Stepping into gear 

If no-risk cinema has left you hungry for live-and-kicking theater, just what is there to see in the upcoming months? Along with an array of comedy, musicals and status-quo classics, this year’s theater season includes some absurdities.

Start your engines with Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant, a New Labor Jazz Opera, back for a second run in the Detroit area at Southfield’s Millennium Centre, Sept. 9-11. Although writer and composer Steve Jones lives in Washington, D.C., his family’s roots are in Detroit.

The show was born out of curiosity about the unnatural death of Jones’ great uncle, Lewis Bradford, an assembly line employee of Ford Rouge Plant in the 1930s. Leading up to his death, Bradford founded the WXYZ radio program, The Forgotten Man’s Hour, a left-wing response to WJR’s The Golden Hour of the Little Flower, hosted by Fr. Charles Coughlin, the notorious right-wing pastor of Royal Oak’s Shrine of the Little Flower.

Bradford was involved in organizing for the UAW at the Ford Rouge Plant — until he was found with a crushed skull on the job. Declared an accident by plant management, Bradford’s death has gotten another look; the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office changed its status to homicide, due to Jones’ investigations. Co-producer Lisa Canada calls Forgotten’s sung story sobering and inspiring. Add lyrically intriguing to that.

More recent history is revived Oct. 7, with Heidelberg, the newest work by Detroit playwright Ron Allen, directed by John Jakary and performed at the former Furniture Factory (the Walk and Squawk people, unfortunately are walking and squawking elsewhere).

In the 1980s, artist Tyree Guyton transformed a Detroit neighborhood into an internationally recognized art project made of trash. Allen describes the play as “a deliberation of the artistic vision triumphing over the hurdles of de facto censorship, political constrictions and social opposition.” A true act of alchemy in itself, Allen transforms the Heidelberg Project further, from an environment into a living character.

If theaters were people, the Zeitgeist would be a disillusioned philosopher turned circus clown with a flair for the quizzically absurd. After halting play production for more than a year, owner Troy Richard can’t stand the silence anymore and has decided to open the Zeitgeist’s theatrical doors again in April, with Fernando Arrabal’s bloody, existential fiesta The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria.

Complementing Zeitgeist is the up close and personal grit of Greektown’s Abreact Performance Space, starting in September with Cancer: The Musical, by Shawn Handlon of Second City’s main stage. Then, tuneful, life-threatening disease invades Sam Shepard’s Action, directed by Abreact co-founder and actor-about-town Chuck Reynolds.

Wayne State’s theater programs throw some odd offerings into their classic fare, such as Nikolai Gogol’s wildly absurd The Inspector General at the Hilberry in May. Gogol somehow makes corruption a digestible joy. For those drawn to disaster, sink to the bottom in October when the Bonstelle pits man against nature in Ten November, by Steven Dietz. Based on the 1975 sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, the play is a dreamy interweaving of the history, myth and tragedy of the Great Lakes. Accented with acoustic songs, it’s a modern-day chorus that tells the tale of the massive freighter’s demise and the death of all hands. The hopes and gripes of our American workers will be put to music in March, when Greg Trzaskoma directs Working, based on Studs Terkel’s best-selling book. It will be staged at Marygrove College by the University of Detroit Mercy’s Theater Company.

In Hamtramck, both Planet Ant’s main stage and late night series give body and voice to works by local performers-turned-playwrights Daniel Roth, Joel Mitchell and Chad Kushuba. Roth opens the main stage with Two Men in a Box, directed by new Ant artistic director Eric W. Maher, whose first season appears to be a continuous laugh track. Be aware: Many upcoming Ant productions rely heavily on comic improv for fodder, often resulting in a few giggles with nothing to take home. Happily, there are exceptions. Mike McGettigan, whose Space Fuckers was performed last season at the Abreact, is set to direct the Ant’s upcoming improv-created Living Space: Jerks at Warp Speed.

More than ever before, Planet Ant, Abreact and other local stages are generating an inspirational season. Local theater, an ever-evolving mechanism of expression, is brought to life once again with electric lights and human will.

Anita Schmaltz is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to

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