REVIEW: Attempts On Her Life

Rude Mechanicals is a student-run theater organization founded in 1996 specializing in producing plays. This semester’s performance of Attempts on Her Life (1997) by Martin Crimp was bold and thought-provoking, an experimental masterpiece of theater. Director Tiara Partsch crafted this perplexing script into a chaotically-constructed gem. 

The most fascinating aspect of this show is how there are no named characters in the script. The dialogue exists on its own and remains completely open to interpretation by the director and the creative team. There are no set characters, and there is no plot. The actors exist as thoughts, people, or concepts that are never truly defined. From what I understood, Crimp was emphasizing the deconstruction of theater, focusing on independent facets of a named ‘Anne’ or ‘Anny’s’ life. It’s important to note that Anne is not just a defined person but also a heroine of a film, a porn star, a conversation piece among friends, a car, or a concept. This piece surely demanded lots of attention and open-mindedness from the audience.

At some points, the drama was difficult to navigate as an audience member who is not as seasoned in experimental theater. Although, the originality of the dialogue was clear through the lack of story-line. Overall, Crimp’s urge to condemn a coherent identity in society through this text was understood. There are beautifully crafted monologues in this piece that were delivered exceptionally by the troupe of actors. Their attention to small details and their meticulous handling of the material was admired by the audience. 

The design for this show was brilliant. The objects hung over the stage was a perfect implication of the abstract nature of the show. I loved the eclectic colors and textures throughout the costumes, while the minimal set pieces did not wash the actors out of the Mendelssohn stage. William Webster was in charge of the scenic design with Ellie Van Engen cultivating the costume design for the show. 

Attempts on Her Life ran December 1-3 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. Next semester, Rude Mechanicals will present Diana Son’s Stop Kiss directed by Reese Leif. The show will perform April 19-21st with auditions mid-semester. 

 

 

Images thanks to @UMRUDES on Instagram. 

REVIEW: Accidental Death of an Anarchist

November 16-18 was the showing of Mirit Skeen’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Each directing major is tasked with directing a full length show their senior year, and this play was chosen and directed by Mirit Skeen in fulfillment of the requirement. ADOAA a political farce written by Dario Fo and translated to English by Ed Emory. First performed in 1970 in Italy, it’s a timely tale of the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing and on the death of Giuseppe Pinelli while being interrogated by the police. 

As an admirer of Mirit Skeen’s directing work, this was no disappointment. This piece is not for the faint of heart, and a huge work to tackle in just a few weeks. There are moments when I come across performances at SMTD that remind me of the incredibly high level of art we are surrounded by. This was one of those moments. Hailing from one of the best music and theater schools in the country, it is a gift to see peers and colleagues at work creating inventive works of art. 

The cast consisted of 6 actors including: Nathan Goldberg (BFA 24′), Lenin Izquierdo (BFA 24′), Jalen Steudle (BFA 24′), Jack Weaver (BFA 24′), Hannah Gansert (BFA 25′), Casey Wilcox (BFA 24′). With a seasoned troupe of actors, each character was thoughtfully produced and executed. There were moments that indulged absolute clownery—and those were the audience favorites. The energy brought by the actors was reciprocated by the 11pm audience. 

Historically, it was unknown if Pinelli’s death was a suicide or a framed murder. The police claimed the death was a result of suicide, or an unconscious fall. The judge ruled it as an “accidental death”. Although, evidence later supported the event to be a cover-up aimed to avoid investigation and obscure complacency with the guilty neofascist groups. These groups were working to impede the spread of communism, labor, rights and political decent. Four of the characters in the play are police officers aiming to close and cover-up the case (all with unique personalities and intentions). While the character of the Maniac (Weaver) infiltrates the inner workings of the corrupt system, using an archetypal clown-like persona to critique the flawed investigation. This included the Maniac breaking the fourth wall, revealing the innate relevance of the piece to the audience.

There was a note from the dramaturgy team (Naomi Parr and Ty Amsterdam) that particularly spoke to me moments after seeing the show: “Perhaps there’s comfort to be found in 2023 that we are not alone in grappling with staggering polarization, rampant disinformation, and the complexities of responding to terror. Even while democracy dies in darkness and the truth is more important now than ever, perhaps we can turn back to the court jesters to speak truth to power. Or if nothing else, at least we can revel in a Maniac in public office whose term limits starts at lights up and ends at curtain call.” I appreciated this brilliant inscription from the team, and it encapsulates precisely the message transmitted through Mirit’s direction. 

Next from the SMTD Department of Theater is Imogen Says Nothing, a hilarious feminist hijacking of Shakespeare. This Aditi Kapil play will perform at the Power Center November 30th-December 3rd.

 

 

 

Image thanks to Mirit Skeen on Instagram.

REVIEW: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

7:30pm • Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023 • Arthur Miller Theater

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, a multimedia, experimental theater performance which I experienced last Wednesday, told the true story of iconic Iranian pop star Fereydoun Farrokhzad’s unsolved murder. At the same time, many stories collided to provide context for and complicate the idea of “solving” a murder mystery. The performance challenged the idea of “knowing” itself, contending with the maxim: “The more you know, the more you understand.” 

This performance was the third in a trilogy written by the Javaad Alipoor Company, named for the show’s co-writer and artistic director (as well as performer), Javaad Alipoor, a British-Iranian artist. At the beginning of the performance, Alipoor spoke to the audience and described himself as a bridge between the audience and the reality of the Iranian diaspora, one which would help us better “understand” a reality potentially foreign to ourselves. Alipoor wove his story and his heritage into the fabric of the performance, winding it around that of Farrokhzad. He also brought in another thread through his collaboration with Raam Emami, better known as King Raam, an Iranian/Canadian musician whose podcast, Masty o Rasty, has a cult following among Persian-speakers and has been streamed more than 20 million times. The show used a combination of media, including spoken word, video, and true-crime podcast to bring the three men’s stories together. 

As I referenced earlier, Alipoor prefaced the show by speaking on our constant desire to know things, in order to understand the world better, and how modern technologies like Wikipedia can serve that desire. For a moment of audience participation, Alipoor asked us all to get out our phones and use Wikipedia to look up a word shouted out by the audience: “cuscus,” a kind of Australian possum. He had us skim the page and click on the first link that looked interesting, and continue doing so, for a minute. He then used this activity to challenge the idea that reading anything on the Internet, or gaining any kind of knowledge, will necessarily allow us to understand another reality. By framing the performance in this way, Alipoor challenged the proposition that by watching a multimedia performance about the murder of Fereydoun Farrokhzad, we would somehow “understand” his murder, or the broader set of stories which form the Iranian diaspora. 

I found this performance completely fascinating, and it made me think more deeply about how I consume and use information in my daily life. For me, it highlighted the importance of cultural humility: a balance between awareness and appreciation of other ways of being, and the knowledge that we can never truly understand another’s experiences. In the absence of understanding, empathy is essential. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World pointed out that even in our highly digital, information-saturated lives, there are some who have been made invisible to us, and it is our obligation to be aware of (and assist in) their struggles.

REVIEW: Heathers: The Musical

MUSKET’s production of Murphy and O’Keefe’s Heathers took place at the Power Center for the Performing Arts this past weekend. MUSKET impressively holds the title as the oldest and largest student-run theater troupe on campus. They produce one fully-staged and orchestrated musical each semester with an entirely student-led cast, crew, and production team. It serves as an essential platform for non-musical theater majors to participate in musical theater, offering endless opportunities for leadership, production, and performance to university students.

I observed several standout aspects of this performance. Firstly, the costume design (by Katy Sanchez) was beautifully crafted, immediately conveying the identities of the characters to the audience. The costumes adhered to the expected classic “Heathers” outfits, featuring heavy pumps, short skirts, and the distinctive red, green, yellow, and blue colors defining each character. Katy honored the original looks while bringing her own flare into the mix.  

Secondly, the jocks, played by Ram Sweeney (Dylan Bernstein) and Kurt Kelly (Sohil Apte), had me chuckling at their scenes throughout the show. I appreciated their physicality, and even from my seat towards the back of the house, I could pick up their movements very well. Sohil, wrapping up his third production with the troupe, has become a frequent MUSKET actor.

Additionally, the dance numbers were an exciting aspect of the show, with choreography by Marcus Byers Jr and assistant Kate Player. The numbers were bright and intentionally crafted to the scene, adding significantly to the storytelling rather than existing as a mere spectacle. At times, the choreography compromised good vocal quality, but overall the actors handled this well. 

“Dead Gay Son” stood out as my favorite number in the show. It brought a blazing burst of energy immediately after intermission, and bleak ending to Act I. The crowd responded accordingly to this excitement. Kurt’s Dad (Evan Hoefer) and Ram’s Dad (Zoltan Berensci) hysterically and passionately committed to the campiness of the scene.

Music direction was led by Madeline Nolen, and the band featured 7 players. This pit was mighty for the minimal orchestration in the score. They played together well—this score is not easy for anyone! Likewise, Madeline conducted with passion, and kept the ship running smoothly. The vocal harmonies dazzled in select moments, and some other times were a tad uncoordinated, possibly due to the stuffy mics.  

The version of Heathers performed was the official West End version. It differed slightly from what I usually remember seeing in a production of Heathers. Some songs in this revised edition felt superfluous to the plot, and some songs were removed or changed from the original Broadway version. Because of this, the pacing suffered a bit. Although, I understand the tricky nature of navigating changing dark and often insensitive themes while trying to convey an aggressive message on mental health awareness through the music.

Truly, a big congratulations to the cast of Heathers. I admire the endless hard work that was put into the show. MUSKET remains an essential part of the undergraduate student experience—offering diverse opportunities to musical theater lovers throughout the school. Next semester, MUSKET will be putting on the McNally & Shaiman/Wittman musical, Catch Me If You Can. Based off of Frank Abagnale Jr’s autobiography and the 2002 film, this show is a dance spectacle with a brassy, thrilling score. Directed by Sam Hedeman and music directed by Caitlyn Bogart, it’s sure to be an exciting ride. The show will go up March 15-17 in the Power Center for the Performing Arts. Auditions for the show will open in mid-January.   

 

 

Image thanks to @UMMUSKET on Instagram. 

REVIEW: Heathers the Musical

Pictured from left to right: Emelia Hughey as Heather McNamara, Bianca Garfinkle as Heather Chandler, and Lila Harris as Heather Duke taken from Musket’s Instagram (@ummusket)

On November 10th, the University of Michigan’s student-led organization, Musket, put on its opening night performance of Heathers: the Musical. The musical follows Veronica Sawyer (played by Kaylin Gines) as she navigates her senior year as a part of Westerburg High School’s class of 1989 while trying to avoid the titular Heathers, the cruel popular girls of the school. Heather McNamara (Emelia Hughey), Heather Duke (Lila Harris), and the queen bee Heather Chandler (Bianca Garfinkle) make high school a living hell for the other students including Veronica and her best friend Martha Dunstock (Ellie Omori-Sampson). Along with the Heathers, Kurt Kelly (Sohil Apte) and Ram Sweeny (Dylan Bernstein) torment them with their inflated jock egos. It’s not until Veronica becomes a Heather herself and meets JD (Aaron Syi) do her plans of a quiet senior year under the radar go awry.

Heathers: the Musical satirizes the high school experience, portraying it as a battlefield of hostile personalities. It describes high school as a mimicry of the outside world with all of the hierarchies of adult society, posing the question of why childhood had to transform into this. Themes of gun violence, sexual violence, suicide, and grief of loss pervade the story, understanding that, here, the perils and dangers of adult society are inseparably coupled with the insecurity, longing, and anxiety of coming of age. As Kate Ivanov, the director of the musical, puts it in the Director’s Note, “there is a constant need to change, fit in, and be loved and accepted for who you are, when you don’t know who you are yet.”

The production itself is masterfully crafted in the Power Center’s proscenium stage. The set remains simple yet dynamic, always portraying Westerburg High, comprising a catwalk with two movable staircases that lead up to it. Still, in scenes that weren’t set in Westerburg High, there were parts of the set that were present that helped immersion while not detracting from the immersion of other scenes, including the gas station for “Freeze Your Brain” and the pier for “Kindergarden Boyfriend”. This use of the set, by not having any major set changes, streamlined the viewing experience and made it easy to follow the constant stimulation that the musical provides. The catwalk also gives good visual symbolism whenever the Heathers, but especially Heather Chandler, enters, demanding attention to their presence through the fact they are physically and socially above everyone else.

This experience wouldn’t be possible without the amazing performances from each of the actors as well. The way that the Heathers seem like one indomitable unit with their synchronization make the play as they set the tone of power hierarchy to which all of the play centers around, especially in “Candy Store”. Chandler especially commands her presence showcases devotion to the precision of her character work as in every scene she’s in she steals the show with her attitude and poise. When they eventually break off too the actors play faithfully to each of their individual characters’ emanating their respective traits: Duke’s envy and conniving nature  shown through “Never Shut Up Again” and McNamara’s dumbness that gets deepened by the anxiety and vulnerability she shows in “Lifeboat”.

Kurt and Ram play their parts well as the comedic relief, their energy was outstanding, while still showing their ignorance and ego as almost perpetrators of sexual violence in “You’re Welcome” where they really expressed the childish entitlement they felt to sexual favors. Martha, although not playing the largest role in the play, stood out as not only someone with fantastic heart but an exceedingly impressive vocalist (I’m pretty sure “Kindergarden Boyfriend” held the largest applause of the night).

Of course, the leads Veronica and JD were the stars of the show, faithfully executing their characters to a caliber that exemplified the quality of their performance. As the leading lady, Veronica was intelligent and contemplative, executing the larger themes of the musical with ease and immersion. JD was a contemplative character that showed all the warning signs of his unhinged nature, yet the audience can’t help but fall in love with him the same way that Veronica does. They certainly complemented each other with several musical numbers that showed their exceptional vocal performance such as in “Dead Girl Walking”, “Our Love is God”, and “Seventeen” which I especially enjoyed.

Still, each of the members clearly showcased their love of the show of which I noticed their exceeding amounts of energy and the small details they implemented helped the immersion into the world of Sherwood, Ohio. Additionally, to provide a special shoutout, the production couldn’t had reached as high as it did without the performance of the pit orchestra. The score was excellently executed with each of the musical motifs highlighting each and every scene, not just with the musical numbers.

With my experience, I was overall blown away by the sheer skill, energy, and love of the show the cast had. The musical was comedic yet contemplative, energetic and fun yet satirical, tonally all over the place yet being able to ground itself when it needed to. Quality-wise, it was almost like watching an off-broadway production, and to think that Musket is a student-led organization speaks to the amount of time, skill, and effort it took to put out such a performance. I would definitely recommend to keep the productions UofM’s Musket in one’s mind if one wants to see great performances.

REVIEW: Orpheus in the Underworld

8:00pm • Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023 • Power Center

SMTD’s production of Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers) this past weekend was campy and aesthetically chaotic. The opera was originally written in 1858 by librettists Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy and composer Jacques Offenbach, and is a humorous, irreverent take on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this rendition, directed by Mo Zhou, SMTD chose to extend the opera’s original political critique of capitalist power structures into the 1950s, on the cusp of the Kennedy presidential campaign. The result is a complex amalgam of messages and meanings which I will discuss below. 

The notes provided in the program for this performance were essential in interpreting the many points the creative directors wanted to get across. First, the “About the Authors” section conveyed the point that each of the authors drew inspiration from the politics of their time. Mo Zhou elaborated upon that point in her director’s note, drawing from Offenbach’s “turbulent relationship with personal finance” to develop the opera as a statement on the privileged elite and capitalism. Further, the dramaturgical team focuses on how including Public Opinion as an archetypal character frames and translates the plot for the audience. Finally, the dramaturgs suggest that Offenbach wrote feminist meanings into the opera and subverted power structures by making Public Opinion a female character and focusing on Eurydice’s romantic self-determination.

I would not necessarily have read all of these themes into the opera without the program to point them out. In terms of the political and labor meanings of the production, the set did much of the heavy lifting. Larger-than-life vintage advertisements framed the stage, literally presenting each scene through a lens of consumerism. In the scene where the gods revolt against Jupiter’s rule, they carry signs parodying the labor movement with slogans like “Give Me Generational Wealth or Give Me Debt.” 

Despite the dramaturgical efforts to read feminism and liberation into Orpheus in the Underworld, my perception of the gender relations in this story was more cynical. While the role of Public Opinion as a female character was meant to give “the voice of the collective Greek chorus … to someone who historically was not given a voice,” her comparatively minor role in the story didn’t allow a full development of that voice. Personally, Offenbach’s treatment of Public Opinion as a female character felt more mocking of women as arbiters of social control.

All of that said, this performance was a lot of fun to experience, with all of its wacky, unexpected pop-culture references (Elvis as Bacchus?). There was so much going on that I don’t know if my confusion is a critique or a sign of some complex theatrical genius on the side of the production’s creative team. The set and costumes were beautifully and thoughtfully designed, and the cast performed splendidly. Orpheus in the Underworld was both entertaining and intellectually stimulating, and I thoroughly enjoyed picking apart the creative choices which pulled this performance together.