Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Dear readers,

In the first of what I anticipate will be many steps toward legitimacy and selling out and untold riches*, the Rogue Critic has a new website.

The new site resembles this one, but has some additional capabilities that will let me expand in ways I think you'll like. Watch the new space for more reviews, the continuation of the SIR series, and something new I'm cooking up and can't wait to announce.

Please adjust your bookmarks to, and thanks for making the leap with me.

The Rogue

*Just kidding. You know I'll always be your devoted scallawag.


Cheesecake on the lanai is child's play. The unofficial parody Thank You for Being a Friend (written by Nick Brennan) isn’t your granny’s Golden Girls; this is a jaw-dropping degenerate spin on the beloved 1980s sitcom, less worshipful homage than irreverent sideshow. That the show’s four women are all portrayed by men barely registers as a surprise compared with the script’s indulgently filthy plot points and rampant vulgarity. At the Ringwald Theatre, this Joe Bailey–directed Who Wants Cake? production is fearless in seeking the lowest of lowbrow humor, turning in a hot mess of a play that wants nothing more than to have some raucous fun.

The names have been changed to protect the copyright, so here we find “Blanchet” (Richard Payton), “Dorthea” (Jamie Richards), “Roz” (Joe Plambeck), and “Sophie” (Jeff Weiner) dealing with the latest upheaval at the Miami-area Shady Oaks retirement community. After a superbly corny take on the opening credits, the show dives right into the main conflict: the ladies’ new neighbor, former member of the boy band 'N Sync and famous gay Lance Bass (Billy Dixon), throws all-night bacchanals that are loud enough to keep the fearsome foursome awake. When confronted, sassy Bass refuses to suppress the noise; instead, the two parties up the ante by making a wager regarding the conveniently scheduled Shady Oaks talent show. The rest of the story concerns preparing for the show, dealing with diva personalities, making and changing alliances, and a decent helping of shenanigans. Within the premise, there are hallmark moments and scenes that would be right at home in the TV show, but a crass discussion of genitals or a comically brandished piece of sex paraphernalia is rarely far behind. Beyond Dixon’s feisty and conniving Lance, actor Rich Wilson portrays the few other characters that pop up, primarily toying with expectations as Lance’s servile plaything, Cubby. Interspersed among the bawdy humor and Golden Girls in-jokes are other major touchstones of camp that are splendid on their own merits.


The beauty of Joseph Zettelmaier’s And the Creek Don’t Rise lies somewhere in its wonderful simplicity. The playwright’s fish-out-of-water premise and intricate trio of relationships touches on a kind of real-world uncertainty, giving warmth as well as benign enmity to a skirmish between neighbors. Under the direction of Joseph Albright, this world-premiere production at Williamston Theatre humorously pits North against South in a play that uses Civil War history as an entry point to civil warfare.

When we first meet Rob Graff (John Lepard), he’s moving the last of the boxes into the Carson, Georgia, house he has purchased with wife Maddie (Kate Peckham). Both transplants from Michigan, Rob and Maddie are agog at the visage of their neighbor, Doc Boggs (Thomas D. Mahard), who arrives in his Confederate uniform to bid them welcome. Doc is a devoted reenactor of the “war of Northern aggression,” and when he invites Rob to participate in the next day’s battle, Maddie sees it as a way for her spouse to make friends and valuable connections in this foreign land. And in excellent concert with the gracious complexity of Southern rules of hospitality, she is both right and wrong. When Rob commits a gaffe of incomprehensible magnitude, Doc remains outwardly cordial and generous to a fault, but the wary Michigander suspects a steely hostility under the old gentleman’s acts of kindness. To the viewer’s great reward, Rob is entirely right. The men’s subsequent escalation is fantastic for injecting high stakes into a stiffly polite and largely harmless feud. Together, Lepard and Mahard expertly traverse their characters’ conflict, which pays off both in their growing understanding despite themselves and in the big laughs they deliver along the way.


Shakespeare West’s inaugural season continues with a stylishly contemporary Much Ado About Nothing. In keeping with the Blackbird Theatre’s penchant for pushing the limits of adaptations, this production, adapted and directed by Brian Carbine, plays with gender roles and musical showmanship to give a modern spin to a pair of comic love stories.

Among the primary conceits of this staging is the reverse-gender casting, most notably romantically pairing two women in Beatrice (Diviin Huff) and Benedick (Emily Patton-Levickas) and two men in Hero (Forrest Hejkal) and Claudio (Maxim Hunt). This is a full, pronoun-changing choice — not a woman in the guise of a man, but rather Lady Benedick and Lord Hero, in every respect addressed and considered as such. Carbine and his cast play the bulk of the story faithfully, making the same-sex relationships feel less like the entire point of the production and rather an unremarkable fact. In fact, just as interesting is the reverberating effect on the platonic and familial relationships surrounding the main couples: instead of the men and women conferring separately, only crossing the divide to pair off and marry, Hejkal and Huff are closest confidantes, and Patton-Levickas sufficiently justifies a female Benedick’s supposed revulsion of women by comfortably dude-ing it up with the guys. Occasionally, the text staunchly refuses to bend to the choice, or the staging gets mired in the device, but these are ultimately forgivable in the face of a well-propelled narrative and moments of sweet discovery.

Parody is fun when it takes a common cultural experience and dissects its flaws and quirks. However, a great parody manages to surprise the viewer, even as it adheres to its universally known story. Combining fine writing, abundant production values, and sharp direction by Joe Plambeck, Go Comedy!’s world preimere of RoGoCop! The Musical (book by Sean May, music by May and Ryan Parmenter) brings astonishment and hilarity to an exceptional spoof.

Set in year circa–The Future, Slightly New Detroit is riddled with crime and unable to fund basic public services. The police force is contracted out to a supercorporation, OCP, whose executives want to replace weak sleep- and paycheck-needing humans with bulletproof automatons. Their test case is sacrificial lamb Murphy (May), the newest cop at Metro West who is shot down in the line of duty and reborn as a hybrid robot-cop — or, if you will, a Robo[REDACTED for copyright]. The secret of RoGoCop’s origins as Murphy are soon found out by his former partner, Officer Lewis (Tara Tomcsik), whose guilt over Murphy’s death propels her to fall in love with him and help him exact justice on the men responsible for his death, both above and below the law.


Strange to think of winter in this heat, but Planet Ant Theatre’s latest original late-night comedy was born in January, with the Winter Improv Colony Fest — the coveted prize for the winning troupe was this time slot and director Matthias Schneider. Vaulting from improvisation to the scripted world, the winning trio invented and wrote Cop Block, a one-act revenge fantasy that plays with grizzled old clichés. However, given a troupe whose predominant strength appears to be finding comic nuance in the everyday, this over-the-top genre parody makes for an imperfect fit.

The play’s simple story arc concerns police officers Shaw (Andy Wotta), McLopez (Andrew Seiler), and Freedom (Clint Lohman), recently bereft of their beloved chief by a noted cop killer/drug dealer. Intent on avenging their lost leader, the men set out to bring his murderer to justice, battling various personal demons along the way: McLopez’s domineering and disapproving wife, Freedom’s alcoholism, and Shaw’s rampaging ineptitude and fondness for “sampling” the drugs they encounter on the beat. From dramatic graveside pledges to off-the-books interrogation tactics to expository scenes at the shooting range, the best-known devices of law enforcement storytelling are all here. Happily for the plot, a too-early victory gone awry ramps up the interest, and what follows are some of the most crafty and inventive moments of the piece.


America is too big and diverse and good and bad and right and wrong to be represented by a single defining story, although if it could, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man would rank high in the running. The country had changed in the half-century between when Wilson set his musical and when he wrote it, providing a built-in nostalgia that has endured the half-century since. Yet as demonstrated by the Encore Musical Theatre Company’s production, change itself can be a constant: the push of the outside world on a complacent society and the excited tumult it brings still feels defiantly American and abundantly contemporary. Readers should note the performance I attended was the final preview, so the version I saw has likely adapted further, but the production’s prevailing theme of resisting and subsequently transforming in unlikely and welcome ways shone clearly through.

The story of a seasoned con and the spell he casts on little 1912 River City, Iowa, is handled with love by director Jon Huffman and an exuberant cast of more than thirty adults and children. Here, the emphasis is on a buttoned-up community on the precipice of discovery and change, for which traveling salesman and supposed band director Harold Hill (Zachary Barnes) is merely the catalyst — he bilks the town’s parents into enrolling their children in a boy’s band, whose expensive instruments and instruction books and uniforms are billed as a kind of insurance policy against youthful indiscretion. Under the encouragement and tutelage of the “professor,” nearly every member of the population bursts out of his shell and embraces some vibrant form of self-expression that was previously frowned upon by the prim, puritanical town. From a story standpoint, these developments are cast as merely a distraction to keep Harold from being found out, but Huffman’s staging finds traction in these moments; the approach lends a creaky pace to the overarching story of a long con, but pays off in positively sterling discoveries that forgive the weaker fare.

As Harold, Barnes relies on an innate charm that lends genuineness to his dishonesty, even as the performer subtly demonstrates the character spinning the lie to his advantage. Part of his modus operandi is to chastely seduce the local piano teacher, the only person who could reveal him as a musical fraud, and River City’s Marian Paroo (Stephanie Souza) presents a formidable challenge, doubling as the town librarian (read: Uptight Spinster Alert!) and smarty-pants at large. Souza’s turn as Marian casts an independent woman from the sad-old-maid mold, her interest lying not in Harold directly but in his startling influence on her self-conscious younger brother, played with practiced unease by Linus Babcock. The conflict comes to a head with the entrance of a vengeful fellow salesman (Keith Allan Kalinowski), whose brutishly comic grandstanding brings necessary distaste to a character technically in the right, both legally and ethically. A dozen or more small stories intersect to round out the portrait of an isolated, repressed city coming into its own, each of which is given ample attention and care that rewards a watchful viewer.

The action takes place in the positively quaint town square, whose stage-filling, two-story facades are further supplemented with a handful of other idyllic and innovative locales by set designer Leo Babcock. Lighting designer Daniel Fowler contributes a series of sunny July days and comfortably muggy twilights. The setting is amply fleshed out with lovely period costumes and properties by Sharlon Larkey Urick and Jennifer Colby, respectively; overall, it’s the closest a viewer can get to Greenfield Village with air conditioning. Music direction by Brian E. Buckner is at its best in its play with vocal tone and affectation, resulting in some supporting voices far funnier than the lyrics they’re singing; however, this is not to discount the musically sound ballads and company numbers, nor the giddy precision of the improbably impromptu barbershop quartet. Resonant brass and drums from the five-member orchestra just offstage are admittedly too aggressive for the Encore space; however, general amplification by sound designer Chuck Colby helps to quell the battle between voice and accompaniment. Nearly every number is florid with Barb Cullen’s choreography, from the restrained expression of a library scene to the unadulterated joy of teenagers allowed to cut loose. That the playing space never feels too crowded and only rarely too stagnant is a commendable accomplishment of the entire production team.

It’s The Music Man, two and a half hours of some of the best-loved songs in the genre. It’s how summer lets people not be themselves for a while. It’s America, back when it was unassailable; it’s America when bending the rules was the surest path to success. It’s a time capsule, yet the excitement of new personal and societal frontiers will forever feel timely. With its long view of River City and its many residents, this production is a celebration of progress and growth, which here rings out like the ultimate patriotic refrain.


To this reviewer, there’s no sport as evocative as baseball, extending beyond diamond and scoreboard into a dense, broadly appealing slice of American culture. It’s a sport uniquely synonymous with summer, whose nightly sights and sounds are known by heart, and its languid, measured pace translates better than any other contest to the medium of radio. Yet this only begins to explain why broadcaster Ernie Harwell was beloved as the voice of the Detroit Tigers, welcomed into legions of Michigan homes and cars and backyards for nearly half a century, and why his death from cancer in May 2010 struck fans with enduring sorrow. Now at the City Theatre — mere steps away from the continuing ritual at Comerica Park — journalist, author, and playwright Mitch Albom gives fans and viewers a glimpse into the sincere, modest, irreplaceable Ernie he knew for over 20 years. As directed by Tony Caselli, the world-premiere production of Ernie is as contentedly simple as its title: a portrait of an unfailingly good man, who loved life and baseball, and who will not soon be forgotten.

The play’s framework is found in the bowels of the stadium on September 16, 2009, where the 91-year-old retiree waits through a rain delay to be acknowledged at “Ernie Harwell Night.” Kirk Domer’s behind-the-scenes setting is full of interactive elements that enhance both setting and story, and Daniel C. Walker’s brilliant lighting design balances softness with a dazzling reminder of the game outside. From the outset, Ernie (Will David Young) is affably irritated that anyone would make such a fuss over him, and is just about ready to call it off and drive home when he’s approached by a mysterious Boy (Timothy "TJ" Corbett). There’s something intriguing about the Boy, dressed as he is in anachronistic clothing (fine work throughout by designer Melanie Schuessler) and deliberately evasive when Ernie questions his presence, but the youth’s stated intention is to guide the legend and Hall of Fame honoree through one final broadcast: that of his own life.


The Purple Rose Theatre Company rounds out its all-new, all-Michigan season with a champion comedy, David MacGregor’s Consider the Oyster. Like a fruity health drink whose sweetness masks the vegetables within, this abundantly wacky caper cleverly disguises its fascinating, elegantly ingrained themes. In this world-premiere production, director Guy Sanville lends plausible ordinariness to the playwright’s enjoyably unbelievable premise in a show that amuses and intrigues in equal measure.

MacGregor immediately asserts the infinite possibility of this world in a most overt and cheeky manner, with a Detroit Lions Superbowl win. (I mean . . . right?) Roommates Gene (Michael Brian Ogden) and Eliot (Matthew David) are celebrating at home in an appropriately manly fashion, when Gene doubles down on his exuberance and spontaneously proposes to girlfriend Marisa (Stacie Hadgikosti). Then, just as quickly, he reverts to horsing around, which inevitably ends in a trip to the hospital. The injury heals beautifully, but its inconceivable side effects threaten his livelihood, his impending marriage, and his very identity. And that’s where this reviewer gets vague, because to reveal more would be a detriment to a story so inventive and sublimely constructed as this. The cleanly simple plot blends elements of farce into a character-driven comedy that also touches on questions of love and selfhood with thoughtfulness and charm.


Never one to tiptoe into a new frontier, the Blackbird Theatre gallops onto the summer festival scene with Shakespeare West, a heady months-long celebration of the Bard. In its inaugural offering, The Tempest, the company plunges headlong into a new outdoor venue and, happily, takes the outside play as an invitation to play outside. With is lively, exploratory staging and focus on the passion of the text, this self-described "Shakespeariment" takes the reflection and wisdom of the playwright's final work and layers on a youthful surge of innovation.

The playing space is a permanent structure in Ann Arbor’s newly restored West Park, with a carefully landscaped marshy expanse separating the band shell from the gently sloping seating area, and a second playing space between (probably used as a dance floor in other applications). Under the direction of Lynch Travis, the two divided planes are envisioned as a massive natural playground, with the actors pushing through thigh-high grasses and climbing atop stones as characters navigate the hostile-seeming, untamed island where banished Prospero (Barton Bund) has orchestrated revenge upon the men who usurped his dukedom a dozen years hence.


The opening scene of Performance Network’s Next Fall, by Geoffrey Naufft, feels like eavesdropping on strangers in crisis. With molecules of exposition buried in swiftly unfolding context, the viewer may feel both unease and relief at being removed from what sounds like the aftermath of a terrible accident. However, under the direction of Ray Schultz, the show quickly dispels both these sensations, and the multifaceted, ethically sticky conflict becomes all-encompassing — however much the audience is challenged to ponder and empathize with this unwinnable scenario, they are made to feel it just as gravely.

Key to the emotional grounding of the production is the charming, enduring romance between unlikely partners Adam (Andrew Huff) and Luke (Kevin Young). At opposite ends of an ideological divide, Luke takes comfort in his devout Christianity, whereas Adam pokes holes in the flawed logic of the Rapture and has no patience for a God who punishes people — especially for the supposed sin of being homosexual. Together, Huff and Young navigate the complexities of their partnership with overwhelming respect and affection, easily showing the viewer a couple that strives to manage its differences and reaps the rewards. Agreeing to disagree about their stance on the afterlife, their one sticking point is a more practical one: Luke is unable to come out to his parents and younger brother, and circumstances drive Adam to be complicit in the omission. But even as they struggle against forces that could pull them apart, these touching core performances always make the relationship feel like one to fight for.


Planet Ant Theatre’s late-night series, a haven for the new and experimental, also reserves a place of honor for one director of BoxFest Detroit. Andrea Scobie, the audience-chosen winner of the 2010 festival, now contributes to the edgy and trailblazing series with the world premiere of Sean Paraventi’s Endangered. A culturally charged, topical piece of whimsy, this one-act play is eager to condemn the sensationalist quality vacuum of reality TV, but does so in a way that gives equal — and unexpected — consideration to the rarely defended television landscape as we know it.

The show’s forty-five minutes concern the events of an unusual holdup by an equally unusual gunman. Joe (Josh Campos) is so distraught at the recent programming decisions of the fictitious basic-cable American Education Channel, he storms the station headquarters and takes hostages Arnie (Dan Jaroslaw), vice president of programming, Leigh (Kristen Wagner), star of the mega-popular reality show about her twenty-kid family, and Brad (Eric Niece), Arnie’s assistant. Confined to the office reception area for the duration of the play, the characters participate in a talky, academic screed against the lowest-common-denominator schlock that masquerades as educational TV. The greatest accomplishment of Paraventi’s script is in assigning to the gun-wielding maniac the opinions most likely shared by the viewer: however disturbed, Joe is eminently relatable, because these arguments against the trashiness of reality TV have long been tent poles in popular discourse about what’s destroying America. Heck, even the people putting this tripe on the air don’t seem to like what they’re doing. Yet by holding these representatives of reality TV hostage (and, by extension, the medium itself), the playwright forces the viewer to respond to them as defensive victims, which shows incredible potential to take the conversation in a new direction.


A play about cancer, a play about unbelievable fortitude, a play about unique family bonds — none of these in itself is rare. What is exceptional, and on full display in Detroit Repertory Theatre’s Looking for the Pony, is a production whose every component works harmoniously in service of a singular, remarkable vision.

The play’s premise is laid bare in its unusual title: sisters Lauren (Lisa Lauren Smith) and Oisie (Yana Levovna) are the kind of people who, given a mountain of horse crap, see nothing but equine promise, and they’re ever-ready to get their hands dirty in search of the prize. Here, the excrement of the fable takes the form of Lauren’s breast cancer, which emerges abruptly and is fought aggressively, with surprising mirth and no shortage of loving support. Yet it’s a credit to this show, and to director Charlotte Leisinger, that cancer hardly feels like the sole fact of the play; rather, it’s an unfortunate but reliable way of marking the passage of time in their already-full lives, be it Oisie’s graduate writing program across the country or Lauren’s full-time social work, passionate fundraising, and role as Supermom. Even when energies flag or the outlook is dire, these women have vigor and pluck to spare, and the tender, cherished relationship they share provides reason enough to keep fighting.


Thanks to all who participated in the SPOT THE ROGUE contest. In all, I've counted 29 entries from 23 readers — meaning half a dozen people were ambitious and eagle-eyed enough to enter twice. From clandestine camera flashes to ridiculous poses to bonus rounds to people who just pointed at me and yelled "SPOTTED," you all warmed the chambers of my fiendish Rogue heart.

The collected entries are on view at this link for all to view and enjoy. If you played SPOT THE ROGUE, take a minute to confirm that your picture is posted and attributed to you — if not, you aren't currently entered. Please email me if there's a problem with your entry.

In accordance with the contest rules, I'll be holding an impartial drawing tomorrow, June 3, with the help of a Rogue assistant. Then the winner will be declared and the prize awarded.

Thanks again for playing!
The Rogue


Boy meets girl, with an Edge, reproduced with permission from
The Encore Musical Theatre Company is once again flexing a different set of musical muscles. Its Encore on the Edge series provides a home for more unconventional, contemporary fare, encouraging devotees of the classic American musical to discover just how limitless and creative the genre can be. The second entry in the series, Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, brings familiar, simple storytelling into a cool new context: As directed by Daniel Cooney, the production is a musically gorgeous depiction of a romance from beginning to end, but it subverts expectations by also portraying it from end to beginning.

Jamie and Cathy (Steve DeBruyne and Thalia Schramm) meet, fall in love, marry, and watch their relationship crumble: This is the entirety of the plot, and how the audience witnesses it – through Jamie's eyes, at least. However, through alternating songs and swapped perspectives, the play also takes the opposite view. That is, Cathy's story begins at the breakup and plunges backward, reliving the milestones of their love in reverse order; by the end of the play, she's fresh off the promise of their first date just as he calls it quits. Husband and wife have utterly opposing timelines, and their perspectives on the relationship are as different as their chronology, although Brown's excellent script and thoughtful staging clearly ease the viewer through the unusual concept. What they do have in common is amazing music, which is the absolute pinnacle of this production. The songs have a contemporary feel and structure, especially in terms of shifting keys and meters, but the two performers and three accompanists (led by music director Brian E. Buckner) triumph as they make such loveliness seem so easy.


The challenge of the celebrity bio-play is in striking a balance between the individual’s public and private faces; showing only the former feels like a shallow impression, but revealing only the latter robs the viewer of the familiarity of the ingrained connection. Playwright David Rambo executes this conceit with skill in The Lady With All the Answers, an intimate exploration of extraordinary woman Eppie Lederer as well as of her nom de plume, famous advice columnist “Ann Landers.” Stormfield Theatre’s production, as directed by Kristine Thatcher and performed by Diane Dorsey, has mixed results in giving credence to both halves of the same subject, but succeeds in conveying unshakable strength and reason that reinforce the larger-than-life timbre of a nationally treasured voice.

The play opens with the moment of truth for any writer, her deadline, which Eppie is evading late in the evening in her downtown Chicago apartment. Something is evidently amiss: the character hesitantly dips a careful toe into her family life and upbringing, including the famous rift with her twin sister and professional rival “Dear Abby,” but for the most part she retreats behind the Landers persona and elegantly procrastinates. The character seems touchy about how to approach Landers’s fame, her boggled mind — that people have no recourse but this stranger for their weird, personal troubles — hovering near condescension and judgment. Yet despite her saucy quips that come across more like barbs, Dorsey is generously effusive connecting with the audience as she takes informal polls and initiates some easy question-and-answer, her delight in their laughter and reactions providing a concentrated shot of warmth to the character. Eventually she confesses to the viewers, who she addresses as readers but treats as friends, that her column is held up because she can’t think of how to tell the readership about her — Eppie’s — impending divorce.


Theater doesn’t always have to be challenging and demanding of its audience; sometimes, mere enjoyment will do. However, not all enjoyable plays are created equal: some wallow in baseness, no more than fluff, whereas others can be transcendent if given the right attention. Tipping Point Theatre demonstrates the artistic potential of the mainstream play in its splendid production of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart. Here, Kate Peckham's meticulous direction and three knockout lead performances combine in a flawless tale of Southern sisterhood.

The Magrath sisters reunite in their granddaddy’s house in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and seem determined to make the connection restorative, even in the face of dubious circumstances. Specifically, the occasion marks youngest sister Babe’s release from prison after admittedly wounding her state-senator husband via gunshot to the belly. In her role as the fragile but generous Babe, Maggie Meyer is deceptively aloof with her honesty and deftly unveils the real, worrisome troubles looming within the character. The news also summons home the furthest-flung of the sisters, Meg (Inga R. Wilson), an aspiring starlet whose magic singing voice proved to have more traction at home than in Hollywood. Here, Wilson revels in returning to this small pond a triumphant — albeit deceitful — big fish; unable to resist the temptation of past happiness, she perpetuates a vicious cycle of compensating for prior bad decisions by making new ones. But for all these choices blow up in their faces, Meg and Babe still feel like they’re better off than Lenny (Hallie B. Bard), who has assumed the mantle of caretaker to her ailing grandfather, wears her barrenness like an anvil, and can't seem to believe she deserves anything better. Bard takes this frumpy old-maid character, who asks little of others and expects even less, and gives her an active stake in the sisters’ relationship; the viewer is less inclined to pity her than to root for her strengthening backbone as Lenny draws purpose and fortitude from the unlikely source of her siblings.

Mothers and daughters, and the ties that bind them, make for compelling and timeless dramatic fare. Playwright Lee Blessing’s sparkling Eleemosynary constructs a trio of such relationships, viewed through the lens of extraordinary accomplishment and intelligence. Here, director Lynn Lammers does examine the expectations placed on exceptional women, but the bread and butter of this Williamston Theatre production is in the compassionate struggles of parents’ hopes and their children’s resistance, dually absorbing to watch and heartbreaking to experience.

The play is consumed with three generations of brilliant women: young Echo (Michelle Meredith), a teen spelling prodigy, mother Artie (Rebecca Covey), a coldly private research scientist, and grandmother Dorothea (Julia Glander), an unabashedly deliberate eccentric. Because understanding Echo is predicated on understanding her lineage, early scenes often find her in a solitary position as chronicler/monologist as the tumultuous relationship between Artie and her own mother is fleshed out. Having broken with the confinements of a woman’s traditional role in mid-twentieth-century America, bold Dorothea is so enamored of all information and beauty and philosophy, she seeks to expand her wonder beyond the known world and into spiritual and metaphysical ones. Artie, in adolescence conscripted into everything from regular hypnosis sessions to haphazard experiments in human flight, severs ties with her mother and makes choices directly in opposition to Dorothea’s dreams, her interests strictly tangible and logical. The path of this relationship is given careful and affectionate treatment by Covey and Glander, the former bringing empathy to her character’s flawed, reactionary decisions, the latter showing all sides of a woman so loving and open and driven, her irresistibility masking the related threat of being swallowed up in her dominant personality and passion.


Playwright Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! spans one summer in the lives of eight gay men, but its depth of emotion and breadth of content makes the play, and this Who Wants Cake? production, feel more like an entire life, lived in the fortunate company of close friends. The world of the play, nineteen-ninety-something in upstate New York, is inconsequential but for faint cultural time stamps and understated New England–nautical fashion influences (by costume designer and choreographer Ben Stange). The summer lake house of Gregory (Keith Allan Kalinowski) and Bobby (Matthew Turner Shelton) is the getaway of choice for a passel of longtime friends and associates: Perry (Richard Payton) and Arthur (John Nowaczyk), who have been together more than a decade; John (Charles VanHoose), with his latest young plaything, Ramon (Vince Kelley), in tow; and Buzz (Joe Plambeck), whose adoration of long-ago Broadway musicals and their leading ladies would be a cliché but for how genuine it is. Spanning the duration of the summer, Memorial Day to Independence Day to Labor Day, the play’s three acts are relatively devoid of dramatic conflict. The men disagree, of course, and confront each other at times; however, the only really palpable danger is from outside influences, the kind with which any adult can relate.

The fear of aging and lost youthful creativity is presented to Gregory, a famous dancer and choreographer seeing the beginning of the end of his career, both in his encroaching physical limitations and in the perceived threat of up-and-comer Ramon. Romantic couplings and fidelity are embarked upon and violated and worked through with difficulty; even Perry and Arthur reflect on past indiscretions. Coping with illness and death is also present: here, AIDS makes Buzz’s vivaciousness feel downright defiant and brings John’s brother to the house in rapidly failing health. The prevalence of and attitudes toward AIDS speak to the unique perspective of a 1990s exclusively gay cohort, and the comfortably frank and close-knit network of who’s slept with whom might feel unfamiliar to some viewers, but the emotions behind these connections are universal; overall, the show is a fair and fond look at people weathering life — and doing it together.


At first blush, cancer might seem an unlikely topic for an exclamation-point musical — it’s a dreadful, incurable, terminal disease that reduces everyone it touches to untold depths of helplessness and pain. Yet by the same token, its ubiquity and totality makes cancer a broadly relatable subject. Moreover, it’s a part of life, which is inherently funny; thus, by the transitive property, cancer must be funny, too. (And this is saying nothing of the related rigmarole of health care and big pharma, about which we must laugh or else we’d cry.) Viewers with any lingering doubts need look no further than Cancer! The Musical (book by Thomas Donnellon, MD, and Shawn Handlon; music by John Edwartowski), a simply excellent treatment that turns the ultimate downer on its head. At the young Park Bar Theatre, this scrappy, winning revival directed by Handlon has no trouble seizing on the best of what the musical has to offer.

With subject matter ranging from patient care to laboratory research to business interests, the show is admirable for being all the things it needs to be, up to and including a love story and a high-stakes caper. On one end, patient Annie (Dawn Bartley) faces her cancer diagnosis and exploratory surgery with optimism and pluck — the viewer would be forgiven for suspecting that “Annie” is short for “Pollyanna.” However, her courageous turn is made palatable in its thawing effect on her officious oncologist, Dr. Harris (Pat Loos), so immersed in protocol, privacy laws, and malpractice fears that he eschews eye contact with his alphanumerically coded patients. Together, Bartley and Loos form a touching emotional core that keeps Annie’s fight largely in the medical realm, but still feels personal without being derailed by wallowing.


Hufano tears up 'The Model Apartment', reproduced with permission from
Playwright Donald Margulies may have written The Model Apartment as a dark comedy, but for the most part, director Lavinia Moyer Hart stops at "dark." Although the production at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre is twisted into absurdity, and objectively funny moments come and go, Hart doesn't play the scene for laughs, instead diving headlong into the characters and relationships of one nuclear family freshly and repeatedly ravaged by its history. Given a plot so intense it practically gasps for levity, the choice is indeed risky; it's also more than justified in this incendiary production, cemented by a must-see lead performance.

Max (Tom Mahard) and Lola (Trudy Mason) have sped from New York to Florida, eager to begin their retirement. However, their arrival is so early, they're waylaid in the model unit of the complex until their new-construction residence is completed. The production team has fun with the latest in 1988 retirement living: Beyond the busy tropical patterns, pastel-speckled flooring and bamboo blinds of the studio apartment, set designer Sarah Tanner's distinctly Floridian room even has a Florida room. Bland model-home accoutrements and ocean-inspired kitsch (properties by Diane Ulseth) are bonded to the furniture, enhancing the off-putting feel of a living space void of working appliances or any sign of life. Jon Weaver's sound design anticipates the trouble-free good life with placidly warm Nat King Cole tunes and uses ambient noises to expand on what's visible. Designer Donald Fox toys with automated lighting and lends both visibility and tone to the several lights-off scenes of Max and Lola's long night.


Death, being universal, unknowable, and utterly final, has been a target of artistic inquisition for ages. One such exploration is Everyman, the medieval morality play by Anonymous and the source of The New Theatre Project’s latest original contemporary production, The Everyman Project. The product represents months of development on the part of the ensemble and production team, as together they scrutinized the conclusiveness death brings and found it reflected in their own experiences.

The production is predicated on identifying moments at which we realized that our lives have immediately and irrevocably changed. In this collaborative adaptation, playwright Jason Sebacher and director Ben Stange framed this question as the base point for developing the original script, which establishes a loose quadrilateral of relationships among its performers (using their own names) and introduces them all to their most essential commonality: death itself. After a ritualistic, guttural group scene introducing distinctive onomatopoeic sounds and mantras, the narrative begins with the aftermath of an auto collision that spins out into scenes of Elise Randall’s gorgeous lamentation with her hospitalized, dying mother (portrayed by Analea Maria Lessenberry). Randall realizes her moment in a lonely monologue, then she suddenly and literally crosses paths with death.


'Seascape': Conventional meets primordial, reproduced with permission from
Understanding and belonging are at the center of Edward Albee's fanciful Seascape: Specifically, comprehension breeds evolution, which comes at the price of comfort and constancy. As directed by Lynch Travis, the production at the Blackbird Theatre spins a confrontation that is rooted in fantasy, but whose potential consequences feel very real. In trying to reconcile the commonplace with the uncharted in the world of the play, the viewer is challenged to reflect on both the value and the cost of those social and emotional developments that we believe make humankind unique.

The play begins with the placid visage of vacationing couple Nancy (Linda Rabin Hamell) and Charlie (Joel Mitchell), harmlessly quibbling over their expectations and hopes for their golden years. The actors play as much in subtext as they do in text: Hamell's insatiably chatty take on Nancy reflects her wanderlust and strife to remain active and vital; Mitchell's exasperated stoicism belies his repeated invocations of rest and yearning to blend into the scenery in solitude. Albeit at cross purposes, the duo has a believable feel of togetherness and a practiced cadence that suits the tone of Albee's packed-full dialogue. Even in the summer-afternoon light by designer Emily Clarkson, the wind-petrified sand shapes of their secluded beach setting (by Barton Bund, who also layers on dreamy, beachy love songs over the surf din of his sound design) are far from tropical; as it turns out, the craggy, imposing oceanfront implied provides the perfect setting for two stunning and inexplicable sea creatures to make landfall – and contact.

Objectively, group acting exercises can be pretty weird. They’re also incredibly effective at fostering teamwork and bringing people together. Playwright Annie Baker capitalizes on both these facts in her comedy Circle Mirror Transformation, so named for one such exercise. In the Performance Network production, director John Seibert and a skillful cast make good on years of experience as performers to recreate for an audience the singular trust and closeness of a handful of strangers taught to play together.

In small-town Shirley, Vermont, a member of the community institutes and teaches a six-week introductory acting course. In simplest terms, this is the entire play, whose single act concerns the class and its members: frequently reserved James (Mark Rademacher), experienced performer Theresa (Eva Rosenwald), branching-out divorcee Schultz (Taras Michael Los), and callously teenaged Lauren (Sarah Ann Leahy). James is husband to the hyper-nurturing instructor, Marty (Terry Heck); otherwise, the five are unknown to each other. At face value, the premise might sound tedious, but any viewer who has found true community within a classroom setting — especially in the study of performance — will be unsurprised by the wealth of discoveries and relationships blossoming over a fraction of one summer.


Between his lauded All Childish Things and the current world premiere of Salvage at Planet Ant Theatre, it is established now and forever that Joseph Zettelmaier writes great nerd. The playwright’s ability to spin a captivating story through the lens of nostalgia junkies, and the collectibles market in particular, transcends the legitimate subculture of devotees and emotionally connects with a broad spectrum of viewers. Here, director Inga Wilson’s take on Salvage weighs the promise of prosperity against the substantial risks of exploring literal and figurative debris in order to acquire it.

At the curiosity shop Hidden Treasures in Detroit, where “low customer traffic” is an understatement, proprietor Jason Loreo (Rob Pantano) welcomes skittish walk-in Anna Jones (Alysia Kolascz). She bumbles through feigned interest in buying something before revealing a rare piece of sports memorabilia in her handbag — she’d like to sell it, but is unsure of its worth. It’s a transaction between an expert and a novice, one that seems tailor-made for fleecing; the scene itself almost anticipates the moment when Jason intentionally undervalues the item and pockets the difference. But he doesn’t. Instead, he decides to help Anna sell the card, an honest deal that marks a win for both of them for their own reasons. Over the course of their work toward the sale, tangential remarks begin to stir up more meaningful conversations; it doesn’t give too much away to say there are sparks.

Meadow Brook Theatre gives a whirlwind overview of 1960s London, the epicenter of mod subculture, in Shout! The Mod Musical (created by Phillip George and David Lowenstein, with content by Peter Charles Morris and George, music arranged by Bradley Vieth). As directed by Travis Walter, this amalgamation of stylized scenes, cheeky one-liners, and revealing monologues, bolstered by an enormous songbook, attempts to address the entirety of this decade of unparalleled change from a uniquely female perspective. Its one American and four English ladies are united in meeting the innumerable developments of the age head on, with dawning liberation, self-reliance, and fearlessness.

Putting the “jukebox” in “jukebox musical,” the show shuffles through representative songs and topics to chronicle music, fashion, and other issues relevant to Western women over the course of a revolutionary decade. A loose framework is provided in the form of Shout! The Magazine (personified in voice-over by Robyn Lipnicki as well as Christopher Tefft), of which all five characters are devoted readers. The rag guides much of the action in the form of exposition, fluffy love quizzes, articles heralding new trends and curiosities (like the advent of The Pill), and deliberately antiquated advice by columnist Gwendolyn Holmes (imperiously voiced by Maureen Cook). This last element provides a fantastic device that sets this young generation apart from its predecessors and captures the thrilling feeling of a trailblazing age. These developments are accompanied by a staggering few dozen pop songs, many presented in part or in counterpoint, reflecting a larger effort to fit absolutely everything into this two-hour package.

Stuart Ross hit on a winning formula for merging musical revue with musical theater. His popular Forever Plaid in essence is a concert by a 1950s-style guy group; however, he introduces potential for character development in its unique concept: the singing group Forever Plaid, killed in a bus collision just as it was reaching its prime, is allowed to perform its first — and last — full show on Earth by virtue of some heavenly reprieve. At The Encore Musical Theatre, director Barb Cullen uses a deft touch with both influences to deliver an entertaining piece of musical theater that’s a spectacular revue in its own right.

The primary reason for this show to exist is to bask in its many songs, and the numbers, led by music director Brian Buckner, are simply a treat. The performers form an outstanding quartet that sparkles in gentle four-part harmony; the voices blend so completely, it’s actually a surprise to hear them sing as individuals. But Ross ensures that the characters can indeed be distinct: Sebastian Gerstner brings jittery nervousness to his youthful Sparky, carried through to his singing in enthusiastic showmanship; in contrast, the iconic nerd-glasses visage befits earnest Smudge, and Phill Harmer’s astounding bass resonates with texture. The music, arranged by James Raitt, applies the guy-group sound to unexpected melodies, but also covers plenty of ground with regard to the standards. Joined by stoic bassist Billy Satterwhite, Buckner provides live piano accompaniment and occasional hammy facial expressions that round out the tableau. Deceptively complex sound design by Jess Preville frequently backs off from handheld microphone input, but doesn’t hesitate to throw in an audio effect from time to time; the result is dually additive and complementary to the musical accomplishment on display.


Waiting for Godot is Samuel Beckett’s most famous play. As a cultural reference point, it’s most often invoked because of its dense symbolism and avant-garde impermeability that encourages scholarly study. However, the script is billed as a tragicomedy, and the largely neutral dialogue can become extremely funny in expert hands. In the production currently at the Abreact, directors Adam Barnowski and Andrea Smith demonstrate that a play can sparkle with easy humor and simultaneously trigger and engage with a plethora of intellectual questions that run as deep as the artists and viewers care to dig.

Beckett’s allegorical style, the ubiquity of this play, and every possible contextual hint ensure it is no spoiler to assert that Godot does not appear. Still, true believers Vladimir (Stephen Blackwell) and Estragon (David Schoen) meet at the same depressing anti-landmark each evening — in part genuinely hoping that today will be the day, in part fearful that the one day they don’t make this appointment is the day that he will. In other locales and at other parts of the day, they speak of being beaten by anonymous passers-by and tuck away vegetables to eat; they may be persecuted, they are always close to starving. On stage, however, they wait with loyalty but not too much reverence, casting about for ways to pass the time and batting around unfulfilled plans to escape their obligation. Their complaints change little from one day to the next (the first and second act entail two consecutive evenings), and the company is similarly unaltered: each day, they make the acquaintance of Pozzo (Dave Davies) and his maltreated servant, Lucky (Lance Alan); each night, a Boy (Sarah Galloway) appears on Godot’s behalf to pass on excuses for today and promises for tomorrow.


In the aftermath of a sudden death, it’s not uncommon to wish we had one last interaction, some inkling of finality or closure before it was too late. This well-intentioned fantasy is borne out like a stunning blow in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, a surreal examination of a parent-child relationship that also raises serious questions about the limits of self determination. As directed by Kevin Young, the current production by Breathe Art Theatre Project creates a world for its characters that fairly burns with anguish.

Jessie (Lisa Melinn) is an adult woman who lives with her mother (Diane Hill) in her isolated country home. Divorced, estranged from her criminally troubled son, confined to the house in part for fear of a possible epileptic fit, she spends her days managing the household and incessantly feeling the weary isolation of a life unlikely to change for the better. The production utilizes a minimal but effective design that capitalizes on this loneliness: Barbie Weisserman’s properties extend little beyond objects that are handled or remarked upon in the script, and Sergio Forest’s tight, sparing illumination follows the players closely, in the absence of anything else to watch. Both are an excellent fit for the marvelous negative-space set (designed by Young); other than some furniture, the house is suggested by a few walls that throw a vanishing point at the upstage bedroom door, appearing far away and somehow final. Indeed, minutes after the play begins, on an otherwise-unremarkable night, Jessie reveals that she plans to commit suicide before the evening is out. The story unfolds in the aftermath of this announcement, as she continues to get her meticulously planned affairs in order and her mother attempts to process the supposed gift of that known last encounter.

Improvisation for improv’s sake is all well and good, but sometimes the compulsion to immortalize a scenario or character in scripted form becomes overwhelming. Go Comedy! gives in to the pressure with its newest original sketch comedy show, Ferndale 2-4-8, written by its ensemble cast and by director Bryan Lark. Premiering in concert with the original comedy Space Maids, one sketch comedy and one short play showcase the familiar and the fantastical in different formats, both with evident skill.

As suggested by its title, Ferndale 2-4-8 incorporates a send-up of the locally filmed (and quite possibly doomed) network series Detroit 1-8-7. Scenes transplanting the grizzled cop-show characters to comparatively tame Ferndale make up the loose framework, picking out and magnifying the most basic story arcs in a way that should translate to the uninitiated and the die-hard fan alike. However, the show eagerly abandons the strictures of this premise to deliver a barrage of sketches, as fast-moving and intricately packed as a Second City revue, threaded together by Michigan themes. Combining parody, original songs, marvelous single-joke blackout sketches, and deeper comic scenes, this one-hour production is a whirlwind tour of the cherished traditions, prides, and embarrassments of the mitten state.

In celebrating its twentieth anniversary, Matrix Theatre hearkens back to two original one-act comedies for its charming April Foolery. Despite the prankster suggestion of its title, this production, directed by Nancy Kammer, solidly delivers on its promise of comedy without artifice, but with all the energy and fun of just clowning around.

The play’s first act, Para Siempre, was adapted from Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite by Maria Serratos. Set here in a southwest Detroit residence, parents Norma (Christina Hernandez) and Raul (Rudy Villareal) celebrate their daughter’s wedding day by trying to coax her out of the bathroom where she’s barricaded herself. Even with the changed setting and mingling of Spanish and English dialogue, Simon’s histrionic sensibility and sharp exchanges shine through, in a humorous and well-paced half hour. Kammer’s skill at polishing moments pays off as Hernandez and Villarreal humorously bicker and snipe, playing off each other with the comfortable give and take of a long-married couple. The pair is joined by Kristin Schultes and Eric Niece as the daughter and her intended, who sweep in for an efficient one-two punchline.


Darkness and danger shroud the vexing Mercury Fur, the controversial Philip Ridley play. Still, no one can say that boundary-shoving Who Wants Cake? didn’t know what it was getting into with this production: its promotional materials point to the many patrons who have walked out on other productions, brandishing the fact like a medal. In this staging, director Joe Plambeck shows particular skill at heightening the shock factor by bolstering the show’s emotional core. The result is a play with the potential to turn stomachs and to wither hearts.

The cryptic plot is learn-as-you-go. Brothers Elliot (Jon Ager) and Darren (Nico Ager) break into an empty apartment of a condemned building, at first lit only by their flashlights, and deem it an acceptable locale for the night’s party. Between the content warnings displayed on the theater’s walls and programs and the surroundings, it’s clear whatever they mean by “party” is more nefarious than balloons and cake, but the specifics are unraveled by miniscule degrees only as the other players begin to arrive. The play’s uninterrupted two hours unfold in real time on a wave of maniacal energy, frequently driven by Elliot. With the party bumped up on the schedule by several days, there’s barely time to get ready, and many of the interactions are fueled with getting the preparations on track: cleaning the apartment (a fine wreck of a set by Katie Orwig); collecting the Party Piece (Scott Wilding), some kind of human accessory, to be dressed by the transsexual Lola (Vince Kelley); directing fellow squatter and hanger-on Naz (Alex D. Hill) to perform various grunt functions; and convincing the fearsome ringleader Spinx (Patrick O’Connor Cronin) that everything is proceeding according to plan. Often bickering, always moving, the characters insult each other using strings of unrelated racial slurs; they are all fountains of invective, but little more could be expected from such a band of droogs.

For its final production(s) of the season, Hilberry Theatre goes what can only be described as “full throttle.” The Cider House Rules is a massive undertaking, a play so long the writers divided it into two still-long parts, which the company rehearsed in tandem (under the dual direction of Blair Anderson and Lavinia Hart), premiered on consecutive nights, and performs on alternating days. Conceived by Tom Hulce, Jane Jones, and Peter Parnell, and adapted by Parnell, the play is less a dramatization of John Irving’s novel of the same name, and more the book itself brought directly to the stage. With liberal use of shared, overlapping narration, the literary feel of the story translates well to this expansive following of numerous lives over several decades. The result is a powerful, dogmatic drama concerning the evolution of moral character and its application in the face of real life’s never-planned developments.

The plot of the stage play differs substantially from the 1999 film The Cider House Rules, despite their originating from the same source. This script is precisely faithful to the intricate text, which — in addition to better fleshing out nearly every character and relationship and fully formed motivation — can be shockingly frank about the issue of abortion. Set in the early to middle twentieth century, in a Maine orphanage/hospital where Dr. Wilbur Larch delivers unwanted babies for which he must find homes and also secretly and illegally terminates unwanted pregnancies, the show does not shy away from describing abortions gone awry and related medical procedures. However difficult it may be to hear (and see, using pantomime behind sheet-draped women on gurneys), the perspective is extremely relevant and necessary in order for the viewer to understand how Dr. Larch has come to believe that providing safe and medically sound abortions is the Lord’s work. Irving’s writing leaves little room to question; the alternative to safe abortion by a medical professional is made gruesomely clear. Indeed, the narrative never deviates from its support of the good doctor: even when his protégé, Homer Wells, doubts that he can personally perform an abortion, Homer clearly states that he has no problem with Larch continuing the practice. Among other stories and themes, this major one dovetails with young Homer’s lifelong aim to be “of use”; the story elegantly illustrates the gap between personal moral qualms and the needs of others —when no one else can or will help them, which prevails?


In another crossover episode between its theater and improvisation worlds, Planet Ant Theatre offers the late-night show Fish Dinner, a one-man play written and performed by actor/improviser Quintin Hicks and directed by Dave Davies. Like many of its colleagues in the late-night series, this is a no-frills showcase for a celebrated local improviser, here a former Second City performer. It is also the funniest thing around.

Ranging 40–60 minutes in length, the one-act production is largely absent of plot. Instead, the world of the play is made up of tangentially connected characters, which Hicks fleshes out in about a dozen improvised monologues (hence the variation in running time). Some links between individuals are overt and specifically mentioned, whereas others are much looser; by avoiding formulaic bog, the structure undercuts audience expectations and keeps afloat the promise that anything is possible, up to and including a prologue by a fish. What the fish has to do with anything is up for interpretation, but what happens onstage is interesting and fulfilling enough to make it feel beside the point.


The Purple Rose Theatre Company continues its twentieth-anniversary season with a third world premiere, by resident artist Carey Crim. Her Some Couples May…, directed by Guy Sanville, dives into the private lives of a married couple to unearth a story that in real life is often kept under wraps: their struggle with infertility. The result is a distinctive, emotional tale that further unfolds into a study of knowledge sharing and privacy among families and acquaintances.

In their unnamed wealthy suburb of Detroit, Emily (Rhiannon Ragland) and David (Bill Simmons) are ready to have a child. At the play’s start, they’ve already been trying for months, with nothing but disappointment to show for it. The main thrust of the story bounces across major expected events over the next several months of their lives: one grows fanatical about conception advice found on the Internet, the all-consuming process of in vitro fertilization threatens to overwhelm the relationship, the couple doesn’t see eye to eye about medically assisted pregnancy versus other avenues. Most scenes have comic overtones and many are quite warm; the playwright avoids pitfalls like outright sniping and broad Mars/Venus stereotypes, and the central duo has a believable compatibility that encourages the viewer to root for them. Simmons’s David is a loyal and supportive partner, wanting to take this next step for both his wife and himself, yet mindful of the dangers of pinning all their hopes on one specific dream. But the center of the play rests in Emily, who takes each loss the hardest even as she grows, and Ragland gives the character a fullness that’s needed to keep this story fresh —she’s not a one-dimensional baby fiend per se, but when she succumbs to that internal pressure, it becomes a part of her discovery.

William Missouri Downs’s Forgiving John Lennon is designed to provoke a reaction from its audience. There’s no one desired effect, the play is too diverse and open-ended for that, but that the viewer will react — strongly — is almost certain. In its world-premiere production, the Detroit Repertory Theatre and director Harry Wetzel use twisted comedy as an entry point into a minefield of well-intentioned prejudice and misguided political correctness, blurring perceptions of acceptable and taboo.

The plot is centered around Asma (Yolanda Jack), a Muslim poet invited from Somalia to deliver readings and speeches at a few New England colleges. In the home of her eager hosts, professors Joseph and Katie (Benjamin J. Williams and Leah Smith), wide-eyed Asma’s awkwardly pointed comments (emerging from literal interpretations of English phrases and an outsider’s perfectly logical deductive reasoning) are effusively smoothed over and preemptively forgiven by this almost aggressively tolerant couple. The foreigner iteration of “kids say the darndest things” is an old device, but it works here in light of Asma’s enormous insight and Jack’s playful reactions as she politely endures Katie and Joseph’s meager hospitality and quietly enjoys pointing out their ideological inconsistencies and being smarter than they give her credit for. She isn’t Borat by a long shot (although these scenarios are certainly funny); her questions originate from fearless inquisitiveness rather than ignorance.

Tipping Point Theatre’s staging of The Cocktail Hour is a measured and refined take on playwright A.R. Gurney’s complex text. As directed by James R. Kuhl, this production is both skewering and self-effacing, its comically gifted cast seizing numerous opportunities for both laughter and introspection all under the umbrella of a uniquely autobiographical structure.

The play’s framework is deliberately, cleverly self-referential. John (Brian Sage) is a playwright who has written a play about his family, and he feels duty bound to get his father’s blessing before the script is produced. The play, John explains while standing in his parents’ living room, is about a playwright returning to his parents’ house to ask his father’s permission to produce the play he’s written about the family. In case the parallels weren’t easy enough to draw, the fictional play — constantly referenced, but sparingly read — is also entitled The Cocktail Hour. Gurney fully commits to the premise: every allusion to John’s play, from character motivations to huffy exits, is eventually borne out onstage.


If Carter W. Lewis's While We Were Bowling is nothing else, it is supremely titled. In actuality, the play — and this John Lepard–directed production at Williamston Theatre — is a cavalcade of "else," from family squabbles to curses from beyond the grave to race relations to suppressed homosexuality to substance abuse to inappropriate romances to narration that looks both forward and backward. With so much happening, in fact, the play's over-the-top unifying theme is a welcome throughline: as advertised, everything that happens to the Irish-Catholic "Bowling McGlaughlins" of Buffalo is distilled through the lens of the family's all-encompassing pastime.

Daughter Lydia (Kelly Studnicki) doubles as omniscient narrator; years away from the play's 1957 setting, she muses that those days that really alter our lives are relatively few. The first act, guided by her own need for recollection, lays out one such day, framed by the approaching All-City bowling tournament. Patriarch Melvin (Joseph Albright), so patriotically paranoid that he sent the kids for Russian language lessons to ready them for invasion, takes Lydia and perfectionist son Brent (Tyler VanCamp) to the alley to practice, where the kids' initial gee-whiz wholesomeness rapidly deteriorates. Melvin aches to surpass his own father's as-yet untouchable lifetime high score, which distracts him from seventeen-year-old Lydia's revelation of the truth behind her relationship with the potentially reformed, dweeby-tough team alternate Stickpin (Edward O'Ryan). Back at home, mom Frances (Suzi Regan) revels in her alone time — which is amber colored and comes from a bottle stashed in the hi-fi — until a preteen black boy named Jeremy (Aya Obayan) arrives to install the family TV set as well as himself in the living room. With so much going on, there's a prevailing soapy feel to the proceedings, but the characters don't lose their dimension; even Albright's maniacal focus on bowling and post-McCarthyist fervor are well packaged in a character who is, at his worst, merely accustomed to being in the driver's seat where his family is concerned.


UDM Theatre Company comes full circle with its landmark 40th-anniversary show: The Tempest, in addition to reaching the 400-year milestone in 2011, was the university program's first-ever production. For a script that feels like an ending as well as a beginning, this staging (directed by Andrew Huff) rides a current of youthful exuberance, its best moments found in the playfulness of playing Shakespeare.

Huff's self-aware, make-do concept isn't itself novel, but its introduction via a clever prologue establishes the tone with incredible efficiency. Dr. Arthur J. Beer, faculty member and the production's Prospero, leads the cast in a table read of the initial shipwreck scene. His few remarks, cuts and staging notes, are subsequently implemented in the same scene replayed, using Melinda Pacha's piecemeal set and Mark Choinski's richly hued lights in tandem to make a low-budget yet effective version of the spectacle. This is what we have to work with, the device says, and this is how we'll tell this story. With a complete framework accomplished in minutes, the rest of the production is free to explore theatrical work-arounds that cleverly honor and subvert the play's fantastical elements, giving dialogue and relationship top billing over magic intervention.


French playwright Marc Camoletti wrote a number of scripts about the triumvirate of Bernard, Robert, and Jacqueline, but they’re not exactly sequels; the events of one had little bearing on the others. His method is reminiscent of commedia dell’arte, in which a collection of broadly drawn stock characters is thrown together in different combinations and scenarios with no expectation of continuity. Thus, in its second Camoletti production in as many seasons, Meadow Brook Theatre’s North American premiere of Ding Dong (translation by Tudor Gates; directed by Travis W. Walter) shows its audience familiar faces, but brand-new farce.

Mischief makers Bernard and Robert (Christopher Howe and Steve Blackwood, respectively, reprising their roles from last season’s Boeing-Boeing), old friends when last we left them, meet here for the first time. The former has lured the latter under false pretenses to his distinctly ‘70s Paris home — all upscale trendy eggplant and burnt orange and mustard elements over gray, tied in rather elegantly by designer Brian Kessler — to reveal he knows all about the affair with Bernard’s wife, Jacqueline (also reprised by Julianne Somers). Because cuckolding is a deep enough injury that reparations are in order, Robert is presented with two options: violent death, or allowing Bernard to seduce his own wife and vengefully complete the switcheroo. They arrange a dinner party to begin the seduction, but Robert brings a slutty imposter (Janet Caine) to pose as his spouse, setting off a series of he-knows-that-I-know-that-you-know maneuvers that are only intensified when actual wife Juliette (MaryJo Cuppone) shows up at the door. With every action in service of a singular goal, the many moving parts of this lightning-fast comedy are well served by an undercurrent of simplicity, its two-act structure akin to pulling back on a slingshot and then letting go.


What happens when a playwright known for his distinctive, absurd flavor of comedy sets his sights on drama? If David Ives is any indication, it unleashes torrents of long-suppressed brilliant philosophical discourse, as evidenced by his New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656. The show's Midwest premiere at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, directed by David J. Magidson, is a seriously smart piece of historical fiction raising questions of philosophy, ethics, and religion that formed the basis of a pre-Enlightenment ethos.

The facts are these: on the date in question, Baruch de Spinoza was summoned to Talmud Torah Congregation in Amsterdam, where he had until recently been studying to become a rabbi; the same day, a cherem was issued against him, effectively excommunicating him and severing all ties to his faith and people. What remain unknown, and what Ives ventures to imagine, are the specifics of what was said and done that led to such a harsh and irreversible sentence. At the center of the controversy, young upstart Baruch (Mitchell Koory) is luminous with conviction, a man of supreme intellect who meets his spiritual needs by using science and logic to merge the God he loves with the world he understands. Wrongly accused of atheism, Baruch has actually conceived of a divinity that has strengthened rather than diminished his faith; the delight in his discovery is so powerful, in fact, he is compelled to disseminate the ideology as a better way to worship. His religious superiors are troubled that these ideas may directly contradict the Jewish Articles of Faith, and local governmental authorities take offense that he has discussed his philosophies with Christians, violating the rules under which Jews and Christians have agreed to coexist in Holland (where Jews have come to flee the Spanish Inquisition). The play’s two acts begin like a college-level discussion of philosophy, but veer into a kind of informal trial presided over by both church and state. Yet the production succeeds in emphasizing discourse rather than contentiousness — instead of resorting to defensiveness, Koory’s performance is purely enthusiastic, keen on debate and reason rather than self-preservation.


The Gem Theatre returns to the Late-Nite Catechism series for another round with Sister's Easter Catechism: Will My Bunny Go to Heaven? Unlike the previous installments, the current production is notable for being a world premiere, opening simultaneously in several cities just in time for Lent. Bolstering favorite gags and premises with new content, this production sticks to its greatest hits, but a solid performance by Sister (each of whom is certainly unique) and the variability afforded by the famous audience-participation element ensure the show feels like more than same schtick, different holiday.

Any viewer familiar with the series will recognize the components and beats of this newest installment; writer/creator Maripat Donovan and cowriter Marc Sylvia have found a formula that works for the premise. The first act is a blend of anecdotal remembrance of Easters past and Catholic restrictions on meat consumption, with requisite blasts of Vatican II: Sister sure loved the good old days. Nonie Breen's approach to Sister has curmudgeonly roots, but gets ever saltier the closer her ridicule gets to the mother lode. By the time she gets to describing the Stations of the Cross, her sly digs and chipper jokes about the scripture are happily unexpected and deliriously fun. The other material, including the thorny title issue of pets and their welcomeness through the pearly gates, works well enough on its own merits, but it remains the side dish to the Easter ham that is a nun jazzing up Biblical lore with subversive irreverence.

All the publicity for Stormfield Theatre’s full production of Kimberly Akimbo (after the late-2009 staged reading that marked the theater’s inception) trumpets actor Carmen Decker in the title role, and it’s more than earned by Decker’s celebrated decades-long history in Michigan theater and carefully honed performance. Yet what makes this lovingly oddball production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s script really tick is its sharp ensemble feel and embrace of a comedic oddball world in which high school and criminal activity, normal and abnormal, and impending birth and death can coexist, or, more curiously, overlap.

Teenaged Kimberly is the new kid in Bogota, New Jersey; her parents have moved the family here under suspiciously vague circumstances. There’s some witness protection–like allusion to keeping quiet about their past, but it would be impossible for this quirky crowd to blend in or lay low. Hypochondriac Pattie (Deborah Keller) pushes her pregnant belly around the house, her hands bound tightly after a carpal tunnel operation, but her mouth in fine working order to plead and command. Unreliable boozer Buddy (Tommy Gomez) brings the deadbeat dad to new levels of bumbling ineptitude, but manages to stay in the family’s good graces with warmth and heartfelt promises. However, most conspicuous of all is Kimberly, who has a genetic disease causing her body to age at 4.5 times the normal rate. She looks like a grandmother at the age of sixteen, the average life expectancy of people with her condition — her birthday passes as celebrated as a death knell. From her place at the fringes of the social order, Kimberly makes a single friend in Jeff (Comso Greene), another loner who prefers his pastimes of role-playing games and anagrams to fitting in with classmates who ridicule him. Rounding out the ensemble is erratic and dangerous Debra (Michelle Meredith), Kimberly’s aunt, who tracks down the family and seems intent on blowing the mystery of their past wide open. The play's narrow world is intentionally alien and insular, populated entirely by people who couldn’t arrive at normal with a map, yet however unusual or closed-off these characters are, when surrounded by their own kind, their existence feels full instead of pitiable.


The magic of the Performance Network production of The Piano Lesson, as directed by Tim Rhoze, lies in realism. Spinning playwright August Wilson’s captivating three-hour journey into the nature of family, inheritance, legacy, aspiration, duty, and the paranormal into a deceptively innocuous portrait of a Depression-era African-American family is an admirable feat, one that pays off with dividends in this deep and touching drama.

Lisa Lauren Smith is protagonist Berniece, a headstrong mother and widow who keeps the story of her ancestry close to her heart; in fact, it’s usually tightly locked therein. She works full-time, raises daughter Maretha (a role shared by 10-year-old Lexa Bauer and 13-year-old Kayla Lumpkin), essentially runs the house belonging to her uncle Doaker (James Cowans), a retired railroad man, and — despite the play’s 1936 setting and the pressure for women to be married — politely rejects the businesslike proposals of smitten future preacher Avery (Lynch Travis). Her cherished family history is manifest in the troubled form of the piano passed down from her parents, covered with carvings made by her great-grandfather when he was a slave. Berniece’s connection to the piano is colored both by the price at which it was obtained and by the particulars of her late mother’s attachment to it, but despite her unwillingness to play the instrument, she simply cannot let it go; throughout the production, Smith’s stern conviction and charged emotions resonate with emphatic force.


Live theater affords great opportunities to rattle the viewer, sometimes in its examination of challenging subject matter, but other times through pure, acute expression of a character's substantial pain. Both are felt in playwright Steven Dietz's take on the veterans and casualties of the Vietnam War, Last of the Boys; however, as directed by Frannie Shepherd-Bates, it's the latter that particularly resonates. This Magenta Giraffe Theatre production is a challenging one, its two and a half hours concerned with lives whose stunted sense of normalcy, even decades after the emotional injury, feels undeserved and unfair.

A deserted, late-century California trailer park is home to Ben (Dave Davies), who is visited every summer by longtime friend and fellow veteran Jeeter (Alan Madlane). The relationship between the two men sets the tone for the rest of the production; their shared cultural touchstones bleed over into the personal with respect to the men's differing reactions to the death of Ben's father. Ben professes to be a carpenter but seems to mostly exist outside of the grind, whereas Jeeter is a celebrated academic who has a penchant for younger women and a very unusual reason for following the Rolling Stones on tour. Vietnam is largely folded into Jeeter's grander remembrance of The '60s, a decade since unmatched and affording him no small amount of cachet among students and paramours; Madlane's take on the living time capsule is energetic and grounded in gentle comedy. The viewer later meets Jeeter's most recent one and only, Salyer (Lisa Melinn), and her domineering, protective mother, Lorraine (Linda Rabin Hammell). The four make up a tight ensemble cast, playing equally well in every permutation.


Dear readers,

It's been 15 months since I launched The Rogue Critic, and the response has been better than I could have hoped for in every respect. Adding to my embarrassment of riches, I was recently offered the tremendous opportunity to be featured in the Encore Live! podcast series at Click here to hear me talk theater and criticism with series co-producer and Blackbird Theatre Artistic Director Barton Bund.

Being the Rogue has been an incredible source of both pride and stress, but I feel more than ready to go for another 150(!) reviews. As rewarding as my pursuit has been, I couldn't have reached this milestone without the support of readers, fellow critics, theater companies, and artists alike. Thank you for writing back, pointing out spelling errors, not avoiding me in public, leaving Facebook likes and comments, reading (and sharing) reviews, and, above all, supporting live theater as patrons and contributors.

The Rogue


In its short history, the Encore Musical Theatre Company has found its hallmark in delivering classic crowd-pleasing musicals that draw entire families. Now at the dawn of its third year, the company is hungrily exploring the dark underbelly of the musical by supplementing its mainstage season with the Encore on the Edge series, featuring less-ubiquitous shows with adult themes. As a bold introduction to the series, co-founder Dan Cooney takes a double turn as director and star of Nevermore, a haunting interpretation of the life and tortured creativity of legendary horror writer Edgar Allan Poe.

Having developed and previously debuted the role off-Broadway, Cooney steps into Edgar’s spectrum of attitudes and life stages with confidence and deftness. Set in an apparent purgatory of the artist’s own making, the book by Grace Barnes dives into the writer’s romantic history with childhood love Elmira (Thalia Schramm) and child bride Virginia (Elizabeth Jaffe), as well as less forgiving discourse with his imagined late mother (Marlene Inman-Reilly) and with in-law/surrogate maternal figure Muddy (Sonja Marquis). His darker, carnal female pursuits are manifest in the Whore (Erin Donevan), who serves as a representative for Edgar’s many deviances, in particular his alcohol abuse and regretful emotional distance from the women who care for him. As the play’s single act unfolds, the bottomless unhappiness of Edgar’s life seems to be as much a product of his own addictive behaviors and mental demons as of the real and devastating tragedies that he blames for his extreme alienation and woe. This impression is in no small part attributable to Cooney’s slick performance, showing faces of childlike openness contrasted with deep, pure passion and pleading for connection the likes of which his macabre imagination cannot seem to withstand.


The Planet Ant Theatre’s world-premiere production of Hylomorph, by Maggie Smith, is ensconced in a kind of desperate silliness. Director Yasmine Jaffri guides this mash-up of a pair of mundane marriages and a world of scientific improbability with a strongly stylized perspective that plays to the strengths of both. The result is a lightning-speed, fish-out-of-water comedy in two short acts that resolves little and explains less, but abounds with thematic curiosity.

Something out of Alice in Wonderland, the story of the play seems intentionally obtuse and difficult to describe in precise language. In barest terms, Mrs. Wilson (Inga R. Wilson) is hired to tutor Mrs. Nara (Linda Ramsay) in English, but instead they are transported to a wasteland that may not even be of this dimension. The best explanation Smith seems to provide for the phenomenon is: science. However, what the characters (and audience) discover about their surroundings isn't nearly as interesting as what they learn about themselves. From their character names to their defining traits, the subservient wives define themselves by their husbands — if he insists she's agoraphobic, then she doesn't leave the house. In this respect, Ramsay’s dawning awareness is the biggest and most identifiable development, played with a balance of level-headed reason and a comically destructive streak. However, it’s Wilson who is the most consistently and subtly funny, a maniacally repressed housewife in constant terror of the possible, albeit implausible, atrocities she could perform at any instant. So afraid of everything she can’t manage to do anything, her Mrs. Wilson anchors the pair of lost women as a clear and relatable protagonist, able to elicit both laughter and affection by her pasted-on smile and deeply apologetic outbursts.


The 1980s were such magical times, with pop fads to spare and frightening, untrustworthy, Medusa-like woman creatures grabbing for and holding power in the workplace like never before. Ancient Greece was also probably magical. Playwrights Alana McNair and Kate Wilkinson prove these are two great tastes that taste great together in Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy, the inaugural production of Who Wants Cake? now returning to celebrate a full run at the Ringwald four years later. Directed by and starring Joe Bailey, the current offering skirts the line between straight-faced parody and cheeky, winking camp that keeps the laughs rolling.

Most people know the basic story of the bunny-boiler film upon which the play is based: a man has a brief fling that comes back to haunt him in the most nefarious of ways. The play doesn’t bother with movie character names, instead identifying the players as we know them best: suave protagonist Michael Douglas (Jon Ager), cloying wife Anne Archer (Melissa Beckwith), child most gently described as homely and slow Ellen Hamilton Latzen (Tim Kay), and indomitable home-wrecking force of nature Glenn Close (Bailey). Also contributing to the proceedings is a Greek chorus of four (Suzan M. Jacokes, Richard Payton, Joe Plambeck, and Dyan Bailey) whose heavy-handed intoning damns the man who steps out on his wife and family. Skipping ahead to the most memorable scenes and crucial plot points, the play smartly flies by at eighty minutes, just enough to satisfy without wearying of its premise. From the meteoric career rise of the protagonist that cannot go unpunished to the bloody bathtub showdown, the play works as both a rough-and-tumble spoof of the film and as a goof on the implausible, severe cautionary tales of Greek tragedy.


Playwright Peter Shaffer’s Equus, the storied 1973 epic about a heinous crime and a troubled child psychiatrist’s investigation into the deeply disturbed mind of the young perpetrator, seems tailor-made for the Blackbird Theatre’s gritty, challenging raison d’être. It’s a show designed to be difficult in both performing and viewing, famous for stripping one of the main characters nude onstage, but also featuring extensive scenes of immersive psychotherapy techniques and bouts of unsettling sexual and violent behavior. Readers should note that the performance I attended was the final preview, and changes have likely been implemented since; to the credit of this intense production and director Sarah Lucas, the work in progress showed little need for improvement, already well within the vicinity of enthralling.

The main thrust of the story belongs to young Alan Strang (Evan Mann), already convicted by the play’s start of savagely blinding six horses, and sentenced to the psychiatric ward of a hospital in lieu of imprisonment. The ensuing plot developments almost entirely concern his treatment by Dr. Martin Dysart (Lee Stille), who seeks to investigate what motivated Alan’s crime as a means to rehabilitate and heal him. What he learns about the young man’s fanatic devotion to horses, and his conflation of religious doctrine and burgeoning sexuality with respect to the beasts, is as disturbing as it is comprehensible. Mann’s work as Alan shows a believable opening up to treatment, beginning with (and reverting to) a murderous catatonia that falls away with growing trust. The pair works together splendidly, with keen pacing and an underlying camaraderie that helps their trajectories to dangerously merge; Stille’s exploration of his character is a perfect stand-in for the comprehending and connecting audience as he fights the dangers of career fatigue and complacency, feeling belittled in the face of Alan’s vibrant —albeit demented — life and beliefs.

Go Comedy!’s latest Thursday-night offering, Menllenium, was originally a product of the Second City improvisation conservatory, and its ingrained sketch-comedy feel is well suited for the quirky and fast-moving Thursday grab bag of scripted and improvised shows. This reimagined production, now directed by Tommy LeRoy, doesn’t seek to do anything groundbreaking with subject matter or form; instead, it relies on keen writing and a strong ensemble to unearth a well of comedy in the rise and fall of a circa-2000 boy band. The one-hour Behind The Music–style show hits all the familiar beats, but shines with a hardworking team of writer/improvisers that works with the medium to showcase its own strengths.

Our heroes’ story follows the mold of so many popular artists’ biographies: a humble quartet of high school football teammates is discovered by the music biz, gets rocketed to superstardom, mishandles newfound fame and unchecked egos, and parts ways after seemingly petty differences turn irreconcilable. Written by the ensemble, the scenes are a selective bunch of representative vignettes that establish the characters of Marcus (Tommy Simon), Kevin (Andrew Seiler), JaySon (Micah Caldwell), and Justin Dance (Clint Lohman) and allow them to react to new situations. Happily, although each character has an identifying type (playboy, narcissist, rebel, and gay), most don’t live exclusively within these descriptors, making the scenes feel playful and inventive instead of formulaic. An absolute highlight of these sketches finds the boys discussing contract negotiations with football coach turned manager Sarge (Ryan Parmenter), establishing the game of the scene and then methodically piling on to absurd heights of humor. The ensemble members are sharply attuned to one another, and it shows in the writing: jokes of all stripes and sensibilities are laid down in rapid succession, too numerous and varied to be the product of a single mind.