Guild opens ‘Return Engagements’; Hilberry offers offbeat ‘Marriage’

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Photo by Marni Hack

In “Return Engagements” at the Players Guild of Dearborn Alan Ellias (left) of Farmington Hills as Oliver Edwards and Margaret Kinnell (right) of Dearborn as Fern Edwards watch in astonishment as Kirk Haas of Inkster as Henry Metcalf and Kate McClaine of Detroit as Dawn Hammond try to enter the room through a window.

SuebwwebBy SUE SUCHYTA

If you survived Valentine’s Day without feeling too sorry for yourself, you will appreciate the humor in the latest romantic romps opening on area stages: Bernard Slade’s “Return Engagements” at the Players Guild of Dearborn and Nikolai Gogol’s “Marriage” at the Hilberry, Wayne State University’s graduate theater.

‘RETURN ENGAGEMENTS’ FOLLOWS COUPLES THROUGH TIME

Have you ever wondered what happened to couples after their initial encounters with love or lust? When a twosome reconciles after infidelity, will forgiveness dissipate jealousy, or will it linger in the emotional shadows and create a new set of relationship challenges?

Slade, who authored “Same Time, Next Year” and “Romantic Comedy,” once again shows how his characters and their relationships change over time.

In contrast to Gogol’s “Marriage,” the Guild’s presentation of “Return Engagements” is about real people and the long-term outcome of their life choices, seen through the convenient time travel of stage shows.

“Return Engagements” runs for three weekends the Players Guild of Dearborn,  through March 17, with 8 p.m. shows Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees. For tickets, call 313-561-TKTS, and go to www.playersguildofdearborn.org for show times and more information.

The humor comes from realistic people and their quirky choices, not from slapstick or exaggeration.

Directed by Mike Moseley of Allen Park, “Return Engagements” initially spotlights three couples. All the action takes place in the same room at different times in a Stratford, Ontario, bed and breakfast.

There is a tipsy actress and a bellboy who have just had a one-night stand, a strong-willed Polish woman who survived World War II and the man whose baby she hopes to conceive, and an acerbic columnist and his aloof psychotherapist wife who are about to end their relationship.

Audiences then see what happens to the couples 20, 25 and 30 years later, the path their lives follow and how their stories intersect.

Tiffany Mullins of Livonia is delightful as Daisy Lawrence, an impetuous stage actress who beds bellboy Raymond MacKay, played earnestly by Brian Townsend of Dearborn, just hours before her nuptials to another man. When Daisy begins to panic and tries to figure out why she committed such a rash act on the eve of her wedding, she tries to understand her own actions by analyzing her character as if she was playing it as a stage role.

Chris Boudreau of Dearborn plays Joe Bristol to Kori Bielaniec of Livonia’s double role as both Miranda Jablonski and Miranda Nigorski, look-alike mother and daughter roles.

Bielaniec brings both energy and sweet likeability to her parts, with the daughter easily being one of the most engaging characters in the show.

Alan Ellias of Farmington Hills plays Oliver Edwards and Margaret Kinnell of Dearborn plays Fern Edwards, a couple who sabotage their own marriage with affairs. Kirk Haas of Inkster as Henry Metcalf and Kate McClaine of Detroit as Dawn Hammond play the characters on the other sides of the triangles of intrigue.

During scene changes the stage crew, cleverly costumed as either maids, handymen and housekeepers, age as well, and we see snippets of their lives unfold in unspoken vignettes.

While “Return Engagements” has its sad moments, Slade’s characters are generally survivors and optimists, and never take themselves so seriously that they wallow in self-pity. And while audiences see shades of themselves in the human mistakes of others in the fishbowl, they are entertained as well, enjoying the optimism that fuels the continuity of the mankind.

Kirk Haas’ set design is marvelous, as are Inez Hernandez and Mary Calder’s costumes, which flatter all the cast members regardless of physicality, something not easy to achieve.

‘MARRIAGE’ MADNESS AT HILBERRY

Gogol’s “Marriage,” adapted by Barbara Field, is a comic romp and satire of the rituals that lead up to marriage and the awkwardness of attraction.

The show runs in rotating repertory through April 6 at the Hilberry Theatre, 3424 Woodward in Detroit. For tickets call 313-577-2972 or go to www.hilberry.com.

Set in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 1840s, but surprisingly modern in its portrayal of human idiosyncrasies, “Marriage” focuses on Podkoliosin, a minor court official and a bachelor, who feels pressured to marry.

Soon, a matchmaker, and an unhappily married friend jump into the fray to find him a wife who will enrich his life monetarily and will accept the reluctant bachelor; however, other reluctant grooms have the same agenda, and soon the loony bin is full of silly suitors.

Michael Wilkki’s colorful set, a giant garish wedding cake flanked by two gigantic cupcakes, calls to mind a technicolor Seuss story come to life with whimsical details and enthusiastic excess.

Likewise, Clare Hungate-Hawk’s costumes evoke thoughts of Alice’s madcap romp in Wonderland with a brace of suitors with exaggerated character flaws in their comic costumes highlighted with bright splashes of unabashed color.

Set against the cartoonish colors and stage magic, the cast completes the comic characterization with entertaining earnestness. Brent Griffith, as Podkoliosin, the anxious and procrastinating bachelor, plays the character with laughable nervous energy as he tries to conform to society’s demands and still clings to the safety net of procrastination.

Ty Mitchell as Kochkariev, Podkoliosin’s unhappily wed wingman, is energetically motivated to engage his best bud. Kochkariev pushes, prods and plays his pal like a piano to lead him to the altar.

Annie Keris is a wide-eyed delight as Agafya, the overwhelmed potential bride trying valiantly to follow society’s courtship rituals while discretely trying to sort the toads from the potential princes as she faces an onslaught of beaus more interested in her dowry than in her.

Joshua Blake Rippy, a physically imposing man in drag, is funny as her Aunt Arina, reminding one of a similar device often used to invoke laughter in Oscar Wilde’s plays.

The three main suitor rivals – Chris Call as Poach’Tegg, Miles Boucher as Anuchkin and Topher Payne as Zhevakin – have fun and make the most of their characters’ eccentricities.

Between scenes, karaoke takes center stage as the cast sings and dances along to pop tunes associated with falling in and out of love, much to the amusement of the house.

As characters bounce on and off stage, looking for love in all the wrong ways and places, audiences laugh and breathe a mental sigh of relief that they are  not stuck in the middle of the engagement games.