about dating over scenes of a present-day "John and Mary" was both humorous and a thoughtful use of contrast. The ensemble actors all demonstrated comedic ability and a decent range of characters, although Lorenzo Toia's frightening manic-depressive in Act 2 deserves special mention, an unparalleled showcase of talent.

Without a central story or tone, Shoulder to the Wheel is certainly as challenging as it aspires to be; however, the desire to be inclusive makes for a muddled journey — some scenes having a feeling of celebration, others simply of obligation. In this early offering, in a borrowed space, Michalik's Little Volcano Productions seems to be finding its voice. I expect future productions will continue to tap the well of ingenuity at the heart of this company as it learns and refines.


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