To Connect or Disconnect, That Is the Question

by China Young

The Last Train to Nibroc, by Arlene Hutton, invites us into a story of two people, a man and a woman, who meet on a train in the middle of the US as World War II evolves. They proceed to maintain a relationship throughout the next few years, though whether the relationship is romantic or not remains unclear until the end – I won’t give it away, but I bet you can guess. It’s a story we’ve seen many times, leaving me wondering, among so many other things, why we need to see it again.

Damien Garcia as Raleigh and Samantha Cormier as May. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Damien Garcia as Raleigh and Samantha Cormier as May. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

In the program Hutton, the playwright, states that the idea for the play came when she learned that the post-mortem bodies of authors Nathaniel West and F. Scott Fitzgerald traveled on the same train at the same time. She further explains that she chose to introduce her two characters, who were loosely based on her parents, on that same train, and from there she generates “a patchwork quilt of family lore and love stories I heard as a child, all stitched together to tell the fictional tale of May and Raleigh.” Layering a partly fictional love story over a slightly morbid bit of trivia from the past is a bit of a disjointed foundation and is perhaps the root reason I felt multiple layers of disconnect as I tried to absorb this production. 

Susan Claassen, the Managing Artistic Director ushering Invisible Theatre into an impressive 49th year, also directs performers Samantha Cormier (May) and Damien Garcia (Raleigh) in the second show of Invisible Theatre’s 19-20 Season. All of these artists have strong portfolios, offer major contributions to the Tucson theatre community in general, and I have the utmost respect for each of them as fellow theatre artists. Unfortunately, my experience of this production does not reflect the quality of work I know these artists are capable of. I found myself constantly questioning beat shifts, character choices, staging, and a number of other elements that continue to confuse me.

Before I go into more detail on what I found disjointed, let me discuss what worked. The set design by Tom Benson was beautiful and cleverly designed, working in tandem with the strategic staging by Claassen. Each scene, all set in different times and locations, all felt very different environmentally despite them all being on the same set.

The costume designs by Maryann Trombino were great, especially for May. Women often have the better fashions in period-pieces and this was no exception. I especially appreciated how the evolution of her costumes through the timeline of the show reflect the chronology of World War II, from fashionable to rationed simplicity.

The sound design by Rob Boone felt almost like another character as it introduces the audience to the world of the play with a voice over of President Roosevelt talking to the American people. This moment was actually one of the most engaging for me as an audience member. The words of Roosevelt from (circa) 1940 could so easily be addressing our nation today. They resonated with me in such a way that my interest was immediately piqued and I was excited for the show I was about to experience – eager to see what other commentaries it might offer to further parallel “then” and “now.” However, the show never developed the commentary I anticipated from the words of Roosevelt, thus enveloping my entire experience with a degree of disconnect I just couldn’t shake.

Returning to the script, the language seemed to have a spiral-like pattern of repetition, which I believe was a tool the playwright gave the cast and director that wasn’t wielded effectively. In retrospect, I think the audience needed those repetitive moments to anchor us as observers to the beat shifts and tactical changes of the characters as they navigate their own connectivity. Instead I found myself lost in the dialogue, trying to understand what these characters were saying, and why they were saying it the way they were. The intentions that the actors were playing felt out of sync with the rhythms provided in the dialogue, further disengaging me. The use of accents may have added another layer of disconnect to this, with the cadence of the accents often taking over the performance, causing the meaning of what is being said or felt by the character to be lost in translation. In addition, I experienced a lack of chemistry between Garcia and Cormier, further impacting my confusion around character intentions. As I mentioned earlier, this is a story that I knew how it was going to end before it began, which means I was an extra hard sell when it comes to how invested I am throughout that journey, and I may be a harder sell than your average audience member when it comes to love stories in general. 

Last Train 2

Damien Garcia as Raleigh and Samantha Cormier as May. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

By the end, instead of feeling warm and fuzzy, as I imagine the playwright, cast, and director wanted me to feel, I just felt “meh.” I ask again, why did I need to hear this story – again? In my effort to gain more clarity around this question, I watched the Arizona Public Media “Spotlight on the Arts” feature on this production (https://youtu.be/kJna42HDAnE). In this interview, Cormier discusses the way the show repeatedly brings the characters to the edge of connecting, and yet they consistently miss true connection. It’s interesting to consider this since I did experience these “missed connections,” but not it in a way that made me root for them, which is how Cormier describes her relationship with their evolution. Unfortunately, I lost interest in the story and characters instead.

I admittedly may be in the minority when it comes to my experience of Last Train to Nibroc. When the show ended, I heard people say “that was so good,” as well as other exclamations of enjoyment and satisfaction. I encourage folks to see Last Train to Nibroc for themselves – I do believe that this production is exactly what some people are looking for when they want to enjoy a night of theatre. Just because I didn’t make a love connection with it doesn’t mean you won’t. 

Closing this week, you can see it Wednesday, October 30 through Saturday November 2 at 7:30pm, with 3:00pm matinees Saturday, November 2 and Sunday, November 3. Tickets are $35 by calling the Invisible Theatre Box Office at 520-882-9721 or purchasing online at invisibletheatre.com.

Love, Lies, and Layers of Vulnerability

by Annie Sadovsky Koepf

So, it is September; often a time for the end of a summer romance for many. Live Theatre Workshop’s production of Heisenberg, by English playwright Simon Stephens, doesn’t address that theme, but another seasonal one of a May-December coupling. This phrase refers to a woman in the early part of her life, hence May, with a man at least 11 years older in the later part of his life, hence December. Although this is not a new topic, Sabian Trout’s direction, the playwright, and the actors all do a convincing job to present this in a novel way. A woman meets a stranger and gives him a kiss on the back of the neck, and the dance of courtship begins as the play opens.

Roberto Guajardo as Alex and Dallas Tomas as Georgie. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Roberto Guajardo as Alex and Dallas Tomas as Georgie. Photo by Ryan Fagan, courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Not often are we privy to those private moments between a couple as they navigate the waters of the early stages of a romance. Yes, we may see them at a party holding hands and gazing lovingly at each other, but we don’t see what happens between the two of them when they are alone. This is what is revealed in Heisenberg. As incongruous as this couple is with a 33-year age difference, Trout did an excellent job casting. Alex, played by Roberto Guajardo, is a 75-year-old Irish butcher who is a lifelong bachelor. Georgie, played by Dallas Tomas, is a gamine, 42-year-old, manic American receptionist. The scene is London today. The set is stark, and the scene changes are done by the actors themselves. Costuming is minimal and yet makes the characters so believable.
With the sparseness of the set, the costumes, and the lack of other characters, we are meant to focus on the couple. Alex appears closed and in no uncertain terms tells us he has no use whatsoever for feelings. He is adamant about that. Guajardo is a masterful actor as he reveals to us very slowly and subtly the many layers of Alex’s being. From the stereotypical curmudgeon we meet at the start of the play, he changes to a man who eventually is able to show his vulnerability to Georgie, and also to us. Georgie’s energy is so manic we want to get her to slow down. Gradually, she starts to relax and reveal her true self to us. I loved watching the physicality Tomas embraced as Georgie. It reinforced her childlike innocence as well as capitalizing on her sexuality. Make no mistake, Alex was taken by this, but he also responds to her the more she reveals her authentic self. Without distractions, we are able to focus on just two people discovering who the other is, and gradually, inconceivably, falling for each other. As unimaginable as they appear as a couple at the beginning of the show, as they grow and reveal themselves to each other, and to us, we can see why they are together.
This is where the title Heisenberg comes in. It is never referenced in the play. It alludes to German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who introduced his uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics in 1927. It states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. The Heisenberg reference is seen in the apparent disparity of the couple and their seemingly very different outlooks on the world. As we are introduced to the most unlikely pair and see who they are, we are not quite sure how this romance will turn out.
Yes, this is a story that has been told many times. However, it is still a story worth telling as it deals with a most primal need for all of us. That is the need for love and acceptance wherever we are fortunate enough to find it. As a 70-something woman and actor, I would love to see a show with the age differences reversed with the older character being a woman. Of course, I would love to play the lead character! Again, not a stereotypical boy toy or gold digger as the younger male, but with a genuine human connection between seemingly very different characters. All too often when there is an age difference between a couple, erroneous assumptions are made as to the ulterior motives of, usually, the younger member of the duo. The possibility of a genuine connection between this pairing is rarely seen, but this stereotype is not evident at all in Heisenberg. I loved the show and the reimagining of an oft-told tale. Although the author was male, with a strong female character in Georgie and a female director, I did not feel that this was a male-centric work. The theme that love is love is universal and is one that today still needs to be portrayed.
Heisenberg is playing at Live Theatre Workshop through September 28, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 PM, and Sunday at 3:00 PM. The phone number is 520 327-4242. Box office hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 1:00 – 5:00 PM. The box office is open on Thursday through Saturday at 6:30 PM. and Sunday at 2:15 PM. Ticket prices are $18-$20 and are also available through the website livetheatreworkshop.org.

A Love Story Told in (Multi)verse

by Leigh Moyer

Billed as “a dreamlike story of love and quantum physics,” Something Something Theatre’s production of Constellations did not disappoint. We’re reminded, through the short lives of honey bees, the impossible incongruities of macro physics and quantum mechanics, and our own life experiences, that every experience, if nothing else, has potential.

Constellations, photo by James Pack.

Damian Garcia as Roland and Bailey Renee as Marianne. Photo by James Pack, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Constellations, by playwright Nick Payne, follows the story of Roland (Damian Garcia) and Marianne (Bailey Renee) as they fall in love. It also follows the story where they don’t fall in love. And the one where they fall in love, fall out of love, and fall back in love. Inspired by the physicist Brian Greene’s 1999 book and subsequent documentary detailing the conflicts between the physics of the massive and quantum mechanics though string theory and the theory of multiverses, Constellations plays with the idea that every love story could also be a story of a missed connection. In an interview included in the program, Payne explains, “By chance I watched a documentary called The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene and it was amazing. It was a history of contemporary theoretical physics and right at the end he touched on this idea of the multiverse.”
The idea of the multiverse is that for every decision we make or don’t make, there is another universe that is exactly the same except the opposite decision is made, or not. This idea is used to full effect in this play, which in its ninety minutes details maybe six scenes, told again and again with slight differences and with slight changes that have big consequences for Roland and Marianne.
Payne uses this device to tell a bigger story. As each new version of a scene played out I found myself rooting for the happily-ever-after that some variations offered, while simultaneously dreading the repeated and unforgiving failure we all experience so often in love and life. But more than showing how an interaction could play out, Payne is putting the audience in the sometimes murky, often frustrating position of not being able to find the right words, something that becomes a key part (and the only unchanging piece) of the story.
Both Garcia and Renee are impressive as they say and resay lines without losing the core of the characters you have come to care about. They had a strong ability to hold onto who their character clearly is, even while playing back-to-back scenes with very different emotions. I can’t imagine what this script looks like, but Garcia and Renee take it and instead of making a joke of the characters’ lives, especially in the versions that can’t seem to help but make the wrong decisions, both actors live their characters. Every variation feels believable and extremely, even at times painfully, relatable.
The stage is simply dressed and this serves the show well. The point isn’t where the characters are, but rather what they say and how they say it. Director Joan O’Dwyer uses the actors’ positions on the stage to give the audience clues about how a scene will play out even before they start, giving us just enough insight to feel like we’re a part of the choices Roland and Marianne make.

Constellations, photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock

Photo by Whitney Morton Woodcock, courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

While the two characters portray heteronormative relationships, I was thrilled that Marianne is not only the scientist of the pair, but holds her own in situations that all too frequently paint female characters as damsels in distress. I expect nothing less from Something Something Theatre. This is the only play written by a man in their lineup this season and I would be shocked to see anything but strong women on their stage.
Like the way a constellation in the night sky is familiar and almost not worth noticing, a straightforward love story on the stage loses its grasp on attention; but looking at that same constellation in a darker sky, lost among countless other stars, becomes interesting, a love story told a hundred times, slightly different each time, is greater than its component parts.
Constellations runs through December 23rd. Shows are at 7:30pm on Friday and Saturday, and 2:00pm on Sunday at Community Playhouse (1881 N. Oracle Road). Tickets are available at somethingsomethingtheatre.com or by phone at 468-6111.