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November 20, 2014 - Image 10

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The Michigan Daily, 2014-11-20

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4B - Thursday, November 20, 2014

the b-side

The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com

FOOD COWMN
But why
turkey?

Tobias Ragg, played by Brian Fares, bides after a murder.
MU SKETto peflorm
'Sweeney Todd' musical

Famed production
coming to
Power Center
By HAILEYMIDDLEBROOK
DailyArts Writer
Fittingly, it was cold and
foggy the night I went to visit
MUSKET's "Sweeney Todd"
produc-
tion set. It 'Sweeney
was a week odd
after Hal-
loween, but Power Center
October still FridayandSaturday
lingered in at8p.m.and
the air, min- Sunday at2pm.
gled with Students $7
the scent of
decompos-
ing leaves and wood smoke
wafting from the distant
neighborhoods snaking along
the outskirts of campus. As
I trekked through the con-
crete maze from the baseball
stadium to Kipke Drive, the
location of the Student The-
atre Arts Complex, I had the
unnerving feeling that I was
being watched, as if some-
one within the dark windows
of the athletic facilities was
peering down, waiting for me
to pass by. Maybe it was the
video clips of the Demon Bar-
ber I had watched in prepara-
tion for the night, or maybe it
was that Mrs. Lovett's ballad
"Worst Pies in London" still
rang shrilly in my head, but
I felt Sweeney Todd's pres-
ence - cold, bitter and hushed
- lurking in the night air. I
quickened my pace and finally
arrived at the throbbing heart
ofthe production.
The STAC is, quite literally,
an underground operation.
Upon entering, I was certain
that I was in the wrong place.
I cautiously made my way to
a descending staircase, feel-
ing very much alone in the
silence of the building, until a
young man carrying a barstool
walked across the landing and
looked up at me.
"Hello!" he said cheerfully,
unperturbed. He shifted the
stool to his hip and brandished
his hand. "I'm Ryan Lucas,
MUSKET producer. You must
be the writer from the Daily.
We're all in here."
Ryan led me to a rickety
table where a handful of cast
members and producers had
gathered to eat Paneratakeout
before rehearsal began (the
rehearsals, I later learned, ran
six days a week from 7 to 11
at night). While they ate, the
crew took turns introducing
themselves and their majors,
as well as what drew them
to join MUSKET in the first
place.
MUSKET prides itself on
being a theatre group that's
not just for theater kids. Since
its establishment in 1908, the
quiet but impactful group has
welcomed University students
of all disciplines, from engi-
neers to business students to

neuroscience majors, all of
whom have one thing in com-
mon: a passion for theater.
"MUSKET is the place to
come if you love to act, but
don't necessarily want to do it
for the rest of your life," said
Hillary Ginsberg, a senior
double-majoring in Business
and Screen Arts and Cultures.
She found out about the
group from a classmate who
had nudged her in class one
day and asked whether she
liked to sing. Surprised, Gins-
berghad said yes and humored
her friend " by auditioning
for MUSKET's production
of "Hairspray." She landed
the lead role and hasn't left
the group since. This year, in
"Sweeney Todd," she is serv-
ing as a producer with Lucas,
coordinating inter-staff com-
munication and overseeing
the organizational details of
the show.
Though the crew recruits
all types of students, there's
still a strong showing from
the School of Music, Theatre
& Dance. Director Henry Net-
tleton is a senior majoring in
Musical Theatre and has every
intention of pursuing a career
on stage after graduation.
"I speak for myself when I
say that yes, I will be acting
or directing in the years to
come," Nettleton said. "Can
I say the same for everyone
here? Absolutely not. But
that's what makes what we're
doing right here, right now, so
cool. We only have four years
to mingle with so many differ-
ent kids - chemists, business
students, you name
it - and we won't get
that chance in the
real world."
"Sweeney Todd:
The Demon Bar-
ber of Fleet Street"
first debuted on
Broadway in 1979,
directed by the infa-
mous Harold Prince
("Phantom of the
Opera") and con-
tinues to be revered
as the Holy Book
of Musical Theater.
On the surface, the
grim tale spins like
an old-timey urban
legend, the kind
of scary story par-
ents tell their kids
to keep them from
sneaking out at night
(don't let Sweeney
Todd snatch you!).
The story goes
that a vengeful
barber under the
fictional name of
Sweeney Todd finds
his way back to
London after being
exiled by the corrupt
Judge Turpin, who
had lusted for Todd's
beautiful wife Lucy.
Upon his arrival,
Todd is informed
by Mrs. Lovett, the
owner of a pie shop
on the ground floor Sweeney T

of his old barber shop, that
after Benjamin Barker (Todd)
had been exiled, Judge Turpin
had lured Lucy to his home,
raped her, then kept the cou-
ple's infant daughter, Joanna,
confined with him. Infuriat-
ed, Todd seeks to unleash hell
on the streets of London for
revenge. He moves back into
his barbershop and opens
business, darkly boasting "the
closest shave" in the city. In
alliance with Mrs. Lovett,
Todd uses shaving razors to
slice the throats of his clients
and then dumps their bodies
downstairs for his partner to
bake the flesh into meat pies.
As the bodies pile up and the
pies grow in popularity, Todd
patiently waits for Judge Tur-
pin to come in for a shave.
It's a creepy tale with an
amazing set and soundtrack,
yet it seemed doubtful that
Victorian-era "Sweeney
Todd" could be relevant to
students at U-M. Last year,
MUSKET presented "RENT,"
which addressed more obvi-
ously accessible issues of
discrimination, identity and
acceptance. What does "Swee-
ney Todd" teach us, other than
not to eat MoJo's mystery
meat?
"The play is timeless
because it presents lust,
revenge and grief. Whether
we like it or not, we identify
with Sweeney. Think of it this
way," Nettleton said, press-
ing his fingertips together.
"You're in line behind some
obnoxious person at Starbucks
and all you can think about is

how much you want to punch
the guy in the head. You don't,
but you think it. The only
difference between you and
Sweeney is that he acts on his
murderous thoughts."
The production itself fol-
lows the same idea: instead
of recreating the Broadway
musical, the MUSKET actors
are telling the story of Swee-
ney Todd, posing as college-
aged kids who have broken
into an old, abandoned attic
and decide to scare each other
with a ghost story.
"Though the set changes,
we never leave the attic," said
Carly Snyder, a junior musi-
cal theatre major who plays
Joanna. "Everything that we
use to act out the story has
to be found in an attic. An
overturned bicycle becomes
the meat grinder; a box is the
barbershop seat. We're real-
ly playing off the idea that
'Sweeney Todd' needs very
little to make it spectacular -
the music speaks for itself."
Nettleton strongly agrees.
"Originally I asked myself,
what play can I stage with
absolutely nothing? 'Sweeney
Todd' was it. I wanted to do
it with just a box, a light bulb,
and maybe a birdcage," he
said, laughing. "We ended up
with a slightly more elaborate
set, but the story is still the
centerpiece."
This weekend the Demon
Barber will be lurking on
Fletcher Street rather than
Fleet Street, inviting you to
come "attend the tale of Swee-
ney Todd."

ny moment now, I
should hear a blip
sound of a Facebook
notification, indicating that my
mother has posted "the video"
on my wall. It's
nothing too out
there, just an
instructional
video from
the New
York Times
on how to .
correctly carve GIANCARLO
a turkey, as BUONOMO
demonstrated
by a butcher.
She's posted it on my wall for
the past three years, always
with a playful message of "study
up, you only have a week :)." At
this point, having watched my
grandfather, then uncle, carve
the bird for so many years, I'm
pretty sure I know how to get
the meat off the bone. Most
likely, my mom sends me the
video for tradition's sake. But
in those frosty days leading up
to our festival of the harvest, I
always taste a fearful vinegar on
my gravy palate.
"What if I mess up this
year?" I wonder. It's not too
hard to imagine. A turkey, as
the video makes clear, doesn't
dismember itself. With one slip
of the knife, the breast is gashed
and unsliceable. If I grab the
drumstick too roughly, the crisp
blanket of skin might tear off.
I used to have these kinds of
worries about grilling chicken
or cooking pasta, but not after
preparing them several times a
week for many years. But when
you carve a turkey only one
Thursday in November, practice
and game-day are the same
thing.
I'm not alone in my gobbler-
induced anxiety. Since last
week, a glut of articles have been
published, as they are every
year, advising people on how to
source, marinate, roast, rest and
carve that damn poultry. Why?
Because cooking a whole turkey
is really fucking hard. It's a
culinary endeavor beyond what
most of us attempt on a daily
basis. This brings up an obvious
question: Why do we center a
holiday around a dish that most
of us have an arduous - and
often ultimately disappointing -
time cooking?
There have been many
inquiries into the origins of
turkey-eating on Thanksgiving.
Contrary to the canonical story,
the Pilgrims and Wampanoag
most likely didn't eat turkey
when they sat down for a
communal feast back in 1621.
Their meal probably consisted of
oysters, mussels, geese, venison,
corn and berries (doesn't sound
too bad, right?). But dining on
the esteemed Meleagris gallopavo
was solidified when Abraham
Lincoln made Thanksgiving
a national holiday in 1863. As
an article from Slate explains,
whole turkey was the perfect
protein for this new holiday. It's
big enough to feed a family (or
two) and turkeys are expendable;
they don't provide milk or eggs
or labor, and therefore wouldn't
have to be saved for the winter.
By the time these concerns

were nullified by industry and
urbanization, turkey had become
such an iconic tradition that no
one thought to do otherwise.
But I think this explanation is
a little too easy. I think, for all
of our kvetching and stressing
and fussing, Americans really

like Thanksgiving turkey.
And it's not because we like
the taste; even with the most
attentive cooking, turkey is often
anemic, dry, tough and sinewy,
mostly because it's difficult
to cook evenly. Rather, I think
Americans love Thanksgiving
turkey because it is, in and
of itself, so quintessentially
American.
First of all, serving a whole
turkey is sentimental. We are,
as a nation, gripped by a vision
of some golden past, a halcyon
period of pastoral existence
where everything was simple
and rugged. When we sit around
the table on Thanksgiving, we all
imagine, for a moment, being the
simple pilgrims who shot this
turkey ourselves and now can
feast on the bounty of the hunt.
Going with that, a whole
turkey is opulent, and America
is an opulent land. Think back
to last Thanksgiving. Did you
finish the turkey? No one ever
does. Even after a dozen people
gorge themselves, there's always
a shoe-box sized tupperware
of meat left. This carnivorous
decadence is an American ideal,
which influenced every culinary
tradition that passed through
Ellis Island. Spaghetti and
meatballs, for example, is the
result of poor southern-Italian
immigrants' joy in discovering
that meat was widely available in
their new home, which they then
added to their old-world sauce
with abandon.
Thanksgiving turkey is
also competitive. I think it
speaks volumes that there is
such a tradition of football on
Thanksgiving, and Americans
can get as competitive with
turkey skin as they do with
the pigskin. Because almost
every family cooks one on
Thanksgiving, my turkey can
suddenly be compared to others.
Ask anyone what they're serving
this year, and inevitably you'll
get into an argument over whose
method of cooking is superior.
Finally, Americans love
cooking turkey precisely
because it's so difficult. In On
Photography, Susan Sontag
argued that Americans take
pictures on vacation because
they're incapable of actually
taking a vacation; they have to
work even when supposedly
resting. Thanksgiving turkey is
much the same. Wrestling the
bird in and out of a vat of brine
is akin to handling a greasy
beachball. Cooking it takes
hours and hours of prodding
and basting and covering and
uncovering the breasts so that
they don't overcook. Cleaning
up after carving is like mopping
up a crime scene. All told, this
doesn't make for a very restful
holiday.
So is the turkey worth it?
To be perfectly honest, I'd be
much happier braising short
ribs or roasting a pig. But then
again, Thanksgiving is never
about what you want to do, but
rather what you have to do.
Like chatting with Republican
in-laws, or cleaning a colossus-
sized pile of dishes, you just
have to cook a turkey, because
the holiday, for reasons unclear

but strongly felt, wouldn't mean
much without it.
I'll just have to start sharpening
my knives.
Buonomo is playing with a
greasy beachball. To join in,
e-mail gbuonomo@umich.edu.

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Todd and Mrs. Lovett, played by Kyle Timson and Emma Sohlberg.

I

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