By Carolyn Hayes
Planet Ant Theatre has made itself a steadfast breeding ground for new works, for local flavor, and for unconventional fare. And, not for the first time, the Hamtramck company’s current offering manages all three in one fell swoop.
Drawing from the well of original scripts by local writers previously featured in the Ant Hill quarterly series of staged readings, five old favorites find new, fully produced life in the late-night anthology “Dark Night,” directed by Sara Catheryn Wolf.
The “best-of” conceit has the potential drawback of how to bridge distinct plays with vastly different voices, tones and needs. In the case of “Dark Night,” the hodgepodge of selections is loosely bound by thematic refrains of imminent danger or harm. Some of the short plays depend heavily on tone or structure, some thrive on suspense, and some are cut with ridiculous or subversive comic sensibility – qualities that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The successes are diverse and often pleasantly surprising, but as with any collected presentation of works, some simply play together better than others.
The evening begins close to home with “A Nice Place to Visit” (by Dave Davies), in which a prospective tenant (Zach Hendrickson) visits a Detroit apartment building and gets more than he bargained for in the building manager’s daughter (Jaclyn Strez). Their nutshell interaction uses classic horror storytelling and farcically inflated stakes to efficiently introduce an unknown element and deftly exploit it. Strez excels opposite Hendrickson’s suburban import, bouncing with orthodontic energy that makes the script’s sly, metaphoric humor ping. A brief appearance by Phillip J. Hughes puts a Roald Dahl-esque skew on what came before, but ultimately the coda plays like a deflated afterthought to the spectacular immediacy of the main action.
Heavy genre influence permeates “Marielle” (by Maggie Patton), with overwhelming attention to atmosphere and affect that threatens to render story secondary to mood. The play’s long monologue concerns a woman (DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton) wrestling with inner torments and external jealousies alike. Although context clues suggest a contemporary setting, the dense language and heavy reliance on tortured inner monologue feel like a throwback to a past century. Conspicuous lighting cues, a stark white palette, and ambient soundscapes combine with Kleitz-Singleton’s quick, venomous smiles and distracted tosses of her hair, together evoking a portentous inner world that might draw favorable comparisons to “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Playwright Mike McGettigan goes out on a structural limb in “A Case of the Mondays,” juxtaposing the calm morning ablutions of an average Joe (David Angus) with the surveillance chatter of the team secretly monitoring him (voiced by Hendrickson and Patrick O’Connor Cronin). McGettigan hangs questions in the air and withholds the answers in favor of mundane, workaday conversation that is treated with superb comedic edge. Despite a few pacing lags, stage manager Jaclyn Cherry pulls the onstage and offstage elements together with finesse, in a defiantly weird offering that becomes more delightfully inexplicable with each passing beat.
“Dark Corners” (by Sean Paraventi) has the weakest footing of the lot, staking its success on withheld motives that encase its two characters in a scenic vacuum. Hughes and Katy Kujala meet in the park as strangers, their only personalities clumsily suggested by ersatz costume work. The plot is fueled by an implicit will-they-or-won’t-they dance, but Kujala’s unswerving, fabricated apprehension muddies Hughes’s ill-defined duality of gregarious menace. Ultimately, the scripted zig-zag is fumbled into a halfhearted squiggle, leading to a hasty-arriving outcome that startles for reasons other than those intended.
Yet the production rallies to go out on a high note with “Restaurant Bill” (by Marty Shea and Ian Bonner). Featuring the entire ensemble, this bit of ramped-up realism livens up the social minefield of navigating the single pricy check at the end of a dinner with friends. Safe to say, Shea and Bonner take the accusations and negotiations of this familiar scenario to previously uncharted heights. Anchored by sharp character work and spectacular pacing across the board, the play inches toward a gratuitous display of bedlam that becomes the crowning comic achievement of the entire show.
The predominantly low-fi tenor of the late-night presentation does not extend to the plays’ ends; rather, the flow of the action is clear, and further kept swift by efficient changeovers. By quickly donning and shedding each encapsulated story, the production maintains a jovial overtone that leaves it adaptable to the ominous and acerbic elements of its mixed-bag approach. The finished product is not intended to perfectly commingle, but the collected offerings form a competent sampler of entertainment, with rewarding peaks of excellent excesses at the ready.
Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck. 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday through April 19. 50 minutes; no intermission. $10. 313-365-4948. http://www.planetant.com