Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


To briefly summarize the accomplishments of Matrix Theatre Company is a challenge, given the organization's far-reaching scope and multifaceted goals. Crucial to its mission is the symbiosis of community and place — not only striving to enroll neighborhood residents as performers and audiences, but tailoring its material to address the issues most important to them. The company's exhaustive approach to making art that reflects on its surroundings belies its conviction to foster social justice. The trade-off is that sometimes, performance quality must take a back seat.

The theater's longtime home in the Mexicantown neighborhood of Detroit lies in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge. Yet even in the wake of tightened national security requirements for passage from Ontario, the paltry menace of the US-Canada border seems of a different species than the threats to Hispanic immigrants presented in Vanished, an original production written by Matrix students and directed by Laura Perez. Drawing from true stories, the playwrights collaborate to tell a shocking tale of lack and loss, and the fear both engender. The roles of adults and adolescents were all played by age-appropriate performers with varying levels of comfort and experience, which only slightly hampered the play's effect: each actor's deep emotional connection to the material was evident, even when the credulity of the performance was strained. True to its aim to educate as well as entertain, Matrix supplemented the production with an interactive lobby display and talkbacks after many performances, linking the devastating realities of undocumented residents with the call for immigration reform.

(Also in keeping with the area's Hispanic demographic was the first play of the season, Confessions of Women from East L.A., a collection of monologues by Josefina Lopez. I didn't see this production.)

A mainstay of the Matrix is its work with puppetry, which is at the forefront of its recurring Christmas play, Puppet Scrooge. The adaptation fell in line with the company's work with local youth, Latino characters, and pride in creating (both the new adaptation and the puppets featured), but on its feet, the show felt lacking. Instead of bolstering the cautionary moral of A Christmas Carol, this version cut it off at the knees, presenting a string of halting vignettes of varying importance, with different styles of puppets manipulated by actors who may have benefitted from more instruction in handling and voicing them. It seems to this critic that Puppet Scrooge could best be improved by further revision of the script, straying more confidently from the source material to present something completely modern and with a sturdier sense of Detroit — and all its Dickensian parallels.

As a counterpoint to its original pieces, the company presented one more classical offering in its fall production, Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, a play I saw but did not review. Directed by Dr. Shaun S. Nethercott, Matrix executive director and Beckett scholar, this extremely challenging show was executed with aplomb. At least ninety-five percent of the play belonged to Stephanie Nichols as Winnie, a woman buried up to her waist — and later her neck — in sand. Set and lighting designer Eric W. Maher created an absurd diorama and proceeded to play with its shadows, while Nichols displayed ferocious precision in Winnie's nonsensical routine, oft-repeated platitudes, and wrenchingly unvalidated chatter. The unreality of Happy Days is packed full of questions about suffering, eternity, free will, and the unknown; despite how ably it was handled, the think-iness of the production couldn't entirely shake that literary-analysis feeling, and Maher's prolonged dusk at play's end brought me helplessly close to sleep for a minute. Quibbles aside, sublime direction and performance gave this production a feel vastly different from the others of the season, giving its audiences a taste of everything.

As mentioned above, Matrix supplements its traditional productions with community-wide projects and outreach opportunities too many to enumerate. The most notable of these was the final production of the season: a Saturday event entitled Water Fest, part of the theater's projected years-long Ghost Waters project. With the sensibility of a festival rather than a play, the event included hands-on workshops, music, and food and was held on the theater grounds. The project at large aims to reflect on the history of Detroit's waterways, from the abundant marshes of yore to the rivers remaining beneath the city, and encourage participants to take part in shaping the city's future ecosystems.

Yes, art has a lot to do with it, but Matrix's chief success is the role it has forged for itself within its resident community. Inspiring and training community youth and drawing in local patrons with subject matter that speaks to them requires the company to sometimes choose between excellence in medium and strength of message, and the passion of its young artists, especially evident in Vanished, suggests they have done well by favoring the latter.


Post a Comment