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Review: 'Savage in Limbo'
Shanley's characters are afraid to move on, but to their credit, DET's actors aren't

What do you do when you put on a play and nobody comes?
That's the decision that had to be made last Saturday night when only a theater critic and a good looking – and very friendly – young man showed up at the Detroit Ensemble Theatre in Roseville for that night's performance of "Savage in Limbo" by John Patrick Shanley.
The traditional rule most theaters follow in such instances is quite simple: If there are fewer people in the audience than are in the cast, politely cancel and beg everyone's forgiveness – and hopefully the disappointed customers will come again another day. In this particular case, however, one-half of the audience couldn't come back another time – guess which one? – so the decision was made to go on with the show.
For that alone, the brave – and probably very disappointed actors – deserve a hearty round of applause. It's tough pouring your heart out to 38 empty seats, not knowing whether or not the only two occupants will laugh in all the right places.
And it surely takes guts to go out there knowing full well that the bald guy sitting by himself in the second row has a notebook in hand and is scrutinizing your every move.
But what impressed me the most about their decision was the fact that never did it feel like the five troupers directed their performance directly at the two of us. That's what probably would have happened with lesser talent, but it quickly became obvious that these actors understand it's necessary to "play to the house" – no matter how barren that house is.
Like the actors themselves who probably questioned their decision to go on with the show, Shanley's characters are likewise second-guessing themselves. Set in a seedy bar in the Bronx, tough-talking Denise Savage has come to realize that life as a 32-year-old virgin isn't what it's cracked up to be. It's time to make a change – but what? As we soon discover, all of the others in the bar are also 32 and trapped in their lives. Each claims to want to move on – but fear of the unknown stops them. Only bar owner Murk wants things to stay the same; after all, he makes the rules in his personal kingdom.
With little room to maneuver on DET's small stage, director Rich Goteri accented the characters' frustrations by having them pace back and forth like caged animals. For the most part, that concept works well, but eventually the monotony gets tiresome.
Megan Pennefather has the ballsy Bronx chick routine down pat, and fireman Joe Comaianni is almost too believable as the hot Italian stud whose life revolves around nothing more than "the girl, the car and the bed."
The only thing missing – other than an audience, of course – was a curtain call. Was that because the actors simply wanted to get off stage as quickly as possible and – like their characters – move on with their lives?
"Savage in Limbo" Performed Friday & Saturday at Detroit Ensemble Theatre, 25213A Gratiot, Roseville, through April 30, plus Sunday, April 24. Tickets: $15. 888-220-8471. http://www.detroitensembletheatre.com.
The Bottom Line: Local theatergoers often complain that there's not enough professional theater in town, but when it comes to supporting them, many don't walk the talk. So c'mon, folks: Give a young, struggling theater a chance to survive!

Review: 'The Frontier'
Lives of pioneer women are celebrated in new family-friendly drama

As the song says at the start of the second act of "The Frontier," now playing at Ann Arbor's Blackbird Theatre, those were indeed hard times.
The families that packed their belongings and headed west in the last half of the 19th century were true pioneers. While some were looking for adventure, most traveled the unspoiled countryside in search of a better life. Few were truly prepared for the hardships and struggles they encountered, but most were filled with a spirit that would not succumb to defeat. Those whose faith and determination remained strong – despite the obstacles tossed their way – are remembered today as the brave souls who tamed the Wild West.
Yet many of their stories remain untold.
History proudly recalls the exploits of the brave men who conquered the west; what's been swept away, however, are the contributions of the equally courageous women.
"The Frontier," an original drama written and directed by Dana Sutton, helps correct that oversight.
With the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilde Lane as her inspiration, Sutton tells the story of two families that settle on western land given away by the federal government. Charles and Sonja Fergus arrive first, moving into a one-room house with their daughter Ruth that was built and abandoned by the previous homesteader. Soon after, Gabe and Caroline Appleton arrive with Gabe's two younger sisters. The families quickly form a friendship.
It's not an easy life, but everyone is pleased by a successful first growing season.
Until, that is, an unexpected swarm of grasshoppers destroys their crops. So the two families move in together while the husbands head farther west in search of temporary work. The women are left to fend for themselves.
It's rare these days to find a play that is suitable for the entire family. As many contain language or themes that concerned parents might find objectionable, Sutton is to be commended for crafting a script that has neither. Instead, she paints a very realistic portrait of frontier life, from its moments of high adventure to the mundane chores that filled the average day. The unfolding drama is as entertaining as it is educational for young and old alike.
What also makes "The Frontier" rather unusual is its positive treatment of religion. Sutton doesn't shy away from the fact that many of the pioneer families were devout Christians whose faith helped them survive the trials they faced – and that the town church was the glue that kept many fledgling communities together. It was an important aspect of pioneer life, one she beautifully and sensitively acknowledges.
Generally strong performances are given by the show's adult professional cast, but it's the young actors who deserve recognition. Especially notable is eighth grader Sasha Lazare who, as Ruth Fergus, takes to the stage like a long established veteran.
Dana Anderson plays Sophie Appleton with a perfect mix of childhood innocence and oncoming adult responsibility. And second grader Sorbie Richner is as cute as can be in her first professional role as the mostly mute Rose Appleton.
One note to director Sutton: What's needed to strengthen this otherwise engaging production – especially for the youngsters in the audience – is a quicker pace or more movement on stage during the play's very chatty, but action-less moments. Once you lose them, it's hard to get them refocused!
"The Frontier" Staged Thursday through Sunday by BlackBag Productions at The Blackbird Theatre, 1600 Pauline, Ann Arbor, through April 30. Tickets: $5 – $17. 734-332-3848.http://www.blackbirdtheatre.biz.
The Bottom Line: Fans of "Little House on the Prairie" will love this family-friendly original drama.



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