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.
The first production of TPT's season, A Sleeping Country, technically opened before the September 1 cutoff for the SIR series, but the real reason I'm unable to write about it is because I didn't see it. I caught up with the company beginning with its holiday production, Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!), which was so thoroughly extended, it kept Christmas alive all the way into January. As directed by Matt Foss, by-the-book Jeff Thomakos, earnest Dave Davies, and rebellious Michael Brian Ogden made the entirety of Daniel C. Walker’s no-frills space their jungle gym. The symmetrical setting in the round left little room for a viewer to remain passive, helping the actors smoothly coerce the audience into taking part in the physically demanding production. Continuing in the round was The Lady With All the Answers, a gem of a one-woman show featuring actor Julia Glander and directed by Quintessa Gallinat. Glander made David Rambo’s chatty script look effortless as she recreated the real-life Ann Landers, paying equal attention to maintaining the story arc — stretching along one ponderously long deadline night — and to germinating a warm rapport with the audience. The authentic home-like feel of the production was given tactile support in the ample details of Michelle LeRoy’s set, Sally Converse-Doucette’s costuming, and Samantha Lowry’s props.
The Smell of the Kill arrived next, a co-production with Williamston Theater. In a curious counterpoint to Every Christmas Story’s three men, this Kristine Thatcher–directed cast was a trio of women. Emily Sutton-Smith, Teri Clark Linden, and Laura Croff made for a slick ensemble of variously trapped housewives presented with a dubious opportunity for freedom, finding very funny moments in an extremely dark situation. The production’s numerous technical demands were well met by Daniel C. Walker’s functioning kitchen set and Ken Faulk’s intricate sound design. Finally, the season concluded with the matter-of-fact romance of Southern Comforts, in which Ruth Crawford and Thomas D. Mahard explored the uneasy world of life — and new love — among seniors. Director Joseph Albright engineered a kind and safe environment for his characters that nonetheless had the power to surprise, as Kathleen Clark’s script swept from meeting to dating to married life and the rewards and pitfalls therein. The challenge of an intermission set change without benefit of a curtain was handled splendidly by dressing the staff and crew as unconcerned, anonymous movers, a deliberate and thoughtful choice that worked like comedy extra credit.
This season, TPT also introduced the Sandbox Play Festival to complement downtown Northville's annual Arts & Acts Festival. A call for submissions returned a weekend of staged readings for the four finalists: a clever, histrionic comedy in the vein of David Ives; a humorously laid-back conversation about settling and age; a youthful comedy about the buildup to a schoolyard fight; and a parodic take on hypocritical advice gurus with a heart-jabbing final twist. The last of these, Kitty Dubin's Caller, Are You There?, was awarded both the festival jurors' top prize and the audience vote.
Of the area Equity theaters, TPT's extreme black-box layout is what helps make it unique: nowhere else can I recollect the walls behind the back row incorporated into the setting. Happily, the organization clearly celebrates this distinction and enjoys pushing the boundaries of how the space can be used, resulting in productions that would feel dramatically different in another staging. Sometimes interactive, sometimes merely up close, whether abstract or verité, this theater lets its patrons wonder about the next transformation and revels in defying their expectations.