Elevator Goes Nowhere

by Gretchen Wirges

ElevatorSeptember 11, 2001. It was a day that changed me. It was a day that changed the lives of many people I know. It was a day that changed our country irrevocably. On the anniversary, I often find myself shying away from social media and general news content to avoid the sensationalism and morbid reflection. Instead, I lean more toward artistic solace in the form of music and theater. This year, I attended Elevator, written and directed by local playwright Patrick Carson, currently being staged by The Tucson Community Theater Company.

The story is a fictional account of a group of individuals who were in one of the elevators of the North Tower of the World Trade Center when the events occurred. Stuck together in the elevator for the duration of this play, we learn more about the occupants  (played by actors David Updegraff, Elizabeth von Isser, Charlize Diaz de León, Tony Eckstat, Jade Ashton and Peter Bryfogle.) 

As an actor and a director myself, I always appreciate the work that goes into forming a full-scale production. The set looked like an expanded version of a real elevator that you’d find in any high-rise. It’s accuracy was impressive. Because the entire play takes place in that elevator, the size was exaggerated, and the walls cheated out to provide enough room, while giving the visual cues of the context of the play. 

However, the facility used for staging the production -a big banquet hall- was less than ideal. Half of the audience were sat in chairs at folding tables covered with plastic table cloths. I mention this only because it set a tone of amateurish informality that made me already feel separated from the expression of the work. Because of the less than ideal setting, the sound quality and production was also lacking. Each of the actors wore a lapel microphone that popped, hissed, and/or squealed with feedback every time they physically interacted with each other or moved in their costumes. Toward the end of the play, the characters are often coughing from smoke inhalation, which exacerbated the sound issues. 

The script itself is unbearably cliched and problematic. The characters were archetypal caricatures: bigoted business man, powerful lesbian woman, pregnant Muslim woman, uneducated blue-collar man, affable Englishman, and naive, pretty secretary. Because of these broad strokes, there are rare moments of realness between the characters. Instead, the play often devolves into trite declarations, predictable platitudes, and borderline offensive depictions of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and classism. The Muslim woman literally says fewer than 10 words in the first 30 minutes of the play. I saw it as an attempt for the playwright to make a social commentary with this device, when in reality it plays off as empty altruism. 

In addition, there are issues with the story’s plausibility. For example, throughout the majority of the play, smoke is seeping in through the cracks of the elevator. It isn’t until the play is almost over that there is a real reaction to that environmental factor. This is just one example, among many, that constantly took me out of the story because the action did not support previous information related earlier in the play. 

The performances by the actors were hindered by a script that never allowed them to fully realize the humanity of their characters. Further, the direction glossed over believable reactions to the events at hand. There was never really a sense of fear or urgency or pain or panic or grief that would make sense in such a situation. This disparity in logical reaction, in combination with an incredibly thin script, had many of the performances just falling flat for me. 

Von Isser (Edie) and Diaz de León (Tina) managed to find some lovely moments for their individual characters that gave us a peek into their emotions and grounded their performances as the most believable and interesting to watch. I truly believe the other cast members, with stronger direction, could have come off as so much more than the stereotypes they were burdened to play. 

In the end, I was not able to find even a crumb the artistic solace I was looking for. 

Elevator will run through September 29th. Performances are Thursday through Saturday (with the exception of 9/21) at 7:00 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. All performances will be at the GLH Hotel Event Center at 1365 W Grant Road.

 

Be simultaneously charmed, offended, and amazed at Gutenberg! The Musical!

by Gretchen Wirges

Carson Wright as Bud and Tyler Wright as Doug. Photo courtesy of the Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Carson Wright as Bud and Tyler Wright as Doug. Photo courtesy of the Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Weird.
Irreverent.
Meta.
Nerdy.
Genius. 

That would be my laundry list of words to describe Gutenberg! The Musical!, written by Scott Brown and Anthony King, as the debut production for Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company. It’s the perfect show for the person who doesn’t take themselves, or their love of musicals, so seriously that they can’t have fun exploring the tropes and cliches often found in the world of theatre. 

Gutenberg! The Musical! is a musical about making a musical. Writers Bud and Doug (played by Carson Wright and Tyler Wright respectively) perform a whirlwind mock-up of their show about the inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg and the kinda sorta, probably made up, wikipedia-sourced journey of his invention. The show starts with Bud and Doug introducing each other, the musical, and the fact that there are Broadway producers in the audience who hopefully will provide a nod of approval and a contract once they’ve seen the audition. As it progresses, Bud and Doug take on the roles of a variety of characters, delineated by a displayed cache of trucker hats emblazoned with the character’s name (Woman, Beef Fat Trimmer, Daughter, Gutenberg, Monk #2, and more). 

Carson and Tyler portray their characters with a grounded humor reminiscent of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. There is a beloved earnestness and sincerity that permeates their comedic choices, making them believable and yet ridiculous (in all the best ways). This groundedness is what really sells the rest of the often cliched wrongness of the story they’re trying to tell. Carson has a fantastically confident agility about him that allows him to glide effortlessly between characters both in voice and in physicality. Tyler has a pointed seriousness about him that gives him the unique ability to deliver absurdity with beautiful patience, keenness, and impeccable timing.

Given a suggested PG-13 rating; misogyny, antisemitism, and abusive relationships are just some of the interwoven themes of the made-up musical, but because of the grounded portrayal by Carson and Tyler, and the truth of the tropes of which they’re making fun, I found myself laughing out loud again and again. Okay, there may have even been a snort (or two). Reminiscent of shows like Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, the sometimes shock value of what was being said, was absorbed by the sincerity of the actors’ spot-on delivery and the super clever, word-nerd level lyrics.

Carson Wright as Bud and Tyler Wright as Doug. Photo courtesy of the Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Carson Wright as Bud and Tyler Wright as Doug. Photo courtesy of the Southern Arizona Performing Arts Company.

Carson and Tyler, billed as both directors and designers on the show, were able to do what few self-directed casts can achieve. Often it’s difficult to step outside of the creative brain to add a critical eye to the overall performance. But this production doesn’t suffer from that difficulty. The choreography is prudent and funny and a well-oiled machine. The finesse they display in telling both stories (both of the writers and the actual musical) while physically shifting hats, props, and each other, was incredibly deft and polished. All of this was accented and made even more magical by the actors’ incredible singing voices and their equally talented musical accompanist, Khris Dodge.

The show is being performed at Unscrewed Theater, known typically for its improv comedy. The sparse black-box style theater made for a perfect backdrop for the show. Lighting was sometimes lacking, but almost gave the overall intention of the show a bit more integrity as it’s intended to be a grassroots, self-produced show. There were a few times when there were props or choreography that took place on the proscenium or floor of the stage when I couldn’t see what was happening. This was only frustrating because I didn’t want to miss any of the action. 

Go see Gutenberg! The Musical! Laugh at the jokes, sing the songs, and allow Carson, Tyler, and Dodge to simultaneously charm, offend, and amaze you with their utterly brilliant performance. 

Gutenberg! The Musical! plays at Unscrewed Theater, 4500 E. Speedway Blvd., for only one more weekend with remaining shows on Thursday, Aug. 22 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 24 at 2pm, and Sunday, Aug. 25, at 2pm.

Tickets are $25 general admission; $20 military, students, teachers. For details and reservations visit www.sapactucson.org, email boxoffice@sapactucson, or call 520-780-6119.