The Zeitgeist is lowering the curtain on live theater for good this summer, to the sadness of thespians and theatergoers alike. After seven years of edgy, avant-garde and sometimes award-winning plays — in a place where anything is possible once the lights go down and local actors, directors and playwrights rule — owner Troy Richard is transforming the venue into an independent film center.
As a film venue, Zeitgeist will showcase local works, video shorts and Richard’s own films. He says it’ll open by next year.
“The idea is that people can pay, like, $5 and watch films and videos all night,” Richard (pronounced Ree-SHARD) says.
He says the theater has lost $10,000 to $20,000 a year, but that’s not why he’s closing it. Richard went to film school, but when he graduated it was too expensive to make films. Now it’s affordable, and he’s anxious to dive into the genre, he says, indicating he might be burnt-out on theater.
“John and I did this out of our love for theater and a desire to express ourselves,” Richard says, referring to director John Jakary, who manages Zeitgeist with Richard. “The change will freshen things up,” he says. “We’re totally committed to keeping the creative dream alive.”
Actress Leah Smith, director of Real Alternative Theatre (RAT) Productions, says Zeitgeist was unique in vision and provided a rare venue for local writers. “I’m disappointed. They were just hitting their groove,” Smith says.
To sop up the bittersweet moment, on Saturday night I head down a dark stretch of Michigan Avenue. Just west of the abandoned train depot a bulbous light illuminates a series of mural paintings — only the first indication that nestled here is a quintessentially Detroit arts gem. Behind a red door, the theater preps for its second-to-last production: 3 20 Minute Plays With Drinking In Between — 2, written and directed by Richard.
Entering, I walk through Zeitgeist’s art gallery. It’s currently exhibiting some classic works by the French “master of the line” Gerard Sendrey — playful, good stuff. Then I head toward the very special place that gives Zeitgeist its “arts club” feel — the bar. The bar features an exposed-brick gallery of paintings, comfy booths, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Stroh’s and boxed wine, free of charge for theater visitors. The bar is small and cheery, pretty clean and tidy (not dank or too smoky), yet funky enough to feel like a find. And drinks are allowed in the theater. You can’t beat that, now, can you?
When the place becomes a movie house, Richard says the bar and the art gallery will remain. The theater became Zeitgeist when Richard bought the space in 1997 from the Michigan Gallery, a hotbed for local artists.
When lights flicker in the bar, the crowd of about 25 shuffles into the theater. The play is starting about 20 minutes late, normal at Zeitgeist.
The drama begins with a woman dressed in red with one foot in a bucket, a big knife in hand. With a wail, she puts the knife into the bucket and begins to saw off her foot. Groaning and grunting, actress Kelly Rossi’s acting is superb. Audience members gasp; the horror is palpable.
As she falls to the floor to presumably bleed to death, her husband walks in and asks whether dinner is prepared. Later, when the husband meets a zealous preacher on stage, the play unfolds into an argument about Bible-thumpers vs. gay people.
The husband and zealot are unbelievably indifferent to the woman’s condition. It turns out the preacher ordered the act as retribution to save the woman’s kids from hell after she stepped on a gay couple’s lawn. The husband yells to the preacher something like: “You people treat gay people like Hitler treated the Jews, and the Jews the Palestinians.”
This kind of loose dialogue seems to come from a void, from a world that doesn’t exist. The characters are disjointed. The play is saved on occasion by humor, and the act ends with a surprise, leaving the audience with a hearty laugh to break the tension.
The second play involves an interesting interaction between the action on the stage and a video playing to the lower right. On stage, a dictator and a prisoner discuss how and why the dictator wiped out the prisoner’s entire race. Meanwhile audience members are drawn to a sort-of America’s funniest home videos montage, with shots of a nun falling down stairs and Asian people dressed as butterfly-superheroes gliding toward a Velcro spider-web, only to fall into a water pit below. I feel guilty as I stifle fits of laughter, mesmerized (along with other audience members) by the television, while such serious discussion and acting is taking place. That’s the point. Clever.
The third play is great. James Mio dons a bear suit and face paint and sits at a bar across from three people oblivious to his monologue on the meaning of life and society.
As the act unfolds, Richard’s postmodern characters, exhibited throughout the three plays, start to make sense. Richard presents an obsessive, slightly bizarre commentary on the ills of society, through the voices of exaggerated, highly emotional characters. They’ve got their own logic in a land that is similar to ours, but distant.
Moments of humor and greater meaning rear up throughout the night to surprise and delight, amid the abstract landscape of the absurd.
As I leave Zeitgeist after my final PBR, the sadness of the closing hits me. I’d like to see more Zeitgeist plays, and there’s only one more left, The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco, directed by Jakary and opening April 23.
Painter Tom Humes is a genius, Detroit’s postmodern van Gogh in a Renaissance sort of way, and art fans should not miss his solo show at Detroit Artists Market.
In “Little Monsters,” he utilizes his own palette of sickly yellows, teals, blues and pinks to depict the same face, over and over — a haunted, hairless man with big, reflective eyes. One painting shows the wrinkled man with an egg, a flip on classic man-with-skull works; another shows him at a strange swimming pool with rural lands in the background. Still another shows the man in a stark lonely room with a window painted behind him showing a fanciful vista; others make plays on Renaissance thinkers and modern settings like “the room of the painter.” A little rubber duckie makes repeated cameos.
As Humes places his man in familiar-yet-new settings, he co-opts art history, incorporating it into the world of his thoughtful character, who contemplates and takes over the world. As the artist repaints the Renaissance, the classics, and modernism, it is his hand that makes the works scream: “Look at me! Think about me! How do you know me? What am I saying?”
Also showing at DAM are large, commanding charcoal landscapes by Mary Potts. She uses scribbled thick lines of black and even typed code to create mesmerizing details of the ocean and the sky.
3 Twenty Minute Plays With Drinking In Between — 2 plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through March 14 and on Sunday, March 7, at 4 p.m. Zeitgeist is located at 2661 Michigan Ave., west of the Michigan Central Train Depot on the south side just west of the overpass. Tickets are $15. Call 313-965-9192.
The Detroit Artists Market is located at 4719 Woodward Ave., three blocks south of the DIA. Call 313-832-8540.Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail her [email protected].