As if in a dream: Tipping Point Theatre’s Impossibility of Now wows

Originally published by EncoreMichigan

 

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

“Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them,” the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne once observed. For all intents and purposes, this quote could serve as the central thesis of Tipping Point Theatre’s latest offering, the Michigan premiere of Y. York’s The Impossibility of Now.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

With a narrative conceit that wouldn’t have been out of place in mid-century episodes of Playhouse 90, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or my mother’s beloved The Loretta Young Show, York’s play details the recovery of a successful non-fiction writer Carl (a dazzling Dave Davies) whose slate is literally wiped clean when a utility pole falls on his car and renders him an amnesiac. His wife Miranda (poignantly portrayed by Julia Glander) has suffered for years, married to a pre-accident Carl who was terse, cruel, distant, and unkind, keeping her an emotional prisoner in their isolated three-story Las Vegas condo.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

In the midst of her heartache, Miranda had taken up with a hunky man-child dentist Anthony (Glander’s real-life husband Alex Leydenfrost) who may or may not have fully healed from his own recent divorce. Yet, Carl returns from the hospital a changed man – innocent and loving, full of wonder about this new world around him … and pretty darn smitten with Miranda. Needless to say, Miranda is at a crossroads.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

What keeps the piece from devolving into maudlin soap opera? Sprightly dialogue by York that values adult wit over self-indulgent shtick and, perhaps more importantly, smart direction from Frannie Shepherd-Bates that allows each of her talented actors to shine and genius set and projection design from Moníka Essen that elevates the narrative with a hauntingly dream-like quality.

The interplay between Davies and Glander, as a couple rebuilding a life from ash, provides the production its most affecting moments. Essen’s set – a series of (literal) jigsaw puzzle pieces – is a nod toward Carl’s attempts at reconciling a sea of memories, real and imagined.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

Her projection work aids and abets the exceptional onstage connection between Davies and Glander: a series of animated words appear at key junctures on a screen above the stage, representing the ever-spinning algorithms in Carl’s mind, and provide exquisite punctuation (sometimes riotous, sometimes heartbreaking) on the unfolding tragicomedy.

I was transfixed by the interplay of these elements; an effect that can only be achieved in the theatre, expanding and elevating a good play into something great.

Quintessa Gallinat’s nuanced sound design is a key element in this experience as well and must be acknowledged for the immersive but unobtrusive use of music and sound effects.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

My only quibbles are more with script than production. At two hours, the narrative at times seems attenuated past its breaking point, and the capable and compelling Leydenfrost is saddled with a role which, at times, seems to be more a sitcom-level complication than fully developed character. He and Glander are fun to watch with their dental chair trysts, but those moments are jarring, like lost pages from Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, given the high-wire act Davies brings to Carl’s reclamation of self. They almost seem like two different universes entirely. It doesn’t hurt the show, and the cast all soldier through admirably, but the script would be more of a gut punch with fewer shenanigans and even more focus on Carl and Miranda’s fascinating pas de deux.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

Davies is a marvel. His crack comedic timing coupled with a deep-feeling pathos engenders a wealth of audience empathy. Davies has built an extraordinary number of layers into a role that in lesser hands could have been Forrest Gump-redux. He never condescends to the character nor to the situations and is electrifyingly present throughout. Don’t miss his work here. “Deft and exhilarating” can’t begin to describe it.

Tipping Point and its Producing Artistic Director James Kuhl are perhaps too-often unsung for the consistent level of quality and engagement they bring to their work. Productions there are consistently top-notch, relatable, and transporting. They take chances on new material, use their space in clever and creative and economical ways, and provide a safe place for an extraordinary array of talent to play. The Impossibility of Now is a perfect example of the humane and humanistic approach they take to theatrical arts, and, for that, this critic is grateful.

[Image Source: Tipping Point]

The Impossibility of Now runs through August 19.

 

 

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[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

Addendum … I’m participating in this event (below) on Thursday …

Theatre NOVA, Ann Arbor’s professional theatre with an exclusive focus on new plays and playwrights, presents their semi-annual Michigan Playwrights Festival, now in its third year. Five new plays by Michigan playwrights will be given readings July 25-29, 2018.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

Theatre NOVA focuses on new plays and new playwrights and is dedicated to working with new and local playwrights to help them develop their craft and to offer brand new plays for audiences. The theatre created the Michigan Playwrights Festival to nurture Michigan playwrights and to develop full-length plays for future seasons. They recently produced “Clutter,” an original script by Michigan playwright Brian Cox, as a result of its staged reading at a previous festival. “Clutter” was lauded by audiences and critics and earned two Wilde Award awards, including Best New Script.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

In the previous year, “Irrational” by R. MacKenzie Lewis and David Wells was given a full production and also received a Wilde Award for Best New Script. Other plays that began as staged readings at Theatre NOVA and have gone on to full productions are “Katherine” by Kim Carney, “Spin” by Emilio Rodriguez, and “Bird” by Kristin Hanratty. “Resisting” by David Wells and “Mrs. Fifty Bakes a Pie” by Linda Ramsay-Detherage also benefited from readings at a Michigan Playwrights Festival and had their world premieres in the current Theatre NOVA season, with “Resisting” being nominated for a Wilde Award for Best New Script.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

This activity is supported by the MICHIGAN COUNCIL FOR ARTS AND CULTURAL AFFAIRS and the NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS.

Schedule of the July Michigan Playwrights Festival:

“Sex and Innocence” by Emilio Rodriguez, Wednesday, July 25 at 8:00 pm

After hours, inside a fictional museum for 1950’s Hollywood plastic figurines, a statue of Rita Moreno comes to life and runs into a statue of Marlon Brando. When Rita’s statue discovers that she is tucked away in the basement of the museum and remembered as merely a sex symbol instead of an Oscar-winning actress, she attempts to re-brand herself while simultaneously confronting her tumultuous relationship with Marlon. Can she change how she is revered, or will her interactions reaffirm the very image she seeks to shatter? This reading, directed by Emilio Rodriguez, will feature Chloe Castro-Santos and James Busam.

“Hollywood Lies” by Jackie Sue Salter, Thursday, July 26 at 8:00 pm
A story of friendship amidst the Hollywood blacklist, “Hollywood Lies” presents 1948 Hollywood where a just-past-her-prime actress attempts to revive her stalled career. “Hollywood Lies” features Colleen Gentry, Roy Sexton, Laurie Atwood, Robert Schorr, and Ellen Finch, and is directed by Brian Cox.

 

“Under Ceege” by Jeffry Chastang, Friday, July 27 at 8:00 pm

Following the death of her father, a retired hospital worker finds herself not only at odds with her son, in the middle of a lucky lottery streak, but also at a financial disadvantage as she struggles to buy the home she’s lived in all of her life. Featuring Monrico Ward and directed by Lynch Travis.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

“Dirt” by Kristin Andrea Hanratty, Saturday, July 28 at 8:00 pm

All that Saundra wants to focus on during her sixth year of college is parties, avoiding schoolwork and herself. However, after she returns from a road trip to the Southwest, she finds herself plagued by the pains of others and the mysterious substance found in a hole of a New Mexican church. Directed by Aliyah Kiesler, “Dirt” features Danielle Wright, Carlos Westbrook, Rishi Mahesh, Maggie Alger, Connor Hutchins, Alan Gibson, and Joe Sfair.

“Dirty Glass” by Micealaya Moses, Sunday, July 29 at 2:00 pm

Teenaged Meghan returns home a year after running away and has to find a way to fit herself into her old life. Meghan and her community grapple with their responsibility concerning Meghan’s choices in a world that often doesn’t see young black girls as children and refuses to acknowledge when they have been victimized. This reading of “Dirty Glass” features Arabia Little, Shelia Johnson, Doug Monds, Dan Johnson, Aseneth Peek Parker, Jillian Diane Craighead, and Lorenzo Orlando, and is directed by Casaundra Freeman.

[Image Source: Theatre Nova]

The Michigan Playwrights Festival will run October 10-15, 2017 at Theatre NOVA (410 W. Huron, Ann Arbor), a downtown performance space. Show times are 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Theatre NOVA features free parking for patrons, as well as quick access to the city’s restaurants, bars, bakeries, and coffee shops.

Tickets are $10 for each reading, while festival passes good for all five readings are $30. Theatre NOVA continues its commitment to making theatre accessible by offering pay-what-you-can tickets for those who need them for all readings. For tickets or more info, visit TheatreNOVA.org, call 734-635-8450 (Tuesdays through Fridays from noon until 3 p.m.), or buy them in person at the box office one hour before show time.

Theatre NOVA is Ann Arbor’s resident professional theatre company. Its mission is to raise awareness of the value and excitement of new plays and new playwrights in a diverse and expanding audience and to provide resources and outlets for playwrights to develop their craft, by importing, exporting, and developing new plays and playwrights.

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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.

“My lack of success is self-imposed.” Roman J. Israel, Esq.

When you are driving home after a movie (albeit loaded up on carbs and sodium from this insane food we Americans insist on eating at Thanksgiving) and you as a family are discussing how you would rewrite the script, chances are the film fails to fulfill its own potential. Such is the case with Denzel Washington’s latest Roman J. Israel, Esq. (If that title alone doesn’t warn you that you are in for an overreaching quirkfest, nothing will.)

Directed by Dan Gilroy, who helmed the far superior Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal, the movie tries to be too many things.

Is it a film – taking a cue from Melville’s classic short story Bartleby the Scrivener (kudos to my mom for reminding me of that piece) – wherein one person’s singular and single-minded belief system magically transforms all who come in contact with said person? This could be a genre unto itself – think: Erin Brockovich, The Pursuit of Happyness, Forrest Gump, Being There, Rain Main, To Wong Foo. Sometimes the tale ends tragically, often not, but just about every time, someone in the film walks away with an Oscar.

Or is Roman J. Israel, Esq. an allegorical cautionary tale of the dire consequences of material temptation – a Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse, sweaty-palmed, walls-closing-in thriller depicting a poor schlub caught with his hand in the cookie jar, thinking he’d finally “made it big”?

Or is the flick just another soap opera set in the paradoxical world of the American legal system, where nobility and opportunism make strange bedfellows?

Any ONE of those films would have been fine, particularly given the great character work Washington delivers as a sensitive yet obtuse attorney with a database-like brain, a penchant for keeping all written records on index cards, a fixation on jazz music, and a lion’s heart for civil rights and human equality. Washington’s Israel has been the back-office partner for a two-man law firm in Los Angeles, and, when the face of the practice is felled by a heart attack, Israel finds himself unemployed.

As in Nightcrawler, director Gilroy’s Los Angeles is a concrete jungle of oppression and temptation (photographed perhaps a bit too exquisitely). Israel offers his services first to an ACLU-like organization helmed by Carmen Ejogo’s Maya, but finds that the volunteer organization has neither the money nor the appreciation for what his generation has brought to the movement.

Israel ends up in a Faustian contract with Colin Farrell’s George Pierce who runs a criminal defense firm, a man more interested in the pricing model depicted in his slick brochures than in the rights of his hardscrabble clientele.

Israel’s sweet self-righteousness quickly is subsumed by the earthly pleasures of a regular paycheck, and when he finds himself using privileged information to gain a bounteous reward for the capture of an alleged murderer, his world spirals downward.

Yet, everyone who meets Israel transforms into a better human for some inexplicable reason, including Farrell’s character whose 180 degree turn gives the audience whiplash. As Israel’s world devolves, the other characters get religion (metaphorically speaking), but the film presents little compelling evidence as to why.

Oh, and all of this happens over just a three week period. Whew.

I wanted to love this move and to be moved by its message that “purity can’t survive in this world.” In fact, the movie is filled with bon mots like that: “my lack of success is self-imposed,” “hope don’t get the job done,” “each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” “gang sign? like that flag pin on your lapel?” That may be its biggest problem. It’s a movie of bon mots, adding up ultimately to not very much more than a big budget Hallmark Hall of Fame that fancies itself an expose of the seamy gonna-get-mine underbelly of modern Los Angeles. That’s a shame.

Whereas Nightcrawler was a gut punch to the Horatio Alger myth that underpins Americans’ preoccupation with sparkling capitalism, Roman J. Israel, Esq. fails to deliver a similar blow to the endemic racism and deal-making that undermines our faith in the criminal justice system. That movie has yet to be made. Let’s try less quirk next time.

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.

Countdown: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

11 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

…Holy mackerel! For one brief shining moment (probably passed already by the time you read this), Reel Roy Reviews is #1 (!) in sales on Amazon’s list of best-selling movie guides and reviews. Don’t know how long this will last, so check out the photographic proof here!

Here is a snippet from Roy’s review of The Butler: “In a summer movie season populated by superheroes, robots, anthropomorphic planes, and Jennifer Aniston, Lee Daniels’s The Butler is a welcome respite. The film is an actors’ showcase with a powerful message that we are not as far removed from systemic, institutionalized brutality and bullying as we might like to believe.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

“We turn a blind eye” – Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“In America, we turn a blind eye to how badly we treat our own, while pointing the finger at other countries’ abuse of their people.”

I paraphrase one of the more thematically powerful statements made by Forest Whitaker as the titular character “Cecil Gaines” in Lee Daniels’ latest The Butler.

The film fictionalizes the true story of a butler in the White House who served (literally) every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.

The movie is good … quite good actually.  While not as much of an emotional gut punch as Daniels’ superior Precious, the movie embraces its melodramatic DNA and paints a compelling portrait of an African-American family unraveling at the seams against the backdrop of America’s ongoing civil rights struggles. Like Precious, however, The Butler suffers from an overly episodic structure and crazy-Love-Boat-guess-who-is-playing-the-next-cameo-role stunt casting.

(I must say, though, that Mariah Carey owes Daniels a whole lotta love for whatever magic trick he has pulled to make her seem like an accomplished actress. No lie. Glitter? A foggy, foggy memory now. A true public service to us all.)

So back to that quote. With that statement (made, unfortunately, while Whitaker and his cinematic wife Oprah Winfrey are both attired in satiny track suits – the 80s! – and saddled with some pretty dodgy old age makeup), Cecil sums up the movie’s big idea … and it’s a doozy. We are a nation of hypocrites, spreading the gospel of freedom, human rights, and dignity across the globe while depriving those self-same ideals from our own tax-paying citizenry.

The film’s structure, contrived as can be, offers point/counterpoint as Cecil interacts with a rogues’ gallery of Commanders-in-Chief, all of whom turn to Cecil at some point, asking his opinion on key moments in civil rights history (usually while he is handing them a cup of tea or something – seriously).

Simultaneously, in a feat of the kind of logic that only appears in Oscar-bait movies like this (or Forrest Gump), Cecil’s oldest son Louis is an active participant in each and every one of those key moments: he’s at the lunch counter sit-in; he’s on the Freedom Bus; he’s with Martin Luther King, Jr.; he’s a Black Panther. And, by the way, Cecil’s other son ends up enlisting for Vietnam for some inexplicable reason, mostly so the audience has a touch point for that bit of our history as well.

The fact that the film is so compelling (and doesn’t buckle under the weight of this tv-movie-esque structure) is a testament to Daniels’ exceptional cast. And what a cast! Each president (and one First Lady) get the Hollywood treatment, with the weaker links being Robin Williams as Ike and Alan Rickman as Ronnie and the best being Liev Schreiber as LBJ (I would actually watch that spin-off movie, and I don’t like LBJ) and John Cusack as Tricky Dick.

I got a big kick from Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan – there is a spiky sweetness she brings to the brief minutes she is onscreen. Because of Daniels, I’ve become a fan of Lenny Kravitz as an actor (never much cared for him as a musician). Kravitz, as one of Cecil’s fellow White House butlers, is by no means a master thespian but he has presence – warm, welcoming, and good with a quip. Cuba Gooding, Jr., on the other hand, as another colleague of Cecil’s is grating, which is as much a function of his unnecessarily vulgar lines as of his performance.

Whitaker and Winfrey are the film’s heart. The best moments of the film are those depicting them as husband and wife, consumed by the caustic sadness and bitter anger generated living in a world that marginalizes their humanity while draining their souls.

I’m not necessarily a fan of either performer; I often find them hammy and self-absorbed, but in this film they are both grounded and compelling, with their more indulgent tendencies a welcome flourish on an, at times, overripe script.

In a summer movie season populated by superheroes, robots, anthropomorphic planes, and … Jennifer Aniston, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a welcome respite. The film is an actors’ showcase with a powerful message that we are not as far removed from systemic, institutionalized brutality and bullying as we might like to believe.