Aug. 25 2010 12:00 AM

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

A full production of "Creek" is scheduled for next July — don't
be surprised if this endearing show becomes a sizable hit. — James

“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
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