Curtain Calls

Review: 'Duck Hunter Shoots Angel'
Good heavens: World premiere comedy closes Purple Rose season on celestial note

It's probably safe to assume that one sure way NOT to get into heaven is to shoot one of The Almighty's angels out of the sky – even if by accident. And one sure way to spend a highly entertaining evening of live theater – and NOT run the risk of eternal damnation – is to wing your way to Chelsea's Purple Rose Theatre to see what happens when "Duck Hunter Shoots Angel."
Actually, what the Early brothers shoot is in dispute. After all, since when do angels hang out in an Alabama swamp? And if it truly WAS a celestial being, why was it so easy to knock out of the sky? Especially by a couple of rednecks who couldn't hit a duck if one was quacking directly in front of them?
That's what the rich and sleazy owner of a trashy supermarket tabloid, the Weekly World & Globe, wants to find out. So Lester sends his best writer and a photographer to the Deep South to ferret out the truth.
Or, at best, to come back with a totally fabricated tale guaranteed to titillate his 400,000 twice-weekly readers. (So why isn't the publication called the Bi-Weekly World & Globe? Figure it out, my intelligent LGBT readersÉ)
Sandy, a self-professed "writer of crap," believes in neither God nor angels. Nor is he interested in returning to the area where he once lived and worked – and where he left behind a broken-hearted woman who never heard from him again.
Fate, however, works in mysterious ways!
So, too, does Mitch Albom, who somehow squeezed time into his busy schedule as a syndicated columnist for the Detroit Free Press, syndicated radio host heard weekday afternoons on WJR, commentator on ESPN and celebrated author of best selling books to craft his first solo effort as a playwright. (His first play, "Tuesday's with Morrie," was co-authored with Jeffrey Hatcher.)
It's a fine first effort – even with its few minor imperfections!
Albom is obviously a risk taker who loves to challenge himself through his work.
Rather than tell his story in a straightforward, linear fashion, "Duck Hunter Shoots Angel" comes to life primarily through a series of flashbacks. Sandy relates his tale to someone – but to whom? God? All is eventually revealed, but it is a difficult format that even some of the most experienced playwrights don't dare to tread.
The playwright also wisely populates his story not with stereotypes, but with unique individuals. Sure, we chuckle uproariously at their antics. But beneath their colorful exteriors we discover a wonderfully diverse cross-section of humanity; one message seems to be this: It doesn't matter where you live or what color you are, people everywhere are more alike than any of us might want to admit!
A well-written play cannot have a successful premiere without the guidance of an experienced director. Guy Sanville's contributions to "Duck Hunter Shoots Angel" are immeasurable.
Sanville has staged "Duck Hunter Shoots Angel" with a superb comic eye. Each act is beautifully paced, and with no break between scenes, each transition is flawlessly executed.
What's more, this is a very technical show. Sanville and lighting designer Reid G. Johnson have outdone themselves with this production.
But most importantly, Albom's play is an actor's playground.
PRT mainstay Wayne David Parker excels as Duane, "the world's smallest redneck." Recent Wilde Award nominee Joseph Albright brings a depth to the other Early brother, Duwell, that is amazing to watch. And Ryan Carlson gives Lester a delightfully slimy interpretation.
Fine performances are also given by James Krag (Sandy), Wallace Bridges (Lenny), Jenny McKnight (Woman) and Jessica Cloud (Kansas).
The show's minor flaw – besides the occasional lines that didn't get the response they should have – is easily fixable: The accident discussed at show's end that ties the story together needs to be clarified; some leaving last Friday night's performance seemed confused about what happened.
And while the half-alligator/half-man is an interesting character concept, is his purpose simply to show up wherever he's needed just like the silent mute of commedia dell'arte? Or is there something more that we missed?
"Duck Hunter Shoots Angel" Presented Wednesday through Sunday at Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park St., Chelsea, through Aug. 28. Tickets: $17.50 – $32.50. 734-433-7673.
The Bottom Line: The Purple Rose closes its season with yet another excellent production!

Review: 'Charlotte's Web'
Hilberry spins barnyard tale

There's a saying in showbiz that's never far from the minds of many industry executives: Tomorrow's theatergoers are the youth of today.
If you took an informal poll, you'd probably find that a majority of adult theatergoers were first exposed to the art form as children. Some took fieldtrips to see "Young Abe Lincoln" at a local theater, while others sat in their school's gymnasium to watch a vagabond troupe of actors bring "Hansel and Gretel" to life.
To many theater executives, then, it is important to cultivate a taste for theater beginning at a very young age. If we don't capture the hearts and minds of today's youth, who will fill the theaters of tomorrow?
So it was with great pleasure that I ventured to Detroit's Hilberry Theatre this past week to attend a performance of its annual summertime children's offering, "Charlotte's Web."
Dramatized by Joseph Robinette based on the classic book by E.B. White, the Hilberry company tackles this childhood favorite with great gusto. And what an entertaining production it is!
Wilbur, the runt of a litter, is rescued from destruction by Fern, a little girl who raises the piglet on her uncle's farm. Uncle Homer, however, has other plans: Once Wilbur attains a certain weight, he will be turned into bacon.
The anxious pig's life is spared when Charlotte, a spider who lives in the barn, comes up with an amazing plan; who knew a spider's web could prove so useful?
"Charlotte's Web" contains a clearly defined moral that is as timely for young audiences today as it was when the book debuted in 1952. And Lavinia Hart – a veteran with more than a passing nod to the genre – gives it life with an energetic staging that certainly keeps the young ones' attention.
Amanda Rae Jones, about to begin her third year in the Hilberry graduate program, spins an engaging performance as a very non-scary Charlotte. Youngsters seem to delight in watching Jones maneuver her three sets of arms.
Molly McMahon is fun as Wilbur, while Darrell Glasgow, Angela Duffy, Samuel Brice, Frannie Shepard-Bates and Katie Glazka each play multiple characters.
Sets and lights by Kristen Compton and Elizabeth Cooper are up to Hilberry's always fine standards.
Just two things marred last Tuesday's performance: The sound often overpowered the voices of the actors, and the actors need to be cognizant of audience reactions at all times. Much dialogue was lost as actors delivered their lines while the audience was laughing or otherwise verbalizing.
"Charlotte's Web" Presented at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit, through July 10. Tickets: $4. 313-577-2972.
{The Bottom Line: A children's theater production with all of the "must haves" – from a chase through the audience to a well-defined lesson to be learned. (And no intermission, so plan your visit accordingly!)}