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Review: 'Jerks at Warp Speed'

Robinson and robots: Live action comedy and technical wizardry make for silly fun at Planet Ant

By Donald V. Calamia

Space: Although it's the final frontier for most of us, it's a return to familiar territory for director Mike McGettigan whose interactive, intergalactic comedy, "Jerks at Warp Speed," beamed into Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre last week.

And what silly fun it is!

More hyper than his last romp through the stars - the Wilde Award-winning "Space F*ckers at The Abreact - "Jerks at Warp Speed" follows the adventures of Commander Sam Richardson and the crew of spaceship RKS-1896 as they transport their human cargo - the audience - to a planet far, far away. The starship Enterprise this is not, however; although Richardson has Captain Kirk's ego, he has none of his technical expertise or interpersonal skills. So no matter how brilliant Richardson believes he is, pretty much every decision he makes is wrong.

Like putting his coffee cup in the warp drive, for starters.

It's that one stupid act that starts the crew's misadventures rolling. With a burnt out phase coil, they head into a high crime area to purchase a replacement part from Pops, the otherworldly owner of a spaceship repair facility. After the ship is repaired, they encounter the Sarcosian Toe Thieves, but in their attempt to get away, they collide with yet another ship whose fuzzy pilot is none too pleased to meet them - at least not at first. Eventually they make their way to the planet Ruby where they need to obtain a small, but important piece of equipment, but moments after their departure they find themselves in the middle of a dog fight. Or is a cat fight? And just how did that man from 2006 end up on board the RKS-1896 in the year 2256? And how will they get him back without destroying the space-time continuum?

Obviously, there's a lot of lunacy that takes place in the span of about 90 minutes - much of it inspired, but some of it just plain silly. But when it clicks, it does so with all turbo thrusters blasting at warp factor 10.

Part of what makes "Jerks" fascinating is its near-seamless integration of live action comedy with the 3D animation, robotic puppetry and video segments created by Mike Eshaq and McGettigan. It's impressive to watch as live actors interact with - and walk in and out of - pre-recorded video scenes without skipping a beat. And what could be cuter than a talking, moving, itty-bitty robot named Soda Bot?

The star of the show, however, is the always amazing Tim Robinson who plays at least six characters - some "live," some on video and one that's a combination of both. In an earlier review I opined that Robinson was in a rut - a very funny rut, but still a rut - and encouraged him to explore characters who aren't ingratiating nerds. Well, I should be careful what I ask for - since the talented actor delivers a broad range of roles that pretty much always had the audience rolling with laughing on opening night.

His primary role is that of the ship's computer, known as 7734. Programmed with human emotions, 7734 is mostly seen on the ship's computer screen, but at one point he's allowed on deck as a hologram. That's when the Commander learns a valuable lesson: Never ignore the emotional needs of the "person" who controls your ship. Robinson is at his best, however, as the fuzzy Catonian pilot who moves in to the RKS-1896 - uninvited, of course, and carrying his own litter box - after it collides with his own ship. It's a purr-fectly wicked portrayal, one that also earns respect for actor Saurin Choksi who is the recipient of Robinson's playfulness. (Then there's the interactive portion of the show that I'll not describe, except to acknowledge Robinson's razor-sharp and quick-witted ad-libbing.)

Kudos also go to Tommy LeRoy for his futuristic set. It's very tempting to walk past the engineering station and push those buttons. But I didn't.

On the downside, much of the show last Friday night felt more like a very long improv skit than a rehearsed comedy, as Richardson and Choksi bobbled their dialogue and paused too long between lines as if to say, "Okay, where do we go from here?" (That wasn't a problem for Angeles Vara who plays the ship's mute doctor; for the most part, she has little to do but point and shrug her shoulders.) What's more, their dialogue became unintelligible whenever their characters became extremely excited, and they sometimes "talked over" dialogue coming from the video screen; both were rendered incomprehensible. (Note to the sound folk: Crank up the volume on some of the videos.)

"Jerks at Warp Speed" zooms through the universe every Thu.-Sun. at Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff, Hamtramck, through March 19. Tickets: $15. For information: 313-365-4948 or http://www.planetant.com

The Bottom Line: Be brave and boldly go where no one has gone before: to the planet Hamtramcka - you won't be disappointed!


Review: 'Watermelon Man'

Abreact adaptation provides thought-provoking fable on race in America

By John Quinn

A fairly useless argument frequently occurs as to whether a film or play adaptation is "better" than the book/film/play that served as its source. The slick way out for the critic is to observe that each art form has its own conventions, and the comparison can only be on how well one art form or another tells the underlying story.

"Watermelon Man" is the 1970 film by independent film pioneer Melvin Van Peebles, and is described as the "uppity black exploitation film of the year." It's also the adaptation of Herman Raucher's screenplay, created by Phil Bolden and under his direction at the Abreact Performance Space. I've never seen the film, folk, so comparisons between the two are out. But I can relate that this complex little morality play gets it story across very well. I have a particular attraction to fable on stage; absurdist stories blend well with the inherent fantasy of the theater.

Meet, then, Jeff Gerber, insurance salesman and casual bigot. Meet his wife, Althea. A social progressive, she's obsessed with the television images of the race riots in the late 1960s. Their comfortable routine is shattered one morning when Jeff wakes up black. We're not talking mood here, but skin color. Though the same person he was before the transformation (beauty is only skin deep?), nothing is quite the same as when he was part of the majority. "Watermelon Man" is a radical challenge to the easy assumptions of race and class, a snapshot of where we've been, and a measure of how far we still have to go.

The flaw in the production may arise from being too faithful to the original screenplay. The episodic script doesn't provide the sweep of emotion one would expect, as Gerber simultaneously comes to terms with a system that's turned on him, while enduring yet more slings and arrows from an outrageous society ("He stole something," says a cop. "We don't know what yet."). It does, however, save the unkindest cut for the very last.

The cast is up to the challenge of an over-the-top plot, most notably Gregg McNeal as Jeff Gerber and Kristen Wagner as Althea. But this is by no means a boring script and it's played in one act, so there's no need to rush through, regardless of the almost machine gun-like effect of the incessant one-liners.

Film segments by Christina Morgan help the continuity and provide the "wide open space" scenes that would be difficult to stage. Bugs in the system, though, made for rough transitions opening night. Things should go smoother as the run continues.

"Watermelon Man" runs Fri.-Sat. at The Abreact, 442 E. Lafayette on the edge of Greektown, Detroit, through March 11; plus Sun., Feb. 26. Admission: Free/donations gladly accepted. For information: 313-378-5404 or http://www.theabreact.com.

The Bottom Line: After 35 years, "Watermelon Man" still serves as a metaphor for race relations in America: Sometimes you need laughter to help hold back the tears.


Professional Theater News from Around Town:

Compiled by Donald V. Calamia

'The Male Intellect: an oxymoron?' comes to Macomb Center

CLINTON TWP. - "The Male Intellect: an oxymoron?" plays the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts for a limited engagement running Feb. 28 - March 5, 2006 in Stage II.

'Hilarious' is the only way to describe the show, as actor/writer Robert Dubac ransacks his brain to answer the age old question, "What do women want?." This hit one-man show pinpoints the differences between the sexes and then celebrates them with 90 minutes of non-stop laughter. It is a multi-character comedy with Dubac playing all the roles.

Show times are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday at 2 & 7 p.m., Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 & 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Ticket prices range from $25-$30, with discounts available for students, senior citizens and for groups of 20 or more.

For tickets and information, call the Macomb Center at 586-286-2222 or log on to http://www.macombcenter.com


From Our Hallowed Halls of Academia:

UDM joins global effort to stop violence against women and girls

For the sixth year UDM will present a benefit production of "The Vagina Monologues" at the Marygrove College Theater on Monday, February 27 at 7 p.m. on behalf of the V-Day 2006 College Campaign. The theater is located at 8425 W. McNichols in Detroit.

This benefit production is presented by UDM's Women's Studies and Theatre Programs. Proceeds from this community event will be donated to the Women's Survival Center, an information, resource and counseling center with a special emphasis on programs for women in need.

Noted actresses involved in the performance include Henrietta Hermelin in "The Flood"; UDM alum Miriam Yezbick performing a monologue and performing with her band, The Foxcreek Underground; Mary Bremer in her signature piece, "Reclaiming Cunt"; alum Megan Laesch, in leathers and chains, thrills the crowds once more with "My Angry Vagina"; plus Karen Kron, recently back from Chicago, and Leslie Love. Current students fill out the rest of the cast.

Tickets are $50 (show and afterglow) or $15 (show only). Discounts are available for students and UDM faculty and administrators.

For tickets or information, call 313-993-2487.

WSU's Bonstelle Theatre opens 'Othello'

DETROIT - The historic Bonstelle Theatre opens its fourth show of the season, William Shakespeare's "Othello," on Friday, March 3 at 8 p.m.

The tragedy of "Othello" set in both Venice and Cyprus, follows the story of Othello, a highly esteemed general in the army of Venice. When Othello promotes the Florentine Michael Cassio to the position of his personal attendant instead of his friend Iago, Iago's jealousy ignites a malicious campaign against the hero. Love, jealousy and rivalry collide when the noble black Moor General, Othello, is tricked into believing his wife has been unfaithful.

Shakespeare never published any of his plays. However, 18 unauthorized versions of his works were published during his lifetime in quarto editions. A collection of his works did not appear until 1623 (seven years after Shakespeare's death on April 23, 1616) when two fellow actors, John Hemmings and Henry Condell, recorded and published 36 of his plays. It is estimated that "Othello" was first performed between 1604 and 1605 and was first printed in 1622.

"Othello" is directed by James Luse, assistant directed by Ph.D. candidate Honey English, and stage managed by Sharon White. The cast includes Anton Asuquo as Othello, Murphy M. M. Hendy as Iago and Frannie Shepherd-Bates as Desdemona.

Designers for the production include Hilberry company members Katherine Botsford (scenic design) and Liz Moore (costume design), Bonstelle company members Neil Koivu (sound design), Andrew Amis (lighting design) and Lisa Marie Rodriguez (props designer).

"Othello" opens at the Bonstelle Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday, March , with performances on March 4, 10, and 11 at 8 p.m., and March 5 and 12 at 2 p.m. There will also be a student matinee performance on Friday, March 3 at 10 a.m.

Ticket prices range from $11 - $14, with discounts available for senior citizens, students, faculty and Alumni Association members. They can be purchased in advance by calling the Wayne State University Theatre Box Office, located at 4743 Cass Ave. on the corner of Cass and Hancock, at 313- 577-2960 or purchased at the door at the Bonstelle Theatre, located at 3424 Woodward, beginning one hour prior to each performance.

For more information, visit the theatre's website at http://www.theatre.wayne.edu


Community Theater Corner:

Out-of-this-world musical parody invades Royal Oak

ROYAL OAK - Fans of B-movies of the 50s will be making a B-line to Stagecrafters' 2nd Stage downtown Royal Oak, to view the sci-fi musical comedy "Zombies from the Beyond." The show runs Feb. 24 - March 12 at the Baldwin Theatre, located at 415 S. Lafayette Ave.

Nothing, not even the space-race paranoia of the Cold War, can shake the Eisenhower-era optimism of the good folks at the Milwaukee Space Center in 1955, where the staff is abuzz at the arrival of rocket scientist Trenton Corbett (Doug Clark). Nothing, that is, until a flying saucer lands, threatening the budding romance between the upright Trenton and the perky Mary (Debbi Dworkin), the daughter of Space Center commander Major Malone (Kevin Branshaw). The craft's pilot, Zombina (Elizabeth McIntosh), is a buxom alien aviatrix bent on procuring he-specimens to repopulate her beloved Planet X. Can Mary uphold her ladylike demeanor while attempting to save Milwaukee from a Russian spy (John Nowaczyk) and an alien invasion? Can plucky delivery boy Billy (Chris Mick) ever get secretary Charlene (Mary Ann Redhage) to notice his tap-dancing charms? Can the stalwart men of Milwaukee survive brainwashing by a musical menace from another world?

Director Kathleen Lietz sees "Zombies" as an homage to sci-fi classics such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "It Came from Outer Space," enjoyed by baby boomers at drive-in double features, but familiar to younger viewers from television reruns or the Comedy Central show "Mystery Science Theater 3000." "It was a different time period, a different style of acting, which is earnest and fun. The story is campy with a wonderful sense of humor."

Audience members should expect their ears to be satisfied while their funny bones are being tickled. "The music is actually complex and catchy while still retaining the spirit of the time period," Lietz said.

"Since the style of most of the numbers recalls 1950s American music, there are five, six and seven part chords which make for a rich sound. With a cast of only seven, this means not one of us can ever be sharp or flat, and we pull it off quite well if I do say so myself," John Nowaczyk, who plays Rick Jones, said of the show's tunes.

"The 2nd Stage space is perfect for this type of show because of its intimate setting. A smaller theatre gives the audience more of an opportunity to 'experience' the show," Mary Ann Redhage, who plays Charlene, said of Stagecrafters' cozy venue, where audience members will not miss a single campy expression or sight gag. Redhage adds that the proximity of the audience is gratifying for performers. "Feeding off of the reaction of the audience generates a great energy for the actors that only the 2nd Stage can create."

No 3-D glasses are necessary to enjoy "Zombies from the Beyond."

Tickets are $14. As seating is limited, call early to purchase tickets.

For tickets and information, call 248-541-6430 or log on to http://www.stagecrafters.org


HOW TO CONTACT 'CURTAIN CALLS' AND 'THEATER EVENTS': Please send all press releases and promotional materials at least three weeks prior to the scheduled event, and your story ideas, comments, brickbats and accolades - preferably via e-mail - to curtaincalls@pridesource.com or by snail-mail to Curtain Calls, Between The Lines, 20793 Farmington Road, Suite 25, Farmington, Michigan 48336.

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