Dramatic decade

By City Pulse Staff

City Pulse’s theater critics look at the productions, companies and people who made the ‘00s worth watching.

Sweet standard

Since I began reviewing local theater for City Pulse in 2006, it has unfortunately become necessary at times to distinguish community productions with a second set of standards. But one company in particular has worked to defy those standards by consistently matching quality with variety. That company is Peppermint Creek Theatre.

During its 2006-‘07 season, Peppermint Creek was led by the powerful, innovative duo of Chad Badgero and Louis Balestra, who blended their talents on and behind the stage with savvy marketing and an ability to attract top-notch acting talent from the “community” pool.

Their first production that season was Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” a dark “what if ” scenario that stretches the liberal implications of free speech, while simultaneously satirizing the good cop/bad cop cliché in a not-so-distant fascist future. The end result was a head trip that provoked as much laughter as it did squirming. It was not a perfect production, but it was daring and risky, with honest, intense performances from the entire cast.

But Badgero and Balestra didn’t stop there. They followed up with Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?,” a searing portrait of upper-class hypocrisy and the absurdity of why we love whom we do. Local actors presented an extremely dense, complex and delicate script that was as hilarious as it was disturbing with mesmerizing results. The thrust stage within a converted East Lansing art studio further intensified the visceral impact of smoldering performances that literally broke glass. “The Goat” is a show that I still compare all Peppermint Creek shows by, as well as Lansing theater in general.

—Paul Wozniak

First and last

In the last decade, mid-Michigan gained another professional theater company (Williamston Theatre), and possibly lost one (BoarsHead Theatre). Here’s a look at the former’s first great show, and the latter’s last great one.

Picking Williamston’s first great show was easy: it was their actual first show in June 2006, the premier production of “Additional Particulars.”

Written by Ed Simpson, the play is a bittersweet comedy that explores the intersecting lives of four discount store employees in separate-but-related stories. It starred Aaron Moore, Dennis North, Emily Sutton-Smith and Brian Thibault and was directed by Tony Caselli.

Some details of the story line have faded from memory, but what remains crystal clear is the “feeling” of that night. I was stunned. I was excited. I was challenged. I had just experienced a perfect evening at the theater.

Plaudits for that go to a smartly chosen script, thoughtful direction, simplebut-creative set and seemingly smooth technical support. Most memorable, however, were the uniformly excellent performances of the four actors who brought the humanity and humor of the script to life.

One can just imagine the huge relief John Peakes, BoarsHead Theater’s co-founder, must have felt when Chicago theater professional and friend Kristine Thatcher took over as BoarsHead’s artistic director in 2005. He had left in November 2003, but his beloved theater was now in good artistic hands. It ended sadly with Thatcher’s release this summer, followed by BoarsHead’s eventual, indefinite closing.

There were many fine productions during Thatcher’s tenure, but the last great one has to be 2008’s “Permanent Collection.” Written by Thomas Gibbons and directed by Thatcher, it was about gritty stuff, like racism, ambition and jealousy. Specifically, it was about the importance and value of African-American art vs. what one traditionally sees in museums. “What’s a few less paintings of naked white women?” asks one character in the play.

Interpreting this conflict brilliantly were the show’s stars, the always-luminous Michael Joseph Mitchell and the talented Alan Bomar Jones, who matched acting skills and commitment to character line-by-line. Others in the solid cast were Valerie Jemerson, Monica Sanders, Dana Munshaw Brazil and Gary Houston. The show did not draw large audiences, but it was widely praised as an artistic gem, winning awards and accolades from City Pulse and the Lansing State Journal, including the 2009 Pulsar for Best Play and Best Director.

— Ute von der Heyden

Understudy standouts

It is pretentious but oh-so-scholarly to say that Thalia and Melpomene, the Greek muses of comedy and tragedy, grace the Lansing area with the gift of two excellent higher education theater programs. Michigan State University and Lansing Community College give students a wealth of experience in the classroom, behind the scenes and on stage.

MSU’s Theatre Department excels in risk-taking, making bold choices that are undoubtedly valuable for students, but sometimes challenging for audiences. I have been a harsh critic, at times, of some of these experiments, such as 2007’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” or this year’s “Trojan Women.” These plays were not particularly enjoyable for viewers, but they were definitely valuable to students. That should always be the priority for educational programs: students first, audiences second.

When the folks at MSU hit on a production that’s good for students and the audience, they really nail it. With the right choice of script, lighting and costumes — skillfully designed by graduate students and academic professionals — quality acting and some calculatedly risky directorial choices, MSU can outscore Izzo’s boys. Standouts of the last decade run the gamut, from classics, like 2008’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “Cabaret,” to lesser known pieces, like “Almost, Maine” (2008) and “Arts OR Crafts” (2007), written by MSU’s own Rob Roznowski.

In the interest of journalistic integrity, I must say I served as LCC’s performing arts coordinator for three years. It would be easy to presume I’m biased toward LCC, and I certainly have great affection for the program, faculty and staff. However, anyone who questions my ability to be objective can ask director Andy Callis about my assessment of his 2007 production of “Back to Methuselah.” Although intriguing, the Shaw play proved too cerebral for Summer Stage audiences. Callis rebounded nicely this year with the fantastic “Ah, Wilderness,” featuring one of local actor Michael Hays’ best performances. One of LCC’s strengths is that it cast’s community actors to work alongside students. This often anchors the productions, allows greater diversity in casting and offers students a growth opportunity in working with experienced actors.

The new year brings with it one real concern: talks of a partnership between LCC and BoarsHead Theater. BoarsHead has very little to offer LCC’s solid theater program, except name recognition — a reputation that’s recently taken a beating. Here’s hoping that Melpomene looks the other way, and LCC’s theatre program is allowed to keep doing what it has been doing so well.

—Mary C. Cusack

First couples

For more than a decade, they were the “first couples” of community theater: Bill and Lee Helder and Linda and the late Bob Gras.

The Helders met the Grases at the now defunct Spotlight Theatre in Grand Ledge in 1993, where they worked together on a production of “The Crucible.” Linda Gras indicates, tongue-in-cheek, that it was a “memorable” show, as director Len Kluge, who also passed away this year, determined all actors needed to be on the stage at the same time throughout the play and perform their roles as if they were robots.

Later at Riverwalk Theatre, these two couples began to make their mark, the men working behind the scenes on the board of directors, as well as directing, acting, and in Gras’ case, scene design. The women both acted, and Lee Helder designed costumes and Linda Gras headed up props.

Increasingly, over this past decade, theatergoers could note that the four chose powerful, controversial plays and parts, acting as the driving force behind Riverwalk’s Black Box series. And in each instance, they delivered the goods.

Although it was staged in 1998, Bill Helder directed, perhaps, the most controversial play of the last 10-plus years, when he headed a production of “The Deputy” at Spotlight. The play presents the notion that Pope Pius “looked the other way” during World War II, when Hitler was persecuting the Jews. Bob Gras and Lee Helder starred in the show (as well as myself and two of my children).

Earlier this year, Bob Gras received a City Pulse Pulsar for his starring role in “The Substance of Fire,” (which Helder directed), and for his direction of a radio play version of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milkwood.”

Gras finished his career by designing the set for Riverwalk’s “A Few Good Men,” directed by Lee Helder.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about these two “first couples of community theater” is that they accomplished all this theater in addition to their bill-paying, full-time jobs, as well as full-time parenting jobs.

—Tom Helma