Memory, Mental Health, and Relearning How to Be Human

by Leigh Moyer

You have amnesia so badly you can’t even remember your name. You have no idea who you are or how to regain your memory. No one will even try to help you. You wind up in a care home for people with similar issues; mental breaks and complicated personalities. It is here, at Paradise Found Care Home, that anyone will even attempt to crack the mystery. And, as a blank slate with no idea of your own history, traumas, or coping mechanisms, you are uniquely able to listen to people who have been written off by the rest of the world. This is where Nemo, as his new friends name him, finds himself in Identity Crisis.

I liked this show. It was funny and ultimately deep and heart wrenching. Sometimes it was frustrating that it always went for the joke even in the heavier or more emotional moments, but the play is less about Nemo’s memory and more about the ways we all avoid the pain and problems in our own stories. Because playwright and director Gavin Kayner named each character clever variations on their own mental plagues, I believe this is purposeful. There’s the foolish Professor Inanis (the Latin root of the word inane). And Nemo, the name he gives the memoryless main character (Nemo means nobody). Then Nulla, perhaps a play on null as the young woman is nothing without her imagined alter ego Phanta, a name which sounds more than halfway to fantasy. Even the stage name of the psychic in the house and person who sees Nemo most clearly, is a play on words: Claire Voyient. The characters seem to know they are exaggerations, even calling themselves caricatures, while still being trapped by their own crises. 

Joanne Mack Robertson as Claire Voyient, David Gunther as Nemo, Mike Manolakes as Professor Inanis, and Erin Hepler as Nulla. Photo courtesy of Serendipity Productions.

Joanne Mack Robertson as Claire Voyient, David Gunther as Nemo, Mike Manolakes as Professor Inanis, and Erin Hepler as Nulla. Photo courtesy of Serendipity Productions.

This show hits close to home. I left questioning if it is okay to make so, so many jokes about mental illness. I have gone back and forth on this because while the show is thoroughly enjoyable, it is a show that depends on a cartoonish depiction of people suffering from mental states severe enough that they are removed from normal life and live mostly forgotten and sequestered from the outside world. But that same cartoonishness allowed for a glimpse into what struggling with a mental health issue can look like without it being a total bummer.

I have a mental illness. I have found myself, for about the length of time Nemo finds himself at Paradise Found, in a mental health hospital. It was different. Real life tends to be less on the nose. But the strange people who become momentary best friends, the darkness, the coping in any way you have to, and, maybe most accurately, the truly horrible food were all familiar. 

So too were the moments when a character could shed the unhealthy coping mechanism, even if it was only moments before realizing how hard and scary the world is and rushing back to the safety of a bad habit. This was beautifully and painfully well done by Erin Hepler as Nulla. She made my heart ache for Nulla. Hepler shows Nulla’s extraordinarily bizarre way to face a world full of disappointment and hurt, and shows that Nulla knows it was extraordinary and even not ideal and yet can’t not return to the safety of that coping mechanism. 

I was also impressed by Mike Manolakes as Professor Inais who essentially played three distinct characters. His ability to take on different affects, not to mention accents, seamlessly, made his particular mental trap, while silly, feel true. True to the professor at least.

This production is also fascinating for the acting done off stage. There are a number of times when the stage, and by proxy, Paradise Found Care Home, are made bigger by conversations held in full earshot of the audience off stage. This was taken to the next level by Jessica Spenny as Phanta who interacts with everyone on stage from off stage. Her timing and inflection was informed only by what she was hearing. The cues that can make an actor become a character were literally blocked from Spenny’s view. She lands both jokes and tender moments, her acting limited to what she could do with her voice. Credit must also be given to Hepler for her ability to interact with a character she couldn’t directly act with.

It was wonderful to watch a small group of actors playing very odd and very ill people create a world that was believable. Without a solid cast that trusted each other, it would have felt like a cruel portrayal of broken people. Instead, there is a real love that the actors create for the characters. This was helped by the beautiful set that felt very much homey and not at all like a home. 

Identity Crisis runs through July 28th with performances at 7:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays in The Scoundrel & Scamp theater at the History Y (738 N. 5th Ave.). Tickets are available at the door an hour before the show or by calling (520) 780-7476. 

The Profoundness of the Ordinary

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.

Bryn Booth, Holly Griffith, Kathryn Kellner Brown, Ryan Parker Knox and Hunter Hnat in Middletown. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Bryn Booth, Holly Griffith, Kathryn Kellner Brown, Ryan Parker Knox and Hunter Hnat in Middletown. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

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.

Bringing Literature to Life On Stage at The Rogue Theatre

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season.

Touring the golden cage with The Rogue Theatre’s Joe McGrath and Cynthia Meier.

by Leigh Moyer

Rogue logo“What we’ve managed to do is build a golden cage for ourselves,” said Joe McGrath, Artistic Director of The Rogue Theatre, with a chuckle. “Our audience wants us to do the plays that we want to do. So we have to keep doing the plays we want to do– not the plays that we think will sell, or that we think people want to see.”

Cynthia Meier, The Rogue’s Managing and Associate Artistic Director, added, “And they really are plays that we want to see and that we want to work on. We keep this ongoing, long list of plays and we’ll look at it throughout the year and say, you know, it’s about time we did Brecht. Or, it’s about time we did this play. And these are plays that we want to see and spend time with.”

This season is focused on stories about obsession; it will have shows that make you think, make you laugh, make you cry, and — if they do their job right — make you reconsider how you look at a piece of literature or a cultural phenomenon.

The Rogue is generally known for doing classic pieces. For example, they do a Shakespeare play every season. “It’s a touchstone for us. Our mission is doing challenging pieces of great literature in an ensemble way; Shakespeare is the epitome of that,” Meier explained. They usually do an adaptation of a novel as well, often adapted for the stage by Meier. They do plays that make you think and plays that make you feel deeply and… plays where usually at least one character dies. 

I teased McGrath and Meier about that. Meier laughed and commented that she should have done research on how many characters had died on their stage when she looked at the diversity of casting and the playwrights.

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Joe McGrath and Cynthia Meier. Photo courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

McGrath pointed out that while it is a funny unifying theme linking The Rogue’s plays, “Death is something that makes us human and unless we’re conscious of mortality and unless we bring it up, we’re not really dealing with what is important and even what is beautiful. The brevity of life is what makes beauty. There is no precious moment without the passage. So I want to stand up for death as being a good thing. So let’s hear it for death.”

Looking at this season and the major moments that the array of plays will present, it seemed to me Moby Dick was going to be the most challenging. I had one big question. There have been gods, snakes, dogs, and a bear on the Rogue stage, but all those things are smaller or more manageable. I wanted to know how exactly they were going to present the great white whale Moby Dick. That whale. Their answer: they don’t know yet. They have ideas, but how it will actually come together is still somewhat of a puzzle. 

“The interesting thing about this enterprise is making sure that we’re doing live theatre, not doing plays that are live television,” McGrath said. “That’s one of the reasons we like to go more theatrical. It’s all in the language. Film and television don’t like to just dwell on the language without visuals.” 

Maybe that is the answer. Moby Dick is a book, adapted for the stage in this instance by Meier and Holly Griffith. While theatre is a visual medium, for McGrath and Meier it is equally as much about language. “We usually do an adaptation because we believe that great literature deserves to be heard and seen, not just silently read,” Meier said.

Aaron Shand, Holly Griffith and Hunter Hnat in the 2018-2019 season production of The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Rogue Theatre.

Aaron Shand, Holly Griffith and Hunter Hnat in the 2018-2019 season production of The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Rogue Theatre.

McGrath jumped in to add, “And the interesting thing about great literature is that it is only great literature because of the words, because of the language. We think of Moby Dick as having whales and boats and the sea but it only lives because of the way it was conjured in language.”

He mused on how the audience feels and about The Rogue offers: “I’m guessing that a good percentage of audience members who stay after the show for the post show discussion just want us to tell them what to think. But that’s the nature of the plays we do; they don’t tell you what to think, they leave you grappling.”

The whole season is listed online and below, including a summer production. Come to see how they get a whale in a theatre, but come more to see how you relate to the whale; what your obsessions are and how they have shaped you. Season tickets start at $195.00 and single tickets can be purchased during the run of the show for $42.00 (preview performances are $32.00) with $15.00 student rush tickets available fifteen minutes before the show (depending on availability). Tickets for the summer performance of Middletown are $38.00.

The Rogue Theatre’s 2019-2020 Season:

Middletown by Will Eno (Summer Production)
July 11 – 21, 2019
Metaphysical musings on life and death bubble up from the “common folk” on the streets of contemporary Middletown, USA. Comic and prosaic lives show cracks of poetic existential despair. Directed by Christopher Johnson.

Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill
September 12 – 29, 2019
A masterful image of a day in the Tyrone household, struggling with alcoholism, morphine addiction, and regret, as they reflect on love, dreams, and roads not taken. One of the most lauded of American plays, this deeply personal play received both the Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize. Directed by Cynthia Meier.

Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward
November 7 – 24, 2019
The novelist Charles Condomine invites the spiritualist Madame Arcati to hold a séance in his home. Arcati inadvertently summons the ghost of Charles’ first wife, Elvira, who Charles can see, but his present wife, Ruth, can’t. A jealous ghost, Elvira tries to upset the marriage. Directed by Joseph McGrath.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville, adapted by Cynthia Meier and Holly Griffith
January 9 – 26, 2020
The obsessed Captain Ahab assembles a whaling crew to pursue the albino sperm whale, Moby Dick, that took his leg in a prior voyage. Regarded by many as the great American novel, Moby Dick is Homeric, biblical, and Shakespearean in its breadth of expression. Directed by Cynthia Meier.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh
February 27 – March 15, 2020
In a rural Irish cottage of the aging Mag and her spinster daughter Maureen, their comic and appalling lives are brought to a head as a romance develops for Maureen that Mag resents. Directed by Christopher Johnson.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
April 23 – May 10, 2020
The shipwrecked Viola dresses as a boy for protection and is employed by Duke Orsino to woo Olivia for him. Olivia falls in love with Viola-in-disguise and Viola herself falls in love with Orsino. Meanwhile, the pranksters of Olivia’s household dupe the puritan Malvolio into falling in love with Olivia. Directed by Joseph McGrath.

The John and Joyce Ambruster Play-Reading Series:

Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
October 6, 2019, 2:00 pm
The story of a man who dares to speak an unpalatable truth and the devastating consequences.

Madagascar by J. T. Rogers
December 1, 2019, 2:00 pm
At three different periods in time, three Americans find themselves in a hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome confronting the haunting mystery that connects them.

Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel
February 2, 2020, 2:00pm
Told in a riveting series of monologues, a blind woman living in Donegal, Ireland undergoes a revolutionary operation to restore her sight.

The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca
March 22, 2020, 2:00pm
Following the funeral of Bernarda Alba’s second husband, the tyrannical matriarch announces to her five daughters that their period of mourning will last eight years.

Editor’s Note: This is the forth in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season. 

A Bump in the Night and a Monster Dilemma

by Jess Herrera

Tabitha Turnpike has a big imagination. But, for her parents, Tabitha’s imagination is nothing more than a big problem.

In the Live Theatre Workshop’s original play, Tabitha Turnpike has a MONSTERous Problem, written by Richard Gremel and featuring original music by David Ragland, the titular character uses her bravery and creativity to solve a larger-than-life problem.

Under the direction and choreography of Samantha Cormier, this current production in the theater’s family series is an enjoyable story for young audience members with a meaningful lesson aimed at adults. There are plenty of jokes that land with parents, and it features a plot that’s easy to relate to at any age.

The costumes, designed by Stephanie Frankenfield, help pull viewers right into the story, and ensure the actors who split roles easily transitioned between characters. This was especially true of the monsters, who were the perfect mix of fluff and fright to be believable without scaring young attendees. And the simple sets were just enough to allow everyone’s imagination to run wild.

In the opening scene Tabitha, played by Taylor Thomas, saves her doll from an evil henchman with time to enjoy tea before bed. She beautifully blends two big childhood dreams as a superhero who can fly and who is also a princess. She draws you into her rescue mission with just a few props and doesn’t fall into a tired stereotype.

Mike Saxon as Mr. Turnpike, Taylor Thomas as Tabitha Turnpike and Danielle Dodge as Mrs. Turnpike. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Mike Saxon as Mr. Turnpike, Taylor Thomas as Tabitha Turnpike and Danielle Dodge as Mrs. Turnpike. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Unfortunately her superhero cape, fashioned out of an heirloom tablecloth, is the last straw for her mom and dad, played by Danielle Dodge and Mike Saxon respectively. Tabitha is grounded and sent to bed with no story.

But her troubles have just begun. As soon as her dad turns out the lights, she begins to hear growling from under her bed. Tabitha, who has just been told to grow up, can’t tell her parents about the monster in her room.

Out from under her bed appears Squirble, played by William Seidel. After some shrieks from Tabitha and Squirble — as well as the audience — it’s revealed that Squirble needs Tabitha’s help. He’s a monster trying desperately to join the Super Scary Society, but he’s just not very scary.

They team up to convince the leaders of the society, Fangs and Spike, characters also played by Dodge and Saxon, that Squirble should be accepted despite his differences.

William Seidel as Squirble and Taylor Thomas as Tabitha Turnpike. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

William Seidel as Squirble and Taylor Thomas as Tabitha Turnpike. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

My five-year-old, who joined me for the performance, immediately fell in love with Squirble. Seidel’s sweet performance, coupled with his very cuddly costume, made him a favorite. My daughter ran to give him a big hug at the end of the performance — a clear sign of approval.

And although Fangs and Spike were late additions to the ensemble, they were definitely stand-out characters. With their hilarious musical number (and a few fart jokes), they were just the right mix of menacing and lovable for everyone to enjoy.

On the flip side of Dodge and Saxon’s monstrous performances as Fangs and Spike were their roles as Tabitha’s parents. While they delivered some funny and familiar lines, their reactions felt a bit overblown. Perhaps this was because Tabitha’s intended age was hard to pin down.

Many of the musical numbers felt lacking. While Spike and Fang’s song was catchy and funny, others were far less memorable.

Despite these limitations, Tabitha Turnpike has a Monsterous Problem is creative, funny and heartfelt. Running at just under an hour, it’s a great early theater experience for preschool-aged children, and it has a story that kids in early elementary can also enjoy.

 Tabitha Turnpike has a MONSTERous Problem is playing at Live Theatre Workshop on Sundays at 12:30 p.m. through August 11. You can buy tickets on their website, http://www.livetheatreworkshop.org/, or by calling the box office at (520) 327-4242.

 

Theatre is a Community Service

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season.

Sabian Trout, artistic director at Live Theatre Workshop, on the importance of live theatre to the health of the community.

by Leigh Moyer

Live Theatre Workshop“Do plays in the service of the community. Doing a play for yourself is going to kill your theatre and the worst thing you can do as an artistic director is to kill a theatre. There are so few left.” Sabian Trout, artistic director of Live Theatre Workshop’s Mainstage series, is not messing around when it comes to her community. Theatre is critical to a healthy community and she works to make sure that Tucson has live theatre year round. 

At the time of writing, LTW’s 2019-2020 season has already kicked off with Things Being What They Are and will continue through the summer into the more typical theatre season, and wrapping up as it warms up again. Then the next “season” starts the cycle all over, ensuring quality theatre all year. Trout is straightforward about working to bring the best shows to Tucson audiences: “I’m just applying for the best plays for our community.” Of course, selecting nine shows isn’t simple. Trout explained, “It’s a big puzzle every year based on feedback from the audience, what the space can accommodate, the talent available, if we can get the rights to produce the play, and a dozen or more factors. There are thousands and thousands of plays to choose from. It’s such a complicated thing, it is like its own living animal.”

Audiences can expect a little of everything this season, and should expect LTW’s offerings to expand their experience of life and lives that are different, but not so different, than their own. The season starts with a production exploring the bond between an unlikely duo and wraps with a play navigating the political and social ramifications of same sex marrage in a conservative southern home. In between, season ticket holders can expect mystery, love, heartbreak and revenge, humor, complicated relationships, tricks, first-time homebuyers and even a look at being an out-of-work actor. The plays are all tied together by experience, things we’ve all felt or fought in some way.

Shanna Brock and Stephen Frankenfeld in Stage Kiss. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Shanna Brock as She and Stephen Frankenfeld as He in the 2018-2019 season production of Stage Kiss. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

“When I took over 13 years ago, it was clean, just stuff that wasn’t topical and didn’t represent our greater community,” Trout said.My favorite socially relevant plays are comedies. There are so many topical or socially relevant plays that are draining. That isn’t necessary to have an illuminating experience. A humorous take on challenging topics often changes your heart and mind more than angst-ridden plays.” 

According to Trout, Radiant Vermin and The Cake are probably the most socially relevant productions for LTW this season. Radiant Vermin is a comedy about the housing crisis, how difficult it is to buy a home, and what individuals are willing to do to get their dream place. The Cake follows a baker, thrilled to bake a wedding cake for her niece until she learns the niece has a bride rather than a groom. Humanizing the headlines, The Cake explores political and emotional viewpoints, cultural expectations, and how complex baking a cake can be.

Trout is excited about Heisenberg as both the artistic director, and this particular play’s director. “I don’t usually keep darlings to myself. I try to match plays to the directing talent, but this season, I chose a play that I’m elated about,” Trout admitted. “It’s a special play, newer, quirky, theatrical, I’m madly in love with this play, and I had to keep it for myself. It’s a love story about an extremely unlikely relationship.”

Heisenberg

Image courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Still, she maintained that Tucson audiences should catch every show this season. The greatest compliment Trout can get is when an audience member tells her after a show that they weren’t sure about a show, based on the title or even the description, but after seeing it, are thrilled they gave it a shot because they loved it. Descriptions of each play are online and reproduced below. But maybe trust that Trout tamed the animal that is putting together a season and become a season ticket holder and catch them all. You might see something you never would have guessed you’d love.

Live Theatre Workshop’s Mainstage Series 2019 – 2020 Season:

Things Being What They Are by Wendy MacLeod
June 20 – July 20, 2019
As up-and-coming Bill readies a new condo for himself and his soon-to-arrive wife, he gets an unexpected visit from Jack, who at first appears to be a nightmare neighbor. What follows is a sharp comedy about the lives we dream of having versus the lives we end up living.
“Despite (or maybe it’s because of) its origin in a female mind, this funny, charming, and rather moving play probes the vulnerabilities of middle-class maleness with…good humor, affection and incisive accuracy.” ~ Chicago Tribune

Show People by Paul Weitz
July 25 – August 24, 2019
Jerry and Marnie are Broadway actors who haven’t worked in years. At Jerry’s insistence, they take on a wildly unorthodox job for a rich, young New York banker in Show People, a crazy comedy about the darker aspects of the need to be theatrical.
“A smashing light comedy…delightful and witty.” ~ NY Observer
“A real laugh-out-loud comedy…guaranteed to make audiences laugh themselves silly.” ~ Journal News

Heisenberg by Simon Stephens
August 29 – September 28, 2019
Amidst the bustle of a crowded London train station, Georgie spots Alex, a much older man, and plants a kiss on the back of his neck. This electric encounter thrusts these two strangers into a fascinating and life-changing game. Heisenberg brings to blazing, theatrical life the uncertain and often comical sparring match that is human connection.
“On its surface, a satisfyingly life-affirming mating dance between two people who are so utterly dissimilar that of course they are made for each other. But if you choose to tune into the quieter frequencies… a probing work that considers the multiplicity of alternatives that could shape our lives at every moment.” ~ NY Times

Accomplice by Rupert Holmes
October 10 – November 16, 2019
Winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s coveted “Edgar” award (the “Oscar” of crime and suspense) The New York Times called Accomplice “a deliciously witty cocktail of a whodunit with a maniacally seamless plot where skullduggery emerges the winner!” This theatrical roller coaster will trigger screams of laughter even as audiences vow to keep its secrets hush-hush. “The best fooler since Sleuth and twice as clever!” said the L.A.Times, while L.A. Theatre & Entertainment Review proclaimed it “the comedy thriller of all comedy thrillers!”

Tilly the Trickster by Molly Shannon
November 29 – December 29, 2019
Molly Shannon has created numerous unforgettable characters on Saturday Night Live and in movies such as Superstar and Never Been Kissed and now introduces young readers to her latest hilarious creation, the musical Tilly the Trickster. Tilly is a mischievous girl who loves nothing more than causing a little trouble. From leaking cups to toothpaste-flavored cookies, Tilly has a trick for everyone: her mom, dad, brother, classmates, and even her teacher. But when the tables are turned and her family does some scheming of its own, will Tilly decide to change her trickster ways?

The Norwegians by C. Denby Swanson
January 9 – February 15, 2020
A “killer” dark comedy about two scorned women and the very nice gangsters they hire to whack their ex-boyfriends. Fast-paced funny dialogue combines the spirit of Fargo with Saturday Night Live in this unexpected, entertaining, quirky comedy.
“C. Denby Swanson’s extremely odd and delightful comedy, is something of a guilty pleasure.” – The New York Times

Radiant Vermin by Philip Ridley
February 20 – March 28, 2020
When a young couple is offered an ideal house by a mysterious stranger, it prompts the question: How far would any of us go to get our dream home? A fast-paced, pitch-black comedy, Radiant Vermin is a provocative satire about consumerism, gentrification, and inequality.
“A blithely told fable for the age of unaffordable housing. Like a Brothers Grimm story, it is executed with its own consistent fantasy logic, deployed to remind us of the dangers of getting what we wish for…it makes for nasty and energetic fun…” – The New York Times

Ripcord by David Lindsay-Abaire
April 2 – May 9, 2020
David Lindsay-Abaire’s ripping Ripcord is a deeply satisfying and entertaining story of two women thrown together by a comic cosmic force possessed of a wicked sense of humor. A sunny room on an upper floor is prime real estate in the Bristol Place Senior Living Facility, so when the cantankerous Abby is forced to share her quarters with new-arrival Marilyn, she has no choice but to get rid of the infuriatingly chipper woman by any means necessary.
“…sweet-and-sour Ripcord is great fun…larded with moments of surprise, both wacky and more substantial. When the play gets serious, it’s genuinely moving.” ~ Time Out NY
“A show to treasure.” ~ Deadline.com 

The Cake by Bekah Brunstetter
May 14 – June 13, 2020
When Della, a North Carolina baker, is asked to bake a wedding cake for her best friend’s daughter, she is overjoyed. But that joy is short-lived when she learns that the intended is another bride, and realizes she is faced with an agonizing choice between faith and family. Struggling to reconcile her deeply-held belief in “traditional marriage” and the love she has for the young woman she helped raise, Della finds herself in strange new territory.
“Brilliant… Powerful and meaningful… great writing… abundant wit and humor” ~ LA Post-Examiner

A Fun, if Somewhat Tired, Sitcom Feel in Things Being What They Are

by Lena Quach

Live Theater Workshop’s production of Things Being What They Are, written by Wendy MacLeod, gives you the feeling that you are drop dead in the middle of an early 2000’s sitcom. Bill (Steve Wood) is a marketing executive who is intelligent, tasteful, and a little sensitive who has just moved in down the hall from Jack (Stephen Frankenfield), a beer drinking and self-proclaimed jackass. Jack spews every type of emotional baggage on Bill’s doorstep including his ex-wife and her new relationship, cancer, and a dark secret. Bill has his own emotional baggage as well, namely his deteriorating relationship with his actress wife. Over time the unlikely duo bond over the fear of death, loneliness, and failure. 

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Steve Wood as Bill and Stephen Frankenfield as Jack. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The direction by Samantha Cormier and acting by Wood and Frankenfield were the highlight of this production. Wood was believable and charming as the “utterly lame” Bill. Wood’s portrayal of the anxiously loyal Bill created a true sense of denial. He really loves his two-timing wife and you know right off the bat that Bill really wants her to come back from her “acting job”. Frankenfield’s portrayal of the middle aged New Yorker Jack was insensitive but extremely human. Even though I despised what came out of his mouth for the majority of the show, I still felt for his character and genuinely wanted a positive outcome for Jack and his family. I was impressed and moved by both performances by the comic-like actors. 

The sound design by Brian McElroy left me feeling nostalgic from the moment I walked into the space and the scenic set design by Jason Jamerson and lighting design by Richard Gremel created the sense that we were actually a live studio audience and in a small way part of the action. I don’t know if this was the designers’ intent but added a wonderful layer to the dark comedy. 

This play is essentially a study of middle aged manliness and the emotions and feelings men try to hide behind a macho facade. The writing by Wendy MacLeod is fairly sophisticated, with wry observations and subtle literary references.The characters mention feeling like Didi and Gogo from Waiting For Godot at one point, which is actually quite witty considering the crass manner of the show. Unfortunately, MacLeod went a little too far to make her characters vulnerable and relatable at times which made the play lose dramatic impact towards the end of the second act. 

Despite the positive and entertaining aspects of the show, I was mostly disappointed or maybe confused by the way the women, who you never see in the show, are written. They are flat stereotypes; emotionally distracted women who are unable to make up their minds about anything. They are blamed as the main reason for Bill’s and Jack’s lives being ruined or wasted. They bond over their shared “misfortunes” when really they aren’t taking responsibility for their own actions and lives. This aspect alone made me feel a bit uncomfortable at times.  

I’d like to say that the writing was also a bit dated in the sense that it jokes are inappropriate, especially those about people who are overweight. The “humor” paints them to be an inferior human or simply an object of a bad joke. In 2019, I have to ask if this type of humor, especially when it isn’t called out or used as a more than bad comedy is still worth having on our stages. This leaves me questioning if a comedy about two white males in the early 2000’s was an appropriate choice for the present.

Live Theater Workshops production of Things Being What They Are will get you thinking about your own relationships, friendships, and maybe even your own mortality with some chuckles and laughs along the way. This funny sitcom-like production runs until July 20th with shows Friday-Sunday. Tickets available for purchase at http://www.livetheatreworkshop.org.   

Make Time to Laugh with Family Theatre

Editor’s Note: This is the forth in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season.

Talking the serious business of making time to be silly, plus bringing live theatre to Tucson’s children with Live Theatre Workshop Family Theatre artistic director Amanda Gremel.

by Leigh Moyer

Live Theatre WorkshopIn the theatre business, you hear a lot about doing it for the love of art or as a passion project. For Amanda Gremel, the Live Theatre Workshop Family Theatre  is certainly a passion project, but isn’t just a love for the craft; rather, it’s a calling and an obligation to future generations that she is only too happy to fulfill. Gremel’s life is steeped in Live Theatre Workshop. As a teen, she discovered her love of acting in their educational programs. As an adult, she pays it forward as a teacher in the same educational programs where she got her start, acts regularly, and is the artistic director for the Family Theatre.

While theatre for all ages is often shorter and lighter than productions rated for adults, it is no less important. “So many times, adults underestimate the power of kids to show us the way,” Gremel explained. “Sometimes we have to stop and take a moment and look at it through their eyes to be reminded that we can problem solve our way, can feel what we do, and it’s okay. Adults get wrapped up in our lives and forget that it’s okay to take that time to laugh.”

“I come to the family shows and I can’t tell you how funny they are.” Deborah Daun, the theatre’s marketing and public relations representative chimed in. “Not only are these shows really hilarious and the playwrights, mostly local playwrights, are really good, but there is incredible quality represented in these shows.”

Beyond being entertaining, the Family Theatre reminds children that they can face big problems, even monstrous ones like in the season opener Tabitha Turnpike Has a MONSTERous Problem, and with trust, determination, and, often, imagination, they can solve those problems. It might seem like a simple lesson, but it is one worth learning at every age, especially when you feel small in the face of problems that seem too large to tackle.

Overcoming life’s challenges with humor isn’t the only important work the Family Theatre productions do. Gremel works hard to expand not only what wonderful worlds children can imagine on stage, but who portrays the characters on stage.

Leda Robinson as RAPunzel and Evander Alan Gains as the Prince. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Leda Robinson as RAPunzel and Evander Alan Gains as the Prince. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

“One of my favorite shows, and audiences loved it, too, was RAPunzel. I loved the script, loved the songs, being able to tour it in schools was great, and the diversity we had was great. We had an African-American Rapunzel and we don’t get to see that very often, right? For young people, and particularly the students in the Title 1 schools we tour in, to be able to see someone that looks like them on stage, in the lead role and singing their hearts out — that is what we are doing this for,” Gremel said of a 2018-2019 hip-hop musical adaptation of the fairytale Rapunzel. “In our world right now, it is so important to showcase that it is okay to be you, regardless of what you look like or who you identify as. The more I can bend the outdated norms, the more I want to. I want these kids to be like, oh, I am going to be this because there shouldn’t be boundaries. It is our job to show that story.”

“Part of the Live Theatre Workshop mission, and we’re very community oriented, is to create the next generation of theatre people,” Daun added. “We have shows for youth, but also education programs both in and out of school. It is a very organic way that LTW cultivates young people. We’re working with teachers and working with young people to come and audition, to be the next generation of actors and audiences.”

To do that, Live Theatre Workshop provides a number of educational opportunities from summer camps to acting classes. One of the programs that Gremel enjoys most is taking two shows from the season, one in the fall semester and one in the spring semester, and touring them in schools. The tours bring shows to children who might not otherwise have access to live theatre.

It isn’t easy to make all this happen. Running two seasons concurrently (Live Theatre Workshop also hosts a full mainstage season as well) isn’t always a fairytale come true. Productions, not to mention classes and other programs, share the same space. That can add up to some logistical challenges. “We have to get very creative in our Family Theatre shows. We only have one stage. Our shows are running at the same time. Our pieces and back drops need to be able to be hung in front of and hide the mainstage show, and often overlap multiple mainstage shows. We have to adjust to accommodate them to make one show work on a new set– in the middle of the run. So we come in early to make it work,” Gremel said. “Tucson has such great talent and passion. There is such passion that the young kids of Tucson are getting the same quality as in the mainstage shows.”

With the new season starting this Sunday, June 30th, who should be getting tickets for Live Theatre Workshop Family shows? Performances are open to everyone. “Audiences range from kids as small as breastfeeding babies, as young as six months old to people in their eighties or nineties,” Gremel answered, “Mainstage season ticket holders enjoy our Family Theatre shows, with or without children, right alongside enchanted kids.” The whole season is online and outlined below. You can become a season ticket holder now and ensure that you and your kids (or your inner child) get five Sundays of theatre.

And which show should you definitely see? Gremel laughed, “I hate to cop out but you are going to get and feel something different from each show. One might make you laugh and let you be silly with the actors on stage, one might let you feel something you forgot how to feel, especially as an adult. One might bring back memories. One might tell an old story in a completely new way, like this season’s adaptation of Pinocchio, done in the commedia dell’arte style using shadow puppets and mask work. They are all so different.”

2019-20 FAMILY SERIES Season

Live Theatre Workshop Family’s 2019-2020 Season:

Tabitha Turnpike Has a MONSTERous Problem
An original musical story by Richard Gremel and music by David Ragland
June 30 – August 11, 2019 (no show July 21), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
Tabitha Turnpike is a little girl with a big imagination. But when her imagination gets her in trouble with her mom and dad, they insist that she quit being creative and grow up. Only problem is, Tabitha discovers a monster living under her bed and she can’t tell her mom and dad about it, because they will think she’s using her imagination again. Her monster has problems of his own. So the two team up and travel to Underthebedland to use their creativity and prove that all of us, monsters and humans, are great despite of our differences.

Pinocchio: The Legend of the Wooden Boy
An original musical adaptation by Tyler West and music by Michael Martinez
September 8 – October 20, 2019 (no show September 29), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
This is a new adaptation based on the beloved characters from Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio: The Adventures of a Marionette.” Watch as three players set up their stage and tell the legend of the wooden puppet who came to life. With the help of masks, costumes, and shadow puppetry they will portray over a dozen of characters; like Geppetto, Pinocchio, The Cricket, The Fox, The Cat, The Blue Fairy, and many more!

Molly Shannon’s Tilly the Trickster
Adapted by Jeremy Dobrish, music and lyrics by Drew Fornarola, orchestrations by David Abbinanti
November 29 – December 28, 2019
Friday and Saturday nights at 7 PM, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 3 PM
Tilly is a mischievous girl who loves nothing more than causing a little trouble. From leaking cups to toothpaste-flavored cookies, Tilly has a trick for everyone: her mom, dad, brother, classmates, and even her teacher. But when the tables are turned and her family does some scheming of its own, will Tilly decide to change her trickster ways? Molly Shannon has created numerous unforgettable characters on Saturday Night Live and in movies such as SUPERSTAR and NEVER BEEN KISSED and now introduces young readers to her latest hilarious creation, TILLY THE TRICKSTER, the musical! Fun for all ages, this is a show you and your family won’t want to miss. Starring Samantha Cormier as Tilly!

Mona Lisa on the Loose
An original musical story by Gretchen Wirges with music by David Ragland
January 26 – March 8, 2020 (no show February 16), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
The Mona Lisa has hung on the walls of an art museum for over 100 years. But what visitors don’t know is that when the lights go out, the paintings come to life! On this day, she overhears the museum officials saying she is no longer drawing people in, and make plans to move her somewhere else. Come join us for a secret view into the mysterious life of the Mona Lisa and other paintings after hours as she plots a way to save her spot on the walls of the Louvre!

The Old Ball Game
An original musical story by Kristian Kissel with music by Michael Martinez
April 19 – May 31, 2020 (no show May 10), Sunday afternoons at 12:30 PM
Forrest Foster LOVES baseball. He comes by it honestly – his Dad played, his Grandfather played, his Great-Grandfather played, his… well, you get the idea. The only problem is that Forrest can’t seem to get into the game yet. But when his little league team’s star player gets injured, his coach just might have to look to the end of the bench and give Forrest his chance. He’s spent countless hours studying the game, its history, its players, and his own opponents. Now he’ll need to take everything he’s learned and put it to use to try to lift his team to victory – all for the love of the old ball game!