Aug. 19 2009 12:00 AM

Local theater companies go renegade at Old Town festival



Here are three theater no-brainers: Plays about the civil rights era are always full of cardboard platitudes and angry rhetoric. Literary classics should be staged with reverence. And anything Lansing’s Peppermint Creek Theater Co. does is bound to be serious and controversial.

Quick, brain, come back, because Lansing’s third annual Renegade Theater Festival is set to reverse these conventional expectations and many more. The free festival, held in the heart of Old Town, will mount 24 plays from a variety of professional, community, and student-run companies Tuesday through Saturday, Aug. 20 to 22. Down time will be in short supply, as local musicians, bands, and DJs supply intermission riffs between plays.

Month to month, Lansing has a diverse theater menu, but only a festival can provide this scale of variety in one place and time. “It makes my mouth water,” Melissa Kaplan, co-organizer of the festival, said. The plays differ as much in provenance as they do in approach and subject matter. Kaplan explained that some were written specifically for Renegade, while others are premiering, either as staged readings or productions. Others are existing or recently performed plays.

Despite the variety, Kaplan said, Renegade is no sampler or theatrical proving ground. “The plays aren’t previews,” she said. “For the most part, they are complete pieces.” Some are as short as 10 minutes, others run up to 90 minutes, and most clock in under an hour.

Five Old Town locations (including Perspective2, Creole Gallery, Studio 1210, Convention & Visitor’s Bureau 1st Floor, and Group 230) will host a variety of productions, from musical puppet shows to heavy dramas.

“’Renegade’ kind of sums up our mentality,” Peppermint Creek Theater Company director Chad Badgero, founder of the festival, said. Badgero cited two goals: to diversify Lansing’s festival landscape and give theater troupes a rare chance to take their eye off the box office.

“Some theaters have to keep in mind their audience base and do safer shows that they know will sell tickets,” Badgero said. “Renegade allows them to shed those confines and try newer, unknown material.”

One such production is “Shakespeare’s Shorts,” produced by Lansing’s Boarshead Theater. “Shorts” is a hodgepodge of 10-minute plays by Michigan writers inspired by Shakespeare’s canon. Titles include “Balcony Scene,” “Green Eggs and Hamlet,” and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (in 12 minutes or less).” The shorts will be dispersed at half-hour intervals beginning at 6:30 each evening in various spots in and around the festival’s grounds.

Shrunken Shakespeare isn’t the only mangled classic on the menu. Over in the Peppermint Creek Theater camp, “All The Great Books (Abridged)” will take liberally from Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, and Henry David Thoreau in a pastiche dubbed “English class meets Monty Python” by the Washington Post.

Are we allowed to laugh at a Peppermint Creek show? Badgero, who is directing “Books,” admitted that Peppermint Creek normally produces serious, heavy stuff, but he seemed grateful to step out for once. “Renegade allows us to do lighter, funnier material,” he said.

The festival will show that there is more than one way to defy expectations. “Do You Like Philip Roth” is a one-act retrospective of the 1960s civil rights movement through the eyes of African- American students at a Midwestern university. The author, Sandra Seaton, is a local writer who contributed “Martha Stewart Slept Here” to the 2008 Renegade festival. “Roth” is a fictionalized account of Seaton’s mid-1960s student years at the University of Illinois.

Seaton wanted to dig beyond typical scenes of angry students arguing, meeting and marching. “I wanted to write about people I knew,” she said. “Stories about the civil rights movement seldom dramatize the kinds of lives the students led outside the struggle.”

It’s a prime example of the festival’s unconventional wealth of material.

“The characters go beyond what we know about them from the headlines,” Seaton said. “You don’t get a complete feeling unless you see the personal lives.”