Winding Road’s The Big Meal is a Theatrical Feast

by Holly Griffith

Winding Road Theater showcases ensemble talent and honest storytelling in their latest offering, Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal. The play opens with a flirtatious encounter between characters Sam and Nicole, a young couple who meet in a restaurant. Over the course of the play, they date, fall in love, fight, break up, reconcile, get married, have children, and grow old together. We meet their family members, witness their joys, and share in their grief. But don’t be fooled by this predictable, even cliché plot. LeFranc’s theatrical twists, buoyed by an excellent ensemble and skillful direction, make The Big Meal a flavorful feast of family dynamics.

The cast of The Big Meal. Photo by Creatista Photography, courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

The cast of The Big Meal. Photo by Creatista Photography, courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

The first theatrical curveball LeFranc throws is his fast-paced structure of short scenes that follow one another without marked transitions. The actors must shift time, place, and tone in the space of a breath, and this cast handles the challenge beautifully. They move as a unit, making rhythmic shifts that clarify the passage of time without being heavy-handed. This is a difficult, delicate technique to master, but this ensemble (Tony Caprile, Damian Garcia, Cynthia Jeffery, Chris Koval, Kat McIntosh, Lena Quach, Danny Quinones, and China Young) blazes forward with astonishing skill. The production is airtight, and it needs to be. The actors fly through the script at a rushing pace, never missing a beat, overlapping lines and even entire conversations, unafraid to talk like a real family. The effect is sometimes chaotic, but in a good way.  The stage becomes electrified with dialogue, and the audience can only revel in the realness of it all. The lines we miss, the conversations we choose to ignore, the big personalities that drown out the more measured ones are all part of the experience.

The second twist is a complex web of casting that unfolds over the course of the play. As Sam and Nicole age, the actors who once played their parents are re-cast to play the middle-aged versions of our protagonist couple. Similarly, the actors who once played Sam and Nicole in their twenties shift to portray the couple’s children, friends, or lovers. Later, the actors who first played Sam and Nicole’s grandparents portray the pair in their old age, and the rest of the ensemble shifts accordingly. In only ninety minutes, we meet five generations of family members, several sets of children and parents, multiple iterations of characters at different ages, and a veritable army of boyfriends and girlfriends, all acted by the ensemble of eight. Not an easy feat for any acting company, but Winding Road nails it. The company provides enough clarity to keep us along for the ride without sacrificing the honesty of the scenes.

Director Maria Caprile handles this web of family dynamics deftly. By staging the play in the round, the story sings. As the characters whirl around the play’s central set piece, a circular dining table, the audience is presented with a kaleidoscope of relationship combinations, ever-shifting, ever-circulating, and beautiful to watch. Each shift in the kaleidoscope brings a new image, but with colors and shapes reminiscent of the last, inviting us to make connections between generations and among relationships. Seated around the intimate Cabaret space at the Temple of Music and Art, we are able to watch not only the characters onstage, but our fellow audience members across the room. They become part of the drama, and also somehow part of the family. We share their joy and grief in the same way we share Sam and Nicole’s.

Alex Alegria’s lighting design is powerful. He and stage manager Samantha Severson work together to punctuate the rushing scenes with a handful of expertly crafted passages of surrealism, each designed to represent the death of a character. These moments are somehow both familiar and chilling, a layer of nuance that I attribute to Alegria’s lights.

The unshakeable ensemble, honest script, and thoughtful direction make The Big Meal a triumph for Winding Road. Pull up a chair and enjoy it for yourself.

The Big Meal plays at the The Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Art through December 22nd. Tickets can be purchased at www.windingroadtheater.org or by calling 520-401-3626.

ATC’s Cabaret asks, “What Would You Do?”

by Emily Lyons

Arizona Theater Company brings an all-new production of Cabaret (written by Joe Masteroff with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb) to Southern Arizona this winter. Set during the waning days of Weimar Berlin and the Nazis’ rise to power, Cabaret is a deliberately timed choice for ATC. Its warnings about noxious populism and apathy in the face of evil resonate strongly today. This production, directed by Sara Bruner, choreographed by Jaclyn Miller, and with music direction by Jesse Sanchez, is an ambitious undertaking. This is in part because of the heavy themes, but also because any new production inevitably invites comparison to its predecessors—particularly the 1972 film, directed by Bob Fosse and featuring his iconic choreography, with Oscar-winning performances by Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the Emcee.

Sean Patrick Doyle as the Emcee and the cast of Cabaret. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Sean Patrick Doyle as the Emcee and the cast of Cabaret. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

On New Year’s Eve, the Emcee (Sean Patrick Doyle) welcomes the audience to the Kit Kat Klub, and introduces the club’s dancers and its English star, Sally Bowles (Madison Micucci). Meanwhile, American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Brandon Espinoza) has just arrived in Berlin, hoping to find inspiration for his next novel. Cliff’s new acquaintance Ernst Ludwig (D. Scott Withers) helps him find a room to rent from Fräulein Schneider (Lori Wilner). One of his new neighbors is Fräulein Kost (Michelle Dawson), a sex worker whose professional activities Fräulein Schneider begrudgingly tolerates. Another tenant is Herr Schultz (David Kelly, who doubles as Max), a gentlemanly Jewish widower who wishes Cliff mazel and welcomes him to Berlin. Later, Cliff finds himself in the Kit Kat Klub and meets Sally, who invites him to her dressing room. Cliff is charmed by Sally’s worldliness and vivacity, which gets a boost from her coke and gin habit. The next day, after having been thrown out by Max, the owner of the Kit Kat Klub and her now ex-lover, Sally shows up at Cliff’s flat with luggage in hand, and after much cajoling persuades both Cliff and Fräulein Schneider to let her stay.

The remainder of the first half follows the parallel love stories of Cliff and Sally, and Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. The Emcee and the Kit Kat Klub performers serve as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action through comic, sexually-charged nightclub acts that grow increasingly dark in tone, hinting at tragedy to come. Things seem to be going well for everyone—until a shocking revelation disrupts this circle of characters, and makes the Nazis’ power impossible to ignore any longer.

Ultimately, ATC’s Cabaret hits the mark in many areas, but misses in others. Madison Micucci is “perfectly marvelous” as Sally. Her energy is electric from the first moment she appears on stage until her devastating performance of the climactic title song. She captures Sally’s pluck and underlying fragility, and manages to make her sympathetic even in her most destructive and infuriating moments. While the show as a whole is not always convincing in its effort to convey the gritty decadence of 1930s Berlin, Micucci’s large, pain-tinged voice takes us there. Her solos “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret” are the show’s strongest numbers. Lori Wilner as Fräulein Schneider is another standout. In addition to her powerful singing, Wilner delivers a subtle and nuanced portrayal of the show’s most fully realized character. Fräulein Schneider is given some of the show’s most shattering lines, and Wilner makes you feel the full weight of them.

Sean Patrick Doyle, angular and lithe, is well cast as the Emcee. His strongest moment is his second-act solo “I Don’t Care Much,” which he sings in a haunting falsetto, made more tragic by his mascara-streaked face and imploring, satin-gloved gestures. Still, I never found him completely convincing in this role; his performance lacks the menacing undercurrent needed to convey the creeping dread of the increasingly alarming political situation unfolding outside the nightclub. And while I was happy to see a diverse ensemble, with some welcome gender swapping in the casting, the dance and vocal talents of the Kit Kat Klub girls and boys were underutilized. The stage design is clever and there are some smart lighting choices. The lurid green lighting during “Cabaret” is a particularly effective, capturing the poisonous atmosphere and echoing the fact that green is Sally’s signature color. Nevertheless, in general the nightclub scenes, in part because of rather uninspired costuming, struck me as too clean, too bright, and too wholesome. I was disappointed by the way this production seems almost to shy away from the overt homoeroticism and seedy sensuality of the material. As a result, the fear the cast projects in the finales of both acts feels unearned.

That said, what this production does well is show how easily and quickly evil can proliferate when people aren’t paying attention. The characters go about their lives ignorant of the intensifying danger in their midst until they are forced to face it, with tragic consequences. When Cliff calls out Fräulein Schneider for giving in to despair instead of fighting for her values, she retorts, “What would you do?” In our time of deepening social divisions and eroding political norms, “what would you do?” is a question that should haunt us all.

Cabaret runs at Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art through December 29th, and in Phoenix January 4th through 26th. Tucson tickets are available at www.arizonatheater.org or by calling (520) 622-2823.

A Simple Recipe with Complex Flavors

by China Young

Photo courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Roxanne Harley as Miriam. Photo courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

“This is the Story of a mother’s deepest love and most grievous pain” is printed against the striking image of a knife embedded into a bright red apple on the program cover for Something Something Theatre’s co-production with Tucson Labyrinth Project, Apples in Winter by Jennifer Fawcett. There is something sinister and foreboding, yet warmly familiar about the image, giving us a strong sense of the complexity of the material we are about to witness. Though this one-woman show, is just over an hour, it takes us into deep contemplation of a mother who has been brought to an unfamiliar kitchen to cook an apple pie for her son. We soon learn that this this apple pie, made by his mother, is the requested last meal of a man on death row who was convicted of murder. The image was not credited in the program, but I think it is a simple yet powerful summation of the intricacies this production offers.

Echoing the power of simplicity is the stark set design by Scott Berg. With a clinical color palette of greys and whites, we get the cold, industrial essence of a penitentiary kitchen. The most impressive feature is an actual working oven that is imbedded in a basic wooden frame box. The use of this practical requirement by the playwright, and execution by director Barclay Goldsmith, was cleverly orchestrated. While Miriam, played by Roxanne Harley, is constructing the pie, she tells us the history of her pie-making rituals and their relationship to her son.  But it’s not until she finally places the pie in the oven that she unveils the truth of what it has been like to be the mother of a convicted murderer. No longer able to be distracted by the use of her hands, she finds herself a prisoner of time – the time it takes to bake the pie, and the direct link that has to the time left in her son’s life. She talks about regular visits to the prison, hate mail, and so many other dark details of her experience, all as we are surrounded by the delightful aroma of the apple pie baking. It’s an interesting device that toys with our senses, keeping us tuned in sharper than the knife chained to the table.

There are so many beautiful and heart wrenching places this show takes us. Harley handles the material masterfully, though not without imperfection. She tells a story of a human experience, with a vulnerability that evokes empathy and understanding for a person with a different experience than your own…perhaps. It’s not easy to identify with the mother of a murderer, but nearly effortless to identify with a mother, or a lover of pie. I did think there were different choices that could have been made, maybe different beat shifts that could have been explored, and a deeper investigation of the full range of expression from the actor, both vocally and emotionally. Regardless, Harley gives a solid performance.

Both Something Something and The Labyrinth Project value theatre that evokes conversation, and Apples in Winter is certainly no exception. There was a post-show discussion that at least half the nearly full house stayed for. The conversation was an excellent encapsulation of the relevance of this production. Many of their responses and comments varied from my own and continue to churn my thoughts. If you have the opportunity to sit in on a post-show discussion, I highly recommend it. 

The most powerful piece of the conversation for me was learning that playwright Jennifer Fawcett drew from the book “A Mother’s Reckoning” by Sue Klebold, as her primary source material. Klebold was the mother of one of the Columbine shooters. In the 20 years since, mass shootings have become a devastatingly daily event, with parents usually being the first to be blamed for their child’s behavior. I do wish this information was included in the program, but even without that knowledge, Apples in Winter provides us the reminder that we are all human and encourages us to consider how many parents have gone through the same cycle of grief and shame that we witness with Miram. It was a rich experience and I encourage everyone to catch this one if they can.

Apples in Winter plays at The Community Players Theatre through December 15. Tickets are $5-$25. You can find more information and purchase tickets at https://www.somethingsomethingtheatre.com/.

Get the Whole Family in on the Prank with Tilly the Trickster

by Regina Ford

Tilly is a grade school-aged youngster with an inkling for playing pranks on her family, friends, at school, and on just about anyone. This kid doesn’t discriminate. At the start of the show, Tilly announces, “I love, love, love to play tricks.” What follows is 75 minutes of electrically charged energy full of song and dance and Tilly’s relentless, not-really-dangerous practical jokes. 

Janet Roby as Tilly's Mom, Christopher Moseley as Tilly's Dad, Austin Killian as Peppermint, and Samantha Cormier as Tilly. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Janet Roby as Tilly’s Mom, Christopher Moseley as Tilly’s Dad, Austin Killian as Peppermint, Teddy (puppet), and Samantha Cormier as Tilly. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Tilly the Trickster, a family friendly show, written by Jeremy Dobrish with music and lyrics by Drew Fornarola and based on the children’s book written by actress and comedian of SNL fame, Molly Shannon, is running now at Live Theatre Workshop, just in time for the holiday season. This energetic show is definitely not your traditional  holiday presentation. There’s no Santa, no stockings, and no tree, but there is a message that goes beyond the tinsel and gingerbread: Tricks are not always fun for everyone, no matter how harmless they seem.

No one escapes Tilly’s tricks and mayhem starts first thing each morning. Her breakfast antics send her baby brother’s cereal flying throughout the room, much to the annoyance of her parents. Their frustration is highlighted with the song, “Where Did We Go Wrong?” The only one delighted to see breakfast on the floor is Peppermint, the family dog.

Tilly’s antics result in her schoolmates missing the bus. A gift of hot candy to her teacher gets her sent to the principal, with no results. Punishing Tilly is no use. She pretends she’s sorry but lets the audience know with a smile and wink that her game is not over.

Tilly is taxing, but not cruel. She believes everyone she pranks thinks it’s funny, too. I want to thank Shannon for writing her starring character as a girl. My recollection of mean girls in grade school is pretty vivid. For the shy or overweight kids or anyone who was “different,” the girl’s gym class was a venue for ridicule and pranks causing cruel humiliation.

I doubt very much if the toddlers in the audience understood the moral of the show, but watching their faces, I could see that the singing and dancing and especially the tricks kept them entranced for most of the performance. 

Shannon and Dobrish included some dark humor in their dialogue that missed the mark for me. When the principal is trying to teach Tilly a lesson he recounts his own troubled childhood and describes tormenting animals. Hmm? That scene disturbed me. Even though the principal is remorseful for his behavior, taunting animals sends a message that may be misunderstood by young children.

The actors worked well as a unified ensemble and created a variety of characters with ease.

Samantha Cormier (Tilly) never let her energy down, and her ability to play a grade school student is pretty amazing. I would have avoided her Tilly like the plague if I went to her school. Cormier was very good but I really would like to see how a preteen actor would have handled the role.

Janet Roby played three roles: Tilly’s mom, Tilly’s teacher Mrs. Mooney, and a cat (puppet). Roby and Christopher Moseley, who portrayed Tilly’s dad, as well as the bus driver and the school principal, worked so well together as Tilly’s freaked out parents. Both actors were nerdy enough to appease the younger audience members yet sympathetic enough for parents to identify with as they coped with a rambunctious child. They also had great catchy musical numbers with clever lyrics like those in ‘Mornings Stink.”  Words like fart, litter box and pee-ew fit right into dialogue and lyrics.

Tilly’s younger brother is played by a puppet brought to life by Kyleigh Sacco, who also acted the part of a bird (puppet) plus Tilly’s school friend Emily. Sacco nailed the role of Teddy, the baby brother. This character was portrayed using a puppet and, dressed in black clothes, she maneuvered Teddy around the stage wonderfully. She disappeared as Teddy came to life.

Samantha Cormier as Tilly and Austin Killian as Peppermint. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Samantha Cormier as Tilly and Austin Killian as Peppermint. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Peppermint the dog is one of my favorite characters in the show. Austin Killian makes this comical canine the pet you want to adopt and call your best friend. Peppermint shares enlightening speeches that it is made clear only the audience can understand. He becomes the voice of reason for the play. Just when he thinks he’s understood by the other characters, they let him know that all they hear is “Arf! Arf! Arf!”

The choreography by Amanda Gremel was simple but also a creative balance with the music direction by Taylor Thomas. The set, designed by Richard Gremel, was so simple yet very effective. Childlike hand painted drawings depicting some of the trickster’s props in the show surrounded the stage on three sides while the title of the musical, “Tilly the Trickster,” took center stage serving as the show’s background throughout the performance. All the cast moved props off and on the stage and their work as a tight ensemble made the show just flow.

Tilly the Trickster is appropriate for the entire family, although I think very young children may not understand the plot. That’s where the music and the strong zany characters will capture their imaginations. It is playing at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm through December 28th. Tickets can be purchased online at livetheatreworkshop.org or by calling the box office at 327-4242.

A Magical Storm

by Marguerite Saxton

A bed, bathed in violet blacklight, hovers. It serves as a token to magical realism. This type of storytelling doesn’t do the work for you. Instead, it allows you to engage with the magic and the real for yourself. For those not familiar with the term, magical realism is an artistic genre in which fantastic elements appear in an otherwise hyper-realistic setting. Though authors and artists worldwide incorporate it in their work, it is strongly associated with Latin American literature and art. High-profile examples include Julie Taymor’s film Frida and Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Cloud Tectonics, written by José Rivera and here directed by Bryan Rafael Falcón, features a rare-for-Tucson glimpse into this type of surreality.  

Azúl Galindo as Celestina del Sol. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Azúl Galindo as Celestina del Sol. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

From the moment the female protagonist Celestina del Sol, played by Azúl Galindo, appears, we feel the uncommon nature of this play.  We meet her in the bizarre madness of a Los Angeles typhoon. She, a wandering woman with a pretty obvious predicament, lucks out with a ride from the benevolent but emotionally wounded Aníbal, played by Marc Pinate.  What develops is a swirling layer cake of happenings. 

If you want simplicity, this isn’t your show. Don’t expect answers — you may leave confused. But isn’t that fun? Well, I enjoy that kind of story. 

See, without linear explanations in the way, the eccentric stray thoughts of people have more space to solidify blurred edges of this tale.  The performance has an overall disorienting feeling due in part to the innate quirks of these characters. But more so, Galindo’s cadence is markedly off-beat and this lends to a strange affect. Her chemistry with Pinate’s character is odd yet, one has to ask, is this by design? Is this a byproduct of the phenomena of forced intimacy in surreal romantic plots or could it be related to our basic perception of time, how it folds upon itself, how it shape-shifts in our memory? Does the macho superego of Aníbel’s brother Nelson, played by Cole Potwardowski, have to be so antagonistic; does all of the affection have to be so extreme in order for us to get the playwright’s intent? And most pressing, who/what is Celestina? Well, you choose.  

Between long spaces of silence are welcomed interjections of TV static and radio noise.  Touches of absurdity in minor key tones and tinny vignettes projected into vintage microphones help us realize that time has become irrelevant. As one watches this performance they may ponder their geography as an audience member, where the characters have gone, and whether it even matters.

The silent, rhythmic set assemblages add a subtle homage to magic. Between scenes, amongst muted blue light, two technicians move in unison like otherworldly helpers. They float throughout the set, rearranging elements in order to bring new life to the stage. In one particularly moving moment they methodically disassemble the house — and one cannot help but extend the metaphor further: the dissolution of a home – the breaking of a heart -the haunting in one’s head. Their eerie presence accompanied by the sustained raindrops and shaking thunder claps gives the illusion of a controlled chaos; that it is indeed, much crazier “out there”. 

There are some links to grander, worldwide issues and if one is willing, they may sense a commentary on sanity, the well-being of young women, and how a culture’s relationship to time has major implications on its people. But trying to keep up with the who, what, and when of this production is complicated. The unique and pleasing challenge of Cloud Tectonics is allowing oneself to embrace the ambiguity of it all. As Celestina says, “Time and I don’t hang out together.”

Cloud Tectonics runs from November 21st through December 8th at the Scoundrel & Scamp Theater, located at 738 N. 5th Avenue. Tickets can be purchased by calling (520) 448-3300 or visiting https://scoundrelandscamp.org.

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.