Curtain Call

By Paul Wozniak and Tom Helma

Due to a reporting error, last week's review of "Leaving Iowa" omitted a cast member. Mark Zussman played four characters: Bob, Grandpa, Joe Hoefingers, Amish Guy and a Hotel Clerk.This story was updated on Feb. 14 to reflect that change.

Ixion Rising

New Lansing theater group emerges from the rubble of Icarus Falling

by Paul Wozniak

On Monday, a small audience gathered in the Capital Area District Library’s auditorium to provide feedback at a staged reading for new play. How small was the crowd? There was a little more than double the five actors on stage. It was an inauspicious beginning for Lansing’s newest theater company, Ixion Ensemble, the brainchild Croff of longtime local theater director, Jeff Croff.

“Regardless of how chaotic and how much life has intruded, I realized that I needed the collaboration and the creativity and the act of creation that theater provides,” Croff said.

“And much like we experienced 13 years ago, theres a huge opportunity to provide stuff that others arent doing.”

Like its namesake, Croff’s previous theater company, Icarus Falling, crashed into the proverbial ocean four years ago. (He’s vague about the end of Icarus Falling, saying only “it had reached its life cycle.”) From 2000-‘10, the company staged over 30 theatrical productions in a wide range of spaces around Lansing, in cluding

Old Town galleries and a vacant downtown building. Croff, 43, said he set out to fill a gap in Lansings theater offerings: Stimulating but not necessarily financially viable productions that would “challenge actors, directors, and audience members.”

After Icarus fell, Croff continued to direct for other playhouses, but was itching for more creative freedom.

Croff says he first heard the name Ixion during a 2012 trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts. He found himself in front of a set of four 16th century Dutch engravings entitled “The Disgracers,” depicting Greek mythological figures Tantalus, Icarus, Phaeton and Ixion.

“I knew (who Icarus) was, but I wondered why he was being lumped in with the rest,’” Croff said. He became intrigued most by Ixion, whom he calls “the original douchebag” — Ixion murdered his father-in-law to avoid paying his dowry, was forgiven by Zeus and brought to Mount Olympus, but abused his host’s generosity by hitting on Zeus’ wife, Hera. For his crimes, Zeus tied Ixion to an eternal spinning wheel of fire.

“(Ixion was) pursuing the illusion rather than the reality of the world,” Croff said. “Aspiring to more than you need to be rather than going and celebrating what you have available.”

Its tempting to frame Ixion Ensemble as Icarus Falling Reborn, this time based on a slightly different cautionary Greek myth. Like Icarus Falling, Ixion has no intentions of commercial viability or even broad audience appeal. The ensemble’s first production last Monday, “The Four Disgracers,” had all the markings of a commercial failure: A set of four meditative one-acts plays penned by amateur playwrights inspired by an obscure piece of art based on even more obscure Greek myths. But Croff says hes learned a few things from his former acting troupe that he hopes to apply to his new one.

“(Namely,) trusting that those who participate want to be involved rather than are doing a favor,” Croff said. “If you trust that the others are there for the same stupidass reason you are, you can challenge them and they can challenge you in ways they would never do."

He said he also more fully appreciates the value of traditional theatrical elements —lighting, sound and costumes — to the overall value of a production. Icarus Falling was known for bare-boned productions that sometimes entirely did away with these elements entirely.

“Historically, I used that to cover a lot of sins as to why we couldnt do this or couldnt do that, partly because I didnt want to have to organize it,” he said. “Why do it with a cast and crew of 20 when I can do it with five? But sometimes that failed to effectively support a show.”

Its hard to predict the final outcome of a production based on a staged reading, particularly when the actors onstage seem to be reading the script for the very first time. Despite the impromptu vibe of the event, the four one-acts penned by Orayla Garza, Sarah Hauck, Brad Rutledge and A.S. Freeman showed considerable promise especially for an early draft. Each author thoughtfully adapted their respective myths to contemporary settings.

Garzas take on Phaeton, whose attempt at driving his father’s sun chariot ended in disaster, plays up the challenges and expectations of any father/son relationship.

Hauck tackles Tantalus who supposedly served the dismembered body of his son to the gods. Stage directions only infer the horrors, but its safe to say that Hauck is faithful to the myth.

Rutledges adaptation of Ixion is probably the biggest stretch, casting Zeus and Ixion as mob boss and mobster in an Italian restaurant. The language is understandably profane but the essence of Ixion (called "X- Man") as a shallow man who tries to sleep with another mans wife feels perfectly relevant in its present day setting.

Finally, A.S. Freemans brief monologue (read beautifully by Gloria Vivalda Purosky) takes on the myth of Icarus from his mothers point-of-view. Its not clear to whom Icarus’ mother recollects her story, but the epilogue serves as a tender coda to the play as well as a final goodbye to Icarus Falling itself.

“The Four Disgracers” staged readings

7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 24 MSU Auditorium Building Room 12, 542 Auditorium Road #113, East Lansing 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 10 CADL Downtown location, 401 S. Capitol Ave., Lansing FREE

Way of the Midwest

Riverwalk takes to the open road with humor, nostalgia

by Tom Helma

At first glance this is a simple nostalgia story, but wait. ”Leaving Iowa,” running through Sunday at Riverwalk Theatre, invites us back to be lost in the ‘70’s, where roadside attractions were advertised on highway billboards, Dad was king of the road and Mom’s role was simply to say “yes, dear.” If this were all that this stage play was, it would be enough; an amusing recollection of vacation visits to cheesy places like the two-story outhouse, the Paul Bunyan statue made of auto parts and Prehistoric Forest.

What? You didn’t get to see these one-of-a-kind sites?

Deep in the soul of this script, however, is a richer tale, a coming-to-realization insight that good old, weird old Dad was a teacher of truths, a dispenser of wise thoughts, someone who put all others in the family first, expanding the world one strange factoid at a time.

In the first part of “Leaving Iowa,” Mike Stewart plays Dad, the man behind the wheel of a family road trip who seems to be in great blustery oblivion to the squirrely and squirmy needs of his young son and daughter in the back seat. No means no — a thousand times, no — until he is worn down finally to a “we’ll see.”

With him in a series of car trip adventures are his, son Don (Joseph Baumann); Don’s Energizer Bunny sister, Sis (Micaela Procopio); and Heidi Maahs as his faithful companion, Mom. Baumann and Procipio are bundles of awkward energy, nonstop twits who poke, tease and infuriate each other like no children in the back seat have ever done (except maybe my own.)

Fast-forwarding to the present, Dad has passed on and Don has taken on the task of spreading his father’s ashes in some significant spot … somewhere. Enter a supporting cast of seven people playing 23 parts — the quirky and simple folks a chatty person meets while on the road. Adam Bright,

playing six of those roles, creating enough of a difference between them to amuse considerably. His waiter, Wayne, is hilariously deadpan. The other supporting characters — Marie Papciak, Susan Chmurynsky, Grace Hinkley, Sierra Olson, Justin Brewer and Mark Zussman — all get their tiny moments in the sun, but this is Baumann’s play, and as the writer of the story, he gets to shine.

There are moments when we wonder if we have appreciated our father sufficiently. Baumann’s Don gets to reflect on this out loud with an omnipresent ghost-figure Dad smilingly watching on. When Don finds the perfect place to spread Dad’s ashes, it helps him realize that his Dad was the center of his universe, providing safety and adventure in seemingly ordinary cross-country vacations.

“Leaving Iowa”

Riverwalk Theatre 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Feb. 14-15; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16 $10 Thursday/ $14 Friday- Sunday/ students, seniors and military $2 discount 228 Museum Drive, Lansing (517) 482-5700,