March 18 2013 12:00 AM

A few final notes on last weekend's theater festival in Old Town

The curtains have come down on this year's Renegade Theatre Festival, but people are still talking about the shows. Here's one last look at some of the notable productions from last weekend.

Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.

“Loving Alanis,” directed by Brad Rutledge: “This isn’t ‘Our
Town,’” warns part-time narrator Luke early on in “Loving Alanis,” and he’s not
kidding: Some of the dialogue in Brad Rutledge’s script might make even the
“Sex and the City” crew blush. Unfortunately, the ribald talk often distracts
from the most intriguing element of this comedy-drama, an offbeat May/September
relationship between the fiftysomething Luke (played by Rutledge) and 30-ish
Jessica (Angharad McGaughey), a lobbyist who has just given a no-confidence
vote to her sports-crazy boyfriend, Evan (Joe Dickson).

The dynamics that develop between the three — particularly
after Evan and Luke cautiously become friends — are worth exploring. Instead
(and inexplicably) “Alanis” becomes another one of those “I’m gonna teach you
how to…” stories, with Luke trying to educate Evan about the proper way to
approach women and Jessica’s randy buddy, a worldly wise wife named Ronnie (Kat
Cooper), providing unwanted coaching in the art of manipulating men. Although
Cooper made a valiant, spirited stab at making Ronnie human, the obnoxious and
hollow character — who is married to a man named Wolf and the mother of Goober
and Poopsie — seems like a salty-tongued harpy that’s flown in from a low-rent knockoff
of “Will and Grace.” The script’s credibility deteriorates as Ronnie squawks
about her favorite sexual positions while sitting in the middle of a Starbucks,
and badgers Jessica into doing kegel exercises; if Rutledge rewrites, he should
send Ronnie straight back to Sitcomland.

“Alanis” is also hobbled by Evan’s ever-shifting maturity
level: In one scene, he’s a self-aware survivor of a chilly childhood spent
with a brutish dad, and a few minutes later he’s carrying on like a beer-swilling,
trash-talking frat house vet. While Dickson managed to give Evan enough chummy
charm to make the personality swings tolerable, he couldn’t entirely disguise
Evan’s inconsistencies. The engaging McGaughey, blessed with the looks of a
hipper Jodie Foster and the appealingly crackly voice of Debra Winger, had an
easier time with Jessica, who is definitely the most vivid and best-defined figure
in the script as it stands now.

As Luke, Rutledge battled a double whammy: portraying a
character who has almost no flaws — he’s an expert in how to prepare any
variety of bulgar, his favorite movie is “A Room With a View,” he knows aikido,
he adores the music of Alanis Morissette and he’s a sexual sorcerer, too! — and
burdening himself with tying together the story through fourth-wall-breaking
monologues. His unfussy, easygoing acting style is always a pleasure to see, but his Oprahesque lectures (“In the most fundamental way, men and women are the
same,” “Be the man you want to be, instead of a half-assed impression of what
your dad wanted you to be,” etc.) were banal.

Like Jessica, “Alanis” is still searching for its core and
struggling to define itself. Although Luke advises us to focus on merely
“being” instead of constantly “doing,” the play does exactly the opposite,
manufacturing melodrama when it could have concentrated on the truth in the
Jessica/Evan/Luke triangle. To quote Madame Morissette, isn’t it ironic — don’t
ya think? — James Sanford

Williamston Theatre

“Dead Man’s Shoes,” directed by David Wolber: In June, Milan
playwright Joseph Zettelmaier won the Edgerton Foundation New American Play
award for “Dead Man’s Shoes”; last weekend, the Williamston Theatre crew
performed a thoroughly winning reading of the Western comedy-thriller, which mixes
frisky humor into a decidedly twisted tale inspired by a jaw-dropper of a true

In 1881, outlaw Big Nose George Parrott was dragged from a
Wyoming jail cell by a lynch mob and strung up on a telegraph pole. His body
eventually fell into the hands of Dr. John Eugene Osborne, who skinned Parrott,
sent his flesh to a tannery where it was turned it into a pair of shoes and a
medical bag. If that’s not bizarre enough, Osborne was later elected Governor
of Wyoming — and he wore those shoes to his inaugural ball.

Zettelmaier picks up the tale in 1883, as Parrott’s former
cohort, Injun Bill Picote (played at the reading by a deliciously dry-humored
John Lepard), embarks on a mission of vengeance: He’ll stop at nothing to find
that cursed footwear and kill the man who’s in them. Injun Bill is a half-breed
and, to paraphrase the Cher classic, both sides were against him since the day
he was born.

Injun Bill’s unlikely partner in crime is Froggy (Aral Basil
Gribble II, who provided some zesty harmonica playing in between his vivacious
line readings), a transplanted Cajun whose bad luck, poor employment choices —
he was General Custer’s cook — and hard drinking landed him in the same jail as

“I’d rather go to Hell with a friend than to Heaven by
myself,” Froggy declares, but Injun Bill isn’t big on companionship and doesn’t
offer much of the “hospitalitude” Froggy had hoped to find. “I like knives,”
Injun Bill growls. “I don’t like talkin’.”

The first act of “Shoes” suggests “Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid” remade by the Coen Brothers. The plot darkens and becomes more
disturbing in the second half, but Zettelmaier modulates the tone splendidly as
he ratchets up the suspense while constructing an endearing, low-key romance
between Froggy and a widowed hotel owner (Maggie Meyer).

The play is written for four actors, and Meyer and Alex
Leydenfrost impressively handled their multiple roles. Meyer and Gribble will
star in the world premiere of the show at Williamston in January, alongside Drew
Parker and Paul Hopper. It should be fascinating to see how director Wolber and
set designer Daniel C. Walker create the multitude of backdrops for the action,
which range from a brothel to a cave to a town in which the streets are
littered with the corpses of slaughtered citizens.

At the talk-back Saturday night, Zettelmaier said he is
planning to remove “90 percent” of the “Deadwood”-style profanity that
sometimes called attention to itself. But his wonderful characterizations and
sinuous plot should not be touched. — James Sanford

Puppet Theatre

“Amateur Nite,” directed by Fred Engelgau: Hooray! Once
again, the characters of Fred Engelgau’s imaginative "Puppet Theatre"
came to run amok in his latest installment, "Amateur Nite." The
malleable and ever-adept Brian deVries reprised his role as emcee Alan Kennedy,
this time joined by his trusty and coaxing dresser (James Sanford). The stage
was set for an Ed Sullivan-esque variety show with a competitive twist. Aided
by an effervescent troupe of performers, including Trisha Kosloski, Dylan
Rogers, Teri Brown, Marianne Chan, Jeffry Wilson and David Schneider, Engelgau
created a surreal and hilarious world of theatricality. Highlights included
"The Mazel Tov Dancers" (played by Kosloski and Brown), who drew some
of the biggest laughs when Kosloski’s spectacles were removed by Brown,
propelling Kosloski into a Gilda Radner/Lucille Ball-like hand-chime prance
into walls and people. Others included Chan recovering from a card trick gone
awry, Wilson as both the "World’s Strongest Man" and his Borat-ish
comedian twin brother, and Schneider playing a variation on the memorable Senor
Wences act as Senor Gonzales with puppeteer Pepe ("S-All Right!").
Finally, kudos to Rogers as the mostly one-man-band, who played a mean kazoo
and a host of other instruments, including a bubble blower. — Erin Buitendorp

Conceived and directed by Fred Engelgau, “Amateur Nite” was
the latest in a series of one-act plays that feature a regular cast of puppets
and humans. As in the past, the audience was treated to both a public
performance and a glimpse behind the scenes, as show host Alan Kennedy (Brian
De Vries) mustered up the will to gleefully emcee the show while suffering from
a broken heart. The play was as surreal and fantastical as the previous offerings,
but the ratio of humans to puppets increased this time, due to the addition of
the titular amateur night contest. Cast members Jeffrey Wilson, Marianne Chan,
Teri Brown, David Schneider and Trisha Kosloski dropped their puppets and
displayed some rather dubious, albeit humorous, talents. — Mary C. Cusack

Tom’s Take: Notes from Tom Helma

It’s Renegade Theater: theater, in unusual settings, theater
that illuminates the complex human existential condition, that wakes up the
slumbering psyche, stirs up the stink on the doo-doo, scratches off the scabs
on societal wounds.

In the former Mustang Bar, J'esse Deardorff-Green wrote and
starred in a brief one-act play, “Everybody Wins,” a jagged, jarring
portrayal of the fragmentation of the contemporary
human soul. Three very good actors attempted to recreate on a theater stage the
complex and disparate roles that many of us attempt to jam into one lifetime. Deardorff-Green was joined by Brian deVries
and Trisha Kosloski, who flipped in and out of multiple characterizations as quickly
as one might change the channel with a TV remote.

Across the street, borrowing the cavernous art-space of the MICA
gallery, Katie Doyle starred along with Rico Bruce Wade in the one-act play
“Choreography,” that reminded us of the terrible delusional lengths to which we
can go to deny the death of a son.

Can it get any better than this? Oh, yeah!

In the former Chrome Cat, Michigan State University’s Rob
Roznowski brought us a full-scale 90-minute production of Roberto-Aguirre-Sacasa’s
“Good Boys and True,” a kaleidoscopic morality tale, in which ethical behavior,
organizational hypocrisy and exploitive sex battle for attention in the setting
of a parochial high school.

Dana Brazil and Wes Haskell, as mother and son, delivered
powerful, sizzling performances in this intense saga, performed so well that
the audience gave actors a standing ovation and a second curtain call. — Tom