Dated Comedy Still Brings the Humor

by Regina Ford

arsenic-19-flyerArsenic and Old Lace, directed by Dan Reichel, at the Community Players Playhouse on Oracle, is a farcical dark comedy, written by Joseph Kesselring. The play opened on Broadway on January 10, 1941 and ran 1,444 performances. Frank Capra directed the iconic film version starring Cary Grant in 1944.

This classic, and much-loved chestnut of a play, was an introduction to theatre for many theatre-goers. I think I’ve seen the play at least 10 times, and I wasn’t certain I could sit through it again. Let’s just say that I am very glad that I did.

Here is a tale of Martha and Abby Brewster, two cheerfully eccentric, but sweet and sincere maiden aunties. The women conduct mercy killings by poisoning lonely old men, a practice they believe is charitable by providing them with an early exit from this world. They give each man a proper Christian burial in the cellar of their quaint Brooklyn home. Their nephew, and cynical, dramatic critic, Mortimer Brewster, spends most of the play attempting to clean up his aunts’ messy killing spree and at the same time appease his fiancée, Elaine Harper, the daughter of the minister,  who desperately wants to get married. 

The plot gets more complicated when Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer’s evil, estranged brother and career criminal returns to their Brooklyn home. Jonathan is sporting a Boris Karloff-like face that has been surgically butchered to disguise his identity by the hard-drinking Dr. Einstein. The quack is a fan of Boris Karloff and used his face as a blueprint for Jonathan’s plastic surgery. Then there’s wacky brother, Teddy Brewster, who insists he is President Theodore Roosevelt and believes that the corpses that keep piling up are victims of yellow fever. He enthusiastically buries them in the cellar which he believes is Panama. Mortimer assumes Teddy has finally gone over the edge and is killing the men until he discovers another body in the window seat.

Arsenic and Old Lace is dated, no question, but the shtick is still charming. The show is a quaint interpretation of subject matter that in reality is borderline disturbing. At the time it ran on Broadway and in 1944 when it was a star-studded film, the atrocities of war were at their pinnacle. Arsenic and Old Lace offered escapism from those atrocities. Humor, even surrounding dark topics, is a way of coping for many and I believe the playwright knew this. The  Brewster sisters survive their daily lives with a warped religious explanation for murder. Their idea of salvation is twisted, but how has that changed in the last seven decades? Murder, assisted suicide, mental health issues (not a topic talked about openly at the time) are all issues that have become part of our reality. “Arsenic and Old Lace” is a history lesson of sorts. The sad truth is history repeats itself.

The director’s program notes provide insight into many of the play’s references from yesteryear that may be unfamiliar to audience members. Reichel managed to successfully capture the time period of the play and the set added to the feel of the time. Nikki Belio’s wallpaper did the set proud. I did have to giggle to myself when I noticed the black and white shoe on the first corpse was a Reebok (it was written on the sole).

Joanne Anderson (Martha Brewster) and Bobbi Whitson (Abby Brewster) bonded beautifully onstage. Anderson nailed the trusting persona of a sweet elderly lady so much so that I wanted to drink the arsenic-laced elderberry wine.

The cast had some heavy hitters who embraced their roles. Paul Hammack (Mortimer Brewster) had the bounding energy to keep the lengthy plot flowing with a character style that transported me back in time. Scott Berg (Jonathan Brewster) has a huge stage presence and offered a non-stereotypical twist to his character. Mike Manolakes (Teddy Brewster) took charge immediately and offered a believable burst of zaniness and light to the stage. His facial expressions were addicting. Larry Gutman (Dr. Einstein) played the creepiness of his deranged character with gusto, and Elaine Harper (Shann Oliver) provided the ideal balance and stronger female in all the insanity. 

The Community Players production of Arsenic and Old Lace is a trip back to theatre as I remember from decades ago and an example of how it should be done, by dedicated actors who are brave enough to revive roles from one of the classics.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs through September 22nd at The Community Players Playhouse. For tickets, visit: communityplayerstucson.org.

 

       

 

Meta Musical Fun

by Gretchen Wirges

There is a hopefulness about musicals that I love. They allow characters the perfect vehicle to release their hopes, dreams, love and loss. The song allows a heart to crack open and reveal itself, warts and all. SAPAC’s season/company opener, [Title of Show], accomplishes this not-so-easy feat in such a beautifully entertaining way. We not only get to see the warts, we also become privy to Wonder Woman, playbills, remote controls, Broadway call sheets, turkey burgers, and vampirish doubts that lurk on the insides of its dynamic characters.

The cast of [title of show]. Photo by Molly Condit at Great Bear Media, courtesy of Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

The cast of [title of show]. Photo by Molly Condit at Great Bear Media, courtesy of Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

At first glance, I reveled in the simplicity of the set design. With just four chairs, and some well-placed windows, I was transported into working/living spaces in New York City. The basic plot involves two friends, Jeff (Andy Miller) and Hunter (Tyler Wright) looking to shake off their humdrum day jobs and television obsessions in order to write a musical for a festival. The story is a musical about musical in a musical festival. They enlist other friends Heidi (Mara Katrina Capati), Susan (Robin Bousel), and accompanist Larry (Brice Kimble). The hilarity that ensues is meta, full of pop culture, and a lot of heart. 

The play, directed by Carson Wright, is incredibly witty, quick, and touching. It’s a story about friendship as much as it is a story about the creative process. The cast does a superb job in connecting and making us believe that they really care about each other. Wright especially impressed with his soaring voice, and his razor-sharp comedic timing. He has the ability to make the most subtle gestures and expressions that instantly bring the audience to fits of laughter. Miller, as Jeff, so deftly plays Abbot to Wright’s Costello. He delivers hilariously wry jokes with sincerity and sings perfect harmony with Wright. 

Photo by Molly Condit at Great Bear Media, courtesy of Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Robin Bousel as Susan and Katrina Capati as Heidi. Photo by Molly Condit at Great Bear Media, courtesy of Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Capati and Bousel, proclaimed in the script as “Secondary Characters” are anything but. Capati has the voice of a raspy angel. Her rendition of “A Way to Back Then” gave me chills and reminded me of my own childhood musings and dreams. Bousel delivers snarky sarcasm like a champ. Her witty one-liners were laser-focused and perfect. And her songs, most notably “Die Vampire Die” left me clutching my chest out of both laughter and poignancy. Both Capati and Bousel recently returned to Tucson. I couldn’t be more excited to see what they do next. 

Larry (Brice Kimble) is a mostly unseen character who accompanies the musical numbers. The occasional moments where he pops up are hilarious and perfectly timed. 

In a conversation with SAPAC director Dennis Tamblyn, I found out that this is considered the “clean version” of the script. The alternative version had more expletives and adult content. One of the elements removed from the clean version were any mention or innuendos of homosexuality. Tamblyn wasn’t happy that depicting or mentioning LGBTQ was categorized as “adult content”. He contacted the publishing company, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and said that he intended to do the clean version, but add those references back in. The publisher agreed that the categorization was antiquated and needed to be updated. This, my friends, is how we can continue to move theater forward. When we know better, we should do better. I’m happy that SAPAC chose to speak up instead of just relenting to seemingly bigoted delineation. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that the script is without flaw. It isn’t. I thought the female characters got caught in the tired trope of female cattiness. They also lament about being secondary to their male counterparts. But the cast overcame that with the strength of their performances. It also doesn’t mean the production itself is without flaw, it wasn’t. I thought the transitions could have been smoother by continuing to underscore the blackouts between scenes. The abrupt changes to silence often halted the momentum and stilted the story. 

All that being said, I left the theater singing Die Vampire Die, wanting to watch Wonder Woman, cursing Sutton Foster in solidarity, and daydreaming about being part of this show. The cast is a musical actor’s dream. And show itself is the contemporary musical lover’s musical. 

[Title of Show] has four more performances for you love: 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 20 and 21, and matinees at 2 p.m. on Sept. 21 and 22. The show is playing at the Temple of Music and Art Cabaret Theatre at 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $25 Reservations/information: sapactucson.org, or by calling 261-0915.

 

Be simultaneously charmed, offended, and amazed at Gutenberg! The Musical!

by Gretchen Wirges

Carson Wright as Bud and Tyler Wright as Doug. Photo courtesy of the Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Carson Wright as Bud and Tyler Wright as Doug. Photo courtesy of the Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Weird.
Irreverent.
Meta.
Nerdy.
Genius. 

That would be my laundry list of words to describe Gutenberg! The Musical!, written by Scott Brown and Anthony King, as the debut production for Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company. It’s the perfect show for the person who doesn’t take themselves, or their love of musicals, so seriously that they can’t have fun exploring the tropes and cliches often found in the world of theatre. 

Gutenberg! The Musical! is a musical about making a musical. Writers Bud and Doug (played by Carson Wright and Tyler Wright respectively) perform a whirlwind mock-up of their show about the inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg and the kinda sorta, probably made up, wikipedia-sourced journey of his invention. The show starts with Bud and Doug introducing each other, the musical, and the fact that there are Broadway producers in the audience who hopefully will provide a nod of approval and a contract once they’ve seen the audition. As it progresses, Bud and Doug take on the roles of a variety of characters, delineated by a displayed cache of trucker hats emblazoned with the character’s name (Woman, Beef Fat Trimmer, Daughter, Gutenberg, Monk #2, and more). 

Carson and Tyler portray their characters with a grounded humor reminiscent of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. There is a beloved earnestness and sincerity that permeates their comedic choices, making them believable and yet ridiculous (in all the best ways). This groundedness is what really sells the rest of the often cliched wrongness of the story they’re trying to tell. Carson has a fantastically confident agility about him that allows him to glide effortlessly between characters both in voice and in physicality. Tyler has a pointed seriousness about him that gives him the unique ability to deliver absurdity with beautiful patience, keenness, and impeccable timing.

Given a suggested PG-13 rating; misogyny, antisemitism, and abusive relationships are just some of the interwoven themes of the made-up musical, but because of the grounded portrayal by Carson and Tyler, and the truth of the tropes of which they’re making fun, I found myself laughing out loud again and again. Okay, there may have even been a snort (or two). Reminiscent of shows like Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, the sometimes shock value of what was being said, was absorbed by the sincerity of the actors’ spot-on delivery and the super clever, word-nerd level lyrics.

Carson Wright as Bud and Tyler Wright as Doug. Photo courtesy of the Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Carson Wright as Bud and Tyler Wright as Doug. Photo courtesy of the Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Carson and Tyler, billed as both directors and designers on the show, were able to do what few self-directed casts can achieve. Often it’s difficult to step outside of the creative brain to add a critical eye to the overall performance. But this production doesn’t suffer from that difficulty. The choreography is prudent and funny and a well-oiled machine. The finesse they display in telling both stories (both of the writers and the actual musical) while physically shifting hats, props, and each other, was incredibly deft and polished. All of this was accented and made even more magical by the actors’ incredible singing voices and their equally talented musical accompanist, Khris Dodge.

The show is being performed at Unscrewed Theater, known typically for its improv comedy. The sparse black-box style theater made for a perfect backdrop for the show. Lighting was sometimes lacking, but almost gave the overall intention of the show a bit more integrity as it’s intended to be a grassroots, self-produced show. There were a few times when there were props or choreography that took place on the proscenium or floor of the stage when I couldn’t see what was happening. This was only frustrating because I didn’t want to miss any of the action. 

Go see Gutenberg! The Musical! Laugh at the jokes, sing the songs, and allow Carson, Tyler, and Dodge to simultaneously charm, offend, and amaze you with their utterly brilliant performance. 

Gutenberg! The Musical! plays at Unscrewed Theater, 4500 E. Speedway Blvd., for only one more weekend with remaining shows on Thursday, Aug. 22 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 24 at 2pm, and Sunday, Aug. 25, at 2pm.

Tickets are $25 general admission; $20 military, students, teachers. For details and reservations visit www.sapactucson.org, email boxoffice@sapactucson, or call 520-780-6119.

 

Memory, Mental Health, and Relearning How to Be Human

by Leigh Moyer

You have amnesia so badly you can’t even remember your name. You have no idea who you are or how to regain your memory. No one will even try to help you. You wind up in a care home for people with similar issues; mental breaks and complicated personalities. It is here, at Paradise Found Care Home, that anyone will even attempt to crack the mystery. And, as a blank slate with no idea of your own history, traumas, or coping mechanisms, you are uniquely able to listen to people who have been written off by the rest of the world. This is where Nemo, as his new friends name him, finds himself in Identity Crisis.

I liked this show. It was funny and ultimately deep and heart wrenching. Sometimes it was frustrating that it always went for the joke even in the heavier or more emotional moments, but the play is less about Nemo’s memory and more about the ways we all avoid the pain and problems in our own stories. Because playwright and director Gavin Kayner named each character clever variations on their own mental plagues, I believe this is purposeful. There’s the foolish Professor Inanis (the Latin root of the word inane). And Nemo, the name he gives the memoryless main character (Nemo means nobody). Then Nulla, perhaps a play on null as the young woman is nothing without her imagined alter ego Phanta, a name which sounds more than halfway to fantasy. Even the stage name of the psychic in the house and person who sees Nemo most clearly, is a play on words: Claire Voyient. The characters seem to know they are exaggerations, even calling themselves caricatures, while still being trapped by their own crises. 

Joanne Mack Robertson as Claire Voyient, David Gunther as Nemo, Mike Manolakes as Professor Inanis, and Erin Hepler as Nulla. Photo courtesy of Serendipity Productions.

Joanne Mack Robertson as Claire Voyient, David Gunther as Nemo, Mike Manolakes as Professor Inanis, and Erin Hepler as Nulla. Photo courtesy of Serendipity Productions.

This show hits close to home. I left questioning if it is okay to make so, so many jokes about mental illness. I have gone back and forth on this because while the show is thoroughly enjoyable, it is a show that depends on a cartoonish depiction of people suffering from mental states severe enough that they are removed from normal life and live mostly forgotten and sequestered from the outside world. But that same cartoonishness allowed for a glimpse into what struggling with a mental health issue can look like without it being a total bummer.

I have a mental illness. I have found myself, for about the length of time Nemo finds himself at Paradise Found, in a mental health hospital. It was different. Real life tends to be less on the nose. But the strange people who become momentary best friends, the darkness, the coping in any way you have to, and, maybe most accurately, the truly horrible food were all familiar. 

So too were the moments when a character could shed the unhealthy coping mechanism, even if it was only moments before realizing how hard and scary the world is and rushing back to the safety of a bad habit. This was beautifully and painfully well done by Erin Hepler as Nulla. She made my heart ache for Nulla. Hepler shows Nulla’s extraordinarily bizarre way to face a world full of disappointment and hurt, and shows that Nulla knows it was extraordinary and even not ideal and yet can’t not return to the safety of that coping mechanism. 

I was also impressed by Mike Manolakes as Professor Inais who essentially played three distinct characters. His ability to take on different affects, not to mention accents, seamlessly, made his particular mental trap, while silly, feel true. True to the professor at least.

This production is also fascinating for the acting done off stage. There are a number of times when the stage, and by proxy, Paradise Found Care Home, are made bigger by conversations held in full earshot of the audience off stage. This was taken to the next level by Jessica Spenny as Phanta who interacts with everyone on stage from off stage. Her timing and inflection was informed only by what she was hearing. The cues that can make an actor become a character were literally blocked from Spenny’s view. She lands both jokes and tender moments, her acting limited to what she could do with her voice. Credit must also be given to Hepler for her ability to interact with a character she couldn’t directly act with.

It was wonderful to watch a small group of actors playing very odd and very ill people create a world that was believable. Without a solid cast that trusted each other, it would have felt like a cruel portrayal of broken people. Instead, there is a real love that the actors create for the characters. This was helped by the beautiful set that felt very much homey and not at all like a home. 

Identity Crisis runs through July 28th with performances at 7:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays in The Scoundrel & Scamp theater at the History Y (738 N. 5th Ave.). Tickets are available at the door an hour before the show or by calling (520) 780-7476. 

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.