Jackie – Film Review

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The long, sustained note of sad violins from Mica Levi’s atmospheric score slide down as if the life of their sound is falling away. Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) is walking alone by the beach of Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. She appears regal, composed, yet there’s a mournful look to her face as she faces the cold, winter wind. Her eyes are haunted as if fixed in a blank stare. There’s no reason given as to why she appears as she does, but there’s no need. We already know. The superimposed title tells us. It’s 1963.

That’s the opening scene to the new drama, Jackie, from director Pablo Larrain, and it’s that same sense of something always haunting that remains hanging like the heaviest of dark, sad clouds throughout the rest of the film. The story as presented is neither the life of the wife of the 35th President of the United States, nor is it a biopic ranging from her early days as the daughter of Wall Street stockbroker John Vernou Bouvier lll, her future marriage to Aristotle Onassis in ‘68, or her death in 1994. The film is a layered account of the weeks following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.

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Billy Crudup plays a journalist (unnamed but considered to be Theodore H. White of Life magazine) who has come to Hyannis Port to interview Mrs. Kennedy. He’s polite, hesitant, and always aware that it’s the former First Lady who is in control. “You understand I will be editing this conversation,” she tells him, adding, “Just in case I don’t say exactly what I mean.”

From there, as seen from Jackie’s point of view, the film cuts from the interview to the days that followed the tragic event, to the famous 1962 CBS television broadcast where Jackie gave viewers a tour of the White House while Charles Collingswood of CBS News narrated. It was seen by an audience of 56 million.

Yet, despite her hugely successful small screen appearance, during the interview with Crudup’s journalist, she shows little interest, even a disdain, for broadcasting. When the journalist suggests she could have had a career as a broadcaster and that the country would like to know what she is going to do next, she replies, “I can assure you, not television.”

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Though the film is based on true events, those private exchanges, such as the one between Jackie and the journalist, are imagined. Yet while conversational liberties may occasionally be taken by writer Noah Oppenheim, his outstanding, inventive screenplay adds quality and a convincing sense of authenticity to the conflicted, frustrated feelings that Jackie Kennedy must have experienced as those around her advised, often at odds with what she wanted. When the journalist asks her whether her faith helped, she responds with, “That’s between me and my priest.

Her priest is Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) and the private exchange, as imagined by Oppenheim, becomes tense. Jackie tells the priest that God is cruel. “God is love,” he responds, “And God is everywhere.” But Jackie continues to challenge him, wanting to know that if God is everywhere, was he in the bullet that killed the President? “Absolutely,” the priest replies. Her voice turns to one of annoyance – “Well, that’s a funny game he plays; hiding all the time” – to one of anger. “What kind of God takes a father from his two little children?”

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The fragmented style of the film may occasionally confuse as it skips from the interview, the TV broadcast, earlier events at the White House, and the days immediately following the assassination, leading up to the funeral procession, yet Jackie actually benefits from a repeat viewing. Having had the opportunity to watch the film a second time, already knowing how those layers of story-telling are to be used, somehow that rhythmic sense of jumbled assembly suddenly appears to work in the film’s favor. Hearing what is being discussed in one scene, followed by a quick cut to illustrate an example adds texture. So, too, does the grainy look of Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography; it captures the authentic flavor of sixties film stock without ever attracting attention to itself as a cinematic gimmick.

There is great support from an outstanding cast, including Peter Sarsgaard, excellent as Robert Kennedy, Greta Gerwig as the White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman, childhood friend to Jackie, and John Carroll Lynch as President Lyndon B. Johnson. But at the center of it all is Natalie Portman’s complex portrayal of Jackie Kennedy, one that’s all things, often at the same time; composed, regal, confused, angered, sad and haunted. When LBJ is swiftly sworn in as President hours after the assassination, the man may be at the center of the screen but it’s Jackie and her look of foggy, unbelieving bewilderment you’re watching. She’s still trying to comprehend what has happened and failing. It’s an achievement in a performance that not even Black Swan prepared us to expect.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 95 Minutes     Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Mamma Mia! Farewell Tour – Theatre Review: ASU Gammage, Tempe

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It is said that on any given day, somewhere in the world, in at least seven different cities, Mamma Mia! is in performance, and it shows no sign of stopping.

With this in mind, you can’t help wandering just how final the current national Mamma Mia! Farewell Tour really is. Maybe it’ll be like Cher’s Farewell Tour where the singer packed houses, said goodbye, then returned to do it all over again a few years later. From the look and the sound of the packed auditorium at Tempe’s ASU Gammage on opening night, local valley audiences won’t care. The show can say farewell as many times as it likes; the valley will continue to return, and it’ll do it with cheers, roars of continual approval, and, of course, standing ovations. Mamma Mia! must be one of the most beloved musicals in the history of theatre. Truly, it is quite phenomenal. And, let’s be honest, at this point, it’s also critic proof.

Known now as the mother of all jukebox musicals – it premiered in London back in 1999 – Mamma Mia! is not the story of the Swedish pop band ABBA, as many thought it would be, and it has nothing to do with Scandinavia. For the record, only three of the members are Swedish; Frida is Norwegian. Playwright Catherine Johnson created a new, fictional tale surrounding 20-year old, Sophie (Lizzie Markson) who lives with her mother, Donna (Betsy Padamonsky), on a sun-drenched Greek island, and she’s about to get married. But there’s an issue. You know the story. If you haven’t seen the show on its subsequent Gammage visits, you’ve seen the film.

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Sophie wants her father to give her away, but she’s not entirely sure who her father is.  It’s a fluff plot, and ordinarily it would hardly be thought of as blockbuster West End or Broadway material, but Mamma Mia! isn’t about a story, even though early publicity insisted it was. It’s about ABBA’s songs.

Those infectious beats, hooks and lyrics are seventies pop, written and produced at its finest, though listen closely and you’ll realize that in truth, ABBA’s music really has nothing to do with the seventies; the band existed in its own bubble. Because of Dancing Queen, American marketing often refers to ABBA as a disco band, but it never was (those satin, glitter costumes got them noticed, but they were immediately abandoned once the band was established) and Dancing Queen was never a disco song even though clubs played it. Gimme, Gimme, Gimme is disco, and Voulez Vous ups the tempo, but most of their songs really don’t fall into that category. They’re not of that formula. They’re almost all story songs, lyrics that tell a musical tale. Consider the following.

Many pop/rock numbers tend to have head-scratching, ambiguous meanings. David Bowie was famous for mixing sentences around that had no real significance, but as long as they rhymed, they were in. When writers Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus wrote their songs, keep in mind they were writing in a second language. They didn’t know how to be vague. Lyrics were always precise; they told a tale. The Name of the Game is a woman talking to her psychiatrist. Does Your Mother Know is an older man telling a young girl to back off, reversed in the show when Tanya (Cashelle Butler) tells the cabana boy to cool it. Chiquitita is a woman comforting another woman in her hour of need; the name Chiquitita is a Spanish nickname, a term of endearment for a close, female friend. What playwright Johnson did with her script was not so much shoehorn songs in to fit the situation, the situation evolved because of the song that was going to follow. When Donna sings The Winner Takes It All to one of the potential fathers, it’s really dialog set to music. The lyrics are not totally apropos to the scene, but they sound as if they are, backed by a familiar melody, and that’s what audiences respond to, and love.

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The current touring production is high energy without a moment’s pause. Acting is broad, characters comically mug, and much of the dialog is delivered at full volume. So, too, is the music. What audiences are laughing at is not necessarily what’s being said, but how the actors are saying it, accompanied with wide-eyed expressions and exaggerated body movements. Those seated in the back row of the Gods, way up top, will have no trouble identifying the visual laugh cues.

Plus, this being promoted as a Farewell Tour – a truly clever piece of marketing for a show seen many times before – there’s an unexpected sense of affection suddenly created that dedicated Mamma Mia! audiences show for these characters. The actors may be different each time a tour arrives, but the characters are the same. For many, it’s like seeing old friends. When young Sophie and her fiancee Sky (Dustin Harris Smith) are finally leaving the island for a future together, the opening night audience didn’t just ecstatically cheer, looking around those seated near me, no joke, there were patrons waving goodbye.

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And audiences are guaranteed to leave happy. When the show first opened in London, it was an immediate hit, but there was one thing that many reviewers pointed out. The ABBA signature tune was missing. Dancing Queen was the band’s stateside hit, but that came much later in their career. Around the world, the song that represents ABBA is and always will be, Waterloo. It’s the song that catapulted them to fame overnight after winning the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest when they represented Sweden, beating England’s representative, Olivia Newton John, in the process.

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As a consequence, a finale was later added where the cast revisit a couple of tunes, dress in the early style of ABBA’s glitter period, and end with a rousing rendition of Waterloo to close the night. It’s like watching a mini-ABBA tribute concert while revisiting the Eurovision Song Contest, and, against all conceivable theatrical odds, it really works. Any misgivings you may have felt for the show evaporates the moment that finale begins.

As with most jukebox musicals such as Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Story, audiences always leave with those famous songs bouncing in their heads, but with Mamma Mia! Farewell Tour there’s something more. Just like the title suggests, they’ll feel as though they’ve just seen old friends perform a concert of their greatest hits. And just like Cher’s fans, they’ll be waiting for the next farewell tour, ready to wave goodbye all over again.

Photos courtesy of Kevin Thomas Garcia

For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ASU Gammage website

Posted in Theatre

A Christmas Carol – Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

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It’s not unusual to read that the way we celebrate Christmas today is the way classic Victorian author Charles Dickens invented it in his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. Not strictly true, but it’s close. When on Christmas Eve at the close of business, the miserly Scrooge begrudgingly relents and gives his put-upon clerk Bob Cratchit the following day off, it’s not because he was mean spirited, it was because he didn’t have to. In fact, at the time, most employees didn’t; Christmas Day was not a holiday. What Dickens did was revive, or re-invent, the idea of December 25 as a time for families to be festive together. Through his story, he influenced western culture to alter its perspective. And it did. Historians call it his Carol Philosophy.

More than any other book, A Christmas Carol holds the record for stage, screen and radio adaptations. Imagine the amount of new, individual productions that are performed around the country in every state, in every city or town, in every year. The statistics are staggering. But not all retain that true Dickensian spirit. Often, meanings are altered, scenes are changed, and characters cut. The overall arc of Scrooge’s story and his redemption might be there, but often the real understanding of Dickens’ intent are either missing or misunderstood.

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Like the season itself, Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert has made a production of A Christmas Carol an annual event, a tradition, and as a student of Charles Dickens and all his works – particularly A Christmas Carol – allow me to say this: It would be hard to imagine seeing a more authentic, true regional Dickensian production of this story performed any better. Hale Centre Theatre’s 2016 presentation of the Charles Dickens classic is simply wonderful.

Director David Hale Dietlein, the founder of Hale Theatre in 2003, has directed every production since opening. Having never seen any previous production, it’s difficult to say how earlier presentations compare or measure up, but on the evidence of Saturday morning’s Green Cast performance, Dietlein has it exactly right. It’s not just that the spirit of the season is alive and well at Hale’s theatre-in-the-round, it’s the genuine feel of Dickens’ presence in almost every moment.

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A Christmas Carol is now playing until December 24 (no Sunday presentations) with multiple performances daily. Ordinarily, this would be exhausting for any cast, but Hale has two, separate, full ensembles performing on alternate days. The Green Cast is lead by Mark Kleinman as Scrooge. The Red Cast is lead by Fox 10’s Cory McCloskey. This review covers the Green Cast, though I’m assured, both productions are identical but with the obvious exception of seeing different faces in different roles.

When you first enter the house, you’ll see all around you, decorating the theatre’s four walls, the familiar skyline sights of Victorian era London as seen from any rooftop of the time; St. Pauls Cathedral, the tower of Big Ben, the Monument, Westminster Abbey. It’s like walking on a London set where you’ll remain seated, right in the middle of the city throughout the duration of the play.

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The script used is an adaptation by Ted Lehman and it’s taken directly from the novel. Almost all the words are Dickens (though Mark Hackman’s Ghost of Christmas Present calling Scrooge “You silly little man,” and offering him a drink from the Milk of Human Kindness is actually Leslie Bricusse, taken from the 1970 movie musical, Scrooge.) Often, being this faithful to the author’s original words to this degree can make for a somewhat dry presentation – one of the show’s three narrators describing Marley being as dead as a doornail, then expounding on what makes a piece of ironmongery more symbolicaly dead than another is really a Dickensian moment for print, not performance; even Dickens cut it from his public readings – but Dietlin’s colorful and seasonally sparkling production pulls out all the stops in order to inject life and fresh vitality to the all-too familiar story.

The image of Marley’s ghost (Matthew R. Harris) is effectively and eerily projected on Scrooge’s front door; thick fog swirls around the grounds as Marley finally appears before the miser; and the image of a large, clock, it’s arms ticking around the Roman numerals marking Scrooge’s passing of time is projected down on the center of the set. When a younger Scrooge (Kelton White) proposes to Belle (Angela Kriese) in the middle of Fezziwig’s Christmas Eve ball, Jeff A. Davis; Davis Entertainment’s lighting design bathes the cast in blue as dancing characters move in slo-mo around the young couple.

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The second half, like the book, is considerably darker, concentrating on those who would be happy to steal the curtains, rings an’ all, from around the four-poster bed of a departed spirit and sell them without concern for pennies to Old Joe. Plus, the graveyard scene, where Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (Malcolm Hooper) wander among the dead is particularly inventive; cast members lie motionless on the floor, each holding their own gravestone as Scrooge walks by them.

But it’s the redemption we wait for, and here, despite having seen umpteen productions over the years of this same, eventual moment, watching Mark Kleinman’s change of heart materialize with giddy delight as he finally accepts that invitation for a Christmas Day dinner with his nephew Fred (Stephen Serna) then later as he waits for his clerk to arrive, knowing that Bob Cratchit (Ben Mason) will be late for work, instills a fresh feeling of true, seasonal joy. Go ahead. Look at the faces of the audience seated in the round as Scrooge takes delight in surprising his clerk with a raise in salary; they’ll all be beaming. It’s also little wonder that the elderly gentleman seated next to me in Hale Theatre’s row C who had remained silent throughout the entire production suddenly burst into laughter at Scrooge’s childlike excitement and slapped his knee repeatedly as though delighting in the same emotions that Scrooge was experiencing.

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Knowing the celebrated Victorian author’s love of both the season and of live theatre, I’m convinced he would have loved what Hale has done with his words and his work, had he been there. And in a way, he is. Look closely at the framed black and white portrait hanging above Scrooge’s fireplace in the raised, corner set, possessing a clear view of everything in the theatre. Upon my soul; why, it’s Mr. Dickens.

Photos by Nick Woodward-Shaw

For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the Hale Center Theatre website

Posted in Film

Twist Your Dickens – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre, Phoenix

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When the set is a street in Victorian London and there’s a barbershop quartet singing in front of Scrooge & Marley’s, you know that what follows will hardly be business as usual.

That’s the opening to the new seasonal comedy now playing at Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre until Christmas Eve, Twist Your Dickens, a consistently funny alternative to A Christmas Carol, created by the Chicago-based improvisational theater troupe, The Second City. Scrooge is just as miserly as he ever was, and, yes, those same three ghosts visit Scrooge overnight to try to instill some redemption by showing the money-lender his past, present and future, but it doesn’t unfold in quite the way Dickens intended.

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Once that Barbershop Quartet – the one with the three harmonizing voices and a fourth that likes to do its own thing – introduce the show, adding that the best part of presenting Dickens is that it’s all royalty free, we’re off to the office of Scrooge and Marley where Scrooge (Robert Kolby Harper) laments that his partner, Jacob Marley, has inconveniently died at the height of foreclosure time, and Bob Cratchit (David Dickinson) still wants to celebrate the 25th with his family because it’s Christmas Day. “I don’t care if it’s Jesus’ birthday!” Scrooge declares.

Director Matthew Wiener’s already proven deft handling of comedy keeps this cast on its toes as each performer leaps from character to new character, often at the blink of an eye. Only Harper remains constant as the miserly Scrooge; everyone else exits as one figure and enters as another, though not necessarily from the works of Dickens. When those benevolent helpers of the poor stand in line asking for a seasonal donation from Scrooge, in addition to the regular charitable organizations, George Bailey, complete with permanently snow-capped shoulders on his overcoat, enters asking for help to pay off a certain Mr. Potter. There’s also the problem with those Three Kings and the gifts they offered baby Jesus. The frankincense and myrrh were good ideas, but a chestful of gold is a bit much, not to mention it makes the other two gifts look a little stingy.

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The show follows the traditional path of having those ghosts visit Scrooge, but the journey is often hi-jacked by skits revolving around the original ending to The Charlie Brown Christmas Special – it’s the one the TV execs wanted cut where the Peanuts gang hilariously berate Linus for getting a little too religious near the end – and the diversion to the island of misfit toys from Rudolph. Even Dickens gets a look-in when, like the animated God in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who peers down from above to make a few comments, a large head of Charles is lowered telling everyone he loves what they’re doing with his story.

While the Dickens tale is solid and set in stone, as scribed by two former comedy writers from TV’s The Colbert Report, Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort, Twist Your Dickens gives its highly talented seven member cast the chance to change things at every opportunity. In addition to Harper and Dickinson there’s also terrific local talent Cathy Dresbach, Gene Ganssle, Kate Haas, Maren Maclean and Kyle Sorrell. Given the show’s improv nature, should a cast member think of a better punch-line – sometimes inspired from a call-out to the audience – then they’ll go for it. Twist Your Dickens is a free-for-all gag-fest where nothing is sacred; anything goes, as long as it gets a laugh. Tiny Tim’s children’s party may be incredibly politically incorrect  – it takes Tim forever to drag that gammy leg across the stage while everyone watches – but it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

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It matters little if you’ve never read the original Dickens novel, but for some gags it helps. When Cathy Dresbach, dressed in Salvation Army-like garb, asks for a donation for the poor and Scrooge responds with the famous, “Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?” her response, not to mention change of accent, is definitely not Dickens. It also helps if you’re familiar with all the TV Christmas specials and a couple of those seasonal classic movies. If not, just go with the flow. It’s all hit and miss, but here’s the difference; delivered with the kind of high manic energy Wiener draws from his cast throughout, plus the broad nature of the whole thing – really, nothing is sacred – even the groaners get laughs. And if you’re wondering why there’s a barbershop quartet in Victorian London, hold that thought; Gene Ganssle’s in-house critic jumps from his audience seat and asks the cast same thing.

But to tell more is to spoil things. The fun is to discover the invention and all the diversions for yourself. In fact, with this kind of show, the less you know going in, the better the surprises; the funnier the show.

Photos by Reg Madison Photography

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website

Posted in Theatre

Screening Passes for ‘Fences’ starring Denzel Washington: Special Report

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It was earlier this year when valley audiences were treated to one of the best theatrical productions of the year. In mid-February, Arizona Theatre Company presented a powerful new production of August Wilson’s Fences at Herberger Center downtown, and local reviews, including one from this column, were overwhelmingly positive.

Set in the 1950’s, Fences was the sixth part of Wilson’s ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle, nine of which were set specifically in the African-American neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Each of the author’s plays were set in different decades with the intention of raising the consciousness of the 20th century Black experience through theatre.

Though the play was written in 1983, the original Broadway production opened at the 46th Street Theatre on March 26, 1987. It won the Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Performance by a Leading Actor (James Earl Jones), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play (Mary Alice) and Best Direction of a Play (Lloyd Richards.) It ran for 525 performances and closed on June 26, 1988. It also won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

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The play’s Broadway revival opened at the Cort Theatre in 2010 and starred Denzel Washington in the lead role as Troy Maxson, and Viola Davis as Rose, and it’s this production that inspired the making of the new film adaptation. Both Washington and Davis have reprised their Tony Award-winning roles for the big screen. As directed by Washington, the film recently wrapped production in the city where the story is set; Pittsburgh, PA.

Valley audiences will have to wait until Christmas Day to see the PG-13 big screen adaptation, but you have an invitation to see the film in advance of the December 25 opening. On Tuesday, December 20 there will be a special advance screening of Fences at Harkins Shea 14 on E. Shea Blvd. At 7:00pm, and you are invited.

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To find out more about the film, the advanced screening, and to print your theatre screening passes, CLICK HERE.

Plus, CLICK HERE to revisit the full review as written in this column of the thrilling February 2016 theatrical production of Fences as presented by Arizona Theatre Company at Herberger Center, Phoenix.

Posted in Special Report

Anything You Hear and Only Half of What You See – Theatre Review: Stray Cat Theatre, Tempe Center for the Arts. Tempe

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With the exception of a few chairs and a table, seated against his will in a mostly vacant Phoenix warehouse where the old plastered walls are peeling revealing the brick beneath, is a mailman (Ryan Goldfinger), kidnapped, his wrists restrained. Behind him stands a reprehensible young ponytailed thug named Phil (Devon Nickel) and he’s pointing a gun.

The mailman is frightened, confused. He has no idea why he’s there, plus he doesn’t understand the questions fired at him by the gunman. Nothing is making sense, except maybe one thing: whoever the kidnapper is looking for, this is clearly not the guy. With little concern for the consequences, the pitiless gunman shoots the mailman from behind. Fade out.

It’s the opening salvo to a new, black comic play, Anything You Hear and Only Half of What You See, a world premiere by valley playwright Ron Hunting, presented by Stray Cat Theatre running now until December 10 at Tempe Center for the Arts, and like anything new at Stray Cat, a never-before-seen production is like catnip to a reviewer.

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In a market where plays and musicals are often repeated, sometimes with alarming regularity, there’s something both refreshing and exciting about seeing a brand new play that has little to no history. It also presents a challenge. There’s nothing to compare it with; no previous openings in other cities where other reviews have already covered the ground and started either a positive or negative word-of-mouth. You’re watching a literal clean slate, void of the usual hype, and that in of itself should be something to entice. Though once that humorless, opening scene is concluded, the innocent mailman’s body is removed, and the play begins, there’s an immediate sense that you might have seen it before, or at least something like it. It’s origins, or certainly its inspiration, soon become clearly evident.

As the second scene unfolds, from a heated conversation between the not altogether bright gunman and a second, somewhat brighter though impatient character, Steve (Nathan Spector), we learn that the ponytailed kidnapper was supposed to have kidnapped a certain mailman on a specific route who delivered mail to a specific house. Not only had Phil grabbed the wrong guy then killed him, he’s also killed a second, innocent mailman, though Phil insists he had to; it was in self-defense. A third attempt finally results with the kidnapping of the right mailman, George Ruth (David Weiss) and it’s here, under interrogation from Steve that things finally start to fall into place; at least, to a degree. Peering through the window of a house where he was attempting to make a second delivery, George can’t be altogether certain but he thought he witnessed a murder. His conclusion was that it was a drug deal gone bad. “Do I need a lawyer?” asks the mailman. “A lawyer is the last thing you need,” responds his interrogator.

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True to the play’s title, much of what we both see and hear isn’t exactly what we’re meant to believe. Like the best of mysteries where events have already occurred, through hints, declarations and slow reveals, the puzzle starts to form a picture, but there’s always a few pieces missing; nothing’s ever quite complete. It’s where information is held back, not just for our enticement in the David Mamet rule of playwrighting where nuggets of information are purposely withheld in order to always want to know what happens next, but also for the safety of those under questioning. As things progress and three more characters are implicated by association and then kidnapped for questioning – two more mailmen (Doug Waldo and Van Rockwell) and a nerdy, bespectacled post office accountant (Eric Zaklukiewicz) – all four men do and say whatever they need to keep themselves alive for as long as possible, particularly when the woman-in-charge, the unmerciful Jackie (Ryan L Jenkins) is flown in to tidy everything up.

What strikes you within the first few seconds of mailman George’s questioning is how unusually articulate everyone is. As the 90 minute play unfolds, each has a speech, a monolog of sorts, and while some of the writing is often sharp and darkly witty, the dialog is delivered by each character with the same theatrical voice, and it’s author Ron Hunting’s by way of Quentin Tarantino. In speech alone there’s little individuality.

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The twists and turns as events develop are well planned, and more importantly, unpredictable. There’s no guessing where things are headed, and the surprises and reveals are good ones. Plus, director Louis Farber handles the movements and the placing of the several characters well, though for a better visual effect it might have looked more interesting had the four kidnapped guys sat at a slight angle to correspond with the impressioned angle of Michael Peck’s warehouse set rather than in a solid straight line, facing the audience.

Whether you’ll laugh or even find the play funny may have a lot to do with the size of the audience. A packed house tends to respond more demonstrably than a half house.  The opening scene where the frightened, shivering mailman is executed should have set the tone for what is to follow, but the seriousness of what you’ve just witnessed and the murder that follows set the wrong one.  Had the play opened with the conversation between the ponytailed Phil trying to explain himself and his exasperated senior, Steve, where we only hear of Phil’s murderous misjudgment through conversation rather than having witnessed it, the play might have had a stronger beginning.  Recoiling from something genuinely unpleasant makes what follows more difficult to find amusing.

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The Tarantino influence is heavy throughout.  Characters speak at length in clever asides and reference pop culture to illustrate meaning – Edith Bunker, Keyser Soze, The Partridge Family, The Blue Man Group, and this being set in Phoenix, Wallace and Ladmo are mentioned – and while it all may raise a smile of recognition, it also feels just a little false and sometimes misplaced. When the kidnapped men are to have their headphones blasting deafening music placed back over their heads in order to isolate them, we already know from earlier moments that the pain of the volume is enough to make their ears bleed, and that’s a serious thought, but rather than cower at the notion of having to suffer the ordeal again, they bicker about having to hear the same Partridge Family song and whether the TV band ever had a third album. Funny in a sit-com perhaps, but this is meant to be Tarantino-esque black humor, and the comical bickering needs to develop naturally at the right moment.  Here it feels as though it’s trying too hard.

Photos by John Groseclose

For more regarding times, dates and tickers CLICK HERE for the official Stray Cat Theatre website

Posted in Theatre