Year-End Review: 2004
There’s no doubt about it: Theater was alive and well in 2004
It was a year for the record books!
2004 was the year two tuckered-out theater critics reviewed an astounding 96 professional theater productions, up from 72 the year before. From Clinton Township to Lansing they traveled, sampling the offerings at 35 different venues along the way.
Some of the growth reflected increased programming at established theaters. And for the first time since its inception in 2001, Curtain Calls paid a visit to Chicago’s vibrant theater community where two shows of interest to the LGBT community were discussed. But it was the establishment of new theater troupes – especially within the city of Detroit – where much of the growth occurred.
Is Detroit finally on its way to becoming a “cool city”?
New & cool in Detroit
This past March saw the debut of Phases Theatre Company, a troupe with “an African American spin” created by local actress Elana Elyce. It premiered with “The Trees Don’t Bleed in Tuskegee” at Detroit’s Hastings Street Ballroom, followed in the fall by a second show – not reviewed – in its new home at Matrix Theatre in southwest Detroit. A spring 2005 show is under consideration.
Hastings Street Ballroom also played host to “Yard Sale,” an original comedy that premiered in June courtesy of Five Cents Short Productions. Featuring writer Timothy Campos and Andrew Huff, the show garnered strong reviews and even better ticket sales.
The no-longer Second City Theatre in the Hockeytown Caf didn’t remain dark for long after the improv troupe departed for Novi. It was renamed the City Theatre and relaunched in October with “The Male Intellect: an oxymoron?” – followed by an extended run of the Purple Rose Theatre Company’s smash hit comedy, “Duck Hunter Shoots Angel.”
2004 was also the year that brought flashbacks to theatergoers still able to recall the 1960s, as “political protest theater” once again became popular. Inspired by the politics of the season, co-producers Chris Hazlett and Darren Locke created a spanking new production company, NoSuch Group, to stage Jane Martin’s satire “Laura’s Bush” at 1515 Broadway. (The wildly absurd comedy was also staged as the opening production of The Mosh Pit at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre, making it one of two opportunities this fall to see two versions of the same show at the same time by two different theater companies!)
The Max – also known as the Max M. Fisher Music Center – presented its first-ever theatrical production in October with “Late Night Catechism II.” The one-nun show baptized the 450-seat Music Box, a multi-use space that, in December, continued its Catholic-themed mini-series with “Sister’s Christmas Catechism.”
Oliver Pookrum’s African Renaissance Theater returned in the fall with the drama “Topdog/Underdog,” the opening production of its first full season of shows, now staged at the Redd Apple Gallery.
Not so cool was the announcement this past spring that ZeitGeist Theater was calling it quits after the closing of “The Chairs” starring Roy K. Dennison and Leah Smith. It didn’t take long for John Jakary and the ZeitGeist gang to get restless, however, and the result was a very ZeitGeist-like production of “Entertainment Zero Machine” at – you guessed it – Hastings Street Ballroom.
Other “cool” stuff
Also starting its first full season of shows in the fall was the Abreact Performance Space – possibly the “coolest” theater in town. Nestled amidst the hustle-and-bustle of Detroit’s Greektown, patrons can relax on the second-floor fire escape in warm weather and choose from a variety of chairs and sofas during the show. And a friendlier bunch you won’t find anywhere!
Also ranking high on the “cool” scale was Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre. Not content with presenting its shows in only one space, the always creative company began staging shows at Hastings Street Ballroom this spring with the rock musical “Manny and the Mirror.” The project proved popular enough that York Griffith expanded his concept of “The Wizard of Oz” and moved it to Hastings Street in the fall.
In addition, not only did the Ant lengthen the runs of each show of the new season, but an aggressive series of original Late Night shows was also added beginning in the fall.
Theater was also alive and well in southwest Detroit, thanks to Matrix Theatre Company. Several adult and children’s groups call the theater home, and staged an eclectic mix of original shows in an intimate setting.
Not to be outdone, Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre also expanded the runs of its shows. Also added were The Mosh Pit, a second performance space for smaller, edgier productions and a season of shows for young people.
Dueling “Humble Boys” came to Michigan this year – and it had thespians and theater critics drooling with anticipation. Both Performance Network Theatre and Lansing’s BoarsHead Theatre obtained permission to stage the comedy in the fall – and somewhat at the same time – something relatively unheard of in the annals of history. So which theater staged the best production? We’ll never tellÉat least not until nominations for next year’s Wilde Awards are announced!
Finally, the “ultimate of coolness” came to Detroit Sept. 1 courtesy of the 2004 Wilde Awards held at the Gem Theatre. The coolest winner of all was Detroit’s Hilberry Theatre that walked away with eight out of 15 readers’ choice awards! Other winners included Performance Network Theatre (3 awards), Gem Theatre (2 awards), and the Detroit Repertory and Masonic Temple Theatres. Special awards were given to Plowshares Theatre Company, Purple Rose Theatre Company and activist Antonio David Garcia.
Improv is everywhere
Michiganians have Second City Detroit and its temporary shutdown to thank – or is it blame? – for the recent proliferation of improv troupes throughout the area.
The Improv Colony at Planet Ant has long been home to many of the region’s improvisers. Not only does the Colony perform at the Ant each Monday night, it also staged two popular summertime comedies, including the mega-hit, “Business as Unusual.”
Another highlight of the summer was the annual return of Larry Joe Campbell to Planet Ant, this time with “The 313” starring Campbell, Andy Cobb, Marc Evan Jackson, Josh Funk and Nyima Funk at Hastings Street Ballroom.
Project Pangea returned this summer to the TreeTown Performance Festival in Ann Arbor. The troupe also staged a Christmas-themed show in the Network’s new Mosh Pit.
Meanwhile, a new troupe, Motoprism, began performing this fall every Sunday night at Matrix Theatre.
But there’s only one place for those who want an “improv fix” five nights a week, and that’s Ann Arbor’s new hot spot, Improv Inferno, where different shows are presented Wednesday through Sunday nights.