Send in the Clowns

by Jess Herrera

quirkuscircusThey say the circus arrives without warning, but what happens when the circus blows its top? That’s exactly what happens in Quirkus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster, a new addition to the family series at Live Theatre Workshop.

The show attempts the impossible, seeking to create a storyline that can be enjoyed by the youngest members of the audience while also entertaining adults. And while it has moments of perfectly walking this tightrope, it also comes dangerously close to toppling in others.

In the story, written by local playwright Tyler West and featuring original music by Michael Martinez, we follow the Quirkus Circus troupe as they discover their ringmaster has packed up and headed to join Cirque du Soleil – taking all the animals with him.

A lovable, silent clown named Eddie, played by Stephen Frankenfield, first sets the stage and invites audience participation. He quickly becomes the highlight of the show. Without spoken dialogue, he launches through the rows of audience members to get kids jumping out of their seats just moments after the lights go up. And his impeccable physical comedy quickly wins over even the oldest and most skeptical audience members.

Eddie is joined by the acrobat Margaret, played by Taylor Thomas. Her performance is delightfully earnest without being saccharine. And with a swirl of her sparkling dress, she elicits squeals of excitement from the audience (particularly from my five-year-old daughter, who joined me for the show).

The last members of Quirkus Circus are Natasha and Boris, played by Ericka Quintero Heras and Jon Heras. Unsurprising to anyone who remembers Rocky and Bullwinkle, they’re a married duo whose act is a mix of magic tricks, death defying feats, and a healthy dose of bickering.

Finally, after the revelation that the ringleader is missing, a replacement named Paul is quickly pulled from the audience. Paul is played by William Seidel. He is believably timid and hesitant to join the performance.

Through Margaret’s coaching and Eddie’s encouragement, we follow Paul as he finds his voice as a ringleader and gains confidence to help lead the circus. In the process, we learn an important lesson: You should be willing try things that might be scary because it’s the things that give you butterflies may have the biggest payoff.

The cast of Quikus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The cast of Quikus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Under the direction of Kristian Kissel, the players seamlessly mix their interactions with one another and the audience. The choreography and sets are simple but add just enough flourish to take the audience to the big top.

Unfortunately the musical numbers were a bit unbalanced. The songs were catchy, but the harmonies were occasionally off. The stronger vocals of some cast members overpowered others.

And a few moments that felt as if they were written for the benefit of the adults fell flat. Boris and Natasha, with their borrowed names, needed a stronger storyline. And the depiction of a stereotype was borderline offensive. Their ambiguous accents wavered from a loose Russian to French and even a familiar Sonoran dialect. Their tango number made things even more confusing.

Accents can be very difficult to master, and it’s even harder to emulate characters the audience may be familiar with. I think Boris and Natasha could benefit greatly from a rebranding and a shift away from their ambiguously Russian caricatures.

Despite these few pitfalls, Quirkus Circus is an excellent way to introduce young children to theater. Running at just 45 minutes, it’s participatory, light, and overall highly enjoyable.

Quirkus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster is playing at Live Theatre Workshop on Sundays at 12:30pm through June 9. You can buy tickets on their website, http://www.livetheatreworkshop.org/, or by calling the box office at (520) 327-4242.

Costumes, Set, and Technical Design Breathe New Life into a Familiar Coming of Age Tale

by Marguerite Saxton

The 1800’s brought many influential things to Germany: Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche, The Brothers Grimm and the infinite creep factor of “Der Struwwelpeter” (Google it!). This is the backdrop for Arizona Repertory Theatre’s season finale, Spring Awakening.

Michael Schulz as Melchior and Rachel Franke as Wendla. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Spring Awakening is based on the late 19th century play The Awakening Spring, A Children’s Tragedy by German playwright Frank Wedekind. This modernized version is an austere depiction of oppression, rebellion, and sexuality, featuring maturing kids finding their bodies amongst shifting roles – girls drool over guys who don’t care about anything but are good at everything, while the guys suffer explicit fantasies about their piano teachers. Typical.

Spring is “a time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). In this lusty season of rebirth we find ourselves sowing metaphorical seeds for the future. Spring Awakening’s director Hank Stratton has expressed that it’s necessary to have death in order to have new life. And what is a more fitting way to celebrate Eostre, the Germanic goddess of spring, than with awkward teenage S.E.X.?

This multiple-Tony winning musical features Steven Sater’s cringy, angsty songs about new ways to touch oneself. But Stratton, according to his recent interview in the Arizona Daily Star, is okay with that. He “expects some audience members to be uncomfortable.” And well, it is.

Yet, this is a show of contrasts. While hopelessness pervades, a spirit of dissent runs almost as wild as the hormones. Though conscientiously directed, the obvious opposites within the script create scenes that are confusing but, in a way, accurate to that time when seemingly everyone was mystified by human sexuality.

The motifs in the story are predictable: adults vs. kids, sex vs. chastity, pleasure vs. pain. A bit cliché. How many times have we seen this story? Girl has sex, gets pregnant, and has a terrible life while the boy basically gets to be the bad ass. Though the narrative starts out strong and funny, it unfortunately flickers out.

While the script leaves something to be desired, there are key performances that pack a punch: much of the movement is purposeful and well timed – a particularly satisfying scene features caustic schoolmasters, headbanging, and air-guitars. And there were stand out vocals by actors Jared Machado (Georg/Dieter) and Rachel Franke (Wendla).
Another gem in the script is the queer love story. Its nuanced vulnerability adds dimension to a predominantly straight tale. This was an astute detail to add to an otherwise familiar story.

Zach Zupke as Moritz and Gabriela Giusti as Ilse. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Where this play really shines is with the set design, technical, and costuming teams. The design of the theater is such that some audience members sit only feet from a technician, but wouldn’t know it due to the team’s utmost professionalism. They execute their jobs efficiently and in perfect unison. And the design team finds new ways to tell an old story. The set explores space in funky ways thanks to Scenic Designer, Joe C. Klug. Chairs hang from ceilings and the floors become a place to take notes. Tori Mays, Lighting Designer, rounds out a visually creative production with unlikely textural choices, employing geometric gobos and infusing many scenes with disconcerting chartreuse. Costume Designer, Ryan B. Moore, goes for symbolic touches by stitching tiny crosses of Peter onto the boys’ uniforms. This cross is a common symbol in counter-culture scenes, serving as a sneaky reference to the defiant nature of the students.

Another great component of this production was the live musical accompaniment – a classy touch that fosters a multisensory opportunity to connect with the play’s ethos. In many other productions they’d be hidden in a pit, but in this production they are instead proudly displayed for the audience as an essential organ, pumping their feet in tune, plucking their fingers in a rhythmic heartbeat that circulates vital energy throughout.
The script is predictable, but the execution of the production is done with gusto and skill. It’s clear those working on Spring Awakening are truly invested in this piece. This season’s final show at Arizona Repertory Theatre may not have awakened all of the senses, but it energizes one into the next phase, however screwy that may be.

Spring Awakening is directed by Hank Stratton and shows at Arizona Repertory Theatre from 4/7 through 4/28. Tickets can be purchased at https://theatre.arizona.edu/shows/spring-awakening/.

 

Editor’s Note: We mistakenly credited Richard Tuckett as the costume designer in a previous version of this article. In fact, Ryan B. Moore, a second year MFA student, was the costume designer for this production of Spring Awakening.

Up close with T Loving, an Interdisciplinary Creator, Producer of Mischief & Magic, Justice Instigator, and Public Health Professional

1 Loving_SHOCO 2017_Julius Schlosburg.pnginterviewed by Gabriella De Brequet

T Loving is an interdisciplinary creator, producer of mischief and magic, justice instigator, and public health professional. Creating in the bend of whole truths through devised, ensemble, and traditional practice, much of T’s work focuses within/in service and prosperity of communities of color, LGBTQ, female-identified and gender nonconforming individuals, refugees, and migrants. They create through unpacking the body, juxtaposition, overlap, repetition, and disintegration and concentrate on unraveling false narratives and exploring liminal spaces.

Pronouns: they/them

When did you discover that you needed to pursue a career in the arts?

I don’t think I’ve ever decided to pursue a career in the arts, per se. But my junior year of high school was when I realized I wanted to cultivate a relationship with performance art.

Each year my high school did a spring musical. I was in Alpha Choir, so participation was required but as lead roles were shared among a small group of individuals, the rest of us weren’t necessarily encouraged to audition. Tired of being “(insert #) Tree from the Left”, my junior year I auditioned for the role of Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS and got it. Later that year, I was asked to audition for a festival touring production of SCARS & STRIPES with Actor’s Theatre of Louisville and landed it. Although these roles and productions were disparate in time, space, and subject matter, I saw numerous connections between them. The most significant residing in humanness— desire, trying, succeeding, failing, and going (whether pushed or choosing) into the fray again.

In performance art, I found new ways to connect to, discover, and understand myself and the world around me. It gave me access to examine, pick apart, and re/weave the threads that connect us. That’s what I’m pursuing.

What qualities do you look for when choosing to take on a project?

Primarily, I look for projects anchored in good people who are willing to take risks, explore beyond the page, and create and learn from and with each other. I’m interested in interdisciplinary projects—blurring genres, development techniques, and methods/mediums of presentation and projects that mess with traditional senses of what theatre is, how it looks, where it happens, who participates in the creation, and whom it is for. I look for projects that uplift truths, voices, and beings ignored/buried and challenge colonialist ideas and norms. I look for projects that implicate and instigate reflection on who we are, how and by whom space is taken (up), and how we re/create (shared) place.

Do you have any dream roles or projects?

Yes, yep, indeed. Currently, I’m soul deep in Britteney Black Rose Kapri’s Black Queer Hoe and can’t stop imagining, in slips and slivers, my being living this magic in performance.

Also, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf; Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (a biomythography in novel form that I’d love to explore as a performance work); Shakespeare’s King John (specifically the role of Constance); and Nicky Silver’s Fat Men in Skirts (as a director or Bishop or both?).

Are there any projects that you have done in the past that you would like to do again in the future?

Mostly no. I would like to work again with local writer, educator, and social activist, Lola Rainey, on an evolution of her American Haiko: PAIN, which focused on unpacking intergenerational trauma. I’m in sincere gratitude to have worked with her and To-Ree-Nee Wolf on this project that carved deep into me. They are both so talented, ferociously honest, and real in the most ‘fierce and deserving of all the mad respect’ kind of ways. I’m interested in unpacking a new generation of stories and more fully exploring trajectories of healing through this vessel.

But again, mostly no. I’m not interested in nor do I think it’s possible to recreate what has been. I’ve worked on amazing projects with magical people. Each project has offered opportunities for learning, growth, and cultivation. I don’t believe those offerings were given so I could come back to the same moment, but so I would have something to take forward into the world and build anew.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects that you’re looking forward to sharing with the community of Tucson?

Yes. I’m currently working on a project located in queerness, gender, and culture focused on food as resistance. I was honored to perform a selection of original work examining and ruminating on Queerness, Color, and God, at Kore Press’s Queer Performance Salon, May 2018. I’m looking forward to continuing its development and sharing more with/in our community.

 

The spotlight series will be a continued series where we spotlight local female and non-binary artists in the Tucson Community.

Blood Wedding: An Invitation to Powerful Theater

by Gretchen Wirges

Flamenco music filled the spaces around me. The glow of soft red light cascaded down the curtain. Audience members of different ages and cultures wandered in. And then, a young girl  came and sat front row, center. She even sat between two seats, allowing herself to take up space. She was enraptured, as was I, for the duration of this incredible production.

Blood Wedding was written by Federico Garcia Lorca and, for this production, translated by Scoundrel & Scamp’s own Elizabeth Falcón. The play encompasses the story of one family joining to another with all of its politics, heartache, and love. The Bridegroom, played by Sean Cronin, is to be wed to the Bride, played by Claire De La Vergne, but the bride is still in love with her past amor, Leonardo, played by Jeffrey Baden. A tragic love story follows.

The set, designed by Jason Jamerson, is beautifully designed with open walls and doorways. The hilly platform upstage contains the constant presence of figures representing nature, death, the moon, and music. The figures move to form beautiful tableaus that serve as the perfect theatrical backdrop. The tableaus included live musicians, including a guitarist, who punctuates and underscores much of the action on the stage and two vocalists/percussionists who help fill the stage with authentic Spanish music and heart. The vocalizations of everyone in the tableau created flowing transitions from one scene into the next.

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Nicole Delprete as the Wife of Leonardo, Emily Fuchs, Susan Arnold as the Mother of the Bridegroom, China Young, and Claire De La Vergne as the Bride. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

The music, arranged by Melissa Alejandra Aguirre Fernandez, was one of my favorite parts of this show. It was powerful, meditative and cathartic. Its vitality — in all senses of the word — makes the music feel like a crucial member of the cast. One of my favorite scenes took place between Mother-in-Law of Leonardo, played by Julia Balestracci, and Wife of Leonardo, played by Nicole DelPrete. Their beautiful voices lilted as they sung about folklore heavy with foreboding and pain. The singing was accented perfectly by the Spanish guitar. Such a touching, heartbreakingly stunning scene. 

The costumes, designed by Maria Caprile,  were stunning. Most performers wore a variety of shades of brown, and off-white, while Mother of the Bridegroom, Bride, Bridegroom, and Leonardo wore blacks, whites, and greys. The sparse pops of red in the props and costuming were balanced and predicted the essence of death and danger.

The diversity of the cast in gender, age, and culture gave this show greater power in terms of authenticity and richness. This is the casting I want to see in every show, regardless of its cultural point of view. The world is diverse, our art should be as well. When we see ourselves, it enables us to connect to the deeper meanings and truths. It allows us to have a mirror to look more intimately into our own humanity, instead of just observing the humanity of others.  

The performances, directed by Bryan Falcón, were great as a whole. At times, some of the performers would use an accent, and others not. Sometimes a British overtone, sometimes a Spanish. Sometimes odd diction, sometimes not.  I found this a little off-putting, but not so much that I couldn’t enjoy the beautiful performances behind the words. The delivery was often overly dramatic, in a way that the poetic language demanded.

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Claire De La Vergne as the bride on her wedding day with Kat McIntosh as the maid. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

I have to call out the performances of three individuals: Adrian Encinas, as The Moon, Leora Sapon-Sevin as Death, and De La Vergne. Encinas and Sapon-Sevin were creepy and spectacular. They used their bodies to create shapes of darkness and light. I was enraptured every time they move or spoke. They used their voices expertly to create silence, anger, pain and delight. De La Vergne was a glorious revelation throughout. Her pain became my pain. Her strength, my strength. Her love, her loss — mine. De La Vergne’s final exchange with the Bridegroom’s mother, played elegantly by Susan Arnold, was inspired and powerful. As a director, I wanted to cast her; as an actor, I wanted to be her; as a human being, I wanted to hug her. I can’t wait to see much more from De La Vergne. 

The women in this play have unexpected agency. The Bride makes choices that lead her along a dark path. She is neither commanded by her father, nor carried away by her lover, nor controlled by her betrothed. Additionally, in the end, it is the women who hold the space for love and grief. It is the women who commune to overcome aggression with emotion. It is the women who call out in their anger and sadness. It is the women who bravely water the earth with their tears.

The girl in the front row didn’t flinch at the darkness or grief. She took it all in, as did I. I hope she grows up and wants to create art just like this. Please go see this show. Allow the visual feast of diversity in music and humanity to transport you to that place where poetry and inclusion and love mean everything.

Blood Wedding is playing at The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre, Thursdays-Sundays through April 14th. (Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm). Call the box office at 520-448-3300 or visit scoundrelandscamp.org for tickets.

My Kingdom for Cohesive Direction!

by Gabriella De Brequet

Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most famous history plays written about the insidious king and his corrupt quest for blood, power, and the throne of England. It’s truly horrifying how relevant Richard III is for today’s audience considering our current political climate. However, the direction by Brent Gibbs, in this Arizona Repertory Theatre production, left me unsatisfied and confused.

‘The blocking of this production was awkward and unmotivated. The performers seemed to be crossing from once side of the stage to the other with no greater reason other than the fact that they were told to.  This was especially the case in large crowd scenes.

Richard III is a play heavy with death. But this production seemed to have little to no stakes from characters who were being sent to their executions. There was no sense of danger associated with many of the character’s deaths, and ultimately it didn’t support the content of the play. The world just wasn’t believable and this made the two-hour production difficult to sit through, even for a Shakespeare-lover such as myself. To top it off, director Gibbs chose to create an out of left-field alternate horror movie ending which completely strays from the original text. This left me wondering, will there be a sequel? If so, count me out.

Through all of the awkward staging, lack of relationships, and bold directorial choices there were some notable performances. Liam Thibeault’s Duke of Buckingham was witty and sharp, Kelly Hajek’s Queen Elizabeth was strong and striking, Jenna Meadow’s as the Murder was hilarious, Marina DeVaux and Sophia Goodin as Edward and Duke of York were unified and clear. Overall I felt that the female ensemble members carried the show. They were dynamic and interesting to watch on stage. As for Connor Mckinley Griffin’s portrayal of the title character, I felt that his lack of charm presented the character as one dimensional. Griffin delivered plenty of horrifying menace, but I wish that his Richard had a little more depth in his villainy.

In spite of all the production’s directional bumps, visually this play was stunning with a multi-leveled set by Jason Jamerson adorned with spikes, skeletons, and abstract metal work. The lighting by Tori Mays was striking and helped set the scene. The costumes by Elizabeth Eaton were gorgeously grungy. This production was a technically and visually jaw dropping, and the production is worth witnessing for the design elements alone. However, the production design team could not save the show from its misguided direction.

Richard III is playing at the Marroney Theater through Sunday, March 31st. Tickets can be purchased via the Arizona Repertory Theatre website: theatre.arizona.edu or by calling the box office at 520-621-1162.

American Mariachi is Must-See and Must-Hear

by Leigh Moyer

I took my seat at Arizona Theatre Company’s production of American Mariachi by José Cruz González cautiously optimistic. The cast and crew are predominantly women and/or people of color. The playwright is Mexican American. And, in the bathroom before the performance, there were were people speaking Spanish;  while that isn’t uncommon in Tucson, I haven’t heard much in our theaters– possibly because they don’t always choose plays that have broad appeal or that feature representation on stage. The teaser looked promising: young women mariachis fighting to be allowed to play alongside their male counterparts. It was so, so much more than that.

The show centers on the Morales family: Federico, Amalia, and their daughter, Lucha, struggling to cope with Amalia’s sudden onset dementia. When Lucha and her cousin Boli discover that music brings with it Amalia’s memories, they decide to form a mariachi band to recreate her favorite song. It’s a crazy plan: women can’t play mariachi. Lucha has other responsibilities, namely caring for her mother, her father had forbidden it, and, as it is pointed out in the show, they just can’t be mariachis. As the cousins struggle to build a band anyway (they don’t even own instruments), they learn about themselves, their dreams, and how to honor tradition while fighting for change in la revolución.

Diana Burbano as Amalia, Danny Bolero as Federico, and Christen Celaya as Lucha. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Diana Burbano as Amalia, Danny Bolero as Federico, and Christen Celaya as Lucha. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

What really struck me about this play was how well it explained feminism, without ever sitting down and spelling it out. The women didn’t want to be better than the men. They didn’t want to take the place of man. They didn’t even really want to forgo their other traditionally expected responsibilities at work or in the home. They just wanted equality via the opportunity to be mariachis. There was never a moment of needing to best the men — the women took their space alongside the men, both in music and in interpersonal issues when cultural expectations often led to uneven power dynamics. While, like in most relationships, there was arguing, the fight for women’s rights took a different approach of forgoing who is more or less right and instead challenging each other to listen and share their burdens.

In an era where the word feminist feels like a battle cry, it was a delight to see the battle of the sexes, at least for a few bars, come to an end.

I cannot say enough about the talent of this cast. It is one thing to tell a story on stage, another to sing and play an instrument while you do it, and something even more impressive to do so going back and forth between English and Spanish and playing mariachi. Excluding the two main characters, every actor doubled up roles and played an instrument to accompany the band. Because yes, there was a mariachi band. And they were stunning. Esteban Dagnino on trumpet, Francisco Javier Molina on violin, Ali Pizarro on vihuela, and Antonio A. Pró on guitarrón were incredibly talented. Additionally, Stephanie Swift Molina on violin was amazing not just at playing and singing, but at bringing heartbreak and joy to the music with the quality of her voice.

This show is cast with talented women (and men). Christen Celaya (Lucha) and Satya Jnani Chavez (Boli) were both instantly likable. They portrayed their parallel but drastically different lives beautifully: best friends and cousins who laugh with, fight, and support each other, sometimes one right after another. Their performances makes the rest of the story believable: Yes, what Lucha and Boli are trying to do is crazy, maybe impossible, but they acknowledge that in a way that admits that they are facing a challenge without forcing us to go along with the world of the story because we have signed up to watch a play. Instead it felt like hearing a story, told by aunties, maybe exaggerated, but based in real life.

Satya Jnani Chavez as Boli and Christen Celaya as Lucha. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Satya Jnani Chavez as Boli and Christen Celaya as Lucha. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The five women (Christen Celaya, Satya Jnani Chavez, Alicia Coca, Marlene Montes, and Osiris Cuen) who make up the band, all misfits as much as mariachis, are lovable. Their problems are a million miles away from my own and yet completely relatable. Though I have never tried to form a mariachi band or had to care for an ailing parent or even lived in the 1970s, the way they reacted to their individual challenges was familiar. The reactions and solutions to their problems were so human I could put myself in their position. At times, the characters were a little over the top but each actor was so committed to the role it made their antics feel slightly amplified rather than performative.

Danny Bolero (Federico Morales) had a hard role to play. As the patriarch of a traditional Mexican-American family, he was often rigid and controlling. Bolero masterfully balanced machismo with humanity that left room not only for growth as a character but that made him relatable. I felt deeply for Federico, even when he was arguably being the antagonist holding his daughter back from her dreams and, in a small way, holding women back in traditional roles. His pain, shown only in private moments, was palpable. This is a man fighting to maintain a sense of control in a world he has lost and lost again.  It is another poignant moment where feminism is explained. The toxic masculinity that stems from a misogynist culture, particularly where men are expected to be the breadwinner, the man of the house, macho, robs them of the space to be sensitive, hurting, and to heal.

Coming into the theater, I was a little worried that certain stereotypes would be played upon. And while there were definitely characters too familiar to not be inspired by trope, none felt forced. Accents weren’t jokes. Culture wasn’t a punchline. Being Mexican-American was a part of the story the characters had to tell, not simply a device to move the plot forward.

Staged on a set that moves with the actors to tell the story from living room to hair salon to long-lost memory, the action flows, carried by the music. The story is told through beautiful dialogue. The characters switch between English and Spanish frequently enough to immerse the audience in place but not so much that the story line is lost for viewers who aren’t bilingual. Complementing the dialogue is the music. Each scene is punctuated with the bright, loud, emotion-filled ballads of mariachi music. We follow stories from past to present to past with the strum of the guitar, feel the celebrations and losses in the gritos, and our hearts beat in tempo with the guitarrón. Don’t worry, if you aren’t familiar with the instruments, there is a lesson to keep us, and the heroines, following along. The music is so good it is no surprise that the music director, Cynthia Reifler Flores, is a mariachi violinist herself. (Progress!)

Francisco Javier Molina on violin, Esteban Dagnino on trumpet, Antonio A. Pró on guitarrón, and Ali Pizarro on viheula. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Francisco Javier Molina on violin, Esteban Dagnino on trumpet, Antonio A. Pró on guitarrón, and Ali Pizarro on viheula. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The costumes, by Kish Finnegan, are stunning. Character distinction and personality are not lost under the monolith of The 1970s, when the show is set. Instead, we get to know each character a little better through their trousers and protest shirt or prim blouse and skirt or hotpants. But what really blew me away was Tía Carmen. Her dress and hat was a mixture between the mariachi uniform and La Catrina, the archetype of the calaveras that return on to the land of the living on Día de los Muertos. It was beautiful and perfectly augmented with lighting (Carolina Ortiz Herrera) to make her both real as Amalia sees her and as her family might imagine her ghostly presence.

American Mariachi is a story of family, of love, and of tradition. And about how complicated they all are. As a woman trying to find her place in a world that seems to be taking steps backwards instead of forwards, the message hit home for me. And as a Tucsonan, this play was especially meaningful, the music, the set, the Spanglish, all brought back memories of my own, perhaps misplaced, dreams of being a folklorico dancer.

It was refreshing to see a performance with a younger and more diverse audience than I am used to seeing in theaters. Despite some murmurs during the show about not following the Spanish portions, the standing ovation and loud gushing about how wonderful the story and music were from those around me, young and old, white and not, restored some faith that at least in the Tucson theatre community, diversity is appreciated.

See American Mariachi. And when you do, don’t forget to listen. It is a story told in music, after all. American Mariachi runs through Saturday, March 30 at the Temple of Music and Art. Tickets can be purchased online at arizonatheatre.org or by phone (520) 622-2823.

Sweet Calendar Girls

by China Young

Calendar Girls by Tim Firth is a sweet story about love, friendship, and female empowerment. But when I say female empowerment, I don’t mean radical feminism, bra burning, or Women’s Marches. The production, currently performing at St. Francis in the Foothills, offers its audiences a sweeter, subtler version of girl power. Although, it does still involve the removal of bras.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo by Gretchen Wirges, courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

The story, based on real life events, takes place in England. Annie (played by Gretchen Wirges), is married to John (played by Mike Manolakes), a delightful man that everyone in her women’s group (WI) adores. John quickly loses a battle with Leukemia, and the women all share the grief of his loss. However, this grief is quickly transformed into a fundraising project. Annie’s friend and fellow WI member, Chris (played by Colleen Zandbergen), strategizes a way to honor John by raising funds for a new settee in the local hospital waiting room in his memory. She hopes to accomplish this through the the sales of the annual WI calendar. In an effort to make the calendar more appealing than usual, Chris convinces the women to pose nude, using various objects to hide behind. The women debate over their fears and excitement about the idea, but their enthusiasm, comradery, and mutual love of John win over and they decide to do it. The calendar turns out to be a hit, giving the women tons of public exposure, in more ways than one. However, fame does what it does best and eventually leads Annie to question Chris’s true motives for helping John, and their friendship falters.

I decided to Google the true story behind Calendar Girls and discovered that there was in fact a schism of friendships that took its toll on the actual group of women. There remains a permanent split, with some more in the public eye than others. The fracture of trust between Chris and Annie mirrors this real-life split. Despite the real Calendar Girls being unable to make amends, this production leaves the audience with feelings of warmth and love.  

First, I’d like to note that out of the 20 people listed in the program, 14 of them were women with 9 on stage and 5 off stage, including a female director, Samantha Cormier, and female producer, Cecilia Monroe. Though the men were fewer in number, they were essential in helping the production bloom and are certainly not discounted. The only thing that would have elevated it would be more ethnically diverse representation. Director Samantha Cormier notes that the production is “another example of how women need to help each other out and be there for each other.” She is absolutely right, especially when it seems as though women have a tendency to see each other as threats instead of kindred spirits. This story is about the power of coming together for a cause that is important. In that way, it’s much like the Women’s Marches and can be used as a tool for change. For me, those protests promoted awareness of the intersectionality of women and minorities, and this show provides the perfect vehicle to share the same message through theatre.

Of course, sometimes a play is just a play, but as an artist, I always appreciate when a much larger message is presented profoundly within the simplicity of a beautiful show like this. Even so, this cast represents the essence of community and the power that love and kindness can have on all of us. Not to mention how vulnerable it must have felt being literally naked in front of an audience. Their encouragement of one another to fearlessly liberate themselves was truly powerful. This production reminded me of the strength and power that women can have to change the world through simply supporting one another.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo by the Pima Community College department of theatre, courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

Cormier and her cast create a fun and high energy environment that envelops the audience, literally. Many entrances were from the back of the house, inviting the audience to be a part of the action. To further enhance that quality, the stage was set up as a thrust with audience on three sides. While there were often enough people on the stage to provide nice stage pictures from all angles, I felt there were lost opportunities to take advantage of diagonal angles when fewer characters were on stage or when one character took focus. I also found the high energy of the women to sometimes be a bit chaotic and in need of a little more focus. All that said, the joy the performers had with this show and the heart that they brought to it overshadowed those few technicalities.

Gretchen Wirges as Annie was a pillar of this production. She grounded herself and her character beautifully. Even in the moments she wasn’t speaking or taking center stage, you could sense her internal life holding its own. She had moments of vulnerability that wrecked my heart, as well as moments of strength and fortitude that I could admire. The other “Calendar Girls” included Colleen Zandbergen, tragically convincing as she channeled Chris’s hubris, Ellie Vought, bringing a ton of fun and sass to her character Celia, Sue Bishop, giving Ruth a genuine innocence that turns rebellious, Pat Timm, delivering unapologetic bluntness as Jessie, and Nancy French with her skilled piano playing and hilarious punchlines.

The cast is rounded out by Jan Aalberts Waukon, Ina Shivack, Naima Boushaki, David Zinke, and David Gunther, all of whom did more than their share to create a production that is sure to lift your spirits. In lieu of revealing the most touching moment of the production, I encourage you to take the opportunity to experience the magic it summons, making every single person in the room feel loved and appreciated. I left humbled and inspired by the mark it left in my heart.

Calendar Girls runs Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3:00pm through March 24th. You can purchase tickets online at www.artmeetsheart.com or by phone at (520) 329-2910.