Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


After last year's The Hot Mess Chronicles, a Viking funeral of sorts for its former Halloween mainstay, the Abreact comes back to the well this year with The Hot Mess Chronicles 2. This installment features four brand-new short plays, selected through a submissions process in collaboration with Planet Ant Theatre. The varied offerings are presented episodically by an ensemble cast of five, without a unifying theme or thread; this way, the show is able to be both harmlessly funny and soul-stirringly creepy, some to greater effect than others.

The production's first act is plainly its weakest, with two pieces full of quick, short scenes that require long, dark pauses to set up their sight gags and cutaways. "The ‘Screwed’ Tape Letters," an update of the adjacently named C.S. Lewis novel, concerns a minion new to Hell unable to claim the soul of a criminally boring human (Josh Campos and Brian Papandrea, respectively, who also penned the play). This interpretation doesn't add much perspective to the story, serving mostly as a vehicle for some running jokes and absurd-death gags; the highlight is James Nanys as a wasted, laid-back Satan, who’s somehow threatening even as he maintains a level of relaxation that rivals The Big Lebowski’s Dude. Next is "The Way to Win Over Annie" by Steven Blackwell, a romance told in flashbacks with a delicate Sarah Galloway as the title character, the seemingly heaven-sent girl. Whatever foreshadowing is inherent in the script is swallowed by extremely casual staging of the expository present-day scenes — the bleak and strangely funny ending is indeed a surprise, but sadly not of the should've-seen-it-coming variety. Director Mike McGettigan seems trapped in very literal staging for these two pieces; the lack of fluidity saps the scenes of polish and causes some unexpected drag.


The Purple Rose Theatre Company's world premiere of Best of Friends certainly succeeded at blasting away my expectations. Everything from the warm and fuzzy title to the so-happy portraits adorning Vincent Mountain's rich Pottery Barn catalog set to the opening notes of convivial laughter is carefully suggestive of a real, honest, touchy-feely journey of discovery and friendship. Then the actors start speaking, and the ensuing laugh-baiting eighty-five minutes unravel a savagely mean, ruthless underbelly that almost punishes every preconceived notion of niceness. Indeed, playwright Jeff Daniels's new comedy is like putting bugs together in a jar and shaking it up to watch them fight.

Told in a fluid, half-narrative style, the single-act play gives the viewer entry into the living rooms of two married couples. Privileged auto executive John Martin (Alex Leydenfrost) and his bitter lush of a wife, Beth (Michelle Mountain), fall halfway into and then unreservedly out of a friendship with rough-edged mechanic Ken Porter (Matthew David) and his easily influenced wife, Hannah (Rhiannon Ragland). An apparently harmonious quartet at first, some potentially unremarkable incidents drive an immediate, irreparable wedge between the Martins and Porters, who fully morph into scheming and vengeful monsters gleefully holding up the pretense of friendship in order to keep their enemies closer. What follows is part childish prank escalation, part upper versus upper-middle class war, and all a highly concentrated embodiment of the frenemy concept. Even as it becomes clear these couples never liked each other much, even as it becomes questionable that they are capable of liking anybody, both sides collectively come back for more, claws at the ready.


Not content to leave its Ringwald home inactive, Who Wants Cake? has actually mounted a second, concurrent production this Halloween season: Conor McPherson's Shining City. Although markedly smaller and subtler than the company's blood-smeared Evil Dead: The Musical, this "contemporary ghost story" is no second-string production. With the right attention to atmosphere and a foundation of noteworthy performances, this understated piece masks its considerable power to rattle the suggestible viewer.

The structure of McPherson's long one-act script is in itself daring, fleshing out parallel stories and leaving it to the viewer to puzzle out how and why they complement and inform each other. The action takes place in the office of new therapist Ian (Jamie Richards) and follows the progress of recently widowed patient John (Joe Bailey), who fears his late wife is haunting him. Sessions with John are balanced by scenes from Ian’s personal life, including a blazing fight with Neasa (Cassandra McCarthy), the mother of his child, and a hesitant, clumsy scene with a stranger (Matthew Turner Shelton). Contrasting scenes in which Ian participates with ones in which he merely listens is certainly an interesting choice, one that deepens the character and reminds the viewer that this isn’t some kind of horror movie — life goes on as usual, even when one person is battling with literal and figurative ghosts.

As far as classic American theater goes, the deservedly canonized Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sells itself. Matrix Theatre cofounder Wes Nethercott directs this production of Tennessee Williams's iconic play, for which Matrix has taken up residence at the YMCA Boll Family Theatre in downtown Detroit. The larger venue boasts stadium seating for excellent visibility, and allows set designer Eric W. Maher more space and options for his Southern plantation bedroom and adjacent breezeway. The set is a livable blend of well-worn comfort and opulence, which properties designer Stella Woitulewicz fills with lovely period incidentals and a few gallons of amber liquor. Given the literal feel of the backdrop, this faithful, grounded production concurrently presents an honest examination of the difficulty of adult family relationships, the pitfalls of longevity and legacy, and the terror of facing one's frankly disappointing, unrecognizable life.

The pinnacle of the production is its second act (of three), the blistering confrontation of Maher as worthless drunk Brick and Alan Madlane as Big Daddy Pollitt. A heretofore sidestepped conflict between father and son is dragged out into the open, allowing each to freshly wound the other as they clumsily vie to understand and be understood. Nethercott shows incredible comfort with Williams's talky dialogue, delicately guiding the long ebbs and flows of the conversation for maximum effect without maximum drama. Much of the act is surrounded by deliberate silence, with few interruptions to act as a salve; however, incidental voices and lights by Randall Mauck work in tandem to simulate an act-closing fireworks show to rival the one happening inside the house. Madlane and Maher are well matched, using their familial closeness as weapons as they dispense with niceties and claw into the scandalous truth behind Brick's career failures, chronic laissez-faire, and epic alcoholism.


Halloween is a time to celebrate the unexplained and/or supernatural, but fright and danger can just as easily originate from the better demons of our corruptible human nature. This season, Planet Ant Theatre delights in a manmade horror show in Nightmare Box, an assortment of original short plays by local writers. Not quite it-could-happen-to-YOU cautionary tale, but certainly not a bloodbath for its own sake, the production is an examination of the dark and depraved motivations of people who could, at first, almost pass for normal.

The structure of this two-act play intersperses the title piece, a hero’s journey to prevent a mystery-shrouded event of mythical proportions, among half a dozen stand-alone vignettes. Playwrights Dave Davies, Margaret Edwartowski, Kelly Rossi, Marke Sobolewski, and Shawn Handlon (who also directs) present a handful of characters and scenarios that seem far removed from real life, but each has a kernel of humanity at its core that makes it — if improbable — still frighteningly believable. As the production was created via a call for submissions, it’s understandable that the resulting show is a bit at a loss for unifying tone. A grab bag of styles ranges from aggressive confrontation to feather-light black comedy to unveiling intimate horror; twist endings and staggering reveals abound. Although the production has a few gory surprises in store, the intrigue relies in large part on story and character, preying on emotional and intellectual fear responses rather than resorting to shock value.


"Dying is easy; comedy is hard"? Try both at once. In large part, what makes Evil Dead: The Musical such cultish fun is its dedication to reproducing the original horror films' gore and suspense, woven right into the utterly insane campiness of its silly tunes and raunchy dialogue. They could scare the wits out of you if they wanted to, and they don't mind letting you know it.

After its madly successful production last year, Who Wants Cake? has partnered with Olympia Entertainment and resurrected the musical for another Halloween run, but this time the Deadites have taken to downtown Detroit's City Theatre. With some of the same cast, the same director (Joe Plambeck), and the same creative team, the result is a production that looks and feels happily familiar, but plays out on an enormous stage that set designer Tommy LeRoy makes into a playground for Jen and Ted Hansen's mystical array of special effects. Everything is supersized, from the cabin walls to the knick-knack assortments to the taxidermied moose head, with no drop in quality. Blood fountains, Michele LeRoy's dazzling lighting, sound effects, and an unseen three-piece band exist together in practically perfect harmony with a hardworking cast that captures the delicate balance between homage and mockery.


October is playoff season, and the Encore Musical Theatre Company hopes to spread some of that baseball fever in Damn Yankees (words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop). Indeed, many themes of this 55-year-old musical are still relevant to contemporary audiences: the questionable benefits of all-consuming fandom, the rift that sports causes in romantic relationships, and the timeless YANKEES SUCK.

The show's setting really captures a summer-baseball feeling, with Daniel C. Walker's incredible whirling and folding grass-green set plus bright-orange dirt and chalk line accents. Yet with help from his ambitious lighting, the scenes off the field don't feel like they're still on the diamond. Period costumes by Colleen E. Meyer pop with clean, Rockwell brightness. The play is preceded with the singing of the national anthem, and concessions at the rear of the theater call out to patrons hungry for peanuts or a hot dog. It's a nostalgic take on America's pastime, a simpler era when a grown man could sell his soul to the devil, leave his family and work behind, age negative-forty years, walk on with his favorite team midseason as the best hitter anyone's ever seen, lead the Senators to the pennant, and maybe even get away with it all.


The Internet swears that The God of Isaac is a comedy; I say that's not the whole truth. Instead, what the Jewish Ensemble Theatre and director Christopher Bremer serve up for two hours is a deceptively light approach to serious questions of faith and culture. It's funny, but don't be fooled — comedy alone can't make you feel nearly this much.

The play has a layered meta structure: Isaac Adams (Michael Brian Ogden) has written a play, about himself, and this is it, and he's in it, and he plays himself. (It works better on stage than it does in print.) Keep in mind that Isaac Adams is a character, and that the play was actually written by James Sherman, and that everything that plays out is scripted, because the production does a fine job of trying to make the viewer forget. Front and center on designer Sarah Tanner's city apartment/front stoop for nearly the entire show, Ogden spends much of his time talking directly to the audience in a narrative role, adding story details and anecdotes and providing commentary about his own feelings, but he also takes part in scenes with characters identified only as "Actor" and "Actress." The predominant sense is that Isaac is, by contrast, real, that this is a private expedition playing out in front of a paying crowd — so much so, in fact, that one almost forgets to credit Ogden for wholly disappearing into the role. His command of the audience and differentiation of scripted moments from supposedly off-the-cuff dialogue (remember, still just as scripted) makes it easy to accept that he is playwright/actor Isaac, digesting these issues in real time as well as in the world of the show. And he does it all while battling the ultimate heckler: his Jewish mother.

Meadow Brook Theatre certainly enjoys its spooky-scary this time of year, and indeed, its production of Dracula, A Rock Opera (by John R. Briggs, in collaboration with Dennis West) excels in its moments of fright and danger. The audience gets a glimpse of it in a foreboding early scene in which Transylvanian villagers painstakingly explain to foreigner Jonathan Harker (Eric Gutman) exactly what Dracula is and what he does...if only Harker had listened. However, the play's biggest accomplishment is a thrilling graveyard confrontation between vampire hunters and their prey — the staging and special effects considerably heighten the tension and make for a spine-tingling experience. Director Travis W. Walter clearly knows how to do suspense, and revels in the kill-or-be-killed standoffs between good and evil.

Unfortunately for a production that so champions its action scenes, much of the show feels frustratingly inactive by comparison. Most of the first act concerns Jonathan corresponding with his faraway love, Wilhelmina (Andrea Mellos), and slowly — really slowly — coming to realize what every viewer already knows by virtue of the show title. The story also pauses to concern itself with the marriage of Lucy (Katie Hardy) and Arthur (Rusty Mewha) and her corresponding rejection of Dr. Seward (Caleb Gilbert), a plot point that simply drags in contrast to the exciting parts and has almost no tangible effect on later interactions. The fault may lie in a combination of audience familiarity and format: because the viewer already knows the basics of the story, the details of the performance are what matter, but it's hard to subtly play awakening comprehension when the score requires one to essentially wail it. Rock opera has little room for nuance, which is too bad because several of these scenes feel like marking time without it.

Mid-Michigan theater can let out a collective breath: after nearly a year of fundraising, a flurry of staged readings, and two incarnations of its Web site, Stormfield Theatre has taken the leap of faith and come out with its first fully staged production. With founder and artistic director Kristine Thatcher as the public face of the company, it's only fitting that the inaugural play be not only directed by Thatcher, but written by her as well. Happily, the choice is much more than just apropos; her 1997 Among Friends is a tour de force, and this incarnation quite simply shines.

With this production, the theater has also found a new temporary home in downtown Lansing, a ringingly bare-walls property tastefully softened with curtains and rows of chairs on three sides of a modestly sized raised stage. Yet this unassuming setting is home to lush production values in Michelle Raymond's set of staggered walls and Tim Fox's through-the-window lights that introduce each scene. Sparsely appointed enough to stand in as three men's homes, the set is a marvel of varied hues and finishes that's a perfect fit for its surroundings. These elements are also well met by three expert performances in a story about how surprisingly tenuous friendships can be.


The Hilberry season begins with Hay Fever, playwright Noël Coward's over-the-top story of an eccentric family whose only delight bigger than deriding each other seems to be deriding each other's friends and acquaintances. Director David J. Magidson presents most of this production at face value, focusing on character and relationship rather than fine-tuning comic bits; the result is a well-crafted comedy that swells with potential to really let the laughs fly.

The entire play takes place in the country home of the Bliss family: novelist and father David (Alan Ball), retired stage diva and mother Judith (Samantha Rosentrater), lackadaisical fop Simon (Andrew Papa), and snitty princess Sorel (Sarah Hymes). The children are awful because their parents are awful — the entire family thinks itself somehow evolved beyond the kind of horrible politeness other people put themselves through. And yet each of the four has quietly invited someone to the house for the weekend; unsurprisingly, they soon lose interest in their respective guests and then tire of the prospect of hosting altogether. It's proof positive that a comedy of manners can still bring the former in the total absence of the latter.


Oh, Craigslist. Just look at what you've done.

As the instigating event of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's boom, a vague online personal ad brings Jo (Jaye Stellini) to Jules's (Jeffery J. Steger) bomb-shelter basement laboratory/apartment seeking anonymous sex. (Red flags, anyone?) Indeed, what happens goes well beyond any convention of boy meets girl: Jules, believing a comet is about to wipe out the human race, seals them together in the lab, hoping to convince Jo to be the Eve to his Adam. As each worst-case scenario is somehow trumped by an even worse one, this Breathe Art Theatre Project comedy (directed by Diane Hill) cleanly cycles through genres with each added piece of context, from opposites-attract first date to threatening hostage situation to animals refusing to mate in captivity to abject post-apocalyptic hopelessness. For that's the really funny thing about Jules's catastrophic prediction…he was right.


Tanya Barfield's script for Blue Door is beyond ambitious, taking on themes of race and identity in concert with issues of ancestry and origin. As presented, it's enough material for two entirely separate plays, yet Barfield comes out with a highly distilled ninety-minute powerhouse. Cemented by intense performances and Suzi Regan's thoughtful direction, the Williamston Theatre's production is a luminous mingling of personal identity with personal history, and the case of a man who desperately wants to cut one off from the other.

Lewis (Rico Bruce Wade) is an accomplished academic and professor who wants to stop being seen as a black man and be just a man. At the play's outset, his refusal to attend the Million-Man March has turned out to be the last straw that ends his marriage. This in turn plunges him into one bleak and sleepless night, his head swirling with liquor and thoughts — the latter taking physical form in actor Julian Gant, who appears as Lewis's brother, Rex, as well as their grandfather, Jesse, and great-grandfather, Simon. Gant's varied characters inform the past Lewis doesn't care to acknowledge: his ancestors' upbringings as slaves, their emancipation and subsequent struggle to exercise their freedoms, and the continuing (even increasing) danger of being black in the murderous deep South. Lewis, meanwhile, is disgusted that the reviews of his book all qualified him as a black mathematician, as though his work has been assigned some kind of handicap; however, what Lewis sees as his desire for parity, Rex labels as assimilation. The brothers' different approaches to honoring their forefathers' struggle for equality is a fascinating exploration of how, and whether, race should play a part in one's self-perception.


Actor Tommy Simon has an unmistakable Woody Allen–esque quality. Distinctive voice, nervous streak a mile wide, little skinny guy with glasses...he can naturally turn on what the legendary playwright and filmmaker has made into a calling card. And here, with Magenta Giraffe Theatre and director Frannie Shepherd-Bates, Simon takes a stab at the classic Allen protagonist in the legend's own Play it Again, Sam. Casting a Woody Allen type for an Allen play seems like a slam dunk, but it carries considerable risk: the actor's innate similarities to the iconic original cannot help but invite comparison, which may leave the viewer wondering whether this is merely mimicry. Having seen Simon's work before, I was able to discern and appreciate the actor's own fresh (if often reminiscent) take on the character of Allan Felix. Many of the choices worked in their own right, adding a flurry of activity and energy to Allen's usual subdued pacing and hand-wringing, yet I couldn't help thinking that a few moments might have gone better were they done Allen's way.

Certain themes and scenarios loom large in the playwright's body of work, and this one is no exception, despite dating back to 1969: here's a real loser of a man, with equally high and low opinions of himself, obsessed with sex, in a New York setting. Recently divorced but longtime head case Allan is adrift in the first act, enlisting the help of best friend Dick (Stephen Blackwell) and Dick's wife, Linda (Jaclyn Strez), to provide emotional support and, even better, an attractive woman to fill the void in his life. The man is an utter mess, in no shape to meet anyone, which is proven in an overblown slapstick scene in which Simon's trying too hard tries too hard. Dick's officious inattention to anything but work makes him live up to his name, and sets the stage for Allan to loosen up and be himself in Linda's company. The story blossoms along with the affection between Allan and Linda, which goes exactly as one would expect, given the source. Surprises are few, but the real draw of this production is the skewed self-damning perspective and sharply awkward dialogue for which the writer is known.


The Performance Network opens its season with a difficult perspective on political conflict, the children compelled to fight for their countries, and the parents who think they know better. However, the David Wolber–directed Sonia Flew doesn't feel like propaganda; instead, it presents two beautifully sad family portraits that make the political very personal indeed.

Playwright Melinda Lopez's intriguing structure presents challenges that pay off handsomely in this production. The first act introduces a contemporary family preparing to celebrate the holidays just months after 9/11. Son Zak (Russ Schwartz) confidently defends his revelation that he is leaving college to enlist in the military, which upsets no one more than his mother, Sonia (Milica Govich). Although its members are at odds, this family certainly feels like a cohesive unit, and the ensuing dinner-table battle sets the stakes high. Zak alludes to Sonia's own origins in Cuba and the circumstances of her departure, which she swears she will never talk about — until the second act, set in 1961 Havana, with the same cast switching roles to depict the flight of young Sonia (Christina L. Flynn), part of a real movement known as Operation Pedro Pan.