The Snowy Day and Other Stories – Theatre Review: Childsplay, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

As a parent whose final duty of the day was to read a bedtime story on alternate evenings, watching Childsplay’s new production of Jerome Hairston’s adaptation of The Snowy Day became suddenly nostalgic. It wasn’t expected. In fact, the series of illustrated stories by Ezra Jack Keats repeatedly read alongside Goodnight Moon and My Dad Is Brilliant were all but forgotten. Yet, as soon as those three performers entered the stage at Tempe Center for the Arts on this past Saturday’s early matinee and began to relate how a child called Peter woke up and looked out of the window to see that snow had fallen during the night, it all came rushing back.

The Snowy Day is a 1962 children’s picture book, illustrated by its author. The images are formed from the basis of a collage; art created from cutouts of various materials, fused together to make a picture. Scenic designer Douglas Clarke has effectively used this same style to create the backdrop to Peter’s theatrical neighborhood adventures; New York tenement houses situated on the corner of Broadway and 136th Street, complete with high-street stop lights. It’s as if one of Keats’ urban illustrations had risen out of a giant pop-up book, big enough to stretch from stage left to stage right.

One of the most interesting aspects to the book’s illustrations was the subject of race. Even though the stories never described them as such, the pictures of Peter and his friends are of African-Americans, inspired by four small black and white pictures of a little boy that the author came across one day while flicking through the pages of a magazine. Keats, who was white, was captivated by the images. He never forgot them, and later used them as inspiration for Peter.

The three players in Childsplay’s production, Savannah Alfred, Andre Johnson, and Nathan Alfred, are African-American. Watching them narrate, change characters, and re-enact the playful situations as described in the stories truly brings the work (and my memory of those evenings reading them by a child’s bedside) alive.

Intended for ages 3 and up, with a running time of only 50 minutes, plus the Q&A with the cast and the young audience that traditionally follows a Childsplay production, the fast-paced adventures under Katie McFadzen’s direction never wane as Peter goes from one situation to another. Told with the use of shadow puppets projected on a backscreen, The Snowy Day, where the little boy experiences his first ever snowfall and leaves the house to walk in the snow – Crunch! Crunch! Crunch! – is only the beginning. The character of Peter appeared in six of Keats’ stories, and writer Jerome Hairston has adapted four of them, each flowing seamlessly into the next.

Once Peter (Andre Johnson) has experienced a day in the snow, making snow angels, building a snowman, and realizing he’s probably too young to be throwing snowballs with the bigger boys, the play goes straight to Whistle for Willie, where, for the first time, Peter tries to whistle, and fails, making himself dizzy in the process. But there’s mom to rescue, who teaches Peter to pucker up. “You just have to keep trying,” mom (Savanah Alfred) advises.

The there’s Goggles! where Peter and his friend Archie (Nathan Alfred) find a pair of abandoned motorcycle goggles. With the use of their imagination, they explore all the fun things they can do with them, including motorcycle racing, deep-sea diving, and if you act in slo-mo and pretend you’re floating on air, you can even be an astronaut.

Finally, there’s A Letter To Amy where Peter is about to have a birthday party with all his friends. But Amy is special because she’s a girl, so she needs a special invitation. It’s an adventure that takes Peter outside and into a thunderstorm with unexpected results.

Growing up and discovering things for the first time is a major challenge to children. The success of the tales of Peter is that author Keats captured that playful essence of childhood and related it so effectively in his writing, as does this musical play. True, there’s a minimalist tone to the production, and the conclusion arrives abruptly just when you thought there might be more to come, but it’s overall success is more than simply capturing a particular essence. It’s the heart and affection for the material that makes Childsplay’s production work as well as it does. It reaches out and gives you that warm comforting feeling you might have experienced when, as a child, your mother hugged you when you needed a hug the most.

If you’re currently reading bedtime stories to your child, see Katie McFadzen’s Childsplay production, then include the Ezra Jack Keats stories in your early evening repertoire. Even though experiencing a snow day here in the valley is admittedly remote, your children will still relate to challenges of childhood as experienced by young Peter. It will stir the imagination and make their lives all the richer.

The Snowy Day and Other Stories continues at Tempe Center for the Arts until March 11

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Trimble

Posted in Theatre

Hand to God – Theatre Review: Stray Cat Theatre with Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

There’s a very funny and unusually original ventriloquist called Nina Conti. Type her name, she’s all over You Tube. Part of her act, the adult portion, is performing with a monkey glove puppet that acts as her alter ego. The monkey says things Conti would never dare. The ventriloquist appears shocked and embarrassed, particularly when the puppet voices Conti’s true, hidden thoughts, delivered with f-bombs and a variety of other verbal assaults. There’s even a series of deadpan, ad-libbed videos of Conti (daughter of actor Tom Conti) on a psychiatrist’s couch as she seeks professional help in releasing the puppet from her arm.

You’d think it’s possible, not probable, but possible that playwright Robert Askins had at one point seen Conti’s act and was suddenly inspired, having found the perfect forum for an idea fermenting in the back of his creative mind regarding a devoutly religious, small town community and the division of the human soul, plus its consequences.

In Askins’ blistering dark comedy, Hand To God, now playing at Phoenix Theatre’s smaller Hormel Theatre in a co-production between Phoenix Theatre and Stray Cat Theatre, young Jason (Eric Zaklukiewicz) has a problem. The glove puppet on his right arm is doing and saying things that Jason would never dream of; it’s taken control, and there’s not a thing the boy can do about it.

Based in small town Texas, Askins has designed his play to unfold in an innocent church basement, a perfect Sunday School setting where the painted cinder block walls are decorated with posters relating, among others, The 12 Disciples of Jesus and The 3 Parts of The Trinity, mapped out like a strategic game plan to assist the young in finding their eventual salvation. There’s even a prayer wall with three envelopes allowing the children to write their prayers and post them for God, for themselves, or for others. Nothing unusual here, except maybe for the puppet show.

Evidently, the use of glove puppets for entertaining religious teachings, one where children are taught to accept Jesus and denounce Satan, is reasonably common in southern small towns, though rarely used in the north. In this particular small town, at the request of Pastor Greg (Louis Farber), the recently widowed Margery (Elyse Wolf) is running the church puppet club. Membership is small, and not exactly enthusiastic. There’s Timothy (Vaughn Sherman) a troublemaking, oversexed teen who happens to have a serious crush on the adult Margery; Jessica (Michelle Chin) the somewhat reserved girl-next-door, and Margery’s son, Jason.

You don’t take that thing off much, do you,” remarks the southern-accented, girly-voiced Jessica to Jason, regarding the boy’s puppet. “I think it’s sweet how much you lerv your puppet.”

All appears normal, until something weird occurs. While entertaining Jessica with an excerpt from Abbott & Costello’s classic “Who’s on First?” skit, performed as a double-act with his glove puppet, who Jason has named Tyrone, the puppet suddenly takes control. When Jessica asks the boy if he wrote the piece, in order to impress her, he answers he did, only to have his puppet rudely declare he’s lying, adding that the girl must be stupid not to have heard of it. From that point, there’s no going back. Tyrone takes on a life of his own; he’s a puppet satanically possessed, and as if to illustrate there’s no doubt that what is happening is nothing short of demonic, Tyrone causes an overhead lamp to abruptly burn out, while all around, thunder cracks with an explosive boom so loud it seems to rock the very foundation of the church building.

Though billed as a comedy – and certainly the black humor of much of what is spoken with the voice of the foul-mouthed, demonically possessed Tyrone is often a riot – there’s a point where the funny is superseded by the horror, even the sadness; the recognition of such may depend on the audience with whom you share a performance.

Ask any actor performing comedy – light, dark, or jet black, the style matters little – and they’ll tell you, from night to night, the laughs come at different times with different beats. You never quite know what to expect. What may seem riotously funny one night may be met with silence on the following. When that happens, a complacent cast, thinking it has a guaranteed laugh-fest on its hand after hearing the belly laughs of an opening night crowd, may wonder what went wrong when the laughter of another audience is considerably subdued. The answer, of course, is nothing. Laughter is contagious. Plus, it acts as a prompt for others to join in. But when a difference in reaction occurs, something interesting happens to the play.

An audience, so busy slapping its knees and giving out deep, hearty laughs, may miss the more serious aspects of a play, or perhaps not even recognize them; they’re simply too busy enjoying themselves laughing. Like the laugh-track on a TV sit-com that not only gives atmosphere but reminds the TV viewer when to laugh, how you’ll react throughout Hand to God may depend on those sitting around you. When TV’s M*A*S*H was sold overseas, the laugh-track was removed. What amused American TV audiences received a different reaction in Europe. It was almost as if the two continents were watching a different show. And so it is with Hand to God. Friday’s opening night performance was greeted with overwhelming, boisterous laughter that (I was told) often drowned dialog. With Sunday’s matinee there were times when you could hear a pin drop.

Make no mistake, Stray Cat’s presentation with Phoenix Theatre is an excellent production and may prove to be the standout of its 2017-18 season. Director Ron May has assembled a first class cast, all of whom embody their character types exactly as required, with standouts from both Louis Farber, perfect and perfectly real as the pastor, and Elyse Wolf, convincing as the widow Margery. But when the laughter is muted, as it was this past Sunday, and the outlandish situations are played mostly straight, as they are here, a different play with the same dialog tends to emerge.

The absence of laughs makes Pastor Greg’s infatuation with Margery feel all the more realistically frustrating. Margery’s loss of her husband and now the fear of losing her son to the devil is as upsetting as it sounds, and conveyed by Wolf so convincingly well. Plus, the evil Tyrone’s domination of Jason’s right arm may well be a comically broad, freakish embellishment of satanic possession, but without that riotous laughter that the play will undoubtedly experience on some evenings, his plight comes across as all the more sad, even horrific. Be prepared for the difference.

At the conclusion of the first half, some audience members may well exit the theatre for a fifteen intermission break unexpectedly shaken. It’s as if one of the Muppets of Sesame Street bypassed the low-rent squalor of Avenue Q and went straight to the unrated director’s cut of The Exorcist.

Hand to God continues at Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre until February 25

Above Pictures Courtesy of John Groseclose

Above Picture Courtesy of Reg Madison

 

Posted in Theatre

Hamilton – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

If you saw the PBS broadcast that documented the behind-the-scenes development of Hamilton: An American Musical, you’ll know where and how writer and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda got the idea for his next show. He was away on vacation, taking a break from In The Heights, resting by the beach, reading a copy of the 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton by historian, Ron Chernow. And now, fourteen years later, if there’s any Broadway musical hardly in need of more superlatives, it’s safe to say, that would be Hamilton.

What in theatre parlance used to be referred to as a pop/rock opera, Hamilton is a sung-through musical with no stand-alone dialog, other than a sentence or two that might appear in the middle of a song. Miranda’s musical style for his biographical drama incorporates a wide range of influences, including rhythm and blues, soul, even some sixties pop presented with a Broadway flair. But its main source of music is stylized hip-hop, making Hamilton a principally rapped-through musical.

Despite some areas of criticism noting that historical accuracy is not at the forefront of Miranda’s book – many of the early scenes depicting exchanges between Aaron Burr (Nicholas Christopher) and Hamilton (Austin Scott) never happened, plus there’s considerable embellishment regarding John Adams, who did not fire Hamilton – biographer Chernow acted as the show’s historical consultant. Covering such an expansive story line and making it dramatically acceptable, adjustments are often required to tell a tale – real life has a habit of not adhering to riveting story-telling rules – so while things are simplified, and Burr’s relationship is exaggerated, plus neither Burr, Thomas Jefferson, nor James Madison ever approached Hamilton about his adultery, having the man presented as a kind of villain is acceptable license in order to maintain dramatic interest. After all, as Burr states in the introductory number, Alexander Hamilton, “I’m the damn fool that shot him.”

The diversity of the show’s cast (where white figures of American history are played by black and Hispanic actors) is reflected in the diversity of the show’s score. Many theatre-goers already aware of the songs long before seeing the show (and through repeated plays of the CD) will go in wanting to hear certain favorites performed live. Others completely new to the production, and particularly for those who have never attuned to or have little interest in hip-hop, may feel somewhat overwhelmed and bemused by the hype and the accolades. For them, after awhile, the tendency for one rap to sound like another might be an issue. With a running time of roughly two and a half hours, that’s a lot of new back to back, non-stop materiel to cover. But even for those whose eyes may glaze over as they lose the narrative and never fully adjust, there should still be standouts.

The show’s opener acts not only as an introduction, a prologue required to unveil the importance of what is to come – the immigrant status of Hamilton, where he was born, his future relationships, and his eventual demise, all mapped out – it also sets the tone and rhythm of what lies ahead for the next couple of hours, where the lyrics are both rapped and sung, performed with drama and humor. It’s a strong beginning.

Burr’s character is lucky to have two of the show’s best songs; Wait for It, and even better, The Room Where It Happens, a stylish, upbeat, toe-tapper with a catchy hook for a chorus, depicting the secrecy of political bargaining. Behind closed doors, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton discuss where the capital city of the United States will be, but Burr is left on the outside, away from the secret deals. He sings, ‘No one really knows how the game is played/The art of the trade/How the sausage gets made.’

Then there’s the gospel-inspired One Last Time, powerfully sung by President George Washington (a stand out Isaiah Johnson) depicting Washington’s decision not to run for a second term. The climactic movements are potent, delivered with powerhouse vocals from Johnson. “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on/It outlives me when I’m gone.” It is quite superb, and deserving of the lengthy roar of approval from Wednesday night’s ASU Gammage audience.

But the crowd-pleaser has to be King George’s belief that the colonies will return to his control, You’ll Be Back, a sixties-inspired pop number with a sing-a-long chorus full of da-di-da’s that can’t help but please, even for those who might have, by this point, lost interest in the show’s overall style. The king’s role has little to do with Hamilton’s story, but the song is so full of dry, sarcastic humor with clever lyrics, some even prophetic – “When you’re gone, I’ll go mad/So don’t throw away this thing we had” – it becomes a hugely welcomed moment of comic relief, delivered with a somewhat sly, nasty edge, inspired, no less, by a conversation that Miranda had with actor Hugh Laurie. The tune is repeated twice with different lyrics; once as What Comes Next, when the king asks the new nation if it knows how hard it is to lead, and again, the particularly funny I Know Him, where the mad king can’t believe that Washington will be succeeded by that little man, John Adams. George may feel his colonies were stolen, but he steals every moment he’s on stage. Peter Matthew Smith as the king brings the house down.

The set is full of rickety timber, backed by fake brick walls on a stage consisting of revolving turntables used to superior effect, smoothly gliding props and characters into the following scene, wherever they need to be. The ensemble in their stretchy jodhpurs never quit moving. It’s a hugely impressive and handsome looking production.

For theatre-goers who keep up with current events, Hamilton will be everything you’ve heard, and maybe even more. For others who have only a passing interest and were attracted by a curiosity, stirred only because of the incredible level of hype depicting the musical as being the greatest thing since sliced bread, the show and it’s hip-hop score may not produce the same response. There could be a tendency to feel unengaged, even distant. But you cannot fail to see that there’s something uniquely and positively different here in the making, whether it’s to your taste or not. In that same PBS documentary, Stephen Sondheim stated that the funny thing about history is you don’t realize it’s history while you’re experiencing it. Like its form or not, a musical of this nation’s past is making history of its own, and we’re witnessing it as it happens. With Hamilton, a new style of theatrical story-telling is born. Lin-Manuel Miranda has given musical theatre a different direction.

Hamilton: An American Musical continues at ASU Gammage, Tempe until Sunday, February 25

Pictures of the Hamilton National Tour Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Posted in Theatre

Agatha Christie’s Verdict – Theatre Review: Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre, Scottsdale

Followers of English murder mystery author Agatha Christie know the formula, and it works. A murder is committed; there’s a group of suspects in attendance; one of them, perhaps more, but usually the one, is the killer. And it’s up to a certain, colorful character – a detective inspector, a private detective, or maybe an eccentric amateur sleuth – to sort through the details, develop a theory, then gather the potential criminals into one room. After a lengthy explanation, where secrets and surprises are unveiled, the criminal is finally exposed. That’s the mechanism, and there’s comfort in knowing the device, which is why the 1958 play Verdict, Miss Christie’s last, is so unusual.

Less a whodunit, or even a whydunit, Verdict is more a melodrama; a study in principles – ideas of what constitutes morality, ethical standards, and what, in the end, is the right thing to do. In the first act, when Professor Karl Hendryk (Peter Cunniff) discovers that one of his promising students, Lester (Jackson Ramler) stole an expensive text book and sold it in order to take a girl on a date, instead of admonishing the young man, the professor tells him, “If you have to do bad things, I’m glad you do them for a good motive.” It’s a theme that carries into the second act, but with consequences far more reaching than the elderly professor could ever imagine.

There is a murder, and its discovery ends Act One, but unlike the regular path of an Agatha Christie plot, there are major differences in the telling, which might help explain why, back in ‘58, the play closed earlier than expected. Audiences used to a certain style were thrown off-track by Verdict’s construction. For one thing, the crime is witnessed. Second; the murderer is seen. By knowing whodunit and why it was done, there’s no mystery. Instead, what follows is a clash of ideals, personal rationales, and decisions made for what is considered to be the greater good, no matter how misguided those decisions might be.

Though no specific time is ever mentioned, the action appears to take place during the late fifties in the small, somewhat cramped, book-laden living-room of Professor Hendryk’s London flat. It’s all his salary can afford. The professor, his invalid wife, Anya (director Virginia Olivieri, here doubling in duties), and Anya’s likable cousin, Lisa (Carrie Ellen Jones) have escaped persecution experienced in their continental European homeland, never named, and moved to England for safety.

The professor teaches at a London university, but often helps students further their education at his home. One of his students, the attractive though less than empathetic Helen Rollander (Bella Tindall) desires private lessons, though clearly her motives of wanting to be alone with the kindly professor have little to do with furthering her education, and she makes no attempt to hide it. When it comes to the subject of the wheelchair-bound wife, Helen shows no concern; she practically throws herself at the professor. “I don’t pity anybody,” she states. “I can’t help it. I’m just made that way.”

Other characters include Dr. Stoner (J.Kevin Tallent), the practitioner who not only makes house calls but has become a friend to the family; the chatty, cockney busybody family help, Mrs Roper (CJ Boston),and Helen’s wealthy father, Sir William Rollander (Charles Sowder), a man willing to pay whatever price the professor demands in order to please his daughter. It will take the play close to an hour before a crime is committed, but one of the above will kill and another will be killed. It’s how the situation is handled in the second act that builds the tension.

Though these characters are in a British setting, the decision was made for the majority of players to forego anything sounding locally English. For most, hearing American accents in an upscale Bloomsbury flat will be of little consequence and may not even raise an eyebrow, which is why Mrs. Roper’s East End cockney sounds all the more jarring and oddly out of place. CJ Boston, who plays the light-fingered housekeeper, isn’t helped by Agatha Christie’s dialog which bares little resemblance to how an authentic Mrs. Roper would ever speak. Born into a wealthy, upper English family, as a writer, Miss Christie was fine with dialog for characters of her class – the lords, ladies, and the professionals of an educated and affluent English society – but everyone outside of that realm usually fell into stereotypes, including the working class. It’s not necessarily the actor’s fault that she sounds more a fifties Hollywood movie version of a working Londoner than someone who might actually come from Lambeth. In this respect, the crime is mostly Miss Christie’s.

While its themes of morality and the complexities of the human condition will always be timeless, there’s a dated feel to Agatha Christie’s script that is hard to overcome, particularly in a stodgy first half. It’s not that the play is uninspired – interest in what might happen next never wanes – but its old-fashioned manner of slowly, really slowly, building up to something isn’t helped by an atmosphere lacking in appropriate pacing; it’s as if the world is moving in slo-mo and all the characters are in need of a kick start. It’s only when the bitter and debilitated character of Anya displays a moment of anger and has to be calmed that any sign of life is witnessed.

The second half is a different. By then, the crime is committed, emotions rise, and the leaden pacing of the first half suddenly increases to something quite distinct. At this point, Verdict’s Act Two engages in a way the first act doesn’t. There’s even a moment of genuine surprise concluding Scene 2 that should elicits gasps from the audience.

Continuing until March 4 at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre’s new home – it’s the spot where the multiple screens of a Harkins Movie Theater used to occupy in the Scottsdale Fashion Square, now nicely remodeled for live theatre – Verdict’s design and presentation benefits enormously because of its new location. With comfortable stadium seating and an overall professional appearance, by default, there’s less of a rough-around-the edges, low budget appearance to the production that audiences might have experienced in its previous Actor’s Cafe home. This is certainly a major plus; it helps elevate the Desert Stages theatre-going experience to a new and welcome level.

As long as Agatha Christie fans know going in that Verdict’s construct is not business as usual, what disappointed audiences at London’s Strand Theatre in ‘58 should entertain Scottsdale Desert Stage Theatre audiences today. Despite much of the above-mentioned issues, including Dr. Stoner’s ponytail that would never be accepted in Bloomsbury’s upscale society, or the laughably shapeless police uniform of Jackson Ramler’s Sergeant Pearce, who looks more like a character out of a child’s pantomime than an authentic British Bobby, overall, Verdict remains satisfying. Lessen the pauses, tighten the delivery, and up the energy of the first half, and things should work even better.

Pictures Courtesy of Renee Ashlock

Verdict continues at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre until March 4

Posted in Theatre

It’s Only A Play – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

When those with only a passing interest in theatre (and film, for that matter) dismiss a production and state, “It’s only a play,” they have no clue how that sounds to a theatre lover. It’s like nails on a chalkboard; a fork scraping a plate, or worse: Styrofoam squeaking. In the world of showbiz, there’s no such thing as only a play. Certainly not for the producer, the director, the actors, the wannabe actor, the playwright, and the critic – all the characters that go to make the cast of Terrence McNally’s biting and somewhat mean-spirited, but undeniably funny Broadway satire, It’s Only A Play, now playing at Phoenix Theatre until February 11.

For those seven characters, waiting to hear what the powerful critic of the New York Times will publish after the opening night of their new production, The Golden Egg, the play is everything. Literally, everything. At least, that is, until it closes and everyone moves on to the next project.

That’s the setup. First-time producer, Julia Budder (a likably ditzy Ashley Stults who constantly misquotes classic movie lines) is hosting an opening night party at her luxury Manhattan home. The party is downstairs, but the action, for those who count, is upstairs in Julia’s expansive bedroom, courtesy of scenic designer Douglas Clarke’s excellent set. That’s where those directly involved will gather, argue, bitch, shamelessly name-drop, pitch insults with the precision of an Olympic javelin thrower, and anxiously wait for the critic’s review.

The power of the Broadway critic is something that for those who live regionally, away from New York, have never quite understood. They’ve heard about it, and they’ve seen it comically presented in those old Hollywood musicals that dealt with Broadway of the past, but it’s never quite registered; it’s more like a storytelling device, a fantasy, usually played for laughs, but not something that happens in the real world. Surely a reviewer’s opinion is just a singular opinion, they might insist, one that has no more value than that of anyone else. After all, it’s only a play. Well they’d be wrong. And worse, for McNally’s comedy when it first appeared in 1978, all set to open on Broadway, the play was actually canceled because of negative reviews during the tryout. A play about a play that might have to close because of a bad review, closed because of bad reviews.

At the time, McNally’s ego was said to have been severely punctured. But he gave it some time, then rolled up his sleeves, revisited the script, re-opened the show off-off Broadway in ‘82, then again with more rewrites off-Broadway in ‘85, then with a newer Los Angeles version in ‘92. Eventually it opened on Broadway 2014. And it’s mostly that 2014 version you’ll see at Phoenix Theatre.

Within minutes of the play’s opening scene, famous names are shamelessly dropped like free samples out of an upturned bucket. Josh Groban, Oprah, Kelly Rippa and (Lord, help us) Ryan Seacrest are mentioned within seconds of each other. “We both dated Ellen Degeneres,” states TV actor, James Wicker (Rusty Ferracane, funny and effectively vulnerable, just as the insecure character requires) to wannabe actor but currently the hat and coat checker, Gus (Tony Latham, who gets all the best exit lines based on something his overly eager character was told but doesn’t quite understand).

The jokes come fast and furious, and there’s much to quote, but when the payoff is limited to the famous name-drop, what brought the house down on Broadway is in danger of only receiving a muted laugh when played regionally. When a quote from a critic’s review states that Harvey Fierstein has a more masculine presence than James Wicker, local audiences with only that passing interest in theatre might smile because it sounds as if it’s funny, but they might not actually get why. Despite Fierstein’s considerable work as an actor, a playwright, and the possessor of a distinctive, gravel sounding voice, outside of the great White Way, and to the surprise of those who live and mix with those in a theatrical bubble, he’s hardly a name or a box-office draw.

The danger of the muted laugh may even extend to a joke about the author himself. When Pashsa Yamotahari, as playwright Peter Austin, declares that as he entered the theatre the crowds outside were cheering for the author, they were referring to Terrence McNalley who was standing behind him. It’s a decent though unexpected joke, but as hard as it might be for those who follow theatre to understand, unlike on Broadway, many won’t know who Terrence McNalley is (despite the Phoenix Theatre program on their laps).

But among the famous names that we hear but never see, there’s also many great stand-alone quips. True, they still need an appreciation of the business and an understanding of the types who work in it, but they’re enormously, funny. “Call me old fashioned,” states Wicker when discussing the differing types of presentation for a theatrical production, “But give me a chair and phone during the exposition.” Then there’s the drug-addled diva of Broadway, Virginia Noyes (a hilarious and unexpectedly foul-mouthed Debra K. Stevens) who declares, “I do a lot of self destructive things, but I draw the line at television!” Now, that’s funny, especially if you love theatre.

In addition to cast members already mentioned, both D. Scott Withers as Ira Drew, a critic who is as equally insecure as the actors he’s there to review, and Toby Yatso (an actor whose energy is never less than a hundred percent) as English director Frank Finger, elicit big laughs. “They put me behind Chris Christie,” complains Ira of his opening night seating arrangement. “I could hardly see!”

But the most fun to watch is Pasha Yamotahari as the playwright. Despite the overall broadness of all the characters – none of these ‘R’ rated, self-obsessed, barb throwing fools are particularly likable – it’s the nervous quality of Yamotahari’s facial reactions to any oncoming criticisms that keep you watching him, even when the center of attention should be on someone else. In a play where everyone is playing a theme, his Peter Austin is surprisingly and realistically sympathetic. Watch his eyebrows knit as he listens to what he hopes will be good news; it’s the expression your beloved dog has when it realizes you’re leaving the house and it doesn’t really want you to go.

Director Matthew Wiener’s proven affinity for farcical comedy is clearly evident. He draws the broadest of broad gestures out his cast and keeps the action moving at such an effective breakneck speed you may not notice that there’s hardly a plot at all, just a setup and the obsession of what a New York critic might write. Ben Brantley, another famous name-drop, is the real New York Times theatre critic. He’s talked of so often, it’s as if he’s the eighth member of the cast. You almost expect him to enter at the end and take a bow along with everyone else. Except, of course, like many of the play’s references appreciated most by those whose hair stands on end when they hear someone claim that what they’ve just seen was only a play, no one outside of NYC would know who he is.

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

It’s Only A Play continues at Phoenix Theatre until February 11

Posted in Theatre

Romeo and Juliet -Theatre Review: Southwest Shakespeare Company, Mesa Arts Center, Mesa

There’s a line of thought often quoted by students of Shakespeare. When an actor is mature enough to fully understand the emotions of either Romeo and Juliet, the teenage lovers of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, they are too old to play them. Which is why, outside of Zeffirelli’s ‘68 film version, and that cacophony of MTV-inspired noise directed by Baz Luhrmann in ‘96 where teenagers were used, you’ll generally see actors of an older generation portraying the young, title characters.

As with most Shakespearean productions, there’s often a certain amount of willingness on the part of the audience to suspend disbelief in order to believe (and thereby, enjoy) something that is not true. Casting Kyle Sorrell as Romeo and Sasha Wilson as Juliet, both of whom are clearly no longer in their teens, may initially raise an eyebrow, particularly in the case of Juliet who here, by her obvious maturity while carrying the assuredness of someone in command, would hardly require a family nurse (Jodi Weiss). But in a production where both time and a sense of real-life setting are suspended, accepting Sorrell and Wilson as the tragic teens requires little effort, particularly when they are portrayed as well as they are here in director Patrick Walsh’s exciting new Southwest Shakespeare Company’s production in Mesa.

Because of the lack of sets or an author’s direction, Elizabethan audiences went to London’s Globe to hear Shakespeare as much as to see the play, which is why as an author, Shakespeare often quoted the time of day, the feel of temperature, and the constant referral to individual names. A play by William Shakespeare is the easiest of works to adapt for radio; so little tweaking required. In fact, Romeo and Juliet’s earliest recorded critic, Samuel Pepys, declared the play to be, “The worst that I have ever heard in my life.” But today, for many, Elizabethan English can be a chore. No matter how hard some try to by-pass the ebb and flow of a dated language and lose themselves in Shakespeare’s rhythmical patterns, lengthy declarations from overly verbose characters can often break the spell. However, something interesting occurs when hearing much of this sixteenth century dialog in Walsh’s production, particularly during the exchanges between Sorrell and Wilson (who adapted Shakespeare’s text and made some trims). The dialog may be Elizabethan but the tone and rhythm are decidedly modern. The end result is not only playful, the delivery seems to lose its historic quality and comes across as timeless.

Walsh sets his play on what appears as a ragged, opened-space design, where the multiple layers of a cracked earth seem to be the result of a natural disaster. Imagine Verona’s town square hit by an earthquake and you’ll get the idea. A young man in a tux and a somewhat disheveled appearance (Ben Vining) staggers onto the stage, looking as though he might have survived an all-nighter after the prom. After perusing his surroundings, he takes his position stage right, seated behind a music stand. He’s a cellist, and throughout will effectively add a melancholy sound to the proceedings, adding audio effects for atmosphere as well as music.

There are several directorial choices that add a full flavor of richness to the production. A fight scene is portrayed in slow-motion, with lighting that bathes the stage in a dramatic red, resulting with something that is ultimately devastating. The use of puppets during the ballroom scene effectively fills the stage, giving the feel of a larger cast when the numbers are, in reality, reduced. Plus, as written in Shakespeare’s text, when Romeo talks to himself of love, the imagery created was always characteristic of sonnets. In this production, as Sorrell quotes Romeo, he accompanies himself on a guitar, echoing a present-day, folk/pop music sound. For a brief moment, he’s the James Taylor of Verona, and it fits perfectly well.

When Romeo and Juliet was first performed at the Globe, with the absence of sets and props, much imagination of time and place was required on the part of the audience. Yet with the famous balcony scene, things were more literal. The actor playing Juliet would speak directly from the theatre’s first balcony level, surrounded by a paying audience. Romeo would call across the heads of the ground level standing audience to his Juliet, creating a real sense of distance between them. In SSC’s production, imagination is required. There is no balcony, just an upper layer of flat rock from which Juliet stands when questioning Romeo’s name and wishing he would swear to be her love. Here, Romeo is just feet away, hiding, listening, but again, like much invention used throughout the production with a supporting cast that fully embrace their characters with the passion, and more importantly, the humor required, the moment, as with Sorrell’s guitar playing, works.

Sasha Wilson’s adaptation is a good one. With cuts and slight alterations, it’s tightened the play. Circumstances move fast, never giving an opportunity for events or interest to wane. And even though the trimming shortens the number of actors required for the cast as well as the play’s overall length, nothing feels lost. It was always interesting that the play’s announcer, Chorus (Alexis Baigue) who sets the scene during the opening moments, talks of the tragedy we’re about to see as being two hours in length. Even with cuts, this new SSC production runs at least thirty minutes more. Perhaps in Shakespeare’s day, actors delivered lines at double-speed.

Romeo and Juliet continues at the Virginia Piper Repertory Theater, Mesa Arts Center until January 27

Pictures Courtesy of Laura Durant of Durant Photography

Posted in Theatre