Welcome to [art]seen!

Our [art]seen bloggers are University of Michigan students who review arts events on and near campus, sharing their thoughts and experiences on live music, film screenings, dance performances, theatre productions and art exhibitions.
If you’re a U-M student interested in becoming a regular blogger, there may be a position available to get paid for your writing! Read more about Blogging Opportunities here… We review applications and hire twice a year, in September and January.
Email us at arts@umich.edu with any questions.

REVIEW: Basement Arts’ SLUT The Play

Content warning: this play and review contains topics of rape and sexual violence. 

Centered around 16-year-old Joey’s testimony about the night she was assaulted by three of her friends, Slut: the Play interweaves Joey’s interviews and the reactions of Joey’s female classmates. The play itself has a rich history, initially created by the all-girl, non-profit theatre organization The Arts Effect. Slut: the Play was eventually adapted into the Netflix Series Grand Army.

The organization of the play translated well to a Zoom format, utilizing a mix of filmed (masked) group scenes, Zoom calls, and individual recorded monologues to tell the story. The ability for monologues to be filmed in genuine locations was a powerful dynamic in Basement Arts’ adaptation. Joey’s friend Jane talking to an unseen mother in a kitchen. The sister of one of the perpetrators pleading him for answers while sitting cross-legged on her bed, laptop on her lap. 

Strong acting throughout, I was gripped by the cast’s performance. The play was difficult to watch at times, with disturbing content matter both in terms of sexual assault descriptions and some character’s reactions to the events in question. However, I think it was a brutal call to recognize the many different aspects of a toxic culture that often discourage survivors from speaking up. 

The titular word, ‘slut,’ starts off as a sex-positive term among Joey’s classmates for their dance team nicknamed “The Slut Squad,” but turns into a horrible, derogatory, blame-filled word once Joey steps forward with her story. A community reacting with victim-blaming and accusations of lying leave Joey wondering if there will ever be resolution for her, considering the way her community has responded to her coming forward. The play ends, however, with a small glimpse of hope–the words “I believe you.”

Basement Arts did a speaker series to accompany this show, including interviews with Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate Vanity Catoni-Ellis and co-creator of the play Meg McInerney, which I think was an important supplement to the show, considering the heavy content material. Overall, I believe Basement Arts handled this production well, making it work for the current circumstances in order to ensure the meaning of the material wasn’t lost.

Basement Arts asks patrons to consider donations to the following organizations in lieu of ticket prices:

First Step – https://www.firststep-mi.org
Safe House Center – https://www.safehousecenter.org

REVIEW: UC Shakespeare Trial – ‘Julius Caesar’

As a pre-law student who loves the arts and humanities, this event had me geeking out. In their third annual Shakespeare Trial, University of California at Irvine was able to expand their audience to people across the country like me who wanted to tune in to have a say in Marcus Brutus’ criminal trial.

“Friends, Californians, Zoomers, lend me your screens,” began the prosecuting attorney Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of Berkeley Law. Using the text of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” as evidence, and California law as the foundation of the trial, the trial centered around two questions: 1) Is Marcus Brutus guilty of the murder of Caesar? and 2) Is Marcus Brutus guilty of inciting insurrection? Professor Bernadette Meyler of Stanford Law argued that Brutus applies for the necessity defense–that he was protecting himself and the Roman Republic from immediate harm by killing his dear friend Caesar.

Prior to the official start of the trial, we were treated to monologues from the characters of Brutus and Antony, performed by the talented actors of the New Swan Shakespeare Company, to set the scene and bring the characters to life.

Completely unscripted and organized like a criminal trial, I enjoyed watching the seasoned lawyers make strong, compelling arguments in front of The Honorable Andrew Guilford Presiding. Brutus’ killing of Julius Caesar, and whether or not Brutus applies for the necessity defense, is a heavily political question. During the trial, the attorneys were not afraid of using parallels to our modern times to create an understanding of the gravity of the situation. 

I loved the concept of courtroom as theatre, audience as jury, and the idea of exploring Shakespeare through legal inquiry. What I am so interested in, in my own academic studies, is the intersection between the humanities and social sciences. Because both are things created by people, they are interconnected and important to each other. What can we learn when we examine one with the lenses we typically reserve for the other? In this specific case, what can we learn from Shakespeare putting it in this new light? How does putting Brutus on trial cause us to look more critically at the play’s text and thoughtfully formulate our own opinions about the events that occur? 

At the end of the trial, the Zoom audience voted to decide the verdict via Zoom poll. It was decided that Brutus was guilty of the murder of Julius Caesar, and by a smaller margin it was decided that he was not guilty of inciting insurrection.

I’m glad that I was able to attend this event, and I encourage those of you who miss live arts events as dearly as I to look for amazing events that would normally be restricted to geographical location, that are now accessible through online platforms.

REVIEW: Play of the Month – 4 Genres by Ron Riekki

‘4 Genres’ is a short play written by Ron Riekki, produced as part of the Play of the Month series through Theatre Nova. Theatre Nova gives the opportunity for new works to be performed professionally, spotlighting the voices of new playwrights and making theatre more accessible and relevant to current times. ‘4 Genres’ was a perfect example of a playwright writing for the time and medium–I felt that Riekki really used Zoom as a tool rather than simply working around it, which brought something special to the performance.

Four characters reveal that they have been trapped within four respective genres in their Zoom boxes: horror, musical theatre, slapstick, and documentary. In order for their genre experience to end, they must say what they learned during their time there. After living in their respective realms, it’s clear they don’t seem to be enjoying it that much.

One by one, our characters reveal what they’ve learned. Our documentary character encourages the others to share, before he quietly bemoans that he’s disappointed that he feels he didn’t live through anything. While the other genres experienced running from vicious werewolves, learning about the power of friendship through song and dance, or slipping on banana peels, the man in the documentary says, he’s just sat there with a camera in his face. Sound familiar? 

It took me a while for the underlying messages of this short play to sink in and really take root. Since March of last year, I’ve so often felt like I’m living in the dark and dull page of a far-off future’s history book. How many times have I wished to be elsewhere, living in another time or realm free of the troubles COVID-19 has brought with it? But just as our documentary character realized: What we are living through is important. We are brave for having lived through this time. We are resilient and we’ve learned to adapt.

Like I said before, I applaud the writer and production team for really using Zoom for what it can do, in regards to effects and lending to commentary on our current times. My only perceived drawback to live Zoom performance is technical issues–lag between cast members, differences in sound quality, inability to hear overlapping lines. These are things that seem to be natural aspects of the Zoom culture most of us are experiencing right now, but they don’t always lend well to a scripted performance where every line counts. 

However, until we are able to see live shows again in person, I continue to appreciate how artists are working to keep theatre alive and growing through these difficult times.

For information on the next Play of the Month performance, go to Theatre Nova’s website: https://www.theatrenova.org/current-show

REVIEW: Play of the Month – Whatcha Doin? by Jacquelyn Priskorn

Though I hate being on Zoom all day just as much as the next guy, this was a refreshingly creative break from the usual soul-crushing nature of staring at a screen.

Kate Stark plays Marnie, the child actor moved to stay in the entertainment biz through voice acting, and Megan Wesner plays Raven, the interviewer. There was a little bit of a surreal quality to the setup of the play, a pre-written interview between fictional characters delivered through a computer screen to an invisible audience. This feeling of layered disconnection fit well with the subject, though, as Raven interviews a woman miles and years away from her days on set, but whose mentality through adulthood has been shaped by that period. It makes us wonder which parts of our lives can outlast time; how much control we have over such an assignment of importance. Will all our actions made to establish our evolving character be fruitful, or will some long-dead part of ourselves always surpass new identities?

I’m speculating, but it felt like Marnie was inspired by Mara Wilson, the actress who played the title character Matilda in the movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel. Since her childhood acting days, she’s moved on to podcasts and writing, far more removed from the limelight and everything that comes with it. While feelings of burnout and disillusionment are common amongst child actors after they grow up, Wilson is particularly similar to Marnie in how down-to-earth she is in interviews, seemingly well-adjusted with just a slight hint of neurosis. Both explore the idea of what it means to be part of the public domain, particularly at a young age; to be discussed in invasive detail by strangers who cannot see the person behind the character.

Between both the real and fictional ex-child actors, there is an understanding that one’s relationship with the world changes with early fame and adoration and the up-close nature of strangers’ perceptions of oneself. Acting can be a consumer of identity, but it may also create it. It’s a hard business to leave, being so emotionally and literally enveloping, and it can distort one’s relationships, need for approval, maybe even their sense of reality.

The interview with Marnie followed these sentiments, elevating them to extremes, but not to unrealistic heights.

Performance is both a creative expression and a lie; it builds up some character or version of something beyond oneself. Putting on a costume and makeup and a new voice and foreign mannerisms can occur anywhere from a TV set to a board meeting. It’s happening now as I write this, as I impersonate a deep-thinking intellectual with thoughts on The Psyche. Imposterism permeates the mind, and it never really leaves.

And both when the act of performance is recognized as fiction or accepted as a truthful depiction, it can affect one’s presentation of themselves, their understanding of and comfort with other people. Marnie’s discussion works to define a dissociative disorder amplified by the actor’s need to project inhuman versatility, and the creative’s need to continuously create.

PREVIEW: Play of the Month – Whatcha Doin? by Jacquelyn Priskorn

Theatre Nova, while no longer putting on plays for an in-person audience, has been giving online access to live performances each month, garnering a great reception from the Ann Arbor thespian scene. The events feature original, 20-40 minute plays from new playwrights.

January’s play of the month is Whatcha Doin? by Jacquelyn Priskorn. It’s about a former child actor reflecting on their childhood career, and how her being typecast as a goofy loser has affected her throughout her life. It speaks to the effects of being an object of others’ consumption–strangers with no recognition of your own identity apart from a character.

This winter brings another season of performances for your viewing pleasure, beginning Wednesday, January 27 at 8pm via Zoom. The season continues through April. The events are performed live, but are taped and available online as well for the next month.

Find tickets to this individual play ($10) or the whole season ($30) here: bit.ly/TNPOTM1