Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


The D.H. Lawrence novel Women in Love gets roughed up in Barton Bund's original adaptation (of the same name) for the Blackbird Theatre — characters, scenes, plot points are stripped away to get at the story Bund wants to tell. Personally, I never read the book and chose to go in fresh; my limited knowledge of the source material comes from later Web research, spurred by a curious program synopsis whose long exposition, to my surprise, never played out onstage. What does unfold readily challenges and sustains the viewer over the two hours of this production, which Bund also directs, but it does not completely eliminate the sensation that something is missing.

This feeling of absent context is unintentionally supported by an otherwise cool and innovative set (Bund again). Fabric pieces stretch abstractly into the newly black corners of the SH\aut\ Cabaret and Gallery, providing a neutral backdrop that pops in concert with Sarah Lucas's targeted lighting design. Set apart from the blank shapes and one multipurpose chaise are the myriad details and patterns of Dana Sutton's magnificent costumes, which merge the suggestion of early-1900s period with eye-catching Eastern influences in a tight overall concept. Still, the rewardingly complex visuals of the performers and performances themselves, in contrast to the general dearth of properties and the black-dominated surroundings, seem to emphasize that the background's been cut out of this picture.


The play on opposites in Jane Martin's Criminal Hearts begins even before the Planet Ant production gets underway. Faced with the challenge of making a mattress, towering pizza boxes, and myriad Dr. Pepper cans resemble an upscale Chicago apartment, set designer Dave Early fills the Spartan surroundings with details, from beautiful molding to accent lights that tastefully mark the space where a featured art piece used to be. The play quickly explains the circumstances behind disturbed, nearly agoraphobic Ata (Kate Peckham): her cheating husband took everything that wasn't nailed down, which is especially problematic because Bo (Sharon L. Brooks) has just come to rob the place.

Under Will Myers’s direction, this production has a streak of unevenness. For every perfectly timed laugh-out-loud retort (and there are several), there’s another choice that runs contrary to the text. Myers’s staging generally compensates well for a challenging L-shaped seating configuration, but leaves characters awkwardly stranded when the focus shifts. As endearing as Peckham is while neck-deep in desperation and squalor, it’s difficult to imagine her Ata even passing as a functional adult capable of basic hygiene, let alone the strong woman whose unconventional departure from the bourgeoisie the viewer is expected to celebrate.


Among many other intrigues, the Abreact's True West is a marvel of consumption. The theater uncharacteristically added a curtain speech prior to the performance; its message, in a nutshell: stuff goes flying, so watch out. In its claustrophobic standoff between two mismatched brothers, the production seems to accumulate more objects than it has space to strew them, making literal a major theme of playwright Sam Shepard's script — this kitchen ain't big enough for the both of us.

This Abreact tenth-season opener unveils a new layout for the theater in its second year at Lafayette Lofts, widening the stage and pushing the seating up close on three sides. (And by close, I mean don't-set-your-drink-there-it's-part-of-the-set close.) The current setting of an unremarkable kitchen comes alive by how frequently and easily its performers interact with it — because the space is so intimate that fakery is impossible, they open and consume cans of beer, turn on the coffee percolator, toast and butter bread, and take out their frustrations on a typewriter. How a theater comes up with the budget to furnish and replenish all these things is a wonder in itself. Yet the effect is well worth it, adding a gathering sense of danger to a zero-sum game that tests the tensile strength of the line between sibling rivalry and outright hatred.


How does a decades-married man throw off the mantle of fidelity and cut loose for a one-off steamy love affair? If Last of the Red Hod Lovers is any indication, the answer is: ineptly, awkwardly, uproariously. Tipping Point Theatre and director James Kuhl tackle Neil Simon's comic tale of one man's quest to get extramarital, backing up Benny Hill levels of silliness with fine character work and subtlety.

At first sight, Barney Cashman (Dave Davies) seems like an unlikely Lothario. Spend a few minutes with him and the conviction just gets stronger — he's a painstakingly responsible owner of a fish restaurant, a husband and father, who's always followed the rules. Now approaching age fifty, he wants to do something ribald before it's too late, and so he invites an acquaintance (Sandra Birch) to his mother's empty apartment, with soaring expectations of one afternoon of perfect emotional and sexual connection. When he unsurprisingly fails to woo the chain-smoking, no-nonsense, storming-out firebrand, Barney goes back for more, changing tactics but not expectations (and certainly not venue), with two different women. 


Northville's Tipping Point Theatre built itself a home with an eye for ground-up design. Entrances at all corners, a high ceiling with far-reaching lighting grid, and movable riser seats keep its returning patrons guessing. This tabula-rasa space, in which designers elect not only whether and where to erect the walls but how to arrange the seating, celebrates the exciting theatrical possibility of an empty room. To supplement the theater's usual seats-on-three-sides approach, this season the company made its first — and then its second — foray into the round. The resulting productions packed the intimate feel of a black-box theater with thoughtful staging and substantial polish.