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Wednesday, August 18,2010

Curtain up!

Renegade Theatre Festival fills Old Town with comedy and drama

by Lawrence Cosentino

With its rickety railroad, 1860s storefronts and dusty Mustang Bar, Old Town looks like a Western movie set waiting for action. But why stop there when the axis of imagination goes into the infinite?


This weekend, the Renegade Theatre Festival will cram dozens of local theater groups and independents into legit venues and odd corners of Lansing’s oldest district to fuel a Big Bang of dramatic possibilities.


Crack open a door or turn a corner and you might see a woman talking with Jesus and the Easter Bunny, a cruise ship full of puppets, a wave of frigid air from the next ice age, or a grim company of soldiers pinned against a wall.


New and experimental plays, hitand-run shorts, and unusual angles are Renegade’s stock in trade.


The plays will be staged at Creole Gallery, Perspective 2, and Studio 1210, in addition to new or unusual spots like the grassy knoll near the Fish Ladder, a warehouse at the corner of Turner and East North Street, the new Quaker meeting house, and the balcony of Ciesa Design, overlooking the Grand River. (You’ll have to stand on a bridge to see that action.)


Chad Badgero, artistic director of Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. and coorganizer of Renegade, said the festival has matured since it started five years ago, when he was happy just to coax participation from most local theater companies.


Renegade was originally launched in 2006. This is the third consecutive year it has been held (organizers took 2007 off).


This year, Renegade beefed up its commitment to staging new plays by mounting an ambitious festival within a festival, Renegade NOW.


“It goes to the heart of what I believe about the performing arts in Lansing,” Badgero said. “We have so many playwrights, groups and independent artists that would produce theater if they had the venue.”


Badgero called Renegade NOW an “outpouring” of creativity, with eight new works by Michigan playwrights.


Paige Tufford coordinated the Renegade NOW mini-festival and will direct one of the new plays, Franco Vitella’s full-length drama “Slow Decline.”


After soliciting new plays from Michigan playwrights, Badgero, Tufford, and festival co-organizer Katie Doyle winnowed 23 entries to eight.


“There’s a lot of creativity out there,” Tufford said.


“Slow Decline” is an absurdist, mordant take on modern warfare, but it’s not a strident antiwar screed. The dialogue is spoken in a half-invented language where “God” becomes “Gauze” and “go to Hell” is “go to downsies.”


“It’s disturbingly funny and not heavy-handed at all,” Tufford said.


Rob Roznowski, Michigan State University’s head of acting studies, is using Renegade as a crucible for his controversial new play, “Happy Holy Days,” which he’s developing in workshops in New York City.


The play takes its protagonist from age 6 to 68 as she copes with holiday customs, from the flag-waving of the Fourth of July to the tinsel and glitz of Christmas.


After a heart-to-heart with Jesus Christ and the Easter Bunny, the woman ends up as an atheist. “I’m trying to figure out how to make her a likable atheist,” Roznowski said.


After a week in New York, Roznowski is grateful to Renegade for the chance to hone the play further. Most of the Renegade performances include audience talkbacks.


“There aren’t many outlets, especially in Lansing, to get a cross-section of people to help develop a play,” he said.


Roznowski said the festival also gives theater people a chance to check out each other’s work.


“Sometimes we’re so insular,” Roznowski said. “We worry about our own organization, friends or students. This is a way to get everybody to work together.”


A
different take on holidays, “A Holiday Romance,” will showcase the work
of Fred Engelgau’s Puppet Theatre. At last year’s festival, Engelgau’s
“Puppet’s Lament” drew overflow crowds at Creole Gallery.


Badgero said Engelgau is just the kind of independent artist the Renegade Festival is meant to support.


“He just had no venue,” Badgero said of Engelgau. “He’s grown up through the Renegade.”


This
year, the puppets will share the old Mustang Bar with Stormfield
Theater’s experimental “The Unity Project” and a children’s theater
series, Renegade Kids.


To
play out a series of shipboard romances, breakups, dialogues and
conflicts, Engelgau’s actors and puppet operators will huddle behind a
13-foot long cruise ship, complete with railings and smokestacks. (City
Pulse arts editor James Sanford is moonlighting as one of the
puppeteers.)


It’s
an all-ages show, unless the idea of human-puppet romance curls your
teeth. Engelgau’s script calls for actor Brian DeVries, who plays the
captain of the ship, to rekindle a romance with a papier-mache puppet
the fire marshal won’t allow us to call an “old flame.”


Engelgau
said mixing humans and puppets is his way of exploiting a unique medium
to the fullest. “Puppets and dolls have sort of a strangeness about
them that a lot of people find fascinating, but some people are put off
by them,” Engelgau said.


With
BoarsHead Theater out of the picture, and other theaters scrambling for
money, Engelgau called Renegade “a breath of fresh air for everyone.”


He said he’s still high on the warm reception “Puppet’s Lament” received at the Creole last year.


“There’s nothing like positive vibes to make someone keep doing what they’re doing,” he said.


Renegade Theatre Festival


Thursday, Aug. 19- Saturday, Aug. 21 Various locations in Old Town www.renegadetheatrefestival.org/info.html

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