There won’t be … orphans: Theatre NOVA’s Play-of-the-Month “4 Genres” by Ron Riekki

If classic playwright Dario Fo wrote for Saturday Night Live in these technologically insular COVID days, I suspect he would have come up with something like Ron Riekki’s 4 Genres. That is a compliment BTW.

From Theatre NOVA’s press release: “Theatre NOVA, Ann Arbor’s professional theatre with an exclusive focus on new plays and playwrights, presents a new play written specifically for the Zoom format each month (January through April) with their PLAY OF THE MONTH series. 4 Genres by Ron Riekki, the second offering in the series, will be performed live on Zoom on Wednesday, February 24th at 8pm and available ON DEMAND for Series Pass holders through May.

“In 4 Genres, four characters reveal what they’ve learned after being trapped within four respective film/theatre genres (musical theatre, documentary, slapstick, and horror). A hilarious comedy exploring the role of art in life and society, 4 Genres is directed by Theatre NOVA Founding Artistic Director, Carla Milarch and features Jennifer Felts (An Almost British Christmas), Nate John-Mark (A Hero of Our Time, 2020), Dan Johnson (Kill, Move, Paradise) and David Moan (I’m Streaming of an Alright Christmas).”

The show uses its “high concept” as a lens to address (lightly) the existential dread we have all been experiencing for one year now under COVID – this week being the anniversary of first going into lockdown, if I recall correctly. My mind feels as rattled as those of the characters in this piece.

4 Genres moves briskly. More than a few technological mishaps (I’m assuming unintentional) – dropped sound, internet wobbles – aid and abet the viewing experience. We ain’t looking for polish in quarantine.

The four performers are marvels of commitment. John-Mark has the showiest role, and he doesn’t miss a trick. He mines comedy gold from the anxiety of being trapped in a “summer camp/asylum/orphanage” populated by werewolves, witches, chainsaw killers, but NO orphans. The richest laughs come from his exasperated delivery of quips aplenty.

Moan has a ball leveraging his musical comedy chops. Ironically, singing seems to cause his character physical pain, even as his dulcet tones delight the viewer. Spoiler alert: you may never hear “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen the same way again. And Moan’s “Rose’s Turn”-style nervous breakdown medley at the play’s conclusion is pretty damn brilliant. For that moment alone, this is one of the few Zoom shows I wouldn’t mind seeing staged IRL when and if this quarantine ever ends.

Felts and Johnson do reliably fine work in their respective roles. If Riekki were to make any revisions to the script, I might recommend taking another pass at these characters. These two roles don’t benefit from the same comically sharp definition as the others, so the piece suffers a slight imbalance. Again, that isn’t a result of Felts’ and Johnson’s performances. They both go all in, but they don’t have as rich of material to explore.

Director Carla Milarch knows how to position new works effectively. She has a marketer’s eye for pulling out a unique hook that will engage the audience. She leverages the immediacy of Zoom with its inherent isolating limitations – literally everyone is in a box – to provide a proper framework for the narrative. However, she also gives her actors *some* free reign, pulling the camera back a bit so that they each exist in three dimensional space, be it a charnel house, B&W soundstage, or velvet curtained cabaret. This offers the actors refreshing opportunity for physical business, in addition to the more typical “lines delivered directly at the camera” that we see so frequently in the ever-evolving pandemic-remote staging style.

I must admit that one of the things I find most appealing about this Zoom-based delivery mechanism for theater is that I can watch it on a Sunday afternoon, a week and a half after the premiere, knowing that my review can still benefit the overall experience, not only of this production but of the series. Will we ever go back to showing up collectively at one start time on one date and committing an evening to viewing theater? I hope so, but I don’t hate that this show is only 30 minutes and I could enjoy it while wearing my pajamas.

The show is a helluva lot of fun, as witty as it is thought-provoking, and serves as a nifty little showcase for four very talented local performers. Definitely check it out. If nothing else, it provides a lovely waiting room distraction as we all still figure out how in the heck to get vaccinated.

Tickets are $10 each month, or $30 for a Series Pass, which includes admission to four plays for the price of three and the opportunity to view all four plays ON DEMAND if any of the live performances are missed. Purchase tickets online at www.TheatreNova.org. For more information, pleaseemail a2theatrenova@gmail.com. All proceeds benefit Theatre NOVA’s ongoing efforts to stay alive through the pandemic. This activity is supported in part by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

MEET THE CAST OF 4 GENRES:

Nate John-Mark (Horror) is originally from Grand Rapids, MI. He attended Western Michigan University where he pursued a degree in Organizational Communication. Nate has always had a passion for performance and poetry which he satiated by hosting events on campus to create platforms for artists like himself to be heard and seen. After undergrad Nate began an Audience Development Assistantship at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where he was later introduced to performing Shakespeare with the OSF school tour. He has since joined Universes Theatre Ensemble, performed in Shakespeare tours around the country and is now living as an actor and playwright in Detroit, MI.

Dan Johnson (Doc) returns to Theatre NOVA after previously appearing in James Ijames’ KILL MOVE PARADISE (Winner, 2019 Council Cargle Wilde Award) and has been fortunate enough to work in SE Michigan theatre for the past decade, including recently winning 2020 Wilde Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Play (MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY) and in a Musical (MAN OF LA MANCHA). Along with his partner, Ashley M. Lyle (blaqn.org), Dan has also co-created “Toward An Anti-Racist Michigan Theatre,” a statement and workshop meant to help facilitate the work of positive, transformative change in 2021 and beyond. Many thanks to the cast and crew, to Mom, Dad and Angela for their love and support and (now more than ever) THANK YOU for supporting live Michigan theatre and theatre artists.  Enjoy!

David Moan (Musical) is honored to be back on the virtual NOVA stage as part of 4 GENRES. Originally from Pittsburgh, David was most recently seen as the Big Man in Red in the 2020 panto, I’M STREAMING OF AN ALRIGHT CHRISTMAS at Theatre NOVA. In the before times, David could be seen on real stages throughout southeast Michigan most notably as John Wilkes Booth in ASSASSINS and SWEENEY TODD at the Encore, God in AN ACT OF GOD at the Dio, and Martin in CANDIDE with the Michigan Opera Theater. Until Theatre is back in full, you can find David “performing” while playing video games at twitch.tv/davidmmoan. David would like to thank “everyone at Theatre NOVA for finding a way to make theatre happen,  Monica and Kim for keeping me sane in quarantine and all of you for supporting the arts in the time we need you most.”

Jennifer Felts (Slapstick) is currently a lecturer of Theatre at Eastern Michigan University and received her Master of Fine Arts from The London International School of Performing Arts. She directed TROJAN WOMEN and THE BIRTHDAY PARTY at Eastern Michigan University and VENUS IN FUR at the Performance Network Theatre. She has created movement, choreography and stage combat for many productions including SPRING AWAKENING, ONE MAN, TWO GUV’NORS, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, URINETOWN, JULIUS CAESAR, ANGELS IN AMERICA, DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE, BUD, NOT BUDDY and EQUUS (Wilde award for Best Movement Direction). As a performer, she has worked at the London Gate Theatre in the UK, Tipping Point, Andiamo Theatre, Theatre NOVA, and Performance Network. She also enjoys devising and collaborating on new work such as SIMONE: AN EVENING IN CHAPTER TITLES at Detroit’s Planet Ant Theatre or SHOULDER TO THE WHEEL at the Riverside Arts Center.