Dec. 28 2016 09:30 AM

Unexpected themes emerged in this year’s theater season

Looking back on the local theater I saw in 2016, I sometimes found myself missing men and enjoying pain. Hmm … I suppose I should explain.

Two themes appeared over and over in the past year. One was gender swapping, and the other was a feeling of intense discomfort. The switching of male to female roles often left me confused. As for the plays that seemed to be intentionally disturbing — I felt more comfortable with them.

In early August, I reviewed the Over the Ledge Theatre Co.’s production of “Matt & Ben,” which was written by Brenda Withers and “The Mindy Project” star Mindy Kaling. Erin Hoffman portrayed Matt Damon and Shannon Bowen, Ben Affleck. The pair shared a rare flair for making me care about the duo’s daring affairs. “Matt & Ben” also had enough surprises and absurd lines to keep me amused, but the casting of two women who look nothing like the male icons had me asking, “Why?”

At the end of the same month, Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. offered an all-female version of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” Directors Devin Faught and Sally Hecksel presented an all-female take on the intense and metaphorical story about stranded boys who became savages. But some of the ladies seemed too old for the parts, and the Piggy character wasn’t, well, piggy enough.

And the entire — admittedly talented — cast kept the male names. I left their fake wilderness feeling authentically bewildered.

October’s “The Female Version of the Odd Couple,” presented by Starlight Dinner Theatre, was less confusing. The play was reimagined by Neil Simon, with women replacing his original Felix and Oscar. I can’t help but wonder if the play about women would have had more charm and authenticity if a woman had written the revision.

It is already difficult to identify the characters and family connections in Shakespeare’s plays, and Michigan State University Department of Theatre’s take on “The Tempest” made the task more complicated. Women played several male roles for no obvious reason. There was no Prospero, Antonio, Alonso or Stephono. Instead, the MSU stage had Prospera, Antonia, Alonsa and Stephona. Fortunately, the November production also had impressive special effects, monumental sounds, amazing lighting and a massive, multi-level “ice” stage. Even if the entire cast went by the name “Bob,” I still would have enjoyed the audiovisual delight.

Christina Traister (center) plays Prospera, a female recasting of Prospero, in MSU’s partially gender-swapped version of “The Tempest.” Also pictured: Jen English as Miranda (left) and Sean McKeon as Ferdinand.
Photo by Jessica Steinort

Three other plays I experienced in the past year were similar in a different way. Those were the shows that made me grumble, grimace, gasp, groan and gag — but in a way that was ultimately good.

Riverwalk Theatre’s black box production of “Burn This” had me squirming in my seat. The early October run featured a script by Lanford Wilson that had all the ingredients of a disturbing show. Annoying characters, deep sorrow, anguish and vomiting might not sound appealing. But the passionate cast — passionately directed by Michael Hays — made all of it more fascinating than troublesome.

The same week, the MSU Department of Theatre staged Simon Stephens’ “Punk Rock.” A cast of talented crazies attacked issues like abuse, depression, suicide and mass murder in a manner I found gripping. I left feeling like I had witnessed a horrible event, yet with the sensation of a grateful survivor.

The first week of November provided another hurts-so-good production. Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.’s “Disgraced,” by Ayad Akhtar, had a racially driven storyline. The intense play included infidelity, backstabbing friends, excessive drinking, violence and betrayal. And yes, I relished it all.

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