Casually Dysfunctional

by Marguerite Saxton

In the recent Live Theater Workshop production of Appropriate, written by Branden Jacob-Jenkins, the audience is presented with a plethora of things to tackle. There is the colossal theme of racism accompanied by the more convoluted concepts of tradition and legacy, which all have much to do with learned behaviors. A family’s shared history weaves together to create patchwork narratives that often lean towards certain bias and while viewing Appropriate, we peek into a particular family’s prejudice. We witness the repeated cycles of pain, defensiveness, and rivalry.

main-now2-lg

Rhonda Hallquist as Toni, Keith Wick as Bo, and Cliff Madison as Frank. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Originally premiering in 2013, this play is confrontational even for our explicit era. It highlights the way a family romanticizes the structure of someone once they’ve passed on; how we forget their obstinate qualities and block out idiosyncrasies; how we don’t view someone as racist if we’re cut from the same cloth. This is distinctly performed by the oldest sibling, Toni (Rhonda Hallquist), who vacillates between rage and resentment. Each of her cathartic episodes seem to embolden a further slide into dysfunction. And while it feels that Toni’s grief dominates the play there are two other essential points to note:

  1.      The entire play takes place in an old plantation house.
  2.      The playwright is African American.

Why important? Well, the word plantation is a trigger for many American citizens. As it should be. The historically white-owned, black slave-operated plantation has served as a poignant allegory in dissecting the complexities of race relations in this country. It is an appropriately loaded metaphor that warrants sensitive treatment. Thus, the significance of it as a setting and Jacob-Jenkins being African American cannot be overstated. If he weren’t, many scenes would feel intolerable. I felt particularly uneasy during some key moments, such as when the entirely white audience laughed at the all white cast when they were Googling how much photos of dead black people go for on the Internet. Didn’t seem right…and that’s the point, I think? Through this discomfort, Jacob-Jenkins successfully reminds us that there are certain concepts that need to be represented by certain people.

The playwright unfolds the forced reunion of the Lafayette family, whose shifting unification over what to do with their late father’s derelict property highlights the tense bonds keeping them tethered to one another. Frank (Cliff Madison), is the youngest sibling who serves as the crux for the entire family’s disappointment. After a 10 year absence, he and his fiancée, River (Emily Gates), arrive in the night, crawling through the living room window amongst the resonant chorus of cicadas. Their entrance disrupts everyone, setting the tone for the remaining two hours: someone will always be disrupted.

Emily Gates as River and Cliff Madison as Frank. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Emily Gates as River and Cliff Madison as Frank. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

As is often the case in Naturalism, the characters of Appropriate are victims of their own circumstance. Often, characters in this genre seem outlandishly honest, as is the case here. The family is portrayed in such exaggerated forms that they become caricatures. Toni seems to exude such violent martyrdom that one wonders if she has any other personality traits. Her anguish is intriguing, even funny at first, but becomes predictable. To this point, some monologues stretch on like therapy sessions in which the characters explain everything ad nauseam, giving the whole thing an absurd undertone. 

Conversely, well-placed curse words and overlapping speech create an oddly pleasing discordance. Two characters in particular are well developed: Bo (Keith Wick) and his daughter Cassidy (Ella James). Wick portrays Bo with sharp wit, an arrogant big city guy with layers unlike his kinfolk. James performs Cassidy as curious but bored of the world in a pre-teen way. She is probably the most dimensional character of the play.

The content is provocative and the diatribe entertaining, but something is amiss. It feels like the play never ends; drags where it could end with a punch (maybe even literally). The last scene finally translates some bizarre and spooky design elements that, had they been present earlier, would have cultivated the performance as a whole. Perhaps this ineffable discomfort is intentional though, as this play is an exploration in agitation. Whether alluding to lynchings, showcasing white-hooded children, or a WWE-style family feud, it essentially boils down to this: birth families can be crummy. While reconciling their realities in the wake of their father’s death this family inadvertently shows us how to be, or not to be, appropriate.

Appropriate runs until June 15th at Live Theater Workshop, located at 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Tickets can be purchased by calling (520) 327-4742 or visiting lifetheatreworkshop.org.

 

What to Expect Going Down the Rabbit Hole

by China Young

Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire is a wonderfully scripted story that explores five individuals processing the loss of a child. This production, directed by Vince Flynn  running at Community Players, is sad, funny, poignant, and viscerally relatable. Before I get into any more details, I want to strongly encourage you to go see Rabbit Hole. The night I attended did not have the audience these performers or this story deserve.

The cast of Rabbit Hole. Photo by Paul Brunelle, courtesy of The Community Players.

The cast of Rabbit Hole. Photo by Paul Brunelle, courtesy of The Community Players.

Now, the story. Becca Corbet (Meagan Jones), is a stay-at-home mom to Danny, who is killed in a tragic accident at four years old. Jones’s performance is honest and impactful. I could feel the depth of her pain, and how, at times, she resisted dealing with it. Eric Rau brings truth and vulnerability to Becca’s husband Howie as he attempts to heal his wife’s grief by recapturing the passion they once had even though he is simultaneously holding onto his own grief by privately watching old home movies of his late son. Becca and Howie struggle to find common ground following the loss of their son. They seem to choose different, and often conflicting, methods of grieving as they strive to learn how to live with the pain. Jones, Rau, and Flynn never abandon this subtext. Whether it is present in the spatial relationships between the couple or in the inability to reconnect to one another emotionally, this struggle is present throughout.

Izzy (Michele Holland), Becca’s younger sister, serves as a sort of beacon for second chances. We learn early in the first scene that she is pregnant, something that isn’t easily shared considering the family’s recent loss. As is often the case with being the youngest sibling, she has had the privilege of few responsibilities and the freedom to “f— up” and she believes having a baby will help her get her act together. Holland gives Izzy an appropriate amount of “last born” attitude and naivete, though she isn’t without her moments of mature profundity.

Nat (Sydney Flynn), Becca and Izzy’s mother, has also lost a child, her adult son. Though the circumstances surrounding his death and that of Danny’s are significantly different, she can’t help but compare the two in her attempts to console and relate to her daughter’s loss. Flynn is delightfully natural in her portrayal of Nat, fully embodying the wisdom of someone who has experienced deep levels of grief more than once in her life.

Finally, there is Jason Willette (Stephen Dunham), a teenager who writes a story for the grieving family as a sort of apology for having a role in the loss of their child. Dunham brings a natural innocence and kindness to Jason that supports and motivates Becca’s willingness to bring him into her home.

The technical elements of the show were hit and miss for me, although they did their part to support the world that was created by the director and actors. Sound design was disappointing. In addition to several cues misfiring, I yearned for transitional music, of which it completely lacked. Perhaps it was intentionally excluded from this production, but I believe this is a show that opens its audience up to their own levels of vulnerability in such a way that they need some musical interludes to help ride the arcs of the characters and process their own experience.

The set, designed and crafted by Scott Berg, Bobbi Whitson, and Eric Everts, is skillfully crafted and I was impressed at how every inch of available space was used to craft the Corbets’ home. My only critique is that it is very busy. There are a lot of patterns and conflicting decorative styles that distracted me from the action at times.

The costumes were simple and modern, and there seemed to be intentional color palettes that were used specifically between Becca and Nat. There is not a costume designer listed in their program leaving me to assume that it was a choice of the actors or a happy accident borne from the actors time and work together. Either way, it amplified the bond between the mother and daughter that now shared the experiencing of losing of a son.

Part of our mission of Taming of the Review is to ask “why tell this story and why tell it now?” For me that answer comes as the entire family is discussing the Kennedy family and, unironically, the variety of tragic deaths that the family has endured. Nat flippantly categorizes the private plane crashes and assassinations by crazed gunmen as “rich issues.” Despite the humor in it, I found myself suddenly considering all the lives that have been lost to families across this country and across the world to “crazed gunmen.” Death, no matter how rich or poor, big or small, old or young, is not a “rich issue.” That loss is universal.

The characters in Rabbit Hole are all dealing with loss in their own way.The conflict among them is driven by their lack of acceptance and understanding that every single one of them is grieving differently. This show is a gentle acknowledgement that it is difficult to make space for others grief, especially if it manifests differently from our own. It also perhaps nudges us to be more accepting of those differences, even while experiencing our own grief. I think it is safe to say our society could use more than a gentle reminder of this as we struggle to understand and overcome our growing divisions on a daily basis.  

Image courtesy of The Community Players.

Image courtesy of The Community Players.

Rabbit Hole continues at Community Players, 1881 N Oracle Rd, Tucson, AZ 85705, on Friday at 7:30, Saturday at 7:30, and Sunday at 2:00 through May 19th. You can buy tickets online CommunityPlayersTucson.org or by calling 887-6239.

Make Room for Things I Know To Be True

by Rebekah Thimlar

The company of Things I Know To Be True. Photo by Michael Brosilow, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The company of Things I Know To Be True. Photo by Michael Brosilow, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

It can be a difficult thing, to introduce your true self to the people who should know you best. In this heartbreakingly funny play by Andrew Bovell, we watch as members of the Price family struggle make room for their true selves within their predetermined family roles.

Things I Know to be True begins with a monologue from the youngest Price daughter, Rosie (Aubyn Heglie). She is away on an extended vacation. Feeling low, she begins to pine for her family. In this scene, Rosie introduces the audience to the Price family, her mother and father, Fran (Jordan Baker) and Bob (Bill Geisslinger), her siblings, Pip (Kelley Faulkner) Ben (Zach Fifer), and Mia (Kevin Kantor). Upon Rosie’s return home, the family welcomes her warmly and we feel a genuine sense of love between them.

The story progresses over the course of a year. During which time, we see the characters struggle between the urge to live their lives with absolute honesty and living up to the expectations of their family. This fine line is walked along such matters as love, identity, double standards, regret, and the indelible aching of possibilities unpursued. In this production, the specifics become the social, making this play highly relatable.

MBP_3538

Bill Geisslinger as Bob and Jordan Baker as Fran.Photo by Michael Brosilow, courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

This production is well cast, the actors do an incredible job of immersing the audience in the emotional highs and lows of the Price family. Notable performances were given by Baker and Geisslinger as the parents of the Price children. Where Geisslinger emanated calm, straight lines as the understanding father, Baker’s performance embodies the chaotic layers of Fran Price wonderfully. This pair does a fine job of portraying a couple that has been together so long, their traits begin to polarize as a mode of self-preservation. Through the parent’s interactions with each of their children, we see the wrenching disbelief of expectations unfulfilled and watch as they contemplate the true price of happiness.   

The play is largely set in the Price family’s backyard. As Pip mentions, “This backyard is everything.” Watching the family muse backward and forward in time, you start to believe her. The story of the Price family is told not only in memories but in their hopes for the future. These memories and hopes appear to be anchored to the large, beautifully crafted, oak tree which dominates the stage. This oak tree is the symbolic support of the family. The lighting and changing foliage move us through the seasons and the collaboration of the set components reinforce the sense of contemporary familiarity.

Though it is set in a midwestern backyard, this intimate family play faces a spectrum of themes relevant to modern society. Things I Know to be True wants the audience to see their own families on the stage and this production pulls that off. At times, the action is a bit crowded and distracting, particularly during the monologues. There are moments when the musical selections feel a bit out of place. These were minor distractions in this otherwise outstanding production.

This play is extremely funny and enjoyable, but what makes it worth seeing is that it’s not afraid to be honest. You will undoubtedly laugh a lot and more than likely cry a little as you relive your own memories through the stories of the Price family. The writing is so funny, so authentic, and so universal, you will feel as though parts were ripped from your own thoughts. On the list of things I know to be true, you will not regret making room for this play.

Things I Know to be True is playing through Saturday May 11 at the Temple of Music and Art. Tickets can be purchased online at arizonatheatre.org or by phone (520) 622-2823.

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.