The Myths of Modern Societies

by Leigh Moyer

It’s hard to explain what Pima Community College’s Center for the Arts production of Polaroid Stories, directed by Marc David Pinate, is like. It’s ancient myth and modern problems, but turned in on itself until it is both dizzyingly beautiful and powerfully painful. It’s like the euphoria of letting go with a good buzz. It’s like a heartbroken song sung beautifully but without accompaniment. It’s like too many voices talking all at once and then perfect silence. It’s like this.

Adrian Hinojos as Dionysus, Veronica Hernandez as Persephone/Semele, and Rene Gallego as Orpheus. Photo courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

Adrian Hinojos as Dionysus, Veronica Conran as Persephone/Semele, and Rene Gallego as Orpheus. Photo courtesy of Pima Community College’s Center for the Arts.

This is a story of ten men and women living – fighting to survive – on the streets of Seattle. And while the action follows these men and women through their troubled home lives, bad beginnings, worse endings, and bad choice after bad choice, playwright Naomi Iizuka does something clever: she keeps the modern day setting, with the harsh language, the cheap beer, and the sirens in the background, while her cast of downtrodden are pulled right out of mythology. This isn’t a morality play. This isn’t the story of falling on hard times and triumphing anyway. This is classic poetry, safe and removed from us and therefore infallible on some level, but with the context twisted. We’re left in a place where we can’t say, well, if only they’d lived differently, it wouldn’t be like this.

Iizuka uses familiar Greek myths, including Hades and Persephone, Narcissus and Echo, and Orpheus and Eurydice, in place of the John and Jane Does who usually fill these roles in the news. If you aren’t familiar with the myths, you won’t miss anything; the story is still clear, but a quick Google search on your phone during intermission brings so much more depth to the play that I recommend taking a few minutes to learn the basics of these figures and their mythology.

The telling is immersive and jarring. One minute you feel the palpable pain of a character, the next you are relishing the release of a light, drug-induced moment, the next you are jerked back into your seat by the reality of a moment. The staging and direction keeps the audience looking around for the next thing, a detail Pinate likely added to both put you in the mindset of the characters always checking over their shoulder and to allow for actors to exit and enter during scenes of distraction, allowing them to almost appear out of thin air. It is very effective.

I was equally impressed with the actors’ abilities to be present on a stage with a lot of activity without losing a beat, their character, or the thread of the modern combined with the classic. I commend the cast’s performances, each playing two roles: the myth and the contemporary representation.

Taylor Hernandez as Eurydice gives us a battered woman, too young to have dealt with her trauma, running from a lover that won’t let her go. She is haunting as she swings from brave and freed to petty and foul mouthed. I felt for her. I wanted to take her in, protect her, but simultaneously knew she’d never accept it. Shalin Allen as Narcissus, trapped in poverty, but dreaming of better and doing whatever he has to to get it, is almost annoying, in the right way, in his obsession with telling, retelling, and embellishing his life story. Veronica Conran as Persephone/Semele was very much a broken woman; costumed to suggest she is a prostitute, she played the woman blamed for ruining the life of men, the woman who can’t win. The slight twanged accent and effortless charm of Brandon Saxon’s Hades/Zeus, who is easy to feel sorry for among the crowd of addicts for craving only love and a good night’s sleep, paints Persephone/Semele, and in fact all the characters and their flaws, in sharp relief.

I was particularly moved by Izzy Georgiaes as Philomel, who communicated intense longing and terrible loss entirely though song and silence. And, with the most myth spoken word for word, but slurred and jumbled up with f-bombs, Adrian Hinojos as Dionysus and Rene Gallego as Orpheus blew me away as they retold myths in such a way that they were were completely recognizable as poetry and equally as the ridiculous ramblings of drunk or high men stumbling after dreams they can’t remember. Sauri’ Rae Nez as Echo, even once freed from repeating the second half of her stage partner’s lines, still couldn’t find the words. Echo’s frustration is conveyed through exasperated motions and begging hands and eyes, even with so little actually said, was achingly familiar to anyone who has found themselves unable to find the right words.

Tossed in amongst the Greek tragedies are two very modern characters, named simply Skinhead Boy and Skinhead Girl. Played by Evan Taylor and Vauxn Mcquillen respectively, these two had perhaps the hardest parts to play. They had no poetry to fall back on. They were raw. They could be difficult to watch. They forced the audience, me, to remember this isn’t an edgy retelling of old stories. These types of events are unfolding with young people just like them in every city. They each have moments that pull them out of the fairytale the others live in, such as when Skinhead Boy swears he is going straight edge, a look in his face doubting it even as he says it, or when Skinhead Girl, scared of the dark, reminds herself, “Ain’t no monsters, nor for real, except the ones in your head.”

Brandon Saxon as Hades/Zeus and Taylor Hernandez as Eurydice. Photo courtesy of Pima Community College Center for Fine Arts.

Brandon Saxon as Hades/Zeus and Taylor Hernandez as Eurydice. Photo courtesy of Pima Community College’s Center for Fine Arts.

The eleventh character is the stage itself. It is stunning. With audience seated on two sides along a long waterway, massive drain pipe, and bridge utilized to connect and distance characters, the scenic design, by Todd Poelstra and Anthony Richards, does a lot of work to tell the story. Additionally, the light (Cammy Silcox and Etienne Wegryzniak), sound (Adrianna Kendrick and Mary Tran), and video design (Kyle Odell) move the story from the real to the surreal. Though the dialogue is powerful, without the staging, it would have felt flat. And with such a set, mad props to the crew (Gianbari Deebom, Stacey Posey, Fiona Germann, Brianna Tapia, and Mary Tran) for taking on such a beast of a production.

I was impressed with this production. There were some slips or slow cues, as well as a handful of moments I felt were just a little too over the top that could have been reined in a little, but altogether I was blown away. It is the kind of theatre you watch to think and feel, not just spend an evening being entertained, although I was that as well.

Don’t go for a happily ever after. Polaroid Stories won’t give you one. Instead go because the stories need to be heard as badly as they need to be told. Give the storytellers, ten young men and women trapped in poverty, homelessness, addiction, and violence, the audience they deserve.

Polaroid Stories plays at Pima Community College’s Center for the Arts (West Campus) Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2:00pm through April 28th. You can purchase tickets at pima.edu/cfa.

You Can Dance, You Can Try, I Had The Time of my Life!

by Felíz Torralba

Set on an idyllic Greek island, 20 year old bride-to-be Sophie (Olivia Gainey) dreams of having her father give her away on her wedding day. Sophie invites three strangers discovered in her mother’s diary: Sam (Rafael Acuña), Harry (Evan Taylor) or Bill (Andrew Miller) who all might be her father. Sophie secretly invites the three men to her wedding with the hope that she will finally find out who her father is. When her mother, Donna (Thea Lancaster) sees the three men, she, with the help of her best friends and former singing partners Rosie (Gianbari Deebom) and Tanya (Shann Oliver), also tries to figure out what she will do with the sudden appearance of three former lovers. As complications ensue from the misunderstandings, Sophie and Sky’s (Eduardo Rodriguez) wedding and relationship may be jeopardized. While finding what is truly in their hearts, many may discover the course of true love. The best part: the story unfolds to the nostalgic and uplifting beats of ABBA!

The audience is primed for the story with a gorgeous musical overture (Mark Nelson, conductor). From this moment on, I knew that I would enjoy this performance solely based on the orchestra’s infectiously joyful sound. There was a whimsical, modern spin on the music that I enjoyed so much I could have listened to that and been satisfied. When the curtains lifted, I was immediately drawn to the simplistic architecture of this set (Todd Poelstra). There are two versatile pieces of what look like limestone structures with rusted iron rods and old, colorful wooden doors. This transported me straight to Greece and the island hotel where the story takes place. Scene changes were seamless and entertaining (this makes or breaks musicals in my opinion), and it was amazing that the versatility of the set allowed a dock, a chapel, a hotel, and different bedrooms to inhabit one stage.

The choreography (Mickey Nugent) is really one aspect of the show that blew me away the most. The show was choreographed as if the ensemble was one giant amoeba. Everybody hit every cue, each detail was articulated clearly, and each seemed like the moves came naturally to them. The movement supplemented the show so incredibly well and made me want to keep watching. I also think an element of the show that should not go unnoticed is the musical direction (Martha Reed). The cast knew how to HARMONIZE. This made their sound swelling; (literally) giving off good vibrations.

The Cast of Mamma Mia! Photo courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

The Cast of Mamma Mia! Photo by Carol Carder, courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

One of my favorite performances of the night was the radiant Rafael Acuña, who portrayed Sam. Credit is very much due and deserved here. Acuña was romantic, paternal, showed impeccable vocal control and ability, and gave us a damn good Sam. This program is very lucky to have him and I would watch this performance again just to experience this young man of color perform. Thea Lancaster (Donna) acted as the glue that held this show together. Lancaster was balanced in all aspects of her performance and it was satisfying to watch. She was both playful and maternal, both harsh and sweet, youthful and womanly. I found her portrayal of Donna refreshing.

Unfortunately, I found Olivia Gainey’s Sophie to be insincere and sloppy    She was simply not mature enough to be Sophie, she did not look or sound like an island girl and was not the sexy, fun, curious character that you’d expect when reading the script. In fact, during the number between lovers Sophie and Sky “Lay All Your Love On Me,” I was a little uncomfortable because she looked like a very little girl in a questionable situation. It was evident that she relied too heavily on her direction and her vocal ability (which had its moments but was inconsistent in volume and quality).

Quite frankly, Lidia Zadareky who played Sophie’s friend Lisa read more “Sophie” than anyone else. Zadareky shone brightly and reflected (appropriate) youthfulness along with very capable vocal and physical ability. She looked very confident and gave a genuine performance filled with joy and playfulness. She stood out, you need that kind of power when casting a strong female lead. I feel that if Gainey and Zadareky would have been cast in each other’s place the show would have benefited from it.

I would also like to mention Gianbari Deebom and Shann Oliver – Rosie and Tanya respectively. They were quite the duo and I was impressed by their contrasting vocal timbre. They complimented each other incredibly well (them harmonies, though!). Rosie is a free, fearless woman and Tanya is an affluent, pampered, girly girl and the performances from these two young ladies were so true to the script. It was very refreshing to see young performers put their egos aside and work to tell the story and not make the performance about themselves. Bravo.

Although the casting for Sophie was not ideal, everyone else was cast very strategically. Every actor had strengths and each person’s talents brought something valuable to the storytelling. Each artist understood the story, knew where it was going, and took the audience with them. Most had clear intentions, high energy, and seemed settled into each of their characters. All of this is a sign of good direction (Todd Poelstra) and a healthy communication between the actors and the director.

The costumes were hit or miss (Julio Hernandez). Sophie was dressed very oddly throughout the play. There was not one outfit of Sophie’s that seemed to match the character, not even the wedding dress. Sophie is classically dressed in a white tank top and shorts. Throughout the play, she was wearing long skirts and loud shirts – totally opposite from the character’s free-spirited, curious nature. I was disappointed by Donna’s wedding outfit: a modern day halter dress with blue tye dye. It seemed as if the designer did not understand how to dress people for everyday life, especially women. To contrast, the designer did well with the “showy” outfits: Donna was wearing her classic overalls at the beginning of the play and for the song “Mamma Mia.” Donna and the Dynamos looked FABULOUS. They looked like a girl band, and that was the goal. The party dresses for the ensemble in “Voulez Vous,” were gorgeous.

Gianbari Deebom as Rosie, Thea Lancaster as Donna, and as Shann Oliver Tanya. Photo courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

Gianbari Deebom as Rosie, Thea Lancaster as Donna, and as Shann Oliver Tanya. Photo by Carol Carder, courtesy of Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

As always, when experiencing Pima Arts shows, I love seeing young POC’s getting opportunities to play historic musical theatre roles. Everyone seemed like they were enjoying themselves so I could not help but enjoy myself. With all that’s going in on the world today, it was just so nice to forget about everything and smile, laugh, listen to fun music, and be entertained by talented, enthusiastic performers. I can guarantee you’ll have a blast at Pima Arts’ production of Mamma Mia!

Ticket and box office info: Feb 28th at 7:30, March 1st at 2pm & 7:30 pm, March 2nd at 7:30pm and March 3rd at 2pm. Buy tickets to see Mamma Mia at www.pima.edu.cfa or call (520) 206-6986.