Be My Little Baby – Theatre Review: Space 55, Phoenix

For the final production of its 2018/19 season, Space 55 in Phoenix has turned to local playwright John Perovich for a new play with a title that might suggest a throwback to the sixties, Be My Little Baby, directed by Llana Lydia. While this off-beat, curious, and ultimately bizarre comedy has nothing to do with The Ronettes or their 1964 hit, the meaning could easily apply to young Johnny’s mom and her unhealthy, overprotective attachment to her little cowboy.

Set in Arizona during the last week of October, when it comes to her boy Johnny (Christian Boden), single parent (RC Contreras) is clingy, to say the least. “If I’m guilty of anything, it’s loving you too much,” declares mom. Johnny is home-schooled. His older sister Heather (Marcella Grassa) has far more freedom. Not only can she go to regular school, but she can also date while Johnny has to stay at home. Plus, because of her boy’s habit of peering through his bedroom window to catch a glimpse of neighbor Wendy (Juliet Rachel Wilkins) across the way, Johnny’s mom wants him to stay in the basement. “But you like the basement,” mom insists when Johnny objects. “What made you love me in a lock-me-in-the-basement kind of way?” the boy asks.

To escape the drudgery of having to stay at home, hidden away, day after day, Johnny, who favors cowboys and has a habit of singing the Bonanza theme, has an imaginary friend who tends to turn up in the basement just when Johnny needs the company the most. LaRue (Gerald Thomson) is the man in black, a cowboy who rides the plains… well, the astral planes, and he’s taught Johnny how to do it. Together, when the boy needs to get away the most, he and LaRue sit quietly in the basement, close their eyes, concentrate, and leave the confines of the area, free to float away in slo-mo among the stars.

Enter the story’s villain, schoolboy Bobby (Matt Clarke) who sweet talks his way into Heather’s life with nothing on his mind other than bad intentions. Bobby is the kind of bad guy who enjoys himself at everyone’s expense. And there’s something else. Like Johnny, Bobby can also project himself into the astral plane. When Johnny realizes that his sister’s new boyfriend may actually cause the family harm, there’s only one thing the little cowboy can do to save Heather, but it’ll involve an imaginary friend, some astral-projection, cowboy grit, some beans and hot dogs for supper, and a serving of some celebratory pancakes to wrap things up.

Clearly, with a plot like that, the business at hand is not going to be normal. While no character has anything amusing to say – the script has no quotable lines or snappy dialog, and no one is naturally funny – the humor of the piece comes from the absurd situation and of seeing how director Lydia has both Johnny and LaRue flounder among the projected stars in mock slow-motion. It’s not great theater, but it does look funny. The play itself lumbers in performance with some of the actors either hesitating before speaking or seemingly pausing for longer than they should, grinding any real sense of comic timing to a halt, though each time Clarke’s bullying Bobby enters, the actor injects a fresh dose of adrenaline into the proceedings that continually livens everything up.

Plus, there’s one other thing, and it’s even stranger than the synopsis above. In addition to the cast of earthly humans and one imaginary friend, there’s also an odd seventh character who saunters on at the opening as if he’s the play’s silent MC. With a wave of his arm, he begins the proceedings, then ascends to an upper level where he remains, observing. Depending on where you’re sitting, unless you make a point of cranking your neck slightly, you may forget about him altogether. He’s the Celestial Voyeur (Raymere Carter) who with some beautifully designed masks courtesy of Dain Q. Gore and Hannah Walsh, is meant to be the all observant moon. Most of the time you’ll forget he’s there, and when you do notice him, you’re never entirely sure what he’s actually doing.

This modest, low-budget production, played out against Paul Filan’s painted backdrop of a hot Arizona sun sinking into the desert, is the kind of unconventional storytelling that you either warm to for its eccentric, experimental flakiness, or after a few minutes you’re already wondering how much more of this is there left to go. But this is Space 55, the theatre on N.18th Avenue, a place that has thrived for 13 years presenting slightly askew, off-kilter, low to no budget productions, where new plays like Be My Little Baby with their own peculiar points-of-view are given a well-deserved forum, even if they don’t always work. Plus it serves as an alternative to the more conventional productions in town. But you already knew that going in. After all, isn’t that why you’re there?

Be My Little Baby continues at Space 55 in Phoenix until June 9

Posted in Theatre

Once – Theatre Review: The Phoenix Theatre Company, Phoenix

If your knowledge of Once begins and ends with the 2007 movie, or you’ve seen either the Broadway show or the national touring production but don’t know the film, there are a number of surprises awaiting you at The Phoenix Theatre Company‘s new, invigorating production of John Carney’s original musical creation, directed by Pasha Yamotahari.

For moviegoers who recall the sweet, low-budget, and slightly rough-around-the-edges look of an independently made drama of the big screen, despite the film’s obvious musical foundation, it might have been difficult to picture just how this small story of two struggling musicians of Dublin, Ireland would translate to a Broadway musical. The first surprise will be how well the transition is made.

The story of a guy and girl who meet on the streets of Dublin – he can repair vacuum cleaners, she has a hoover “that doesn’t suck” – and how their bittersweet relationship develops is the center of a plot that, away from the movies, now feels funnier, warmer, and more accessible. Plus, the character of the female lead feels that little more developed. She’s now the girl you expected her to be

Underlining just how universal the thoughts and feelings of the two leads of Once can be, they’re known throughout as simply Guy and Girl. Guy (Kyle Sorrell) is about to give it all up. As a busker singing on the streets of Dublin, Guy accompanies himself on the guitar as he sings of a one-sided love. Then, when done, he walks away, intentionally leaving his guitar behind. But Girl (Michelle Chin), a young immigrant from the Czech Republic with an accent to match, was listening and wants to ask him questions. “I know you can talk,” she tells him when he remains silent. “I just heard you sing.”

Guy’s songs were written mostly for Ex-Girlfriend (Jessica Moffitt), but the relationship is done. She’s moved to New York, he’s still in Dublin. Because of the memory of unrequited love and the pain he feels because of it, Guy is leaving his music behind and will concentrate instead on the job at hand; he’s a vacuum cleaner repairman in his father’s shop. But Girl has a winning if not determined, direct manner. Grabbing the page of one of Guy’s songs, she uses the sheet music as a way of having them both play together, she on the piano, he on his guitar. Together they perform the show’s (and the film’s) most familiar song, Falling Slowly. Once concluded, Girl insists he could win his girlfriend back by singing her that song. From there, an unexpected friendship between Guy and Girl emerges, the cultural and emotional gap between them bridged by their music, but there’s still a caveat. “The transaction is not complete until you make the hoover suck,” Girl insists.

For theatergoers already familiar with the show as it was on Broadway and how it differs from the film, the surprise is going to be the production’s look. The original set was a bar in an Irish pub that sat upstage center. Chairs and tables lined stage left and stage right. When locations changed and a scene would take place in either a bank or a rehearsal studio, the ensemble would simply re-arrange the chairs suggesting a different venue. The approach here is something quite different.

Looking photo-realistic with an almost perfect recreation of a street corner in Dublin, one that incorporates a raised sidewalk, street bollards, two Irish pubs, one painted red, the other, green, and lighted second-floor rooms with decorated window sill flower arrangements, plus a bridge and a skyline view of the city, it’s as if designer Aaron Jackson had gathered all of the snaps director Yamotahari had taken while on his recent trip to Dublin and used them as a blueprint for one grand street design, built specifically to fill the size and scope of Phoenix Theatre’s main stage. It’s an extraordinary feature, full of items that’s fun to explore, not only for the appreciation of the exacting work that went into the smallest of details but also the ability to read the authentic signs on the store windows, including the projection of Kristen Peterson’s video displays that change from time to time on the two main windows of the pubs. The urge to drink a pint of Guinness from just seeing the word has never felt so strong.

Take a look at any of the publicity production pictures by Reg Madison and you’ll see with Jackson’s set, lit so well and so effectively by Daniel Davisson’s lighting design, there’s not a bad shot among any of them. But it can also work against the show. Because the set appears so effective as a realistic street corner design backdrop, when characters pull up a chair or a table to suggest a different location, it can’t help but look as if all business, no matter where it’s supposed to occur, appear to be conducted in the open, on the street in front of the pubs, instead of in a bank manager’s office or a recording studio.

The cast serves as the show’s orchestra. Thus when Girl plays the piano while accompanying Guy on his guitar, Chin and Sorrell, both talented musicians, are playing their own instruments. When Lauren McKay’s bank manager explains from behind her desk that she also plays, there she’ll be in the rehearsal studio with her guitar, as will all characters as musicians with their violins, mandolin, and various other acoustic instruments.

From the pre-show, street corner jam until the Falling Slowly reprise at the conclusion, the songs and the musical performances, under Alan Ruch’s musical direction and director Yamotahari’s staging, are a joy. Writer Edna Walsh, who adapted John Carney’s original screenplay, further developed the story and its characters for the stage giving both Guy and Girl a more rounded and added level of relatable believability, fully realized by Sorrell and Chin, including the Irish and Czech accents. But it’s the songs and how they’re sung in the live show that adds a further soulful, bittersweet layer to the affair.

You’ll leave Phoenix Theatre with two things in mind.  Should you buy or download the original cast CD to experience those emotions again, or should you return to the theatre box-office as soon as possible for a second visit before word spreads and the rest of the run is already sold out? I’d recommend the latter.

Once continues at The Phoenix Theatre Company in Phoenix until June 16

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

Posted in Theatre

Aladdin – Film Review

Just weeks after the release of Dumbo, the trend of raiding the Disney vaults, not for home video but for the reworking of classic animated features into a series of new live-action adventures, continues ever onward. After what seemed an interminable length of hearing complaints, rumors, cultural casting conflicts, and required lyric changes from the usual rumor mill sources, the studio has finally unveiled the internationally cast Aladdin, the musical fantasy based on the Middle Eastern folk tale from One Thousand and One Nights, a book written during what is generally considered the Islamic Golden Age.

By-passing the Broadway show as if it never happened, the new film musical from director Guy Ritchie, who also co-wrote the screenplay with John August, sticks close to the story as played out in the hugely popular 1992 animated feature. Aladdin (Canadian actor, Mena Massoud) is the street urchin, the Diamond-in-the-Rough street rat who finds the magic lamp, gets three wishes, wins the heart of Princess Jasmine (London born Naomi Scott), and defeats the evil Royal Vizier, Jafar (Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari), all with help and often the hindrance of his loyal pet monkey Abu (Frank Welker, reprising his voice-work from the ‘92 film). It’s the tale as old a time, to quote another of the Disney musical remakes.

As the genie, Will Smith has the unenviable task of following an act considered to be the performance that finally cemented the transition of having celebrities doing the voice work rather than employing those specifically trained to voice animated features. Watching the genie’s manic actions was like watching a Robin Williams routine. In fact, when the actor/comedian was first pitched to voice the character, his initial reluctance to be in the film was quickly diminished when the studio presented him with a short specially prepared feature of the genie animated to the soundtrack of one of the comedian’s stand-up routines. The effect was said to have inspired Williams. He was sold.

With a personality that can be just as large and certainly as energetic, Smith doesn’t do Williams, he does Smith, and he’s perfectly fine. In fact, the actor hasn’t felt quite this likable or as entertaining on the screen as he is here for quite some time. Appearing approximately 42 minutes into the film once Aladdin has entered the cave and found the lamp, along with the magic carpet, the big blue genie helps the boy and his monkey escape the confines of the desert cave and promises to help him win the heart of Jasmine by making him a prince. “I’m about to fabulize you,” the genie tells him.

Another of the film’s positive features is the casting. Paying careful attention to the insensitivity of cultural upsets, Aladdin is played by Mena Massoud, Canadian raised but born in Cairo to Egyptian parents. With his North American accent. he’s still the all-American Tom Cruise of the animated feature but there’s no denying his heritage. Even better is Naomi Scott, hugely likable as the feisty Princess Jasmine, London born and raised but whose mother is a Ugandan of Indian descent. Iranian actor Navid Negahban is the Sultan, while Iranian born, American raised comedienne, Nasim Pedrad, best known for her five-year stint on Saturday Night Live, plays Dalia, Jasmine’s handmaiden, a new character not in the animated feature. The only misstep is with the evil Jafar.

Dutch actor of Tunisian heritage, Marwan Kenzari never feels right. The image and sound of Jafar from the animated feature, and as he’s played in the Broadway musical, is so indelibly ingrained that to go in a different direction just feels wrong. He’s menacing, but not half as menacing as his animated counterpart was with that distinctive, deep-throated voice that delivered all threats in such a deliciously obsequious manner. And he’s young. Somehow the threat of Jafa insisting he will marry Jasmine doesn’t quite have the “Eeeeuw” factor that a much older looking villain would have had. With his conniving, murderous ways, he’s admittedly no great catch, but with his handsome good looks and his youth, let’s face it, the girl could do worse. “You’re just getting married,” Dalia has previously told her princess. “You don’t have to talk with him.”

Having director Guy Ritchie’s name attached to the project must have raised eyebrows. Best known for crime-themed films, the manic style of the Sherlock Holmes updates, and the irredeemably dreadful 2017 feature King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the last person you would think that Disney would hire to helm a large scale, big-budget Hollywood musical would be Guy Ritchie. Fortunately, those quirky trademark visuals of freeze, stop-go action incorporating the occasional slo-mo are all kept to a minimum, which is the good news. The bad is that the film doesn’t really have the rhythm of a musical.

The Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice songs from the animated feature, Arabian Nights, One Jump Ahead, Friend Like Me, Prince Ali, and a Whole New World, are all there, plus there’s an extra new song called Speechless written by Menken and Pasek & Paul (the guy’s behind La La Land and The Greatest Showman) but for a two hour plus live-action song and dance movie there’s just not enough of them to qualify. There’s no musical flow. With their new beefed-up arrangements, the songs appear more as obligatory moments rather than performances that develop naturally.

When Aladdin makes his grand entrance as Prince Ali, the sequence is a spectacle, but it never feels musically spectacular. Naomi Scott’s vocals on the new Speechless is pleasant, she sings well, and it’s good to hear something new, but the song’s style lacks any theatrical flair; it’s a pop, power-ballad, one that wouldn’t sound out of place as a filler on any present-day teenage pop star’s new CD. Only the magic carpet ride of A Whole New World possesses the emotion of movie musical magic. In the way Aladdin and Jasmine take flight, so does the song. And for those wondering how the controversial introductory lyrics to Arabian Nights of the animated feature that originally sang “… Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face…” then became “… Where it’s flat and immense / And the heat is intense...” are handled, in the new film they’re “…Where you wander among / Every culture and tongue…” while the insensitive ‘barbaric’ reference is now changed to ‘chaotic.

Alan Stewart’s widescreen cinematography is a stunning array of color and polished glitz – everything looks new, even the disheveled clothes of the poor street dwellers – and the visual effects are near seamless, particularly Aladdin’s monkey, Jasmine’s tiger, and Jafar’s parrot Iago. But the attention will be short lived. Like those live-action remakes before it, the immediate, short-term box-office prospects for Aladdin will be good, and will no doubt make a star out of Naomi Scott. But ultimately, when the time has passed and future generations think of Cinderella, Beauty & The Beast, Dumbo, The Jungle Book and Aladdin, it’s not these new do-overs that will have the staying power. Disney will no doubt continue to mine the vaults for new potential remakes – The Lion King, Mulan, and Lady and the Tramp are all in production – but it’s the originals that will always supply the long term benefits.

MPAA Rating: PG    Length: 128 Minutes

Posted in Film

The Souvenir – Film Review

The more you’re aware of the technique, the more you can appreciate writer/director Joanna Hogg’s new English drama, The Souvenir.

The film’s title is based on Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 18th-century painting of the same name. It depicts a young woman carving the initials of her love onto the bark of a tree. The woman is thought to be the heroine of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie, deeply in love but unable to marry.

In Hogg’s The Souvenir, this modern-day Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton who plays Julie’s mother) is not the subject of an ornate painting but a naive young photographer and film student who meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a man in a pin-striped suit who works for the Foreign Office. Somehow, Anthony charms his way into her life. While that initial meeting would be enough to trip alarm bells in the minds of most, Julie is not yet that experienced to recognize the signs. A relationship develops. But he’s toxic. No sooner have they met when Anthony asks Julie if he could move in with her and share her upscale Knightsbridge flat. He tells her that his moving in has something to do with his job, but it’s too complicated to explain why, so he doesn’t. Though she should have asked more, Julie doesn’t. She opens her door.

The student, while giving free-loader Anthony a roof under his head and occasionally loaning him money whenever he requests, wants to make a film at her school of a working-class character with a setting in the docks of Sunderland, a subject at complete odds with her privileged and somewhat sheltered upper-middle-class background, and one that, presumably, she knows little about. She also appears to lack the knowledge or appreciate the cost of making such a film, either. As a professor at the school observes, “I don’t suppose you really have to think about budgets in Knightsbridge, do you.” The Souvenir and what unfolds is based on the director’s real-life experience during the eighties when she was a young girl artist who attended a film school and entered into a relationship. All projects that Julie talks of while at the film school are based on the actual work Hogg developed during the eighties.

Hogg’s story is clearly a personal, self-reflective work, that, unlike her on-screen counterpart’s desire to make a film about a subject and a setting of which she knows little, covers ground the director knows all too well. – herself. The actors worked to a script, but Hogg’s approach to her leading lady was to have Byrne, a non-actor in her first film, research the director’s diaries written during the early eighties, study the films she made as a student, and look at old photographs and notes of the time. By immersing her with the reality of Hogg’s past, Byrne was then instructed to perform and speak in a way that would feel natural. The other actors, though working with a screenplay, were told to react to whatever Byrne said.

As with Alfonso Cuaron’s personal project, Roma, where even the smallest details of his upbringing were recreated, down to a facsimile of his childhood home and its environs, Hogg’s Knightsbridge flat, where a large portion of The Souvenir takes place, is replicated in the film, a set built inside an airplane hangar. The views through the window that both Julie and Anthony see are actually projections of photographs that Hogg took while living there. Unfortunately, due to the director’s use of lengthy single shots with little movement of the camera, a style that allows audiences the opportunity of taking the projections in, those views through the window soon take on a lifeless, empty form that exemplifies how The Souvenir itself often feels.

When a bruise and a couple of small puncture marks on Anthony’s arm are so clearly the result of drug abuse, Julie doesn’t recognize them. She advises that he leave the marks alone; they’ll eventually just go away. When Anthony leaves the flat with no intention of telling Julie where he’s going, he’ll ask, “Can you lend me a tenor?” And when the man raids the flat in Julie’s absence and sells some precious artifacts, including her camera equipment, he lets her think the place was robbed. It’s only later when she discovers what had happened that he says in his usual, low-key, practically emotionless tone, “I knew you’d mind, that’s why I never told you.” Instead of the moment erupting into a scene of conflict or drama, once again, Julie’s emotions are held in check. Anyone else would have thrown him out.

The film’s rhythms may also test patience. Conversations are joined like a work already in progress. We never see how Julie and Anthony meet, we connect while they’re already talking. She tells him about her school project, which he questions – “We don’t want to see life played out as it is,” he insists – while he says nothing about himself other than he’s a government official working for the Foreign Office. “Must be boring,” Julie observes. “It is,” he responds. And when it’s later revealed that it was Anthony who stole Julie’s jewelry and camera equipment for the money, we never witness how the admission came about or what the circumstances were that lead to the reveal; it’s already happened. All we hear is Anthony telling her he knew that she would mind.

The most dismaying feature of all is how well the film has been received by critics, almost unanimously, since The Souvenir was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It leads one to seriously question the pull of a group, the unconscious influence of what others think and feel. Viewing the film outside of the festival circuit away from its packed houses of festival goers and industry insiders and the standing ovations that invariably follow leaves a decidedly different impression.

Watching The Souvenir is like attempting to talk with someone whom others have previously told you is a deep thinker. You acknowledge the craft that went into the making but all it’s giving back is a long, vacant stare.

MPAA Rating: R           Length: 119 Minutes

Posted in Film

Booksmart – Film Review

Every new generation has its coming-of-age big screen favorite. The last few years alone have produced a slew of quality features: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), and the excellent Lady Bird (2017) to name but three. But once time has passed and home viewing is in order, you can bet none will be subject to download and replay in quite the same way as director Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart.

More in line with the tone of Dazed and Confused mixed with Clueless meets Superbad rather than the above-mentioned, Booksmart tells of what happened to two certain female high-schoolers on the eve of their graduation. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is valedictorian and student-body president while her best buddy and fellow high-achieving school swat Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is the activist of every worthy cause happening. She’s about to spend her summer overseas in Botswana helping the village locals make their own tampons. Between them, they’re not exactly on the nerdy genius level of a Sheldon Cooper, but they’re in that neighborhood. 

It’s the last day of high-school and no one cares about anything. Not even Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis). “I hope I never see you again,” he announces over the school sound system. But Molly and Amy care. After all, graduation isn’t until tomorrow. The school year may almost be over, but surely there’s still a full day of classroom work to be done.

When Molly, whose years of constant study has paid off with acceptance into Yale, suddenly discovers that many of the school partiers have also been accepted into high-standard universities once summer is done (one even has a six-figure salaried job already waiting for him at Google) the girl is genuinely shocked. “But you guys don’t even care about school,” Molly exclaims. As Annabelle (Molly Gordon) tells Molly to her face, “We don’t just only care about school.

Molly runs to Amy and insists that on this final night before cap and gown day they need to go out and partay! “We haven’t done anything,” Molly declares. “We haven’t broken any rules.” But Amy’s not so sold. “We were going to watch that Ken Burns thing,” she responds.

There are a few classroom parties they can attend. There’s the rich kid’s disco party complete with DJ and gift bags on his parent’s yacht, there’s the Murder Mystery party that the thesps from the drama club are holding, or there’s the rock ‘n roll hang-out-and-get-drunk free-for-all party at Nick’s place. His grandparents are stuck on a cruise ship that broke down somewhere in the middle of the ocean, so the place is free. Molly has already decided. They should go to Nick’s. If only they knew how to get there.

Booksmart is sharp. It doesn’t follow a similar pattern of rowdy R-rated teenage comedies, nor does it fall into the groove of predictability. Getting laid is not part of the plan, nor is anyone purposely looking to lose their virginity before high school is officially done. The bucket list for a wild and crazy night is different. Plus, there are no villains. The males are not objectifying the females, and there’s no gang of mean girls. Molly and Amy may well be on the outside from the majority of the students, and maybe they were not officially invited to Nick’s place to party, but that had nothing to do with them being unpopular – no one thought they would turn up. And ordinarily, everyone would be right.

Before it gets to the point where those caps will be finally tossed into the air and the students are ready to face a summer of either part-time jobs or just hanging out and having fun before college – the drama club has invited everyone to join them for a summer season of ‘Shakespeare in the Park-ing Lot’ – the girls will ultimately get what they want, in one way or another. They’ll experience a night of becoming continually lost after dark while searching for Nick’s place, unintentionally taking drugs – the stop-action animated hallucinatory sequence where they see themselves as a couple of naked Barbie-like dolls is achingly funny – and they’ll become the center of attention at not one but all three parties. One of them may even land a potential prison sentence on their record.

With an ensemble of so many endearingly funny characters to encounter, you find yourself hoping the film returns to a favorite the moment it cuts away. The two leads, Feldstein and Phoenix native Dever, have what it takes to ground the center (Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s younger sister), plus there’s good support from the adults consisting of several SNL alumni. In addition to Sudeikis, there’s Will Forte who along with Lisa Kudrow play Amy’s parents, and Mike O’Brien as a suspect pizza delivery guy. Plus, Will Ferrell gets an Executive Producer credit. But the standouts are the teenagers.

Direct from Broadway’s titular role in Dear Evan Hansen is Noah Galvin as the luvvie drama student George who celebrates graduation eve with a murder mystery dinner party at his house. “Alan,” he tells scenery chewing fellow thespian Austin Crute, “You’re giving me a 10 when I want a 2.” But it’s the wealthy and dreamily drug-addled Gigi (Billie Lourd, daughter to Carrie Fisher), referred to as the school’s one percent who hilariously steals every moment, often by just turning up.

Director Wilde delivers Booksmart with the energy of a thriller that never lags. Sequences end with quick edits often making you wonder if what you’ve just heard was even funny, yet somehow the sharp cutaway acting as a visual punchline seems to make it so. Depending on your personal appreciation or tolerance of teenage humor, it’s possible the older you are, the less you’ll appreciate Booksmart’s audacious, often manic style. But for its target audience, the talented Wilde, whose film resume is long and accomplished but perhaps best remembered as Dr. Hadley on TV’s House, has unexpectedly hit the comic bullseye with her directorial debut. Seriously, who knew?

MPAA rating: R     Length: 105 Minutes

Posted in Film

Things I Know To Be True – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

The creative process of a play is fascinating. When Australian playwright Andrew Bovell wanted to write a new, intimate play, his intention was to explore several areas, including thoughts and feelings of his father (a man he called the quintessential Australian suburban dad), the future expectations of how things should be for a family once the children have grown and moved out, and the place where he grew up, run away from, then returned to – Adelaide.

In 2013, during early development, Bovell workshopped ideas with Australia’s State Theatre Company, where, through intensive group discussion and improvisation, nuggets of what would later become a fully-fledged play began to emerge. It was Adelaide actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey (who would go on to play teenager Rosie) who talked of her time traveling in Europe in the year after high-school and before college – termed ‘Gap-Year’ in Australia – and how her heart was broken, how she became homesick for Adelaide, and what happened when she was alone, standing on a train platform. She made a list of things she knew to be true. In the same way that English film director Mike Leigh incorporates the best elements of an improvised performance during rehearsal into his screenplay before filming, writer Bovell used Cobham-Hervey’s European story as a launching pad for his new play. The title comes from the performer’s shared adventure.

When the play premiered three years later on its home turf, the story of the Price family was set in Adelaide. Later that same year, when the play opened in London with a new cast, the Australian location remained. But for American audiences, Bovell has adapted his play to better reflect a more familiar setting. The Price family are now Americans and live somewhere in the Midwest.

Arizona Theatre Company’s new presentation of Bovell’s Things I Know To Be True is the critically acclaimed production created by Milwaukee Repertory Theater and directed by the company’s Artistic Director, Mark Clements. It’s the final production of ATC’s varied 2018/19 season and continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until June 2. It’s also the epitome of a valley theatre must-see.

Told from the perspective of the four grown siblings who introduce each new season of the year with a monologue, the play begins with the Price’s youngest daughter, Rosie (Aubyn Heglie). Rosie was on her great European adventure, the one she’d been saving for having spent a year waiting tables and babysitting. “Berlin. A winter coat. And a broken heart,” she begins. Now, with a brief but spectacular love affair gone wrong – Emmanuel from Madrid ran off with Rosie’s 400 euros, her camera, her iPad, and a large piece of her heart – the teenager misses home and her family more than ever. To stop herself from coming apart she makes a list of all the things she knows for certain to be true. Because of her inexperience, it’s a very short list. 1) Things at home are the same as when she left and they always will be, and 2) “I know that I have to go home.”

Set in the Price family back yard where the only constant among all the changes is the large tree and the continual cultivation of dad’s white roses, with each new season comes a new monologue and whole new set of family values to conflict. The older daughter, Pip (Kelly Faulkner) tells us, “This yard is the world. Everything that matters happened here.” Pip talks of how once when she was twelve she saw her mother banging her head against the trunk of the tree while crying. “What makes a woman like that cry?” she asks. A mother. Her mother. Pip never had the courage to ask. It scared her. Now that she’s a woman, married, with children of her own, she doesn’t need to ask. “I know exactly why a woman bashes her head against the trunk of a tree.”

Then there are the two boys. Mark (Kevin Kantor) who is listed as ‘Mia’ in the program’s cast list for heartbreaking reasons later revealed, used to climb the tree and hide. “From up there, I could see the world,” he tells us. At least, he could see his world, as an outsider, observing everything and everyone without their knowledge, “Not really a part of the picture, and not really even knowing why.” Among the things he saw was his mother secretly drinking and smoking. “I suspect that of all of us, she smoked the most cigarettes on account of me.”

And finally, Ben (Zach Fifer). When Spring arrives, Ben’s monologue reflects the chaos of the home, the chores that had to be done and by whom, and his observations of the arguments, the conflicts, and the love between his parents. “She loved it when they danced,” Ben relates. “And we groaned and stuck our fingers down our throats and pretended that we weren’t interested in their dancing, in their love, in the secrets that only they shared.” But Ben will have secrets of his own with a story that will conflict with everything his father values, including where the young financial services officer, whose job it is to move money around all day, got the cash to pay for that expensive looking foreign sports car parked outside in the drive.

Incorporating familiar and easily relatable themes of family love and expectations, Fran (Jordan Baker) and Bob (Bill Geisslinger) are part of the American dream, having had struggles, worked hard, bought a house, raised four children, put three through college with one more still to go, and hoped that their children’s lives would be even better than theirs. But when expectations conflict with the reality of others, it doesn’t quite work. “It wasn’t meant to be like this,” states Bob. “I thought they’d be like us. But better than us.” He thought they’d all want to live close by, or at least, remain in the same city. But it’s not going to be, as many parents regularly discover. “Stop thinking we can handle it because maybe we can’t,” declares Fran.

With a running time of two hours and ten minutes, including a fifteen-minute intermission, Bovell’s play doesn’t simply pull you in, it forcibly yanks, keeping a firm grip on your attention as conflict after conflict is confronted, while Bob and Fran’s family hopes are challenged and rejected. It’s a fascinating watch that results with a lengthy running time that ultimately feels considerably shorter once concluded. With energetic direction from Clements that has his players forever on the move while fleshing performances from a superb cast, who by now must know their characters from the inside out, Things I Know To Be True becomes an unexpected, emotional roller coaster. Make no mistake, you’re going to be shattered. It’s difficult to remember a play that resonates in such a way to the point where your mind has an inability to think of anything else hours after having left the theater. But among the drama, there’s also humor. When dad wanders the yard looking lost in his own world, Fran dryly warns, “I’m not taking care of him if he gets dementia.”

The power of the piece is how easy it is to relate. The problems that face the Price family will not necessarily be yours, heaven forbid. The conflicts are not altogether typical. So much occurs within the changes of those seasons with emotions so thoroughly wrenched, it’s hard to believe there would ever be a survivor, but the idea of expecting what family life is going to be and how a parent wants them to play out – the kids marrying good people with weddings in the yard, and having good kids of their own, with sleepovers at the grandparent’s and barbecues on most Sundays – is universal. What doesn’t completely work is the translation from an Australian culture to an American.

Rosie’s year before college traveling Europe is a regular occurrence for Australians. Parents expect and often encourage it as a way for their children to experience a world in the old country before their days at university back in Oz begin. This ‘gap-year’ is not a thing in most American families and would be considered an unusual step of unbelievable tolerance for an eighteen-year-old alone, overseas in Europe by any American parent, let alone Fran and Bob Price.

Bob talks of their family background as working-class while the play presents them as living an American middle-class existence, but what is considered working-class in both Australia and in England is not the same socio-economic structure as here in America. Most Brits and Australians tend to be confused by the American definition of middle-class when they hear it; to them, it represents something else. And, in an American setting, I’m not convinced that dad’s suspicious reaction to Ben’s flashy car would be quite as negative as presented in this play.

Plus, when Fran reveals she has secretly saved almost $200,000, throughout the years since being married, as a plot point it jars. In both the U.K. and Australia, health costs are low to practically zero when compared to the cost of American insurances, co-pays, deductibles, and all those extra individual bills from doctors, nurses, intern doctors, anesthesia departments, and the surgery itself, which all have to be paid. University costs are also considerably less expensive and simpler to the point where going to university and paying off debt is rarely a problematic factor. If the Price family have bought and now own a house in a nice neighborhood, raised four children and put them all through college on income earned from a working-class background, it’s doubtful anyone could have saved a penny, let alone a secret stash from mom’s income that was enough to buy a second mid-western home with cash. A typical American family would still be paying off debt. Remaking foreign culture movies and television shows into American ones is understandable when aiming for a mass market, but American theatergoers are considerably more discerning, understanding, and appreciative, particularly those who would go to see Things I Know To Be True in the first place. Appreciation of Bovell’s work would have been just as easily relatable and perhaps that little more interesting had the setting remained in Adelaide presented with Australian accents.

Still, the transfer, while raising questionable outcomes and motives because of cultural differences, doesn’t alter the appreciation of what is clearly great writing. The one thing I know to be true is that this ATC presentation is the finest and most emotionally affecting live theatre production the valley has seen so far this year. It’s the play you didn’t know you were waiting for.

Things I Know To Be True continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until June 2

Pictures courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Posted in Theatre