“No day like today.” The Barn Theatre’s 2017 production of Rent

 

“To days of inspiration/Playing hooky, making/Something out of nothing/The need to express/To communicate,/To going against the grain,/Going insane, going mad/To loving tension, no pension/To more than one dimension,/To starving for attention,/Hating convention, hating pretension.”

– “La Vie Boheme” from Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.

 

When Rent hit the musical theatre scene, it created a seismic shift, a middle finger to convention, not far afield from what Nirvana did to rock music a few years earlier with Nevermind or what Alan Moore’s Watchmen did to comics even a few years before that. We didn’t really know the term “market disruption” back then, but these Gen X cultural touchstones were exactly that, staking a claim and a voice for those at the margins and, in the process, achieving immense (and ironic) commercial success and transforming their respective industries. We often forget there are more people on the margins (people with wallets) than in the comfortable middle.

(Remember the “popular kids” who bullied you in school? There were fewer of them than the rest of us and nobody actually liked them. Sooooo, how were they deemed “popular”? Who gave them their power? All of us idjits on “the margins,” that’s who.)

I saw a touring production of Rent nearly 20 years ago at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. I admit nosebleed seats as well as overamplifaction of the band and underarticulation of the cast led me to having zero idea of what was going on and longing for a nice Rodgers and Hammerstein show. Another decade later, we took in Chris Columbus’ film version, which retained much of the original Broadway cast. John loved it; I was a bit more on the fence, feeling the Home Alone/Mrs. Doubtfire/Harry Potter drector’s candy-coated, populist sensibility probably wasn’t the best choice for Alphabet City drug addicts, AIDS sufferers, drag queens, and starving artists. And, to be honest, faced with the prospect of seeing the show again, I wondered if it had suffered the same time warp that befell a musical like Hair.

Wrong. Rent couldn’t be more prescient or essential in today’s challenged times.

During the Wilde Awards last week, I befriended Jamey Grisham, who has been a featured performer, choreographer, and director for The Barn Theatre School in Augusta, Michigan, for the past decade. The Barn had a great night at the ceremony, between an exceptional performance by Jamey and racking up a number of awards. Most notably, however, I was struck by their humility and their sense of community, something you don’t always see in the hyper-competitive world of professional and regional theatre. (Let’s just say I’ve never been sprung on insecure prima donnas.)

Jamey was wrapping up The Barn’s 2017 summer repertory season, playing Angel in, yup, Rent and invited us to see their closing show. So glad we made the drive!

John and me with Penelope Ragotzy and Jamey Grisham

As an aside, The Barn Theatre was founded in 1946 and serves as a fertile training ground for the theatrical talent of today and tomorrow. Notable alumni – who served as apprentices or appeared onstage or both – include Lauren Graham, Tom Wopat, Jennifer Garner, Eric Petersen, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Lynch, Kirker Butler, Paul Loesel, Kim Zimmer, Becky Ann Baker, Eric Cornell, and, yup, Jonathan Larson (the creator of Rent who died a tragic and untimely death from aortic dissection the night before the show opened).

Jamey, perhaps channeling a bit of his community-building character, along with cast-mate and fellow Wilde Award winner Penelope Ragotzy (who also oversees publicity and marketing – they wear MANY hats there) did everything they could to make us feel welcome.

Unfortunately, their production of Rent has wrapped and is now in the record books, so this review will serve more as a reflection on the piece itself, on its relevance, and on the unique and magical nature of The Barn Theatre itself. Given the ongoing cultural and socioeconomic fragmentation of modern-day America, Rent is perhaps more essential than ever (the narrative’s over-reliance on land lines and answering machines notwithstanding).

Loosely based on La Boheme, Rent details a Christmas-Eve-day-in-the-life (first act) followed by a year-in-the-life (second act) of a fractious group of New York anti-Friends: gypsies, tramps, and thieves who can barely afford a cup of coffee, let alone hang out all day in a coffee shop, and whose “fabulous” loft living comes with no heat, no electricity, and the constant threat of eviction. Larson drew iconic characters (the filmmaker, the musician, the junkie, the drag queen, the performance artist, the lawyer, the teacher, the sell-out) and gifted them with even more iconic songs, an unyielding series of barbaric yawps from a youthquake disaffected by the 1% ruling the world. Larson was ahead of his time, foretelling a generation for whom gender and sexuality are fluid (albeit silly) constructs, who care deeply for their environment and whose diet and fashion are dictated by kindness and compassion and locality, and whose self-absorbed/self-aggrandizing selflessness drives all grown-ups in their presence to apoplexy. Sound familiar? All of it?

The Barn’s production, populated as it is with Millennials channeling the Gen X oldies, got that irony fully. From the flawless jungle gym of a set by Samantha Snow to the pitch perfect Archie-meets-Salvation Army pop of Michael Wilson Morgan’s costumes, the able cast was aided and abetted by a technical team – and by Brendan Ragotzy’s sure-handed direction – that embraced the early 90s conventions fully yet wasn’t afraid to wink at the more twee “lost generation” quirks. (The Barn space itself, if you’ve never been, is like seeing a musical in the inverted hull of an old ship, warm and cozy, a little eerie, kind of claustrophobic, and very dramatic.)

Grisham (and, no, it’s not just because he invited us!) was a standout as the shamanistic Angel, the tinsel-strewn lightning rod whose second act sacrifice teaches this band of misfits what love really means. Grisham (doing double duty as the show’s choreographer as well) commanded attention with every entrance and imbued Angel with a lovely “mama bear” authoritarianism that was a welcome new addition to the piece.

Also providing remarkable turns were Courtney Bruce as heart-of-gold-in-pleather Joanne and  Byron Glenn Willis as heart-on-his-sleeve-Jiminy-Cricket Tom Collins. Both mined the conflicted layers inherent in each role, pushing past the one-note takes (pushy lawyer, saintly teacher) that can derail lesser portrayals of each character. Notably, Bruce’s “We’re Okay” and Willis’ reprise of “I’ll Cover You” were character-driven showstoppers that exemplified how each actor grounded their performances in the urgent realities of untenable situations. (I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Willis and the aforementioned Grisham made a divinely poignant stage pairing, both vocally and in their scenework.)

Maureen (originated by Idina Menzel) can be a confounding character, the pampered performance artist who wreaks emotional havoc on anyone foolish enough to give her their heart. In Samantha Rickard’s hands, Maureen was no-less confounding, but also sympathetic and relatable … and a comic firecracker to boot. “Over the Moon,” Maureen’s absurd paean to absurd social justice warriors, was a triumphant hoot, augmented as it was by director Brendan Ragotzy’s genius decision to add a chorus of dancing cows. And, yes, Rickard and Bruce knocked sassy, swaggering musical standoff “Take Me Or Leave Me” out. of. the. park.

Courtney Bruce with me and John

Overall, the ensemble work was top-notch, a blend of seasoned Equity vets and acting apprentices. The central roles of  Mark and Roger are often a challenge to differentiate, given how broadly drawn all of the surrounding characters are, and Nick Barakos and Alex Crossland (respectively) held their own, with Barakos especially offering some nice solo moments and solid interactions with Angel and Tom as the show progressed. These performers obviously will continue to grow, and it’s a remarkable environment where students can take top-billing and learn onstage from seasoned pros.

Following each Barn performance, audience members are encouraged to retire to the “Rehearsal Shed” where the apprentices present a cabaret show (“The Bar Show”) – and serve you drinks and desserts (imagine your grandparents’ “rumpus room” if it had been taken over by cast members from the documentary Camp). Given that we were there for the final performance of the season, emotions ran high – and many a heart-string was plucked – as these kids poured out their souls (and the spirits) one final time. It was truly a gift to be in the room.

I realize this post is one-part review and about eight-parts love letter, but it was just that kind of day, a beautiful late-summer weekend in Michigan, enjoying a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians portray a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians. Thank you for the memories, Jamey and Penelope and your Barnie Brethren. We’ll be back.

 

“Take me for what I am!/Who I was meant to be!/And, if you give a damn,/Take me baby, or leave me!”

– “Take Me Or Leave Me” from Rent

___________________________

The Bar Show

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 life – like all lives – is mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” Wild (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Wild is an interesting film, and, on the whole, I liked it quite a bit. It’s great to see Reese Witherspoon digging in and acting again. I had begun to find latter-day Witherspoon (post-Walk the Line) a bit self-satisfied and, well, smug, and this based-on-a-true-story-as-turned-into-a-New-York-Times-bestseller role allows her to strip off the starry veneer and (mostly) give us some of the nuanced acting that her early career promised.

Where the film falters (at least for cynical me) is in what I would like to dub the Julie & Julia conundrum: a biographical film based on a regular ol’ person’s memoir, a tome that hangs on an oh-my-God-will-you-believe-THIS gimmick that makes great fodder for teary Oprah interviews or saucy segments on The View. In the case of, say, Julie & Julia, Amy Adams’ failed writer seems to declare, “Aw, what the heck! I’m just going to cook a different, fabulous Julia Child recipe every day and blog about it. I have no intention of becoming famous for it and leveraging it as a marketing hook to jump-start a literary career doused in flop sweat. Nope. Not me. I’m authentic.”

In the case of Wild, our protagonist Cheryl Strayed (interesting last name, given the subject matter) implodes after the sudden death of her beloved mother, throwing her marriage and her family and her English major lit aspirations (she’s a feminist because she references Erica Jong? that made me wince) in a garbage can, pouring kerosene on it, and lighting the whole kit and kaboodle on fire as she discovers the joys of sex addiction, heroin addiction, and just plain addiction. What saves her sullen, sputtering butt? Well, she just happens to see a guidebook to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (mind you, this is while sauntering into a drugstore for a pregnancy test ’cause she thinks she’s with child but not sure whose) and then determines that heading on a thousand mile vision quest will heal her soul. Oh, and if you didn’t know how rotten she was at this point, you later learn that she and her brother shoot her mother’s prized horse after mama’s death because they didn’t have the resources to care for it?!?! Um, how about offering it for adoption/rescue? Just a thought.

That preceding paragraph came across sh*ttier than I intended, but I’m leaving it there for all to ponder at will. It’s not this film’s problem, but our reality television/prurient tall tale tell-all culture has me wondering sometimes as to the veracity of stories like this one and the relative ease with which they translate from journal to blog to novel to Academy Award-glittering event film.

Regardless, Jean Marc-Vallee leaves behind any of his TV movie tendencies (see any of Jennifer Garner’s scenes in Dallas Buyers Club) and transforms the source material into cinematic poetry. The film is akin to a “memory play” where the central characters/audience float surreally in and out of present and past, and Vallee has a genius command of music and sound and imagery to evoke the kind of sense memory that snaps one back to happy and not-so-happy moments in time. Vallee and his game cast, which also includes a heart-breakingly luminous Laura Dern as Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s mother, allow for some marvelous bits of situational humor to shine through all the pathos – that is a real gift and essential for a movie like this, which could easily become a dark, cliched slog.

In the end, though, the movie lives or dies on Witherspoon’s epically back-packed shoulders, and her performance is a triumph. As she showed us so many years ago with her brilliant channeling of the What Makes Sammy Run? farce that is American politics (be it national, local, or … student council) in Election, Witherspoon with her jutting jaw, limpid eyes, and tortured/tortuous inner life excels when playing the unlikable. Pick Flick! Her Cheryl Strayed is raw-boned and relatable, someone whose misery has toxified her soul, not to mention anyone else’s within a five-mile radius of her.

Yet, Witherspoon never comes off maudlin, self-pitying, scenery-chewing. Her emotional collapse is chiefly internal (save some awkward heroin-den flashbacks that likely should have been left on the cutting room floor), and her trek along the rugged trail is believable and … kind of inept in its execution. Strayed makes lots of mistakes – think Cast Away in the woods which makes it all the more heroic in the end.

And, as for that horse situation (’cause you totally know THAT is what bothered me endlessly)? Strayed/Witherspoon is haunted by it (think Equus without all the weird Freudian freaky BS), and, as she journeys through California, animal life is a constant. A beautiful fox that very well may be the avatar of her late mother (the CGI was a bit clunky on that otherwise neat concept), an alpaca that she comes across in the wood (yeah, you read that correctly, but it leads to one of the film’s sweetest moments when she finds the grandma/grandson pair who care for the creature), little tree frogs that visit her in the night, and a whimsical encounter with a caterpillar. I’m sure I’m reading what I want to here, but Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s last words in the film are: “My life – like all lives – is mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” Damn right.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

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.

“Big wheels are turnin’ … gotta be strong out there.” Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This is the real “American hustle.”

Two movies I saw today depict – in soul-searching, soul-scarring detail – how hard we all have to strive each and every day just to survive … each and every day.

At surface, you couldn’t find two men more different than Dallas Buyers Club‘s Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) or Captain Phillips‘ Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks).

Woodroof is a Texan man-whore homophobe, lazing through his day-job as an electrician, looking for any quick gambling buck he can find and seeking solace in the short-term highs of grungy drug use and even grungier sex. Phillips on the other hand is a solid New England family man with  bedrock work ethic, patriarchal worry for his family’s long-term happiness, and a noble wariness toward his high-stakes job as a freighter ship captain in troubled waters.

However, both men are united – across decades and locations – through a shared quick-wittedness, scruffy bravery, and nerve-wracking battle with pirates … in Phillips’ case, quite literal pirates from Somalia and, in Woodroof’s case, big pharma and the FDA and the medical community writ large.

During the quietly effective opening scenes of Captain Phillips, establishing Phillips’ workaday love of his family, he tells his wife (the always excellent Catherine Keener) of his anxiety over what kind of future their children will have: “Big wheels are turnin’ … gotta be strong out there.” And this could be a theme for both films.

In Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof’s alpha male world of swagger is turned upside down when he receives an HIV+ diagnosis. This is the kind of man who think rodeos are a hoot, women are party favors, and Rock Hudson is a “big fairy.” (Remember, this is the go-go Reaganomic 80s.)

However, in the land of “movie logic,” this huckster cowboy is also a resourceful and opportunistic researcher (who knew McConaughey could make library microfiche use look so compelling?) with a burgeoning heart of gold and a begrudging respect for his gay fellow man, spurred by all the money to be made trafficking unapproved drugs across the Mexican border.

Jennifer Garner, doing that edgy earnestness that all actors of her generation gleaned from the “Julia Roberts School of Acting,” is okay as one of Woodroof’s doctors, though neither Garner nor her underwritten role ever really go anywhere.

McConaughey is quite capable in a tricky part (yet one might argue that his extreme weight loss for the film does all the work), but the movie doesn’t really start clicking until the arrival of Jared Leto’s “Rayon.” Leto does a yeoman’s job keeping his portrayal from sliding off the rails into cliche – the mutable, transgender pixie who keeps everyone safe and grounded with her Southern charm and earth mother care-taking.

Leto is a person first, whip-smart and sad but never maudlin and not once the demeaned comic relief. The dynamic between McConaughey and Leto is fun to watch and (spoiler alert!) only gets mawkish around Leto’s inevitable Camille-like death. This is not Leto’s fault – bad writing, clunky direction by Jean-Marc Vallee, and TV-movie sloppy editing mar the film’s denouement.

At one level, Dallas Buyers Club – like precursors Philadelphia or Longtime Companion – is the prototypical “HIV film,” leveraging the disease as a metaphor for the intolerance of a society that ostracizes the sick, the broken, and the unique. However, on another (and arguably fresher) level, the film is an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry’s tendency to pursue big money for treating symptoms over curing disease and of the doctors and government agencies that knowingly or unknowingly are complicit in throwing the infirm under the crushing wheels of “medical progress.”

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Captain Phillips, the much stronger film, depicts a world popping at the seams from the economic pressures placed on us all. Smartly, director Paul Greengrass, of United 93 and Matt Damon’s Bourne movies, opens the film with parallel sequences: Hanks’ Phillips gets “ready for work” as he heads to the airport with his wife and then meets with his crew to review their trip, and these scenes are juxtaposed alongside those of the Somali pirates preparing for their day of pillaging, debating among themselves their best course of action.

Greengrass seems to suggest – with lack of editorializing – a “job is a job” and circumstances have dictated very different lives for these souls. The tension comes from the audience’s knowledge that these different economic forces are bound to collide shortly.

The film moves efficiently toward the central conflict of “haves and have-nots” as the Somalis board Phillips’ ship in short order, and an ever-escalating game of cat and mouse ensues as Phillips does his darndest to stay in control, protect his crew, and contain the situation. The pirates, led by the justifiably praised Barkhad Abdi and the underrated Faysal Ahmed, are a frantic force, smashing and grabbing in a world that they perceive with vicious longing as rich with entitlement.

At one point, Abdi reflects on all he will be able to do when he is one day “in America.” The moment is simultaneously poignant and frightening in his perception of the joys of materialism and the horror he believes he has to inflict to achieve it.

Greengrass is the consummate director (where is his Oscar, dammit?) who makes MOVIES! in the truest sense of cinematic story-telling, and Captain Phillips is his best work to date (which is pretty remarkable, given how good his films always are). His latest effort does not bore for a second, ratcheting the stakes with a relentless clockwork solemnity.

The tension is real and it is shared – between captain, crew, antagonists, would-be rescuers, and audience – not because of some lethargic “based on real events” filmmaking, but through the old school charms of well-developed characters,  crackerjack pace, precise edits, compelling score, intelligent script, and exceptional acting.

This is the strongest performance of Hanks’ storied career (which is somewhat bittersweet as he isn’t nominated this year for an Oscar, though McConaughey is and will likely win). If you aren’t yelping in fear and heartbreak and hope in his climactic moments, then you must have been watching a different movie than I. “I’m sorry I’m not there with you,” he exclaims to the heavens and one presumes to his family … and we as audience members, separated by the fourth wall of film, must say the same to Phillips in return. His emotional release when the ordeal finally ends is as cathartic as anything I’ve seen in years.

Captain Phillips is a film for the ages; Dallas Buyers Club is a film for the moment. Both are worthwhile, but, combined, they unforgettably depict the harrowing lengths to which any of us will go to survive.