Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Backstage with Gregory George

This past weekend I dropped in on one of the Children's Ballet Theatre's rehearsals out in Holt. They're preparing to do Don Quixote.

I was there to speak to one of their ballerinas (which you can read more about in this Thursday's column), but I also had the chance to learn a little about their upcoming ballet. The organization's artistic director, Gregory George (see photo left), kindly gave me a quick interview backstage. He also gave permission to post a recording of that interview here.

The photos used as background for the interview (Blogger doesn't let you post MP3 files, you have to turn them into movies) are from past CBT productions and can also be found on their Website.


Friday, April 25, 2008

Stuff Happens

Stuff Happens opened last night. I wasn't able to attend the show because I needed to get my son to Cub Scouts, but I did catch the tail end of the talk back.

People seemed pretty pleased with their performances and I'm really looking forward to seeing the show tomorrow night. (Tonight I'm going to see Starlight Dinner Theatre's Leading Ladies.) Talking to my husband after the show, I was reminded once again why I will never, ever review a show that my husband is in--even if he had only a single line in it. While my objectivity is the major issue (for I flat out refuse to be objective about the love of my life), another issue is his comfort and and the comfort of the cast.

A cast needs to be able to talk freely backstage about any critic attending their show without being concerned about whether it will get back to the critic or whether they will offend one of their fellow cast members. Nor does the critic need to know via pillow talk what the actors process has been.

For example, I know that Richard uses a lot of "extraneous" hand motions in the play. It's a choice he's made because after watching many videos and news casts, he learned that Donald Rumsfeld talks with his hands a lot. So as Donald Rumsfeld, Richard is also talking with his hands. As a critic, it's not important for me to know the research (although in a show like this, I might do research of my own to determine whether the characters are being suggested enough to be credible), it's important for me to know whether the final choices were effective.

Something interesting that came out with the Doubt performances that Don Calamia and I were discussing the other week, was some of the background work that the actors did. In one performance, the actor playing the priest was convinced that he was guilty. In another, the actor believed that the priest was not guilty of what he was being charged with. In both cases, Don and I got the opposite from their portrayals. Would we have been influenced by prior knowledge of their background work? Maybe. It certainly would have made the job more challenging.

It was also interesting looking at all the haircuts and styles as the actors came out of the show. There's definitely been a lot of effort put in to make things as suggestive as possible without turning it into comedic satire.

At any rate, I'm looking forward to seeing it on Saturday and hoping that I'll be able to squeeze in another performance the following weekend.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Richard and Stuff Happens

With the show opening tomorrow, Richard has been in tech week for Peppermint Creek's Stuff Happens all week. It will be his final show as a non-Equity actor. He's mailed off his check for the Equity initiation fee and his next show will be as a union member.

It's been a frightening choice at times, but I'll save Equity talk for another blog entry.

In Stuff Happens, Richard is playing Donald Rumsfeld. If I were prone to making oversimplified statements, I'd say that he's one of the villains of the work. Certainly when I read the script last year, it seemed to me that Colin Powell was the tragic hero who has the fatal flaw of saying "yes sir" to the president while Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were the antagonists who were recklessly hawkish.

One of the challenges of doing a piece like this is that all of the characters are well known visually as well as personality. It's easy enough to study voice patterns and mannerisms. It's a little tougher to make yourself look like someone else--especially in the small space of Perspective 2 where the amount of makeup that can be used is limited because of the proximity of the audience.

So there will have to be some suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience when it comes to appearances. Not that there hasn't been an effort made to have the actors at least suggest what the person looks like.

To that end, my husband has been making changes in his grooming. Last week, he took a trip to our local barbershop. It's a great barber--one of those old fashioned shops that is really geared toward men's haircuts. It's owned by very politically active residents. We've even gone there to vote in a Democratic primary. They're very staunch, loyal Democrats.

So I was amused from afar at my husband going in and asking them, "Could you please give me a Donald Rumsfeld haircut?" I don't imagine they get that request very often.

I was even further amused on Sunday. He'd just gotten back from an audition in Toledo and was getting ready for the first tech rehearsal. It was time for what we'd both been dreading--the removal of the beard.

I've always loved my husband's beard. It's very dashing (especially when it curls) and is perfect for most of his Shakespearean roles. However, Don Rumsfeld is clean-shaved. He's also in his 70s. When my husband came down with a grimace and a frown, he said, "Great, I look like a 15-year-old."

He did--except for the balding spot. He groused that as soon as he put his suit on, he'd look like he was on his way to pick up his Homecoming date. Given that I was his Homecoming date during our senior year of high school, I couldn't disagree with him. Granted, he's put on weight since then, but the face was definitely youthful.

"Most people would love to be able to shave and look 20 years younger," said I.

"That would be more convincing if you weren't bursting out into laughter," said he.

So they took out the line in the play where he talks about being 70.

I'd post a picture, but he wouldn't let me take one.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ecosystems & Body Organs

I use the term "ecosystem" a lot when I talk about live theater and the theater community, though another metaphor I think would be apt is that of a human body.

Different theater organizations are like different body parts. There are those organs that we think are vital and others that seem less so. However, even though we can survive without a gall bladder or tonsils, they do serve a purpose in our body and we have them for a reason. So it is with different theatrical organizations. I tend to think that we need them all, even if sometimes we don't like their function or what they produce. Whenever we lose one, the entire community suffers even while it continues to survive. You can even undergo transplants of major organs, though that doesn't mean you don't mourn what you had before or run the risk of rejecting the new one.

Now, I am not so impolitic as to try to assign particular organs or functions to specific groups--I'll let you take the metaphor where you will. What I will do is explain why I think each group we have in town is vital to the community and plays an important role that is uniquely its own. Yes, there is some duplication of effort, but that's healthy and doesn't detract from the otherwise unique function the group serves. (At the risk of getting myself in trouble because I haven't looked up the dates, I'm going to try to go in the order that the organization has been around. There are a few that probably need to be switched. Also, I'm not even beginning to touch on the equally important high school theater programs or the outlying community groups such as Holt, Vermontville, or Mason.)
Lansing Civic Players: There are two things that LCP does very, very well: One, they bring people into theater and let people who have never been on stage before get the chance to perform. This creates value to the community as it helps people to connect to each other and to the place where they live. Two, they put on family shows that appeal to their audience--an audience that is always going to be there. They do many other things well--despite not having a permanent performance space, they consistently put on a full season; they have an excellent costume shop; they have a structure that supports the shows that they put on; and they have a long, rich history.

Michigan State University: MSU's mission is very specific; it provides students with the opportunity to apply what they are learning in the classroom and to experiment with ideas and technique. It is usually far more important that these shows take risks than that they are entertaining. They are the laboratory in which students try to create good theater and the skills to help create good theater for the rest of their careers.

Summer Circle: Unlike MSU's regular season, Summer Circle is less about risk-taking and more about providing enjoyable entertainment to the community. This is where the university gives back with its free, outdoor programming. It also provides paying work for mostly student actors.

BoarsHead: As the oldest resident professional theater company in mid-Michigan, BoarsHead is one of those cultural cornerstones that helps make a name for theater in Lansing. They perform the top-of-the-line work with high production values that the vast majority of the community associates with live theater. They contribute to the local economy and provide paying work for professional artists. They help to make it possible to choose art as a profession, not just an avocation or hobby. Of late, they've also been recruiting celebrities to come to perform here.

Riverwalk: When Riverwalk first broke away from LCP, it was because they wanted to do more classical work. Fifty years later, they still do an excellent job of providing a varied season that includes classics, old favorites, newer show, and even the edgier black box shows. They're also one of the few organizations to have their own space, a luxury that gives them a great deal of freedom to take risks and to put on a great number of shows.

Lansing Community College: Like MSU, the mission of LCC is very specific. The themes of the studio program dictate what type of shows they do and it is important that as many students are given opportunities to perform as possible. This LCC does very well, offering opportunities to work on voice, movement, classical, realism, and Shakespeare. Students get to perform in a broad range of show types, preparing them for future study or performance.

All-of-Us Express: Evelyn Weymouth, the founder of All-of-Us Express is an amazing woman. What she developed for this organization has created a place for thousands of children to participate in theater. Her amazing organizational skills put a structure in place where children get a chance to perform, work backstage, delve into the administrative side of theater, and to have their lives enriched by theater. It's an amazing organization that puts on a full season of large cast shows every year--shows that are done by and for children.

Wharton: Wharton Center is the organization that brings the touring groups to Lansing. Often known as a commercial theater, Wharton opens Lansing to what is going on in the rest of the world. Shows from Broadway and off-Broadway come through every year. They draw in huge crowds who are willing to pay big ticket dollars because they are going to be entertained with spectacle and shows that are part of the national culture and conversation.

Sunsets with Shakespeare: While this group didn't have a season this year, I have not yet heard that they are extinct. They were the only group providing free, outdoor Shakespeare in the area and during the year they produced shows that often had a distinct political flavor.

Icarus Falling: Icarus Falling fills a niche that no other group does. They produce a great deal of locally-written New Works and produce shows that are experimental in structure. They're willing to do shows that no one had heard of and often those that push the audience out of its comfort zone.

Peppermint Creek: Peppermint Creek does an excellent job of finding those socially relevant new shows that are hot currency. They're very good at searching out the best of modern plays and then committing to very high production values that consistently deliver powerful shows.

Starlight Dinner Theatre: Starlight Theatre is another group that has found a niche and is fulfilling the need of its market segment. They put on highly entertaining shows and bring in groups that want a social element to their theatrical experience. The shows are usually fun or sweet and deliver a feel-good experience to an appreciative audience.

Ruhala Performing Arts Center: Ruhala Center (formerly The Gate) provides intensive training for students who want a career on Broadway. Often likened to Olympic preparation, the students who perform here undergo rigorous rehearsals and perform shows that are specially selected to play to their strengths and needs.

Ledges Playhouse: The successor to Spotlight, the Ledges Playhouse is bringing popular shows to the Grand Ledge community. The Barn in Fitzgerald Park where they perform is a historic building which has seen shows for many a year. They also perform occasional non-summer shows in Lansing.

Williamston Theatre: The newest professional theater, Williamston was founded by four theater professionals who had worked for a number of years with Purple Rose. They put on delightful shows that are focused on the Midwest. They have a strong awareness of community and address issues that make theater relevant to people who live here.

Mid-Michigan Family Theatre: An organization that has grown out of Lansing Civic Players and MSU, Bill Gordon has founded a theater company that offers children a chance to perform in smaller shows than what All-of-Us Express offers. They also tend to perform more contemporary, smaller cast shows.

Yes, we have a lot of theater in the Lansing area (and yes, I know I've left people out!), but each group truly has a unique value. They all have their own contributions that make the area a fantastic place to live.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Quick Sunday evening post

Sorry for the lack of writing lately.

I've been enjoying the start of the comment exchange on the Flowers for Algernon post and I'm hoping I'll be able to return to that this week. This whole month has been a series of low-level health issues that I'm hoping to shed.

I haven't made it to too many shows, though there was certainly a lot to see this weekend. Avenue Q was also wonderful.

With any luck, I'll be back this week with more posts--even if they are a series of short ones.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bad writing

One of the things that has stuck with me from an arts journalist and instructor was this advice: If you're way too pleased with the way something sounds that you've written--delete it. Don't be in love with your own voice. It's a great warning against writing for oneself and engaging in self-indulgence.

I'm always pleased when I can catch myself at pretentiousness BEFORE it appears in print. It saves on the embarrassment later. However, I'm not above poking fun at myself, so I'll share the bit of pretentious writing that came from my fingers tonight. It's a paragraph you won't be seeing in my review of Avenue Q--much to the relief, I'm sure, of my readers:

It's easy to let this musical lull you into thinking it is mere comic satire looking for the quick laugh, but for a generation too saturated with marketing messages to appreciate sentimentality, the over-the-top shock humor with its nihilistic philosophy has its own way of delivering an authentic, ultimately optimistic message.

How's that for a single sentence that takes up too many words to say not enough?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Flowers for Algernon

It's been a busy week so far, but I wanted to drop a note here.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the recent production of Flowers for Algernon at Lansing Civic Players. It was one of those shows where I left thinking, "This is what community theater should be doing."

It was a thought that had less to do with the actual play and more to do with the inclusiveness of the casting and the willingness to take real risks. See, I think it is far more risky to put someone up on the stage with little to no experience than it is to take great actors and give them a meaty script.

But more on that when I have the time to write coherently and at slightly more length.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Chatting about Doubt

The lunchtime chat we had on Friday was wonderful and we were fortunate enough to be joined by Kristine Thatcher and Jonathan Courtmanche from BoarsHead. Those of you who dropped by over the weekend saw that I had the entire transcript posted here--but it's terribly long. It doesn't take that long to read, but it did take up a lot of space.

Thankfully, Don Calamia was kind enough to clean it up, add Web formatting and post it on Encore Michigan server.

The transcript of is available here for you to read.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Doubt: Did he do it?

The question that everyone asks after a production of Doubt is: "Did he do it? Was Father Flynn guilty of abusing a child in his care?"

It's a fascinating question in no small part because playwright Patrick Shanley doesn't provide easy answers. In fact, he's never given an answer as to whether he thinks the priest is guilty or not. Instead, he leaves it in the hands of audience, directors, and actors.

Today, Don Calamia of Between the Lines and I are going to reveal whether we thought the priest was guilty in each of the productions.

I came back with three verdicts: Guilty, deadlocked jury, and not guilty.

The BoarsHead Father Flynn was guilty. Nancy Elizabeth Kammer's Sister Aloysius wasn't at all likeable, but it was clear that neither did she tolerate sentimentality in anyone--including herself. She was unlikeable and intolerant, but she had a sharp eye and she didn't indulge in the redress of wrongs for her own personal agendas. Likewise, Michael Joseph Mitchell's Father Flynn had something sly about him. He did not have the candor or honesty that you would expect from someone in his position. He was eager to please and needed validation--whether that be from a young nun or a young boy. His reaction to the news that Sister Aloysius had called his previous parish was as much of a confession as was needed.

As for the Detroit Repertory's Father Flynn, I still have doubts. Were I judge, I would probably accept a plea bargain on a lesser charge. I do think his relationship with Donald went beyond what he claimed, but I'm not convinced that it crossed the line into abuse. Rather, I might argue that he was doing something that was not morally wrong, but would have been condemned by the church he was working for. Mrs. Muller tells us that Donald is gay. Ray Schultz' Father Flynn also appeared to be gay. The subtext of the play sometimes seemed to be that Father Flynn had taken on a mentoring role to the student that he would have had difficulty defending to his superiors, even though it was beneficial to the child.

At Performance Network, I believed the priest. I've since questioned why I believed him. Is it because he was the most blatantly heterosexual? Or was it because of the way he defended himself, fighting back by pulling rank on the sister and keeping thorough notes that he could use to defend himself. The thing is, both of those elements could also point to his guilt. After all, the abuse of children is rarely about sex, it's about power, and Jon Bennett's Father Flynn did not hesitate to wield his masculine power, reminding Sister Aloysius that she--a nun--had no right to question him--a priest. Likewise, the speed at which he began building a defense for himself might show that he recognized the need to defend what he knew he did wrong.

However, he also managed to convince me that he wanted what was truly best for the boy and for the school. His breakdown at the end seemed to be not just because of the personal loss, but because of the loss of his work.

All right, so the more I write about this, the more I'm convincing myself that my gut reaction is wrong and that Bennett's Flynn was indeed guilty. It's the wonderful thing about blog writing--that it can be a process of discovery.

So, Performance Network: guilty or not guilty? I'm now leaning toward guilty.

What did Don think? You can find out by clicking on the linky thing here and reading his Confessions of a Cranky Critic.

Would you care to join the two of us for a live chat about Doubt tomorrow during lunch? If so, drop us an e-mail or leave a comment and we'll send you a link.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Comparing Doubts

One of the challenges of being a theater reviewer is to resist engaging in too many comparisons. Yes, a review needs to be written within a cultural context, but not necessarily the context of the reviewer’s world.

For example, how meaningful is it to most readers to compare the production of one show with the production of the same show at another theater? The very nature of theater is that once something is performed, it is gone forever. There is no going back and renting the production to see it again.

Yet as a critic, it is often impossible to not mentally compare shows, especially those that have been particularly iconic or memorable. It is even more challenging, when the shows occur near each other in time.

While printed reviews may not be an inappropriate venue for comparing a show, in today’s electronic world, we have a highly appropriate venue for doing comparisons in the blogosphere. Here the conversation can extend to: what made one show work and not another? How did different interpretations affect the overall presentation of the show?

So that's exactly what Don Calamia from Between the Lines and I are doing. Each of us went to see Doubt performed at BoarsHead, Detroit Rep, and Performance Network between November and March. In both of our blogs this week, we're comparing those productions.

Yesterday, we each named our personal all-star cast, drawn from those three performances only. Today, we're going to discuss which show we liked best--not an easy task because all of them were so good.

On a large scale, the three productions of Doubt at BoarsHead, Detroit Rep, and Performance Network were very similar. There were differences in details and some in tone, but they consistently delivered strong shows posing the same central question.

Some Variations

Interestingly enough, the blocking for the three shows was incredibly similar, despite having three different directors (Jonathan Courtmanche made his professional mainstage directing debut with this show at BoarsHead, Charlotte Leisinger directed at Detroit Rep, and John Seibert directed for Performance Network). Leisinger's was probably the most different as her actor movements were often done to set up power plays between them.

The BoarsHead show had the greatest amount of humor in it. Lines were delivered in such a way to produce the maximum amount of laughter in what is mostly a pretty serious, intense script. This was seen to the greatest degree in the interactions between the two sisters, but it was present even in the scene with Mrs. Muller where she comes upon Sister Aloysius listening to a confiscated radio. The show also had the greatest amount of energy, in no small part because of Amy Fitts' portrayal of Sister James.

While BoarsHead and Performance Network used a lot of heavy shadows and minimal lighting, the Detroit Rep’s production had the brightest lighting. It made much of the action more immediate. While shadowing can be very artistic, it can also be distracting. The Detroit Rep show had a feeling of immediacy and realism that was impossible to escape from.

Another thing that the Detroit Rep did very well was to constantly shift the balance of power. All of the characters had their moments of power and their moments of helplessness. (The photo at left is from the Detroit Rep production.)

The Performance Network's production had the greatest amount of vulnerability and humanity in it. All of the characters experienced uncertainty and doubt throughout the performance, even if they were trying to keep it hidden from their peers. It was also the Performance Network show that had the greatest amount of intensity.


Whether it was the directors' intent or not, I did walk away pondering different questions after each production.

After the BoarsHead show, my reflections were on the hypocrisy of people today who look back upon the abuse scandals of the priesthood and are convinced they would have acted differently. The show portrayed how difficult it is to know what actions are the right ones to take when dealing with a situation of potential abuse.

After the Detroit Rep show, I found myself deeply engaged in a discussion about whether the priest was abusing the boy or whether he was meeting with him to surreptitiously encourage Donald Muller to explore and become comfortable with his sexuality.

After the Performance Network show, I found myself contemplating the relationships in the hierarchy and how much relied on the eloquence of individuals to make things happen outside of that hierarchy. I also found myself pondering the ethical questions raised by Sister Aloysius when she said that in order to address evil, one must step away from God and that innocence is a luxury belonging only in a world without evil.

It's Not Just the Actors

Yesterday as I wrote the explanations for which of the four actors I liked best in each of the roles, I thought also about some of the technical aspects and whether I would add a costumer, set builder, lighting designer, etc. to each of my all-star casts. As I pondered that, I realized that in nearly all of the categories, the strongest showing came from the Performance Network production. (Though, once again, this is a matter of degree as all three shows had extremely high production values with very talented technicians.)

While it was at times too dark, Lighting Designer Janine Woods' projected stained glass windows on the sides of the audience and on the floor during the sermon scenes were a beautiful touch. Daniel Walker's set created a highly authentic principal's office from the 60s and an evocative garden bounded by columns.

All three shows had strong costuming--all of them putting the nuns in the traditional bonnets that sisters of their order wore. I did find myself wondering whether that order eschewed the traditional "Bride of Christ" wedding bands worn by other nuns on the right hand, but that most likely speaks more to my distractability than any shortcoming on the part of the costumers.

Some Things I Didn't Like

In all three shows, I was bothered by the ending. It seemed far too much of a break in character and felt overdone. It's a moment that would likely be far more effective had it been underplayed. Likewise, I was bothered in the Performance Network's production by a similar breakdown on the part of the priest at the end of the previous scene. It took too long and I was convinced that this previously macho priest would have such an extreme exterior reaction.

I also didn't care for the intermission that was inserted into the Detroit Rep shows. The other two were done without intermission and I much preferred seeing the show all the way through without stopping midway to begin any discussions of guilt vs. innocence.

So Which Was My Favorite?

Actually, the answer of which production was my favorite is different from which show I thought was done best. My favorite show was the BoarsHead production. I appreciated the humor that they found in it. Also, it was the one that most sparked a connection with modern-day issues. I was immediately brought back into the priest controversy and the issues that swarmed around it.

This production was less about the individuals and their private issues and more about the societal issues that we're still struggling with. It put a spotlight on modern society's desire to have easy answers that are black and white rather than acknowledging that there are complexities that might belie the simple answer.

Which Production Would I Call The Best?

Now, having said that BoarsHead's show was my personal favorite because of the issues that it raised for me, I also have to say that stepping back from my private preferences, I wouldn't rank it as the best of the three shows.

Once I look at all the relationships, the technical aspects, and the choices made in how the characters were played, I'd have to rank Performance Network's production as the best of the three. If all three were playing at once, it is likely the one that I would recommend first.

Now that you've made it through this entry, I strongly encourage you to go read what Don has to say in his blog, Confessions of a Cranky Critic.

Come back tomorrow to read in each of our blogs whether we thought the priest was guilty or not guilty in each production.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

All-Star Doubt

Last week, as Don and I discussed how we were going to compare the three performances of Doubt that we saw at BoarsHead, Detroit Repertory Theatre, and Performance Network, we decided to try to come up with an all-star cast. We’d arbitrarily pick our favorites from each show and put them together in a mish-mashed cast.

The difficulty in this is that all of the performances were so good in so many different ways. There wasn’t a single bad performance in any of the three theaters, so trying to pick out the best is a little like choosing between Death by Chocolate ice cream or a caramel chocolate brownie a la mode—it’s impossible to lose with any choice.

That said, here is the cast I would put together:

Father Flynn: Jon Bennett from Performance Network

Sister Aloysius: Nancy Elizabeth Kammer from BoarsHead

Sister James: Amy Fitts from BoarsHead

Mrs. Muller: Tammie Harris from Performance Network

Now, it would be a cop-out to just leave it at that, so I'll try to explain why for each one.

Father Flynn

Each of the Father Flynns were very different and very strong.

BoarsHead’s Michael Joseph Mitchell (see picture at right) was one of the most likeable of the priests. At the same time, there was something about his priest that was squirrelly. He was passionate, but not quite trustworthy. Often his compassion came across as weakness, perhaps because Nancy Elizabeth Kammer’s Sister Aloysius made such a convincing case that the children could be protected only by someone who kept their distance from them.

Detroit Repertory Theatre’s Ray Schultz created a Father Flynn who was the most ambiguous of the three. It was his priest that I found to be the biggest cipher. His is also the priest that I found to the least memorable of the three. After the performance, which was admittedly on the Sunday of a holiday weekend, I remember thinking that the whole show had a general lack of energy and wondered whether I caught the performance on an off-day.

Despite the two solid performances by Mitchell and Schultz, Performance Network’s Jon Bennett (see photo, right) came across as the strongest of the three—despite one moment which I thought was overplayed and caused me to break out of the story. However, that was but a single moment and throughout the rest of the play is performance was so strong, that I was mesmerized. He created a deeply layered priest who was easily sympathetic, yet had a sly side to him. It was this congeniality that made it so shocking in his confrontations with Sister Aloysius when his authoritarianism struck like lightning, physically affecting both the sisters and the audience. It was a tightly controlled performance where every glance and move was pregnant with meaning.

Sister Aloysius

I’ll confess, as I started to write the reasons behind my pick, I changed my choice. My first choice was Barbara Busby from Detroit Repertory, but the more I thought about it and the more I started to explain why, the more I realized that if I were really putting together a cast, it is BoarsHead’s Nancy Elizabeth Kammer that I would pick.

Barbara Busby put in a stellar performance as Sister Aloysius. She was cranky, she was stern, and she was deeply committed to her school and her students. In the performance I saw, there was a moment when I thought she was going to come out into the audience and wrap someone’s knuckles with a ruler when their cell phone went off for the second time.

As strong as her sister was, as I began to write, I realized that Kammer’s Sister Aloysius (see picture above) did several things that swung me in her favor. For starters, even though much of what she said ran strongly counter to my ideas about education and the attitude adults should have toward children, she was absolutely convincing that she believed she was doing what was best. While her actions were cold, she believed the explanations she was giving and truly believed that what she was doing was in the child’s best interest. There was nothing mean about even the cruelest actions. Rather, she was a woman of great moral fortitude and courage. Her actions sprang from the conviction that one is required to do that which is right, not that which is easy. Hers was not a personal vindictiveness, but rather an iron-clad faith that she must do her duty, no matter how painful. Also, I realized that since my choice for Sister James was clearly Amy Fitts, that I did not want to break up that duo. Their energy and chemistry was so perfect that they both made each other better. They were perfect mirrors and foils for one another.

Jan Radcliff of Performance Network also made a fascinating Sister Aloysius and her portrayal had some of the greatest vulnerability and humanity to it. It was easier to see her struggle throughout the whole play. There were times when she seemed uncertain not just about what to do, but about whether it was right to do what she was doing. She did seem somewhat young for the part, but that may have partly been because the other two I’d seen had been played much older. In some ways, Radcliff’s Sister Aloysius was almost too vulnerable, a fact which made me much earlier swing in favor of the priest.

Sister James

This was perhaps the easiest choice for me. BoarsHead’s Amy Fitts became the gold standard by which I compared all of the other Sister James. This may seem somewhat unfair given that she was also the first Sister James that I saw (she also read the part for the staged reading that I’d seen the year before), but she brought a light and energy to the role that really did put her performance on a level above anything else I saw. Her Sister James had such amazing energy and a bubbly spirit that constantly warred with its natural state and her desire to please Sister Aloysius.

Fitts brought a light-hearted humor to the part. She also did the most convincing job of playing the part of a nun who was raised to the concept of obedience and who was familiar with spiritual struggles and the importance of having them. She introduced complexity to the portrayal of Sister James. It wasn’t simply a matter of whether she could bend her will to her superior or whether she sided with Father Flynn. Rather, it really was a spiritual struggle for her and she was able to see the merits of both sides. Father Flynn was whom she wanted to believe, because that would be easiest, but it was also clear that she understood Sister Aloysius and why her superior made the choices she made.

Mrs. Muller

Electrifying” was the adjective used to describe the performance of BoarsHead’s Tiffany Mitchenor and there were audible gasps during the Detroit Repertory production when Janee Ann Smith had her confrontation with Sister Aloysius. However, it was Performance Network’s Tammie Harris that had the most profound affect on me. Hers was an understated strength, coming out of a deeply buried and controlled anger. I believed in her pain. There was a reserve about her that made her less bitter and extremely emotionally effective. It was Harris’ performance that brought me to tears even though by this time I knew exactly what she was going to say.

Now, I’m off to see how my cast matches up with Don. If you haven’t been there yet, I invite you to join me. He will have his cast up at some point today.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about which show is our favorite. On Thursday we'll discuss whether we thought the priest was guilty in each show and why, then on Friday we'll have a bit of a free-for-all with each other and anyone who wants to join in.

P.S. My apologies to those of you using Internet Explorer (which according to Google Analytics is the majority of you). Some strange coding got into the file that I wasn't able to see in Firefox. Thankfully, a reader alerted me to it and I beleive I was able to fix it. If you still see strange formatting, please let me know.

To Doubt is Human...

Today, it begins. Don Calamia of PrideSource's Between the Lines and Encore Michigan are finally going to start with the writing that we've been teasing about for several months now. We're going to start our comparisons of the three local professional productions of Doubt. Granted, I use "local" somewhat loosely as the productions were in Lansing, Detroit, and Ann Arbor, but the theater community is small enough, I'm comfortable including them all as local.

We've decided to stretch this out over a few days and provide handy links so that you can compare what we have to say.

Tuesday: Today we'll start with a presentation of what we call an all-star cast. Independently, we've each come up with our favorites from all three casts.

Wednesday: Tomorrow, we'll say which show was our favorite and why.

Thursday: On Thursday, we'll ponder the question that each show asks: "Was the priest guilty?" We've commented to each other that we came up with different answers for each show--though we haven't yet shared with each other what verdicts we came up with.

Friday: This day is still open. It's a chance for us to respond to each other and, we hope, to any one who wants to join in the conversation with their observations.\

You can read Don's observations at his blog, Confessions of a Cranky Critic.