“Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.” Joker

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I’ve proved my point. I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.” – Joker in Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke

“Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.” –  Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in Joker

“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” – Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in his journal in Joker

“Rated as many stars as possible. Brimming with messages about humanity. Incredible and mesmerizing. The best scene reflected in the poster [Joker descending the steps, fully realized]. The film turns embedded prejudices and mindsets and pseudo-psychology and psycho-babble on their collective heads. Disturbing? Yes. Important to view with an open mind? Absolutely! Not your typical comic book villain nor hero. Heartbreaking but enlightening. Stay focused and let this gem penetrate your heart. All due to the earnest performance of Joaquin Phoenix. Bravo and hallelujah!” – Susie Sexton, my mom, in her review as shared on Facebook.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Joker is a brilliant, heartbreaking, honest, essential film. Its lesson? Focus on the origin with empathy if you truly want to avert the outcomes depicted. Best film I’ve seen this year.

Joaquin Phoenix, who has always been one of our most dependable if at times criminally underrated actors, gives the performance of a lifetime as Arthur Fleck, a man shattered by a relentlessly unforgiving society that has rarely, if ever, graced him with a kind word or charitable thought. Far TOO much has been written that Joker will inspire “lone wolf” killers to act upon their most marginalized feelings and strike us good, pure, honest citizens down as we cheerfully consume material goods, collect our paychecks, and avoid our own hidden pain(s). Bullsh*t.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Those folks who shout “thoughts and prayers” in the midst of firearm-fueled massacre, those folks who say we need “mental health awareness” not “gun control,” those folks who turn a blind eye to the institutionalized bullying that breaks sensitive souls? This movie should be required viewing for them (us) all. The true criminal act is to imply violence occurs in a vacuum, to suggest that mental breaks from reality are somehow apropos of nothing, and to look past our collective tendency to pathologically distance ourselves from the very people who need our help the most. Joker is the movie we all need desperately right now.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It is also interesting to me that casual viewers see Joker as “too dark” or “too intense” or “too morally ambiguous” for a comic book movie. I recommend you turn an eye toward 1988’s Alan Moore/Brian Bolland seminal graphic novel The Killing Joke (written over 30! years ago), which, while not a literal blueprint for Todd Phillips’ film, provides Joker with its essential DNA. Moore was one of the first to plumb the depths of why the Clown Prince of Crime is the way he is. (Tim Burton lifted the most superficial of aspects here for 1989’s Batman with its fixation on the yin/yang duality of Batman and his primary nemesis.) In The Killing Joke, we see a man rejected and broken by one disappointment upon another, until he finally succumbs to the message he believes he’s been receiving all along: you aren’t wanted by this world, so let this world know how little you want it. It was a powerful and disconcerting take in its day, made even more controversial due to its scenes depicting the rape and torture of Batgirl and her father Commissioner Gordon. Blessedly, Phillips (The Hangover trilogy, Borat) working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Scott Silver, gives us the sense memory of The Killing Joke while jettisoning Moore’s more misanthropic/sadistic tendencies.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Joker is a movie I will be thinking about for a very long time. I could cry now reliving Phoenix’ early scenes – his glimmers of puppy-like hope dashed by one cruel word after another, his eyes conveying decades of hurt, his fractured heart yearning for empathy. It is a remarkable performance, layered and loving, with a Chaplinesque understanding that the most compelling underdogs are simultaneously winsome and incendiary. The turn he takes, slowly, methodically, as he is increasingly battered, does eventually result in violent impulse, but the film is not the bloodbath some might have you believe. There are three particularly shocking flashes of rage, as Arthur/Joker rewards his tormentors with the very lessons they have been teaching him. In each instance, there is a logic – and a horror – and unlike most Hollywood films, in Joker, violence has consequence and emotional weight. I believe that is a crucial distinction that pundits aren’t making, and I’m not entirely sure why.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The cinematography by Lawrence Sher and the musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir are almost characters in Joker unto themselves, crucial to the narrative, framing the film’s emotional grace notes and enveloping the audience in an increasing sense of disorientation. And the supporting cast, including Robert DeNiro as a smarmy talk show host, Frances Conroy as Arthur’s tortured mother, Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s neighbor and possible love interest, and Brett Cullen as a Trumpian Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s papa) are all excellent – Dickensian specters dancing in and out of the passion play in Arthur’s mind.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“In my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice,” Arthur observes as he becomes the reflection of the dark society in which he dwells. Joker is, in fact, a subversive film because it dares to suggest that we, each and every one of us – with our casual cruelty, our blithe self-absorption, our overt thuggery – are responsible for the toxicity in our society, for those who are broken by it, and for those who act violently upon it. There is no easy blame in Joker, and that’s why the film may make some self-righteous souls uncomfortable.  Joker swivels the mirror on its audience and hisses, “You are the problem, and only you can fix it.”

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“On Wednesday night I attended the New York Film Festival and witnessed a cinematic masterpiece, the film that last month won the top prize as the Best Film of the Venice International Film Festival. It’s called Joker — and all we Americans have heard about this movie is that we should fear it and stay away from it. We’ve been told it’s violent and sick and morally corrupt — an incitement and celebration of murder. We’ve been told that police will be at every screening this weekend in case of ‘trouble.’ Our country is in deep despair, our constitution is in shreds, a rogue maniac from Queens has access to the nuclear codes — but for some reason, it’s a movie we should be afraid of. I would suggest the opposite: The greater danger to society may be if you DON’T go see this movie. Because the story it tells and the issues it raises are so profound, so necessary, that if you look away from the genius of this work of art, you will miss the gift of the mirror it is offering us. Yes, there’s a disturbed clown in that mirror, but he’s not alone — we’re standing right there beside him.” – Michael Moore in a Facebook post about Joker

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“To appreciate Joker I believe you have to have either gone through something traumatic in your lifetime (and I believe most of us have) or understand somewhere in your psyche what true compassion is (which usually comes from having gone through something traumatic, unfortunately). An example of dangerous compassion would be to, say, make a film made about the fragility of the human psyche, and make it so raw, so brutal, so balletic that by the time you leave the theatre you not only don’t want to hurt anything but you desperately want an answer and a solution to the violence and mental health issues that have spun out of control around us. This film makes you hurt and only in pain do we ever want to change. It’s all in the irony of trauma — a fine line between the resentment of wanting to hurt society back for raping you of a decent life, for not protecting you, and accepting what feels like alien feelings with softening to those others who seem freakish in our era of judgment, and digital damnation. Like kids in Middle School: man, they can just be mean. For no reason. And, sometimes, those awful little clicky [sic] kids breed an evil in someone that rages much later, when everyone pretends we are all back to normal, when we all thought it had just manned up and gone away. We have a habit of hating and ostracizing and dividing and sweeping our problems under the rug. Joker, is simply lifting the rug and looking underneath it. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s there.” – Josh Brolin in an Instagram post about Joker

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” – Joker in Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke

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Thank you to Thomas Paden and the Canton Chamber for this TV opportunity to discuss our #RealMenWearPink Detroit campaign. View here.

Grateful to be interviewed alongside rock stars Denise Isenberg Staffeld and Megan Schaper. And stick around to the end to see/hear the official video of yours truly singing #PureImagination with accompaniment by super talented Kevin Robert Ryan.

If you feel so moved to donate, please click here.

“Breast cancer affects everyone women and men. That’s why we’re recruiting men to fight breast cancer through Real Men Wear Pink. This distinguished group of community leaders is determined to raise awareness and money to support the American Cancer Society’s mission and save more lives than ever before from breast cancer.”

 

Also, don’t forget that Theatre NOVA’s Follies in Concert opens November 7. I’m playing “Buddy”! We had our first read-through this week, and it’s such a marvelous cast! It’s going to be great fun. Tickets here

Sondheim’s Broadway smash hit musical concerns a reunion in a crumbling Broadway theatre of the past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies” that played in that theatre between the World Wars. A fundraiser for Theatre NOVA and presented in concert, Follies is a glamorous and fascinating peek into a bygone era, and a clear-eyed look at the transformation of relationships over time, with countless songs that have become standards, including “Broadway Baby,” ” I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings,” “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind.” Directed by Diane Hill with music direction by Brian E. Buckner. Featuring Sue Booth, Tom Murphy, Diane Hill, Roy Sexton, Annie Kordas, Kryssy Becker, Eddie Rothermel, Connor Rhoades, Harold Jurkiewicz, Olive Hayden-Moore, Carrie Jaye Sayer, Emily Rogers-Driskill, Gayle Martin, Edith Lewis and Darnell Ishmel.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

“America is just one big strip club.” Hustlers, IT Chapter Two, and Theatre Nova’s latest production Admissions

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “… the ‘Horatio Alger myth’: a teenage boy works hard to escape poverty. Often it is not hard work that rescues the boy from his fate but rather some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty. The boy might return a large sum of lost money or rescue someone from an overturned carriage. This brings the boy—and his plight—to the attention of a wealthy individual.” – Wikipedia entry on author Horatio Alger
  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “America is just one big strip club … You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers
  • “From one angle … motherhood can be viewed as one long journey of overcoming obstacles. I salute mothers everywhere who overcome obstacles with grace, courage and tenacity. … There was this huge obstacle in the way that needed to be fixed for my daughter’s sake.” – amalgamation of quotes from scandal-ridden Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman
  • “Motherhood is a kind of madness.” – Jennifer Lopez’ “Ramona” in Hustlers

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

America is a “land of opportunity,” that is, if you are on the right side of the carnival game. This fall’s cinematic completion of Stephen King’s classic novel It, directed again as a labor of love by Andy Muschietti, opens with a grown man defeating a little girl in one such street fair contest and then magnanimously leaning down, whispering in her ear “thank you for letting me win,” and handing her the ugly stuffed frog (I think it was a frog?) he receives as a prize. It is as warm a moment as it is pandering, the young man’s buddy looking on admiringly. As the two men wander away, they lock in an embrace. Things aren’t what they seem. Moments later they are victims of one of the most brutal gay bashings I’ve seen on screen, the result of malevolent Pennywise the Clown’s supernatural influence on an already provincial, ugly, small-minded Maine town. (Truth be told, small-minded small towns are one of King’s favorite literary targets, God love him). There’s your American dream, folks, in one cynical, tragic, and heartbreaking 15 minute sprawl. [King based the incident in his novel on a real-life hate crime in Bangor, Maine, in 1986, at a time when few people would publicly address such horror.]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hustlers, written and directed with sizzle and sass by Lorene Scafaria, brings Jennifer Lopez, the actor, back on screen in a fiery mama lion performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen from her in years. Lopez is a multi-hyphenate talent and by all accounts a pretty likable human being, but she has not been willing to play anything other than that on screen in a long time. Her stripper den mother Ramona avails herself of the 2008 financial crisis and the ugly stew of capitalistic greed, toxic masculinity, rampant misogyny, female objectification, and weaponized sexuality that seems to be Wall Street’s stock-in-trade (if the movies are to be believed … paging Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko). Imagine if Magic Mike were written and produced by the team who put together The Big Short.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ramona and her pals (a dynamite ensemble that includes Crazy Rich AsiansConstance Wu, Akeelah and the Bee‘s Keke Palmer, and Riverdale‘s Lili Reinhart with crackerjack supporting turns by Julia Styles, Trace Lysette, Mercedes Ruehl, and singers Cardi B and Lizzo) gleefully (and illegally) flip the script on predatory men, drugging them, dragging them to strip clubs, draining their corporate credit cards, and leaving them in a heap of deflated machismo, far too embarrassed to press any charges. The women’s motivation? A mix of revenge, justice, and primarily a desire to provide better lives for their daughters, grandmothers, and other women in their lives.

[Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

The third leg of that “American dream”? College education and that carnival game that is the admissions process are addressed with incisive wit, searing criticism, and deft balance in the timely Michigan premiere of Joshua Harmon’s play Admissions by Ann Arbor’s Theatre NOVA, directed with aplomb by David Wolber. (Note: this show must be a beast to learn and to mount, with its zig-zagging clutch of monologues and whiplash inducing reversals of philosophy. I suspect Wolber and cast must share the kind of  brainpower required to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in record time.)

Hill and Burcon [Image Source: Theatre NOVA’s Facebook Page]

In Admissions, a cheerfully smug couple Sherri and Bill, both working in administration at a New England prep school (Diane Hill and Joe Bailey, both at the top of their games here), are faced with the consequences of their own best liberal intentions to create “balanced diversity” at Hillcrest (the setting of the piece) when their own son, a student there, is wait-listed for Yale University. Their boy Charlie – a brilliant whirlwind of well-meaning confusion and privileged petulance in Jeremy Kucharek’s thoughtful performance – is passed over by Yale in favor of his best friend at Hillcrest (and the child of his parents’ best friends), a young man of color, whom Charlie believes to be “less accomplished than himself.” As you can imagine, in the grand tradition of school-based satiric comedies like God of Carnage or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, matters escalate and spiral quickly. Cynthia Szczesny as Sherri’s befuddled assistant and Sarah Burcon as Sherri’s best pal Ginnie serve as a kind of de facto Greek chorus, highlighting the absurdity of the situation and the dire consequences of good intentions that are as ego-driven as they are divorced from day-to-day reality.

Bailey, Hill, and Kucharek [Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns the narrative takes, but, suffice it to say this is neither a play the MAGA crowd will love nor one any Bernie Bros will embrace. Admissions casts a pretty scathing eye on us all and the mechanisms we craft to make a better world in our own images (whatever we believe those images to be). The title, of course, is a play on words: the literal use of “admissions” in terms of higher education and the figurative in terms of those honest truths we can’t bear to say out loud. A special shout out to Daniel C. Walker’s brilliant and economical use of Theatre NOVA’s warm, inviting, but challenging physical space. The use of a turntable to contrast home and office is smart, efficient, and (perhaps unintentionally) symbolic of the topsy turvy nature of the play itself.

[Admissions runs through October 13 and tickets may be purchased at www.theatrenova.org.]

And now back to It, Chapter Two. The first film nailed the pastoral qualities of youth in America, with that bubbling, malevolent, churning undercurrent of impending adulthood, cultural manipulation, and familial and societal abuse that Stephen King does so very well. The second film – not dissimilar to the second half of the 1990 ABC mini-series – suffers structurally in that the Losers Club are reunited in adulthood, seemingly all amnesiac to the horrifying events of their youths at the hands of ugly townspeople, parents, bullies, and Pennywise himself. It, Chapter Two is at its strongest in flashbacks to the children of the first film, filling in the gaps of the fateful summer depicted in Chapter One.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

That said, the adult cast of Chapter Two – including Mamas Jessica Chastain, Trainwreck‘s Bill Hader, X-Men‘s James McAvoy, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransome, and Andy Bean – do yeoman’s work selling the turmoil of adults, who have successfully “forgotten” the abuses of small town American living to achieve material success (if not emotional happiness) in the “big city.” Pennywise, brilliantly played again to maximum creepiness by Bill Skarsgard, is the inversion of the Horatio Alger myth and more likely a corollary to the true American experience. It is not a helping hand magnanimously offered that pulls someone up the corporate ladder, once said individual has demonstrated his or her “heart of gold;” it is fear, it is persecution, and it is one heaping chip on one’s shoulder, propelling us onward toward “happiness,” the achievement of which may never be all it’s cracked up to be.  If there’s a through-line in the three very disparate entertainments I took in this weekend, it’s that.

  • “The essential and defining characteristic of childhood is not the effortless merging of dream and reality, but only alienation. There are no words for childhood’s dark turns and exhalations. A wise child recognizes it and submits to the necessary consequences. A child who counts the cost is a child no longer.” – Stephen King, Salem’s Lot.

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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.

Theatre Nova’s Michigan Playwrights’ Festival (Night 2): Jackie Sue Salter’s “Hollywood Lies”

We had a ball performing as part of Theatre Nova’s Michigan Playwrights Festival Night 2: Hollywood Lies. Thank you, Jackie Sue Salter for the fun words and zippy characters, Brian Cox for the loving friendship and expert direction, and Carla Milarch for your nuanced facilitation and gracious leadership. Hope I get to work with this talented cast again: Colleen Gentry, Ellen Finch, Robert Schorr, and my giggle buddy Laurie Atwood. Thank you to sweet friends Kim Elizabeth Johnson, Sue Nelson, Rebecca Winder, Eric Winder, Mary Newton, and Toby Tieger for your gracious support (and photos) and for taking time from your busy lives to attend. Such a perfect night of theatre community 🎭 ❤️

And, yes, Kim Kelly and Julaine DeMink LeDuc, I recycled my Ronald McDonald House Charities of Ann Arbor “Red Shoe Affair” footwear.

“Hollywood Lies” by Jackie Sue Salter

Thursday, July 26, 2018, 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.

Cast:

Brenda Baxter: Colleen Gentry

Jerry Simon: Roy Sexton

Ida Stiles: Laurie Atwood

Sid Levy: Robert Schorr

Sylvia Thomas: Ellen Finch

Stage directions: Brian Cox

Directed by Brian Cox

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.

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.

Could-have-been, should-have-been, might-have-been moments in time: Constellations at Theatre Nova

Originally contributed to encoremichigan.com

[Images from Theatre Nova’s Facebook page]

Big ideas in little moments. That seems to be Theatre Nova’s stock-in-trade, making effective use of its unconventional venue to feature new works (Clutter, The Revolutionists) that explore existential philosophy as expressed in the comic, poignant, tragic spaces between the rain drops of daily living. It’s a smart and essential artistic niche the organization has carved for itself.

Theatre Nova’s latest offering – Nick Payne’s award-winning Constellations – is in brilliant keeping with this artistic through-line, a breezy and compelling two-hander that runs a brisk intermission-less 70 minutes.

Directed with the surety of an actor’s eye by Theatre Nova founder Carla Milarch, the play depicts in non-linear fashion the ever-was and never-was moments in the romance, dissolution, reconnection, and tragic end of a young mumblecore couple in contemporary England. Marianne (a wide-eyed, sparkling Meghan VanArsdalen) is a Cambridge academic specializing in quantum mechanics and astrophysics whose disarming lack-of-filter is as charming as it is blunt. Roland (a shaggy, inviting Forrest Hejkal) is a beekeeper whose awkwardness in life and love yields to a compelling and heartbreaking loyalty as the piece progresses.

I dare not spoil any of the play’s twists and turns – and there are a few – but suffice it to say that Constellations applies string theory, multiversal philosophy, and the random/structured elegance of bouncing atomic particles to the seeming mundanity of daily living. If you’ve ever wondered how crossing the street five minutes later or using a harsher tone of voice in one conversation might impact the trajectory of your fate, this is the play for you. Similar territory has certainly been covered in any number of comic books, Twilight Zone episodes, and fantasy films (Sliding Doors, The Butterfly Effect, etc.) but never, that I can recall, in the guise of a two-person play.

Structurally, the piece repeats short scenic episodes, with a minor tweak each time – a shift in dialogue, a change in tone, a switch in timing – to reveal how different eventualities may work out for the couple. The production helps mark the break between each episode with a quick flash of light and sometimes a shift in hue. (I’m color blind, so I might have missed any more subtle lighting indicators.) There are interstitial, nebulous, ominous spoken-word exchanges between the two characters as well (think Greek chorus by way Stephen Hawking … for lack of a better description) that hint at an inevitable dark turn in their lives.

The respective occupations of each character underpin the play’s philosophy and help explain what might otherwise be confusing to the casual viewer. Marianne offers a giddy take on the exciting prospect of living in a “multiverse” where each decision we make creates another “branched world,” parallel versions of ourselves living out vastly different lives just because we chose one breakfast cereal over another. Roland’s beekeeping becomes a conflicting yet complementary metaphor for the finite nature of life, the ordered but surreal nature of community, and how our impending mortality sweetens/sours our daily acts. There is a particularly riotous sequence, beautifully played by the two leads, wherein Roland uses some fairly grotesque imagery from the mating habits of bees to offer Meghan a cumbersome but altogether winning marriage proposal.

The production is aided and abetted by economical set, sound, and lighting design (by Hejkal, Diane Hill, and Daniel C. Walker respectively) that evokes a dreamlike inner/outer life through bioluminous hues and a repetition of hexagons that evoke bee hives, human DNA, covalent structures, and outer space itself.

Any quibbles with the production are quite minor and will likely resolve after the jitters of opening night. A few sound and music cues were a bit too hushed; some Midwestern cadences (rarely) slipped into the very British dialogue; and the two leads, dripping in chemistry, had an initial physical stiffness that could be chalked up to the awkwardness of their characters’ burgeoning romance but read on opening night as being a bit uncertain how to fill the performance space.

I will also note that I had the joy of sitting with a group of students who were quite taken with the performance and with the play itself. I’m sure some fuddy duddies nearby were lightly annoyed at the unrestrained vocal responses given by these young people as the story revealed itself. I, for one, was delighted. It is a rare treat to watch a new audience discover its love of theatre and to have honest, visceral reactions to what they are observing. That is what theatre has always been about … and always should be about.

Constellations is a rare treat, well-timed with Valentine’s Day just peeking around the corner – a thinking person’s romantic comedy about reality and consequence. The direction by Milarch is pitch perfect, capturing the nuances of multiple variations on a theme and making easy-to-follow and deeply affecting what, in less capable hands, could have been a muddled mess. Yet, it is the stars of Constellations (pun intended) who make this must-see entertainment. Van Arsdalen and Hejkal give as good as they get, presenting beautifully flawed, profoundly moving characterizations through a swirl of could-have-been, should-have-been, and might-have-been moments in time. Together they are a revelation.

Constellations runs from January 26 through February 18 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor, MI 48103. Tickets: www.theatrenova.org or 734-635-8450.

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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.

“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.

Tongues in Trees*: Ignorance is not bliss – a new appreciati​on for Ann Arbor’s Summer Festival

Ignorance is Not Bliss

Ignorance is Not Bliss

When Pat and Marjorie Lesko approached me after my recent book-reading at fabulous local treasure Bookbound and asked if I would like to be a regular contributor in their pages, I was thrilled.

[Alas, this is likely the last contribution I shall make. Another story for another day.]

However, their movie review slot was already taken. (Phooey! but if you want to read my views on popcorn epics, please check out my blog at www.reelroyreviews.com…oh, right, you’re already here!) So they said to me, “How about culture? You’re a theatre guy. You must love to write about culture. I mean, this is Ann Arbor!”

“You got it!” I sheepishly replied, fearful to reveal my true colors as a pop maven who prefers “The Harlem Shake” over Shakespeare, The Mighty Thor over Jane Austen, and Kathy Griffin over the ballet.

[You can read my first contribution to The Ann Arbor Independent about Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre by clicking here.]

Pat, ever the good journalist, could see right through my ruse. “You haven’t gone to anything here, have you? No festivals, no art installations, no opera?” The jig was up. I suspected that my seven-year-successful-dodge of anything of artistic substance was about to come to a crashing halt.

Her next comment surprised me even more: “Good! Then you’re a blank slate. Write about that!” And like rat-a-tat Rosalind Russell from screwball classic His Girl Friday, she gave me a quick “Off you go!” and clicked off the receiver.

So … here I go. May as well start at the top … Top of the Park, that is.

Entering its 31st season, Ann Arbor’s famed Summer Festival was founded in 1984, and Top of the Park, the free outdoor cornucopia of movies and concerts and activities is arguably the fest’s most famous component. Of course, the festival is so much more, running from June 13 to July 6 with many ticketed offerings sprinkled about Ann Arbor, in addition to the outdoor events. (You’ve already read about Lily Tomlin’s opening weekend concert in The Ann Arbor Independent – I wonder if Pat would let me do those interviews in the future? Hmmm. I better be a good kid!)

If you want to find yourself overwhelmed, just check out the festival’s comprehensive website at www.a2sf.org – talk about sensory overload.

Ann Arbor Summer FestivalIf I have any (feeble) defense to offer for our household’s neglect of this Ann Arbor mainstay, it may be that, for a Tree Town neophyte, all of this activity can shut down a person’s central cortex. If you don’t know where to start or even how to navigate the various locations and parking challenges therein, you might be tempted to just to head to the Rave or Quality and watch the latest Channing Tatum/Michael Bay/Pixar offerings with their predictable start times, easy access, and pre-digested storylines.

However, the evil geniuses at the festival must have anticipated this quibble, and they have introduced a mobile app (free!) that can be your pocket guide to all things Fest related. Having done a quick spin through the app, they nailed it. It’s easily searchable, responsive, social, interactive and with just the right amount of content to help you have a good time. Kudos!

So, now that I have no excuses, I turn to the people who may shake their heads in shame at my ignorance but love me anyway – my long-time Washtenaw County-based pals – for some much-needed guidance and advice. (I won’t divulge who, but I did have one comrade-in-arms who emailed, “I have never been there [Summer Fest] either. Don’t tell anyone!”)

Rebecca Hardin, associate professor at U of M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment (not to mention someone who has suffered playing my spouse in The Penny Seats’ production of What Corbin Knew and helps host the fabulous radio show It’s Hot in Here on WCBN, Friday from 12-1 pm), offers,  “Highlights of past summer festivals, for me, include the acrobats from Australia towering over assembled crowds on enormous stilts, swaying among the roofs of Rackham, the Michigan League, and the Alumni Center, in brightly colored clothes. I also loved the eruption of local talent ‘from the ground up’ during a Bollywood flash mob dance moment…just look for ‘Bollywood flash mob connects communities’ on YouTube. Nothing compares to the chance to see local bands like Hullabaloo, eat local brands like Sylvio’s Organic Pizza, and just be, together with so many other Ann Arborites, grateful for the beautiful evenings.”

Clearly, Rebecca’s comments get to the heart of what makes Ann Arbor – and any of its various activities like Summer Fest – so special: spontaneity, creativity, involvement. And what a wealth of opportunities there are.

Beth Kennedy, Ann Arbor teacher and blogger (check out her witty ididnthavemyglasseson.com for a nostalgic yet fresh look at life in Michigan), concurs, “I love the music, people of all ages getting up to dance together, uninhibited,  feeling the rhythm. I love that they moved it from ‘top of the park’ on top of the parking structure down to street level and never went back up to the cement wasteland. That change alone puts people in a very festive and friendly mood. The beer garden is nice … I have never seen anyone unruly while there … a good thing. Most events are free, except for a few headliners. As a teacher, I adore that they have had the children’s bands perform here, giving them a friendly open space to play, with a receptive audience. I do wish there were more food stand choices, but those seem to be growing each year. Free movies at dark are great with classics and cult films. I will add that family ones are challenging because most kids are asleep by that time but that is just a consequence of Daylight Savings Time, alas!”

The challenges of kids, movies, and late sunsets seem to be a common refrain.

Ian Reed Twiss, an Ann Arbor resident and the pastor at Saline’s Holy Faith Church, remarks, “When the weather’s good, Summer Fest is a lot of fun to hang out and just listen to music. They have had some great high-wire and circus-type acts out on the green as well.  When we were childless, we used to go for the outdoor movies too, but haven’t done THAT in a while. We haven’t participated in any of the ticketed items at, say, The Power Center, but the offerings look great.” (As an aside, Ian mentioned another event to pass along. Summer is a month of fun but it can also be a great time to re-establish community. “et al,” a group aiming to create an inclusive and affirming environment for LGBT individuals and families in the Saline community through education and legislative advocacy and support, hosted a Gay Pride event on June 20, at Mill Pond Park in Saline.  It was a meet-and-greet, and local political leaders attended. It was co-sponsored by the Saline High Gay Alliance “Spectrum” and Diversity Circle. Thanks, Ian!)

Top of the Park definitely is the gateway for most attendees to Summer Fest’s offerings overall. One downside is that there seems to be some disconnect between the ticketed fare and what people commonly think of when they hear the words “Ann Arbor Summer Festival.”

Rebecca Biber, local music instructor, pianist, and conductor, remarked, “Is that where they have Top of the Park?  I have enjoyed an outdoor movie on occasion, because there is beer for the adults and the audience tends to have good camaraderie, yell out lines, and so on.  And some of the local bands are good.  Actually, this month on my birthday, the Fest is featuring two bands I have been meaning to see for years: The Crane Wives and the Ragbirds.  If you are up for some on-site research, I would love to drag you along.”

[Note: I did attend and it was fabulous!]

Well, look at that? My Summer Fest dance card is starting to fill up.

Linda Nyrkkanen, founder (and baker) at Flour Lab, Inc. (if you see her at the farmer’s market in Kerrytown, you must buy her cookies, eat immediately, and then buy some more), echoes Rebecca’s perspective, “I must confess that I am not a regular attender either, although I have been to a few of the free movies at Top of the Park.  The first one was the Wizard of Oz back when I was in college, and it was pretty magical seeing my favorite childhood movie under the stars with my friends. And fast forward to current times – we saw E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial a few years ago with our friends Sean and Rachel.  So fun! I don’t know if this helps you or not, but just wanted to share my limited experience.  I know the musical performances are great too, but it’s the outdoor movies that hold the most memories for me.  I think you and John should definitely try to catch one this year.”

Now that I have my marching orders, keep an eye out – you may just see us wandering about, iPhones in hand, scrolling through the many offerings, looking bedraggled, possibly dehydrated, but with big smiles on our faces as we’ve finally immersed ourselves in one of Ann Arbor’s signature events: “The Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s mission is to present a world-class celebration of arts and entertainment that enriches the cultural, economic, and social vitality of the region.” Well, all right – sounds good to me! See you next fall, Channing Tatum!

[P.S. Wonder what the heck “Tongues in Trees” indicates? One of the first monologues I ever delivered on-tage 20 years ago in Wabash College’s production of “As You Like It” directed by Michael Abbott – click here … not me reading it, but you get the drift.]

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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.

“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.

scha·den·freu·de: chasing after the same last scrap of bread

Thanks to the Ann Arbor Independent Newspaper which is now including me (semi-regularly) as an arts and culture contributor. My first piece appeared last week as part of their “Culture Vulture” series. A scan of the article is captured below, and the text follows. Enjoy!

Schadenfreude

 

scha·den·freu·de

 noun, often capitalized \ˈshä-dən-ˌfrȯi-də\

: a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people

By now, we’ve all digested the news that beloved, award-winning Ann Arbor-theatrical mainstay The Performance Network abruptly shuttered its doors (and fabulous floor to ceiling windows) on May 22. Possibly between the time this glib little opinion piece was composed and when you are holding it in your hot little hands, more info has come to light, but, right now, we are woefully in the dark, other than one cryptic press release and some social media nervous breakdowns that I will be courteous enough not to repeat here for all parties involved.

(Does PNT not have a PR person worth their salt to manage this situation? ‘Cause there are a lot of accusations flying about the interwebs, hot-blooded musings from troubled artists … the kind of things that make lawyers either shudder or salivate and leave the rest of us just shaking our heads in collective sadness.)

Here’s the official word: “The board of directors of Performance Network Theatre has determined that the theater is not currently financially viable and suspends all operations, effective immediately. The board wants to thank the community, actors, directors, designers, donors, and subscribers for their long-standing support of the theater.”

This is not a lot to go on, and it certainly leaves the stage door wide open for theatre pros and amateurs across the land to conjecture all kinds of tomfoolery and Shakespearean intrigue.

In the spirit of disclosure, I’m one of those rubberneckers. I’m not one of the theatrical “cool kids” in Southeast Michigan. I’m not one of the 12 performers who always get mentioned in Encore (the weekly newsblast that goes out summarizing local theatre) and I will never be nominated for a Wilde Award (especially not now). It sounds like I’m bitter. I’m not. At least not much.

PNT ClosedHowever, I respect deeply the work of those 12 performers. We have such talent and such creativity in the theatre community here. It needs to be cultivated and supported, and these are folks who have given their life’s blood (quite literally) to create some beautiful things in Southeast Michigan.

But, here’s the thing that happens with all artists at the local level, and I’m seriously armchair quarterbacking as someone who has helped found a theatre company, has acted in a lot of amateur and semi-professional productions, and who writes frequently about the arts here: artists talk a good game about supporting each other, but they still tend to behave as if they are all chasing after the same last scrap of bread.

The very profession lends itself to this cutthroat behavior: audition for a role, show up and there are 100 other talented people all wanting it, give it your best shot, dig at the other performers, shake their confidence, get the part (or don’t). And, even when you do get the part, subsist on little to no compensation, give it your all, get knocked around by critics, perform for non-existent audiences, rinse, and repeat.

I can’t speak to the business decisions at the Performance Network or what debts were racked up or how unforeseen calamities (like a burst water pipe) may have been the proverbial straw. But I do wonder about what creative hubris may result from living in perennial fear that some other artists will come along and eat your box office lunch.

A successful creative enterprise must know the audience and be sensitive to changing tastes and styles. I saw a number of shows at Performance Network, and I was always so impressed technically but I also always felt like I was outside looking in. The proceedings felt a bit hermetically sealed … like being assigned really interesting homework.

And I’m enough of a plebian that, ultimately, I’d probably rather spend my entertainment dollars to go see The Avengers than an avant garde treatment of Richard III. That is totally unfair, and really crappy of me to type … but it’s a market truth. Was Performance Network actually competing against The Avengers? Of course not, but did the company reach a point of insularity, inaccessibility, and cliquishness? Possibly.

There does seem to be some hope ahead as a new venture is rising from the ashes – something called Theater NOVA, the mission statement of which (according to their Facebook page) reads: “Creating a more sustainable model of non-profit theatre, through innovation in production/administration, commitment to artists, and true accessibility.” It’s that last word that rings truest. And I hope they mean it – accessibility … of content, for talent, for audiences. That is key. I wish them luck and hope that this momentary crisis has blown out the cobwebs, popped the pretensions, and lit a fire for improved business management. [Check out the latest developments – all seemingly positive – here. And the final resolution from the board as reported here.]

The preceding opinions are not likely to make me very popular in Southeast Michigan’s theatrical community. In fact, they may get me banned for life. I hope not, but, from monitoring social media, I seem to be alone in this perspective. That’s depressing. Successful artists know how to set up the “big tent” and invite everyone in. A closed ecosystem that just cycles through the same resources will always stagnate.

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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.