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Curtain Calls

By |2006-02-23T09:00:00-05:00February 23rd, 2006|Entertainment|

Review: ‘Night Blooming’

New drama blossoms at Blackbird – almost

By Donald V. Calamia
Watching emerging playwrights find their voice is an aspect of theater criticism I truly enjoy.
So it was with great pleasure that I attended the opening night performance of “Night Blooming.” For not only is it the latest work by the gifted Joseph Zettelmaier, its premiere was staged at the Blackbird Theatre, a young company not afraid to take risks.
And I was not disappointed.
Zettelmaier, who recently received much acclaim for “The Stillness Between Breaths,” has an incredible ear for dialogue. Plus, he has a knack for creating strong, believable female characters.
So it’s no surprise that his latest endeavor tells the story of three generations of women – Natane, a Native American (Aphrodite Nikolovski); Lily, the daughter she abandoned after birth (Sara Switanowski); and Selene, the teenage granddaughter who’s dying of a rare disease (Shannon Ferrante).
Natane first enters Lily’s life – briefly – at the age of eight. They don’t see each other again until Lily is 16 and pregnant; later interactions are just as infrequent. Whenever the two cross paths, heated exchanges follow. But when a bone morrow transplant might save Selene’s life, will Natane donate hers when Lily’s is not a match?
Not only does Zettelmaier write a riveting story, he populates it with three unique and fully realized characters. But what’s sometimes missing are clarity and consistency, problems also shared by directors Dana Sutton and Ahmed Muslimani – and their talented actors, as well.
Early on, for example, Zettelmaier seems to explore Native American life, religion and mysticism. But intriguing concepts – such as “the four hills of life” and Natane’s seemingly innate ability to find her family and know what’s happening in their lives – are discarded part way through the show.
And the major through-line – why did Natane abandon Lily – isn’t given a dramatically satisfying resolution.
Then there’s this: The directors and actors need to rethink how they visualize the passage of 24 years in the play. Based upon Switanowski’s portrayal (and the dialogue), Lily seems to be 10 or 11 in the opening scene. But by doing the math presented not long after, we discover she was eight – a significant gap. Simply telling us how many years have passed doesn’t cut it; the audience needs to SEE the appropriate ages, as well.
However, none of this stops directors Sutton and Muslimani from staging a slick and perfectly paced production. (The phone call between Lily and Natane – done without phones – doesn’t work, however.)
And the cast? All three actresses breathe incredible life into their characters. Switanowski rides Lily’s emotional rollercoaster well, while Nikolovski reverently fills Natane with wisdom, grace and inner peace.
But it’s Ferrante who is most impressive. Her Selene – although written with far more insight than any 16-year-old could ever have – will tug at your heartstrings.
“Night Blooming” runs Thu.-Sat. at the Blackbird Theatre, 1600 Pauline, Ann Arbor, through March 4. Tickets: $8-$18. For information: 734-332-3848 or http://www.blackbirdtheater.biz
The Bottom Line: Despite its problems, Zettelmaier’s script gets a generally fine first staging at the Blackbird.

Review: ‘Brooklyn Boy’

Sensitive drama at JET highlights rediscovery of self

By John Quinn
I won’t bore you with Thomas Wolfe and the shop-worn cliche of, “You can’t go home again.” Eric Weiss doesn’t want to go home – in fact, he seems proud he’s out of the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood where he was born and raised. His third novel, the somewhat autobiographical “Brooklyn Boy,” is a best seller; and, in midlife, he’s suddenly famous. Is the fact his personal life is in a tailspin because of his success – or in spite of it?
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Donald Margulies takes us on a sensitive journey of self-discovery as Weiss begins the balancing act between his past and present. “Brooklyn Boy” is told mainly through dialogues, as the novelist encounters people uncomfortable with his change of fortune: his emotionally distant father, now dying; his wife, who’s divorcing him; the childhood friend who never left home; a book tour groupie; the abrasive Hollywood producer who has optioned his book and the vacuous young actor who wants the lead in the movie. Ultimately, he must make peace with himself before he makes peace with those around him.
The production at JET is a happy union of thoughtful direction, provided by Christopher Bremer, with boundless talent, both on stage and backstage. Even the scene changes are testament to precise choreography and economy of movement. The actors’ performances are also marked by a healthy economy: lean, crisp and stylish. There’s a reference in the play that “Eric Weiss” shares his name with “Erich Weiss,” aka “Harry Houdini,” you Trivial Pursuit geeks. And while the audience must decide whether Eric is as good an escape artist as Harry, there’s a comparison to be made here. Just as you never catch a fine illusionist in his sleight-of-hand, you never catch a fine actor “acting.” The actors of “Brooklyn Boy” make their performances look as natural as breathing. It’s an altogether satisfying experience.
In the pivotal role of Eric, John Lepard never leaves us behind as the character grows. He serves as an Everyman to anyone who finds himself at odds with his past. The always formidable Arthur Beer provides yet another memorable performance as Eric’s father, Manny; grumpy, stubborn, using his gruff exterior to ward off the affections of his son. Their scenes together are testaments to both performers as well as the playwright. There’s very little movement, and yet the emotional tension never lets the action drag.
Cliched or not, “going home” is a theme with which we all can all identify. Hats off to JET for a warm and wise variation on said theme.
“Brooklyn Boy” plays Wed., Thu., Sat. & Sun. by the Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at the DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield, through March 12. Tickets: $27-$37. For information: 248-788-2900 or http://www.jettheatre.org
The Bottom Line: This sensitive modern drama argues it is never too late to discover the real you.

About the Author:

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.