Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Although I can't say from experience, it seems like this final installment in the Williamston Theatre's Voices From the Midwest trilogy must be the broadest and the most diverse. From the concept by Artistic Director Tony Caselli, the previous shows explored the voices of women and then of men, but the notion of family — with its infinite variations in makeup and experience — is a challenge all its own. In Home: Voices From Families of the Midwest, writers Annie Martin and Suzi Regan (who also directs) draw from interviews and survey responses from a few dozen collaborators to present a mixed bag of styles and tones, swirling together the universal and the unique.

The show eases in with a handful of nuclear families taking part in classic activities: fighting over use of the bathroom, taking the dreaded family photo, tiptoeing around a painfully awkward sex talk. Many of the early scenes are notable for their complete dearth of cynicism; even the newly single mother on a cathartic drive to escape her former life sings with abundant positivity. Regan gives each of these disparate scenarios an energy fitting to its presentation, making scenes with a sketch-comedy sensibility feel at home next to the mournful stillness of a folk-inspired song. The overall composition of the two-hour production is exceptional, enveloping viewers in the sweetness and nostalgia they'll need to weather tougher times. As the focus radiates out into less-ubiquitous family units and highly specific characters and interactions, the emotions deepen, and the connection with the material intensifies. Elements of comedy and drama complement each other well, and the success of this script is in making both feel equally vital to the work.


The promotional material for Who Wants Cake?'s Die! Mommie! Die! gives a big, unsubtle wink to the viewer. "IN 3D!," it cackles, because in contrast to TV and movie entertainments, live theater is inherently three-dimensional, no glasses required. As adorable as the joke is, it's especially fitting for this campy parody, deliciously overacted and overproduced in order to reproduce the sensation of a B-movie genre that director Joe Plambeck likes to call psycho-biddy. Essentially, take Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and turn it up to eleven.

There's murder and mystery to spare in this action-driven comedy by Charles Busch. Former singing sensation Angela Arden (Joe Bailey) had a career that publicly tanked in the wake of her twin sister's tragic death. A dozen or so years later, the 1967 Angela is trapped in her loveless marriage with diminishing-returns producer Sol Sussman (Alan Madlane) and saddled with a hateful daughter (Melissa Beckwith) and criminally dim son (Vince Kelley). Then Angela hits upon a way out, namely murder, one that takes a truly unorthodox — and wickedly funny — form. The devilish act is followed by: threats of murder, more murder, suspicions of murder, flinging around murder accusations, extracting confessions of murder, solving murders. The cast is rounded out by two Who Wants Cake? newcomers, both from Go Comedy! just around the corner: Suzan M. Jacokes is the hard-swilling, Bible-thumping maid not so secretly in love with Sol, and Bryan Lark is the tennis pro who uses his sole talent of insatiable sexual prowess for leverage with nearly the entire family.

With no prior exposure to the work of playwright Martin McDonagh, I can't say I was prepared for what The Lonesome West had in store, but my lack of background didn't hinder my appreciation of the Planet Ant's production. One part of a trilogy with a unique point of view, the play nevertheless stood fiercely on its own. Indeed, the bleak portrait of beyond-reproach values and beyond-saving relationships in hellish Leenane, Ireland, landed like a series of emotional punches — a savage, unrelenting, exquisite beating.

The play is lousy with death, even opening immediately after a funeral: the father of Coleman (Stephen Blackwell) and Valene (Kevin Young) has died by accidental shotgun blast to the head. Other deaths, primarily murders and suicides, are discussed; it's unclear whether anyone in town has ever managed to die of natural causes. The focus of the show is the contentious relationship between the brothers, who somehow live together in their father's house, despite their greatest source of enmity — an impressive distinction, given this world — being each other. Young gives Valene a manic, Rainman-like drive to consume and protect, displaying and coveting his potato chips and menagerie of religious figurines just as much as his flashy big purchases. Coleman, conversely, has signed over his share of the inheritance for some reason, and cannot even afford to eat or drink; Blackwell gives the character pranksterish delight in numerous little revenges.


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a widowed man of a certain age, must be in want of a honey-drawled woman to penetrate his harmlessly cantankerous exterior. On the face of it, there is Kathleen Clark's Southern Comforts in a nutshell. Yet there's something more to the play, especially in this Tipping Point production directed by Joseph Albright: a real relationship.

Actors Thomas D. Mahard and Ruth Crawford are superbly cast; from the first meeting between Gus of New Jersey and Amanda of Tennessee, they have an instant rapport. Theirs never feels like an unlikely partnership — even as Gus grumbles about something or they find themselves in disagreement, it’s apparent that these aren’t two lonely people settling for each other’s companionship. Indeed, a scene at the end of the first act makes it clear how many more obstacles are in place for two seniors combining their filled-out lives than exist for young people just starting out together. Long-established preferences, deep-seated unwavering opinions, and especially a lifetime’s worth of possessions and furniture do not happily commingle; to willingly weather the strain, they must be in love.

On its one night dedicated to scripts and sketches, Go Comedy! keeps a rotating stable of shows, with at least one new offering each month. This considerable strength of keeping the material fresh is tempered by drawbacks, the major ones being theme and flow: with staggered opening and closing dates, it's unlikely that the show(s) in the 8:00 hour of any given Thursday will complement the 9:00 programming, and so on into the 10:00 late shift. Viewers should take it as a given that variety is the word of the night, and expect to be drawn in more by some shows than by others.

Debuting in May and running through June is Bro. Dude. Bro., written by Garrett Fuller and directed by Bryan Lark. Fuller and Jamen Spitzer are Beezy and Diesel, respectively, once an inseparable pair of club rats and gym rats given to drinking, fighting, and being overwhelmingly unlikable. (They're the kind of people perfect for reality TV: great fun to watch, so long as one doesn't have to interact with them.) Now Diesel, fresh off a prison stay and probation time, is father to an infant girl and trying to make something of his life. Spitzer plays his role with understatement and a serious streak, in glaring contrast to Fuller's caricature, although the latter's over-the-top approach makes possible a dance-cry scene that is ludicrously funny. The play feels a little long, like Fuller wanted to plug these not-all-that-deep characters in too many scenarios, but the committed performances and the clever use of the Go Comedy! space keep it moving.


In its one act, Don't Be Cruel: The Life and Times of the King is approximately sixty minutes biography set to music, fifteen minutes tribute concert. This multimedia play at Andiamo Novi stars Max Pellicano as Elvis Presley, narrating his own life and singing songs to fit the story. Ironically, it's only after arriving at Elvis's death that Pellicano comes to life in a joyous coda that surges with energy and fun.

Appearing alone on a narrow strip of stage, the character barely ripples the surface of Elvis's well-known and sometimes troubled life, treating events like his mama's death (sad) and meeting his future wife (happy) as though they were revelatory. Other shocking developments include: Elvis bought Graceland, and Elvis had a drug habit. The production gets plenty of support from backstage in the form of a live band and two performers whose silhouettes and voices stand in for many of Elvis's family, friends, and collaborators. Falling short of rock 'n' roll's raw power, the onstage stillness in which the man of the hour must recollect things the audience already knows feels like Walk the Line by way of Disney's Hall of Presidents.


Having left its longtime home, the Blackbird Theatre recently found itself in flux, without a space in which to stage the latter half of its season. Although several of the planned shows are bookmarked for next fall, a theater that thrives largely on ingenuity and fearlessness cannot stay dormant. This is why, despite staged readings not being my normal repertoire, I eagerly took the opportunity to drink in the new plays of the RAW Weekend.

The location chosen for the readings is noteworthy because Ann Arbor's \sh\-aut Gallery and Cabaret will also be one of the two homes of the Blackbird's next production, the mainstream-deriding original musical Patty Hearst. The open first story of a converted residence, empty save the art on its walls, holds a transient feeling that reminded me of college — students setting up chairs in dorm lounges or parks, staging plays for the sake of it, free to choose the edgy and out-there material that drives them. In this respect, raw was certainly an apt descriptor of the space, and to some degree the shows presented as well, but any lack of polish was overcome by a thrilling surge of passion, a high for any fan of new or unconventional theater.