by Annie Sadovsky Koepf
Summer in Tucson and many are trying to escape, just as many try to escape their daily lives when they go to the theatre. The play Middletown, written by playwright Will Eno, tells us to embrace these moments and see the profound beauty and awe that mark them. The entire performance of this production impressed me. The Rogue’s reputation for excellence is more than well deserved!
Middletown is a comedic drama that follows some very ordinary characters in a very ordinary town. The cop in the first scene, played by Aaron Shand, speaks to the audience and tells us, “Things are fairly predictable. People come, people go. Crying, by the way, in both directions.” These simple thoughts really speak to the plot. Various characters come and go, and intertwine with each other, and with us, the audience, to push us to examine those moments between our initial and final tears on this planet. We are left to question our own existence as we follow the lives of the citizens of Middletown. As the theme for the Rogue’s season is obsession, the audience becomes obsessed, as do the characters, with the existential questions that haunt all of us.
Many actors take on various roles, effortlessly switching back and forth. The characters are so different and so believable that you forget that minutes ago that actor was portraying someone else. Kathryn Kellner Brown played the librarian and the female doctor. Her portrayal of the librarian had the entire audience in hysterics, and her compassion and caring was evident as the doctor. As I too am a female actor of “ a certain age,” I am happy to see other older women be represented in theatre.
In the script, playwright Will Eno asks the actors to speak in everyday pacing, even though much of the dialogue is philosophical and poetic. That was done masterfully by all. Director Christopher Johnson not only thoughtfully cast the show, but ensured the interactions with the characters showed true emotion and vulnerability, which lead to the authenticity of their performances.
Eno does not want the fourth wall to exist in his plays. He names the audience in the list of characters. He invites us to have a participatory experience rather than a simply observational one. The actors speak directly to the audience and even come into the audience. The theater was set up in a transverse arrangement which facilitated this. Not only did you observe the actors, but the audience sitting across from you. Simple sets which were changed by the characters themselves focused all of the attention on the actors’ words and actions.
The costumes, designed by Cynthia Meier, were believable, simple, and appropriate to echo the ordinary theme of the play. Lighting, designed by Josh Hemmo, was used judiciously to focus attention on a particular part of the stage, as well to indicate changes in the time of day. Music Director, Charles Zoll, did a masterful job of seamlessly integrating the music into the play. Primarily jazz, the music served as delicious background, but did come to the forefront with the one scene where dance was introduced. The jazz reinforced the emotional intensity of each scene, be it happiness, sadness, or joy
The dance performance by the mechanic, played by Hunter Hnat, was simultaneously mesmerizing and disconcerting. The script outlines that he is dressed as a Chakmawg Indian and that the dance is in the tradition of the Apache or the Sioux. Hnat’s character, the mechanic, brings in a headdress and then performs an interpretive dance, with seemingly no reference to Native American dances. At the finish, the nurse instructs him to speak in a stereotypical broken speech pattern, that has often been used to portray Native Americans as they speak English, when he goes in to perform the dance for some children. I have no idea why Mr. Eno placed this scene in the play and why he used such jarring speech. The play was first performed in 2005 when one would hope that the issues regarding non-stereotypical portrayals of ethnic groups would be addressed. I applaud The Rogue, but the disconnect between the thoughtful, beautiful dance and the seemingly insensitive dialogue in this scene was jarring to me.
Middletown was a delightful treat for me. I left with a renewed feeling of hope and appreciation for the simple everyday pleasures of ordinary life. All of us appreciate the feeling of awe that we have in new or peak experiences, but I now want to pay attention to those middle of the road, everyday wonders.
Middletown is playing at The Rogue Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm through July 21st. Tickets are $38, with student tickets available for $15, if available, 15 minutes before curtain. For tickets contact the box office at (520) 551-2053 or via TheRogueTheatre.org. A discussion with the director and cast follows all performances.