Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Writer, composer, and director Barton Bund has me convinced: the story of Patty Hearst is best told as a musical. The genre adds passion and energy to a grisly, infamous tale, without a whisper of camp. A song is the perfect vehicle for allowing characters to expound on their fiercely lionized radical convictions — of which there is no shortage in the Symbionese Liberation Army. Musicals are also given a pass for shallow or incomplete plot points, which Bund capitalizes upon by gently sidestepping the most dangerous and controversial aspects of Hearst's initial confinement. Nevertheless, the Blackbird Theatre's production of Patty Hearst: The New Musical is miles away from safe, challenging the viewer to look with fresh eyes at this story of a kidnapped heiress reborn as an urban guerilla.

The titular Patty (Jamie Weeder) is central to the proceedings, but is neither antihero nor protagonist. More often than not, the perspective is utterly neutral: Bund is careful not to take sides, sticking close to his source material of video and audio tapes and a handful of contradictory testimonies. This is not to say that the production is clinical or dry in tone; rather, the actors infuse their characters with urgency and purpose but leave their true motives to interpretation, leaving the bulk of the analysis to the viewer. Patty's first-act evolution — when she speaks or sings, or, even more telling, when she doesn't — is both bold and effective, and also allows the SLA characters ample space to develop as individuals. With no one to actively root for, the prevailing sense is that of careful observation as the events unfold, in a vain attempt to better understand them. (The viewer may benefit from reviewing the facts of the Hearst case, which are faithfully adhered to; knowing the story in advance allows one to focus on the performances.)

Standout characters among the militia include Yolanda (Gayle Martin) and Teko (Steven O'Brien), whose actions repeatedly contradict Yolanda's outspoken disdain for the institution of marriage. Similarly intriguing is Gabi (Vanessa Sawson), whose goal to raise an army of gays and lesbians is undermined by Sawson's sweetly pleading expression, suggesting a baser desire for plain affection. The SLA is led by the unquestioned Cinque (Christopher Joseph), a black man who laments his failure to recruit any other members of color into a group that purports to champion the urban poor and insists on "third-world leadership." Weeder deftly handles the physical and emotive limitations Patty suffers in the first act; then she takes command in the second, when the rechristened "Tania" comes into her own as a full-fledged, gun-brandishing member of the SLA. Her marvel at belonging, and at believing something for the first time, makes Patty/Tania a gold mine of empathy, yet still elusive and unknowable, one of many tremendous characters.

Complementing the show's righteous anger and rebellious attitude is its staging at Ann Arbor's SH\'aut\ Gallery and Cabaret, which could not feel more underground if it were literally subterranean. In this repurposed single-family home, the actors use the stairs, the front door, the windows, and a square of first-floor living space so incredibly small that standing a dozen actors within it appears to be a feat in itself. Yet the ensemble doesn't just stand, it moves, it drills, it dances. Brian Carbine's choreography is most unbelievable in a tangled, boundary-pushing group sex number that might feel uncomfortable but for its hilarious lyrics and unmistakable similarity to a song by the Starland Vocal Band. Stark lighting by Gwen Lindsay makes ingenious use of the windows' ambient light as well as flashlights for emphasis; there is no shortage of darkness in this production, but it really works. Music by The World Famous Love Machine (Bund and William Myers) is mostly pre-recorded, but has sufficient groove that it doesn't sound canned. Still, of Bund's many songs, inspired by rock, folk, and funk of the 1970s, some are far more catchy — and memorable — than others.

Although the story arc lends itself to two distinct act breaks, the resulting three-act structure gives the production a bloated, epic feel that detracts from a fairly crisp running time of two hours and change (not counting the two full intermissions). Accordingly, some of the early momentum lags as Tania and company, after her iconic public reintroduction at a bank robbery, become fugitives and the cell is forced to splinter. The tone shifts to uncertainty in the absence of a plan as well as unexpected humor, especially in an encounter with Tom (Max Hully and Danny Friedland), a star-struck teen all too eager to help out the wanted crew. As the fractured SLA loses its way, the story ends with a whimper in Patty's apprehension, trial, and controversially harsh sentencing. An epilogue of sorts crosses into sudden overblown cynicism that gives little credence to the emergent personality and accomplishments of the real-life Patricia Campbell Hearst Shaw. The resulting implication that her brief excursion as a rebel was the only time she was ever a real person — the rest of her life merely a joke — may be Bund's intended point, but the bitterly mocking delivery felt too discordant to be effective.

Intriguingly, Patty Hearst moves from Ann Arbor to the Boll Family YMCA Theatre in downtown Detroit midway through its run, which should make for entirely different challenges and a less-claustrophobic feel. However, the production's finest qualities, the thought-provoking approach, unsinkable core performances, and surprisingly appropriate reliance on music to enlighten and entertain, should come through unscathed.


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