February 11, 2012 – Yesterday evening at about 5:00 p.m. this writer and his wife, met five friends at our much-frequented tavern “The Bar” and after a few quaffs and some serendipitously available kielbasa, creamed herring and other “fillers” evidencing northern European winter survival fare, all offered in celebration of a Dearborn police sergeant’s promotion to lieutenant, we set off to the big city of Detroit, its excitement concealed by a veil of wisping snow and seeming gelid mist through which the mighty Stalin-era Penobscot Building thrust its muscled shoulders as though to warn us that we had better not tarry past ten else we join the myriad lost souls still crawling upwards out of the mud of the Detroit River.
We drove down picturesque Michigan Avenue in a dusting of snow, nothing really threatening, with my passengers, Mark the Professor, Linda and Jim Baron, and Greg (a/k/a Sam Whiskers) giving tear-laden reminiscences of a Detroit in times past; its vivacity and verve strangulated by events and social upheavals still echoing in the ramshackle, post-Dresden-like silhouette of the crumbling walls we passed. After assuring ourselves as to the location of the Abreact Theatre, we resolved to have dinner at Vivio’s in the Eastern Market district.
Vivio’s is a popular eatery and bar located at the entry-way of the Eastern Market. It’s the place with the awning.
We were seated by the presumptive owner; were told that the second floor of the facility was closed on Fridays to patrons (this was conveyed with a patrician’s style, snooty and mysterious) and watched as the owner indifferently cobbled a long table from three small ones, added three folding chairs to the others and abandoned us to a real Irish waitress, lilt and all. It was delightful to hear her talk, that sing-songy Irish pronunciation inviting a mood of alcohol-induced stupefaction so appropriate for a night at the theatre. I genuinely feared that Mark the Brit’s presence might agitate the sweet maiden and incite mayhem, what with all that hurly-burly over there. Luckily, Mark’s natural English indifference and her Catholic sense of forgiveness averted a scene. The menu was uninspired. Quality sandwiches with an occasional blip of refinement; i.e. a decent soup a l’oignon, but, otherwise, a foray into culinary mediocrity. I, as always, defied tradition and ordered a bowl of the onion soup and a bucket of steamed mussels, Belgian-style, which was actually listed as an appetizer. I was immediately dittoed by Jim. Everyone else at the table, including my wife, Aida,
reverted to societal ordinariness and picked predictable fare (sandwiches or entrees with coleslaw or mashed potatoes, oh woe!). The soup can be recommended but the mussels I had yesterday were over-steamed and had a wet cardboard quality. The quantity of mussels was denounceable. I can recommend, also, the bar’s bloody mary cocktail. It comes with half an older dill spear, minuscule lime wedge and a superior tomato mixer. In all fairness to the establishment, Mark the Professor and I had the bucket of mussels two summers ago when we were shopping at the Eastern Market and it was much better. Seasons can play a role with shell fish. But I still aver that the mussels yesterday were both too small and over-steamed.
Two diners at Vivio’s enjoy the Roarin’ Twenties bar atmosphere and the pile of lettuce on their plates. The food’s not bad, but hardly innovative. The drinks are very good.
We left opportunely at 7:30 p.m. and found the Abreact. Now look, people, this is not Broadway. It’s not even off-Broadway. It’s more like an artist’s loft in Harlem. But the facade of the theatre looks more like an apartment building in Greenwich Village what with a canopy suggesting the presence of a concierge or valet waiting warmly behind the double doors. No such person exists, naturally, so the fear of having to tip someone is mercifully dispelled. Once you get in, any mental images you drew of a theatre collapse under the realization that you are in a large, dark chamber with a bare stage and a seating area furnished with unwanted sofas and arm chairs, donated, almost certainly, by some one’s aunt, the Salvation Army or a relocating city jail. The garage sale quality of the furnishings cannot be lost on anyone but a flood victim in Pakistan.
It the truth be told, as it always is on SyrPer, the place is wonderful. Yes, yes, yes: the sofas reek of old widows! But they are comfortable in a way no Broadway theatre can ever match. You can stretch backward without disturbing another attendee’s groin; you can cross your legs, a real treat if you have sat in a modern theatre or airplane; but here’s the plum announcement: you can get up, at any time, and go to their canteen and get a free beer, glass of wine, ice, plastic glass or napkin. YOU CAN ALSO BRING YOUR OWN BOOZE!! This is civilized behavior at its apex. This alone makes the Abreact experience a moving one. I, brought with me, a bottle of Sobieski vodka, whose moiety was bought by Mark the Professor, and poured it without shame into a plastic, ice filled glass. Imagine the delight in sipping a three-fingered vodka martini on a padded old couch awaiting a mysterious play which would unfold before your eyes in few moments. I melted into blissful expectation, the faux-seedy atmosphere enveloping me and my friends in a warm blanket of gemutlichkeit, contentment as ritual.
The play, BURN THE RED BANNER or LET THE REBELS HAVE THEIR FUN, by Franco Vitella, is a four-actor ensemble requiring each to assume different personalities along an erratic concatenation of vignettes of Russian life in the span of 80 minutes. The play belongs to an absurdist tradition with a touch of nostalgia for Anton Chekov. It is meant to be funny, and it is, sometimes, but not consistently so. Some scenes had me chuckling while others seemed befuddled. When others laughed, I sat glumly wondering what the laughter was all about. In a sense, the humor in the play resembled paintings at a museum; some people stopping and ooh-aahing this work while others drifted away unimpressed. This might be the fate of the absurdist theatre.
The scene pictured here with Kirsten Knisely, Steve Xander Carson and Keith Kalinowski (I think) evoke the natural hammyness of theatre and the satirization of Russian comedy.
Each scene, starts with a narrator who, I must assume, is Stormy Fatcat Cowper. He is mentioned in the Playbook as there by special appearance. You can hear his voice overhead as he introduces the scenes as though by number. One of the four actors, however, describes for the audience the role or identity of the character in every episode, e.g., “This is Anton Chekov waiting for a review of his new play with his stupid mistress blah blah blah”. Each scene then starts with conversation about an event and ends abruptly with either a smart-alecky response or an insult, all meant to elicit laughter.
And some of the lines are funny. I especially liked the characters played by Ms. Knisely; I laughed uncontrollably when she danced the waltz and emitted hyena-like, society-snob shrieks repeatedly, her face fixed in a fiery grin and eyes glaring arrogantly, seemingly pooh-poohing the audience’s evident pedestrian origins, as she dipped and twirled with her partner around the stage. That was very good.
Well, I’m getting hungry now, as I write and pine for the comforts of the Bar. I will finish this review later today or tomorrow – most likely tomorrow.