“Diva Royale” Exhibits Amazing Physicality and Laughs at The Purple Rose

A group of actors performing on stage.
Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

On Super Bowl Sunday, we drove to the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea to see a live matinee of the hilarious, laughing-out-loud Jeff Daniels’s Play “Diva Royale,” with performances extended to March 2. It is well worth it.

The play was written and directed by Jeff Daniels and is presented with two different casts for different performances:

One cast being: Rhiannon Ragland as Helen Millerbee; Kristin Shields as Mary Catherine Carlton; Kate Thomsen as Lynnette Taylor-Tyler; Rusty Mewha as the Generic Man.

As well as, Caitlin Cavannaugh as Helen Millerbee; Meghan Van Arsdalen as Mary Catherine Carlton; Caitlin Burt as Lynnette Taylor-Tyler; Connor Allston as the Generic Man.

We highly recommend attending this event. Tickets are going fast, and almost all the seats were sold out the day we attended.

“The play is about three Midwestern women who travel to New York City to see Celine Dion in concert, and everything that could go wrong does go wrong,” Meghan VanAarsdalen said who plays Mary Catherine Carlton.

One theatergoer came out after the play with a smile on his face, still chuckling, giving a perfect synopsis.  It was so silly and slapstick, he remarked. It was like “Dumb and Dumber” (which Jeff Daniels starred in) only for women. While there may be a 2 to 1 ratio of women versus men at the event, all the men seemed to have a delightful and amusing time as well. And the show is definitely for all.

“It is a hilarious show,” Caitlin Cavannaugh, who plays Helen Millerbee, said. “People need laughter right now. We’re still coming out of a pandemic, we’re deep in the middle of winter. Laughter is the best medicine.”

The writing of Daniel’s play is playful and at times, even surprisingly outlandish, although seemingly light, comments on social relations, technology, and even romance/sex. The play also contrasts Midwestern naivety and suburban values, versus the seedy underbelly of the Big Apple.

“The style of comedy is so outrageous,” Cavannaugh said. “These characters say things you cannot believe. And it just keeps getting more outlandish. And then you throw them in an environment they aren’t comfortable with, i.e New York City, and things start going wrong, and you’ve got crazy characters in unfamiliar territory — it makes for great comedy.”

To be sure, there are some pleasantly eye-brow-raising or uncomfortable moments with crass sexual allusions, a luscious drag queen, and references to salacious pornography. But it is all done in pretty good taste and the actors handle it as if it is just par for the course. The almost ubiquitous versatile physicality of all the actors throughout the performance is particularly notable.

“I auditioned for the role in June 2023,” VanAarsdalen said. “It’s enjoyable to perform particularly because of the athleticism involved. I take great pleasure in the physical aspects of the show and the stamina it requires to stay engaged and drive the action. There aren’t any props and we don’t have a set, so much of the story is told through movement, including some pretty thrilling dance numbers.”

The play is also in the theatre of the round (versus proscenium or thrust), and the audience members at times seem like players in the production. The actors invite them periodically into the show by speaking to them and even asking them questions, repeatedly breaking the “fourth wall.” The absence of a traditional set and reliance on some miming places a great emphasis on the people, their expressions, and their movements.

We are not sure if we have ever seen a play with such an emphasis on athleticism. There are unique dance movements and routines, fancy footwork, yoga poses, a variety of pacing and even some hand-to-hand combat. To me, this was one of my favorite parts of the production, enjoying the celebration of amazingly creative body movements by all the players; at times, they seemed moving to different styles of unheard music as expressed through their physicality.

Some of the ensemble’s collaborative physicality is like brilliant moving sculpture.

Furthermore, the pacing of the play as a whole, whether it be the spoken or unspoken words, is exceptional.

“Jeff (Daniels) is as well a comedic genius as an actor, which translates into his plays — meaning that he knows on a molecular level how to write for actors,” VanArsdalen said.  “His dialogue makes our job easier because it’s incredibly sharp and funny. Jeff is special to work with as a director for similar reasons. He is so in tune with his comedy that he can tweak something like ‘give it another half beat here before you say X,’ and sure enough, the joke explodes. Not only that, but the process has been deeply collaborative. Jeff has been super encouraging and definitely made me feel like a valued contributor.”

Tickets are going fast and breaking attendance records. Some people want to see both casts perform and are reportedly going multiple times. There are discounts for patrons under 30, seniors, teachers, military, and groups.

“I love it,” Cavannaugh said. “Everyone works so hard, cares so deeply, and brings their A-game every day.”

137 Park St, Chelsea. purplerosetheatre.org. Runs through March 2.

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Donna Marie Iadipaolo is a writer, journalist, and State of Michigan certified teacher, since 1990. She has written for national publications like The Village Voice, Ear Magazine of New Music, Insurance & Technology, and TheStreet.
She is now writing locally for many publications, including Current Magazine, Ann Arbor Family, and the Ann Arbor Independent. Her undergraduate degree is from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she graduated with an honors bachelor’s degree and three teacher certificate majors: mathematics, social sciences, English. She also earned three graduate degrees in Master of Science, Master of Arts, and Education Specialist Degree.