Curtain Calls

By | 2005-07-14T09:00:00-04:00 July 14th, 2005|Entertainment|
Review: ‘Small Packages’
Planet Ant gives summer gift of laughter

“Good things come in small packages,” my mother used to say. And Planet Ant’s 17th original comedy, “Small Packages,” is just that: a good thing!
The entertaining comedy explores the relationship between two very different adult sisters who move back in together at a critical point in both their lives. Aimee, the elder of the two, has just left her husband after discovering a naked woman in their bed; Kat, a lesbian, recently broke up with her girlfriend after once again proving how irresponsible and self-centered she is.
In the first act, the sisters “flash back” to the significant women and situations they’ve encountered over the years, and step-by-step, they begin to move on with their lives. But in the second act, we observe their childhood experiences and discover how they shaped the two into the women they are today.
It’s not a pretty story, but it sure is a funny one!
Like all of the Ant’s original comedies, “Small Packages” was written by its performers, in this case Tara Nida (Kat) and Jennifer Nischan (Aimee), through the art of improvisation, a skill both performers have honed as members of various improv troupes throughout the area. (Director Dave Davies and Stage Manager Tommy LeRoy also contributed to the show’s development, Davies notes in the program.)
What’s more, Nida and Nischan bring to life all of the 20 or so characters who pop in and out of the production.
The result is a very fast-paced program with many highlights and few misses.
The actresses excel as the two high school wrestling moms who become hot and bothered by the singlet-clad young athletes. And Kat’s experiences with a possible pick-up at the coffee shop – and then again at the Laundromat – are quite funny. So, too, is the scene in which Kat, while working in the morgue, struggles with a stiff. (What was stiff – and how the situation was handled – had the men in the audience groaning in sympathy for the dead guy!)
The show’s more poignant moments are also well handled.
However, what helps “Small Packages” truly work for this nitpicky critic is the seamless integration of script, performance, sound and lights. While it’s not always easy – or possible – to visually or vocally distinguish among the various characters each actress plays, the dialog, direction and lighting make it immediately clear that not only have we shifted to another time and place, but the people we see talking are strangers we have never met before. I, for one, appreciate that attention to detail.
The show’s only mentionable flaw is a minor one: its all-too-quickly-resolved ending. Unless I blinked and missed something last Friday night, there seems to be a leap to its happy, hopeful conclusion that doesn’t necessarily flow smoothly or logically from the preceding scenes; it just unexpectedly – and inexplicably – pops up out of nowhere. (The tender moment Kat and Aimee share towards the end of the show serves as a good start on the road to recovery, but it isn’t enough to drive the show to its conclusion.)
“Small Packages” Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck. Fri.-Sun. Through July 31. $10-$15. 313-365-4948. http://www.planetant.com.
The Bottom Line: Summertime just got a lot more fun with “Small Packages.”

Opinion: Confessions of a Cranky Critic
The wonder of the ages: What do theatergoers REALLY want to see?

Probably the toughest job in running a theater – other than finding truly creative ways of paying the bills, of course – is choosing which shows to produce in the upcoming season.
While that might not seem so tough, trust me; it is! One misstep – one show that fails to find an audience, or worse, drives the paying customers out of their seats in a fit of rage – and it won’t be long before a foreclosure sign is tacked on the theater’s door.
Selecting the perfect blend of comedies, dramas and musicals is more art than science. That’s partly because peoples’ tastes change every so often. Back when I managed a professional touring educational theater company, we produced a program that audiences couldn’t rave enough about. But a few years later when the show was revived, they couldn’t run us out of the schools fast enough. What changed? Between the time we returned the show to the schedule and it hit the road, political correctness took root; what was once quite funny became insensitive and boorish.
External factors can also wreak havoc with a theater’s schedule. When customers finally returned to the theater after 9-11, for example, only comedies and musicals sold. People wanted to laugh and return to simpler times, and who could blame them?
But what’s probably harder for theater executives to figure out is what their customers SAY they want versus what they actually support through ticket sales.
Surveys conducted over the years and anecdotal evidence seem to indicate that many theatergoers are tired of the same old retreads, and that there’s a strong demand in southeast Michigan for edgy and thought-provoking works, innovative dramas and new plays. So while many of the smaller, younger companies have found various degrees of success going that route, it wasn’t too many years ago that the old Meadow Brook Theatre tried it – and watched all hell break loose!
Such mixed signals must be especially troubling – and frustrating – for Al Lichtenstein, who books shows into Detroit’s Fisher and Masonic Temple Theatres. In a story published last month in “Variety,” the show-biz trade publication, Lichtenstein listed the box office disappointments of the 2004/05 season. “There were a lot of shows that didn’t do any business for people,” he said.
And that’s true.
If you look closely at the weekly gross revenue numbers published in “Variety,” you’ll discover that what theatergoers say is not necessarily what they mean. How else can you explain the fact that two new and excellent musicals, “Hairspray” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” seemingly had more seats empty than filled, whereas “The Phantom of the Opera” – a show that rolls into town quite often – packed ’em in! And to add salt to the wound, another retread – “Riverdance” at the Fabulous Fox Theatre- had a significantly higher box office tally than did “Little Shop” during the week both shows were in town.
So, folks: What the heck DO you want to see?

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