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It should come as no surprise that in a politically volatile year, some of the most memorable shows and performances were infused with strong political and social issues. Even productions that did not intend be overtly political became so by association. The most glaring example, of course, was “1984.” A stripped down adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian classic, Williamston Theatre’s production of “1984” still featured all of the chilling authoritarian hypocrisy and brutal violence of the book, in an intimate setting.
The result was faithful to the text, but deeply unsettling for the entire audience in the best way possible.
Williamston followed up “1984” with “The Taming,” a far less incendiary production about finding middle ground that still touched a nerve. In its best scene, “The Taming” addressed the fissions in our country, from the writing of the Constitution and the compromises that would come to haunt us over 200 years later.
While the events of “9 to 5: The Musical” only took place in the 1970s, the situations depicted in the songs felt particularly relevant in a year of high profile sexual misconduct. The Owosso Community Players production opened well before #MeToo began to topple pop culture icons from their perches of power, but the songs and situations reminded audiences that 2017 was not new to issues of power imbalance and sexual harassment.
“Heathers,” the film, was a dark satire even in the 1980s, but Peppermint Creek Theatre’s production of “Heathers—The Musical,” a play about empowered victims of bullying getting lethal vengeance on bullies, felt especially bleak and poignant in 2017.
Finally, Lansing Community College’s production of “The Government Inspector,” a pre-revolution Russian play, was the most intentional political commentary of local theater. Director Mary Matzke turned her production into a frantic farce, but the dialogue about gross government corruption and ineptitude stood out as a dark reminder of potential events to come.
Sometimes it hurts so good and sometimes it just hurts. After reflecting on the 2017 theatrical season, often times, I remember hurting.
Over the Ledge’s “Elephant’s Graveyard” had a stage full of colorful characters, acrobatic players and competent actors. The July play used George Brant’s script about the true story of a circus elephant that crushed a man. It got worse.
The beloved elephant had a hanging that went terribly wrong.
Although spared actual images of a disemboweled elephant, I found the feigned execution believable enough to make “Elephant’s Graveyard” difficult to sit through.
In September, Ixion Theatre tackled “Hoodoo Love.” An uneven cast of four had the difficult task of making abuse, drunkenness, racism, an unborn baby in jeopardy and incestuous rape, entertaining. Sure, some of the violence was simulated, but that wasn’t comforting.
Riverwalk Theatre’s “Master Harold and the Boys” was about a spoiled, white rich boy and his relationship with the black man who cared for him all through his youth.
The September and October Black Box production had flaws, but it was true to Gabriel Francisco’s story about racism and unfairness in 1950s South Africa. Just when I thought Harold might relinquish his bigotry, he kept the role of master and his black servants remained “boys.” That was the final blow to a show filled with gut-punches.
In October, Ixion’s “Gideon’s Knot” dealt with a child’s suicide and the parent’s confrontation with a possibly complicit teacher. A pair of stellar performances kept the play riveting, but still torturous to endure.
Owosso Community Players presented “Rabbit Hole” in November. It had actors who were convincing as a couple who lost their child to a car accident, a grandma who lost a son to suicide, a drug-loving sister who got pregnant and the tormented teen who drove the fatal car.
The grief and anguish of “Rabbit Hole” soaked me like a sweater in the rain. Being a father amplified my misery. Although Owosso’s production took the play to a high level, the lows of its dreadful tale dominated my reaction.
The turnout for these plays seemed to indicate I was not alone in my hurting.
— DAVID WINKELSTERN
Well, hey, it’s not the end of the world.
Not even the end of civilization as we know it, but not the best of years nor the worst of years either.
This year wrapped up in December with Williamston Theatre’s “Beau Jest,” a humorous homily on Passover, the ritual of the Seder meal and the importance of flexibility in families in a multi-cultural society.
Good to see a breakaway from repetitively offered up Christmas chestnut stories.
MSU’s Matt Greenburg, who mastered the Art of Moliere’s poetic cadences in MSU’s production of “The Misanthrope” had a double-double, ending the year at Riverwalk with a staged reading from a Pinter play, in which he demonstrated his understanding of the Grotowski school of Method Acting.
Flipping back to January, Riverwalk offered up a treatise on Ernest Hemingway, inviting three actors to portray the beloved writer and the many ways in which, behind-the-words of his powerful novels and short stories, he was an unpleasant, lonely and boorish man. Acted reasonably well, but destroying the illusion of his literary greatness.
Perhaps the most ambitious theater undertaking of the year was the “theatreto-film project,” wherein MSU Theatre Professor Mark Coulson took a large handful of MSU theatre students through the entire process of both writing and editing a play of their own creation and then through the conversion of that stage play into a full length film.
Theater junkies, of whom I am one, appreciated seeing the working dynamics of academic efforts to teach the various crafts of theater.
This brings me to the entirety of behind-the-scenes efforts that go into live theater.
Audiences, for the most part, come for the story, the writing, the acting, but those of us who review and adjudicate notice other things as well: the set design, the costumes, the lighting and the sound.
Mid-Michigan theater venues have a small array of gifted set designers, from the skilled professionals to the merely spectacular amateurs. Jeff Boerger, also a versatile actor, has been churning out clever set designs for several years now and he’s joined by professionals like Kirk Domer of MSU and Bartley Bauer, who travels from Purple Rose Theatre, to Williamston, to LCC and beyond to contribute his skills. My favorite set design was Elspeth William’s creative use of exposed copper pipes to frame the dinghy tenement apartment of Williamston Theatre’s “A Painted Window.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on Williamston’s “1984”, which chilled audiences even more than The Ghost of Christmas Future, also known as the Trump administration.