Fighting with My Family – Film Review

In 2013, Dwayne Johnson was in England filming Fast & Furious 6. During a break, he watched a Channel Four documentary in his hotel room and had an idea. The small screen doc was about an oddball English family obsessed with wrestling. It was called The Wrestlers, Fighting with my Family. It told of the Bevis clan of Norwich in the county of Norfolk and their obsession with the sport. British wrestling had left the UK television screens twenty-five years earlier, but this family was keeping localized wrestling alive. Mum and dad ran a promotion out of Norwich called The World Association of Wrestling.

While mum, dad, the brothers and the sister all wrestled, the focus was on the sister, Saraya Bevis, or ‘the princess’ as the documentary called her. Saraya’s wrestling name was Britani, but once her horizons unexpectedly broadened and she was accepted into and signed with the American based World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., (WWE) she became Paige, a name she adopted based on her favorite TV character from Charmed.

Impressed, not to mention amused by the antics of the family, Johnson called Stephen Merchant with whom he’d previously worked in the 2010 family comedy, Tooth Fairy, and asked if the writer/actor/director would consider writing a full-length biopic of Paige. Not only did he write it, he also directed and co-starred.

Fighting with my Family is a biographical sports comedy that is full to the brim with good humor, a few surprisingly tender moments (though never mawkish) and a crowd-pleasing climactic fight of a triumphant underdog whose conflicts were hardly limited to those she fought against in the ring. “I know you,” says a girl when passing Paige (Florence Pugh) in the high street. “You’re from that weird family.”

The film follows the difficult path Paige had to trek once she left Norwich. Both she and her brother Zac (Jack Lowden) went to London to compete in the try-outs for WWE, but only Paige was accepted, a move that crushed her brother’s dreams, causing a serious rift between brother and sister. Vince Vaughn plays Hutch Morgan, the WWE rep and coach who tells those trying out he’s looking for someone not only with the skills to wrestle but also the ‘spark.’ “That’s the magic dust,” he tells them. Evidently, Zac had only the skills. Paige had them both. “See you in Florida,” the rep tells her.

But moving to Florida and training with the others at the demanding WWE boot camp, with Morgan as the no-nonsense commanding officer, proves harder than Paige ever imagined. Plus, with her long black hair, her black eyeliner, her black painted fingernails, a ring through her bottom lip, and her pale, English complexion, with those Goth features she immediately looks out of place among the tanned, blonde, model types that usually attracts the men in the WWE crowds – the gorgeous ladies of wrestling. “They’ve probably been chosen for their looks,” says mum (Lena Headey) during a video call, “Not like you,” then quickly corrects herself, adding that’s not what she meant. “I’m really lonely and I have no friends,” the girl will later tell her brother on a trip back to England.

While the focus is on Paige and the difficulty of finding acceptance with those in America – “I love your accent,” says one of the blondes. “You sound like a Nazi in the movies.” – the film spends ample time back in Norwich with the family.

When dad (Nick Frost), known as Patrick ‘Rowdy Ricky Knight’ Bevis is told to wear a shirt when the parents of Zac’s girlfriend are coming over for a meet-the-parents dinner, he replies, “How bloody posh are they?” Ricky was in prison for eight years, mostly for violent offenses, and often remarks when times are hard that he might have to go back to thieving. Though wrestling and the discipline of his wife have kept him straight, some habits never quite die. When he hears news of Paige’s acceptance in the WWE, he tells a family member, “Go up the corner shop and nick a bottle of champagne.”

Surprisingly, and thankfully, despite the authentic working-class depiction of the clan, their well-worn Norwich home and their often crude, rough-around-the-edges lifestyle habits, Merchant’s smart and funny script omits the more ‘R’ rated expletives, making those colorfully descriptive English colloquialisms all the funnier. When Vince Vaughn’s trainer berates Paige for having a timid wrestler’s name, she lets him know that not all English girls are timid, in the same way that “… Not all Americans are wankers.” And when Lena Heady gets some great news over the phone, her version of ‘tickle me pink’ comes out, “Well, dick me dead and bury me pregnant.”

The film is not shy when it comes to the theatrics of professional wrestling, either. When asked if the sport is all fake, Ricky is quick to explain that it’s not. “It’s fixed,” he states, pointing out that the bruises and broken bones are quite real. Knowing this, you can’t help but question the level of acceptance and how real we’re supposed to believe that the climactic fight ever was. “I’m gonna re-arrange your teeth,” threatens AJ Lee (Zelina Vega) Paige’s opponent in the ring for the WWE Divas Championship in 2014, “But, you’re British, so I’ll be doing you a favor.” But whether you’re a fan of the sport or not, as presented, those Rocky-like moments are still a thrill in this hugely entertaining comedy.

Fighting with My Family is great fun. As for the fast and furious Dwayne Johnson, who is featured with a couple of good cameo scenes of his own as his ring-side alter ego The Rock, when it comes to moves, maybe that call to Stephen Merchant after watching the Channel Four documentary was the best move of all. When he makes a long distance call from America to the Bevis household and tells a disbelieving dad that he’s Dwayne Johnson, before slamming down the phone, dad replies, “Yeah, and I’m Vin Deisel.”

MPAA Rating: PG-13     Length: 107 Minutes

Posted in Film

How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – Film Review

Very loosely based on a popular series of twelve children’s books by English author Cressida Cowell (through marriage, her uncle is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer) How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is the third and final installment of the animated trilogy that began in 2010.

Set in a mythical Viking world where humans and dragons co-exist, the 2010 original introduced its central character, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) as a gangly, misfit teenager with little interest in fulfilling the duties of a marauding Viking and doing whatever marauding Vikings do, principally hunting and killing dragons. Years later, by the introduction of this third adventure, he has now grown into a capable young man, brandishing a flaming sword and rescuing dragons from those who would do them harm. Plus, his village of Viking dragon killers has become a safe haven for the creatures, turning the villagers from hunters into protectors.

As the son of the village Viking chief, Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler) part one was the essentially the adventures of a boy and his dragon, a Night Fury thought to be the last of its kind. Part two, released in 2014 and set five years later, introduced the boy’s long lost thought-to-be-dead mother, Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett) to the fold, though by finding a mom, young Hiccup lost a dad. His father died when bravely pushing his son away from the path of a lightning bolt and is killed instead. The twenty-year-old boy is made the village Viking chief.

This new adventure has Chieftain Hiccup leading his villagers and the dragons on a search for a faraway hideout called The Hidden World. A slimy villain called Grimmel (effectively voiced by F. Murray Abraham) intends to kill all the creatures, including any of Hiccup’s fellow villagers if they get in his way. With a huge army of murderous warriors in support, Grimmel is a force that can’t be ignored, so, with the powers vested in him, Hiccup announces at a meeting that everyone needs to pack up, head for the skies with their flying dragons, and search for The Hidden World, a place where all dragons would finally be safe. “Who died and made you chief?” asks one of the snarky teenage villagers.

For those who only know the motley crew of Viking characters and their dragons from the three movies, the differences from the novels can be startling. Toothless, the young hero’s hunting-dragon, is a Night Fury, an intelligent, powerful, dark-skinned creature that can carry human riders on its back. In the books, he’s small, green, extremely disobedient, and not particularly notable, often referred to as being exceptionally common.

Plus, unlike the Harry Potter series where author J.K. Rowling adamantly refused to allow any Americanisms to creep into the films and bring about changes, certain tweaks in the humor and the use of American accents for the teenagers (while the adults are Scotts) were created in order to make things more palatable for a stateside family audience, most notably in the character names. Gobber, the Viking character voiced by Craig Ferguson, is in the books Gobber the Belch, Jonah Hill’s Snotlout is Snotface Snotlout, and Valka, Hiccup’s mother, is streamlined down from Valhallarama. For the record, there was also a character in Cowell’s novels but not included in the films called Big-Boobied Bertha, a woman so named because of… well, you get the idea. Author Cowell has said that though the films differ considerably from her work, they have all remained true to the spirit and the message of the books.

When writer/director Dean DeBlois was asked to make the second feature, he agreed on the terms that if he wrote part two, there had to be a part three. His ideas for a complete story needed a trilogy, citing The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi as his inspiration. That helps explain why Hiccup has a flaming sword; it’s the medieval equivalent of a lightsaber. Interestingly, the lightsaber fight of the original Star Wars was inspired by those Errol Flynn swashbucklers. With How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the weapon has come full circle, but with flames.

What’s immediately striking with the film is just how far animators have come with their work. The photo-realism of the scenery is simply remarkable. The leaves on the ground, the forests, the sand on the beaches, the oceans, the waterfalls, all create an animated world that looks practically tangible, continually daring you to go ahead and ask what is real and what you think is animated. It’s all animated. And the neon colored trek through the long passage that will ultimately lead to the discovery of that elusive hidden world of the film’s title possesses a visual beauty that gives even Avatar a run for its money. But it’s not just the locations. It’s also the characters.

While the faces and bodies of the humans are clearly the exaggerated features of a cartoon character, in part three there’s realism in their expressions and movements that should make Disney/Pixar sit up and take notice.

Presented widescreen with dazzling action (maybe a little too dazzling at times), hip, present-day humor in a medieval setting – “He’s out to lunch,” states a villager when Hiccup talks of a quest to find The Hidden World – and a bittersweet though touching epilogue that wraps things up, this third outing is unexpectedly ravishing. Here’s hoping that How To Train Your Dragon; The Hidden World (known globally as just part 3) really is the concluding story and that Dreamworks resists the urge of developing a part 4; doing so would only diminish the effectiveness of the film’s genuinely heartwarming final few minutes, and that would be a shame.

MPAA Rating: PG     Length: 104 Minutes

Posted in Film

To Dust – Film Review

In the new sardonically humored film from writer/director Shawn Snyder, To Dust, a wife passes away, and her husband, a Hasidic Jew from an Upstate New York Orthodox community becomes obsessed with her decomposition. It stretches the boundaries of something that at its base is quite absurd and most certainly morbid yet within minutes of realizing where the film is heading there’s something about the plight of cantor Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) that develops into what can only be best described as endearing. And it’s funny.

That dry sense of Jewish gallows humor is established early. Shmuel cannot accept the death of his wife. Plus, he can’t tear a piece of his clothing, an expression of grief and anger at the loss of a loved one, the ancient practice of Kriah. His mother (Janet Sarno) hands him a small pair of scissors to help start the tear, but he still can’t seem to make it work.

The problem for Shmuel is he’s plagued by a nightmare. He can’t get the image of a graphically decomposing toe out of his head. “Tend to your children,” advises an elderly rabbi when Shmuel tells him of his dilemma. “Take care of yourself.

But the need to know the process of a body’s decomposition possesses Shmuel to the point where he’s willing to step outside the circle of his faith and ask for advice elsewhere. First, he goes to a funeral parlor and asks for the advice of an undertaker (Joseph Siprut). “How does she dismantle?” Shmuel asks. “Look, I’m a coffin salesman,” the undertaker replies with irritation. “I’m guessing there’s no sale here, right?”

The cantor and father of two eventually turns for help from a man of science; he goes to the local community college where Albert (Matthew Broderick) teaches. “I feel her soul is suffering,” the tormented Shmuel explains to the professor. “What’s to become of her body?” Albert tries to be polite in answering what is in truth a bizarre question. He even goes so far as to show the cantor a video of a piglet whose body was filmed at high-speed decomposing, explaining that while the film may be that of an animal, the process for the man’s wife should be just the same.

But for Shmuel, the pig is not enough. He refuses to quit. His desire to witness first hand how his wife’s body will ‘dismantle’ and become one with the earth proves all-consuming. He drags the reluctant community college science teacher into a bizarre partnership of corpse hunting, one that will eventually lead them on a 700-mile road trip to a corpse farm where bodies are purposely left above ground in order to be forensically studied as they decay.

While the focus of the film is centered on the tortured Shmuel and the exasperated Albert, there’s a humorous subplot involving the cantor’s two boys who believe that their father may be possessed by the dislocated soul of their departed mother; in Jewish mythology, a dybbuk. According to one of the boys, who learned about dybbuks from an educational tape called ‘All You Need To Know About Dybbuck’ explains how the spirit enters the body. “Everyone knows it comes in through the big toe on your left foot,” he states. Which is why late one night when their father is asleep, the two boys creep into his bedroom, gather in front of dad’s exposed left foot and talk directly to his big toe, telling their mother to go.

The pacing is intentionally slow and the humor, deadpan. When a security guard (Natalie Carter) at the out-of-state corpse farm catches Shmuel and Albert trying to climb the farm walls, she stops them but becomes sympathetic when Albert explains that Shmuel’s wife has recently died of cancer. In her attempt to offer condolences, the guard reminds the cantor that “Jesus loves you.”

The film runs 92 minutes but feels shorter. And even though the subject sounds unsavory with a decidedly limited appeal, and the sight of decaying bodies and graphically displayed nightmares of skin peeling back down to the bone is, frankly, gross, To Dust continually engages, particularly because of the comical pairing of Hungarian actor Rohrig as the Hasidic widower and Matthew Broderick as the hapless Gentile community college professor. Together they play like a minimalist Bialystock and Bloom, performing in an act that runs forever in slow motion.

MPAA Rating: R       Length: 92 Minutes

Posted in Film

Two Trains Running – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theatre Center, Phoenix

It’s 1969 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an African-American neighborhood on the edge of the city. It used to be a bustling place; flourishing, a hive of activity, but not anymore. Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority has seized land, ready to bulldoze and rebuild, but with the people gone.

Two Trains Running, performing now until March 3 at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix, is the 1990 play from August Wilson, the seventh in his ten-part series of plays reflecting the African-American experience throughout the 20th Century. They’re called The Pittsburgh Cycle.

The title of the piece refers to the two trains that run daily from Pittsburgh to the south, though as events slowly unfold and you become acutely aware of the play’s setting, its time, the location, and the characters that inhabit this world, it could also be a reference to the compare and contrast rhythms of what you witness and the parallels you can draw. When the play opened on Broadway in 1992, there was a section in the Playbill where Wilson talked of the title. “There are always and only two trains running,” he said. “There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both.”

Writer Wilson often insisted that his plays were never autobiographical, yet once you become familiar with his background, his work was clearly influenced by the experience of his personal life. When the play begins, several local business owners and residents have already taken whatever the authorities have offered and moved on. As Memphis Lee (James Craven) owner of the diner on Wylie Avenue states, “One time you couldn’t get a seat in here.

Outside in the world, the long struggle of enforcing legal rights for African-Americans has brought about change. But while the liberation of the black race and the legal victories of the civil rights movement was a monumental step, daily life for an impoverished black living in the city remained a struggle. Low wages and uncertain futures were the norm. The two trains, one of progress and a hope of wrongs becoming right, ran parallel with the other, the one that conveyed a sense of hopelessness that was all pervasive.

Director Lou Bellamy knows August Wilson. His Penumbra Theatre in Minnesota produced Wilson’s first professional production. When Bellamy worked in New York for the first time in 2006 it was to direct a revival of Two Trains Running. It’s his passion for the piece that is on display in the new exemplary Arizona Theatre Company production. You can sense it before the play begins from the look of Vicki Smith’s detailed scenic design of the well-worn restaurant, and you can feel it from the way the cast embody their characters; they’re lived-in. Both setting and cast reek of authenticity, a notable achievement on a forum where by default reality is an artificial experience, yet here we’re watching a world inhabited by people who appear all too real.

The seven-member cast, six men, one woman, meet at the restaurant daily and gossip. They talk of their lives, their struggles, of the people left in the neighborhood, and of each other whenever the subject of the conversation is out of the scene. Despite how well-rounded a character is drawn – Wilson’s ear for authentic African-American dialog is powerfully spellbinding – each feels parts of their lives are either unfulfilled or missing, reflected in their incomplete, single names.

There’s Wolf (Lester Purry) who runs an illegal lottery and uses the restaurant’s payphone as his office, Holloway (Alan Bomar Jones) who wisely philosophies on the oppression his race continues to face. West (Dennis W. Spears) the neighborhood undertaker who provokes the jealousy of the community because of his wealth. Sterling (Cedric Mays) the young man recently released from jail who acts as though his only path forward will be the road that’ll lead him back behind bars. Hambone (Ahanti Young) the mentally disturbed character who has spent more than nine years demanding that the leg of ham he was cheated out of by a local meat market owner be given him. Risa (Erika LaVonne) the waitress at the diner and the only female in the play. Her legs are scarred for reasons later revealed, but so is her character. When she walks it’s as if she’s locked in perpetual slow-motion, her feet dragging across the floor. Once familiarity sets in, the sound of her flat heels trailing behind turn into something practically hypnotic. And finally, the restaurant owner and the play’s central figure, Memphis Lee, though even here the name feels incomplete. It’s more than likely that Memphis is really a nickname.

There are other, equally important characters in the play who are never seen, yet by Wilson’s gift for writing compelling dialog and a cast that can deliver it with such impassioned heat that makes every spoken word sear the air around them, you feel as if you know them and wouldn’t be surprised if suddenly one of them walked into the diner. There’s Lutz the white owner of the meat market who cheated Hambone out of his leg of ham, there’s Old Man Albert the white guy who runs the illegal numbers game and cheats Sterling out of half his winnings, Prophet Samuel, the preacher whose funeral becomes a principal source of conversation, and Aunt Ester, the old black woman who tells fortunes and insists she’s the unlikely age of 322 years, symbolizing the length of the African experience in America.

That African-American Experience is also suggested in the form of oppression when it’s later discovered that Hambone’s body has scars all across his back, a reveal that harkens cruel images of the earlier days of southern flogging. In their way, though different in character, both Hambone and Memphis are also two trains running parallel. Hambone, feeling cheated by a white man, repeatedly declares “I want my ham!” And Memphis, believing the white man will cheat him out of the amount he wants for his restaurant before the bulldozers arrive, repeatedly declares, “I want my twenty-five thousand dollars!

Long before the undertaker West makes his first entrance, the characters in the diner have talked of him at such great, descriptive length, what he’s like – or their limited, individual perspectives of what he’s like – his appearance, his black suit, his white shirt, and the black gloves that he never removes, that by the time he does finally enter, you feel as if you’ve met the man before. With him also comes humor. When relating that he once buried a woman whose sister insisted her sibling be buried with her garden tomatoes, she kept telling West where to put them. “That wouldn’t have been so bad,” West explains, “But she kept changing her mind.”

With a running length of just over three hours, plus intermission, if you’re unfamiliar with the play, because of its plotless construction and the often slow burn of its character conflicts, there’s every chance you’ll consider the play too long. At the conclusion of Act 2, Scene 4 there’s a very real feel as the spotlight fades on Risa and Sterling that the play is over. In fact, several patrons rose out of their seats and made for the aisle in order to beat the crowd, only to discover there was a Scene 5.

As a result, Two Trains Running isn’t as satisfying a play as either Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or Fences; you feel the weight of the length in the introduction of that final scene. Yet the characters themselves have a quality rich with personalities that are so well drawn (and faultlessly played in ATC’s production) you can’t help but bristle with continual excitement at what may be experienced with each new moment and what you can draw from it. When Holloway in his philosophical wisdom declares there is nothing in the world but love and death, you’re immediately reminded of playwright Wilson’s personal philosophy behind the meaning of the title. In Two Trains Running, the thrills are not so much in the character conflicts, they’re in the smallest of details.

Arizona Theatre Company’s Two Trains Running continues at Herberger Theater Center until March 3

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Fuller

Posted in Theatre

And In This Corner: Cassius Clay – Theatre Review: Childsplay & The Black Theatre Troupe, Phoenix

There’s a defining moment in our lives. When it occurs you may not recognize it; the moment is often seemingly insignificant. But when it does happen, it changes the path of fate. It’s only much later when you look back and hindsight becomes 20/20 that you suddenly see it for what it was and can say, that’s the moment that ultimately lead me to what I am today, good or bad. For twelve-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., from Louisville, Kentucky, it was when someone stole his prized red Schwinn bike.

In the new play And In This Corner: Cassius Clay by playwright Idris Goodwin, Childsplay Theatre and The Black Theatre Troupe have teamed together in order to explore a drama that tells the story of a teenage Muhammad Ali, a man raised in a racially segregated Louisville who went on to become one of the most celebrated sports figures of all time. He was ‘The Greatest.’

Though any age is welcome, the play, best appreciated by children 8 and older, is that rare kind of production that can be enjoyed by adults whether they’re with a child or not. Its audience is intentionally all inclusive. Up until the day he sadly passed away at the age of 74 in 2016, Scottsdale, Arizona, Mohammad Ali remained a constant source of fascination. But while we think we knew him, Goodwin’s play fills in the gaps of those early years, the period that hasn’t necessarily drawn as much attention, yet is equal in its importance as much as those more famous later ones. What happened to the boy during those growing years who, just like his father, was named in honor of the white 19th-century politician and abolitionist, defined who he became.

With an accomplished cast of nine performers often playing several roles, the play runs approximately 60 minutes with no intermission. Goodwin’s script is a swift and streamlined account of those years with a style reminiscent of a child’s shortened classroom edition of a classic novel, say Treasure Island, edited for the 4th grade yet retaining all the important highlights that keep the essence of the lengthier original novel intact. “No matter how big they were,” a narrator informs, “They began small.”

There’s the moment when the boy Cassius (Rapheal Hamilton) discovers he could not drink out of the same water fountain as the white boys. There’s the moment when the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was lynched after being accused of offending a white woman, is announced while Cassius is training in the gym. There’s the moment at the diner when Cassius and his friend Eddie (Shawn Hansen) are refused service by the manager (Sten Eikrem) who declares, “We don’t serve Negroes,” then proceeds to pour milk and orange juice over their heads. “You boys need to eat elsewhere.” It’s startling and shameful what ordinary citizens will do to others when an unjust law gives them permission to do it without fear of retribution while the subject of their action is helpless and unable to respond. Then there’s the moment when the 12-year-old’s red bike disappears.

Furious to discover his prized Christmas gift was stolen on the streets, Cassius runs to a policeman, reports the crime and angrily declares that if he found whoever committed the crime, he would ‘whup’ him. At first, there’s that uncomfortable feeling that the white cop might act in a way detrimental to the black child just because he can, but the cop turns out to be Officer Joe Martin (Louis Farber) who not only runs a boxing gym but produces a local TV show for boxers called Tomorrow’s Champions. “You come by the gym,” Officer Martin tells the boy. “I’ll show you how to really fight.”

From there, the play closely follows Cassius’ path to greatness, highlighting both his development as a boxer and his self-development as a socially minded activist as he witnesses and experiences life outside of a racially segregated culture. In a letter he writes to his mother from New York, he explains that when looking for directions, it’s okay to go up to white folks and ask. They’ll even answer. And when asked how he was treated by Europeans while traveling overseas, he replies, just like any other athlete.

The play concludes around the time Cassius, now a world fighter, realizes that his fight is not only in the ring but on behalf of those who can’t fight for themselves. In truth, the conclusion feels abrupt and ends all too quickly, but that could be a testament to the play’s story-telling strength and the desire to continually want to know what happened next.

Narrated by individual members of the cast and by the boy Cassius himself – his moments of storytelling are done in rhyming couplets: “During that time/black and white couldn’t intertwine” – while scene changes on Brunella Provvidente’s excellent scenic design are indicated by the ding of a ringside bell, and Neil McFadden’s haunting recordings of voices from the past all contribute to a smart and swift telling of the boxer’s story. Michael Jerome Johnson’s fights are efficiently choreographed, while Cody Soper’s lighting effectively separates individual moments of action.

There’s not a weak link in the nine-person ensemble as they swiftly change costumes and characters, though standouts include Cynnita Agent, hugely effective as Odessa, Cassius’ mother, Louis Farber as the sympathetic though stern Joe Martin, and Raphael Hamilton who, when caught in the right light with Alexis Chaney’s appropriate costume designs, can actually resemble a young Cassius Clay.

As for those defining moments, the play can also inspire some personal self-reflection that makes an interesting conversation for families on the drive home. Mine? Excuse the indulgence. It was my first trip to the theatre in the early sixties: Sammy Davis Jr. in a variety show at The London Palladium. Sammy was mesmerizing, but it was the whole theatre experience seated up there in the balcony (the upper circle, or The Gods) that inspired. It’s probable that without having experienced that Saturday night at the Palladium I wouldn’t now be here writing a review about And In This Corner: Cassius Clay.

The play continues until March 3 and can be seen at The Black Theatre Troupe’s home in Phoenix on East Washington Street at the excellent Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center. There’s not a bad seat in the house.

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Trumble

Posted in Theatre

The Secret Comedy of Women – Theatre Review: Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

Here’s a tip for the guys. When you enter the Herberger Theater Center and the voluntary usher checks your ticket for The Secret Comedy of Women, then tells you, “Be warned,” take heed. After all, the clue is in the subtitle – Girls Only.

Walking into Herberger’s Stage West and facing an arena full of already excitable women of all ages, from young, middle-age, to elderly, is like accidentally crashing an all-inclusive ladies hotel convention that no one told you about, but you should have known.

The Secret Comedy of Women is a sketch-based variety show of skits, improv, song, dance, and audience participation where the comic duo hosts perform the whole thing. The Girls Only night out was written by its performers, Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein, two immediately likable personalities who spend 105 minutes, or thereabouts, examining all things girly. Make no mistake, this is not an evening of male-bashing, even if the archival video of an early Folgers Coffee commercial shows what superior minded prigs we were (and in some cases, probably still are), it’s a look at those things in life that all women share. And it’s very funny.

The setting is a teenage girls’ bedroom. From their appearance, considering the approximate age of both Barbara and Linda (rude, I know, but bear with me), you’d think the design would probably be set sometime during the eighties, yet the bedroom’s pink walls are decorated in posters of the seventies. There’s the wholesome looking Osmonds during their Crazy Horses period and Shaun Cassidy during his whatever it was that Shaun Cassidy did period. There’s no stereo, but there’s a record player on the carpet with some L.P. covers strewn around suggesting an even earlier decade.

While looking for your seat, you’ll notice that there on the stage, hanging out in the bedroom, flicking through the pages of a woman’s magazine and occasionally engaging members of the audience with a smile and a thumbs up, sits Barbara and Linda, both dressed in only their bra and panties. The show hasn’t even begun, yet by the reactions of the audience and the occasional exchange of words, the two ladies already have the house on their side. With songs like Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Like a Virgin, and This One’s For The Girls playing in the background, a party atmosphere is already established, and the house lights have yet to dim.

Once they do and The Secret Comedy of Women begins, the ladies introduce themselves – Linda is from Denver, Colorado; Barabara is from Winnipeg, Canada – the two immediately engage the audience in a conversation about the look of female models in fashion magazines and their often absurd positions. “Who takes their panties off with just their thumbs?” asks Linda while striking a model’s pose. There’s also the subject of bras, as in the Miracle Bra where you could click for cleavage, or the ridiculously overpriced and severely uncomfortable diamond encrusted bra and panties, pointing out that perhaps the words panties and encrusted should never be used in the same sentence.

From there, Barabra and Linda reflect on teenage diaries – they read extracts of their own – the issues of trying to breastfeed in public or at restaurants – “Hooters. God forbid, we should breastfeed our babies there” – menstrual cycles, menopause, and a Carol Burnett/Vicki Lawrence styled skit for cable TV-only called Craft Corner where the two women dress as elderly retirees giving tips on the various other uses of feminine hygiene products, including maxi pads, tampons, a glue gun, and – please, don’t ask – a bucket of KFC. Plus, in a final sketch, through dance, the ladies express the trails and tribulations of what it’s like when trying to put on a pair of tights.  Considering it’s The Nutcracker they’re performing to somehow makes the piece sound even funnier.

The success of the show is how the two performers bring to life the spirit of a woman’s world, its early years, the attitudes, the styles they all remember, the products of the time, and the feeling of how it affected them. It’s not simply nostalgia – that would be too easy – it’s that ability to tap into something that all the women in the audience have experienced in a similar way then creatively present it as theatrical observational comedy. Plus, Linda and Barbara are experienced talent. They give the appearance of spontaneity and even laugh with a look of surprise when one says something that sounds off-the-cuff, yet they’re actors, and this is a show that’s been on the road since 2008; there’s nothing, not even in the moments of improv, they’ve never said before. Yet through professionalism and good performances, they remain authentic.

During the History of Women segment, narrated by Linda and performed by Barbara with shadow puppets, we learn that among the world’s many inventions, women invented the Windshield Wiper, the Globe, and the Chocolate Chip Cookie. Well, Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein invented The Secret Comedy of Women. The show began in Phoenix last month and continues until February 24. There are plenty of performances left. Ladies, go in a crowd with friends, you’ll laugh louder. And guys, if you go as a date or you’re accompanying your wife, keep this in mind: if the usher gives you a friendly warning before entering, remember, they’re not kidding. Really.

The Secret Comedy of Women continues at Herberger Theater Center’s Stage West in Phoenix until February 24

Posted in Theatre