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

by Lena Quach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make Time to Laugh with Family Theatre

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

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

by Leigh Moyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019-20 FAMILY SERIES Season

Live Theatre Workshop Family’s 2019-2020 Season:

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

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

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

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

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

Casually Dysfunctional

by Marguerite Saxton

In the recent Live Theater Workshop production of Appropriate, written by Branden Jacob-Jenkins, the audience is presented with a plethora of things to tackle. There is the colossal theme of racism accompanied by the more convoluted concepts of tradition and legacy, which all have much to do with learned behaviors. A family’s shared history weaves together to create patchwork narratives that often lean towards certain bias and while viewing Appropriate, we peek into a particular family’s prejudice. We witness the repeated cycles of pain, defensiveness, and rivalry.

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Rhonda Hallquist as Toni, Keith Wick as Bo, and Cliff Madison as Frank. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Originally premiering in 2013, this play is confrontational even for our explicit era. It highlights the way a family romanticizes the structure of someone once they’ve passed on; how we forget their obstinate qualities and block out idiosyncrasies; how we don’t view someone as racist if we’re cut from the same cloth. This is distinctly performed by the oldest sibling, Toni (Rhonda Hallquist), who vacillates between rage and resentment. Each of her cathartic episodes seem to embolden a further slide into dysfunction. And while it feels that Toni’s grief dominates the play there are two other essential points to note:

  1.      The entire play takes place in an old plantation house.
  2.      The playwright is African American.

Why important? Well, the word plantation is a trigger for many American citizens. As it should be. The historically white-owned, black slave-operated plantation has served as a poignant allegory in dissecting the complexities of race relations in this country. It is an appropriately loaded metaphor that warrants sensitive treatment. Thus, the significance of it as a setting and Jacob-Jenkins being African American cannot be overstated. If he weren’t, many scenes would feel intolerable. I felt particularly uneasy during some key moments, such as when the entirely white audience laughed at the all white cast when they were Googling how much photos of dead black people go for on the Internet. Didn’t seem right…and that’s the point, I think? Through this discomfort, Jacob-Jenkins successfully reminds us that there are certain concepts that need to be represented by certain people.

The playwright unfolds the forced reunion of the Lafayette family, whose shifting unification over what to do with their late father’s derelict property highlights the tense bonds keeping them tethered to one another. Frank (Cliff Madison), is the youngest sibling who serves as the crux for the entire family’s disappointment. After a 10 year absence, he and his fiancée, River (Emily Gates), arrive in the night, crawling through the living room window amongst the resonant chorus of cicadas. Their entrance disrupts everyone, setting the tone for the remaining two hours: someone will always be disrupted.

Emily Gates as River and Cliff Madison as Frank. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Emily Gates as River and Cliff Madison as Frank. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

As is often the case in Naturalism, the characters of Appropriate are victims of their own circumstance. Often, characters in this genre seem outlandishly honest, as is the case here. The family is portrayed in such exaggerated forms that they become caricatures. Toni seems to exude such violent martyrdom that one wonders if she has any other personality traits. Her anguish is intriguing, even funny at first, but becomes predictable. To this point, some monologues stretch on like therapy sessions in which the characters explain everything ad nauseam, giving the whole thing an absurd undertone. 

Conversely, well-placed curse words and overlapping speech create an oddly pleasing discordance. Two characters in particular are well developed: Bo (Keith Wick) and his daughter Cassidy (Ella James). Wick portrays Bo with sharp wit, an arrogant big city guy with layers unlike his kinfolk. James performs Cassidy as curious but bored of the world in a pre-teen way. She is probably the most dimensional character of the play.

The content is provocative and the diatribe entertaining, but something is amiss. It feels like the play never ends; drags where it could end with a punch (maybe even literally). The last scene finally translates some bizarre and spooky design elements that, had they been present earlier, would have cultivated the performance as a whole. Perhaps this ineffable discomfort is intentional though, as this play is an exploration in agitation. Whether alluding to lynchings, showcasing white-hooded children, or a WWE-style family feud, it essentially boils down to this: birth families can be crummy. While reconciling their realities in the wake of their father’s death this family inadvertently shows us how to be, or not to be, appropriate.

Appropriate runs until June 15th at Live Theater Workshop, located at 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Tickets can be purchased by calling (520) 327-4742 or visiting lifetheatreworkshop.org.

 

Send in the Clowns

by Jess Herrera

quirkuscircusThey say the circus arrives without warning, but what happens when the circus blows its top? That’s exactly what happens in Quirkus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster, a new addition to the family series at Live Theatre Workshop.

The show attempts the impossible, seeking to create a storyline that can be enjoyed by the youngest members of the audience while also entertaining adults. And while it has moments of perfectly walking this tightrope, it also comes dangerously close to toppling in others.

In the story, written by local playwright Tyler West and featuring original music by Michael Martinez, we follow the Quirkus Circus troupe as they discover their ringmaster has packed up and headed to join Cirque du Soleil – taking all the animals with him.

A lovable, silent clown named Eddie, played by Stephen Frankenfield, first sets the stage and invites audience participation. He quickly becomes the highlight of the show. Without spoken dialogue, he launches through the rows of audience members to get kids jumping out of their seats just moments after the lights go up. And his impeccable physical comedy quickly wins over even the oldest and most skeptical audience members.

Eddie is joined by the acrobat Margaret, played by Taylor Thomas. Her performance is delightfully earnest without being saccharine. And with a swirl of her sparkling dress, she elicits squeals of excitement from the audience (particularly from my five-year-old daughter, who joined me for the show).

The last members of Quirkus Circus are Natasha and Boris, played by Ericka Quintero Heras and Jon Heras. Unsurprising to anyone who remembers Rocky and Bullwinkle, they’re a married duo whose act is a mix of magic tricks, death defying feats, and a healthy dose of bickering.

Finally, after the revelation that the ringleader is missing, a replacement named Paul is quickly pulled from the audience. Paul is played by William Seidel. He is believably timid and hesitant to join the performance.

Through Margaret’s coaching and Eddie’s encouragement, we follow Paul as he finds his voice as a ringleader and gains confidence to help lead the circus. In the process, we learn an important lesson: You should be willing try things that might be scary because it’s the things that give you butterflies may have the biggest payoff.

The cast of Quikus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The cast of Quikus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Under the direction of Kristian Kissel, the players seamlessly mix their interactions with one another and the audience. The choreography and sets are simple but add just enough flourish to take the audience to the big top.

Unfortunately the musical numbers were a bit unbalanced. The songs were catchy, but the harmonies were occasionally off. The stronger vocals of some cast members overpowered others.

And a few moments that felt as if they were written for the benefit of the adults fell flat. Boris and Natasha, with their borrowed names, needed a stronger storyline. And the depiction of a stereotype was borderline offensive. Their ambiguous accents wavered from a loose Russian to French and even a familiar Sonoran dialect. Their tango number made things even more confusing.

Accents can be very difficult to master, and it’s even harder to emulate characters the audience may be familiar with. I think Boris and Natasha could benefit greatly from a rebranding and a shift away from their ambiguously Russian caricatures.

Despite these few pitfalls, Quirkus Circus is an excellent way to introduce young children to theater. Running at just 45 minutes, it’s participatory, light, and overall highly enjoyable.

Quirkus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster is playing at Live Theatre Workshop on Sundays at 12:30pm through June 9. You can buy tickets on their website, http://www.livetheatreworkshop.org/, or by calling the box office at (520) 327-4242.

Capture a Moment in Time

by China Young

Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies is a glimpse into the lives of people whose careers are dedicated to sharing the violence in the Middle East with the rest of the world. Sarah (Carley Elizabeth Preston), a photojournalist, arrives home after being injured by a car bomb. She comes home to her partner, James (Christopher Younggren), a reporter who had already returned from the war zone, her editor Richard (Glen Coffman), and his new, young girlfriend, Mandy (Emily Gates).  

Glen Coffman as Richard, Emily Gates as Mandy, Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah, and Christopher Younggren as James. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Glen Coffman as Richard, Emily Gates as Mandy, Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah, and Christopher Younggren as James. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Director Eva Tessler sculpted Live Theatre Workshop’s production of this script with passion and honesty in such a way that I was left contemplating much of it in larger, more worldy perspectives. During a heated conversation about the horrors that surround the photos she captures, Sarah states, “cameras are for catching life on film, not changing it.” The strict clarity Preston delivers this line struck me with the consideration that plays are very similar in that capacity, offering a moment in time to viewers without any real capacity to “change life” in that moment. Yet both photographs and live performances, along with many other art forms, evoke change within the viewer, even if just for a moment. Sometimes that change leads to action, sometimes it’s just a moment of feeling.

There were a number of other moments and themes that had me in a contemplative spiral of micro vs. macro, the experiences the production explored in the moment vs. the same experiences occurring throughout the world, but with the weight of reality rather than the comfort and safety of “art.” In fact, each character had a unique relationship with the concept of comfort that were all very rich and left me with the additional consideration of how fortunate we are to be able to choose to experience war. In the United States we aren’t born into war zones, despite how social media makes it feel at times. In the theatre we are even more privileged, whether as an artist or audience member, to evoke and experience our compassion through art instead of first-hand.

Tessler and her cast of four seamlessly incorporated these themes into the performances, offering the audience a savory theatrical experience.  Sarah’s humanity, shrouded in stubbornness, is grounded by Carley Elizabeth Preston’s natural ability to shift between sarcasm and sincerity with ease. Her adjustment from the life-threatening environment of Iraq to the comfort of her home in the US is a struggle, at times quite subtle, and Preston handles it with sophistication. Mandy, portrayed with a genuine innocence by Emily Gates, is a pleasantly surprising character. An Event Planner, she is presented in a way that suggests she shouldn’t be taken too seriously, at least at first. Even her initial costume is an amusing hodgepodge of colors and styles. However, Gates gives Mandy strength in her naivete that supports her moments of pure profundity.

Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah in Time Stands Still. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah in Time Stands Still. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Mandy serves as both a foil and a mirror to Sarah, highlighting another thematic question I left pondering, gender roles. Mandy is the epitome of “female” and fully embraces her desire to take on that role. Sarah, on the other hand, with her need for independence and yearning for life-threatening adventure, exhibits traits that we often attribute to men. Interestingly, both men in the production, Younggren as James and Coffman as Richard, amplify what might be considered by many to be “classically feminine” qualities as both men are lead by their desires for love and family. There are several early references to Richard’s proclivities for brief relationships, allowing him the opportunity to find comfort in settling down with someone and truly committing to Mandy. James flips his previous adventure-seeking self around to fight for a chance to experience the normalcy of marriage and family. Both Younggren and Coffman embrace these characteristics with gentleness and grace. This shift in gender conformity made me realize that the male characters highlight the fortitude of the women, each on their respective paths. Thankfully, and effectively, every single performer allows us to experience their individual spectrums of conformity or nonconformity, and that doesn’t limit itself just to gender roles.  

Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah and Christopher Younggren as James. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah and Christopher Younggren as James. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The technical elements of the production were both simple and complex. There is only one set on the stage, an uncomplicated studio apartment with its distinct bedroom and kitchen/living areas designed by Jason Jamerson. The complexity is in the details, the style of the window that reminds us they live in NYC, the photos and small relics of the inhabitants’ travels. Interestingly, the evening I attended there were a few audience members that chose to take the stage and explore the photographs that decorate the bedroom, either prior to the start of the show or at intermission. After reading that the production consulted Michael Kambar, an actual photojournalist that had worked in Iraq, I wondered if those photos were authentic and wished I had been so bold to explore myself.

Another simple complexity is that, though there is only one set, the show has two settings: the present, and memory. The present is simple and straightforward, but the memories are scored with Middle Eastern music (sound design by Brian McElroy) that fades in as the lights (designed by Richard Gremel) shift to focus in on the speaker. Conceptually, this is a beautiful way to honor the text of the memory. Unfortunately, I found the execution of this transition to be a bit too abrupt, distracting me briefly from the artistry and message of the moment. I hope that the rhythm of those transitions find their finesse as the run continues because they are truly captivating moments and deserve the time it takes to ease the audience into them.  

Times Stands Still evokes the essence of its title, augmenting a story that simultaneously has happened, is still happening, and will continue to happen, deeming it all fixed and motionless in “the big picture.” You can catch it through March 30, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, (also 3 p.m. March 30)  at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $15 Thursdays, $20 all others. For details and reservations, 327-4242, or visit livetheatreworkshop.org.

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.

Life Imitates Art Imitates Life in “Stage Kiss”

by Chloe Loos

Stage Kiss at Live Theatre Workshop is a play about actors, which often leads to a sense of self-absorbed narcissism that by nature of its topic excludes casual theatre-goers. But that is not the case here. Sarah Ruhl’s amazing script toes the line between commentary on art and commentary on love, in a comedic way that ensures the audience will not be left behind on more theatre-specific jokes — though if you are involved with theatre, it is that much better.

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

Shanna Brock as She and Stephen Frankenfeld as He. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The play opens with a woman called She (Shanna Brock) auditioning for her first play in years in that insecure, “do-I-belong-here” way that follows many artists throughout their career. She continues to take this hesitancy through rehearsals, although she finds power in slamming her co-star, her ex, He (Stephen Frankenfeld). The stage kisses lead to off-stage kisses as the two rekindle their romance at the end of the first act, leading to She leaving her husband and child and He breaking up with his girlfriend. The duo are accompanied by a colorful roster of well-costumed talent (Michael Woodson, Janey Roby, and Matthew Copely) playing double-cast characters, the most amusing of all being Keith Wick, who utilizes riotous physical comedy and a variety of different voices to great effect. Jubilee Reynolds as Angela, She’s daughter, was also extremely enjoyable as she caught a very relatable “over-it” attitude while speaking truth to the dysfunctional situation her family finds itself in.

The staging was artfully done; a well-designed rotating set takes the audience from the audition room to opening night to She and He’s apartment to another stage. I especially enjoyed the lighting (by Richard Gremel) throughout as it helped indicate place and was a prominent feature in a couple of surreal dream sequences. While rather minimalist, the scene changes took far too long and I found myself listening to the intermittent music (performed by female pop-stars) more than I would have liked. My other difficulty within the piece was the sense of displacement, as I could never quite figure out what time the play was set, nor the timeline of the action.

The cast of Stage Kiss. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The cast of Stage Kiss. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

As a melodrama within a drama, Sarah Ruhl frequently blurs the lines of what is truth and what is acting in the piece, thus sending her characters through the wringer with regards to emotions. I think in this it was obvious that most of these actors are comedic players as – while they nailed the quick-paced dialogue and I was audibly laughing through a good 60% of the piece – the moments of genuine emotion were not at the forefront. I was left wanting more of those tender moments that permeate a true relationship.

Overall, I was really excited to see Live Theatre Workshop bring this play to its stage as it felt more contemporary and challenging than most of what I expect their programming to be, featuring adultery, profanity, and, of course, lots of kissing. The fall, rise, and plateau of She and He’s relationship was beautifully structured, particularly as we learn more about their history and hear She reinforce the idea that He was scary, “went through [her] phone,” and that they left each other for a reason. In demystifying the “what-if” of their relationship, Ruhl also demystifies the romance of theatre as they lament that they need the money to be a in a play that features She in the role of a mistreated “whore.” However, in context of clarifying the lack of allure in the relationship and theatre, it is only offensive in the way intended by the script.

However, in a play set first in New Haven (which is only 43% white) then Detroit (which is only 10% white), we again see the lack of diversity on stage in a play about a play, thus doubling the removal of people of color from roles on stage. The evening I attended the theater was completely full and every single audience member was white. This proved to be incredibly uncomfortable for me in a questionable scene in the Detroit portion of the play in which an actor played the role of a pimp that was coded as black (through an unfortunate coat, gold chain, posturing, demeanor, etc.). This is why it is so important to diversify productions in order to avoid reiterating harmful stereotypes. Especially when looking at the statistics I included above, it seems to me that at least half of the roles could have and should have been filled by actors of color. While I don’t think the implications were intentional, this shows what can happen in the macrocosm of theatre if we continue to keep the same (white) voices in the echo chamber of production.

If you like theatre and if you like plays about theatre or plays about love or plays about life, get down to Live Theatre Workshop and see Stage Kiss. It runs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday Nights at 7:30pm, Sunday at 3pm, and a final Saturday 3pm on closing, February 16th.

Tickets can be purchased by calling (520) 327-4242 or online at livetheatreworkshop.tix.com.