Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


The primary and persistent aim of a reviewer is to be objective at all costs. Yet in truth, I'm a product of my own unique history and preferences as much as the next guy, and sometimes it's difficult to discern whether a connection I feel accurately represents the universal audience experience. With that caveat, be advised that in its world-premiere run at Performance Network Theatre, playwright Kim Carney's The War Since Eve resonated massively with this viewer: I found myself, as an adult woman with a mother, entirely at its mercy.

The play concerns feminist trailblazer Roxie Firestone (Henrietta Hermelin) and her two daughters, steadfast personal assistant Milty (Leah Smith) and rebellious, estranged Tara (Sarab Kamoo). Hours before Roxie is to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tara reaches out to her family for the first time in decades, triggering prodigal-son levels of unfairness that ignite Milty’s inferiority complex like a rocket. Throughout the pre-ceremony first act and post-party second, the characters make headway into their family history and life choices, all the while affirming that mothers and daughters are patently unable to discuss when sparring is an option. Carney's characters are easily simplified into types: each has an established place in the family, and the varying ideologies are essentially concrete. However, what individual points of view they represent and the content of their disagreements are dwarfed by the universality of the high stakes and underlying ridiculousness that characterize a family argument. The playwright’s heightened take — the kind of scorched-earth battle that mothers and daughters are inexplicably capable of reversing in a moment — may not be initially recognizable from outside the fray, but feels utterly authentic on an emotional level. Yet at the same time, using the benefit of that distance, Carney unfolds these petty and regressive exchanges with abundant hilarity for the viewer.

The premise of Daniel Goldfarb's Modern Orthodox is as outlandish as a sitcom plot: passing acquaintance makes himself a sudden fixture in our heroes' lives, much to their consternation. Yet beneath the heightened plot there is additional promise for growth, in the concept of people whose take on their shared religion makes them almost contentiously opposed before they start learning from each other. In the current production at Jewish Ensemble Theatre, director Aaron Moore looks beyond situation to character for the basis of his humor, and the result is a collection of comic performances so fine, they excuse whatever minor discord the perspective raises against the script.

The play begins with a disjointed first meeting between Ben Jacobson (Scott Crownover) and Hershel Klein (Aral Gribble). The latter's business is diamonds; the former is ready to pop the question to his girlfriend of six years, Hannah Ziggelstein (Christina L. Flynn). To group both men under the descriptor "Jewish" is to lump Kraft Singles and sushi together as "food" — their relationship with Judaism could not be more different. Although costume designer Cal Schwartz accents his yarmulke with a brazen Yankees logo, orthodox Hershel takes his faith and culture quite seriously, peppering his speech with Hebrew phrases and insisting on the seat that points toward Jerusalem; in contrast, non-practicing Ben disparages his nose and practically sneers at his devout acquaintance. But it's one fleeting moment, in which Ben callously humiliates Hershel, that serves as the catalyst for the plot: the luckless, loveless salesman suffers a catastrophe, blames it on the forced breach of faith, and explodes into Ben and Hannah's luxe shared apartment (courtesy of set designer Sarah Tanner) to insist that Ben right this wrong. After one patronizing lecture about kosher law and a few more callous and over-the-top comic scenes, Ben and Hannah are ready to do whatever it takes to end the indefinite visit.


There are few real surprises in Romulus Linney’s stage adaptation of the Ernest J. Gaines novel A Lesson Before Dying, but they’re not necessary in a story that shocks and dismays simply by playing out exactly as the viewer would expect. At the play’s opening, the young Jefferson (Gabriel Johnson) is already on death row, but fear and institutionalized inequities in the Jim Crow South keep anyone from challenging the verdict; even an explicit did-he-do-it conversation in the second act feels like no more than a mournful intellectual exercise. In this world, it’s accepted as fact that a black man standing close by when a white man is murdered is as good as dead. When his own public defender uses the gangly metaphor of a hog to be slaughtered as a plea for clemency, Jefferson seizes on that one word — hog — and turns it into a self-fulfilling prophecy, shutting down and merely waiting for the day he’ll be dragged to the electric chair.

His guardian, Miss Emma (Barbara Jacobs-Smith), wisely realizes the only thing Jefferson can now control is how he chooses to face his fate, and she recruits the boy’s former teacher, Grant Wiggins (Harold Hogan), to instill a manly sense of dignity in the condemned. Already struggling with his vocation at a rural plantation school and sustaining a cautious relationship with another teacher, the still-married Vivian Baptiste (Angela King), Grant thinks only of leaving the doldrums of his surroundings to accomplish better and more important things elsewhere. Nobody should be surprised that Grant needs to learn a lesson as much as Jefferson does, but the way it plays out in this Detroit Repertory Theatre production, directed by Barbara Busby, peels back futility to reveal the power of pride in the face of oppression.


There's a show before the show in playwright John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves; for this Who Wants Cake? production, director Joe Bailey cleverly stashes it in the corner and gives it all the excitement of a preflight safety presentation. Whatever, guy, the atmosphere deadpans, as a flop-sweaty fellow plays piano with his fingers, sings with his mouth, and begs for adulation with every other molecule of his being. Instead, most of the Ringwald's listening audience — quite possibly the entire universe — is rolling its collective eyes at Artie Shaughnessy.

Played by Dave Davies, Artie is a zookeeper by day and a middling songwriter by night. Energized by his new lady love, the headstrong Bunny (Melissa Beckwith), he finally feels ready to take on the entertainment world with a handful of ditties and a dream (oh, and a lifelong tie to the biggest director in the film industry). Artie holds his Hollywood future with Bunny in front of him like a gem, but below the surface there is an undercurrent of feet-dragging, the source of which is Bananas (Lisa Jesswein), Artie's mentally ill wife. Given the play's 1965 setting, her treatment is inherently troubling: Artie force-feeds her pills whenever she emotes more than a groggy stupor, and Bunny talks about her like a piece of furniture even when she's in the room. But the primary strength of this production is in its veering tones; from a paper-thin blossoming infatuation set to music, to Looney Tunes–worthy chase scenes, to a vast sounding board of pathos, Bailey and company shift between and bleed together the disparate parts of a bleakly dark yet shimmering comedy.


A play about a playwright who writes a play about a playwright, Nicky Silver's comedy The Agony & the Agony is a refracted, repeated-to-infinity glance through the looking glass. Yet this deviously funny piece is only occasionally deep and not at all challenging to follow. The Magenta Giraffe Theatre production, directed by Lisa Melinn, is an exhausting lap around absurdity that also manages to both reinforce and seriously question the notion that hell is other people.

The play's apartment setting is home to the gay man/straight woman marriage of Richard (Keith Kalinowski) and Lela (Connie Cowper), two theater artists of considerable drive, dubious talent, and poor prospects. Whatever leg up each partner expected from their mismatched union hasn't panned out, but now things are looking up for both of them at once. Richard has broken through a years-long dry spell and started writing again, but Lela needs him to make himself scarce so that she can entertain a big-shot producer and seduce her way into a coveted role. Much of the first act concerns the couple's wheedling and vitriol, steeped in Silver's hyperbolic verbal fireworks, but the early goings struggle to find traction — if the characters are engaged in a game of cruelty, the actors don't seem to agree on the rules. Further obstacles to Lela's casting-couch session are introduced, farce-style; first to interfere is her lover Chet (Dalibor Stolevski), who dumbly inserts his dimly pretty ambition into the scene, only to be followed by his trucker-mannered wretch of a companion (Molly McMahon). Also not to be discounted is the specter of infamous Nathan Leopold, Jr. (Jonathan Davidson), who is not at all happy to have his likeness invoked in Richard's self-referential new play. The first act is a zig-zagging build to a very full house, whose few jangling moments are amply countered by well-packaged, playful give and take.


Thus far I've managed to avoid the MTV show-that-must-not-be-named, but only because I once lived for reality TV and am convinced that (in SAT parlance) The Bachelor is to Jersey Shore as candy is to heroin. But like any true American, I'm well aware of the show and its highly compensated stars, and like a good Rogue I've read recaps and watched clips in order to better understand the original comedy Jersey Show Season 1 (Abridged). Written by Lesley Braden-Phillips and Kathleen Lietz, directed by the latter, and currently occupying the opening Thursday-night time slot at Go Comedy!, this one-act spoof delivers on its title in an extremely literal manner.

The production begins with a string of talking-head confessionals introducing the viewer to the eight strangers picked to live in a Seaside Heights house and have their lives taped. For the uninitiated, the concept is exactly like The Real World, except with homogenous stereotypes who self-apply the label Guido. The season goes like this: gym, tan, laundry, shots, beach, club, hookups, Ron-Ron juice, fistfights, infidelity, hair gel. Except for one housemate who can't handle a part-time job at a T-shirt store and leaves the show, these enterprising underachievers have reached their ultimate goal of making spring break last forever. For added familiarity, a pair of veejay types (Jennifer Bloomer and John Nowaczyk) pipe in between the episodes with minor commentary on the action, expertly reproducing that shameful sucked-into-the-marathon feeling that best accompanies the pinnacle of trash TV.


Planet Ant Theatre's improvisational and theatrical worlds collide most visibly in biannual original plays earmarked as prizes for the winning teams of its Summer Colony Fest and Winter Colony Fest tournaments. As directed by Mike McGettigan, the current production of 3 Guys, 1 Jar, written by and starring the men of A.R.M., looks fondly on a world of shrugging listlessness and heroic ineptitude as it hilariously punishes people who try.

In the world of the play, the Guys were all laid off some months ago and are resigned to bowling and drinking the days away. Marv (Marv Anderson) provides the impetus for the plot, as some meager spark within inspires him to do something worthwhile with his time and energy. As it happens, a huge, empty plastic jar right in their lane beckons for donations to help a kid dying of nonspecific cancer, and the men have found their cause. McGettigan seems an especially apt fit for the troupe, as the ensuing madcap campaign to raise $28,000 and cure the boy benefits constantly from his signature: montages, insanely tangential conversations, and unbridled absurdity abound. Undoubtedly, the one-act show has very rough edges, but every misstep is countered by moments of fresh, startling humor.


Director Alison C. Vesely's concept for Richard III at the Hilberry Theatre is curious. Granted, this is hardly the first time a production has gone the self-aware theater-qua-theater route, and the initial beats featuring a crew member voicing cues and the decidedly pre-show performers filing in and preparing for the spectacle are both well-executed and thought-provoking. (One potential instigator for the choice is the double-, triple-, and quadruple-casting required of a script with a body count higher than the Hilberry's student roster, and costume designer Christa Koerner adds a nod to the artifice by clothing each actor in a base layer of black, over which other elements are swapped in.) What's curious about this carefully detailed backstage perspective is that it largely disappears after the first scene. Fortunately, the show beneath the concept, helmed by a powerhouse lead performance, succeeds without any added layers.

Shakespeare's history of England's King Richard III follows a physically deformed member of the royal lineage bent on grabbing his family's power with both hands and at any measure, primarily by bumping off everyone whose claim to the throne might threaten his own dubious one. In the title role, Edmund Alyn Jones is a fascinating villain, full of energy and conniving, eager to level with the audience that even he can hardly believe his successes. Showing both physical and emotional mastery of the role, Jones's Richard is a dragging, smirking, frighteningly intelligent monster, somehow as appealing as he is contemptible. His desperate hunger for power, and his even more desperate need to keep his tenuous power once obtained, makes for a satisfying arc and buoys a long two acts.

Patrick Barlow's recent theatrical adaptation of The 39 Steps comes with oceans of context. It's a retread of a 1915 novel of the same name by John Buchan; it's an homage to the stylings of one Alfred Hitchcock, who directed the 1935 movie, and simultaneously a parody of the same; it's two hours of pure playfulness that toys with the conventions of adaptation and goofs on the impossibility of bringing a film of enormous scope to the stage. Somehow, the script is incessantly self-referential in all of these respects at once. It's a credit to director Travis W. Walter and this Meadow Brook Theatre production that the play is funny on every one of these highfalutin levels, not to mention just plain funny.

The story is one of espionage and international intrigue, but really it boils down to the hotly pursued civilian Richard Hannay (Rusty Mewha), who gets in way over his head and barely has time amidst all his fleeing to investigate the mysterious organization targeting him and to clear his name. His entry point is the mysteriously sexy but frustratingly obtuse Annabella Schmidt (Stephanie Wahl), a thickly accented spy who makes her abrupt exit before any questions can be answered. Once all fingers are pointed at Richard and the chase begins, Wahl returns in two other forms, as a timid Scottish housewife and as plucky Pamela Edwards, who finds herself attached to the desperate Richard in and out of custody, like a slapstick precursor to The Defiant Ones. Little of Hitchcock's trademark agonizingly quiet suspense is retained in this whirlwind adaptation, but the production knows its strengths lie in big actions and settings that change with impressive swiftness, from the garish footlights of a London music hall to a harrowing railroad bridge to a fog-secluded Scottish inn. Mewha gives off leading-man qualities that don't preclude him from playing for laughs, and Wahl excels at pushing the idiosyncrasies of her characters; the two play off each other well, especially in truly awkward moments.