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.

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.

Life in an aquarium: Tipping Point Theatre’s “Invasive Species” (world premiere)

Invasive SpeciesI’m certain it breaks some unspoken critics’ oath to review a show featuring one of your dearest friends, so don’t consider this a review of Tipping Point Theatre’s world premiere Invasive Species, starring Aral Gribble (whom I don’t know) and Melynee Saunders Warren (whom I most assuredly know and with whom I may or may not have shared a stage … or two).

But this play is so good that I have to write something.

Joseph Zettelmaier’s intimately inventive script, making its debut here in Michigan, details the misadventures of a lonely widower schlub Earl Hobbs (Gribble) whose life is transformed when he discovers an exotic creature in his favorite fishing hole and takes said specimen (soon dubbed “Toothy”) home as a confidante and pet. Warren portrays a well-intentioned DNR officer Eden Selkirk, plagued by her own personal tragedies, who ends up (spoiler alert!) aiding and abetting Hobbs in his efforts to keep Toothy alive and thriving.

A theatrical pas de deux like Invasive Species is no easy task, and, under the sure-handed direction of Joseph Albright, Gribble and Warren keep the laughs (and the poignancy) flowing in the show’s crisp 90-minute running time. “Life in an aquarium” is a recurring theme in the production as both Hobbs and Selkirk find themselves drawn together by the confines of small-town, small-state, small-life. The smart set design by Jennifer Maiseloff and lighting design by Alex Gay ably assist the cast in this endeavor, providing them a beautifully insular series of indoor/outdoor levels with which to play. The efficient use of space is as breathtaking as it is lean, mean, and, well, perfect.

The script, perhaps at times a bit too rapturous about rural Michigan’s charms (particularly in its closing monologues), is incisive and deeply affecting. Zettelmaier has a keen insight into heartache and loneliness, but never for one moment devolves into cloying condescension. Hobbs and Selkirk are broken souls seeking kinship from nature and from each other, and their painfully heartwarming collision is as moving as it is horrifying.

The animal lover in me appreciated the central  metaphor in Hobbs’ adoption of the contraband Toothy: sometimes the unlikeliest friends can unlock our shattered psyches. And the delicate acting work of Gribble and Warren is a charming wonder, their deeply human connection transformative and empathic, showing how the rigidity of rules and regulations can melt away to compassion and understanding. This show is a gem, and runs through August 23 – don’t miss it: http://www.tippingpointtheatre.com/

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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.