Aug. 20 2014 12:00 AM

2014 Renegade Theatre Festival gives reviewers plenty to cover

From sleepers to yawners, "Campfire" to "Cock," real-life stories to imaginary friends, the 2014 Renegade Theatre Festival didn´t just run the gamut, it pole-vaulted over it, Roto-tilled it and planted purple petunias on top. Thankfully, City Pulse´s skulking band of undercover critics were on hand to chronicle Lansing´s end-of-summer cornucopia of productions from local theater companies and independents. Here are their reports of confusion, pleasure, bemusement and, above all, gratitude for license to gratuitously say "Cock."

´Cock´ (Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.)

"Cock" is the bittersweet story of John (Scott Laban), a boy-man who can´t decide what he is. The debate on what "what" is, as defined by those around him, is centered on his sexuality. John vacillates between a relationship with a nameless man (Devin Fraught) and woman (Meghan Malusek). As the debates rages, it seems that the real question is not what John is, but who he is. John´s boyfriend sneers that he is a "collection of things that don´t amount" to anything. The cast, rounded out by Michael Hays as the man´s father, was dedicated to the difficult material, heightening the intensity of the work. The play was such a hit that an encore presentation is being planned for Aug. 21 at MICA Gallery. -Mary Cusack

´North Gier Street´ (independent production)

Thank you, Renegade Festival organizers, for giving a solo spot in your Mainstage line-up to a guy probably no one in the Lansing theatre community has ever heard of.

The guy is Raymond Goodwin, manager of human resources at Central Michigan University, who wrote and performed his play, “North Gier Street." (Goodwin is also the author of “Sawdusted: Notes from a Post-Boom Mill," a 2011 Michigan Notable Book.) The play is set in the summer of 1970 on Lansing’s real Gier Street, home to fictional Marty Beeson, a junior high school English teacher. Mixing drama, poetry, essays and news reporting, Beeson recalls in touching detail the horrific days of the kidnap-murder of Laurie Murninghan, daughter of then-mayor Max Murninghan, which “sent the whole city into shock.” This was also the era of the Vietnam War, the Kent State shootings and relentless cultural upheavals. Beeson describes those painful times through actual neighborhood incidents, philosophical musings and street wise observations, revealing his own decency and tender heart.

Goodwin is not a trained actor and did not pretend to be one, but he made the audience happy with his natural stage presence and his mastery of the art of storytelling. -Ute von der Hayden

´Campfire´ (Williamston Theatre)

Williamston Theatre´s staged reading of the latest work by playwright Joseph Zettelmaier lived up to its billing as a horror play. The Carver siblings (Robin Lewis- Bedz and Mitchell Koory) join their uncle (John Lepard) on the first anniversary of their father´s death to continue a family tradition of telling scary stories around a fire. The dynamic is radically altered when brother Johnny brings his girlfriend (Dani Cochrane). The stories within the story are gruesome enough, but eventually real life mirrors the tales in a series of dramatic twists. While the plot still needs some refining, it is interesting to see Zettelmaier work dark. Hopefully, the finished piece will retain the "pull no punches" tone. -Mary Cusack

´Boomer and the Imaginary Friend Revolt´ (Lansing Community College Theatre Dept.)

Local playwright Scott Sorrell’s original script cleverly explored the intriguing idea of checking in on your imaginary childhood friends after you grow up. Boomer (Michael Banghart), a lonely, brooding 20-something who just lost his girlfriend, ends up with imaginary friends like Arch (Monica Tanner) and Tooth Fairy (Storm Boyer), profanity-spewing sex addicts with sharp wits. Sorrell’s dialogue excelled at expletiveladen insults and sexually graphic imagery, but the script lacked a clear narrative drive. Nevertheless, director Deb Keller and the tight cast — including Michael Samhat as one of Boomer’s socks — fully committed to the text, giving life to this strange and subversive take on reality. -Paul Wozniak

´The Human Behind the Image: A Matter of Life and Death´ (MSU Dept. of Theatre)

Mark Twain warned to “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Unfortunately, the current draft of J.P. Mullin and Ray Melton’s original stage drama, based on the real life and mysterious death of MSU theater alumni Jon-Erik Hexum, does just that. A polished staged reading from MFA students at the former Chrome Cat gave the dialogue every chance to resonate, but the script never coalesced into a dramatic journey, cross-cutting instead between lengthy interviews, police reports, and flattering fictionalized flashbacks about Hexum himself. As it stands, “The Human Behind the Image” is more of a flattering tribute to its subjects than a strong story. -Paul Wozniak

´The Relativity of Coincidence´ (independent production)

The idea of weaving together three vignettes from a ride on an Italiarail train going from Rome to Milan, plus the play´s intriguing title, raised hopes for an absorbing play. That didn´t materialize at the Saturday night reading of “The Relativity of Coincidence,” written by Katie Doyle and Janet Colson.

I left feeling mostly confused. What just happened here? Did something happen? Is there a meaning I missed? Some people in the audience thought this was Act I of what was to be a two-act play. I don’t think so. Despite moments of honest human connection among the train passengers, somehow the whole thing didn’t hang together enough to make sense.

The characters in the play, however, were strongly drawn, and the cast of David Daoust, Amy Rickett, Forrest Colson, Kyle Clark, Jeff Magnuson, Jacqueline Wheeler and Lisa Smith was superb. Wheeler gave a standout performance as a young woman who comes off loud and obnoxious but feels alone, scared and haunted by sadness, having given up her child years ago. Doyle and Colson are creative artists and writers. If they recognize the need for some rewrites, they can find a way to make this play work. -Ute von der Hayden