Attention Must be Paid: Tipping Point Theatre’s “Ripcord”

Originally published by Encore Michigan.

One day you wake up, and you find you relate to characters and situations that just the other day felt safely, pleasantly distant and remote. In our home, we have a nightly ritual of watching an episode of a (now) classic sitcom right before going to sleep: Everybody Loves Raymond, Will & Grace, Friends, and increasingly The Golden Girls. I always had finite patience for the self-absorbed whimsy of Friends, and, now, I can barely stomach the show. Once, I thought Raymond’s Marie and Frank Barone were an affectionately nuanced portrayal of meddlesome parents; now, I completely relate to their affable frustrations over “young people” who don’t appreciate their elders’ hard-won advice and perspective. And The Golden Girls? Well, let’s just say, someone get the lanai and the caftan ready. I’m on my way.

It is through this lens, then, that I approached TippingPoint Theatre’s Michigan premiere of Ripcord!, a comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire (Pultizer Prize-winner for Rabbit Hole). Ripcord!, on its surface, is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? if written by someone who actually likes women. Similarly, the narrative is an escalating emotional arms race between two grand dames, aging in place and trapped in one location (in this instance, one of those “high end” independent senior living facilities). However, unlike Baby Jane, the women have agency from having “seen it all” (think Elaine Stritch’s seminal performance of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here”); they wear some kicky resort clothes (think Golden Girls with better tailoring and fewer shoulder pads … fun costume design by Shelby Newport); and no one gets served a pet parakeet on a platter (although there is a LOT of business with food being brought up from the cafeteria … I kept waiting).

The Blanche and Baby Jane of Ripcord! are Abby (played with broken glass sparkle by Ruth Crawford) and Marilyn (a heartbreakingly impish Susan Craves). Abby has lived in the same room for four years, mostly alone, as her brusque bravado drives off anyone unfortunate enough to be assigned her roommate. Along comes Marilyn, a ray of sunshine with an iron will – Little Orphan Annie as designed by Sun Tsu. In the 80s, yes, Abby would have been played by Bea Arthur, and Marilyn by Betty White. In this contemporary milieu, Crawford and Craves couldn’t help reminding me of Jane Lynch and Carrie Fisher, respectively. I’m uncertain whether that was intentional on the part of director James Kuhl and his production team or just happenstance, but that dynamic contrast in type and in look works really well.

Marilyn is determined to melt the permafrost around Abby’s cold heart, and Abby is hell-bent to get this bounding golden retriever puppy-meets-Marquis de Sade jettisoned from her life forever. Or,at least have her relocated to a newly vacated room downstairs. Consequently, they place a bet. If Marilyn can scare Abby (who claims no fear), she gets the better bed in their room with an epic view of the park and all the sunlight she can stand. If Abby succeeds in making the relentlessly chipper Marilyn angry, Marilyn vacates the premises, only to be seen at the occasional bingo night. Hijinks ensue.

As plays go, Ripcord! is, in fact, more sitcom than Broadway. The narrative is too episodic by half, and thinly drawn supporting characters come and go primarily as forgettable story beats and harmless complications. However, Abby and Marilyn–built as they are on familiar, near-mythological archetypes (broken monarch, trickster god) – are the show. Lindsay-Abaire wisely commits the lion’s share of the piece to exploring the debilitating isolation and the liberating joys of aging, as evidenced through the pranks, shenanigans, and outright cruelty these women exact upon one another.

At the end of the day, neither Abby nor Marilyn much gives a rat’s-patootie what anyone thinks of them. That is refreshing. Otherwise, we would have yet another tired male-crafted narrative pitting one woman against another. Ripcord! pulls just shy of that, offering a study of two humans who have suffered devastating setbacks, chiefly at the hands of their own spouses and/or children, and who find themselves thrown together like randomly assigned college roommates in their “golden years.” Together, they discover their authority and their appreciation for each other through the artificial tension such circumstances naturally bring.

All of that said, this is the kind of show that TippingPoint does so well. Acerbic, witty, expertly paced, and polished, Ripcord! rarely misses a beat. At Saturday night’s performance, there were some minor flubs here and there, and an actor or three stepped on each other’s lines–all of which will disappear as the run progresses and this already incredible ensemble tightens the performance. Director James Kuhl has cast the show expertly, with two leads who take the sitcom tropes the script hands them and turn in masterfully crafted, compelling character turns – believable humans who are as delightful, maddening, confounding, and damn funny as any family member you may get trapped with at a Thanksgiving dinner.

Dez Walker is great deadpan fun as Scotty, the nursing attendant and foil for the worst these two rivals can dish out. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but let’s just say their warfare may or may not include skydiving, haunted houses, surprise relatives, muggings, CraigsList phone pranks, and drug-laced peach cobblers. Walker’s reactions to it all are priceless and pleasantly understated. At times, I felt I was watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon brought to life.

Vanessa Sawson, Jason Bowen, and Patrick Loos round out the cast, playing an assortment of family members and haunted house performers (there is an ironic joke in there somewhere). They all do fine work and have some sharply comic moments. Bowen is comedy gold as said mugger who devises an unfortunate and hysterical use for the “legs” in his pantyhose mask.

The ensemble suffers at times, however, from tonal inconsistency. Whereas Craves, Crawford, and Walker imbue their characters with a believability and a subtlety that contrasts nicely and, at times, poignantly with the proceedings, the other performers occasionally devolve into a broader comic style that felt a bit jarring. It’s a minor quibble and is as likely a function of the play’s construction as the performance itself.

The cast is aided and abetted by clever, kitschy, surprising production design. As noted, the costumes by Newport are divine. The efficient and evocative set by Monika Essen is comprised of a series of modular units that can serve as the independent living facility, haunted house, park, etc. Essen supplements the physical set with some eye-popping projections and some nifty animation, all of which creates a captivatingly immersive experience.

Sonja Marquis has a blast with the sound design, weaving techno, hip hop, and some delightfully daffy dance remixes (Carmina Burana? BRILLIANT!) into the musical cues. I would love to download that soundtrack. I particularly appreciate that Marquis resists the urge to employ “age appropriate” music (whatever the hell that would even mean) and delivers a rocking score that gives as good as it gets and adds a fantastic level of manic urgency to the leading characters’ conflict. I also geeked out that the poster and program cover (by graphic designer Quintessa Gallinat) go for POP! over lace doilies, with a fab Roy Lichtenstein spin on the play’s iconography. Well played, TippingPoint!

If, like me, you feel your age every time you read a headline, turn on the radio, or just get out of bed in the morning and if you wonder sometimes whether all this running about and people-pleasing we do in life really matters, you will love Ripcord! If you think these experiences and feelings are still tucked away behind the nebulous and protective curtain of “your future,” then you must see Ripcord! Now. Let’s kick ageism in its collective ass. This isn’t a play about “old people.” This is a play about all of us and the need for kindness and empathy and acknowledgment in. the. moment. Attention must be paid

____________

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.

Stop taking photos of sandwiches: Betty Buckley’s “Ah, Men!”

100_1292

Legendary Betty Buckley with not-so-legendary Roy Sexton [Photo by Author]

Facebook is a funny thing. Such a powerful tool that could do so much to create positive social change is being used for rather mundane, likely superficial, arguably dumb things: bragging about new homes, taking photos of sandwiches, complaining about Lady Gaga.

I love (not) the people who opine about “declining morals of society” and then post photos of themselves doing body shots at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Accountability? Yeah, apparently only when it’s a one-way street headed to Sarah Palin-ville.

774426_10201925779765039_2101944603_o

Lobby of The Columbia Club
[Photo by Author]

And then there are the friends (and sometime relatives) who bloviate about how some people have “too many friends” and “how could you know all of those people” and “aren’t you afraid of identity theft…cause you want to waaaaaaatch.” I don’t know what motivates this last string of comments: jealousy, annoyance, small-picture thinking, or the fact that the more friends one has the harder it is to stalk all their comings and goings on the social network.

So why am I on this annoyingly self-serving high horse? Perhaps I’m full of myself because I had the privilege of meeting a Tony Award-winning performer I’ve long-admired. I was listening to her CDs in college when my fraternity brothers were blasting Bob Marley and Pearl Jam on the front lawn.

100_1293

Buckley with Susie Duncan Sexton [Photo by Author]

What does this have to do with Facebook? Well, said performer has very smartly leveraged the communication platform to connect with generations of fans in an authentic and direct way, without the meddling intermediary of a PR agent. I was beyond geeked a few years back when we “friended” one another in cyberspace and struck up conversations over the intervening months about politics, movies, and animals.

Who is this tech-savvy celebrity? You’ve probably deduced by the blurry photos above (my family just can’t be trusted with cameras, myself included) or, heck, from this blog entry’s title: Betty Buckley.

1412679_10201925728603760_347948021_o

Entrance to The Columbia Club
[Photo by Author]

Betty Buckley is known to some musical theatre neophytes as “Abby” on Eight is Enough or as Sissy Spacek’s sympathetic (slap notwithstanding) gym teacher in Carrie. To some adventurous cinephiles, Buckley is remembered for her character turns in Tender Mercies, Frantic, or The Happening. And for millennials who subsist on a steady diet of the CW and ABCFamily, they would have seen Buckley pop up on brother Norman Buckley’s saucily fun Pretty Little Liars. (Norman and mom Betty Bob are fantastic Facebookers as well!)

But for us theatre nuts, Ms. Buckley will always be known for her knockout performances in such classic musicals as 1776, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Cats, and Sunset Boulevard among many others. And for her series of jazz-infused, confessional cabaret recordings over the past 20+ years.

100_1286

“Ah, Men!” album cover [Photo by Author]

One of her latest cabaret offerings – recording as well as live performance – is a show called “Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway!” The nifty conceit of the show is Buckley’s fulfillment of a lifelong desire to perform all the great Broadway anthems written expressly for men.

Given our Facebook connection with Ms. Buckley, there was no way we would miss seeing her perform in Indianapolis’ most splendid room: The Cabaret at The Columbia Club, a surprisingly intimate yet Eloise-esque marble-floored, velvet-curtained, lost-moment-in-time hall with a ceiling-to-floor window overlooking the twinkling lights of Monument Circle.

1403073_10201925860127048_1039339739_o

Stage at The Cabaret [Photo by Author]

You must catch this show if it comes anywhere near your community. It’s not often you get to hear a legend in person, let alone one as relatable as Buckley. Her between-song patter is a hoot: for example, as a kid, she desperately wanted to be a “Jet” in her local community’s production of West Side Story, and these anecdotes offer the perfect context for her song choices.

And, oh, what song choices! Many of my personal favorites – from The Fantasticks‘ rallying “I Can See It” to Guys and Dolls’ elegiac “More I Cannot Wish You” – are featured. The Sweeney Todd medley effortlessly marries “Not While I’m Around,” “Johanna,” and “My Friends,” capturing the melodiously tragic arc of Sondheim’s best show in a perfect seven-minute bon-bon.

100_1296

Roy Sexton, Susie Duncan Sexton, and The Cabaret’s executive director Shannon Forsell [Photo by Author]

Accompanist and arranger Christian Jacob helps Buckley transform the bombast of The Pajama Game‘s signature tune “Hey There” into a haunting, undulating meditation on regret, loneliness, and heartache. But the show’s highlight is a ten-minute Spike Jones-meets-Mel Brooks riff on My Fair Lady’s “Hymn to Him” in which Buckley runs through nearly every noteworthy male role in the musical theatre canon and winkingly expounds on how much better her take on said roles would be.

We have admired and appreciated Ms. Buckley’s talent throughout her career; we are grateful to live in an age where technology allows us to appreciate the person as well as the performer, an age that can inspire thought and expression and compassion and kindness … if people will let it … and stop taking photos of their d*mn sandwiches.

_________________________

P.S. Sorry for another outright plug, but please do check out my mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s new book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels – in paperback or digital download at  www.susieduncansexton.com, www.amazon.com, or www.open-bks.com (also available on iTunes). I love what pundit, columnist, and radio host Carol Baker just wrote about the book and thought I’d share it here…

As a weekly columnist, writing on topics of politics and social justice, I find Susie’s writing style a breath of fresh air. As I sailed through story after story, it was like sitting across a kitchen table, having an old friend share stories of their life over an endless cup of coffee. I know how to bring a reader into a story to laugh or to cry or to be an intimate observer, but Susie effortlessly helps to evoke memories of my own early childhood, my youth, young adulthood and ultimately, to come to terms with an aging body. Susie glides from topic to topic through time and weaves her stories like a familiar old song. I’ve committed to attempting a Susie Duncan Sexton homework assignment of becoming a storyteller because she’s proven it’s never too late to stretch my writing chops. She inspires me to write more – and to write better. She inspires me to write with less angst and to simply “think out loud on paper”. Perhaps to be a little more understanding of the gargoyles and a little less approving of the angels.

This is comfort food for a writer’s soul.