Life is a Team Sport

by China Young

As a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe is currently one of the hottest plays making the circuit right now. With a story that is modern and fiercely female, it is no surprise that Arizona Repertory Theatre at the University of Arizona added it to its 2019/20 Season, and produced it with a team made, predominantly, of women. 

The wolves

The cast of The Wolves. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

The Wolves follows a soccer team of nine teenage girls through six consecutive weeks of soccer pre-game warm-ups. Within these weekly snapshots the audience is not spoon-fed the plot, but instead must listen to the characters and watch them interact to follow the story being told. The young women often talk in multiple smaller conversations that overlap one another, sometimes briefly merging into a group conversation before branching off again. They talk about the stereotypical teenage girl things like college and sex, but they also discuss world events, politics, abortion, and many other topics that some might consider “too adult” for the generation being portrayed. I find this consideration especially important at a time when the youth of the world are screaming at the top of lungs for adults to take them seriously about their concerns for their future, and when women are fighting just as hard as ever to not be silenced or scoffed at. 

Breaking several identity molds, The Wolves is not a typical coming of age story, yet it is still incredibly identifiable. At its core, this story amplifies the importance of being on a team. Whether in sports, theatre, or any other aspect of life, being on a team teaches us how to navigate group dynamics, become more mindful of those around us, learn to lead, and learn to follow. Teamwork also helps us find our chosen tribes, with teammates often becoming the people we celebrate our joy with and who hold us together when we experience loss.

Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production, expertly directed by Claire Mannle, portrays the familial dynamic of this particular team, channeling the love these young women have for one another into the Tornabene Theatre. Mannle puts this cast through the wringer – every scene contains physical exercises that ensure the cast will be in good shape for months after this show. She “coaches” the cast’s execution of the rhythms in the script, especially in moments when we must shift from multi-faceted chaos to attention on one particular character, Mannle guides our attention seamlessly.

The rest of the creative team’s designs further enhance the rawness of the script. Ally Frieders’ scenic design is simple and smart – replicating a corner of an indoor soccer square with turf on the ground and a netted backdrop on two of the four sides, helping to keep the action tight, and the balls on stage. The lighting by Mack Woods and sound design by Hunter Sweetser are also simple but sophisticated and do their part to generate the world of the production.  Sierra Adamo’s costume design is perfect. The characters are dressed in the same soccer uniform throughout, however Adamo compliments each character’s personality through their accessories.I fully appreciated what each hairstyle, headband, jacket and backpack said about each individual. That level of attention to detail can only be the result of true collaborative teamwork with Mannle and the cast.

Paige Mills (#14), Lauren Vialva (#11), Sophia Goodin (#2), Vuane Suitt (#00), Eavan Clare Brunswick (#8), Elana Rose Richardson (#13). Scenic Design by Ally Frieders

Paige Mills (#14), Lauren Vialva (#11), Sophia Goodin (#2), Vuane Suitt (#00), Eavan Clare Brunswick (#8), Elana Rose Richardson (#13). Scenic Design by Ally Frieders. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

The actors are women from various backgrounds, though most of them are students in the UA School of Theatre, Film, and Television. The characters are listed by their jersey number, enhancing the show’s “Everyman” status. #25 (Lotus Rogers) is the team Captain and peacemaker. Rogers brought an air of leadership and responsibility that suited the character perfectly. #00 (Vaune Suite) played the mostly speechless goalie.  Though silent, Suite commanded our attention through her own focus. #46 (Maggie McNeil) is the new girl who just joined the team. She’s a bit odd and struggles to be accepted into the group, but after learning she is a world traveler the rest of the team starts to accept her awkwardness for worldliness. I found McNeil’s comedic timing and embodiment of her character to be truly inspired. #07 (Reagan Kennedy) and #14 (Paige Mills) are “BFFs FOREVER”. They have a bond unlike any of the other ladies on the team and the chemistry generated by Kennedy and Mills make it clear that they will always be the first to defend and protect the other when it comes to the rest of the group, even if they can’t protect themselves from each other. #02 (Sophia Goodin), is the most conservative character who we learn was raised very religiously and with no television. We’ve all known those kids, or have been those kids, and I am still finding humor in how fantastically Goodin portrayed the personality of someone who grew up under those circumstances. Not because it’s actually funny, but because it was just – so – perfect. #13 (Elana Rose Richardson) is a tomboy/Sporty Spice character with an older drug-dealing brother that has influenced some of her own habits, and Richardson brought many nuanced layers to the role. Both her personality and her physique reminded me of someone I went to high school with that played all the sports, making her another character I felt like I knew. #11 (Lauren Vialva) brought a nice balance of intensity and sincerity to a character that is a passionate activist, eager to tell everyone about all the injustices in the world and then out on their “isms.” #08 (Eaven Clare Brunswick) was the most childlike and stereotypically “girly” of all the characters. She was quick to be excitable or over-dramatic about the smallest issues. Though she was almost a caricature, Brunswick managed to find found the honesty in her ridiculousness. In the final scene we meet one other character that is not on the team, Soccer Mom (Callie Hutchinson). This character doesn’t stop talking once she appears, and is only present for about five to ten minutes, but Hutchinson does a fine job channeling the energy of the emotional chaos that the character is living in.

I could go on for days dissecting all the themes and issues that The Wolves explores, but suggest you just go see this contemporary, female-driven production instead. Don’t let your UA Theatre team down – those 90 minutes are worth it.

The Wolves is playing at the Tornabene Theatre on the UA campus from February 8-23, tickets available at theatre.arizona.edu or (520) 621-1162.

Mona Lisa Teaches us a Lesson on Art

by China Young

Art is alive. I believe this to be true because those of us that view art are alive. Whether it is a painting, a sculpture, a play, a song, or any other art form, no two people will have the exact same opinion.  Author Margaret Wolfe Hungerford put it best when she wrote, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Beauty and value cannot be judged objectively because everyone experiences art through their own individual lens, and that lens is ever-changing. However, with opinions come critiques, and if you’re reading this then you’re likely aware that critiques can influence opinions. Mona Lisa on the Loose, written and directed by Gretchen Wirges with music by David Ragland, explores all these themes with humor, music, and joy. Despite these themes being a bit more complex than expected for a family show, the simplicity with which it is told leaves the entire audience with a beautiful message that is full of heART.

Mona Lisa on the Loose

Ally Tanzillo as Helen, Andrew Miller as Blue Boy, Christina Evans as Mona Lisa, and Kyleigh Sacco as Pierre and Robert. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The play begins by establishing the audience as visitors to the Louvre Museum. We are introduced to our tour-guide, Pierre (Kyleigh Sacco), who then proceeds to show us the art contained in the museum. However, Pierre is clearly bored from giving this same tour multiple times every day and presents the art in an over-critical manner, touting them all plain, boring, and nothing special. Even the Mona Lisa, considered one of the greatest works of all time, is criticized by this jaded tour guide. After the Louvre closes, the four pieces of art we’ve met (I’ll get to them all specifically in a minute) come to life, shake off their “forever” poses, and start to talk, sing, and even dance. They are discovered to be “alive” by the Louvre overnight janitor, Roberta, who eventually reveals to them that, because of Pierre’s criticisms, they are no longer considered  “great works” and there is a rumor that they will all be relocated to the storage room. Through the power of (theatre) magic, the artwork transforms Pierre’s attitude towards them from disdain to appreciation, ensuring they keep their place in the halls of the museum and in the hearts of all people that come to see them. 

The first work of art the audience is introduced to is Pearl (Taylor Thomas), the oil painting The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (c. 1665). Next, we meet Blue (Andrew Miller) from Thomas Gainsborough’s full-length oil painting The Blue Boy (c. 1770). Our only sculpture is Helen (Ally Tanzillo), a bust of a Greek goddess. The precise origin of this piece is unknown, but she is believed to be from approximately the 4th century BC. Finally, we meet Mona Lisa (Tina Evans), Leonardo DaVinci’s “archetypal masterpiece” from the Italian Renaissance. The Mona Lisa is shrouded in mystery: Who is she? Is she smiling? Why is she smiling? Is she finished? It is even uncertain when DaVinci began to work on her. She is believed to have been painted sometime between 1503 and 1517 and was likely not worked on consistently. The Mona Lisa, or La Gioagonde in French, has lived at the Louvre since 1797 and is one of the most visited works of art in the world. If I remember correctly, most, if not all, of these facts are presented within the play, making it just as educational as it is entertaining.

Full disclosure, I’ve never been to a Live Theatre Workshop Family Series production because I’m not really a “family series” kind of person. The audience was predominantly kids ranging from “babies” to “who knows,” with a generous sprinkling of adults (because how else are kids going to get to the theatre). I usually avoid places where I anticipate large gatherings of young children, but I have to admit that they made the show that much better. Their reactions and interjections were priceless. It helped that there were tons of clever lines and jokes within the script that were obviously put there for the adults, whether the kids picked up on them or not. The song lyrics were also very clever, though the music itself occasionally slowed down the pace of the play. Sometimes it was the tempo of the song itself, other times it was due to lengthy opening interludes. This was a minor issue in an otherwise lovely production for all ages. 

The technical designs complimented the script in their educated simplicity. Stephanie Frankenfield’s costumes found a smart balance between the essence of the art each character represented while including flourishes of modern-day dress that made them instantly more contemporary. The set design (by Stephen Frankenfield and Amanda Gremel) and scenic painting (Karin Hupp) were equally successful in this regard, if not more so considering this production must share a stage with LTW’s Mainstage productions. Each “painting” had their own stationary frame to stand behind (or around), and the bust of Helen sat on a movable pedestal that hid her body and allowed the other actors to move her around and include her into the action. Gremel also designed the lighting, which included tricks to light the artworks similarly to how you might see them in an actual exhibit. The script and staging allowed these lights to become their own characters at times, exposing the audience to how integrated technical designs can be in a production. Again, smart and simple. 

I really appreciate introducing children (and adults) to other art forms through theatre. It is a fantastic tool to educate and inspire, especially when not everyone can visit the Louvre. The best part of this show was the message I was left with: art comes from the human heart, and that’s why it is so beautiful to witness. Love what you love, and share it with others. 

Mona Lisa on the Loose is playing at Live Theatre Workshop on Sundays, January 26 – March 8, 2020 (no show February 16), at 12:30pm. More information and tickets are available online at https://www.livetheatreworkshop.org.

Sex, Love, and Getting the Date Right are Key to Becoming Dr. Ruth

by Leigh Moyer

Invisible Theatre’s Becoming Dr. Ruth is about family, love, and dates. The show takes place on June 9, 1997. The specific date stood out in the program, but it was quickly clear that for Ruth Westheimer, dates are important. We’re brought along as Dr. Ruth remembers her life story for us, one specific date at a time. And what a life it is.

Dr. Ruth

Susan Claassen as Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Photo courtesy of Invisible Theatre.

This one-woman show is a marathon of story that never stops feeling like a sprint. Susan Claassen is perfect as the energetic and enthusiastic Dr. Ruth. She plays Dr. Ruth at age 69 relating stories from her past, but often she slips, seamlessly, from telling the story, to performing it. She goes from the matriarchal sex therapist Dr. Ruth to 10 year old Karola Siegel, first discovering, with embarrassed giggles, “wrestling naked” in a book her mother kept hidden. She performs memories of first boyfriends and third husbands before returning to her couch to tell a joke, show off a picture of a grandchild, or answer the telephone. And she nails Dr. Ruth’s quintessential accent.

As is often the case with Invisible Theatre shows, the set (James Blair and Susan Claassen) and props (Heidi Peden) were absolutely amazing. The stage was transformed into a living room, the cluttered curio cabinets, the walls crowded with photographs, and the stacks of books gave it a very lived-in feeling, the exact opposite of a theatrical set. With the rows of dolls competing for space with pictures of grandchildren, books stacked and toppled as often as set up, and over a dozen turtle figurines, the space becomes almost a second character that Claassen’s Dr. Ruth  interacts with as much as she inhabits.

With only Claassen on stage, directors Annette Hillman and Fred Rodriguez utilized many tricks to bring the story to life. First, the fourth wall is completely taken down. From the moment Claassen first enters, the audience is considered company and with knowing glances and well-timed nods, a line becomes a secret we’ve shared with Dr. Ruth, that she’s reminding us of. We are a part of the story.

One trick was to use a TV disguised as a painting,  to show the many photos of family and friends, disguised as a painting. This effect might have come off as cheesy or forced if not for the very clear nod to theatre magic when it is first used. It fits perfectly with Dr. Ruth’s personality and makes it so even the back row can clearly see everything Dr. Ruth wants to share. While the Invisible Theatre space is intimate, this trick made it feel like I was with Dr. Ruth in her living room as she shared photos and memories. 

Dr. Ruth is best known for her straightforward, accepting approach to talking about sex. She sees it as so far from taboo that it peppers conversation without warning. Lines like: You need to love your penis. And your girlfriend needs to love her vagina. And can you bring more bubble wrap tomorrow? The script brings you along for one story and then throws you for a loop with an unexpected twist, usually with great comedic value. It also exposes the woman behind the media personality. She is much more than Dr. Ruth. She is an orphan, a refugee, a Holocaust survivor, a Zionist, a mother, a woman who goes after what she wants, and a woman who has lost as much as she has gained. She’s complicated. I learned a lot about her. Not all of it I liked. But instead of feeling like a hero had been unmasked, the comfortable, open conversation felt more like talking to an old friend I’d fallen out of touch with whom I was finally reconnecting.

Becoming Dr. Ruth was a riot. It was funny, poignant, and uplifting. What seems the most important, what I took away from this play, is that life is a compilation of smiles and sadness, that love and good sex are key, and that we beat Hitler.

Tickets are available online at invisibletheatre.com or directly through their ticket agent at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/32555. You can also call the box office at 520 – 882-9721 for tickets and more information. By popular demand, performance run has been extended through Sunday, February 29th.

The Light Princess is a High-Flying Adventure for the Whole Family

by Regina Ford

He may not be as well-known as the Brothers Grimm, but the 19th-century Scottish author George MacDonald wrote his share of whimsical fairy tales. One of his most popular yet particularly peculiar tales was adapted into a musical by Mike Pettry (music and lyrics) and Lila Rose Kaplan (book) and is now running at The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre through February 23, the first full musical production at the theatre.

The Light Princess is not your typical happy-ever-after fairy tale. As director Michelle Milne says in her Director’s Notes, “It’s messy.”

Prior to curtain, actors interact with the audience, challenging children and adults alike to play with hula hoops and to participate in The Light Princess guessing game. We are all made to feel as though we are part of the cast.

Wise Ones Flying The Light Princess

Katie Burke and Nicole DelPrete as the Wise Ones, Grace Otto as The Light Princess. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

The Light Princess is a theatrical journey of twists and turns for the family. The King and Queen (David Gunther and Gretchen Wirges) are desperate to have a baby. A birth is impossible because of a curse placed on the royal couple by the queen’s wicked witch of a sister (Julia Balestracci). Finally bargaining with the witch for a baby, a royal princess is born but with a curse attached. The catch: the princess (Grace Otto) is born without any gravity. Not only will she remain weightless, the Light Princess is unable to cry or experience emotions like sadness, fear, and love. The storyline twists further. If after 16 years the young princess is unable to experience any emotions, she will remain floating for the rest of her life (and the wicked witch will get to marry the king). When the Light Princess meets a handsome failed lyricist and iffy guitar-playing prince (Aubrey King), her heart begins to suddenly flutter.

The show’s quick pace begins with a flurry of movement and activity (acrobatics captain Olivia Rivera) and the Light Princess’s magical world comes to life with the help of Wise One #1 (Katie Burke) and Wise One #2 (Nicole DelPrete) who fill in the scenes with witty, often cornball patter and antics, much to the delight of the kids in the front row — and their parents, too. Horn tooting and clever choreography go a long way with this sometimes playfully disruptive duo.

The princess herself is wild, energetic, curious, and fiercely independent; she only feels freedom when she swims in a nearby lake, the water keeping her buoyant yet grounded. The king and queen want nothing but happiness and a “normal” life for their daughter, that is, what they consider normal: being happily married to a prince. They also fear the consequences of breaking the curse.

Strong women’s roles prevail. It’s the queen who stands up to adversity and fights for her daughter’s freedom of choice as wealthy and mighty husband prospects such as the Man of Stone (Danny Fapp), Man of Silver (Carlos Omar Venegas), and the Man of  Black Diamond (Adrian Encinas) fail to impress the princess. 

The Light Princess is the unconventional tale of two people looking for happiness in their own personal ways. The prince is not interested in marrying a princess and the princess wishes to make her own life, avoiding the traditional princess-like role on her journey. The prince and princess learn from each other. It’s the princess, determined to make her own destiny, who takes control and leads the way, teaching the prince about remaining true to himself while still embracing happiness with one another.

The ingenious touch of wireless floating is created by actors dressed in black who lift the princess into the air and whisk her effortlessly across the stage, where she perches on a distressed turquoise wooden tower (set design by Bryan Rafael Falcón) and where she appears to float over the kingdom below. Otto gave the illusion of weightlessness, delicately moving her arms and legs like a ballet dancer floating in the sky. The actors carrying the princess seem to disappear before our eyes. But for their facial expressions, usually laughing and mimicking the princess’s facial expressions, these actors just magically blend into the background. 

To create the lake in which the prince and princess swim, black-garbed actors playing Elementals (Danny Quinones and Olivia Rivera) make waves with silk-like sheer blue fabric as the prince and princess appear to swim through the water. This clever effect, along with Raulie Martinez’s lighting and Wolfe Bowart’s property design, makes for an enchanting three-dimensional lake. The simplicity of the scenery and the clever use of eclectic props (like a flying bird and google-eyed binoculars) add to the magic. 

The Light Princess is 80 minutes of musical and magical mayhem with humorous dialogue and a witty score, all brought to life by the talented Lisa Otey on piano. A unique fairy tale that embraces individuality, as well as the challenge of rising above what others say you should do, awaits you at The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre, 738 North 5th Ave., Tucson now through February 23rd. Tickets may be purchased online at scoundrelandscamp.org, over the phone at 448-3300, or in person at the box office beginning one hour before the show. 

Escapism, Reactionism, or Hope?

by Annie Sadovsky Koepf

Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Master Harold and the Boys, Athol Fugard’s semi-autobiographical play set in 1950’s South Africa, begs the audience to question how we deal with difficult times. 

Odera Adimorah as Willie, Ian Eaton as Sam, and Oliver Prose as Hally (front). Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Odera Adimorah as Willie, Ian Eaton as Sam, and Oliver Prose as Hally (front). Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Harold opens with two black men practicing ballroom dance steps in a tearoom in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. They are both anticipating a dance competition with nervousness and excitement. Their tone is light hearted, a stark contrast to the constant rain falling. Quite quickly we realize that Sam (Ian Eaton) is the older wiser man who is attempting to mentor Willie (Odera Adimorah), not only on ballroom dancing, but on how to treat his partner. This continues until Master Harold (Oliver Prose), the 17-year-old son of the owners of the tearoom comes home from school. Quickly we realize that Sam has taken it upon himself to mentor not only Willie but Hally, as he affectionately refers to Master Harold. Sam and Hally obviously have had a long standing relationship as a quasi uncle and nephew. The men help Hally with his homework assignment, and reminisce about flying kites and sweet times spent together in Hally’s childhood.The play’s light-heartedness abruptly changes when Hally finds out his disabled alcoholic father is coming home from the hospital. We now can see why Sam has taken the role of mentor to young Master Harold.

As the tone of the play changes, we are introduced to the themes of racism, oppression, and privilege.  This is not simply a coming-of-age play in the same realm as Catcher In The Rye. The play addresses how people are changed by their circumstances, the factors that play in generational racism and what our reaction is to it. Do we accept it, escape from it, or hope that situations will change? This is very timely as our country and world are at a tipping point on how we move forward or backwards during difficult times. Do we blame “the other” for our misfortunes and exclude them to bring back a simpler, more idealized time? Or do we move forward and find new ways of dealing with challenges. Do we embrace “ the other” or continue to scapegoat him to assuage our own failings?  What direction are we going to take? 

The play’s powerful message is brought home by excellent acting by all three roles.  However, it is Eaton’s portrayal of Sam that took my breath away. The range and power of his emotions and the reaction he gets from the audience is exhausting in its impact.  I viewed the faces of the audience when leaving, and every person was deep in contemplative, reflective thought. Yes, the script is award-winning, but the actors’ performances brought the words into the hearts and minds of those present.

As always, the sets that Arizona Theatre Company uses are masterful.  There is no doubt that we are in a tearoom in another country, in another time. Jason Sherwood did his homework and I applaud his tasteful depiction. He did not go the route of gaudy 50’s kitsch, but rather chose to  have the set reflect the solemnity of the play. The effectiveness of the non-stop rain, even as we entered the theatre space, effectively foreshadowed the gravity of the show. The work by Lindsay Jones as music and sound designer, Kare Harmon as costume designer, and Dawn Chiang as lighting designer are also to be commended for a job well done in supporting the time period and flavor of the play.

I would be remiss if I did not bring up Sean Daniels’, Artistic Director, and Kent Gash’s, director, roles in bringing Master Harold and the Boys to the Arizona stage. Daniels’ vision of bringing shows that reflect the local community and also the issues that the greater American community is facing is worth noting. Gash masterfully supported that vision through the direction of the play, reflecting all the best we aspire to do in theatre. To give audiences a chance for deep reflection, contemplation, and change is noteworthy.

I highly recommend this play for adults, and mature high school students. It is a wonderful reminder to all of us to reflect on our feelings and responses to the challenging times in which we live.

Master Harold and the Boys plays at Arizona Theatre Company through February 8 . Performances are Wednesday through Sunday at 7:30 PM. Matinees are Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 PM. Prices range from $40 to $70. Tickets are available online at arizonatheatre.com. Box office hours are Monday through Friday from 10:00 to 5:00. The phone number is (520) 622-2823.

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

by Emily Lyons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set up a meeting with The Norwegians

by Betsy Labiner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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