Beware the BFF

Yolanda London, Toby Yatso, Cale Epps and Angelica Howland in the Actors Theatre production of Hunter Gatherers directed by Ron May

Playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb envisions the evolving relationship of two couples joined in tandem weddings in “Hunter Gatherers,” being presented by Actors Theatre of Phoenix at the Herberger Theater Center through Jan. 15. The couples somehow manage to live apart, but have a lovely little ritual of dining together once each year to keep all that beautiful BFF stuff brewing.

Their latest gathering — or hunt, perhaps — is the stuff of Sinn Nachtrieb’s work. It’s directed by Ron May of Stray Cat Theatre, who’s hailed as “brilliant, very specific, gracious and smart,” by Toby Yatso, who performs the role of Tom. “He knows this play really well,” says Yatso. “It’s been in his heart for a long time.” Yatso descrbes May’s work as “the best version of storytelling.”

“There’s a lot packed into the play,” according to Yatso, who uses the word “intense” to describes its content, scenes and relationships. It’s fast-paced, arsurdist and farcical fare about finding the funny moments in terribly serious lives. “You see yourself in it,” reflects Yatso, “even though something like this would never happen to you.”

The play’s four characters — Pam (Angelica Howland), Richard (Cale Epps), Wendy (Yolanda London) and Tom (Toby Yatso) — have known each other since high school. “Hunter Gatherers” finds them in their mid-thirties, and at a crossroad. “There’s something missing for each of them,” says Yatso. “Some don’t know what it is,” he says. “Some do, but they don’t know how to get it.”

“The nature of the play,” observes Yatso, “is like a great Greek tragedy.” Our human flaws catch up with us, and become obvious to everyone. Even ourselves. London describes it as “an exploration of what it takes to get people to go back to their primal instincts.” Seems her character “doesn’t stop until she gets what she wants.” Best not to be the person who has it.

London notes that characters Pam and Wendy have actually known each other since grade school. “There’s history,” says London, “and ties.” Plus a connection that could be the reason Wendy keeps coming back. London describes the play as “fast, funny, bloody, awesome and honest.” Also unflinchingly and refreshingly honest. “We don’t get to see this honesty in everyday life,” reflects London.

“We hear these people say things lots of us think,” shares London. “Their problems are our problems,” she says. “We all want family, loving friends — to matter.” London says she’s particularly drawn to the “musicality” of the playwright’s words, and shares the director’s fondness for telling stories about people who are messy. “These people,” she says, “are messy.”

So too is the world of sustaining a thriving theater company. Actors Theatre reported late last year that it was in danger of closing up shop due to a severe financial shortfall. The lovely red thermometer on their website shows they’re raised more than 90% of the funds needed to finish out their season and move ahead to a final fundraising phase.

I asked both Yatso and London what losing Actors Theatre would mean to the community. “They’re so talented,” Yatso told me. “If they aren’t here, there’s no one left to do this kind of work.” London made a similar observation  — asking “Who else will be telling these stories?”

There are others producing new and edgy adult fare in the Valley — including May’s own “Stray Cat Theatre” in Tempe, but the companies have distinct flavors and a metropolis of our size needs more, rather than fewer, theater companies offering challenging works that raise issues at the very heart of our common humanity.

Actors work for theater companies, of course, so losing a theater means lost job opportunities — and the domino effect that brings for families and communities. “Actors Theatre keeps us working,” says London. But there’s more, she says. Much more. “Actors Theater is brave and adventurous.”

Happily, managing director Erica McKibben Black noted before Sunday’s performance that the company’s board of directors has voted to finish out the season — so Valley audiences can look forward to “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and “Body Awareness” as Actors Theatre continues its fundraising drive for a future beyond just this season.

Sunday’s performance of “Hunter Gatherers” was, by the way, quite well executed. It’s full of primal urges, mostly for food and sex, realized in sometimes violent ways — making it appropriate for grown-ups who are comfortable with such things, or those who relish a bit of discomfort for the sake of art or self-reflection.

Physical comedy abounds and it’s exceptional. Every actor gives a compelling performance, but Epps is the pivotal player as best laid plans are both realized and unraveled. I’ll never look at drumsticks, oven mitts, freezer bags or wall art in quite the same way. Keep tearing down those walls, Actors Theatre. Sometimes we all need a good hard look in the mirror.

— Lynn

Note: “Hunter Gatherers” features mature content and adult language. Yatso says families with teens who see and discuss a lot of mature theater together may be fine with the material, but cautions against anyone under age 16 seeing the work alone due to mature themes (As a mom I might have said 18, or 29). Click here for tickets, and here if you might like to make a donation. Updated 1/1/12

Coming up: Words have power


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