Carla Milarch speaks about bringing “The Vagina Monologues” to the Capitol

Carla Milarch

The shot heard round the state – Michigan, that is – was recently triggered by State Rep. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, who spoke last Wednesday to oppose abortion regulations (which ultimately passed) in the House: “I’m flattered that you are all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.” Brown was subsequently banned from speaking during Thursday’s session.

Another female Democratic state legislator, Rep. Barb Byrum, D-Onondaga, proposed an amendment which would have required proof of a medical emergency or that a man’s life was in danger before a doctor could perform a vasectomy. She shouted out the word “vasectomy” during the debate, and was also prevented from speaking Thursday.

In response, Carla Milarch, associate artistic director of Performance Network, quickly organized a performance of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” which is scheduled to happen on the Capitol steps in Lansing tonight (Monday, June 18) at 5 p.m. Not only is Ensler herself coming to be part of the performance, but local actresses and several female legislators are taking part, too.

Milarch answered a few questions about putting the show together.

Q: Could you tell me how the idea initially came about?

MILARCH: Actually, a couple of us were kidding around on Facebook. A friend had written Vagina as her status update 27 times on Friday morning after the Lisa Brown incident, and it just struck me how silly it was to get offended by that word. Then I remembered a production of “The Vagina Monologues” I had participated in as a fundraiser for Safehouse a few years back, and I thought that so many of the themes in the play were so right on for this situation. Themes about how owning our language about our bodies is hard enough, without some patriarchal system telling us we need to sit down and be quiet, and how embracing the language that describes us is actually a very important step to being fully present in our femininity. And I started to get really outraged by the thought that a grown woman in a respected position should be penalized for saying vagina, and how absurd it is that someone simply not liking your language could be grounds for you to be barred from speaking.

Q. Is it fair to say the idea was born in Ann Arbor?

MILARCH: I don’t know if I would say it was born in Ann Arbor, but rather that it was born in Michigan. When I emailed Eve (we are in touch from doing a play of hers several years ago) her response was along the lines that basically, her email was blowing up with people from Michigan who were calling for a response to this on a major level. You could see on Facebook and by the sheer volume of people talking about it that there was a collective fury both about the heinous bill that this all stemmed from, and from the silencing of Reps. Brown and Byrum. Honestly, I think Michigan women are fed up with having their choices about their bodies dictated by a bunch of political extremists. We’re all kind of having the same idea at the same time. No means no. Get your laws out of my vagina.

Q. How were legislators and Ensler contacted about participating?

MILARCH: After I spoke with Eve’s assistant, we basically decided we wanted advice on the best timing for something like this so we contacted Senator Rebekah Warren’s office to see how we could get connected. Within the hour Senator Warren and Eve were on the phone strategizing about the best way to present something, and who should be involved, where to do it, etc. That’s when the official details of the event came together. Senator Warren had an amazing lineup of fellow women legislators within hours and I was put in charge of rounding up local talent to fill out the event. I have to say I am blown away by these women’s willingness to stand up for what’s right here and jump into their actor shoes on such short notice.

Q. Ensler must get requests and invitations all the time. Any thoughts or insights about why she was compelled to accept this invitation?

MILARCH: Eve is an incredibly generous person, and she goes all over the world advocating to stop violence against women. If you ask me, taking someone’s rights away: their right to speak for themselves and for their constituents, and doing it in a condescending and patriarchal way, is a form of violence. I think she can see, like we all can, that the war on women has been taken to a new, appalling, level through this action against Reps Brown and Byrum. Eve’s a fighter and right now Lansing, Michigan is the front line.

Q. Could you tell me what actors familiar to Ann Arbor theatergoers will be part of the performance?

MILARCH: Here’s the complete list of actresses participating:

Q. This has probably kept you pretty busy in the last few days – but it’s probably also been inspiring. Could you tell me about the overall experience of organizing this so quickly?

MILARCH: The most overwhelming thing for me has been how eager and excited people are to help. Not a single person that I’ve asked for help has been unwilling. People can accomplish so much when they come together in action for something they believe in, and the theatre community here is amazing. These women of all experience levels are jumping into a performance in front of thousands of people, outside, with no rehearsal, and having just been given the scripts the day before – to speak out about their vaginas!! These legislators and actresses are some of the boldest, most courageous people on the face of the earth right now.

Q. What are your hopes regarding this performance, both short term and long term?

MILARCH: I truly hope that this sends two messages. To the lawmakers in Lansing: when you silence one who speaks for us, you silence us collectively, and we will not be silenced. We have vaginas. We also have voices and we vote (three great v words!) And you will continue to hear our angry voices, until you leave our vaginas alone! No means no. And until you can hear that from one of us, you will continue to hear it from all of us. To the women of Michigan: Don’t let the taboos about speaking about your body, or someone else’s disapproval about your choice of words keep you from finding your voice in the dialogue about women’s reproductive health. Now is not the time for silence, and we must speak loudly, forcefully, powerfully to anyone who would take away our right, or the right of any one of our sisters, to choose, or to speak.


Two articles of interest that I’ll comment on soon

The first is a long-time British critic’s official parting words on a life spent scribbling in the dark; the second is a British critic’s column I read about the lightning-quick closing of “Enron” in New York, and I’ve found myself thinking about its arguments again and again. (Seems like I’ve gotten all anglophile on you, I know, but it’s just a coincidence – honest!)

Stay tuned for my thoughts, and hopefully some discussion with all of you, on both articles…

A thoughtful, recent exchange about criticism and personal bias

On Facebook, Performance Network executive director Carla Milarch posted this excerpt, along with a link to Charles Isherwood’s New York Times piece called, “A Theater Critic Suffers Odd-Man-Out Syndrome.” (I highly recommend reading it!)

“Because responses to artworks are so personal, a responsible critic must acknowledge that idiosyncratic predilections may play into his or her responses to a show, and must be careful to separate considered aesthetic judgments from plain old personal prejudice.”

This prompted the following dialogue, which I asked to re-post here, given its substance.

Carla: And no, I’m not directing these at anyone in particular. There just seem to be a lot of interesting articles on the subject lately…

Me: I really like reading Isherwood’s work – he’s smart but grounded – and I think he hits several points right on the head with this article. I certainly have, in the past, noted an audience’s mood in a review, when my own was markedly different (I’m looking at you, “Menopause: The Musical”) – but I try, generally, to focus on examining my own responses, and why I had them.

Carla: Yes, but I think his point is a good one in differentiating considered aesthetic judgements from plain old personal prejudice. Critics have more than just their own responses. They are also providing a whole frame of reference from within which the reader gains context for viewing the work. In order to do that they need to write from a higher, much more informed perspective. I think the critic has a responsibility to educate as well don’t you?

Me: Isn’t this, in part, the role of the preview? For me, that’s when I do the research, talk to those involved about their vision for a show, and share that with readers. And certainly, the information I glean during that process informs my review. But I think, if you ask most readers what they want most from a review, they’ll tell you they want the critic’s honest evaluation. Continue reading “A thoughtful, recent exchange about criticism and personal bias”

Who’s that jerk sitting through the standing ovation?! Oh, that’s just me.

Here’s something weird that I just instinctively knew to do when I started working regularly as a critic: no matter how terrific what I just witnessed on a stage was, I always sit out the standing ovation afterward.

Why? Because as a critic, you have to play your cards close to the vest. There are all kinds of things that might have you buzzing and hyped at the end of a show, despite its flaws overall: the play may “nail the dismount,” so to speak; it may have a single performance that knocked you out; it may have a highly supportive crowd that nearly sweeps you up in its enthusiasm, despite your own misgivings; or the show may just be a pretty damn near perfect show all-around.

But even if it is, joining in the standing ovation is dangerous ground for critics. From early on, I feared that theater community folks in the crowd who spotted me standing and cheering would report back to the cast and crew, “Done deal! Four star review coming your way!” when the truth of the matter is, I never know completely what I’m feeling and going to say about a show until I go through the process of writing about it.

We touched on this at Encore Michigan’s recent panel discussion, “The Critics Speak,” actually. The process of writing the review, for me, happens late at night, when most of the world is sleeping. It’s this private, intellectually rigorous and intense process, whereby I’m wrestling with my thoughts and emotions to articulate my take on a show only hours after watching it. 

For this reason, I need absolute freedom to do this thinking – and if I’ve just stood for an ovation, I’ve either handed over some of that freedom, or set myself up to look like a hypocrite.

I won’t lie. It’s really, really hard to paste myself to that theater seat sometimes. There are shows and performances that make me want to jump up and down like one of the girls in Ed Sullivan’s audience on the night the Beatles debuted in America. But I make myself stay put, reminding myself that this job is challenging enough without publicly painting myself into a corner before writing a word.

None of my peers clued me in to this, and indeed, not all critics follow this policy. But personally, I feel it’s one I have to follow. (Of course, we could venture into the question, “Why does nearly every show get a standing ovation now?” but that’s for another post.)

Similarly, I often have the uncomfortable experience of patrons asking me, during intermission as well as after the show, what my thoughts on the show are. I try to say something vanilla and neutral, or tell them they’ll have to read my review to find out (though this always sounds kind of jerky to me).

Again, this is about playing it close to the vest. Not for the sake of secrecy, or out of any inflated sense of my own opinion; but rather for the sake of the uncluttered silence and space necessary to sculpt out my opinion from an unwieldy solid block of thought and emotion.

Some behind-the-scenes dish

I recently found myself reviewing a huge, blockbuster hit touring show – hmm, let’s just call it, “Change of Life: A Show with Songs!” – and because I knew, going in, that this is one of those review-proof shows that many patrons see to have a good time and nothing more, I was, I thought, strenuously diplomatic in my review. I acknowledged that by virtue of the show’s lighthearted, in-your-face candor about topics that make the general populace uncomfortable, like older women’s sexuality, it did many women a service.

But I also, since my primary job is to assess a show’s artistic value, briefly voiced criticism about the choreography (uninspired), the repetitiveness of some of the material, the clunkiness of some of the dialogue, etc. I didn’t feel right about saying nothing at all about this, obviously; I didn’t love the show, and as much as I appreciate its intentions, I refuse to pretend that I did.

Little did I suspect that a condescending, insulting little e-mail from the show’s creator would be awaiting me when I returned to work. Seriously? I thought, what a wildly unprofessional move. I’m a tiny fish, a mere guppy, in a small pond, and this show is playing across the globe in various languages. I’m not exactly a threat to its overwhelming, global success.

The message also struck me as wildly unprofessional. In the past, I’ve received nasty messages from patrons and amateur performers who felt they didn’t get their due, but never before had I received like this from a professional show. The deal has always been that a show gets more free press with a review, but there’s no guarantee (nor should there be) that it will be glowing.

So I stared in wonder at this message for a moment. I’m human, of course, so I initially started crafting a response that addressed her specific insults. Having gotten that out of my system, I deleted it and wrote a two sentence response along the lines of, “My job is to strive to write a fair and honest review of a show, and that is what I have done. Best wishes with your show in Australia and beyond.” 

And that was it.

Well, that and complaining about it to my critic-in-the-trenches friend Don Calamia and, when I got home that night, Joe – who did that annoying thing he does in these situations. You know. Applying reason and objectivity…

He said, “This show is her baby,” and I said, “And it’s a huge success. Why is she bothering to even read reviews of it? She’s gotten rich off it, and lots of people love it! Be happy!” 

Joe shook his head and said, “You really don’t get this, do you? It’s not that you’re a threat. IT’S. HER. BABY. You insulted her baby, and she lashed out at you.”

“I bent over backwards to be gentle in my review, and I don’t think anything I said hasn’t been said by a reviewer before.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Joe said. “That’s not what this is about.”

Arrgh. You know why Joe’s so annoying in these moments? Because he’s dead-nuts right. I tend to assume that in creating a show – as with creating any kind of art – you necessarily develop a thick skin in order to take criticism and get better. I certainly had to while studying creative writing and participating in workshops. But I suspect that when success happens quickly for someone, they’re more vulnerable and sensitive.

That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway. Besides, when I got to work the following Monday, there were two e-mails from patrons who had seen a show I’d reviewed the week before, and both told me they agreed with my take, and that I’d done a great job with the review. Thankfully, things like this tend to find a way of balancing out.

A review of the year in review in local theater

Yes, as part of the onslaught of the “year in a nutshell” articles that clog magazines and newspapers in late December, I recently published my own take on the past year’s highlights in Ann Arbor area theater.

I thought I’d share a bit about how these time-consuming, head-pounding articles come together. It’s a list, so it appears as though I simply splash a few things down, dust off my hands, and walk away, but it’s so much more grueling than that.

Like many things, you try to make it look easy, when in reality, you find yourself, after spending the day combing through your old reviews to freshen up your memory, standing in the shower thinking, “I know everyone thought that performance was great, but it just didn’t do much for me,” and, “Am I being objective about that show, since I saw it the night before my mother died?”

No joke. This may be more revealing of my neurotic, obsessive nature more than anything else, but I usually spend several hours, over the course of a couple of days, compiling these articles. I first make a basic list of all the plays I saw by flipping through my calendar; then I pore over them, placing an initial check by those I particularly liked, or in which I found something to admire.

And while I tell myself that I’ll stick to reading my reviews of those shows only, I usually end up re-reading through almost all of my reviews of the past year (a sometimes humbling, sometimes fun experience that let’s you see exactly how often you use suddenly-irritating words like “compelling”). This is because I always fear overlooking something that really did merit mention.

This might be silly. I’m a small fish in a small pond in many ways, and it’s not like hundreds of thousands of people tune in to check out my yearly assessment of Ann Arbor area theater. But I do know how hard folks work to put on these shows – from amateur groups to college students to professional companies – so if nothing else, out of respect for them, I read through pretty much everything I wrote.

Then, I establish an initial list of the high points, most memorable performances, and best tech work. This I will obsess over for a while, making additions while also taking others out (when I realize I’m including someone not because I was impressed, but because others were, or because I like that person). Even when I’m done, I may pick at it for a while more. One of the main appeals of writing for me is the lovely way you can completely control how and what you say with painstaking exactitude. But another big draw is the fact that I learn from the process of writing each review and article. Not in terms of research, which has its own value; but what it is precisely that I’m responding negatively or positively to, and why I’m having that reaction. I love how the process, painful as it is at times, forces to me dig into the far reaches of my brain to find answers.

Even if, in the end, it just looks like a cute little list.

High school reviewers, crowd participation, and playwriting

Recently, a program I’ve been working to get off the ground at – wherein high school students interested in arts criticism go to other local schools’ productions and write reviews of the shows – just launched. We’ve run one review on the site thus far, and this current weekend, there will be three more reviews coming in. Huzzah!

I’m really excited about this because I love the idea of getting young people interested in grappling with/enjoying theater – writing about it demands a whole new level of engagement – and I feel good about building the program from scratch. This is my baby, professionally speaking, and there’s not many things I can say that about. I’m looking forward to seeing how the program evolves and grows, and to mentoring the students. My hope is to figure out a time for us to meet in person regularly so we can talk about the practice of theater reviewing and brainstorm other potential projects for them. (The Blackbird Theater’s Bart Bund expressed an interested in having students review the company’s professional shows, too, and we may get to that; I thought as a starting point that when I have an extra ticket – when Joe has to stay home with Lily – I’ll offer it up to the student reviewers, so they start to get exposed to the professional stuff happening on local stages. We’ll see.)

In other news, I was recently at “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some)” at Tipping Point Theatre for Between the Lines, and it’s one of those shows that occasionally integrates members of the audience. The irony of this is that in many cases, these bits were really enjoyable, but I sooooooo didn’t want to be the one involved.

Case in point: at one point, actor Michael Brian Ogden came up to my section and took a seat. I was by myself in a three person row, so I momentarily panicked and then blew a sigh of relief as he proceeded to the row behind me. I then noticed that I’d parked my backpack and the book I’d been reading before the show on the aisle seat next to me, perhaps as an unconscious “don’t include me” sign. (Or maybe Brian recognized me as a critic from my previous interviews with him at the Purple Rose, but that doesn’t hold much water since another actor briefly incorporated Monitor critic Bob Delaney into the proceedings.)

So what am I so scared of? It’s the pressure to think and respond quickly, I’m sure. I’m never less funny than when I’m trying desperately to be funny off-the-cuff. I’m the anti-improviser. That’s why writing was so appealing to me. With writing, I can sit on something in draft form for days, tweak it, make it say precisely what I want to say in the way I want it said. In a theater situation, I’m pretty sure I’d get stuck and go mute.

As I previously mentioned, though, I often enjoy it when it’s happening with others who are more successful at the whole “go with the flow” idea. Crowd interaction often brings energy and spontaneity to a show, as well as humor. So good work, you other patrons. Keep carrying the load for me, would you?

(As a brief side-note, there’s one exception to my feelings about this issue: the show I desperately WANT to be included in every time I see it is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” but this stems from my secret past as a spelling bee nerd. I want to test myself again, so how far I can get.)

Finally, I’ve been dogged lately by an idea I have for a play, but it feels like such an act of hubris to to try and write one myself. I’ve never done it before – my training is in writing fiction, non-fiction, and a little poetry – but the narrative seems tailor-made for a stage rather than a story. We’ll see if I have the guts to attempt this. Time, as always, is the first hurdle to overcome. But then, even if I followed through, I’m not sure what I could possibly do with it. “Here. Do my play. I promise a great review.” 🙂

In closing, I wanted to mention a site that some of you may not be familiar with: Ann Arbor’s Ron Baumanis, on his blog, reviews musicals produced in the area and beyond, and because he’s someone who’s long worked with theater groups himself, I always find his perspective to be insightful and valuable. Enjoy!

Political theater and the empty seat problem

On a recent Saturday night, I went to review Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play, “Dutchman” (staged by Magenta Giraffe), for Between the Lines at Detroit’s Furniture Factory. I was one of about nine people in the audience.

That’s a pretty darn empty theater for a Saturday night, and it got me to thinking about how “Dutchman,” like Matrix’s production of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” before it, has a daunting task in terms of drawing theatergoers in. When you’re offering tough, complex, classic works that find their way onto more college course syllabi than actual stages, people often stay away in droves.

I get the resistance. Seeing a fun, happy-ending, feel-good show like the touring production of “Legally Blonde, The Musical” will always sound more inviting, just because, especially this past year, regular life feels hard enough. Why not seek out something that will take us somewhere happier for a night? (“Dutchman” focuses on a white woman and a black man on a train who flirt, abuse, and argue until one commits an act of violence.)

But I was reminded by “Dutchman” how much there is to be gained by seeing theater that you know will be intellectually rigorous and challenging. A key part of this involved the talkback that MG offers after every performance of “Dutchman.” This changed my entire experience at the theater that night, partly because I now often have to go alone to shows (since Joe has to stay home with our girl). “Dutchman” is a play that absolutely begs to be unpacked and discussed, and without having that option, I would have felt far less satisfied.

Regarding that discussion, though, a few interesting things happened. First, I was only one of two or three people in the audience who were white, suggesting that in addition to the nature of the play proving to be a difficult sell, white theatergoers may also tend to stay away because they consider “Dutchman” to be a “black show.”

And I’ll admit, there’s definite discomfort in seeing the closest version of your own identity represented on stage by a cackling, abusive, ugly, violent character. That’s part of the point, of course; but getting people to invite that discomfort into their evenings, their lives, is a tall order.

And while I wanted to participate in the post-show discussion, I found myself holding back. Some of the talk addressed how the train passengers watched as violence unfolded in “Dutchman,” and an actor mentioned that he knew a woman who voiced her disapproval when a headphone-wearing man on a bus was singing misogynist lyrics, and the man yelled at her and no one else on the bus stepped in. Everyone in the cast and the audience clucked in judgment at this, and said how awful it was, but I was thinking, “I may not like the lyrics, either, but the man’s got a right to sing along with them if he wants, number one. And number two, I wouldn’t have intervened, either. He wasn’t physically threatening this woman, presumably, but rather was angry that someone was telling him to shut up, and that’s an issue that’s strictly between these two people.”

And no one at the talkback addressed the main reason that people don’t intervene in these situations, which is a sense of self-preservation. Whether you’re brown, black, or white, and whether you have a lot or a little, people naturally want to hold on to what they have – and I don’t even mean that strictly in the monetary sense. People think of their families, and how they just want to get through the day and get home to them. And I understand that. Obviously, there’s a line past which one is morally obligated to get involved and try and help, and God knows that line gets blurry sometimes. But speaking as someone who avoids confrontation like the plague, I get the general resistance to getting involved.

(As a side note, a disturbing bit of misinformation was passed along in the MG talkback. The “birthers” came up in the conversation – those who pressed for Obama to produce a birth certificate – and an actor said the push behind this movement was that these people couldn’t believe an articulate, smart black man was American. But the truth is far more insidious, of course, as the movement strove to de-legitimize Obama’s election and presidency by “proving” that he didn’t fulfill a basic requirement for the office – that is, being born in America. I tried to jump in and correct this misunderstanding, but unfortunately, the opportunity passed too quickly.)

I’m aware of the irony inherent in talking about non-involvement while not being able to insert myself into a casual post-show conversation. But therein lies a genuine problem. I did feel a bit hesitant about adding my two cents, cowed by the nature of the show that preceded the talk. Giving voice to the unheard is clearly a key part of shows like “Dutchman,” so the last thing, I thought, this crowd wants to hear is MORE from a white person.

And feeling like I’d been silenced wasn’t fun. So maybe part of the experience of “Dutchman,” for me, was having the sensation that so many felt for so long.

The toughest review I ever had to write

Writing reviews is often difficult. You’re rooting for a company or show or playwright and take no joy in writing a less-than-positive review. Or you really, really like – from a professional distance, of course – the people putting it on. But what on earth do you do when a beloved, influential person who’s essentially the charismatic heart of local theater passes away days before his last show opens?

You write a piece about his loss and his esteemed place in the (theater and at-large) community; you attend his memorial service, where more than a thousand heartbroken people (I’m not exaggerating) show up and demonstrate exactly how much of a difference one person can make in the lives of others; and you see the show he was directing during what was, unbeknownst to him, his final days.

The man was Ann Arbor’s Jim Posante, and the show was “Souvenir” at Performance Network, in the early days of 2008. Just days before he suffered a life-ending stroke, I interviewed him for the show’s preview. He loved the play, and he loved Florence Foster Jenkins, the profoundly awful (but presumably unaware) “singer” at the center of it; but he also spoke to me with affection and regard, though we’d only spoken a handful of times under similar circumstances. He asked me about my pregnancy (I was about five months along), how I was feeling, and how work was going. “What a lovely guy,” I thought when I left the Network.

And judging by the words spoken about him at his memorial, I didn’t even know the half of it.

So I attended the emotional opening night of “Souvenir,” knowing that the two person cast, Naz Edwards and Fred Love, as well as everyone working behind the scenes, had a nearly-impossible task in the week leading up to the show: to leave behind this sudden, tragic loss, though it had just happened, and move forward.

But when the realization that I didn’t care for the show slowly crept over me while watching on opening night, I found myself facing a lose-lose situation: I could either sugar-coat my review out of respect for a wonderful man and his lifetime of work, and then feel lousy about being gutless and dishonest; or I would be respectfully candid about my feelings and face some serious backlash from people already, and justifiably, feeling hurt and angry and shocked by Jim’s death.

Of course, I chose the latter. I knew I couldn’t, in good conscience, do the former; and though I only knew Jim a little, I knew he would say that this wasn’t a choice at all – you have to write what you have to write. Like many things, though, this is a principle that’s easy to argue for, but tough to practice and live with.

And indeed, although I spent HOURS carefully couching my review in terms of personal taste – confessing that anything (like “American Idol”) that invites us to chuckle at the obliviousness of fearless-but-incompetent performers makes me uncomfortable, even if we admire them on some level – I got precisely the response I knew was coming. Personal insults and attacks, in e-mails and letters to the editor, followed, as if my review had essentially painted a big, red target on my chest. Take your grief out on me, it said. I’m the villain.

It was a terrible time – a time when I hoped to just hold on and ride out the aftermath. Why couldn’t I have lied? I asked myself repeatedly. Things would have been so much easier, so much simpler. Would it have killed me to write a positive review of a show I didn’t personally care for?

Of course not. No one dies from such an act.

But it would have killed my self-respect – and while that’s hardly the same thing, that was one of the few things I had to hang on to throughout those painful weeks. So I have no regrets, other than wishing I’d gotten to know Jim better. And I can’t help but feel, in some weird way, that he would have wholly supported my choice.

Surprised by “Phantom”

OK, what wasn’t surprising when I went to “Phantom of the Opera” at the Detroit Opera House was the obnoxious, thirtysomething couple behind me who would once again NOT shut up. Did you morons really dole out a couple hundred bucks to chat while sitting in an ornate theater with a dressed-up crowd? (And though I thought, with relief, that they’d left at intermission, they loudly stumbled back to their seats after the show started again, as I heard ice cubes clinking in their glasses; and after talking through the second act, the woman could barely stand for the inevitable ovation. It wasn’t until then that I realized, “Ohhhhhhh – they’re wasted.” Again, couldn’t this goal be achieved at home with a six pack?)

Anyway, I’ll confess that I hadn’t been looking forward to “Phantom.” I’d already seen it four times or something – with friends who were big fans of the show in college – and as far as I’m concerned, I can live the rest of my life without seeing the show again, or even hearing its soundtrack. So why did I take the assignment from Between the Lines? Because Joe had never seen it and had always been curious about the show. But then, in a smackdown from Fate, we couldn’t line up a babysitter, and he stayed at home while I headed downtown alone to a show I didn’t really want to watch. Rah.

I was pleasantly surprised, though. I gave myself over to the show, in all its glorious cheesiness, and I had a pretty good time – when I could ignore the couple behind me, that is. (You know who they made me think of? The characters featured in the “Two A-holes” series of SNL sketches that star Kristin Wiig and Jason Galifianakis. That was TOTALLY them.)

After having some time to think about it, I believe part of my enjoyment of this familiar show was that it supplied this temporary reprieve from the economic crisis that’s hit all of us, but that’s particularly hit the arts community. “Phantom” is a holdover from a more bombastic, showy, over-the-top time, so its production values are through the roof. The press materials came with an itemized list of how many people were involved in various elements, and how much things cost. It was staggering to see in bald numbers, and even more difficult to comprehend. For so long, theaters everywhere have been hurting, and more recently, their patrons have, too. So there was something liberating about seeing a no-holds-barred, money-is-no-object production. It temporarily took me back to a time when day-to-day life wasn’t so fraught with bad news and bleak financial indicators.

So perhaps, “Phantom of the Opera” became for me “Phantom of the Pre-recession.” And you can understand the appeal. But then the lights came on – and I bemoaned the fact what I would be paid to write the review will barely cover what I had to pay for parking on a Friday night in downtown Detroit. That’s what we all face now. But “Phantom” provided a surprising, seductive break for a few hours, and for that, I’m grateful.