REVIEW: Hilberry scores a laugh-fest with “The 39 Steps”

By David Kiley for Encore Michigan. Read the full review here. Buy tickets here!

It isn’t often a reviewer gets to say “I laughed ’til I cried,” but that is exactly what happened at The Hilberry Theatre Company’s production of The 39 Steps. At one point, I almost had to leave my seat. But since I wasn’t alone in my break-down, it was all right.

39 Steps Blog Photo

This is the third time I have seen this farce produced, and I always wonder what percentage of the audience has seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” film from the 1930s. The staging of the film’s story in British-farce style is extremely funny for anyone, but it is downright hilarious for anyone who is a fan of the Hitchcock film catalog and has seen “Steps” multiple times.

The play rolls out as if a drama teacher told a group of talented improv actors who had seen the film twenty or so times to stage the film using whatever happened to be in the costume and prop rooms.

It is a seven-member cast. Manocchio plays Hannay throughout with great flair and comedic timing, with his Errol Flynn-cool comedic timing and dash, and athletic maneuvering around the stage–including using the backstage ladder and catwalk as the Forth Bridge in Scotland. Bell-Hall plays multiple roles with several costume changes–from the spy to the seemingly innocent, but really very randy, farmer’s wife to Hannay’s love interest and cohort in the story. She carries a big load in the show, and is marvelous and sexy at every turn.

It is Brandy Joe Plambeck and Michael Phillip Thomas, though, billed as “clowns” who keep the audience in stitches. They do a dizzying number of character and costume changes in rapid fire, sometimes doing a scene requiring four people as they duck behind a steamer trunk and slide on a coat or beard to each play two characters, other times as when Thomas wears a trench coat half-on/half-off and just keeps turning side to side as he does a conversation between two characters both played by him. Sometimes, the changes happen so fast, it seems like a Houdini trick. It looks like an exhausting show for the two of them, but they could soar with these roles on any stage in the world, and the Hilberry is lucky to get them for this run. They do some turns in drag, and bring such gaiety to it, with touches of improved bits of business, that you’ll be laughing and tearing up the next day just thinking about it. It helps that the two of them have faces seemingly created by nature to do sketch comedy.

Three “stage-hands” are part of the on-stage ensemble–played by Devri Chism, Julian David Colletta and Santino Craven–who portray a couch, chair, a car, doors, sound effects, etc. Their presence throughout, moving set pieces around and then performing, as they do–for example, forming a car with their bodies and the steamer trunks, and then transitioning to sheep blocking the road–is all part of the wondrous cleverness of the show and excellent direction by Russel Treyz and company.

Read the full review here. Buy tickets here!


When nobody wants to hear the truth

Originally posted by Encore Michigan and written by Martin F. Kohn. Read the full review here.

Left to Right: Julian David Colettta, Michael Phillip Thomas, Brandy Joe Plambeck Photo by Bruce Giffin

Left to Right: Julian David Collettta, Michael Phillip Thomas, Brandy Joe Plambeck
Photo by Bruce Giffin

In Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” a dedicated physician discovers that his town’s healthful mineral baths, its big tourist draw, are dangerously polluted. The town doesn’t want to hear about it.

If it hadn’t been written in 1882, you might suspect the play was an allegory about today’s science deniers, those people who won’t acknowledge the perils of climate change, proclaiming disingenuously: “We’re not scientists, we can’t judge.”

That’s precisely what somebody says in “An Enemy of the People.” And they do judge. And what the dedicated physician learns is that the truth, which is supposed to set you free, will do nothing of the sort if it’s bad for business.

The production at the Hilberry Theatre is Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s play. You’re forgiven if you assumed (as I did) that Miller wrote his update in the present century, in his final years; in fact, it premiered in 1950. There’s a temptation to call it “An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen as told to Arthur Miller,” but Ibsen couldn’t have told Miller anything: he died in 1906, Miller was born in 1915.

But Ibsen certainly speaks to Miller, and both of them speak to today. It has points to make, but “An Enemy of the People” remains a human drama as well.

At first, Dr. Thomas Stockmann thinks the townsfolk will hail him as a hero for his discovery that could save many lives. But the whole town, with one or two exceptions, turns against him, led by his brother, the mayor. Even the local newspaper, self-proclaimed champion of free speech, refuses to publish the doctor’s findings.

Read the full review here.

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

REVIEW: ‘Marat/Sade’ crowns the Hilberry Theatre’s 50th season

Reviewed by Patty Nolan, The Examiner

Read the review on the Examiner Website.

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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 arrived.
Left to Right – Back row: Ty Mitchell, 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

In its final production of the milestone 50th season, the Hilberry Theatre is currently staging the extraordinary Tony Award-winning play, “Marat/Sade (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)” by Peter Weiss. Although this show is decidedly NOT a musical, it deploys dance and a fetching score by Richard Peaslee to more fully explore Weiss’s complex themes of revolution and individual nonconformity, mob hysteria and personal demons.

This brilliantly performed production of Marat/Sade is directed and choreographed by Matthew Earnest, who returns to the Hilberry after directing last season’s innovative “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Marat/Sade famously recreates events that occurred late in the French Revolution, in which Jean-Paul Marat (played by the commanding Edmund Alyn Jones), a champion of the poor and proponent of the guillotine solution, is murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday (the versatile Vanessa Sawson) a country girl disillusioned by the unending bloodshed. But this is much more than a mere history lesson. Weiss chose to set this story as a play within a play, performed – as the formal title suggests – by the inmates of an asylum under the direction of theMarquis de Sade (Joe Plambeck, in his most challenging role yet). As a point of historical fact, Sade – yes, the libertine who gave us the term “sadist” – was interred at Charenton following the revolution, and was allowed to direct dramatizations with the inmates under the authority of the benign Dr. Coulmier.

Written by Weiss in the 1960s, the play serves as a commentary on the nature of revolution and the meaning of freedom in a world that suppresses individuality in the name of ‘the people.’ In the play, the aloof Marquis de Sade and the fanatical Marat debate their opposing views on power, politics and insurrection.

In the play, Sade sums up his feelings by remarking, ““To me, the only reality is imagination; the world inside myself. The revolution no longer interests me.”

And the naughty Marquis’ vision is all brought to life by inmates whose maladies range from narcolepsy to nymphomania.

“I don’t think Marat/Sade deals extensively with the French Revolution,” Earnest explains. “I believe that Peter Weiss is reframing events and people from the time of the French Revolution to discuss his own time – the Cold War and the brutal, oppressive era of the Berlin Wall … I think we still struggle with individual liberties and the common good. People really are in control of their own destinies, and that’s what this play is about. It’s not a history lesson on the French Revolution any more than Macbeth is a history lesson on Scottish politics.”

This compelling production commands, deserves and rewards the audience’s full attention. The entire Hilberry company is to be congratulated on a powerful show that effortlessly pulls the viewer into its undertow of political anarchy and polarized political thought.

The cast includes: Alec Barbour (Kokol), Maggie Beson (Inmate), Miles Boucher (Holy Sister), Christopher Call (Holy Sister), Danielle Cochrane (Rossignol), Mackenzie Conn (Inmate), Megan Dobbertin (Simonne Evrard), Nancy Florkowski (Inmate), Brandon Grantz (Dupperet), Brent Griffith (Male Nurse), Rahbi Hammond (Inmate), Edmund Alyn Jones (Marat), Annie Keris (Cocurucu), Joshua Miller (Polpoch), Ty Mitchell (Inmate), Sarah Hawkins Moan (Inmate), Chelsea Ortuno (Inmate), Topher Payne (Herald), Joe Plambeck (Sade), Joshua Blake Rippy (Coulmier), Vanessa Sawson (Corday), and David Sterritt (Roux).

The production team includes: Matthew Earnest (Director), Veronica Zahn (Stage Manager), Courtney Rasor (Assistant Stage Manager), Christopher Hall (Music Composer), Pegi Marshall-Amundsen (Scenic Designer), Samuel G. Byers (Lighting Designer), Mary Leyendecker (Costume Designer), Heather DeFauw (Sound Designer), Kimbra Essex (Property Master), Michael Wilkki (Technical Director), and Patrick Pozezinski (Publicity Design).

“Marat/Sade” runs at the Hilberry Theatre through May 11, 2013, with 8 p.m. performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. performances on April 24, May 4, and May 11. See the website for the performance calendar. Tickets range from $12–$30 and are available by calling the Hilberry Theatre Box Office at (313) 577-2972, online at, or by visiting the box office at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock.

REVIEW: Marat/Sade – ‘The Hilberry doing what it does best – educate’

Reviewed by John Quinn, Encore Michigan

Read the review on the Encore Michigan website.

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Simonne Evrard (Megan Dobbertin), Jean-Paul Marat (Edmund Alyn Jones) Credit: Kevin Replinger

Simonne Evrard (Megan Dobbertin), Jean-Paul Marat (Edmund Alyn Jones)
Credit: Kevin Replinger

The Hilberry Theatre closes its 50th season with an extraordinary challenge. “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,” better known, I am grateful, simply as “Marat/Sade,” is still avante garde even at age 50. It’s more pageant than play: cruel, unrelenting and hard to like. It is also, thanks to its director, guest-artist Matthew Earnest, a compelling, visceral work, satisfying for its sheer theatricality. Earnest has gotten everything right by simply honoring the playwright’s intent.

That playwright was Peter Weiss, born a Czech but a naturalized Swede. His work was heavily influenced by German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud, the French director who espoused the Theatre of Cruelty – as explored in “Marat/Sade,” meaning a violent determination to shatter false reality. Weiss has created a timeless work; he crafts a framework of societal dysfunction during the Napoleonic Empire, using techniques developed amidst the dysfunction of the Weimar Republic. His purpose was to explore the dysfunction of the Cold War, but his theme was eerily echoed this week in the streets of Boston. In a nut shell, “Marat/Sade” asks, “What needs to be altered in order to promote change? Is it society, or is it the individual?”

Weiss delved into history and chose as his debaters Jean-Paul Marat, firebrand journalist of the French Revolution, and the Marquis de Sade, whose sexual predilections gave us the term, “sadism.” While the characters were contemporaries, they had no historical conversation. “Marat/Sade” by intention is an unsettling work, and it all begins with the structure. The setting is Charenton Asylum; the date is July 13, 1808. Dr Coulmier (Joshua Blake Rippy), the “progressive” head of the institution, uses theater as therapy for his patients. He has encouraged his most notorious charge, the Marquis de Sade, to write and direct an account of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat on the 15th anniversary of the event. He’s looking for a celebration of how successful the new regime is compared to the old. For his patients, and especially Sade, the difference is summed, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.” Even the word “freedom” sets off the insane. Weiss has already set us up for layers of unreality. “Marat/Sade” is a play within a play in which the interior playwright may interact with his creations.

Historically, Marat was pushing for further bloodshed as the Revolution devolved to murderous infighting among factions. Charlotte Corday, representing a less violent faction, stabbed him to death in his bath in an effort to head off a civil war. The effort was in vain, and the Reign of Terror commenced.

We can dispense with the historical narrative, though; it’s not terribly relevant. Weiss put it, “Our play’s chief aim has been to take to bits great propositions and their opposites, see how they work, and let them fight it out.” The antagonists are Marat (Edmund Alyn Jones)and Sade (Joe Plambeck), polar opposites, representing anarchy and authoritarianism. Is there a winner? This is Brechtian theater; the resolution is left to each audience member.

This is edgy stuff. Ernest has toned down the violence and sex, but “Marat/Sade” still resonates on a primitive level. But as an educational experience for both artists and audience, it is unparalleled. Earnest’s notable achievement is his success in the Brechtian concept of “alienation.” Brecht, an ideologue to the bone, believed art was merely an educational tool. Thus “alienation” creates situations that interrupt the audiences’ imagination so that they can’t forget that it’s “only make-believe.”

The asylum residents are in mime makeup. Our narrator, “The Herald,” is the formidable Topher Payne, cross dressing in heels, a white slip, and red opera gloves. Overall, his remarkable performance is reminiscent of the Master of Ceremonies in “Cabaret.” Evoking that account of the failing Weimar Republic would warm the cockles of Becht’s Marxist heart.

Two especially satisfying performances stand out; Vanessa Sawson as a narcoleptic playing Charlotte Corday, paired with Brandon Grantz as a grabby satyromaniac playing Duperret, one of her compatriots. Their downstage-center dialogues practically define alienation as the artists portray multiple layers of fantasy, destroying them as the go.

Ultimately, though, Edmund Alyn Jones and Joe Plambeck own this show. Jones is able to limn both Marat and the paranoid patient that plays him without leaving a bathtub – a tub on wheels, no less. He holds his own against Plambeck’s imposing stage presence and the Marquis’s more appealing philosophy, a sort of libertine libertarianism. Plambeck plays one of the most memorable scenes; Sade dispenses political musings while being lashed (in mime, faint of hearts) at his own request.

“Marat/Sade” is not a production for the easily offended. Nor is it likely to entertain patrons with rigid prejudices. It instead demands an intellectual, internal discussion in each member of a discerning audience. Once again our society is caught in a riptide of clashing forces: It’s the wise citizen who will be ready.

SHOW DETAILS: “Marat/Sade” continues at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit, Thursday-Sunday through May 11, plus Wednesday, April 24. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes. Tickets: $12-30. For information: 313-577-2972 or

Examiner review of “Major Barbara”

Shaw’s ‘Major Barbara,’ at the Hilberry Theatre, anticipates class struggle

, Detroit Theater Examiner

Read original article here.

The Victorian playwright George Bernard Shaw embraced an intellectual stance that challenged even the most ingrained cultural conventions. His iconic wit and social criticism is epitomized in the classic satire, Major Barbara, currently running in repertory at the Hilberry Theatre.

Although he was a self-identified socialist and a mouthpiece for the Fabian Society, Shaw was quick to lampoon social hypocrisy or weak idealisms wherever he found them. And that is what makes his plays so fascinating and continuously relevant. The trite expression “ripped from today’s headlines” comes to mind, even though Shaw wrote this play more than 100 years ago.

In this delightful production of Major Barbara, directed by award-winning University of Michigan-Flint theatre professor Carolyn Gillespie, the arguments of the “99%” and the “1%” are given equal voice. In fact, in typical Shavian form, we are given a three-point perspective – head, heart and soul, if you will – voiced by the wealthy industrialist, the poet scholar and the liberal social worker.

It’s the story of millionaire armaments dealer Andrew Undershaft, whose declared religion is “money and gunpowder.” His daughter Barbara is a devout Major in the Salvation Army and sees her father as just another soul to save. Her fiancé, the Greek scholar Adolphus Cusins, is something of a go-between – he loathes the evil men do with Undershaft’s products, yet understands the truth at the heart of what Undershaft says. There is freedom in power and slavery in poverty.  The workers in the utopic Undershaft munitions factory are well-paid, enjoy generous benefits, and choose to go to one of the two Methodist churches placed in their community.  Barbara sadly compares this to the poor souls who offer her their souls out of desperation for bread and shelter. And she is forced to acknowledge that even in her humble mission, the bread is ultimately paid for by the whiskey brewers, the arms dealers and other “tainted” industrialist millionaires.

Gillespie gives us a visual metaphor that drives the point home in an inescapable manner. Although the costumes by Jessica Van Essen use beautiful period designs, the set by Rudolph C. Schuepbach relies on crude crates that are moved about and stacked by the cast members  as the scenes change.  These wooden boxes represent both the lavish furnishings of the privileged classes and the spare rooms of the Salvation Army shelter.  In Act III , when the characters visit Undershaft’s munitions works, we realize that these crates are from the arms factory.  Both the extravagant manor of Undershaft’s family and the humble mission for the poor are furnished by the sale of gunpowder, cannons and the tools of war.

Gillespie sums up the central conflict of the play by noting, “We have not yet – or perhaps never will – solved the problem of poverty or the complexities of the relationships between politics, industry, economics, and the military – what has been called the ‘military-industrial complex’ in some eras.  On another level, the play challenges us to find a third option for seemingly irresolvable conflicts. Shaw, like Brecht after him, asks us to envision change and political action in the face of unacceptable social constructions.  There is something terribly wrong in Undershaft’s vision of the world, but we are not enlightened enough – or courageous enough – to find it. That’s what I want the audience to walk away thinking about.”

The Hilberry company is always a joy to watch as they embrace new roles, new dialects and new dramatic situations. Edmund Alyn Jones, as Undershaft, gives us a likeable rascal and “Prince of Darkness” who perfectly complements Danielle Cochrane’s Barbara – an intelligent and grounded “angel.” Brent Griffith, as Adolphus Cusins, embraces his role as the scholar who does not take himself too seriously – yet seriously studies the world about him.

The cast for Major Barbara also  includes: Alec Barbour (Charles Lomax), Christopher Call (Bilton), Megan Dobbertin (Jenny), Christopher Ellis (Morrison), Sara Hymes (Sarah),  Andrew Papa (Bill Walker), Topher Payne (Stephen), Joshua Blake Rippy (Snobby Price), Vanessa Sawson (Lady Britomart/ Rummy Mitchens), David Sterritt (Peter Shirley), and Lorelei Sturm (Mrs. Baines).  The production team includes: Carolyn Gillespie (Director), Dana Gamarra (Stage Manager), Rudolph C. Schuepbach (Scenic Designer), Jessica Van Essen (Costume Designer), Brian Scruggs (Lighting Designer) and Alexandra Stewart (Publicity Manager).

This sharp comedy runs in rotating repertory at the Hilberry with Summer and Smoke until May 5, 2012. Tickets are $12-$30 and are available by calling the Hilberry Theatre Box Office at (313) 577-2972, requesting tickets online or by visiting the box office at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock.

“Cyrano” review from Detroit Examiner

‘Frank Langella’s Cyrano’ brings a modern classic to the Hilberry.

, Detroit Theater Examiner

Read original article here.

The Hilberry Theatre Company’s production of Frank Langella’s Cyrano opened last night to an enthusiastic, if somewhat weepy, audience.  This abridged adaptation of the 1897 Edmond Rostand classic is compelling in that it captures the essential truths of the original – respecting its integrity in both the humorous and heart-rending moments.

Full disclosure: I’ve never met a Cyrano I didn’t like; I am glad to have met this one.  If you’ve never seen Cyrano in any of its iterations – or are perhaps a fan of the Steve Martin film ‘Roxanne’ – you would do well to see this play at the Hilberry.

Sara Hymes as Roxane and Dave Toomey as Cyrano

Dave Toomey gives us an honest, spare representation of Cyrano, the charismatic swordsman-poet with the absurd nose. (Kudos for the beautifully executed fight choreography.) Cyrano hopelessly loves the enchanting Roxane, played with grace and understanding by Sara Hymes.  She, of course, loves the handsome but tongue-tied Christian, played by first-year Topher Payne. Chivalrous and selfless, Cyrano sets up an innocent deception with inspired words for Christian to win Roxane. It is only years later, when Cyrano is near the end of his life, that Roxane discovers his secret … and the soulmate she has always known.

This production, directed by Blair Anderson, strips away the high-style of the Rostand’s language and uses an abstract, minimalist set designed by 1994 alumnus Greg Loftus.

‘Langella’s adaptation is less transparent, more ambiguous’ says Loftus. ‘It is romantic, idealized, lyrical and modern. There is a balance between designers being literal and ambiguous. We use realism to lead audiences to an interpretation. We use concept to force audiences to come to their own conclusions. I hope our audiences see deep and human characters in a complex, non-literal world.’

As always, the Hilberry company delivers a solid ensemble performance; other cast members include: Vanessa Sawson (Margeurite), Christopher Call (Ragueneau), Danielle Cochrane (Lise), Edmund Alyn Jones (Le Bret), Christopher Ellis (De Guiche), Joshua Blake Rippy (Montfleury), Alec Barbour (Valvert), Andrew Papa (Carbon) and Brent Griffith (Priest).

Frank Langella’s Cyrano runs in rotating repertory at the Hilberry Theatre with The Cripple of Inishmaan and Summer and Smoke until March 20, 2012. Tickets are $12-$30 and are available by calling the Hilberry Theatre Box Office at (313) 577-2972, online, or by visiting the box office at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock.