“What good else is the past for?” Theatre Nova’s Michigan premiere of Clutter

Kircali and Matsos (Image courtesy Theatre Nova)

The “memory play” is a standby in theater. From The Glass Menagerie to No Man’s Land to Dancing at Lughnasa and beyond, the theatrical space is uniquely suited to the swirling, undulating, unreliable tricks the mind can play on one’s recollection of events – with an unreliable narrator who is using his or her audience as therapist, judge, and jury to condemn or vindicate the life choices said storytelling protagonist may (or may not) have made,

It may be hyperbolic to claim, but Michigan playwright Brian Cox’s new work Clutter rests comfortably alongside those theatrical classics. Currently being performed at Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova and expertly directed with delicate and precise nuance by Diane Hill, the play is a revelation.

Powers and Kircali (Image courtesy Theatre Nova)

Clutter details in a brisk 90 minutes the tragic dissolution of a 23 (or is it 24?) year marriage. Phil Powers (an actor whose surname sure as hell suits his talents) is our guide as “Me,” exploring the confines of his messy office (minimal but pitch perfect set design by Ariel Sheets) and even messier mind, laying bare his soul with crack comic timing and professorial eccentricity.

Cox keeps the play from turning maudlin or melodramatic (a peril of the memory play convention) by keeping a meta-absurdist’s eye on the proceedings. Think Stop the World (I Want to Get Off) meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with a pinch of Waiting for Godot … and a dollop of Everybody Loves Raymond. That’s a compliment, by the way.

Powers and Matsos (Image courtesy Theatre Nova)

What could devolve into gimmickry becomes an expertly layered device in Hill’s hands, as Powers recruits two “audience members” Tory Matsos (a fellow Ohio State theatre alum – go, Buckeyes!) and Artun Kircali as “Woman” and “Sir” respectively to reenact scenes from a marriage both zany and heartbreaking. Id, ego, and superego made flesh and blood. The cast is brilliant, with whip-smart timing and empathy for days.

The expert cast is aided and abetted by a lighting plot (designer Daniel C. Walker) that unobtrusively signifies inner and outer life as the characters reveal their darkest secrets and most private moments or break the fourth wall and offer an outsider’s POV on the play itself.

For lack of a better term, Clutter is practically liquid in its narrative structure, flowing effortlessly – sometimes in a single sentence – from fact to fiction to pure emotion to hyper-conscious theatricality … and back again.

I won’t spoil the surprises … and there are more than a few, but this production is a must-see. At times the layers unfold like a Hercule Poirot mystery (to add yet another influence to this analysis), and that sense of spiraling revelation gives the piece its urgency.

Couple that with a bruising subject and delivery that leaves the audience questioning how the smallest missteps can derail a life, and you have an essential evening of theatre. At one point, “Me” (Powers) is challenged for replaying personal history to understand his tragic present. His response: “What good else is the past for?” Indeed. Past, present, future imperfect.

Clutter runs through April 16 at Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova. More information, including ticket purchasing, can be found at their website www.theatrenova.org

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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.

Romanticized beyond all reason: Bonnie and Clyde, A New Musical at Dexter, Michigan’s Encore Theatre

Bonnie and Clyde

Mahalia Greenway and Adam Woolsey as Bonnie and Clyde [Photos by the author – don’t try this yourself. The Encore doesn’t like photography]

Bonnie and Clyde’s bank-robbing crime spree across the American South-land is one of those bits of folklore that has been romanticized beyond all reason.

Maybe it’s Warren Beatty’s fault, aided and abetted as he was by Faye Dunaway with all those chic tams she wore – in the iconic 1967 film.

Regardless, people return to this timeworn tale time and again as the closest thing we have to our own Romeo and Juliet mythology.

The fantasy is as misplaced as could be as these two bandits were cold-blooded killers who saw bank robbery as a quick means to an easy buck,

Against the backdrop of the Depression-era dust bowl, it’s an easy leap to paint these two self-absorbed hooligans as Robin Hood and Marian for the Tea Partying crowd.

Bonnie and Clyde 3

Peter Crist and Elizabeth Jaffe as Buck and Blanche Barrow [Ensemble members Brendan Kelly and Andrew James Buckshaw in the background]

It’s interesting, then, in this era of gun romance and big gubmint fears that Frank Wildhorn chose to musicalize the Bonnie and Clyde legend – no end of “Revolution in ‘Murica” themes to plumb in the source material.

The Broadway production of Wildhorn’s Bonnie and Clyde starred puckish Newsies-lad Jeremy Jordan alongside Laura Osnes. The show came and went, as all Wildhorn productions that don’t star ex-wife Linda Eder always seem to do (seriously, the dude can’t write a memorable melody to save his soul). However, the show has taken on a second life in the semi-pro circuit as regional theatre embraces the tuner’s timely allegory (and let’s be honest … small cast).

I spent this chilly October night at Dexter, Michigan’s exceptional Encore Theatre, thoroughly enjoying their inventive and cheeky take on the show. Directed by Bonnie and Clyde alum Ron Baumanis with a clear eye toward efficiency, economy, and zip, Encore’s production is a pleasure.

Ensemble

Ensemble

Populated with an ensemble cast long on talent and wit, this production hums along at a fine clip, compensating nicely for Ivan Menchell’s under-cooked book (lyrics are by Don Black) which fails to give us much, if any detail, on why Bonnie and Clyde are in love: be that in love with each other; with gun play; with robbing banks; or with snazzy hats, claw-foot bathtubs, and jangling ukuleles.

Encore’s production team does a brilliant job utilizing their compressed industrial space to accommodate a full orchestra (somewhere hidden from view) and a Rube Goldberg set (by Daniel C. Walker) built of ramps, doors, cages, and stairs, beautifully representing a host of locations across Depression-era Texas.

There is smart use of rear-projections as well, highlighting location changes and grounding the production in historical images of the titular anti-heroes and their family and friends. It is a clever touch, visually filling in the script’s gaps and providing an impactful and visceral connection to these desperate lives.

Leads Adam Woolsey (Clyde) and Mahalia Greenway (Bonnie) are all CW-era sparkle as the mobster sweethearts, creating a series of exquisite stage pictures of these exquisite criminals. The script doesn’t give them much in terms of character development (and Wildhorn’s tunes force every cast member into the nether reaches of head voice). Regardless, Woolsey and Greenway offer a compelling and at times compassionate overview of kindred spirits whose short-sighted distortion of the Horatio Alger myth, calcified by American preoccupation with fame at all costs, leads them down the darkest paths imaginable.

Bonnie and Clyde 4I got a big kick from Peter Crist and Elizabeth Jaffe as the script’s second bananas Buck Barrow (Clyde’s brother) and wife Blanche. This pair brings the smolder and the comic relief. (Who knew those two thematic elements could co-exist so darn nicely?) Crist and Jaffe are electric in every scene, and Jaffe is a postmodern Eve Arden, crackerjack with a line and not wasting a moment on stage. Delightful to watch.

The show runs through October 25 and is well worth catching to see a game cast of talented local performers dance through this fractured tale of the American Dream. Showtimes and ticket information can be found at http://www.theencoretheatre.org/now-playing/

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

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 Bookbound, Common 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.