Some Bright Moments but No Payoff in Ballyhoo

by Gretchen Wirges

The Last Night of Ballyhoo, by Alfred Uhry, takes place in the Atlanta home of an assimilated 1939 Atlanta Jewish family whose social-climbing matriarch, Boo (Eavan Clare Brunswick) directly rejects their heritage. Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production of Ballyhoo, while witty and sometimes charming, lays victim to a script filled with sappy sentimentality and conflict with no payoff. 

Lala (Carly Natania Grossman), is Gone with the Wind obsessed and dying for the right boy to ask her to the dance on the last night of Ballyhoo, the southern Jewish festival. Her uncle brings home a colleague for dinner, Joe Farkas (Jaime Plá), a Jew from Brooklyn. We quickly discover, as anti-semitic epithets are used, that there is a status delineation between German Jews and those “East of the Elbe river.” The Elbe river runs between Germany and Czechoslovakia, as Aunt Reba (Elana Rose Richardson) explains. 

Carly Natania Grossman Lala and Eavan Clare Brunswick as Boo. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Carly Natania Grossman Lala and Eavan Clare Brunswick as Boo. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Some comedic moments are offered up by the affable Uncle Adolf (Liam Thibeault), though his character too accepts the discrimination within the Jewish community of those Jews deemed lesser and who are excluded from joining the more prominent country clubs or attending the fashionable events. This pattern plays out similarly with Peachy Weil (Michael Schulz). His jokes and playful nature are quickly overshadowed by his negative and offensive characterization of “the other Jews.” 

Many of the performances were a little underplayed under the direction of Hank Stratton. Brunswick’s portrayal of Boo was a little one-note. We lost the complexities of the character, a balance of her expectations of her daughter, the cultural struggles she faces, and her own overall happiness to a delivery that often just came off as mean and snobbish. Richardson, as Aunt Reba, was sweet but also lacking dimension. 

The real standouts in this production were Grossman as Lala and Thibeault as Adolf. Grossman is electric, and allows us a glimpse into Lala’s myriad of emotions and dreams. She plays the familial conflict of culture with finesse. Grossman brought every scene she was in to life. The poignant scene between Lala and Sunny (Gabriela Giutsi) was as funny as it was gutting.  Quite the opposite end of the energy spectrum but equally talented, was Thibeault in the role of Adolf. He was grounded and believable, patient and observant. 

Many of the costumes (Alexia Avey, costume designer)  were beautifully period and well-crafted. Hello, purple pleated piece of gorgeousness in Act 2! But, I found it oddly distracting that a few of the costumes’ color matched the pieces of decor in the set. A brown dress the same color as the drapes, and so many pastel blues that blended in with the furniture and couch pillows. Another distracting costuming element was that all of the female roles wore wigs. Each wig had that synthetic shine that even an amateur can pick out as an imposter. The obvious heavy-handed costuming in this case further distracted from an otherwise stunning visual presentation. (Set design, Joe Klug).  

While I enjoyed the performances, I was left feeling let down by the story. Sunny  takes up romantically with Joe (considered one of the “other Jews”) and he discovers her family’s long-standing perception of those like him. The dramatic scene that I had been waiting for never happened. Joe confronts Sunny. Joe and Sunny make up. And in the last moments of the play, we see the entire family celebrating an important Jewish tradition together. Even though the play was two hours long, I felt as though I had accidentally skipped a scene where Boo is confronted on her prejudice, Adolf is taken to task on towing the line of accepted ignorance, and Peachy gets the boot instead of Lala’s hand in marriage. 

The Last Night of Ballyhoo is a play that allows us to catch a glimpse of real issues and cultural conflicts but never really produces. It’s a conversation starter. It feels like the type of play a theater company chooses when they want to seem edgy without really delving into the conversation of conflict. There are better, more contemporary plays to choose if we want to really address issues of discrimination and oppression. I left the theater desperately wanting to know more about the history of Jews in the American South. The little I did find out in Ballyhoo,  was glossed over by party dresses, plates of late night chicken, and Scarlett O’Hara.  

The Last Night of Ballyhoo runs through November 24th at ART’s Tornabene Theater. Tickets are available via their website at theatre.arizona.edu or by calling the box office at 621-1162.

U of A’s Pippin Still Has Some Magic To Do

by Lena Quach

Pippin is a mysterious musical filled with memorable music, magic and simple joys. The story follows the young prince Pippin and his quest for fulfillment in life. Pippin originally opened in 1972 with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Roger O. Hirson. The original production was directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse. Arizona Repertory Theater, directed and choreographed by Christie Kerr, had some rather large shoes to fill and unfortunately did not succeed. 

I was excited when I first came in and saw the rather impressive set. I have seen Pippin in a couple different forms and this looked promising. I was quickly let down by the ending of the song “Magic To Do”. The ensemble of players were all beautiful and sounded amazing but lacked the mystery and pizzazz that you usually see in the first number of the show. 

Tony Moreno as and Paige Mills as The Leading Player. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Tony Moreno as Pippin and Paige Mills as The Leading Player. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

I did see some small homages to the original choreographer in the show but felt that maybe the choreography was too advanced for the cast. Yes, Fosse is an extremely hard dance style to perfect but there was a very large disconnect between the actors and the movement. It was especially noticeable in the isolations of the hips that looked more like twerking and the movements of the arms that looked more like a bird flapping then a directed movement coming from the back. These movements are essential that highlight and add levels to the catchy score. This was the productions biggest let down. 

I was also quite disappointed by Paige Mills in the role of The Lead Player. This role is so essential to the show and how the story is told. Mills has an agile and clear voice and I can see why she was cast in the role for that alone. The Lead Player should be more mysterious and should have more of an inner battle between herself and her sympathy for Pippin, in certain parts of the show. This rendition of the character seemed to plateau quickly and never see any depth until the end of the show. Mills put in a solid effort with choreography and blocking given to her but lacked grace and the showstopping quality that any Lead Player should posses. 

There were some highlights in the show including some very magical characters. Tony Moreno played the title role of Pippin. Moreno has a beautiful voice and gave the audience the perfect balance of his character that can sometimes come off as awkward and somewhat rude to completely charming and heroic. Moreno is definitely going places. I was also very impressed by Tristan Caldwell who added just the right amount of sass and comedy to the character Charlemagne. I was completely charmed by Marina Devaux as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe. Devaux gave me a Broadway-worthy performance and had me singing along during her number. Catherine, played by Sofia Gonzalez, was sweet, beautiful and organic just like any Catherine should be. 

In the end, Arizona Repertory Theater’s production of Pippin still has some “Magic To Do”. The ensemble gave an honest performance filled with magic tricks, great vocals, and some Broadway-worthy highlights but lacked the mystery, grittiness, and dancing with purpose. 

You can catch Arizona Repertory’s production of Pippin now through November 3rd at the University of Arizona’s Marroney Theatre. Tickets can be purchased via their website at theatre.arizona.edu or by calling the box office at (520) 621-1162. 

 

The Legend of Georgia McBride Tackles Fearless Self-love and Campy Personal Freedom

by Regina Ford

Finding your inner drag takes courage. Sharing your inner drag with the world takes guts and honesty and it just may set you free. That’s the jaunty moral of Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride, about a young, part-time Elvis impersonator who discovers that digging deep into a female persona makes him a better man.

Young lovers, Jo (Lauren Vialva) and Casey (Dylan Cotter) are starting their life together in the Florida panhandle and money is scarce. She’s waitressing. He’s entertaining in a dive bar where he grinds and gyrates as Elvis Presley in kitschy costumes, reflections of the King’s bloated, drug-filled years before his death. But with bar patrons disappearing, bar owner Eddie (Guy Norris) changes direction and brings in his cousin Bobby (Naphtali Curry), a performance artist booked as Miss Tracy Mills. With no room for an Elvis gig, Casey is out of a job, he can’t pay rent and he and Jo discover they are going to have a baby. Ms. Mills is joined by drag artist Rexy (Jax Wujek), a campy lush whose stage name is Miss Anorexia Nervosa, a name she snarls is “Italian.” (This one-line gag poking fun at a serious eating disorder is touchy for some, especially those of us who battled this condition at one point in time. Overcoming the shame of an eating disorder is a battle of deep reflection and learning to love thyself.  This painful memory may strike a sour chord with some audience members, even if Lopez may have innocently aimed for a cheap laugh.) 

When Rexy is too drunk to do her Edith Piaf number, Casey reluctantly returns to the stage in falsies, padded hips and ass, and stilettos and attempts to embrace his Georgia McBride drag persona. The conflict explodes when Jo discovers Casey is lying about his new role onstage.

Dylan Cotter as Casey, Naphtali Curry as Tracy, and Lauren Vialva as Jo. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of the University of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Dylan Cotter as Casey, Naphtali Curry as Tracy, and Lauren Vialva as Jo. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of the University of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Casey is no doubt heterosexual in the play and the dilemma of telling Jo about his drag role seems plausible, but I struggled with how quickly the playwright allowed Casey’s character to accept doing drag so easily. The character studied drama and also dabbled in music, even writing a song for Jo, so “acting” the part of a drag queen was not unbelievable. I wanted to witness a more dramatic transition from the character’s role from Elvis to Georgia McBride. I think Lopez missed the opportunity to test the actor’s ability by not providing him with more dialogue and motivation surrounding his journey from Elvis to a drag performer. I felt cheated in the character’s development and I was left wondering how performing as a woman affected any part of Casey’s masculinity, an issue never addressed in the play.

Cotters’ Casey is dynamic though. I felt his internal empathy for his character, both as a soon-to-be father and again as Georgia McBride. His female persona was believable and sincere given how quickly he had to adapt.

Vialva took her role of Jo and turned her into a loving but frustrated partner to Casey. Her struggle to understand her partner’s decision to do drag as a profession was one of the most refreshing roles in the show. The acceptance or rejection of another’s inner spirit is addressed with empathy and in these polarizing times and Vialva made that happen.

Curry nailed the role of Tracy, and as Tina Turner he strutted in tortuous gold platforms with deadly spikes as he belted out “Proud Mary.” Lip-synching is an art in itself and the Arizona Repertory students were spot-on. 

Wujek was an unabashed Rexy with believable drunken-laced stage pratfalls. I never doubted his performance. His character is the epitome of a stereotypical drag queen. I do wish the playwright showed little sympathy for the character. Although catty and always bitchy, I believed Rexy to be toxic on the surface, but a lost soul inside. His alcohol-laced rants screams help me! with no help written into the script.

Scenic designer Clare Rowe made use of a revolving set allowing for quick scene changes from Casey’s apartment and back to the bar. The set had just enough decor to give the audience the illusion of the bar’s cramped backstage dressing room and a sparse apartment that Casey and Jo call home.

The music selection during scene changes, including Neil Diamond’s hit, “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon,” added just enough fluff to make the audience laugh. 

Dylan Cotter as Casey, Naphtali Curry as Tracy, and Jax Wujek as Rexy. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of the University of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Dylan Cotter as Casey, Naphtali Curry as Tracy, and Jax Wujek as Rexy. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of the University of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Co-director Patrick Holt, who also inspired the sequin, feather and fake fur-embellished costumes along with Shaelyn Ellershaw, should really know the ropes. After all, Holt was one of the stars of season seven on Ru Paul’s Drag Race and more recently named one of the most influential drag performers for New York magazine. Need I say more? 

I embrace the message of acceptance in The Legend of Georgia McBride. I want to applaud the men and women who have the courage to forge deep into themselves and feel the freedom to love who they really are. No one can expect everyone to be understanding and tolerant of things they don’t understand. Ignorance and fear are powerful deterrents. As critical as the message of tolerance should be, this play only tackles the surface of the issue. Although slightly candy-coated with quick one-liners and innuendos, it’s worth starting somewhere and The Legend of Georgia McBride is a good starting point.

The Legend of Georgia McBride plays at the Tornabene Theatre at the University of Arizona through October 6th. Performances are at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays, and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For reservations or info, visit: theatre.arizona.edu or call 621-1162.

Meeting Students’ Needs While Entertaining Us – What’s Not to Love at ART?

Editor’s Note: This is the twelfth in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season.

Balancing education, entertainment, and moving audiences forward with Hank Stratton.

by Leigh Moyer

ART

Hank Stratton, artistic director of the Arizona Repertory Theatre (ART) and assistant professor in the University of Arizona School of Theatre, Film, and Television, can’t overstate the importance of theatre: “The event of theatre happening in front of you is something that you can’t experience in other forms and we need to show that to younger audiences. Every time I introduce someone to theatre it changes their lives. If you can’t tell a story with a block and a white piece of cloth, you just aren’t doing the job. All the rest of it is gravy. If you don’t have the elements of storytelling, of humanity, of simple talking and listening, then you’ve already gone off the rails. That’s theatre to me.”

This isn’t just a parable; it’s a lesson, one he teaches every year at the University of Arizona. The gravy for audience members is a six-show season that transports and amazes. For Stratton, however, choosing a season isn’t only about what will most entertain the audience but what will best educate his students. He’s unapologetic about it: “You may not always love what we do, but we need to look at what the students need first.”

That said, this season at ART there is a lot to love. 

A classic such as the fall production of Pippin, the fictionalized story of Charlemagne and his son’s quest to please him through war and feats on the battlefield, told through the lense of a troupe of performers, is countered by the spring opener The Wolves, a story that follows the very different kind of warfare of teenage girlhood. The Wolves takes place during the pregame warm up routine of the eponymous soccer team and the conversations they have, experiences they share, and losses they experience on and off the field.

The season also features Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, along with the two more modern pieces The Last Night of Ballyhoo and The Light in the Piazza, and one sure to test walking skills, not to mention acting: The Legend of Georgia McBride. The latter follows the story of an Elvis impersonator who becomes a drag queen. 

Georgia-McBride“Not many of our young students have experience with drag,” Stratton explained, “We’re preparing them in terms of movement, culture, and pathos of those characters. During auditions, we watched all these young men in huge, colorful heels and I had a student come to me and say, ‘You are the one in freshman year who told me that you can’t wear flip flops and get the movement of the characters right if you are in the wrong shoe.’ As a teacher, it’s a feeling of ‘holy shit, this is working!’”

But this production is about far more than seeing college students in flamboyant costumes: “One of the reasons for doing The Legend of Georgia McBride is because the drag community is one that is underrepresented. It takes subjects that confront bias with humor. It is very rare to find a play about counterculture or LGBTQ subjects that doesn’t deal with AIDS. And while that conversation needs to keep going, the great plays from the 90s and aughts were about loss. I hope this take is more relatable to audiences today. It is their differences instead of their commonalities that make them successful.”

Embracing variety is a crucial part of ART’s mission, because along with the entertainment value and teaching students how to improve their stage craft with a given production, Stratton and the ART team are teaching young people how to be human — and representing different people and different stories is key to that.

“It is our responsibility to serve as the theatre, but also as a university and community. Sometimes that means I have to explain why diversity is important. We want everyone to be heard and that means that sometimes we have to ask both the audience and our students to trust us and take chances. We need to move the dial in a lot of ways but I don’t want people to feel like they can’t speak up when and if they feel dissent. We can find common ground in the theatre. One of the things that I appreciate about this season is that we are trying to move conversations through comedy.”

The season is outlined in more detail below and online. You can purchase tickets at theatre.arizona.edu or by contacting the box office at (520) 621-1162. Season subscriptions and single tickets are on sale now. Subscription prices vary based on the series selected. Single ticket prices are $32 for plays and $35 for musicals. Discounts available for students, seniors, military and UA employee/alumni. Group discounts are also available for groups of 10 or more.

University of Arizona Repertory Theatre’s 2019 – 2020 Season:

The Legend of Georgia McBride, by Matthew Lopez
September 21 – October 6, 2019
Casey works as an Elvis impersonator at a local bar and life is good. He even has a new sequin jumpsuit for his act. But in one evening he loses his job, his landlord demands the rent and his wife announces that a baby is on the way. So when a drag show moves into his old place of employment “The King” transforms himself into a queen and with the help of his new friends, he finds a family he never expected. Filled with humor, love and more than a few production numbers, this comedy takes us on a delightful journey that will warm the heart.

Pippin, book by Roger O. Hirson, music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
October 19 – November 3, 2019
With an infectiously unforgettable score from four-time Grammy winner, three-time Oscar winner and musical theatre giant, Stephen Schwartz, Pippin tells the story of one young man’s journey to be extraordinary. Heir to the Frankish throne, the young prince Pippin is in search of the secret to true happiness and fulfillment. He seeks it in the glories of the battlefield, the temptations of the flesh and the intrigues of political power, but none of them supply him with the treasure he seeks. In the end, Pippin finds that happiness lies not in extraordinary endeavors, but rather in the simple, ordinary moments that happen every day.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo, by Alfred Uhry
November 9 – 24, 2019
The year is 1939. While Hitler is invading Poland, Atlanta’s close-knit Jewish community is preparing for the premiere of Gone with the Wind and Ballyhoo, the social event of the year. The Freitag family hopes that the party will be a chance for their daughters to meet their future husbands–but when their uncle brings home his new employee, a handsome Eastern European bachelor from Brooklyn, everyone must confront their own prejudices, desires and beliefs. By turns heartbreaking and uplifting, The Last Night of Ballyhoo won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play.

The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe
February 8 – 23, 2020
The Wolves offers an unflinching, intimate glimpse into the world of a high school women’s soccer team. Nine diverse teammates navigate questions of identity, community, and society all while warming up for the last few games of their season. Playwright Sarah DeLappe’s unique, overlapping dialogue moves from moments that are deadly serious to awkwardly hilarious, but always true to life. With an ensemble of distinct female characters, this fast moving play offers audiences a window into the intense world of female adolescence. The Wolves was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare
March 16 – 29, 2020
Best friends Valentine and Proteus embark on different paths in life only to run into each other again when they both fall in love with the same woman. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, his first comedy and also one of the most rarely performed plays in the canon. The play centers on a host of themes that Shakespeare would spend the rest of his career wrestling with, betrayal, disguise and love. Featuring one of his most beloved clowns, The Two Gentlemen of Verona provides an opportunity to see a master playwright just beginning to flex his genius.

The Light in the Piazza, book by Craig Lucas, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel
April 11 – 26, 2020
This Tony Award winning musical whisks you away to Italy for a captivating tale of passion and romance. It’s the summer of 1953, and Margaret Johnson is travelling the Tuscan countryside with her daughter Clara. When a handsome young Florentine captures Clara’s heart, Margaret must decide if she will risk revealing the truth that could threaten her daughter’s happiness and force her to confront her own choices and dreams. The Light in the Piazza features an intensely romantic score and a heartwarming story of love.

Costumes, Set, and Technical Design Breathe New Life into a Familiar Coming of Age Tale

by Marguerite Saxton

The 1800’s brought many influential things to Germany: Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche, The Brothers Grimm and the infinite creep factor of “Der Struwwelpeter” (Google it!). This is the backdrop for Arizona Repertory Theatre’s season finale, Spring Awakening.

Michael Schulz as Melchior and Rachel Franke as Wendla. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Spring Awakening is based on the late 19th century play The Awakening Spring, A Children’s Tragedy by German playwright Frank Wedekind. This modernized version is an austere depiction of oppression, rebellion, and sexuality, featuring maturing kids finding their bodies amongst shifting roles – girls drool over guys who don’t care about anything but are good at everything, while the guys suffer explicit fantasies about their piano teachers. Typical.

Spring is “a time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). In this lusty season of rebirth we find ourselves sowing metaphorical seeds for the future. Spring Awakening’s director Hank Stratton has expressed that it’s necessary to have death in order to have new life. And what is a more fitting way to celebrate Eostre, the Germanic goddess of spring, than with awkward teenage S.E.X.?

This multiple-Tony winning musical features Steven Sater’s cringy, angsty songs about new ways to touch oneself. But Stratton, according to his recent interview in the Arizona Daily Star, is okay with that. He “expects some audience members to be uncomfortable.” And well, it is.

Yet, this is a show of contrasts. While hopelessness pervades, a spirit of dissent runs almost as wild as the hormones. Though conscientiously directed, the obvious opposites within the script create scenes that are confusing but, in a way, accurate to that time when seemingly everyone was mystified by human sexuality.

The motifs in the story are predictable: adults vs. kids, sex vs. chastity, pleasure vs. pain. A bit cliché. How many times have we seen this story? Girl has sex, gets pregnant, and has a terrible life while the boy basically gets to be the bad ass. Though the narrative starts out strong and funny, it unfortunately flickers out.

While the script leaves something to be desired, there are key performances that pack a punch: much of the movement is purposeful and well timed – a particularly satisfying scene features caustic schoolmasters, headbanging, and air-guitars. And there were stand out vocals by actors Jared Machado (Georg/Dieter) and Rachel Franke (Wendla).
Another gem in the script is the queer love story. Its nuanced vulnerability adds dimension to a predominantly straight tale. This was an astute detail to add to an otherwise familiar story.

Zach Zupke as Moritz and Gabriela Giusti as Ilse. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Where this play really shines is with the set design, technical, and costuming teams. The design of the theater is such that some audience members sit only feet from a technician, but wouldn’t know it due to the team’s utmost professionalism. They execute their jobs efficiently and in perfect unison. And the design team finds new ways to tell an old story. The set explores space in funky ways thanks to Scenic Designer, Joe C. Klug. Chairs hang from ceilings and the floors become a place to take notes. Tori Mays, Lighting Designer, rounds out a visually creative production with unlikely textural choices, employing geometric gobos and infusing many scenes with disconcerting chartreuse. Costume Designer, Ryan B. Moore, goes for symbolic touches by stitching tiny crosses of Peter onto the boys’ uniforms. This cross is a common symbol in counter-culture scenes, serving as a sneaky reference to the defiant nature of the students.

Another great component of this production was the live musical accompaniment – a classy touch that fosters a multisensory opportunity to connect with the play’s ethos. In many other productions they’d be hidden in a pit, but in this production they are instead proudly displayed for the audience as an essential organ, pumping their feet in tune, plucking their fingers in a rhythmic heartbeat that circulates vital energy throughout.
The script is predictable, but the execution of the production is done with gusto and skill. It’s clear those working on Spring Awakening are truly invested in this piece. This season’s final show at Arizona Repertory Theatre may not have awakened all of the senses, but it energizes one into the next phase, however screwy that may be.

Spring Awakening is directed by Hank Stratton and shows at Arizona Repertory Theatre from 4/7 through 4/28. Tickets can be purchased at https://theatre.arizona.edu/shows/spring-awakening/.

 

Editor’s Note: We mistakenly credited Richard Tuckett as the costume designer in a previous version of this article. In fact, Ryan B. Moore, a second year MFA student, was the costume designer for this production of Spring Awakening.

ART’s Top Girls Showcases Top Female Talent

by Holly Griffith

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is a big play. Big personalities, big themes, big scenes. David Morden directs Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production deftly, and while the production has weak moments, this cast does an impressive job juggling a complex web of characters, navigating difficult dialogue rhythms, and bringing the evening to a harrowing climax.

The play opens with a challenging scene, where the central character Marlene, played by Rebecca Galcik, hosts a dreamlike dinner party for six women from history. Some are real historical figures, some are characters from folklore, but all arrive with stories to tell. Churchill writes the scene to be fast-paced, with many lines overlapping, as the women discuss their relationships with men and children, their adventures around the world, and their thoughts on religion and philosophy. It is a feast for anyone who has yearned for the advice and wit of those who have gone before us. Given the pacing, the larger than life personalities, the odd theatrical conceit, the difficult subject material, and the four different dialects used onstage, this is an extremely difficult scene to pull off, and a few moments were lost in the shuffle. As someone unfamiliar with the play, the scene was somewhat hard to follow, and I wished Morden had encouraged a slower pace and more demonstrative blocking where possible, especially near the beginning of the scene.

The remaining scenes of the play, however, are worth the wait. The play shifts time, place, and theatrical style, and we get a glimpse into Marlene’s life as a successful businesswoman, and the challenges that come with being a woman at the top. Six of the seven actors play entirely new characters, some of them multiple new characters, and Morden’s casting is masterful. Each actor slips into the skin of someone new, while retaining thematic vestiges of the dinner party scene. Elana Richardson’s Pope Joan character transforms into Joyce, the working class sister of Marlene. Richardson remains stoic, like her papal counterpart from scene one, but adds a downtrodden jadedness more appropriate for Joyce’s socio-economic situation. Eavan Clare Brunswick portrays the Scottish explorer Isabella Bird in the first scene with a proud earthiness, and later becomes Mrs. Kidd, a woman who tries to protect her husband’s job by desperately attempting to unseat Marlene from her high-powered position. While the earthiness of Isabella vanishes, the boldness and sense of pride remains. It was a joy to watch these shape-shifting women command the stage with ever more nuanced performances.

Perhaps the most exciting transformation is in the hands of Maggie McNeil. She arrives at the dinner party as the folkloric Dull Gret, a nearly-mute spud of a woman dressed in battle armor, who seems primarily concerned with getting more to eat. McNeil, with few lines, becomes a highlight of the scene, radiating with childlike curiosity and coarse table manners. The scene ends with an engrossing description of Gret’s brutish invasion of hell. In the following scenes, McNeil plays the devilish teenager Angie, who resents Joyce’s tough love approach to parenting. She captures the feverish energy of teen life without too much wackiness. McNeil’s Angie is magnetic, radiant, and frightening. McNeil plays two characters whose humanity is interrupted by violence, and she strikes that balance beautifully.

The final scene of the play between Marlene and Joyce is also stunning. Galcik and Richardson know this scene inside and out. The two sisters argue over the central problem of the play—Angie is really Marlene’s child, but was raised by Joyce. The two navigate the would-have, could-haves of their past, unearthing resentments and illustrating the nearly impossible situation that Womanhood has put them in. Their dialogue flows like a river, hitting high points and low points, splashing against barriers and overflowing with rising tension. The two perform the scene with an excellent handle on the rhythms of the language and the vulnerability of their characters.

A word on the technical elements of this piece. Allison Morones has a huge job costuming 7 actors as 16 characters, all of whom change clothes, and most of whom change hairstyle. With few missteps, the costumes fit seamlessly into their world. Even the myriad wigs, which can be distracting if not used well, are consistent in their strangeness. They function similarly to masks in this production, giving a tongue-in-cheek nod to the double-casting in the play. Additionally, director David Morden achieves an almost impossible feat of coaching at least four dialects, ranging from Scottish to Japanese. While some actors handled dialect more naturally than others (Eavan Clare Brunswick has executed 3 different dialects this season, all masterfully), I was impressed with the consistency and range of dialects onstage.

I want to take a moment to praise ART for producing not one but two plays this season with all-female casts. The technical and design team for Top Girls is also a majority of women. It is empowering to watch women hold space onstage for an entire evening, and it gives female artists a chance to work together in ways that are rare in the performing arts. At the same time, I wish the University had more female directors. While I applaud Morden’s work on Top Girls, it also occurred to me that white men will direct almost all the main stage productions at ART this season. I hope that the University will consider diversifying their staff, especially when it comes to faculty with directing qualifications.

Top Girls runs at Arizona Repertory Theatre through Sunday, February 24th. Tickets are available online through the ART box office: 520-621-1162 or theatre.arizona.edu.

 

Editor’s Note: While Holly is an adjunct instructor in the School of Theatre, Film, and Television, she has no relationship with any students involved in Top Girls, personally or professionally. Additionally, Holly has worked professionally with David Morden. While this does not impact how a performance is reviewed, we feel it is important to disclose any potential biases.