Take a deep breath: The theater season is upon us, promising original plays, emerging actors and twists on revivals to entice us into the dark. This season is stronger than ever in classics with such American works as Arthur Miller's The Price and Eugene O'Neill's great Long Day's Journey Into Night, and with the Royal Shakespeare Company beginning October in Ann Arbor, and a bold new production of Titus Andronicus at the unpredictable Zeitgeist Theatre.
The new plays, though, merit special attention. If we don't discover the next Oscar Wilde, we may at least hear a new voice entertaining us. Maybe we'll encounter new works that resonate with our own struggles as did last year's Moonglow by Kim Carney at Performance Network.
Kenneth Jones, an editor at playbill.com, says, "The vitality of a theater community is indicated by the number of new works that sprout in that community." Jones was a theater writer in Detroit for 13 years before moving to New York City. "Fostering world premieres proves that theaters and audiences are adventurous and curious and not slavish to a commercial mindset. Creating literature that will survive and thrive should be part of every theatre's mission."
"In the 1980s and '90s, when I was covering theater in Michigan, you could expect maybe one world premiere a year. These days, there are at least half a dozen a year that I hear about." In fact, this year, six regional theaters in southeastern Michigan will produce at least 10 world premieres on their stages, some by native playwrights. It's a banner year.
The Purple Rose in Chelsea and the Detroit Repertory in Detroit have always led the way with world premieres and they're still on top of the game. The Detroit Rep has two, Arborphilia (Tree Love) and Lapses, but the Rose leads with three new plays.
At the top of their list is a prequel to one of the longest-running and most popular plays in Detroit history, which debuted in Chelsea then played at the Gem Theatre: Escanaba in Da Moonlight. Playwright and actor Jeff Daniels has written Escanaba in Love to open the Rose season. This one, like its predecessor, also takes place at the Soady family deer camp, but several decades earlier, on the verge of World War II. Albert Soady, Big Betty Baloo and a new cast of "Yoopers" search for deer and laughs in the Upper Penninsula.
In the spring, former Division I football coach Brian Letscher's The Lights Come On explores the high-stress coaching world and what these driven men do to the women in their lives it's recommended for mature audiences. Sea of Fools, a farce written by television and stage actor Matt Letscher, Brian's brother, will end the Rose season.
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre has come up with a world premiere comedy by Ted Herstand; It Should Be opens in January. The Masco Corporation Foundation plunked down the dollars to support this one, says Evie Orbach, JET's artistic director, director and sometime actor. "It's a comedy," she says, "a Jewish I Remember Mama. Set in the 1930s in an urban setting, it could be any city and features an indomitable matriarch who makes everything better, as it should be.'"
As of last year, Kitty Dubin has brought five world premieres to JET. As an Oakland County resident, her works reflect the lives of contemporary people. Playbill.com's Jones says, "The fact that JET recently named Kitty Dubin its playwright-in-residence is hugely important it says new work is a fixture there, even though Kitty doesn't have a play scheduled in the current season."
Detroit Repertory Theatre presents two world premieres: Arborphilia (Tree Love) by Jacob M. Appel and Dan Aibel's Lapses. Appel's play, heading up the season, satirizes marriage and intergenerational conflict. Touching on the lives of those we live with, Lapses, which closes the season, proposes that figments of the imagination and reality are almost interchangeable within the mind of an older man plagued by mental lapses.
Abreact, the free theater (allowing the public to "pay what you can"), continues its lofty ways in its second floor Greektown location. Brand-new this year is Whackjob in April, written and directed by Mike McGettigan, who won this year's Wilde award for best director, given by the weekly Between the Lines. Chad Kushuba, artistic director at Abreact, says the piece, about a woman accidentally committed to a mental hospital, is a dark comedy.
From the writer of last year's The Stillness Between Breaths, voted best new play by the Oakland Press, comes Language Lessons by Michigan's Joseph Zettelmaier. The play, which opens in January at Ann Arbor's Performance Network, is about the humorous cultural clashes that occur when a touring Russian ballerina becomes a guest in the home of a retired American diplomat.
In its 10th year, Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre has consistently presented new plays growing out of underground experience or lifestyles, often written using collective improvisation. New on this season's spring calendar is a remounting of Before and Laughter, an improvised show from several seasons back and, next summer, Bottle of Red, by Margaret Edwartowski and Nancy Hayden, likewise the fruit of actors' improv sessions.
The Theatre Company of the University of Detroit-Mercy will produce a play by a member of Detroit's acting royalty, Arthur Beer. Not a new play, Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials hasn't been seen since its first outing in the late '80s. It tells the story of Detroiter Dr. Ossian Sweet, who was tried for murder and defended by Clarence Darrow in the 1920s. Any bets on Beer in the Darrow role next spring?
Though a record number of world premieres will occur on southeastern Michigan stages, one Michigan premiere is a theatrical event. Beginning in November, the Virtual Theatricality Lab at Dearborn's Henry Ford Community College presents The Skriker (The Screamer) by Caryl Churchill. "Set in contemporary London, it is based on Celtic mythology," says director George Popovich. "An ancient demon tries to tempt two sisters into the underworld. Live actors will interact with 3-D images and motion-capture creatures like Golem in Lord of the Rings." He explains that actors wear suits with digital sensors and these then, via computer, become digital puppets on the screens around the stage. Popovich warns that the play deals with infanticide, kidnapping and blood-drinking and is, essentially, a horror story. "This woman is frigging brilliant," he says of Churchill. Another of Churchill's plays is on the February calendar at Planet Ant. The play, A Number, deals with cloning.
Amid the very new, there are plays from recent Broadway and off-Broadway seasons as well as from new playwrights who are considered important. Neil LaBute's Fat Pig is one such off-Broadway show, to be produced at Stagecrafters Studio. And there have to be a few musicals. As the longest-running musical in New York theater history, The Fantasticks, heads for a Broadway revival, Performance Network mounts its production in November right through the Christmas season. It is a great gift for all theatergoers.
And now, exhale.Michael Margolin writes about the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]