Familial Dysfunction and Poetry Abound in Long Day

by Chloe Loos

You have three options when reality is too painful to face: you can lose yourself in the past, you can worry about the future, or you can live in the present, on your own terms. The family of four presented in The Rogue Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1956 magnum opus Long Day’s Journey Into Night do all three. Sometimes different ones, and almost always at separate times. Where the text truly shines is in those moments of misbegotten allegiance when two people are finally in the same space. Of course, this doesn’t happen often, and we instead watch people pass like ships in the night, unable to see each other clearly.

Joseph McGrath as James, Theresa McElwee, Ryan Parker Knox as Jamie and Hunter Hnat as Edmund. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Joseph McGrath as James, Theresa McElwee as Mary, Ryan Parker Knox as Jamie, and Hunter Hnat as Edmund. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

The play, directed by Cynthia Meier, takes place over the course of a single dark day in the summer home of the Tyrone family. Secrets are kept, secrets are shared, and the truth is not as simple as it might seem. Mary (Theresa McElwee) is still recovering from treatment for morphine addiction, of which husband James (Joseph McGrath) supports her wholeheartedly. Things are complicated by Edmund’s (played by Hunter Hnat) sickness and his bullheaded brother, Jamie (Ryan Parker Knox).

With a runtime of 2 hours and 50 minutes, the play is certainly long. Still, despite the fact that the text was cut down to shorten it, I felt that the performers were constantly battling the clock in order to tell the story. As a play about an incredibly dysfunctional family (of which they are aware, thanks to some lovely breaks of humour), there are rapid tonal shifts throughout that I felt often never quite reached their full intensity. When you need to get through that much material, even the pauses are filled with movement. But there wasn’t enough time to breathe; to sit in the weight of the poetry and sadness; to really hear what these people were trying to tell each other. Those times where we were allowed to sit in moments were absolutely breathtaking.

Hunter Hnat as Edmund and Theresa McElwee as Mary. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Hunter Hnat as Edmund and Theresa McElwee as Mary. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Each performer had moments of strength – particularly when their characters were being honest with themselves, but I was particularly impressed by Hnat’s laser-like intensity throughout the piece. Performing illness and strength is not easy, but Hnat executed it so well. A stand-in for O’Neill himself, we can see him react to and internalize all these moments in such a way that he felt the most solidly real out of all the performers. I believed this play was Edmund’s story, and as O’Neill recreated moments from his own life, it’s easy to see how he became the person he did. 

Staged in the round, the sitting room set featured ramshackle furniture underneath a hanging chandelier, off of which light glinted beautifully. A large set of stairs wound up into the black curtains. Across from it, a blue door. The message was clear. You can stay or you can go. The tension between those dominating pieces worked well, especially when characters ascended and disappeared into the blackness. As the play progressed and we got closer to night, the lighting and sound design helped us to feel like we just as trapped in that house as Mary was. Special shout out to the piano music by Russell Ronnebaum, who underscored the sense of longing implicit in the script.

That said, in a play about how the past, present, and future can all come back to haunt us, there were some indications this play is definitely of a time since gone. Some of the slang was hard to track, and there were some fatphobic jokes that weren’t entirely necessary. Surprisingly, it does pass the Bechdel test. There is a conversation between Mary and maid Cathleen (played by a subversive Holly Griffith) that was a nice break in the male-centric tragedy. I also appreciated the realistic handling of generational addiction, which is a conversation as important to have when the play was written as it is now. The play is what it is: an autobiographical piece about people being awful to each other while trying to make up for it and thus has value as a historic piece of American theatre. 

Yes, it’s long. But it’s so worthwhile if you’ve ever felt out of touch or out of reach of your community, humanity, or even reality.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is playing Thursday through Sunday at The Rogue Theatre (300 E. University Blvd., Tucson, AZ 85705) through September 29th. Tickets are available by calling 520-551-2053, at the box office one hour before the performance, or on the web at theroguetheatre.org.

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.

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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.

 

An Astonishing Production of Little Women

by Gabriella De Brequet

Little Women the musical, with book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, is based on the 1868 novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott. It is a coming of age story about sisters Jo (Erin Recuparo), Meg (Diana Ouradnik), Amy (Kelly Coates), Beth (Kate Scally Howell), and their Mother Marmee (Korby Myrick). While their Father is fighting in the war the girls find love, discover their callings, and evolve together as a family.

Kate Scally Howell as Beth, Kelly Coates as Amy, Erin Recuparo as Jo, Korby Myrick as Marmee, Diane Ouradnik as Meg. Photo by Brandon Howell, courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

Kate Scally Howell as Beth, Kelly Coates as Amy, Erin Recuparo as Jo, Korby Myrick as Marmee, and Diane Ouradnik as Meg. Photo by Brandon Howell, courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

The musical is lead by Jo (Recuparo) the headstrong sister whose passion for writing drives the narrative. Themes of female empowerment and female camaraderie resonate throughout the play. Each Sister is uniquely different from one another and this allows the audience to find a little bit of themselves in each sister. It’s refreshing and timely to see dynamic female characters such as these headlining the narrative. This heart felt production will astonish you!

The vocal performances were impressive and well adjusted for the space. Recuparo’s Jo was passionate, dynamic, and strong. The audience had the great pleasure of watching her evolve from start to finish right before our eyes. Howell’s Beth was bright, kind, and humble. Her performance will break your heart. Ouradnik’s Meg was thoughtful and funny. Coates as Amy was hilarious and brash. Jeremy Vega’s Laurie was sincerely honest and youthful. Ruben Rosthenhausler’s Professor Bhaer was sweet, and comical. Perhaps the most poignant performance for me was Myrick’s Marmee. Myrick’s vocal performance brought me to tears more than once, and her characterization of Marmee was rich, and selfless. The entire ensemble really blew me away. There was not a single weak link in this strong chain of actors.

Erin Recuparo as Jo, Kate Scally Howell as Beth, Diane Ouradnik as Meg, and Kelly Coates as Amy. Photo by Brandon Howell, courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

Erin Recuparo as Jo, Kate Scally Howell as Beth, Diane Ouradnik as Meg, and Kelly Coates as Amy. Photo by Brandon Howell, courtesy of Arizona Rose Theatre.

The set design was impressive considering the size of the small venue. The stage has a circular center which rotated. The rotating element helped illustrate the passage of time, growth, and change. The lighting design was vivid. At times I felt that it was too vivid for the space but it remained consistent throughout the play and it wasn’t too distracting. The costumes by Daniela Ayala were thoughtful and fitting. I was thoroughly impressed with Arizona Rose Theatre company’s production of Little Women. I encourage all musical theatre lovers to witness this local gem of a production.

Tickets are available at www.arizonarosetheatre.com or by calling the box office at (520)888-0509. Special tickets prices for students, children, seniors and military apply. Little Women runs from April 27th- May 5th

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.

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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.

Blood Wedding: An Invitation to Powerful Theater

by Gretchen Wirges

Flamenco music filled the spaces around me. The glow of soft red light cascaded down the curtain. Audience members of different ages and cultures wandered in. And then, a young girl  came and sat front row, center. She even sat between two seats, allowing herself to take up space. She was enraptured, as was I, for the duration of this incredible production.

Blood Wedding was written by Federico Garcia Lorca and, for this production, translated by Scoundrel & Scamp’s own Elizabeth Falcón. The play encompasses the story of one family joining to another with all of its politics, heartache, and love. The Bridegroom, played by Sean Cronin, is to be wed to the Bride, played by Claire De La Vergne, but the bride is still in love with her past amor, Leonardo, played by Jeffrey Baden. A tragic love story follows.

The set, designed by Jason Jamerson, is beautifully designed with open walls and doorways. The hilly platform upstage contains the constant presence of figures representing nature, death, the moon, and music. The figures move to form beautiful tableaus that serve as the perfect theatrical backdrop. The tableaus included live musicians, including a guitarist, who punctuates and underscores much of the action on the stage and two vocalists/percussionists who help fill the stage with authentic Spanish music and heart. The vocalizations of everyone in the tableau created flowing transitions from one scene into the next.

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Nicole Delprete as the Wife of Leonardo, Emily Fuchs, Susan Arnold as the Mother of the Bridegroom, China Young, and Claire De La Vergne as the Bride. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

The music, arranged by Melissa Alejandra Aguirre Fernandez, was one of my favorite parts of this show. It was powerful, meditative and cathartic. Its vitality — in all senses of the word — makes the music feel like a crucial member of the cast. One of my favorite scenes took place between Mother-in-Law of Leonardo, played by Julia Balestracci, and Wife of Leonardo, played by Nicole DelPrete. Their beautiful voices lilted as they sung about folklore heavy with foreboding and pain. The singing was accented perfectly by the Spanish guitar. Such a touching, heartbreakingly stunning scene. 

The costumes, designed by Maria Caprile,  were stunning. Most performers wore a variety of shades of brown, and off-white, while Mother of the Bridegroom, Bride, Bridegroom, and Leonardo wore blacks, whites, and greys. The sparse pops of red in the props and costuming were balanced and predicted the essence of death and danger.

The diversity of the cast in gender, age, and culture gave this show greater power in terms of authenticity and richness. This is the casting I want to see in every show, regardless of its cultural point of view. The world is diverse, our art should be as well. When we see ourselves, it enables us to connect to the deeper meanings and truths. It allows us to have a mirror to look more intimately into our own humanity, instead of just observing the humanity of others.  

The performances, directed by Bryan Falcón, were great as a whole. At times, some of the performers would use an accent, and others not. Sometimes a British overtone, sometimes a Spanish. Sometimes odd diction, sometimes not.  I found this a little off-putting, but not so much that I couldn’t enjoy the beautiful performances behind the words. The delivery was often overly dramatic, in a way that the poetic language demanded.

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Claire De La Vergne as the bride on her wedding day with Kat McIntosh as the maid. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

I have to call out the performances of three individuals: Adrian Encinas, as The Moon, Leora Sapon-Sevin as Death, and De La Vergne. Encinas and Sapon-Sevin were creepy and spectacular. They used their bodies to create shapes of darkness and light. I was enraptured every time they move or spoke. They used their voices expertly to create silence, anger, pain and delight. De La Vergne was a glorious revelation throughout. Her pain became my pain. Her strength, my strength. Her love, her loss — mine. De La Vergne’s final exchange with the Bridegroom’s mother, played elegantly by Susan Arnold, was inspired and powerful. As a director, I wanted to cast her; as an actor, I wanted to be her; as a human being, I wanted to hug her. I can’t wait to see much more from De La Vergne. 

The women in this play have unexpected agency. The Bride makes choices that lead her along a dark path. She is neither commanded by her father, nor carried away by her lover, nor controlled by her betrothed. Additionally, in the end, it is the women who hold the space for love and grief. It is the women who commune to overcome aggression with emotion. It is the women who call out in their anger and sadness. It is the women who bravely water the earth with their tears.

The girl in the front row didn’t flinch at the darkness or grief. She took it all in, as did I. I hope she grows up and wants to create art just like this. Please go see this show. Allow the visual feast of diversity in music and humanity to transport you to that place where poetry and inclusion and love mean everything.

Blood Wedding is playing at The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre, Thursdays-Sundays through April 14th. (Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2pm). Call the box office at 520-448-3300 or visit scoundrelandscamp.org for tickets.