Click for Ann Arbor, Michigan Forecast
Wednesday October 22, 2014
Follow us: facebook twitter RSS feed

Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog


Archives for September, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

THEATER IN THE RAW AT PERFORMANCE NETWORK, by Sally Mitani

I still can't get over it sometimes--Performance Network is a real Equity theatre. Founded in the early 1980s, it lived on table scraps in that little black hole over on Washington for years and now it's a polished, regional repertory theatre. It's like watching a ragged ghetto kid graduate from Princeton.

I sometimes miss those old, edgy days, though, when you'd walk out in the parking lot for a smoke at intermission and hear people hissing "What the hell is this about?"

The Fireside Festival of New Works, four nights of staged readings of new plays at the Performance Network, brings back a little of that nervous, raw energy. The plays are in what you'd call late-workshop stage--not entirely jelled. With no sets, and only minimal props and blocking, the actors work with scripts in hand. Equity regulations limit rehearsal time for staged readings to eight hours per play, and while the actors don't have the lines memorized, this is a good reminder of the remarkable bundle of skills professional actors possess. With only eight hours of work, they bring fully realized characters to the stage and use the scripts unobtrusively, only for prompting.

There's an optional second part to these evenings. In the talkback afterward, the struggles the playwrights have gone through trying to press the final flaws out of their scripts are teased out by the audience.

The first night, Joseph Zettelmaier's "Night Blooming" threaded Native American mysticism through a three-generation chain of strong women in the Southwest, exploring mother-daughter bonds and the ebb and flow of love and loss. It was a weeper all right. "Night Blooming"'s problem wasn't that it was unfinished. It was almost too finished--one of the audience early in the talkback nailed the problem, questioning whether the technical descriptions of medical procedures tipped it into "Movie of the Week" predictability.

The second night of the Fireside Festival was "Victoriana" by Jason Sebacher, a fantastically audacious and, in the first act, nearly perfect piece of absurdism. Think "The Aristocrats" as told by Ionesco. Once in the first act, and again in the second, "Victoriana" stopped my heart with the delicious sensation of "I can't believe I'm watching this on a stage." In the talkback, a woman in the audience began "I'm a trained sexologist..." and there wasn't anyone in the room who didn't want to hear how she was going to finish that sentence.

The Fireside Festival continues tonight (September 29) with "Thorstein the Staff-Struck: A Tale from the Icelandic Sagas," by Russ Schwartz, and September 30, "The War Since Eve," by Kim Carney. Pay what you can--suggested ticket price $10.

posted by John Hilton at 1:42 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

FOOTBALL SATURDAY SILENCE, by Al Slote

One of the joys of living in Ann Arbor and within a mile or two of the U-M Stadium is hearing on a football Saturday afternoon the noise of the crowd. You knew Michigan had just scored. And prolonged silence meant things weren't going well.

Well, those days are gone forever. There was always a twofer in the construction of the corporate sky boxes: added revenue and keeping the crowd noise in the stadium to disrupt the timing of the play calling of the visiting teams. Michigan stadium had always been, unlike Ohio State's horseshoe, a neutral if not downright friendly environment for visiting teams. No longer. And it's less friendly for townies, too: no longer does the roar of the crowd and the music of the band mark another football Saturday in Ann Arbor for those not inside the walls.

posted by John Hilton at 7:05 p.m. | 2 comments


Monday, September 14, 2009

NAKED CAME THE MAYOR by Bruce Laidlaw

"He was the voice of Republicanism in the middle of the radical sixties and seventies," says John Stephenson about his father, Jim Stephenson, mayor of Ann Arbor from 1973-75. Stephenson infuriated thousands of young voters when he led city council in voting to overturn the infamous $5 pot fine--so much so that one young rebel threw a cherry pie in his face. In the end, the potheads prevailed: they had the votes to bring back the "penalty" by amending the city charter.

Jim Stephenson was much less an anti-drug zealot than a proud civic citizen, says John, a retired newspaper editor. "It was the image that had been cultivated as Ann Arbor as an all-American city, and suddenly it's the dope capital of the Midwest.

John and his brother Dan thought their attorney dad's life story interesting enough that they taped extensive interviews with him, then shaped his memories into the memoir
Naked Came the Mayor, available at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw's tenure overlapped Stephenson's. Here's his review of the book:


Naked came the Mayor is a moving chronicle of the life of James Stephenson. It documents the tumultuous Ann Arbor politics of the 60s and 70s when Stephenson was an Ann Arbor city council member and then mayor. It was an era when there were three political parties that elected council members. In Stephenson's bid for reelection as mayor he received the most "first-place" votes of the three candidates, but he was defeated because he did not receive enough "second-place" votes. It was Ann Arbor's one-time experiment with preferential voting, a complicated system of ranking first, second and third preferences for mayor.

The book provides a very readable description of Stephenson's remarkable eighty-three-year life. There were low points including the tragic suicide of Stephenson's mother and a first wife's battle with Lou Gehrig's disease. We learn that Stephenson had a heart attack at age ten that did not keep him from an active sporting life including running the Dexter-Ann Arbor race in his 50s. There is even an amusing description of Buster the pet badger that lived with the Stephenson family when Stephenson was growing up in Iowa.

The description of Stephenson's successful career as a patent attorney includes a plain English lesson patent law--an easy-to-read introduction to that arcane world.

The book concludes with wonderful photographs from life in Iowa in the 1920s, Ann Arbor election campaigns and the "grampa years."

James E. Stephenson died on August 29, 2009.

posted by John Hilton at 6:05 p.m. | 0 comments


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

STADIUM VIEWS by Craig Ross

The Michigan Stadium renovations have now consumed over 400,000 man hours. The project is on schedule and will be completed by next June. The last major piece of the project will be the removal of the old press box. This will begin the day after the OSU game in November and will be accomplished by deconstructing the structure piece by piece and then hauling the pieces down the elevator shafts on the west side of the stadium. Some (approximate) 700 chair back seats will fit into the space vacated by the old structure.
Meanwhile, last week, the media was given a tour of the upper structures and the prototype boxes.
The boxes are spacious and comfortable and (a surprise to me), not too far from the field to make the game an abstraction. Also, since the windows on the boxes can open, the boxes aren't isolated from the experience of the stadium. The size of the upper concourses and the views of the golf course and the valley of the main city, are pleasing if not quite spectacular.
Seventy one percent of the boxes (58 of 82) have been sold. The same is true for 1,100 new club seats, outdoor seats under the overhang of the luxury boxes. The expectation is that, as game time of 2010 approaches, most of these seats will be purchased.
Assistant AD Bruce Madej asked me what I thought about the aesthetics of the renovation. With the caveat that the finish work has a way to go (and with the AAO's expert views to the contrary), I told Bruce that I thought the "east and west sides of the stadium will be terrific, but that the fit with Crisler is a bit awkward." I also suggested that the north and south vistas "didn't really make sense, that the convergence of the new brick work and the old circus structure" (think halo) didn't work for me.
Madej then dropped a bombshell: plans are on the drawing board to expand the north and south ends of the stadium, to brick in the entire structure, and add 27 rows to the north and south.
Now, these plans are quite latent. Whether such seats can be sold and money can be raised to "complete" the work seems pretty iffy at best. However, it is hard to deny Madej's point, that it makes little sense to attempt conformity of the North and South with the whole when it is at least possible that the work would be ripped out in a major renovation/conformation. (I didn't suggest demolition of Crisler, though I concede it was on my mind.)
Even in last year's 3-9 debacle the stadium seemed louder than in the past, the girders and partial construction creating a heretofore non-existent reverberation. Brian Cook, an engineer and the MGoBlog magnate, believes the completed boxes will increase the decibels and that the Michigan Daily has reported the sound level "might double." Cook and I both doubt that, but think the stadium will be louder.
When I asked University Architect Doug Hanna the question, he said "it will be louder." I asked why. He said "because we won't be 3 and 9 again this year."



posted by John Hilton at 2:36 p.m. | 0 comments


Previous Posts

Ms Green Construction, We are energy saving specialists that make existing homes energy efficient
Top of the Lamp, Ann Arbor's locally owned lighting specialty store.
custom sound systems for your home
A Visitors Guide to Ann Arbor