Review: ‘Guest Artist’
It’s the truth: Powerful premiere at PRTC
By Donald V. Calamia
That was my initial reaction after reading a draft of Jeff Daniel’s newest play, “Guest Artist,” his tenth original work to hit the stage of the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea. It was the powerful, jaw-dropping climax that particularly grabbed me, but two nagging thoughts kept surfacing: Would the staged version deliver the same emotional punch? And how receptive will theatergoers be to Daniels’ passionate, thought-provoking, yet controversial message?
Only time will answer my second question, of course. But the emotional wallop is there, all right, thanks to the expert direction of Guy Sanville and the superb performances of Randall Godwin, Patrick Michael Kenney and Grant R. Krause.
In “Guest Artist,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Joe Harris arrives in Steubenville, Ohio to deliver a commissioned script to a local theater. His bus is met by Kenneth Waters, a young theater apprentice and budding playwright, who’s all fired up to meet his idol. It’s an encounter neither will ever forget.
Amidst the emptiness of the bus station, the grizzled, disheveled and alcoholic New Yorker holds court, enthralling his young fan by waxing poetic about himself, playwriting and the sorry state of the American Theater. However, the playwright’s confession that he has no new script – and that he’s there only to return his advance – stuns Waters. What’s more, Harris is now demanding an immediate ticket home.
So what’s a scared apprentice to do? Why, blackmail the playwright, of course! And it’s then that the search for truth truly begins!
To reveal too much of Daniels’ ever-twisting plot does a disservice to both the playwright and potential audience members. But be forewarned: For despite its breezy banter and funny moments, “Guest Artist” is Daniels’ serious search for truth in post 9-11 America, a shell-shocked country that wants only safe and non-threatening entertainment.
Sanville’s slick production builds upon the script’s natural rhythms, the result of which is an intensely gripping production. But it’s his work with the show’s actors that especially shines.
It would be tempting to play Harris – at least initially – as a bombastic, larger-than-life blowhard. Instead, Krause takes a low-key, contemplative approach that makes the story’s major revelations much more striking. One such moment occurs in Act Two when Harris, gasping with anger, seethes while trying to translate his thoughts about America into words.
Kenney, on the other hand, infuses Waters with a high-octane energy that resembles an eager-to-please puppy who’s excited to be in the presence of his master. Until, that is, the master craps all over him.
Once more: Wow!
However, it’s the chemistry they generate together that’s most amazing. There’s electricity flowing between these energetic actors – you can see it in their eyes and their body language – and the fun they’re having is contagious.
And Godwin? Watch him, too – especially at odd times throughout the show – for you’ll never see a more focused actor anywhere.
“Guest Artist” runs Wed.-Sun. at the Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea, through March 18. Tickets: $20-$35. For information: 734-433-7673 or www.purplerosetheatre.org.
The Bottom Line: An artist never apologizes, Harris says, and neither should Jeff Daniels for challenging us with this important look at post 9-11 America.
Review: ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill’
Jazz sensation Billy Holiday remembered in musical retrospective
By John Quinn
“Dope never helped anybody sing better or play music better or do anything better. All dope can do for you is kill you – and kill you the long, slow, hard way.”
The great jazz singer Billy Holiday found out the hard way how right she had been. “Lady Day,” the song stylist who brought raw emotion and uncanny musical instinct to her work, drowned in a steady diet of liquor and smack. By the late ’50s, the playful musical improvisations that marked her work in the 1930s were gone, replaced by a gravelly, introspective echo of her best days.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” Lanie Robertson’s prize winning play, introduces us to Holiday a few months before her death in 1959. The wheel has turned, and the toast of New York is reduced to singing in the seedy dives she worked in on her way up. She’s backed by a jazz trio and a bottle of Gordon’s gin. She wears elbow length gloves to hide the track marks. Between songs, the increasingly inebriated Lady Day reflects on her life, her loves, her rise and fall – eventually rushing backstage for another “fix.”
Ah, but the music! There’s still a spark of the artist who wrote “God Bless the Child” and fearlessly sang “Strange Fruit,” an aching cry against lynching. Plowshares Theatre unites the vocal and acting talents of Sheila Alyce Slaughter, who recreates Lady Day, with director Janet Cleveland’s uncanny ear for truth. Slaughter successfully walks a thin line in portraying an artist losing control of her craft, yet keeps the character understandable even as she descends into chaos. Her throaty voice caresses the lyrics. The curtain call would have produced quite an ovation had the spell-bound audience actually realized the show was over, and we weren’t applauding just one more of 15 fine musical numbers.
It’s always a pleasure to hear well-played jazz, and the trio, pianist Marvin Thompson as Jimmie Powers, backed by bassist Ibrahim Jones and Earl Orr, Jr., make fine music, indeed.
The new Boll Family YMCA Theater is a 198 seat black box; viewing is excellent, as are the sound and lighting systems. Kinda smells like a new car. It’s a welcome addition to the local scene.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” runs Thu.-Sun. by Plowshares Theatre at the Boll Family YMCA Theatre in downtown Detroit through Feb. 26 (excluding Feb. 3-5, 16-17). Tickets: $20-$30. For information: 313-872-0279.
The Bottom Line: Even the rich and famous were victims of racism; in this retrospective we share Holiday’s source of comfort and joy: her music.