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.

Hijinks, Hilarity, and Homicide in Death by Design at Live Theatre Workshop

by Vaune Suitt

Live Theater Workshop continues their mainstage productions with their fourth show of the season, Death by Design by Rob Urbinati. This brilliant comedy puts a spin on a typical murder mystery play and charms and surprises audience members until the end.

Death by Design cast

The cast of Death by Design. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Death by Design is set in 1932 on a country estate in England. The show revolves around a chaotic, kooky, and unconventional married couple, Edward, an aging playwright, and Sorel, a popular actress, who retreat to their countryside home after a failed opening night. Things begin to go awry, though, when Sorel invites a British politician over, and unexpected guests begin to appear. When a murder takes place, it is the job of all of the guests to figure out who committed the crime, with the help of the couple’s housemaid, Bridget, who tries to solve the crime on her own.

Death by Design

Rhonda Hallquist as Bridget and Johnathan Heras as Jack in Death by Design. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

For a play set in the 1930s, I expected the worst in terms of gender roles and representation of the female characters. Although the struggle for women’s rights in England was not as drawn out and grueling as in the United States, women in England still had to wait far too long before they were given the right to vote in 1918 and full suffrage in 1928. To my surprise, though, this cast of four women and four men all had creative and bold characters, especially the women. In a time where women answered to men, the female characters in this show do the exact opposite. Even though the gender ratio between male and women is equal in this play, the women shine from beginning to end. The play starts off with the Irish housemaid, Bridget, played by Rhonda Hallquist, charming the audience with her wit and hilarious defiance of her employers and their guests. This housemaid seems to give more orders than she takes and carries herself in a strong manner. She proves to be the most competent detective of the story. The couple, Edward and Sorel, played by Christopher Moseley and Missie Scheffman, are a hilarious married couple far from in love. In one of the first scenes we hear Edward and his chauffeur, Jack, played by Jonathan Heras, discussing how he pushed his wife down the stairs. This at first came as an upset, only to find that the wife brought it on in the first place. Scheffman’s Sorel is complex and funny, and is well played as a very glamorous and vain woman with a hankering for disaster.
The politician, Walter Pierce, played by Michael F. Woodson, feels very relevant for a character from a 1930s English play–a capitalist who accepts an invite from Sorel to her country estate to begin an affair. With how familiar this country is with rich politicians that cheat on their wives and take funding away from things that matter, this feels very current to 2018.
The couple and their houseworkers, along with their unexpected guests each carry their own distinct persona that captures the audience’s attention. I was very impressed with the cast members’ ability to carry their dialects throughout the show, which made it feel all the more realistic. Alongside the phenomenal cast of actors, Jason Jamerson’s set was colorful, detailed, and interesting, and made the play feel even more like a two hour trip to England. The actors used the small space they were given well and the direction by Roberto Guarjardo was very physical and lent itself well to the dialogue and comedic timing. The lighting by Richard Gremel, though it was simple, did not take away from the show and did a good job of adding mystery to the murder scene. Brian McElroy’s sound elements added to the play and were accurate and realistic. Being a first time audience member of Live Theater Workshop, I definitely plan on returning and seeing what more the company has to offer.
Death by Design runs through November 17 at Live Theater Workshop. Tickets are $15 for the general public and can be purchased online at livetheaterworkshop.org, by phone at 520-327-4242, or in person. Live Theater Workshop is located at 5317 E Speedway Blvd. Tucson, AZ 85712.