Attention Must be Paid: Tipping Point Theatre’s “Ripcord”

Originally published by Encore Michigan.

One day you wake up, and you find you relate to characters and situations that just the other day felt safely, pleasantly distant and remote. In our home, we have a nightly ritual of watching an episode of a (now) classic sitcom right before going to sleep: Everybody Loves Raymond, Will & Grace, Friends, and increasingly The Golden Girls. I always had finite patience for the self-absorbed whimsy of Friends, and, now, I can barely stomach the show. Once, I thought Raymond’s Marie and Frank Barone were an affectionately nuanced portrayal of meddlesome parents; now, I completely relate to their affable frustrations over “young people” who don’t appreciate their elders’ hard-won advice and perspective. And The Golden Girls? Well, let’s just say, someone get the lanai and the caftan ready. I’m on my way.

It is through this lens, then, that I approached TippingPoint Theatre’s Michigan premiere of Ripcord!, a comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire (Pultizer Prize-winner for Rabbit Hole). Ripcord!, on its surface, is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? if written by someone who actually likes women. Similarly, the narrative is an escalating emotional arms race between two grand dames, aging in place and trapped in one location (in this instance, one of those “high end” independent senior living facilities). However, unlike Baby Jane, the women have agency from having “seen it all” (think Elaine Stritch’s seminal performance of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here”); they wear some kicky resort clothes (think Golden Girls with better tailoring and fewer shoulder pads … fun costume design by Shelby Newport); and no one gets served a pet parakeet on a platter (although there is a LOT of business with food being brought up from the cafeteria … I kept waiting).

The Blanche and Baby Jane of Ripcord! are Abby (played with broken glass sparkle by Ruth Crawford) and Marilyn (a heartbreakingly impish Susan Craves). Abby has lived in the same room for four years, mostly alone, as her brusque bravado drives off anyone unfortunate enough to be assigned her roommate. Along comes Marilyn, a ray of sunshine with an iron will – Little Orphan Annie as designed by Sun Tsu. In the 80s, yes, Abby would have been played by Bea Arthur, and Marilyn by Betty White. In this contemporary milieu, Crawford and Craves couldn’t help reminding me of Jane Lynch and Carrie Fisher, respectively. I’m uncertain whether that was intentional on the part of director James Kuhl and his production team or just happenstance, but that dynamic contrast in type and in look works really well.

Marilyn is determined to melt the permafrost around Abby’s cold heart, and Abby is hell-bent to get this bounding golden retriever puppy-meets-Marquis de Sade jettisoned from her life forever. Or,at least have her relocated to a newly vacated room downstairs. Consequently, they place a bet. If Marilyn can scare Abby (who claims no fear), she gets the better bed in their room with an epic view of the park and all the sunlight she can stand. If Abby succeeds in making the relentlessly chipper Marilyn angry, Marilyn vacates the premises, only to be seen at the occasional bingo night. Hijinks ensue.

As plays go, Ripcord! is, in fact, more sitcom than Broadway. The narrative is too episodic by half, and thinly drawn supporting characters come and go primarily as forgettable story beats and harmless complications. However, Abby and Marilyn–built as they are on familiar, near-mythological archetypes (broken monarch, trickster god) – are the show. Lindsay-Abaire wisely commits the lion’s share of the piece to exploring the debilitating isolation and the liberating joys of aging, as evidenced through the pranks, shenanigans, and outright cruelty these women exact upon one another.

At the end of the day, neither Abby nor Marilyn much gives a rat’s-patootie what anyone thinks of them. That is refreshing. Otherwise, we would have yet another tired male-crafted narrative pitting one woman against another. Ripcord! pulls just shy of that, offering a study of two humans who have suffered devastating setbacks, chiefly at the hands of their own spouses and/or children, and who find themselves thrown together like randomly assigned college roommates in their “golden years.” Together, they discover their authority and their appreciation for each other through the artificial tension such circumstances naturally bring.

All of that said, this is the kind of show that TippingPoint does so well. Acerbic, witty, expertly paced, and polished, Ripcord! rarely misses a beat. At Saturday night’s performance, there were some minor flubs here and there, and an actor or three stepped on each other’s lines–all of which will disappear as the run progresses and this already incredible ensemble tightens the performance. Director James Kuhl has cast the show expertly, with two leads who take the sitcom tropes the script hands them and turn in masterfully crafted, compelling character turns – believable humans who are as delightful, maddening, confounding, and damn funny as any family member you may get trapped with at a Thanksgiving dinner.

Dez Walker is great deadpan fun as Scotty, the nursing attendant and foil for the worst these two rivals can dish out. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but let’s just say their warfare may or may not include skydiving, haunted houses, surprise relatives, muggings, CraigsList phone pranks, and drug-laced peach cobblers. Walker’s reactions to it all are priceless and pleasantly understated. At times, I felt I was watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon brought to life.

Vanessa Sawson, Jason Bowen, and Patrick Loos round out the cast, playing an assortment of family members and haunted house performers (there is an ironic joke in there somewhere). They all do fine work and have some sharply comic moments. Bowen is comedy gold as said mugger who devises an unfortunate and hysterical use for the “legs” in his pantyhose mask.

The ensemble suffers at times, however, from tonal inconsistency. Whereas Craves, Crawford, and Walker imbue their characters with a believability and a subtlety that contrasts nicely and, at times, poignantly with the proceedings, the other performers occasionally devolve into a broader comic style that felt a bit jarring. It’s a minor quibble and is as likely a function of the play’s construction as the performance itself.

The cast is aided and abetted by clever, kitschy, surprising production design. As noted, the costumes by Newport are divine. The efficient and evocative set by Monika Essen is comprised of a series of modular units that can serve as the independent living facility, haunted house, park, etc. Essen supplements the physical set with some eye-popping projections and some nifty animation, all of which creates a captivatingly immersive experience.

Sonja Marquis has a blast with the sound design, weaving techno, hip hop, and some delightfully daffy dance remixes (Carmina Burana? BRILLIANT!) into the musical cues. I would love to download that soundtrack. I particularly appreciate that Marquis resists the urge to employ “age appropriate” music (whatever the hell that would even mean) and delivers a rocking score that gives as good as it gets and adds a fantastic level of manic urgency to the leading characters’ conflict. I also geeked out that the poster and program cover (by graphic designer Quintessa Gallinat) go for POP! over lace doilies, with a fab Roy Lichtenstein spin on the play’s iconography. Well played, TippingPoint!

If, like me, you feel your age every time you read a headline, turn on the radio, or just get out of bed in the morning and if you wonder sometimes whether all this running about and people-pleasing we do in life really matters, you will love Ripcord! If you think these experiences and feelings are still tucked away behind the nebulous and protective curtain of “your future,” then you must see Ripcord! Now. Let’s kick ageism in its collective ass. This isn’t a play about “old people.” This is a play about all of us and the need for kindness and empathy and acknowledgment in. the. moment. Attention must be paid

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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.

“I act because it compels…” The Penny Seats’ upcoming production of Elektra

“…The audience is being given the gift of live theater. Films do not ask from us in their enacting, a film can merrily play out to an empty room, but the very beauty of live theater is the human exchange. Without that sense, it is dead.”

– Emily Miller Mlcak

(Mlcak is a beloved professor from my undergraduate days at Wabash College, and she wrote this in response to “scha·den·freu·de.”)

Elektra cast photo by Dawn Marie Kaczmar

Elektra cast photo by Dawn Marie Kaczmar

These words rang in my ears the other week when I crashed a rehearsal of The Penny Seats’ summer production Elektra (as adapted by Ann Arbor’s own Anne Carson) for a sneak peek of the glorious mayhem that is sure to delight audiences at the West Park Band Shell July 10 – 26.

In the spirit of transparency (oh, how I do hate that overused expression), I am one of the founders of The Penny Seats, and I held featured roles in the company’s first slate of offerings: Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), What Corbin Knew, She Loves Me, and Little Me. However, to reclaim some balance in my personal life, I stepped off the board last year and am just a blissfully unencumbered theatre-goer this summer.

(I think I’d be pretty lousy in Greek tragedy anyway – my cheesy musical comedy shtick would likely grate in the world of Sophocles.)

“The very beauty of live theater is the human exchange.” From what I saw of Elektra’s opening scenes, that quality is evident by the bucket-ful. Portraying the title character, Ypsilanti’s Emily Caffery, who recently appeared onstage at both Performance Network and Two Muses Theatre, captures the visceral heartache of a daughter betrayed as her family unravels before her very eyes.

For those unfamiliar with the tragedy, Elektra details the revenge scheme the title character and her brother Orestes exact upon their mother Clytemnestra and step father Aegisthus, in retribution for father Agamemnon’s murder. The action takes place in Argos, shortly after the Trojan War.

Caffery, a student of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theater Institute, notes, “This translation is not stuffy. The piece is very recognizably human. It is immediate and real, and I am using the text as much as possible to bring each image to life.” Indeed, her Elektra is violent yet empathetic, adrift yet fierce, inconsolable yet laser-focused … Dorothy Gale by way of Katniss Everdeen.

The yin to Caffery’s theatrical yang is Sonja Marquis as Elektra’s soccer-mommy-from-hell Clytemnestra. Marquis, a resident of Brighton, has worked at Tipping Point, Purple Rose, Encore, Two Muses, and The Ringwald among many other local theatre companies. “Don’t be scared of the Greek mythology. You’ll find lots to enjoy,” Marquis observes. “Clytemnestra is painted as a villain, but I don’t judge her. As an actor, I look for the justification … Elektra’s father killed my child [Iphigenia, sacrificed to the gods before the play begins]. Obviously, Elektra sees it differently, but why wouldn’t Clytemnestra be angry?”

Marquis quickly adds, with a hearty laugh, “But don’t worry … I definitely haven’t identified with my character’s villainy that much!”

Remaining cast members include Samer Ajluni (“Old Man”/“Aegisthus”), Scott Wilding (“Orestes”), DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton, Sarah Lovy, Katherine Nelson, and Kez Settle. Like Marquis and Caffery, these accomplished thespians have all appeared in venues across Southeast Michigan: Hillberry Theater, Abreact Performance Space, Waterworks, Wild Swan, Planet Ant, JET, and more.

Director Russ Schwartz along with assistant director JP Hitesman are mining the material for contemporary resonance – familial discord, jealousy, anxiety in wartime, sexism, ageism – and are layering in a light amount of cheekiness to keep their audience engaged (and to highlight the darkness that much better). For example, keep your ears open for Ajluni’s marvelously witty take on the expository tale of Orestes’ “death” by chariot race – imagine Ben-Hur as told by an announcer at the Belmont Stakes.

Ajluni, who calls Farmington Hills home, is savvy to the challenges of outdoor theatre. (Elektra will not only be performed outdoors, but the production will take full advantage of all the space surrounding the West Park Band Shell.) “I once did a show in Central Park, and you get a different feel every show. Focus is key,” notes the actor, adding that playing two very different characters “lets you do something far from yourself. … I love when the Old Man gets to be the voice of the audience, telling the characters, ‘Stop giving so many speeches!’”

Lovy, who plays Pylades, a mute boy, chuckles, “I like that they gave me a chance to do drag! Seriously, though, plays like this are important for education. I was introduced at a young age to the classics. That exposure has helped me relate to daily life, family dynamics, and themes. I’m really grateful for that. … I’m the eyes and ears of the show, and I can’t let on what I know or the whole family will blow up”

Settle, one half of the show’s Greek chorus, concurs, “We are there to influence the outcome. We have a job to do … but we are ethereal beings performing a delicate dance between justice and vengeance.”

Nelson, Settle’s fellow chorus member, elaborates, “Ancient Greece is where theatre started, and it continues as a source of great drama with plots as extreme as any summer blockbuster. In our daily lives, we are all so worried about being calm and polite, but a show like this? You can really cut loose.”

With such a fun, fizzy, and damn erudite cast, Schwartz is grateful for this summertime collaboration and echoes his actors’ perspectives. “This show and this cast are so perfect for the space. This is different than anything The Penny Seats have done before, and we wanted to expand our direction a bit.”

Hitesman adds, “This is challenging stuff … very active. The relationships are so intense, like a real family, and working on this reminds you how much the Greek classics have influenced today’s theatre, film, TV.”

Schwartz concludes, “Carson’s adaptation gets to the spirit of what modern audiences will appreciate. It is very immediate and draws you in. If you’ve been away from Greek drama for a while, this show is a great way to reconnect … and if you’ve never seen a Greek tragedy, this is the one for you. Immediate and relatable.”

In the play’s opening scene, Elektra declares, “I act because it compels.” In the context of the play, this proclamation indicates an urgency of movement, but, witnessing this intrepid band of actors exercise their talents, these words take on double meaning. Indeed, they do act because the very doing compels – compels the hearts and minds of both performers and audience. And I, for one, can’t wait to see the finished results!

Elektra opens July 10 and runs through July 26. Shows are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7 pm, and tickets are $10 per person. You can purchase tickets at www.pennyseats.org or by calling (734) 926-5346. Patrons may want to may want to bring blankets or camp chairs to sit on, as the tiered seating around the pavilion does not have back support. The company has partnered with a local caterer to have food on-site, and picnicking (beginning at 5:30 pm performance nights) is encouraged.

[This piece first appeared on BroadwayWorld here – I appreciate their wonderful support!]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book 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.