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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.

ACT Episode I, which enjoyed prior stand-alone productions under the title All Childish Things, is plenty fun and funny, but also holds up to scrutiny. The thrilling, sweeping story of planning and attempting a major heist, the believably complicated relationships, the real-life developments examined through the lens of Star Wars themes and plot points: it's so neatly packaged as to be practically unassailable. Act 1 packs in a lot of exposition by throwing outsider girlfriend Kendra (Jill Dion) into the mix with lifelong brothers in fandom Dave (Patrick O'Connor Cronin), Max (Patrick Loos), and Carter (Brian Thibault). The second act concerns the fallout of their operation, which in this production wallowed a bit too much in desperate yelling, but ended superbly with the entrance of The Big Man (Chris Korte). Whereas Korte's stature initially makes the moniker feel like a joke, his overwhelming presence and calculated menace more than explain it. Within set designer Kristen Gribbin's fond take on Mom's basement, the highly physical show involves enough Little Caesar's Hot-'N'-Ready pizza and Ding-Dongs to leave the stage resembling the aftermath of a food fight. The triumph of stage manager Beth Ann Thibault and company is in not only cleaning up after each performance, but then transforming the set overnight in true repertory style.

One of the most exciting things about ACT is its adaptability: the script is generous in its capacity for interpretation, and the two productions I have seen of Episode I had surprising differences. Here, the core performances are not those of reclusive or socially awkward stereotypes; rather, these feel like characters with other pursuits and interests, whose love for Star Wars is as much about the films as it is about the strong relationships they made possible. In Dave, the foremost expert and collector, Cronin avoids Comic Book Guy–like grandstanding, making the character relatable and self-aware instead of gratingly superior. Thibault's Carter is a hero type who thinks big about what lies ahead, yet is always dissatisfied with the circumstances even when he gets what he wants. Dion is tough but caring as Kendra, a character that's inherently an uphill battle to like or understand while perpetually out of her element. Finally, there are hardly enough superlatives to describe the scene-stealing Loos, whose layered Max appears seriously disappointed that the gang couldn't all just live in a big house together and be best friends for the rest of their lives. From his position at the emotional and moral center of the group, Loos never lets Max feel simple, just momentously endearing.

In ACT Episode II, Ferrante uses a subtly different tone to sagely avoid any sense of retreading old ground. Set in Gribbin's understated luxury hotel suite on the night of an awkward wedding, this play has a more cinematic feel, with revelatory low-budget opening credits and a few incidental music cues. The production can't entirely avoid the second-of-three pitfall of marking time, as the characters — at varying levels of estranged — pause to note how they and each other have changed since the events of Episode I. However, added to the foreboding of the catastrophe that will spark the final chapter are increasingly overt movie references and jokes, and a small loss of earnestness that favorably heightens the comedy within the conflicts. Added to the quartet of Cronin, Loos, Thibault, and Dion are Scott Norman as the suave, successful hotelier Lamont Wilson and Ted Neda as affectless humanoid Bobby Hunt, hotel security. In seeming acknowledgment of Episode II's reliance on its surrounding stories, Zettelmaier can't resist a cliffhanger ending that energizes the viewer for Episode III.

As befits a final chapter, ACT Episode III explodes the real-time constraint and single settings of the first two installments. Faced with the challenge of staging what is essentially a road trip movie, Ferrante and Gribbin take the opposite extreme, with a representative set featuring milk crates and mismatched chairs and a purposeful dearth of props. The devolution from the richness of Episode I's physical world to the evident scarcity of Episode III is unremarked upon, and more than likely driven by budget concerns (make a dingy basement vs. make an RV, a diner, a junkyard...). However, the deliberate choice serves to provide interesting commentary on the nature of the theatrical experience as well as contribute to the plays' central question about the value of objects. Clumsy pantomime and quick cuts between disparate scenes give this show a more sweeping scope than its predecessors, and ensures Zettelmaier has no restrictions in visiting all the stories and jokes he wants to tell (for example, Neda returns as Bobby but also as an unnamed villainous baddie whose existence is in no way crucial to the story, but still quite funny). Lyndsay Michalik's sound design comes to the fore in more cinematic cues and a montage; the excellent song selections become jokes in themselves. Content to be the least elegant of the three, Episode III delivers soundly on its primary goal: to resolve the story. Separated from the guys, Kendra engages in a power struggle with a now above-the-board Big Man, as Carter, Max, and Dave race to retrieve her. The most ill-fated desert trek since, oh, I don't know, let's say A New Hope leads Dave to shell-shocked Private Joel O'Brien (Dave Davies), whose unhinged, cross-eyed innocent values and willful ignorance are far more hilarious than poignant. The plot itself stagnates a bit as it takes too long to get to the climactic standoff, and the final scene is hackneyed in its overt denouement, but as an ending for these characters, it satisfies.

Despite director Ferrante's assertion that The All Childish Things Trilogy is really one long play, the distinct tones and varying interdependence of the three productions roots the trilogy as a trilogy, not quite a single entity nor three separate ones. Although it's possible the enterprise came into being simply to see whether the Planet Ant could pull it off, the very fact that it has makes these plays worthy of an audience. For viewers looking only for summer escapism, it may be possible to see only one of the three episodes, but anyone who connects with the characters' wide-eyed fervor for the source material should feel a strong pull to become an ACT completist.


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