The Royale is a Knockout Filled with Heart

by Lena Quach

The Royale, written by Marco Ramirez, is loosely based on the life of African American boxer, Jack Johnson, who was famous in the early 1900s for being the first black boxer who dared to step into the ring to challenge white boxer, James J. Jefferies. Jack Johnson wanted to prove he was the Heavyweight Champion of the World despite his color of skin. With no fear, he challenged a racist world and fought for change during the Jim Crow era where lynching and being killed were very real everyday fears for many African Americans. 

Erica Chamblee as Nina and Bechir Sylvain as Jay "The Sport" Jackson. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Erica Chamblee as Nina and Bechir Sylvain as Jay “The Sport” Jackson. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Marco Ramirez’s profoundly moving, beautifully written, and rhythmic play captured my attention and my heart by the end of the first action-packed scene. The direction, by Michael John Garcés, was very real, yet graceful, and many of the scenes reminded me of a carefully choreographed dance. It was hypnotizing to see the story unfold as the characters progressed and grew in front of my eyes. Of course, this play is more than just a play about boxing. This play is about the thirst for change and equality in a world of hate and racism. Being a Latina in 2019, I thirst for this change but that overwhelming sense of fear is all too real and relatable. I never thought I could relate to a play about boxing, but the drive and the need for diversity in an industry that is primarily white reminded me of my days as a professional ballerina where people of color are few and far between.

Jay “The Sport” Jackson, the tall, strong, and driven heavyweight champion played by Bechir Sylvain, was truly a master of acting. My eyes never left Sylvain as he embodied every side of Jay’s character from the cocky know-it-all in the ring to the pained and hurt brother who wants to make everything better for his beloved sister. I was truly moved and inspired by Sylvain’s performance. 

Roberto Antonio Martin played the young boxer, Fish. Martin’s physical acting and movement quality were thrilling to watch. Especially in the first scene when both Jay and Fish are in the ring but facing the audience. The way Martin responded physically was really a sight to see. The way Fish develops throughout the play was alluring. Fish is soft-hearted and willing to do whatever he can to protect those he cares about. Martin was a great presence and addition to the already insanely talented cast. 

Wynton was played by the seasoned actor Edwin Lee Gibson. Gibson’s performance of Wynton was stoic, deep, and sometimes filled with resentment. I was extremely moved by the completely silent scene where Wynton is going through a journey of deep, despondent, fear-filled emotions. Gibson’s eyes glistened and swelled up with tears as he looked out into the audience and then slowly moved across the stage. I felt for the characters as I followed his silent journey. It was utterly heartbreaking yet beautiful to watch. 

Erica Chamblee, who played Nina, was mesmerizing and haunting. Silent for the majority of the play, her face spoke a thousand words as she slowly moved around the stage and the other characters as a reminder of Jay’s thirst for equality. Chamblee’s performance had my heart jumping out of my chest and surprised me more than once. 

The role of Max was played by Peter Howard. Howard did a magnificent job of portraying Jay’s somewhat nervous and easily frustrated business partner and manager. Howard almost acts like a narrator at certain points an, at times, like a slew of reporters that question Jay throughout the play. He was a joy to watch. 

The cast of the Royale. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The cast of the Royale. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Along with the amazingly talented cast came the beautiful scenic design by Misha Kachman. It was minimal but highlighted when needed. Especially when the stage itself transforms into a boxing ring at the end of the show. It was truly part of the show and used with grace. The lighting design by Allen Willner was absolutely gorgeous- the lighting created a perfect picture frame for the story being told. The sound design by Brian Jerome Peterson made the audience feel like they were really present and part of the scene. The use of a crowd cheering in the background to the sound of a picture being taken during the interview scenes were tastefully done. 

Overall, The Royale, even though based in the past, felt contemporary and called to mind current affairs in the United States. The struggle for change and equality and the rage and fear that is– all too real. The love and pride for someone you love. Grief, resentment, and the need to succeed are all emotions you discover and ponder on even after you leave the theater after seeing this truly stunning production. This play brought tears to my eyes and I found myself being the first of many to give this amazing production, and cast, the standing ovation they deserve. 

You can see this knockout performance now thru September 28th at the Temple of Music and Art ( 330 S Scott Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701) and you can buy tickets at www.arizonatheatre.org or (520) 628-9129.

Dated Comedy Still Brings the Humor

by Regina Ford

arsenic-19-flyerArsenic and Old Lace, directed by Dan Reichel, at the Community Players Playhouse on Oracle, is a farcical dark comedy, written by Joseph Kesselring. The play opened on Broadway on January 10, 1941 and ran 1,444 performances. Frank Capra directed the iconic film version starring Cary Grant in 1944.

This classic, and much-loved chestnut of a play, was an introduction to theatre for many theatre-goers. I think I’ve seen the play at least 10 times, and I wasn’t certain I could sit through it again. Let’s just say that I am very glad that I did.

Here is a tale of Martha and Abby Brewster, two cheerfully eccentric, but sweet and sincere maiden aunties. The women conduct mercy killings by poisoning lonely old men, a practice they believe is charitable by providing them with an early exit from this world. They give each man a proper Christian burial in the cellar of their quaint Brooklyn home. Their nephew, and cynical, dramatic critic, Mortimer Brewster, spends most of the play attempting to clean up his aunts’ messy killing spree and at the same time appease his fiancée, Elaine Harper, the daughter of the minister,  who desperately wants to get married. 

The plot gets more complicated when Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer’s evil, estranged brother and career criminal returns to their Brooklyn home. Jonathan is sporting a Boris Karloff-like face that has been surgically butchered to disguise his identity by the hard-drinking Dr. Einstein. The quack is a fan of Boris Karloff and used his face as a blueprint for Jonathan’s plastic surgery. Then there’s wacky brother, Teddy Brewster, who insists he is President Theodore Roosevelt and believes that the corpses that keep piling up are victims of yellow fever. He enthusiastically buries them in the cellar which he believes is Panama. Mortimer assumes Teddy has finally gone over the edge and is killing the men until he discovers another body in the window seat.

Arsenic and Old Lace is dated, no question, but the shtick is still charming. The show is a quaint interpretation of subject matter that in reality is borderline disturbing. At the time it ran on Broadway and in 1944 when it was a star-studded film, the atrocities of war were at their pinnacle. Arsenic and Old Lace offered escapism from those atrocities. Humor, even surrounding dark topics, is a way of coping for many and I believe the playwright knew this. The  Brewster sisters survive their daily lives with a warped religious explanation for murder. Their idea of salvation is twisted, but how has that changed in the last seven decades? Murder, assisted suicide, mental health issues (not a topic talked about openly at the time) are all issues that have become part of our reality. “Arsenic and Old Lace” is a history lesson of sorts. The sad truth is history repeats itself.

The director’s program notes provide insight into many of the play’s references from yesteryear that may be unfamiliar to audience members. Reichel managed to successfully capture the time period of the play and the set added to the feel of the time. Nikki Belio’s wallpaper did the set proud. I did have to giggle to myself when I noticed the black and white shoe on the first corpse was a Reebok (it was written on the sole).

Joanne Anderson (Martha Brewster) and Bobbi Whitson (Abby Brewster) bonded beautifully onstage. Anderson nailed the trusting persona of a sweet elderly lady so much so that I wanted to drink the arsenic-laced elderberry wine.

The cast had some heavy hitters who embraced their roles. Paul Hammack (Mortimer Brewster) had the bounding energy to keep the lengthy plot flowing with a character style that transported me back in time. Scott Berg (Jonathan Brewster) has a huge stage presence and offered a non-stereotypical twist to his character. Mike Manolakes (Teddy Brewster) took charge immediately and offered a believable burst of zaniness and light to the stage. His facial expressions were addicting. Larry Gutman (Dr. Einstein) played the creepiness of his deranged character with gusto, and Elaine Harper (Shann Oliver) provided the ideal balance and stronger female in all the insanity. 

The Community Players production of Arsenic and Old Lace is a trip back to theatre as I remember from decades ago and an example of how it should be done, by dedicated actors who are brave enough to revive roles from one of the classics.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through September 22nd at The Community Players Playhouse. For tickets, visit: communityplayerstucson.org.

 

       

 

Meta Musical Fun

by Gretchen Wirges

There is a hopefulness about musicals that I love. They allow characters the perfect vehicle to release their hopes, dreams, love and loss. The song allows a heart to crack open and reveal itself, warts and all. SAPAC’s season/company opener, [Title of Show], accomplishes this not-so-easy feat in such a beautifully entertaining way. We not only get to see the warts, we also become privy to Wonder Woman, playbills, remote controls, Broadway call sheets, turkey burgers, and vampirish doubts that lurk on the insides of its dynamic characters.

The cast of [title of show]. Photo by Molly Condit at Great Bear Media, courtesy of Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

The cast of [title of show]. Photo by Molly Condit at Great Bear Media, courtesy of Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

At first glance, I reveled in the simplicity of the set design. With just four chairs, and some well-placed windows, I was transported into working/living spaces in New York City. The basic plot involves two friends, Jeff (Andy Miller) and Hunter (Tyler Wright) looking to shake off their humdrum day jobs and television obsessions in order to write a musical for a festival. The story is a musical about musical in a musical festival. They enlist other friends Heidi (Mara Katrina Capati), Susan (Robin Bousel), and accompanist Larry (Brice Kimble). The hilarity that ensues is meta, full of pop culture, and a lot of heart. 

The play, directed by Carson Wright, is incredibly witty, quick, and touching. It’s a story about friendship as much as it is a story about the creative process. The cast does a superb job in connecting and making us believe that they really care about each other. Wright especially impressed with his soaring voice, and his razor-sharp comedic timing. He has the ability to make the most subtle gestures and expressions that instantly bring the audience to fits of laughter. Miller, as Jeff, so deftly plays Abbot to Wright’s Costello. He delivers hilariously wry jokes with sincerity and sings perfect harmony with Wright. 

Photo by Molly Condit at Great Bear Media, courtesy of Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Robin Bousel as Susan and Katrina Capati as Heidi. Photo by Molly Condit at Great Bear Media, courtesy of Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Capati and Bousel, proclaimed in the script as “Secondary Characters” are anything but. Capati has the voice of a raspy angel. Her rendition of “A Way to Back Then” gave me chills and reminded me of my own childhood musings and dreams. Bousel delivers snarky sarcasm like a champ. Her witty one-liners were laser-focused and perfect. And her songs, most notably “Die Vampire Die” left me clutching my chest out of both laughter and poignancy. Both Capati and Bousel recently returned to Tucson. I couldn’t be more excited to see what they do next. 

Larry (Brice Kimble) is a mostly unseen character who accompanies the musical numbers. The occasional moments where he pops up are hilarious and perfectly timed. 

In a conversation with SAPAC director Dennis Tamblyn, I found out that this is considered the “clean version” of the script. The alternative version had more expletives and adult content. One of the elements removed from the clean version were any mention or innuendos of homosexuality. Tamblyn wasn’t happy that depicting or mentioning LGBTQ was categorized as “adult content”. He contacted the publishing company, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and said that he intended to do the clean version, but add those references back in. The publisher agreed that the categorization was antiquated and needed to be updated. This, my friends, is how we can continue to move theater forward. When we know better, we should do better. I’m happy that SAPAC chose to speak up instead of just relenting to seemingly bigoted delineation. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that the script is without flaw. It isn’t. I thought the female characters got caught in the tired trope of female cattiness. They also lament about being secondary to their male counterparts. But the cast overcame that with the strength of their performances. It also doesn’t mean the production itself is without flaw, it wasn’t. I thought the transitions could have been smoother by continuing to underscore the blackouts between scenes. The abrupt changes to silence often halted the momentum and stilted the story. 

All that being said, I left the theater singing Die Vampire Die, wanting to watch Wonder Woman, cursing Sutton Foster in solidarity, and daydreaming about being part of this show. The cast is a musical actor’s dream. And show itself is the contemporary musical lover’s musical. 

[Title of Show] has four more performances for you love: 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 20 and 21, and matinees at 2 p.m. on Sept. 21 and 22. The show is playing at the Temple of Music and Art Cabaret Theatre at 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $25 Reservations/information: sapactucson.org, or by calling 261-0915.

 

Vive la Sisterhood

by Leticia Gonzalez

I’m sitting in my chair humming along to “Fight Song” and I have never been more ready to watch some badass women take names and kick ass. The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson, produced by Something Something Theatre, is a compelling story about the French revolution and sisterhood. They had me all up in my feelings. 

Dawn McMillan as Marianne Angelle, Samantha Severson as Olympe de Gouges, Whitney Woodcock as  Marie Antoinette, and Grace Otto as Charlotte Corday.

Dawn McMillan as Marianne Angelle, Samantha Severson as Olympe de Gouges, Whitney Woodcock as Marie Antoinette, and Grace Otto as Charlotte Corday. Photo Courtesy of The Something Something Theatre.

The scene starts with heads rolling. Almost quite literally until playwright Olympe De Gouges, portrayed by Samantha Severson, immediately decides that that is no way to start a play! Thank goodness for that! While the opening moments are nothing but dramatic, the play is, in fact, a comedy. I am in awe of Gunderson’s ability to write about the Reign of Terror and Madame Guillotine with a comical twist. However, this is not a one note play. Beneath the jokes and jabs, there are notes and moments to remind us that their lives are at stake. There is a striking moment when we get to see Madame Guillotine do her part. The combination of the lights, movement, and sounds are impactful. The moment is more abstract than explicit, but nonetheless I cringed. 

At first, I was baffled, because even though the play takes place during the French Revolution, the dialogue is modern. The sassy and playful banter among the four women is fun and refreshing. The wordplay and unexpected twists and turns kept me on my toes. Also, there were moments when they broke the fourth wall and engaged with the audience. As a result I felt even more connected to the women on stage due to the moment of mutual acknowledgment. 

Joan O’ Dwyer did a marvelous job selecting a cohesive ensemble. Each actress brought their character to life. Whitney Woodcock, who portrayed a credulous Marie Antoinette is hilarious. Her line delivery was on point. Samantha captures the formidable journey of Olympe as she decides her role in the revolution. Dawn MacMillan captured the badass passionate essence of Marianne Angelle. I particularly enjoyed the way she described her husband. She painted a picture of him that left me wondering, “Does he have a brother?” My favorite character was Charlotte Corday, portrayed by Grace Otto. There’s a moment where Charlotte reveals to Marianne that she is afraid. It’s a tender and awe-striking moment when one sees a strong person at their most vulnerable. It’s a gift to share one’s vulnerability as it is a gift to care for it. The intimacy between them is palpable as Marianne comforts Charlotte. They demonstrate what they want: sisterhood. 

This story is one for the books. It’s bold because it’s herstory. How often have we accepted history as truth without really recognizing that history itself is not only biased but has misconceptualized women? In this play, women reclaim their stories- their own person. We see the goddesses in them as well as their humanity. These four women inspire, empower, challenge, and hold each other accountable. Well-behaved women rarely make history, however, how many women that make history are overlooked or villainized? While these things did not occur in real life, the play acquaints us with four unapologetic women who have impacted and shaped history.

Remember when Wonder Woman came out? I don’t know about you, but when I left the cinema, I could have kicked anyone’s ass. When I left the theater last night, I felt empowered. I am grateful that Something Something Theatre exists in our community and appreciate their intention to produce plays by women for everyone. All of their plays this season are written by women and more than half are directed by women. My only qualm is that I wish that several of the playwrights had been women of color. Following the words of Sojourner Truth “And ain’t I a woman?”.

Don’t forget the cookies because The Revolutionists are bringing the tea. The show runs from September 12th – 29th at City High School’s Center for Collaborative Learning on 37 E. Pennington. All shows are at 7:30 PM with the exception of Sunday whose shows are at 2 PM. General admission is $25, however there are discounts available for seniors/students/military/teachers. They can be bought online at somethingsomethingtheatre.com. Have ten or more friends who need a proper herstory lesson? Gather them all up to see the show the same night for only $15 per ticket!

Familial Dysfunction and Poetry Abound in Long Day

by Chloe Loos

You have three options when reality is too painful to face: you can lose yourself in the past, you can worry about the future, or you can live in the present, on your own terms. The family of four presented in The Rogue Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1956 magnum opus Long Day’s Journey Into Night do all three. Sometimes different ones, and almost always at separate times. Where the text truly shines is in those moments of misbegotten allegiance when two people are finally in the same space. Of course, this doesn’t happen often, and we instead watch people pass like ships in the night, unable to see each other clearly.

Joseph McGrath as James, Theresa McElwee, Ryan Parker Knox as Jamie and Hunter Hnat as Edmund. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Joseph McGrath as James, Theresa McElwee as Mary, Ryan Parker Knox as Jamie, and Hunter Hnat as Edmund. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

The play, directed by Cynthia Meier, takes place over the course of a single dark day in the summer home of the Tyrone family. Secrets are kept, secrets are shared, and the truth is not as simple as it might seem. Mary (Theresa McElwee) is still recovering from treatment for morphine addiction, of which husband James (Joseph McGrath) supports her wholeheartedly. Things are complicated by Edmund’s (played by Hunter Hnat) sickness and his bullheaded brother, Jamie (Ryan Parker Knox).

With a runtime of 2 hours and 50 minutes, the play is certainly long. Still, despite the fact that the text was cut down to shorten it, I felt that the performers were constantly battling the clock in order to tell the story. As a play about an incredibly dysfunctional family (of which they are aware, thanks to some lovely breaks of humour), there are rapid tonal shifts throughout that I felt often never quite reached their full intensity. When you need to get through that much material, even the pauses are filled with movement. But there wasn’t enough time to breathe; to sit in the weight of the poetry and sadness; to really hear what these people were trying to tell each other. Those times where we were allowed to sit in moments were absolutely breathtaking.

Hunter Hnat as Edmund and Theresa McElwee as Mary. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Hunter Hnat as Edmund and Theresa McElwee as Mary. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Each performer had moments of strength – particularly when their characters were being honest with themselves, but I was particularly impressed by Hnat’s laser-like intensity throughout the piece. Performing illness and strength is not easy, but Hnat executed it so well. A stand-in for O’Neill himself, we can see him react to and internalize all these moments in such a way that he felt the most solidly real out of all the performers. I believed this play was Edmund’s story, and as O’Neill recreated moments from his own life, it’s easy to see how he became the person he did. 

Staged in the round, the sitting room set featured ramshackle furniture underneath a hanging chandelier, off of which light glinted beautifully. A large set of stairs wound up into the black curtains. Across from it, a blue door. The message was clear. You can stay or you can go. The tension between those dominating pieces worked well, especially when characters ascended and disappeared into the blackness. As the play progressed and we got closer to night, the lighting and sound design helped us to feel like we just as trapped in that house as Mary was. Special shout out to the piano music by Russell Ronnebaum, who underscored the sense of longing implicit in the script.

That said, in a play about how the past, present, and future can all come back to haunt us, there were some indications this play is definitely of a time since gone. Some of the slang was hard to track, and there were some fatphobic jokes that weren’t entirely necessary. Surprisingly, it does pass the Bechdel test. There is a conversation between Mary and maid Cathleen (played by a subversive Holly Griffith) that was a nice break in the male-centric tragedy. I also appreciated the realistic handling of generational addiction, which is a conversation as important to have when the play was written as it is now. The play is what it is: an autobiographical piece about people being awful to each other while trying to make up for it and thus has value as a historic piece of American theatre. 

Yes, it’s long. But it’s so worthwhile if you’ve ever felt out of touch or out of reach of your community, humanity, or even reality.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is playing Thursday through Sunday at The Rogue Theatre (300 E. University Blvd., Tucson, AZ 85705) through September 29th. Tickets are available by calling 520-551-2053, at the box office one hour before the performance, or on the web at theroguetheatre.org.

Elevator Goes Nowhere

by Gretchen Wirges

ElevatorSeptember 11, 2001. It was a day that changed me. It was a day that changed the lives of many people I know. It was a day that changed our country irrevocably. On the anniversary, I often find myself shying away from social media and general news content to avoid the sensationalism and morbid reflection. Instead, I lean more toward artistic solace in the form of music and theater. This year, I attended Elevator, written and directed by local playwright Patrick Carson, currently being staged by The Tucson Community Theater Company.

The story is a fictional account of a group of individuals who were in one of the elevators of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the events occurred. Stuck together in the elevator for the duration of this play, we learn more about the occupants  (played by actors David Updegraff, Elizabeth von Isser, Charlize Diaz de León, Tony Eckstat, Jade Ashton and Peter Bryfogle.) 

As an actor and a director myself, I always appreciate the work that goes into forming a full-scale production. The set looked like an expanded version of a real elevator that you’d find in any high-rise. It’s accuracy was impressive. Because the entire play takes place in that elevator, the size was exaggerated, and the walls cheated out to provide enough room, while giving the visual cues of the context of the play. 

However, the facility used for staging the production -a big banquet hall- was less than ideal. Half of the audience were sat in chairs at folding tables covered with plastic table cloths. I mention this only because it set a tone of amateurish informality that made me already feel separated from the expression of the work. Because of the less than ideal setting, the sound quality and production was also lacking. Each of the actors wore a lapel microphone that popped, hissed, and/or squealed with feedback every time they physically interacted with each other or moved in their costumes. Toward the end of the play, the characters are often coughing from smoke inhalation, which exacerbated the sound issues. 

The script itself is unbearably cliched and problematic. The characters were archetypal caricatures: bigoted business man, powerful lesbian woman, pregnant Muslim woman, uneducated blue-collar man, affable Englishman, and naive, pretty secretary. Because of these broad strokes, there are rare moments of realness between the characters. Instead, the play often devolves into trite declarations, predictable platitudes, and borderline offensive depictions of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and classism. The Muslim woman literally says fewer than 10 words in the first 30 minutes of the play. I saw it as an attempt for the playwright to make a social commentary with this device, when in reality it plays off as empty altruism. 

In addition, there are issues with the story’s plausibility. For example, throughout the majority of the play, smoke is seeping in through the cracks of the elevator. It isn’t until the play is almost over that there is a real reaction to that environmental factor. This is just one example, among many, that constantly took me out of the story because the action did not support previous information related earlier in the play. 

The performances by the actors were hindered by a script that never allowed them to fully realize the humanity of their characters. Further, the direction glossed over believable reactions to the events at hand. There was never really a sense of fear or urgency or pain or panic or grief that would make sense in such a situation. This disparity in logical reaction, in combination with an incredibly thin script, had many of the performances just falling flat for me. 

Von Isser (Edie) and Diaz de León (Tina) managed to find some lovely moments for their individual characters that gave us a peek into their emotions and grounded their performances as the most believable and interesting to watch. I truly believe the other cast members, with stronger direction, could have come off as so much more than the stereotypes they were burdened to play. 

In the end, I was not able to find even a crumb the artistic solace I was looking for. 

Elevator will run through September 29th. Performances are Thursday through Saturday (with the exception of 9/21) at 7:00 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. All performances will be at the GLH Hotel Event Center at 1365 W Grant Road.

 

What Would You Tell Your Younger Self?

by Annie Sadovsky Koepf

Most people have choices in their lives that, upon reflection, have the potential to change its course; which college to attend, what career path to follow, who to spend their lives with. In the case of the play Now and Then by Sean Grennan, playing at Invisible Theatre, this theme plays out in showing us a couple who consider changing the direction of their relationship, but to what end. 

The play opens with Jamie, played by William Seidel, closing up the local Irish pub where he works. The door flies open with a flourish and fury, and a man, played by Michael F. Woodson, blows in. Although it is closing time, he requests a drink and won’t take no for an answer. The Man goes over to a video game and astounds Jamie by getting a high score. Abby, Jamie’s girlfriend played by Gabriella De Brequet, bounces in and so the stage is set for the reflective drama to begin. The Man offers them an increasingly large amount of money to keep the bar open and sit, chat and drink with him. 

Gabriella De Brequet as Abby, William Seidel as Jaime, Susan Cookie Baker as The Woman, and Michael F. Woodson The Man. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Gabriella De Brequet as Abby, William Seidel as Jaime, Susan Cookie Baker as The Woman, and Michael F. Woodson The Man. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Designer James Blair did a masterful job with the set. From the dart board, to the video game, and bottles behind the bar, we have no doubt that we are in a Chicago neighborhood pub circa 1981. I kept looking around to see each perfect detail that he captured. There was no doubt in my mind that I was there. Co-directors Susan Classen and Samantha Cormier have done a commendable job with the casting. The ensemble is delightful in its interactions on stage. With the actors perched on bar stools, and drinking shots, even using the real theatre bathroom, there was no question that a scene in a bar was transpiring. The couples really appear to be very much in love, and dialogue flows effortlessly. 

Susan Cookie Baker, who plays The Woman, at times, looks like an older version of Gabriella De Brequet and has her mannerisms and subtle gestures down pat. Is she Abby’s mom or aunt? We really aren’t sure what the connection is until the story unfolds. Baker artfully portrays two very different versions of her character. It is not solely the costumes and hairstyles, but the way she uses her posture, and physical presence on stage to achieve this.

De Brequet’s portrayal of Abby was totally enthralling as she daintily sipped her drink, and hungrily gobbled her rice crispy treats. She was able to reveal the character to us with her physicality as well as her emotional vulnerability. Abby is seen as a young woman deeply in love but conflicted as what the course of her life should be. 

Seidel plays Jamie’s clumsy and awkward and not quite sure of himself, as young men are. His youthful exuberance is evident from the moment he enters the stage whistling. Where will his life take him? Will he get to play and perform with Miles Davis? The Man, played by Woodson, appears to be the most reflective. Often Woodson’s posture reveals a man who somehow is not happy with how his life has evolved. Woodson’s portrayal of the character’s inner dialogue and conflict is revealed by the simultaneous strength and uncertainty of the character. 

It seems to be The Man’s story. If there is any fault with the play, it is in the story itself. Was it truly the couple’s decision to change the course of their lives, or was it primarily the man’s decision? It appears that his is the driving force. Of course the play is set in 1981 and is perhaps reflective of the dynamics in relationships that was prevalent at the time. It is also written by a man. That being said, this is an incredible feel- good play that will leave you smiling as you exit. Laughter, joy and,hope were evident as the audience was exiting the theatre. Love is the theme of IT’s 29th season. Even a confirmed skeptic about love in 2019 will leave with a renewed feeling that love does indeed trump all else.

Now and Then is playing at Invisible Theater through September 15. Shows are 9/11, 9/12, 9/13, 9/14, and 9/15 at 7:30 PM. Matinees at 3:00 PM are available 9/7, 9/8, 9/14, and 9/15. Ticket prices are $35, and group tickets are available. The box office is 882-9721. Tickets are also available on the website at invisibletheatre.com.

 

Love, Lies, and Layers of Vulnerability

by Annie Sadovsky Koepf

So, it is September; often a time for the end of a summer romance for many. Live Theatre Workshop’s production of Heisenberg, by English playwright Simon Stephens, doesn’t address that theme, but another seasonal one of a May-December coupling. This phrase refers to a woman in the early part of her life, hence May, with a man at least 11 years older in the later part of his life, hence December. Although this is not a new topic, Sabian Trout’s direction, the playwright, and the actors all do a convincing job to present this in a novel way. A woman meets a stranger and gives him a kiss on the back of the neck, and the dance of courtship begins as the play opens.

Roberto Guajardo as Alex and Dallas Tomas as Georgie. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Roberto Guajardo as Alex and Dallas Tomas as Georgie. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Not often are we privy to those private moments between a couple as they navigate the waters of the early stages of a romance. Yes, we may see them at a party holding hands and gazing lovingly at each other, but we don’t see what happens between the two of them when they are alone. This is what is revealed in Heisenberg. As incongruous as this couple is with a 33-year age difference, Trout did an excellent job casting. Alex, played by Roberto Guajardo, is a 75-year-old Irish butcher who is a lifelong bachelor. Georgie, played by Dallas Tomas, is a gamine, 42-year-old, manic American receptionist. The scene is London today. The set is stark, and the scene changes are done by the actors themselves. Costuming is minimal and yet makes the characters so believable.
With the sparseness of the set, the costumes, and the lack of other characters, we are meant to focus on the couple. Alex appears closed and in no uncertain terms tells us he has no use whatsoever for feelings. He is adamant about that. Guajardo is a masterful actor as he reveals to us very slowly and subtly the many layers of Alex’s being. From the stereotypical curmudgeon we meet at the start of the play, he changes to a man who eventually is able to show his vulnerability to Georgie, and also to us. Georgie’s energy is so manic we want to get her to slow down. Gradually, she starts to relax and reveal her true self to us. I loved watching the physicality Tomas embraced as Georgie. It reinforced her childlike innocence as well as capitalizing on her sexuality. Make no mistake, Alex was taken by this, but he also responds to her the more she reveals her authentic self. Without distractions, we are able to focus on just two people discovering who the other is, and gradually, inconceivably, falling for each other. As unimaginable as they appear as a couple at the beginning of the show, as they grow and reveal themselves to each other, and to us, we can see why they are together.
This is where the title Heisenberg comes in. It is never referenced in the play. It alludes to German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who introduced his uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics in 1927. It states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. The Heisenberg reference is seen in the apparent disparity of the couple and their seemingly very different outlooks on the world. As we are introduced to the most unlikely pair and see who they are, we are not quite sure how this romance will turn out.
Yes, this is a story that has been told many times. However, it is still a story worth telling as it deals with a most primal need for all of us. That is the need for love and acceptance wherever we are fortunate enough to find it. As a 70-something woman and actor, I would love to see a show with the age differences reversed with the older character being a woman. Of course, I would love to play the lead character! Again, not a stereotypical boy toy or gold digger as the younger male, but with a genuine human connection between seemingly very different characters. All too often when there is an age difference between a couple, erroneous assumptions are made as to the ulterior motives of, usually, the younger member of the duo. The possibility of a genuine connection between this pairing is rarely seen, but this stereotype is not evident at all in Heisenberg. I loved the show and the reimagining of an oft-told tale. Although the author was male, with a strong female character in Georgie and a female director, I did not feel that this was a male-centric work. The theme that love is love is universal and is one that today still needs to be portrayed.
Heisenberg is playing at Live Theatre Workshop through September 28, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 PM, and Sunday at 3:00 PM. The phone number is 520 327-4242. Box office hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 1:00 – 5:00 PM. The box office is open on Thursday through Saturday at 6:30 PM. and Sunday at 2:15 PM. Ticket prices are $18-$20 and are also available through the website livetheatreworkshop.org.

The Little Foxes Strikes a Chord

by Bryn Booth

The rich don’t have to be subtle in Winding Road Theater’s splendid production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. The rich seek to consume the wealth of others while they hoard their own, and during this very polarizing time in America, this story seems more relevant than ever. 

The Little Foxes is set in a small town in Alabama in the early 1900s and circles around the very wealthy Hubbard family. While customs were changing, the vast majority of men in the early 20th century acknowledged only their sons as potential heirs; women such as Regina Hubbard Giddens, played by Cynthia Jeffery, had to seek their fortunes through less straightforward means. Regina desires wealth and power beyond what her husband Horace can give her.  With her two avaricious brothers, she seeks to undermine her husband’s authority and gain his wealth through any means possible. At times the energy seemed to dissipate in this production and the story moved along slowly, but it quickly picked up speed as we dig further into the scandals of the Hubbard family.

Director Glen Coffman clearly wants to immerse us into the world of the aristocratic south, and therefore the ambiance is especially significant. This was accomplished by a minimal yet impressive set with a large, painted staircase and a brightly shining chandelier. The furniture, green velvet adorned with yellow fringe, is cleverly reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara’s infamous gown made of drapes. The effect is instant. Everything is beautiful and delicate, but insidious deeds brew underneath the façade.

Cynthia Jeffery as Regina Hubbard Giddens. Photo by Creatista Photography, courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

Cynthia Jeffery as Regina Hubbard Giddens. Photo by Creatista Photography, courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

Coffman also assembled a talented cast who brought this world to life. Upon Regina Giddens’s first appearance in a lavish purple gown, it is immediately evident that she rules the household.  Purple is traditionally the color of royalty, so I tip my hat to the costumer, Marie Caprile, for making this distinction. Jeffery’s powerful presence as Regina demands the stage as well as respect from her conspiratorial brothers Oscar and Benjamin, played perfectly and mischievously by Dave Davidson and David Alexander Johnston. The two brothers, after failing to convince Regina’s husband Horace, played by a formidable Eric Rau, to invest in the construction of a cotton mill, then offer the idea of an arranged marriage between Oscar’s simple and spoiled son Leo, played by Damian Garcia, and Regina’s bright-eyed daughter Alexandra played by Morgan H. Smith. Garcia’s portrayal of Leo had an amusing “hyuck hyuck” quality and provided the show with much needed comedic relief. Smith gave a moving performance as Alexandra, transforming from naïve young girl to a dignified, intelligent woman. The household servant, Addie, portrayed by Gianbari “Debora” Deebom, proves to be more of a mother figure to Alexandra than Regina ever could be. Deebom’s performance was essential to the production as she maintained the moral authority in the Hubbard household.

I applaud Coffman’s direction because this production struck a chord with me. In the news lately, it seems we learn of more and more financial scandals and how the super-rich have used the lower class to prop themselves up while also hoarding their wealth. Regina, Oscar, and Benjamin were obvious representations of the callous attitudes held by the wealthy. When Horace is hit with a heart attack, Regina simply watches him suffer. It seemed rather poignant for a wealthy person to watch others suffer in order to serve their own agenda. Alexandra, on the other hand, represents a new generation who feels outraged and helpless in the face of such corruption. Her Uncle Benjamin defends this corruption with a sinister line “some people call that patriotism.”

Gianbari “Debora” Deebom as Addie. Photo by Creatista Photography, courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

Gianbari “Debora” Deebom as Addie. Photo by Creatista Photography, courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

It is encouraging to see a company celebrate the work of a female playwright, especially one as fierce as Lillian Hellman, who was known for her activist views. She seems to be calling audiences to action through this play. “[T]here are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it,” Addie, the black servant, states, “…Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.” Hellman is commenting on the complacency of the masses towards the corruption and the power of the wealthy. They get to be corrupt, they get to be criminals, and we are made to feel powerless. Hellman is trying to reignite the fire of anger and indignation in the hearts of the common people. I highly recommend this powerful production and I am excited to see what else Winding Road will create this year.

The Little Foxes is playing Friday, Saturday and Sunday through September 15th at the Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre at The Historic Y (738 N. 5th Avenue, Tucson, AZ, 85705). Tickets are available at windingroadtheater.org. You can also contact the box office by emailing windingroadte@gmail.com or by calling (520) 401-3626. There are discounted tickets available for students, military, and senior citizens.

Meeting Students’ Needs While Entertaining Us – What’s Not to Love at ART?

Editor’s Note: This is the twelfth 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.

Balancing education, entertainment, and moving audiences forward with Hank Stratton.

by Leigh Moyer

ART

Hank Stratton, artistic director of the Arizona Repertory Theatre (ART) and assistant professor in the University of Arizona School of Theatre, Film, and Television, can’t overstate the importance of theatre: “The event of theatre happening in front of you is something that you can’t experience in other forms and we need to show that to younger audiences. Every time I introduce someone to theatre it changes their lives. If you can’t tell a story with a block and a white piece of cloth, you just aren’t doing the job. All the rest of it is gravy. If you don’t have the elements of storytelling, of humanity, of simple talking and listening, then you’ve already gone off the rails. That’s theatre to me.”

This isn’t just a parable; it’s a lesson, one he teaches every year at the University of Arizona. The gravy for audience members is a six-show season that transports and amazes. For Stratton, however, choosing a season isn’t only about what will most entertain the audience but what will best educate his students. He’s unapologetic about it: “You may not always love what we do, but we need to look at what the students need first.”

That said, this season at ART there is a lot to love. 

A classic such as the fall production of Pippin, the fictionalized story of Charlemagne and his son’s quest to please him through war and feats on the battlefield, told through the lense of a troupe of performers, is countered by the spring opener The Wolves, a story that follows the very different kind of warfare of teenage girlhood. The Wolves takes place during the pregame warm up routine of the eponymous soccer team and the conversations they have, experiences they share, and losses they experience on and off the field.

The season also features Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, along with the two more modern pieces The Last Night of Ballyhoo and The Light in the Piazza, and one sure to test walking skills, not to mention acting: The Legend of Georgia McBride. The latter follows the story of an Elvis impersonator who becomes a drag queen. 

Georgia-McBride“Not many of our young students have experience with drag,” Stratton explained, “We’re preparing them in terms of movement, culture, and pathos of those characters. During auditions, we watched all these young men in huge, colorful heels and I had a student come to me and say, ‘You are the one in freshman year who told me that you can’t wear flip flops and get the movement of the characters right if you are in the wrong shoe.’ As a teacher, it’s a feeling of ‘holy shit, this is working!’”

But this production is about far more than seeing college students in flamboyant costumes: “One of the reasons for doing The Legend of Georgia McBride is because the drag community is one that is underrepresented. It takes subjects that confront bias with humor. It is very rare to find a play about counterculture or LGBTQ subjects that doesn’t deal with AIDS. And while that conversation needs to keep going, the great plays from the 90s and aughts were about loss. I hope this take is more relatable to audiences today. It is their differences instead of their commonalities that make them successful.”

Embracing variety is a crucial part of ART’s mission, because along with the entertainment value and teaching students how to improve their stage craft with a given production, Stratton and the ART team are teaching young people how to be human — and representing different people and different stories is key to that.

“It is our responsibility to serve as the theatre, but also as a university and community. Sometimes that means I have to explain why diversity is important. We want everyone to be heard and that means that sometimes we have to ask both the audience and our students to trust us and take chances. We need to move the dial in a lot of ways but I don’t want people to feel like they can’t speak up when and if they feel dissent. We can find common ground in the theatre. One of the things that I appreciate about this season is that we are trying to move conversations through comedy.”

The season is outlined in more detail below and online. You can purchase tickets at theatre.arizona.edu or by contacting the box office at (520) 621-1162. Season subscriptions and single tickets are on sale now. Subscription prices vary based on the series selected. Single ticket prices are $32 for plays and $35 for musicals. Discounts available for students, seniors, military and UA employee/alumni. Group discounts are also available for groups of 10 or more.

University of Arizona Repertory Theatre’s 2019 – 2020 Season:

The Legend of Georgia McBride, by Matthew Lopez
September 21 – October 6, 2019
Casey works as an Elvis impersonator at a local bar and life is good. He even has a new sequin jumpsuit for his act. But in one evening he loses his job, his landlord demands the rent and his wife announces that a baby is on the way. So when a drag show moves into his old place of employment “The King” transforms himself into a queen and with the help of his new friends, he finds a family he never expected. Filled with humor, love and more than a few production numbers, this comedy takes us on a delightful journey that will warm the heart.

Pippin, book by Roger O. Hirson, music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
October 19 – November 3, 2019
With an infectiously unforgettable score from four-time Grammy winner, three-time Oscar winner and musical theatre giant, Stephen Schwartz, Pippin tells the story of one young man’s journey to be extraordinary. Heir to the Frankish throne, the young prince Pippin is in search of the secret to true happiness and fulfillment. He seeks it in the glories of the battlefield, the temptations of the flesh and the intrigues of political power, but none of them supply him with the treasure he seeks. In the end, Pippin finds that happiness lies not in extraordinary endeavors, but rather in the simple, ordinary moments that happen every day.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo, by Alfred Uhry
November 9 – 24, 2019
The year is 1939. While Hitler is invading Poland, Atlanta’s close-knit Jewish community is preparing for the premiere of Gone with the Wind and Ballyhoo, the social event of the year. The Freitag family hopes that the party will be a chance for their daughters to meet their future husbands–but when their uncle brings home his new employee, a handsome Eastern European bachelor from Brooklyn, everyone must confront their own prejudices, desires and beliefs. By turns heartbreaking and uplifting, The Last Night of Ballyhoo won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play.

The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe
February 8 – 23, 2020
The Wolves offers an unflinching, intimate glimpse into the world of a high school women’s soccer team. Nine diverse teammates navigate questions of identity, community, and society all while warming up for the last few games of their season. Playwright Sarah DeLappe’s unique, overlapping dialogue moves from moments that are deadly serious to awkwardly hilarious, but always true to life. With an ensemble of distinct female characters, this fast moving play offers audiences a window into the intense world of female adolescence. The Wolves was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare
March 16 – 29, 2020
Best friends Valentine and Proteus embark on different paths in life only to run into each other again when they both fall in love with the same woman. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, his first comedy and also one of the most rarely performed plays in the canon. The play centers on a host of themes that Shakespeare would spend the rest of his career wrestling with, betrayal, disguise and love. Featuring one of his most beloved clowns, The Two Gentlemen of Verona provides an opportunity to see a master playwright just beginning to flex his genius.

The Light in the Piazza, book by Craig Lucas, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel
April 11 – 26, 2020
This Tony Award winning musical whisks you away to Italy for a captivating tale of passion and romance. It’s the summer of 1953, and Margaret Johnson is travelling the Tuscan countryside with her daughter Clara. When a handsome young Florentine captures Clara’s heart, Margaret must decide if she will risk revealing the truth that could threaten her daughter’s happiness and force her to confront her own choices and dreams. The Light in the Piazza features an intensely romantic score and a heartwarming story of love.