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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Archives for June, 2011

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Brooklyn Dimitri as Uncle Vanya, Carriage House Theatre, Ann Arbor, June, 2011

Way off Off Broadway came to Ann Arbor by way of the Carriage House Theatre, a new group that's presenting Chekhov'sUncle Vanyain a hundred-year-old barn on Third Street. The play opened June 23 and completes its run with shows at 8 p.m. June 30-July 2.

The theater began when nineteen-year-old impresario, director, and stage manager Forrest Hejkal, opened the door to his friend Jane Pollock's backyard barn one day last spring and was gripped by inspiration. This decrepit, filthy, junk-stuffed, two-story barn could be the summer theater setting of his dreams. His troupe would be gathered from the ashes of the late Lights Up Company of the Ann Arbor Young Actors Guild.

With Jane's initially dubious encouragement and the assistance of his father, Steve Hejkal, a skilled carpenter, Forrest set about restoring the barn. He carted away the junk, evicted critters, repaired the roof, restored the rutted floor to a smooth, level surface, propped up the foundation, and cleaned off decades of cobwebs and dirt. The final touches were installing lighting inside and creating an eight-foot fabric sign for the theater's entrance. Forrest's mother, who attended the second night's performance, confided that he'd stayed up until 3:00 a.m. making the sign, using large iron-on letters which he spaced perfectly in a graceful arch over the troupe's sunflower logo, Finished, and hanging on the front of the barn, it looked slickly professional.

The cheapest possible white plastic armchairs were arrayed around the perimeter of the barn's interior for audience seating. Actors entered and exited from a stairway at the back of the barn that led to the former hayloft.

Five-dollar donations contribute to expenses, which include printing a postcard announcement and a program with an arresting graphic on the cover. The company expects to present at least one more play this summer before the actors disperse to their various colleges.

Cast members Brooklyn Dimitrie, in the title role, Avery Koenig, Libby Masaracchia, Angie Feak, Robyn Taylor, Griffin Johnson, Jeff

...continued below...

Crandall, Margaret Remboski, and Scott Crandall also double as sound and light crew.

As to why he chose this play, Hejkal says in his Program Notes, "Quite frankly, I didn't. The space chose it. I knew as soon as I began considering converting the carriage house into a theater that I wanted to make the building itself the set, and Uncle Vanya [which takes place in a rustic country house] presented itself as an excellent candidate."

The audience on the first weekend soon realized that this was no amateur production of Uncle Vanya, as the troupe performed as well as any professional group in town, or Off Broadway, for that matter. Blending several modern translations, director Hejkal managed to avoid the dated stiffness of earlier productions of Chekhov, and soon the audience was caught up in the characters' sometimes sorrowful, sometimes vociferous, regrets over wasted lives and impossible loves.

Late in the second act a black and white cat strolled through the side door of the theater and circled the room, seductively rubbing the shins of each audience member in turn, and then exited as she came, having solicited quietly amused smiles all around except from the actors, who were involved in discussing who was secretly in love with whom.

During intermission some of the audience sprinted to the Washtenaw Dairy for cones. Though this was solstice week, it was getting dark as they returned. Director Hejkal had appeared, having come from his actor's gig at Blackbird Theater's Shakespeare West. An animated, good looking, if slight man, his deep set eyes had dark circles, perhaps from many late nights preparing for the opening. Wearing jeans and a sport jacket, he looked exactly the part of a seasoned theater director.

During the last two acts the drama intensified, as Vanya's rage and envy at being unrecognized for his effort to maintain an oblivious professor's estate, as well as everyone's crisscrossed suppressed desires, were revealed, culminating in shots fired.

Then, stage right, entered a firefly. Even during the occasional blackout required to change a scene, the firefly maintained its slow, golden glimmer here and there.

After hearty applause when the play came to its unexpectedly quiet conclusion, the audience exited into the peaceful gloom of the Old West Side where more of the season's first fireflies helped celebrate one of Ann Arbor's most perfect evenings.

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Posted by John Hilton at 11:31 a.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Thursday, June 23, 2011

THE HUNGER GAMES: Romance in Dystopia, by Eve Silberman

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins has topped the children's bestseller list for more than a year, a movie is now in the works, and Entertainment Weekly's recent spread on the casting clues the clueless that the brilliantly titled Games is poised to rush into the media void previously occupied by the likes of Twilight and Harry Potter. Plenty of adults are gobbling it down also, and recently I became one of them.

The Hunger Games is also the title of the first book in the sci fi trilogy (followed by Catching Fire and Mockingjay). It's set in "Panem," a nation carved out of what was once North America, ruled by evil, mostly unseen leaders from "the Capitol," who keep its near-starving and terrified inhabitants in a state of submission-- symbolized by the annual Hunger Games. The Capitol forces a boy and girl "tribute," between the ages of 12 and 18, representing each of Panem's twelve districts to fight each other until only one survives--the winner, who is feted and fawned on. The whole country is forced to watch the televised Games; a sinister Olympics, beautifully choreographed with ceremonies and special costumes.

When her gentle, 12-year-old sister, Primrose, is chosen, by a random draw, to represent District 12, Katniss Everdeen, 16, volunteers to take her place. A skilled archer and huntress, she appears to have as good or better a chance of anyone to survive the games, and since it is narrated in her voice, most readers probably assume that she indeed will. The suspense lies in how. Author Suzanne Collins does a yeoman's job in depicting Katniss's run-and-hide ordeal, fighting hunger, thirst, evil futuristic animals ("Muttuations"), and, above all, her fellow gladiators. A subtle romance between Katniss and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta evolves during quieter moments, complicated by Katniss's feelings about Gale, the guy she left behind.

The book has undisputable cinematic oomph: silver parachutes descend with gifts from "sponsors; cannons blast when a "tribute" dies; the faces of the murdered kids are ghoulishly superimposed on the sky. Collins follows the time-tested dictum of end-of-the-chapter cliffhangers; just as we think Katniss's travails are over, the second-to-last chapter's breathless last line tells us: "And right now, the most dangerous part of the Hunger Games is about to begin."

Collins has said the spark for TheHunger Games came when she was flipping channels and was disturbed by the contrast between a reality TV show and "a group of young people fighting an actual war." She talks about wanting to open portals to let her presumably middle-class young readers about the trauma of lives marked by poverty and war. But there's something disingenuous about Games. I turned the pages rapidly, wondering how Collins, via Katniss, would pull off the killings of 23 "tributes"--and still remain decent and likeable.

Collins largely evades this dilemma. Most of the kids kill each other off before Katniss must shoot a fatal arrow. As for the most riveting question--will Katniss be forced to kill her wanna-be-boyfriend, Peeta--Collins cleverly finds a way to defuse the dilemma. In so doing, she protects the innocence that, above all else, delineates the lines between adult and children's literature.

Even more cleverly, she makes the romantic triangle--Katniss and two appealing guys--at least as intriguing as the fight to survive. I'm curious about the two successive books (in which Katniss and supporters battle the evil Capitol), but I suspect most of Games' young, female readers are not discussing her moral dilemma. Instead, they'll be wondering: which of the two hot guys will Katniss end up with?

Posted by John Hilton at 5:36 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

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