Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


In a conspiracy-hungry age of questioning authority, amateur journalism, and access to disparate opinions the world over, our relationship with the truth — whatever that means — is more tenuous than ever. Humankind is now predisposed to choose what reports to accept and reject; therefore, what beliefs we each dare to espouse, and why, helps define us to ourselves and others. Playwright Steven Dietz’s beguiling Yankee Tavern toys with this theme like a prism, shifting the little world inside a rundown New York City bar as if to see how the changing light alters the ensuing view. Accordingly, the Breathe Art Theatre Project production marking the play’s Michigan and Canadian premieres, running first at Detroit’s Furniture Factory and then at Windsor’s Mackenzie Hall, is enigmatically gripping.

The play’s first act quickly introduces all four of its characters: Adam (Kevin Young), a graduate student who inherited the watering hole of the title from his late father; Janet (Chelsea Sadler), Adam’s practical and understanding fiancĂ©, but no fan of her intended’s birthright; Ray (Dan Jaroslaw), an avid conspiracy theorist and apparent professional barfly with a fondness for the ghosts around him; and Palmer (Joel Mitchell), an unknown loner who buys an extra beer for the empty seat next to him. Dietz works hard to generate a thought-provoking environment in which the characters compare and discuss the various theories about the 9/11 attacks (here only four years out, in the early 2006 of the play). However, it’s the accomplishment of director Michael Carnow and cast that the discourse feels mundane, an ultimately unresolvable curiosity that serves as an efficient means to establish characterizations and relationships. The stakes here are low, and the characters’ affection for each other shows even as they disagree; among these strong performances, Jaroslaw is the early standout, not only entertaining to watch for his considerable eccentric energy, but also a real and quite likable character.

This comfortable, everyday feel is effective in no small part because of Valerie Bonasso’s gloriously homey set, a hodgepodge of styles quietly awaiting renovation or demolition. The bar elements and accoutrements (much of the latter by properties and costume designer Michelle Becker), and how readily and easily the cast interacts with them, is a crucial part of making the play feel grounded in real life. Frosty overhead lamps are an excellent capstone of Sergio Forest’s sly lighting design, further complementing the eclectic feel of a congenial but dingy space. From the mismatched bar stools to the discolored wallpaper betraying fresher shapes where something used to hang, the design convincingly evokes a second home for these characters, an enclave of familiar faces and uneventful daily life.

After this careful setup, the second act all too easily turns preconceived notions inside-out. Plot details are best left vague, but suffice it to say, the comforting realism of the first act is all the more frightening once that reality becomes almost unrecognizable. The crux of the action is placed at Janet’s feet, and Sadler turns in a phenomenal performance as she strains to reconcile her convictions and reimagine her life in the face of new information. Presented with conflicting versions of reality, the viewer has essentially no time to weigh the options and reestablish his take on the truth; accordingly, the play’s swift and merciless ending was more than I could piece together during or after, although it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment at puzzling it all over.

This Yankee Tavern is a revelation for its demonstration of the thin line between the commonplace and the unknown, and a fascinating study of why we reject some convictions in order to cling to others. Clever merging of thoughtful designs and performances also provide an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Audiences may be hard pressed to arrive at a description of what exactly happens, but it’s this rollercoaster loss of control where it was previously assured that will make the production compelling to believers and skeptics alike.


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