REVIEW: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

Truth be told, across all societal provocations, nothing makes me want to take flight faster than a sniffly horde of fruit-juice-charged youth excitedly tugging at their weary caretakers’ outwear. Yet for the sake of reviewing Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (The Musical!) from the most irrelevant age bracket’s perspective, I was ready to face even the most high fructose children of Ann Arbor.

Family engagement is a major part of most forms of educational entertainment fed to American children, and this show was no exception. Prior to the show, the Michigan Theater compiled a fun guide to facilitate viewers’ interaction during the performance that included detachable finger puppets and a musical cues document. Also, before the puppets took the stage by storm, an enthusiastic man led the audience in a collective warm up dance that had entire families jumping up and down in anticipation for the pigeon-ness that was to follow.

Mo Willems’ original children’s book series for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! has a minimalist aesthetic – most pages consist of one subject, most memorably the blue feathered protagonist, and a stylized speech bubble containing expressive text. However, director Jerry Whiddon and the show’s set designers went beyond Willems’ original minimalist aesthetic and transformed the stage into a colorful and flashy puppet world in which the sounds of a bus sputtering are personified into 30-second-long gibberish monologues. My favorite set elements were the two dynamic mini doors framing the main scene; actors would occasionally pop out of its segments to deliver funny additions to the musical number. Besides the wonderful gibberish bits and intense hot-dog eating noises, the performers shone with Jessica Hartman’s playful choreography with each musical number.

As far as the narrative goes, little bits and pieces of the performance triggered vague memories from my childhood experience with Willems’ works. In the original picture books, the Pigeon puts forth countless attempts to convince the reader to let them drive the bus. This component is often credited as a great introduction to teaching kids philosophical topics like the moral implications of giving into persuasion or viewing punishment and disappointment through new perspectives. In comparison, the musical adaptation seemed to capitalize on the concept of ‘finding oneself’, or one’s purpose, and the overall process of growing up – as told through the perspective of a wide-eyed periwinkle-colored pigeon. Indeed, Willems’ writing even suggested that the Pigeon was undergoing an existential crisis, which would shed light on much of the erratic behavior exhibited by the main puppet. The Pigeon’s bumpy journey from under-appreciated bird to important bus-driver’s assistant is reminiscent of many cartoonish underdog characters who discover their purpose within the universe’s workings near the story’s resolution, like Rudolph, Wilbur the pig, or James and his giant peach. Because it is a universally ideal human experience, especially for children and confused adolescents, this approach comes across as heartfelt and fulfilling in ending.

REVIEW: Weathering with You

Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering with You tasted like something akin to cilantro: soapy, spritely, sometimes confusing, and ultimately, edible. The Japanese animated romance-natural disaster-fantasy film weaves an aesthetically compelling yet narratively lacking film about two young lovers brought together by the power of sunshine amidst Tokyo’s endlessly dreary summer rains. Hodaka, the male protagonist, is presented as an impulsive high school runaway who leaves the vaguely depicted discomfort of his hometown to chase a more unrestrained lifestyle in Tokyo. His story thus becomes entwined with that of Hina, a cheery “sunshine girl” whose prayers cause the city’s clouds to part for minutes of sunlight.

“I want you more than any blue sky.” – Hodaka Morishima, Weathering with You

The film motions towards gritty themes through the pair’s struggles with homelessness, the sex trade, and armed terror – which at times seem like decorative attempts to add dimension rather than gripping allusions to reality. Due to the sheer number of unresolved issues added to flavor the narrative, the film’s ending felt incomplete and soapy. I questioned the importance of certain ‘gritty’ motifs such as Hodaka’s recurring gun stint, and the development of his savior complex in response to Hina’s woes. I found Hina’s character, an orphaned “sunshine girl” fatefully burdened by dramatic choice, emotionally strong yet ultimately stifled by Hodaka at every twist and turn in the film’s plot. Though Hina braves mature duties to her brother, the eternal fate of Tokyo’s weather, and herself, Hodaka continuously leaps in to save his magical “sunshine girl” – most of the time without her consent. Hina’s acts of sacrifice exhibit both mental strength and a keen understanding of her fate with cumulonimbus clouds; however, they are selfishly averted by the ever-spontaneous Hodaka. Indeed, Hodaka’s character does not seem to view Hina’s personal decisions with the autonomous power that they deserve – eventually, Hodaka’s failure to recognize such leads to Tokyo’s partial submergence in water. I found this plot decision to be the most confusing and also the most inconsistent with the traditional collectivist views perpetuated in many East Asian countries like Japan – why value Hina’s corporeal existence over the entire wellbeing of Tokyo and its citizens? Is Hodaka’s intervention representative of the foolish nature of young love? Or perhaps, the stubborn inaction over climate change concerning Earth as we know it? 

Climate change and its ominous effects on the human spirit are central to Weathering with You; beyond the film’s narrative soapiness, the animation direction does a beautiful job of capturing the nuances of weather and mood. Hina’s characteristic hand movement of reaching up towards the sky, the newfound sunlight filtering through her fingers, is so distinctly human, and touching within the context of Tokyo’s depressing weather. The animations carry the same underlying thread of childlike wonder and curiosity throughout the film, transporting the viewer into a parallel universe set aglow with fantasy with every sunshine prayer Hina wills unto the clouds.

REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Theatre in the round? Kind of. But, like, more than that.

The University Musical Society brought this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Michigan Theatre as a National Theatre Live streaming on Sunday, November 24. 

Director Nicholas Hytner’s take on the classic is comical, enchanting, and the most entertaining Shakespeare I have seen performed. During an intermission interview Hytner stated he began work on the play with some very strong ideas. First was the use of silks and aerial performance, as well as modeling the world of Athens after that of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale to reinforce the contrast between the repressive culture of the city and the freedom of the forest. The most effective directorial decision made by Hytner was to switch many of Titania and Oberon’s lines, changing the usual plot so that Titania is the one to trick Oberon, instead of the other way around.

In addition to his role as director of this production Hytner is also the co-founder of Bridge Theatre, a new 900-seat performance venue in London designed with a high degree of adaptability. As director he takes great advantage of this unique space to create the magical world of the forest. Production designer Bunny Christie uses this canvas masterfully as platforms are raised, lowered, and shifted through a standing audience to create an immersive and magical world. Beds that signify actual sleeping quarters in Athens return festooned with moss, vines, and leaves to represent the trees and landscape of the forest. The fairies’ domain is made of flying aerial silks which the actors use to great effect, spinning, twisting, and posing to illustrate their prowess in magic and spellcasting. 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The lighting design of Bruno Poet and sound design of Paul Arditti both work with the scenic design to create a wonderful sense of atmosphere. While the lighting in Athens is stark and monochromatic, it shifts to deep greens and ethereal purples once the story shifts to the forest. Poet also does a great job of creating focus on specific areas. While holding Titania in a spotlight, a burst of light reveals Puck, having sprung up on the opposite platform. Arditti’s well-chosen sound combines with these lighting effects to create an almost tangible magic in the air, reinforcing the omnipresent nature of the mischievous fae. His atmospheric soundscape is near perfect. The best sound atmosphere is one that goes unnoticed. It is felt but never inserts itself into the scene. The low synth chords of Athens and the lilting strings of the forest do just that. They imbue the audience with a feeling that not only fits the words of the playwright but also justify the other design elements. 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Christina Cunningham’s designs also reinforce the director’s visions. The stark and simplistic grey dresses of the Helena and Hermia in the city, combined with their white head coverings produce a broadly dystopian impression. The plain black suits of Theseus, Egeus, Demetrius, and Lysander are a uniform of masculine power. It is in these elements that Hytner’s inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale is most evident. The Rude Mechanicals are costumed in jumpsuits, highly reminiscent of the party uniform of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, the most striking Athenian costume is Gwendoline Christie’s first as Hippolyta. Her black gown is beautiful in its simplicity and powerful in its monastic silhouette. She is striking, posed as a stark statue in a glass cage, placed there by Theseus. The costumes of the forest characters present a more fun, whimsical image. Puck flits in and out of scenes in patchwork jeans, graphic tank, and colorful armbands. The other fairies have faces painted with glitter and look more like acrobats or fashion models than beings of nature. Oberon, cast by Hytner as a frivolous playboy, is perfectly gorgeous for most of the play in long flowing gold silk robe, often shirtless underneath. 

The one pitfall in the costume design is Christie’s green gown as Titania. This dress is emerald green, silky, more than floor-length, and one-shouldered. The asymmetrical floral detail on the bust contributes to a hyper-feminine and soft picture. This picture directly contrasts the headstrong, vengeful Queen that arises with Hytner’s line arrangements. What would make sense in a traditional rendering of Midsummer just doesn’t work here. 

The sheer amount of talent, wit, comedy, and spectacle in this show had me thinking back to it constantly. It made me glad to have seen it and glad to be studying theatre. If there’s one major objection I have, it’s that there’s almost too many ideas in this production. The audience participation and reaction is a riot to watch, the aerial work is amazing, the acting top-notch, and the designs gorgeous. But I at times felt lost in the concept of it. While likening Athens to the theocracy of Gilead creates a striking stage picture, the extremely heavy real-world consequences of that dystopia doesn’t seem to fit in the comedic, self-aware romp of the rest of the production. The aerial acrobatics are well-integrated until Gwendoline Christie spends her time as Titania just sitting on a silk, buckled in, drawing attention to the fact that she is not an aerial artist. The comedy is refreshing until the Rude Mechanicals’ performance near the end is so drawn out that people are checking their watches. 

But don’t get me wrong- this is a fantastic production. I haven’t read Midsummer for years and my memory of the plot was fuzzy, so this was a refreshing dip back into the story. And there’s so much more I could write about. Before this my favorite Shakespeare play was Twelfth Night, but Puck may have just bewitched me into changing my mind.

PREVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Midsummer Night’s Dream is a classic Shakespeare comedy following the king and queen of the forest, four runaway lovers, and a troupe of actors as they cross paths in a forest full of comedy, confusion, and some dark consequences.

This showing of the play is a National Theater Live broadcast, being screened at the Michigan Theater. This means that it is being performed live at the Royal National Theater in London, and we will be watching it being filmed on screen.

I am very excited to see this show, as it is one that I have only read and never seen. The show is playing Sunday evening, November 24 at 7 pm in the Michigan Theater Auditorium.

Link to info/tickets:

PREVIEW: Tigers Are Not Afraid

With Halloween well upon us, we have descended into scary movie season. While horror isn’t for everyone, there’s something about the graying skies and the melancholy cold that brings out at least a little bit of enjoyable frightfulness in us all.

For lovers and haters of horror alike, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a must-see movie. In it, a ghost haunting is shown from the perspective of a 10-year-old child. Part fantasy fairytale and part creepy supernaturalism, Issa Lopez’s film will amaze everyone in the audience.

There are several showtimes available at the Michigan Theater in the coming days:

Wednesday, October 9: 5:00, 7:30, 9:55 PM

Thursday, October 10: 7:30, 9:55 PM

Monday, October 14: 12 AM

Hope to see you there! Wear something spooky…

REVIEW: NT Live: Fleabag

Having never seen the show before, I walked into the Michigan Theater with only the high praise of my friends who have seen Fleabag. However, I liked what I’ve heard and NT Live never disappoints, and they certainly didn’t this time. 

Phoebe Waller-Bridge manages to insert her humor into the serious, her jokes masking her depression, her sex covering her deeper, underlying problems, seamlessly weaving all of these factors together in her one-woman play. The show starts with Fleabag going into a job interview. Waller-Bridge navigates time in a manner that may be confusing to begin with, especially with it being a one-person show, but she effectively uses flashbacks to provide context for why she did something or how she met someone or why she had a certain type of relationship with someone. In the end, the last scene is her back in the job interview, and Waller-Bridge does such an amazing job captivating the audience into her story and each scene that you forget the entire narrative was to explain why she needed a job so badly.  

She manages to jump from persona to persona with ease, each character with their own distinctive facial expressions, mannerisms, and voice. The guy with a small mouth, kindly referred to as Bus Rodent rodent, elicited much laughter every time she managed to transform her face. She also portrayed her relationship with her sister well, capturing the reserved and uptight personality that contrasts her own free spirit. 

The main tension in this show, aside from her own internal struggles and insecurities,  surrounds her best friend Boo, who recently passed away. Waller-Bridge balances the emotions Fleabag feels as she starts to spiral with humor and levity, much of which involves her sexual coping mechanisms. As she deals with her demons, Fleabag reveals much about human pain and how you can find light even in the darkest times.

If you missed NT Live: Fleabag last week, don’t worry—there’s a special encore performance at the Michigan Theater tonight!