Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Once upon a time, three young adults left home for good: the first fled Nazi-occupied Poland to live with relatives in the United States; the third answered a call within himself to serve his country after 9/11; and fifteen-year-old Sonia touched down alone in Miami shortly before the Bay of Pigs Invasion rocked her home country of Cuba. Melinda Lopez's complex and evocative Sonia Flew, a co-production now at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, examines the path we expect our lives to follow, how outside forces can warp and sever that trajectory, and what happens in the aftermath. The play's internally and externally turbulent struggles of balancing opposing family and national identities is made all too palpable by David Wolber's marvelous direction and the work of a pitch-perfect cast.

In the late 2001 of the first act, adult Sonia (Milica Govich) is in the throes of an acute but nonspecific anxiety, which finds a legitimate, full-throttle outlet when her son (Russ Schwartz) announces that he has dropped out of college in order to join the Marines. Her inability to come to terms with his news blows up another tenuous situation: the apparently un-religious family's rare observance of Shabbat, in which it falls upon Catholic-born Sonia to recite the blessing. As Zak, Schwartz displays sides of conviction and adult behavior as well as the petulant self-righteousness that seems to prevent his mother from trusting his decision making. Govich's anger is solidly based in a pleading incapacity to cope, and Jon Bennett as Sonia's husband gives a subtle example of a troubled marriage eroding against both partners' wills.


Far more than a religious observance, Christmas is a cultural behemoth; consequently, it holds vastly different meanings to different people. Its ubiquity means nothing at all or may be a sore point for many non-Christians and Christians alike; some take pains to remember the holy roots of the day, whereas others genuinely enjoy the excesses of shopping and eating, or the too-infrequent celebration of loved ones gathering together. Similarly, theaters capitalize on the many facets of the holiday with remarkable variation, and the mainstream-ducking Blackbird Theatre has found an approach that suits it perfectly. The theater's revision/revival of If Only In My Dreams, directed this year by Patricia Wheeler, is once again a wintry mix of seasonally themed literary works as told by their authors. The production dodges orgasmically festive commercialism and done-to-death cautionary tales about goodwill to humankind, instead fully embracing a personal, contemplative view of Christmas, in particular the sharply recalled warmth and magic of those past.

For the occasion, the Sh\'aut\ Cabaret and Gallery is arranged in a semi-cabaret formation, with one prominently placed table mingling among those placed before the front row. At first sight, the setup can mistakenly suggest the eavesdroppy closeness of a restaurant setting, as though the audience and performers alike are simply murmuring Christmas-weary patrons huddled in a dark bar with obligatory tree and half-subversive seasonal soundtrack. However, Wheeler's staging thwarts this preconception: its big physicality, buoyancy, and disregard for the fourth wall elevate the writer characters to magical heights. These are not so much men as literary giants, backed up by their gorgeous, lyrical words.


Who in the world gives a gallon of semi-gloss as a Christmas gift? From the outset, it's a surreal existence in Sweetlove Productions' so-called "seasonal retail story" F$$$ the Holidays, produced in partnership with the Ringwald and directed by Joe Plambeck. This one-act late-night production, written by Marke Sobolewski and Cara Trautman, is an unlikely tale of rival paint stores and their respective offbeat employees; the small story is a good fit for the short running time and leaves room for comedic character development and hilarious moments.

Trautman plays Kirsten, a frontrunner in the rat race who manages one franchise of a paint conglomerate; Sobolewski's Jeremy is the heir to his father's small-town family paint store. Their conflict plays on themes of corporate versus small business and new- versus old-school marketing, but mostly the two seem to revile each other because one lives to sell paint and the other ought to. Christmas approaches at each location, but the stores themselves don't appear to be jeopardized or locked in any do-or-die competition; the attention in this show is on the personal and interpersonal, not on holiday shoppers or the bottom line.

In its fourth year at Matrix Theatre, Puppet Scrooge is getting slimmer and sleeker. Gone are the transitions from human interactions to puppet stagings — this year's offering is all puppets, all the time. Written by Mary Luevanos, Fran Marschone, Rebecca Young, Jaclyn Strez, and this year's adaptor and director, Megan Harris, this present-day spin on the Scrooge story feels close to its grim southwest Detroit setting, yet faithful to the warm Christmas tidings of the original.

This year's production clocks in at a quick one hour, cutting some fat from the tale of Pecunia Scrooge, miser owner of a check-cashing store. Harris uses late partner Jacob Marley and the trio of Christmas ghosts to focus on the relatively logical roots of the ambition and shrewdness that, taken to extremes, sapped Scrooge's ability to care about family, contemporaries, and others less fortunate than herself. The bare-bones story keeps the focus on Pecunia's wayward sense of empathy and willing reformation, and each scene included has both weight and clear importance to the plot. Food-obsessed tagalongs Ratso and Rat Ray are promoted to a running gag, introducing each scene with a joke and selected commentary — the device connects the scenes well and likely adds an entry point for younger viewers. Harris's revisions universally benefit the concept and turn in a crisp tale that's easy to follow.

Although most of the things that terrified us as children aren't worth revisiting, the popularity of the Late Night Catechism franchise is proof positive that adults sure do love to get scolded by nuns. The latest southeast Michigan installment is Century Theatre's Sister's Christmas Catechism (by Maripat Donovan with Jane Morris and Marc Silvia), a holiday flavor of the very familiar framework. With well-seasoned Catechism star Mary Zentmyer and director Marc Silvia, this comedy takes the concept of putting the Christ in Christmas and turns it on its head.

All nuns are not created equal, and what keeps the show dynamic and fresh is seeing the different takes on Sister in action. Zentmyer, a near-fifteen-year veteran, has crafted a hilarious and multidimensional character in her almost-saucy, eclectic Sister, cracking jokes and acting the ham as she reads the story of the virgin Mary aloud. Although no stranger to resorting to punitive measures to keep order in her class, Zentmyer's Sister is engaging and personable, the kind of teacher students might remember as the goofy one, but revere nonetheless. It's a sly twist on the imposing-nun stereotype that started the franchise in the first place, yet no less effective or funny.


What play wouldn't be improved by a dose of David Bowie? He certainly does more good than harm to Dance Xanax Dance, a Planet Ant original comedy written and directed by Lauren Bickers. The production is light on story but heavy on design, all influenced by the Glam One himself, which makes for an outrageous, glittery, dancing extravaganza.

The already eclectic Planet Ant space is made over exquisitely by designer Barton Bund in outrageous abstract style, down to a red-patterned floor that looks like a flash of light viewed through closed eyelids. Hillary Bard's intense low lighting gives the entire set the look of an amazingly terrible music video, a perfect fit for Jill Dion's intense (and technically skilled), geek-serious choreography. Costumes by Vince Kelley are a hot, shimmering, eyelinered mess of the highest order. Setting the scene and providing awkward transitions are assembled fever-dream videos parodying various celebrity-obsessed television programs; sound and video designer Dyan Bailey's cheeky blend of actual TV footage with original scenes establishes the back story of the exceptionally named Olivia Sasha Now (Genevieve Jona), a championed child actor turned pop icon, whose well-documented substance abuse has her once-rising star now hurtling toward rock bottom. Essentially, it's the tale of Lindsay Lohan, if LiLo had the good fortune of releasing the hit song of the play's title (by Dustin Gardner of the local band shoe.) and divine intervention by Ziggy Stardust.

Last season's infectiously fun original musical Detroit Be Dammed: A Beaver's Tale has moved to the heart of downtown Detroit for another round of good-natured ribbing from among the ranks of its own. Written by Shawn Handlon and Mikey Brown and presented (as before) by Planet Ant Theatre, the current production has changed somewhat, yet feels as complete as the original, with all of its abundant satire and affection intact.

From the beginning, the viewer is thrust into the bosom of the fictitious LeMerde family, a proud and likable batch of Charlie Brown types genetically predisposed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, to wholeheartedly champion a doomed cause, or to be shouted down the relatively few times they make a good point. The show boasts essentially the same songs as before, which both impress musically and are cultivated for maximum comedy. The more wrong the point of view, factually or ideologically, the bigger and more impassioned the number, and the giggle-inducing juxtaposition is turned to full laughter by whip-smart lyrics. The city's few wins and mounting losses are presented almost as inside jokes; when a descendant finally succumbs to mounting crime rates and white flight and moves to the suburbs, the attendant tune is an eviscerating ode to whitewashed Livonia, with Jill Dion's ironically idyllic choreography blossoming on a larger stage. Also retained is the well-executed framework and story line, tracing three hundred years of melting-pot LeMerde lineage (and, by extension, Detroit history) throughout the first act, then drawing out its present-day plot in the second.