Review: ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’
Tennessee Williams’ “Bird” Sings at the Hilberry Theatre
By John Quinn
Tennessee Williams is a name to conjure with in the American theater. Deeply conflicted by his homosexuality as a young man, his works reflect the cry of the underdog. He was notably the victim of a 1979 gay-bashing in Key West, when the homophobic newspaper ads of a Baptist minister sparked violence in that rather tolerant community. (Makes Fred Phelps seem like a failure, doesn’t it?) He was troubled and self-destructive, heavily into alcohol and other drugs. His death in 1983 – choked to death on a bottle cap – may have been drug related. In summary, Tennessee Williams was no role model, but he’s someone we understand.
Through the pain, Williams found a voice for the common man and woman of the mid-century South. His great works follow iconic characters, many drawn from his own life – fragile, flawed, notoriously “dependant on the kindness of strangers.” His gift was an ear for the poetic quality of the English language when set to the lilt of the Delta dialect. When he was good, he was very, very good, and when he was bad, he was better than most playwrights could ever hope to be.
Well, “Sweet Bird of Youth” isn’t great Williams. There are holes in the plot, some characters border on caricature and the culture has evolved beyond the shock and dismay that his corruptions were supposed to provoke.
Film actress Alexandra del Lago tries to make a come-back after 15 years of retirement. Horrified at the reaction of an audience at a screening of her new film, she flees. Well, what’s a woman to do? Alexandra picks up a cabana boy from a Palm Beach hotel and drives west, hoping to avoid the spotlight.
And if you’re an aspiring actor and over-the-hill gigolo like Chance Wayne, what better way to advance your career than to offer sexual favors in return for a job in Hollywood? But Chance has some baggage, and it brings them to the sleepy Gulf town he left 12 years before. He’s hoping to rekindle a relationship with the girl he left behind. Too bad her father, politico Boss Finley, is no more kindly disposed to him than when he was run off at 17.
How do you change a fresh as a daisy actress into a faded rose of a film star? One method might be applying greasepaint with a putty knife, top it off with a fright wig and, voila! You have something akin to the Carol Burnett parody of “Sunset Boulevard.” Or you can let Morgan Chard find her character, and let her interpret it without technical gimmicks. Director James Luse chose the latter, and the play is the better for it. We get to see the fine results of an intense character study; Chard’s performance is gritty and uncompromising, but never strays far from the basic fragility of a Williams’ heroine. Best of all, it is totally believable.
Chance Wayne is an unlikely tragic hero, but the elements are there, none the less. Michael Brian Ogden plays a flawed and, yes, stupid guy – yet sexy, cocky and confident. If focus is lost in Chance’s more excited scenes, the problem is as much Williams’ as Ogden’s.
A special note must be made of Mike Metzel’s rendition of Boss Findley. Playing the character in a wheelchair and on crutches, he brings as much manic vitality and messianic drive to the rabid segregationist as an actor on two good feet.
Williams wrote, “There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. Some are a little better or a little worse, but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other’s hearts … That is the way we all see each other in life.” Is redemption possible for segregationists like Boss Finley? Is there redemption for the homophobic Phelps? Tennessee Williams raises the questions – but he’s not giving us the answers.
‘Sweet Bird of Youth” plays in repertory at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit, through Jan. 28, 2006. Tickets: $20-$28. For information: 313-577-2972 or http://www.hilberry.com.
The Bottom Line: A classic of mid-century drama, “Sweet Bird of Youth” gets a compelling reading from the Hilberry troupe.
Review: ‘Last Call’
Planet Ant gets caught staging arresting late night drama
By Donald V. Calamia
Most late night productions that pop up these days are comedies. After all, the theory goes, people don’t want to solve mysteries or cry their eyes out at 11 o’clock in the evening. Instead, they’d rather hoist a brew and laugh their asses off.
So it takes guts to buck tradition, and that’s exactly what Planet Ant Theatre is doing with its second original drama, “Last Call,” that opened this past weekend. (Well, not totally: You can still hoist that brew while watching the drama – as long as you carry it into the theater with you.)
Written by the production’s cast and directors Jennifer Nischan and Jaime Moyer, “Last Call” details to what length a bar owner will go when he attempts getting something – anything – out of his failing business, no matter who gets harmed in the process.
Steve, it seems, is behind on all of his bills – including alimony payments to a much despised ex-wife. Customers are scarce, and his brother Mikey, who loves to play the big-hearted big shot, doesn’t help by allowing hot women to skip out without paying their considerable tabs. (They promise to, of course, but never do. At least not financially.)
So what’s a failure to do, Steve ponders? Why, take the easy route, of course: torch the bar and collect the insurance money. (That’s the one bill Steve always keeps current.)
He secretly shares his plans with his ditzy girlfriend Allison, a waitress at the bar, who is not initially thrilled with the idea. She’s especially troubled by one specific aspect of the plot: Mikey will be framed for the fire. But love triumphs over common sense after Steve assures her that they won’t get caught. Allison is now a willing – but nervous – accomplice.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave, a certain playwright once wrote. And that’s certainly the case with this imaginative thriller. For the story takes an unexpected turn that many in the audience – if not most – won’t see coming.
What theatergoers WILL see, however, are three talented actors whose skillful portrayals never allow us to waiver from the belief that the story is heading in the direction we’ve been TOLD it’s heading.
Steve, as portrayed by Pj Jacokes, is a calculatingly cool-under-pressure type of guy. Nothing seems to bother him, nor does he seem to truly care about anyone but himself. More importantly, one suspects he’d pass every lie detector test ever given with flying colors – no matter how many untruths he’d fabricate.
Kathryn Thomas is almost too convincing in the role of Allison. Have you ever wanted to grab a woman-in-love, shake her silly and scream, “Wake up and smell the coffee, honey – he’s a loser”? Yep: That’s Allison!
But most impressive is Patrick O’Connor Cronin who wears Mikey’s devil-may-care attitude like a glove. He breezes in, breezes out and chases any skirt that will have him for the night. (They buy the pizza, of course.) What’s more, you’re convinced that that’s all there is to this shallow, lazy scamp.
Despite its near-perfect performances and the script’s unexpected twist, “Last Call” falls a little short in the logic department. I suspect what happens to the characters AFTER the play’s end won’t be what they believe it will be in its final moments. But that’s another play – and I won’t ruin the ending and tell you why. Go find out for yourself and see if you agree.
‘Last Call’ is staged Thu.-Sun. as a Late Night Series presentation at Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck, through Dec. 3. Tickets: $5. For information: 313-365-4948 or http://www.planetant.com.
The Bottom Line: Late night gets seriously fun at Planet Ant Theatre.
Preview: ‘A Christmas Carol’
New Scrooge takes center stage at Meadow Brook
Compiled by Donald V. Calamia
ROCHESTER – You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. And once again you’ll be glad you attended Meadow Brook Theatre’s perennial holiday tradition, “A Christmas Carol.”
The Charles Dickens’ classic returns to delight audiences of all ages on Fri., Nov. 25.
Assuming the role of Ebenezer Scrooge following Dennis Robertson’s retirement is Peter Gregory Thomson, last seen at MBT in the dual roles of twin brothers with murderous intents in “Corpse!” Audiences old and new will be delighted with his portrayal of the crotchety character who learns an important lesson when he is haunted by three ghosts on the night of Christmas Eve.
Thomson is a favorite MBT performer, seen in roles such as Morris in “The Heiress,” Algernon in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Booth in “The Last Days of Mr. Lincoln,” Chris in the 1984 production of “All My Sons” and the title roles in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” He has performed in past seasons of “A Christmas Carol” in the role of Scrooge’s young nephew, Fred.
Since his departure from MBT, Mr. Thomson has been working exclusively in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Local audiences are fortunate that his schedule allows him this Michigan engagement. Mr. Thomson comes here following his performances in “The Constant Wife” at Guthrie Theatre.
“A Christmas Carol” will be staged at various dates and times at Meadow Brook Theatre, on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Nov. 25-Dec. 24. Tickets: $30-$38. For information: 248-377-3300 or http://www.mbttheatre.com.
The Bottom Line: It’s not Christmas without this much beloved, family-friendly production!
Preview: ‘Annual Holiday Perform-A-Thon’
Mosaic Youth Theatre gives back to the community
Compiled by Donald V. Calamia
DETROIT – In celebration of the fast-approaching holiday season, DaimlerChrysler and Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit present their Annual Holiday Perform-A-Thon on Sat., Dec. 3. From dawn until dusk, Mosaic’s talented young artists will deck the halls of more than 70 homeless and domestic abuse shelters, nursing homes, juvenile detention centers, hospitals, hospices and other facilities by sharing their unique gifts of music, theatre and visual arts.
Mosaic’s 13th annual performance marathon will find its youth ensemble traveling widely throughout the metropolitan Detroit area, providing free holiday performances to those who would not otherwise have an opportunity to experience a show. This poignant event represents an opportunity for Mosaic to express its gratitude for the ongoing support it has received from the greater metropolitan community.
All 100 of its ensemble members will participate. From the acting company’s energetic skits to the singers’ sweet melodies – and the technicians’ brilliant stagecraft – Mosaic’s Perform-A-Thon is sure to be a beacon of light for those less fortunate at a time when there can never be too much joy spread about.
This year, Perform-A-Thon’s long list of hosting facilities includes such venues as Boys & Girls Republic, Gilda’s Club, Michigan Veteran’s Foundation, Eastwood Convalescent Center and Capuchin Soup Kitchen.
Mosaic’s young artists will depart from the General Motors Mosaic Theatre at 610 Antoinette at 9:30 a.m.
For further information regarding Mosaic’s Perform-A-Thon, call Kimberly Shelby at 248-307-0503 or Margaret Smith at 313-872-6910 ext. 4004.
Community Theater Corner:
24-Hour Theater returns; needs writers, directors and actors
Compiled by Donald V. Calamia
LANSING – That’s right – that zany 24-hour theater experiment is back! This year, Sunsets With Shakespeare is seeking up to six writers ages 14-25, and up to six directors any age for its annual one-day creative arts extravaganza.
Sunsets is particularly interested in NEW writing and directing talent, as well as serving and representing the diverse views of the greater Lansing area. Thus, minorities, women and LBGT people are encouraged to submit for writing and directing positions.
So what exactly IS the 24-Hour Theater?
At 8 p.m. on Fri, Feb. 24, 2006, writers will arrive without any prewritten scripts at the RE Olds Anderson Rotary Barn at Woldumar Nature Center in Lansing. They will let their creative juices flow from 8 p.m. until 7 a.m. the following morning, when the directors arrive for a one-hour script conference with the writers.
At 8 a.m., the actors arrive, are cast in the shows and begin rehearsals.
At 6 p.m., all casts “tech” their shows, and at 8 p.m., all of the plays written in the preceding 24 hours are given their world premiere performances.
Tickets to watch the world premieres are only $5.
For complete information on how to become involved in this unique endeavor, email Todd Heywood at SunsetsTheater@aol.com.