Some Bright Moments but No Payoff in Ballyhoo

by Gretchen Wirges

The Last Night of Ballyhoo, by Alfred Uhry, takes place in the Atlanta home of an assimilated 1939 Atlanta Jewish family whose social-climbing matriarch, Boo (Eavan Clare Brunswick) directly rejects their heritage. Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production of Ballyhoo, while witty and sometimes charming, lays victim to a script filled with sappy sentimentality and conflict with no payoff. 

Lala (Carly Natania Grossman), is Gone with the Wind obsessed and dying for the right boy to ask her to the dance on the last night of Ballyhoo, the southern Jewish festival. Her uncle brings home a colleague for dinner, Joe Farkas (Jaime Plá), a Jew from Brooklyn. We quickly discover, as anti-semitic epithets are used, that there is a status delineation between German Jews and those “East of the Elbe river.” The Elbe river runs between Germany and Czechoslovakia, as Aunt Reba (Elana Rose Richardson) explains. 

Carly Natania Grossman Lala and Eavan Clare Brunswick as Boo. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Carly Natania Grossman Lala and Eavan Clare Brunswick as Boo. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Some comedic moments are offered up by the affable Uncle Adolf (Liam Thibeault), though his character too accepts the discrimination within the Jewish community of those Jews deemed lesser and who are excluded from joining the more prominent country clubs or attending the fashionable events. This pattern plays out similarly with Peachy Weil (Michael Schulz). His jokes and playful nature are quickly overshadowed by his negative and offensive characterization of “the other Jews.” 

Many of the performances were a little underplayed under the direction of Hank Stratton. Brunswick’s portrayal of Boo was a little one-note. We lost the complexities of the character, a balance of her expectations of her daughter, the cultural struggles she faces, and her own overall happiness to a delivery that often just came off as mean and snobbish. Richardson, as Aunt Reba, was sweet but also lacking dimension. 

The real standouts in this production were Grossman as Lala and Thibeault as Adolf. Grossman is electric, and allows us a glimpse into Lala’s myriad of emotions and dreams. She plays the familial conflict of culture with finesse. Grossman brought every scene she was in to life. The poignant scene between Lala and Sunny (Gabriela Giutsi) was as funny as it was gutting.  Quite the opposite end of the energy spectrum but equally talented, was Thibeault in the role of Adolf. He was grounded and believable, patient and observant. 

Many of the costumes (Alexia Avey, costume designer)  were beautifully period and well-crafted. Hello, purple pleated piece of gorgeousness in Act 2! But, I found it oddly distracting that a few of the costumes’ color matched the pieces of decor in the set. A brown dress the same color as the drapes, and so many pastel blues that blended in with the furniture and couch pillows. Another distracting costuming element was that all of the female roles wore wigs. Each wig had that synthetic shine that even an amateur can pick out as an imposter. The obvious heavy-handed costuming in this case further distracted from an otherwise stunning visual presentation. (Set design, Joe Klug).  

While I enjoyed the performances, I was left feeling let down by the story. Sunny  takes up romantically with Joe (considered one of the “other Jews”) and he discovers her family’s long-standing perception of those like him. The dramatic scene that I had been waiting for never happened. Joe confronts Sunny. Joe and Sunny make up. And in the last moments of the play, we see the entire family celebrating an important Jewish tradition together. Even though the play was two hours long, I felt as though I had accidentally skipped a scene where Boo is confronted on her prejudice, Adolf is taken to task on towing the line of accepted ignorance, and Peachy gets the boot instead of Lala’s hand in marriage. 

The Last Night of Ballyhoo is a play that allows us to catch a glimpse of real issues and cultural conflicts but never really produces. It’s a conversation starter. It feels like the type of play a theater company chooses when they want to seem edgy without really delving into the conversation of conflict. There are better, more contemporary plays to choose if we want to really address issues of discrimination and oppression. I left the theater desperately wanting to know more about the history of Jews in the American South. The little I did find out in Ballyhoo,  was glossed over by party dresses, plates of late night chicken, and Scarlett O’Hara.  

The Last Night of Ballyhoo runs through November 24th at ART’s Tornabene Theater. Tickets are available via their website at theatre.arizona.edu or by calling the box office at 621-1162.

Hope Starts in the Dark

By Richard Chomps Thompson

Hope starts in the dark. Sometimes as a dream. Sometimes as wish. Sometimes as a prayer. Hope is born in that struggle to claim the love that is the self and to truly acknowledge who we are without shame. It’s hope that allows us to cross that chasm of the soul. E. Reid Gilbert moves us through shamble and triumph in this journey of hope in his latest production Ellen Craft: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom currently playing at The Community Playhouse.

PictureExpanding from anecdotal in his story-telling, Gilbert continues his ability to introduce his audience to history, race-relations, regional colloquialism, and oral tradition. At once examining the heartache caused by two people trying to find freedom in self-proclamation, we are thrust into a discourse of how we truly communicate ourselves to one another – and as such witness who we really are.

Begun in a low hymn in the dark, we are invited to listen to the story of the Narrator (Regina Wills), who joyously explains how she learned of her , and how she learned more about herself because she was able to know more about her history. Wills brings a deftness and candor in each of the monologues, readings, and hymns performed.

The Narrator reads from her great-great grandmother’s journal that is interpreted into scenes before us. This method of storytelling provides historical content, anecdotal musings, and even reiterates scenes just staged to provide additional context to the tale of Ellen Craft (Robin Carson) and William Craft (Dante Crossroad) through their arduous, taxing journey through Georgia in desperation to achieve freedom.

The story of Ellen Craft is told in a way that spans more than distance; it requires a telling that spans through time and director Edward Young was able to provide a solid pacing of the storied events when long periods of time would span in-between, while other moments were much more condensed. The ability to tie such integral, yet vastly disparate points together is a testament to the writer and director’s ability to weave a multi-generational story together while using multiple storytelling methods and avoiding traps of novelty.

It’s on the white painted porch of the Smith plantation that we first learn of how much love Ellen would meet from her kinfolk. Or perhaps that word is too close for comfort as we learn during a contentious – and one assumes routine – argument between James and Ethel Smith (Scott Berg and Bobbi Whitson) on what to do with the dirty little secret with which James Smith has propagated the house. Whitson provides a performance that is delightful in her horrid cruelty. She makes a scythe from a small Victorian fan that both cools her face and slices the air around her.

Born from James Smith and an unknown slave, Ellen would be the topic of concern for the entire Smith plantation from her inception. A child who was both good enough to keep around and bad enough to keep around, while simultaneously being the bad one that was never around for the good of it. If up to Ethel, her delegitimatized step daughter would have gone the way of other secrets if not for the decision of the patriarch. Just one example of how status and communication bore a direct connection to identity and its importance throughout all aspects of southern living. Women obeyed men. Ethel had a venom in her word, spitting out poison from a realization that her place was behind her husband while at the same time understanding her place in front of her property.

Stand-out performances include Shannon Oliver playing Mary Smith, who in one short scene illustrates a generation of malicious virtue signaling Ellen’s half-sister (by whom Ellen herself was owned). Oliver sweetly pronounces statements of naive dehumanization that is even more terrifying because this disregard for Ellen’s humanity didn’t stem from hate. It stemmed from something far worse; indifference. It was with the cruelest of smiles and the lightest of hearts when Oliver reminded Ellen how happy she should be to be owned by her sister! She had no hate in those words, and that one line resonates today.

The characters include a diverse cascade of bureaucratic and oppositional characters, from apathetic customs officers who care more about personal inconveniences than the wellbeing of another. One notable is the character Government Agent (Stephen Dunham) brought to a bureaucratically cold effect in which the fugitive duo encounter. He is the cold professionalism that marks a terrifying pretense that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. In this corner office, the clear message is that while a sword will always be known to take a life, this pen will rob one of their identity.

Robin Carson, playing Ellen Craft, was tasked with the responsibility of playing a character whose ethnicity may not have come from the same heritage, but does note negate the understanding of how self-worth and freedom of identity is a human struggle, and not gifted to only one man or woman. Carson portrayed a humanistic quality that didn’t delve into the over-dramatic while also resonating emotionally through small sighs and wistful glances.

Dante Crossroad (an amazing name by the way!) playing Ellen’s husband and in-disguise manservant, William (‘Eurassa’), is able to look out from the stage and emote so swiftly and magnetically he easily expresses the meaningful richness behind his character, honoring the theatricality required to express such emotional cadence that straddles the wall of character and caricature. Crossroad is a formidable new actor on the scene.

This disturbing paradox of human inhumanity could only have been told through dialogue. Gilbert’s ability to emphasize the linguistic roots that bear fruit to this line of institutionalized hatred is masterful because of his skills in connecting these same themes as they affect us today. Without a doubt, this element of dialogue is a character unto itself.

The words spoken to the protagonists along with other African-Americans that delegitimize, marginalize or dissociate have only shifted into new letter combinations. These lines are spoken today; they haven’t left. And those that would see them fester in the dark until they can grow unwieldy, or those who would like to pretend that by locking them away, we won’t have to confront them again; we do nothing but safely suffocate our virtues in a pitch-black room.

The use of language and terminology was proficient. It is hurtful to hear but necessary to experience. Gilbert has no qualm using harsh language and using it in a way that disturbs the watcher. As it should. Be prepared to hear some very disturbing language and sound effects that flesh out the world of 1835 Georgia.

The Community Playhouse is known for impressive stage design and this show is no different. Created by Berg and Whitson, they handcrafted 180 degrees of stage to show Ellen’s cabin, the vastness of the Smith plantation she was owed to, and a little nook in a modern apartment where we read the journal. As the story continues into the second act, the white and green of the plantation is transformed into a transit line that becomes the center of travel and concern for the remainder the story.

The elaborate set changes are interwoven with an interesting and effective use of sound effects that provide even more effect to specific scenes; a wedding mired with the sound of a man being whipped; a woman praying as dogs bark searching for a runaway; the heavy molasses of Regina Wills vocalizations.

Some concepts are introduced that are hard to articulate in the small time given. Moments of backstory that indicate cowardice found in even in those who want to believe themselves as redeemed men; such as the slave owner who, when he died, had intended to free all his slaves. This brave white slave owner will wait to die before dealing with the social ramifications of doing what’s right because of the judgment from evil men and women that would befall him for doing what is truly humane. The judgement was not worth a single slave’s life while he himself breathed. This is the fallacy of those who extol moral superiority, while perpetuating through action (or inaction) the same system that they are trying to expose.

The story itself is one that deserves more attention. It expresses the duality that black men face in how they live every day and that even when acting right; they are acting wrong.

A point that I am having a hard time dismissing is the number of white roles versus the number of roles for blacks in this piece. It could be argued that the use of many Caucasian characters helped portray the isolation that Ellen and William felt, but I am unsure that was an intentional theme being presented. In a socially aware theatrical production regarding the lives of two black people fighting for visibility of their own being this seems like a situation of good intentions perpetuating harmful practices. There are 22+ white roles versus 4-5 roles for blacks regarding a story where blacks are undervalued, mistreated, and maligned. The irony that this ensemble piece had a cast where less than 25% were black is indicative of social reformations that are still necessary despite sympathetic minds to the cause.

But maybe that’s the idea; Paradox of identity and truth. Like when William speaks differently depending on who he is talking to, perhaps this is the real meaning behind Ellen and her husband; how to be themselves where people’s constant inability to accept another will always be apparent; a cruel goose hunt where there will never be a way to be right, because there is only one way to be white. And in one way, it’s through Gilbert’s words that this exploration can illustrate the inherent dynamic of how easy it is for people to denigrate and familiarize. Take apart and make of. But that the truth of the self is still found in ever-enduring love and the struggle of freedom for the self is not a story of A dark hope. A hope in the dark.

 

Richard Thompson (Actor) was born in Kokomo, Indiana. He has no relevant education from any formal institution in theater or film. His writing career comprises of columnist work for The Arizona Daily Star, editor for Persona Magazine, content creator of Looking Back manuscript for P.C.C., Sandscript Magazine contributor, and editor and columnist for Gourmet News for which he received a James Beard nomination for his article, “Holy See-Food”. He is also a Hearst Poet and a published IEEE author (2018-2019), as well as a technical writer whose proposals, grants and speeches have totaled in over $250k in gained between 2016 to now. Since 2017, The Community Players produced his stage play, Last Call, followed by performances in No Admittance (Bill Bowen) and One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest (Chief), numerous Radio Theater shows, backstage crew for ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) as well as multiple roles in musical shows. In 2018, he worked under Eugenia Wood in Hark, with Ron Athey, Cassils, and Arshia Fatima in Cyclic, and produced his original manuscript The GRANDest Pageant. Films include RiseThe Righteous Twelve, and The GRANDest Pageant. In 2019, he founded Graveyard Production Company (www.gyproco.com) and will perform Exist.

Audience Enjoys Solving Mystery Alongside Sherlock Holmes

by Chelsey Wade

Black Box Theater, at Pima Community College’s Center for the Arts, presents Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery by Ken Ludwig. 

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This story follows Sherlock Holmes, played by Etienne Wegryzniak, and Dr. Watson, played by Ciel McNulty, as they solve the mysterious case of Baskerville. Set in London, the mystery-solving duo set out to find out who murdered Sir Charles, uncle of the Baskerville heir. Initially, they have little to go on except a bitten cane that seems to have been dragged through the mud. Could this be the work of the fabled Baskerville hounds? Or is there more going on in the dark, hidden woods near the city of Baskerville? 

The director, Chris Will, did a fine job of staging the actors to utilize the full theater space. Throughout the play, action alternates with scenes taking place in various parts of the theater. It made for a visually interesting aspect of the performance to follow the movement between the main floor, the sides, and top of the arena. While the action felt a little slow at the beginning of certain scenes, overall, the pace picked up and was fairly steady throughout the two and a half hour play. There were some confusing moments, particularly when actors would break character or play multiple characters in the same scene. Still, it was ultimately effective in coming across as humorous. Some actors would physically change their hats and this, as well as pacing, had a lot to do with effectiveness.

Will selected a diverse cast for this play. Several of the male characters are played by females, including the role of Watson, Cartwright, and “Man in Black Beard.” Brandon Saxon in the role of Mrs. Hudson created an extra touch of comedy through the high-pitched tones of Holmes’ landlady. Strong, believable chemistry flowed among the actors consistently and pleasantly through their quick dialogue. The equality in this play, in terms of casting, was excellent. It broke out of the form one might expect in only seeing a man playing a male character on stage, and vice versa. Specifically, casting a female lead for Watson’s character gives a different lens in viewing well-known characters. This kind of brave choice in casting also allows more gender equality on the stage, addressing female and male artists in a way that reflects back on the actor’s talents.

The actors often break from the traditional framework of the story to add humor in other parts of the play. Unexpected bits of comedy throughout serve to remind the audience that we are watching the world of a play, one that can adhere to the traditions of a script and also veer off from it in the name of comedy (and relevance, in one instance of commentary about Mr. Trump). Even though this play is being performed in the closing months of 2019, it reminded me of the timelessness of the Holmes’ stories. Writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first penned The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in the late 1800s; the stories continue to be adapted and told to stay relevant. That in itself speaks to the power of creating strong, dynamic characters in literature. 

The costumes, designed by Kaylee Johnson, and the actor’s British accents, immersed the audience in 20th century London. The clock tower set up behind Sherlock’s desk also added to the plausibility of environment.  One of the most intense moments early on was the unveiling of Baskerville Hall. The striking music and shadowy lighting added to the drama of reaching a place that held such significance to the case. 

Ultimately, this play was fun to watch, with some dark moments of the mystery, but stayed light-hearted by the humor scattered throughout each scene. Anyone who shares Sherlock’s admiration for the opera as a means to escape the routine of day-to-day life in order to be moved by performance art can also appreciate this piece of student orchestrated theater. 

Were there some strange elements to this play? Sure. But then again, this is a Sherlock Holmes story. I would expect a few surprises from the mystery solvers from Baker Street. Half the point of watching a mystery play and the drama unfolding is to watch the characters solve the mystery. But finding out the answer isn’t the whole point at all. It’s a delightful paradox to take part in. 

Tickets are available online through Pima’s website, with a link to their 3rd party
“Vendini” ticket- purchasing website. Tickets are $10 for PCC students and $17 for general admission. The play runs until November 17th.

The “Spirit of Ribaldry” is Successfully Summoned

by Betsy Labiner

The Rogue Theatre’s production of Blithe Spirit is, in the words of the play itself, “a jolly time with Elvira.” Noël Coward’s play, directed here by Joseph McGrath, is at turns cheeky and biting, even occasionally caustic, but always a great deal of fun. 

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Holly Griffith as Elvira Condomine, Cynthia Meier as Madame Arcati, andRyan Parker Knox  as Charles Condomine. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre

The play follows a couple, Charles and Ruth Condomine (played by Ryan Parker Knox and Bryn Booth, respectively), who host a seance as research for a novel Charles is writing. They, and their friends the Bradmans (played by Matt Walley and Carley Elizabeth Preston), expect to be entertained by a charlatan. Madame Arcati (played by Cynthia Meier), despite the couples’ skepticism and cheerful mockery, turns out to be all too successful — and thus the spirit of Charles’s late first wife Elvira (played by Holly Griffith) is summoned back to the world of the living. The resultant comedy of confusion and miscommunication is laugh-out-loud funny, running the gamut from frothy lightheartedness to moments of dark humor in which startled laughter is the only possible reaction.

The entire play takes place in the living room of the Condomines’ house; the lighting in the room cleverly shifts from warm, buttery light in the evening, to brighter white during the day, and the light through the window similarly shifts in tone to indicate the passage of time. Russell Ronnebaum’s music also works to set the mood and — crucially — to advance the plot. I also want to give a sweeping tip of the hat to Meier’s costume design, and the execution thereof by Meier, Nanalee Raphael, and Barb Tanzillo, as well as to wig stylist Kate Mammana. Their work on the entire cast is excellent, but Griffith’s ghostly hair and makeup is downright superb. Griffith is the epitome of old Hollywood glamour, and her bombshell look is played up by the way she sashays around the room and insouciantly lounges on the couch, flirting and insulting with equal coquettishness. Elvira’s white hair and silver gown contrast wonderfully with Ruth’s vivid costumes of red and pink, particularly in scenes when the women interact. 

Griffith, Booth, and Knox play off each other well in their otherworldly love triangle; Knox is delightfully hapless in Charles’s inability to manage conversations with both wives at once, and Booth’s frazzled shifts between anger, fear, and vicious determination make Ruth equally as engaging as the spectral Elvira. Meier throws herself fully into Madame Arcati’s ridiculousness, garnering lots of laughs, and her earnestness serves as a pointed juxtaposition to the other characters’ cynicism. Though Walley and Preston have comparatively little stage time, they imbue a massive amount of subtext to the Bradmans’ interactions — it was easy to feel like we knew far more about the couple than the play actually communicates. Erin Buckley, as the Condomines’ perpetually overwrought maid Edith, managed to be both clownish and sympathetic. 

The comedic timing of the cast is spot-on, as is their physical interplay. It’s an absolute blast to be in on the joke, as the audience gets to see and hear Elvira when many of the characters do not.  There were a few stumbles in the dialogue, but the missteps were minor and the actors recovered well when they occurred. These hiccups are understandable; Coward’s dialogue is whip-fast, often grammatically odd, and full of verbiage that trips up the tongue. The actors do well with it overall, and the banter is as sharp as it is rapid. 

The play runs two and a half hours, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. While the pacing lags ever so slightly in the initial scene as the play works to introduce the characters, their backstories, and the set-up for the seance, it picks up speed as soon as Elvira arrives. It seemed to me that this is a function of the play itself rather than a fault of the production; Coward wants his audience to have a strong sense of the characters so we can more fully appreciate it when they go to pieces as the action unfolds. And, as previously said, the vast majority of the play races along at a merry clip that carries the audience along in a happy reverie. 

Blithe Spirit, while a far cry from the heaviness of some of The Rogue’s other offerings, is hardly fluff. Even as the audience laughs, we’re confronted with the “morally untidy” world in which nobody is quite what we’d like them to be, and love is often tangled with power struggles, betrayal, and spite. Charles, Elvira, and Ruth each compel and repel us, earning our empathy only to lose our goodwill moments later. Lines like, “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit,” knock the wind out of us, but then we find ourselves forgetting the incisive condemnation with the next joke. Coward’s comedy walks a knife’s edge, often threatening to tip into tragedy and bleakness, but this production successfully maintains the balancing act. 

If you want a deeply enjoyable night at the theatre, go see Blithe Spirit before this production gives up the ghost. 

Blithe Spirit runs at The Rogue Theatre November 7–24, Thursday–Saturday at 7:30 PM, and Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 PM. Tickets may be purchased online at theroguetheatre.org, by phone at 520-551-2053, or at the box office beginning one hour prior to shows (walk-up purchasing is always pending availability). 

Transcendent Education and Entertainment Through Theatre

by China Young

Transgender. Transexual. Cis. AFAB. It is likely that you have come across these and other terms at some point. They are in the news more and more as our nation tries to legislate bathrooms and genitalia, even to the point that the Supreme Court is still deciding whether the prohibition on sex discrimination includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In other words, they’re going to rule on whether employers can fire people because they are trans or gay. The conversation is heated and emotional on all sides. As someone who tries to follow the debate, I have observed a severe lack of listening and an even deeper void of understanding. Fortunately there are people willing to do the work to spread the knowledge, and Martie van der Voort (pronouns they/she) is one of those fearless individuals that has taken the helm of the conversation in their full-length, one-person show, TransFormations. Despite van der Voort only being one person, they/she provides this opportunity to meet and engage with multiple trans people in such a proficient way that I was fully engaged and invested throughout. The discussion of gender identity has become more public due to the attempts by conservative lawmakers to legislate identity, and due to the trans community’s bravery in not only fighting discriminatory legislation but demanding more visibility and awareness. If you have any questions about what being transgender means – whether you are looking for a textbook answer or an experiential perspective – you will be handed an impressive array of learning moments within the course of this roughly two-hour production.

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TransFormations is framed as a trans support group.  Whether they know it or not, the audience is full of new group members with varying levels of knowledge on this subject. The education begins instantly as van der Voort’s first character, Graciela (she/hers), gently invites us into the group, helping us assimilate to the conversation by giving us facts, definitions, and introducing us to some of the group members. Graciela is the leader of the support group, and though she is not trans herself, she is the parent of a transman. She tells her story first – how she learned that her AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) child identifies as a man, and therefore is a man. She even discusses the fact that, despite loving her son, she had to mourn the loss of her daughter. Van der Voort continues to introduce us to character after character, all of whom are unique and distinctly channeled through their/her skilled performance. Under the guidance of director Tom Slauson (he/him), van der Voort portrays transmen, transwomen, non-binary, non-transitioning, AND their wives and children – they/she runs the gamut.

We are quickly faced with the question of how one knows they are trans. The response can be simplified to “how do you know if you are right-handed or left-handed? You just know.” We are reminded that the modern world was designed for the right-handed. We are reminded that there was a time when being left-handed was considered “wrong,” and left-handed people were forced to use their right hands to write, eat, play sports, and so on. We are reminded that now, nobody questions the validity of being left-handed. So then, why do they question the validity of being trans? Is that clarity around one’s own identity different from recognizing that you are left-handed in a world where it’s “right to be right,” or at least easier? There are many other questions, just as complex, throughout the show; they are explored with humor, dramatic nuance, and honesty. As someone with trans friends and family, I truly felt like I knew many of these characters in real life. From beat poet and transman Mark, to the angry son of a transwoman, through the revelations made by newly-transitioning Phil (ftm – female to male) and his girlfriend Beth, you will leave knowing a lot more people in and connected to the trans community than you knew when you came in.

In juxtaposition to depth of the material, the technical elements are fairly modest. The set consists of some chairs in a semi-circle, most topped with some sort of clothing or accessory to denote a character’s seat. The lighting, by Emil Lamanda (he/him), is predominantly a simple wash of light, with a couple of strategically-placed instances of isolation. Before the show begins, there is a projector that is used to display images setting the tone of the production. This is valuable because the show is void of sound design, a tool often used to set the mood and help guide the audience through the journey. I did question the need for its use in the middle of the second act, though I appreciated the information it revealed and reinforced. I found the minimalist design to further allow space for van der Voort to fully embody everything about each character, making the show truly about them.

I had the opportunity to have a one-on-one with van der Voort after the performance. I learned that they/she has been working on this play for over a decade.There have been several other performances, but this was the first fully-produced run (and hopefully not the last). When I asked about the spectrum of characters and where they came from, they/she said “they just kept coming out of me,” although they/she acknowledged that many of them were inspired by friends or acquaintances. There is even someone that didn’t make it into this iteration of the show because van der Voort and director Slauson felt the character wasn’t ready for the stage.

TransFormations is a show that does everything I yearn for theatre to do: entertain and educate.

Presented by Something Something Theatre at St. Francis in the Foothills, the run continues through November 17th, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30pm, and Sunday afternoons at 3:00pm. Purchase tickets online at https://www.somethingsomethingtheatre.com/ or by calling 520-468-6111.

 

U of A’s Pippin Still Has Some Magic To Do

by Lena Quach

Pippin is a mysterious musical filled with memorable music, magic and simple joys. The story follows the young prince Pippin and his quest for fulfillment in life. Pippin originally opened in 1972 with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson. The original production was directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse. Arizona Repertory Theater, directed and choreographed by Christie Kerr, had some rather large shoes to fill and unfortunately did not succeed. 

I was excited when I first came in and saw the rather impressive set. I have seen Pippin in a couple different forms and this looked promising. I was quickly let down by the ending of the song “Magic To Do”. The ensemble of players were all beautiful and sounded amazing but lacked the mystery and pizzazz that you usually see in the first number of the show. 

Tony Moreno as and Paige Mills as The Leading Player. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Tony Moreno as Pippin and Paige Mills as The Leading Player. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

I did see some small homages to the original choreographer in the show but felt that maybe the choreography was too advanced for the cast. Yes, Fosse is an extremely hard dance style to perfect but there was a very large disconnect between the actors and the movement. It was especially noticeable in the isolations of the hips that looked more like twerking and the movements of the arms that looked more like a bird flapping then a directed movement coming from the back. These movements are essential that highlight and add levels to the catchy score. This was the productions biggest let down. 

I was also quite disappointed by Paige Mills in the role of The Lead Player. This role is so essential to the show and how the story is told. Mills has an agile and clear voice and I can see why she was cast in the role for that alone. The Lead Player should be more mysterious and should have more of an inner battle between herself and her sympathy for Pippin, in certain parts of the show. This rendition of the character seemed to plateau quickly and never see any depth until the end of the show. Mills put in a solid effort with choreography and blocking given to her but lacked grace and the showstopping quality that any Lead Player should posses. 

There were some highlights in the show including some very magical characters. Tony Moreno played the title role of Pippin. Moreno has a beautiful voice and gave the audience the perfect balance of his character that can sometimes come off as awkward and somewhat rude to completely charming and heroic. Moreno is definitely going places. I was also very impressed by Tristan Caldwell who added just the right amount of sass and comedy to the character Charlemagne. I was completely charmed by Marina Devaux as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe. Devaux gave me a Broadway-worthy performance and had me singing along during her number. Catherine, played by Sofia Gonzalez, was sweet, beautiful and organic just like any Catherine should be. 

In the end, Arizona Repertory Theater’s production of Pippin still has some “Magic To Do”. The ensemble gave an honest performance filled with magic tricks, great vocals, and some Broadway-worthy highlights but lacked the mystery, grittiness, and dancing with purpose. 

You can catch Arizona Repertory’s production of Pippin now through November 3rd at the University of Arizona’s Marroney Theatre. Tickets can be purchased via their website at theatre.arizona.edu or by calling the box office at (520) 621-1162. 

 

To Connect or Disconnect, That Is the Question

by China Young

The Last Train to Nibroc, by Arlene Hutton, invites us into a story of two people, a man and a woman, who meet on a train in the middle of the US as World War II evolves. They proceed to maintain a relationship throughout the next few years, though whether the relationship is romantic or not remains unclear until the end – I won’t give it away, but I bet you can guess. It’s a story we’ve seen many times, leaving me wondering, among so many other things, why we need to see it again.

Damien Garcia as Raleigh and Samantha Cormier as May. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Damien Garcia as Raleigh and Samantha Cormier as May. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

In the program Hutton, the playwright, states that the idea for the play came when she learned that the post-mortem bodies of authors Nathaniel West and F. Scott Fitzgerald traveled on the same train at the same time. She further explains that she chose to introduce her two characters, who were loosely based on her parents, on that same train, and from there she generates “a patchwork quilt of family lore and love stories I heard as a child, all stitched together to tell the fictional tale of May and Raleigh.” Layering a partly fictional love story over a slightly morbid bit of trivia from the past is a bit of a disjointed foundation and is perhaps the root reason I felt multiple layers of disconnect as I tried to absorb this production. 

Susan Claassen, the Managing Artistic Director ushering Invisible Theatre into an impressive 49th year, also directs performers Samantha Cormier (May) and Damien Garcia (Raleigh) in the second show of Invisible Theatre’s 19-20 Season. All of these artists have strong portfolios, offer major contributions to the Tucson theatre community in general, and I have the utmost respect for each of them as fellow theatre artists. Unfortunately, my experience of this production does not reflect the quality of work I know these artists are capable of. I found myself constantly questioning beat shifts, character choices, staging, and a number of other elements that continue to confuse me.

Before I go into more detail on what I found disjointed, let me discuss what worked. The set design by Tom Benson was beautiful and cleverly designed, working in tandem with the strategic staging by Claassen. Each scene, all set in different times and locations, all felt very different environmentally despite them all being on the same set.

The costume designs by Maryann Trombino were great, especially for May. Women often have the better fashions in period-pieces and this was no exception. I especially appreciated how the evolution of her costumes through the timeline of the show reflect the chronology of World War II, from fashionable to rationed simplicity.

The sound design by Rob Boone felt almost like another character as it introduces the audience to the world of the play with a voice over of President Roosevelt talking to the American people. This moment was actually one of the most engaging for me as an audience member. The words of Roosevelt from (circa) 1940 could so easily be addressing our nation today. They resonated with me in such a way that my interest was immediately piqued and I was excited for the show I was about to experience – eager to see what other commentaries it might offer to further parallel “then” and “now.” However, the show never developed the commentary I anticipated from the words of Roosevelt, thus enveloping my entire experience with a degree of disconnect I just couldn’t shake.

Returning to the script, the language seemed to have a spiral-like pattern of repetition, which I believe was a tool the playwright gave the cast and director that wasn’t wielded effectively. In retrospect, I think the audience needed those repetitive moments to anchor us as observers to the beat shifts and tactical changes of the characters as they navigate their own connectivity. Instead I found myself lost in the dialogue, trying to understand what these characters were saying, and why they were saying it the way they were. The intentions that the actors were playing felt out of sync with the rhythms provided in the dialogue, further disengaging me. The use of accents may have added another layer of disconnect to this, with the cadence of the accents often taking over the performance, causing the meaning of what is being said or felt by the character to be lost in translation. In addition, I experienced a lack of chemistry between Garcia and Cormier, further impacting my confusion around character intentions. As I mentioned earlier, this is a story that I knew how it was going to end before it began, which means I was an extra hard sell when it comes to how invested I am throughout that journey, and I may be a harder sell than your average audience member when it comes to love stories in general. 

Last Train 2

Damien Garcia as Raleigh and Samantha Cormier as May. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

By the end, instead of feeling warm and fuzzy, as I imagine the playwright, cast, and director wanted me to feel, I just felt “meh.” I ask again, why did I need to hear this story – again? In my effort to gain more clarity around this question, I watched the Arizona Public Media “Spotlight on the Arts” feature on this production (https://youtu.be/kJna42HDAnE). In this interview, Cormier discusses the way the show repeatedly brings the characters to the edge of connecting, and yet they consistently miss true connection. It’s interesting to consider this since I did experience these “missed connections,” but not it in a way that made me root for them, which is how Cormier describes her relationship with their evolution. Unfortunately, I lost interest in the story and characters instead.

I admittedly may be in the minority when it comes to my experience of Last Train to Nibroc. When the show ended, I heard people say “that was so good,” as well as other exclamations of enjoyment and satisfaction. I encourage folks to see Last Train to Nibroc for themselves – I do believe that this production is exactly what some people are looking for when they want to enjoy a night of theatre. Just because I didn’t make a love connection with it doesn’t mean you won’t. 

Closing this week, you can see it Wednesday, October 30 through Saturday November 2 at 7:30pm, with 3:00pm matinees Saturday, November 2 and Sunday, November 3. Tickets are $35 by calling the Invisible Theatre Box Office at 520-882-9721 or purchasing online at invisibletheatre.com.