Wednesday, October 31, 2007


My husband and I spend a lot of time in the theater and we spend a lot of time together, but we don't often spend time together at theaters. So it's been a real treat that the two of us have seen two shows together in three days time. Last night in particular was very much a date night as our friends volunteered to have our son spend the night at their place and we didn't have to worry about what time we got home.

It was September of 1985 when Richard and I had our first date. Had I known then that we would have ended up married, I'm not sure I would have predicted that 22 years later, we'd still get such a thrill out of each other's company. I caught myself last night feeling disappointed that we were almost home because I didn't want our date to end. It had been an evening of delightful conversation and laughter. I was struck again with how fortunate I am to so enjoy and long for the company of my husband. It's part of what makes life good.

And I say all this as a way of explaining that I'm a sucker for a good love story--which is what Camelot is.

By the end of the first act, I knew I would be in tears at the end of the musical--a prediction which was to prove true, despite the twists this particular revival made to the original. There was such chemistry between the Arthur and the Guinevere. Both of them grew up during the course of the musical and their love deepened even as Guinevere inexplicably fell for the caddish, callow Lancelot. This was one of the major flaws of this production--one that it shares with many of the Camelot retellings--why in the world would Guinevere ever fall in love with Lancelot when she's married to Arthur. The love between them is so strong and Arthur has the far greater attractive personality than Lancelot. This production doesn't even attempt to explain why she falls for Lancelot, she just does.

Richard and I also had long discussions about why the revival took out one of his favorite songs--Fie on Goodness. Yes, many people complained that the musical was too long, so perhaps they felt they needed to cut something. However, I guess that it was for a different reason than just length. They took it out because they wanted to change the thematic emphasis. They're telling a different story by taking that piece out. This Camelot is far more political than other versions. It really is an anti-war musical that cries out for more civilized behavior. It's also a production that shies away from the idea that virtue and virtuous behavior can have momentous affects on the world around us. It strives to be less judgmental and in the process, loses some of its strength.

Mordred is present in this production, but he is far less the antagonist than Lancelot. Camelot doesn't really fall because of his scheming, he's simply the tool that gets used in that moment. It's an unfortunate choice.

More later.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


The highlight of my weekend came early--Friday night at the BoarsHead. It was truly an exhilarating night at the theater for a lot of different reasons. It was the opening night of Doubt and there was an atmosphere of excitement. People in the lobby were talking to one another and the BoarsHead staff were all mingling and greeting people with warmth and enthusiasm.

I don't know how much theaters talk about the experience they create in the lobby, but it's well worth talking about. It really can make a huge difference in whether someone wants to return to your theater--almost as much as the quality of the production itself. People who come to the theater aren't paying for a product and they aren't paying for a service--it's an experience that they want and that experience begins the moment they arrive.

Theaters in small towns like Lansing have an additional advantage: People are more likely to know each other. This provides an opportunity to make going to the theater a social occasion--something that grows ever more important in a world where we're more likely to communicate with someone electronically than face-to-face.

For me, the occasion was especially enjoyable because I had another chance to meet with and talk to Don Calamia of Between the Lines. He and I have spoken on the phone a few times and through our blogs. We'd only officially met, though, at the Oscar Wilde Awards, a night when he was extremely busy putting on a superior show.

Don's reputation had preceded him. I'd been hearing for the past two years about how passionate he was about theater and how we was really making a difference in the Detroit theater community. He was kind, devoted to the art, and easy to talk to. Having now met him, I can easily testify to all of those characteristics. He also has a delightful sense of humor.

Given that it was an opening night, the two of us weren't the only critics in the audience and we soon had a circle of our colleagues including Kate O'Neill from the Lansing State Journal (who as there as the official reviewer from the paper), Tom Helma from the City Pulse, and Jim Fordyce from Channel 56. After the show, Don introduced me to Marty Kohn from the Detroit Free Press. The NEA has warned us that theater critics are an endangered species, but you wouldn't have known it from our representation that night.

We also had chance to meet Patty Mallett, BoarsHead's new and outgoing communications director. She was hired part time a month or so ago and then had a full-time offer come in (one with benefits!) that she'll be taking in two weeks.

BoarsHead first did a reading of Doubt last season. It was easy to see then why it has quickly become the show whose rights are in such great demand. BoarsHead was able to get Amy Fitts to return and reprise the role she did in the reading. It also lured back Nancy Elizabeth-Kammer and Michael Joseph Mitchell. Together with Tiffany Denise Mitchenor and directed by Jonathan Courtmanche, this was a show that held great promise long before the lights first hit the stage last week. It's a show that delivered on its promise--despite the annoyance of a car alarm that began in the latter half of the show and was still going strong an hour after the show ended.

But I'm going to save the details of the show for the review that I'm hoping to have posted on Epinions by Thursday (out of courtesy, I will wait until after the State Journal review has been published, though I won't be reading it until my review is done). But you'll read more about Doubt in this space as well. On Sunday, I'll be going to the Detroit Repertory Theatre and seeing their production of Doubt. Don and I will then be comparing notes and productions through this blog and his, Confessions of a Cranky Critic.

So stay tuned!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Recent Tragic Events

I'm working my way backward through the weekend. Tomorrow I'll blog about BoarsHead's Doubt and maybe later in the week I'll actually finally get around to blogging about the shows I saw earlier this month before my grandfather died.

On Saturday night, I went with a friend to see Recent Tragic Events at Michigan State University's Arena Theatre. It was one of the second stage productions by the theatre department.

And right away I'm going to get myself in trouble because I don't have the program handy. So if you read this before I've had a chance to edit away my mistakes (and you'll know because I won't have deleted this paragraph yet), then please accept my apologies.

This second stage show was part of a collaboration between the theater department and Williamston Theatre. Williamston's executive director, John Lepard, directed this show. It's a partnership that makes a lot of sense and one that they will hopefully do more of.

The script was rather a fascinating one. I was especially intrigued by the sock puppet representing Joyce Carol Oates--a puppet who argued that we all have free will, a position the play mostly argued against. In fact, I found myself watching carefully in the end scene as the "stage manager" called out each action. I was very curious whether the actor who slavishly follow the cues given by the manager or whether he would break in an indication that we are not all tied to fate. It was a scene that was very tightly done and great to watch.

Marring the show were some of the diction issues. I found myself frequently leaning forward so that I could try to figure out what the actors were saying. Too many people spoke too quickly and bit off the ends of their words, making it difficult to figure out what was being said. There's that line between being conversational and still being clear that can hurt a show when it's not observed.

That said, there was some delightful acting. The role of the "stage manager" was especially well performed.

Desperate Hours

Yesterday afternoon I went to see Desperate Hours at Lansing Civic Player. It was an intriguing show--one which I'd hate to put on any sort of simple label of "good" or "bad." Rather, I'm glad I went because it gave me a lot to think about.

There were some wonderful moments in it and I enjoyed the choices that they made with the lights. They were extremely well-executed and helped to create a particular film noir mood. They made use of spots that flashed on small spots such as a telephone. They also did fades that purposefully left characters speaking in darkness. It's not a technique you often see in this space.

Speaking of space, it was also impressive the use that the production made of the space that they have. Hannah Community Center's stage is cavernous and is often a disadvantage to the groups that perform there as actors must stride across sets that are way too big for what is needed. However, Director Michael Hays and Set Designer James Miner used the whole stage so that there was no need for lengthy scene changes. A little over half the stage was the two-level home that the escaped convicts invaded. The other part of the stage was the police station that later easily converted into the next-door attic. Lights were used to focus attention and actors frequently froze on stage while action was taking place in the other room--or they exited quickly during the lights down. It was a decision that kept up the pace of the show and helped contribute to the tension.

Speaking of pace, the first half was extremely long. Not having read the script, I assume that they did a break after the first two acts. It might have been better to find a place in the middle of Act 2 to hold the intermission as the first half was as long as some complete productions. Also, the actors seemed far more committed to and invested in the second half of the play than the first. It might have helped if that had been the longer half.

The play also definitely had dated elements to it. It's set in 1955 and the family felt like something out of a Leave it to Beaver episode. It was especially painful to see how the women were written, directed, and performed. The mother was little more than the stereotyped woman of the 50s--a woman that rarely existed outside of the pages of women's magazines and afternoon television shows.

While I often found myself asking what I would do if I were in the father's shoes (which was mostly what the playwright wanted you to ask), I never wondered what I would do in the mother's shoes despite that being the more obvious connection for me, a mother. But she wasn't someone I could relate to. She was given a role that was entirely passive--a role I couldn't see either of my grandmothers, both of whom were mothers in the 50s, being. She seemed like a woman who during childbirth would tell her husband that the pain was too bad and would he please have the baby for her. I mean, come on, no woman who has gone through childbirth would be so helpless and passionless when her children are in danger.

However, that is exactly the woman that the playwright created. Joseph Hayes gave the character only one moment to shine--the rest of the time she was merely whiny and incompetent (except her cooking, she was described as an excellent cook). Nor was it helped by the direction that had her wringing her hands when the elderly garbage man was threatened. Rather than have her appeal directly to the murderers, she paced back and forth, letting loose a long ramble of pleadings that were directed at the carpet. She was upset, but was making no real effort to convince the convicts to leave the old man alone.

Nor is the daughter anything but the stereotype of a redhead. The script gives her very little to work with. The one scene where she might have been afforded opportunity to stretch fell flat. There was little to no connection between her and her boyfriend and the scene lacked any sort of tension whatsoever.

The men in this production fared far better--in large part because they had more to work with. It was through them that the psychological drama of the story played out. They became the tableau on which the playwright painted portraits of evil and hope, nobility and despair.

Mark Boyd played the father, Dan Hilliard, as the archetype 50s father who was placed into an unbearable situation. It's immediately evident that he loves his family. His actions are never empty machoism or posing; rather they are the acts of a genuinely desperate man who wants his family to live. He was a hero not in the mold of a James Bond, but in the fashion of MacDuff in the Scottish play for whom the threat to his family is what motivates him to move against king and then to murder when his that family is harmed. Boyd was especially delightful to watch in the scene where his son's schoolteacher shows up at the house to find out why he wasn't in school (another dated element of the show). His antics were one of the few moments of comic relief in the drama.

Joe Dickson also did quite well as the evil Glenn Griffin. He was callous, unpredictable, and appropriately menacing. He was most creepy when he showed how amused he was at the suffering he was causing. I didn't care much for the speeches that he delivered to the audience, but neither was I particularly bothered by them. The speeches themselves didn't seem to really support it, but it didn't break the mood or the scene either.

Kevin Knights makes an excellent bully. He provided the muscle and the intimidation factor.

I find myself falling into the trap that I often got caught by when I was first writing reviews--that of trying to mention everyone and everything. That usually makes for pretty dull reading and that's probably exactly what is happening to this blog entry that just started out as a discussion of some of the things that intrigued me in the show. It wasn't meant to turn into anything comprehensive or into a review.

So instead, let me just wrap up by saying I also thought the police scenes were interesting, especially as the audience was able to see the internal struggles of the officers played by Jack Dowd and Rick Dethlefsen. Dethlefsen early on seemed a little too unconcerned, but much of that was scripted. Those scenes were also adjusting to a last-minute cast change, something that can often throw things off. However, they managed to maintain the tension and still do an excellent job.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Critics and the Theater

I had a young man from Great Britain ask me recently whether as a critic I'm ever able to enjoy the theater or whether I'm always critical of it. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. Without getting defensive, I tried to explain that I'm a theater critic because I love the theater, not because I hate it.

In fact, I would go so far as to argue that outside of the people who are actually creating theater, you won't find a group of people who are as passionate about theater as critics are. One of the amazing things about the NEA Fellowship that I attended last year was the fact that a group of 25 critics got to spend two solid weeks together from sunup to way past sundown. We never ran out of things to talk about and we instantly bonded because of the one thing that we had in common: We all loved and were passionate about theater.

It's not often you get to spend two solid weeks with people who attend theater two to three times a week and when they're not in the theater, are talking to and interviewing people who work in the theater.

I was impressed with all of them because there was such deep commitment to the art form. They wanted to find ways to get people talking about theater and to be able to engage it at an ever-deeper and more meaningful level. They weren't interested in just getting people to show up and toss out half-hearted praise. They wanted people to go to the theater and truly engage with the work that was done on stage.

Personally, I would rather go see a poorly performed or poorly written show than not go to the theater or simply watch television. There is a joy to seeing a show when I am able to engage my mind and truly analyze all aspects of a performance. This isn't a chore, it's one of the experiences that makes theater so amazing.

There may be stories of those few critics who claim that they hate the theater, but all the ones that I have met are critics because of their deep-seated passion for and love of the art form.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Yana Levovna

Just a quick note--have you read any reviews recently by Yana Levovna at the Lansing City Pulse? I'm quite impressed with her writing. She's very thorough and intelligently analyzes the show she's seen. It's not just a review of "it's good" or "it's bad." Instead, she talks about individual elements that worked or didn't.

She's definitely a reviewer to read.

Miss one weekend...

Boy, miss one weekend of theater around this town and you'll have a devil of a time catching up. I've been juggling my calendar every which way trying to figure out how to get to see everything and I've finally come to the conclusion that I'm going to have to miss a show. Now it's just a matter of figuring out which one. Part of the issue is that Thursday isn't available because of other family commitments.

I'll also have to wait to see Valparaiso until it's second weekend. Not a big deal normally, except that my husband is in it and I do like to watch him perform--preferably more than once during a run. However, that won't happen this time around. So, those of you who do make it to see Valparaiso at Icarus Falling's new site, Michigan Homegrown Music, will you tell me what you thought of it?

Other shows going on this weekend:
  • My name is Rachel Corrie, Sunsets with Shakespeare at Woldumar Barn
  • Desperate Hours, Lansing Civic Players at Hannah Community Center
  • Doubt, BoarsHead at BoarsHead
  • Recent Tragic Events, Michigan State University at the Arena Theatre
There is also a Lansing Symphony Orchestra performance that sounds like it's going to be fantastic.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Catching up

I apologize to those of you who are faithful readers that my posting has been rather irregular of late. Life has thrown several curve balls my way lately, primarily the death of my grandfather, but also the death of our 16-year-old family cat and someone hacking into our checking account and emptying it out (including the insurance check which was supposed to go to the roofer).

As soon as I can get caught up again, though, there is lots to write about, including:

  • A trip to see Pillowman at Breathe Art Theatre in Detroit
  • Pygmalion at MSU
  • High School Musical at Wharton
  • Guys on Ice at Williamston
In case I'm not able to post again, there are three shows going on this weekend:

  • "My Name is Rachel Corrie" at Woldumar Nature Center by Sunsets with Shakespeare
  • "The Best Man" at Riverwalk
  • "Desperate Hours" at Lansing Civic Players

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Guys on Ice and Grandfathers

Earlier this evening, I went out to Williamston for the opening night of Guys on Ice.

You'll be able to read my review of it on Thursday, so for now I'll be self-indulgent.

I couldn't help tonight but think of my Grandpa as I watched B.J. Love play Lloyd. Sure, they weren't clones, but so many things reminded me of him, from appearance to facial expressions to the man's passions.

See, my grandpa is a fisherman. It's one of the things that I remember the most about him. He was convinced that since we lived in the paradise that is Michigan, it was foolish to ever vacation anywhere else. So every summer, we'd go Up North to Indian Lake near Manistique in the Upper Peninsula. It was my Dad and my Grandpa who taught me how to fish. I learned how to bait my own hook and would watch fascinated in the cleaning house afterward as all the men would clean the fish with a whole slew of fascinating tools.

Walleye were the preferred catch primarily for the sport of it, but Grandpa liked eating perch the most. If we had a good year of fishing, we'd have two fish fries during the week, but we'd always have at least one on Friday.

A few years after my Grandmother died at age 58, Grandpa retired. He moved to Colon, buying a cottage on a lake. Even more importantly, he bought a boat, so he could go out fishing as often as he liked. He loved taking the grandkids and great-grandkids out fishing. He and my cousin became fishing buddies and spent a lot of time out on the water. Grandpa got a lot of use out of the boat before his health declined so that he couldn't go boating anymore. Even then, he'd fish off the dock and simply enjoy the water from his porch. He enjoyed many more years of retirement than most men do (25 years, I believe), and it's safe to say that he truly enjoyed the leisurely life in which he could fish, boat, watch birds, and plant flowers and gardens.

Ten years ago, he had to choose between giving up beer (and other hard beverages) or giving up life. He chose life and Grandpa soon had a health and vitality that was unlike anything I'd seen him like.

While the men in Guys on Ice were Packers fans, Grandpa cheered for the Wolverines--the proud owner of season tickets for many, many years.

I can't envision my taciturn Grandpa singing and dancing like the men in the musical, but he would have enjoyed the sentiment and found much amusement in the songs about snowmobile coats, fishing, and the uncertainty of life.

I think he would have especially appreciated Your Last Day on Earth and The Beer int he Bucket. He isn't one to talk about feelings or the brevity of life, but the fishing metaphors would have amused him.

However, I won't be taking my 80-year-old Grandpa to see this show. Two hours ago--and merely three hours after the show ended--my Grandpa died.

I hope there's lots of fishing in Heaven.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Mrs. Warren's Profession

This press release came out from BoarsHead. Good news all around:

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession” draws biggest BoarsHead audience in three years

Lansing, Mich.Some 3,228 people attended the BoarsHead Theater production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” last month, making the play the theater’s biggest draw in three years.

Tom Dudzick’s “Over the Tavern” attracted an audience of 3,334 in September 2004.

The crowd for “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” can be attributed to both the appeal of veteran actress Paula Prentiss, who played Mrs. Warren, and to the tenacity of BoarsHead theatergoers, said BoarsHead Managing Director Marlene Shelton.

“BoarsHead theatergoers are the sturdiest, most strong-minded audience members around,” Shelton said, noting that a late August tornado, the arrest of a suspected serial killer in early September and the appearance of a sinkhole at the intersection in front of the theater on September 6, the day before the show opened, would have deterred a less determined crowd.

“If I ever find myself in the trenches of war, I want them with me.”

BoarsHead’s next production – John Patrick Shanley’s award-winning play “Doubt” – previews at the theater October 24 and 25 and opens October 26.

Friday, October 5, 2007


What with my ongoing health annoyances (nothing serious) and lack of Internet connection, I never ended up talking about Starlight Dinner Theater's Working. Nor do I have the program with me right now, which means I'd mutilate any names and get them mixed up if I tried.

However, they have only two shows left, so I want to say SOMETHING.

I've always liked Studs Terkel, though I'll confess I've not read his complete work. I was taken with his style when I was in college and liked reading all the different voices he was able to capture. I admire that even more now because I know how difficult it can be to translate oral histories to the page in a way that makes sense, captures the person's voice, and is readable.

The musical takes that even a step further--it tries to capture the authenticity of the voices and put them to music in a believable way. Given the number of composers involved in the project, I was a little surprised at how all of the music seemed close in genre.

There were many touching moments in the evening as well as some upbeat ones. I enjoyed the song by the millworker (again--no program, so I don't have the right song names) and the teacher.

I have mixed feelings about the song Fathers and Sons. I started out being really touched by it. It was a heart-rending piece about wanting a better world for one's son even while knowing that the son won't appreciate it during the father's lifetime. However, it was too long of a song to hold the same emotion. By the end of it, I was no longer relating to the singer. I needed some emotional relief or variety that the song really doesn't provide.

It's almost best to approach Working as more of a concert with dramatic monologues than a traditional musical. There isn't a storyline per se; nor is there the typical tension and resolution. Rather it is a portrait of working people, something most of us can relate to.

Delightful quote

I had the good fortune to do a short interview with Alan Alda about his book Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself for a feature that will eventually be posted at Book Help Web. My favorite quote of his is this:

I think all actors who were brought up on the stage have a special longing for it. There’s a kind of ecstasy to stage acting.

I'll let you know when the full interview is posted.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


I've already written in my column today what I thought about Peppermint Creek's Fiction. However, like most good plays, certain ideas from it have been teasing me ever since I saw it.

While I share a career with the two main characters, I didn't identify with them much. Now, this may be because my writing is primarily non-fiction. Mostly, though, it's because people's approaches to writing are as varied as the writers themselves. Michael talks about how he doesn't like writing, but he likes to "have written." He would rather be surrounded by people than engaged in the solitary act of writing.

My approach to writing is far closer to Alan Alda's approach to speaking, at least as he describes in his book Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself. He describes time and again how he accepts invitations to speak to groups and then is terrified because he feels he isn't qualified to do it. I find writing terrifying. It's why I have to do it. It's much like the desire some have to ride roller coasters or jump out of helicopters. It's terrifying, but it is also compelling and demanding.

One thing I have liked about a blog is that it invites me to sit and write without a lot of the terror attached. I'm not worrying over every word or hyperventilating about getting started on a project that I'm convinced I'm not qualified to do.

The most difficult part of writing is getting started--not because I don't enjoy the task of writing, but because I've managed to convince myself that I don't have anything interesting to say; that I don't know how to manipulate words; that I'll never be able to get on paper the ideas that are brewing in my head. I'm fully convinced that I humiliate myself every time I let anyone else read what I've written and that people are simply too nice to tell me to find other work.

Then I write. And still I dislike what I've written. I can't remember ever being satisfied with anything that I've written upon first finishing it. I'll go back and re-read it and cringe over the numerous errors that I find. I'll rewrite and then be convinced that I've written all my initial passion and authenticity out of the piece. Finally, I make myself let it go, convinced that while it isn't good, at least it doesn't suck. If I'm able to re-read it 24 hours later, I'll decide that it's not bad. When I re-read it a year later, I think it's pretty good and catch myself wondering why I can't write like that anymore...

It all sounds tortuous, doesn't it? And yet, I'll tell people truthfully that I love what I do. I love it because it forces me to push myself all the time. It forces me to be vulnerable where I don't want to be vulnerable. It forces me to be open where I want to hide. It forces me to create and to look upon my creation rather than to wallow in insecurity and uncertainty. Sure, the vices are there, but they get channeled into something productive rather than being allowed to take me over.

During the Fiction talkback, I thought about how much more difficult it is to share fantasy than to share fact. Michael is willing to let Linda believe that his fantasy is fact. I believe part of that is because it is less humiliating. It's far easier to share the details of one's life than it is to share what one fantasizes about. The former is a mixture of choices and events outside one's control. The latter is one's own imagination, one's own creation. It is the expression of a person's soul. It's far more difficult to accept a criticism or judgment of one's soul than it is of one's actions.