Send in the Clowns

by Jess Herrera

quirkuscircusThey say the circus arrives without warning, but what happens when the circus blows its top? That’s exactly what happens in Quirkus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster, a new addition to the family series at Live Theatre Workshop.

The show attempts the impossible, seeking to create a storyline that can be enjoyed by the youngest members of the audience while also entertaining adults. And while it has moments of perfectly walking this tightrope, it also comes dangerously close to toppling in others.

In the story, written by local playwright Tyler West and featuring original music by Michael Martinez, we follow the Quirkus Circus troupe as they discover their ringmaster has packed up and headed to join Cirque du Soleil – taking all the animals with him.

A lovable, silent clown named Eddie, played by Stephen Frankenfield, first sets the stage and invites audience participation. He quickly becomes the highlight of the show. Without spoken dialogue, he launches through the rows of audience members to get kids jumping out of their seats just moments after the lights go up. And his impeccable physical comedy quickly wins over even the oldest and most skeptical audience members.

Eddie is joined by the acrobat Margaret, played by Taylor Thomas. Her performance is delightfully earnest without being saccharine. And with a swirl of her sparkling dress, she elicits squeals of excitement from the audience (particularly from my five-year-old daughter, who joined me for the show).

The last members of Quirkus Circus are Natasha and Boris, played by Ericka Quintero Heras and Jon Heras. Unsurprising to anyone who remembers Rocky and Bullwinkle, they’re a married duo whose act is a mix of magic tricks, death defying feats, and a healthy dose of bickering.

Finally, after the revelation that the ringleader is missing, a replacement named Paul is quickly pulled from the audience. Paul is played by William Seidel. He is believably timid and hesitant to join the performance.

Through Margaret’s coaching and Eddie’s encouragement, we follow Paul as he finds his voice as a ringleader and gains confidence to help lead the circus. In the process, we learn an important lesson: You should be willing try things that might be scary because it’s the things that give you butterflies may have the biggest payoff.

The cast of Quikus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The cast of Quikus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Under the direction of Kristian Kissel, the players seamlessly mix their interactions with one another and the audience. The choreography and sets are simple but add just enough flourish to take the audience to the big top.

Unfortunately the musical numbers were a bit unbalanced. The songs were catchy, but the harmonies were occasionally off. The stronger vocals of some cast members overpowered others.

And a few moments that felt as if they were written for the benefit of the adults fell flat. Boris and Natasha, with their borrowed names, needed a stronger storyline. And the depiction of a stereotype was borderline offensive. Their ambiguous accents wavered from a loose Russian to French and even a familiar Sonoran dialect. Their tango number made things even more confusing.

Accents can be very difficult to master, and it’s even harder to emulate characters the audience may be familiar with. I think Boris and Natasha could benefit greatly from a rebranding and a shift away from their ambiguously Russian caricatures.

Despite these few pitfalls, Quirkus Circus is an excellent way to introduce young children to theater. Running at just 45 minutes, it’s participatory, light, and overall highly enjoyable.

Quirkus Circus & the Missing Ringmaster is playing at Live Theatre Workshop on Sundays at 12:30pm through June 9. You can buy tickets on their website, http://www.livetheatreworkshop.org/, or by calling the box office at (520) 327-4242.

Costumes, Set, and Technical Design Breathe New Life into a Familiar Coming of Age Tale

by Marguerite Saxton

The 1800’s brought many influential things to Germany: Adolf Hitler, Nietzsche, The Brothers Grimm and the infinite creep factor of “Der Struwwelpeter” (Google it!). This is the backdrop for Arizona Repertory Theatre’s season finale, Spring Awakening.

Michael Schulz as Melchior and Rachel Franke as Wendla. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Spring Awakening is based on the late 19th century play The Awakening Spring, A Children’s Tragedy by German playwright Frank Wedekind. This modernized version is an austere depiction of oppression, rebellion, and sexuality, featuring maturing kids finding their bodies amongst shifting roles – girls drool over guys who don’t care about anything but are good at everything, while the guys suffer explicit fantasies about their piano teachers. Typical.

Spring is “a time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). In this lusty season of rebirth we find ourselves sowing metaphorical seeds for the future. Spring Awakening’s director Hank Stratton has expressed that it’s necessary to have death in order to have new life. And what is a more fitting way to celebrate Eostre, the Germanic goddess of spring, than with awkward teenage S.E.X.?

This multiple-Tony winning musical features Steven Sater’s cringy, angsty songs about new ways to touch oneself. But Stratton, according to his recent interview in the Arizona Daily Star, is okay with that. He “expects some audience members to be uncomfortable.” And well, it is.

Yet, this is a show of contrasts. While hopelessness pervades, a spirit of dissent runs almost as wild as the hormones. Though conscientiously directed, the obvious opposites within the script create scenes that are confusing but, in a way, accurate to that time when seemingly everyone was mystified by human sexuality.

The motifs in the story are predictable: adults vs. kids, sex vs. chastity, pleasure vs. pain. A bit cliché. How many times have we seen this story? Girl has sex, gets pregnant, and has a terrible life while the boy basically gets to be the bad ass. Though the narrative starts out strong and funny, it unfortunately flickers out.

While the script leaves something to be desired, there are key performances that pack a punch: much of the movement is purposeful and well timed – a particularly satisfying scene features caustic schoolmasters, headbanging, and air-guitars. And there were stand out vocals by actors Jared Machado (Georg/Dieter) and Rachel Franke (Wendla).
Another gem in the script is the queer love story. Its nuanced vulnerability adds dimension to a predominantly straight tale. This was an astute detail to add to an otherwise familiar story.

Zach Zupke as Moritz and Gabriela Giusti as Ilse. Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Where this play really shines is with the set design, technical, and costuming teams. The design of the theater is such that some audience members sit only feet from a technician, but wouldn’t know it due to the team’s utmost professionalism. They execute their jobs efficiently and in perfect unison. And the design team finds new ways to tell an old story. The set explores space in funky ways thanks to Scenic Designer, Joe C. Klug. Chairs hang from ceilings and the floors become a place to take notes. Tori Mays, Lighting Designer, rounds out a visually creative production with unlikely textural choices, employing geometric gobos and infusing many scenes with disconcerting chartreuse. Costume Designer, Ryan B. Moore, goes for symbolic touches by stitching tiny crosses of Peter onto the boys’ uniforms. This cross is a common symbol in counter-culture scenes, serving as a sneaky reference to the defiant nature of the students.

Another great component of this production was the live musical accompaniment – a classy touch that fosters a multisensory opportunity to connect with the play’s ethos. In many other productions they’d be hidden in a pit, but in this production they are instead proudly displayed for the audience as an essential organ, pumping their feet in tune, plucking their fingers in a rhythmic heartbeat that circulates vital energy throughout.
The script is predictable, but the execution of the production is done with gusto and skill. It’s clear those working on Spring Awakening are truly invested in this piece. This season’s final show at Arizona Repertory Theatre may not have awakened all of the senses, but it energizes one into the next phase, however screwy that may be.

Spring Awakening is directed by Hank Stratton and shows at Arizona Repertory Theatre from 4/7 through 4/28. Tickets can be purchased at https://theatre.arizona.edu/shows/spring-awakening/.

 

Editor’s Note: We mistakenly credited Richard Tuckett as the costume designer in a previous version of this article. In fact, Ryan B. Moore, a second year MFA student, was the costume designer for this production of Spring Awakening.

Blood Wedding: An Invitation to Powerful Theater

by Gretchen Wirges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Kingdom for Cohesive Direction!

by Gabriella De Brequet

Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most famous history plays written about the insidious king and his corrupt quest for blood, power, and the throne of England. It’s truly horrifying how relevant Richard III is for today’s audience considering our current political climate. However, the direction by Brent Gibbs, in this Arizona Repertory Theatre production, left me unsatisfied and confused.

‘The blocking of this production was awkward and unmotivated. The performers seemed to be crossing from once side of the stage to the other with no greater reason other than the fact that they were told to.  This was especially the case in large crowd scenes.

Richard III is a play heavy with death. But this production seemed to have little to no stakes from characters who were being sent to their executions. There was no sense of danger associated with many of the character’s deaths, and ultimately it didn’t support the content of the play. The world just wasn’t believable and this made the two-hour production difficult to sit through, even for a Shakespeare-lover such as myself. To top it off, director Gibbs chose to create an out of left-field alternate horror movie ending which completely strays from the original text. This left me wondering, will there be a sequel? If so, count me out.

Through all of the awkward staging, lack of relationships, and bold directorial choices there were some notable performances. Liam Thibeault’s Duke of Buckingham was witty and sharp, Kelly Hajek’s Queen Elizabeth was strong and striking, Jenna Meadow’s as the Murder was hilarious, Marina DeVaux and Sophia Goodin as Edward and Duke of York were unified and clear. Overall I felt that the female ensemble members carried the show. They were dynamic and interesting to watch on stage. As for Connor Mckinley Griffin’s portrayal of the title character, I felt that his lack of charm presented the character as one dimensional. Griffin delivered plenty of horrifying menace, but I wish that his Richard had a little more depth in his villainy.

In spite of all the production’s directional bumps, visually this play was stunning with a multi-leveled set by Jason Jamerson adorned with spikes, skeletons, and abstract metal work. The lighting by Tori Mays was striking and helped set the scene. The costumes by Elizabeth Eaton were gorgeously grungy. This production was a technically and visually jaw dropping, and the production is worth witnessing for the design elements alone. However, the production design team could not save the show from its misguided direction.

Richard III is playing at the Marroney Theater through Sunday, March 31st. Tickets can be purchased via the Arizona Repertory Theatre website: theatre.arizona.edu or by calling the box office at 520-621-1162.

Sweet Calendar Girls

by China Young

Calendar Girls by Tim Firth is a sweet story about love, friendship, and female empowerment. But when I say female empowerment, I don’t mean radical feminism, bra burning, or Women’s Marches. The production, currently performing at St. Francis in the Foothills, offers its audiences a sweeter, subtler version of girl power. Although, it does still involve the removal of bras.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo by Gretchen Wirges, courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

The story, based on real life events, takes place in England. Annie (played by Gretchen Wirges), is married to John (played by Mike Manolakes), a delightful man that everyone in her women’s group (WI) adores. John quickly loses a battle with Leukemia, and the women all share the grief of his loss. However, this grief is quickly transformed into a fundraising project. Annie’s friend and fellow WI member, Chris (played by Colleen Zandbergen), strategizes a way to honor John by raising funds for a new settee in the local hospital waiting room in his memory. She hopes to accomplish this through the the sales of the annual WI calendar. In an effort to make the calendar more appealing than usual, Chris convinces the women to pose nude, using various objects to hide behind. The women debate over their fears and excitement about the idea, but their enthusiasm, comradery, and mutual love of John win over and they decide to do it. The calendar turns out to be a hit, giving the women tons of public exposure, in more ways than one. However, fame does what it does best and eventually leads Annie to question Chris’s true motives for helping John, and their friendship falters.

I decided to Google the true story behind Calendar Girls and discovered that there was in fact a schism of friendships that took its toll on the actual group of women. There remains a permanent split, with some more in the public eye than others. The fracture of trust between Chris and Annie mirrors this real-life split. Despite the real Calendar Girls being unable to make amends, this production leaves the audience with feelings of warmth and love.  

First, I’d like to note that out of the 20 people listed in the program, 14 of them were women with 9 on stage and 5 off stage, including a female director, Samantha Cormier, and female producer, Cecilia Monroe. Though the men were fewer in number, they were essential in helping the production bloom and are certainly not discounted. The only thing that would have elevated it would be more ethnically diverse representation. Director Samantha Cormier notes that the production is “another example of how women need to help each other out and be there for each other.” She is absolutely right, especially when it seems as though women have a tendency to see each other as threats instead of kindred spirits. This story is about the power of coming together for a cause that is important. In that way, it’s much like the Women’s Marches and can be used as a tool for change. For me, those protests promoted awareness of the intersectionality of women and minorities, and this show provides the perfect vehicle to share the same message through theatre.

Of course, sometimes a play is just a play, but as an artist, I always appreciate when a much larger message is presented profoundly within the simplicity of a beautiful show like this. Even so, this cast represents the essence of community and the power that love and kindness can have on all of us. Not to mention how vulnerable it must have felt being literally naked in front of an audience. Their encouragement of one another to fearlessly liberate themselves was truly powerful. This production reminded me of the strength and power that women can have to change the world through simply supporting one another.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

The cast of Calendar Girls. Photo by the Pima Community College department of theatre, courtesy of the St. Francis Theatre.

Cormier and her cast create a fun and high energy environment that envelops the audience, literally. Many entrances were from the back of the house, inviting the audience to be a part of the action. To further enhance that quality, the stage was set up as a thrust with audience on three sides. While there were often enough people on the stage to provide nice stage pictures from all angles, I felt there were lost opportunities to take advantage of diagonal angles when fewer characters were on stage or when one character took focus. I also found the high energy of the women to sometimes be a bit chaotic and in need of a little more focus. All that said, the joy the performers had with this show and the heart that they brought to it overshadowed those few technicalities.

Gretchen Wirges as Annie was a pillar of this production. She grounded herself and her character beautifully. Even in the moments she wasn’t speaking or taking center stage, you could sense her internal life holding its own. She had moments of vulnerability that wrecked my heart, as well as moments of strength and fortitude that I could admire. The other “Calendar Girls” included Colleen Zandbergen, tragically convincing as she channeled Chris’s hubris, Ellie Vought, bringing a ton of fun and sass to her character Celia, Sue Bishop, giving Ruth a genuine innocence that turns rebellious, Pat Timm, delivering unapologetic bluntness as Jessie, and Nancy French with her skilled piano playing and hilarious punchlines.

The cast is rounded out by Jan Aalberts Waukon, Ina Shivack, Naima Boushaki, David Zinke, and David Gunther, all of whom did more than their share to create a production that is sure to lift your spirits. In lieu of revealing the most touching moment of the production, I encourage you to take the opportunity to experience the magic it summons, making every single person in the room feel loved and appreciated. I left humbled and inspired by the mark it left in my heart.

Calendar Girls runs Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3:00pm through March 24th. You can purchase tickets online at www.artmeetsheart.com or by phone at (520) 329-2910.

Don’t Keep This a Secret

by Marguerite Saxton

When asked about theatre, playwright and director Mary Zimmerman states that she “really like(s) to try to stage the impossible” (Chicago Tribune, 2014). Knowing this, one should be excited to see The Secret in the Wings. Under the direction of Cynthia Meier one is invited into a palette of beige, burnt sienna, and red: the bruised colors of fall.  Soft amber floor lamps, discarded sparkly clothes, and an old wood armoire add to the nostalgia and mystery that come with fairy tales. Remember when your mom’s fancy silk dress became dragon wings, stacked chairs became a castle, and that decaying set of records became magical volumes of spell books? This cozy basement set, designed by Joseph McGrath, frames the organized and tucked away minutiae of life.  

Typically, a theatre audience is given permission only to particular images: ones that purposefully illustrate a particular reality. Yet in “The Secret in the Wings” the secrets that usually live in the wings were not hidden, but instead acknowledged and displayed with refreshing candor on stage, fully lit, and unapologetic. Because the set and costume changes happened onstage, the edges of naturalism and surrealism are blurred and the audience receives a peek into what is typically reserved for the shadows. This carefully crafted set is a blank canvas that transforms with each of the differing fairy tales; one becomes transfixed by the ritualistic movement on stage.  It feels like a tape skipping, being rewound, finding the start again, and whipping back into a strange unison with time.

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Bryn Booth, Patty Gallagher, Joe McGrath, and Matt Walley in The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

A tale within a tale within a tale, like a theatrical display of Matryoshka dolls (the set of small Russian dolls that stack within one another). The featured stories include one about a girl who never laughs, star-crossed lovers turned enemies, and an ever-present ogre. Decapitated heads, eyeballs in a jar, and magic leaves all added curious fodder to the patchworked storytelling.  Each tale stitches through another with a well-oiled choreography that relies on a rhythm like that of sand pendulums.

Patty Gallagher, Claire Elise, Bryn Booth, and Holly Griffith in The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Patty Gallagher, Claire Elise, Bryn Booth, and Holly Griffith in The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Most curious though, is the voice of the performance.  The stories are told with the authority of a 3rd grader – that way they are necessarily and subjectively honest, and still possessing an optimism untouched by life’s troubles.  The Secret in the Wings is what would happen if a child spun out of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, watched American Psycho one too many times, and then decided to recount their favorite fairy tales.  Absurd at times and absurdly funny at others, this play embodies a liminal space that is both harmonious and arresting. Throughout it you will find intentional blocks of silence that strangely syncopate with frenzied parades of choral chanting.  Thanks to the crisp ensemble work by Bryn Booth, Patty Gallagher, Holly Griffith, and Claire Hancock, what initially seems non-sequitur becomes an intimate portrayal of the way young girls bond. Another stand out performer is Hunter Hnat, the badly behaved son who becomes the wildly demonstrative prince who becomes the interpretive dancing suitor and so on until you’re not sure what began and how it ended, but really it doesn’t matter anymore because it’s just so damn interesting.

What really resonates is the exploration of our culture’s collective subconscious – something that’s been molded through fairy tales for thousands of years. In fact, some of the tales included in this production are upwards of 4000 years old.  With that said, this play does not sanitize the violence of the ancient tales. It gives you grit, double-takes, and lots of questions. It relishes in the strangeness of those stories’ ability to gingerly explain beheadings, incestuous relations, and murderous melancholy. And, like a fairy tale, this play perfumes the jarring morals in a saccharin haze, feigning fun.  But then, creeping in slowly, one begins to understand the allegory hidden beneath the playfulness.

Holly Griffith, Joe McGrath and the cast of The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Holly Griffith, Joe McGrath and the cast of The Secret in the Wings. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

More than anything, the stories that Zimmerman has adapted and Meier has crafted are laden with morals; they pose pretty significant questions for our time:  How does ancient wisdom fit into our modern culture? How do old world morals find their way into our new world ways? I left the theatre asking myself these, among other, questions. And isn’t that the objective of theatre: to provoke? To prod us into understanding our roles in THE one big, revolving story? To see ourselves unmasked, brightly lit, exposed, and uncomfortable. As this play reminds us: “We all have a tale.”

You can catch The Secret in the Wings at The Rogue Theater (300 E. University Blvd) through March 17, 2019. Shows are Thursday-Sunday with matinee and evening performances. To get more information or purchase tickets, visit theroguetheatre.org.

 

 

 

Capture a Moment in Time

by China Young

Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies is a glimpse into the lives of people whose careers are dedicated to sharing the violence in the Middle East with the rest of the world. Sarah (Carley Elizabeth Preston), a photojournalist, arrives home after being injured by a car bomb. She comes home to her partner, James (Christopher Younggren), a reporter who had already returned from the war zone, her editor Richard (Glen Coffman), and his new, young girlfriend, Mandy (Emily Gates).  

Glen Coffman as Richard, Emily Gates as Mandy, Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah, and Christopher Younggren as James. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Glen Coffman as Richard, Emily Gates as Mandy, Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah, and Christopher Younggren as James. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Director Eva Tessler sculpted Live Theatre Workshop’s production of this script with passion and honesty in such a way that I was left contemplating much of it in larger, more worldy perspectives. During a heated conversation about the horrors that surround the photos she captures, Sarah states, “cameras are for catching life on film, not changing it.” The strict clarity Preston delivers this line struck me with the consideration that plays are very similar in that capacity, offering a moment in time to viewers without any real capacity to “change life” in that moment. Yet both photographs and live performances, along with many other art forms, evoke change within the viewer, even if just for a moment. Sometimes that change leads to action, sometimes it’s just a moment of feeling.

There were a number of other moments and themes that had me in a contemplative spiral of micro vs. macro, the experiences the production explored in the moment vs. the same experiences occurring throughout the world, but with the weight of reality rather than the comfort and safety of “art.” In fact, each character had a unique relationship with the concept of comfort that were all very rich and left me with the additional consideration of how fortunate we are to be able to choose to experience war. In the United States we aren’t born into war zones, despite how social media makes it feel at times. In the theatre we are even more privileged, whether as an artist or audience member, to evoke and experience our compassion through art instead of first-hand.

Tessler and her cast of four seamlessly incorporated these themes into the performances, offering the audience a savory theatrical experience.  Sarah’s humanity, shrouded in stubbornness, is grounded by Carley Elizabeth Preston’s natural ability to shift between sarcasm and sincerity with ease. Her adjustment from the life-threatening environment of Iraq to the comfort of her home in the US is a struggle, at times quite subtle, and Preston handles it with sophistication. Mandy, portrayed with a genuine innocence by Emily Gates, is a pleasantly surprising character. An Event Planner, she is presented in a way that suggests she shouldn’t be taken too seriously, at least at first. Even her initial costume is an amusing hodgepodge of colors and styles. However, Gates gives Mandy strength in her naivete that supports her moments of pure profundity.

Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah in Time Stands Still. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah in Time Stands Still. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Mandy serves as both a foil and a mirror to Sarah, highlighting another thematic question I left pondering, gender roles. Mandy is the epitome of “female” and fully embraces her desire to take on that role. Sarah, on the other hand, with her need for independence and yearning for life-threatening adventure, exhibits traits that we often attribute to men. Interestingly, both men in the production, Younggren as James and Coffman as Richard, amplify what might be considered by many to be “classically feminine” qualities as both men are lead by their desires for love and family. There are several early references to Richard’s proclivities for brief relationships, allowing him the opportunity to find comfort in settling down with someone and truly committing to Mandy. James flips his previous adventure-seeking self around to fight for a chance to experience the normalcy of marriage and family. Both Younggren and Coffman embrace these characteristics with gentleness and grace. This shift in gender conformity made me realize that the male characters highlight the fortitude of the women, each on their respective paths. Thankfully, and effectively, every single performer allows us to experience their individual spectrums of conformity or nonconformity, and that doesn’t limit itself just to gender roles.  

Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah and Christopher Younggren as James. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

Carley Elizabeth Preston as Sarah and Christopher Younggren as James. Photo courtesy of Live Theatre Workshop.

The technical elements of the production were both simple and complex. There is only one set on the stage, an uncomplicated studio apartment with its distinct bedroom and kitchen/living areas designed by Jason Jamerson. The complexity is in the details, the style of the window that reminds us they live in NYC, the photos and small relics of the inhabitants’ travels. Interestingly, the evening I attended there were a few audience members that chose to take the stage and explore the photographs that decorate the bedroom, either prior to the start of the show or at intermission. After reading that the production consulted Michael Kambar, an actual photojournalist that had worked in Iraq, I wondered if those photos were authentic and wished I had been so bold to explore myself.

Another simple complexity is that, though there is only one set, the show has two settings: the present, and memory. The present is simple and straightforward, but the memories are scored with Middle Eastern music (sound design by Brian McElroy) that fades in as the lights (designed by Richard Gremel) shift to focus in on the speaker. Conceptually, this is a beautiful way to honor the text of the memory. Unfortunately, I found the execution of this transition to be a bit too abrupt, distracting me briefly from the artistry and message of the moment. I hope that the rhythm of those transitions find their finesse as the run continues because they are truly captivating moments and deserve the time it takes to ease the audience into them.  

Times Stands Still evokes the essence of its title, augmenting a story that simultaneously has happened, is still happening, and will continue to happen, deeming it all fixed and motionless in “the big picture.” You can catch it through March 30, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, (also 3 p.m. March 30)  at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $15 Thursdays, $20 all others. For details and reservations, 327-4242, or visit livetheatreworkshop.org.