Parity or Better, but Usually Better

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season. 

Coffee, representation on the stage, and really good plays with Something Something Theatre Company’s founding artistic director Joan O’Dwyer and founding director Whitney Morton Woodcock.

by Leigh Moyer

Something Something LogoSomething Something Theatre brands itself as theatre by women for everyone. Their mission is “Parity or better,” founding Director Whitney Morton Woodcock explained over coffee. “So fifty percent or better, but we usually have more than fifty percent of our season written by female playwrights.”

This mindset started with their first season – not as a fluke, but also not exactly on purpose – driven instead by feminism and the realization that there was a lot of good work that was too often overlooked. It started when three fierce women, Joan O’Dwyer, Whitney Morton Woodcock, and Esther Almazán, saw a gap in the Tucson theatre community that became their niche. “There are just so many plays written by women, and women are really finding their voice right now. And they’re young women and they’re brilliant,” Joan O’Dwyer gushed, “And they’re not just writing about homely things, they’re writing about war and injustices to women and women in different countries and their experiences which nobody has ever heard before and I just love that.”

I have to say, I agree with her. But that doesn’t make doing theatre by women easy. While it was a woman who was the most-produced playwright in the United States in the 2017-2018 season and second most-produced in 2018-2019, this is a distinctly modern phenomenon. (That playwright is Lauren Gunderson, playwright of Something Something’s first production of the season, The Revolutionists.) Historical restrictions limited women’s opportunities to write and kept women’s work from the stage for a long time, which means staging women’s plays now is often a choice to focus on contemporary work rather than well-known classics. It doesn’t faze the women of Something Something, but producing a significant amount of new or unknown writers is a risk. Women may be finding their voice now and using it to tell amazing stories, but we have ground to make up.

But boy, are we. O’Dwyer and Morton Woodcock are faced with the best kind of problem when selecting plays: there are almost too many great plays by women. Selecting the next (and next, and next) season is a process of narrowing down the choices, and then amending that list as new plays are written and produced. And if they do a play by someone of the male persuasion? “Well,” Joan quipped, “if the play is written by a man, it has to be a really good play. They have to work five times as hard if they want to get in– for half as much pay!”

Oh, how the tables have turned. And while it is important to the Something Something artistic team to have representation, like all theatres, the point isn’t that the play was written by a woman, but rather that the play is meaningful, inspiring, challenging, or simply entertaining. (The point, I would add, is that women playwrights are writing great theatre prolifically, not in isolated cases of genius.)

Morton Woodcock explains, “It is more about the story and how we think the audience will feel. What it comes down to is that it is a good story and there are good roles. And liking the characters. Like in The Aliens, those guys are so… they’re so incompetent sometimes, but they’re also so funny. They are likable.”

“They’re sexist,” O’Dwyer interrupted.

This didn’t slow Morton Woodcock down for a beat, “But likable.” And so goes theatre. So goes storytelling. You don’t always want to be friends with the characters in a good show. She continued, “We pick plays about humans, humans who should be represented on the stage, but also humans who are flawed. We choose scripts that address those flaws, call out the bad behavior, but sometimes you just have to let the characters be the characters. I wouldn’t do a play that portrayed someone who was really horrible in a positive light and of course we aren’t going to do plays that endorse problematic people.”

“You have to feel empathy for these people,” O’Dwyer added. “But it is going to have to be handled delicately.” That is, after all, what good theatre is: showing people new perspectives and challenging them to reflect and take new perspectives out of the theater and into the real world. A lot of characters are morally gray.

While some plays this season present characters that force the audience to consider a new view point, others take on issues that are often overlooked or downplayed in a male dominated culture, like the decision to become a mother, go back to work, breastfeed in public, or seek help for postpartum depression. Cry It Out focuses on women connected by the experience of new motherhood and the challenges that come with it, something that struck close to home for Morton Woodcock as a new mother. She is also the director of Cry It Out and can relate to the women. “It isn’t sexy or fun to discuss,” she admitted, “Like, maternity leave, ohhh. But it has to be discussed. They talk in the play about how people judge the choices you make, about deciding to have a baby at all. Everyone, other moms included, has an opinion and everyone feels like they are right and if you do it differently, you are a monster. I cried when I read the script.”

I asked both if they had a show they were most excited about. Without hesitation O’Dwyer answered, “I’m really excited about Cry It Out. It has something we don’t often see on stage: new mothers and they are all different.” Cry It Out goes beyond the stereotypes of never getting enough sleep or complaining about changing diapers.

Woodcock Morton also has a favorite: “The one I think is important for people to see it Martie’s play Transformations. This topic, the concept of transgender and gender fluidity, is something that has been growing in the public eye in terms of celebrities and media and people talking about it more but a lot of people still don’t understand. Martie is not giving a lecture or sharing what can be googled; she is sharing people. She is funny and it is well written and she gives each character she plays their own persona that you can relate to. I’m not sure that people realize that representation matters. The types of stories you see, the types of characters you see, impacts your world view. We consume stories to explain our lives, or who we are, but it also normalizes new or different perspectives.”

The 2019-2020 season, Something Something’s fifth, brings five plays, all written by women, to the stage. And Joan has a point, they aren’t just writing about homely things, they are writing about revolution, being human, pride and pain, motherhood, and even boys being boys.

This season is a lot about people you think you know, but are presented in a different way that makes you question yourself and those notions. Confront what you think you know at Something Something Theatre. The season is listed online and below. You can become a season ticket holder now and catch all five performances for $75.00 or purchase single tickets for $25.00 each by calling their box office at (520) 468-6111.

Something Something 2019-2020

Something Something Theatre’s 2019 – 2020 Season:

The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson
September 12 – 29, 2019
Set during the height of the French Revolution, four women – a playwright, an assassin, a spy and an empress – bond to tell the story of their turbulent times for future generations. It’s a comedy. Guillotines may be involved. 

TransFormations by Martie van der Voort
October 31 – November 17, 2019
Local actor and playwright van der Voort performs all twelve transgender characters, their close relatives and significant others at a group therapy session. TransFormations’ has been performed to acclaim in Tucson and in cities around the nation, but this will be its first full run!

Apples in Winter by Jennifer Fawcett
November 27 – December 15, 2019
We are with a woman baking a small pie in a kitchen not her own. The room is bare, institutional. There are no chairs, and a knife is attached to the work table with a wire.  This is the story of a mother’s deepest love and most grievous pain.

Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler
February 13 – March 1, 2020
Metzler’s sympathetic yet brutally honest play brings characters to the stage not normally seen. Three women, diverse in all ways… except hat they have all recently given birth and are coping with everything that comes with being the main caretaker. Funny and uniquely insightful, written by a young mother.

The Aliens by Annie Baker
March 26 – April 12, 2020
Something Something Theatre produced Body Awareness, another of Baker’s ‘Shirley, Vermont plays’ in our second season. Dramatists Play Service describes The Aliens so darn well that we’re simply forced to run their synopsis here: “Two angry young men sit behind a Vermont coffee shop and discuss music and Bukowski. When a lonely high-school student arrives on the scene, they decide to teach him everything they know. A play with music.” – Dramatists Play Service

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.

Get your imaginary spoons out and have some Cloud Soup!

by Felíz Torralba

The Scoundrel & Scamp Theater’s production of Cloud Soup (written, directed, and performed by Wolfe Bowart) tells the story of a tailor who discovers that the adventure he longs for lies at his feet – in his pile of laundry. The tailor’s humble shop becomes an undiscovered world as fabrics magically morph, found objects transform into curious beings and puffs of steam remind us of a time when we saw faces in the clouds.

Wolfe Bowart is “devoted to creating and presenting theatre productions that engage cross-generational audiences in theatrical experiences that evoke thought, wonder, and laughter.” This proves to be undoubtedly true in the Scoundrel and Scamp’s production of Cloud Soup. Bowart’s use of physical theatre, commedia dell’arte/clowning, multimedia, and magical stage illusion evokes thought, wonder, and loads of laughter throughout the performance. There are so many jaw dropping moments, I found myself in awe of the magic occurring right before my eyes. I felt like a child again! Bowart demonstrates skill, talent, and mastery of his craft. It was a true delight to watch him tear up the stage! The raw talent oozing from this man made me feel lucky to be in the room. This adorable story with bubbles, silly sounds, and incomprehensible magic blew me away.

Wolfe Bowart. Photo by Tim Fuller

Wolfe Bowart in Cloud Soup. Photo by Tim Fuller, photo courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

No doubt this story is worth telling. However, is it being told in a thoughtful, socially responsible manner? Putting special effects aside, you will ultimately experience a show about a man, written by a man; performed by a man. I was entertained. I laughed harder than I have laughed in a year. I did not leave feeling significantly moved or inspired. After some reflection and a long conversation with my partner (and theatre professional), we came to an agreement that we found no real message or “take-away” after our experience. Having witnessed Bowart’s incredible artistry and a great performance, I want more. Cloud Soup lacks objective. It entertained me… but theatre is about so much more than just entertainment.

Cloud Soup is a perfect representation of classic physical theatre and how it has evolved to entertain the modern audience. “Wear mismatched socks, put your shoes on the wrong feet, turn your shirt inside out and you’ll be perfectly dressed for Cloud Soup.” Wolfe Bowart’s Cloud Soup is an incredible opportunity for people of all ages to have a blast and be amazed! Get your tickets online at https://scoundrelandscamp.org/cloud-soup or call 448-3300. Performances are Thursday & Friday, January 10-11 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday & Sunday, January 12-13 @ 2:00 p.m.

Editor’s Note: Felíz Torralba has performed with The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre in past production. While she had no input or involvement within this production, we feel it is important to disclose any potential biases.

The Music Man: Trouble With A Capital T

by Gretchen Wirges

The Music Man

Bill English as Harold Hill and cast of The Music Man. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The Music Man opened for the first time in 1957. It went on to Broadway, critical acclaim, and nearly 1400 performances. Arizona Theater Company has taken on the task of staging this nostalgic musical as part of it’s 2018-19 season. The show is larger than life and has a history to match.

Let me start by saying that I grew up loving this musical. I loved the stage version and I loved the 1962 film adaption. When I sat down to view ATC’s production, I was excited, giddy even, to recapture the joy I remembered feeling from watching this show. So let’s dig into the good, the bad, and the “trouble” with a capital T and that rhymes with C and that stands for confused.

Let’s start with the good–the ensemble was incredible. The dancers were talented, the townsfolk were animated and lovely fun to watch. Among those I enjoyed most were the ladies ensemble which included the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie Shinn, played by Leslie Alexander, the character of Ethel Toffelmier played by Kara Mikula, Mrs. Squires played by Chanel Bragg, and Alma Hix played by Brenda Jean Foley. The scenes that included these actors were filled with joy and humor and memorable vignettes. Mikula’s hilarious facial expressions and deft physical comedy made me smile throughout the show.

Another good note about this show is the diverse representation in the casting. Bravo to directors who cast people of color in roles that have traditionally gone exclusively to white actors. Every step toward diversity is important. As many contemporary shows have shown us, taking bolder steps toward diversity by casting the leading roles with such awareness is a win for everyone. I hope ATC moves further in that direction. We want to see ourselves on stage. The stories will support it and so will the audiences.

Okay, the bad. While the sets are beautiful and expansive, they are also numerous to a fault. It may sound counter intuitive, but I think the over-abundance of sets moving in and out was distracting. It took away from the magic and the burden of the material and the performance to create the world we’re watching. I think that the show relied too much on this aspect of the production, and not enough on the performances itself.  As a whole, the show felt lacking in joy and energy for me.

Harold Hill, the lead character, is arguably one of the most charismatic and over-the-top musical characters of all time. Hill, played by Bill English, was played way too flat for my tastes. The charisma and power just wasn’t there. And honestly I don’t fault English, I fault the director. Many of the songs, led by English, were choreographed in a subtle way that didn’t capture the joy and excitement of the script. 76 Trombones, one of my favorite Broadway songs EVER, felt like more of a throw-away number than a showstopper. The Wells Fargo Wagon song was almost boring, save the fantastic bright spot of Winthrop’s solo by local Nathaniel Wiley. There needed to be more fun, more joy, more reckless abandon in this show. As whole, it was just a buttoned up version that needed to break loose.

The Music Man

The cast of The Music Man. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

And finally, the “trouble with a capital T” of this show really is the story and the script, which of course is no fault of the these particular performers in this particular staging. I think this is a show that needs to be retired. Frankly, it is incredibly misogynistic, to the point where more than a few people in the audience audibly gasped at many of the horrifically offensive lines. Much like the recent debate over the holiday song Baby, It’s Cold Outside, I’m sure the show wasn’t written with this sensitivity, but we know better now. And when we know better, we need to do better.

The Music Man

Manna Nichols as Marian. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

In the anvil salesman scene, the character makes several leering, disgusting, predatory comments to Marian. Her response to this is to seduce him in order to keep him from chasing after her lying, cheating love interest, Harold Hill. Hill himself  basically stalks her throughout the majority of the show trying to win her over so he could distract her from his illegal pursuits. She says no, many many times, and he continues to follow her.

Many of us have watched movies that we once saw as kids, only now realizing the “adult” jokes that we didn’t understand at the time. This was my experience with listening to these songs 20 years later than the last time I’d seen it.  “The Sadder but Wiser Girl” was especially cringe worthy:

A girl who trades on all that purity
Merely wants to trade my independence for her security.
The only affirmative she will file
Refers to marching down the aisle.
No golden, glorious, gleaming pristine goddess–

I snarl, I hiss: How can ignorance be compared to bliss?
I spark, I fizz for the lady who knows what time it is.
I cheer, I rave for the virtue I’m too late to save
The sadder-but-wiser girl for me.
No bright-eyed, blushing, breathless baby-doll baby
That kinda child ties knots no sailor ever knew.
I prefer to take a chance on a more adult romance.
No dewy young miss
Who keeps resisting all the time she keeps insisting!
No wide-eyed, wholesome innocent female.

The song Shipoopi includes the following lyrics:

Now a woman who’ll kiss on the very first date is usually a hussy
And a woman who’ll kiss on the second time out is anything but fussy

Walk her once just to raise the curtain
Walk around twice and you’ve made for certain

Squeeze her once when she isn’t lookin’
If you get a squeeze back, that’s fancy cookin’
Once more for a pepper-upper
She will never get [mad] on her way to supper

To have a man sing these lyrics in 2018 is a bit mind-boggling. To be honest, it was mind-boggling for 1957 as well, but that sort of inappropriate behavior was accepted, even applauded. However, I’ll say it  again, now that we know better, we should do better. This show is antiquated and does not hold up to modern awareness. Let’s put it to rest and find new stories to tell.

The Music Man plays at Arizona Theater Company through December 30th. Tickets can be purchased through arizonatheatre.org or by calling the box office at (520) 622-2823.

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.

The Cripple of Inishmaan Showcases Biting Critique of Humanity with Dark Humor

by Holly Griffith

Dylan Cotter as Billy, Connor Griffin as Bartley and Rachel Franke as Helen. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Dylan Cotter as Billy, Connor Griffin as Bartley and Rachel Franke as Helen. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Arizona Repertory Theatre’s most recent production, Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, upholds a level of professionalism common at the University of Arizona. The production is seamless and consistent, true to the story, and well-acted. Directed by Hank Stratton, the play follows the orphaned Billy, who lives with his adoptive aunts on the island of Inishmaan off the West coast of Ireland. Walking with a “shuffle” and a disfigured arm, Billy yearns to escape the constant ridicule of his community and formulates a plan to leave the island. The play has all the signature elements of Irish drama–quick wit, mystery, dark humor, and colorful family dynamics.

The company is unshakably gelled. All the actors inhabit the same world, and there is a consistency of rhythm and intensity between scenes. Dylan Cotter’s performance as Billy is nuanced and heart-wrenching. We feel his pain, hope for his triumph, but see a darker side when he manipulates his friends and caretakers. Elana Richardson as Eileen, Billy’s aunt and caretaker, is also outstanding. She plays the role with a strong backbone and a sharp wit. Eileen is a pillar of the play, unshakable in her dedication to Billy but simmering over a flame of maternal worry. This is a difficult balance to strike, and Richardson does it masterfully. Other outstanding performances include Rachel Franke as the delightfully profane Helen and Connor McKinley Griffin as Bartley, her clownish brother. Franke has a particularly tough job. Helen is simultaneously confident in her sexuality and traumatized by it. We learn early that she has been groped and harassed frequently by older men. In typical Irish fashion, she copes with her experiences using humor, but with Franke’s performance, we sense an undercurrent of anger.

The whole cast frames up McDonagh’s sharp humor with surprising skill. The quick-witted sarcasm, the dark comedy, and the incessant needling are all there. I laughed aloud often. Still, I felt there was room in Stratton’s direction to dial up the almost inhuman absurdity of some of the personalities in McDonagh’s play. Part of the irony of The Cripple of Inishmaan is that most of the characters are uglier, more disabled, and more grotesque than Billy. They all have “crutches” of one kind or another, they all have internal disfigurements and moral injuries. The flaws of these characters are larger-than-life and should balance on the edge of difficult-to-watch. Pateen Mike’s jovial cruelty, Babby Bobby’s brutal temper, Doctor McSharry’s misogyny, Helen’s unabashed naughtiness, Aunt Kate and Aunt Eileen’s quaking nervousness should make Billy’s world unbearably claustrophobic. These characters are rough. They are cruel. They are damaged. I’d like to see this cast do the play with a blazing intensity. Each actor already gives their character the proper flavor, but I wish Stratton had encouraged the cast to turn up the volume. I think this approach would pull the connective tissues of the play even tighter, making the funny moments funnier and the dark moments darker.

Michael Schulz as BabbyBobby, Peter James Albert Martineau as JohnnyPateenMike and Dylan Cotter as Billy. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Michael Schulz as BabbyBobby, Peter James Albert Martineau as JohnnyPateenMike and Dylan Cotter as Billy. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Still, this cast does a solid job with a difficult play, and the production elements all communicate with each other to paint a believable picture of humble, mid-century life in rural Ireland. Kevin Black’s dialect coaching is excellent. Actors sound consistent yet still individual, and the cadence of the dialect is rough enough to give us the flavor of the remote Aran Islands without sacrificing our ability to understand every word. Joe C. Clug’s scenic design effectively shows the drab interior of the Aunties’ store, designed to be quite literally rough around the edges. Gaby Nava’s costumes were perfectly Irish with hearty fabrics and muted colors, plus a bright magenta dress that popped on the promiscuous Helen.

Fans of dark comedy, poetry, and Irish storytelling won’t want to miss it!

The Cripple of Inishmaan runs at Arizona Repertory Theatre through December 2nd. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7:30; Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 1:30. You can buy tickets online at theatre.arizona.edu or by calling 621-1162.

 

Editor’s Note: Holly Griffith an adjunct instructor in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the U of A. While she had no input or involvement with the creative process for this production nor is a professor to any of the students involved in this production, we feel it is important to disclose any potential biases.

Good People is Great Theatre

by China Young

Winding Road Theatre Ensemble’s production of Good People by David Lindsay Abaire is a beautifully crafted snapshot of the modern American class struggle with its focus on those living on the “economic knife-edge,” as described by director Glen Coffman. That makes it sound like a heavy drama, but Abaire and Winding Road apply plenty of humor and heart to this production.

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Tony Caprile as Mike, Maria Caprile as Margie, and Carley Preston as Kate. Photo by Jeffrey Snyder, courtesy of Winding Road Theatre.

Good People is the story of Margie, played by Maria Caprile, a working-class woman from the projects of Boston. Margie, like many single mothers, can barely support herself and her daughter, who is grown but suffers from disabilities brought on by being born premature. After getting fired from her low-paying job by her generations-younger manager Stevie (Joshua Parra), Margie is desperate to find something that is sustainable before she gets evicted by her landlady, Dottie (Peg Peterson). Encouraged by her good friend Jean (Toni Press-Coffman), Margie decides to reconnect with an old flame, Mike (Tony Caprile), who has found his way out of the “uncomfortable” slum life into that of “comfortable” stability, complete with an equally successful wife, Kate (Carley Elizabeth Preston).
Margie’s hope is that Mike can find her a job, or at least introduce her to someone else that can, and help her escape the pattern of underpaid labor she knows far too well. While there is much more to the story, I don’t know that I can adequately summarize any more without giving away moments of discovery by both the characters and the audience that truly make this experience worth having, and there are more than a few.
While Abaire has written his female characters well, I am almost convinced that it is Winding Road’s powerful female performers that put those characters in the driver’s seat without letting off the gas. Maria Caprile expertly commands Margie’s “good” but borderline manipulative qualities, filling every beat with truth and vulnerability.
If you aren’t completely drawn in by the first scene between her and Joshua Parra, hold on because Peg Peterson and Toni Press-Coffman join forces with Caprile in the next scene to finish the job. Both of their characters are commanding, believable, and drive the plot forward with such force it is impossible to not be swept away in the action. I couldn’t help but admire the strength and resilience of the blue-collar women that they represented. Not to mention the ease with which Press-Coffman can turn a phrase, and Peterson’s brutal hilarity that punches you, and Margie, in the gut. The truly impressive part is that they do all that from their seats.

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Peg Peterson as Dottie and Maria Caprile as Margie. Photo by Jeffrey Snyder, courtesy of Winding Road Theatre.

Even though we do not meet her until the second act, Carley Elizabeth Preston’s portrayal of Mike’s wife, Kate, is honest, compassionate, and fierce, making the character vital and worth the wait. Though Kate comes from money and education, she states that she is passionately protective of her and Mike’s daughter, drawing a parallel between her and Margie that fuels any nuance of tension that may exist considering Margie and Mike’s past.
All of that said, the men certainly hold their own. Joshua Parra portrays Stevie as someone who has gained success through hard-work and genuine kindness, but still doesn’t back down from a battle. Tony Caprile’s Mike is likeable, smarmy, fun, and incredibly naïve about his privilege, despite having grown up as working class and in the projects like the other characters. Mike and Margie have some of the most palpable exchanges in the whole show, with scenes that swell with subtle texture by both performers. In fact, the evening I was present, one scene in particular seemed to affect the audience tremendously (again, you’ve got to see it to experience it).
Not only does every performer do their job in creating the world of the play, but the production’s use of every inch available to them in The Scoundrel & Scamp’s small black box theatre space is equally impressive. The lighting, however, had a few issues. Most noticeably, there was one dark spot that actors found themselves in over and over. And though I appreciate how lighting can affect the mood of the scene, some transitions were just a little too obvious and left me momentarily distracted.
The only other troublesome aspect of this performance was the accent work. At the beginning of the play there were some incredibly thick Boston accents and it was clear that some performers had a stronger command of it than others. As the show progressed, the accents dissipated and settled into simpler subtleties that I found much more palatable and less distracting. Perhaps it was a choice to go strong at first so that the audience knows exactly where and who our characters are, but it felt as though the show was initially more about the accent than the characters. Fortunately, the characters ultimately took over and I didn’t care whether they had an accent or not.
Good People was a truly rewarding theatrical experience. I often forgot I was watching a play, allowing myself to be swept away by the characters and action, which can be a hard thing to do when you’ve been submerged in theatre since you were six like I was. I was genuinely thrilled to have experienced this production, and I think you will be too.
Good People runs through November 18 with evening performances at 7:30 on November 8th – 10th, 15th – 17th, and 18th (yes, that’s a Sunday evening), and matinee performances at 2:00 on November 11th and 17th (that’s a Sunday and a Saturday, respectively) at The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre at the Historic Y. Tickets are available online at windingroadtheater.org or by calling 401-3626.