“Smells like Marlboros and farts.” Planet Ant Theatre premieres Who Run the World

Originally published by EncoreMichigan

We live in fraught, absurdist political times. Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t even have anticipated how off-the-charts bonkers our reality show polarization has become. So, there is a timely, refreshing, and essential concept at the heart of Planet Ant’s latest original work Who Run the World – taking its title from the pop-feminist anthem  “Run the World (Girls)” by that ubiquitous purveyor of hard lemonade Beyoncé.

The show – written from what appears to be a series of free-wheeling improv exercises by director Lauren Bickers and her unrestrained cast Dyan Bailey, Suzan Jacokes, Esther Nevarez, Scott Sanford, Caitlyn Shea, and Sarah Wilder – is an interesting conceit. What will be the logical (and comically tragic) progression of our society by 2040 if we continue down this Red State/Blue State, feminist/antifeminist, extreme left/alt-right striated path?

Cast of Who Run the World (Photo by Scott Myers)

In the evening’s most effective and crispest moments, a series of video montages (created by Bailey, who used a similar technique in The Ringwald’s concurrently running production Merrily We Roll Along) bring the audience up-to-speed on world events from 2018 to 2040. America is rocked by a series of increasingly extreme political swings – President Oprah Winfrey succeeds President Donald Trump; she is, in turn, defeated by President Donald Trump, Jr.; he is ousted by President Ellen DeGeneres who is overtaken by Prezident Kid Rock (who didn’t even know he was running). A full out gender war erupts, centered around a network of Target stores, and eventually the women prove victorious driving unenlightened men into a series of, yes, “man caves.”

The gynocentric society, on the surface, seems practically perfect in every way: work/life balance, a presidential cabinet made up of bureaucrats dedicated to peace and culture and comfort, and omnipresent “dance breaks” set to the strains of Black Box’s “Everybody, Everybody.”

I admit my other favorite aspect of the show was the pre-show music/scene interludes, which all seemed to be emanating from my own personal iTunes collection. Any time I hear Madonna’s “Human Nature” during a performance (which has been … never … up-until-now), I’m a happy boy. “I’m not your b*tch. Don’t hang your sh*t on me.”

It’s unfortunate, then, that the actual show doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its surreal high concept. The performers–playing both the aforementioned cabinet members as well as a series of mulleted, flannel-wearing male denizens of the underground–should be commended for the ferocity and BIG energy with which they attack the material, but many scenes seem unrehearsed, perhaps even improvised on the spot, which clashes with the slick and professional nature of the video narrative. Further, the production seems to exist at three decibel levels: loud, louder, and loudest. For such an intimate space, this flattens the proceedings, giving the show an extended “skit-like” quality. When the cast is all present onstage, there is such a cacophony of voices and movement, it is at times difficult to discern exactly what is transpiring.

Dyan Bailey, Scott Sanford (Photo by Scott Myers)

There are many funny lines but they are lost as the actors’ articulation isn’t always up to snuff. Or clever quips are delivered with the blunt force of an anvil striking the audience on its collective head, losing the wry, satirical touch that would make them really zing. For example, one particular “man cave” is described as smelling like “Marlboros and farts.” The line made me chuckle, not from its actual delivery, but from its potential.

That is not to say that everyone involved doesn’t have their moments. Dyan Bailey has great fun channeling Kathleen Turner- meets-Donald Trump-meets-Ernst-Blofeld as societal matriarch Kameela Toriana (Department of Appearance and Diplomacy). There isn’t a piece of Jennifer Maiseloff’s underdeveloped scenery she won’t chew (her use of an exercise ball as her throne was particularly effective and amusing), and Bailey’s sheer force-of-hurricane-gale-will keeps the show moving apace.

Caitlyn Shea offers the closest thing to character progression in her shrinking violet-turned-Norma Rae Tracee McAllister (Director of Unpacking), who brings some nuance to the cartoon-like proceedings and revels in her character’s whiplash-inducing turns of personality.

The remaining cast members have some zippy moments, particularly when each goes to the “man cave” of Scott Sanford’s Addison Houser to explore their respective vices. There is an interesting narrative sequence to explore in these scenes if Planet Ant continues to develop the piece. These “vice visits” form a kind of Faustian compact – not dissimilar to Jack Nicholson’s increasingly menacing trips to commiserate with the spectral barkeep in The Shining – wherein the characters discover their true selves and the balance they’ve lost amidst political extremes. If the Who Run the World team works on refining those scenes, that sequence could provide much-needed narrative spark and character development to the play.

I may not be the right audience for what Planet Ant does. The full-house on opening night roared with laughter and approval, particularly as the show escalated further into Saturday Night Live territory or when actors riffed off-script due to a missed light cue or misplaced prop.

As an aside, when I bring my friend Lauren to a show, there seems to be an ironic bit of foreshadowing in our pre-show dinner conversation. I held forth at Green Space Café about how I just didn’t get “improv” and often found the humor therein a bit of a “stretch” for my linear sensibilities. As we watched Who Run the World, which I hadn’t realized was improv-based until I read the program immediately prior (shame on me), it reminded me that, at least for this viewer, I prefer a tightly rehearsed show with clear and nuanced character delineation, levels, and timing. I offer this to say that if you are a fan of improv, you might really dig Who Run the World … and I’m just a crabby fuddy duddy.

That said, I suspect there is a really sharp 45-minute piece buried somewhere in Who Run the World’s two-hour run time. With some Draconian editing, the show could be just the tonic our troubled times need. I, for one, crave a new Crucible, Children’s Hour, or, hell, Book of Mormon for this MAGA vs. #MeToo cultural dumpster fire in which we are currently living. Who Run the World ain’t it yet … but with some work, it might be.

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Lauren Crocker, Roy Sexton – opening night of Who Run the World

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.

“Most Friends Fade”: The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along

Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

Stephen Sondheim, genius as he may be, is saddled often (fairly or unfairly) with the critique of having a “second act problem.” His shows kick off with a high-concept bang but then devolve into misanthropic goo around the 10 o’clock hour. Modern revivals of most of the major works have found clever fixes for these issues, but one could argue Sondheim himself was trying to reverse his troubles with 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along.

The musical is based on the play by the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and works backward in roughly five year increments from the climactic and ugly dissolution of a trio’s longstanding friendship in 1976 to its very inception in 1957.

So, rather than a second act problem (the second act is actually quite impactful), Merrily We Roll Along has a “first scene” problem. Unfortunately, I’m not sure The Ringwald’s latest production, which is otherwise pretty damn fine, fixes it.

Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

Much like Company, which The Ringwald will be performing next and which is also a Sondheim collaboration with playwright George Furth, Merrily is a show about a man in midlife crisis free-fall, told through a series of episodes and punctuated by the kind of garish and venomous cocktail parties that only seem to exist on Broadway stages and in Bette Davis movies.

And, yes, there is a musical reprise alerting us we are moving from one moment to the next – no “Bobby, baby” this time, but plenty of repetitions of the title song (which you will have in your head for weeks).

The protagonist in question (and likely surrogate for Sondheim himself) is Franklin Shepard, a brilliant composer whose Faustian fixation on the material trappings of success (big house, bigger house, first wife, messy tabloid divorce, affair and subsequent second marriage to his leading lady, money, money, money … and cute plaid suits) takes him further and further away from the hardscrabble joys of his bohemian early days with fellow creative pals Charley Kringas, his lyricist, and Mary Flynn, their novelist buddy.

Schultz [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

As the three leads in Ringwald’s production, Kyle Johnson (Franklin), Ashlee Armstrong (Mary), and Kevin Kaminski (Charley) are transfixing, and the show rises and falls on their believable dynamic and the sparkle each bring to their respective roles. And that’s why that opening scene is so confounding. We meet this trio at the worst possible moment in their lives, in a shrill and clunky scene that fails to indicate the beautiful story which follows. I don’t fault Joe Bailey’s otherwise consistent and effective direction, nor the physical space (you go to The Ringwald for talent and heart, not production values), but I do cite the show’s gimmicky structure and, to a lesser degree, a fairly heavy-handed performance style in that opening scene that is blessedly absent elsewhere from this cast.

I only belabor this point for one reason – as an audience, don’t be discouraged by the opening, because otherwise this production is aces.

The vocal quality of the cast, performing a tricky yet melodic score, is exceptional, and music director CT Hollis is to be commended for bringing such vibrancy and color from the assembled voices. Kudos also to in-house accompanist Ben Villaluz for doing yeoman’s work in lieu of a full orchestra.

Johnson, Gagnon [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

The set design by Brian Kessler is minimal, almost to a fault, but there is clever use of small set pieces, décor, and furniture to differentiate locales. Dyan Bailey’s video projection is great fun and is aided and abetted by Brandy Joe Plambeck’s lighting/sound. (Brandy Joe also plays Frank’s sad sack manager Joe to great effect in the show.) Using archival footage, played in reverse, the video snippets, which run during the aforementioned “Merrily We Roll Along” reprises, add a nice visual distraction in the tight space, bring whimsy and poignancy, and offer helpful historical context.

The ensemble (Jerry Haines, Ashley M. Lyle, Anna Morreale, Nicole Pascaretta, Donny Ridel, and standout Matthew Wallace) act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action directly and playing an array of waiters, reporters, partygoers, etc. Notably, at one point, they are referred to in aggregate as “The Blob” – a collective of insipid, shallow socialite hangers-on whose sole purpose, with the help of pushy second wife Gussie (in a tricky but extremely effective love-to-hate performance from Liz Schultz), seems to be to drag Franklin further into mediocrity. The ensemble has a ball (some to the point of distraction, unfortunately) with this highly theatrical function. Think Bells Are Ringing’s “Drop That Name” as performed by the Kardashian family.

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Kaminski, Armstrong, Johnson [Image Source: The Ringwald’s Facebook Page]

As for musical numbers, Kaminski’s rousing and acerbic ode to being the neglected friend – “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” – is the moment where the production really zings to life, set into fizzy motion by Wallace’s eye-popping take on a vain talk show host interviewing Kaminski. “Old Friends” – performed by Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski – wherein the trio attempts to rekindle their affections through song is a delight, with some sweet nods by choreographer Molly Zaleski to Singin’ in the Rain’s iconic “Good Mornin’” number.  Jordan Gagnon has her strongest moments performing a haunting and heartbreaking “Not a Day Goes By” in the first act as Frank’s mistreated ex-wife Beth. And show closer “Our Time” with Johnson, Armstrong, and Kaminski is a lovely sweet-and-sour take on the limitless possibility of new friendship as seen through a sobering retrospective lens.

Over dinner before the show, my friend Lauren and I were discussing the high wire act of balancing one’s creative spark within the daunting machinery of commerce. Merrily is very much Sondheim’s meditation on that concept, written at a point when he had achieved great success and was likely gobsmacked by the pressures such “golden handcuffs” inflict. He would later write more accessibly about the issue in Sunday in the Park with George,After all without some recognition, no one’s going to give you a commission.” Kyle Johnson as Franklin does a remarkable job channeling this tension, offering us a central tragic figure who is as relatable as he is maddening. Johnson smartly resists the people-pleasing trap of making Franklin “likable,” with a feral and sweaty inner life that leaps from the stage. Comparably, Armstrong gives us a Mary who is loyal and true, witty and warm and utterly alone. The juxtaposition of the two figures with Kaminski’s twitchy, lovable, exasperating Charley makes for great theatre.

Merrily We Roll Along has an almost cult-like following, and I can see why. The score is magical, the structure a problematic puzzle, and the three leading characters (particularly as portrayed here) sublime. Don’t miss a rare opportunity to see this unusual show live with such a talented and winsome cast.

Roy and Lauren Crocker at The Ringwald

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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.