SAPAC’s Hot Mikado is a Hoot: A Well-Executed (pun intended) Take on an Old Favorite

by Emily Lyons

Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company’s production of Hot Mikado, now playing at the Scoundrel & Scamp theater, lives up to the title. It sizzles with fast pacing, fun choreography, and spunky, high-energy performances from the whole ensemble. 

Erin Anderson as Pitti-Sing, Aliyah Douglas as Yum-Yum, Ruthie Hayashi as Peep-Bo in Hot Mikado. Photo by Molly Condit, courtesy of Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Erin Anderson as Pitti-Sing, Aliyah Douglas as Yum-Yum, Ruthie Hayashi as Peep-Bo in Hot Mikado. Photo by Molly Condit, courtesy of Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Hot Mikado puts a swing-era spin on Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 operetta, but aside from reworking Sullivan’s music in a different style and updating some of the dialogue, the familiar story is largely unchanged. Nanki-Poo (Christopher Esguerra), son of the Mikado (Matthew Holter) and heir to the throne of Japan, has fled the court and the aggressive attentions of Katisha (Jaqueline Stewart), an elderly court lady. Disguised as the second trumpet in the Titipu town band, he has wandered far and wide in search of his beloved Yum-Yum (Aliyah Douglas), with whom he reunites only to discover that she is shortly to be married, albeit unwillingly, to Ko-Ko (Tyler Wright), the recently appointed Lord High Executioner. We learn that Ko-Ko acquired his title through a loophole in the Mikado’s law declaring flirting a capital offense. Nevertheless, to satisfy the Mikado’s order that someone must be beheaded, “a victim must be found,” and soon. This creates a series of complications for romantic rivals Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko, and their would-be bride Yum-Yum. 

Before I get into reviewing this production, I have to confess that I was both curious and a little nervous about this assignment. I was curious because, although I am a die hard Gilbert and Sullivan fan and could probably sing the entire score of the original The Mikado from top to bottom, I was only vaguely aware of Hot Mikado. As much as I love The Mikado, it is, at best, a problematic choice in 2020. Many historic (and sadly, even some recent) productions featuring largely white casts have leaned into the script’s offhand caricaturing of Japanese culture and gone full yellow-face, rendering the productions cringey and unwatchable now. So, I was nervous about how SAPAC would navigate the ridiculous and orientalist version of Japan, and also how a 1940s jazzy update might further compound the material’s inherent problems. David H. Bell and Rob Bowman’s Hot Mikado is reconstructed from jazz-infused, all-black productions of The Mikado dating from the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. My question going into the show was, how do you pull this off with a majority white cast and band without teetering into cultural appropriation and minstrel show territory? Consider these issues, but I’ll leave it to you to judge what is appropriate or not. I will say that I think director Kelli Workman was wise for choosing to take a minimalist route with set design and costumes that mostly avoid overt references to either Japan or the Cotton Club. 

Happily, Hot Mikado is A Very Silly Play that manages to mostly transcend its baggage. I found myself smiling broadly starting from Nanki-Poo’s debut in “A Wand’ring Minstrel I” until the show’s finale—and only raised my eyebrows a couple of times. With a premise this absurd and jokes that can seem dated, the directing, especially regarding physical comedy, can make or break the show. My hat is off to Kelli Workman, assistant director/choreographer Thea Hinojosa, and assistant choreographer Jessica Lumm for their inventive and humorous direction. There’s one bit in “I Am So Proud” that makes me cry-laugh to remember: the song was so well executed by Tyler Gastelum (Pooh-Bah), Jacob Walters (Pish-Tush), and Tyler Wright (Ko-Ko) due to their great chemistry as this trio of buffoons. I also noticed many people in the audience were clearly hearing these jokes for the first time, and their genuinely delighted reactions were wonderful for me to experience as someone who knows the text well.

In this production, everybody is given something to do, so even minor characters and ensemble members get a chance to shine. The entire cast had great energy and played off of one another really well. I especially want to commend the younger members of the cast for their great jobs, and I look forward to seeing them in future shows. Still, I want to highlight a few standouts. Aliyah Douglas is very funny and very darling as Yum-Yum. Erin Anderson as Pitti-Sing wows with her gospel stylings in the Act 1 finale. Jacqueline Stewart as Katisha brings big vamp energy to her two solo ballads (thankfully not played for laughs). Jacob Walters is delightfully campy and frenetic as Pish-Tush. While his performance came uncomfortably close at times to a Cab Calloway impersonation, Matthew Holter is suave and captivating as the tap-dancing Mikado. Finally, Tyler Wright as Ko-Ko very nearly stole the show with his spot-on, hilarious performance. 

Take your whole family to Hot Mikado; there’s something in it that everyone will enjoy. Even Gilbert and Sullivan purists will not be disappointed. Hot Mikado runs until January 26th at the Scoundrel and Scamp Theater. Tickets are $20-$25; for ticket information call (520) 261-9309 or visit www.sapactucson.org

Set up a meeting with The Norwegians

by Betsy Labiner

Clockwise from top: Avis Judd as Olive, Samantha Cormier as Betty, and Stephen Frankenfield as Gus. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Clockwise from top: Avis Judd as Olive, Samantha Cormier as Betty, and Stephen Frankenfield as Gus. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The Norwegians, by C. Denby Swanson, is more like a Tucson winter than the Minnesota winter in which it’s set; it’s brisk without being cold, bright but not quite sunny, with moments of warmth chased by a sudden chill. 

The play opens with a woman seeking to engage two men as contract killers. We soon learn that Olive and her friend Betty (played by Avis Judd and Samantha Cormier, respectively) have decided to have their ex-boyfriends killed. The titular Norwegians, Tor and Gus (played by Keith Wick and Stephen Frankenfield, respectively), are gangsters – “but nice ones!” The hit men are very invested in their marketing and customer satisfaction, and their amusing asides about how best to manage and grow their business are peppered throughout with reminders of just what their business is. 

We learn about the characters in trickles, as we jump between Olive’s conversation with Tor and Gus, and the earlier conversation with Betty that led her here. Under Robert Guajardo’s direction, Live Theatre Workshop’s production makes strong use of the minimalist set, using changes in lighting to create different times and locations on a single stage. The characters’ conversations at times feel disjointed as vignettes interrupt each other to offer background and additional perspectives, including at times having characters directly address the audience, but the play flows well overall as it unspools across the accumulated moments. Judd’s Olive vacillates between heartbroken fury and wistful hope, while Cormier’s Betty rants about men in general in a way that makes clear her fixation on one man in particular. The women’s interactions are both familiar and outrageous, as their frank discussion of murder is interspersed with commentary on forming friendships in bar bathrooms, what it means to be “nice”, and how to move forward after breakup. Tor and Gus, meanwhile, are oddly charming despite uneasy moments in which underlying violence bubbles up. In one exchange, as Tor seeks praise from Olive, Wick put his hands in his jacket pockets and swayed gently, giving off a disarmingly sweet and boyish air that was pointedly at odds with the way Judd was cringing away from him. As Gus, Frankenfield was more energetic, at times even bordering on unhinged – a tendency that was repeatedly condemned as not very Norwegian. 

This is a play for those with a penchant for dark humor, along with those with at least some familiarity with the Midwest and its cultural mores. Though I’m neither a Midwesterner nor of Scandinavian descent, the majority of the jokes still worked for me, and I laughed out loud at many points in the play. However, I suspect a woman down the row from me – who after the play informed me that she was from Minneapolis – got even more out of the play, as she absolutely cackled with delight for the duration. The dry humor of the observations on romance and relationships, astrology, and happiness felt more universal, and I found myself nodding along and huffing in amused recognition as characters ranted about their hopes, fears, and experiences. The desire to kill (or kill by proxy) is treated as simply a fact of life, as Tor blandly explains, “Everyone wants someone dead at least once in their life. This is just your time.” I found the play’s lasting message to be about choice: how we tackle choices that can’t be reversed, how we react to getting what we thought we wanted, and, perhaps most crucially, how we can choose to be happy. This final aspect is a fascinating line of thought, particularly in a comedy about murderous revenge, and left me mulling on when and how we variously support or sabotage happiness in ourselves. 

The dark premise of this play may not be for everybody, and the dialogue contains a good deal of profanity, but if you’re in the mood for a killer comedy with a large helping of Minnesota personality, let The Norwegians execute the job. 

The Norwegians runs at Live Theatre Workshop through February 15th, Thursday–Saturday at 7:30 PM, and Sunday at 3:00 PM. Tickets may be purchased online at livetheatreworkshop.org, by phone at 520-327-4242, or at the box office beginning one hour prior to shows (walk-up purchasing is always pending availability).

Moving, Beautiful Production of Moby Dick is Better Than the Book

by Lena Quach

I am going to start off this review by being brutally honest with you, readers. I loathe the novel and walked into the theater highly skeptical. I wondered if I would find myself fighting to stay awake. I was quickly proved very, very, very wrong. The Rogue Theatre’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick is artistic collaboration at its finest. Cynthia Meier and Holly Griffith adapted the novel and what a dream team they are. This dream duo adapted a tough story in a way that draws you in as an audience member and keeps you wondering what might happen next. I was also pleasantly surprised by the appearance and addition of the Three Fates. This added an extra level of magical mystery. 

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

The production showcases several types of artistic collaboration from music direction by Russell Ronnebaum, movement coaching from Patty Gallagher, Don Fox’s lighting design and Joe McGrath’s set design. I was very impressed by one specific scene that had choreography by Ballet Tucson’s Daniel Precup. Precup’s knowledge of traditional character dances was highlighted in this dance and added a wonderful energy and beauty to the show. 

The performances were moving and beautifully done. Aaron Shand was the perfect Ishmael. He gave Ishamel a relatable and human aspect that was greatly appreciated. I hope to see more of Shand in other Rogue productions. Joe McGrath as the crazed and obsessed Captain Ahab was eloquent and heartbreaking at times. Ryan Parker Knox as Starbuck was impressive. Starbuck’s journey as a character was one of my favorites in this adaptation and this performance shows how talented and well rounded Knox is. 

Some breakout and new performances were also in this production. Eduardo Rodriguez as Tashtego was captivating and well balanced. Owen Saunders as The Boy was charming. Saunders is a young actor to look out for and I am looking forward to see more from him in the future. There were two performances in particular that were graceful, moving, charming and a wonderful addition to this already brilliant ensemble of actors. Gianbari Deebom as Daggoo is casting at its finest. Deebom embodied her character and made everyone in the room forget that she is a woman playing a male character. I applaud this performance and I hope I see casting like this in the Tucson community more often. Jeffrey Baden as Queequeg was intense but still very human and my favorite overall performance in this production. You could tell that Baden did his research. I was very impressed with some of his mannerisms and physical qualities. For example, before Queequeg and the men go off to fight the great white whale for the first time Baden beat his chest and stuck out his tongue just like the Maori do in the traditional dance of the Haka, which is performed before battles and special occasions. These little movements made Baden’s Queequeg even more real for me as an audience member. 

The Rogue’s adaptation of Moby Dick is one you shouldn’t miss. This is probably my favorite Rogue performance that I have seen in a very long time. Sometimes I find Rogue productions repetitive or overdone, and I hope that trend for the theater is over.  Moby Dick had me asking questions about destiny and fate. It had me wondering what would have happened if Ahab made different decisions and I believe that is what theater about. I was also elated to finally see women adapting and directing a play that deals with the topic of one man’s obsession and his ego. This was beautifully done and gave me as an audience member a new perspective on a story I was not too fond of. 

You can catch the beautiful performance and purchase tickets at The Rouge Theater online at theroguetheatre.org or by calling (520) 551-2053 through January 26th, 2020.

A Texas-sized Holiday Comedy

by Jess Herrera

It’s the mad dash before the holidays. Malls are buzzing with last-minute shoppers, and people are frantically trying to check everyone off their lists. But, tucked in the lower level of the Tucson Mall, there’s a different bit of holiday chaos — Dashing Through The Snow.

This, the latest production by the Arizona Rose Theatre Company, introduces us to an ensemble cast through a series of four vignettes set in the days leading up to Christmas. The acts, directed by Stephanie Howell, are all tied together by their location: the Snowflake Inn, a Christmas-themed bed and breakfast found in the tiny town of Tinsel, Texas.

The set design for Dashing Through The Snow is worth recognizing. Mark Balta, Ruben Rosthenhausler, Brandon Howell, and Luke Howell did an excellent job of creating a cozy, albeit incredibly kitschy atmosphere. Every inch that could be decked was covered with Christmas decor. It was gaudy and borderline garish — the perfect depiction of the holiday setting.

Each scene was a complete storyline on its own, giving the ensemble cast equal billing in the production. Only the innkeeper Trina Wolcott, played by Teresa Shade, appeared in all acts. Shade played her character well, mixing both syrupy sweet hospitality with some real Texas attitude — all while holding a sing-songy drawl and a smile.

In the first scene, we meet Cuddles (Diana Ouradnik) and Binky (Ruben Rosthenhausler). Cuddles looks suspiciously like Mrs. Claus and Binky an elf. They’re having a secret affair, and using the Snowflake in as their rendezvous spot. Ouradnik and Rosthenhausler each played their parts so convincingly it was almost difficult to watch.

Next arrive Hoyt (Cameron Hendrix) and Donna Jo (Stephanie Howell), a brother and sister hoping to reconnect their aunts that have been feuding for 35 years. The eccentric aunts, Ennis (Annie Koepf) and Della (Regina Ford), absolutely stole the show. Both Koepf and Ford were a delight to watch, and their witty banter had the audience rolling.

It was exciting to see mature characters portrayed with such wit and candor, a credit to both the play’s writing and the actresses’ wonderful depictions.

In the second act, we meet Ainsley (Daniel Hagberg) and Leonora (Diana Ouradnik). The two traveling actors are on an illicit mission to spread a friend’s ashes in the backyard of the inn. Full of hilarious and overly dramatic flourishes, they work to distract the innkeeper and their stage manager (Karen Alexander) to complete their task without being caught.

In the final scene the Snowflake Inn becomes the setting of a wedding. Three sisters, Twink (Leah Rosthenhausler), Frankie (Karen Alexander), and Rhonda Lynn (Rae Williams) are scrambling to put together last-minute nuptials for their sister Honey Raye (Anne Butman). This is her sixth time at the altar, and it’s all being planned in just a matter of hours. Without dresses, decorations, or food, the madness is palpable. The women come together gloriously, and Raynerd (Cameron Hendrix), the angel in the church nativity recruited to help, delivered some of the best lines in the show.

In true Texas fashion, the play is full of outlandish characters and lots of southern charm.

That said, it’s worth noting that the play was billed as a family-friendly production. Unfortunately the subject matter was not appropriate for younger audience members, and most of the jokes went right over their heads. There was even a disclaimer at the top of the show about the first act, which was certainly confusing for the handful of kids watching. The nearly two-hour runtime was also too long for the youngest viewers, who got restless.

Despite this misstep, the comedy was perfect for adult viewers. Each scene was filled with truly funny moments, and the actors were a joy to watch.

 Dashing Through The Snow has completed its run at the Arizona Rose Theatre, but you can find out more about future productions by calling (520) 888-0509 or visiting www.arizonarosetheatre.com.

Winding Road’s The Big Meal is a Theatrical Feast

by Holly Griffith

Winding Road Theater showcases ensemble talent and honest storytelling in their latest offering, Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal. The play opens with a flirtatious encounter between characters Sam and Nicole, a young couple who meet in a restaurant. Over the course of the play, they date, fall in love, fight, break up, reconcile, get married, have children, and grow old together. We meet their family members, witness their joys, and share in their grief. But don’t be fooled by this predictable, even cliché plot. LeFranc’s theatrical twists, buoyed by an excellent ensemble and skillful direction, make The Big Meal a flavorful feast of family dynamics.

The cast of The Big Meal. Photo by Creatista Photography, courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

The cast of The Big Meal. Photo by Creatista Photography, courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

The first theatrical curveball LeFranc throws is his fast-paced structure of short scenes that follow one another without marked transitions. The actors must shift time, place, and tone in the space of a breath, and this cast handles the challenge beautifully. They move as a unit, making rhythmic shifts that clarify the passage of time without being heavy-handed. This is a difficult, delicate technique to master, but this ensemble (Tony Caprile, Damian Garcia, Cynthia Jeffery, Chris Koval, Kat McIntosh, Lena Quach, Danny Quinones, and China Young) blazes forward with astonishing skill. The production is airtight, and it needs to be. The actors fly through the script at a rushing pace, never missing a beat, overlapping lines and even entire conversations, unafraid to talk like a real family. The effect is sometimes chaotic, but in a good way.  The stage becomes electrified with dialogue, and the audience can only revel in the realness of it all. The lines we miss, the conversations we choose to ignore, the big personalities that drown out the more measured ones are all part of the experience.

The second twist is a complex web of casting that unfolds over the course of the play. As Sam and Nicole age, the actors who once played their parents are re-cast to play the middle-aged versions of our protagonist couple. Similarly, the actors who once played Sam and Nicole in their twenties shift to portray the couple’s children, friends, or lovers. Later, the actors who first played Sam and Nicole’s grandparents portray the pair in their old age, and the rest of the ensemble shifts accordingly. In only ninety minutes, we meet five generations of family members, several sets of children and parents, multiple iterations of characters at different ages, and a veritable army of boyfriends and girlfriends, all acted by the ensemble of eight. Not an easy feat for any acting company, but Winding Road nails it. The company provides enough clarity to keep us along for the ride without sacrificing the honesty of the scenes.

Director Maria Caprile handles this web of family dynamics deftly. By staging the play in the round, the story sings. As the characters whirl around the play’s central set piece, a circular dining table, the audience is presented with a kaleidoscope of relationship combinations, ever-shifting, ever-circulating, and beautiful to watch. Each shift in the kaleidoscope brings a new image, but with colors and shapes reminiscent of the last, inviting us to make connections between generations and among relationships. Seated around the intimate Cabaret space at the Temple of Music and Art, we are able to watch not only the characters onstage, but our fellow audience members across the room. They become part of the drama, and also somehow part of the family. We share their joy and grief in the same way we share Sam and Nicole’s.

Alex Alegria’s lighting design is powerful. He and stage manager Samantha Severson work together to punctuate the rushing scenes with a handful of expertly crafted passages of surrealism, each designed to represent the death of a character. These moments are somehow both familiar and chilling, a layer of nuance that I attribute to Alegria’s lights.

The unshakeable ensemble, honest script, and thoughtful direction make The Big Meal a triumph for Winding Road. Pull up a chair and enjoy it for yourself.

The Big Meal plays at the The Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Art through December 22nd. Tickets can be purchased at www.windingroadtheater.org or by calling 520-401-3626.

ATC’s Cabaret asks, “What Would You Do?”

by Emily Lyons

Arizona Theater Company brings an all-new production of Cabaret (written by Joe Masteroff with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb) to Southern Arizona this winter. Set during the waning days of Weimar Berlin and the Nazis’ rise to power, Cabaret is a deliberately timed choice for ATC. Its warnings about noxious populism and apathy in the face of evil resonate strongly today. This production, directed by Sara Bruner, choreographed by Jaclyn Miller, and with music direction by Jesse Sanchez, is an ambitious undertaking. This is in part because of the heavy themes, but also because any new production inevitably invites comparison to its predecessors—particularly the 1972 film, directed by Bob Fosse and featuring his iconic choreography, with Oscar-winning performances by Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the Emcee.

Sean Patrick Doyle as the Emcee and the cast of Cabaret. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Sean Patrick Doyle as the Emcee and the cast of Cabaret. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

On New Year’s Eve, the Emcee (Sean Patrick Doyle) welcomes the audience to the Kit Kat Klub, and introduces the club’s dancers and its English star, Sally Bowles (Madison Micucci). Meanwhile, American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Brandon Espinoza) has just arrived in Berlin, hoping to find inspiration for his next novel. Cliff’s new acquaintance Ernst Ludwig (D. Scott Withers) helps him find a room to rent from Fräulein Schneider (Lori Wilner). One of his new neighbors is Fräulein Kost (Michelle Dawson), a sex worker whose professional activities Fräulein Schneider begrudgingly tolerates. Another tenant is Herr Schultz (David Kelly, who doubles as Max), a gentlemanly Jewish widower who wishes Cliff mazel and welcomes him to Berlin. Later, Cliff finds himself in the Kit Kat Klub and meets Sally, who invites him to her dressing room. Cliff is charmed by Sally’s worldliness and vivacity, which gets a boost from her coke and gin habit. The next day, after having been thrown out by Max, the owner of the Kit Kat Klub and her now ex-lover, Sally shows up at Cliff’s flat with luggage in hand, and after much cajoling persuades both Cliff and Fräulein Schneider to let her stay.

The remainder of the first half follows the parallel love stories of Cliff and Sally, and Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. The Emcee and the Kit Kat Klub performers serve as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action through comic, sexually-charged nightclub acts that grow increasingly dark in tone, hinting at tragedy to come. Things seem to be going well for everyone—until a shocking revelation disrupts this circle of characters, and makes the Nazis’ power impossible to ignore any longer.

Ultimately, ATC’s Cabaret hits the mark in many areas, but misses in others. Madison Micucci is “perfectly marvelous” as Sally. Her energy is electric from the first moment she appears on stage until her devastating performance of the climactic title song. She captures Sally’s pluck and underlying fragility, and manages to make her sympathetic even in her most destructive and infuriating moments. While the show as a whole is not always convincing in its effort to convey the gritty decadence of 1930s Berlin, Micucci’s large, pain-tinged voice takes us there. Her solos “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret” are the show’s strongest numbers. Lori Wilner as Fräulein Schneider is another standout. In addition to her powerful singing, Wilner delivers a subtle and nuanced portrayal of the show’s most fully realized character. Fräulein Schneider is given some of the show’s most shattering lines, and Wilner makes you feel the full weight of them.

Sean Patrick Doyle, angular and lithe, is well cast as the Emcee. His strongest moment is his second-act solo “I Don’t Care Much,” which he sings in a haunting falsetto, made more tragic by his mascara-streaked face and imploring, satin-gloved gestures. Still, I never found him completely convincing in this role; his performance lacks the menacing undercurrent needed to convey the creeping dread of the increasingly alarming political situation unfolding outside the nightclub. And while I was happy to see a diverse ensemble, with some welcome gender swapping in the casting, the dance and vocal talents of the Kit Kat Klub girls and boys were underutilized. The stage design is clever and there are some smart lighting choices. The lurid green lighting during “Cabaret” is a particularly effective, capturing the poisonous atmosphere and echoing the fact that green is Sally’s signature color. Nevertheless, in general the nightclub scenes, in part because of rather uninspired costuming, struck me as too clean, too bright, and too wholesome. I was disappointed by the way this production seems almost to shy away from the overt homoeroticism and seedy sensuality of the material. As a result, the fear the cast projects in the finales of both acts feels unearned.

That said, what this production does well is show how easily and quickly evil can proliferate when people aren’t paying attention. The characters go about their lives ignorant of the intensifying danger in their midst until they are forced to face it, with tragic consequences. When Cliff calls out Fräulein Schneider for giving in to despair instead of fighting for her values, she retorts, “What would you do?” In our time of deepening social divisions and eroding political norms, “what would you do?” is a question that should haunt us all.

Cabaret runs at Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art through December 29th, and in Phoenix January 4th through 26th. Tucson tickets are available at www.arizonatheater.org or by calling (520) 622-2823.

A Simple Recipe with Complex Flavors

by China Young

Photo courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Roxanne Harley as Miriam. Photo courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

“This is the Story of a mother’s deepest love and most grievous pain” is printed against the striking image of a knife embedded into a bright red apple on the program cover for Something Something Theatre’s co-production with Tucson Labyrinth Project, Apples in Winter by Jennifer Fawcett. There is something sinister and foreboding, yet warmly familiar about the image, giving us a strong sense of the complexity of the material we are about to witness. Though this one-woman show, is just over an hour, it takes us into deep contemplation of a mother who has been brought to an unfamiliar kitchen to cook an apple pie for her son. We soon learn that this this apple pie, made by his mother, is the requested last meal of a man on death row who was convicted of murder. The image was not credited in the program, but I think it is a simple yet powerful summation of the intricacies this production offers.

Echoing the power of simplicity is the stark set design by Scott Berg. With a clinical color palette of greys and whites, we get the cold, industrial essence of a penitentiary kitchen. The most impressive feature is an actual working oven that is imbedded in a basic wooden frame box. The use of this practical requirement by the playwright, and execution by director Barclay Goldsmith, was cleverly orchestrated. While Miriam, played by Roxanne Harley, is constructing the pie, she tells us the history of her pie-making rituals and their relationship to her son.  But it’s not until she finally places the pie in the oven that she unveils the truth of what it has been like to be the mother of a convicted murderer. No longer able to be distracted by the use of her hands, she finds herself a prisoner of time – the time it takes to bake the pie, and the direct link that has to the time left in her son’s life. She talks about regular visits to the prison, hate mail, and so many other dark details of her experience, all as we are surrounded by the delightful aroma of the apple pie baking. It’s an interesting device that toys with our senses, keeping us tuned in sharper than the knife chained to the table.

There are so many beautiful and heart wrenching places this show takes us. Harley handles the material masterfully, though not without imperfection. She tells a story of a human experience, with a vulnerability that evokes empathy and understanding for a person with a different experience than your own…perhaps. It’s not easy to identify with the mother of a murderer, but nearly effortless to identify with a mother, or a lover of pie. I did think there were different choices that could have been made, maybe different beat shifts that could have been explored, and a deeper investigation of the full range of expression from the actor, both vocally and emotionally. Regardless, Harley gives a solid performance.

Both Something Something and The Labyrinth Project value theatre that evokes conversation, and Apples in Winter is certainly no exception. There was a post-show discussion that at least half the nearly full house stayed for. The conversation was an excellent encapsulation of the relevance of this production. Many of their responses and comments varied from my own and continue to churn my thoughts. If you have the opportunity to sit in on a post-show discussion, I highly recommend it. 

The most powerful piece of the conversation for me was learning that playwright Jennifer Fawcett drew from the book “A Mother’s Reckoning” by Sue Klebold, as her primary source material. Klebold was the mother of one of the Columbine shooters. In the 20 years since, mass shootings have become a devastatingly daily event, with parents usually being the first to be blamed for their child’s behavior. I do wish this information was included in the program, but even without that knowledge, Apples in Winter provides us the reminder that we are all human and encourages us to consider how many parents have gone through the same cycle of grief and shame that we witness with Miram. It was a rich experience and I encourage everyone to catch this one if they can.

Apples in Winter plays at The Community Players Theatre through December 15. Tickets are $5-$25. You can find more information and purchase tickets at https://www.somethingsomethingtheatre.com/.