Aug. 26 2009 12:00 AM

The good, OK and self-congratulatory of Renegade Theatre Fest



A setting sun spilled over city streets, silhouetting Shakespearean-sounding actors in an asphalt-speckled parking lot. On the other side of Turner Street, slivers of light sliced through silvery blinds, profiling actor Bill Shipley, as he squinted to read the lines of newspaper columnist John Schneider’s semi-fictional play, “Voice Mail.”

It was the third Renegade Theatre Festival, a celebration of works outside the box, under the radar and on the fringe, performed on the streets, in the shops and elsewhere across Old Town.

In all, 13 productions were scattered over three nights, along with a handful of children’s shows.

In the former space of the Greater Lansing Convention & Visitors Bureau, playwright Sandra Seaton presented a new one act, resurrecting the history of early Civil Rights-era racism and atrocities told from a very personal point of view. The talkback afterward was as stimulating as the work it followed.

Following Seaton, Williamston Theatre offered a reading of playwright Annie Martin’s “Exposure,” a not-quite funny exchange of verbal intimacies between a fledging behavioral psychotherapist and her aviophobic client.

Across the street at the Creole Gallery, Chad Badgero, artistic director of Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. and a cofounder of the festival along with Lansing Community College’s Melissa Kaplan, led a trio of actors summarizing 68 of literature’s “Great Books” in 90 minutes of zany hilarity. Spencer Smith was back in town to play “the coach” in this epic saga, and he led Badgero and Reed Eppelheimer through a maze of books strewn across the stage. Audience members responded with resounding applause.

Critics got their turn when Don Calamia, of “Between The Lines,” and this writer shared their piques and perspectives on “the good, the bad, the ugly” of community theater.

This year’s festival stirred writers to consider new voices, actors to imagine themselves in new roles and audience members to hope for exciting theater in the season to come.

—Tom Helma

As an unwed mother of none, I set a challenge for myself to attend the Renegade Kids Festival on Saturday afternoon. I have no idea what kids find entertaining, and my only hope was that I didn’t have to sit through anything that was painfully goofy. It was a welcome relief to experience a nice variety of productions that were entertaining for all age groups.

The program advertised that the Allof-Us Express Children’s Theatre would perform a piece called “Villainous Union Meeting.” As a fan of the superhero genre, that sounded interesting. The actual production was a demonstration of a series of improvisation games, lead by Miranda Hartmann, the company’s artistic director. The student actors were impressively quick on their feet and funny to boot. They warmed up with some games, then presented the title piece, and with some time to spare, demonstrated more games. When Hartmann was ready to wrap up, the eager actors demanded to do one more piece, and their persistence paid off. It was inspiring to see a group of adolescents who aren’t disaffected, who know how to have fun, even at their own expense.

The second show was markedly different, as it featured adults producing entertainment for children. The Super Christy Players, under the direction of Christy Pierce, first presented dramatized readings of Shel Silverstein poems. Act II was a fake newscast, “The Fairy Tale News,” featuring interviews based on the stories of Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Little Mermaid and the Three Little Pigs. The cast members showed an impressive empathy for their audience, and they obviously enjoyed playing their roles. Most interacted with the audience, from “Dirty Dan” Jeff Wilson handing out ear-grown flowers, to Abby Murphy swinging and chasing squealing kids without missing a beat of reciting her poem. The show ended with a laugh, as, during a Q & A session, one child asked, “Is it over?” I also caught some of the Shakespeare shorts presented by BoarsHead Theater. I was especially interested in seeing fellow City Pulse theater critic Paul Wozniak in "The Balcony Scene." The piece was a cute commentary on the role of the archetypal romantic heroine. Wozniak’s performance was apt, although his accent was akin to finding a Euro in your pocket: you know it’s European, but you have no clue as to its actual origin.

— Mary C. Cusack

(Author’s Note: This review may contain biased material because I was involved in the production. It may not be suitable for sensitive readers.)

And so it was that on all three nights of the 2009 Renegade Theatre Festival, an unlikely band of actors, including BoarsHead Theater interns, community actors and an elitist theater critic were brought together to perform short scripts based on Shakespearean plays and characters on the corners of streets and parking lots next to trash bins.

The coordinating mastermind behind the “Shakespeare Shorts,” as they were called, was Karen Doyle, associate director and stage manager at BoarsHead.

With a cast that included Bruce Bennett, Mark Boyd, Erin Clossen, Laura Croff, J.D. De La Ossa, Joseph Dickson, Mark Gmazel, Dax Spagnole, Kellie Stonebrook, Sineh Wurie, this writer and additional directors Bruce Bennett and Kristine Thatcher, performing in the “Shakespeare Shorts” was an absolute pleasure.

One of the evenings’ assets was master of ceremony Mark Gmazel. Gmazel gave each of the shorts a feeling of cohesion and helped to set the audience’s expectations with his wry, self-deprecating wit.

Some of the shorts were clearly better than others, and given the compressed rehearsal time of three weeks, it was only due to the unique gifts of the cast and directors and the strength of the scripts that the shorts were as good as they were. But as our ambitions were very modest, I would say they were a huge success and I was truly blessed to have been a part of it.

—Paul Wozniak