“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.

Cost of feeling: Two Muses production of Next to Normal

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[Image Source: Two Muses Theatre]

This isn’t a review. If anything it’s an ode to a phenomenal local professional production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal.

(In full transparency, several of my friends have been involved in putting this production together … and I even donated a nickel or two to the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund it.)

I had seen a few numbers from the Broadway production of this challenging show on the 2009 Tony Awards, and I promptly bought the two-disc cast album, but I had not yet ever had the privilege of seeing it.

It definitely exceeded my expectations.

Next to Normal, with music by Tom Kitt and book/lyrics by Brian Yorkey, details in rock opera form the travails of a young couple as they careen toward middle age, navigating Yuppie-dom, petulant teenagers, and a predilection for making sandwiches on the kitchen floor. A traumatic cloud hangs over their McMansion, the truth of which is revealed M. Night Shyamalan-style toward the end of the first act.

This narrative context – which shares its genetic code with such tragic familial dramas as The Subject Was Roses, Glass Menagerie, Fear Strikes Out, Ordinary People, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or All My Sons – is the perfect framework to explore the thorny topic of mental illness in today’s America. Our overeager societal penchant for pharmacological solutions receives the most caustic critique, though the authors have plenty to say about gender, age, economics, and the medical profession writ large.

The musical ends with an open-ended if nebulous note of hope, a hope that seems to rely chiefly on honesty, candor, risk-taking and acceptance as the true road to any mental recovery from a catastrophic event.

For those who haven’t seen this show, my words above may be, excuse the expression, maddening. I don’t mean to be coy (Roy! – with apologies to Paul Simon) but if I say more I will spoil the twist that sets the show toward its inevitable conclusion. So there. (You know you’re headed to Wikipedia right … about … now!)

Keeping in mind my admission that many of these folks are friends and acquaintances, the Two Muses cast, in my estimation, was uniformly excellent. With minimal staging, heartfelt performances, and a blessedly light touch, the six-person ensemble (Diane Hill, Nathan Larkin, John DeMerell, Aubrey Fink, Rusty Daugherty, and Richard Payton) delivered an exceptional show. Hill and DeMerell captured beautifully the delicate and painful dance of a couple perfectly wrong for one another, whose youthful good intentions have calcified into painful resentment.

With expert direction by Hill and Barbie Weisserman (including additional staging by Frannie Shepherd Bates) and strong musical support from Jamie Brachel (and fully visible musicians sharing the stage with the actors), this production strips away any visual distraction, simply and effectively using lighting, movement, and a simple chrome dining table and chairs to evoke a wide vary of locations, moments, and emotions.

So, here’s the punchline, Metro Detroiters. You only have one more shot to see this stellar production. Run don’t walk to the Two Muses website – www.twomusestheatre.org – and get your tickets for tomorrow (Sunday, June 30) afternoon. You won’t be sorry!