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Summer in the ‘City’: Hot Comedy in Cool Hamtramck

By |2018-01-16T12:13:58-05:00July 12th, 2012|Entertainment|

By John Quinn

Prowling the cutting edge of professional theater one finds the improvisationalists and sketch comedians. They are wily, intelligent beasts, who hunt in packs because there is strength in numbers. It is no job for the faint of heart or woundable ego. Yet when they are running full speed with a juicy premise, it’s hard for even the most ruthless theater critic to pick them off.
Consider “To Save a City: A Tale of Two Emergency Managers,” Planet Ant Theatre’s final installment of the 2012 Late Night Series. This one-act comedy is written and performed by the Winter Colony Fest Winners, “The Unknowns,” a quintet of demented brains and sharp noses for comedy. “The Unknowns” are unknown no longer; they are Chris Petersen, Andrew Seiler, Erik Heilner, Genevieve Jona and Paul Jonna. The play benefits from an unusually tight, absurdist script and thoroughly original characters.
Our scene is Oakarbingtonforest Woodsvillage, a Detroit suburb in financial trouble. Lansing sends two emergency managers, a seasoned pro on the verge of retirement (Chris Petersen), and his earnest trainee (Erik Heilner). Hot on their trail is an ambitious TV reporter, Thompson James (Andrew Seiler), who will let nothing stand in the way of a good story – not even the truth. The trio learn their arrival fulfills a prophesy – the town will be destroyed by a hurricane. The residents are strangely complaisant about their impending doom. But frankly, they’re all certifiable nut jobs.
“To Save a City” mines current events and pop culture references for a mother lode of comedy. The playwrights take the hackneyed relationship between veteran and rookie that has been used in ‘way too many cop flicks and redeems it. The play is a multi-media work, with grainy videos – allegedly training tapes – made by the town’s founder, Henry Ford. Yeah, THAT Henry Ford. The result is a twisted echo of “Lost’s” Dharma Project instructional tapes.
We find the other “Unknowns,” Genevieve Jona and Paul Jonna, solely in the videos, first as Thompson’s bitterly partisan NYC anchors, then again as residents Margo and Jerome, interviewed for that touch of local color. Through the years the Ant has enjoyed great success with multi-media; this is one of the best integrations with live action in memory.
I sense that Mikey Brown, director of all this madness, gave his cast their head and only lightly reined them in when they threatened to stampede. The result is some choice characters, well developed in the little time they have on stage.
Too often in sketch comedy, when a few actors play multiple parts, it’s easy to forget exactly who’s who. This cast nicely defines character, which is especially taxing when the visual impact is limited to minimal costume changes. Body language and voice ably fill the bill. Another pitfall in comedy, though, is a tendency to rush the lines and that appears here from time to time. The material is too good to miss guys; give it to us slower!
While the summer has been a scorcher, it’s like February compared to the hot air generated in Lansing and Detroit. Before the hurricane blows us all into Lake Erie, a little comedy can go a long way to put things in perspective.

‘To Save a City: A Tale of Two Emergency Managers’
Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff Ave., Hamtramck. Friday-Saturday through July 21. 43 minutes. $10. 313-365-4948.

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.