Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


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.

Thursday night's reading was of The Sleeping Giant, a brand-new two-act play by Blackbird Founding Artistic Director Barton Bund. An amusingly cutthroat journey through the world of competitive eating, the play begins with a classic mentor relationship between old-pro Wrecking Ball (Lynch Travis) and young upstart Jurassic Josh (Joe Kathrein), but takes a turn when both "gurgitators" are helplessly upstaged and outmatched by the insatiable Jackal (Chelsea Sadler). Although Kathrein presented a rather meek war veteran cowed by his choices, the happy addition of Ohio-cheesy Sadler heaped on the intrigue in the form of a character so cheery and self-serving, she must have a dark side of pure obsidian. The script provided plenty of laughs at this quite alternative occupation, yet, as the moral center, Travis pairs his impeccable comic timing with real gravity and humanity, allowing the audience to understand how people take this sport seriously: it's his career, his whole life. The story rests on a plot point that, upon reflection, requires further explanation (why would the Jackal be intent on joining the Federation of Competitive Eating if she plans to flout its rules so brazenly?), but in real time, this offbeat script, capably directed by Michael Williams, entreated me to follow along and delivered both tension and warmth.

I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing Margaret Edwartowski's Snowbound previously. Here, in the Friday-night slot, director Jamie Weeder's choice to retain many of the setting's busy-work props — requiring the actors to handle both bottles and scripts — did less to immerse the audience in the period than to cripple the pacing. Hover, before the end of the first scene, Connie Cowper and Jenny Tocco, reprising their roles, and new faces Steven O'Brien and Alan Madlane settled into the play's rhythms sufficiently to enrapture the viewer. Edwartowski has added a middle scene that sheds light on stubborn, vile brother John's point of view; however, his static and exposition-heavy monologue threw into relief how much better this compact script functions in action than in reflection. The story of a doomed family in the deathly mountains of nineteenth-century Colorado now feels less rushed than the swift-moving first production, and has the potential to deliver an explosive and even more resonant finale with further refinement.

A scheduling conflict kept me from attending the Saturday reading, although I had seen Kim Carney's Elizabeth the Beautiful staged elsewhere with different actors. Here, under the direction of Austin Michael Tracy, the exciting cast included Julia Glander — fresh off her superb impression of Ann Landers — now as Elizabeth Taylor, and the actor's real-life husband, the usually subtle Alex Leydenfrost, as the starlet's on-again, off-again husband Richard Burton. Carney's script follows Elizabeth from a 1970s stint in rehab through a retrospective of her life and loves, borrowing unrepentantly from the premise of A Christmas Carol, with Richard as the explanatory ghost and third cast member Brendan McMahon playing all other husbands and paramours. I certainly missed seeing what this heavy-hitting cast would do with such a heavily biographical, yet surreal, script.

The RAW Weekend was a fine way for the Blackbird to stay buoyant in keeping with its mission; the three new plays gave a scintillating preview of shows by local artists that are likely to surface again in workshop or fully produced form. Given a theater whose growing pains left it in temporary limbo, it seems fitting to spend this time nurturing art in its infancy, highlighting the genesis of these works all while maintaining excitement for the future.


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