Put On Your Dancing Shoes!

by Gabriella De Brequet

Walking into the Invisible Theatre for the first time I was greeted by Susan Claassen, Artistic Director of the Invisible Theatre Company and Director of Dancing Lessons. As we prepared to enter the theatre, Ms. Claassen announced to the patrons that the show would run eighty-eight minutes with no intermission and that following the performance there would be a post-show discussion with Joshua Anbar, a board member at The Autism Society of Southern Arizona. Ms. Claassen told us that the subject matter of the play was near and dear to her heart and that she was excited to share the play with each and every one of us. We were ushered into the theatre, Ms. Claassen ripped our tickets and hoped that we enjoyed the play. Ms. Claassen’s incredible hospitality truly warmed my heart and I could not write this review without acknowledging it.

Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn and Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn and Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Dancing Lessons, by Mark St. Germain, is a romantic comedy about an unexpected friendship which emerges between an injured Broadway dancer, Senga Quinn played by Samantha Cormier, and a professor of environmental studies with Asperger’s Syndrome, Ever Montgomery played by Damian Garcia. The play centers around a series of dancing lessons in which Ever pays Senga to teach him how to dance for an upcoming public event where he is to be honored for his environmental work. The play explores what a relationship between a neurotypical and neurodiverse individual may look like while attempting to find a common ground in which they can successful communicate mentally, physically, and emotionally. The narrative is heartwarming and hilariously written with clear direction and a sharp focus on what it means to be human, no matter your genetic makeup. The performances were well orchestrated as both actors supported and actively listened to each other on stage. Mr. Garcia’s Ever was thoughtful, hilarious, and most importantly honest. Ms. Cormier’s Senga was loaded with subtext, intention, and physical comedy which helped illustrate the character’s need to suppress her fear of never being able to dance again.

The set design by James Blair and props design by Susan Claassen put us into a hyper-realistic, small New York apartment decorated with contemporary musical theatre posters, littered Lay’s potato chip bags, and a remote controlled stereo which helped set the play in the present. The only prop that didn’t quite fit in was the landline telephone which was used several times during the play. Let’s be honest: no twenty-something has a landline phone in their home in this day and age, but this small inconsistency was easy to look past once the play got rolling. The costumes by Maryann Trombino helped support both character’s state of mind and visually represented the drastic differences between the two characters.

Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery and Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery and Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Dancing Lessons left me feeling uplifted and hopeful that society can do better when it comes to adapting behavior to accommodate marginalized people from many walks of life. In a time where our communities can be so divided, it is incredibly important to produce work which reminds us that we have a lot to learn from each other. A world of kindness, unity, and understanding is a world in which we should all work harder to create.

Dancing Lessons plays Feb 5th through 17th at The Invisible Theatre located at 1400 North First Avenue. General Admission tickets are $35. For more information about show times call (520) 882-9721 or visit www.invisibletheatre.com.

 

Editor’s Note: Gabriella went to college with Damian Garcia and has played opposite him in academic productions at Pima Community College. As Tucson’s theatre community is tight knit, both a plus and a potential for bias we are well aware of and experienced in putting aside to provide quality reviews.

Don’t Miss This F#!*ing Play

by Gretchen Wirges

I walked into the Cabaret theater at the Temple of Music and Art, and quickly found my seat in the front row. Perusing the program, the other patrons, and the visible set, I notice that cast of Winding Road’s Stupid F#!*ing Bird have started to trickle onto the stage becoming part of the scenery, part of the fabric of the space. Another member of the cast walks on, takes center, and says “The play will begin when someone says: ‘Start the fucking play’.” So of course, I did, and the play began.

Stupid F#!*ing Bird, written by American playwright Aaron Posner, is an adapted version of Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. Russian drama is heavy, dark, and often very abstract. This adaptation is all of those things and more, in the best sense of each word. The play unfolds by introducing us to an ensemble of flawed characters looking for love and truth.

Richard Thompson as Trigorin, Samantha Severson as Conrad, Tony Caprile as Som, Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Jodi Ajanovich as Emma, and China Young as Mash. Photo courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

Richard Thompson as Trigorin, Samantha Severson as Conrad, Tony Caprile as Som, Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Jodi Ajanovich as Emma, and China Young as Mash. Photo courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

The play, directed by Maria Caprile, centers around struggling playwright Conrad, played by Samantha Severson. He struggles not just with his work, but with his relationships. He seems to yearn for connection and honest love from his wide-eyed, ambitious romantic partner Nina, played by Liz Claire , as well as his selfish, successful mother, Emma played by Jodi Ajanovic. Emma struggles with her connection with her son, her brother Sorn, played by Tony Caprile, and her romantic partner Trigorin, played by Richard Thompson. Also part of dynamic struggle is Mash, played by China Young, who has unrequited love for Conrad, and yet is quietly pursued by Dev, played by Tyler Gastelum.

I see a lot of theatre, and it’s been quite a while since I’ve been so enraptured by a play. The ensemble’s honest portrayal of these flawed characters was heartbreaking, and exciting, and such a joy to watch unfold.

Young’s beautiful portrayal of Mash is dark and tender and also humorous, allowing us to identify with her emotional rawness and sense of yearning. Gastelum’s Dev is sweet and grounded and kind and such a subtle standout in this incredibly talented cast. I rooted for him, and hurt for him when rebuffed. Thompson’s Trigorin is smarmy, sexy and yet wonderfully indicative of creative genius (of both the character and the actor). Emma, in the hands of Ajanovic was beautifully reminiscent of theatre greats like Carol Burnett who lace their character’s pain with humor and self-effacing energy. Near the end of the play, she delivers a monologue to Trigorin that took my breath away. Claire’s portrayal of Nina is sweet and tragic. She deftly handles the arc of this character from lightness to dark. Caprile’s Sorn is subtle, and hovers around the periphery of the play with great intention.

And then there’s Severson. Let me take a deep breath for a moment before I go on because she is Just. That. Good. Severson’s portrayal of Conrad’s descent into depression and desperation is nothing short of magical. At the beginning of the play, I noticed that some of the speeches were a little in the pocket, a little rehearsed, a little thin. But Severson unfolds into this play with a beautiful sense of intention and understanding of the demands of such a heavy role. I hurt when she hurt, I angered when she angered, I leaned in when she fell silent.

Samantha Severson as Conrad (center), with Tony Caprile as Som and Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Photos courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

Samantha Severson as Conrad (center), with Tony Caprile as Som and Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Photos courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

This was only the second performance of the run of “Stupid Fucking Bird”. As an actor and a director myself, I know what gifts come from the duration of the totality of a play. One performance is only a small sliver of the gifts of the whole. Each performance brings new understanding of the characters, the intent, and the impact of the content. Sometimes, a revelation comes late in the run that you wish you’d had at the beginning. And I remember thinking while watching this cast, that I want to get tickets for the final performance of this show. Because I want to see what they discover in this journey.

There is a monologue that Severson delivers as Conrad about the intent of art and the needs for new forms of theater. And the play quickly becomes self-referential by directly addressing the audience and calling out the play within a play within a play. There were times I felt uncomfortable, but I think that’s what great art, and this production in particular, does superbly.

One of my only criticisms of the play was in regards to the set. While attractive and well thought-out, one of the central visual pieces was incredibly distracting. There is a large wooden platform that morphs from dock/stage to the flooring of the home on stage. The wood of the platform would creak so loudly every time someone stepped onto it, that it would sometimes take me out of the moment. Hopefully it’s a simple fix because the rest of the setting is perfectly adorned in its warmth and detail.

My only other criticism was in regards to the gendering of the character of Conrad. We are in an exciting time of gender and cultural play in casting. With women embodying exciting roles typically inhabited by men, I wonder if we do a disservice to this effort by having the character remain male.  Why couldn’t Conrad/Con/Connie be female? It wouldn’t change the story. The pain of loss and love and family and disappointment and depression isn’t restricted to gender-specific experience. When I saw that Severson was cast as Conrad, I yearned for the experience of a gender-swapped role. I wonder what more nuance she could bring to her already powerful portrayal. The more we can see characters as bodies of experience and not only as a pigeon-holed color, gender, or age, the more we can explore the core human experience of these characters and find new connections and meaning.

Bottom line, I implore you to go see this play. Challenge yourself to break out of the norm and into new forms of art and theatre like Winding Road’s production of “Stupid Fucking Bird”. The script is challenging and the cast accepts that grand challenge by knocking it clean out of the proverbial park. As soon as you stop reading this review, click on this link and buy your tickets to see it. Today.

Stupid F#!*ing Bird is playing Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm through February 17th. Call Winding Road Theater at 520-401-3626 or visit windingroadtheater.org for more information about this show and the rest of their season.

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.

Standing on the Rails

by guest reviewer Richard Thompson

Cedric Mays as Sterling. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Cedric Mays as Sterling. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

With righteous fury and inconsolable indignation buried down in his eyes, a nigga stood on stage. And where the world heard a question tear out this man’s mouth, my eyes welled and I cried deep from the combustible power before me, because I knew then what playwright August Wilson is trying to tell the audience from the very beginning, with the most magically absurd testament to the importance of acknowledging the needs, expectations, and humanity of a person: “Where’s my ham?”

Two Trains Running, masterfully directed by Lou Bellamy at Arizona Theater Company, is the kind of story that you hear from your pops when he wants to remind you how bad he used to be way back when, or how Aunt Lulu May wouldn’t take no excuse to acting a fool, especially ’cause you living with her now ’cause mom stopped coming home. It is a story of invisible peoples’ struggles and triumphs, of life. Just life. Two Trains Running barrels down the narrow tunnel from the past on to the future, and the audience is standing right on the rails. Yet, Wilson nurtured a luminosity in this play by allowing the audience to see life from the eyes of a nigga. When it comes to the inherent and critical necessity of owning one’s own identity – of knowing who you are and where you come from – it’s vital to know that a nigga isn’t what you think it is.

I promise, it’s all good. It’s good because this is a story about niggas, niggahs, niggas, nyaggas, and NI-GGAHHS. Did that sentence make you uncomfortable? It’s all good, there wasn’t one bad word in that sentence; you’re confusing it with another, completely different word – the one we all undeniably know, so for the sake of this discussion – and to make sure you all feel cool and chill despite being unsure on proper cultural protocol, I give you permission to mentally say the above term for as long as it takes you to read this article – it’s okay, I made sure it cool at the last meeting. But only for this article.

Set during a time of civil unrest, social awakening, and reclamation of identity, Wilson introduces us to men and women who could easily slip right into our shoes and we wouldn’t know the difference. Men and women who struggle all day to be seen as who they are, especially when the terms that identify them are only arbitrarily scary or undefinable to others who are afraid to see the beauty in it. Men and women who proudly identify as niggas in such a simply dignified manner, that today’s audience before them, filled with hues ranging from apricot to midnight, understood exactly what was being said: brother, sister, baby, muthafuka, fam. And no one had to explain why.
August Wilson gave the audience even more than they would recognize. A word now infused with such fluidity; and power; and comradery; and inherent understanding. This is a word that transcends time now. It is the original “I am Spartacus” (or for the cool kids: “I am Groot”). The undeniable affirmation of worth that a people considered disposable can take a word that was borne from the putrid places rooted in fear and remold, remake, and reinstitute that phrase; instead claiming it completely – history and all – owning who we are and who we can be.

His work, so relevant today as it was 60 years ago, places front and center the cold realities that one’s own definition is always being defined by others and – as Sterling, played effortlessly by Cedric Mays, so exuberantly expressed while resting easy on the bar bench waiting for a particular waitress – that the notion ‘Black is Beautiful’ is not only a reminder that we are in fact here; but we are in fact good. And if black can be beautiful, then why can’t being a nigga be a good thing?

It’s the Hill District, Pittsburgh, 1969. This is where niggas live. Jim Crow didn’t die once he crossed the Mason-Dixon Line; instead his overt influence shifted to a more covert and insidious existence in cities up north such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland. He found easy sanctuary in building contracts, imminent domain claims, and employment repudiations, where important rules can be written without much notice, where racism and segregation were just as baked into the system, just not as publicly. It’s during this time of civil-unrest and social awakening, in a once vibrant neighborhood, that we watch the slow whisper of time descend on a small diner where the former problem of having too few chairs for patrons has now become the problem of having too many empty chairs.

Alan Bomar Jones, Dennis Spears, and James Craven. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Alan Bomar Jones as Holloway, Dennis Spears as West, and James Craven as Memphis. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Memphis, the single-minded restaurateur at the center of the play, is performed with a deliberate determination by James Craven, and he has a way of speaking that when his voice cracks from feeling violated, you almost forget what an insufferable son-of-a-bitch he can be.

Risa, owned by Erika LaVonn, brings a quiet omnipotence in her performance. With few words, her eyes command respect and forethought that no other character emphasizes throughout. Her masterful trick is fooling the world into thinking it is silencing her, when the reality is she has decided not to speak. She watches and knows the clockworks of the world, even if it is only placing a cap on hat rack everyday.

Ahanti Young, Cedric Mays, and Erika LaVonn. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Cedric Mays as Sterling and Erika LaVonn as Risa. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Lester Purry wields a grin like a weapon and I have no doubt, many have fallen from it. Mr. Purry plays Wolf, a man who knows the hustle, with such a realistic ferocity that every phone call, gait, laugh, and scribble on his bookie pad seems like ATC just went to Silverlake and 22nd and asked for a corner-boy to play an actor for a night.

Which brings us to the rest of these standout actors that turned the stage into a smudged glass window so we could peer inside and watch a moment in time that seems eerily like today; Holloway (Alan Bomar Jones) and West (Dennis W. Spears) were characters who provided an emotional stabilizer for the rest of the cast. Not necessarily understated, their roles were subdued proficiently by Bellamy, so that when Holloway asks, “Which is better, the fields or the streets?” the audience doesn’t need further explanation.

And lastly we have Sterling and Hambone, played unparalleled by Ahanti Young. Whereas all the other characters railed, cursed, embraced, or shrugged off how the world saw them, these two did not. Hambone, ultimately impotent but completely justified in his need to be given what was his, but not knowing how to say it, and Sterling, knowing exactly what to say, how to say it, and who to say it to, but still trying to find his own voice.

And when Sterling did find his voice, it was in the form a three worded question: “Where’s my ham?”

Scenic Designer Vicki Smith continues her dazzling ability, as she had done in Low Down Dirty Blues, to construct pieces that resonate with the time and feeling of an era without inundating the audience with unnecessary flamboyant novelties. Choosing to stick with very earthen colors for the structural elements of the diner, she weaves in history through old Dad’s Rootbeer placards that rust above the kitchen, carefully placed jackets that subtly tip-toed greys and greens on the wall, and the most deceptively resonant stage props: shining, cerulean blue barstools. The cushions are a slice of blue so vibrant, yet unassuming, they became inanimate reaffirmations of the individuals that inhabited the same space.

Arizona Theatre Company’s Resident Sound Designer, Brian Jerome Peterson, delivered intermixed a smoke compilation of jazz and blues, electric and folk, and even soul, so that we are not tied to a day from a song-list, we are connected to entire generations through song. This harmonic gateway started the only way it was could have as far as I’m concerned: On the Trail from the Miles Davis album Grand Canyon Suite. As slow, nightscape scales, pips, and bursts drip down, the flats and sharps rest easy on every piece of fabric that touches the ensemble cast as if the notes were woven into the thread before the show.

Lighting Designer Don Darnutzer enhanced the raw feelings expressed throughout the production by highlighting the stage with ethereal god-ray type lighting, in both moments of blossoming love to disdainful reflection, reminding me that heavenly moments can be found when the world is falling apart. Even if the world may not be falling apart completely, it’s certainly following that predictable ebb and flow we can’t ever seem to escape. There is an inevitable rock in the stream marking where our history and our future intersect in the present, and how the lessons learned before now seem to go forgotten, only to be relearned later in the hopes that this time they will take hold.
So where are tracks taking us now? We know what happens to Hill district by the end of Act III, but it’s now that we have the opportunity to actually get somewhere. As important to remember the Memphis, Risas, and Sterlings of the past it is just as important also recognizing the Kapernicks, Castiles, Gardeners, Rices, and Martins of today. They were all niggas and that doesn’t make them bad. But it defines them.

And isn’t that the point? How we define ourselves. The businesses we build. The individuality we ascribe. The knowledge we collect. The bodies we bury. The scars we collect. Or, as Wolf so eloquently embodied for us with the grace of gold-plated peacock, “the amount of money in yo’ pocket.” These aspects of worth are what is being taken and thrust upon the characters as they find time to be distracted by neighborhood myths and invisible thieves. Yet, the silence was undeniable when the most important question wasn’t being asked anymore: “Where’s my Ham?” Because it was never a question. It was never a plea. It was a demand for an answer. The owed answer to the historic and perpetuated denial of one’s own right to their own very existence as a person. The denial of the fact that I am, in fact, right here.

So where’s my ham, nigga!?

Watch Two Trains Running at the Temple of Music and Art through February 9th. Showtimes and tickets are available at arizonatheatre.org.

 

About the guest reviewer:
Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson (Actor) was born in Kokomo, Indiana. He has no relevant education from any formal institution in theater or film. His writing career comprises of columnist work for The Arizona Daily Star, editor for Persona Magazine, content creator of Looking Back manuscript for P.C.C., Sandscript Magazine contributor, and editor and columnist for Gourmet News for which he received a James Beard nomination for his article, “Holy See-Food”. He is also a Hearst Poet and a published IEEE author (2018-2019), as well as a technical writer whose proposals, grants and speeches have totaled in over $250k in gained between 2016 to now. Since 2017, The Community Players produced his stage play, Last Call, followed by performances in No Admittance (Bill Bowen) and One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest (Chief), numerous Radio Theater shows, backstage crew for ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) as well as multiple roles in musical shows. In 2018, he worked under Eugenia Wood in Hark, with Ron Athey, Cassils, and Arshia Fatima in Cyclic, and produced his original manuscript The GRANDest Pageant. Films include Rise, The Righteous Twelve, and The GRANDest Pageant. In 2019, he founded Graveyard Production Company (www.gyproco.com) and will perform Exist.

The Deeper Meaning of Sports

by China Young

 

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Spoiler Alert: My Life in Sports, a one man show written and performed by English professor Bill Epstein and performed at Scoundrel & Scamp, is not actually about sports. Well, not entirely. I felt as though sports served more as a loom and thread. A tapestry of life experiences is woven before our very eyes. The structure of the story-telling takes on various shapes and patterns as Epstein connects memories through time, using anecdotes and metaphors that often circle back to where they started.

The simplicity of the direction and production design by Bryan Rafael Falcón and the sincerity of Epstein’s delivery of the dialogue drew me in with a comfortable warmth that felt like I was 8 years old being told a folk tale by my grandfather and hanging on every word. Now that I think of it, the play starts when Epstein is 8 years old, so perhaps that was the intention all along. I found it to be a very effective way to draw people in, although at times I did find myself drifting simply from the soothing tones of the narration. Still, I was very impressed with the production and how the concept of sports, whether literal or metaphorical, took me on a journey that touched me profoundly.  

The thing I appreciated the most was Epstein’s reflections on the relationship between sports and the “construct of masculinity.” We all know that there seems to be this unspoken “romance” between men and sports. Not all men experience this of course, and not all people that experience this are men, but somehow society has created this construct of “boys play sports” that this production explores a little more deeply and with a self-awareness that is appreciated in a time where constant social examination and re-evaluation is needed. Epstein does a fantastic job capturing the essence of the time in which he was raised, amplifying the understood gender norms, racial inequality, and his privilege of being not only a white male, but also his father’s son. He discusses, at times, how sports, or sport-like behavior, was how boys established their pecking order. In his Author’s Notes he states “Virtually the only live and unrehearsed programming still on network television, the subject being discussed, endlessly, on twenty-four-hour talk-radio stations across the country, the section of the newspaper most men turn to first, sports are a powerful and influential narrative formation, one of the crucial ways that American men construct identity.”

We all saw this truth during the NFL “taking a knee” controversy, which, as you’ve noticed, has disappeared as quickly as began (maybe because it’s off-season, or maybe because those that were “offended” by it have moved on to other asinine battles… but I digress). My biggest fear is that sports is to America what the games of the Colosseum were to Rome, a tactic to distract the poor from their poverty in the hopes that they would not revolt. I don’t dislike sports, and played them for many years (before theatre took complete reign of my life), but I believe they have the power to keep the masses complacent just as they have the power to fuel the “masculinity complex.” Although he used some derogatory language on occasion, and I hate giving him the “product of his time” pass, I wasn’t terribly bothered by it because it was made clear that that was in fact the past, and not the present, and I believe and embrace the social evolution of which we are all capable. If we don’t know where we came from, we can’t possibly accurately assess where we are.  

There were several other lovely elements of the production. The space is lightly littered with a baseball bat and glove, eventually a coat rack with a jacket to signify Epstein’s scholarly career choice, and even a pair of ballet shoes to represent Epstein’s late wife, but to also remind us that dance is another sport that significantly impacted his life. The use of projections offered environmental settings, magnification of text, and the creation of emotional atmospheres. The subtle sound effects enhanced those atmospheres, as did the simplicity of the lighting. Epstein includes references to Tennessee Williams in his Author’s Note, describing memory as “dimly lighted” and “poetic” and “seems to happen to music.” The design team, comprised of Bryan Rafael Falcón, Josh Hemmo (Projection design), Connor Greene (Production Design Associate), Brian Graham (Lighting Designer), and Tyler Berg (Sound Design), manage to capture that description of memory within the intimate performance area with skill and artistry.  

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Bill Epstein in My Life In Sports. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Though I could call out this production for is male-heavy team (Stage Manager Marguerite Saxon being the only female name listed) and focus on the voice of yet another white man, the content of the work gives me faith that these men understand the privileged patriarchal patterns society perpetuates. Besides, if they are engaging in the creation of theatre, they have likely broken from the “construction of masculinity” imbedded in a “life in sports.”

My Life in Sports plays at Scoundrel & Scamp Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm. For tickets call 448-3300 or visit scoundrelandscamp.org.

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.

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.