Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Populated entirely by the students of Wayne State University's graduate repertory program in theater, the names and faces of the Hilberry Theatre become especially familiar over the course of a season. This was true even though I missed two of this season's early offerings, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Chekhov's The Seagull. In the absence of these ultimate classic's classics, the remaining four productions offered a variety of styles and moods, from an accessible and well-loved musical to a lesser-known nonlinear think piece that challenged audiences both intellectually and morally.


As one might expect from a biographical one-woman show, the subject of Performance Network's Woman Before a Glass is interesting, successful, and famous in her own right. White-haired Peggy Guggenheim invites the audience into her mid-1960s Italian palazzo filled with her "children," a staggering collection of modern art assembled over a lifetime. In the play's expansive eighty minutes, actor Naz Edwards and director Malcolm Tulip delve into art and artists, politics and religion, and Peggy's private life and family.

What makes playwright Lanie Robertson's take on Peggy worth the visit is the character's scathing honesty, her abundant humor, and — yes, at least in part — her wealth. As "merely" a millionaire Guggenheim (small potatoes compared with most of her relatives), she attributes most of her success to herself, and to a large degree it's deserved; she may have started with a few million, but what she did with it stemmed from her own ingenuity and drive. The combination of gumption and bankroll allowed Peggy to cultivate a curious amalgamation of nuances: now firing words crisply into the phone with the savvy entrepreneurship of a self-made woman, now throwing about her coture wardrobe like an unimpressed debutante, now saucily dropping names of some of the most celebrated modern artists of the mid-twentieth century.


The most obvious characteristic that makes Breathe Art Theatre Project unique is its status as one of the only "cross-border" companies on the continent. Each production this season enjoyed a three-weekend run in downtown Detroit's Furniture Factory, then packed up for a final weekend at Windsor's Mackenzie Hall. The company scaled back somewhat with only three productions this season: one story of a man whose whole world fits in four walls, one of a young girl living exclusively in her imagination, and one of a decimated city whose residents' ruination seems far from over.

Self discovery does not equal happily ever after. This is the bitter pill served up in Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed, in which heartache lies not in life's random unfairness, but in the willful choices made by people in a position to hurt each other. As directed by Joe Bailey, this Who Wants Cake? production is an emotionally bloody work wrapped up in the tenderest of love stories.

Providing the framework of the play is Diane (Suzan M. Jacokes), Hollywood agent to rising star Mitchell (Vince Kelley). Diane knows her client is gay, even when he isn't fully ready to admit it; she also knows how quickly and completely that fact would hobble his film career. Mitchell's awakening comes in the form of Alex (Matthew Turner Shelton), a straight-identifying rent boy summoned to the wasted actor's New York hotel room. The first-act scenes are permeated by nervous timidity, a reflection of Kelley's believably pained reluctance and half-hearted denial, as the men accept by halting degrees their deep emotional and physical attraction. Caustic, comic Jacokes dismissively presides over these developments, as Diane exhibits her skills as narrator, talent wrangler, sharklike negotiator, and almost-soulless problem solver.


BoxFest Detroit 2010 is the latest installment in an ever-growing enterprise to support and encourage women directors in the metro Detroit theater community. This year's festival is marked by the promotion of longtime collaborator Molly McMahon to artistic director, accompanied by Kelly Rossi's return as executive director. Both are omnipresent at the Furniture Factory performance space, swapping shifts at the box office with other festival directors. The participants' eagerness to help events run smoothly is evident — among the volunteers manning the concessions counter is Frannie Shepherd-Bates, artistic director of Magenta Giraffe Theatre, which is playing host to the festival. The prevailing sense is one of overlap between the people actively involved in the plays and the people making the machine run, as well as joy in what they've brought to fruition.

Over the years, the BoxFest Detroit franchise has grown from a single evening of short plays to a three-week festival with a complicated schedule of six individual programming blocks. It has become literally too much theater to see in a single day — I know, because I tried. Short plays are fascinating and fun to dissect because they can create strange, special worlds without having to sustain them; the seventeen of this year's festival are no exception, but the sheer number limits my capacity to describe each as fully as it deserves.


What audiences generally want from The Sound of Music is the closest possible approximation to the Julie Andrews movie. I don’t intend this as a condemnation; the film is wound tightly into our cultural DNA, and few movie musicals are grander. Deviation from such a deeply ingrained classic is a risky proposition: why jar when one can delight? Accordingly, the Encore Musical Theatre Company and director Barbara F. Cullen chose to play it very safe with this production. Although this is no simple mimicry (among other variations, this staging of the original Rogers and Hammerstein script and score includes three songs that did not appear in the film and omits two that did), viewers who attend the Encore production with the movie in mind should be pleased with its familiar feel.

The complete ubiquity of the play’s songs essentially partners the success of a production with the success of its music, and here musical director Jill Quagliata delivers handily. From the engrossing a cappella hymns of the abbey nuns, led by the glorious voice of Jody Doktor as Mother Abbess, to the accurate several-part harmony of the Von Trapp children, every last song is lush and rich. (It’s a good thing, too, because there were never so many reprises as there are in this musical.) Quagliata also provides piano accompaniment, assisted only by CT Hollis on keys, yet the score never stands out as being too sparse. When there’s singing, which is nearly always, the production swells and delights.

There's a lot going on during the three time slots of Go Comedy!'s August Thursdays: improv, a reboot, a sequel, even a hot tub. The visually distinct and conceptually unique offerings highlight the difference between a three-hour show and three shows in as many hours: where the former can sometimes feel like eating a novelty-sized giant hamburger, the latter is akin to a long encampment at a buffet — and what a spread.

Although Thursday is Go's sole night for scripted fare, some improvisation tends to seep in at the edges, and here is no exception. One time slot is supplemented by a short set from members of the weekend All-Star Showdown — the All-Star Grab Bag, as they call themselves, engage in a loose long-form style in which suggestions are simply reflections of the preceding scenes. In the absence of the competitive format and structured improv games, the improvisers use the basics of relationship and conflict to build a hit-and-miss flow of scenes (with more hits than misses). Flight 1977 returns in its late-night slot, in which Pj Jacokes, Bryan Lark, and Matt Naas essentially play themselves and improvise a conversation on an airplane. It's like My Dinner With Andre, if Andre and Wallace Shawn had made jokes about Cedar Point and 1980s fads. The unconventional form allows these three funny people to let the conversation simply drift, confident that it will land in some very amusing places.


If nothing else, the Blackbird Theatre's season was a true test of its mettle. From producing a strong first half to suddenly announcing a swift change in venue to postponing its spring plays until next season, its journey has been a roller coaster ride that hasn't entirely subsided. However, the Blackbird battled setbacks with a daring original musical, followed by a long-awaited announcement about the organization's future. Yet the turbulent and dramatic real-life events of this season should not overshadow the many artistic accomplishments of this outspoken and experimental theater.