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By John Quinn
While the Matrix Theatre Company missed April Fool’s Day by a week when launching its latest offering, opening night was a week early in kicking off its year-long 20th anniversary celebration. Parties can be giddy, and the company has chosen a suitably up-beat production to kick off the festivities. “April Foolery” consists of two one-acts pulled from the long list of plays birthed at the Matrix.
“Para Siempre,” my mono-linguistic readers, means “Forever.” Matrix School of Theatre alumna Maria Serratos-Martinez created this play for the first presentation of the Young Directors class in 1999. It is an adaptation of the third act of Neil Simon’s 1968 Broadway hit, “Plaza Suite,” “Visitor from Forest Hills.” Our local playwright has moved the action from the posh confines of a New York hotel to a home in Southwest Detroit, near Holy Redeemer Church. In the tradition of butterflies in the stomach, Graciela (Kristen Schultes) has locked herself in the bathroom. It’s her “Don’t tell Roberto, but I’m not getting married today” moment. The narrative is driven by the futile efforts of her bickering parents, Norma (Christiana Hernandez) and Raul (Rudy Villarreal), to coax her out. Their frustrated and increasing frenetic attempts at persuasion are the grain for this comedy mill.
And – here’s where your humble reviewer gets caught flatfooted. I’m not familiar enough with “Plaza Suite” (I know – it’s blasphemy. I’m ashamed.) to know what’s Neil Simon and what’s Maria Serratos-Martinez. Let’s assume that this is “adaptation” rather than “translation.” Taking an established theme and reapplying it to a new social or cultural setting is a well-established means of demonstrating the universality of those themes. Specifically, nervous brides are nervous brides the whole world ’round.
The dialogue flows naturally between Spanish and English, and it was obvious the bilingual audience members were thoroughly enjoying both sides. For those of us who misguidedly took high school French, it wasn’t so easy. Context and delivery, though, make up a lot of ground for us, the less gifted. Yet the tendency to confuse intensity of emotion with speed of delivery tended to blur some line readings.
Rounding out the evening is Roger Kerson’s “Backstage Passes,” a product of Matrix’s New Voices program in 2003. This broad farce tells the randy tale of Philip (Dennis Kleinsmith), fading star of stage, screen and extra-marital affairs, as he seduces his co-star Naomi (Angela Robitaille). Both Naomi and fellow actress Joan (Kristen Shultes again!) are on to Philip’s “love ’em and leave ’em” record, leading hapless stagehand-cum-dresser Robert (Kevin Barron) to wonder why they’re not interested in a younger, friskier guy. The answer, of course, is “money.” Philip’s manipulations eventually draw the interest of two police detectives (Dan Woitulewicz and Eric Niece), investigating what may or not be a homicide. These backstage hijinks are mirrored by the insanity of the “play” supposedly in progress on the other side of the curtain. THAT play involves madcap entrances and exits, bizarre costumes and characters, and a totally unfathomable plot.
And there you have it. “April Foolery” joins situation comedy with low-brow farce, a combination that kept a raucous, sold-out house laughing. Both one-acts are in the capable hands of veteran Nancy Kammer, and this is where your correspondent begins to editorialize. Upon opening the program I found that, with the exception of technical director/scenic & lighting designer/actor (whew!) Kevin Barron, the directorial and technical staffs are all women. The long-standing “old-boy” network that plagued the theater for generations has crumbled, and Detroit is blessed with some seriously talented women. I think there are many factors: the excellent programs at Wayne State, UDM and Oakland play a big part. I like to think the on-going success of the annual BoxFest is encouraging new directors. It is particularly gratifying to find the opportunities available at intimate venues like the Matrix. Whatever the causes, this community is doing something right. No foolin’!
Matrix Theatre Company, 2730 Bagley St., Detroit. Friday-Sunday through May 1. $10-$15. 313-967-0599. http://www.matrixtheatre.org