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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Archives for June, 2012

Friday, June 29, 2012

SUMMER ADVENTURES, by Caroline Sutton

When I was a young I spent most of the year dreaming and pining for those wonderful months of summer - days filled with sandy feet and sun burnt noses and evenings spent lying outside looking up at the sky with my sister and parents as we pointed out constellations and shooting stars. My sister, who was only a year younger, was happy to be led into never ending adventures as we entertained ourselves with sticks and rocks and built fairy huts under the pine trees and caught snakes and toads. One summer we rescued a baby bird and nursed it back to health. Another summer we fed baby raccoons off our deck almost every night. We lived in a big city. But nature encroached on us and we cherished it. We built forts with our neighbors and declared ourselves the Rulers of our kingdom. We became detectives and made posters with our 'services,' which we stapled around the neighborhood (Lost your cat? We will find it! ). We built boats out of the woodpiles in one neighbor's yard with only one nail / hammer injury. My mother set up tea parties in the backyard and blankets on sticks and we were given free rein to her closet to dress up and walk our pet dogs (stuffed toys on strings) down the block. Our bikes were our stallions and we named them black beauty and Northern Dancer and galloped on wheels around the neighborhood.

Now I am older and the leader of my pack of nature loving dreamers. We count the days until summer vacation arrives, not because my children are desperate to finish up school--they all love school in fact. But because with the summer comes the imagination of being able to live in a two month dream of magical adventures that only kids can have. Yesterday we all visited a nearby lake ... the boys climbed aboard an $11 inflatable crocodile and paddled out to 'the ocean' to fish for sharks. They dug tunnels in the sand and built castles that 'reached the sky'. They ate magic fruit (watermelon) that gave them superpowers and turned their arms pink. Several nights ago my husband set up his telescope and we lay out at night and counted the stars looking for planets and imagining that we were all astronauts ready to explore the universe. The children pitched their tent and pretended it was a spaceship. Their quest for adventures excites me and even as I get older and my back hurts more and its taking a little more will power to keep my eyes open as the kids are counting those stars, I am still in love with the magic that summer can bring. I can't help but want to climb into that tent and also pretend it's a spaceship. After all, for one entire summer of my childhood I too was planning to grow up and be an astronaut. I never realized that becoming a parent would give me access to my childhood again, the enchantment of not only inspiring a little magic in the day to day, but also reliving it.

My sister likes to call me on the phone (she lives quite far away now and can't play with the kids as much as she'd like). She'll say "what are they all up to today? Did they climb any mountains or find a deserted island?" She was really keen to hear about my 6 year olds crocodile adventures. "Do you remember the summer we lived on the cloud?" she asks? Oh, that gives me some ideas, I said. And perfect timing, because my youngest explorer has just climbed up on my lap and asked me, with wide eyed curiosity, what sort of adventure we will have tomorrow. "I know the perfect place to go "I said. " But you have to think like a bird! ""Oh mummy! I love Birds "she says and off she goes pretending to fly through the house and calling the other members of our flock to tell them we are going to see some birds tomorrow. And I know, because we live in beautiful Ann Arbor, that it will be a breeze to find a wonderful place to visit some birds.

Sutton lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and four adventurers, ages 3, 6, 8, and 11?

Posted by John Hilton at 1:36 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Friday, June 15, 2012


Barbara Jacobs-Smith and Scott Norman in the Detroit Repertory Theatre production of

Much of the pleasure of going to the Detroit Repertory Theater, for this Ann Arborite, anyway, lies in its scrappy, welcoming ambience. Easy to reach from the Lodge freeway, this 55-year-old theater provides an intimate showcase for new plays with mixed casts (black and white, professional and amateur) on an otherwise bleak block. And it practically crows its delight at its against-all-odds survival. "The Rep is Worth it--Pledge," declares its modest, non-glossy brochure. Long-time black residents have a sense of ownership; church groups regularly buy discounted tickets to fundraise, or just socialize. Artistic director Bruce Millan, a gracefully aging founder, tends bar and makes a personal pitch before each performance for the modest contributions--"just a dollar a week!"--that have kept the lights on through Detroit's hard times. For big spenders, $3 a week entitles donors to buy two tickets for the price of one. Considering that they cost just $20 to start with ($17 in advance), that's a bargain indeed.

Taking Care of Mimi (through June 24) is typical Rep fare. Written by newcomer Marilynn Barner Anselmi, it's an ensemble production with a black and biracial cast, a contemporary setting, and humor leavening an essentially grim story--the suspicious death of a difficult and demented matriarch. While good-natured Detective Helms (not, of course, to be confused with "Holmes," and played by David Glover) investigates the death of Mimi (Barbara Jacobs-Smith), we cut to flashbacks of Mimi's household--slow-witted, compassionate daughter Harriet (nicknamed "Oops" and gracefully played by Nicole Haskins); her haughty, glamorous sister, Susan (Angela King); Susan's good-hearted, pothead son Hal (Scott Norman).

Oops works for a veterinarian, a venue that leads easily to comparisons between the mercy killings of sick animals and Mimi's prolonged, desolate existence (though she does seem to get some pleasure out of bedeviling her kids). As in every Rep production I've seen, the actors inhabit their roles with confidence and charisma. If I had to choose a favorite, I'd go for the (deceptively?) meek Oops; Nicole Haskins possesses a singularly lovely voice and a face that poignantly communicates the plight of a grown child tasked with caring for an angry, childlike parent.

When the actors take their bows, their visible pleasure brings home the delight of an intimate theater that more than makes up in sincerity what it lacks in glamour. As my friends and I were pulling out of the (well-monitored) parking lot, I spotted Scott Norman getting into his own small Chevy.

"Loved your acting!" I yelled.

He grinned, shouted "Thanks!" and we all drove jauntily into the Detroit night.

Posted by John Hilton at 10:48 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

Monday, June 11, 2012


Shakespeare in the Arb production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, June, 2012.

This is the twelfth year Kate Mendeloff has produced Shakespeare in the Arb. She stages scenes in different parts of the park, moving the audience around several times during the evening with strolling musicians leading the way. Ringed in primeval-looking trees, the magnificent Arb is an astonishing setting for plays that have a forest in them, as a lot of Shakespeare's plays do. There have been years in the past when I've felt myself gasp as a tree, a hill, a horizon, or a sunset magically fused itself to the action in a way that simply could not occur on an indoor stage.

The 2012 production, Merry Wives of Windsor, runs Thursday-Sunday through June 24 (see Events, at left). Unfortunately it does not--except for the very last scene--involve natural settings. It's a play about urban society, wealth, leisure, and the kind of mischief-making that rich people get up to when they've got nothing better to do. So the Arb here doesn't provide much more than a really fun place to be. The prize for this year's best make-use-of-nature scene would have to go to Falstaff making an exit by parting a hanging curtain of willow branches, but here he's just exiting a pub. It's very cleverly done, but it doesn't have the power of those scenes where nature gets to play itself.

I don't mean this as harsh criticism, because my baseline feeling about Shakespeare in the Arb is that if you pick a still, warm evening, and bring the right snacks and companions (or lack of them, if that's the mood you're in), there is no better way to spend a night in June.

A couple of young girls seeing their first Shakespeare play sat behind me at the opening of Act I, scene 1, and I heard them whisper that they didn't understand what was going on. Well they shouldn't have worried--neither did I. Merry Wives begins like most Shakespeare plays, with one of those "Fie, prithee, well met" conversations between minor characters. In fact, I've rarely seen a Shakespeare play that I didn't spend the first half of it wondering who those guys were and what were they talking about--later it makes sense, if you care to loop back and think about it.

Anyway, once the main story got going, Martin Walsh playing Falstaff went a good way toward alleviating my disappointment that Merry Wives didn't work better in a woodland setting. Walsh wears the big, showboating role well, and he makes the lines sing too. Falstaff is a shameless, waggish old goat, who has the misfortune to trifle with two of Windsor's smartest, funniest matrons. Imagine Henry Kissinger writing mash notes to Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama as if they were a couple of Playboy Bunnies, and you get the idea.

The acting is uneven; some fresh and wonderful, some wooden and stumbling. Sometimes you can't hear what's going on. Not every actor projects well. A train went by, a helicopter buzzed overhead, and--one of the pleasantest distractions to a theatre experience ever--a bird sitting on a sapling looked over the audience and warbled loudly through an entire scene. All of this is more than counterbalanced by the pleasure being in the Arb on a June night in this universe, rather than in some impoverished alternate reality in which Shakespeare never existed.

A big, big thank you to Kate Mendeloff for creating and continuing this tradition.

Posted by John Hilton at 4:18 p.m. | 0 comments Bookmark and Share

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