REVIEW: Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters

**featured image from the performance trailer on

8:00pm • Saturday, February 4, 2023 • Arthur Miller Theater

Yet again, I was mistaken in my assumption that Your Sexts Are Shit would be a simple comedy performance. Through a combination of love (and sex) letters among historical figures, screenshots of sexts (and not-sexts), and her own constructed narrative, Rachel Mars paid tribute to the voices and stories we have historically neglected to value.

Mars took a different approach to sharing each form of writing with the audience. Each style was represented visually onstage–to the right was a chest of drawers topped with a noisy, old-fashioned carousel slide projector that cast the slightly-askew letters onto a small screen. At the center, a modern projector flicked between sexts at the click of a remote. To the left, a pristine home office complete with studio lighting and Mac were set up on a slight platform. Each location lent its own interpretation to the written words Mars read, and in the Q&A, she described how these connected with the different impacts forms of communication have on their readers. For example, there is a different kind of eroticism behind sending a letter and the uncertainty of waiting for a response than in the immediacy of texting.

Also in the Q&A, Mars shared the intentionality behind her curation of the letters and texts. James Joyce’s letters to Nora Barnacle were included first, because her chance encounter with them in 2020 was what led to the project in the first place. However, she used his letters to draw attention to the fact that while the famous author’s letters have been preserved, history has not assigned the same value to his partner’s voice. This was a common theme among the letters chosen: they represented voices, or relationships, we erase. We erase women who own their sexuality, and we erase the evidence of people in power who don’t fit our expectations of womanhood or manhood. During the performance I heard one of the older audience-members next to me asking his partner, “Are these real?” I feel like it demonstrated the extent of that erasure, where even if evidence is right before our eyes we question its integrity because it clashes so intensely with our pre-conceived understanding of reality.

Something Mars said which struck me was that she takes the letters, and the texts, “quite seriously.” While we might laugh at the brazenness of Joyce’s letters, they are still the remnants of a real relationship between two real people. While I may have entered the performance with the mindset that it would be all easy laughter (which perhaps already says something about how society has taught me to think about sexuality), I left with a newfound curiosity about the other stories we neglect to take seriously.

REVIEW: Our Carnal Hearts

**featured image from

8:00pm • Friday, February 3, 2023 • Arthur Miller Theater

I feel that I did Our Carnal Hearts an injustice in my preview for the show by calling it a “comedy performance,” because it contained so much more. There were moments of humor, but it was the kind of humor that is a bit uncomfortable, the sort necessary to make a difficult reality easier to swallow. The show dealt with the un-picturesque reality of human jealousy and competitiveness in an age of both unprecedented wealth and heightening economic disparity, made starkly visible by a performative social media culture. Rachel Mars rendered envy both relatable and ridiculous, both a vindication of those with reason for envy and a criticism of an upper class with everything that still demands more.

Much of the performance conveyed a sense of frustration, maybe even righteous anger, that felt like a justification for jealousy. For example, Mars’ use of “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. with its repetitive “All I wanna do is… (gun shot, shot, shot, reload, cash register) and take your money” and the song’s connotations of barriers to immigration and work, advanced the social themes of the performance. In another scene, Mars repeated the mantra, “Congratulations, I’m so happy for you,” her throat constricting with pent-up anger until it was more of a forced wheeze than a well-wish.

One of my favorite elements of the performance drove home the point that envy can be gratifying, but in the end it is a two-way street. It began with an eerily mocking song from the three vocalists. Mars walked out into the audience and took a seat and, speaking to the guest next to her while the sound system broadcast their “conversation” to the rest of us, introduced the premise. A fairy has arrived at your doorstep, and told you that finally, out of everyone else in the world, you have been chosen to receive a wish–but there’s a catch. Whatever you wish for will be delivered to your neighbor twofold. Assuming the voice of our collective unconscious, Mars rallied off all the riches and glories we would like to receive–before doing a double-take, recalling the catch. At that point, her jealousy got the best of her and she scrapped all of those nice ideas–instead, Mars suggested, give her mild depression. Take away half her money. Cut out one of her legs, or better yet, one of her kidneys. We all laughed, but near the end of the performance, the lights lowered, and Mars began again. A fairy has arrived at your door, but this time, it says, “I’ve just come from your neighbor’s house…”

Our Carnal Hearts gave me a lot to think about in terms of the role of jealousy in my own life, how “envy” can be a misinterpreted reaction to injustice, and who is “permitted” to feel envious. Jealousy and revenge are eternally salient themes in the world of art, and I enjoyed Mars’ modern interpretation.

PREVIEW: Our Carnal Hearts

**featured image from the Our Carnal Hearts trailer on

What: a comedy performance featuring Rachel Mars and four female singers honestly exploring envy across different areas of life

When: Friday, February 3, 8pm

Where: Arthur Miller Theater

Tickets: $12 for students, $25 for adults, available online or by phone at 734-764-2538

I don’t want to sound cheesy, but I really feel like laughter can be the best way to relax when I’m overwhelmed with the stress of everyday life. For that reason, I’m excited to attend Our Carnal Hearts this Friday night, what promises to be a hilarious and thought-provoking dive into the dark realities of human jealousy. The performance was created by British artist Rachel Mars, and based on the trailer I’m expecting music, comedy, and potential audience participation, all in the intimate setting of the Arthur Miller Theater. This is one of the final events in the University Musical Society’s No Safety Net Festival, and it is in conversation with Mars’ other performances and talks at the University this weekend, including Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters, another performance which will take place at the same place and same time on Saturday night. I look forward to sharing my notes on this show with you in the coming days.

REVIEW: Are we not drawn onward to new erA

**featured image from Ontroerend Goed

8:00pm • Saturday, January 20, 2023 • Power Center

Are we not drawn onward to new erA was a unique experience, although perhaps not one I would be interesting in reliving. The performance, by Belgian arts collective Ontroerend Goed, took place over the course of 75 minutes, with no intermission, and the pace was slow. The story began with a woman waking up, accompanied on the stage by a live tree, with a solitary apple glued to one branch. Soon she was joined by a man, who spoke the first word of the play. For context, the whole first half of the play was narrated in gibberish that was actually backwards-English. Despite this technical fact, the first word sounded like “Eros,” a reference I’m certain was intentional. The man plucked and offered the apple to the woman.

From there, the other four actors were gradually introduced and began to tear the tree limb from limb. I heard several sighs and groans rise from the audience-members around me. That destruction complete, the cast set about littering the stage with technicolor plastic bags, erecting a monumental bronze statue of a man, and pumping the set full of fog, at which point the curtains closed. Against the closed curtains, one of the cast members appeared, speaking backwards for interminable minutes, finally repeating, “?olleH” She imitated a rewinding recording until the syllables were ordered in a way we understood: “Hello?”

Speaking forwards, she gave the audience a speech about how the world has been littered and polluted by the actions of humans, and how it might be impossible to reverse the damage we have done… But then in a moment evoking The Lorax‘s famous “Unless,” the curtains opened again to a projection of the stage on a sheer screen. From there, the audience watched as, minute by painstaking minute, a video played the whole performance in reverse and the cast cleaned up the mess they had created. Literally and figuratively, they dismantled the statue/status of Man onstage.

I was surprised by the notes of Voluntary Human Extinction brought out in the ending of the play. At one point, the actors even pantomime holding guns to one another’s heads. Eventually, all of the actors disappear voluntarily into the darkness of the wings, leaving the woman who started the play to linger, alone, returning to sleep beside the tree to be absorbed as the stage lights lower. This felt meaningful, because her character was both the one who ate the apple in the first scene, symbolizing the “leap” humanity made towards corruption, and the one who advocated most fervently against cleaning up the stage or leaving Earth entirely. I feel that she strove to make the point that there is beauty in living, despite the harmful side-effects of human existence.

Overall, I would say that I enjoyed the performance, but it was so long. On the plus side, I had an extended built-in opportunity to ruminate on the meaning of the play’s palindrome structure. Is it realistic to compare the reversal of centuries worth of environmental degradation to a physics-defying rewinded video? Perhaps this was part of the goal of the work: to force the audience to take a break from their daily lives long enough to engage deeply with the climate crisis.

REVIEW: Is This a Room

It starts with a foggy, black stage and a spotlight on a woman. That woman is Reality Winner. You may not recognize her name, but you might’ve heard her story. She leaked a document about the 2016 election to The Intercept and was arrested and sentenced to 63 months. However, as she sits in prison, Half Straddle, a New York Based-company, has kept her story alive, and they brought it to Ann Arbor in their UMS debut. 

The premise of the concept itself made the theatrical piece intriguing. With nothing to go off of but an audio transcript and the reported aftermath, I felt like there wasn’t much to the story. 

But boy was I wrong.

The tone, the body language, and the pauses—all of which were purely imagined for the stage—dictated the play more than the verbatim words. Every cough was captured, As the actors walked around the small stage, it shifted from the driveway to the backyard to room to room. And you knew that with every step they took, they were getting closer to the gripping truth. However, due to the bare staging and the nature of the script, some parts of the play were confusing as scenes shifted or we heard simply one-sided conversations. Additionally, the sudden bursts of noise and flashes of lights were unexpected, and while some of them indicated parts of the transcript that were redacted, others were unexplained, leaving the audience wondering what was being left unsaid and why things were staged a sudden way. The disorienting sounds of a synth further enhanced the thrill.

The four actors of Half Saddle conveyed the tense situation and brought the transcript to life in their imagined enactment. Emily Davis captured the nervous chuckles and humor of Reality, trying to lighten up the conversation as Pete Simpson and TL Thompson played the two special agents who acted friendly through small talk but persisted in getting the truth. Becca Blackwell played an unknown male whose role was pretty nebulous, but they seemed to alleviate the tension with their body humor. Their combined presence on the stage—making it a total of three versus Reality—seemed to corner her intimidatingly. When you realize there were eleven agents interrogating Reality in reality, the nerves conveyed in the transcript seem completely reasonable. 

“Is This a Room” is a surreal interpretation of the events that went down on June 3, 2017. And it’s a reminder that the ramifications of that day remain today.

REVIEW: Underground Railroad Game

I’m glad I got a warning from my professor before I actually watched the play. “Explicit scenes,” he wrote in a mild-mannered email, “some nudity.”

Some, indeed. The image of Teacher Caroline, in skirt and bra, using a school meter ruler to lift Teacher Stuart’s penis in a sexually charged after-school fantasy is still burnished in my scantily prepared mind.

But don’t get me wrong. While sex plays a big part of the play, it’s not a publicity tool there to generate WTF moments. It’s a crucial sub-theme explored within the context of the modern racism the creators are trying to break down and show audiences.

Stuart and Caroline, leaders of Confederate and Union “soldiers”

Their agents? Middle school teachers Stuart, a “progressive” white teacher and his black colleague/romantic partner Caroline, who are on a quest to teach impatient middle schoolers (i.e the audience) about the silver lining of slavery: the Underground Railroad. Interestingly, while this classroom narrative initiates the play, it’s not the main feature nor the closer. Instead it served more as strategically-placed intermissions that relaxed some of the visual, emotional, and mental overload delivered by the three other interweaving narratives (so that our brains don’t just explode in one sitting).

The first narrative is one where we see Stuart and Caroline outside of the classroom on the street, talking on the way to class. Their conversations turn coquettish at times but uncomfortable in most. Stuart often stumbles around making earnest comments that often sound racist (in discussing the possibility of them becoming a couple, he blurts out that he needs to check with “her people”). Caroline takes them without offense and responds with her own racist jokes (at one point she does a Mean Girl imitation). These scenes point at the obviousness of race in today’s often-termed “post-racial” society.

Slave and Abolitionist

The second narrative is a role play that involves the characters Stuart and Caroline act out for their “students” in class: an abolitionist and the slave he tries to protect. It’s a simplified children’s story that exaggerates the “good parts” of slavery, satirically portrayed fairytale style, with a hero and a damsel in distress. Fittingly, the play cuts this narrative before it comes to a conclusion almost all the time, as if it denies its overstated significance in the conversation about racism.

The third narrative is set in the bedroom (and the couple’s shared fantasyland). It’s here that the play explores a lot of its discussion-worthy themes in racism. One of the most memorable scenes in the play happened in this setting. What was initially a “Meet a Slave” lecture (Stuart interviewing Annabelle/Caroline the slave for the students) turns increasingly sexual FAST after Annabelle/Caroline starts complimenting Stuart’s body. But this is no ordinary sex scene.

A/C (in an elevated curtain-like dress): “What do you like about me, Teacher Stuart?”

S: “Your voice.”

A/C: “What do you like about it?”

S: “It feels like it-”

A/C:”Comes from the Earth? Rolls…over my body?” (starts unbuttoning her blouse while motioning for Stuart to come over. She starts to hum a spiritual, haunting tune.)

With Caroline’s torso fully naked, Stuart comes over, suckles her breast, then crawls under her ballooned dress. Yep, its definitely R-rated.

But it takes an interesting look at race relations. A slave, bound and reduced to her manual labor, is at the same time glorified (she is much bigger than Stuart on top of invisible stand), and fetishized for her association to the Earth. She becomes a form of enslaved Mother Earth that is treated as an object but at the same time, enshrouded by a primeval form of energy that attracts and fascinates white men.

These interesting investigations on race were sprinkled throughout the play. During my class discussion after the play, we touched on things like Stuart’s “progressive racism” and Caroline’s “revenge” fantasy that explore racial relations from two sides of the divide. Overall, Underground Railroad Game is definitely one of those plays that you will remember for a very long time. Now, I’m gonna get back to figuring out how they did it all.