Aug. 21 2013 12:00 AM

Old Town’s ‘Renegade Theatre Festival’ runs a gargantuan gamut

The 8th annual Renegade Theatre Festival turned Lansing’s Old Town into a kaleidoscopic, life-sized arcade of make-believe places and characters last weekend, with no need to drop a quarter in to keep the stories going.

Fully staged plays were woven with staged readings of new works, music, storytelling and spoken-word performances. The live theater community, and allies from related arts, came together for a last hurrah of summer and flaunted the diversity of local talent. Here’s a sampling of reviews from our critics Tom Helma, Ute von der Hayden and Mary Cusack. 

‘Awake and Sing’

From the audience’s perspective, Lansing Community College´s student-staged reading of “Awake and Sing” by Clifford Odets felt like sitting through the first rehearsal. It wasn’t for lack of substance. The play is full of great lines like “in my day, propaganda was for God; now it´s for success.” Before the reading began, director Deborah Keller pointed out key themes of Odets’ Depression-era script, such as family loyalty versus independence and the immigrant American Dream versus stark reality. The actors in period costumes demonstrated impressive proficiency with the Bronx accent, but an understandable but disappointing lack of preparation dulled the script´s potential power.
Paul Wozniak

‘Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner’

This gem just got some more polish. Last year’s staged reading of Brad Rutledge’s short three-act play was a showpiece for this year’s festival, demonstrating that constructive feedback can make a good play even better. It begins in a nursing home where a silent woman has breakfast with her husband, who cannot stop reflecting that he could have loved her better. Lunch finds a struggling couple at mid-life. Dinner depicts a young couple on a first serious date. Rutledge directed and starred alongside Shannon Rafferty, playing each of the three couples in a way that evoked great empathy and understanding. As the relationships played out at different ages, the audience seemed to see themselves (or someone they knew) in each scenario.
Tom Helma

‘6 Actors, 2 Characters, 1 Scene’

The hidden jewel of this year’s Renegade Festival may have been “6 Actors, 2 Characters, 1 Scene,” from MSU’s Department of Theatre — hidden, that is, only until the first performance ended Thursday night. Then it became the talk of the street, the must-see of the festival.

This wasn’t a full production, staged reading, or new script, but a class exercise Rob Roznowski, head of acting and directing, has been doing with his Master of Fine Arts students for several years. In the exercise, a group of actors take turns playing the same role in the same scene. It’s up to each actor to decide when to jump in and take over a role and exactly how to play it. The goal is to show how an actor’s choices affect the play and, in turn, shape the audience’s experience.

The scene chosen was based on “Miss Julie,” August Strindberg’s tragic tale of social class, power, love and lust. The two characters are Julie, a headstrong, aristocratic woman, and Jean, her father’s ambitious valet, with whom she has an affair. MFA students Carolyn Conover, Sarah Goeke and Jacqueline Wheeler played Julie; Andrew Head, Kirill Sheynerman and Zev Steinberg played Jean.

In the hands of these talented people, this was not dusty academic stuff, but a fascinating, beautifully performed examination of the art and magic of acting.
Ute von der Hayden


One of the most interesting aspects of the Renegade Festival is a chance to see works in progress. One such play, “Invierno,” adapted Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” to mid-1800’s California. The American Shakespeare Collective is working with the playwright, Jose Cruz Gonzalez, as he refines the script, with the goal of producing it in June of 2014. The Renegade reading featured a strong cast, including the collective’s founder, Tommy Gomez, and MSU’s Christina Traister. Gonzalez has researched the new setting well, and makes good use of the clash of cultures at a tipping point in American history. However, he also adds a bizarre sub-plot involving a pair of modern-day teens who are transported back in time to inhabit the bodies of central characters, which adds more bloat to an already complex plot.
Mary Cusack

“The Gravedigger: A Frankenstein Play”

Williamston Theatre has produced several of Joseph Zettelmaier’s works, including “It Came from Mars,” “Dead Man’s Shoes,” and “Ebenezer.” At the Renegade Festival, the Williamston troupe packed Absolute Gallery with a fine reading of Zettelmaier’s latest original play. If produced, “Gravedigger,” with its pleasing mix of humor and gravitas, will certainly be another Williamston success. Directed by Lynn Lammers, this reading was well cast and acted, making it feel like an almost complete production, minus the actual berserk-monster scenes. (There was no scenery to chew anyway.) Blake Bowen had a phenomenal physical presence and captured the measured cadence of a monster learning to become a man so well it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Here’s hoping that he gets the chance to keep on shambling in an upcoming season at Williamston.
Mary Cusack


The sleeper in this year’s festival was the full-length “Betty,” which won the prestigious NOW award for best new play and which will be performed at Lansing Community College with full costuming and set design.

An extended family of 11 cranky-pants members, accompanied by a quirky New Age Irish priest, gather to fight over the aforementioned, and deceased, Betty. Is it difficult to direct a play in which each of 12 characters has a unique voice? Yep. Did writer Allison Brown nail it? Uh-huh! The characters oscillated from intimacy to emptiness as family members connected with each other or didn’t. The play is funny and hyper-realistic at the same time. Put it on your schedule for next year as a must-see.
– Ute von der Hayden

“The Night that Never Happened”

This one-act play was a gripping entry in the Renegade NOW (New Original Works) series. Writer Matthew Ramon Thomas put it all out there with a raw account of three brothers who struggle to care for a dying mother. The experience is painfully familiar to many people, but in Ramon’s multi-layered treatment, it’s also a form of therapy for Thomas and his brothers. Anger fought with exhaustion in an intense staged reading. 
Tom Helma

“A Doll’s Wife”

Scott Sorrell’s one-act play “A Doll’s Wife,” another entry in the NOW (New Original Works) series, was among the festival’s outstanding entries. In a story inspired by an episode of “My Strange Addiction,” a lonely woman buys a mail-order male companion (Michael Banghart). When he starts talking, the relationship changes rapidly, and Mary (Samantha Seybert) soon becomes terrorized by a perverted Pinocchio. The plot is simple, but the dynamics and language are not. The play featured amazing performances by Seybert and Banghart. As the relationship decayed, Banghart changed from sweet to vicious, delivering some of the most cringe-inducing lines ever screamed on stage. The argument is an authentic reflection of how love can turn to hate, and how hate can lead to life-changing empowerment.
– Mary Cusack

“The Redemption Plays”

The concept of “The Redemption Plays” — four 10-minute plays on the theme of redemption — was sound, but the execution of was often shaky, starting with Katie Doyle's melodramatic offering, “Ode.” Peppered with Dali-esque dream images of eggs that morphed from bombs to children to eggs and finally to “love,” Doyle's script struggled to explain the meaning of its own dream.

[Note: Critic Tom Helma’s very different take on “Ode” is printed below.]

Sean McClellan's very brief “Magi,” retelling O. Henry’s classic Christmas story “The Gift of the Magi” from a minor character’s perspective, showed strong potential. “Mission's End,” by Terry Palczewski, was the strongest of the four, with Jeff Magnuson as an astronaut waking up from hibernation and Amy Rickett as an understated alien. What Palczewski's script might have lacked in originality, it more than made up for as a compact and clean dark comedy.

The most confusing of the four was Oralya Gaza’s “Interview with a Dead Woman,” in which a stream-of-consciousness ramble of righteous poetic language purports to give voice to neglected and abused women. The three actresses who performed the script worked hard to serve Garza's noble premise, but without clear characters or any structure to speak of beyond a lyrical refrain, “Interview” never articulated whether it was a play or disembodied prose.
– Paul Wozniak

“Legal Drugs”

As the title implies, “Legal Drugs” is about the abuse of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. But audiences did not see the exploration of self-sabotage and its effect on others envisioned in the program’s Director’s Note. Instead, playwright Sarah Hauck’s “staged reading” was a jumbled cautionary tale layered with inconsistent, preachy subtexts like the anti-weed screed “Reefer Madness,” shaken and stirred together with a Harlequin romance. There were strong performances and compelling exchanges of dialogue between Angharad McGaughey and Miranda Sue Hartmann, but the romantic love triangle and additional unnecessary plot points made the script meander and audience attention wane.
– Paul Wozniak


Katie Doyle’s 20-minute staged reading, “Ode,” delved into the PTSD experience of one Iraqi war vet. The performance would have resonated with any family in the United States that is struggling with a young soldiers’ loss of innocence. Outstanding!
Tom Helma

Spoken Word Performances

Renegade Theatre Festival's newest addition was arguably one of its freshest, as four local artists crafted vibrant images with the spoken word. Dedria Humphries Barker led off Friday night with a textured and charming story about attending her son's East Lansing High School football game. Subtle and cinematic, Humphries Barker's performance was as professional and polished as any on NPR. Janet Colson and Suban Nur Cooley followed with crisp and clever performances. But “Midnight” Rose Cooper concluded the evening with sensual slam poetry that effectively made love to literature. “I want to do obscene things to your words,” intoned Rose Cooper. She did, and the Renegade was better for it.
Paul Wozniak