Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Theater

I just recently discovered that theaters make me giddy, which is funny considering that I managed a theater for five years. I suppose when I worked at the Michigan I felt compelled to put up the front of being a major film or music buff, because that seemed cooler than being in love with a building. But for as many instances of aesthetic bliss that I ever experienced in that place, there have been ten times as many glorious moments of solitude, where all I watched was the sweep of the ceiling or all I heard was an organist practicing in the dark. I don't need much to be happening in a theater to be very happy sitting in one.

But the best experiences are those in which stunning art and architecture meet and mesh. It doesn't happen that often. But if either the auditorium or the performance is worthwhile, I consider myself lucky. The following is a list of my top experiences inside theaters in the last year, in chronological order ~

Ypsi Youth Theatre presents "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, April 2009

My friend B. invited me to see her eight year old neighbor play a fairy in this production. The theater at St. Luke's charmed the pants off of me (not literally; this was a kids' show, after all). It's in the third floor of the church hall, in a long room that feels like a barn. Walking in there was like finding a secret garden in my backyard as I'd had no idea that there was an auditorium just a block from my house. Okay, so maybe "auditorium" is a bit generous as the seats are just old leftover church pews, but if they all face a stage, I'll call it a theater.

The performance itself was very good, if a bit long. I guess that's Shakespeare's fault, but it's also hard for little kids to keep their energy up for the entirety of the show. The nine year old girl who played Puck was hilarious. She made everyone in the audience laugh out loud. The teenage girl who played Oberon was so fiery and proud that she really melted into the role and I forgot she was a young woman. At her age (at any age, really) that's pretty brave. I would gladly pay to see the two of them perform again, especially in that particular venue.

Roosevelt University Fall 2009 Commencement at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, December 2009

As long, dull ceremonies go, I like commencements. I'll take a graduation over most weddings, and definitely prefer it to other religious ceremonies. Also, we were all excited for cousin J. and her big accomplishment. Not having graduated from college myself, I found it quite inspiring.

Oh, and the theater is the most beautiful I have ever seen! Here's a picture of it

Notice the opera boxes along the lower tier and the mural running along the top of the proscenium. There are similar murals on the sides of the balcony depicting winter and spring. If this place were church I would feign belief just to go every week. I would never tire of staring at the walls or the ceiling or running my feet along the plush red carpet.

"A Puppet History of Ypsilanti" at the Dreamland Theater, December 2009

The Dreamland is about the most bare bones theater I've ever encountered, and it will always be special to me. There can't be more than 20 seats in this dingy little storefront. There's a stage with a brightly colored patchwork curtain (like the one from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) and a back lit projection screen to the right. I believe that the ticket seller was also the sole puppeteer. Performing along with a prerecorded soundtrack, he used shadow puppets to enact the first part of the story, then continued the narrative onstage with three dimensional wooden puppets that replaced their shadow counterparts. It's a pretty sweet little operation.

The story itself was a bit sloppy and uneventful, but I did learn that Phyllis Diller came from Ypsi. The recorded soundtrack started skipping about halfway through the show, which was a relief as some of the voices had started to grate on me. Dan thought the production was pretty janky, and I suppose it was, but I loved it anyway. I appreciate that someone bothered to make their vision of a one man puppet show theater real, and across the street from a strip club, no less. I love Ypsi.

A screening of Cold Souls at the Burton Theatre in Detroit, January 2010

The Burton Theatre is a Detroit-lover's fantasy come true. This new independent film venue is situated in the auditorium of an abandoned elementary school. For once, "someone" actually did something with that beautiful old building that shouldn't be left to rot. Also, an art house theater in the center of the city is a cultural blessing. Granted, the Detroit Film Theatre offers an excellent program, but this one operates year round and includes goofy cult titles in addition to popular indi cinema (which isn't really the DFT's bag).

I fell in love with the auditorium, with its hardwood floors and stage. I could imagine all of the Christmas pageants that ever graced that space. It reminded me of my elementary school and others like it in metro-Detroit - solidly built in the early twentieth century with tall windows and an eye toward aesthetics. Surprisingly, the sound quality and projection are excellent, even though the room wasn't built for this purpose.

I loved the movie, too. When I read the description (Paul Giamatti plays himself, gets his soul removed and finds out that it's a chickpea), I thought, "Oh, boy. Here we go again." I'm done with Charlie Kaufman and his ilk. I suppose my friend C. was fair in describing it as "the poor man's Being John Malkovich," though I liked it way more than that film. I would actually like to watch Cold Souls again. Unlike BJM, it's an endearing and philosophically interesting story, as opposed to a flashy gimmick that makes you feel a little dirty. It was the perfect fit for my first visit to the Burton Theatre, where the popcorn's extra buttery and discounts are given to those who bike or walk. The best word to describe the art and architecture would be... warm.

Forever After Productions presents "Singin' in the Rain" at the Village Theatre in Cherry Hill Village, January 2010

The Village Theatre is a funny foil for the Burton. While the latter was built out of a forgotten space in a once great city, the former was purposely built to be the center of a town that never actually happened. Cherry Hill Village is a nine year old development that is only half-occupied. The houses range from modest to McMansion in a variety of creepy pastel hues. I find it spooky, but I also appreciate that the developers included a walkable downtown, though it is as hollow as the surrounding neighborhood.

Still, their theater hosts a vibrant program of events and I eagerly awaited the first title that would strike my interest. It took a while, but I finally made it a few weeks ago. The theater itself is quite deluxe. This particular production demonstrated all of its technical capabilities - great lighting, backdrops, miking, projection and actual rain! The seats were plush and comfy, the concessions stand served beer and wine, and the semicircular lobby was quite elegant indeed.

Okay, it was not a great performance. It was pretty bad, really. It doesn't help that the film Singin' in the Rain is, well, perfect and that I know it by heart. I even know the rhythm of the taps, just from listening to the soundtrack hundreds of times. So I understand that a teenage Don Lockwood isn't going to dance (or look) like Gene Kelly and that this Cosmo Brown will not be running up walls and flipping over. But then you have to wonder why anyone bothers.

Well, I will say that the mere reminder of something as beautiful as the film was enough to make me weep. Then again, I weep during any live performances. In this case, architecture definitely surpassed art, but I'm hopeful that I'll see a great performance at the Village Theater yet.

The Burns Park Players present "Guys & Dolls" at Tappan Middle School in Ann Arbor, February 2010

My friend S. took me to see The Burns Park Players' production of "Annie Get Your Gun" last year, which absolutely floored me. If you think that all community theater is along the caliber of Waiting for Guffman (or Ever After Productions, for that matter), I urge you to check out the next BPP show. The quality of the sets, costumes, musical arrangement, and especially the singing and acting went way beyond my expectations.

But that experience in no way prepared me for the days of post-show glee that I felt after seeing the dress rehearsal for "Guys & Dolls," which, I have decided, is the perfect stage musical. With its enchanting songs and story, there are no dull moments (except in the 1955 film version, which is all dull moments, save those in which Stubby Kaye is singing and Sinatra and Brando aren't there to ruin it). It's pretty hard to make this show unpleasant. But this version featured very clever and colorful set design and costumes, great choreography, and four wonderful leads.

Unlike the Burton, this auditorium is more modern and institutional. It's exactly the sort of beige and uncomfortable space you would expect to find in the middle of a cinder block monstrosity that strongly resembles a prison. But the production made me forget my surroundings completely. I wept several times, from "The Fugue for Tinhorns" all the way to the curtain call. Then I went back the next week for another performance. I guess that sitting inside this theater when it's empty wouldn't make me giddy, but I could probably watch a Burns Park Players show in a landfill and still have a wonderful time.

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