Monday, August 23, 2010

my final bad review

Box 5:
Reviewing a show on the last night of its run is not our usual policy. But because of schedule conflicts and snafus, I was not able to catch Box 5 until the closing night of BoxFest. And to be honest, I'm glad I did!
In years past, Boxfest has produced at least one show - or maybe two - that knocked attendees' socks off and generated plenty of buzz. And while a few shows this year were certainly well staged and thoroughly enjoyable, none reached the level of excitement that Timeless: The Dancical earned a few years ago or The Opal Show did last year. Both had celebrated lives after BoxFest, and each subsequently earned a Wilde Award nomination for best original comedy.
Such a fate could also be in the future for Armchair Dating by Margaret Edwartowski, whose drama Snowbound earned the up-and-coming playwright a 2010 Wilde Award nomination for Best New Script. In this delightful comedy, an artist named Peter (Matt Forbes) and an actress named Liz (Julie Brock) are set up on a first date by Peter's best friend and longtime roommate, Chuck (Ryan Falcheck). The play opens after the date when Peter gets home - and Chuck wants to know how it went. Likewise, Liz's friend Anita (Megan Wright) wants to hear the gory details. So through flashbacks we learn what happened - and why a second date may not be likely. Or will it? Edwartowski's dialogue sparkles throughout, and her characters are totally believable and well conceived. In lesser hands, though, her concept of jumping back and forth through time to tell her story COULD have been confusing to follow, but director Andrea Scobie expertly moves it through time and place with careful precision. (At the end of the night, Scobie was honored - and deservedly so - as winner of the audience vote competition, which enables her to stage a late night show this season at Planet Ant Theatre.) Performances were fine all around, but Forbes and Falcheck were best at creating wholly unique characters.

The second and final one-act, Birthday Beer by Jacquelyn Priskorn, shows what can happen when longtime friends of the opposite sex move in together - supposedly just as friends. But one has feelings for the other, which bubble to the surface when Carla (Carla Angeloni) learns Dean (Patrick Hanley) has invited his ex-girlfriend (and now stripper) to dinner to celebrate his birthday. Personally, I didn't believe Dean's scene-ending conversion, but I suspect romantics and Lifetime TV viewers may see it otherwise. Partly, my reaction was the result of an under-developed script; it could have used some additional time to show us the deeper connection between the two friends. But I also didn't see any real character development on the part of the actors that proved to me their love for one another was real.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

and another bad review for me!

I am not too bummed about this one seeing as how i think i wrote this play in 1998!

Block 5, the only hour featuring two plays instead of three, is home to the requisite dating stories. First is Armchair Dating (by Margaret Edwartowski; director Andrea Scobie), in which a man and a woman (Matt Forbes and Julie Brock) dissect and evaluate their first-date behavior after the fact with their respective friends (Ryan Falcheck and Megan Wright). The concept of shifting time from the date in progress to the postgame makes way for some outstanding comic bits and one-liners. However, despite the evident chemistry between soft-spoken Forbes and too-eager Brock, the scenario — and its frequently stereotypical friend-types — cries out to be pushed farther for bigger laughs. The two-person Birthday Beer (by Jacquelyn Priskorn; director Keara Woods) makes its premise immediately apparent to anyone who’s ever suffered unrequited love, as Carla (Carla Angeloni) falls all over herself to prepare a nice birthday for her friend and roommate, Dean (Patrick Hanley). The piece struggles with a script that lumbers obviously toward its obvious conclusion and stiff performances that might have loosened up with more rehearsal.

And a bad review for me

Current mood: frustrated

There's always one bad least...but somehow I am not sure I put a lot of stock in this guy's statements about my script...

Box 3 - reviewed by John Quinn
As faithful readers, you already know about the festival of plays, directed by women, now in rotation at The Furniture Factory. What you don't know yet is how tough it is for a director to deliver a cogent point of view in the period of time that these short-short one acts allow. In many cases, the director's success depends more upon the structure of the material than on her creative talents.

So short are these scenes that the earlier the audience understands the action, the better the entertainment experience. Comedy is going to be easier to "sell" because a plot driven by situation need not have deeply drawn characters, location or motivation. The playwright can rely more on archetypes than originality.

This mix of drama and comedy is a satisfying stew, and each part brings a distinct flavor to the palate. In fact, BoxFest is so tasty I overstayed my welcome and saw more shows than I needed to review. It's as addictive as browsing viral videos on YouTube, but a lot classier. The fact that these 16 directors are so good when so new to this end of show business means theater in Detroit can only get better!
There are some morsels to savor.

There Will Come Soft Rains by Jacquelyn Priskorn is probably one of the tougher challenges a director could face. The drama opens eerily on a draped corpse and single mourner. We know nothing about either; even the location is uncertain. We can finally infer that our characters, Arlo (Kevin Barron) and Zoe (Cara Trautman), may be the sole survivors of an unidentified pandemic in some dystopic parallel universe. They're living in a funeral parlor with the body of Arlo's lover, Brian (Sean Paraventi), who might have been one of the first victims. Dialogues by nature are static, and this one is no exception. There Will Come Soft Rains is an emotionally charged piece. While director Kennikki Jones makes an admirable effort to draw us into Arlo and Zoe's emotional orbit, the playwright does not seem to have given her the time or material to properly develop the characters.

Wonder by Kelly Rossi is an audience favorite. The naughty comedy features Megan Amadon and Angie Ransdell as two friends in an airport, killing time before a flight indulging in random chatter. The "wondering" angle comes in as they speculate what it's like to have a penis. I will let you "wonder" from there. This is another static dialogue, and director Katie Galazka tries to liven up the action. Some of the blocking is unnecessary, since the audience is more interested in what we're hearing than what we're seeing. The writing is crisp and wicked, which added a little spice to the performance.

A larger, more elaborate "dramedy" is John Wencel's Flowers, directed by Kristen Wagner. The play is slightly longer, and the playwright has better outlined the characters. He has given the director a good handle on the plot. The setting is immediately understood: Beth Grayson (Linda Rabin Hammell) is a star whose twinkle is dimming. Stuck in the dressing room of a daily soap opera studio, her boredom is interrupted by the entrance of an adoring fan (Greg Prusiewicz). "Bobby," however, has secrets to share. Wagner brings an element of slapstick to the play that works very well – so well, in fact, the piece could have been more over the top without becoming campy.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

More reviews!

Current mood: accomplished
BoxFest Detroit 2010

BoxFest Detroit 2010 is the latest installment in an ever-growing enterprise to support and encourage women directors in the metro Detroit theater community. This year's festival is marked by the promotion of longtime collaborator Molly McMahon to artistic director, accompanied by Kelly Rossi's return as executive director. Both are omnipresent at the Furniture Factory performance space, swapping shifts at the box office with other festival directors. The participants' eagerness to help events run smoothly is evident — among the volunteers manning the concessions counter is Frannie Shepherd-Bates, artistic director of Magenta Giraffe Theatre, which is playing host to the festival. The prevailing sense is one of overlap between the people actively involved in the plays and the people making the machine run, as well as joy in what they've brought to fruition.

Over the years, the BoxFest Detroit franchise has grown from a single evening of short plays to a three-week festival with a complicated schedule of six individual programming blocks. It has become literally too much theater to see in a single day — I know, because I tried. Short plays are fascinating and fun to dissect because they can create strange, special worlds without having to sustain them; the seventeen of this year's festival are no exception, but the sheer number limits my capacity to describe each as fully as it deserves.

Block 1 opens with A Mugging (by Ian Bonner and Marty Shea; director Jackie Strez), a quick, few-frills scene of a random crime turned on its head. Artificially confined by the cramped, dark approximation of an alley, performers Torri Ashford and Nick Pobutsky seemed under-rehearsed for a confrontation that waffles between unexpected earnestness and hesitant comedy. Well-executed costumes and props contribute to the histronics of The Reckless Romantic (by Jacquelyn Priskorn; director Kathleen Leitz), in which happy-go-lucky bachelor Gary Castaneda couldn't care less about the accidental deaths of a string of fianceés, to the great distress of his butler (John Nowaczyk) and collateral-damage maid (Lesley Braden-Phillips). The overblown soap opera delivery is a great assist to the tongue-in-cheek comedy, especially when the plot twists start to unfold. Rounding out the block is The Other Side (by Kitty Dubin; director Debbie Lannen), the sweet, albeit predictable, story of a mother-daughter relationship across the spiritual divide. Barbara Bloom is humorously acerbic as the deceased mother, and Ashley Shamoon gamely plays the script's obvious progression of guilt and disbelief, but Joe Lannen's neutral character of the medium — although given little emotional heft of his own — single-handedly pulls off the concept, deftly navigating the difficult supernatural rules of who can or can't see and hear each other.

There is a David Ives–like playfulness in Block 2: the opener, Boys, Meet Girl (by Audra Lord; director Lyndsay Michalik), begins with a woman (Emily Tipton) explaining to a police officer (Andy Orscheln) that she is being stalked. The catty yet inert one-upsmanship of Orscheln and third cast member Lorenzo Toia is the highlight of this comedy. Next is the sweeter, straightforward Flowers (by Hillary Sea Bard; director Jess Preville), which features lesbian couple Lucy (Alysia Kolascz) and Aggie (Megan Johnson) on the verge of meeting — and simultaneously coming out to — Lucy's parents. The script dabbles in ancillary details and a few forced comedic tangents, but the ease and care of the core relationship is what ultimately sells the piece. Finally, there's the curious world of perfectly rational mistresses in You? (written and directed by Angie Ransdell). Even as the confident, logical Patrice (Richie Rollins) schools the sheepish Janet (Laura Kopytek) about the truth behind their shared paramour, their verbal sparring is juxtaposed with moments of physical closeness, a masterful touch.

Block 3 begins with the visually arresting There Will Come Soft Rains (by Jacquelyn Priskorn; director Kennikki Jones), in which Jones uses the playwright's deliberate lack of information to create a frightening, unclear, vaguely apocalyptic world. Themes of propaganda and homophobia waft through the scene in an eerie funeral home, where strangers Arlo (Kevin Barron) and Zoe (Cara Trautman) begin to question what they've been told and even more so what they know. This fear and uncertainty is raised again in the closing play, another named Flowers (by John Wencel; director Kristen Wagner), this time the story of a wry, aging starlet (Linda Rabin Hammell) who receives more than a simple bouquet from a delivery boy (Greg Prusiewicz). Although Prusiewicz does fine work, it's all he can do to hang on while Hammell knocks her funny yet despairing role out of the park. A welcome break between these mournful offerings comes in the form of Wonder (by Kelly Rossi; director Katie Galazka), a risqué airport conversation between Megan Amadon and Angie Ransdell. Certain expository details are never overtly explained, so the scene plays out like hypothetical musing within a vacuum, but both the subject matter and the performers' treatment of it make for plenty of outlandish humor.

Deceptive Block 4 begins with a shot of reality that quickly slides into gleeful absurdity. First, Bar Reading (by Hillary Sea Bard; director Sarah Lucas) is a boy-meets-girl false start, where poor Maxim Hunt is shot down every which way by superior Alysia Kolascz. The real-seeming give and take between the actors has a pleasant arc that plays into a fine bait and switch–style ending. Conversely, the extremely mundane opening of God Needs Jumper Cables (by Andy Olesko; director Angie Kane Ferrante) is quickly stripped away to reveal a meta commentary on the mind of the playwright, resulting in one of the most hilarious pieces of the festival. Olesko inserts himself into the action (voiced by Kevin Barron), as figments of his imagination Joe Kvoriak and Pat Hanley quickly come to terms with their imaginary lives and a supremely unimpressive God (Ron Morelli) makes an appearance, apparently just because He can. Immediately following is the also-outstanding premise of Upon the Heath (by David P. Wahr; director Frannie Shepherd-Bates), in which Shakespeare's tragic heroines Lady Macbeth (Lisa Melinn), Juliet (Jaye Stellini), Desdemona (Kirsten Knisely), and Ophelia (Janeé Smith) assemble on the titular heath and compare perspectives on love and relationships. The script is so full of in-jokes it begins to ramble; even so, I enjoyed the piece's attention to character, especially Melinn's riotous, unrelenting severity.

With six blocks and five time slots on Saturdays, what's a Rogue to do? The answer: catch up with Block 5 on another night, after which I'll review Armchair Dating (by Margaret Edwartowski; director Andrea Scobie) and Birthday Beer (by Jacquelyn Priskorn; director Keara Woods).

The disparate plays of Block 6 do have a grab-bag feel, but the varied tones and styles do not detract one from the other. In The Meek Shall Inherit (by Jacquelyn Priskorn; director K. Edmonds), senior home residents Connie Cowper, Sarah Wilder, and Debra "Rockey" Rockey meet for a card game and to gossip about the other residents, in particular late arriver Mary. Hints as to Mary's identity increase in frequency and transparency, but the expected payoff never quite arrives — an unfortunate distraction from the characters themselves, who are delightful in their own right. Next, the family drama Sun Trust (by Linda Lazar Curatolo; director LoriGoe Perez) elevates dysfunction to Tennessee Williams levels of vitriol and helplessness. The promising adult son (Patrick Hanley) needs a loan from his parents to buy a house, but the utterly irredeemable father (Wesley Whittaker) can't stop spewing hate onto his wife (Debra "Rockey" Rockey) and child long enough to pick up the pen, triggering two intertwined confrontations that sound a loud and resonant family death knell. The closing piece, get (t)his (by Nicole Young; director Sharon L. Brooks), concerns two black women (double-cast Alaina Fleming, Kennikki Jones, Sarah Wilder, and Kron Moore) out shopping for a man, a good man, a partner. When they stumble across a black man (Dez Walker) coupled with a white woman (Aysia Kolascz), their resulting fury and its consequences present a stylistic oddity, half tone poem and half Reservoir Dogs.

Accompanying these diverse plays is a neutral, dynamic set of rolling flats and boxes, arranged and dressed up according to the needs of each production. Transitions are accompanied by music and executed with incredible swiftness, a major credit to festival stage manager Maria Tejada and assistant stage manager Sara Vazquez. Lighting design by Neil Koivu is generic enough to suit each play, but still lends plenty of variability.

The dedication of the festival participants shows throughout the program, with artists like Kolascz, who appears in fully half of the blocks; Barron, with roles in three different plays; thrice-directed playwright Priskorn; and Ransdell, who writes and directs one play and performs in another. Rockey deserves attention for her sequential appearances in Block 6, with performances so varied I didn't recognize her from one to the next. However, this handful of mentions is not intended to discount the dozens and dozens of writers, directors, actors, designers, crew, and organizers that all had a hand in making BoxFest Detroit 2010 a success. Individually, the directors' works are sound and rewarding, but what makes them particularly celebratory is the veritable community that materializes for these few weeks and thrums with the excitement of shared, hard-earned accomplishment

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Two of 4 plays reviewed!

It's women's time to shine at BoxFest - Part 1

By Donald V. Calamia

REVIEW: BoxFest Detroit 2010
at The Furniture Factory

Each summer, women directors from throughout Southeast Michigan come together to showcase their talents in an annual festival called BoxFest Detroit. The event has morphed over the years from a one-weekend and six-play affair in Ann Arbor called Pandora's Box Fest to this year's three-weekend extravaganza at The Furniture Factory on the fringe of Wayne State University's campus in Detroit that features 18 plays by Michigan playwrights. But one thing hasn't changed despite its various permutations: The participating women work hard at creating their best work - and for some, their efforts pay off as they move from relative obscurity to paid directorial gigs at one (or more) of the area's professional theaters. (A few have even gotten into grad school based in part on their work with BoxFest.)

This year's BoxFest Detroit 2010, under the leadership of Artistic Director Molly McMahon and Executive Director Kelly Rossi (and their team of producers, designers and jacks of all trades), is the most ambitious yet. Spread out over a single weekend, theatergoers can check out a dozen-and-a-half short plays, the topics of which cover the spectrum of ideas and styles. (The plays are grouped into six "boxes" that rotate throughout each weekend.) As you would expect, some are slick and expertly produced, while others are rough around the edges - but that's what makes BoxFest such an exciting event to attend each year: That over time, we get the privilege of watching these talented women mature as directors.

What we also get to see - especially THIS year - are unfamiliar faces on the BoxFest stage. In the past, BoxFest seemed to attract a hardy, hard-working but mostly familiar contingent of thespians who came together mostly to help out their friends. This year, however, the BoxFest ladies have apparently reached outside their familiar territories and brought in many new faces - both behind the scenes as directors and on the stage. (In fact, at the two sessions I've been to this year, I've had several people come up to me, point to someone and ask, "Who's THAT?" And I hadn't a clue!) That too is an important part of the event's evolution, one I hope to see continue in the years ahead.

So with 18 plays this year, how did we tackle reviewing them? To be honest, that's still a work in progress. Last summer, fellow critic D. A. Blackburn and I spent several hours over the first weekend catching all 14 plays. This year, however, because of the increased number of shows, a heavy review schedule outside of BoxFest and limited critic availability (it's vacation time, you know!), I was able to attend only two "boxes" (and 6 plays) this weekend. (You'll find my short reviews of each below.) Next weekend, though, we plan to have one or two critics catch as many of the rest as they possibly can - and you'll find their thoughts here shortly afterward.

Box 1:

The first show of the first box is its weakest. A Mugging by Ian Bonner and Marty Shea is a cute look at what happens when a mugger unexpectedly meets his match. There's an interesting "turn-around" that happens in the script, but director Jackie Strez and actors Torri Ashford (Shana) and Nick Pobutsky (Mugger) fail to come out of the gate with strong personalities that adequately set up the surprise twist ending. Furthermore, as staged by Strez, the story should have been over only minutes after it started, since the blocking gave Shana an early opportunity or two to beat the stuffing out of the bad guy without risking her own safety. But, of course, that wasn't in the script.

The Reckless Romantic is an O. Henry-ish tale by Jacquelyn Priskorn with a surprise ending I didn't see coming. The son of a millionaire has only a month left in which to get married or he'll lose his inheritance. The problem, though, is that his last three fiances all died mysteriously - which makes potential fiance number four, his maid, wonder about her own chances of walking down the aisle! Given the short time frame in which BoxFest shows are rehearsed, director Kathleen Leitz played it mostly safe with her chuckle-filled production. A sub-plot about an umbrella could have been much more outlandish (and funnier) had more time been allotted to safely work out complicated physical comedy. But John Nowaczyk was spot on as Dobbins the butler (one of the best performances of the night), and Lesley Braden-Phillips as the shaken-up maid Mary was also fine. And you just KNEW that mild-mannered and somewhat flighty Paul as played by Gary Castaneda COULDN'T have killed all those women, right? Or DID he?

The final show of the block is its slickest - which isn't a surprise, given the experience of most of its participants. Kitty Dubin's The Other Side brings a young woman to the Amazing Fred, a rather unorthodox fellow who claims to be able to talk to the dead. Beth and her mother had harsh words on the night mom died, and now, a year later, she wants to apologize. It's a touching script thoughtfully brought to life by Debbie Lannen. Longtime veterans (but rarely seen on Metro Detroit's professional stages these days) Joe Lannen (Fred) and Barbara Bloom (Mom) are delightful in their roles, with Joe Lannen's very naturalistic style serving his character well. And the emotional pain Ashley Shamoon's Beth exhibits is thoroughly believable.

Box 6:

Another favorite comedy of the evening was The Meek Shall Inherit by Jacquelyn Priskorn. Set in a retirement home, three elderly ladies get together for their regular game of cards - but their fourth is late. So, of course, they talk about her (and her family) behind her back. But their tunes change when they discover WHY Mary is late! Director K. Edmonds has assembled a fine trio of women who roll or slowly shuffle into the game room and create wonderfully expressive characters. Given the situation, there's not much action in the scene, but the character-driven piece doesn't need much. So kudos to the wonderful Connie Cowper (Gwen), Sarah Wilder (Louise) and Debra "Rockey" Rockey for creating such colorful seasoned citizens!

The block takes a very serious turn with Sun Trust by Linda Lazar Curatolo. When the economy tanked years ago, a family uprooted from Michigan to Tennessee so that the husband could take a job at Saturn. Now, years later, the couple's son wants to buy a home, and so he asks his dad for a loan. That simple request opens a can of worms that threatens to tear the family apart. Although the pacing was a bit slow to build according to the emotional turmoil of the script, director LoriGoe Perez has staged a heart-wrenching tale that elicited many vocal responses from the audience - aimed primarily at actor Wesley Whittaker who creates one of the most despicable and easy-to-hate characters I've seen in ages, Jerry, the father of Cory (Patrick Hanley) and husband of Nancy (Debra "Rockey" Rockey). It's a superb performance, perfectly underplayed to maximize its power and effect.

The most unique play of the block is get (t)his by Nicole Young, a stylized and stylish piece about what black women want in and from a black man - and how they react when they find him with a white woman. It's a razor-sharp look at stereotypes, relationships, expectations, guns and shopping, with an ending that will likely elicit lively conversation in YOUR home as it did among my friends at a late-night dinner following the performance. Director Sharon L. Brooks kept the show moving, while Alaina Fleming (Woman 1) and Kennikki Jones (Woman 2) found all sorts of entertaining ways to keep their thoroughly self-centered characters from becoming unlikable.


At The Furniture Factory, 4126 3rd St., Detroit. Friday-Saturday through Aug. 21. Tickets: $10 per day or $30 festival pass. For information: CLICK HERE for complete schedule information.

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