REVIEW: Choir Boy by the Rude Mechanicals

The subtitle “…A moving story of sexuality, race, hope, gospel music, and a young gay man finding his voice” was already enough to get me to the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on a Saturday night to see this play. Then I found out that Choir Boy was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Academy Award-winning writer of the film Moonlight, and I was doubly sold. Something to know about me: I love any chance to walk in someone else’s shoes for a bit, especially those with vastly different stories than mine.

This production was put on by Rude Mechanicals, a student-run theater group on campus. They produce one play a semester and run everything themselves, from costumes to set design to the actors and crew. This was the first Rude Mechanicals production I’d ever been to and I was impressed. The trailer they made for the play was really cool and just shows how much work they put into it:

I won’t spoil the plot for anyone who has yet to see this gem of a play, but I will say that it is so very RELEVANT. A recurring theme throughout the story is intimacy: who gets deprived of it in society, who you’re allowed to have it with. The actors were so incredibly talented and displayed the intimacy of the play so well. My favorite character was Anthony, the main character’s roommate, for this reason. Whenever the cast sang together it filled the entire theater and gave me chills. They harmonized like they could do it in their sleep. The audience was super into it – cheering and clapping after each musical number, ooh-ing in sympathy when characters got hurt, hmm-ing to the lines of dialogue that struck the deepest.

I will say that I don’t think this was a very accessible production. None of the performers wore microphones which made it hard to hear them at times, especially when they were speaking with their backs to the audience. More than once I would hear the audience burst out into laughter around me and wonder what joke I had just missed on stage. The seating arrangement of the Lydia Mendelssohn theater is also not my favorite and isn’t tiered in a way that allows you to see the stage well from the rows that are not at the front. It’s a historic theater which is something to keep in mind. All in all I think the students did what they could with the space they had.

If you have a chance to go see the Rude Mechanicals’ production of Animal Farm next March, I highly recommend you take it!

REVIEW: The Moth StorySLAM

At 7:00 PM last Tuesday Night, The Blind Pig in downtown Ann Arbor was bustling with conversation. Red and blue lights illuminated rows of black folding chairs surrounding a small stage. A Moth StorySLAM – a night of spontaneous, intimate, live storytelling – was about to take place!

Half an hour before the show started, the host asked for ten volunteers from the audience to spontaneously sign up to tell a story revolving around the night’s chosen theme: Fortune. After some encouragement and warnings that “the show won’t start until we get ten names in the bag!” there were eleven people signed up.

Before the first storyteller stepped up to the stage, I got a bit nervous. I remembered that the storytellers featured on The Moth podcast got months of coaching on how to engage people with their stories. These people had spontaneously signed up half an hour before! I didn’t know what to expect.

In the end, it was better than the podcast by far.

All kinds of people stepped up to the stage: a Michigan alum whose life was changed by one decision by a football player, a man who started his own consulting firm for nonprofit companies, a woman raised in the backwoods of Alaska and dreamed of moving to Detroit. Most of the storytellers came from walks of life I have never walked before, and yet I felt such a strong connection to each of them. Each one was so genuine and human – they stuttered on stage, they called out to their relatives sitting in the crowd, they sometimes had to take a moment after remembering something triggering.

After each story, the host would get back up and regale the audience with little “story slips” – pieces of paper with short story prompts on them that anonymous audience members had filled out and put in a basket at the front. They were all hilarious to hear. In the meantime, three groups of audience members who served as unofficial judges – the “Fortune Cookies”, the “Fortune Tellers”, and “Serendipity” – decided on a score out of ten to award the storyteller. They held up pieces of paper with numbers on them to whoops and hollers, and the next storyteller stepped up to the stage! It was the coolest combination of intimacy and newness – like sitting around a cozy fireplace with faces I had never seen before.

If you missed out on this event, never fear! Another StorySLAM is happening in Ann Arbor on December 14th, 2021 with the theme: Beginnings.

Review: Men on Boats

Men on boats was a good event. The Arthur Miller theatre was very well set up. The ambiance of the play was very cozy and rustic. It fit the theme of an 1860s story.

The actors of the play were very enthusiastic and did their best to carry the story. But. The story was quite bland to put it frankly. The jokes were sparse and the funniest scenes were usually slapstick kind about boats breaking. Though I must say the slow-motion scenes of the boats breaking were very funny especially as they broke to background music of contemporary meme songs.

An interesting thing about Men on Boats was that even though it portrays only men, in this rendition, the cast was all female so it was supposed to be a “satirical, gender-flipped” story making fun of the explorers’ “cockiness and cluelessness.” But as I sat through the play I did not see much of this. Having an all-female cast did not really add much to making the play funnier or adding to the satire element of the play.

It was a little unsettling to watch because it deals with aspects of colonization: the men are “discovering” new parts of America and traversing through the Colorado River, being the first white settlers to do so. And though the play ends on a conflicting note where the explorers are not really satisfied with having “discovered” the places they saw and finishing the journey, it did not address some important issues in an important way. The main conflicts of the play were the explorers not having enough food or leaving because the waters were unkind to them. Seeing men dilly-dallying their way through the land natives have lived on for centuries before wasn’t that great. The play acknowledges that aspect but not in a serious way. The satire is not really aimed towards the colonization aspect of their work but rather their silly antics. I don’t think this was a good choice for a play to show in these times.

Regardless of that, the actors were phenomenal—their energy was contagious and some of the best scenes included them stampeding the floor and acting out the river travel. The character Mr. Hopkins was my favorite and had great comedic timing. The lighting details in the show were very impactful and one of my favorite parts of the event.

REVIEW: Expedition Reef

What. A. Fantastic Show.

Do you like planetariums? Even if you don’t like planetariums this is a show you ought to check out. Expedition Reef is a new planetarium show at the Natural History Museum in Ann Arbor and it is a-ma-zing.

Expedition Reef is a 30-minute long film of sorts that takes viewers on a journey through the different coral reefs in our oceans, how they form, how they are dying etc. While the film is educational it is not boring in the least. The film is absolutely gorgeous: the realistic underwater animation shows these rainforests of the ocean to you as if you were a scuba diver. Seeing the ocean stretched out on a whole planetarium is breathtaking, to say the least. It is an immersive experience and the visuals are top-notch. It is described as an oceanic safari and it really is that diverse and fun.

Even the educational material about coral reefs is super well done. In fact, my favorite part of the film was when we are shown how reefs reproduce (they do it by expelling spores in the water which I know because I saw this awesome film). During the scene, spores fill the 180 degree screen and it is akin to watching thousands of lanterns being sent to the sky. So gorgeous! I wished this show was longer than just 30 minutes.

After this, we were given a 15 minute guided tour of our universe. A graduate student in astronomy showed us our planet’s location in the solar system, our solar system’s location in the galaxy, our galaxy’s location in the universe, and so on. The tour explained a lot of things like exoplanets, interstellar space, and more (I finally understood why Pluto was kicked out from the planet committee of our solar system). Even though we saw a lot in a short time, the presentation on the screen made it very easy to follow and also to conceptualize distances in space.

After the show ends, the viewers exit through a gallery to a science museum! It had a vast array of hands-on activities, interactive information, and really fun, elaborate nature displays.

Going to see a planetarium show with a friend followed by a museum visit as you all point to different exhibits, take pictures of a raccoon eating peanut butter will be a wholesome, serotonin-filled way to spend the weekend. The planetarium is still offering tickets for shows that you can buy at the museum for just 8 dollars. Since it is so close to home (basically in the center of the city) there is no reason for you to not go explore what all our world-renowned museums have to offer.

 

 

REVIEW: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel Studios started off strong at the beginning of 2021 with WandaVision, but quickly lost steam with Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and Black Widow. However, it seems that Marvel is picking up the pace again.

Out of the newer MCU solo origin stories, I would rank Shang-Chi above most. I would consider Shang-Chi above Doctor Strange; both films closely follow Marvel’s cookie-cutter formula, however Doctor Strange feels more like a copy-and-paste of Iron Man (rich genius is humbled through injury and learns to keep moving and channel their pain into a newfound ability). Doctor Strange does have the upper hand on visual effects, but Shang-Chi does not always feel like an MCU movie – it’s refreshing.

Perhaps the strongest element of Shang-Chi is its action sequences. The use of well-choreographed martial arts makes the film a thrilling watch, even with the knowledge that all MCU films end with a massive CGI battle scene. I prefer these close combat fight scenes because I find myself zoning out when watching hordes of CGI aliens run across the screen. I am all for the suspension of disbelief, especially in Marvel films, but I still feel a massive disconnect the more fantastical things get. Shang-Chi does fight masses of nameless villains, but he confronts smaller groups of antagonists, making the combat feel tighter and making the audience feel closer to the action. Furthermore, location adds a new dimension to the film’s action, specifically to an early fight sequence on a moving bus, which is synced so perfectly with the score. You realize that Shang-Chi is just some guy who happens to be really good at martial arts, and you are inclined to root for him. 

The side characters are also worth noting. Awkwafina plays an Awkwafina character, contrasted with Shang-Chi’s sister, Xu Xialing, who is arguably the same character as Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne in Ant-Man (the underestimated daughter who was never allowed to fight when she was young and has become hardened because her family who was never there for her). Nevertheless, it is clear that both Shang-Chi and Xialing have a lot of potential for future MCU projects, though it is slightly disappointing that they were not fully developed in their own film. However, the standouts are the parents, played by Tony Leung and Fala Chen. Tony Leung’s character, Wenwu, is a re-writing of his racist comic book counterpart as a character who is driven by human and more relatable motives, and is not the embodiment of yellow peril. And Ying Li is not simply a mother – she stands her ground and makes decisions for herself. She possesses a kind of grace that makes her presence known throughout the entire film.

Ultimately, Marvel knows how to make movies that will perform well at the box office. Perhaps it would have been too revolutionary for the MCU’s first East-Asian-led film to omit the CGI-Fest at the end in favor of diving deeper into its central character dynamic, but I am happy that Marvel believed in this film’s success.

PREVIEW: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The newest installment of the MCU, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stars Simu Liu, Tony Leung, and Awkwafina. The film follows Shang-Chi (Liu) who is forced to reckon with his past with the introduction of the mysterious Ten Rings organization into his life. Shang-Chi premiered last weekend and shattered Labor Day weekend records, collecting $94.4 million. 

Disney CEO Bob Chapek had previously called the film’s release strategy an experiment, as it would be exclusively in theaters for a 45 day window rather than a joint release on Disney+ – which had been the case for Black Widow – the source for another theatrical release/streaming service controversy. Chapek called Shang-Chi’s release an experiment, which caused Liu to take to Twitter and declare “we are not an experiment,” rallying fans to make history on the film’s release date. Evidently the film has performed well – president of Marvel Studios clarified that Chapek’s statement was a misunderstanding – which is exciting that the MCU’s first Asian-led and Asian-directed film is receiving so much support. This potentially bodes well for Marvel’s next release, Eternals, directed by Oscar winner Chloé Zhao, who is also an Asian filmmaker. 

The film has received generally positive reviews, with praise for the performances from Liu and Leung as well as the film’s soundtrack, though the visual effects have received mixed reviews. I am keeping my hopes reasonably high that the film is not extremely MCU-formulaic, as over 20 of similar projects in the MCU have lowered my expectations. Nevertheless, I am always excited to be in an audience at a movie theater, especially to watch a big blockbuster film. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now playing at the State Theater.