Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


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.