The Nexus Between Life and Death Will Always Be Found in Nature

by guest reviewer Richard Thompson

The nexus between life and death will always be found in nature. It’s only natural. It’s not just the sounds of innocent children’s laughter and birds chirping in the prelude or the cacophony of jungle beasts making feral noises when finding a seat in the auditorium of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre. Life abound is felt; nature is imbibed. Yet, these stages in life wouldn’t tell the complete story of nature without the aged glass cases that stood as sad celebrity sarcophaguses to dead beetles, moths, and scorpions. And in the end, the production Herman: The Naturalist takes us through every facet of life and death, only to be reborn. With a nice red radio to boot.

Grant Bashore in Herman: The Naturalist. Photo courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Grant Bashore in Herman: The Naturalist. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Inspired by stories learned of his family’s past, Grant Bashore takes on all aspects of nature and life inextricably tied to us through a series of narratives between individuals. The story begins far in the future, introducing us as an alien research team approaching a now mostly decimated earth where the hope and folly of humanity are explained through the lasting words of a mysterious school-bus-turned-museum owner who may or may not have made it out of Guatemala in the mid-1900s. I’ll let you take that in.

Bashore takes the performing lead and transforms into each of the five characters with such distinction that each character seemed to be performed by a different actor. T, the alien captain and leader to the audience, provides the setting, tells us why we are here, and where we are going. He uses a finely tuned mix of audience recognition, without audience engagement, that provides smooth transition between scenes and, when questions are asked of us they are both rhetorical and answerable.  

Grant Bashore as T. Photo courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Grant Bashore as T. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

The family members of the now worshipped title character Herman retain a 20th-century Midwestern tint and are represented in reenacted interviews discussing how each member is facing the reality that a family member may be gone. “Dead” seems to be too hard a word to say. No one wants to acknowledge death, but even as the words try to slip out of Stewart, Herman’s older, stoic brother, even he couldn’t recognize the truth he knows inside.

As these various narratives are told, Bashore utilizes familiar forms of communication for both humor and introspection. From faded interviews, real reenactments, memories, and musical interludes integrated with contemporary movements highly influenced through Stanislavskyian form, his skills of blending mime and spoken word provide layers of emotion and meaning to even the subtlest of movements. It’s this physicality that elevates this theatrical art form.

Staged and choreographed with Rick Warner, Bashore dominates the stage with an undeniable physicality. Trained in active analysis his mastery of phsycophysicality through proprioception provides a performance that exemplifies a true understanding of decision and gesture that elevates methods of physicality and movement in the performing arts. At each moment, the audience can see the inception of a character’s motivation, extending into the decision each of these people make before they even decide to react. It’s a testament to his ability to transform into… anything on the stage. Fingertips turn to raindrops, palms and forearms turn to oceanic life, and even a low-rhythmic bounce of a worn-out bus as its fatigued drivers prepares to move on.

This storytelling could not be done without the deft management behind the production’s light and sound design. Lighting Designer, Lawrence Ware, along with Bashore, devised an integration of extreme opposites in light and dark that will both comfort and confuse the audience. While keeping with pure whites and blacks, Ware also infused many moments with deep reddish hues that feel like death is the only recourse, while breathing a sense of relief back into the scene with a variety of blues that fend off the plight brought from the ominous reds.

Much of the production relies on sounds, music, and auditory effects (created by Bashore and Assistant Sound Designer Christopher Hill). The amazing use of engine noise, sound skips, and instrumental pieces heighten the visuals on stage. The set design was minimalist with the exception of an old burgundy radio that was resting on its side, allowing for Bashore to provide the world we would be envisioning. This minimalism is stretched to most of the costuming, but it needs to be noted that Costume Seamstress Callie Hutchison was able to weave an impressive collection of outfits that touch science-fiction sensibilities while retaining its foundation in the world without taking us out of the story of a man named Herman.

This minimalism extends to a lack of women in the cast. While the FireFly Gang comprises of an up and coming actress already showing stage presence (Willow Falcón), the majority of women’s influence in the piece is relegated to off-stage roles. 

It can hardly be surprising that a one-man physical performance would have very few mentions of women, and even more difficulty in properly representing the opposite sex without it turning into an absurd – or thoughtless – characterization, as opposed to a relatable character. However, there are no words that properly illustrate the haunting transition of voice when Bashore is reading journal entry as Florence, only to transform into Herman himself as he is writing the excerpt she is reading. There are not enough tissues to prepare one for that. 

Herman: The Naturalist asks the audience to accept the entirety of nature. We can’t float through life like the children at the prelude (Marco Amoroso, Sebastian Falcón, Willow Falcón), run away from life and its expectations like Herman’s father, ignore and deflect our personal hurt like Florence, or just pretend it’s all okay, like Herman did. We have to hope. Hope for life. Hope for ourselves. Hope for others. Hope for something more than us. And maybe, even, hope for a run-down school bus turned into a museum by a man named Herman.

Herman: The Naturalist runs through Friday, October 11 at The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre. Tickets may be purchased online at scoundrelandscamp.org, by calling the box office at (520) 448-3300, or in-person an hour prior to the show.

 

About the guest reviewer:
Richard Thompson

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

What Would You Tell Your Younger Self?

by Annie Sadovsky Koepf

Most people have choices in their lives that, upon reflection, have the potential to change its course; which college to attend, what career path to follow, who to spend their lives with. In the case of the play Now and Then by Sean Grennan, playing at Invisible Theatre, this theme plays out in showing us a couple who consider changing the direction of their relationship, but to what end. 

The play opens with Jamie, played by William Seidel, closing up the local Irish pub where he works. The door flies open with a flourish and fury, and a man, played by Michael F. Woodson, blows in. Although it is closing time, he requests a drink and won’t take no for an answer. The Man goes over to a video game and astounds Jamie by getting a high score. Abby, Jamie’s girlfriend played by Gabriella De Brequet, bounces in and so the stage is set for the reflective drama to begin. The Man offers them an increasingly large amount of money to keep the bar open and sit, chat and drink with him. 

Gabriella De Brequet as Abby, William Seidel as Jaime, Susan Cookie Baker as The Woman, and Michael F. Woodson The Man. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Gabriella De Brequet as Abby, William Seidel as Jaime, Susan Cookie Baker as The Woman, and Michael F. Woodson The Man. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Designer James Blair did a masterful job with the set. From the dart board, to the video game, and bottles behind the bar, we have no doubt that we are in a Chicago neighborhood pub circa 1981. I kept looking around to see each perfect detail that he captured. There was no doubt in my mind that I was there. Co-directors Susan Classen and Samantha Cormier have done a commendable job with the casting. The ensemble is delightful in its interactions on stage. With the actors perched on bar stools, and drinking shots, even using the real theatre bathroom, there was no question that a scene in a bar was transpiring. The couples really appear to be very much in love, and dialogue flows effortlessly. 

Susan Cookie Baker, who plays The Woman, at times, looks like an older version of Gabriella De Brequet and has her mannerisms and subtle gestures down pat. Is she Abby’s mom or aunt? We really aren’t sure what the connection is until the story unfolds. Baker artfully portrays two very different versions of her character. It is not solely the costumes and hairstyles, but the way she uses her posture, and physical presence on stage to achieve this.

De Brequet’s portrayal of Abby was totally enthralling as she daintily sipped her drink, and hungrily gobbled her rice crispy treats. She was able to reveal the character to us with her physicality as well as her emotional vulnerability. Abby is seen as a young woman deeply in love but conflicted as what the course of her life should be. 

Seidel plays Jamie’s clumsy and awkward and not quite sure of himself, as young men are. His youthful exuberance is evident from the moment he enters the stage whistling. Where will his life take him? Will he get to play and perform with Miles Davis? The Man, played by Woodson, appears to be the most reflective. Often Woodson’s posture reveals a man who somehow is not happy with how his life has evolved. Woodson’s portrayal of the character’s inner dialogue and conflict is revealed by the simultaneous strength and uncertainty of the character. 

It seems to be The Man’s story. If there is any fault with the play, it is in the story itself. Was it truly the couple’s decision to change the course of their lives, or was it primarily the man’s decision? It appears that his is the driving force. Of course the play is set in 1981 and is perhaps reflective of the dynamics in relationships that was prevalent at the time. It is also written by a man. That being said, this is an incredible feel- good play that will leave you smiling as you exit. Laughter, joy and,hope were evident as the audience was exiting the theatre. Love is the theme of IT’s 29th season. Even a confirmed skeptic about love in 2019 will leave with a renewed feeling that love does indeed trump all else.

Now and Then is playing at Invisible Theater through September 15. Shows are 9/11, 9/12, 9/13, 9/14, and 9/15 at 7:30 PM. Matinees at 3:00 PM are available 9/7, 9/8, 9/14, and 9/15. Ticket prices are $35, and group tickets are available. The box office is 882-9721. Tickets are also available on the website at invisibletheatre.com.

 

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. 

The Profoundness of the Ordinary

by Annie Sadovsky Koepf

Summer in Tucson and many are trying to escape, just as many try to escape their daily lives when they go to the theatre. The play Middletown, written by playwright Will Eno, tells us to embrace these moments and see the profound beauty and awe that mark them. The entire performance of this production impressed me. The Rogue’s reputation for excellence is more than well deserved!

Middletown is a comedic drama that follows some very ordinary characters in a very ordinary town. The cop in the first scene, played by Aaron Shand, speaks to the audience and tells us, “Things are fairly predictable. People come, people go. Crying, by the way, in both directions.” These simple thoughts really speak to the plot. Various characters come and go, and intertwine with each other, and with us, the audience, to push us to examine those moments between our initial and final tears on this planet. We are left to question our own existence as we follow the lives of the citizens of Middletown. As the theme for the Rogue’s season is obsession, the audience becomes obsessed, as do the characters, with the existential questions that haunt all of us.

Bryn Booth, Holly Griffith, Kathryn Kellner Brown, Ryan Parker Knox and Hunter Hnat in Middletown. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Bryn Booth, Holly Griffith, Kathryn Kellner Brown, Ryan Parker Knox and Hunter Hnat in Middletown. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Many actors take on various roles, effortlessly switching back and forth. The characters are so different and so believable that you forget that minutes ago that actor was portraying someone else. Kathryn Kellner Brown played the librarian and the female doctor. Her portrayal of the librarian had the entire audience in hysterics, and her compassion and caring was evident as the doctor. As I too am a female actor of “ a certain age,” I am happy to see other older women be represented in theatre. 

In the script, playwright Will Eno asks the actors to speak in everyday pacing, even though much of the dialogue is philosophical and poetic. That was done masterfully by all. Director Christopher Johnson not only thoughtfully cast the show, but ensured the interactions with the characters showed true emotion and vulnerability, which lead to the authenticity of their performances.

Eno does not want the fourth wall to exist in his plays. He names the audience in the list of characters. He invites us to have a participatory experience rather than a simply observational one. The actors speak directly to the audience and even come into the audience. The theater was set up in a transverse arrangement which facilitated this. Not only did you observe the actors, but the audience sitting across from you. Simple sets which were changed by the characters themselves focused all of the attention on the actors’ words and actions. 

The costumes, designed by Cynthia Meier, were believable, simple, and appropriate to echo the ordinary theme of the play. Lighting, designed by Josh Hemmo, was used judiciously to focus attention on a particular part of the stage, as well to indicate changes in the time of day. Music Director, Charles Zoll, did a masterful job of seamlessly integrating the music into the play. Primarily jazz, the music served as delicious background, but did come to the forefront with the one scene where dance was introduced. The jazz reinforced the emotional intensity of each scene, be it happiness, sadness, or joy

The dance performance by the mechanic, played by Hunter Hnat, was simultaneously mesmerizing and disconcerting. The script outlines that he is dressed as a Chakmawg Indian and that the dance is in the tradition of the Apache or the Sioux. Hnat’s character, the mechanic, brings in a headdress and then performs an interpretive dance, with seemingly no reference to Native American dances. At the finish, the nurse instructs him to speak in a stereotypical broken speech pattern, that has often been used to portray Native Americans as they speak English, when he goes in to perform the dance for some children. I have no idea why Mr. Eno placed this scene in the play and why he used such jarring speech. The play was first performed in 2005 when one would hope that the issues regarding non-stereotypical portrayals of ethnic groups would be addressed. I applaud The Rogue, but the disconnect between the thoughtful, beautiful dance and the seemingly insensitive dialogue in this scene was jarring to me.

Middletown was a delightful treat for me. I left with a renewed feeling of hope and appreciation for the simple everyday pleasures of ordinary life. All of us appreciate the feeling of awe that we have in new or peak experiences, but I now want to pay attention to those middle of the road, everyday wonders.

Middletown is playing at The Rogue Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm through July 21st. Tickets are $38, with student tickets available for $15, if available, 15 minutes before curtain. For tickets contact the box office at (520) 551-2053 or via TheRogueTheatre.org. A discussion with the director and cast follows all performances.