A List of Epic Proportions

by Marguerite Saxton

For the month of February an evening at the Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre will treat you to an immersive experience: a 65-minute trip into the minds of playwright Duncan Macmillan and director Michelle Milne. In Every Brilliant Thing, the narrator Claire Marie Mannle leads an unsuspecting audience with gentle familiarity, a soft consensual nudge that enrolls ordinary folks in becoming co-narrators in this supposedly one-person show. Though we learn that “suicide is contagious,” we’re guided through farcical absurdity – poignant moments of total surreal accuracy, sobering, convoluted pockets of humor wound within the labyrinth of a life. If space permitted, I’d list a million brilliant reasons to see this play. But here are five:

  1. Theatre-in-the-Round (and round and round and round):

The concentric layout of Mannle’s movement keeps this piece in a groove which guides the audience’s eyes in a continual search around the theatre, peeking at one another’s expressions, wondering where the next scene will be, and guessing what delightful, odd treasures it will produce.

  1. Jazz Music on Vinyl:
Claire Marie Mannle in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Claire Marie Mannle in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

There really isn’t a parallel to the nostalgia that vinyl records conjure. The feel of plastic imperfections running under one’s fingertip, the romantic crackling of static perfuming the air, the ritual of buying and unwrapping. The somatic sitting still. Every Brilliant Thing reveals an undeniable reverence for jazz music, treating us to the moody tunes of Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, and Ometta Coleman, just to name a few. One even gets the feeling that the music is a scene partner, a dramaturg of sorts; giving history and credence to the already vulnerable unfolding of life.

  1. Levity in Depression:

Mannle performs a spoken dance in this play – a magnetic ebbing of transformation. Depression is serious and haunting, a generational ghost. Even so, our fearless narrator is graceful as she weaves between seven year old sheepishness and collegiate courage. She fluidly reveals years of time passing, mere minutes to us audience, but great leaps of life’s monuments in her story. We are taken along the non-linear way that most people think and feel in, possessing a secret notion that we’re privy to some private experience, the ones we keep close to our hearts and share only with beloveds.

  1. Audience Tomfoolery:

In this performance there are particular analog moments that defy expectation and tickle the edges of conformity. It blurs the boundaries of authorship and audience, projecting Mannle like a circus ringmaster who hypnotizes us through a mélange, a maze of memories. There are disappointments, assessments, and antics: sock puppets and improvised conversations with “Dad” – serious belly laughs injected into an ordinarily down-beaten topic of depression.

  1. Snacks

Didn’t know live theatre included snacks? Well, it does. This one does. Snacks!

This play is a craftfully produced arrangement of intimate and uncomfortable situations. It’s a good way to laugh at something difficult, which we could all use some allowance to do now and then. It encourages us to embrace the difficult and strive for better, while permitting many moments to laugh at the irony of it all.

Claire Marie Mannle in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Claire Marie Mannle in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Every Brilliant Thing runs from February 7th-24th at The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre, located in the Historic Y at 738 N. 5th Avenue. Evening and matinee shows are available. Tickets can be purchased from scoundrelandscamp.org or directly from the box office on premises. The box office opens for ticket sales one hour prior to the show.

 

Editor’s Note: Marguerite has worked with The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre on other productions and as a teacher with their youth theatre program, she had no involvement with this production. All our reviewers work to identify and avoid any potential biases.

ART’s Top Girls Showcases Top Female Talent

by Holly Griffith

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a big play. Big personalities, big themes, big scenes. David Morden directs Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production deftly, and while the production has weak moments, this cast does an impressive job juggling a complex web of characters, navigating difficult dialogue rhythms, and bringing the evening to a harrowing climax.

The play opens with a challenging scene, where the central character Marlene, played by Rebecca Galcik, hosts a dreamlike dinner party for six women from history. Some are real historical figures, some are characters from folklore, but all arrive with stories to tell. Churchill writes the scene to be fast-paced, with many lines overlapping, as the women discuss their relationships with men and children, their adventures around the world, and their thoughts on religion and philosophy. It is a feast for anyone who has yearned for the advice and wit of those who have gone before us. Given the pacing, the larger than life personalities, the odd theatrical conceit, the difficult subject material, and the four different dialects used onstage, this is an extremely difficult scene to pull off, and a few moments were lost in the shuffle. As someone unfamiliar with the play, the scene was somewhat hard to follow, and I wished Morden had encouraged a slower pace and more demonstrative blocking where possible, especially near the beginning of the scene.

The remaining scenes of the play, however, are worth the wait. The play shifts time, place, and theatrical style, and we get a glimpse into Marlene’s life as a successful businesswoman, and the challenges that come with being a woman at the top. Six of the seven actors play entirely new characters, some of them multiple new characters, and Morden’s casting is masterful. Each actor slips into the skin of someone new, while retaining thematic vestiges of the dinner party scene. Elana Richardson’s Pope Joan character transforms into Joyce, the working class sister of Marlene. Richardson remains stoic, like her papal counterpart from scene one, but adds a downtrodden jadedness more appropriate for Joyce’s socio-economic situation. Eavan Clare Brunswick portrays the Scottish explorer Isabella Bird in the first scene with a proud earthiness, and later becomes Mrs. Kidd, a woman who tries to protect her husband’s job by desperately attempting to unseat Marlene from her high-powered position. While the earthiness of Isabella vanishes, the boldness and sense of pride remains. It was a joy to watch these shape-shifting women command the stage with ever more nuanced performances.

Perhaps the most exciting transformation is in the hands of Maggie McNeil. She arrives at the dinner party as the folkloric Dull Gret, a nearly-mute spud of a woman dressed in battle armor, who seems primarily concerned with getting more to eat. McNeil, with few lines, becomes a highlight of the scene, radiating with childlike curiosity and coarse table manners. The scene ends with an engrossing description of Gret’s brutish invasion of hell. In the following scenes, McNeil plays the devilish teenager Angie, who resents Joyce’s tough love approach to parenting. She captures the feverish energy of teen life without too much wackiness. McNeil’s Angie is magnetic, radiant, and frightening. McNeil plays two characters whose humanity is interrupted by violence, and she strikes that balance beautifully.

The final scene of the play between Marlene and Joyce is also stunning. Galcik and Richardson know this scene inside and out. The two sisters argue over the central problem of the play—Angie is really Marlene’s child, but was raised by Joyce. The two navigate the would-have, could-haves of their past, unearthing resentments and illustrating the nearly impossible situation that Womanhood has put them in. Their dialogue flows like a river, hitting high points and low points, splashing against barriers and overflowing with rising tension. The two perform the scene with an excellent handle on the rhythms of the language and the vulnerability of their characters.

A word on the technical elements of this piece. Allison Morones has a huge job costuming 7 actors as 16 characters, all of whom change clothes, and most of whom change hairstyle. With few missteps, the costumes fit seamlessly into their world. Even the myriad wigs, which can be distracting if not used well, are consistent in their strangeness. They function similarly to masks in this production, giving a tongue-in-cheek nod to the double-casting in the play. Additionally, director David Morden achieves an almost impossible feat of coaching at least four dialects, ranging from Scottish to Japanese. While some actors handled dialect more naturally than others (Eavan Clare Brunswick has executed 3 different dialects this season, all masterfully), I was impressed with the consistency and range of dialects onstage.

I want to take a moment to praise ART for producing not one but two plays this season with all-female casts. The technical and design team for Top Girls is also a majority of women. It is empowering to watch women hold space onstage for an entire evening, and it gives female artists a chance to work together in ways that are rare in the performing arts. At the same time, I wish the University had more female directors. While I applaud Morden’s work on Top Girls, it also occurred to me that white men will direct almost all the main stage productions at ART this season. I hope that the University will consider diversifying their staff, especially when it comes to faculty with directing qualifications.

Top Girls runs at Arizona Repertory Theatre through Sunday, February 24th. Tickets are available online through the ART box office: 520-621-1162 or theatre.arizona.edu.

 

Editor’s Note: While Holly is an adjunct instructor in the School of Theatre, Film, and Television, she has no relationship with any students involved in Top Girls, personally or professionally. Additionally, Holly has worked professionally with David Morden. While this does not impact how a performance is reviewed, we feel it is important to disclose any potential biases.

Put On Your Dancing Shoes!

by Gabriella De Brequet

Walking into the Invisible Theatre for the first time I was greeted by Susan Claassen, Artistic Director of the Invisible Theatre Company and Director of Dancing Lessons. As we prepared to enter the theatre, Ms. Claassen announced to the patrons that the show would run eighty-eight minutes with no intermission and that following the performance there would be a post-show discussion with Joshua Anbar, a board member at The Autism Society of Southern Arizona. Ms. Claassen told us that the subject matter of the play was near and dear to her heart and that she was excited to share the play with each and every one of us. We were ushered into the theatre, Ms. Claassen ripped our tickets and hoped that we enjoyed the play. Ms. Claassen’s incredible hospitality truly warmed my heart and I could not write this review without acknowledging it.

Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn and Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn and Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Dancing Lessons, by Mark St. Germain, is a romantic comedy about an unexpected friendship which emerges between an injured Broadway dancer, Senga Quinn played by Samantha Cormier, and a professor of environmental studies with Asperger’s Syndrome, Ever Montgomery played by Damian Garcia. The play centers around a series of dancing lessons in which Ever pays Senga to teach him how to dance for an upcoming public event where he is to be honored for his environmental work. The play explores what a relationship between a neurotypical and neurodiverse individual may look like while attempting to find a common ground in which they can successful communicate mentally, physically, and emotionally. The narrative is heartwarming and hilariously written with clear direction and a sharp focus on what it means to be human, no matter your genetic makeup. The performances were well orchestrated as both actors supported and actively listened to each other on stage. Mr. Garcia’s Ever was thoughtful, hilarious, and most importantly honest. Ms. Cormier’s Senga was loaded with subtext, intention, and physical comedy which helped illustrate the character’s need to suppress her fear of never being able to dance again.

The set design by James Blair and props design by Susan Claassen put us into a hyper-realistic, small New York apartment decorated with contemporary musical theatre posters, littered Lay’s potato chip bags, and a remote controlled stereo which helped set the play in the present. The only prop that didn’t quite fit in was the landline telephone which was used several times during the play. Let’s be honest: no twenty-something has a landline phone in their home in this day and age, but this small inconsistency was easy to look past once the play got rolling. The costumes by Maryann Trombino helped support both character’s state of mind and visually represented the drastic differences between the two characters.

Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery and Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery and Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Dancing Lessons left me feeling uplifted and hopeful that society can do better when it comes to adapting behavior to accommodate marginalized people from many walks of life. In a time where our communities can be so divided, it is incredibly important to produce work which reminds us that we have a lot to learn from each other. A world of kindness, unity, and understanding is a world in which we should all work harder to create.

Dancing Lessons plays Feb 5th through 17th at The Invisible Theatre located at 1400 North First Avenue. General Admission tickets are $35. For more information about show times call (520) 882-9721 or visit www.invisibletheatre.com.

 

Editor’s Note: Gabriella went to college with Damian Garcia and has played opposite him in academic productions at Pima Community College. As Tucson’s theatre community is tight knit, both a plus and a potential for bias we are well aware of and experienced in putting aside to provide quality reviews.

Don’t Miss This F#!*ing Play

by Gretchen Wirges

I walked into the Cabaret theater at the Temple of Music and Art, and quickly found my seat in the front row. Perusing the program, the other patrons, and the visible set, I notice that cast of Winding Road’s Stupid F#!*ing Bird have started to trickle onto the stage becoming part of the scenery, part of the fabric of the space. Another member of the cast walks on, takes center, and says “The play will begin when someone says: ‘Start the fucking play’.” So of course, I did, and the play began.

Stupid F#!*ing Bird, written by American playwright Aaron Posner, is an adapted version of Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. Russian drama is heavy, dark, and often very abstract. This adaptation is all of those things and more, in the best sense of each word. The play unfolds by introducing us to an ensemble of flawed characters looking for love and truth.

Richard Thompson as Trigorin, Samantha Severson as Conrad, Tony Caprile as Som, Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Jodi Ajanovich as Emma, and China Young as Mash. Photo courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

Richard Thompson as Trigorin, Samantha Severson as Conrad, Tony Caprile as Som, Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Jodi Ajanovich as Emma, and China Young as Mash. Photo courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

The play, directed by Maria Caprile, centers around struggling playwright Conrad, played by Samantha Severson. He struggles not just with his work, but with his relationships. He seems to yearn for connection and honest love from his wide-eyed, ambitious romantic partner Nina, played by Liz Claire , as well as his selfish, successful mother, Emma played by Jodi Ajanovic. Emma struggles with her connection with her son, her brother Sorn, played by Tony Caprile, and her romantic partner Trigorin, played by Richard Thompson. Also part of dynamic struggle is Mash, played by China Young, who has unrequited love for Conrad, and yet is quietly pursued by Dev, played by Tyler Gastelum.

I see a lot of theatre, and it’s been quite a while since I’ve been so enraptured by a play. The ensemble’s honest portrayal of these flawed characters was heartbreaking, and exciting, and such a joy to watch unfold.

Young’s beautiful portrayal of Mash is dark and tender and also humorous, allowing us to identify with her emotional rawness and sense of yearning. Gastelum’s Dev is sweet and grounded and kind and such a subtle standout in this incredibly talented cast. I rooted for him, and hurt for him when rebuffed. Thompson’s Trigorin is smarmy, sexy and yet wonderfully indicative of creative genius (of both the character and the actor). Emma, in the hands of Ajanovic was beautifully reminiscent of theatre greats like Carol Burnett who lace their character’s pain with humor and self-effacing energy. Near the end of the play, she delivers a monologue to Trigorin that took my breath away. Claire’s portrayal of Nina is sweet and tragic. She deftly handles the arc of this character from lightness to dark. Caprile’s Sorn is subtle, and hovers around the periphery of the play with great intention.

And then there’s Severson. Let me take a deep breath for a moment before I go on because she is Just. That. Good. Severson’s portrayal of Conrad’s descent into depression and desperation is nothing short of magical. At the beginning of the play, I noticed that some of the speeches were a little in the pocket, a little rehearsed, a little thin. But Severson unfolds into this play with a beautiful sense of intention and understanding of the demands of such a heavy role. I hurt when she hurt, I angered when she angered, I leaned in when she fell silent.

Samantha Severson as Conrad (center), with Tony Caprile as Som and Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Photos courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

Samantha Severson as Conrad (center), with Tony Caprile as Som and Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Photos courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

This was only the second performance of the run of “Stupid Fucking Bird”. As an actor and a director myself, I know what gifts come from the duration of the totality of a play. One performance is only a small sliver of the gifts of the whole. Each performance brings new understanding of the characters, the intent, and the impact of the content. Sometimes, a revelation comes late in the run that you wish you’d had at the beginning. And I remember thinking while watching this cast, that I want to get tickets for the final performance of this show. Because I want to see what they discover in this journey.

There is a monologue that Severson delivers as Conrad about the intent of art and the needs for new forms of theater. And the play quickly becomes self-referential by directly addressing the audience and calling out the play within a play within a play. There were times I felt uncomfortable, but I think that’s what great art, and this production in particular, does superbly.

One of my only criticisms of the play was in regards to the set. While attractive and well thought-out, one of the central visual pieces was incredibly distracting. There is a large wooden platform that morphs from dock/stage to the flooring of the home on stage. The wood of the platform would creak so loudly every time someone stepped onto it, that it would sometimes take me out of the moment. Hopefully it’s a simple fix because the rest of the setting is perfectly adorned in its warmth and detail.

My only other criticism was in regards to the gendering of the character of Conrad. We are in an exciting time of gender and cultural play in casting. With women embodying exciting roles typically inhabited by men, I wonder if we do a disservice to this effort by having the character remain male.  Why couldn’t Conrad/Con/Connie be female? It wouldn’t change the story. The pain of loss and love and family and disappointment and depression isn’t restricted to gender-specific experience. When I saw that Severson was cast as Conrad, I yearned for the experience of a gender-swapped role. I wonder what more nuance she could bring to her already powerful portrayal. The more we can see characters as bodies of experience and not only as a pigeon-holed color, gender, or age, the more we can explore the core human experience of these characters and find new connections and meaning.

Bottom line, I implore you to go see this play. Challenge yourself to break out of the norm and into new forms of art and theatre like Winding Road’s production of “Stupid Fucking Bird”. The script is challenging and the cast accepts that grand challenge by knocking it clean out of the proverbial park. As soon as you stop reading this review, click on this link and buy your tickets to see it. Today.

Stupid F#!*ing Bird is playing Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm through February 17th. Call Winding Road Theater at 520-401-3626 or visit windingroadtheater.org for more information about this show and the rest of their season.

Children Need Quality Theatre Too

by Gretchen Wirges

The Brave Knight, Sir Lancelot is a family show with a lot of humor, a lot of unexpected messages, and a lot of joy. Often, family theatre is dismissed as not “real” theatre. But what we forget is that family-style shows are often a child’s first exposure to live theatre. Theatres that produce quality family programming have the opportunity to spark a life-long love of the stage.

The cast of The Brave Knight, Sir Lancelot. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The cast of The Brave Knight, Sir Lancelot. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

I took my cousin’s 5-year-old Lucas with me to see Brave Knight. He was antsy from the second we walked in because he was so excited for the show. We sat in the back row  (his choice) and ooh-ed and ah-ed over the beautifully painted forest on stage.

The story, written by local playwright Richard Gremel, was based on the legend of Sir Lancelot, but took a different twist by creating a play-within-a-play when Lancelot and a wandering acting troupe team up to tell us the story of Lancelot’s most recent conquest. The difference between this show and much of the canned children’s shows I’ve seen was that this show took the cultural care to ensure gender roles were not cliche. Destiny, a maiden wandering through the woods, is out on a quest of her own. She isn’t lost, she doesn’t need to be rescued, and she surely isn’t intending to be swept up in romance by the first handsome face she sees.

Under the direction of Erica Quintero Heras, the show really was wonderfully choreographed and cast. It isn’t mired down by too many costumes or set changes or elaborate movement. The basics were kept simple, allowing the cast to work their magic with the script.

Lancelot, played by William Seidel, was cheeky and brought a fun spirit to Sir Lancelot. His performance was a little bit timid, mostly surrounding what appeared to be lack confidence in his singing. His sidekick Bob, played by Adrian Encinas, was so wonderfully funny and bright. His facial expressions and character vocalization added so much color to the dialogue and the show as a whole. Kyleigh Sacco, who played Destiny, was powerful and strong and believable as this spirited maiden. Amanda Gremel played the roving actor who becomes the witch Sybil. Gremel was funny and animated and added so much to the story. And Taylor Thomas, playing Sybil’s henchwoman Helga, was delightful to watch, especially in her musical numbers. Thomas, Gremel and Sacco’s singing really made it work as a musical.

When I asked Lucas what he thought about the show he said he was sad. Surprised by that answer, I asked him why. “Because I hoped it would be longer,” was his response. I’d say that’s a rousing endorsement from this critical 5-year-old. Lucas and I left Live Theater Workshop with smiles on our faces and clucking like chickens. (You’ll have to go see the show to find out why!)

I thought the story was refreshing and unexpected. I don’t have kids of my own, but I couldn’t help but think about how great it is for kids to see these types of stories where the girl isn’t the perpetual weak victim and the hero isn’t always the dashing male protagonist.

The Brave Knight Sir Lancelot is playing at Live Theater Workshop on Sundays at 12:30pm through March 24. You can buy tickets on their website, livetheaterworkshop.org, or by calling the box office at 520-327-4242.

Standing on the Rails

by guest reviewer Richard Thompson

Cedric Mays as Sterling. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Cedric Mays as Sterling. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

With righteous fury and inconsolable indignation buried down in his eyes, a nigga stood on stage. And where the world heard a question tear out this man’s mouth, my eyes welled and I cried deep from the combustible power before me, because I knew then what playwright August Wilson is trying to tell the audience from the very beginning, with the most magically absurd testament to the importance of acknowledging the needs, expectations, and humanity of a person: “Where’s my ham?”

Two Trains Running, masterfully directed by Lou Bellamy at Arizona Theater Company, is the kind of story that you hear from your pops when he wants to remind you how bad he used to be way back when, or how Aunt Lulu May wouldn’t take no excuse to acting a fool, especially ’cause you living with her now ’cause mom stopped coming home. It is a story of invisible peoples’ struggles and triumphs, of life. Just life. Two Trains Running barrels down the narrow tunnel from the past on to the future, and the audience is standing right on the rails. Yet, Wilson nurtured a luminosity in this play by allowing the audience to see life from the eyes of a nigga. When it comes to the inherent and critical necessity of owning one’s own identity – of knowing who you are and where you come from – it’s vital to know that a nigga isn’t what you think it is.

I promise, it’s all good. It’s good because this is a story about niggas, niggahs, niggas, nyaggas, and NI-GGAHHS. Did that sentence make you uncomfortable? It’s all good, there wasn’t one bad word in that sentence; you’re confusing it with another, completely different word – the one we all undeniably know, so for the sake of this discussion – and to make sure you all feel cool and chill despite being unsure on proper cultural protocol, I give you permission to mentally say the above term for as long as it takes you to read this article – it’s okay, I made sure it cool at the last meeting. But only for this article.

Set during a time of civil unrest, social awakening, and reclamation of identity, Wilson introduces us to men and women who could easily slip right into our shoes and we wouldn’t know the difference. Men and women who struggle all day to be seen as who they are, especially when the terms that identify them are only arbitrarily scary or undefinable to others who are afraid to see the beauty in it. Men and women who proudly identify as niggas in such a simply dignified manner, that today’s audience before them, filled with hues ranging from apricot to midnight, understood exactly what was being said: brother, sister, baby, muthafuka, fam. And no one had to explain why.
August Wilson gave the audience even more than they would recognize. A word now infused with such fluidity; and power; and comradery; and inherent understanding. This is a word that transcends time now. It is the original “I am Spartacus” (or for the cool kids: “I am Groot”). The undeniable affirmation of worth that a people considered disposable can take a word that was borne from the putrid places rooted in fear and remold, remake, and reinstitute that phrase; instead claiming it completely – history and all – owning who we are and who we can be.

His work, so relevant today as it was 60 years ago, places front and center the cold realities that one’s own definition is always being defined by others and – as Sterling, played effortlessly by Cedric Mays, so exuberantly expressed while resting easy on the bar bench waiting for a particular waitress – that the notion ‘Black is Beautiful’ is not only a reminder that we are in fact here; but we are in fact good. And if black can be beautiful, then why can’t being a nigga be a good thing?

It’s the Hill District, Pittsburgh, 1969. This is where niggas live. Jim Crow didn’t die once he crossed the Mason-Dixon Line; instead his overt influence shifted to a more covert and insidious existence in cities up north such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland. He found easy sanctuary in building contracts, imminent domain claims, and employment repudiations, where important rules can be written without much notice, where racism and segregation were just as baked into the system, just not as publicly. It’s during this time of civil-unrest and social awakening, in a once vibrant neighborhood, that we watch the slow whisper of time descend on a small diner where the former problem of having too few chairs for patrons has now become the problem of having too many empty chairs.

Alan Bomar Jones, Dennis Spears, and James Craven. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Alan Bomar Jones as Holloway, Dennis Spears as West, and James Craven as Memphis. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Memphis, the single-minded restaurateur at the center of the play, is performed with a deliberate determination by James Craven, and he has a way of speaking that when his voice cracks from feeling violated, you almost forget what an insufferable son-of-a-bitch he can be.

Risa, owned by Erika LaVonn, brings a quiet omnipotence in her performance. With few words, her eyes command respect and forethought that no other character emphasizes throughout. Her masterful trick is fooling the world into thinking it is silencing her, when the reality is she has decided not to speak. She watches and knows the clockworks of the world, even if it is only placing a cap on hat rack everyday.

Ahanti Young, Cedric Mays, and Erika LaVonn. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Cedric Mays as Sterling and Erika LaVonn as Risa. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Lester Purry wields a grin like a weapon and I have no doubt, many have fallen from it. Mr. Purry plays Wolf, a man who knows the hustle, with such a realistic ferocity that every phone call, gait, laugh, and scribble on his bookie pad seems like ATC just went to Silverlake and 22nd and asked for a corner-boy to play an actor for a night.

Which brings us to the rest of these standout actors that turned the stage into a smudged glass window so we could peer inside and watch a moment in time that seems eerily like today; Holloway (Alan Bomar Jones) and West (Dennis W. Spears) were characters who provided an emotional stabilizer for the rest of the cast. Not necessarily understated, their roles were subdued proficiently by Bellamy, so that when Holloway asks, “Which is better, the fields or the streets?” the audience doesn’t need further explanation.

And lastly we have Sterling and Hambone, played unparalleled by Ahanti Young. Whereas all the other characters railed, cursed, embraced, or shrugged off how the world saw them, these two did not. Hambone, ultimately impotent but completely justified in his need to be given what was his, but not knowing how to say it, and Sterling, knowing exactly what to say, how to say it, and who to say it to, but still trying to find his own voice.

And when Sterling did find his voice, it was in the form a three worded question: “Where’s my ham?”

Scenic Designer Vicki Smith continues her dazzling ability, as she had done in Low Down Dirty Blues, to construct pieces that resonate with the time and feeling of an era without inundating the audience with unnecessary flamboyant novelties. Choosing to stick with very earthen colors for the structural elements of the diner, she weaves in history through old Dad’s Rootbeer placards that rust above the kitchen, carefully placed jackets that subtly tip-toed greys and greens on the wall, and the most deceptively resonant stage props: shining, cerulean blue barstools. The cushions are a slice of blue so vibrant, yet unassuming, they became inanimate reaffirmations of the individuals that inhabited the same space.

Arizona Theatre Company’s Resident Sound Designer, Brian Jerome Peterson, delivered intermixed a smoke compilation of jazz and blues, electric and folk, and even soul, so that we are not tied to a day from a song-list, we are connected to entire generations through song. This harmonic gateway started the only way it was could have as far as I’m concerned: On the Trail from the Miles Davis album Grand Canyon Suite. As slow, nightscape scales, pips, and bursts drip down, the flats and sharps rest easy on every piece of fabric that touches the ensemble cast as if the notes were woven into the thread before the show.

Lighting Designer Don Darnutzer enhanced the raw feelings expressed throughout the production by highlighting the stage with ethereal god-ray type lighting, in both moments of blossoming love to disdainful reflection, reminding me that heavenly moments can be found when the world is falling apart. Even if the world may not be falling apart completely, it’s certainly following that predictable ebb and flow we can’t ever seem to escape. There is an inevitable rock in the stream marking where our history and our future intersect in the present, and how the lessons learned before now seem to go forgotten, only to be relearned later in the hopes that this time they will take hold.
So where are tracks taking us now? We know what happens to Hill district by the end of Act III, but it’s now that we have the opportunity to actually get somewhere. As important to remember the Memphis, Risas, and Sterlings of the past it is just as important also recognizing the Kapernicks, Castiles, Gardeners, Rices, and Martins of today. They were all niggas and that doesn’t make them bad. But it defines them.

And isn’t that the point? How we define ourselves. The businesses we build. The individuality we ascribe. The knowledge we collect. The bodies we bury. The scars we collect. Or, as Wolf so eloquently embodied for us with the grace of gold-plated peacock, “the amount of money in yo’ pocket.” These aspects of worth are what is being taken and thrust upon the characters as they find time to be distracted by neighborhood myths and invisible thieves. Yet, the silence was undeniable when the most important question wasn’t being asked anymore: “Where’s my Ham?” Because it was never a question. It was never a plea. It was a demand for an answer. The owed answer to the historic and perpetuated denial of one’s own right to their own very existence as a person. The denial of the fact that I am, in fact, right here.

So where’s my ham, nigga!?

Watch Two Trains Running at the Temple of Music and Art through February 9th. Showtimes and tickets are available at arizonatheatre.org.

 

About the guest reviewer:
Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson (Actor) was born in Kokomo, Indiana. He has no relevant education from any formal institution in theater or film. His writing career comprises of columnist work for The Arizona Daily Star, editor for Persona Magazine, content creator of Looking Back manuscript for P.C.C., Sandscript Magazine contributor, and editor and columnist for Gourmet News for which he received a James Beard nomination for his article, “Holy See-Food”. He is also a Hearst Poet and a published IEEE author (2018-2019), as well as a technical writer whose proposals, grants and speeches have totaled in over $250k in gained between 2016 to now. Since 2017, The Community Players produced his stage play, Last Call, followed by performances in No Admittance (Bill Bowen) and One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest (Chief), numerous Radio Theater shows, backstage crew for ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) as well as multiple roles in musical shows. In 2018, he worked under Eugenia Wood in Hark, with Ron Athey, Cassils, and Arshia Fatima in Cyclic, and produced his original manuscript The GRANDest Pageant. Films include Rise, The Righteous Twelve, and The GRANDest Pageant. In 2019, he founded Graveyard Production Company (www.gyproco.com) and will perform Exist.

The Deeper Meaning of Sports

by China Young

 

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Spoiler Alert: My Life in Sports, a one man show written and performed by English professor Bill Epstein and performed at Scoundrel & Scamp, is not actually about sports. Well, not entirely. I felt as though sports served more as a loom and thread. A tapestry of life experiences is woven before our very eyes. The structure of the story-telling takes on various shapes and patterns as Epstein connects memories through time, using anecdotes and metaphors that often circle back to where they started.

The simplicity of the direction and production design by Bryan Rafael Falcón and the sincerity of Epstein’s delivery of the dialogue drew me in with a comfortable warmth that felt like I was 8 years old being told a folk tale by my grandfather and hanging on every word. Now that I think of it, the play starts when Epstein is 8 years old, so perhaps that was the intention all along. I found it to be a very effective way to draw people in, although at times I did find myself drifting simply from the soothing tones of the narration. Still, I was very impressed with the production and how the concept of sports, whether literal or metaphorical, took me on a journey that touched me profoundly.  

The thing I appreciated the most was Epstein’s reflections on the relationship between sports and the “construct of masculinity.” We all know that there seems to be this unspoken “romance” between men and sports. Not all men experience this of course, and not all people that experience this are men, but somehow society has created this construct of “boys play sports” that this production explores a little more deeply and with a self-awareness that is appreciated in a time where constant social examination and re-evaluation is needed. Epstein does a fantastic job capturing the essence of the time in which he was raised, amplifying the understood gender norms, racial inequality, and his privilege of being not only a white male, but also his father’s son. He discusses, at times, how sports, or sport-like behavior, was how boys established their pecking order. In his Author’s Notes he states “Virtually the only live and unrehearsed programming still on network television, the subject being discussed, endlessly, on twenty-four-hour talk-radio stations across the country, the section of the newspaper most men turn to first, sports are a powerful and influential narrative formation, one of the crucial ways that American men construct identity.”

We all saw this truth during the NFL “taking a knee” controversy, which, as you’ve noticed, has disappeared as quickly as began (maybe because it’s off-season, or maybe because those that were “offended” by it have moved on to other asinine battles… but I digress). My biggest fear is that sports is to America what the games of the Colosseum were to Rome, a tactic to distract the poor from their poverty in the hopes that they would not revolt. I don’t dislike sports, and played them for many years (before theatre took complete reign of my life), but I believe they have the power to keep the masses complacent just as they have the power to fuel the “masculinity complex.” Although he used some derogatory language on occasion, and I hate giving him the “product of his time” pass, I wasn’t terribly bothered by it because it was made clear that that was in fact the past, and not the present, and I believe and embrace the social evolution of which we are all capable. If we don’t know where we came from, we can’t possibly accurately assess where we are.  

There were several other lovely elements of the production. The space is lightly littered with a baseball bat and glove, eventually a coat rack with a jacket to signify Epstein’s scholarly career choice, and even a pair of ballet shoes to represent Epstein’s late wife, but to also remind us that dance is another sport that significantly impacted his life. The use of projections offered environmental settings, magnification of text, and the creation of emotional atmospheres. The subtle sound effects enhanced those atmospheres, as did the simplicity of the lighting. Epstein includes references to Tennessee Williams in his Author’s Note, describing memory as “dimly lighted” and “poetic” and “seems to happen to music.” The design team, comprised of Bryan Rafael Falcón, Josh Hemmo (Projection design), Connor Greene (Production Design Associate), Brian Graham (Lighting Designer), and Tyler Berg (Sound Design), manage to capture that description of memory within the intimate performance area with skill and artistry.  

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Though I could call out this production for is male-heavy team (Stage Manager Marguerite Saxon being the only female name listed) and focus on the voice of yet another white man, the content of the work gives me faith that these men understand the privileged patriarchal patterns society perpetuates. Besides, if they are engaging in the creation of theatre, they have likely broken from the “construction of masculinity” imbedded in a “life in sports.”

My Life in Sports plays at Scoundrel & Scamp Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm. For tickets call 448-3300 or visit scoundrelandscamp.org.