Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


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.