Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Playwright Fred Alley and composer James Kaplan must have known the only way I'd agree to hole up in an ice shanty with two fellas and their thick Wisconsin accents would be if the whole experience was set to music. Their Guys on Ice, at Tipping Point Theatre with direction by Joseph Albright, is a delightful, climate-controlled, melodic escape to a sportsman's paradise in the frozen north.

This light production is home to perhaps a dozen playful ditties about catching and consuming fish, cold-weather wear, drinking beer, and more ethereal topics. The songs' various styles and tones are unified by their exhaustive lexicon of fishing euphemisms; some lyrical repetition is allayed by James R. Kuhl's goofy, exuberant choreography. In addition to main characters Lloyd (Brian Sage) and Marvin (Matthew Gwynn) whiling away a day on the lake together, regrettable acquaintance Ernie the Mooch (Andy Orscheln) keeps turning up like a bad penny, ukulele at the ready, to inflict his commendably terrible singing on the pair. Musically, this trio of accomplished performances is universally strong; the comedic moments invite rolling laughter.


Harry Kondoleon's Christmas on Mars is about looking for redemption in the wrong places, not outer space or even Christmas per se. Directed by Jamie Warrow, this Who Wants Cake? production pins its hopes on moving forward at the expense of the past. Can one baby save four people? In the world of this comedy, probably not.

Audrey (Warrow) works at a casting agency, where she met charming model boyfriend Bruno (Jon Ager); at the play's start, they're scoping out an empty Manhattan apartment (set design by Warrow). Marriage and children aren't necessarily on their radar, until he proposes and she reveals that she's pregnant. Yet even as they plan for their future, it's their pasts that keep dogging them; their respective baggage takes human form, that of Bruno's desperate roommate, Nissim (Joel Mitchell), and Audrey's wealthy mother, Ingrid (Leah Smith). Nissim holds forth about his ten years living with Bruno in an incredible series of paranoid monologues; Mitchell is a churning font of self-indulgent stories about sad childhoods and pity-based friendship, fairly sweating out his codependent need for Bruno. Audrey's naked distaste and distrust for her mother is explained by Ingrid's pathetic story of regrettable, irrevocable decisions and inability to resist male attention. When fast friends Ingrid and Nissim learn about the baby, they use the news to wrangle another chance with the person bent on cutting them out.

Venerated author John Steinbeck had a magical knack for writing the Saddest Thing Ever, and his Of Mice and Men is no exception. The Hilberry Theatre tackles the stage adaptation of the classic novel, handling the Great Depression–era subject matter with gravity but not dramatics. Directed by Anthony B. Schmitt, this tale of loyalty, partnership, self-preservation, and meager hope comes alive in a production that’s as glorious as it is unbearable.

Before a word is uttered, set designer Peter Schmidt captures the void of abundance in his dustbowl-evoking soaring burlap horizon, with saturated sunset courtesy of Thomas H. Schraeder’s primary-colored lighting. The flat expanse of stage adapts to portray an unremarkable patch of California nothing by a river, which the protagonists pass on their way to a job at a ranch, and the crowded bunk house where they take up residence. The narrative follows traveling companions George (Peter Prouty) and Lennie (Erman Jones), migrant workers with a goal of scraping together enough money to buy their own place and work for themselves, at a time when they and most of their kind alternated between scraping by and starving. That they are able to dream at all is at once a sign of hope in a vicious world and cruelly utopic.

The world becomes smaller and more homogeneous every day, with the far reach of media and the ubiquity of chain restaurants and big-box stores, and yet: rural Texas. For a Michigan crowd, much of Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard's Greater Tuna may feel as remote as an alien race that doesn't let their pet dogs in the house. But for all the idiosyncratic, folksy humor in Williamston Theatre's production, directed by Tony Caselli, there's little condescension; the best mockery comes from a place of love, and the affection inherent in this text translates.

From sunup to sundown, the play covers a representative day in Tuna, Texas, as just two actors (Aral Gribble and Wayne David Parker) adjust voices, statures, and costumes to play nearly a dozen roles each. The title is derived from the listening area of local radio station OKKK (and its hosts, delivering all the news it's fit to chatter about), whose daily programming provides a loose thematic framework and effective transitions. The diminutiveness of a city home to fewer than 500 is evident in Donald Robert Fox's forced-perspective set, which makes the main downtown intersection look like the meagerest hub ever created. Lighting design by Daniel C. Walker keeps up with the changing places and focal points, discerning brief radio spots and other one-off material from the lingering fuller scenes. Although Karen Kangas-Preston's surprisingly thorough quick-change costumes are a useful visual aid to the character changes (and a wealth of potential for wardrobe malfunctions), props by Erin Roth and sound design are intentionally scarce; sound effects frequently originate in the actors' own mouths, and abundant use of pantomime keeps the stage free of clutter. In Tuna, it's a simple existence, and its residents know what's most important: family, church, rivalries, firearms, socially ingrained racism, and their own brand of justice.


They just don't make 'em like they used to. Contemporary musicals have evolved to find new ways around and through the discomfiting "they-just-break-into-song" effect; gone are the days of full-cast numbers in which half the characters have no justification to be in the scene — we crave smart, edgy, believable. Yet the strictures in place for modern musicals tend to keep them from achieving the kitchen-sink, freewheeling fun of their ancestors, when threats of violence could morph into a questionably appropriate song about cooking and nobody asked questions. Incredibly, the Performance Network Theatre has its cake and eats it, too, in The Drowsy Chaperone. Written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, the production is a showcase of follies-style vaudeville indulgence whose meta-commentary still lands it squarely in the present.

In the world of the play, The Drowsy Chaperone is a 1928 musical about a plot to foil the ingenue's impending marriage and retirement from the stage. As the charismatic bride, Janet, Andrea Mellos sparkles while demurely grandstanding that she's through being a showoff. Nervous but dedicated groom Robert (Brian Thibault) is just dim enough for the silly plot; at his right hand is gee-willikers best man and de facto wedding planner George (Matt Andersen), who's a whirling dervish on tap shoes. Plotting against the wedding are Janet's boss, cigar-chomping producer Feldzieg (Mark Hammell), and a couple of wise guys (Pete Podolski and Phill Harmer), even as Feldzieg's airhead assistant (Eva Rosenwald) maneuvers to take the spotlight. Mild conniving pits a Latin lover with all the subtlety of a silent film star (Scott Crownover) against Janet's protector, the boozy belter of the show's title (Naz Edwards); the interaction of the half-wit Don Juan with the half-gone happy drunk is certainly something to behold. Musical direction by R. MacKenzie Lewis and choreography by Phil Simmons are equally strong with solo numbers and wall-of-song feats by the dozen players, backed up by the big sounds of a four-piece combo. The self-consciously dated feel of the Jazz-age performances feels like the best kind of fun we're not allowed to have any more since the world got all serious.


The second Go Comedy! original holiday sketch show, Best Damn Holiday Show, is largely grounded in the here and now. Current events figure prominently in the production's few dozen sketches; add to that the severity of Michigan's particular hardships, and this is one holiday offering that looks for its humor in dark, bleak places.

Framing the nearly 90-minute production is a pair of sketches in which the cast's attempts to sing an original Christmas tune are repeatedly shut down by imperious killjoys — as the Go Comedy! space used to be a Secretary of State office, bureaucratic equal-opportunity political correctness still applies. The song's repeatedly amended, increasingly vague lyrics are quite sharp, pushing the absurd concept to its limit; it's an effective mechanism to set up a show that strives to be about more than just Christmas. Between these bookends lie much more diverse characters and places, but the topical feel largely remains. Rumination on the lousy presents of a down economy, a visit with the rescued Chilean miners, and a sketch pitching hot new toys to kids of various stereotyped Michigan cities deny escapism, priming the viewer for a scathing closing medley that skewers everything in sight.


Magenta Giraffe Theatre has its first world-premiere production in The Current, by new playwright Sean Paraventi. The story of four friends, a few gallons of tequila, and one memorable bachelorette party is given appropriate preamble by sound designer Frannie Shepherd-Bates's pre-show playlist: circa-1990s Now That's What I Call Music! hits that invite ironic appreciation, a parade of exceedingly popular, irritating, overplayed, yet irresistibly addictive party tunes. Viewers raised on these songs might outwardly groan at them, but they secretly know all the lyrics. As directed by Molly McMahon, this estrogen-packed show has a similar feeling of succumbing to what we might profess to resist.

Mary (Jaye Stellini) is about to be married, and the first stop of her bachelorette party is a visit to the psychic Madame Camille (Shepherd-Bates). Not only does Mary get a reading, so does each of her three friends, although most appear to lend little credence to the practice. Indeed, the unfamiliar surroundings invite rampant nay-saying, primarily from skeptic Angie (Angie Kane Ferrante) and cynic Sharon (Kirsten Knisely), the latter of whom wishes loudly to be somewhere else. Both the relationships and the action of the play fare much better when the characters buy into the psychic's predictions; in particular, the pure faith of doe-eyed Darlene (Jaclyn Strez) is injected with both humor and unfathomable sweetness, and her scenes invite a camaraderie that's quite engaging.

It happens to every Christmas fanatic, great and small — from time to time, the repetition of those classic stories and songs wears on us. Forever Plaid creator Stuart Ross obviously gets it, and his holiday follow-up, Plaid Tidings, offers a refreshing middle ground: just the right combination of spiced-up musical innovation, holiday and otherwise, mingling with familiar fireside comfort. Enjoyable theater and enjoyable holiday show don't always go hand in hand, but this spirited Gem Theatre production, directed by Mark Martino, has a handle on both.

Viewers like me who haven't seen the original are helpfully caught up by introductory narration and thickly spread exposition by the guys. The mythology behind Forever Plaid holds that the semi-professional singing quartet of the same name, tragically killed in a 1964 auto accident, is granted one reprieve to perform a final show on Earth — which, let's face it, doesn't exactly leave room for a sequel. Accordingly, here the Plaid lads are deposited at the theater with little fanfare and less understanding of their journey's purpose, but they decide to just start singing until they stumble upon and accomplish their true mission. Any viewer sharp enough to note the play title knows where this is leading, but although the characters take most of the first act to catch up, there's enough going on to extend the viewer's patience. More importantly, the group's energetic, joyous take on the Christmas theme is well worth the wait.


Family, community, devotion, and apiculture are all given their due in playwright Elena Hartwell's A Strange Disappearance of Bees. The world-premiere production by Detroit Repertory Theatre is a strong union of script, direction, and tech, creating a safe-feeling yet emotionally vulnerable journey whose honey-drenched heart rarely skips a beat.

Hartwell's script uses bees and beekeeping as a framework as well as a loose metaphor for the events of the play. The central role of bees in the agriculture industry, the symbiotic relationship between the potentially deadly insects and their cultivators, the power of the female in community dynamics, and even the emergence of colony collapse disorder, a real-life threat to bees that lends the show its title, are discussed in monologue form by beekeeper Rud (Milfordean Luster). Time will tell how this highly topical entry point ages, but the connection between Rud's brief lectures and the organically unfolding events of the play are largely complementary. In fact, as directed by Hank Bennett, each element of the story feels integral, which is no small feat.


To accurately explain Cloud Tectonics — the premiere production of The New Theatre Project’s first full season, written by José Rivera — is akin to explaining a dream. Viewers who like concrete explanations for things would be well served to keep this in mind: after all, metaphysical impossibilities that are nevertheless accepted as fact are frequent features of the dream world. As directed by associate artist Ben Stange, this one-act production is appropriately dreamy, presenting a mere capsule of an unfamiliar existence that still manages to feel comfortably familiar and sound a deep emotional knell.

In a very specific place at a less-specific time, Anibal de la Luna (Samer Ajluni) takes pity on greatly pregnant hitchhiker Celestina del Sol (Jamie Weeder) during a rare Los Angeles downpour, bringing her home to dry off and eat and sleep. Having endlessly crossed the country in a vain search for her baby’s father, Celestina seems at first like a flighty, cagey vagabond; she doesn’t wear a watch and is dodgy at best in reference to questions about how long she's been traveling. Yet increasing clues, and finally a blatant statement of fact, takes the premise in a new direction: time behaves differently around Celestina; her pregnancy, for example, has lasted at least two years of real-world time. But the how and why of her extreme peculiarities, although addressed, are less important than the mere reality of them, and the profound sadness to which this world confines her. When one cannot distinguish a second from a minute from a year, connecting with another person becomes a tricky and ultimately fleeting enterprise.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog is a withering portrait of a subversive American dream. The Blackbird Theatre’s production presents this story of two brothers through the lens of their dystopian domesticity, almost disappointed in, yet defensive of, the struggles of the underprivileged, persevering black man.

Lincoln (Brian Marable) and Booth (Ruell Black), their names a bad joke from a long-gone father, appear to have no one but each other. Lincoln, the elder brother, is recliner-surfing on Booth’s good graces after being kicked out by his wife. While he tries to make a stable living (of all things, portraying Abraham Lincoln in whiteface at an arcade shooting gallery), naively ambitious Booth wants to build a three-card Monte empire, but requires the expertise and guidance of former savant Lincoln. Amid discussions of the weekly budget, the women in their lives, and their absent parents and woeful upbringing, Booth and Lincoln enter into a larger, longer con that sheds light on their past and an ominous shadow over their futures.