REVIEW: Home

# Warning! Spoilers!

Welcome to the review of a performance that I think I will remember for the longest time. Was it the best play ever? I liked it, but I have yet many to come that I haven’t seen yet, so it’s hard to say – so how can I say that I will remember it the most? Because I’m pretty sure that there won’t be many plays where I’m invited to the stage!

The play started with the mimes of the actors where the construction workers were actually building a house. First, it was a steel frame that looked like more of an art exhibition than a house. Then, they started adding walls, doors, and other appliances and wow, it worked! Personally, I was impressed that they managed to make a working tab on stage – where would the water supply have come from? After the house was physically constructed, the actors started to make it a ‘home’ by acting out daily life situations on stage – showering, sleeping, and displaying different emotions. The actors had diverse ethnicity and age, and they acted out different family/friends relationships among them. After the house was mostly constructed, they moved in and out of view through all sorts of places, including the refrigerator and the closet in the wall! The stage design was so interesting to design the route of actors in such a way. There were also light and sound effects to make the construction really seem like home – my favorite was the one where they created night and day by moving a bright light source from the bottom to the top of the stage, hidden away from the audience’s view, to mimic sunlight. The light was a warm yellow-orange color just like the morning sun and it draw long shadows against the structure of the house. That shadow made the scene look so cozy and peaceful, representing the warmth of a home.

The play got more interesting when a young boy actor put on a mask and came down the stage to invite an audience to the stage. He suddenly became the host of the house and greeted every actor as they showed up with gifts to a party hosted in the house. I was wondering if he was an actor secretly in disguise as the audience because everything was so smooth, but my curiosity was solved soon after as I was invited to the stage as well! The boy showed up with a wine and asked me whether I like a party. I said yes and boom! I was wearing a Santa costume and dancing around the stage. The secret was that the actors were giving instructions to the audience on stage. More than 30 people came upstage throughout the show. I’ve never seen anything like it-it was really an innovative performance.

In all, I think the play nailed its proposal to show what a home is consisted of – physical structure, coziness, old personal items, people living and interacting in it with diverse emotions, stories, and memories. Each was explored without breaking up the flow of the performance and delivered vividly. They were emphasized in the last scene where they were gone and only a fan and ripped plastic cloths were flailing in the wind – the emptiness showed that they were what’s making a house a home. Even without the audience coming up stage, this performance was highly delightful to watch and wonder, yet coming up stage made the event more special. Don’t miss your chance if it hits Ann Arbor again. I HIGHLY recommend this performance.

P.S. This will be my last post writing as a Student Art reviewer for this blog. It was great to deliver the news and reviews about local art and performances around here. Keep your love for arts and go check out the local art scenes as much as possible! Go Blue!

REVIEW: Somebody’s Children

Somebody’s Children, a tale of children who lives just next door to the land of the fairy tale, Disney land, but whose life isn’t so fairy-tale-like, asks the audience whether it’s really ok that some people are actually living in sucn unstable homes and clearly provides the answer-it’s not Ok. The play is written by José Casas, assistant professor at the University of Michigan, and the actors were consisted of students in SMTD. The setting takes place in a run-down motel just outside Disneyland, and while their personal stories are told in beautifully and powerfully written vignettes, the sorrows in characeters’ lives expands into a problem of social structure by the contrast of their unsafe living place and children who laughs happily in Disneyland, which is so close to where they are living. The stage design made this interesting setting even more clear – there was a huge and gorgeous sign that spells out ‘Disneyland’ on the right side of the stage. Glowing white, the sign had an aura that made sure that the audience was not missing it, but the actual shape of Disneyland was not shown; as if symbolizing that the real Disneyland did not existed to children living in the motel. With this direct contrast, the deprived feeling and anger that the characters are feeling is strongly delivered while raising the point that they could have also been the careless children who have a great time in Disneyland, and highlighting the brutallity of reality in which the children were pushed into. They were somebody’s ‘Children’. Their sorrow is valid and raw, but they are children, who should be kept away from those things. Who are to protect them? the play asks.

I want to highlight the actor’s amazing performances – as mentioned before, the play mainly consited of vignettes, so the lines were symbolic and poetic, rather than straight to the point. The actors expressed out the emotion that the children is reciting the vignette so well; the sad but happy, nostelgic look of a girl who danced with her imaginary quinceañera dress, how two boys exchanged roles to between a police man that stopped them on a night’s walk to get some ice and the boys who got pinned down even though they did nothing wrong swiftly was just awestrucking. Production was amazing as well – using sitting actors as poles to put up police line was not only visually intersting but also symbolized that the children in the motel were deeply embedded in all the tragedy happening in the place.

In all, Somebody’s Children was a beautiful and socially-conscious play that used experimental lines-vignettes-to deliver the theme and did it, not over-dramatically but emotionally affluently. Highly recommend to anyone looking for performances that speaks about the modern world.

REVIEW: Hair

I love the musicals where the ensemble comes out to perform multiple numbers. ‘Hair’ was one of the musicals where they made fantastic use of the whole cast. Colorful, wild, and energetic, ‘Hair’ was an exciting and dramatic performance. The actors’ wide-ranged, fast movements that filled the stage throughout the whole performance created the vibrant, dizzy, and youthful vibe that the hippie community (“tribe”) was sharing.

I also want to applaud the stage design and the set. While the actor’s vibrant moves were supposed to be the main part of the show, the set was there to back the actors up and make their moves even more dramatic. The colorful lighting design and stage set design served different purposes depending on the scenes. The orange/green colored one with squiggly patterns added to the vibrant energy of the show, while the skeleton concrete building which was the main structure of the stage design shifted from imaginary homes to a spotlighted platform for people that needed emphasis by the spotlight during Claude’s hallucination where George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Scarlett O’Hara were introduced. The concrete-looking structure was designed neutrally enough to be perceived as a different location in each scene. It was a marker of space separation, which was highly necessary for this musical where the focus had to shift from one actor to another in a quick beat, and imagination and real-life interacted in the same space.

The most interesting moment for me was when Claude expressed his dilemma between his hippie identity and the call of the military after his hallucination. After he went through the hallucination passively, he, for the first time in the performance, got rid of the confidence of his hippie self and showed his vulnerability by being torn between his faith and duty. The change was most dramatic when he listed all the ‘practical’ and ‘proper’ job names such as lawyers and dentists. This is the part where he connected to being a real person in the performance, not a single-sided hippie-persona who is mercifully away from all the worries and woes of living. The actor playing this part made the change very clear.

Another interesting feature was how every actor nailed the expression of excitement and jolliness but added so much diversity to it. The people on stage felt like real people, not just people pretending to be constantly happy, which is impossible. If I ever get to see this performance again, I’ll be focusing on the actor’s expressions to catch the details of their actions.

Lastly, about the message: I think this musical spoke about how the ‘normality’ appraised by society could be dangerous. Through the dramatic contrast between the Hippie “tribe” ’s life and the ‘normal’ life of the audience, ‘Hair’ is speaking about how the dangerous concepts and urges could be appraised by being framed as ‘normal’.

REVIEW: Hair

 

The Department of Musical Theatre’s production of Hair was two and a half hours of some of the highest-caliber performance I have ever seen. The revolutionary “tribal love-rock musical” Hair is a powerhouse of a musical, anti-war and counterculture sentiment in its bones, filled with unapologetic depictions of drug use, sexuality, and even nudity. 

As an audience member, I was enthralled from the first moment all the way until the end. Every moment of the performance was perfectly crafted, the movement on the stage always dynamic and exciting. Each vocal performance was special in its own right, and I found myself with chills from the power of the cast’s collective voices multiple times, especially in the compelling final reprise, “Let the Sunshine In.” It’s hard to pick a favorite moment, but one fun visual that stood out to me was the song “Air,” performed flawlessly by Maggie Kuntz as Jeanie, while members of the Hair Tribe surrounded her with a cloud of bubbles from bubble guns. The majority of the second act, which centers on the visions of Claude’s hallucinogenic trip, was a stunning showcase of choreography, costuming, and striking lighting design. 

A flyer for the in-show Be-In, handed out during the performance

Hair, in my opinion, is an important musical. The director’s note at the beginning of the program asks audience members to consider, in response to questions about the “shocking” nature of the show, why the language and brief nudity on stage draws more attention and challenge than the thought of sending young people to war. Hair asks us to reconsider what we are told is “normal.” The Department of Musical Theatre worked in collaboration with a cultural sensitivity specialist, an intimacy director, and other experts to create this show, building an understanding of the musical and the topics it tackles, connecting it to today’s context and conversations.

My only wish is that I could have seen this more than once. This was an incredible last musical to see at the University of Michigan as a student supporting my peers. I could not be filled with more love for live theatre and the incredible talent and energy in the student productions here at this university.

 

Read more about SMTD’s production process for Hair in this Michigan Muse article.

PREVIEW: Somebody’s Children

Somebody’s children will be on stage on April 9th and 10th at the Arthur Miller Theater. Written by U of M’s Assistant Professor José Casas, this play was already celebrated as an award winner of the 2009 Waldo M. and Grace C. Bonderman Playwriting Workshop and being featured in a rehearsed reading at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. The story will take place near Disneyland, in a run-down motel, shedding the light on people who live without permanent housing. The play will take the form of a series of spoken-word poetry vignettes.

I’ve heard much admiration from friends who have already seen the performance. Many appraisals were given to the stage design and the props, including the Disneyland sign, and there was also an appreciation for how different languages were realistically mixed in the lines. I’m really excited to check out this play, both for its focus on the social issue of homelessness and the many appreciative reviews about the beauty of this play. Don’t miss your chance to see this performance live on stage!

REVIEW: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower… Where do I start?

I believe this was the first opera I’ve ever seen. And I was not disappointed. I laughed, cried, and even had the privilege to sing along. After the show, my friend Anna described Parable of the Sower as the best play she’d ever seen in her life. “I was tearing up basically the entire time… the music was consuming. It was so so fantastic,” she remarked. 

The opera is based on the post-apocalyptic novel written by Octavia E. Butler, written by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Despite being published in 1993, the story is set in 2024, eerily close to this year. Already, Butler starts to draw parallels. The play deals with a Christian-esque group in a world that faces environmental degradation on a grand, terrifying scale. The church members essentially live in Noah’s ark – their walled city is safe, while the outside world is gonna end. The Reverend – the main character’s father – is the only one who is allowed to leave the walls and see the city.

Up on the balcony, people chat as the clock ticks down to 4pm. There is a person onstage, already in character; the audience is left unsure of whether the show has already started or not. The lights don’t go down, the cast strolls in, unannounced, and the start just sort of happens.

Opening the play, Toshi Reagon tells us that Butler “burned [Lauren] with hyper empathy.” An element that I missed – until my fantasy worldbuilding class’ post-opera discussion – were Lauren’s magical powers. She feels others’ pain, and there are subtle cues – like a flash of purple when her brother stabs his hand with a pencil to get her attention, or her falling down as other people get shot – that several of my classmates pointed out.  “If I can feel your pain, do I know you better, if I can fly in your joy?” Lauren asks.

The first scene is all auditory: two news channels chirp out overwhelming news, lapping over each other, in a volume-too-loud, ear-assaulting amalgam. This launches into a song, where the talents crooned at different directions of the audience, “What you gon’ do?” Even though I sat all the way up on the balcony, it felt like they were staring, arch-eyebrowed, right at us, and I felt a pang in my stomach. “The world’s on fire, you can’t hide.” The line between fiction and reality blurred once more.

In their situation: a “dystopian America wracked by the violence brought on by unrelenting greed and systemic injustice” (UMS blog), it all boils down to us versus them. There exists a religious dispute between Lauren and her father, the reverend, exploring the scale of beliefs ranging from God is good, God is change, to God have mercy. Lauren devises her own truth while others present the fixed truth that most of her family is invested in. She believes in the need to embrace change and do something different, because it’s only a matter of time before their safety crumbles down. “There’s a new world coming, everything gon’ be turning over,” Lauren sings. While others sing back, “do you really think the world gon’ end?”

I enjoyed how the cast encouraged audience interaction. I didn’t feel shy about bobbing my head, or tapping a foot. When a person in the audience clapped at the words being exchanged onstage, Toshi stopped mid-speech to say, “Hey, I won’t stop you.” Many times, a few people would let out whoops that soon launched the whole audience into applause. The actors had such a commanding presence; they were able to start the theater into a clap, with ease. They also played with breaking the fourth wall. “Octavia Butler is not playing with us,” Toshi remarked, after the first act. She directly asked the audience to naturally join into the chorus of the song – “Don’t let your baby go, don’t let your baby go to Olivar – ” and it was really beautiful to hear the audience participating. Everyone in that large room – those onstage and those spectating – felt more connected. I could feel them sowing the seeds of community with these little moments. 

Every person onstage flaunted their flawless vocals, and the opera doesn’t feature one person too heavily; it feels like each character gets their own moment in the spotlight. I especially loved the electric guitar riffs, or when the guitarist would back a singer’s vocals, perfectly in sync with their inflections.

In the song with the chorus, “Are we supposed to live like this?”, the strings are beautiful and psychedelic; warpy, wonky. I appreciated how this broke my expectation of what an opera had to be: very classical, prim, and proper, with a soprano hitting notes that could break glass. 

The songs that struck me the most were Lauren’s “Has anybody seen my father?” a heartbreaking, repeated chorus where her voice gradually breaks with each repetition, and the more mellow, emotional solo by Lauren’s mom. Both had such intimate lyrics that the theater flooded with it. It felt too heavy to move, or in any way disrupt this moment. I’ll admit that tears bubbled from my eyes, and I stiffly let them run, not even lifting a hand to break the mood.

True to an opera, the second act made me fall asleep. This isn’t to say that the show fell off, or that I was the only one slightly sleep-deprived. While the first half of the show had lights that never dimmed, the lighting was all of a sudden pitch-black dark, spotlights lightly glazing the characters as they entered the hellscape outside, complete with dangerous people and violent criminal elements. Because of the lighting, I couldn’t help feeling that maybe my ensuing drowsiness was purposeful, intentional. When I woke up, I realized we’d all been asleep while the characters were still fighting for their lives – belting through, by far, the most grueling song – through this continuous struggle outside of the wall. But for me, it all kind of turned to background noise, in the dark. As I took care not to wake up on my neighbor’s shoulder, UMS was playing with genre. At the end of the story, the troupe stands clustered together, in a haunting formation. Smoke floats over their heads, like angels, as they stand in ruin. After resting for a long while, the electric started back up, with gusto, and served as a wake-up alarm as multiple neighbors startled awake.

What I saw when I woke up

To finish, every seat in the house was in standing ovation. I was in awe of the amount of talent in the room, trying to digest it all. On the walk back, Toshi’s closing words circled through my head: “We have to fall away from the limitations billionaires have put on us. It will only happen if you give up the lives they have assigned us.” My friend Isabelle pointed out the liminality of how parables are passed – to my point about sleeping, there is a presence through absence. “Their words are gonna fall on people, stick with some, take hold, grow, and spread.” That is the power of the parable.

Read more about the performance here: https://ums.org/performance/parable-of-the-sower/