The Slow Burn of Hot Tin Roof

by Betsy Labiner

Roadrunner Theatre Company’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Mark Klugheit, is a seething, claustrophobic production of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 play that highlights the complex and even cruel relationships that are a hallmark of Williams’ work. The action of the play unfolds over the course of one evening at what is ostensibly a birthday celebration for Big Daddy Pollitt, though the truth is that the celebration is a flimsy cover for a vicious competition regarding who will gain control of the estate in the event of Big Daddy’s impending demise.

Sara Jackson as Maggie and Robert Anthony Peters as Brick. Photo by Chris Scott, courtesy of Roadrunner Theatre.

Sara Jackson as Maggie and Robert Anthony Peters as Brick. Photo by Chris Scott, courtesy of Roadrunner Theatre.

Sara Jackson and Robert Anthony Peters play Maggie and Brick; Brick is Big Daddy’s younger and obviously favored child, and Maggie “the Cat” is Brick’s wife. Peters, as Brick, is given little to do in the opening act as he pours and consumes drink after drink in search of the “click” in his brain that signals he’s reached a state of intoxicated peace. He moves mainly between the bar cart and bed, while Jackson’s Maggie enters, exits, pulls clothing on and off, and talks at, over, and around Brick. Jackson’s performance was notable in particular for her navigation of Maggie’s hairpin emotional turns, especially in moments when her façade of confidence gives way to vulnerability or fear, which in turn

morphs into anger.

The unhappy Maggie and Brick contrast sharply with the self-satisfied elder brother Gooper and his wife Mae, played by Andrew Gray and Amy Scully. Gooper and May’s fecundity is constantly reiterated – though whether with pride or derision depends on who is discussing it. Big Mama, played by Cynthia Jeffery, makes no secret of the fact that she views Brick and Maggie’s childlessness as a failing, though the play eventually reveals unexpected biases on her part as well. Jeffery imbues Big Mama with wrenching instability as she reacts to the rapidly shifting circumstances, though she also exhibits a steely fierceness at critical junctures.

Roger Owen as Big Daddy Pollitt and Cynthia Jeffrey as Big Mama. Photo by Sara Jackson, courtesy of Roadrunner Theatre.

Roger Owen as Big Daddy Pollitt and Cynthia Jeffrey as Big Mama. Photo by Sara Jackson, courtesy of Roadrunner Theatre.

In the midst of the family’s dysfunction, Roger Owen dominates the second act as Big Daddy. Owen’s booming voice and intense physical presence command attention from both his onstage family and the audience, as he pivots from joviality to furious threats in the space of a breath. None of the male characters have any respect for women, and it’s easy to see how Big Daddy’s attitude and ideologies were transferred to his sons. Big Daddy seems only to consider women in their capacity for sex and reproduction, and his fury at what he perceives as Big Mama’s attempts to usurp his power leads to moments of chilling callousness.

While the misogyny of Big Daddy gives audiences food for thought in terms of patriarchal power structures, the tolerance he avows in regard to his son’s suspected sexuality encourages the audience to consider the weight of societal as well as internalized homophobia. Owen and Peters create a deeply charged atmosphere as they respectively try to force or retreat from communicating honestly.

The cast play well off each other, particularly Jackson and Scully. Maggie and Mae are constantly sizing each other up, looking for weak spots through which they can take catty swipes at one another. Taylor Rascher, pulling double duty as both Reverend Tooker and Doctor Baugh, acts as something of a barometer, uncomfortably adjacent to the incipient explosions between family members.

The small stage and relatively minimal set work well for this play, as it literalizes the way the characters are unable to extricate themselves from the familial morass of deceit, resentment, and dependency. The characters circle one another, jockeying for position, invading each other’s space, and attempting and failing to remove themselves from the others’ reach. The actors’ body language underscores the simmering tensions, particularly in moments when Big Daddy looms over his wife and sons, or when Maggie and Mae position themselves to signal their sexual or reproductive power. Bodies in general hold a great deal of significance in the play: healthy versus ill, young versus old, fruitful versus barren, living versus dying. The focus on bodies within the play emphasizes the respective links between athleticism and masculinity and fertility and femininity, prompting the audience to evaluate the casual ableism that continues to resonate within society. It’s another interesting lens through which to consider the power structures of the play, and whether or not we as an audience are still engaging in those modes of thinking.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a slice of family drama that stands both as a product of its time and as a reminder that perhaps the issues and dynamics of the 1950s continue to be more present today than we might care to admit.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs January 11th through February 3rd at Roadrunner Theatre (8892 East Tanque Verde), though the shows on January 24th through 27th are at The Temple of Music and Art Cabaret (330 South Scott). Tickets may be purchased online at roadrunnertheatrecompany.org or by phone at 520-207-2491.

“Inspecting Carol” a Humbug of a Play

by Holly Griffith

The Roadrunner Theatre has an impressive lineup of plays in their season, including classic playwrights like Tennessee Williams, comic playwrights like Noel Coward, and even local playwrights like Monica Bauer. They have an ambitious season, and I was happy to see a community theatre company producing such varied work on the east side of town. Local, accessible theatre is important, and I am glad Roadrunner exists.

Inspecting Carol Poster

Promotional Poster courtesy of Roadrunner Theatre.

That being said, I was troubled by their production of Inspecting Carol by Daniel J. Sullivan. Written in 1991, Inspecting Carol is a comedy about a regional theatre company in financial turmoil and their dysfunctional attempt to produce A Christmas Carol for the millionth time. That’s all I knew before seeing the play, and I looked forward to it. I love comedy. I love metatheatre. I even love A Christmas Carol. I was excited to see the show and to explore a theatre I had not been to yet. But the script is very problematic. Not only is the comedy somewhat thin, but the politics of the script are outdated and outright offensive.
The play, directed by Robert Ulsrud, centers on Wayne Wellacre, a bright-eyed wannabe actor looking for his big break despite his complete lack of experience. Ironically, John Reimann plays Wayne very convincingly. A good actor playing a bad actor is a real treat. When he arrives to audition for A Christmas Carol, the Artistic Director Zorah Bloch, played by the capable Shari Goddard, mistakes him for an inspector from an important government agency deciding on their funding. Mishaps ensue. A decent premise. A promising conceit. But the script had so many tasteless jokes I couldn’t get past.
Perhaps most inappropriate was the storyline of Walter E. Parsons. Walter, played by Bird Moody, is the first black man ever hired by the fictional theatre company, and he was hired to play the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. The script is a minefield of cringe-worthy jokes about covering Walter up to make him stand out less in the sea of white actors. Zorah says several times that he was hired to fulfill a diversity quota, complaining about how the company won’t receive public funding without him. Another character, Phil Hewlit, is openly racist toward Walter, repeatedly referring to him as “my man” and harboring unjustified rage towards him.
While I think these are actual issues facing many theatre companies nationwide, and therefore worthy of exposure and discussion, the script did not present them as problems to be solved, but rather as funny quirks of an otherwise morally upright company. We were meant to chuckle at the grotesque racism of the company and move on, and the script even invites us to celebrate Phil’s racism as a fuel for his impassioned performances.

Inspecting Carol Cast

The cast of Inspecting Carol. Photo by Jeffrey Snyder, courtesy of Roadrunner Theatre.

The other problem of Walter’s storyline is that it forces Roadrunner it whitewash its cast. When you stage a play about an all-white company who hired one black man, you have to BECOME an all-white company with one black man. Had there been more black actors onstage, Walter’s storyline would not have made sense. Why not avoid plays that force racial inequality? Why not choose scripts that allow for more diversity? Or, at the very least, if a script demands a mostly white racial demographic, the story should be worth sacrificing that diversity. I’m not sure that this one was.
There are similar problems throughout the script. There are homophobic jokes and caricatures of Mexican culture. The script brushes over moments of sexual misconduct and celebrates aggressive, toxic masculine personalities. Inspecting Carol is almost 30 years old, and it shows. The politics of the world portrayed are wildly outdated and, in my opinion, no longer appropriate on the American stage.
I will give Roadrunner another chance because I believe in their mission and support their place in our community, but I want to urge their leadership to be more careful about their play selection. I would rather have seen them actually produce A Christmas Carol with diverse casting. It would have been more compelling, productive, and responsible.

Inspecting Carol runs at the Roadrunner Theatre through December 23rd at 8892 East Tanque Verde Road. Tickets may be purchased online at www.roadrunnertheatrecompany.org.

A Classic Battle of the Sexes with a Twist

by Lety Gonzalez

The Roadrunner Theatre’s production of The Real Machiavelli, written by Monica Bauer, is a show you can’t miss. The story revolves around one question: Who wrote The Prince? History dictates that the famous Niccoló Machiavelli is the author, but was he really? Or was the truth suppressed?

The Real Machiavelli

Cast of The Real Machiavelli. Photo courtesy of Roadrunner Theatre Company.

The script is brilliant and delightful and really revamps the narrative. Yes, of course, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, but is it so outlandish to imagine that a woman could have written it as well? This story explores that perspective. The women in this play are fully rounded characters with their own desires. The dialogue is thoughtful and realistic. Machiavelli’s devoted wife, Signora Marietta Machiavelli’s desire is for her husband, a once great and powerful man, to have a job and be great and powerful once more. She enlists the help of his cunning mistress, Francesca de la Tours, whose dream is to help Niccoló restore his former confidence. At first their desires work in collusion, but Francesca discovers her desire to attain power is not as impossible to fulfill as she once thought.
Naïma Boushaki passionately portrayed Francesca and captured her strength, though I do wish she had highlighted more of Francesca’s cunning and calculating character.

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Cheryl King as Signora Marietta Machiavelli and David Updegraff as Dottore Alphonso Muti. Photo courtesy of Roadrunner Theatre Company.

Clark Ray’s Machiavelli felt a bit forced at times, but I really believed him as a ladies man who lives to please (if you know what I mean). I loved the chemistry between Cheryl King, who portrayed Signora Marietta and David Updegraff, who portrayed Dottore Alphonso Muti, an advisor to the family, whose calculating nature assists the Signora in her plans. It was a treat to watch their relationship evolve. David Zinke and Lionel Swanson were very funny in their roles as Commedia 1 and 2, the zany court jester-like characters in the show. It is also very much worth noting Cheryl King’s other roles in the production here. Not only did she direct and act in it, but she was also responsible for the costumes, sound, and set design!
Overall, the cast gave a pretty solid performance, but there were some instances in which I wished the actors would have raised the stakes and made the magnitude of the situation they were facing feel more realistic. I also wanted the characters to be more intimate with one another. The theater space is cozy and I wanted that coziness reflected in the character’s intimate interactions. Instead of facing out towards the audience, it would have been better if the characters faced each other and connected with one another. However, there were some times in which it was appropriate for the movement to be big and directed towards the audience.

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Clark Andreas Ray as Niccoló Machiavelli and Naïma Boushaki as Francesca de la Tours. Photo courtesy of Roadrunner Theatre Company.

I recommend this show for mature audiences as the script is generously peppered with sexual innuendos and the actors delight in their physicality. I didn’t anticipate the play to be so steamy, but it certainly warmed up the night. During certain scenes, the audience was almost giddy with anticipation and eager for the cup of passion to runneth over. Often times I find that sex and sexual acts are omitted or reduced to an insinuation, but not here. I found it refreshing to see two bodies indulge and communicate in the physical language we all know and crave.
Despite the fact that this play is set a little over 500 years ago, the topics covered are incredibly relevant to today’s political climate. The Prince is basically a handbook on how to maintain power through deceit and backstabbing, as well as a guide on how to control the people with fear. It isn’t hard to imagine that perhaps this is a commonly read book among some of the leaders in our country.
While I am pleased to say that the play was not only written by a woman, directed by a woman, and predominantly designed by a woman, looking at the entirety of the Roadrunner’s season, this will be the only female authored play they will produce. Furthermore, it seems as if the cast lists for the remaining plays will be mostly male. The cast and crew of this show consisted of five women and eight men. *
If you are looking for a fresh perspective, don’t miss out on this show! The witty banter, teasing physicality, and intellectual conversation will leave you wondering why we don’t have more theater like this in the community.
The Real Machiavelli runs from October 19th through November 11th at the Roadrunner Theater on 8892 E Tanque Verde Rd. Shows start at 7 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 pm on Sundays. General admission is $20 with discount prices available–there is even a starving actor discount! Click on the link if you wish to purchase tickets for this show. https://realmachiavelli.brownpapertickets.com/

*An earlier version of this article made the following statement ” I wonder if Commedia 1 and 2 and the Narrator could have been portrayed by female of queer identifying people.” Since the publication of the article, it has come to our attention that some of the cast members are queer identifying people. Thank you Roadrunner Theater for casting nonbinary people.