Last weekend, I ventured down to a part of Ann Arbor I’ve never been to before. Another Daily Arts Writer joined me, and though it was tough to find, we were determined to watch “The Stone Witch” for its opening night at Ann Arbor’s new venue, Theatre Nova.
“The Stone Witch” by Shem Bitterman is about young artist Peter Chandler, who was hired to help the world’s most illustrious children’s book author, Simon Grindberg, finish his overdue book. I wasn’t familiar with this play before watching, but the plot was clear enough to follow along.
Theatre Nova is comprised of a simple, black box theater. It has been a long time since I’ve watched a performance in such an intimate space, and I enjoyed being close enough to actually see the actors’ facial expressions.
I was impressed by the high production value of the play. The space was well-used and the set was detailed, with many decorations that reflected Grindberg’s character. The lighting was used intentionally, which I appreciated because it can often become overwhelming, especially in smaller venues.
In particular, Dennis Kleinsmith’s performance as Grindberg stood out. He delivered his lines with power and seemed to capture the audience with all of his scenes. Because there are only three actors in the play, his death at the end makes us feel his physical loss, and the stage feels empty without him.
Though there were some sad moments in the play, a lot of humor balanced out these parts, and the audience could be heard laughing along enthusiastically. Watching the progression of Chandler’s relationship with Kleinsmith is endearing and sweet, and touches on how special the mentor and mentee relationship can be. It’s a story that anyone can relate to, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity.
Ethan Kankula’s performance of Chandler was also admirable, though there were a few times where Chandler had outbursts of surprise or anger that felt uncharacteristic for Kankula’s portrayal. Despite this spottiness, Kankula depicted Chandler’s character growth realistically and with charisma.
I found the scene when Chandler and Grindberg go swimming to be jarring because it started progressing towards nudity. Both actors ended up remaining in their boxers, but the choice to have them remove clothing didn’t add anything to the performance and felt slightly uncomfortable. This scene didn’t detract from my experience viewing the play, but it didn’t enhance it either.
My favorite part about the play was the idea of imagination. Chandler and Grindberg are incredibly curious and creative, and this was fleshed out through their dialogue and the props of their drawings. The use of a screen to portray the witch or a change in setting also conveyed the importance of strong visuals to the characters as they created illustrations for the book and sometimes got lost in them.
Overall, “The Stone Witch” was a relaxing and comical way to spend my Friday night. By the end of the play, I noticed many of the audience members were regular attendees of Theatre Nova’s productions, and I think that speaks highly to the quality and portrayals of their productions. They’ve figured out how to choose and direct plays that resonate with the majority of their audience members, allowing us to enjoy the simple beauty in their plays.
If you want to watch “The Stone Witch,” it will be running at Theatre Nova until Nov. 11.