“Now, we are here. In Xanadu.” Penny Seats’ production opens July 14 at Ann Arbor’s West Park

Yes, this is actually happening. Xanadu opens in Ann Arbor’s West Park on Thursday, July 14. Tickets at www.pennyseats.org. Thanks, Ann Arbor Observer for this listing! 

Elephant ears optional: My strange life with Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall

Tempus fugit. Carpe diem. Time waits for no man. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

There are so many clichés associated with the concept of time, which is as much an indicator of the shallowness of humankind as it is our own internal wrestling match with existentialism. For 26 years(!), I happily have portrayed a footnote in American history, Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall, who served under Woodrow Wilson during World War I. He is a hometown legend where I grew up, Columbia City, Indiana, and my life and his have been peculiarly intertwined.

Marshall is perhaps best known for his quote, “What this country really needs is a good five cent cigar.” Oh, and he was a Democrat, praise be. They do exist in Indiana!

While he was born in nearby North Manchester, he resided in Columbia City, and his home was just a few blocks from where my mother grew up, a house my parents then later purchased, prompting a move from Fort Wayne 30 years ago. In fact, as a child, my mother had spent a glorious afternoon once with Marshall’s former secretary, looking through sheet music, but, indicative of the nature of any small town that can fixate on the most meaningless of gossip to the detriment of a bigger picture, no one bothered to tell my mother of this woman’s notoriety.

Decades later, my mother would find herself one of the curators of The Whitley County Historical Museum, which you may have guessed is housed in Marshall’s former home, restored to its Italianate glory. Because my family has always been a creative and resourceful clan, my mother recruited me, in my freshman year of high school, to spray silver in my hair and clip a fake homemade mustache under my nose (to this day, I couldn’t grow a mustache if my life depended on it, and I’m fine with that) and eat soup and break bread at a holiday dinner with a small but plucky crew who had an appreciation for northern Indiana history.

While that first mustache fell into my soup more times than I could count, and I found myself faced with questions I had no idea how to answer (I am genetically incapable of historical reenactment, and I would be an epic failure as a cast member at Greenfield Village or colonial Williamsburg, as I have no capacity to pretend that I don’t know what a television is or to extemporaneously expound on what life was like 100 years earlier without devolving into uncontrollable giggles), it was an auspicious beginning to the longest-running role I’ve ever held.

It was at that time that I fell in love with having a script, and in a great desire to avoid ever awkwardly eating dinner with people who knew more about the character I was playing then I did, I wrote a 20 minute speech, borrowing liberally from Marshall’s autobiography A Hoosier Salad. He was a funny man, not Mark Twain clever, but the Hoosier equivalent, and the speech was peppered with one Neil Simon-esque zinger after another. You know the kind? Set up, set up, punchline. Set up, set up, punchline.

My parents bought me a better mustache, and introduced me to the joys of spirit gum, though the likely-carcinogenic silver hairspray remained. I borrowed, and never returned – sorry about that – a tuxedo from some family friends, and after honing my craft at one women’s literary circle after another, my nascent impersonation career took off. And sputtered. And took off again. I suspect it was in those days that I began to appreciate cucumber sandwiches and pineapple upside down cake and how to successfully dodge and parry through invasive, yet well/meaning, inquisitions from blue-haired octogenarians. I would find myself presenting in the unlikeliest of circumstances, repeatedly giving the speech to Governor, later Senator, Evan Bayh, for example, who probably knew it better than I did after certain point.

Like Marshall, I would end up attending small, eccentric, insular, provocative Wabash College, a liberal arts institution that, to this day, stubbornly hangs on to its all male status, like a gilded beer keg at a caveman drum circle. It’s a charming place, filled with enough memories and shenanigans to last a lifetime; coupled with the tender yet firm guidance of intellectually insatiable parents who afforded me every opportunity, my college years set me on a path for success and even more importantly toward open-mindedness.

Just when I would hope I had shaken off the specter of Marshall, somebody from the College or from my hometown or from a neighboring burg, would recall that I did this bizarre thing, and they would summon me back, not unlike Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin screaming “Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!” And, poof, I would show up, hat in hand, with the same tired anecdotes that still delighted people as if they had never heard them before.

As I am careening now through middle-age, I had filed the speech away and hidden that yellowed, crusty mustache under the bathroom sink, believing I would never be asked to do this again. In fact, that tuxedo buckles under my newfound girth, and I had hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with the mortification of trying to zip up those pants again. But, mere months ago, Mary Ann Anderson on a sojourn from the Historical Society board, emailed me at the law office where I work, betraying whatever over-the-hill actor protection program I thought I had fallen into, and asked me and Tom to return.

And I’m so glad she did.

Columbia City has a summer festival every year called Old Settlers. And in the summer of 1986, before I entered eighth grade at a new junior high in a strange yet familiar town, this street fair was my Disneyland. The downtown was taken over by the kind of carnival rides that anyone with a couple of screwdrivers and a hammer might be able to assemble, and for a week solid I would walk a handful of blocks to ride the tilt-a-whirl until my face was blue, shoveling elephant ears down a gullet queasy from the experience. I didn’t know nor care what an “Old Settler” was nor why the town’s self-appointed illuminati donned red blazers to celebrate the occasion. I just wanted carny distraction!

Thirty years later, the same rickety rides still appear and the red jackets are omnipresent. But this time I was among them, not as an impetuous teenager, but as an anxious adult, worried about a world spinning off its axis a little more every day and newly appreciative of one’s own heritage and mythology. What once seemed tangential to the celebration now seems essential: tracking and inventorying the number and ages of the attendees, where they live, and how far they may have traveled.

As part of a specific event – “History Alive!” – centered around this particular cataloging activity, Anderson asked me, a couple of Civil War reenact-ors (one for each side of the War Between the States apparently), some local artisans, and a handful of pioneer-garbed volunteers to mill about the museum grounds through the afternoon, greeting the “old settlers” as they arrived.

I found myself panicked. No script? I have to answer strange questions again? No quips? But once I settled in – somewhere around hour three – and my ever-loving and supportive parents stopped by (we never grow out of that, thank goodness), I started to have, well, fun. And even more I appreciated the purpose of this festival to celebrate people and our connection with one another and our history. Not all of us can be vice president of United States, nor would likely want to be, but we make our own history every day.

Sitting on Marshall’s front porch, dressed like a lunatic, I caught up with a steady stream of faces, half-remembered but fully loved. Looks like I just grew up a little bit. How about that? You can now call me an Old Settler. Elephant ears optional.

“No, there is no world-wide standard for the determination of provincialism. There is only one standard by which to judge men and women, and that standard is not so much one of brains and education as it is of culture and heart. Kindness seems to be the one golden metewand by which to measure how really civilized and catholic one may be.” – Thomas Marshall


Roy Sexton tells about growing up in Columbia City, favorite teachers, pastimes, and unique opportunities he was privileged to experience living in a small town.


Susie Sexton’s father, Roy Duncan, was in charge of the Columbia City Blue Bell factory for many years. Susie herself grew up in Columbia City and lives today in the same home she was brought to as a baby. In this interview, Susie reminisces about Columbia City, her parents, the Blue Bell factory, the local theater and churches, and life in general.



“As Sigourney Weaver says, ‘Rescue, rehabilitation, release.'” Finding Dory

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Pixar’s films are always a little heartbreaking; some might argue a little sadistic. You go in, hypnotized by the color and the light and the humor and the humaneness of the enterprise, and the brilliant Pixar storytellers sneak an emotional gut punch into the first 20 minutes or the last 20 minutes or some 20 minute interlude in the middle (Up, Toy Story 3, WALL*E, Inside Out, and, yes, Finding Nemo). It’s no surprise, then, that the opening sequence of Finding Dory pushes every button of heartbreaking familial angst imaginable.

Finding Nemo was such a perfectly self-contained modern American fable that a sequel not only seemed unnecessary but unimaginable. Yet, with Finding Dory, Pixar completes a cinematic thought that we never realized (13 years after the fact) remained unfinished: how did Dory (voiced brilliantly by Ellen DeGeneres) survive for years before meeting Nemo and his papa Marlin (Albert Brooks plumbing every depth of twitchy neurosis), afflicted as she was with no short-term memory, no “street sense” (“sea sense”), and no direction (literally)? Who was her family and how did she “just keep swimming” with no discernible life skills?

Finding Dory is about as existential as Pixar gets – it’s a bit like an Ingmar Bergman flick encrusted in cotton candy and Happy Meal Toys. And that’s a good thing. We open with a baby Dory, utterly beloved by two parents who want nothing but the best for their child but who palpably fret over her ability to function. If you don’t get a bit verklempt as Dory struggles to understand her parents’ earnest teachings, apologizing profusely for her intrinsic challenges (challenges that deserve no apology), then you have the emotional IQ of a piece of coral. In those opening moments, Finding Dory devastatingly captures the pathos of child hoping to please parents and of parents loving unconditionally but fearing for their child’s safety in a world designed for callous cruelty. (A dynamic that becomes even more devastating in light of recent tragic events in America.)

Baby Dory and her doting parents become separated (not Bambi tragic, but darn close), and the rest of the film maps the now adult Dory’s hero’s quest (with the well-intentioned, if occasionally condescending, aid of pals Marlin and Nemo) to find her long-lost folks, following the events of Finding Nemo. The film veers toward the formulaic, borrowing a bit too heavily from its predecessor, as Dory meets cute with a number of sea creatures that suffer their own particular ailments and disabilities. Eventually, our merry band finds itself at a sea-life rehabilitation facility/zoo where Dory believes her parents reside. In typical Pixar fashion, there are a series of Rube Goldberg-esque harrowing caper and chase sequences as Dory and new buddy Hank (a misanthropic, crafty octopus, voiced with wry subtlety by Ed O’Neill) make their way through the park to locate her family and solve the mystery of her upbringing.

To Pixar’s credit, just as in Finding Nemo, this film takes its shots at human interference (noble and otherwise) in the natural order. The ingenuity and pluck demonstrated by the sea creatures in Finding Dory runs in stark contrast to human impulse to capture and display said creatures, whether for the animals’ own preservation or for people’s entertainment. There is a funny running bit where Sigourney Weaver (likely a nod to her role in the similarly themed Avatar) serves as the marine park’s announcer, repeating as the “voice of God” that the park’s mission is “rescue, rehabilitation, and release.” It’s a not-so-subtle jab at DisneyWorld competitor SeaWorld, made even more pointed when Dory observes, “As Sigourney Weaver tells us, we need to rescue, rehabilitate, and release,” shortly before setting every resident loose in the nearby cove. (This action also involves Hank the Octopus driving a semi-truck into the ocean … but it is a Pixar movie.)

Further, Finding Dory carries a powerful message about diversity. Our differences – and what some may view as our respective deficiencies, physical or mental or otherwise – can (and should) be our greatest strengths. And while the world may tell us, in overt and subtle ways, that we should “know our limitations,” we are our own worst enemies if we accept this fallacious direction as fact.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]


Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Ann Arbor’s Penny Seats Theatre Company opens sixth season on June 16 with The Canterbury Tales

canterbury collageThe Penny Seats Theatre Company’s sixth summer season at West Park – performing outdoor professional theatre at movie-ticket prices, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays throughout June and July – opens next week with a modern adaption of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, by Lindsay Price (June 16 through July 2).   It will be followed later in July by the 2007 Broadway musical smash, Xanadu (July 14 through July 30) – based on the 1980 cult classic movie of the same name, with a book by Douglas Carter Beane and music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar.

Director Anne Levy (Brighton) is enthusiastic about this production of Canterbury. “This may be the most fun I have ever had directing a play. The versatility, talent, and creativity of the cast has taken my original vision to incredible heights. There was not a single rehearsal where they didn’t make me laugh out loud many times.”

In fact, Levy’s interest in Chaucer and medieval literature began early, and this production is a culmination of her longstanding appreciation for the genre. “My opinion of medieval literature was formed in the mandatory English Literature class in the first mind-altering year of university, when I learned that I was perhaps more suited to a major in animal husbandry. I slogged through the required texts and finally reached overload trying to read Canterbury Tales in Middle English (‘an exercise in scholarly fulfillment,’ I believe my professor called it!). Yet, despite that baptism by fire, there remained a nugget of an idea that maybe some of this stuff might have some value if only it could be deciphered.”

She adds, “A couple of English degrees, several careers, and a longed-for retirement later, I find myself not only directing a medieval classic, but actually enjoying it. This adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has allowed me to do what I love best as a director: open up the world of literary history to today’s audience. It not only makes it accessible, it makes it fun.”

Canterbury Tales stars Matt Cameron (South Lyon), Dale Dobson (Milford), Jenna Hinton (Farmington Hills), Brian Baylor (Pontiac), Tina Paraventi (Ypsilanti), Debbie Secord (Ypsilanti), Jeffrey Stringer (Ann Arbor), and Jennifer Sulkowski (Plymouth).

Levy, who also helmed The Penny Seats’ 2015 production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged], adds, “This was a great opportunity to create a play that presented a classic work of literature in an incredibly fun format. Who knew that Chaucer was so funny? And ‘The Miller’s Tale?’ Well, audiences will have to experience it for themselves.”

The show will run in Ann Arbor’s West Park, in the band shell area (near the park’s Seventh Street entrance), from June 16th through July 2nd at 7:00pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Advance tickets are available at the group’s website, www.pennyseats.org. Although the curtain goes up at 7:00pm each evening, pre-show picnicking is encouraged for audience members, and the group will sell water and concessions at the park as well.


Canterbury TalesABOUT THE PENNY SEATS: Founded in 2010, we’re performers and players, minimalists and penny-pinchers. We think theatre should be fun and stirring, not stuffy or repetitive. We believe going to a show should not break the bank. And we find Michigan summer evenings beautiful. Thus, we produce dramas and comedies, musicals and original adaptations, classics and works by up-and-coming playwrights. And you can see any of our shows for the same price as a movie ticket.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about The Penny Seats call 734-926-5346 or Visit: www.pennyseats.org.


Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).  In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.