The highlights (and the highfalutin) from last weekend's festival
The annual Renegade Theatre Festival in Old Town provided a showcase for several new works. City Pulse critics were on-hand to cover last weekend's readings and performances.
"And the Creek Don't Rise": Rob, a 45-year-old former Detroit automotive engineer makes an uneasy transition to life in a small Southern town in Joseph Zettelmaier's new comedy, presented by Williamston Theatre as a staged reading. The three-character script moves briskly and breezily, like vintage Neil Simon; Zettelmaier also has an excellent ear for strong one-liners and a gentle touch when it comes to sentimentality.
The plot involves Rob and his much younger wife, Maddie, relocating to a hamlet in Georgia, where she has taken over a veterinary practice. He, on the other hand, is out of work and increasingly anxious, with far too much time and energy to spend on his slow-boiling rivalry with kindly but cagey neighbor Benjamin Wilford Boggs, a retired doctor with a penchant for elaborate Civil War re-enactments. Dragged into a mock battle by Boggs, Rob freaks out at the sound of rifle fire. "Why are you getting so agitated?" Boggs asks. "You're from Detroit: Isn't that like living in a warzone?"
Maddie blends into the community effortlessly, while Rob stumbles into one humiliating circumstance after another. "This isn't a town," he gripes. "It's where culture goes to die."
A full production of "Creek" is scheduled for next July — don't be surprised if this endearing show becomes a sizable hit. — James Sanford
“An Artist’s Nightmare”: Written and directed by Mark Ruhala of the Ruhala Center. One could easily rename this production as “An Artist’s Publicity Nightmare,” which included an apologetic 20-minute introduction, a 30-minute autobiographical “playlet” with no actual characters or story, and a seemingly endless talkback after the Friday night performance that can be concisely described as both heated and very illuminating.
Requesting that his audience view his piece through “two lenses,” Ruhala’s plea for coverage and awards induced sympathy during some moments but ultimately negated itself by verbally abusing nearly everyone in the entire Lansing community. An undiscovered genius perhaps, but hardly humble and this public airing of grievances only left a toxic residue that will not be forgotten. — Paul Wozniak
“Dark Play, or Stories for Boys”: Peppermint Creek Theatre's contribution to the festival was set in a warehouse, complete with polished performances and lighting cues. “Dark Play, or Stories for Boys” by Carlos Murillo, directed by Lela Ivey, was a 90-minute freefall through a very dark, sick, funny and sad world, perfectly performed by Dana Brazil, Hazen Cuyler, Angela Mishler, Joe Quick, and Brian De Vries. Internet chat rooms are clearly not the place to find love but they do make for “dangerous” theater, and this was edgy theater at its finest. At times hard to swallow, “Stories” was nevertheless a tantalizing thriller that leaves permanent memories. (The show will be repeated at 9 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at The Warehouse, located at the corner of Turner and Beaver Streets. Admission is free.) — Paul Wozniak
“Happy Holy Days”: “Days” is the story of the evolution of one woman’s spiritual belief system, told through non-linear vignettes which all take place on various holidays throughout her life.
The original work, written and directed by Michigan State University’s Head of Acting and Directing Rob Roznowski, will be presented in January as one of the Department of Theatre’s Second Stage productions. It will be interesting to see how it develops between now and then, and to see which of the Renegade cast make it into that production.
One keeper is lead actress Leslie Hull, who changed her voice and mannerisms effortlessly to portray lead character Sherrie at ages 6 through 68. She plays every stage of life — confused child, drunken college freshman, middle-aged cancer survivor, sentimental widow — with sincerity, humor, and gravitas.
The play breaks no new ground in the individual investigation of spirituality and the acceptance of the beliefs of others. Still, it is a warm rendering of that theme, saved from triteness by its humor. It may be one of the few times that it is completely appropriate to laugh at a line like “You are so lucky to be date-raped by Brandon!”(Think Halloween Hell House.) — Mary C. Cusack
“A Holiday Romance”: A hand-puppet show, written and directed by Fred Engelgau.An absurdist character comedy in the style of “The Love Boat” and “An Affair to Remember,” “Romance” was pure escapist camp and a smashing good time. The show starred the likes of Emily Brett, J’esse Deardorff-Green, Brian DeVries, James Miner, Sam Mills, Abby Murphy, Jeffry Wilson, and City Pulse’s own James Sanford. Murphy and DeVries stole the show, of course, with their melodramatic affair as the captain and his long-lost love, Catherine, but they were ably supported by the rest of the crew, which helped this ship sail. — Paul Wozniak
“Murder at Locker 069”: A production that surely hit home with the local audience, “Murder” is an original work by Rich Helder and Jane Falion based on the true story of a school shooting at Everett High School.Based on the investigative work done by Susan Taylor Martin from the St. Petersburg Times, the work was presented like a reading with a Greek chorus.
In 1978, Everett student Roger Needham shot two fellow students in the hallway of Everett.One victim died, but the true tragedy lies with the survivor, who continued to be a victim until he succumbed to diabetes.Needham was successfully rehabilitated, becoming a respected computer scientist before disappearing from the public eye.
From the opening — a chilling piano version of the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t like Mondays” — to the end, the work proves itself to be compelling enough to be developed further. Helder and Falion could take the work in one of several directions. By increasing the use of selected re-enactments of key events, the work could become an intense black box theatre experience. Among those moments would be a recreation of the image of down feathers falling like snow in the hallway, resting on the lifeless body of Bill Draher, which many audience members remembered from press photos published at that time.
Helder and Falion could also continue presenting the work as is at schools and among community groups, following up with a talkback, as they did at Renegade.Laden with hot-button issues, the work provides a dialogue about parental and institutional responsibility that will hit home with any audience. — Mary C. Cusack
“Unlocking Desire”: There is no one single key to what makes a successful theater festival, but, selecting a rich complex, literary play by an established playwright is a good start. Barbara Neri’s “Unlocking Desire” captures the soothing lyric southern style of Tennessee Williams completely as she reconstructs and rehabilitates the tragic victim Blanche Du Bois.
Readers of great fiction are always dismayed when they find themselves near the end of a good story. Neri’s “Unlocking Desire” delights us with what appears to be an entirely new chapter in the “Streetcar Named Desire” story -- Blanche in the mental ward of a New Orleans hospital -- showing how an acutely sensitive psychotherapist coupled with a ward of caring mentally ill people can heal even a most troubled soul, and then, with a head fake worthy of Magic Johnson, Neri suddenly transforms Blanche to everywoman ever traumatized and abused.
The writer’s carefully plotted intentions, coupled with clear southern diction and effective projection in the echo chamber of the new Red Cedar Friends meeting hall overcame the limitations of the setting. A fully staged production by a local theater company would be entirely welcome. — Tom Helma