by Patrice Nolan, Encore Michigan
FERNDALE – Slipstream Theatre Initiative has created an original, home-grown theatrical experience that explores the unique aspects of pursuing an acting career in the Pure Michigan manner. Tales from the Mitten was created by – and is performed by – the talented duo of Luna Alexander and Dan Johnson. Both are native Michiganders; both come with serious theater creds.
In lieu of a formal plot, the play cycles through a succession of scenarios culled from the actors' personal and collective experience as theater professionals. The device used to unify these Tales from the Mitten is that gut-wrenching, demoralizing ritual known as the audition. The scene opens as Luna runs in late for an audition for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." She is curtly told to take a seat, where she discovers her friend Dan waiting his turn. Each scene begins with the same exchange – hoping the job will at least cover a month's phone bill, if not the cost of commuting to and from rehearsals. (It never does.) Over the 90-minute running time, these scenarios unspool with remarkable variation.
Most bits are wryly funny – focusing on truisms of the trade: the casting director's need to stamp the actor as a "type;" the challenge to switch things up just as the actor launches into a prepared monologue; the physical and emotional stamina required to make it work. The actors invite us to laugh and cry at the all too familiar reality of the starving artists who work a day job in order to pursue their true craft by night … second-guessing themselves and their chosen metier along the way.
These stories are clearly about life in the stage trade – with some pretty meta humor. There's a funny piece probing the Catch-22 of joining Actors' Equity. There's some audience interaction with a warm-up game of tape-ball. That said, if you like theater enough to attend this show in the first place, you will certainly find the actors' emotional journey universal and relatable. There is plenty of self-effacing humor and crushing self-doubt. There are the awkward exchanges and professional occasions that require a faux bon homie. And there are some dark moments – chillingly relevant – when the actors must decide what they are willing to forfeit for a shot at the brass ring. Sexual favors? Playing to demeaning ethnic stereotypes? These are choices that can deflate dreams and cripple careers.
There are sweet moments – Luna Alexander describing her first time seeing a play – at the late great Boar's Head – when she was six. There are poignant moments – Dan Johnson's soul-baring analysis of what drives him as an actor. And there are tender moments – when a silly, over-the-top reading of Romeo and Juliet magically becomes an intimate, sensitive and sparkling gem.
Between each of these "audition" scenes, we are treated to a palate-cleansing Pure Michigan commercial parody. These folksy audio clips progress through the seasons with the expected references to favorite Michigan attractions. But, each concludes with a description of the traffic standstills clogging the major freeways that theoretically connect the tri-county cities and the small professional theaters they support. Michigan has a thriving professional theater community, but it spreads from Detroit to Jackson and sweeps north to the U.P. Enjoy the commute.
Luna Alexander and Dan Johnson carry this fast-paced production with compelling energy, creative invention and emotional integrity. STI Artistic Director Bailey Boudreau directs, Ryan Ernst provides Technical Direction and undisclosed artists handle the convincing voiceovers.
This is a play for people who have a heart for theater, a begrudging love for the Mitten State and an empathetic understanding of what it means to put everything on the line for the chance to do that one thing we are meant to do. Very few of us understand what it takes to make a living as an actor in our fair state. But most will appreciate and enjoy these "Tales from the Mitten," presented with unfiltered, unflinching veracity by two actors who transform the personal sacrifice into an act of joy.
Find more theater reviews and information at www.encoremichigan.com.