‘The 39 Steps’ is must-see theatre for all who like to laugh

‘The 39 Steps’ at the Hilberry Theatre

Rating: 5 Stars

By Patty Nolan of The Examiner

The funniest play you are likely to see this spring traces its unlikely origins to the Alfred Hitchcock movie, “The 39 Steps.” This Hilberry Theatre production – the season finale – should be mandatory viewing for anyone wishing to understand either the mechanics of comedy or the essentials of theatrical storytelling.

Michael Phillip Thomas and Brandy Joe Plambeck in 'The 39 Steps'

Michael Phillip Thomas and Brandy Joe Plambeck in ‘The 39 Steps’

Hitchcock based his thriller on a novel by John Buchan and reset it in pre-WWII Britain to leverage the imminent Nazi threat as a dramatic device. Playwright Patrick Barlow discovered comic alchemy by rendering the Hitchcock film, scene by scene, as a manic theatrical parody staring four hardworking actors. The hero is Richard Hannay, featuring Michael Manocchhio as the blasé Brit with a flair heroism and hilarious side patter with the audience. The Woman, played by Bevin Bell-Hall, is a brilliant send up of Hollywood’s best female stereotypes – the seductress, the innocent ingénue, and the good-hearted farm girl – in this case, one with a decidedly Scottish accent. All of the other roles are played by the two “Clowns” – Brandy Joe Plambeck and Michael Phillip Thomas – who flip characters, costumes and accents faster than IHOP pancakes, and with even similar variety. As the play reaches its climax and the chase sequences demand a larger cast of characters, Plambeck and Thomas are required to portray multiple roles within a single scene; the frantic costume changes and clever devices that make this possible give this farce its breathless charm.

Read the full review here: http://exm.nr/1J2snWj

‘An Enemy of the People’ showcases breadth and depth of Hilberry talent

Originally posted by The Examiner and written by Patty Nolan. Read the full review here

An Enemy of the People at the Hilberry Theatre. Photo by Bruce Giffin

An Enemy of the People at the Hilberry Theatre.
Photo by Bruce Giffin

One of our favorite things about WSU’s Hilberry Theatre is the fearless range of theatrical productions the graduate students inevitably participate in over the course of a three-year MFA program. This is as true for the acting company as it is for those in production, design and theatre management courses. Loyal patrons get to go along for this extended sleigh ride through a performance landscape that takes in comedies, dramas, musicals and romances across the broad and timeless expanse of the Western canon. This weekend, the course took a dramatic turn for the opening of the fifth and penultimate show in the 2014-2015 season..

This Hilberry production of Henrik Ibsen’s powerhouse play “An Enemy of the People” uses the crisp adaption by Arthur Miller. (Fun fact – the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright began his literary career as a student at University of Michigan, where he majored in journalism and wrote for the student paper, the Michigan Daily.) With “An Enemy of the People,” Miller believed in the vitality of Ibsen’s message so much that he scrupulously adapted it for fidgety American audiences. This play – which retains its setting in a small Norwegian town – poses timeless questions about what happens when truth flies in the face of power, greed, and the selfish fears of “the people.” It’s the kind of play that offers any company the chance to show off their theatrical chops – and the Hilberry Company rises to the occasion.

The unlikely hero of the story is Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Brandy Joe Plambeck), an idealistic physician who discovers that the town’s “healing” hot springs are contaminated with deadly bacteria. He is quick to share the information with his brother, the town Mayor (Brandon Grantz), so that no more people will be made ill by the infested waters. What the pure-hearted doctor fails to consider, and what the Mayor is counting on, is that the community relies on the spa for tourist dollars. Flying in the face of scientific evidence, and goaded on by the mayor, the people assume an aggressive stance of denial –attributing a variety of selfish motives to the good Doctor’s actions. The Doctor takes a stand, but when his family’s welfare is also threatened, he must choose between sticking to his principles, joining the conspiracy to keep the springs’ reputation (if not the water itself) unsullied, or packing up his family and escaping to America.

Brandy Joe Plambeck finds the right balance between idealism and naivety. His Dr. Stockman is not a man given to bravado; rather, he is baffled, dumbstruck and hurt that the townsfolk he has loved could so quickly and easily betray their better nature. It is only when they declare him an “enemy of the people” that he understands the situation. If “the people” choose to follow an evil, destructive path that will most surely end in the illness and death of innocents, he must embrace that enmity in the name of truth.

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.

Broadway Wold Interview: Brent Griffith Talks MARRIAGE at Hilberry Theatre

Katie Laban of BroadwayWorld.com caught up with second year MFA Actor Brent Griffith about his leading role in Marriage. Here’s what Brent had to say about his experience working on the show.

Click HERE to read the interview on Boradway World’s website.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013; 10:02 PM – by 

Brent Griffith (Podkoliosin)Photo: Kevin Replinger

Brent Griffith (Podkoliosin)
Photo: Kevin Replinger

The comedy Marriage opens this weekend at the Hilberry Theatre and actor Brent Griffith is excited to perform the lead role of Podkoliosin the bachelor although he did not do any extreme preparations for the role. “I am not married and have never been engaged,” he says, “and I didn’t go out and do either to gain experience for the role.”

Griffith, native to the Seattle area and a graduate of Central Washington University, is a second year graduate student who enjoys being part of the Hilberry company. “So far my favorite role has been (Adolphus) Cusins in Major Barbara last season,” he says. “I also had a lot of fun learning the ropes of tour life during my undergrad with the touring children’s show Fool the World.” With the role of Podkolionsin, Griffith gets to play a very indecisive character. “He is a guy that has reached a point in his life where he knows he should be married, but doesn’t know if it’s right for him. He’s very sort of wishy-washy. He will be all one way, then all in the other way. He also lets himself be affected by outside forces more so than his own and what he really wants I think,” he says. “He realizes being married is a good thing, but at the same time I don’t think he really wants it.”

Marriage is by Nikolai Gogal and was originally published in 1842. It is consider to the classic Russian tale of arranged marriages. “The title says it all. My character decides that he wants to get married, but is undecided at the same time so he goes to a matchmaker to try and find a wife,” says Griffith. “Then my friend decides he can set me up better than the matchmaker can and tries to get rid of other suitors that are after this one single lady and set me up with her. It is really just a comedy about matchmaking and making the right match in marriage.”

An interesting aspect of this production is that while the play is by a Russian playwright, the director, James Thomas, choose to use a Russian method of Etude during the rehearsal process. “It was a different process than I was used to because I don’t think at any point we had our scripts in hand on stage while we were rehearsing,” says Griffith. “We would read through the scene twice, then we would say it in our words without the script in front of us, and finally we would go on stage and just sort of fudge through it in our own words.” The Etude Method is very popular in Russian theatre and Griffith found it unusual to never actually rehearse with the script in his hand on stage, but he felt it made more of a connection between the actors by using the method. “It forced us to really look at each other and go for what we wanted and get what we wanted instead of just reading along with our noses in the book,” he says.

The comedy is a lighthearted show that is strictly meant to be a fun time according to Griffith. “There is no deeper message we are trying to get across,” he says. “It’s just sort of a fun, breezy night at the theatre. You don’t have to think hard about it, you can just come in and enjoy what you are watching.”

Marriage opens February 22nd and run in repertory through April 6th at the Hilberry Theatre in Detroit. For more information or ticket, visit www.hilberry.com or LIKE the Hilberry Theatre on Facebook.

REVIEW: Hilberry Theatre makes the comedy of ‘Marriage’ larger than life

Reviewed by Patty Nolan, The Examiner

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

Posted: Feb. 23, 2013 at 3:45 p.m.

Brent Griffith (Podkoliosin), Ty Mitchell (Kochkariev)Photo: Kevin Replinger

Brent Griffith (Podkoliosin), Ty Mitchell (Kochkariev)
Photo: Kevin Replinger

Few subjects lend themselves to universal mirth the way marriage does. The theatre canon would be slim indeed if we were to remove comedies about the attempts to woo and win a life partner. One of the classic comedies in this vein is “Marriage,” penned in 1842 by Russian playwright Nikolai Gogol. A new production opened last night at the Hilberry Theatre to an enthusiastic audience.

It’s one of Gogol’s most frequently performed plays, but it’s not exactly trending in the hashtag world of social media. So you might think it’s an odd choice for the fifth production in the Hilberry Theatre’s 50th season. And it would be, if we didn’t know that the Hilberry company has a wonderful habit of making each production its own.

This classic Russian tale of arranged marriages has as its hero a youngish bachelor who gets cold feet whenever confronted with the chilly reality of marriage. He has been proposed by the official matchmaker as a suitor for an eligible young lady in town. The bachelor’s best friend, who has an ax to grind with the matchmaker, decides to usurp her duties and arrange the marriage himself. Of course, there are three other suitors who have their own ideas about how things should be arranged. And the would-be bride is terrified of the whole situation.

The translated dialog is clever, but most of Gogol’s laughs are visual and situational. And that’s where director James Thomas takes everything to the next level … and deliberately over the top. It’s brilliant.

It starts with an outrageous set design by Michael Wilkki that features a giant pink wedding cake through which the actors make their entrances and exits. The suitors’ costumes, by Clare Hungate-Hawk, are also larger than life, with shocking colors, giant buttons and hats that are a few inches taller and wider than you’d expect to find in 1840’s Russia. The inventive use of props, including graphic signs that pop up like thought bubbles behind the actors, add to the levity.

And then there’s the music. We’re pretty sure that Gogol didn’t open his show with a choreographed lip-sync to Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover.” But he missed a bet. This was a fun, funny way to kick off the show, signaling to the audience that this is a thoroughly contemporary production and that the laughs will keep on coming. So do the musical numbers – not frequently, but enough to give this show a distinctive, upbeat pacing.

Of course, none of this would work without an ensemble cast that understands the fundamental ridiculousness of Gogol’s characters and their situations. They are wonderfully funny in the best way possible – which is to say, they play silly characters who take themselves very seriously.

Brent Griffith, as the hesitant bachelor, has a few hilarious scenes that work largely because we can see, in his facial expressions and body language, the quickly changing notions running through his head. He swings from confidant swagger to horrified terror in the span of a few swift heart beats. Ty Mitchell, as his manic best friend, brings crazy energy and a certain grace to the role that seems appropriate in one who is essentially a con man. Annie Keris, as the bride-to-be, is lovely and dainty and catches everyone off guard when she occasionally drops her perky ingénue babble to deadpan the key lines that express what she’s really thinking.

The matchmaker is played by Sarah Hawkins Moan, who serves up the suitors as if they are choice cuts of cured beef. The bride’s overbearing Aunt Arina is played with all the sincerity of a bludgeon by Joshua Blake Rippy. He earned laughs with every flounce of his lovely, man-sized gown, and clearly enjoyed intimidating the suitors. The suitors – played by Chris Call, Miles Boucher and Topher Payne – each have fun moments in the spotlight that underscore the unrealistic expectations the men have regarding marriage.

Even the servants have fun in this play. Alec Barbour, as the valet, responds to his master’s elaborate requests with clipped, belligerent answers. And Chelsea Ortuno, as the maid, brings a trippy otherness to a role that adds a charming silliness to all of her scenes.

Director James Thomas is supported in this production by: Michelle Brock (Choreographer), Dana Gamarra (Stage Manager), Michael Wilkki (Scenic Designer), Leah McCall (Lighting Designer), Clare Hungate-Hawk (Costume Designer), Heather DeFauw (Sound Designer), Leazah Behrens (Property Master), Maz Amitin (Technical Director), Curtis Green (Asst. Technical Director), Kimbra Essex (Paint Charge), Kevin Replinger (Publicity Manager), and Max Bolton (Publicity Design).

There’s much to enjoy in this unique production of “Marriage,” which runs in rotating repertory through Saturday, April 6, with the dark comedy “Detroit” by Lisa D’Amour and the comedic Shakespearean reimagining “Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)” by Ann-Marie MacDonald. Check the website for dates. Tickets for “Marriage” range from $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.

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!