REVIEW: Hilberry gives us polished ‘Marat/Sade’

Reviewed by Robert Delaney, The New Monitor

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The Lunatics have arrived. Left to Right - Back row: Ty Mithcell, David Sterritt, Vanessa Sawson Middle row: Rahbi Hammond, Megan Dobbertin, Brandon Grantz Front row: Alec Barbour, Danielle Cochrane, Maggie Beson, Edmund Alyn Jones, Sarah Hawkins Moan Credit: Kevin Replinger

The Lunatics have are waiting for you.
Left to Right – Back row: Ty Mithcell, David Sterritt, Vanessa Sawson
Middle row: Rahbi Hammond, Megan Dobbertin, Brandon Grantz
Front row: Alec Barbour, Danielle Cochrane, Maggie Beson, Edmund Alyn Jones, Sarah Hawkins Moan
Credit: Kevin Replinger

The death of one of the men responsible for the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution is the subject of a play-within-a-play performed by inmates of an insane asylum, in Peter Weiss’ “Marat/Sade,” the latest production of the current season at Wayne State’s Hilberry Theatre. Weiss pretends the play being acted out by the inmates has been written by the infamous marquis who gave his name to sadism, and the long version of the play’s title is “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis De Sade” — perhaps the longest title ever given to a play.

Set in 1808, after the French Revolution has been supplanted by the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, the inmates act out a play by their fellow inmate, the Marquis de Sade, who did indeed write plays for his fellow inmates to perform.

This play tells the story of the 1793 assassination of Marat, who was a supporter of Robespierre’s draconian campaign of executing anyone perceived as an enemy of the

Weiss drew on the theatrical theories of Bertolt Brecht in his crafting of 1963 play, and although written a few years before the full fl owering of farleft political action that was to mark the later ‘60s, this avant garde work presents the vicious Marat in a sympathetic light (pretty much saying, even if he was a bit mad, later events proved him right).

It’s not a play to my taste, but I nevertheless found this Hilberry production — directed (and choreographed) by Matthew Earnest — quite impressive. Outstanding performances are given by Edmund Alyn Jones as Marat, Vanessa Sawson as Charlotte Corday (his assassin), Joe Plambeck as de Sade and Topher Payne as the Herald.

I had thought Jones would pretty well just be coasting to the end of his third year at the Hilberry after his stellar performance as Othello, yet here he is giving
another truly memorable performance.

And Sawson’s Corday (or more precisely, her inmate pressed into service to play Corday) may well be the best thing she has done in her Hilberry career. But  absolutely every member of the cast is very good, and this is a thoroughly well done production in every aspect.

Also of the highest quality are the scenic design by Pegi Marshall-Amundsen and the costumes by Mary Leyendecker.

“Marat/Sade” continues through May 11 at the Hilberry Theatre, at Cass and West Hancock on the WSU campus in Detroit’s Midtown area. For performance and ticket information, call the WSU Theatre box offi ce (313) 577-2972 or go to

An interview with Joe Plambeck – Ringwald co-founder, new Hilberry student

Interviewed by Patty Nolan of the Examiner, February 7, 2013

Click HERE to read the interview on the Examiner’s website.

Ben (Joe Plambeck)Photo Credit: Felix Lee

Ben (Joe Plambeck)
Photo Credit: Felix Lee

Joe Plambeck is a busy guy. A working actor and co-founder of The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale, Joe is also its acting media director and routinely takes on directing, lighting and design duties. So we were surprised and delighted when, this fall, he walked out on stage as a member of the WSU Hilberry Theatre company – the nation’s first and only graduate repertory theatre company.

We had to know more. Why did Joe tackle this challenging Master of Fine Arts program? What about his role at The Ringwald? Andwhere does he get his energy?

Inquiring theatre fans want to know. And despite a crazy schedule, Joe Plambeck made time to answer all our questions.

Q: What made you decide to pursue anMFA at the Hilberry?

JOE: I have a good friend, Vanessa Sawson, in the Hilberry program. Over the first two years she was in the department, she told me all about what she was doing and I really found the idea of going into a graduate program very exciting. I have been sharpening my acting and directing skills while being a part of The Ringwald, but I knew that there were further elements which I could be improving on at such a level that the Hilberry provides. I especially wanted to explore classical theatre and theatrical styles (Chekov, Misner, etc.). Essentially, I want to be the absolute best that I can be, and I felt that joining a graduate department would be a wonderful way to excel (and the fact that WSU is right down the street is a definite plus). I definitely talked about my journey with my husband, Joe Bailey, and also with the rest of the Ringwald company. Everyone was extremely enthusiastic and excited about the opportunities that I would have by being a part of the Hilberry. I think that everyone understands that by my further education, my work at the Ringwald would improve and strengthen (and ideally, so would our audiences).

Q. The Hilberry’s MFA program is very exclusive. What did you have to do to join the company?

JOE: In order to be a part of the Hilberry, I had to audition. The company auditions all over the nation at different conventions, but I was able to audition here in Detroit. I turned in a headshot and resume and performed a couple of monologues. After my audition, the panel of staff and instructors interviewed me for about a half hour asking about my goals and intentions with joining the program. After my initial audition/interview, I was asked to attend a callback where we underwent a series of voice and movement exercises to gauge our experience and to see how adaptable we were. Then it was a waiting game until all of the auditions were over and the department had decided on who to accept into the program.

Q. What’s it like working in repertory and appearing in or rehearsing multiple shows at one time?

JOE: It is extremely exciting to be in a repertory program. Because of our crazy schedule at The Ringwald, I am accustomed to doing one show right on top of another. However, at The Hilberry we are rehearsing up to two shows at once and sometimes performing up to three in one week. It is an almost surreal experience to walk onto the Hilberry stage less than 24 hours after doing one show to find the set for another all up and ready to go. I find it very thrilling as an actor to fluctuate between roles with such a quick turn-around. It keeps me on my toes and allows me to really experience different styles and characters in a quickly moving and changing environment.

Q. As a “first year” at the Hilberry, you already have a lot of experience. What’s it like being a student again?

JOE: Being a student again is very cool. I feel that, with a bit more than a decade in between my scholarly experiences, I have found a greater appreciation for all aspects of theatre. From respecting the crew and stage managers, to simply picking up after myself when a rehearsal is over, these “life lessons” have shown to make me a much more versatile and compatible performer. Working with the rest of the company is awesome. There are people from all over the nation with varying levels of experience and it makes for a thrilling ride. Some folks are just out of undergrad programs while others have been out in the world working for a few years. One over the other can mean nothing or it can mean everything…it really just depends on the person, I suppose. I really do thrive on working in an ensemble and find coming together and growing closer throughout the experience to be one of the things that I am valuing most.

Q. How would you compare your experiences at The Hilberry and at The Ringwald?

JOE: One of the biggest differences is that I am only an actor at the Hilberry. At the Ringwald I wear so many hats, from social media to sound and lighting design to directing, and it is wonderful to just focus on the craft of acting. Of course, by becoming a better actor I feel my directorial instincts improving and expanding. Another drastic change is the performance space, itself. The Ringwald is a tiny storefront space with a dozen or so lighting instruments and a capacity of 100 audience members. The Hilberry holds over 400, has well over 100 lighting instruments, and the stage feels cavernous compared to the Ringwald’s smaller space. I haven’t thought of either place as “better” or “worse,” but simply different and awesome each in their own respect.

Q. How are you juggling your WSU classes and performance schedule with your responsibilities at The Ringwald?

JOE: Luckily, I have found that what I hoped I would be able to do and what I have actually been able to do are one and the same thing. When I started at the Hilberry, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to perform or direct any shows while I was in class, but I hoped that I would still be able to handle the media aspect of my job (social media, poster design, press releases and photos, etc.). I have even found time to do some of my design work there, both lighting and sound, as I can work on some of those elements while hanging out backstage while not onstage or class. While sometimes I find I have little time to breathe, I am currently able to handle both of my jobs without one suffering because of the other. I think it really is all about time management. I really am addicted to my calendar on my phone, it’s what keeps me in line and organized so that I am able to handle all of my tasks appropriately.

Q. For you, is this about actually having the MFA, or is it about the journey?

JOE: Truly, yes, it is about the journey and growing and improving as an actor. I hope that some amazing opportunities come from my being at the Hilberry and I will continue to look for every chance that comes my way. I am really loving the life of a working, paid actor and would love to continue such a life once I leave the Hilberry!

You can catch Joe Plambeck this weekend at The Hilberry in “Goodnight Desdemona, (Good Morning Juliet).” In March, The Hilberry brings back the dark comedy “Detroit,” in which Joe has a featured role.

Thanks Joe, and break a leg!

REVIEW: New play ‘Detroit’ misses the essence of Motown

Ben and Mary BLOG

Reviewd by: John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press January 17, 2013

Click HERE to read the review on the Free Press Website!

Though it’s titled “Detroit,” the new play at the Hilberry Theatre isn’t really about the Motor City.

Granted, a 2-liter bottle of Vernors appears in one scene, music by Eminem fills the space between acts, and interstates 94 and 696 get occasional shout-outs, but even playwright, Lisa D’Amour acknowledges that her dark comedy about two young couples who live next door to each other could easily have been set in a dozen other cities. (D’Amour had never even visited the Motor City before last year.)

That said, “Detroit” is an insightful, if sometimes long-winded, treatise on the way ordinary people deal with economic uncertainty and how they behave as neighbors in the 21st Century.

This is only the fourth production of “Detroit” in the play’s short history. It premiered in 2010 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and also played Off-Broadway last year at Playwrights Horizons in New York. Winning the opportunity to stage the Pulitzer Prize finalist was a coup for the Hilberry, Wayne State University’s graduate theater company, which is marking its 50th anniversary this season.

Though previous productions of the play were set in what D’Amour calls “a first-ring suburb,” the Hilberry staging moves the action into the city. Detroit’s skyline towers over a pair of brick bungalows, their backyards separated by a weathered chain link fence.

The play opens with a barbecue hosted by Ben (Joe Plambeck) and Mary (Vanessa Sawson), a stable married couple facing economic challenges. Ben has lost his job at the bank, and they’ve been scraping by on Mary’s salary as a paralegal. They’ve invited over new neighbors, Kenny (David Sterritt) and Sharon (Danielle Cochrane), who just moved into a house belonging to Kenny’s uncle. Both are recovering drug addicts who are trying to hold on to their jobs and build something like the life Ben and Mary appear to have.

After that, not a lot happens in terms of plot. The four characters — and the audience — are mostly left to ponder questions: Will Ben get his financial planning website off the ground? Will Kenny and Sharon stay on the wagon? Will Sharon and Mary actually take that just-girls camping trip they keep talking about? Part of the message here involves responsibility and the way the two couples approach adulthood. The notion of children is introduced subtly, partly via Samuel G. Byers’ sound design that uses the voices of kids at play in the background.

The Hilberry team earns an A for effort in all departments. Pegi Marshall-Amundsen’s set fashions familiar backyards and conjures a nifty bit of stage magic near the end that I wouldn’t dare spoil for you. Heather DeFauw’s lighting design beautifully evokes several times of day, as the show is set in both daylight and dark. (The two couples engage in a wild impromptu dance party once evening falls.) Veteran director Lavinia Hart does her best to make the show resonate with Detroiters, but doesn’t overplay local connections.

As Ben, Plambeck plays appropriately nice, though he grows confused when Sharon teases him about intonations in his voice that she swears must be British. This becomes a running gag in a show that is never exactly laugh-out-loud funny, though it earns some nods of audience recognition and amusement.

The reliable Sawson convincingly capture’s Mary’s marital and financial desperation, something that leads her to retreat into too many glasses of wine way too early in the afternoon. Her best scenes are opposite Cochrane’s free-spirited Sharon, the best and most animated member of the ensemble.

Less impressive is Sterritt’s Kenny, who never convinces us that he’s wrestling with the same demons as Sharon.

“Detroit,” which runs nearly two hours without intermission, builds to a satisfying and surprising climax, but then it overstays its welcome during a concluding diatribe from an old man (Edmund Allyn Jones) who goes on and on about the good old days in the couples’ neighborhood.

The speech captures everything I like and dislike about “Detroit.” It sort of gets at the essence of our fair city, but it leaves you hungry for something a little more Detroit-specific — a reference to working at an auto plant, maybe, or to shopping at the old downtown Hudson’s.


More Details: ‘Detroit’

* * *

out of four stars

Runs in rotating repertory through April 5

Hilberry Theatre

Wayne State University

4743 Cass Ave., Detroit



REVIEW: Downtown story shines with hometown view

Reviewed by: Carolyn Hayes, Encore Michigan January 12, 2013

Click HERE to read the review on the Encore Michigan Website

Left to right: Mary (Venessa Sawson), Ben (Joe Plambeck), Kenny (David Sterritt), and Sharon (Danielle Cochrane).
Photo: Felix Li

The hotly anticipated Michigan premiere of playwright Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” has been the arguable crown of Hilberry Theatre’s 50th season. Bringing a Pulitzer Prize-finalist text to its namesake city for the first time comes with high expectations that hinge on doing justice to a city so thoroughly ridiculed, defamed, and – per its fierce advocates – misunderstood by the outside world. Here, under the direction of Lavinia Hart and bolstered by stellar designs and complex ensemble performances, this captivating production skillfully tells its encapsulated tragicomic story while also exploring representations of the city from without and within.

In a residential neighborhood just outside Downtown Detroit, longtime residents Ben and Mary (Joe Plambeck and Vanessa Sawson) welcome new neighbors Kenny and Sharon (David Sterritt and Danielle Cochrane) with sizzling steaks and inquisitive hospitality. The play exclusively traces the couples’ backyard friendship, which allows information to be released and withheld from the audience exactly as carefully as the characters do with each other. It’s a clean slate befitting the addicts in recovery, turning over a new leaf together, and the double-income couple recast on the fly as a single paycheck plus a budding Web entrepreneur. D’Amour lays out meticulous, incremental treads, and the production just as carefully follows, hiding the magnitude of the characters’ discoveries and relationship advances in the stumbling comedy of everyday conversation.

The proceedings are marked by prickling humor and barely perceptible foreboding that go hand in hand – repeated attempts to work a defective patio umbrella are either amusingly precarious or a dark symbol of making do when everything’s a little broken. Hart gamely dives into the script’s tempting layers, employing rampant physical humor while also gorging on subtext, and her cast more than ably follows through.

Opposite Plambeck’s effusive humor and warmly guileless outbursts, the tightly wound Sawson keeps up appearances, then holds forth in intoxicated trances. Although Sterritt stays pointed toward the straight and narrow with visible exertion, he also embraces Kenny’s irrationality with charming aplomb. The whirling, uninhibited Cochrane takes evident joy in demonstrating there’s no emotion she can’t grab onto and ride to the hilt.

The individual portraits are critical, but the ensemble work is what sells this subtle text, as the characters effortlessly trade beats of desperation and strength while the details of their lives unfold and spill over, each into the other. Themes of neighborly conduct and the closeness born of proximity are explored in fascinating depth, reinforced by a brief, wizened appearance by Edmund Alyn Jones.

D’Amour has attested that Detroit’s influence on the play is largely nominal; other than some peppered specificity, this could be any adjoining yard in any urban setting rebelling against decline. In this light, the question of how a native Detroit company appropriates an outsider’s work is worth examining, and the Hilberry design team answers with intrigue. Rather than submit to the potential scrutiny of attempted verisimilitude, the surroundings are loaded with approximations of the city, such as scenic designer Pegi Marshall-Amundsen’s graffiti-inspired blighted skyline. The urge to claim Detroit without being of Detroit is also consciously addressed, most notably by designer Samuel G. Byers’ auditory cocktail of neighborhood sounds, electronic beats, and slyly deliberate tunes burbling tepidly from summer-barbecue speakers.

Yet at the same time, commingling details feel exactly on point, from Max Amitin’s abundance of edible props to costumer John D. Woodland’s pairing of tattoos and weathered Tigers gear. At times, the distinctiveness can be downright startling, as when lighting designer Heather DeFauw taps directly into an iconic bit of imagery. As a whole, the scheme speaks intelligently to the fractious continuum of Detroit’s perception by the uninformed masses compared with the realities known to its residents and devotees. The concept even extends to the theater lobby, where the Detroit Institute of Arts has installed a digital display entitled “Reveal Your Detroit,” in which photographs by professional and amateur contributors exhibit hundreds of ways to present and represent the city in all its facets.

Importantly, it’s worth noting that good watching is not always easy watching: There is more strong language and vulgarity here than in your typical Hilberry production, and viewers should prepare their brains and bladders for two hours of strict attention without an intermission. However, as in the wildly hilarious scene in which all of the, uh, profanity hits all of the fans, or in the darkly comic ravages of exaltation that too easily mistake recklessness for catharsis, the rewards are ample.

In all, Hart and company have taken a very young play from parts beyond, with all its attendant baggage, and brought it home in a wholly satisfying manner. Freed of embodying the absolute truth of a long-maligned city, the production is able to thrive as a compelling story shot through with familiarity, while also presenting a thoughtful exercise in interpretation and ownership. In embracing the conscious conundrum between authenticity and representation, this “Detroit” keeps the viewer mindful that theater is an art form, and this particular art is the stuff of masters.


SHOW DETAILS: “Detroit” plays in rotating repertory at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit, through April 5. Running time: 2 hours; no intermission. Tickets: $12-$30. For information: 313-577-2972 or

REVIEW: The Hilberry does the hometown proud with its Michigan premier of ‘Detroit’

Reviewed by Patty Nolan, The Examiner January 12. 2013

Click HERE to read the review on the Examiner Website

Left to right: Sharon (Danielle Cochrane), Kenny (David Sterritt), Mary (Vanessa Sawson), & Ben (Joe Plambeck).Photo: Felix Li

Left to right: Sharon (Danielle Cochrane), Kenny (David Sterritt), Mary (Vanessa Sawson), & Ben (Joe Plambeck).
Photo: Felix Li

The Hilberry rocked its first new play of 2013 with the Michigan Premiere of “Detroit” by award-winning playwright Lisa D’Amour. It’s directed by Lavinia Hart, who has a sixth sense when it comes to tricky comedies, and this production walks that taut, dark line toward unpredictable hilarity.

This production is set in a neighborhood just outside the downtown Detroit area. By D’Amour’s own admission, the play could really be set in almost any mid-sized American city, out on edge of the wannabee-suburbs. But this Hilberry production, only the fourth in the play’s young history, truly pays homage to our hometown. It’s all there in the smart scenic design (Pegi Marshall-Amundsen), the splendid sound design (Samuel G. Byers) and even the costumes (John D. Woodland), which include Tigers T-shirts and the requisite Eminem “wife-beater” undershirt.

“The play is a Detroit story,” says Hart. “We’re a city bereft of revenue, neighborhoods, and opportunity. But Detroiters are survivors and their sense of humor is gritty and wry. Even the expression ‘that’s another Detroit story’ is usually accompanied with the laughter that comes of immediate recognition – personal knowledge of the pain and irony of a particular loss.”

The story starts out simply enough, at the backyard barbeque of Mary and Ben, who are hosting their new neighbors, Sharon and Kenny. The entire play consists of a series of vignettes, run without intermission, and all staged in the couples’ adjoining backyards. As Mary and Ben learn more about their neighbors, they also discover more about themselves – more, perhaps, than anyone really wanted to know.

Early in the show, Mary ridicules Ben for following a TV show about NASCAR, even though he doesn’t care for the actual NASCAR races. It made us realize that this play holds some of the same fascination as a race at Talladega – watching everything run smoothly lap after lap, faster and faster, until you feel certain that it is unsustainable. A big pile up is imminent. And that’s what this play feels like. And so we sit there, spellbound, laughing at the bizarre dialog, but almost afraid to blink.

The brilliant cast makes this eccentric comedy work. Vanessa Sawson, as Mary, is the sweet-tempered wife and good neighbor who can barely contain the scary person who appears whenever she has too much to drink. Which seems to happen frequently. Joe Plambeck is delightful as her husband, a laid-off financial planner with his own well hidden, carefully hewn hopes and dreams. Danielle Cochrane is a live wire as Sharon, the emotional roller-coaster who seems to bring out the best and the worst in everybody. And David Sterritt, as her husband Kenny, conveys a white-trash sensibility that is outrageous precisely because it feels so authentic. We may not have a friend like this guy, but we have all seen him at a Kid Rock concert. Rounding out the cast is the charming Edmund Alyn Jones, who appears in the final scene as Frank, an older man who grew up in the neighborhood and recalls its glory days.

Although the play itself is a metaphor for the crumbling Middle Class American Dream, it leaves us with a hopeful note. With wreckage comes renewal; with ashes, the reborn Phoenix.

“Detroit” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and we are lucky that the author deliberately chose to stage a production here in its eponymous hometown. It premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre Companyin Chicago in 2010, where it was directed by Austin Pendleton. The play was later staged in London and Off-Broadway. If you care anything for the theatre, make a point of seeing “Detroit” here, because it’s not often we get bragging rights. And this production is worth bragging about.

As part of the “Detroit” celebration, the Hilberry Theatre is collaborating with community organizations and local businesses by featuring a special photography exhibit in cooperation with the Detroit Institute of Arts. The display, entitled “Reveal Your Detroit,” showcases a broad cross-section of images that capture the city’s gritty, sublime and unique character.

“Detroit” will run in repertory from January 11 through April 5, 2013. Playwright Lisa D’Amour will be visiting Wayne State University to participate in post-show talkbacks on January 31 and February 1, 2013. Partnerships have also been established with local organizations that will participate in three special community oriented post-show talkbacks: Detroit Works Project Long Term Planning will participate on January 26; Midtown Detroit, Inc. on March 2; and Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation on March 23.

Individual tickets for “Detroit” range from $12-$30 and are available by calling the Hilberry Theatre Box Office at (313) 577-2972, purchasing tickets online, or by visiting the Wayne State University Theatre Box Office at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock.