Don’t Keep This a Secret

by Marguerite Saxton

When asked about theatre, playwright and director Mary Zimmerman states that she “really like(s) to try to stage the impossible” (Chicago Tribune, 2014). Knowing this, one should be excited to see The Secret in the Wings. Under the direction of Cynthia Meier one is invited into a palette of beige, burnt sienna, and red: the bruised colors of fall.  Soft amber floor lamps, discarded sparkly clothes, and an old wood armoire add to the nostalgia and mystery that come with fairy tales. Remember when your mom’s fancy silk dress became dragon wings, stacked chairs became a castle, and that decaying set of records became magical volumes of spell books? This cozy basement set, designed by Joseph McGrath, frames the organized and tucked away minutiae of life.  

Typically, a theatre audience is given permission only to particular images: ones that purposefully illustrate a particular reality. Yet in “The Secret in the Wings” the secrets that usually live in the wings were not hidden, but instead acknowledged and displayed with refreshing candor on stage, fully lit, and unapologetic. Because the set and costume changes happened onstage, the edges of naturalism and surrealism are blurred and the audience receives a peek into what is typically reserved for the shadows. This carefully crafted set is a blank canvas that transforms with each of the differing fairy tales; one becomes transfixed by the ritualistic movement on stage.  It feels like a tape skipping, being rewound, finding the start again, and whipping back into a strange unison with time.

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Bryn Booth, Patty Gallagher, Joe McGrath, and Matt Walley in The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

A tale within a tale within a tale, like a theatrical display of Matryoshka dolls (the set of small Russian dolls that stack within one another). The featured stories include one about a girl who never laughs, star-crossed lovers turned enemies, and an ever-present ogre. Decapitated heads, eyeballs in a jar, and magic leaves all added curious fodder to the patchworked storytelling.  Each tale stitches through another with a well-oiled choreography that relies on a rhythm like that of sand pendulums.

Patty Gallagher, Claire Elise, Bryn Booth, and Holly Griffith in The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Patty Gallagher, Claire Elise, Bryn Booth, and Holly Griffith in The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Most curious though, is the voice of the performance.  The stories are told with the authority of a 3rd grader – that way they are necessarily and subjectively honest, and still possessing an optimism untouched by life’s troubles.  The Secret in the Wings is what would happen if a child spun out of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, watched American Psycho one too many times, and then decided to recount their favorite fairy tales.  Absurd at times and absurdly funny at others, this play embodies a liminal space that is both harmonious and arresting. Throughout it you will find intentional blocks of silence that strangely syncopate with frenzied parades of choral chanting.  Thanks to the crisp ensemble work by Bryn Booth, Patty Gallagher, Holly Griffith, and Claire Hancock, what initially seems non-sequitur becomes an intimate portrayal of the way young girls bond. Another stand out performer is Hunter Hnat, the badly behaved son who becomes the wildly demonstrative prince who becomes the interpretive dancing suitor and so on until you’re not sure what began and how it ended, but really it doesn’t matter anymore because it’s just so damn interesting.

What really resonates is the exploration of our culture’s collective subconscious – something that’s been molded through fairy tales for thousands of years. In fact, some of the tales included in this production are upwards of 4000 years old.  With that said, this play does not sanitize the violence of the ancient tales. It gives you grit, double-takes, and lots of questions. It relishes in the strangeness of those stories’ ability to gingerly explain beheadings, incestuous relations, and murderous melancholy. And, like a fairy tale, this play perfumes the jarring morals in a saccharin haze, feigning fun.  But then, creeping in slowly, one begins to understand the allegory hidden beneath the playfulness.

Holly Griffith, Joe McGrath and the cast of The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Holly Griffith, Joe McGrath and the cast of The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

More than anything, the stories that Zimmerman has adapted and Meier has crafted are laden with morals; they pose pretty significant questions for our time:  How does ancient wisdom fit into our modern culture? How do old world morals find their way into our new world ways? I left the theatre asking myself these, among other, questions. And isn’t that the objective of theatre: to provoke? To prod us into understanding our roles in THE one big, revolving story? To see ourselves unmasked, brightly lit, exposed, and uncomfortable. As this play reminds us: “We all have a tale.”

You can catch The Secret in the Wings at The Rogue Theater (300 E. University Blvd) through March 17, 2019. Shows are Thursday-Sunday with matinee and evening performances. To get more information or purchase tickets, visit theroguetheatre.org.

 

 

 

Bro-Code, Me Too, and Much Ado

by Chloe Loos

A classic comedy about mistaken identity and courtly courtship, Much Ado About Nothing at the Rogue Theatre delivers exactly what Tucson has come to expect from its ensemble of well-seasoned actors: clear language and beautiful acting.  

Ryan Parker Knox as Benedick and Holly Griffith as Beatrice. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Ryan Parker Knox as Benedick and Holly Griffith as Beatrice. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

The opening was clever, featuring Beatrice (Holly Griffith) and her spitfire delivery of some grade-A Elizabethan insults to her Benedick (Ryan Parker Knox), who serves them right back. The exchange really shows the audience why the duo tends to take center stage despite the main plot turning on the budding love between gentle Hero, played by a darling Bryn Booth, and Claudio, played by a striking Hunter Hnat. I was blown away by the attention given to each minute detail in the facial expressions and slight movements by each member of the cast, from Hero’s waiting ladies (Claire de la Vergne, Sarah Shannon) to the rest of the men who populate Messina. There was also an enjoyable abundance of strong physical comedy from Dogberry, played by the comical Matt Walley, and the Watch (Cole Potwardowski, Sarah Shannon, and Chris Pankratz).

While I enjoyed myself throughout most of the piece, parts of the villainous subplot surrounding Don John (Christopher Johnson), Borachio (Steve McKee), and Conrade (Dave Hentz) fell a little flat due to the liveliness of the main action. While Don John is a brooding character, the implicit pacing in these portions tended to lull me out of the rapid-fire dialogue that flowed around the home of Leonato (Harold Dixon).

I also want to give kudos to the minimal set designed by Joseph McGrath and executed by scenic artist Amy Novelli. The set perfectly echoed a classic Shakespeare piece and was unobtrusively modified throughout scene changes. The costumes were as beautiful as expected and added characterization via details such as color palette and fabric material that built the world of the play. A final element that really tied the piece together was the beautiful use of music provided by Russell Ronnebaum on piano, Samantha Bounkeua on violin, and John Keeney (as Balthasar) on guitar. Although I do feel that the idea of underscoring dramatic action could have been utilized a little more, the sounds that drifted to my ears from the balcony really got me into the mood of the piece before and during the performance.

Now, to review a Shakespeare play is an intimidating task as one needs to consider both the historic meaning of the text and explore why we are still doing his work 500+ years after the fact. Shakespeare is often done due to his “universal” themes, but I believe that there are so many specific place and time-bound constraints of understanding that we really need to examine the specific context in which current versions of his work are being done.

The central conflict of the play revolves around the question of Hero’s worthiness (read: virginity). She is set up to appear a harlot by Don John’s machinations (which, as a bastard, is an extension of his own shame and misogyny), and the play leads us to a point where she is publicly shamed – and forcefully pushed away – by Claudio. Leonato laments that he would rather see her dead than unvirtuous. We can, of course, write this off as a relic of the time, but I think it is important we witness the lines of belief and trust that come through the play, especially in today’s “Me Too” milieu. The play continues and everything ends up just peachy (as this is still a comedy) but there are no repercussions for the horrible actions of the “good guys”. Hero’s silence is also something to be aware of as in this piece she does not speak for 35 minutes (when her identity has shifted into being engaged) and does not speak more than a verse until 55 minutes into the play. The text itself seems to recognize this, however, as we see how the close friendship among men (a “bro-code”) leads to the blameless Hero’s death.

Harold Dixon as Leonato, Bryn Booth as Hero, and Holly Griffith as Beatrice. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Harold Dixon as Leonato, Bryn Booth as Hero, and Holly Griffith as Beatrice. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

More overt and surprisingly progressive attitudes towards gender include Beatrice’s commanding actions and fierce thoughts (her “O, that I were a man” speech was incredible) and Benedick’s transformation into a love-struck puppy upon finding out that she could love him, for instance. The first scene between two named men – Benedick and Claudio – showcases a reverse on the Bechdel test in which the two discuss the ladies of the house.

Finally, I do want to notate that there was only one person of color in the show and, in my showing, less than five people of color in the audience which denotes to me that Shakespeare is still affiliated with white audiences. I recognize that the Rogue has built its relationships with actors through the ensemble, but I wonder if the lack of people of color in the ensemble is indicative of a larger problem within the theatre community.

There is still a place for Shakespeare in modern times, and sometimes it can be surprising what these texts of yesterday can tell us today. So, without much ado, get thee to the Rogue! Tickets can be purchased online at theroguetheatre.org or by calling 520-551-2053. Showtimes are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm until January 27th.

Ensemble Storytelling Bring Emotion and Experience to Life in Curious Incident

by China Young

Ryan Parker Knox as Ed and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Ryan Parker Knox as Ed and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

All actors remain on stage unless prescribed otherwise. This is one of very few scripted stage directions in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Cynthia Meier, the director of The Rogue’s novel-inspired production, noted that she took that one to heart. In doing so, Meier and her ensemble of 10 performers sculpt a simple and genuine theatrical experience layered with complexity. This is a production that emphasizes the powerful storytelling potential of a well-trained ensemble in lieu of elaborate spectacle.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the story of a young man, Christopher, who takes on a detective role in effort to uncover the mystery behind who killed his neighbor’s dog. As can happen when sleuthing, he discovers much more than he could have imagined.
This detective story is unique from others: Christopher is autistic. While autism expresses differently for different people, in this production it is his ability to interact with others that is most evidently affected. Put simply, Christopher’s social communication skills are not in alignment with societal standards. Told from his perspective, the audience can experience Christopher’s world as he does. The ensemble introduces this quality at the top of the show by disrupting the audience’s sense of normal. Christopher’s teacher and mentor, Sioban, played by Patty Gallagher, delivers dialogue that doesn’t seem to belong to her while the rest of the ensemble re-enacts memories and thoughts from Christopher’s mind. All this occurs while performer Hunter Hnat, who plays Christopher, masterfully embodies every word and action taking place around him, occasionally stepping into the scene of a memory, but only speaking when he’s commenting on his version of what’s happening. This disembodied introduction also establishes that this is a story Christopher wrote and is sharing with the audience.
Throughout the production, the ensemble enhances the experience of what it’s like to be Christopher, whether that means amplifying his emotional state, creating his environment, or portraying the people he interacts with. They disrupt other theatrical norms as they become the set, the props, and ingeniously facilitate the sound design and scene shifts. It’s a work of true collaboration that I appreciated immeasurably.

Holly Griffith as Judy and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Holly Griffith as Judy and Hunter Hnat as Christopher. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Because it was such an ensemble-based show (With an equal gender distribution I might add!), it’s hard to single anyone out. Even so, Hnat as Christopher was inarguably outstanding in the role. His journey of emotional shifts within the autistic lens were raw, instinctive, and credible. Gallagher as Sioban brought warmth and gentleness that counteracted Christopher’s occasionally harsh bluntness. Ryan Parker Knox and Holly Griffith, who portrayed Christopher’s parents Ed and Judy, both brought depth to their characters as they balance the trials of parenting a child with autism and fulfilling their individual needs as human beings. I was equally as impressed with their ability to slip back into the ensemble without fixating on the named characters they played.
The remainder of the cast shifted in and out of secondary characters with similar ease and finesse. Kathryn Kellner Brown rises slightly above the rest with her presentation of Mrs. Alexander, an elderly neighbor that Christopher becomes better acquainted with through his detective work. For me, one of the most memorable moments of her performance was watching Mrs. Alexander walk in front of the stage and the moment she took the first step to rejoin the ensemble onstage, Mrs. Alexander completely disappeared, leaving just Ensemble Voice 6. Samantha Cormier also deserves honorable mention with the deft comedic timing executed during her brief moments as Julie, another one of Christopher’s teachers. These performers are incredibly skilled in their abilities to jump in and out of character and doing so all without leaving the stage further elevates their professional dexterity.
Honestly, I cannot praise the cast enough for the trust they have for one another that inevitably translates into the vulnerability they have with the audience. It’s incredibly refreshing to see this kind of work being done in Tucson and I hope more companies and performers embrace its power in the future.
Meier and her creative team definitely deserve applause for the level of artistry applied to this production. Some of that ensemble work wouldn’t be as impressive without the complimentary lighting effects and the 9 boxes that are utilized throughout as seating, storage, and more tangible amplifications of Christopher. If my descriptions seem vague, it’s because curiosity should get ahold of you and you should make every effort to see this production.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs at The Rogue Theatre Theatre November 1st through 18th. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7:30; Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:00. You can buy tickets online at theroguetheatre.org or by calling 551-2053.