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Curtain Calls

By | 2006-01-26T09:00:00-05:00 January 26th, 2006|Entertainment|

Preview: ‘Guest Artist’

Jeff Daniels’ tenth play is a challenge

“It’s one of those that I just had to write.”
If there’s one thing that theatergoers expect from a new Jeff Daniels’ play, it’s the unexpected. With nine original scripts already under his belt, audiences have been treated to a wide variety of tales – from an examination of gender identity to deer hunters in Escanaba. His tenth script, however – set to premiere Jan. 27 at the Purple Rose Theatre – is his most autobiographical tale yet. And it’s probably his most controversial, as well.
In “Guest Artist,” a young theater apprentice is dispatched to a bus station to pick up his hero – renowned playwright Joseph Harris – who was commissioned to write a play for a theater based in Steubenville, Ohio. It’s a connection that recalls Daniels’ early years at New York’s famed Circle Repertory Company and his relationship with two of its co-founders, playwright Lanford Wilson and producer/director Marshall W. Mason.
“There’s thirty years of me in ‘Guest Artist,'” the recent Golden Globe nominee told Curtain Calls late last week. “I look at the script and I hear things that no one else will hear, but I go, ‘Well, I was twenty-three when that happened.’ And the look on [actor] Pat Kenney’s face when Harris says something are looks or reactions that I can remember getting when Lanford would say something to me in 1978. So it’s full of that. Everything that Circle Rep taught me and everything that I’ve become – which a lot has to do with Marshall, Lanford and Circle Rep – is in this play.”
Daniels was 21 when he joined Circle Rep as an apprentice. He received recognition for his work in “The Fifth of July” and “Johnny Got His Gun,” but left the company in the early 1980s when he was cast in the movie “Terms of Endearment.” By that point, he recalled, “I was chasing movies.”
But the urge to write was also percolating. “It’s that other thing I took away from the Circle Rep,” Daniels said. “My eye has always been drawn to Lanford shaking his head, going ‘I’ll be back in fifteen minutes,’ and coming back with three new pages [of script]. Or Woody Allen on “The Purple Rose of Cairo” going, ‘Give me a second’ and coming back with a yellow piece of paper on which he scribbled [a] line. That always fascinated me.”
Although “Guest Artist” purports to be about the theater, the script serves a much deeper purpose. And a brief exchange early on about playwriting and anger signals its underlying theme. “I’m angry at the way I believe the American public has been manipulated by fear,” Daniels said. “And I think that manipulation and the use of fear to push forward ideology have made us all want to be safe. And pleasant. It’s not just the Bush White House – it’s the media. Fear is great for ratings. It’s seeped into the culture.”
Today, people want their entertainment to be safe, Daniels believes. “Everything changed [on 9-11], and the play is an attempt to focus on how it changed our culture, and maybe even the American Theater and our willingness to be disturbed, to be scared and to be challenged.”
How audiences will respond to “Guest Artist” is yet to be seen, but Daniels can’t wait for their reaction. “I hope it offends some people. I hope it ticks some people off. Regardless of whether they’re offended or whether they agree with it, I hope they are talking about it two weeks after they see it. That would be a great accomplishment.
“This is a play – and Harris says it – an artist writes for himself, and then he invites everyone else. That’s what happened here. And we’ll see if they go along with me.”
For Part 2 of this interview, log onto Curtain Calls ONLINE at

Review: ‘The Lion King’

Disney’s visual feast brings cartoon favorites to life

Disney’s “The Lion King” roared into East Lansing’s Wharton Center last Saturday night, and quite frankly, there’s only word in the English language that does it justice: WOW!
Based on the popular animated motion picture, the musical uses every trick in the theater handbook to create one of the most visually stimulating and technically astounding stage spectacles to greet local theatergoers in ages.
When word first hit the street that Disney was planning to adapt the cartoon to the stage, naysayers couldn’t envision how the cute and scary characters could possibly be brought to three-dimensional life. But from the moment the sun rises at the opening of the show and the animals arrive at Pride Rock, the audience is swept into its pageantry – never to be loosened for the next three hours. It’s a visual feast filled with life-size puppets (with their manipulators totally in view), imaginative costumes, infectious rhythms and memorable songs.
Yet amidst the production’s razzle-dazzle, the performance on opening night seemed to lack emotion and dramatic tension. Were we scared when the young Simba and Nala were about to be eaten by the drooling hyenas? Were we sad when King Mufasa was killed? Were we thrilled when Scar fell to his death and Simba took his rightful place on the throne?
It’s not bloody likely, for I suspect most of us were too wrapped up in the technical wizardry to really care. Plus, to be totally honest, some of the acting wasn’t really capable of eliciting such responses from us anyway.
Instead, it’s the powerful images we’ll be talking about for days to come. However, we’ll also recall the excellent Phindile Mkhize who plays the shaman baboon, Rafiki. Hers’ is by far the strongest and most expressive voice in the cast – and her skillful performance was certainly worthy of the loudest applause during the curtain call.
“The Lion King” plays Tue.-Sun. at the Wharton Center, on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, through March 5. Tickets: $22-$72. For information: 517-432-2000 or
The Bottom Line: A technical marvel that’s almost too much for the human brain to absorb in one sitting will entertain both young and old alike.

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