Announcing: A New Era for Curtain Calls
The most complete theater coverage in town gets even better
By Donald V. Calamia, Theater and Arts Editor
Welcome to the inaugural edition of Curtain Calls ONLINE.
It’s been over four years since Curtain Calls began appearing each week in Between The Lines, bringing Michigan readers the most comprehensive theater coverage available. It wasn’t long before publishers Susan Horowitz and Jan Stevenson doubled their commitment to the theater community with Curtain Calls XTRA. And beginning this week, that commitment increases yet again to include exclusive, expanded content found only on the company’s Web site.
“One of the advantages of moving some of our theater coverage to our Web site is the fact that space on the internet is infinite, whereas that’s definitely not the case with the print editions of the newspaper,” Horowitz recently said. “With so much happening throughout Michigan’s theater community, and our desire to provide the most complete coverage possible, we felt everyone – the theater community and our readers – would be better served if we provided a limitless forum for this coverage.”
Beginning this week, readers of BTL will find the original Curtain Calls page in both the print and online editions of the paper. However, Curtain Calls XTRA – an additional page that appeared only during the prime theater season – has been replaced by Curtain Calls ONLINE, an expanded weekly column that features content exclusive to this Web site.
“Before, Curtain Calls and Curtain Calls XTRA were limited to no more than 2,000 words per week, but not anymore,” Horowitz said. “Now we can cover theater organically. If we need 4,000 words to adequately bring our readers the latest theater news, then that’s what we’ll do. In other words, the stories will define the space, rather than the space defining the stories.”
Reviews of shows staged by southeast Michigan’s professional theaters will be a primary focus of Curtain Calls ONLINE. Additional features will include previews of upcoming productions, news and commentaries. Regular readers will also see the introduction of new segments, including one devoted to the area’s community and educational theaters.
“Up to this point, our main objective has been to shine the spotlight on our professional theaters, but with our expanded space, we can now highlight a little more of what’s happening in our university and community theaters, as well. That’s something we’ve often wanted to do, but with space restrictions, it was usually impossible to accomplish to the degree everyone would have liked. That’s not a problem now,” Horowitz said.
The co-publisher emphasized, however, that only shows staged by professional theaters will be reviewed.
Curtain Calls ONLINE is a work in progress, Horowitz noted. “The look of the column will evolve over the next several weeks until we settle on a format that truly works for everyone involved. And the contents and column length will vary from week-to-week, as well. Nonetheless, our promise is to continue providing the most comprehensive – and best – theater coverage in the state. Please let us know how we’re doing!”
Welcome – and read on!
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Plowshares connects with a great pitch: It’s an over the “Fences” home run
By John Quinn
There is an old adage that, “Time and tide wait for no man.” When the relentless tide took August Wilson from us -at 60, too young – on Oct. 2, America lost a part of its voice. In getting some background for this review, I ran across another writer’s observation that really made me sit up and take notice. The obituaries of August Wilson, describing him as a great African-American playwright, are accurate but they simply aren’t broad enough. The clarity of his vision, the scope of his work and the universality of his themes make him one with Miller and O’Neill – a Great American Playwright, capitals well deserved.
He didn’t wait, and waste the time allotted him. Among his memorable works are ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th Century, with themes that drive home the point that the African-American story is OUR American story. He used the advance from slavery, through Jim Crow segregation and beyond as the touchstone for an entire country’s search for liberty and justice. The tenth play, “Radio Golf,” debuted just this spring.
His vision did not go unnoticed. August Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, for “The Piano Lesson” and for “Fences,” now in production at Plowshares Theatre. Director Gary Anderson, in his curtain speech, noted Wilson’s unfailing ear for the voice of the street and his marvelous ability to bring that voice to life in his characters. Plowshares Theatre’s rendition is a revelation for audiences unfamiliar with Wilson’s work.
“Fences,” like all but one of the decade plays, is set in Pittsburgh, between 1957 and 1965. While Pennsylvania never knew the cancer of chattel slavery, it couldn’t escape the lingering illness of segregation. Troy Maxon, now in his fifties, had been a great baseball player, but never made it to the major leagues. By the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Troy was too old for consideration. As his wife Rose gently suggests, “You just came along too early.” When his son Cory’s talents in football attract the attention of a college recruiter, Troy stands in the way of Cory’s future, maintaining that athletic prowess didn’t help him, how can it help his son? If that sounds like an irrational argument, indeed it is. But segregation has poisoned this man, to the depths of his soul. He talks a good game about “independence” and “self-reliance,” but he is also a dependent and manipulative hypocrite. Are the sins of the father to be visited on the son? The endless struggle between generations for self determination is seldom so dramatically presented.
A uniformly fine cast takes the stage for “Fences,” led by the formidable James Cowans as Troy. He portrays the complete character, both the hurt and the hurtful man.
The equally formidable Rhonda Freya English as his wife, Rose, demonstrates her character is no shrinking violet. Her star turn in the second act is a beautiful piece of acting.
In fact, hats off to Gary Anderson for bringing out the very best in an ensemble of remarkable talent.
“Fences” is presented Thu., Sat. & Sun. by Plowshares Theatre Company at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren, Detroit, through Dec. 4. Tickets: $17.50-$25. For information: 313-872-0279 or http://www.plowshares.org.
The Bottom Line: When you have a chance to see the best of the American Theater performed with such style, seize the opportunity.
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Review: ‘Sez She’
Monologues, yes; monotony, no: Women take the stage at The Theatre Company
By John Quinn
So there’s this story of two English Lit professors arguing – the first claiming that the plays of William Shakespeare were actually written by Elizabeth I. “Surely you jest!” said his friend. “You can’t possibly suggest that such magnificent poetry was crafted by a woman?”
“Of course not!” snapped the other. “I contend that Elizabeth I was actually a man!”
So what relevance is there in the story? That is, other than the fact this column is no longer subject to length restrictions imposed on the print edition and I’m really taking advantage? It’s that Jane Martin, author of the Theatre Company’s world premiere, “Sez She,” is far more the “unknown playwright” than Shakespeare ever was. She has never made any public appearances nor has she been photographed. She’s never given an interview and no biographical details are known about her. The name, Jane Martin, is widely believed to be a pseudonym. Her literary agent states that it would be impossible for Martin to write if her identity were known. This leads to speculation that her agent, or some other male, is really “Jane Martin.”
But again, so what? The question boils down to: Could a man write such great female characters as show up in the plays of Jane Martin? He could, as long as there are fine actresses around to give them life, and fine directors like David Regal to lead the way. The University of Detroit Mercy’s Theatre Company scores in both categories.
Martin’s works are not so much “women’s theater” as they are post-feminist observations on life from a woman’s perspective. The universality of their themes is one of their endearing qualities. Martin’s characters are smart, sassy and very entertaining. Her play “Talking With …” was last produced locally by Meadow Brook Theatre in the 2004 season; directed by Mr. Regal, it snared a Wilde Award nomination for Favorite Ensemble Production.
“Sez She,” like “Talking With …,” is a series of monologues. It’s a devilish job for the performer, who has mere seconds of time and a change of costume to impart place and character to the audience. In addition, the actress is at the mercy of the playwright; some of the scenes work better than others. Martin’s wit and right-on observations make for an affable evening of theater.
The Theatre Company production mixes guest artists with theater department students; it’s a tribute to all concerned that it’s impossible to tell who is who without the program. The performances are polished but natural. Using only a bare platform and directional lighting, the women deftly create a sense of place and time. Suitable for the educational branch of The Theatre Company’s work, these eight troupers are demonstrating how an actor prepares – in this case, maybe that all-important audition piece.
Rest assured, then, that you’ll find more than a few of the characters inhabiting “Sez She” to be interesting and likable. They can even win over the Doubting Thomas who claims that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Christopher Marlowe.
“Sez She” is presented Fri.-Sun. by The University of Detroit Mercy’s Theatre Company at Marygrove College Theatre, Detroit, through Nov. 27. Tickets: $15. For information: 313-933-3270 or http://theatre.udmercy.edu.
The Bottom Line: I sez “Sez She” is an entertaining evening with some witty and winsome women.
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Review: ‘Golda’s Balcony’
Valerie Harper gives ‘golden’ performance in one-woman show
By Donald V. Calamia
Ask people today the following question – Who was the idealistic Jewish Socialist from Milwaukee who became prime minister of one of the world’s most controversial democracies? – and you’ll more than likely receive blank stares in reply. (I did just that recently, and the five people I asked hadn’t a clue who I was talking about.) So much for the study of history, I suppose.
The surprising answer to that question can be found – of all places – at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre where “Golda’s Balcony” opened last week to a smaller-than-usual house, but one that seemed to embrace the show with greater-than-normal enthusiasm.
With a riveting script by William Gibson and a generally spot-on performance by Valerie Harper, “Golda’s Balcony” offers a fascinating look at the life of Golda Meir, one of the most powerful women ever to lead a modern-day nation – especially one under siege and threatened with extinction.
The play opens with Golda, in her later years, reflecting upon all that’s happened throughout her long, history-affecting life. “I’m at the end of my stories,” she tells the audience, but that’s not quite true: There’s one left – and it’s a doozy.
For the next 90 minutes, Golda spins a yarn that spans much of the 20th century. She recalls her 1898 birth in Kiev, her childhood in Milwaukee, her marriage to Morris Meyerson in 1917, their move in 1921 to a kibbutz in Palestine, the struggles that she and her contemporaries endure to create the long-desired State of Israel and her rise to world prominence thereafter. And she relives the agony she suffered during the 1973 Yom Kippur War when she was faced with plunging the world into a nuclear nightmare. (Didn’t know THAT part of the story, did you?)
If what you’ve just read sounds like a boring historical recreation, you’re wrong. Rather, “Golda’s Balcony” is a “warts and all” autobiography of a powerful – and colorful – woman who was an active and important participant in many of the 20th century’s most defining moments. It’s the story of “a housewife” who had to “decide between generals,” yet “couldn’t make matzah balls.” Instead, her goal was to make the world a better place to live.
Whether or not she did so, of course, depends on your political views. However, Gibson’s script centers not so much on the politics of her time, but the characters who drove those politics. It’s a story filled with laughter and fears, drama and tears. And it recalls names many of us have long forgotten – or never knew. (Quick test: Who was David Ben-Gurion? Or Moshe Dayan?)
But it’s also a script that can – at times – be hard to follow. That’s because – like all stories told from memory – the events are presented out of chronological order. It’s not that the story meanders through time; it’s just that one thought leads to another, and before you know it, Golda is off on yet another subject before she returns to the point of her original story. (It’s like listening to your grandparents talk about “the good old days,” but without the potty breaks.)
Such a style requires a clean and very precise performance by the actors who bring the story to life. In “Golda’s Balcony,” that task falls into the hands of a single performer – and the versatile Harper is more than up to the challenge. She convincingly evokes the world leader’s spirit without resorting to impersonation, and she flawlessly captures Meir’s unique cadence. (Her accent was part Yiddish, part Midwestern American and mixed with Hebrew.)
This being a one-woman show with multiple characters, it’s up to Harper to quickly shift from person to person as the need arises. So with nothing more than a change of voice and the shift of her body, Harper easily switches from Golda to Henry Kissinger, or Golda to her husband – and, just as quickly, reverts to Golda. Only rarely on opening night did Harper’s own voice sneak into the production, an intrusion quite noticeable, yet easily forgiven.
(Why? Because what Israel’s neighbors failed to do in 1973, Hurricane Wilma accomplished this past October in Ft. Lauderdale: It wiped “Golda’s Balcony” off the schedule after only the opening performance of its national tour. However, Harper continued to run the show every day in her living room so that she’d be prepared for the Detroit run. And because the set barely made it from Florida in time for the Detroit opening, there was little chance for adequate technical rehearsals. So I suspect that the few flubbed lines and such we observed on opening night have long since disappeared.)
Visual stimulation is provided by Anna Louizos’ rubble-like set – a synagogue, perhaps? – upon which videos and photographs are imaginatively shown. It’s a cool concept, well utilized.
“Golda’s Balcony” runs Tue.-Sun. at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, through Nov. 27. Tickets: $32-$57. For information: 313-872-1000 or http://www.nederlanderdetroit.com.
The Bottom Line: Dramas are tough sells these days, but if you like your history entertaining, don’t miss this well-written, invigoratingly staged and well acted production.